Monday, December 9, 2013

Kll Your Darlings (review)

                Early in John Krokidas’ part true crime story/part biopic Kill Your Darlings, a pivotal character laments, “I’m only good at beginnings.”

                This is true of many of us; in relationships, in writing, in art.  And it is when we are unable to complete or embrace that we begin to search for easy escape routes.

                Darlings follows a young, closeted Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and a small band of beat poets including Jack Kerouac, Willliam S. Borroughs (Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr  throughout their early years at Columbia, during their first experiments in beat poetry.  Their endless nights of smoking, Benzedrine and writing binges are soon brought to a sudden and violent end.

                Carr (Dane DeHane) begins as a musing prankster but, like all beginners of art movements, gradually becomes a needy hanger-on.  Hampered by a past relationship with a seeming obsessive, well-read janitor named David (Michael C. Hall, in an eerily predatory performance), he rarely writes and pawns off school assignments on friends.  It is Carr that is left unable to complete work, or embrace wholly his sexual orientation.  

                The less Darlings plays out like a prequel to other films about the Beat Generation, the more assured it becomes.  The lopsided, hushed love triangle between Ginsberg, Carr and David works well, underlined by Carr’s wistful, pre-beat musings by which he can ultimately not live.  Thus it assumes levels of severe melodramatic tragedy.

                Particularly helpful are the performances.  DeHane and Foster sink into their roles without ever approaching simple imitation.  It is only Radcliffe that makes no attempt to imitate save for some spontaneous dancing (Ginsberg, upon first hearing The Beatles, reportedly stood on a lunch counter and danced).  This serves Radcliffe well, as the Potter star slipping into Ginsberg’s iconic lisp would be nothing if not distracting.

                Radcliffe’s performance has been gossiped about due to a gay love scene, but the high-point of his performance comes as he is reciting poetry.  In that brief moment, there is a budding passion sensed in an ill-experienced writer.

                It’s hard to make writing cinematically interesting.  No matter how profound or seminal the work turns out, the audience is still just watching someone sitting in front of a typewriter.  The laziest of biopic staples often include a scene where the famed scribe has an epiphany and outright says the title of his famous song or novel.  Krokidas displays creativity in rare fashion.  Aside from a few out-of-place montages and frenzied, nitrous-induced games of fridge magnet Scrabble, it allows the audience to hear writers speaking of the creative process. 

                Shortly after a murder occurs, Radcliffe transforms into Inspector Ginsberg.  In another film, this could have devolved into gimmickry.  But Krokidas’ uses it as a meditation not just on what happened, but also to question the basic tenets of the Beat Poetry itself.  What does it say of a movement founded upon raw, emotional honesty that one of its founders is dishonest?

                Like many first-time filmmakers, Krokidas’ script (co-written with Austin Bunn) is wrought with superfluous subplots.  Wartime radio broadcasts seem only to serve as chronological awareness.  And the tumultuous relationship between Ginsberg’s mother and father (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross) feels biographically unnecessary. 

                Still, Darlings is a more relevant, less by-the-numbers biopic than typically offered on screen.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

You're Next (review)

             Home Alone is a subjectively terrible slapstick comedy that represents the last gasp of success from writer John Hughes.  It also sparked countless playground discussions about the physics of the Rube-Goldbergian booby traps MacCauley Culkin sets for the bumbling burglars.  The best horror film of the year puts a stop to those debates with an axe to the face.
            Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is not just scary, but offers a boldly comic approach to its hyperviolent content.
            A retired weapons manufacturer celebrates his anniversary with his wife (horror icon Barbara Crampton) and his grown children in a remote mansion.  Each child has brought along a significant other, only adding to the awkward family tension.  All of this comes to a head during a dinner shortly before an arrow goes through an actual head, shot by an unknown assailant.  Soon the family is under siege by heavily armed, masked invaders.  Unbeknownst to the killers, however, one of the guests (Sharni Vinson, approaching the Ripley role with vigor) has expert, homegrown training in self-defense tactics.
            The sub-genre of home invasion thrillers has had a successful box office comeback with recent hits like The Purge.  Even Joel Schumacher got in the game, though wholly unsuccessfully, with the loathesome Nicolas Cage-starring Tresspass.  So it’s high time You’re Next get a large theatrical release after working the festival circuit for the past two years, most recently playing Montreal’s Fantasia Fest earlier this month.   
            But unlike many horror films of the new millennium, Next’s invaders have a good, old-fashioned motive.  Old-fashioned, but not well-worn, as even the motive has a refreshingly ironic twist.  Without spoiling too much, it’s important to remember the family’s patriarch is a weapons mogul.  The film’s second half twists into a tale of blood money for blood money, without ever getting on its soap box or becoming heavy handed.
            The aforementioned dinner scene grows increasingly funny with the help of mumblecore staple and actor Joe Swanberg, who improvises a long, insulting rant aimed toward a pretentious documentary filmmaker (fellow horror director Ti West, in a cameo).  Swanberg is a standout, chewing scenery as the blowhard of the family. 
            It might not feel like anything particularly new or groundbreaking on the horror scene, but what it lacks in originality, it more than compensates with in tightly directed set pieces.  It’s less a re-invention of the genre than a mild, albeit impressive, adjustment.  All the laughs and scares work impressively well in tandem, leading toward a perfectly nihilistic conclusion.

            You’re Next opens in theatres Friday, August 23rd.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Things To See 3: Body Snatchers (1993)

Though Roger Ebert praised this film as the best adaptation of Jack Finney's novel Invasion of the Body Snaters, I much prefer the 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy.  What's so incredible about this series of adaptations is that it's been adapted so many times, if not ripped off.  It's the one idea that I support remakes of, even if they're atrocious, because they're always prescient.  

'56 With it's communism/suburanite americana   (only eight years after Levittown, where Bill O'Reilly grew up).

'78 With it's brilliant subversive take on the me-generation.

And we come to Body Snatchers.  It's very good, but it's not flawless.  Originally, the script by Stuart Gordon involved a community just outside an army base.  The film sets itself on the base itself (which, interestingly, is a place where everyone is supposed to act the same anway). A young Gabriel Anwar ( Scent of a Woman, Burn Notice) stars as the girl who starts to feel alienated in a place where it's necessary to do so.

I don't love it, but Abel Ferrera's Body Snatchers is well worth a look.  It's brutal and unforgiven, with a great turn from Meg Tilly.

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Things To See 2: The Hidden (1987)

It took far less than 48 hours after the theatrical release of 48 Hours in 1982 for the buddy-cop genre to become exhausted.  After all, the black cop/white racist cop routine had been done far more seriously in 1968's  In The Heat Of The Night.  After 48 Hours, however, a series of knock-offs followed.  Beating Alien Nation (a film James Caan still talks about how much he hates) to the punch by a year, The Hidden was the first buddy-cop film to feature an alien and a human.

Directed by Jack Sholder, best known for his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2, The Hidden features a body-jumping alien parasite that loves fast cars, fast women and fast music.  When the body it inhabits outgrows its ability to sustain itself on awful 80s culture, it seeks a new host.  It's like Corey Haim, Corey Hart, Corey Feldman - all the Coreys fucked and gave birth the perfect Reaganite child.  And there is nothing more horrifying or timely, than a perfect, Reaganite baby that doesn't grasp any concept of politics.  Toward the end of the film, the alien inhabits the body of a senator running for President and, in a terrifying Romney-esque platform, utters to the press one talking point:  "I want to be President."

Tracking down the alien is cynical cop Michael Nouri and mysterious FBI agent Kyle MacLachlan (at his most MacLachlaniest, meaning he's both mysterious and yeah, come on, you already know, he's the good alien).

After watching interviews with Jack Sholder for Elm Street 2 - a film so full of gay that Jack Sholder didn't know he was directing a movie about gay people (despite the fact that the main character must run from the arms of his girl to his buff best friend, only to turn into killer Freddy once things get too intimate) - I've come to the unanimous (you agree, trust me) decision that he's an idiot.  And I doubt he knew what he had on his hands here.  It's a perfect action-sci-fi thriller with brilliant subversive undertones.

Interestingly, this was one film that was not released on DVD until a few years ago, however it was re-released on VHS in those few, sad years when VHS was still trying to put up a fight against DVD (picture that little cartoon character with his fists in a kangaroo boxing pose - "put 'em up, put 'em up, I'll fight you with my eyes closed....").  I happen to possess a copy of the re-release, with a second VHS tape that includes features that the DVD does not include.  I have yet to find them anywhere else, though I wouldn't be shocked if this one got one hell of a Blu-Ray release in the coming years.  It comes with my highest praises.

P.S. Look for a young Danny Trejo (probably fresh out of prison) saying the movie's finest line, "Hey, what kind of dude are you?"

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The War of The Worlds' Fair: A Fantasian Exploration of Orson Welles

            On October 30th, 1938, much of America tuned into a radio broadcast of the popular NBC show Chase and Sanborn Hour.  15 minutes into the broadcast typically marked the end of the first Charlie McCarthy sketch and the beginning of the first musical number, at which point many people would idly scan their radio band.  Then they’d hear it – first reports of a strange meteor crash in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
            Something came out of the meteor.  A tripod.  And within a half-hour nearly the entire population of Grover’s Mill had been disintegrated by a Martian heat ray.
            Over a million listeners never tuned back to Chase and Sanborn.  Some ran, some rioted.  Farmers grabbed their shotguns. 
            Such was the lunacy inspired by an elaborate prank by a then 23-year-old Orson Welles and his troupe of Mercury Theatre actors.  According to PBS’ The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles timed his radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds so that the first reports of invasion would coincide with Americans playing radio roulette between acts.  Of course, how much of that is true and how much can be attributed to serendipity, only Welles knows.
            Montreal’s Fantasia Festival offered an in-depth look at Welles’ Mercury Theatre production and its aftermath last night during War of The Worlds: Welles and Wells, hosted by Cineclub’s Phil Spurrell.  Opening with a ten minute sampling of the original radio broadcast, the presentation also touched on Montreal’s own connection to Worlds during the Expo 67, followed by a screening of the rare 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America.
            Though further investigation has chalked up much of the reported public reaction to the broadcast as drummed-up  Yellow Journalism,  it’s easy to see how  some, when confronted with panic from a relatively new medium, could have over-reacted (National network broadcasting had only begun a decade earlier).  For the first two acts, the play unfolds much as a developing story on a 24-hour news network would today, with tiny tidbits of new information meted out in between commercials and musical interludes. 
            Spurrell accurately described it as a testament to the genius of a 23-year-old master of entertainment, but it’s also quite refreshing to examine a relic from a less cynical world – a prank believed largely due to the public’s willfulness to lose itself in a medium.  In an age where the equivalent ambition is an intern’s desire to get a newscaster to say “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Ho Lee Fuk” on live television, it is an exhibit of what unbridled talent and ingenuity sounds like; a reminder of an idealized era when wielding power and even exploiting ignorance could be harmless fun, but still articulate.
            After the broadcast sampling, Spurrell screened footage from Montreal’s Expo ’67 of re-edited scenes from the 1953 adaptation of the novel.  The footage was reconfigured to be displayed on multiple screens and rear-projected, so as to demonstrate how several events could play out instantaneously.  The 1967 Expo, Spurrell said, was “sort of the birthplace of the IMAX.”  It, in fact, was where director Richard Franklin got the idea for split-screen sequences in the 1968 film The Boston Strangler, starting a late-60s fad for the technique frequently utilized by directors like Brian De Palma.  The footage had not been seen publicly in forty years.
            If the Welles broadcast is best looked at as a relic, ABC’s The Night That Panicked America is a fascinating curiosity of its time.  Never released in theatres or on VHS, the film is a dramatization of the broadcast and the public reaction.  It’s a time-capsule of oddities wrapped in a fairly generic TV movie.  The late Vic Morrow leads a cast that includes a young John Ritter,  Tom Bosley, Cliff De Young, Casey Kasem and  Eileen Brennan (who passed away just last week).  It also falls weirdly into place of director Joseph Sargent, whose oeuvre includes one of the best seventies thrillers (The Taking of Pelham 123) and a film that is featured on nearly every “worst of all-time” list (Jaws: The Revenge). 
            The in-studio depiction of the broadcast is as captivating as it is accurate, reminiscent of the 1982 early television comedy My Favuorite Year and Joe Dante’s cold war-panic farce Manitee.  Though the depictions of panic in small town America – from Ritter’s eager-to-fight-the-Nazis farmboy earnestness to the bourgeois wealthy having the wool pulled over their eyes by their mistreated butler – plays out with the kind of trite hackery for which television is often criticized.
            Still, as a novelty, it’s a joy to watch. 
            Cineclub plans to re-screen the film and the rare footage sometime closer to the 75th anniversary of the original radio broadcast sometime in October.  Check for updates.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bobcat Goldthwait and Other Mysterious Creatures: Willow Creek review

Last year, comedian and director Robert Francis “Bobcat” Goldthwait logged over 400 miles of drive time throughout Bigfoot country in search of the mythic beast.  Though he came up empty handed, the colorful locals he met created the basis for his found footage horror film Willow Creek, which debuted at Fantasia last Monday.

“I’m just really fascinated by [Cryotozoology],” said Goldthwait.   “I mean if these things aren’t real why, as the character in the movie says why for thousands of years people have seen it?  So I find that even interesting, what is the subconscious reasoning for these archetypal characters that have shown up in all different cultures for thousands of years.”

The character  in question is Jim  (Bryce Johnson), out to find Bigfoot with his girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore).  They have travelled to Willow Creek to camp near the site of the famed Patterson-Gimlin footage.  The footage is a clear shot of Bigfoot walking down a quarry before turning its head at the camera in a way that some cryptozoologists have argued would have broken a human in a monkey suit’s neck.

Both lead actors shot much of the film, each bringing their own unique camera technique.  That verite quality offers some of the best found footage work since the sub-genre’s popularity.  The tension builds to an unbearable 19-minute still take of the two leads in a tent while eerie noises grow closer and more aggressive.

“Alexie is the better cinematographer,” said Goldthwait.  “Bryce is more of a point-and-shoot guy.”

Also adding to the realism are interviews with actual residents of Willow Creek who claimed to have seen the creature.  It is early, travelogue-style scenes like these that also offer Creek a sharp wit before taking a turn to the horrific. 

Photo By Gareth Hedges

Goldthwait got his start as a stand up in the early 80s before becoming well known as the nasally-voiced Zed in the Police Academy movies.  He began directing films in 1992 with Shakes the Clown – a pitch black comedy about an alcoholic party clown who gets involved in a murder mystery. 

Goldthwait's third feature, Sleeping Dogs Lie, was part of the 2006 "Independent Dramatic Features" competition at Sundance.  His next project, World’s Greatest Dad with longtime friend and occasional partner Robin Williams, played at the Just for Laughs festival and met with some controversy.  The plot involves Williams stealing his son’s work after he dies from autoerotic asphyxiation.

God Bless America opens with a father driving across the country to shoot a shallow reality show star in the face.  Needless to say, his humour is grounded in the bleak and uncomfortable.  But he’s damn funny.  And no, he doesn’t do funny voices anymore.

“[I dropped that persona] not that long ago.  I always did kind of a watered down version of that character because the audience expected to see that,” he said.  “But eventually it really rang false for me and seemed kind of silly and I’m more comfortable being myself on stage.  And actually I think you get a better idea of how I see the world when you watch the movies I make than you do from that persona.” 

Goldthwait always worked political satire in his stand-up routine, but it was with America that he cemented his disgust with pop-culture and political hackery.

“I’m frustrated by the right and the left in the U.S.. As long as everybody’s busy name calling and blaming each other nothing gets resolved or fixed.  So it’s a really strange time.  I don’t understand how the right party was able to Shanghai lower income people into believing they were looking out for their better interests.  That’s a pretty impressive move.  I hope they do the publicity for this movie.”
His next project is a musical adaptation of the 1975 concept album by The Kinks, Schoolboys in Disgrace.  

Lead singer Ray Davies in involved, re-recording the album with the cast.

“It’s much larger than all the movies I’ve ever made…it’s a little more difficult.  You have to attach a cast to it and it’s a catch-22, you know?  To get a cast and a budget, you need one to get the other.  So it’s certainly the project I’m most passionate about.  That’s why I was here, actually.  I was at the Fantasia frontiers market trying to get producers and talk to production companies,” he explained.

“I don’t want to make a movie that [Ray] didn’t like.  I’d rather not make the movie than have him disappointed.”

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Arrested Development: Season 4 (spoiler heavy)

Shortly after the first trailer for season 4 of Arrested Development was released, creator Mitchell Hurwitz gave an interview during which he cautioned fans not to watch all of it in one sitting.  The internet collectively gawked.  How could we, after six years of hanging on rumours of new seasons and the possibility of a film dangling on the horizon, not devour the return of the beloved Bluths?  Hurwitz must have felt he created some kind of monster, something unfathomable, like a five-mile high statue of George W. Bush.  Inhaling it all at once would feel like being Lucille Bluth's smoke receptacle.  

See? Even though I didn't fully dig it, I'm still full of references.  After viewing the entire 15 episode run in the recommended two sittings, it's easy to see from where Hurwitz was coming.  Netflix's Arrested Development is an ambitious, over-reaching mess.  It's also just as much the unprecedented landmark for television as the show's original run was and incredibly funny.

It could have just as easily been a thrown together mish-mash of callbacks and references to jokes from older seasons and, though it would have detractors, still managed to please fans.  But Hurwitz instead continued undaunted by complex plotting.

Hurwitz's newfound freedom at Netflix exposes some of the shows worst traits.  Development has always been innovative in its storytelling, but its promptness allowed it more than we thought it constrained. His freedom at Netflix exposes some of the show's awful bloat and, on occasion, gets irritating.  Jokes don't pay off when they should, or they're lazy payoffs to seasons past.

The control of a 22-minute, 24 episode run that network TV demands forces writers to work under constraints; but understood constrained contracts become a necessary tool.  In the first three seasons, Development was put through the ultimate test by FOX.  The network pulled on every string it could to kill the show - from shifting it's timeslot to cutting back on episode orders to running episodes out of order to the final death knell: running the last four episodes back to back against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.  But Development persisted, by fans and writers.

Season four of Arrested Development picks up where season three ended, then takes its time explaining what happened in between.  Naturally, it takes on a different tone.  On occasion, it's a messy clean up, but works its best with echoing the fantastic series finale.

Arrested Development has always used broad stereotypes as the yolk of a larger laugh, but season 4 has lost that charm.  Some of the racial stereotypes get uncomfortable.  Less there to demonstrate the Bluth's ignorant WASPyness,  more there for cheap laugh - particularly the Chinese.

Perhaps the best way for old fans to approach the new season is as if it were an entirely new show.  That way, the unnecessary handholding throughout some of the callbacks to older seasons would feel less condescending.

All that being said, it couldn't have had a better conclusion.  Netflix would support and fund a fifth season, but it shouldn't.  George Michael punching Michael (a good man) in the face, declaring independence from his father is the precise opposite from the series finale.

Its not perfection, but it is certainly what we demanded.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Things To See 1: Ride The High Country

It is in the spirit of using this blog that I begin suggesting something people should see.  This is not, naturally, an original idea, but a worthwhile one and the choices are my own (and, of course, it fills up the times when I'm not writing long-winded diatribes.

I would like to start by offering Sam Peckinpah's brilliant 1962 Western Ride The High Country.  People often associate Peckinpah's work with his love of old west transition, more specifically The Wild Bunch.  But High Country retrospectively echoes many themes and even scenes later found in Bunch.  It opens on an elderly lawman, played by Joel McCrea, who expects the surrounding applause to be for him, only to be shuffled off the street for a rigged camel vs. horse race.  Later, he is told to watch crossing the street for this newfangled thing called the automobile.

Old West values slowly disintegrate as his partner and he, Randolph Scott, head off on two days ride to collect gold from a mining community; unbeknownst to the lawman, his partner plans to sweet talk him into taking the money for themselves.

To give away anymore would be as criminal as Scott's plans, but be assured values are compromised and twisted, gunfights are aplenty, young overtakes old and it features one of the most heartfelt and fist-pumping blaze of glories ever filmed.

The same year beget John Ford's excellent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence which, in far more literal Ford fashion, was about the taming of the West.  Its widespread appeal and Gene Pitney song (never used in the film) may have made it more well known, and it certainly signified a major transition in the Old West on film.  It also coined a legend of it's own:

" When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

This may well be the kind of legend that gets printed.  It's certainly a fine primer, or even a spiritual prequel to, The Wild Bunch.

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