_________________________________________________________________“Srpski film” / “A Serbian Film” (2010) Starring Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katrina Zutic, Ana Sakic. Written by Srdjan Spasojevic & Aleksandar Radivojevic. Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic. Is there anything more repellent than the attempted sugar-coating of diseased depravity under the guise of pseudo-intellectualized excuse making? Milos (Srdjan Todoroviv), a former porn actor of high reputation, is approached by Lejla (Katarina Zutic), a former professional associate, with an outrageously lucrative offer to make an “artistic” piece of pornography, the nature of which is, quite obviously to anyone who has even heard the phrase “torture porn”, dangerously mysterious. Being the happy example of domestic tranquility that he is (home life for Milos is shown to consist of his young son watching Dad in action in a sex video, while his wife blissfully requests a spontaneous eruption of violently frenzied rough sex bordering on rape with her spouse so that she might enjoy the technique with which Milos accommodated his video partners, an odd request since the myriad examples of staged fornication we are shown present Milos as the most disengaged of sexual partners), Milos willingly accepts the job, through no legitimate incentive save the necessity in putting him (and by extension, us) into the middle of the increasingly repulsive action, as even the financial compensation offered scarcely offsets the stunningly obvious warning signs that the situation is to be avoided at all costs, nor can it compensate for the fact that his shadowy benefactor Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) and his sinister minions, are quite clearly unhinged. However, “Srpski film” is less interested in a realistic evaluation of circumstances by its sketchily conceived characters who freely choose to dive into an irreversible quicksand of moral and criminal depravity, than in joyously reveling in one set piece of perversity after another; enthusiastically celebrating sexualized violence on a level may be unparalleled in intended commercial cinema. The makers of this thoroughly repulsive movie would have you believe that their intention is to present a hard-edged satire on corruption, degradation and violence in post-Miloševic Serbia, yet the evidence of such a claim is insulting and cynically corrupt: if a sovereign state may only inspire reflective commentary through a laborious journey down the avenues of child sexual abuse, incest, rape, sexual torture, mutilation, and….well, decency calls for resistance toward any further indexing of the film’s offenses… then either that state is not worth an ounce of civilized consideration, or the claimants to higher thematic aspirations are engaged in sociopathic self-aggrandizement. Weakly attempting an unmerited surface complexity, the film progressively descends into an extremely confused series of flashbacks which are, no doubt, intended to introduce the illusion of narrative structural sophistication, when the film actually would benefit ( for the sake of clarity, if nor no other reason) with a more linear presentation. For a film sated with such a profusion of violent encounters and escalations of extreme physical peril, there is no tension to the proceedings (the deadening absence of empathy toward any of the characters is substituted with headache inducing techno scoring which, in an attempt to turn the screws on the viewer’s nerves, irritates with a constant pulsing buzz that assaults the senses like the blaring horn of a semi truck) and by the arrival of the final revolting twist, the viewer has been pummeled into numbness into any visceral response except disgust. The only thing more dehumanizing that sitting through the film, is the thought of what must have transpired with the two co-writers during their script conferences; the film revealing nothing of Serbian society or the human condition, but volumes about its makers.”Srpski film” is genuine pornography.
_______________________________________________________________ “1941” (1979) Starring John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Dan Aykroyd, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, Robert Stack, Wendy Jo Sperber, Diane Kay, Bobby Di Cicco, Treat Williams, John Candy, Lionel Stander, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary, Slim Pickens, Eddie Deezen. Written by Robert Zemickis and Bob Gale, from a story by Zemeckis, Gale & John Milius. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg’s “1941”is symptomatic of the curious phenomenon particular to youngish directors who have reached a certain level of respectability, only to then inflate their creative impulses to a scale which neither their experience nor their inspiration is able to keep in a disciplined harness (Martin Scorsese’s “New York New York”, anyone?). “1941” belongs to that particularly troublesome sub-genre of colossal all-star comedies of which the number of successes are far outweighed by the quantity of talent gobbling embarrassments, though with this intended World War II period effort director Spielberg may have actually set an appreciable amount of new standards by which future generations might toil diligently to avoid. It has already been demonstrated that Spielberg has demonstrated a dissatisfaction with engaging his genuine skill at intimately evocative details that preclude an attraction to theatrically gaudy grandiosity, though this talent is most demonstrable with scenarios that are structured without distracting subplots and narrative diversions; certainly not the case with “1941” which is comprised of dozens of unrelated characters who bob and weave their way through the most tenuous of conceptually suggestive threads until they eventually intersect (with many of these moments feeling particularly forced) but without any real effect nor contributory boost in dramatic coherence. (The overabundance of nomadic characters hovering about gives the impression that scenarists Zemeckis and Gale were attempting a slapstick, mentally challenged redressing of “Nashville”.) To add insult to injury, the film has no actual plot, only a situation: the growing paranoia concerning the likelihood of a foreign invasion in Los Angeles directly following Pearl Harbor; though since this chosen subject is played out with the random abandon of thinly conceived sketch comedy- none of which is amusing on its own -abetted by desperate cross-cutting which is intended to give the illusion of energetic momentum (though the sloppiness of technique and absence of comic rhythms almost ensures that each scene seems curiously truncated as if interrupted before properly delivering the payoff), the film never for a moment achieves a sense of place or time: rather than 1941 Los Angeles, we are privy to actors merely going through their hysterical contortions on the biggest sound stage available in Hollywood. The film is remarkable for its irritating noise level: seldom has a movie featured such an unending barrage of characters (major and extra, it doesn’t seem to matter) who are feverishly howling and hollering (it’s like a snooze alarm that won’t stop), simply to suggest to the audience that something vital is occurring. It seems designed as an entertainment intended to grant pleasure by directly challenging the viewer’s tolerance. John Belushi gargles (seriously!) and grunts like a simian throwback, which is supposed to be amusing, while SNL fellow alumnus Dan Aykroyd is wasted through most of his appearance. Only Lionel Stander and Robert Stack distinguish themselves: by sensibly underplaying their roles, they emerge fitfully witty and look practically Shakespearean next to the sheer burlesque buffoonery spinning about them. There is an amusing dance sequence (which sets off a reference to the historically unrelated Zoot Suit Riots) that could have been a classic had it been staged and (certainly) edited with a tighter hand, and John Williams’ “original” big band composition is a unnecessarily callous bit of plagiarism of Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing”. However, the greatest single technical offense must be laid at the feet of cinematographer William Fraker, whose diffused lighting design makes a new art form out of visual obscurity and gives the illusion that everything and one on the screen is in the process of molecular disintegration.
“Khartoum” (1966) Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Nigel Green, Leo Genn (narrator). Written by Robert Ardrey. Directed by Basil Dearden. Absorbing, if somewhat fictionalized, film depicting the war of wills between General Charles Gordon and al-Mahdi, preceding and during the siege of Khartoum. While encapsulating the politics of the Gladstone government, Robert Ardrey’s smart screenplay effectively delivers a history lesson in world politics that demonstrates the folly of empirical interests catering more to legacy than to responsible, expedient action. Wittily, the film depicts world decision makers as stiff necked popinjays playing political games of chess in which, by design, the outcome of every move will benefit no one but their continued positions of power. Enter Charles Gordon, international hero from the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (thus forever given the moniker “Chinese” Gordon), whose idiosyncratic personality is in direct opposition to the self-serving autocrats of Gladstone’s administration; a man, for all of his personal idiosyncrasies, who is an idealist believing that action should serve the greater needs of the people. Despite some hesitations by the British government (until they calculated how the move could solidify their positions politically, that is), Gordon- surprisingly -accepts the appointment of what seems like a hopeless post: the title of governor-general of the Sudan, a country that is under invasion by the Mahdist hordes, which intend to eventually spread an empire of Muslim extremism throughout the globe. Gordon receives a hero’s welcome upon arrival- his previous history with the Sudan, in which he was instrumental in abolishing the pernicious slave trade -has endeared him to the population, a feeling reciprocated by Gordon who feels that in returning to the Sudan he has returned “home”. In this early section of the film- in which Gordon’s Chinese experience is passably mentioned, but not to any great detail that would illuminate a viewer unfamiliar with his historic actions -the general political situation and the climate of danger inherent in an invasive force comprising blind zealotry ignited by prophetical hubris- are revealed in clear and exciting (both viscerally and intellectually) terms that both illuminate and entertain, a happy result for any historical drama. For a large scale epic, “Khartoum” is actually distinguished by a rare feeling of intimacy; the finer details of the personalities involved are never sacrificed for a grander visual design that emphasizes spectacle (though there is plenty of that) over character. The fidelity to historical fact is accurate in the general outline of the narrative, but does contain some glaring diversions. several concerning the final breach into the city and the death of Gordon, the first an understandably desired action assault (not dissimilar to the same alteration of fact in “Lawrence of Arabia” where a rather quiet surrender is replace by an exciting battle charge into the town of Aqaba) replaces the nighttime breach of the cities gates, and the slaying of Gordon descending the steps into the frozen Mahdi masses is considerably a work of dramatic license, but neither diminishes or alters the effect of the story. However, two other fictionalized episodes are more problematic, both dealing with face to face meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi. the first preceding the siege and the latter directly before the final assault on Khartoum. At no time in history did these meetings take place, the most direct communication between the two adversaries being written letters, yet the film’s license with these events alters the psychology of the characters dramatically, and removes the story from the more claustrophobic focus on the besieged city captives. Though extremely insightful and well written, these scenes are clearly included to give Laurence Olivier, as al-Mahdi, more screen time as the script gives him little to do otherwise outside of a few proclamations which are rather undercut by Olivier’s predisposition toward emphasizing the wit of his performance rather than the singular menace of piety which would have strengthened the film’s central tug of personalities. Heston, for his part, is a splendid Gordon: egotistical, self-critical, logical to the extreme and inflexible in his conviction that a loyalty to a cause is the only thing that matters. Heston is unafraid to show the moments of reflective apprehension and even gnawing fear in a public man of courage and it’s one of his most fully layered and admirable performances. Basil Dearden, that most overlooked of British directors handles both the the small and large scale scenes with equal ease. Only the opening travelogue segment and the closing narrative which overly emphasizes what we’ve already seen for ourselves, seem clumsily inserted and entirely unnecessary.
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) Starring Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Julia Adams, Whit Bissell, Nestor Paiva, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman. Written by Arthur Ross and Harry Essex, from a story by Maurice Zimm. Directed by Jack Arnold. With the discovery of traces of a previously unknown species on the banks of an Amazonian lagoon, a team of scientists embarks upon the usual expedition armed with a beautiful and shapely woman who serves no apparent function except to act as a romantic irritant between the two typically dashing scientists, and an assortment of generic crewmen who will be easily disposable according to the needs of the script, but who also don’t seem to serve any genuine function as their absence does not hamper the progress of the expedition one whit. Welcome to Anthropology 101, Hollywood-style. Jack Arnold’s film has all of the location exoticism on would expect of a backlot production which never moved closer to the Equator than the Sunshine State, though there is an inherently otherworldly quality suggested by the primitive vastness of the very idea of the Amazon (as opposed to darkest Africa which thanks to the abundance of Tarzan, Jungle Jim and Bomba pictures has seen its mythic luster faded with over-familiarity) which the picture is able to substantially capitalize on, especially with the emergence of the impressively imagined title creature. (Who, as it turns out, is essential to the film for local flavor since, as is characteristic of most studio jungle features, there is a rather conspicuous absence of snakes and insects.) The characteristic that uniquely distinguishes the featured beastie in Arnold’s film from every one of the other classic Universal movie monsters is that although humanoid in appearance, there is no direct genetic link to the homo sapien (no matter the mention of missing links), therefore, regardless of the checkered history previous characters- Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man -have with the fairer sex, at least their romantic or destructive impulses were based upon variations or, more accurately, aberrations of human conduct whereas if we are to believe that the starring amphibious creature is more from the animal world than human, then the film is treading some very provocative territory with its rather explicitly intended inter-species eroticism. That the eponymous creature is enamored with lead starlet Julia Adams in ways that are clearly more than amicable, a parallel could be drawn with the classic prior attachment between Kong and Ann Darrow in 1933’s “King Kong” though in that film she was offered up as a golden sacrifice- a kind of primeval blind date service – to the giant ape, where in “Creature From the Black Lagoon”, it is the monster who actively chooses to pursue the woman (had he instead pursued one of the boys with equal vigor, Arnold would have really broken new ground), thus becoming the movie’s first masher equipped with gills, though once capturing the object of his affections, the film is at an understandable loss as to what will happen next. That this simply results in a rather unfortunate through predictable concession to the usual ingenue screaming and tiresome last-second heroics is typical of a formula unchanged since the initial silent boogey man chillers, of which this- despite the exotically faked locale and scalier antagonist -is a merely cosmetically altered example. Regardless of the script which is informed with the usual arguments of commerce versus responsible science that has given the genre a facade of philosophical depth that wouldn’t drown an ant, the film is rather amusing in its suggestion of a possible romantic triangle which exists only in the heads of the characters who are supposed to be the brightest, but as usual are the most myopic, since anyone with a grain of sense could determine that the statuesque Miss Adams is equally enamored of the tall, dark and scaly bad boy (otherwise why does she keep insisting on going into the water?), and that, for all practical purposes, both scientists are the same guy anyway. (Ten minutes after the film ends, just try to recall which actor- Carlson or Denning – played which character?) It’s all rather silly, and played with an earnestness more admirable than accomplished, though director Arnold once again displays his mastery for infusing dignity into the absurd. His calm assurance makes you believe you’re watching a better movie.
______________________________________________________________ “The Quick and the Dead” (1995) Starring Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Conway, Roberts Blossom, Gary Sinise. Written by Simon Moore. Directed by Sam Raimi. The spaghetti western differs importantly from its American western inspiration in that while the American tradition is based upon genuine historical experience (however mythologized), the Italian western is based upon the cinematic form of the western itself, and while the genre within the Hollywood community addresses morality plays, the “spaghetti”western speaks more as a fatality play; not so much a reference to bodily fatalities which are a standard result of most westerns regardless of the source, but of a nihilisitic view of the West as a mythological entity. In Sam Raimi’s curious spaghetti western hybrid/homage “The Quick and the Dead”, the subject of the film is the variant genre aesthetic itself; the stylistic roots of the Italian western genre finally finding a committed home within an American western while also emphasizing the darker psychological exaggerations which are an elemental companion to the genre’s equally baroque visual vocabulary. Considering that even Clint Eastwood’s initial American western after starring in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, Ted Post’s “Hang ‘Em High”, was incorrectly touted as an American Western encompassing the Italian style (incorrectly as the film actually adheres to more of the traditional western tropes than even the increasingly emergent American western revisionist movement and its visual style beholden more to the cathode tube than Corbucci), the awareness of the marketable potential of the western as mutated through the Italian sensibility went generally unplumbed as the American cinema, instead, followed the path of the emergence of the revisionist movement. Ironically, American filmmakers have a difficult time of replicating the sensibility of the spaghetti western which can be more practically looked at as a product of alternative commentary on style rather than the contextually-based revisionist movement. Despite a tiny number of random independent efforts that might look as if influenced by the Italians- such as Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”, though even this was more incorporative of literary existentialism, it would be decades before a major American western would unabashedly attempt an adoption of the sensibilities of the spaghetti western as its aesthetic. That that film would be conceived as both homage and pseudo-parody is entirely consistent as that is exactly the lineage of the inception of the Italian western itself, and therefore, it may be seen that this branching of the genre has traveled full circle with Sam Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead”. The film unfolds entirely within the town limits of the fictional town of Redemption; an ironic moniker that announces that which is sought by both the innocent people of the town (despite the highlighting of the more depraved elements highlighted, there is a paralyzed underclass desperate for relief), and the mysterious “Lady”- a gender switched version of the taciturn “Man With No Name” model (though her name is Ellen as revealed in flashback), the cryptic gunfighter with an unspoken moral conscience who wanders through the spaghetti westerns of both Corbucci and Leone. The religious symbolism is ladled on with a trowel: the villain’s name is John Herod (lest ye be skeptical) and his main antagonist is the reformed gunfighter turned preacher Cort (Russell Crowe), though the surface trappings eventually lead nowhere and remained disparate elements undeveloped. The film is entirely surface driven. “Lady” (Sharon Stone) arrives in the town in time to enter the annual gunfighting competition run by the town’s despotic kingpin Herod (Gene Hackman), and featuring a roster of participants which fairly covers the spectrum of colorful character “types” featured within the most formulaic of westerns: each exaggerated to the point of cartoonishness which is alternately deflating in terms of generating suspense (or interest in the characters) or- worse yet -reducing the supporting cast to a mob of festering, drooling, leering idiots, many of whom engage in behavior which is revolting both morally and hygienically. (A subplot featuring the normally capable Kevin Conway and his attempts to sexually molest a young girl is relentlessly distasteful.) The film is dependent on the notion that Redemption is a cesspool of deviancy, with Herod the worst of the bunch, yet with the exception of his ability (and willingness) to kill any opponent in the contest (Cort’s protests that Herod himself never participates in a fair fight is undone by his ability to shoot down his opponents without any assistance), his conduct- however loathsome the consequences -is actually more civilized than most of the other contestants whose individual codes of behavior border on the feral. (The flashback sequence linking a young Ellen and Herod is a direct lift from “Once Upon a Time in the West”, a bit of mimeographing masquerading as homage, though the incident is integral to the plot of both films in so similar a nature it can only be regarded as a blatant act of plagiarism.) That Herod’s crimes appear more dastardly is simply because of their prominent reward within the town and the fact that he actually stands his ground (despite the enforcing illusion of his henchmen, if he didn’t have the ability, on his own, to kill his opponents, his power base would crumble within minutes): the fact that several characters have the opportunity to kill Herod early on is not dwelt on as it would upset the cyclopean string of conflict on which the narrative is based, nor do any of the other villainous types in the film seem to have a profit motive similar to Herod’s to give their insidious acts even the pretense of a motivation. With its complete absence of an incorruptible element within the film,”The Quick and the Dead” fails as even a cynical morality play nor is there a sufficient editorial subtext for the film to merit consideration as caustic satire. Does Raimi intend the film as, perhaps, a parody? It would seem so given the film’s proclivity toward the extremities of the repeated and systematically intensified countdowns to the draw with the use of accelerated zooms and dutch angles suggesting a stick-in-the-eye film school graduate’s idea of showing off what movies he’s seen, though the narrative simple-mindedness of the production more suggests fromage than homage. Raimi and his scenarist Simon Moore have accomplished something truly unique: creating a film- and a western to boot -without a hint of a theme; the problem being a narrative which is structured as a relentless act of repetition, a flaw inherent in the central premise: the film insanely takes the climactic device of the western- the main street showdown -and repeats it ad nauseum until by halfway through the film, there is no longer any reason to care as to who is struck down, a problem evidently shared by the director as he begins to skip over the particulars of the matches in favor of decorative but undramatic montages which serve more as graphic design than in intensifying the narrative. Even a novice mathematician won’t need an abacus to calculate that it’s going to be a loooong path traveled to get to the inevitable showdown between John and the “Lady”; the film isn’t gutsy enough to play against expectations and there is very little suspense in the elimination process since most of the contestants are entire unsympathetic and empathy disposable. The predictable-though unlikely -victory of the “righteous” leads to a virtual physical annihilation of the town, with the film rather abruptly fading out before explaining how this is an improvement on an already bad situation. However, the film is enlivened by an energetic performance by Hackman, and two quieter, smoldering characterizations by Russell Crowe- whose expressively tortured layers of internal conflict provide the only real suspense of the film -and Sharon Stone who has the steely gaze of the gunfighter down cold-blooded. Leonardo DiCaprio is all toothsome smiles and vacuous self-congratulation, without a shred of credibility, as a young wannabe gunfighter who may or may not be Herod’s son, and the great Woody Strode is credited with his final film appearance, though his scenes are so obscure, he is sure to be missed even if one refrains from blinking.
“Red” (2010) Starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Mary Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfuss. Written by Joe Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on the comic book series by Warren Ellis & Cully Hamner. Directed by Robert Schwentke.Hollywood spends untold endless hours in nonproductive pre-production meetings and countless man hours of self-defeating layers of implosive non-creation in cracking the formula as to what it is they think audiences want to see. Who knew it would turn out to be Helen Mirren in an evening gown sporting an explosively non-stop bullet barrage from high-tech weaponry? This revelation, a shatteringly sexy image unlike anything in the American cinema since the dreary evolution of the Sexual Revolution, is just one of the many- though it’s the best -pleasures to be had in the silly action thriller “Red”, the film adaptation of the limited comic book series “Red” by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner which removes the original material from the format of a violent, earnest storyline (or what passes for earnestness in comic books) and goes giddy vaudeville, effectively neutralizing the overbearing quantity of carnage by treating the entire affair as a happy lark (or what passes for happy in American movies lately), a fizzy ride in which the standard formula of mindless action is turned into a surreal brand of amusement, less visceral but with an appreciation of the choreographic- almost balletic -kinetic motion of flying shell casings, contorting bodies and mushrooming flames. It’s a witty take on the increasingly absurd level of destructive force prevalent in contemporary cinema, though the light tone is occasionally punctuated by several (within the film’s chosen satiric context) rather unnecessarily cruel deaths and an almost consistent absence of narrative logic (the resultant chasms in plot and character motivation are large enough to conceal a small despotic island nation), the former are easily solvable breaches of tone which expose the tenuous grasp the filmmakers have on the balance between comically tinged violence and tastelessness, while the later is more problematic; a film may get away with the occasional lapse of logic if the aesthetic and performance values are of such a distracting nature, the plot holes don’t appear so immediately evident (Hitchcock films- especially “North by Northwest” are rife with such provident distractions against illogic), but when a film such as “Red” is built on such a simplistic premise, the straining of credulity can cause the film to become an anathema; eventually collapsing the entire enterprise to be revealed as a unrelievedly hollow exercise. Unfortunately, as entertaining as many of the hijinks manage to be, “Red” could never be considered a good film (only an entertaining one, which bespeaks of a world of difference) as it lacks that one essential elevating characteristic even gratuitously audience pandering films such as this require, and that is a basic solid premise on which to hook the mayhem. By attempting to hang the entire film on the threadbare premise that a list of participants in a past covert operation are being systematically liquidated (a premise previously explored with stylistically florid operatic excesses in John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man”) director Robert Schwentke is waylaid by an incongruous imbalance between his stylishly satiric mise-en-scene and the context in which it exists. The essential plot points of the film never develop as outrageously as the action set-pieces which punctuate themt, nor are the characters, for all of their intended idiosyncrasies, imagined in the script by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber as formidably quirky as the demands of the film require. However, the film does have one ace up its sleeve and that is the abundance of witty performances from a virtual Dream Team of acting talent with which the film manages to entertain while never attempting to enlighten the grey cells. Rising above the banal vagaries of the script, Mary Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss (portraying a self-aggrandizing “bad Guy” with such manic glee, its easy to imagine that what he’s playing is the inevitable future of Duddy Kravitz), Brian Cox and the delicious Helen Mirren (so sexy, as previously mentioned, she must be illegal in the staid territory of New England) are all in a giddy relaxed mode in which they collectively manage to sustain a grand level of comic inventiveness, elevating one-dimensionally written characters into sharply funny spoofs of the traditional ruthlessly efficient spies and assassins so overly familiar in action cinema, managing to create their own little galaxies of continuously surprising personality quirks orbiting about the film’s off-center aesthetic, yet, importantly never one of them diverging into the dreaded realm of caricature. The one fly in the ointment is Bruce Willis, who continues with his apparent career-long crooked smirk approach to performance; this once promising performer- so fine in the opening salvo of television’s “Moonlighting” and the underrated Norman Jewison drama “In Country” -has become a veritable blueprint in Hollywood A-list performance laziness. While the rest of the cast is operating at full throttle, it appears that Willis’ tank is now permanently on empty.
______________________________________________________________ “Death Wish” (1974) Starring Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Hope Lange, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Steven Keats. Written by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Brian Garfield. Directed by Michael Winner. “Death Wish” is a genuine curiosity; a terrible movie which prompted a great deal of useful, spirited and intelligent sociopolitical discussion. The theme of the film is justice, or rather the lack of it, and the rise of vigilantism as a curative. Based on a novel by Brian Garfield, the film betrays the depth of it’s thematic implications by aiming at the sewer; a not uncommon affliction of the cinematic output of the ironically named Michael Winner. The novel’s theme is equally concerned with the lack of justice for victims of crime, but in its literary incarnation the story unfolds as a disturbing portrait of psychological implosion of an otherwise decent but inconsolably traumatized man that comes when suffering an existential injustice. The film jettisons all but the basic structure of the novel in that the psychic ramifications of the central character become less-than-secondary to the exploitation of violence used to crassly manipulate the audience into a frenzy: a blatant campaign favorable to the use of vigilantism which is the antithesis of the source novel’s intention. Charles Bronson, an actor capable of surprising and underused resources, was forever typecast as an unstoppable man of action, especially in the seemingly endless, putrid clones of this unexpected box-office hit. Bronson portrays architect Paul Kersey, whose wife is murdered and daughter is raped into a state of catatonia, and is conveniently given the gift of a pistol which he uses to dispense with every street punk who crosses his path, though many of these dangerous encounters are engineered by the increasingly enthusiastic “avenger”. Bronson walks through the role as if a somnambulist; which is fitting in the novel’s conception of the character if the film were interested in the original conception of violence impulse as anathema to one’s moral core, yet in the film’s resulting cynical use of violence and subsequent diminishing of profound themes into grimy visceral action-movie thrills, the surprising lethargy of the performance suggests more an actor who isn’t pushed to find a center to the character. Vincent Gardenia plays the New York detective leading the homicide investigation as noisome urban vulgarian- not in expression but in spirit -spending the bulk of his screen time noisily draining his sinuses as if such violent nasal explosions might somehow distract from the coarse stupidity of his dialogue. However, nothing can disguise Michael Winner’s pervasive lack of taste, a directorial incompetence which distorts the appropriate tone of every scene into something not merely seamy but ridiculous. For example, the rapist/murderers are portrayed in such an obnoxiously obvious fashion, they might as well be wearing circus clown costumes. Yet, we are to believe that no one notices them, not even an entire grocery store full of people whom the punks spend several minutes terrorizing! Winner spends so much time graphically depicting the rape/murder that you wonder where his empathy lies; and it offends every moral sense that these hooligans are never subsequently confronted. Surely, a case could be made that this is the film’s point: that violence is random and justice often impotent, (A disturbing but rational theme in serious hands.) but then how to explain the sleazy moral methodology of the film: police investigations comically depicted as being so inept that the very hint of a vigilante could be concealed from a city, Kersey doling out violent retaliation to infractions he himself engineers or the disgraceful denouement where the police callously pardon Kersey’s crime spree and ship him off to another city to be their problem? (And we’re to cheer this sickeningly immoral final shot!) In bastardizing Garfield’s substantial novel, Michael Winner’s only achievement is to have made the first major Hollywood studio snuff film.
“Aftermath” (1994) Starring Xevi Collelimir, Jordi Tarrida. Written and directed by Nacho Cerdà. Extraordinarily grisly short film (part of a trilogy) that has been mistakenly (in perhaps the most indefensible case of wish fulfillment ever) cited as a work of art in some circles, (Then again, there was a point in time when “The Devil in Miss Jones” was favorable compared to Bergman instead of identified as the rank piece of pornography it is.) when in fact it is an obvious example of aesthetic judgment run berserk. With torture porn, supporters of the field find enjoyment in the masochistic endurance of viewing the elimination of human empathy from an exhibition of sadistic bloodletting, while critics may cluck their tongues at the moral superiority of castigating such extremes of acceptable human behavior (by both the audience and the film’s protagonists) which is far too easy a moral soapbox to mount as what is the difficulty or courage of judgment it takes to disapprove of rampant cold blooded carnage as entertainment? However, “Aftermath” takes the formula to an elevated degree of worry, with it’s graphic depiction of necrophilia, mutilation and ritual food processing of a corpse- without even the excuse of a contextual narrative to invest the actions with any perceptible meaning except to repel. Presented as a stand alone short, the film is a matter-of-fact portrayal of the most bestial of human behavior, without even employing the perversity of enjoyment by the offending character to base our moral disgust on. In depicting the protagonist as bored and passionless even during the most unspeakable offenses, Nacho Cerda removes the last vestiges of a distancing perspective from the events and makes the viewer a virtual participant. The point seems to be that except for the viewer watching, there would be no reason for the parade of the inhuman conduct to be occurring, but is that a legitimate reason for the film to exist? To conjure an illegitimate context in which to comment on supposed superiority over the perceived audience’s appetites, the director displays an equal lack of courage in blaming others for his own abhorrent visions and a cowardly hypocrisy in not owing up to his own sordid predilections.
“Star Trek” (2009) Starring Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, Bruce Greenwood, Eric Bana, John Cho, Anthon Yelchin, Simon Pegg, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy. Written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Busy, noisy pinball machine version of Gene Roddenberry’s SF enterprise, lacking a single moment of philosophical reflection or emotional character interaction that characterized the original series. Perhaps realizing that the “Star Trek” franchise had finally reached a state of exhaustion with the numerous television spin-offs and films based on those properties, J.J. Abrams exercises the only option available which is to go back to the beginnings of the Roddenberry-created mythos and explore the origins of the characters and how they initially formed as a crew. Unfortunately, except for some Vulcan background of Spock, there is little to be learned from the film. Characters don’t develop, they simply appear and we are to take it for granted this is where their story begins. The confused screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman fails to establish the simplest bonds of character unity, instead opting for a drearily endless succession of special effects set pieces that illuminate little except for director Abrams annoying penchant for lens flares that, supposedly, give the proceedings the sense of immediacy, but merely obscure the action with an self-indulgent director’s constant need to bring attention to himself. For a film espousing logic, there is little in the scenario, with the opening appearance of a Romulan baddie (generically played by Eric Bana) being completely forgotten about for twenty five years until James Kirk conveniently grows to become a Starfleet officer and set the action in motion. The concept, mentioned briefly, of an alternate timeline reality explains little except to further confuse a muddled scenario where important characters are never seen at crucial times in the unfolding events. Of the young cast given the unenviable task of imitating the roles made iconic by the original cast, Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as McCoy fare the best, though the latter is saddled with little to do except to colorfully blurt out his curmudgeonly dialogue which is light years ahead of what is left for either Scotty or Chekov, improbably depicted as mere bundles of distracting comic accents. More seasoned performers as the underused Bruce Greenwood, as a splendidly capable Christopher Pike, and Ben Cross as Spock’s Vulcan father Sarek, contribute a few desperately needed moments of gravitas, but it’s all for naught, as we are constantly flung back into Chris Pine’s bull-in-a-china-shop interpretation of James Kirk; a performance which is unusual for not being a performance, but merely all testosterone saturated attitude. In Abrams’ hyperactive but heartless conception of Roddenberry’s Federation, Kirk will be less likely “boldly go where no one has gone before” than to give the universe the finger.
“Cashback” (2006) Starring Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Michelle Ryan, Stuart Goodwin, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne. Written and directed by Sean Ellis. The little British movie that could’ve. Initially an award winning short film that has been subsequently expanded to feature length, Sean Ellis’ serio-comic meditation of life, love and the meaning of beauty tries for too much within the framework of anarchic youth sex comedy. That any film attempts to elevate the boundaries of the vulgar commercial youth market is almost too welcome a commodity to criticize, but the display of talent involved has exhibited a damaging lack of artistic judgment. Even for a youth comedy, there is far too much gratuitous nudity (all female, of course) and the appalling realization that even though the script calls for the protagonist hero, fledgling artist Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) to be the voice of sensitive appreciation of the ethereal beauty in women, his fantasies and flashback experiences are nothing short of that of a lascivious Peeping Tom sex offender. When Ben fantasizes that he can stop time, his purposeful quest for rendering the beauty of the human form becomes a disturbing act of stripping unwitting female (only) shoppers in the supermarket he’s employed at during the night shift, allowing for director Ellis’ camera to sloooowly caress each curve of every bared breast, buttock and nether region (curiously this store seems to attract the healthiest roster of pneumatic centerfold candidates ever seen in one grocery aisle, the wheatgerm must be dynamite) while Ben continues his whispery narration about the arcane nature of artistic idealism. This is smut posing as shallow thought, and this sequence, along with an ugly protracted scene of young Ben and a naked Swedish girl, and an extended stripper sequence punctuate the film with what Ellis obviously thinks is the drawing card necessary to sit through otherwise rather familiar but engagingly sincere musings about romantic longing. Fortunately, amongst the dross there is much of value, which makes this a very frustrating experience. Much of the dialogue, even in the service of clichéd situations is sharp , penetrating and poignantly funny. The highlighted emerging romance between Ben and his pretty co-worker Sharon (a winning Emilia Fox) who becomes his artistic muse, is genuinely sweet and affecting, and even the expected screwball hijinks of the usual roster of hormone drenched coworkers has a less vulgar air as the characters use pranksterism to disguise their insecurities more than from the usual crass cynicism. Unfortunately those episodes of sexual voyeurism, almost gynecological in their probing, are too damaging and, sadly, too unnecessary to forgive, throwing the potential for a funny and charming (and inventive) little film right out the window in the interest of catering to the most myopically sexist audience who, ironically enough, will certainly dislike the film for all of the things that are actually good in it.
“True Grit” (2010) Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Typical laconic Coen brothers film with as equal a derivation from Portis’ enjoyable but vastly overrated novel as the 1969 Henry Hathaway original. Although the Coens extract a more pronouncedly acute sense of accuracy in their mise-en-scene, the film also ups the ante on the palpable sense of distancing Western dislocation, not only in it’s eerily serene yet menacing atmosphere of loneliness, but also in the strangely stuttering rhythm of the first two-thirds of the film. Important scenes from the story appear truncated and all important alliances and relationships seem formulated off camera, as if the binding elements of the story, already so commonly known by the popularity of not only the novel but the John Wayne starring vehicle, became secondary to the filmmakers in the wake of their quest for obsessively authentic period duplication. The feel of the era is remarkably depicted down to the slightest blemish or gnarled tooth, but something more important is missing: a central emotional core. The fractured sense of narrative drive makes a successful dramatic arc in both direction or performance almost an impossibility. And that is a shame, for there are some lovely details to savor, including a emotionally rich scene of farewell between Mattie and LaBoeuf that is so entrenched in a richness of character and strong in the writing (significantly it is a departure from Portis’ text) that it seems to come from an entirely different film. When Mattie admits despairingly, she may have “picked the wrong man” for the task at hand, we cannot help but wholeheartedly agree, especially when we return to the grizzled image of Bridges, who brings only gristle but no meat to the role. As Mattie Ross and LaBoeuf respectively, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (a genuine find if her promise here is nourished in less constrictive roles) and Matt Damon begin stiffly, but gradually warm into their roles (much of this is due to the flagrantly piecemeal nature of the initial introductory sequences in the adaptation, and the curious deletion the Coens choose to make with LaBoeuf’s presence over a great distance of the film) to the point where the character of Cogburn is not only a narrative distraction but annoying as well. Surely that was not the intention of Portis in his original work. From that effective scene to extended rescuing of Mattie from a snakebite, “True Grit” comes alive and the dramatic elements which have been so enfeebled by the desire to be eccentrically picaresque blossom sufficiently to antagonize as to what might have been had the filmmakers paid more attention to the material than to championing their reputation for creative peculiarities. The final sequence where we return to Mattie as an adult (the film is told, as was the novel, as a remembrance), unconvincingly portrayed by the normally capable Elizabeth Marvel, again destroys the resurrected mood, as the entire sequence feels like an unnecessary coda, (it didn’t work in the novel either) a distancing footnote included for the sake of fidelity rather than what is cinematically smart. Worthy of mention is the brief but colorful performance of Barry Pepper as ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper and the continued unheralded accomplishments of composer Carter Burwell whose special talent for musical alchemy seems to make the very landscape sing with a haunting spectral voice.