Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter's Bone

I wanted see this based on reading good things about it, so I watched it on Netflix last night. The story is about a 17 year old girl, Ree, who is trying to find her meth dealing father, as the family home is about to be taken away from them by bail bondsmen.

To complicate things, her father might be dead, her mother is nearly catatonic, and Ree has to take care of her younger brother and sister. Everyone in this movie is unlikeable except for Ree's siblings. All the characters are portrayed as violent, drug using, hillbillies. Now maybe this reflects true in certain families in Missouri, where this film is set, but it's not good for the main character to be so unpleasant. Yes, I thought she was an unlikeable character. Ree had been forced to become the caregiver to her mother and younger sibs, but other than doing that, which was less an act of nobility than an act of necessity, she displayed little that I felt was either smart or appealing.

The entire tone of the movie is somber. There are no indications that any of these characters will grow or have anything better in their lives. Everyone is resigned to the roles they've been born into. Drugs are all that these characters have to motivate them, either by selling, using, or manufacturing them.
As the movie came to an end, there was no redemption for anyone, no epiphanies, nothing learned by their suffering, and no hope for a future different than the past. It's a movie that shows only bleakness, only sorrow. The lack of any glimpse that Ree has some chance to escape this hell is what ultimately led me to the conclusion that this movie wasn't good. The acting is fine, and technically it's decent, but I didn't like anything about this movie or any of the characters. If I want to see stories about people doing shitty things to one another, all I need do is turn the news on. I expect more of fiction than to merely tell me how fucked up some people that I don't like are, or that drugs can fuck people up and lead to misery. I know that - now show me something that has at least some revelatory quality to it. That would be a big step in the right direction, unlike Winter's Bone, which just seemed content to revel in shit and try to pass it off as art.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Across 110th Street

Watched this on Netflix streaming last night. I went into thinking it was probably going to be a bit on the cheesy side, but was very surprised. This movie kicks ass in that 1970's style New York gritty way that we just don't get anymore.

Movies like this filmed in New York in the 70's are some of my favorites, like Marathon Man for example, because the city has so much flavor! Across 110th Street has flavor, big time.

It's about three Harlem hoods who steal a whole lotta dough from the Mob, and in the process, off a couple mob guys. The mob, led by Anthony Franciosa, go after the thiefs with no-holds barred.

Anthony Quinn plays a grizzled veteran police Captain named Matelli, who believes that fists and intimidation are the best tools to get answers when dealing with criminals and street hoods. He's forced to play second fiddle to new cop on the block Detective Pope, played terrifically by Yaphet Kotto. Pope is in charge and Matelli is resentful, as well as more than a little racially bigoted.

The movie surprises though, because when I was starting to think that Quinn's character was going to be only a two-dimensional racist, we get glimpses of a softer side, of a cop that has relationships with some of the people in his precinct and that shows some humanity and sympathy. Still, he prefers to brutalize his way through questioning and will beat the shit out of someone he doesn't like without a second thought.

Pope is the foil to this and is strictly by the book. He's educated, intelligent, and ethical. The movie spends only a little time exploring the racial dynamics between the two men, and I thought it was a good balance - it never gets caught up in trying to preach about the issue, but deals with it in a way that felt natural. 

It's important to bear in mind while watching this that the movie was made in the early 1970's and that the days of the civil rights movement were still recent. This sense of looming violence bubbling just under the surface is prominent throughout the film.

Violence doesn't stay under the surface much though. This is a very violent movie, again surprisingly so in it's graphic depictions. Antonio Fargas, who would go on to fame as 'Huggy Bear' in Starsky & Hutch, plays a flamboyant thug who enjoys drugs and women in equal measure. The mob goons catch up to him at one point and it gets ugly. This movie pulls no punches with its portrayal of attitudes between blacks and whites, in particular the Italian mob guys and the black criminals. They hate each other and the movie spares neither side from disturbing deeds. We get burnings, castration, crucifixion, defenestration and of course shootings aplenty.

Another huge selling point in this movie is the soundtrack. Bobby Womack did the theme song and music for it, and it's a superb example of 70's soul. The overall look of the movie is excellent, with a lot of great wardrobe choices. There are pimps and prostitutes, flashy mob guys and smartly dressed criminals. It's not overdone in any way though, and again, the overall result is that it feels natural. The language too, is a strong point. I don't remember too many movies in the early 70's that weren't afraid to throw in a liberal amount of "motherfucker" and "nigger". It's 'R' rated for good reason. 

I've seen some use of the term "Blaxploitation" in regard to this movie, but I don't feel that it's the case. There isn't anything that comes across as exploitative. It may take minor artistic liberties here and there, in particular in the depictions of the mob, but nothing ridiculous. 

I liked the way it built up this race between the mob and the black crime boss, played menacingly by Richard Ward, as they're trying to get the perpetrators before the other guys and cops do. With the cops, mob, and Harlem thugs all bearing down, the thieves are in deep shit, and the tension builds throughout the movie.

If you like gritty crime movies, especially from the 70's, you will love Across 110th Street. This is a vastly unrecognized gem in the rough.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Last Night

Last Night is a small movie from Canada about a large topic - the end of the world. I saw this on Netflix streaming the other night, and was taken in by the performances of the actors. There are some big names associated with such a small film, for example Genevieve Bujold and David Cronenberg. Sandra Oh, who is famous for her role on "Grey's Anatomy" and Sarah Polley, who was terrific in "Dawn of the Dead" are also featured.

The best performance though is from Callum Keith Rennie, who plays a guy who's decided to spend his remaining days alive having sex with almost anyone. He's made a long list of fetishes and fantasies that he hopes to live out before the end.

The main character is played by the director, Don McKellar. He plays a dry, understated man who's suffered a personal tragedy and is looking to spend his last night wallowing in self-pity and loss. Through the vicissitudes of fate, his plans are dramatically altered, when he meets up with another traumatized person named Sandra (played by Sandra Oh). 

The plot concerns these people and a few others during the course of the very last night Earth has. This is never explained, but it doesn't matter - the world is ending and somehow we know when the end will be. Knowing how or why this is happening doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that at midnight, it's all over.

There are many different reactions to this event, and the movie does a decent job touching on the theme. It does suffer from having a small budget, as it seems that most of the people in the world are young urban hipsters, but it doesn't kill the vibe of the movie. This is a movie about the relationships of a few people in a traumatic setting and it succeeds in this.

There are a lot of humorous moments throughout, however understated and dry they may be, much like the main character. This is a movie about small things though, and as such it's where it gets its power. It focuses on a small group of people, whose lives are intertwined by the events in the movie. By focusing on these small things, like the pain of mourning, or the anxiety of a wife trying to reach her husband, it takes this massive event - the end of the world - and brings it down to a human scale, to a scale we can relate to.

This isn't a movie about typical science-fiction trappings. There are no explosions or special effects. It's a well written story about the effect that an event like that would have on the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

There are great moments in this movie. The scenes between best friends Patrick (McKellar) and Craig (Rennie) feel very real. I loved the way they bust each others balls even as they know that this is the end. It felt like something I could see happening between two friends.

Sandra Oh was very impressive in this. I've never watched her on tv, so this was the first time seeing her other than on promos for her show. Cronenberg is interesting, but he's not a good actor, and the character he plays is so deliberately deadpan that it becomes boring. His was the only one that felt out of place for me. 

Bujold has a small role too, but her approach to it is much more interesting and there's a poignancy that comes across which I thought was excellent. I would have liked more of her.

I recommend this if you're interested in something a bit different. It's slow, quiet, thoughtful, and provocative, so give it chance if you can enjoy a movie that is less about sensational and more about people's interactions with each other.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Cronos is a movie by Guillermo del Toro, from 1993. It's the story of an odd device that brings the promise of eternal life to the person who 'hosts' it, sort of like a parasite. There are dire consequences of course to the use of this device.

As a concept, the movie had promise. I liked the beginning where we are introduced to this Cronos device in the 16th century. There's some interesting narration that provides a sense of mystery in these opening scenes, but unfortunately once we get to the present time, there's no longer any attempt to develop the story of this fascinating machine. The movie just becomes a standard mix of action amidst a slightly vampiric setting.

I know that this film has its fans, but I'm not one. I felt this was a great example of style over substance. Guillermo del Toro shows us an abundance of talent in this effort, which was all in the visual aspects. The film fell short in the narrative, and while I can look past a poorly written story that's directed brilliantly, this wasn't brilliant enough to offset the weakly conceived story.

When you get right down to it, this is a vampire movie. The setting is different than what most of us are used to, but setting only goes so far. Every relationship in this movie is poorly developed; Jesus Gris, the main character and his wife, Jesus and his granddaughter Aurora, and the brute Angel and his uncle. None of these relationships has any background or significance. We have no idea why the savage Angel bears his uncle's unpleasantness. We have no idea why Aurora has the bond with her grandfather that she does, nor why there's no apparent reason for her grandmother to even exist in this film.

This is a movie that presents too many unanswered questions to be satisfying. Sure, it's well filmed and clever at times, but that's not enough to overcome the deficiencies in the storytelling. You could be generous and say that for a first feature film, del Toro produced something quite interesting, but it didn't hold my interest. It was fair, and certainly shows the promise of the director as he grew more capable. Still, this isn't a great film.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Escape From New York


After the disappointment of Death Proof, I wanted to watch some vintage Kurt Russell, so I rented Escape From New York. This is what a "B" movie should be.

Escape From New York isn't the greatest film ever made, but it is a hugely entertaining bit of escapism (haha). You probably know the plot, so I won't reiterate it or spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it before.

Escape From New York succeeds is in creating a world that works. We get a glimpse of a dying culture, one that has had to sacrifice it's greatest city. The idea that a city has been turned into a giant prison works for the most part due to the director's ability to make us believe. John Carpenter is not one of my favorite directors, but he does a great job with a small budget in this movie. It of course helps that for most Americans, New York is not much different in reality than in the movie.

Kurt Russell is very good as Snake Plissken. In this role, he channels Clint Eastwood mixed with John Wayne and a dash of Erroll Flynn. In some ways, I think Carpenter was trying to make a sort of modern version of the "Spaghetti Western" genre. Plissken is the stoic gunfighter, a la Eastwood and the city has replaced the open plains. Other characters fill out some of the usual roles, like Harry Dean Stanton's "Brain" and of course we have a nod to the genre with the inclusion of Lee Van Cleef in a pivotal role.

The only character that felt wrong to me was Cabbie, played by the terribly miscast Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine hits wrong notes throughout, playing it more as comedy than serious. This is not a movie that plays it loose with the self-aware mockery that has become a staple of some "B" movies. It's dark, violent, sadistic, and depressing. For the most part, everyone else is fine, including Adrienne Barbeau. She is little more than eye-candy, but so what - she is showing generous amounts of cleavage in every scene she's in, and on top of that, she gets the tone right.

I like this movie even though it hasn't aged well. The low budget certainly hurt this movie, but the story is the thing, and that is what makes
Escape From New York so much fun. It's a tight film, without needless scenes. We get the set-up and off it goes, for a fast-paced ride that keeps you entertained and never makes you laugh at it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dressed to Kill

I've seen this movie several times over the years. Last night I watched it again for the first time in about 12 years. It's funny how some movies don't age well, and this is a perfect example.

I wanted to watch this after I saw Death Proof a night earlier and got to thinking about the influence of De Palma's movie on Tarantino. Watching them back-to-back was interesting. I'll get to this again later, but first I'll review Dressed to Kill on it's own.

This is a strange film. It starts out as a film about Angie Dickinson's character, and her extra-marital exploits. The pacing is deliberate and dialog is used sparingly (Tarantino, pay attention). The cinematography is lurid and effective, although it seems very badly dated even just 28 years later - hey, that sounds like a name for an upcoming sequel to a zombie movie...back to the review - There's a very "80's" feel to the movie, but it is not cool. It just feels like a weird moment, unlike some classics from the past that remain timeless, like Psycho. Of course, De Palma owes everything to Hitchcock and Dressed to Kill is an homage to Psycho, but unlike its source it doesn't hold up well over the years.

Much has been written about the influence of Hitchcock on De Palma, so there's no need for me to comment further on that. I can't add anything new to that. Where Dressed to Kill fails is a complicated issue. At first glance that acting stands out as atrociously inept. After thinking about it, I began to think that maybe it was intentional. The acting (especially Nancy Allen's) is just so amatuerish that it doesn't seem possible in a big budget movie. Dennis Franz plays a cop, and his portrayal veers way beyond characature and into almost farce. It's bad, from every jabbing inflection to the terrible forced accent to the halloween-costume wardrobe choices. Simply bad. Even Michael Caine, who's never been accused of being a great actor, seems to have played his role with a campish frenzy. At times he's so laid back it seems like he's not interested and a moment later he's cartoonishly animated in his emoting. Weird. The only actor who plays it well is the youngest, Keith Gordon. This may have been considered good acting in 1980, but it really sucks now.

Another aspect of the movie that gets a lot of attention is the famous museum scene. Again, this may have been fascinating to the general public in 1980, but now it looks very contrived and indulgent. It doesn't fit at all with anything else in the movie and it takes far too much time to develop. The rest of the movie is fairly tight, with scenes that are taut and focused. The museum scene, for all its notoriety, is quite heavy-handed, especially the overly dramatic music. I found it unintentionally funny, and disruptive whenever De Palma used those stupid split screens. The use of that in the museum was lazy. I think the split screen technique in general is a lazy one, but for a director like De Palma who puts so much stock in style, it seems particularly trite.

Despite my general feelings towards Dressed to Kill, there are some scenes that I think are quite well done. In particular, the scene in the elevator when Nancy Allen is reaching out towards the dying Dickinson, unaware of the killer inside the doorway. There are some great shots on that scene. Allen's awful acting detracts from the potential, but visually it's extremely tight. Another scene that I liked a lot is at the end, in the asylum. After the nurse is killed, there's a long, slow pan up and away that reveals the hooting inmates staring down on her body. The angles, the lighting and the music all work greatly with the surrealism of that scene. That to me is the defining imagery of the movie, not the pointless museum scene.

The other big problem I had with Dressed to Kill is the uneven direction. Is it a surreal piece on urban horror, is it an erotic bit of voyeurism, or is it a police procedural? At times it's all of these, but it never maintains focus. The first half of the movie is voyeuristic softcore porn, and then it changes completely and becomes a slasher film. Then it becomes a cop drama with car chases and stalking. Intertwined are these surreal bits that are without doubt the most interesting elements, but there should have been more of this and less of the typical Hollywood crime stuff. It's almost like De Palma was trying to make something unique, but kept having to restrain himself because of the studios.

Brian De Palma has earned a reputation as an influential director, for good or bad. After seeing these two movies, it's clear to me that De Palma influenced Tarantino in some bad ways. I'm not going to pretend that I'm some sort of expert on cinema - there are many people far more knowledgeable and educated on the medium than I. However, I am a movie enthusiast so my thoughts on the subject are worth something. The influence on Tarantino seems to be purely stylish, but in a very superficial way. Both directors use a saturated palette, which tends to give the movies a surreal quality. I like that about both of their styles. De Palma has a heavy hand with lighting, reflections, and angles - there's not much subtlety, and this seems to be an influence on Tarantino as well.

I wanted to like Dressed to Kill more than I do. There are some really great moments, but overall it's too unfocused. It would be interesting to see what De Palma would do if he were making this movie now, in an era with less restrictions on the director. For all the fuss that was made over this movie when it came out, it's now tame compared to your average TV cop show which really says a lot about how outdated the movie feels.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Death Proof

Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino was something I'd been looking forward to viewing. I like some of his other movies a lot. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were great, while I liked Jackie Brown a bit less. Those were his best, and without a doubt Death Proof is his worst. Actually, Deathproof might be one of the worst movies anyone's made.

I know it's supposed to be a shitty movie, but it was supposed to be bad in a cool fun way - an homage to the shitty drive-in films of the 1960's and 1970's. It missed the cool fun part of the equation and totally nailed bad. So I guess in a way Tarantino succeeded in making the movie he'd hoped.

What made this so bad was that somehow the movie completely misses the mark on nearly all points. A major point Tarantino tries to make is how great some of the 1970's "car" movies were. Vanishing Point is mentioned many times, as is Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Both of those movies are superior to Death Proof, just from the driving standpoint. Tarantino brought nothing new to the genre, in fact his work is a pale imitation.

The movie has no pace to it. It starts out slowly, and stays slow for seemingly forever. When we finally do get to the car scenes, it's a real letdown. Two minutes of screeching tires and a car wreck offset the lethargy, but sadly the movie goes right back to boredom for another extended period of time.

The boredom is from an overindulgence in dialog. Tarantino had a flair for interesting dialog, most notably in Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately, what he doesn't understand is that what works in small doses becomes tedious when that's all there is. Quentin, meet "Less Is More." Someone told Tarantino that his dialog was sensational, and apparently he really believes that.

The dialog in Death Proof is not sensational. It's dull, and there's way too much of it. The characters are not engaging, and they all say things that come off as very scripted rather than natural. I hate this about many recent films, and I think Tarantino is responsible for this very annoying development.

In these movies, characters always have the perfect line for any situation, no matter how unrealistic it sounds. People don't talk like that in real life. It's annoying as hell in a movie when every character sounds like a character in a movie, rather than a real person. Not everyone is cool. But in movies, they are, and they always have a witty goddamn line no matter the scenario. I hate that. Give me characters that are real and I'll care about them when something happens to them.

In Death Proof, the characters that die are nothing more than crash test dummies. I didn't like or care about any of them. Then in the crash, which we are treated to multiple times so we can see each "dummy" meet her end, it's obvious how little Tarantino cares for them. He literally treats them like dummies. It's weird, because he spent so much time building these girls, and then there's no point to their deaths.

Another big problem with the movie is Kurt Russell's character. He's a totally remorseless psychopath in the first segment in which he crashes his death-proofed muscle car into another car at 100mph. He does this gleefully, with no regard for his safety as he knows he'll be OK. Fine, that was interesting and we saw what the guy was like. But then in the second segment, he gets wounded and suddenly becomes a sniveling, whining coward. It's not consistent with how he was portrayed earlier. We're shown this total badass, a guy who purposely crashes head on at 100mph for no apparent reason. What happened to that guy?

The characters in general are ridiculous. At the end, all of a sudden these girls who were being victimized turn into martial art experts and killers. It comes almost out of nowhere and makes no sense. There's no transition from hunted to hunter - it's like a switch is flipped and these girls all of sudden become ninjas.

What's become apparent to me is that Tarantino has come to rely totally on style over substance. Much like his fondness for ultra-dialog, he uses his inflated sense of musical choices in this movie. I suspect Quentin is the guy who used to give people his pretentious mixed tapes and liked to take over the stereo at other peoples parties. We get it, you like the greatest music and you're way cooler than anyone else, now please get over yourself - we just don't fucking care.

As an homage to the grindhouse movies it's supposed to be, Death Proof just doesn't work. It's not grindhouse-y enough. It's silly and self-conscious, as opposed to gritty, scary and raw. I'd like to see Tarantino get his muse back and make movies that are original and interesting again. He's been wallowing in self-indulgent masturbatory shit far too long now.