Upstream Color -2013-

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Directed by Shane Carruth. 96 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Sundance Sunset 5, Hollywood)

Like a Malick of mathematics and metaphysics, Shane Carruth returns to the director’s-producer’s-writer’s-actor’s-composer’s chair nearly a decade after Primer, his nerd-porn microbudget phenomenom. This time around, Carruth delivers a piece that is engrossing but even more difficult to grasp than its predecessor, abeit for very different reasons.

I’m very pleased to see that Carruth did more than just a Primer redux for his follow-up feature. While Primer was a tough narrative nut to crack, it still abided by basic narrative structure and worked according to a consistent logic. It was like a difficult math problem – if you did all the steps correctly, the answer had to be correct.

Upstream Color, however, is a whole different ball game. Firstly, it is a far less dialogue-driven film than its predecessor – Carruth finally has enough confidence in his abilities as a director to favor showing rather than telling. Secondly, and more importantly, The film leaps off the ledge of Primer’s science fiction and plunges headfirst into magical realism. The surrealist elements and interwoven scenes don’t provide any neat foundation on which to build an understanding of the film, but no scene feels arbitrary either. Think of a midway point between the head-scratching Leos Carax and the utterly bewildering Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and you’ll get some idea of what to expect.

Visually, the movie is leaps and bounds beyond Primer. Carruth refuses to disclose the film’s budget ­– he even refused to disclose the camera on which it was shot, a question that I asked him personally – but he’s clearly taking advantage of expanded resources. The colors pop out and the lighting is soft and dreamy, with only the main characters or objects of interest coming into focus.

Carruth’s acting skills still aren’t grade-A, but he’s come quite a ways since Primer. His costar, Amy Seimetz, really steals the show. The characters’ romance is definitely cryptic and Carruthian, but it still manages to feel reel.

I think the United States may have found its answer to Weerasethakul.

– Carruth’s most improved talent in the last decade may be as a composer – the score is near-perfect.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-28)

City of the Living Dead -1980-

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Directed by Lucio Fulci. 97 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

Let me begin by saying if you’re a die-hard Fulci fan, you’ll like this movie. Who am I kidding? You’ve already seen it. All others, however, should tread much more cautiously.

I had previously seen two of Fulci’s films: Zombi 2 (which I disliked) and The Beyond (which I enjoyed quite a bit). CotLD features the creepy atmosphere of the latter with the unfortunate snail’s pace of the former. I would be much more forgiving of the nonsensical plot and subplots — why exactly did that creepy dude get a drill jammed trough his head? — if there were more satisfying moments sprinkled throughout the film.

Unfortunately, Fulci is unable to differentiate between “building suspense” and “meandering.” If you trimmed out all of the needless scenes of characters standing or wandering about with deer-in-headlights expressions, you could whittle this film down to under an hour, no sweat. The film’s picture quality isn’t the best, either; Fulci should have asked Argento for some pointers on how to light a scene properly.

The movie does have a few stand-out moments such as when a woman vomits up her entire gastrointestinal tract. The “top-of-yo-head-gets-ripped-off” effect is also lotsa fun but overused. Also, if anyone can help me make sense of the ending, I’d appreciate it. Seriously, the film ends on a freeze frame that’s so ambiguous, it could have been at the finale of a Tim & Eric sketch.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-27)

Blue Velvet -1986- and Guillermo del Toro

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Directed by David Lynch. 120 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

After nearly 27 years, what can a 23 year-old punk such as myself contribute to the discussion on Blue Velvet? This film is a bizarre, terrifying, often hilarious classic for reasons that legions of writers have articulated far better than I ever could. If you haven’t seen Blue Velvet, see it. If you’ve already seen it and you live in the Los Angeles area, catch it this Wednesday at the Arclight in Hollywood.

However, I do want to call attention to something that, as far as I can see, has little or no exposure on the Web:

 Without Blue Velvet, Guillermo del Toro would not exist as the director we know him to be.

All of del Toro’s films deal with mysterious worlds of phenomena hidden just under the façade of daily life, sometimes in plain sight. This synopsis, of course, captures Blue Velvet to a T. There’s a dark, twisted underworld in Lumberton, NC. The first evidence that Jeffrey Beaumont finds pointing toward the existence of such a world is the severed human ear in the field. As the two worlds intersect more and more, the greater the mayhem becomes.

Del Toro’s film have an identical modus operandi. Whether the conflict involves the Judas bugs in Mimic, the vampire subculture in Blade II, the eponymous realm of Pan’s Labyrinth, or the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense in the Hellboy franchise, there seems to be an amazing, threatening world just below us at all times. Such a technique for incorporating the impossible (or, in the case of Blue Velvet, the merely improbable) in a story captures the better enables the viewer to imagine him/herself in the position of the protagonist. For instance, I know that the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy could never happen to me since I don’t live in Middle Earth. But as for Blue Velvet and del Toro’s filmography, who knows?

Perhaps tomorrow I will stumble upon that fateful ear. Or come under attack by anthropomorphic bugs in the subway. Or discover a coven of vampires living down the street. Such things probably won’t happen, but my prior life experience cannot rule out the possibility completely.

The imagery of insects infests both Blue Velvet and the del Torograpy. From the amazing shot sinking through the soil to the countless beetles below, to the bugs on the ear, to Frank Booth’s buglike gas mask, Lynch is not subtle in how he represents the vermin (both animal and moral) that surround us whether we know it or not.

Del Toro’s fascination with insects is frequently on display in his films, among which are the dragonfly which leads Ofelia to the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, the buglike automatons composing Hellboy II’s Golden Army, and the man-eating bugs on Mimic (pretty obvious in the latter case). Del Toro’s upcoming Pacific Rim seems set to carry on both traditions with giant, spindly-legged creatures rising from the ocean floor and a manmade army of exoskeletons to fight them.

A final detail that I want to highlight are the occasions in which the filmmakers require their villains to sustain themselves with some sort of buglike apparatus. Booth’s mask springs to mind immediately, but so does the immortality device in Cronos del Toro’s debut, and the mask of Hellboy villain Obersturmbannführer Kroenen. I need to further ponder the significance of the dependence on the bugs.

In all, I hope I’ve written something about Blue Velvet that has not completely waste your time. Have a great Sunday, everyone – lemme know how the Oscars turn out.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-24)

Pieces -1982-

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Directed by Juan Piquer Simón. 89 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 The reader may be wondering, “Why the hay did Patrick watch a little-remembered splatterhouse flick from the 80s?”

 First, I don’t like your tone, so step off.

 Secondly, I was inspired to watch it because the film served as the inspiration for Night Has a Thousand Screams, the excellent album from Umberto, Matt Hill’s electronic music project. Appropriately, Night Has a Thousand Screams is also the title of the Spanish-language release of Pieces.

 Hill actually provides a better soundtrack than film composer Librado Pastor (credited here as CAM), but the score is one of the film’s high points. Otherwise, you could do better when perusing this genre. The film spends far too much time with poorly acted police repeated exposition when all you really want to see is Bosco syrup and red food coloring coating the camera lens.

 The film, however, was worth my time for three scenes. The first involves a slo-mo killing on a waterbed, and that’s every bit as fun as you would imagine. The second scene is posted below. The third scene is literally the last second and a half before the credits roll. I guarantee that it will confuse and delight the stuffing outta you.

 

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-22)

Side Effects -2013-

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Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. 106 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 ***POSSIBLE SPOILER STUFF AHEAD***

 Stephen Soderberh is a hoot – he’s made about as many films post-“retirement” as Terrence Malick has made in his entire life. The microbudget auteur / Hollywood blockbuster helmer (depending on whether he sees his shadow when he wakes up, I suspect) has been on a roll recently when it comes to framing his stories in the midst of the modern American – whoops, I almost said the z-word! Dodged a bullet there.

 Seriously now, Haywire notwithstanding, Soderbergh has tackled entrepreneurship in the transitioning American economy (The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike), globalization and the greater risk uncontained crises with which it accompanies (Contagion), and the political mechanics within non-traditional political institutions (all of the above). Stephen’s State of the Union continues with Side Effects, bringing up subjects such as insider trading, the moral hazard of short-selling on derivatives, conflicts of interest in the mental healthcare industry, the circus that is mass media, and the increasing use of psychotropic drugs. The final product is Soderbergh’s best film since Magic Mike – which came out less than  a year ago, I know, but they’re both quite good.

 The tonal shift and narrative sleight-of-hand trick that Side Effects plays is almost as well-done as the one in Polanski’s The Tenant. For the first have of the film, I was convinced that I was watching a darker supplement to Silver Linings Playbook, a dramatized yet realistic portrayal of the struggle on mental illness. As someone who is currently on an SSRI prescription, the film’s first half hit particularly close to home, and I commend screenwriter Scott Burns for including many of the details of entering talk therapy and starting a new drug regimen.

 Just when I think I’m in the groove of the film, BAM it becomes a De Palma thriller circa 1978. Some theatergoers may be turned off from the hairpin turn in the plot, but I gobbled it up. I’m normally annoyed when films seemingly pull the rug out from under you, but in this particular case, the narrative stream becomes much more coherent once you realize that Jude Law is the protagonist of the film instead of Rooney Mara.

 All in all, a very good caper. If this is what retirement looks like, Soderbergh shoulda “stopped” making movies years ago.

 – I woulda bet my left nut that the actress credited as “Disturbed Patient on Phone” was stand-up comic Maria Bamford. Actually, it was Nicole Ansari-Cox, wife of Brian Cox.

– Mara is far more interesting in this film than her character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And she didn’t even need to bleach her eyebrows!

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-22)

Undisputed -2002-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Well, I’ve finally made my way through the Hillmography (no, I don’t plan on watching the episodes he directed for Tales from the Crypt). The whole experience has been quite the roller coaster ride with plenty of peaks (The Warriors, 48 Hrs, Streets of Fire, Trespass) and plunges (Southern Comfort, Brewster’s Millions, Red Heat, Supernova).

Since I saw Bullet to the Head out of Hillmographical order, the last of his films to land at my feet is Undisputed. The gritty slugfest took me back to a simpler time when Ving Rhames wasn’t fat and Wesley Snipes only acted like he was in prison. Most importantly, it is a fun if imperfect B-movie that is old-school Hill through and through.

The simple satisfaction that comes with watching tough dudes beat the stuffing out of each other is just as pure as when Hill first sat in the director’s chair for Hard Times. The film takes place almost entirely in a prison run by various gangs and at times feels like the type of self-contained dystopian universe that was New York City in The Warriors. Just as the Warriors’ odyssey to Coney was traced on crossfaded maps of the subway system, Undisputed sets up location changes tracing along images of the prison’s schematics.

As with many other Hillms, the cast is one of its highlights. Rhames’ bravado as the world heavyweight boxing champ is great, and Wes Studi is hilariously clichéd as the wise Native American convict who shows him the ropes once he’s on the inside. Snipes is the less angry of the two boxers, and the Badlands-esque tropical music that plays in his presence suggests that his mind is off in some other, more peaceful place. Add to that line-up a grungy Peter Falk as a Jewish mobster / boxing historian and Michael fuckin’ Rooker as the prison’s head guard, and I was ear-to-ear smiles.

The movie is not without its shortcomings. The order of scenes (especially the ones dealing with subplots) seem arbitrary at times, and the “flash of white” wipes between scenes was a little too iMovie for my taste. Still, a Hill fan will be pleased as punch with “Undisputed.” And yes, I deserve to go to Hell for my pun in the previous sentence.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-20)

Supernova -2000-

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Directed by Walter Hill (credited as Thomas Lee). 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Aw, Hell Naw! (Watched on DVD)

 Wow, nothing – not even Walter Hill’s disowning of this film – could have prepared me for how much of a mess it turned out to be. Supernova makes Brewster’s Millions look like Hill’s passion project. I don’t think I’ve seen a sci-fi film with a less interested director since Martin Campbell did Green Lantern.

 If you’ve seen any film set in space since the release of Alien in 1979, you’ve already seen a better version of Supernova. The helpful yet overly literal AI system, the hyperspace sleep, the silly robot, the distress signal that is clearly nothing but bad news – the gang’s all here. Christ, there’s even a character who watches old cartoons to examine them as historical artifacts.

 James Spader and Angela Bassett as so much better than this material that I had sympathy pains while watching them. Robert Forster is no stranger to trash like this, but it’s still sad to see him fall into this sorta thing so soon after his Jackie Brown redemption. The saddest part of the whole film is knowing that it had a budget of at least $90 million. If I were Senator Elizabeth Warren, I would screen this film for Congress as evidence of a massive market failure.

Next up in the Hillmography: Undisputed.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-18)

Last Man Standing -1996-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Aside from committing the sin of literally spoiling the ending in the title, Last Man Standing was pretty damn fun. While I have yet to see Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the film of which LMS is credited as a remake), this stands as a solid portion of the Hillmography.

 Many critics panned Last Man Standing at the time of its release, dismissing it as depressing and joyless. Granted, it ain’t exactly Miracle in Milan, but I’m not sure what the critics are whining about. The humor is black, but it’s certainly there. Think Miller’s Crossing if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez, and you’ll have a general idea of the film’s tone. The action is Peckinpah-level brutal, and the locales are bone dry, just the way I like ‘em.

 Willis is passable as the film’s mysterious antihero, but the main attraction are the supporting players. Bruce Dern is haggard per usual as the town sheriff, and David Patrick Kelly is great as the short-fused Irish kingpin with a temper right up there with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As another surprising bonus, a super-young Leslie Mann appears as a “woman of ill repute.” And just like in her Apatow films, she never shuts up!

 The star of the show may very well be Christopher Walken as Hickey, the borderline-psychotic mob enforcer. Hill is smart and treats Walken like thespian wasabi, making sure not to overuse him. His character doesn’t even show up until the film’s second half, and he’s a man of few words whenever he’s onscreen. I love it when reeling in screen-hogging actors pays off (kinda like De Niro in Jackie Brown).

 – More Ry Cooder, yay!

Next up in the Hillmography: Supernova.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-18)

Out of the Blue -1980-

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Directed by Dennis Hopper. 94 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater)

 This movie threw me for a loop. It’s sorta like The 400 Blows meets Paris, Texas, with a whole lotta punk-rock badassery. If you’ve ever experienced angst to the point of wanting to explode, Out of the Blue will scratch that itch but good.  

 Linda Manz is the perfect personification of don’t-give-a-fuck, and I loved every second of seeing her onscreen. Her character is a far cry from her role as Richard Gere’s little sister in Days of Heaven, but they both share a common sassiness. Manz’s character is multi-layered, however, and the moments in which she betrays vulnerability make her more interesting than the punker stereotype.

 The film has great energy – each of the characters seem to be in the perpetual process of raising Hell in his or her own way. This isn’t an upbeat movie in the conventional sense of the word, but it really depends on your point of view. Yes, this film is an unsettling look as a broken home and the impact it has on its youngest member, but Manz has made the best of her situation by escaping into the punk subculture. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the punk rock scene in the late 70s had similar motivations.

 Some viewers may be put off the violent, somewhat Godardian ending, but I felt that it fit quite well. After all, Manz just takes here punk ethos to its logical conclusion. And really, what about her situation led you to believe that a rosy ending was even in the cards? Get real, ya hippie.

 – Man, there’s a ton of Colt 45 in this movie.

– “I bit a penny in half.”

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-17)

Wild Bill -1995-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 98 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 After stumbling with Geronimo, the Hillmography stabilizes itself with a story of the original “loose-cannon cop.” Hill sets Wild Bill apart from his other Westerns (and most of the genre as a whole) by presenting a portrait of a man painted with dreams, anecdotes, and memories. This method of storytelling has a high risk potential since it omits a spinal narrative arc on which to hinge its scenes. And while The film doesn’t reach the heights of Schrader’s ephemeral Mishima, it avoids the meandering pitfalls of W. or, heaven forbid, The Iron Lady. Solid piece o’ work overall.

 The ace up Wild Bill’s sleeve (playing card reference huzzah!) is its stellar cast. Jeff Bridges is great in the lead, and actors from throughout the Hillmography – Bruce Dern, Diane Lane, James Remar, and Ellen Barkin, just to name a few – are on glorious display. Even Keith Carradine shows up, albeit for a single scene, but he steals the show as outlaw-showman Buffalo Bill. David Arquette turns in a surprisingly good performance as Jack McCall, delivering a dramatic presence for which a million Scream sequels and 1-800-CALL-ATT commercials could not prepare me.

 – Young David Arquette bears an uncanny resemblance to Ryan Gosling.

– If anybody understands that the Old West was filthy as Hell, it’s Walter Hil. Deadwood creator David Milch should write him a thank-you note.

Next up in the Hillmography: Last Man Standing.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-17)