DAVID CRONENBERG’S A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

history_of_violence_xlg

I love the psychological underpinnings of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Josh Olson’s casually deceptive screenplay in tandem with Cronenberg’s typical obsessions with duality, sex, and graphic violence made for a truly memorable crime thriller, a film with a smart subversive streak running under the surface. There are so many stand-out scenes in this film, especially during the final act, when William Hurt comes in and blows the doors down with a show-stopping portrayal of pure evil. I love the moment when Maria Bello lies to the cop in the living room, and then she and Viggo Mortensen, who gave a brilliant performance, proceed to smack each other around, which leads to one of the roughest, most vigorous big-screen sex-scenes, the two of them banging each other on the hard, old, wooden steps of their house, with Bello taking out her frustrations on Mortensen, as he begins to slowly unravel, becoming the man he’s tried so hard to leave behind. And then right after this intense moment of physical sexuality, you have this fantastic shot of Bello sitting up in her bed, with the moonlight creeping into the room, and you can see the indentations on her back from those wooden steps, which have clearly left an indelible mark on her in more ways than one. Mortensen is his usual tremendous self, never giving up any of the inherent mysteries that his character is holding deep inside, allowing the revelations to be slowly parsed out via facial expressions, body language, and the manner of his speech. Ed Harris was the definition of nasty, with a calmness to match his explosive rage and violent tendencies. Hurt’s absolutely magical and darkly hilarious performance during the film’s obscenely awesome climax seals the deal on this thematically probing piece of work. I love how Cronenberg and Olson were able to take various elements from crime and noir and spin them into a unique brew that hits various tones and notes all throughout the twisty and twisted narrative. Peter Suschitzky’s matter-of-fact yet stylized cinematography rarely calls overt attention, but is still extremely clever in its use of angles, composition, and color palette. This is just a terrific movie all around and one to catch up with if you’re not familiar.

 

 

Advertisements

B Movie Glory with Nate: Wedlock

  

Wedlock is one of those shamelessly trashy B-movie romps that the 80’s proudly churned out in droves for our viewing pleasure. Some are shitty and enjoyable, some are just shitty, and some are solid gems, provided you’ve been schooled a bit in this particular, acquired taste of an arena. I spent a lot of my teenage years being a scholar in this sort of lovable junk, so I have plenty of ancient data in my mental hard drive to dust off for the old blog-ski. Rutger made quite a few ventures into this field (come to think of it most of my favourite actors have. Wonder what that says about my taste lol). He’s got genre written all over his acting style, and loves to play broad characters in stylized fare. Here he plays Frank Warren, an amiable jewel thief who is betrayed in an opening sequence heist by his dodgy partner Sam (James Remar), and rowdy girlfriend Noelle (Josie Packard- I mean Joan Chen). He’s sent to an amusingly ‘futuristic’ penitentiary where they implement prisoners with a unique system: each prisoner is fitted with a collar, each collar has a twin collar, and if the two get several miles apart, both detonate rigged explosives and messily decapitate the pair of unlucky inmates. They are not aware who has their twin collar, making escape a risky notion indeed. It’s exactly the type of high concept buffoonery that trademarks these type of outings, and it’s played for both suspense and laughs very nicely. Frank escapes, dragging along the woman who wears the twin collar (Mimi Rogers), pursued hotly by Sam and Noelle who want to find the diamonds that he hid shortly before his arrest. It’s a prison flick, it’s a chase flick, with its own kooky, offbeat sense of style. Hauer is usually so intense he looks like he’s gonna implode in on himself, but here he gives a very laid back, slight and funny performance, which gives the film it’s refreshingly upbeat feel. Remar and Chen are bouncing balls of energy as the dastardly couple out to ice Frank, riffing off each other and cheerfully chewing scenery. Watch out for an early career appearance from Danny Trejo, as well as work from Glenn Plummer and Stepehn Tobolowsky as a hard ass warden who gets the best line of the film: “You non-conformists are all the same”. That alone encapsulates the irreverent, tongue in cheek tone that’s a nice switch from the usually dank, oppressive atmosphere that second tier action flicks often get saddled with. Oh, and I want the number of Hauer’s wardrobe outfitter; those fluffy, technicolor wool sweaters are a sideshow unto themselves. 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

big trubs born ready

“What I’d like to do today is get your version of what happened,” says a mild-mannered, middle-aged attorney. “Oh? You mean the truth,” replies a rather small, aging Chinese man who identifies himself as bus driver, Egg Shen (Victor Wong). The attorney remains skeptical as his potential client calmly describes his belief in Chinese black magic, and other supernatural phenomenon. As if to prove his point, the man holds up his hands so that they are parallel to one another. Suddenly, small bolts of blue electricity begin to flow from each palm, much to the attorney’s amazement and Shen’s bemusement. “That was nothing,” Shen states. “But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” And with this intriguing, tell-me-a-scary-story teaser, John Carpenter’s film, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), takes us on a ride into the heart of ancient Chinese lore and mythology.

Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring offbeat subject matter (see They Live and In the Mouth of Madness), created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung-fu film. This often-maligned genre is given a new level of respectability that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Gone are the ethnic slurs, the insulting stereotypes and that annoying quasi-Chinese music that always seems to accompany representations of Asians in past mainstream features. Big Trouble takes great care in presenting funny and intelligent characters without caring whether they are Chinese or not. What is of paramount importance to Carpenter is telling a good story. He has created an entertaining piece of fantasy that manipulates the conventions of the action film with often-comical results.

From the engaging prologue, Big Trouble takes us back to the beginning of our story with the first appearance of truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a good-natured, fast-talking legend in his own mind. When he and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up the latter’s future bride arriving from China, a mix-up occurs. Wang’s bride-to-be is kidnapped by The Lords of Death, a local gang of Chinese punks, and the duo quickly find themselves immersed in the middle of an ancient battle of good vs. evil with immortality hanging in the balance. This struggle takes place deep in the heart of the Little China neighborhood of San Francisco with Burton and Wang Chi taking on David Lo Pan (James Hong), “The Godfather of Little China.” Even Egg Shen appears to help our heroes and provide them with the means to stop the evil that threatens not only Little China, but of course, the whole world.

Big Trouble in Little China was originally written as a period Western set in the 1880s with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Producer Paul Monash bought Gary Goldman and David Weinstein’s screenplay but after a reading he found that it was virtually unfilmable due to the bizarre mix of Chinese mythology and the Wild West setting. He had the two first-time screenwriters do a rewrite, but Monash still didn’t like it. “The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, which affected everything — style, dialogue, action.” The producer decided against having Goldman and Weinstein do additional rewrites because they didn’t want to upgrade the story to a contemporary setting and felt that they had done their best.

Keith Barish and Monash brought in W.D. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) to extensively rewrite the script. Almost everything in the original screenplay was discarded except for Lo Pan’s story. “I realized what it needed wasn’t a rewrite but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought and there’s no intention that the original writers will stay on.” Richter’s template for his draft was Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “I believed if, like in Rosemary’s Baby, you presented the foreground story in a familiar context — rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately — and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience.” Richter was having a hard time getting his own scripts made into movies so he tried sneaking in his own eccentric ideas into other people’s projects. “It’s often easier to take an idea that they bring to you and try to pass it through your sensibility. If you’re honest up front, you get license to work with material you wouldn’t get them to look at if it was your own story.”

John Carpenter had wanted to do a film like Big Trouble in Little China for some time. Even though it contains elements of an action / adventure / comedy / mystery / ghost story / monster movie, it is, in the filmmaker’s eyes, a kung-fu film. “I have dug the genre ever since I first saw Five Fingers of Death in 1973. I always wanted to make my own kung-fu film, and Big Trouble finally gave me the excuse to do just that.” Barish and Monash offered Carpenter the movie in July of 1985. He had read the Goldman/Weinstein script and deemed it “outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements.” After reading Richter’s script he decided to direct. Carpenter loved the off-the-wall style of Richter’s writing and coupled with his love of kung-fu films, it is easy to see why he jumped at the opportunity to make Big Trouble.

The two filmmakers had crossed paths before when Carpenter rewrote Richter’s screenplay, The Ninja, a big-budget martial arts epic, for 20th Century Fox. In fact, Richter and Carpenter had both attended University of Southern California Film School from 1968 to 1971. “Rick and I went through all three production classes together. We each had our own crews, so we never actually collaborated on a film.” Carpenter made his own additions to Richter’s screenplay, which included strengthening Gracie Law’s role and linking her to Chinatown, removing a few action sequences (due to budgetary restrictions), and eliminating material deemed offensive to Chinese Americans. Carpenter was disappointed that Richter didn’t receive a proper screenwriting credit on the movie for all of his hard work. A ruling by the Writer’s Guild of America gave Goldman and Weinstein sole credit.

Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child (1986), featured a similar theme and was going to be released near the same time as Big Trouble. Ironically, Carpenter was asked by Paramount to direct The Golden Child. “They aren’t really similar. Originally, Golden Child was a serious Chinese, mystical, very sweet, very nice film. But now they don’t know whether to make it funny or serious.” However, as both films went into production, Carpenter’s views of the rival production became increasingly bitter. “Golden Child is basically the same movie as Big Trouble. How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence.” To avoid being wiped out by the bigger star’s film, Carpenter began shooting Big Trouble in October 1985 so that 20th Century Fox could open the film in July 1986 — a full five months before Golden Child’s release. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in 15 weeks with a $25 million budget.

To achieve the efficiency that he would need for such a shoot, Carpenter surrounded himself with a seasoned crew from his previous films. He reunited with three long-time collaborators, line producer Larry J. Franco (Starman), production designer John Lloyd (The Thing), and cinematographer Dean Cundey. The cameraman had worked with Carpenter on his most memorable features: Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). The director wanted as many familiar faces on board because “the size and complexity are so vast, that without it being in dependable, professional hands, it could have gone crazy…So I went back to the guys who had been with me in the trenches before on difficult projects.”

Carpenter and Cundey had parted company before Starman due to “attitude problems.” Cundey says it was due to scheduling conflicts, but Carpenter has said that they had problems while working on The Thing. However, when Big Trouble came along, Carpenter met Cundey in Santa Barbara one weekend. “His attitude about survival in the [movie] business coincided with my own. We had a really good time, so we decided to work together again.”

Big Trouble also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who has appeared in several of the director’s films, most notably Escape From New York and The Thing. At first, Carpenter didn’t see Russell as Jack Burton. He wanted to cast a big star like Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson to compete with Golden Child‘s casting of Eddie Murphy. However, both Eastwood and Nicholson were busy and Fox suggested Russell because they felt that he was an up-and-coming star. The actor remembered reading the script and thinking that it “was fun, but I was soft on the character. I wasn’t clear how to play it. There were a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn’t know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie.” After Carpenter and Russell began to go over the script, the character started to take shape. The role was a nice change for Russell as Carpenter remembers, “Kurt was enthusiastic about doing an action part again, after playing so many roles opposite ladies recently. So off we went.”

After watching Big Trouble it’s impossible to see anybody else as Jack Burton. Russell perfectly nails the macho swagger of his character: he’s a blowhard who’s all talk, totally inept when it comes to any kind of action and yet is still a likable guy. It is the right mix of bravado and buffoonery, a parody of the John Wayne action hero much in the same way Russell made Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken a twisted homage to Clint Eastwood. Russell said, at the time, that he “never played a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up. He thinks he knows how to handle situations and then gets into situations he can’t handle but some how blunders his way through anyhow.” Russell showcases untapped comedic potential that ranges from physical pratfalls to excellent comic timing in the delivery of his dialogue. One only has to look at his scene with Wang and the elderly Lo Pan to see Russell’s wonderful comic timing. No one before or since Big Trouble has been able to tap into Russell’s comedic potential as well as Carpenter does in this movie.

By many of the actors’ accounts, Carpenter is a director open to suggestions and input from everyone involved. Dennis Dun’s character starts off as the sidekick of Big Trouble and ends up accomplishing most of the film’s heroic tasks while the initial hero, Jack Burton, becomes the comic relief. Prior to Big Trouble, Dun’s only other film role was a small part in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985) but he was a veteran of more than twenty plays. Carpenter liked the actor in Cimino’s film and met with him twice before casting him in Big Trouble. Even though shooting began only a few days after Dun was cast, the action sequences weren’t hard for the actor who had “dabbled” in martial arts training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult.

Dun enjoyed the freedom he had on the set. “John gave me a great deal of leeway to develop my character and pretty much let me do what I wanted. He just encouraged me to be as strong as I could. He gave me a lot of freedom.” This freedom results in a very strong performance from Dun who holds his own against a veteran actor like Russell. Dun remembers that he and Russell shared the same approach to acting. “We never really talked about the scenes. We would come in that day to shoot a scene, and we would just do it. A large part of it was working off each other, just looking in each other’s eyes and taking each other’s energy and running with it.” The chemistry between the two characters is one of the many endearing qualities of Big Trouble as evident from numerous scenes, most notably the one where Wang Chi bets Jack that he can split a beer bottle in half and the scene where the two men attempt to break into Lo Pan’s building to rescue Wang’s fiancée.

The studio pressured Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton’s love interest and constant source of aggravation. For Carpenter there was no question, he wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio wasn’t crazy about the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky’s (1981) and Police Academy (1984). “I told them we needed an actress, and I enjoyed the way Kim wanted to play the character. She blended in well with the film’s style.” Cattrall plays Gracie as a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating Burton’s macho ego at every opportunity.

Big Trouble’s script cleverly avoids the trap of reducing her role to a screaming prop by having Gracie take an aggressive part in the action. “Actually,” Cattrall said in an interview, “I’m a very serious character in this movie. I’m not screaming for help the whole time. I think humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I’m the brains and he’s the brawn.” There’s a great give and take between her and Russell. Their characters make for an entertaining screwball comedy couple: he’s always on the make while she constantly fends off his obvious advances. This was Carpenter’s intention. He saw the characters in Big Trouble like the ones “in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people.” Listen to how Jack and Gracie talk to each other — it’s a very rapid-fire delivery of dialogue that is reminiscent of Hawks’ comedies.

Production designer John Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and re-created Chinatown with three-story buildings, roads, streetlights, sewers and so on. This was necessary for the staging of complicated special effects and kung-fu fight sequences that would have been very hard to do on location. For the film’s many fight scenes Carpenter “worked with my martial arts choreographer, James Lew, who literally planned out every move in advance. I used every cheap gag – trampolines, wires, reverse movements and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance.”

Another refreshing aspect of Big Trouble is the way it is immersed in authentic Chinese myths and legends. Carpenter explains: “for example, our major villain, Lo Pan, is a famous legend in Chinese history. He was a ‘shadow emperor,’ appointed by the first sovereign emperor, Chan Che Wong. Lo Pan was put on the throne as an impersonator, because Chan Che Wong was frightened of being assassinated. Then, Lo Pan tried to usurp the throne, and Chan Che Wong cursed him to exist without flesh for 2,000 years, until he can marry a green-eyed girl.” Big Trouble could have easily made light of Chinese culture, but instead mixes respect with a good dose of fun.

Big Trouble also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell’s character who is a constant source of comedy. “I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film,” Dun commented in an interview, “I’m Chinese in the movie, but the way it’s written, I could be anybody.” Big Trouble crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters that just happen to be Chinese. Carpenter also wanted to avoid the usual cliché soundtrack. “The other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn’t want that for Big Trouble. I wanted a synthesizer score with some rock ‘n’ roll.”

As if sensing the rough commercial road that the film would face, Russell felt that it would be a hard one to market. “This is a difficult picture to sell because it’s hard to explain. It’s a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It’s bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast.” Unfortunately, mainstream critics and audiences did not care about this radical reworking of the kung-fu film. Opening in 1,053 theaters on July 4, 1986, Big Trouble in Little China grossed $2.7 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $11.1 million in North America, well below its estimated budget of $25 million.

Big Trouble came out before the rise in popularity of Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat, and filmmakers like John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for this kind of movie. Despite being promoted rather heavily by 20th Century Fox, Big Trouble disappeared quickly from theaters. Bitter from having yet another movie of his snubbed by critics and ignored by audiences, Carpenter swore off the big studios. He learned the hard way that working with them meant compromising his art in order to advance his career. Carpenter laid it all out in an interview a year later: “everybody in the business faces one truth all the time — if your movie doesn’t perform immediately, the exhibitors want to get rid of it. The exhibitors only want product in their theaters which makes money. Quality has nothing to do with it.” Years later, he said, “The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.”

Big Trouble in Little China has stood the test of time. It was rediscovered on home video where it has become a celebrated cult film with a dedicated audience. It has since become one of the most beloved films in John Carpenter’s career and with good reason. It is a fun, clever movie that still holds up today and remains one of the finest examples of cinema as pure entertainment.

MCGEHEE & SIEGEL’S WHAT MAISIE KNEW — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

maisie

What Maisie Knew is one of the most perceptive, honest, and devastating films that I’ve ever seen to involve a young child as its lead protagonist. Onata Aprile’s performance is utterly, unexpectedly extraordinary, projecting a sense of maturity well beyond her years (she was six years old at the time of filming), and is nothing less than wholly compelling as a young girl caught in the middle of a bitter and selfish custody battle between her two absolutely thoughtless parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, both chillingly excellent). Expertly directed by the extremely talented combo of Scott McGehee and David Siegel and sensitively yet caustically adapted by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne from the classic Henry James novel, this film had an absurdly low profile release despite enormously positive critical reaction, but because it’s actually about something important and believable and absolutely true to life, most people couldn’t be bothered to check it out.

I can think of so few movies where the performance of a child in a leading role was this exquisite (the brilliant Italian film I’m Not Scared also features some remarkable performances by youngsters), and it’s because of Aprile’s phenomenally observant quality as an actress that the viewer is thrust into her awkward and sad headspace, resulting in a film that pulls zero punches and affords no easy answers or tidy conclusions. Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham both offer fantastic supporting turns, amplifying the high-stakes game of emotional fireworks that the narrative becomes, while creating layered characters which helps to solidify the interpersonal dynamics of the story, which is entirely focused on words and feelings and moments of intense anger and strife. This is a tremendously underrated film, that rare picture made for adults but expressly told through a child’s POV, and easily in the top five productions ever to be funded by modern schlock distributors Millennium Entertainment, now going by the name of Alchemy. But regardless of where the money came from to produce What Maisie Knew, this is the sort of effort that deserves more cinematic visibility, and will prove to be unforgettable to those who get a chance to see it.

 

 

Triple 9 – A Review by Josh Hains

triple_nine_xxlg I think most of the criticism toward Triple 9 is misguided at best. I feel that most of the critics whose reviews I’ve read (and I’ve read dozens over the last week) weren’t expecting what Triple 9 delivers, they thought they were paying to see the next Heat or something, and upon being vastly disappointed, tore the film to shreds as they saw fit. I think a few critics jumped on the hateful bandwagon, and now moviegoers who were excited up until the reviews rolled out are unsure if they want to cough up their hard earned dough for the film or not. Some will have you believe the film is worth waiting for the Blu-Ray of. The joys of the internet age of film criticism and audience reception. This way of thinking is backwards. You have to see this film for yourself decide if it’s your cup of tea or not. Don’t even take my enthusiastically positive word for it. See it for yourself, and go from there.

When you see the trailers for Triple 9, it’s pretty easy to say it looks like a cross between Heat and Brooklyn’s Finest, or Street Kings or End Of Watch. It’s even easier to walk into the theatre expecting something akin to that. The surprise if Triple 9 is, that while there are minor similarities between the films I mentioned above, Triple 9 is its own unique film, a different monster entirely. I’ve never seen a crime film quite like it before and I doubt I will anytime soon given the lack of gritty crime films in theatres these days in preference of sanitized comic book and video game based movies.

Triple 9 follows an ensemble of edgy characters strewn throughout Atlanta, Georgia, each one undergoing immense amounts of pressure, stress, and paranoia, and seemingly trying to keep their heads above the water. There’s Mike Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the hot headed leader of a 5-man group of thieves, and a former Navy Seal. His ex-wife Elena’s sister Irina,the wife of an imprisoned Russian mafia boss, is using his son as leverage over Mike so he’ll commit elaborate robberies. His team is comprised of Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie); two corrupt Atlanta cops, and then there’s Russell Welch (Norman Reedus); a former Navy Seal and old war buddy to Mike, and Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul); Russell’s younger brother and a former Atlanta police officer who worked in the same precinct as Marcus and was a junkie until 6 months prior. The film opens with one such robbery, which goes horribly wrong when a hidden dye pack from the bank they just knocked off fills their escape vehicle with an impenetrable red mist, causing a multi vehicle collision on a packed highway. Then there’s Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), the Atlanta detective heading up the investigation into the robbery. He’s also the temperamental uncle of Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a greenhorn cop with a wife and kid who conveniently becomes Marcus’ new partner. Irina wants the group of thieves to commit another heist, to continue to collect sensitive information that can set her husband free, but the guys need a new plan to pull of their next daring job. Franco and Marcus suggest killing a cop, which would incite a 999 or officer down call that sends every police offer to their fallen comrade’s position. Marcus nominates Chris as cop to kill…and that’s where I’ll leave you hanging. To say much more beyond this would ruin all hope for surprise.

Earlier today I would have told you I have two issues with the film, the first of which is the plot, which I would then explain is a little too reliant on convenience and is in some ways vaguely predictable and inevitable. I would then mention a sequence that occurs with around a half hour left in the film in which two characters enter an abandoned warehouse and only one of them has murder on their mind, we can assume what will occur next. I would point out that while this scene does play out exactly as we expect it to for a while, it takes us in a different direction after a couple minutes that is almost completely unexpected.

I’m not complaining about the plot now as I type away at this review because I’ve changed my mind since this morning. Triple 9 isn’t reliant on its plot so much as it is reliant on the unpredictable the actions of the characters, reactions that actually seem like the natural ones most of us would have. If you were a cop, and you were informed that your nephew’s life could be hanging by a thread, would you drive like a maniac to the scene of the crime, or take your sweet time? If you found out someone wants to kill you, would play it and wait for precisely the right moment to strike, or would you freak out and blow their head off right there? How you may react isn’t necessarily how someone else might, and that’s the key to the tension in Triple 9. You genuinely don’t know who is going to what and when, keeping you constantly trying to anticipate every character’s next move and in complete suspense. I swear my knuckles turned white during the last half hour of the film, the suspense was that gripping and overwhelming.

A review on rogerebert.com tries desperately to suggest that Michael’s sad predicament is a half assed attempt at inciting sympathy toward the character. This is false. I do not think I am meant to sympathize with Michael for one single second, rather I am meant to understand quite simply why he’s doing what he’s doing. His predicament is motivation for the character and an elaborate way of generating the beginnings of a gripping crime story, not a piss poor attempt at making him a three dimensional character.

On that note, do not walk into this film thinking you’ll like more than two of these characters. You won’t. The acting is so good here, so down to Earth, naturalistic, and nuanced. These aren’t showy Oscar bait performances, they’re subtle and realistic portrayals of plausible human beings, and not simply cardboard cut out archetypes. Take Harrelson for example, playing another oddball but with the edge he brought to Rampart, creating a fleshed out, dynamic, tangible human being. Which brings me to my second issue, which is the noticeably phony accents utilized by Kate Winslet and Gal Gadot that greatly affect their performances. These women don’t sound authentically Russian, in that Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull kind of way. I think if you changed Winslet’s character to someone of British ethnicity (and cast someone else from the UK in place of Gal Gadot, say Carey Mulligan), Winslet could have delivered a much icier, more vile performance. Sadly, due to the accent, she is so hindered she’s incapable of providing an enjoyable villainous performance. Thankfully, Gal Gadot has a fleeting presence in the film so one doesn’t have to endure yet another dreadful performance from her. One can only hope she has just as few minutes in Batman V. Superman.

John Hillcoat, whose previous films include The Proposition, The Road and Lawless, delivers yet another already sorely underrated motion picture, and directs the hell out of it. I recall a popular criticism of Lawless, that the film’s ending was too down and depressing for critics to grapple with, and that a happier ending would have made the film better for them. I’ve always found that to be a poor criticism. In today’s age of film criticism, over saturated and far too pretentiously picky, it doesn’t surprise me that so many critics would prefer a “Hollywood” ending for that film. I wonder how many of them realized that was the ending of the non-fiction book The Wettest County In The World, the source material for Lawless, based on facts and written by the grandson/grand nephew of the trio of brothers showcased in the film. Bear with me, there’s a point to this.

I don’t think too many of those same critics like the ending to Triple 9 either, which I won’t spoil. It’s partially the ending you expect, and partially an ending you don’t see coming. For this film it works and wonderfully. It suits the nature of the beast, the nature of this grimy, brutal crime saga. It’s not forced, inauthentic, or improbable. Watch Harrelson’s face at films end. He says everything his character is thinking with one action, and the look on his face and in his eyes. You not only understand him and what he’s thinking in that moment, you feel for him too. It’s damn near perfect.

triple_nine_ver13_xxlg

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Fear X: A review by Nate Hill

image

Before Nicholas Winding Refn blew up into the big time with intense, stylish stuff like Bronson, Drive and Valhalla Rising, and after he made his bloody emergence into cinema with Pusher, he made another film that no one seems to remember or even even like all that much. It’s easy to see why Fear X wasn’t that well received or remembered: it’s choppy and confusing, even by Refn’s terms, and doesn’t pull it’s third act into a cohesive resolution, instead favoring a disconcertingly surreal descent into subconscious, abstract imagery, which we all know (the careers of Lynch and others are examples) is an aesthetic not always absorbed by the most open of minds when it comes to the masses. Now that we got that out of the way, here’s my take. I adore the film. It’s a skitchy Midwestern nightmare that starts of gently gnawing at the fringes of your perception with a sense of dread that’s intangible in its possibility, an outcome as vast and unknowable as the desolate prairie setting that calls to mind the fear and degradation of Fargo without an ounce of its good humour, black or otherwise. John Turturro inhabits this setting with a twitchy, anxious aura, suggesting a haunted mindscape beneath those famous curls. And well he should be haunted, considering his wife recently disappeared without a trace. For him, not knowing what happened is worse than any kind of grisly answer, for its a sick hollowness that chokes out any room for him to grieve. He works by day as a mall security guard, busting shoplifters and scanning snowy surveillance screens to distract himself. Then, his co-worker (Stephen Eric Mcintyre) hands him a videotape that may contain answers and be the first breadcrumb in a trail leading to his wife’s killer, and possibly his solace. In a lot of films and shows like these, the protagonist ventures to a small town with sordid secrets simmering just beneath the crust of the cheerful looking pie held by the pretty waitress at the local diner. Some artists find their own groove without riffing on other’s work too much, and some fall flat-footed into derivitive motions. Refn is bold yet subtle in his direction once Turturro arrives in the town, and casts a deceptively innocuous  yet insidiously creepy spell over the proceedings. It’s essentially where the film really exits utero and manifests, the danger before that was only glimpsed on the horizon now a very real possibility, like waking up from a bad dream into a worse reality. Turturro is met with cold stares and grim greetings, especially by a deputy who becomes predatory upon seeing part of the clues he has brought with him, vaguely tied to a local resident. From there he is led to a suspicious Sheriff (James Remar), and the sheriff’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Remar may have been involved in his wife’s death, and he plays with the curtain of his performance wonderfully, pulling it back ever so slightly in scenes with Unger (some of his best work) and stirring up confusion while menacing Turturro. It’s an unheralded best from him and a rare occasion where he gets to be subtle and eerie, as opposed to his usual brash, cocky characters. Unger is similar to Remar in the sense that she has made a point over the course of her career in picking obscure, challenging and unique roles to play. In playing a couple here they feel kind of star-crossed just by the nature of their careers, fed by their smoldering  chemistry. The film proceeds like any thriller would, with only intangible hints at the weirdness to come, until the last half of the third act, where it abandons logic completely and dives headlong into a dreamlike abyss of surreality, without a readily discernable warning or narrative signpost. Is Turturro unstable? Or is it Remar? Or are events just taking a turn fpr the supernatural as a result of the town messing with people’s psyches, a la The Shining? We will never know, and honestly I doubt Refn did, or ever will either. It’s him in the sandbox, free from logic or consequence, and hate it with all your might if you wish, but you can’t deny it’s a psychologically galvanizing experience that toys with your perception  and spooks to the core. The film deals with themes of not knowing, and open ended tragedy masked by confusion and spiraling ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Refn implemented all the metaphysical hoo-hah as an extreme metaphor for Turturro’s consciousness, fractured and torn by the absence of resolution to the point of madness. Or maybe Refn just likes making weird shit. That’s the eternal debate with artists like him and Lynch: do they have some plan, a secret marauders map to the strangeness that they present to us on screen which only they are privy too, or are they simply making it up as they go along, hurling paint at the canvas until they are satisfied with the result, regardless of comprehending it? We’ll never know, and that for me is the beauty of it. With Fear X Refn crafts a polarizing thriller that is the very proto – example of ‘love it or hate it’. It’s definitely not for everyone. But love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it’s power.

PTS Presents Writer’s Workshop with JOSH OLSON

olson POWERCAST

olsonPodcasting Them Softly is extremely excited to present a discussion with special guest Josh Olson. Josh is the Oscar, BAFTA, and WGA nominated writer of the David Cronenberg crime thriller A History of Violence, which we’re both huge fans of. Josh has also written an episode of Masters of Science Fiction with the legendary Harlan Ellison, was the last writer on Halo, working with Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp, and has worked on scripts with Slash, Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger, as well as writing one of the segments of the animated anthology series Batman: Gotham Nights. He’s currently developing a Western TV show with the great filmmaker Walter Hill. Josh is also a massive film buff, having provided numerous commentaries for the excellent web site Trailers From Hell, and on this episode, we chat about his career as a screenwriter, and also discuss our most favorite underrated movies stretching various genres. We hope you enjoy!

Advertisements