Intriguing right from the start (if a bit purposefully confusing) and building an impressive head of steam throughout 90 semi-perplexing minutes, William Eubank’s supremely stylish sci-fi mind-teaser The Signal is one of those flicks that keeps you at arm’s length for much of its duration, only to finish with a whammy of a twist ending that most people won’t see coming (I didn’t). Trading on some beats from other genre entries but still doing enough to feel fresh and zesty and alive with possibilities, this low-budget effort benefits from Eubank’s background as a cameraman, as the 2.35:1 widescreen framing is stunning, with cinematographer David Lanzenberg opting for a bold, saturated color palette and harsh, washed-out desert tones that amp up the creep factor while maxing out the style department. Seriously – this film looks 100X bigger than it actually was – I can only imagine what Eubank could do on a massive canvass from on a visual level. Without giving too much away about the oblique yet thoroughly engaging narrative, The Signal plays with the idea of the alien close encounter in a way that really hasn’t been done before – but you may not realize that fact until the very end. Upon deeper inspection, it’s a film that operates on multiple levels and gives you some really interesting bits to chew on and contemplate. Brenton Thwaites is a very appealing young actor who does a really good job at being exasperated, and when finally presented with his moment of truth, he registers with true force and sincerity. There’s lots of nifty special effects and tons of powerful imagery, making this a highly enjoyable “calling-card” movie for Eubank. I’m disappointed that this film didn’t find a larger theatrical audience last summer, but I have a feeling that over time, it will gain the audience it deserves via the DVD and Blu-ray and streaming market. Low on budget but high on unnerving ideas and glorious style, The Signal is one that truly got away – check it out if you’ve previously missed it!
This week we’re back to our regularly scheduled podcast, discussing John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and the top five films of both Kurt Russell and John Carpenter!
Inspired by the urban legend surrounding the real life suicide of Tokyo office worker Takako Konishi (go to Google…), David Zellner’s bizarre, enigmatic, and totally masterful oddity Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is easily one of the most spellbinding films of the year, a motion picture almost impossible to classify, and the very definition of a film where the less you know about it the better off you’ll be when you see it. This was my first Zellner Brothers experience and it won’t be the last; I’m stocking up my Netflix queue with whatever I can get my hands on, and I’ve discovered some funny short films online (Sasquatch Birth Journal #2 is priceless!) which seem to indicate a general level of cinematic idiocy that I can really get behind. I love it when a movie takes me totally by surprise, and when a filmmaker confidently mixes a variety of tones with the express goal of creating something wholly unique and startling. That’s what this film is – wildly original, deeply stylish, mentally stirring, and at times, thematically troubling when it isn’t being irreverently funny. And it’s yet another small movie from this year that trounces the big-budget competition; I’m finding it harder and harder to come up with any solid reasons to see whatever piece of uninspired nonsense that the studio system is hurling my way.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which was co-written by David Zellner and his talented brother Nathan, stars the fascinating actress Rinko Kikuchi as a mentally ill Japanese office worker, “still” unmarried at 29 (much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother), who discovers a degraded VHS copy of Joel and Ethan Coen’s celebrated film Fargo. The narrative details, with much humor, painful sadness, and creepy unpredictability, how she misinterprets the film for real life, leading her on an asinine and quixotic quest to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character had buried out in that snowy field near that wire fence before he got fed to the wood chipper. The film is all about Kumiko’s quest and the interesting people she meets along the way (a segment with a helpful cop played by David Zellner himself and some scenes with a widowed woman are particularly strong and affecting), and the way the Zellners have framed their story leaves little doubt in the viewer’s head that they’re dealing with a lead character who isn’t thinking clearly. And what’s more, the subtle ways that the filmmakers fill you in on this fact are awesome to notice and discover. The script is limited with its dialogue, as the Zellners prefer to tell their story with a focus on allowing their indelible images to propel to narrative forward, resulting in a work that feels dreamy and one that’s constantly challenging reality.
The film has an amazing visual look, with the 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography by Sean Porter always putting something interesting in the frame, with Kumiko’s red hoodie cutting across the blown-out white expanses of the Minnesota winter landscape in extremely memorable fashion. Melba Jodorowsky’s fluid editing allows the film to move along at a brisk pace without ever feeling rushed, and the eclectic and offbeat musical score by The Octopus Project never leaves any doubt that you’re watching something willfully absurd yet sincerely heartfelt. The film is essentially about loneliness and isolation, and how one woman is committed to doing SOMETHING with her life, regardless if that something is rational or not. The Zellners have made an absurdist film to a certain degree, and yet, there’s emotional impact because of Kikuchi’s mesmerizing portrayal of a woman who has lost all sense of normalcy, desperate for this one thing to come to fruition. You never know where this movie is going, it’s impossible to guess how it will end, and I absolutely LOVED the final section, which will likely frustrate and annoy those who need everything spelled out for them in order to be satisfied with a movie. I’ve never seen anything that remotely comes close to resembling this bizarre and completely transfixing film, and it’s yet another indication of how there are some truly great movies out there to be seen if you’re willing to look a bit harder at all of the available selections.
Yann Demange’s riveting thriller ’71 is one of the most hard core, cut from real life docudramas that I’ve ever seen. Taking a cue from the run-and-gun filmmaking aesthetic of Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday feels like a spiritual cousin in many respects), this is a blistering anti-war statement focusing on a bloody and violent riot in the streets of Belfast during The Troubles in 1971, and how a left behind British soldier (the phenomenally intense young actor Jack O’Connell)… has to contend with all sorts of dangerous elements over the course of one hellish night in an effort to stay alive as a group of radicalized demonstrators are looking to do him in for good. This film has tremendous camerawork that goes for the visceral in every moment, the sound design is excellent, there are surprises left and right from the gripping narrative, and Demange exhibits a firm grasp of no-fat linear storytelling that grabs you by the throat from the opening seconds and never lets up for 95 minutes. Agonizing to watch at times, incredibly suspenseful, and dispiritingly sad by its conclusion, the film is aided immensely by O’Connell’s vigorous performance. He’s now demonstrated in three films (Starred Up and Unbroken being the other two) that he is one of the premiere young talents to emerge on the acting scene in quite some time. He always looks different, he’s got a fantastic set of eyes that seem to posses a laser-like intensity, and he’s able to convey vulnerability and confidence in equal measure. As far as military themed thrillers go, this one is at the very top of the list.
Internal, quiet, and a film that’s constantly searching for answers, Breathe In is a wonderful, heavily improvised drama that places a strong concentration on mood and atmosphere and the lingering moments after a conversation ends, while endlessly stressing the emotionally suspenseful moments of its character’s lives. This is a very different film from writer/director Drake Doremus after his no less accomplished debut Like Crazy, which for me, still ranks as one of the best c…ollege/long distance relationship movies that I’ve seen. He’s again delivered a serious and dreamy look at relationships with Breathe In, but this time, instead of college students, Doremus’ tale centers on the possible May-December romance of a married man and a high-school exchange-student whose sudden presence in a suburban family’s home shakes everyone to their core. Using off the cuff dialogue to propel the plot forward was an interesting way to have the actors confront the highly complex situations that the characters find themselves in, and even if the final act isn’t as perfect as the previous two, the performances, especially those of the consistently excellent Guy Pearce and the continually alluring Felicity Jones make up for any potential shortcomings in the story department. This is a very good movie, extremely well observed from almost every angle, and further demonstrates Doremus’ inherent interest in people and their emotionally fragile states (Like Crazy did this sort of thing extremely well; it’s such an underrated film). The probing, expressive cinematography, classical music score, and the overall sense that “anything can happen” keeps you engrossed, and it can’t be said enough – Guy Pearce is one of our absolute best actors currently working, and he turns in an exceptionally challenging performance as a man driven to mental madness over his shortcomings as an individual and the knowledge of the pain that he might be capable of inflicting on those who love him. And Jones is every bit his equal, hitting all her notes of guarded sexuality and emotional vulnerability, creating a woman who is very much in control of her surroundings but still doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications of the scenario she helps to create. Amy Ryan and Mackenzie Davis offer excellent support. Doremus is clearly a filmmaker to look out for in the future.
Make no mistake — Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken — there’s just no need to recast the role with some young flash-in-the-pan actor who could never, ever possibly replicate the steely-eyed gaze and incredible anti-hero flavor that Russell brought to his iconic performance. Because the film was made on a low budget, much of it is set at night, yet the darkly photogenic cinematography by 80’s master Dean Cundey has a perfect, rough around the edges feel which takes full advantage of the scuzzy production design and down-home-grubbiness of the entire film. And then there’s Carpenter’s fantastic original score, with that trusty theme music popping up in all the proper spots. The premise is simple: an ex-soldier/convict has 22 hours to find the President (Donald Pleasance) who has been stranded on the prison island of Manhattan after the crash of Air Force One. If he’s successful, he’ll be pardoned. If not, he’ll be killed.
With stripped down efficiency and an attention placed on violent spectacle laced with black humor, Carpenter moves from one sequence to the next with hard-core conviction. Co-written by Nick Castle of The Last Starfighter fame. Escape from New York has certainly become a cult classic over the years, but it’s interesting to note that the film was well reviewed and actually became a theatrical success ($25 million vs. a $6 million production budget), which sort of bucks the traditional definition of a “cult” movie. And let’s not forget endless Ernest Borgnine POWER and Harry Dean Stanton EXTRA POWER. Isaac Hayes, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau are also all extremely memorable in supporting roles, and James Cameron worked on the cool matte paintings(!) and also served as an additional director of photography. Shout! Factory’s somewhat recently released Special Edition Blu-ray is a smashing success, featuring a transfer that retains the grit and grain of the original photography, and lots of special features to make any fan of this film grin ear to ear.
Watching a director’s first feature after you’ve seen the rest of their work is always interesting, because rather than seeing their natural progression as a storyteller and filmmaker, you view the debut with a different lens because you’ve come to know the artist through other efforts. Getting a chance to see Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back was one of those situations – I’ve become a massive fan of her work over the last six years, but only recently had the chance to see her confident, heady, and introspective first film that when viewed in retrospect, feels like an obvious and natural start for her as a creator of filmed stories. Yes, there are some first time filmmaking stylistic ticks that pop up here and there, but I’m all for formal experimentation – film is a visual medium first and foremost so I’m always down for jump-cuts and elliptical editing and stylish fades and transitions. Not that this is a Tony Scott film or anything, but Shelton definitely played with style more than most first time filmmakers who are crafting a low-key and completely character driven piece (i.e. no guns, car chases, explosions, for fancy vulgarity), and it’s within the expressive nature of her then emerging aesthetic that you can see how she’s arrived at a comfortable current spot with her overall style and intent as a moviemaker.
Shelton’s engaging and at times unnerving narrative pivots on a young woman named Kate (the excellent Amber Hubert, with a face of limitless possibility in terms of conveying angst), a fledgling Seattle actress who has just been offered her first starring role (under the direction of a possibly insane local theater director), but begins to essentially have an existential crisis and comes into contact with the physical manifestation of her 13 year-old self. Or so she thinks. This is a stream of conscious type film, with the opening scenes containing jumbled dialogue that mixes current day activities for the 23 year old Kate and the audible memories of her as a teen, with an Altman-esque sense of overlapping in an effort to immerse and quickly confuse. There’s also the recurring motif of Kate reading question filled letters that she had written to herself 10 years previous, all of which reflect on the various behaviors we see her engaging in during the story. The seemingly naïve questions that she has asked herself come to inform the decisions (some poor, some promising) that she makes during the narrative.
Not content to just make a “point and shoot” debut effort, Shelton infused the relatively brief runtime (75 minutes) with enough emotional pathos and cerebral questions to leave one with a rich cinematic experience, rather than a slight experiment with film school pretensions. Shelton’s sense of place is firm from the outset, using the physical surroundings as a character to a certain extent (a theme that’s been carried on in every feature since), while never losing sight of the dramatic task at hand – how to take the viewer through a personal, hopefully cathartic ride through the mind of a young woman who doesn’t know herself as well as she might like. And when viewed as a warm up to My Effortless Brilliance and then Humpday, We Go Way Back feels even more understandable and interesting within Shelton’s naturalistic if pensive worldview. The film won awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, clearly marking the arrival of a major new talent in American independent cinema, and will finally be available on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.