Jun 12, 2015

Rebels of the Neon God (1992): A-

After the existentially fraught, almost magnificently crushing experience of Stray Dogs (released stateside last year), Tsai Ming-liang's debut feature, 1992's Rebels of the Neon God, feels positively mainstream. Never officially released in the United States before now, it's a remarkable film, not only for the fact that Tsai's use of composition and extended, languid takes was already formidable-bordering-on-consummate, but also for the rear view it offers into the west's own global effects, now presented not unlike something preserved in amber.

The neon god of the title refers to Nezha, a Chinese deity evoked explicitly by at least two characters, but more so does it refer to the cityscape habitat this film's small band of characters find themselves struggling vainly against, almost unaware. Two small-time thieves are our introduction to this world, as Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) break into a payphone and various other vending machines for the loose change waiting inside. One senses that their handiwork is less out of financial need than because they're feeding into their own projections of machismo; a telling moment occurs early in the film when Tze's girlfriend, Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), asks him after a night of drinking if they raped her, her tone equal parts casual and disturbed. Their story intertwines with that of Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a troubled student struggling to satisfy the wishes of his parents.

Rebels features many cameos by popular works of western cinema, from a poster of Rebel Without a Cause in the back of an arcade to an implied shout-out to Taxi Driver when one of the characters purchases a gun for some casual target practice.  These hallmarks are but a piece of the socio-cultural architecture that at once shapes and torments these characters, who spend most of their time laying down (not necessarily sleeping), or pleasuring themselves, and each other. A flooded apartment building suggests another metaphor for a roving, ill-defined existence within the film's larger microcosmic framework; sandals, cigarette butts, and other detritus is cast about as dirty water surges upward from the floor's intended drain, much like these characters have less autonomy than they realize within a society unable to quell its own moral plumbing.

Tsai's film is nothing if not a great expression of sadness and longing, particularly the kind so often impossible to articulate when one is in the midst of depression. Numerous details are left unexplored -- why Hsiao Kang's scooter is towed, for instance -- with the cumulative impact being that so much of life affects us without explanation, and maybe it's fruitless to dwell on those aspects. The minimalist story, such as it is, is tertiary to Rebels' lyrical and visual qualities. The acts of vandalism perpetrated by these characters seem minute compared to the larger dehumanization implicit in nearly every frame. An act of revenge instills one of these souls with a momentary catharsis, but the scenes proves melancholy, as the viewer knows better the fruitlessness of such deeds (see also: the wasted efforts to plug the aforementioned apartment drain). Rebels of the Neon God is one of the great films about modern unrest and the pangs of youth. I can't wait to watch it again.

Sep 30, 2014

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968)

It seems impossible to not mention the similarity between Goke, the Body Snatcher and the same year's Night of the Living Dead. Both are quasi-science fiction/horror films about, among other things: a small band of people trying to survive, interplanetary happenings, racial politics, humanoid monsters that devour their victims in whole or part, and a conclusion that doesn't aim to have you skipping out of the theater. In it's own way, Goke is just as brilliant, beautiful, and entertaining as Romero's first zombie masterpiece. Here, it's a flight of passengers that crash lands on a remote island, after sighting a UFO. Divulging further details would be criminal.

Visually, Goke is almost an inversion of Night's impressionistic black and white imagery; the widescreen Fujicolor images burst with hypnotic splendor, suggesting nightmares remembered with all the exuberance of a kid in a neon-colored candy store. The opening setpiece is a hard achievement to top, yet the film continues to outdo itself, barreling through character drama and dreamy monster menaces with a remarkably elastic sleight of hand. As archetypes, the broad-stroke characters fit the B-movie bill snugly, not that it matters in the bitter end. Already a great achievement, Goke fully commits to the course of its vision, and the end result is something at once savagely beautiful and sure to have caused many nightmares in those whose young eyes saw it.

Sep 12, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Have my tastes changed since I last saw the original 2005 Sin City, or is it nine years later and we now have a shitty sequel on our hands? The latter possibility is the obviously correct one to these eyes, not the least because the original film had its pick of the litter from Frank Miller's original serialized creations. Nor is it entirely the fact that new work from the past-his-prime (some would also say taste) artist comprises around half of this new feature, and also to blame, clearly, is Rodriguez himself, who has now slid into laziness courtesy his self-indulgent and shapeless love affair with the ease of digital cinema.

No doubt cinema comes in all shapes and sizes, but it's to no one's advantage that the recent work of Rodriguez (the horrid Machete jokes and now this, both outdone by the perfunctory fourth Spy Kids film, which is specifically not saying much) is defined by its half-assedness, in all of the ways that that sounds bad, and them some. Every take feels rushed, perfunctory, and unfelt, and many of them insincere at that. Some of the performances still bring the pathos of the original film, but at best, Sin City: A Damn to Kill For can be described as the talented performers of an apathetic circus master, all wound up with no place to go (or, in the words of Trent Reznor, an echo of an echo of an echo).

Reciting plot points from this bastardization of a sequel is enough to nudge me towards depression – not just because the worldview the film espouses is ultimately bitter and cruel, but more so because it lacks the courage of its convictions. Rodriguez sells these ideas without owning up to any of them. It's nihilistic dress-up. Maybe he only fooled me last time, but he still did so beautifully. The permeation of death here is, on the other hand, is not only meaningless, but soulless, less neo-noir than Underworld bullshit, and without enough of a context to establish, say, why Mickey Rourke is back after biting the dust last time (some of us haven't committed the books to memory, mind you – it's called having a functioning adult life, paying off debt, and being interested in things from before the year of one's birth, among other things), or even just simple stuff like visceral edge and narrative thrust, the effect is that of the kind of stale greatest hits albums Aerosmith seemed to put out every three months during the 90s. We remember how you used to kick ass - now please do more than just remind me of what once was.

While there's still something stirring about Nancy (Jessica Alba, still not nude), here edging closer toward self-destruction, with Hartigan (Bruce Willis) now forced to try to help her from the other side of mortality, these are moments adrift in a nothing with a great choice of skin. Is it a memory, or a fluke? Maybe both. It can be well argued that the movie looks good, but without a reason to care, why should I want to look at it? What with the tsunami of violence herein so lacking in wit or substance (and, frankly, the style isn't all that this time around, either), it becomes full-on parody without even necessarily recognizing it, and quite possibly everything the detractors of the original said was wrong about that film. Rodriquez is not without talent, but I can't tell why he does it anymore.

Jul 22, 2014

Rage (2014)

Rage (aka Tokarev) begins with what appears to be unbridled enthusiasm for otherwise well-worn genre trappings, although it's difficult to determine just how much of this is the film riding the coattails of one Nicolas Cage's particular brand of bottled-lightning near-hysteria. Cage is Paul Maguire, a former criminal whose long-standing efforts to go straight are infringed upon when his teenage daughter is kidnapped, ostensibly by Russians with a long-standing grudge. With no shortage of bloodshed or cruelty, Paul enlists some of his friends to search for clues as to his daughter's whereabouts, and the motives of those who took her.

An early scene in which a near-catatonic drug addict is tortured for information is but the first of many miscalculations that rob the film of its initial gusto without adding anything in the way of moral gravitas. The theme of cyclical violence is an admirable one to unpack, particularly within the context of what is ultimately a nihilistic thriller, but ultimately both this narrative conceit and director Paco Cabezas' bag of tricks wear thin, and even a small parade of faces familiar to such proceedings (e.g. Peter Stormare, Danny Glover) are unable to do much more than go through the motions. Rage is less disrupted by moral confusion -- indeed, it's sense of ambivalence towards violence is almost necessary, in the same sense that even anti-war films can be exciting -- than by a stultifying apathy, it's sobering conclusions heartfelt, but ultimately unearned.

May 4, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Despite the talent put into it, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man failed in large part as a result of its own redundancy. Not merely serving as an almost-remake of a film barely a decade old, the entire affair reeked of something thrown together as a last-minute necessity (which, after Sam Raimi walked away from a potential fourth film), its plot mechanics an unfortunate amalgam of franchise-establishing necessities and screenwriting so perfunctory, one almost wishes it had been written via formula instead. The in-film absence of pathos overwhelmed any flashes of wit or emotion, and the result felt stillborn at best. (My review of that film, penned after a midnight screening that barely enthused my caffeine-addled eyes, was entirely too kind; a second viewing negated most of my residual fondness.)

With some skepticism, then, I approached this follow-up, which, at least on the page, is looks like a committee project run amok, so jam-packed with antagonists and character crises that it rivals the overstuffed lineup of Raimi's ultimately doomed third film. As an example of how the auteur touch can enliven any otherwise waterlogged corporate product, I still champion Spider-Man 3 (the first two films of that cycle are nearly perfect), and now The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (hereafter Spidey 2) joins its ranks. Webb's affecting lightness finally manifests amid the competently (if obviously) delivered plot, and the tone is so distinct and personable that even the choices that could be justifiably considered mishaps (particularly Jamie Foxx's nebbish villain, taking a cue from The Incredibles' Syndrome before going all Dr. Manhattan) still feel genuinely lived-in. Spider 2 is, ultimately, product, but in a genre of increasing sameness, it's tactile emotions leaves a potent impression.

I was fortunate enough to see the film projected on 35mm, a welcome opportunity for the increasingly rare Hollywood film shot on the format. The quality of the image was noticeably better than other films with CG effects transferred to celluloid (the next to most recent Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, suffered for the transfer), and speaks to Webb's desire to ground the material in something of genuine substance. Without a cast capable of enlivening the otherwise xeroxed archetypes (among the collective resumes of the three credited screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, the best film prior to this one is the excellently disposable Mission: Impossible III), it's hard to imagine this material working, but therein lies the spark of this kind of spectacle. Difficult choices and personal demons -- from what we do for family and love to a surprisingly political acknowledgement of class struggle -- roil beneath the surface, and if Spidey 2 ultimately resolves without quite plumbing its own depths as much as I'd have preferred, I'm still more than impressed with where it opts to go in the first place.

Apr 30, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

The impulse to compare filmmakers (especially those whose work might be described as "slow" and "arty") to Stanley Kubrick is one I wish we would get away from. Much as it might laud the man who might be my favorite to ever make movies, as a comparison, it's overused, reductive, and does nothing to illuminate the many ways these directors (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher) are great; it merely states with hyperbolic obviousness that they are great, and it dulls appreciation of why and how they do what they do in favor of trivial flattery. Those feelings notwithstanding, it still seems within reason to note that the opening sequences of Under the Skin reminded me potently of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On first viewing, this was because of the basic connection of space-like darkness and star-like light; on second viewing, and more importantly, it was because I realized that I felt not unlike that film's primate characters, in awe of the monolith before then, transformed by sonic sensation, and more, into something unprecedented. Writer-director Jonathan Glazer isn't merely inspired by Kubrick's genius; he's standing on his shoulders (and Hitchcock's, and Roeg's...), and earning his place.

These quixotic opening images (and most of the film) refuse to provide any surrounding context, and as a pre-title plunge, they're an excellent primer for the dreamy, terrifying, sporadically funny, almost mathematically acute experience that follows, like a pressure chamber one might use to adjust to otherwise uninhabitable conditions. (Spoilers ahead.) A dot of light forms from seemingly nothing; an apparent detail shot suggests that this is the birth of a star; something aligns, something enters, a dulled voice begins cycling through the phonics of language, and the Kubrickian comparison is invited again by a jarring cut to Scarlett Johannson's eye. Named Laura in the credits but, as near as I can tell, nameless on screen, her character is everything and nothing, human yet not, that which we long for and that which keeps us from sleeping at night. I imagine these opening images to be her birth -- perhaps some metaphysical computer system coming online, or a virus downloading itself into the viewer -- but the film is better for leaving such literal interpretations there, in the realm of imagination. Under the Skin is among the most aptly named films I've ever seen, and Glazer's third feature is nothing if not an intense meditation on what it means, not to occupy a body, but to be one.

Under the Skin's loosely-drawn plot -- a female, ostensibly extraterrestrial, prowls Scotland for men, whom she lures into a black pit for mysterious and unknown reasons -- adapted loosely from Michel Faber's eponymous novel, isn't so much about the telling of a story as it is carrying a mental drag net, through which all manner of stimuli catch and mingle. As an alien invasion, the literal menace is subdued and distant -- the film hints at some larger plan spreading the countryside, if not further, and later implies that Laura's experience infiltrating humanity fails in part because she ultimately becomes too human (an unlikely correlation with the almost-equally batshit Robot Monster) -- but what stands out most is an unspoken essay on empathy, epitomized in a touching scene in which Laura offers a kindness that would seem to go against her directives, and which arguably sets up a later scene that acts as both savage humor and heartbreaking insight. (If Under the Skin can be said to function as a feminist statement, it's telling what many male critics assume about this woman, and women in general.)

Seen through Laura's eyes (she's arguably a proxy for the victims, and would-be victims, of sexual violence, and although the film eschews strictly feminist readings for something more thorny and universal, some implicit suggestions are eventually realized), Under the Skin allows us to see even basic things (shopping malls, parking lots) anew, with an emphasis on life being frequently definable as discomfort bordering on terror. The sins of human selfishness (the covetous man; the parents who think of themselves before the child) and the often cruel randomness of life (the man with a deformity condition) themselves become as terrifying as the black abyss in which Laura's unlucky prey find themselves. Scarlett Johansson's celebrity and sex appeal are recast as something, essentially, too good to be true, and between this film and last year's Her, it's fitting to see this talented woman finally reaping the fruits of her work in Lost in Translation (with the upcoming Luc Besson film Lucy, Under the Skin seems destined to be the central panel in an unofficial triptych of soul/body/mind), as good here as she has ever been, as capable of insect-like coldness as tender frailty.

A pair of scenes come as close to suggesting a character arc as anything else in a film with unspoken disdain for plot delivery, although, like everything else in this mad beast, they raise greater questions and deepen the surrounding mystery. An errant ant invites Laura's intense curiosity, her scrutiny later mirrored when she unexpectedly encounters her reflection, after a particularly shaping experience with humanity. The desire to know what lies behind our eyes is a uniting facet of existence, and therein her dawning realizations and autonomy lies...something, ineffable, beautiful, unforgettable. Metaphorically fertile and stripped of clutter, Glazer's achievement is pure cinema -- a philosophical line in the sand in a medium defined by such achievements. Under the Skin doesn't just affirm the movies' ability to draw us out of our worldview: it raises the bar. I can't wait to watch it five or six more times, at least.

Aug 10, 2013

Clear History (2013)

A stunningly unfunny comedy, Clear History's failure is all the more disheartening when one considers that it comes from the same minds that penned some of the finest episodes of both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. Nathan Flamm (Larry David, channeling his usual schtick) is an eccentric marketing executive with an upstart electric car company, but the name of their new product—“Howard,” inspired in part by the main character of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"—is so off-putting to him that he sees no choice but to sell back his share of the company and disassociate himself completely, a decision that becomes the focus of public ridicule when the car proves to be a raging, billion-dollar success. Ten years later, Flamm is in hiding on Martha's Vineyard (where the populace, oblivious to his embarrassing and financially ruinous history, knows him as Rolly DaVore) when his former boss, Jon, (Will Haney), buys a local property.

This scenario might have sufficed for a half-hour episode of television, but at feature length, it's stretched past the breaking point, and it's one not helped by the script's tendency to pass over ripe comedic opportunities for those of the obvious and uninspired variety. Given the film's blatant attempts to capitalize on David's long history of playing a socially graceless narcissist (as indicated by the script's assortment of awkward personal encounters, unfortunate coincidences, and typically David-esque pet peeves), it's somewhat astonishing when, after the invocation of Ayn Rand, Flamm's anger over the name Howard is revealed as entirely apolitical, instead proving to be merely a curmudgeon's petty reaction to something new, an unsubstantiated idea necessitated by the script to justify all that follows. Such pettiness is on display throughout, from the predictably structured setups and payoffs of the plot's disparate threads to the tossed-off and callous nature of most of the jokes (a long-gestating gag concerning the weight of Eva Mendez's character, Jennifer, feels particularly cruel) to the almost complete absence of a world with rules and consequences. One of the strengths of Curb Your Enthusiasm was its creation of situations in which David's guilt or innocence was largely beside the point, and the hilarity of his existential frustration worked because of a distinct moral context that questioned the nature of justice. Clear History, by contrast, exists in an arbitrary moral void.

That David manages to score a few laughs throughout is a testament to his innate talent as a comedian, but the script's rehashing of situations, gags and personal hang-ups (some of them dating as far back as the Larry David persona's original incarnation in Seinfeld's George Costanza) to such diminishing returns suggests that a different kind of characterization was called for this time around. Ostensibly, we're supposed to be rooting for Flamm, and while many a successful dark comedy has put far more reprehensible characters in the role of protagonist, Clear History's shorthanded characterizations and ethical vacuum prove so flaccid that it fails even if one views it as a nihilistic statement. Among the largely wasted cast, only Michael Keaton, as a grizzly islander with an appetite for destruction, walks away with his dignity intact, while it's roundly embarrassing to see talent like Philip Baker Hall and J.B. Smoove spinning their tires. On top of it all, the film simply looks banal and dreary, another surprising disappointment given director Greg Mottola's usual flair for infusing life and energy into otherwise visually sparse locations. Clear History fulfills the mantra that Seinfeld cheekily embraced, i.e. it's a film about nothing. Enthusiasm, curbed.