Monday, August 27, 2012

Awesomely Racist!

Can we talk about the "Red Dawn" remake? Can we talk about how it all seems like a joke from "The Critic" writ large? Can we laugh at this poster, which alleges that America will be protected by a couple of Australians, but no black or Hispanic representatives? But that they managed to "score" the kid from "Drake & Josh"?

Can we talk about how dubious it is that China would invade the US without being picked up by our radars? And how none of America's allies would help, in a modern post-9/11 world? Can we talk about how this fuels the fire that heats so much xenophobic fear-mongering over the inane threat of a capitalist takeover of American manufacturing?

And can we talk about how, when this film was finished, no one batted an eyelid to some voiceovers and digital alterations to change the Chinese villains to North Koreans? Can we talk about Hollywood just thinks a friendly NIP and tuck is all that separates Chinese and Korean people? Can we talk about Hollywood's continued belief that all Asians look alike? Can we talk about the time the Oscar voiceover guy announced the Best Picture win for "The Departed" by claiming it was based on a Japanese film, a mistake that can be solved by one second of Googling? Or maybe even renting "Infernal Affairs"?

I mean, can we talk about these things? Or is it all in good fun, for the sake of a few more generic explosions?

Monday, August 20, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Scott

I used to think “Domino” would be the last movie we would ever experience as a culture.

My feelings for the film, which felt apocalyptic, stemmed from the unpleasant experience of actually watching it. I saw the film gather supporters even after it was released to poor reviews and nonexistent box office, though I couldn’t imagine any of them would see it a second time, with its propulsive soundtrack, Tourette’s-level editing and irrelevant subplots involving tabloid talk shows and show business personalities obscuring that the story surrounding a sexy female bounty hunter.

To me, it seemed like the farthest point we could push the art form: the tacky sensibilities of a loud, violent, incoherent blockbuster marred with the hell of non-sequitier-based experimental filmmaking. Both styles were belligerent, in a way, the film stuffed with lens flare-equipped desert fantasies, cacophonous R-rated violence, bleached-out color schemes and actors seeming to exist only on the periphery of director Tony Scott’s canvas: Edgar Ramirez, as Domino’s (Keira Knightley) love interest, seemed like he was speaking his lines from another movie playing on a screen next door, desperately trying to sneak into this one.

Tony Scott, 68, passed on yesterday, ending his life through suicide. I only hear distant rumors, ones I half-pay attention to. Rumors that made it sound as if Scott was a typical Hollywood hotshot, not afraid of a party, even at an accelerated age. He had a reputation as being something of a wildcard: in contrast to taciturn, sly brother Ridley, Tony was the life of the party. It came across in his films, particularly contrasted against Ridley’s. The latter brother was focused on cerebral, poker-faced entertainments that placed a premium on size, scope, and seriousness. Tony’s pictures were always more than a little crude, outlandishly adolescent fantasies that skirted the edge of comedy, more focused on old-school masculinity than Ridley’s fascination with Big Ideas. More importantly, both spent a lot of studios’ money, and they used it to blow everything up.

My favorite Tony Scott film might be the gleefully ridiculous “The Last Boy Scout,” which features an opening scene where a linebacker fires a gun into the defense on the way to the end zone before ending his own life. Scott would make bombastic actioners, though in his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino and Shane Black (writer of “Boy Scout”), it’s clear he valued the written word, even if that word was ludicrous. “Boy Scout,” which is both overcomplicated, and eventually predicated on the plot twist of a bomb strapped to a football, certainly fit that definition.

Scott’s interest remained firmly in the story’s pyrotechnics, though the script has a number of smaller character moments, eccentric one-on-ones and even heart-to-hearts, and Scott never obscures the prose. For a big, crowd-pleasing action comedy, however, Scott was still able to enforce his will over it: it’s still quite ugly and unpleasant, a neo-nourish narrative where women are props to be demeaned, and men must rail against attacks on their sexuality through cars, guns, and sports. Considering the smirky, typically pissed performance from Bruce Willis, and a vulgar turn from Damon Wayans, it is entirely appropriate. “The Last Boy Scout” also has the most acidic opening of any nineties-era actioner, with that linebacker shootout contrasted with the deliriously catchy opening credits for “Friday Night Football,” mixing in the show’s entrance music with the film’s actual credits.

I didn’t care for Tony Scott‘s work, but one couldn’t deny the impressive toolbox he brought to each set. In his early days, he cannily worked within the Simpson-Bruckheimer model to add a nasty R-rated edge to “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” and to contribute the attitudinal sheen that made “Top Gun” a favorite of all movie-loving alpha males. The turning point probably came at his commercial peak, teaming with Quentin Tarantino for the colorful “Badlands” takeoff “True Romance” and the propulsive Naval thriller “Crimson Tide” (allegedly co-scripted by an unbilled Tarantino). He’s had biggest hits than “Romance,” though no film more properly captured the Tony Scott aesthetic -- playfully experimental, gleefully nihilistic, and often painfully violent and vulgar. In a PG-13 era, Tony Scott was still proudly R-rated, and when you entered his world, you knew bodies would hit the floor, accompanied by a flurry of f-bombs.

Though it’s a ridiculous film, “The Fan” represents a crucial step in Scott’s evolution. The tale of a baseball superstar and the fan that wouldn’t let go was often ridiculously overheated, Scott fracturing the visual vocabulary of the film as knife salesman (of course) Gil Renard’s psyche breaks, pushed even farther by an incessant Nine Inch Nails score. And yet, “The Fan” (a vast improvement over a joke of a best-seller) features some of the best performances of any of Scott’s films: Wesley Snipes is wonderfully paranoid as a harried superstar who would always be looking over his shoulder even if there wasn’t a killer pursuing him. And De Niro brings unexpected dimensions to a cliché of a character, and his scenes with Snipes’ Bobby Rayburn crackle with a mixture of contempt, hero worship, and mental imbalance.

Scott’s editing techniques eventually became more abrasive, more abstract. “Man On Fire” came in 2004, pushing his aesthetics against a pedestrian Mandingo-With-A-Gun storyline and creating what some may consider a post-action film. Much of the violence occurs offscreen, though a large portion of it is seen multiple times refracted against itself, playing with the notion of onscreen time and geography. Appropriately, “Man On Fire” has the sort of narrow-eyed view of Mexico shared by the darkly comic Tilda Swinton thriller “Julia,” the only difference being the weirdly sweet message Scott places in the end credits thanking the film’s Mexico locations and praising them for being wonderful places, in spite of the hellholes we’ve just seen Denzel blast his way through.

Post-”Domino,” I had a dim view of the filmmaker, even though I appreciated that he toned down those stylistic perversions that littered that film. “Déjà Vu” was a dim actioner, though I concede it featured a few clever sci-fi action sequences likely similar to the ones film nerds anxiously await in next month’s “Looper.” And his last film, “Unstoppable,” is something I’ve seen probably five or six times already. I can tell you the progression of the plot, what occurs when, and how the story resolves itself, but little else, considering it seems like it’s always on in the background on HBO. For Scott, I feel that’s a step up.

He had always threatened to make a more “contemporary” remake of “The Warriors,” an idea I thought came from a bankrupt mind. In a similar vein, I found it audacious that he would attempt to remake “The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.” To this day, I have not seen his version of the film, though I know it can never replace the matchup of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, nor could it come close to the all-timer of a score by David Shire. Perhaps I held Scott in contempt. More than likely, I was afraid he had made a cruder, more violent, more vulgar version of the source material. Perhaps I have always been afraid I might secretly like it.

At this point, it’s difficult for me to process this, knowing that Scott, for all his questionable artistic impulses, was a large part of the contemporary film community. My gut reaction is to find “Domino” again, and to pair it with Godard’s “Film Socialisme.” It’s an appropriate time to consider that perhaps the man may have been more ahead of his time than we thought.

Rest in peace.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Verisimilitude Via Violence

Despite the chit-chat in nerd circles (of which I am most definitely a member), I waited until the second day of release to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” instead of being packed in a can with fellow sardines to catch the anticipated midnight showing. Like many others, I watched as the film took on another light, instantly infamous due to the actions of a violent young man who wanted all the world’s attention, and had no qualms about blood on his hands. To simply experience “the text” upon seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” would have been dishonest -- this film had inspired a very violent reaction from a disturbed mind, taking the lives of twelve innocent moviegoers.

To say the man, who will not be mentioned here, was not influenced by “The Dark Knight Rises,” which he had yet to view, would be inaccurate. Like many of today’s blockbusters, the imagery of the film had been plastered all over television and newspaper ads: Bridges exploding, a bruised and battered Bruce Wayne, missiles and gunfire, and a claw-faced terrorist villain. Furthermore, “The Dark Knight Rises,” as entertaining as it may be in a superficial sense, is part of today’s new Cultural Cinematic Relevance, where sequels, comic book movies and cartoons rule the box office and therefore the popular conversation. Films about adult subjects, films that even attempt to approach unpredictability, have been reduced to a “niche.” Whereas, apparently everyone likes Batman, if the record-breaking grosses are evidence enough. As surprising as “The Dark Knight Rises” can be during it’s extravagantly long runtime, the fans know full well that the toys go back in the box. The illusion of “spoilers” has never been more ridiculous than it is now, when films merely exist to set up sequels, television shows, and comic books -- you don’t have to see “The Dark Knight Rises” to see “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Regardless, it is the ephemera of Batman that does, and will always personally attract me to the character. The idea of a dark avenger with a flawed moral code, the larger-than-life villains, the opportunity for exciting visuals and propulsive, eclectic music (from Nathan Riddle to Danny Elfman to Christopher Drake, Batman inspires the best in certain composers), there’s much that I find enjoyable about Batman, and why I hope they would keep making films about the character. And perhaps it’s that ever-popular fantasy, the idea that you can solve problems by punching them into submission - Christopher Nolan’s movies, for a brief moment, hinted at another approach, but perhaps it was an illusion of sorts.

So of course the tragedy of those events in Aurora weighed upon my mind, but they did not deter my enthusiasm for the close to the “Batman” series. I was most excited by the insinuations from “The Dark Knight,” which in hindsight should have probably ended the series -- that evil is deeply rooted within corruption and incompetence of systems over the course of years, that Batman was poetically trapped in a Moebius strip of violence of his own design, and that Batman would soon have to make the choice between the needs of the many, and his own regretful self-preservation. These very concepts seemed contradictory not only to the many-decade existence of the character, but the notion of serialized storytelling itself. I was hoping Mr. Nolan would not put the toys back in the box.

Instead, a sense of self-loathing washed over me as the final credits rolled, and my thoughts immediately rushed to the shooter in Aurora. And I realized: yes, I get it. I got the pit of despair that he must have found himself inside when his psyche attached himself to the many violent moments of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I don’t believe in the necessity of the MPAA while this world still has, you know, parents, though I couldn’t help but label the images in the film far too intense and hostile for an idle and/or underdeveloped mind, particularly the thirteen-to-sixteen year olds directly targeted by the film’s commercial-friendly PG-13 rating (to say nothing of the adults who haven’t quite evolved past that age bracket). The images captured by Mr. Nolan’s canvass include ruthless, dehabilitating physical violence, the mass destruction of a major metropolitan city (sometimes New York, sometimes Pittsburgh, according to shooting locations), visceral looting and pillaging done by “common citizens” and the ritualistic hanging of cops from a suspended bridge.  As the old saying goes, when it comes to ratings, you can stab a breast, but you can’t grab a breast.

What was lost on me was the greater message, the one that you’re meant to take home, to make you question the world, to challenge you and improve your worldview as a human being. There are grays within Nolan’s Batman universe, no doubt, but it’s contrasted against the overt darkness of the film’s carefully-labeled antagonists. “The Dark Knight Rises” presents a “conclusion” to the series, though the greatest punishment goes to the colorful villains Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, the Joker, Bane and Harvey Two-Face. All had philosophies that seemed to be “challenging” to a certain movie going crowd, though none stood up to scrutiny, as all promoted viewpoints rooted in nihilism and faithlessness. They aren’t enemies, they are Villains, and there’s not a single moment where the similarly tunnel-visioned Batman, ostensibly our eyes and ears in this series, entertains their thoughts.

What was exciting as a suggestion in “Batman Begins” was that the League of Shadows had polluted Gotham’s infrastructure, the suggestion being that lowered expectations and administrative insecurities would be the city’s downfall -- the fallacies of man, not the machinations of popular blockbuster filmmaking. Except here we are in “The Dark Knight Rises,” where aside from our main characters, superheroes and super villains plus cops, no one really has a line, and the fate of these voiceless “innocents” lies in the hand of that ever-popular MacGuffin, the bomb that’s about to explode©. Batman leaves the city limits (escaping from “certain death,” natch) and we’re to assume that, after decades of preparation, the League of Shadows is defeated in a massive scrum in the streets with the Gotham PD, and they never threaten the city again. Thus, Nolan gets the ending he desires, closure for the story of Bruce Wayne, and the public gets what it craves -- the tease of an ongoing story and the flattery that comes with recognizing the source material, as Robin prepares to be the next man to climb into the bat suit.

The questionable intentions of Nolan’s trilogy-closer (as well as the politics, which defenders have called “observational” in lieu of “shapeless”) hit me hardest, however, during the sequences of violence. The opening brawl between Batman and Bane is a recreation of a battle between the two of them in the “Knightfall” storyline, and in both itinerations, Batman is far outclassed, and beat to within an inch of his life. Of course, my major discomfort with this sequence is that I’ve grown up with Batman, I’ve watched the movies and TV shows, and read the comics. I experience zero joy in seeing him dismantled so thoroughly, given a beating that surely would result in brain damage. As Batman’s possibly-unconscious head lies against the ground, eyes closed, Bane delivers two more forceful blows, creating the visual of his metallic mask caving in, not unlike a human skull. Bane then takes Batman over his head and delivers his spinal cord into the musclebound villain’s knee, crippling the hero. Points for fidelity to the source, but at what price?

Later, Bane takes control of the city, setting off a series of bombs that splinter the streets of Gotham and sever all ties with the mainland, turning the city into an island. Using mostly practical effects, “The Dark Knight Rises” uses these sequences to make it look as if Hell is swallowing the city whole, annihilating Gotham’s infrastructure in some of the most realistic explosion effects ever put to film. During the tragedy and loss at the heart of “The Dark Knight,” there remained that propulsive, exciting energy that made you sit up, and wonder how our characters were going to survive. In “Rises,” as Bane declares martial law over a city pulverized by raw force, my stomach sank. I’m not certain if that was the visceral nature of Nolan’s editing and directing this sequence, or it was my discomfort in seeing such evocative, upsetting images. To have been a New Yorker on September 11th is to gaze askew at these sorts of things.

What’s unfortunate, and somewhat sickening, is that at this point, Batman is marginalized, away on another continent. Our eyes and ears to this tragic event are merely the cops, some of who remain unfazed, some who merely take this disaster as an immediate call to action. How are the people reacting to this tragedy? How do the regular citizens of the city act towards the masked killer who just decimated the city, snapped a man’s neck in front of their eyes, and blown up the mayor? The same man who taunts Bruce about how he’ll use “hope” and generate some half-hearted rhetoric to mask his actions as class warfare? This is a crucial point: Bane using crowd-pleasing, anarchist political language to fuel the people, and not once do we see the (expected) response of, “This guy is a terrorist and he’s full of garbage,” or even the, “Let’s side with him, I like this sentiment” point of view?

Nolan, naturally, seems addicted to the adrenaline rush of showing us scenes of absolute desolation, murder, riots and casual violence. But he hides the natural human reaction, and obscures even the most troubling moment: the cops, who have been trapped underground (don’t ask) for five months, emerge and engage in an all-out street brawl with assorted convicts, League Of Shadows operatives, and the random (how many?) rioters and looters. As we move away from the action, we’re meant to assume that, in the middle of this ugly, lawless battle (probably the most significant moment in the entire storyline, if we’re an onlooker from another city), the cops trade in protocol for some broodthirsty punch-ups with goons. And, of course, win. Does Nolan show us the aftermath of this vicious donnybrook? No, but when we return to Gotham, we see the city’s cops have thoughtfully erected a statue dedicated to Batman. Which says everything you need to know about what Nolan thinks of the violence towards the silent people of Gotham.

Weeks later, I caught a screening for another franchise picture, “The Bourne Legacy,” an adequate, unnecessary extension of the “Bourne Identity” universe. With the action serviceable, and the plot less so (and that’s the order they come in, with regards to this), it’s difficult not to view the film as Jason Bourne Dinner Theater. Yet another installment of appealing, nondescript avatar of violence on the run while skilled character actors yell coordinates from a control room, this time in a post-Bush environment. The film, directed by Tony Gilroy, is not without it’s pleasures: you might think Jeremy Renner is a Streisand, but he’s a quietly compelling mixture of Tom Cruise (driven, diminutive) and Charles Bronson (battle-weary, sarcastic), while Rachel Weisz wears a pair of glasses that makes her resemble a young Isabelle Adjani, ignoring the fact that her role in the narrative is to do and say anything requested of her by our brooding lead.

The most affecting sequence in the film, however, barely advances the plot. Weisz’ character is a scientist in charge of ensuring the meds taken by all super-super secret agents are of the right dosage, though she spends her days in labs quietly, professionally arranging medications for a program she does not question. Because of the events of the last film in the series, however, the shadowy organization behind this soldier-enhancement program is attempting to cover up loose ends and eliminate any relationships with outside sources, particularly specific pharmaceutical organizations.

Somehow, this means that there’s some sort of built-in trigger inside a mild-mannered lab coat played by Emmy winner Zeljko Ivanec. Once he gets the main scientists in the same room, he calmly enters. No one notices him, and the propulsive score drops out, as he begins to walk to each corner of the room, shutting all doors and carefully removing the handles. Not a single person in the lab realizes something’s amiss, but as soon as the doors are shut, Ivanec’s character removes a gun from his pockets and begins to coldly execute each person in the room, one by one. The soundtrack of the sequence are screams of agony, thick gunshots, and shoes banging against the floor in futile attempts to stay alive.

The scene lasts a good five minutes, and it’s a testament to Gilroy’s skill that it’s an upsetting, exceptionally tense moment in the picture. But “skill” cannot be the bottom line of a scene that serves little purpose to the narrative other than to shock and disturb the audience, simply to establish that Rachel Weisz has now become a target. In a bubble, this moment is excessively unpleasant, ending with Ivanec’s own suicide as entering policemen watch, and keeping the viewer on their toes for the next hour. But it is not in a bubble, and an already-disturbing moment is accentuated by the realization that the shooter from Aurora probably engaged in the same passionless murder, the same silent resolve, the same caustic, laidback eliminating of people as “assets.” Of course there’s nothing in the film proper to give the scene an added context, save for the idea of the rogue corporations at play twisting the facts of the event for media consumption. In other words, following up the vicious executions with nihilism.

Maybe it’s the advancement of new technologies, or the twenty four hour news cycle. I don’t know. Maybe this, maybe that, who cares? I’m never going to stop going to the movies proper -- in fact, I probably have significantly more bloodlust than the average audience-goer, particularly with my own personal collection of horror and action films. Right now, however, it feels like filmmakers such as Chris Nolan and Tony Gilroy are trying to recreate the reality of violence in their films in ways previous filmmakers had not, and the only element to gain from that is their hopes that the audience finds it familiar. Unfortunately, it is familiar, and I wish it were not.