December 20, 2011

genre 2011

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.


Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.


Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.


I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”


The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.


Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.


The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.


Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).


Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.


The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive AngryWreckedBurke & Hare (which I wrote about here).


July 7, 2009

Steven Soderbergh’s baseball statistics movie Moneyball was shelved by Sony a few weeks back, mere days before shooting was to begin. Budgeted at $57 million and with Brad Pitt slated as the lead, its abandonment seemed to signal that mid-range, artistically ambitious projects will suffer the most in the current financial crisis. As ace Variety blogger Anne Thompson has noted, “Hollywood is moving in two simultaneous directions: behemoth event pics, and smaller personal films — with little middle ground.” One would expect that along with Soderbergh, Michael Mann and David Fincher will find it increasingly difficult to get their visions onto the screen. This is lamentable, regardless of your opinion of the filmmakers (I’m partial to Fincher, but an admirer of all), who each bring an ambitious pop sensibility to the screen. But what of the genre directors? These mid to low-budgeted spectacles (the Transporters, House Bunnies, and Hangovers) will always be cranked out, and will generally be profitable. If nothing else, the espousers of the auteur theory taught us to ignore the boundary between “high” and “low” art, to scavenge in every nook and cranny of the American cinema for possible artistry.

The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab expands Thompson’s reasoned analysis into a confusing screed about the lack of “great American directors”, and he ignores genre films as well. Below the fold I offer a list of my favorite contemporary genre operators, a group of under-the-radar auteurs and purveyors of quality pulp. First though, I have to take Aftab to task. Aside from the fact that he lists 20 or so “great” directors in his own piece, he clearly has no idea what an “auteur” is. His definition: “a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them.” He goes on to say that after the auteur theory hit, “Suddenly, it was the director rather than the producer, the studio or the lead actor who became the star.” Aside from the fact that this is blatantly false (only Hitchcock could be considered a “star”, everyone else the New Wavers or Sarris championed were anonymous genre operators: Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller), it never discusses the films themselves, only their popularity.

He equates auteur status with box-office success, and so he has little interest in Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson, because “none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.” The ignorance of this line is breathtaking – a studio head couldn’t have encapsulated the triumph of commerce over art better.  Nothing tops the line in his discussion of Judd Apatow though….witness: “It’s unusual for a comedy director to gain auteur status…”. Yes, if you ignore Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges….

That’s enough negativity for one post. Let’s think pretty thoughts – ones involving bodily fluids, but pretty nonetheless. This list is not supposed to act as a counterweight to Hollywood doomsaying. I agree that the majority of Hollywood’s output has suffered terribly since the studio days, and that kind of effortless craft is probably never to return. Consider this an addendum to Sarris’ chapter in THE AMERICAN CINEMA on “Subjects for Further Research”, a hodgepodge of encouraging voices from the disreputable realms of the action, comedy, and horror realms, and in no way tracking any trends. Just a few names I’ve gained plenty of pleasure from on the lower end of the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, and those that will continue to reside in-between the “behemoth event pics and smaller personal films”. These guys (and girl) make up the ignored middle ground.

1. Adam McKay (Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008)):

Adam McKay has a clear directorial personality and style: he places emphases on group improvisation and the psychoses of men in arrested development. His comedy skews anarchic and prefers digression to clean narrative lines. He’s the only true inheritor of the Marx Brothers’ manically performative aesthetic, even their relatively lax visual style. Absurdities build up until they burst out in insane setpieces (the anchorman street fight, the Mountain Dew-sponsored dinner, the Catalina Wine Mixer). Step Brothers is the purest distillation of his aesthetic thus far. Directed best episode (#5) of Eastbound and Down. Curious to see how a film without Will Ferrell would turn out…

2. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank (2006); Crank: High Voltage (2009)):

The cleverest action-film fanboys on the screen (apologies to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino). The two Crank films are marketed as action films but end up as comedies about the action genre. The plot in both concerns Chev Chelios’ heart failure. In the first he needs shots of adrenaline to stay alive, in the second, shocks of electricity. Both reflect on the audience’s need for constant titillation, and do so in resourceful ways. Jason Statham proves to be a deft deliverer of wisecracks and pratfalls, as he shimmies to “Achy Breaky Heart” or tumbles onto a horse track. Sequel is funnier, less moving than the original. Next up for them is Gamer (2009).

3. Peyton Reed (Bring it On (2000), Down With Love (2003), The Break-Up (2006), Yes Man (2008)):

By far the most successful director on this list, he’s possibly the most unknown. The only director who could resurrect the romantic comedy as a viable genre. Had the gall to end The Break-Up with an actual break up, as well as filming arguments with bite and verve. Handles female performers well: see Kirsten Dunst’s exuberant performance in Bring it On and Renee Zellwegger’s last charming turn in Down With Love (including a bravado 3 minute or so monlogue). Shows a talent for brisk pacing and actual witty dialogue. Have yet to see Yes Man.

4. Jessica Bendinger (Stick It (2006)):

She’s only directed one film, but it shows a flair for Busby Berkeley-esque montages of bodies in motion as well as other offhanded bits of visual wit, like when the lead gymnast blocks out her annoying competitor in the background by blotting her out with her sneaker in extreme close-up. Not to mention the exuberant performances by a slew of unknown teen girls in Jeff Bridges’ struggling gymnast camp. And to further not mention the strikingly visualized theme of girls taking power over their own bodies in the beautifully anti-climactic finale. Bendinger primarily made her mark as a screenwriter and script doctor, having her hands in Bring it On (her debut), Mean Girls, Sex and the City, Freaky Friday, Hitch, among others.  Stick It is superior to all of her written workdespite its modest box office returns, and I dearly hope she’s allowed to make another mid-range teen film soon. Her first book will be published in November, a paranormal romance called The Seven Rays.

5. Ti West (The Roost (2005), Trigger Man (2007), The House of the Devil (2009)):

In thrall to 80s horror without devolving into camp, Ti West makes solidly unpretentious scare films that actually take the time to build tension. Trigger Mancreates suspense out of a few guys in the Delaware woods, the sound of gunshots, and gallons of fake blood. Impressive scenes of wandering, small talk, getting to know you stuff. The kind of laid back character work needed to lay the hammer down later (Full disclosure: I work for Kino, the company that put this out on DVD). James Whale knew this, John Carpenter knew this, and now apparently, this indie director knows it too. The House of the Devil (image left) was picked up by Magnet Releasing (a subsidiary of Magnolia), a satan-worshipper film that bewtiches for its set design and performances as much for its gore. The long delayed sequel to Cabin Feveris still in post-production, and here’s hoping he won’t have to cut his films to ribbons upon his entree to Hollywood.