Saturday, December 3, 2011

Capsule Reviews Which Are Actually Rather Long

The Hunter (d. Buzz Kulik) - What would have been terrific is if Steve McQueen's last film before his death in 1980 at age 50 had been really great. Or that he'd not died in the first place, but keeping our wishes manageable, The Hunter could have been a tense and gripping, stripped down thriller in the The Driver mode, but instead it is, in fact, quite thoroughly bad. Based, I have to think with a great sense of freedom to stray from the known facts, on the career of real-life bounty hunter Ralph "Poppa" Thorson (McQueen, of course), The Hunter feels exactly like the kind of made-for-TV movie that was so common and popular back in those days, and in fact director Buzz Kulik's best-known and easily most enduring work was on the made-for-TV Brian's Song. There's a loose, yet stitched together quality to The Hunter, as it clumsily tries to weave together elements of Thorson's private life -- which includes a former bounty, played by Levar Burton, he let off the hook because the young man is gadget-oriented and can fix things -- as an old-school macho fellow caught up in his modern-day lady's (the ever-delightful Kathryn Harrold) requests to accompany her pregnant self to this new thing they have called "Lamaze classes", and his life as a hardboiled skip tracer.

To underline the disparity, Kulik and his screenwriters (including Peter Hyams who, say what you want, wrote some good shit for Hal Holbrook to say in Capricorn One) toss in a lot of comic relief, mainly of the slapstick variety. The problem is, unlike Paul Newman, McQueen, who at this point was starting to age into Richard Widmark, did not possess a natural gift for comedy, so there's lots of mugging and clownish weariness. Add to that some of the most tedious action scenes, which stem from the weirdly anemic "bounty hunter" portion of our plot, I've ever seen, to the point where a chase through the city made me think "Shit is this still going on?", and you, like me, will soon find yourself feeling sort of depressed.

Hunger (d. Steve McQueen) - There's a -- I don't know what you'd call it, but it's a formula of movie dialogue that involves one character asking another character to explain something, usually a motivation, and the character being asked responds with an anecdote meant to hint at an answer without directly answering. So you'll have somebody say "Why did you become a cop?" and the cop will respond with something that begins "When I was seven years old, my dad got me a dog..." Although I don't doubt that writers I like have used this construction, I nevertheless hate it pretty profoundly. It doesn't have the stones to be stylized, and doesn't have the ear to be naturalistic. It pretends to be the latter, without realizing that nobody speaks in such naked metaphors, nor are they typically able to dredge up wonderfully illustrative childhood anecdotes for any occasion.

Whether I'm alone in hating this or not, I don't know, but I do think it's significant that it turns up in Hunger, a completely different Steve McQueen's 2008 film about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the hunger strike that ended his life in 1981 while he was imprisoned by the English government for...well, Hunger doesn't really worry about what for. It's rather more interested in transforming Sands' suffering into something religious -- the wasting away of his body (and what did Michael Fassbender do to himself here!?) takes on the holy aura of thorny crowns and spear wounds in the side. What Sands was in prison for had to do with his work in the Provisional IRA, the most brutal wing of Ireland's Republican terrorists through the late 60s, all of the 70s, and much of the 80s. No actual violent acts were ever pinned to Sands, but many gun charges were, and if anyone thinks that Sands wasn't at least an accomplice to violent terrorist acts, well, they'll probably be walking into an open manhole pretty soon.

None of this much matters, I guess, or according to some, as Hunger is less about politics than it is just a series of mostly quiet emotional imagery that records the build to Sands's decision, and the falling away of his body as he carries through with it. Except that all the clips of Margaret Thatcher speaking, it would seem, coldly about the hunger strike, in what is very nearly a silent film, is clearly about something else again.

Why the suffering on display in Hunger, the very explicit martyrdom, did not ping in the brains of critics as another example of what some of them regarded as crazed masochism in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I couldn't say, because the religion that was once at the heart of the Troubles, though subsequently got fogged up by centuries' worth of other things, is by no means absent from Hunger. But here there's a political element to the core story, without adding a filmmaker's bias, that is easy for some to hang their hats on. And when a priest (Liam Cunningham) pushes Sands for the basic truth behind his decision to starve himself to death and Sands responds with some creative writing bullshit about a foal he had to put out of its misery, an act of mercy which got him in trouble with a schoolmaster, everything just starts to make sense, doesn't it? Or doesn't it? The problems of Northern Ireland did not get easier as time went on. An easy moral stance changed over the decades so that a noble end was being sought through monstrous acts, and to defend the cause started to feel like you were defending the acts. Meanwhile, Hunger is a film that tries to impose on that time a very ugly clarity.

Dark of the Sun (d. Jack Cardiff) - On the subject of morality, legendary cinematographer and occasional director Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun, adapted from a novel by Wilbur Smith, immerses itself in the very rich moral swamp of mercenary armies. Made in 1968, the film is the kind of "men on a mission" movie that Quentin Tarantino claimed was his inspiration for Inglourious Basterds, even though that's not what that movie turned out to be. As deeply as I love Tarantino's film, there is a part of me, the part that routinely looks gift horses in their mouths, that wishes I could see a film all about the Basterds and their various adventures, because brother, films like Dark of the Sun ain't nothing to sneeze at. Anyway, Tarantino did go so far as to borrow parts of Jacques Loussier's score for his World War II epic, not to mention Dark of the Sun's star, Rod "Brief 'Im" Taylor, who not only costars here with Jim Brown, but reunites with his Time Machine costar Yvette Mimieux. The Taylor/Brown pairing turns out to be more significant, as Taylor's Captain Curry is hired by shady government and business types to ostensibly save a group of Congolese civilians from bands of marauders, but also to maybe grab that bag full of millions of dollars worth of diamonds while you're at it.

As someone who has a particular interest in cinematic violence, I'm fascinated by that curious part of the late 1960s from which Dark of the Sun comes, when an action film might include a shot of someone spraying a crowd of bad guys with a machine gun, each of whom clutch their chest and fall bloodlessly, no more traumatic to audiences than anything you might have seen from post-Code Hollywood, and then one second later show a guy getting stabbed in the face with a burning torch. If the violence in this film settles into anything, it settles into brutality, as was becoming the style at the time. Along with that, of course, must come the moral hand-wringing. On one hand, there's a good reason for that, as Jim Brown's Ruffo, Curry's right-hand-man, actually originally hails from the Congo, and would like their mission to be about something more than making money, and wants his willfully cynical friend to understand that. On the other hand, one of the mercenaries that hitches himself to their mission is actually an ex-Nazi, and when he causes the film to take a tragic turn late in the story, this leads to one of the better examples of someone clouding up and raining all over somebody else I've seen in a while, it also asks me to feel regret after the fact. Which is a little bit disingenuous, actually, and regardless the regret never took hold in me. But even before any of that happened, I wanted to know why in the world the team needed an ex-Nazi who was not just willing, but eager, to murder people with a chainsaw?

Still a good flick, though...

Night Creatures (d. Peter Graham Scott) - I've always been interested in the lesser known horror films from Hammer Studios, and this one certainly counts, despite starring Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Reed, for once in his life, doesn't seem like he's about to start foaming from his mouth and smashing whiskey bottles over his head, and in fact plays the romantic lead in this rather curious story about a small English seaside village, during the 18th century, whose peaceful existence is disrupted by government officials, headed by Patrick Allen's Capt. Collier, who believe the village is smuggling hootch. Mix this with a subplot about the Marsh Phantoms, a wholly-unconvincing looking hoard of night-demons, I guess, who reportedly bring the unwary to a marshy grave, and the dishonorable Mr. Ash (Martin Benson), whose willingness to do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants, be it money or Imogene (Yvonne Romain), Reed's fiancee', jeopardizes the whole village. Which is smuggling hootch, by the way, as overseen by Rev. Blyss (Cushing) which is an interesting early revelation, and what's all this about the pirate, Captain Clegg, who is often heard about but never seen?

Certain plot elements function sort of as twists but are not at all hard to see looming, but none of that matters. Night Creatures seems to be about too many disparate things in the beginning, but winds up as entirely entertaining, and even unpredictable, obvious twists notwithstanding. What transpires as a result of those twists is both organic and emotional and somehow unforeseen. The damn thing just comes together. It does not aim as high as the best Hammer films, and what it is, in the end, is a yarn, but it's a damn good yarn, told by a crew of professionals, and boasting that great dusky blue stone look of, say, Brides of Dracula. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (d. Edgar Wright) - Edgar Wright's third film is simultaneously not as good as his previous two, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and miles more ambitious in terms of its visual style and scope. Based on a comic books series, my unfamiliarity with which somehow proves to me that I'm too much of a geek, and not enough of a geek, to really belong anywhere in this crazy, lonely old world, by Bryan Lee O'Malley, it's about Scott Pilgrim's (Michael Cera) love life, the turmoils of which are ordinary at their core, but heightened into the world of superhero comics and video games so that in order to cement his relationship with Ramona Flowers (a, let's face it, completely fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams, as far as he knows, he has to defeat her seven ex-significant others in Mortal Kombat-style battle. Much of this is quite funny (this may seem like nothing to you, but Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World includes the funniest washing of a character's hands after they've urinated that has ever been put on screen), and the film, not just shot but also set in Toronto, has a nice, unique look that is both snowy in an everyday sort of way, and in the mildly stylized way of a comic panel. Wright really knows what he's doing in terms of transplanting the feel of reading a comic book, moving one's eyes across the panels, to film, with such seemingly simple ideas as using sound effects that you both hear and "see", which arc into the next scene. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

But the film also does sort of wear out its welcome. The "seven exes" thing loses its verve after a couple, or a few, or anyway that verve is scattered, to the point that they arbitrarily and even wearily double up on the exes towards the end. And while some of the humor is delightfully anti-hipster (every character in the film being a member of that species), it is occasionally as tone-deaf as any hipster you might imagine. For instance, ironic Bollywood is never going to be welcome. Still, Michael Cera, whose casting was the cause of some controversy by the comic's fans at the time, was very good. Maybe my ignorance is helping me immeasurably here, but in terms of the movie, it's the movie that counts, right? And anyway, if you think Cera in this film is simply rehashing George Michael from Arrested Development, then you might be losing your ability to tell the difference between two different things.

As a final kudos, I would like to note that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, with the following exchange from Scott and Ramona's first date, captures male thought patterns about as well as I've ever seen:

Ramona: I think an act of God is as good an excuse for a bad date as any.
Scott: This was a date?
Ramona: Did I say date? It was a slip of the tongue.
Scott: Tongue...


Greg F. said...

Geez, why was this a "capsule" post? Why didn't you just do five separate posts over the next two weeks? Then you wouldn't have to worry about running out of things to write about. You're probably wondering why I don't do capsule reviews. Well...

When I was ten, my best friend's mother was in a car accident. He had to go to the hospital and I said I'd take care of his dog while he was gone. At first, it was kind of nice. The dog was a black lab and we got along great and I didn't have a pet myself so it was kind of like having a pet but not really, you know? So his mom's gets worse and my friend - Timmy was his name, by the way - Timmy says, "Greg, can you take the dog to your house for a while? I don't know what's going to happen." "Sure," I says, "no problem."

So I get the dog to my house - the dog's name is Coco, by the way - so I get Coco to my house and she starts freaking out. I'm like, "Coco, calm down! It's just a different house!" and Coco says, "Ruff! Ruff, ruff, ruff!" So I'm like, "Shit, this isn't working." I figure I'll give Coco some food, she'll calm down and everything will be okay. Only thing is, I didn't bring the food bag. Shit, right? So, I don't know what to give Coco. Do I give her a full meal of something from the fridge or do I give her a little of this, a little of that, you know, see what she likes. So I go with that option. I take some chips, some cheese, some Hormel chili, some Rotel and some sweetened condensed milk and I put it in a big bucket for her and just like I hoped, she calms down and starts eating.

Ten minutes later, she's puking everywhere. I've never made a sample platter again.

bill r. said...

[I stare at Greg with total, stunned, but mute understanding. The story cuts too deep for words. Finally I nod, stand up, and leave the room.]

Greg F. said...

And scene.

Now then, I saw Hunter when it came out and all I remember is Steve McQueen in a cornfield on a tractor, or he's being chased by a tractor. Then a bomb or grenade or something goes off and he flies through the air. That's it. I remember nothing else so... I guess it probably suck pretty bad.

Night Creatures looks great but it's not a favorite Hammer or Cushing film for me. I do like it, just not enough to want to own it and watch it again and again. But I do like the look and feel very much.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Man did I hate that movie. Pretty much every second. So I guess we're on different sides there. I can see how certain jokes would go over well with certain audiences and how the frenetic look and pacing might make it enticing for the audience it's intended for, so I don't think it's incompetent, just very specialized. I think the best movies are for everyone and movies for very specific audiences are good for a particular group and time and have a limited shelf life.

Didn't see Hunger. Don't really care to.

Haven't seen Dark Side either but kind of want to.

And there you have it.

bill r. said...

You're close on THE HUNTER. He's on the tractor chasing some guys who are in a car, which explodes for reasons that elude me. It's a pretty rotten movie, sadly. The closing credits are exactly like that of a TV show from the same era.

NIGHT CREATURES isn't a masterpiece or anything, but I just noticed how much more involved I became as it went along. I thought it was a "good time", and it was part of a Hammer film collection I picked up a while ago, one that also has BRIDES OF DRACULA, which, if I'm not mistaken, is a favorite of yours.

I sort of assumed, just while idly thinking about it, that you would not enjoy SCOTT PILGRIM. The thing is, the specialized audience you refer to, I'm not really a part of it. In age, I'm right there, or close enough, but my interest in the stuff the characters are into was only glancing, for the most part. Even when I was heavy into comics, or heavy for me anyway, it was mostly Alan Moore and Batman. I just think it's about 75% entertaining, the movie I mean, and an interesting look into what Edgar Wright has in his arsenal.

You'll probably like DARK OF THE SUN about as much and in the same way as I did.

I'm sort of disappointed in myself for talking almost not at all about HUNGER's filmmaking, so maybe you should see it, I don't know, but these are capsule reviews!

Greg F. said...

Yeah, I love BRIDES OF DRACULA. NIGHT CREATURES does have the same beautiful look and feel, just not the vampires and no Van Helsing.