Sunday, January 21, 2024

70's Bonanza: Martha Coolidge's "Not a Pretty Picture"

The layers in Martha Coolidge's hybrid documentary "Not a Pretty Picture" are potent. The film deals with rape- not only that of the filmmaker herself in 1962, but the actress portraying her (a wonderful Michele Manenti) at that age is also a survivor of the same trauma. We watch as the film intercuts between Coolidge's fictionalized re-telling of the event as well as the deconstruction of the emotions swirling around the actors as they rehearse. Add to the fact that this film was made and released in the mid 1970's and one soon recognizes the vibrant and raw intention of a female filmmaker examining the culture of sexual abuse as a necessary addition to the New School of American filmmaking and one that belongs in the conversation alongside so many of her male counterparts whose visions of male corrosion are widely regarded as the best of the decade. "Not a Pretty Picture" is a masterful example that expulsion of the old guard was not exclusive to Coppola, Scorsese and Cimino.

Swaying back and forth between fiction and documentary, "Not s Pretty Picture" is quite harrowing in either form. As a fictional film, the specter of dangerous seduction hovers at the edge of the frame. Young Martha (Manenti) is drawn into a double date with another girl where the two (alongside three men, including the eventual perpetrator played by James Carrington) end up in a dilapidated New York loft whose central feature is a hole in the wall that leads into another room where young Martha will eventually be victimized. If watching the act itself played out in long form isn't crushing enough, Coolidge shrewdly intercuts the various conversations, rationalizations, and conflicted attempts of the actors to contextualize their actions around her acted film. It's this debate that sets "Not a Pretty Picture" apart from other personal essay films. Coolidge doesn't shy away from the varying degrees of guilt and acceptance. Even if actor Cunningham gives some feeble attempts at his character's actions, Coolidge allows the space for everyone. It's awkward at times. Strikingly painful at others. And while not a necessarily healing experience (as the final few moments of emotion on Coolidge's face exemplify), the film definitely feels like a quiet scream of simple pronunciation about the act that Coolidge needed to explore. That alone is worth this film being seen by as many as possible.


Wednesday, January 17, 2024

My Favorite Films of 2023

The full list can be found here: My Favorite Films of 2023 | Dallas Film Now., which has basically transported the more professional writing I'm currently doing. I don't want to forget this humble home, however.

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

The Best Non 2023 Films I Saw in 2023

11. The Mind Benders (1963) - Generally regarded as one of the first true paranoid thrillers, John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" dealt with the brainwashing of a Korean War POW (Laurence Harvey whose steely eyed presence seemed like the perfect tonic for an empty vessel) and his subsequent mission as a presidential assassin. It holds up even better today. Released just a year later in 1963, Basil Dearden's "The Mind Benders" certainly hasn't gotten the same acclaim as Frankenheimer's effort, but it's no less terrifying. I'd even argue it's a much more insidious example of the ability of one human to crack open and infect the brain of another human. In Dearden's stratosphere, the purpose isn't world domination, but simply the nature of suggestion in wielding power over another.... which plays havoc and begins the dissolution of a happy marriage. As he did a few years prior in Dearden's taboo breaking "Victim" (1961), Dirk Bogarde is the man placed in a precarious situation fighting for his very soul. Portraying Dr. Longman, Bogarde is a scientist involved in an experiment whose opening title card suggests the entire story is ripped from the annuls of American research documents involving isolation tanks and perception reduction. And if this doesn't sound so far out today where such tactics dot the fringe landscape of psychology, things don't start so well for one doctor involved in the experiment who rightly tosses himself off a moving train in the film's opening minutes. This abrupt shift from tangential science fiction elements feels odd at first, but once "The Mind Benders" settles on Longman and his wife's shifting power dynamic, the film's kitchen sink realism (a style dominating much of British cinema during this time) feels all the more powerful in showing how disruptive progressive science can be. He's not slated to kill a presidential candidate, but the final riverside boat party seems just as violent for the way he openly courts another woman (Wendy Craig) and flagrantly challenges the tenets of marriage. Longman's brainwashing may not be the equal of murder, but "The Mind Benders" makes a strong case that its something far more damaging. 


10. Bitter Innocence (1999) - Dominik Graf's "Bitter Innocence" twists about halfway through from a corporate thriller to a sweet love story borne out of the casual indifference and sexual violence men perpetrate on women. That the love forms between a twenty-something woman (Laura Tonke) and the young teen daughter (Mareike Lindenmeyer) trying to unravel the mystery her parents have immersed themselves in should come as no shock to those who've watched just a few of Graf's films. They are mostly love stories buried within a larger framework of genre. Last year's masterwork called "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" is one of the lushest romance film in years, buttressed against the backdrop of an encroaching Nazi evil. Situated firmly in the times it was made (1999), "Bitter Innocence" follows the same pattern as love is widdled out of the complicated yuppie mindset that those in the corporate world can get away with anything if their check book is large enough. But before we get to the central relationship of Vanessa and Eva, Graf's film wanders through the thriller realm when aggressive boss Larssen (Michael Mendle) threatens to destabilize the vague pharmaceutical company Andreas (Elmar Weppar) has been conducting research within for the past few years. Andreas' fears about the wolf Larssen are confirmed when he discovers him raping Vanessa behind closed doors. Working as a waitress for a catering company providing services at a company party, Andreas doesn't report (or even lift a finger to help) the vulnerable Vanessa, instead using the act to steal a file that may secure his employment..... which is a prickly move since Vanessa sees him dodge out without coming to any sort of chivalry rescue. With the visual style of a glistening television movie (Graf has careened through an array of features, both for the big and small screens) and a sense of rhythm like that of a soap opera, the film's themes of ravishing passions and high intrigue feel right at home with that lowbrow entertainment. But Graf's swirling ambition about the youth of the world being the most morally grounded figures in a world set on financial gain and personal advancement (and I didn't even mention the affairs!) fits right at home in the subversive tactics of a filmmaker who continually buries so much in his works. I look forward to carrying through with his expansive body of work.


9. Get Back
(2021) - There's a moment when we finally get the Beatles performing their modified rooftop concert as the local bobbies ascend on the band for noise complaints and Paul lets out a little "whoo" as they emerge in the doorway behind him. It's a candid moment in a 7-hour documentary stitched, polished, and restored from endless streams of audio and visual clips more than fifty years old, but it feels as vital as when it was compiled at the crescendo of Beatle Mania in 1969 and 1970. Again taking a lost relic from the past and revamping it for modern consumption, director Peter Jackson is making quite the name for himself as one of the most important film preservationists of our day. But, as he did with "They Shall Not Grow Old", "Get Back" is more than revivalism. It actually unearths sound and image from the dust heap of the past and makes it relevant. It's hard to say anything by the Beatles could be considered irrelevant (or especially the heartbreaking images of World War I), but that's the onward march of time with social media and the modern ways the younger generation consumes media and information. There's something to be said for the scratchy 16mm image, and with a documentary like "Get Back", hopefully the sound and appeal of the Beatles (and so many other relics) will never be relegated to the unkown medium abyss again. 


8. Another Man, Another Chance (1977) - Claude Lelouch's "Another Man, Another Chance" tells the parallel stories of westward expansion and immigration. Either one would be evocative on their own, but here, they wind together slowly.... beautifully... gently. Jeanne (Genevieve Bujold) and her photographer husband Francis (Francis Huster) flee 1870's France for the west. Already ensconced here as a veterinarian, but struggling to put together the pieces of a broken life, is David (James Caan). For a good portion of the film, Lelouch keeps the two stories close but separate. They exist in the same territory, but only mingle in the latter half of the film. And when they do, "Another Man, Another Chance" becomes less of a western and more of an amber hued love story borne out against the dusty terrain. It's always interesting to see how a European envisions the American West. Often more attuned to the sensibilities of survival and generational struggle than the law-and-disorder of our own representations (perhaps because the violence in European history goes back eons further than our own), Lelouch works in carefully timed, long handheld set ups and awesomely imagined natural lighting. Reminiscent of the intimate epics of Jan Troell, "Another Man, Another Chance" weaves a melodic tale of the west that feels much truer than any other attempt to reconcile the territories hard scrabbled existence.

7. Phantom Lady (1944) - Even though I admire the toughness of Robert Siodmak's perennial film noirs, "The Killers" (1946) and "Criss Cross" (1948), nothing quite prepared me for the formal, stylish greatness of "Phantom Lady". Released in 1944 and starring Ella Raines as a secretary named Kansas (certainly evoking her eternal goodness) who descends into the New York netherworld of coked-up jazz musicians and psychotic killers in the hopes of saving her boss (Alan Curtis) from a murder rap, the film is relentlessly surprising in both narrative and mise-en-scene. There are two or three camera movements that rank with the visual inventiveness of Hitchcock's best (just watch as we finally discover "the hat") and a mood imported from the inky grains of German expressionism. Everything is mixed flawlessly within a somewhat cute American studio system work. Between this film and others, Siodmak has created a large (but still somewhat undervalued) body of work. And outside of his noirs, finding them is the trick. Playing with genre as if it's shuffling cards, Siodmak never loses control of the film. When it stops down for a couple of minutes to vibrate and gyrate with a coked-up drummer, it works. When it devolves into a thriller and the doorknob to escape is just out of reach, it works. And it certainly works as a film noir where the city hisses steam at all hours and the police are hard-nosed but virtuous. Even despite its seemingly happy ending, "The Phantom Lady" hints that the savior complex of Kansas may have doomed her to a place of subservience that's well beneath her true worth.


6. Batleground (1949) - Screening William Wellman's "Battleground" today can feel slightly misleading and familiar, only because so much of this 1949 film (yes, released only 4 years after the end of the war) has been sampled, stapled , and re-imagined in numerous other war films. Its influence cannot be denied. Following an ensemble of soldiers as they march into The Battle of the Bulge and become entwined in the infamous Bastogne area, for much of its running time, "Batleground" is battle-adjacent. Focusing on the soldier's personalities as they deal with a host of issues- from horniness while garrisoned in a French town to the swift brutality of death in a foxhole- "Battleground" fills in the spaces of the usual rah-rah 'Hollywoodisms' with the banality of simple survival when fog has cut one off from the rest of the world. And when the action does occur, Wellman doesn't shy away from the explicit horribleness of war. An unrelenting ambush on a group of prowling Germans..... hand to hand combat settled just out of frame..... the crushing realization that someone is dead by their galoshes strewn against the snow..... "Battleground" explores all the horrors of war with fierce simplicity. If anyone is still searching for great war films in this land of over saturation, do yourself a favor and see "Battleground".


5. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
(2021) - Not only a scholarly minded exploration of the complex literary and visual history of a certain type of horror film, Kier-La Janisse's "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched" is a treasure trove of film and television clips that had me mercilessly searching the internet for more backstory on its many examples. Clocking in at over 3 hours, this is an exhaustive but fascinating treatise on what exactly drives the genre now affectionately called "folk horror" in the movies. For those who've come to the subject only recently through the works of Ari Aster or only understand its touchpoint in something like "The Wicker Man" in the early 70's, this documentary swerves through so many other examples (both heralded but largely unheralded) that it becomes clear the idea of this type of horror film has been embedded in our cultures for centuries. A must see for cinema historians and extra points for now giving me the term "hauntology" in my lexicon.

4. On Tour (2010)
I'm fascinated by the hard-scrabbled hustler on-screen. Characters like Jack Lemmon in "Save the Tiger" (1973) or Jason Miller in "The Nickel Ride". (1974).... men who feel like entropy itself is their survival. Add Mathieu Almaric to that list with his role as the manager/escort to a group of American burlesque performers traversing across France in "On Tour". The direct antecedent, of course, would be "Go Go Tales" (2007) or the king of all fast-talkers with Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes' "Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976). But that's enough comparison. Almaric's directorial effort stands on its own as a slice of (hectic) life, full of unexpected grace and mascaraed beauty. And even though tragedy and bankruptcy seem forever around the corner, the majesty of the film lies in its gentle warmth and oddball humor. He's a man who juggles the needs of his burlesque troop with the impending collapse of his marriage as if he's a father-of-the-year candidate on the verge of losing everything. I've been enthralled by the varied tones of Almaric's chosen projects over the last few years. I like to imagine he took the cash from his role in a James Bond film to finance and nurture this unique, wonderful film and will continue to alternate between high profile, mainstream fare and scratched independence. 


3. A Self Made Hero
(1996) - Jacques Audiard's war time masquerade about a man (Matthieu Kassovitz) who lies and steals his persona into war time France aristocracy would make for a fitting double feature with Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1968). Both films a
pply the same fatalistic sense that imbues great crime thrillers, and it's a film that paints the Resistance during French Occupation of World War II as a carousel of death slightly postponed in order for its men and women to grasp at heroics. It's sad, infuriating, calculated, and full of Melville's memorialized relics from his past and Audiard's film shows just how punctured and fractured deceit causes during the World War. But "A Self Made Hero" is also surprisingly resonant for the way in which a man will become a chameleon to hold power (think of George Santos). It's a film that's oddly never discussed much today, given virtually no repertory screenins, and seems to be destined to the dust bins of mid 90's international films like so many others. See this one. It's a sharp deconstruction of the rise to power.... a mordant commentary on truth.... and a brilliant black comedy that details the minute ways anyone can take tidbits of the truth and screw them into a wholly believable persona.

2. Undeclared War (1990) - Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War" had me from its stunningly violent open in which a baptism ambush leads into hand grenades and helicopters. From there, it staggers into pretty much every late 80's/early 90's action film aesthetic- from the gaudy lens flares that visually accentuate Hong Kong 'actioners' of the time to the cop buddy narrative that sees two opposing worldviews combine to stop a global terrorist. Add to the mixture loads of cop swagger and "Undeclared War" is a pop masterpiece from a director known more for inspiring the skeletal outline of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" than for his own works. After seeing Lam's "Sky On Fire" at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival and then lapping up the brutality of his Jean Claude Van Damme collaboration (one of his many) "In Hell" last year, I've had the enjoyment of discovering one engaging action film after another. As usual, going beyond pop culture lip sync to observe the original purveyors holds so much more value. But beyond the exploding squibs and expected violence, Lam's "Undeclared War" does something that I always find necessary in a good action film: understanding the logistics of bodies and space. There are so many well staged shootouts and roving camera techniques that continually maintain the sense of action and place, one clearly senses when they're in the hands of a master. Lam is one of the best.


1. One More Time With Feeling (2016)


One of the highlights of 2023 for me was seeing Nick Cave play an intimate, 1500 seat theater. Sitting first row of the balcony, I had a beautifully unobstructed view of the man as he played piano and romped through decades of favorites as well as obscure tunes (with the only other person on stage being Colin Greenwood providing the necessary bass tempo). Seeing Andrew Dominik's documentary a few months before couldn't prepare me for the emotional weight Cave brings to each and every song, underscoring the fragility and brutal honesty he often doles out in his songs. If Andrew Dominik's "One More Time With Feeling" had just been about the creative gymnastics behind producing and recording an album, it would have been magnificent. The fact that real life tragedy occurs and timbers everything with an air of magisterial melancholy turns the effort into an essential portrait of serene acceptance. Hovering around Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as they record their 2016 album "Skeleton Tree", Dominik's first collaboration with the band (followed several years later by "This Much I Know to be True") tumbles through harsh confessional, observational practices, and magical representation.... often times in the same scene. Cave is always hard to turn away from (especially on stage) and here he gives us the same persona as tortured poet. But Dominik also captures something poignant in the way he interacts with his wife and the loss of their young son which pierces the mechanical process also being recorded. A unique documentary indeed. Fans of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and the Bad Seeds will be enthralled. Everyone else will be moved by the cathartic use of creativity to exorcise sadness.

Monday, November 06, 2023

The Current Cinema 23.5

 Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese's latest is a corrosive epic that clearly reveals its shades of morality for everyone involved within the first third, then proceeds to deliberately track the insidious nature of violence and deluded companionship over the remaining three hours. Imagine if the walls closing in around Henry Hill in "Goodfellas" were protracted out for 180 minutes. That's the startling feeling that Scorsese manages to uphold in "Killers of the Flower Moon", but this time, the criminal activity mirrors that of the American mafia played out in the dustbowl setting on 1920's Oklahoma and the violence against the Osage Indian nation for their valuable oil land head rights. With his usual cast of heavyweights (DiCaprio and DeNiro), the biggest coup of the film goes to the steely beating heart of Lily Gladstone as "Killers of the Flower Moon" was changed from its FBI-instigated criminal investigative tone to a more Native-American centric point of view. It works wonders, no less because of the stellar, granite-faced supporting cast and a rhythmic editing style that constantly makes one gasp with horror at the nonchalant violence and overhead writhes of death encompassing the entire land. Like he's done for New York, Las Vegas, and even the bashing waters off a Japanese prisoner colony, Scorsese spiritually imbues nature with a fist of violence that's hard to shake. 


Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet's masterful, slow examination of a death also places on trial the ebbs and flows of a marriage.... where every charged conversation is a motive for murder and perception shifts between parties wildly. Sandra Huller is the woman on trial after her husband's body is found outside the window of their three-story, snow-capped mountain chateau. Is it suicide, murder, or a simple accident? And like the best films that work in gradual shades of morality, "Anatomy of a Fall" is less concerned with what really happened than the verbal gymnastics and hidden emotions that might have led to all this. Employing a camera that's often trying to follow what's happening just as quickly as the audience (i.e. that startling whip pan when Huller's son is announced as a witness) and brilliant performances from all involved, "Anatomy of a Fall" is two-and-a-half hours of French courtroom politics trying to decode matters of the heart. It's dry, intelligent, and ultimately so haunting.


Priscilla

Sofia Coppola's best film since "Lost in Translation", "Priscilla" is a film that continues on with the filmmaker's fascination with interiority and impressionism. It's also a drastically (and wonderfully) different experience from last year's Baz Luhrman sonic fest about Elvis Presly. As Priscilla Presly, newcomer Cailee Spaeny embodies the love interest of a rock and roll icon with her own sense of permanent dislocation in one of two scenarios- either orbiting the yes-man-good-ol-boy universe of Elvis' lavishly repercussion-free dalliances, or quietly within the controlled alienation from Elvis himself. This is made clear when Priscilla first sits down to eat with the protracted Elvis family, filmed in profile by herself, dutifully nodding to others outside the frame. There's not much room for else, and Coppola deftly alternates between these two environments, peppered with heart-stopping needle drops and a keen awareness of the objects and textures that suffocatingly surround Priscilla. In fact, the best description I can provide of "Pricilla" is a film of quiet suffocation, made all the more enervating when the finale happens. It's no secret Elvis was a victim of explosive stardom, but at least someone survives this sinkhole universe of carnivorous public consumption. And a Dolly Parton needle drop is the perfect way to frame Priscilla's flight to freedom.


Monday, August 28, 2023

The Current Cinema 23.4

 Passages

It'd be misleading to read Ira Sachs' latest effort, "Passages", through the eyes of its amorous, confused, and ultimately destructive lead character Tomas (Franz Rogowski). Oscillating between the relationship with his husband, Martin (a tremendous Ben Whishaw who deserves all the year end accolades) and his start-up affair with beautiful teacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), Tomas doesn't feel that far removed from the caddish interlopers of the French New Wave. But "Passages", ultimately, concerns itself less with Tomas and more with the two people caught up in his sexual confusion. This is a film about frank sexuality- which is terrific when it's fresh and impetuous- and all three people in this love triangle experience it. However, what lingers most vividly about the situation is the way Sachs quickly dries out the sexuality and creates a devastating portrait of those rejected and damaged from Tomas' willful carnality. Whishaw is brilliant in the way he recoils and holds in his sadness during one incredible scene. Likewise, Exarchopoulos is luminous in her stringent performance and the way she maintains a sense of individuality within yet another expression of amour fou (something she's become famous for). I suppose all the character traits were there on display in the opening scene as filmmaker Tomas berates and constantly stops a scene he's filming in order to get the right presence of someone walking down a flight of stairs. "Passages" is an exploration of the starts-and-stops we experience in a relationship as well. It's just a shame it comes at the expense of two wonderful people like Martin and Agathe, who Sachs handles with empathy and intelligence.

 

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Typically a dumping ground for left-over gambles and small independent films that finally manage to squeeze their way onto one of the 24 screen multiplexes, August is a miserable month. Add to that at least one horror film each year in a vain attempt at counter-programming, and that's where Andre Ovredal's "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" lands. Literally ripped from the pages of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" tale, "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" actually succeeds because of its swallowing atmosphere and confident bloodletting in a confined space. The space is a ship whose unlucky cargo happens to be the prince of darkness, and the cast is a who's-who of familiar character actor faces (Liam Cunningham from "Game of Thrones", Corey Hawkin, Aisling Franciosi, and David Dastmalchian) charged with battling the creature. There are no great revolutions here. It isn't saying much. The scares are generally rote. But what "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" does have is terrific production design and a suffocating sense of foggy, inevitable bloodshed. For the August dumping ground, that's enough for me to purely enjoy this film for what it is.

 

The Unknown Country 

I love, love, love this type of wispy travelogue film that says nothing, but manages to say everything. As the woman traveling, Lily Gladstone deserves her big year, and Morrisa Maltz's "The Unknown Country" understands that the most powerful expression in cinema is not the words, but the face. Harboring a restless sense of sadness and displacement, the film follows Tana (Gladstone) as she travels from Minneapolis to her cousin's wedding on the reservation in South Dakota. From there, she heads south in search of something greater than herself. Generally keeping the viewer imbalanced on just where we are in the journey with Tana across an American landscape that's alternatively beautiful and alarming for a single woman, "The Unknown Country" also takes the time to dwell on the genuine, honest faces Tana comes across in her journey. We even get to hear these people tell a quick story of their lives, and a fiction film becomes semi-documentary... as if Maltz also wants to craft an anthropological study of the goodness buried in a world teeming with angry talk radio and the division of people- something that becomes central to Tana's long car rides that not only serve as a location marker, but also the static of a world going on carelessly around her. Ultimately, "The Unknown Country" knocks all this away and chooses to emphasize the people orbiting around Tana. Best when it settles on the sweet, proud worldview of her estranged relatives on the Indian reservation (including a knock out performance by long time character actor Richard Ray Whitman), it's enervating to watch Gladstone's performance begin to soak in their grace and carry on southward for something more. The world may still be swerving around her, but "The Unknown Country" has the grace and fragility to slow everything down and celebrate those in the moment. A wonderful film.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Franchise Fatigue

For two nights in a row, I exited a movie theater supremely disappointed in the latest incarnations of two franchises whose history has given me a memorable (and in one case classic) lineage. "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" pretty much broke my heart. From where both of these franchises started to the dregs of where they are now, I began to wonder if the fault lies with my old-man-screaming-at-clouds disillusion with the Hollywood project. With "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny", I could feel my heart shrinking into my chest within the first 20 minutes of an elongated action sequence that sees Jones (Harrison Ford, right digitized and de-aged) spring about Nazi castles, trains, and motorcycles as if he's trying out for the latest Marvel film. Add to the fact that director James Mangold's fifth iteration of the Indiana Jones franchise looks so murky and tactless, and it quickly became a recipe for immense dissatisfaction. Granted, I slowly warmed to the film as it went along, but with each larger set piece and a finale that dares to actually visualize the metaphysical nuances that made "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" so enthralling as young teen, it's an entry in a vaulted series of films that I will most assuredly never re-visit.

The hatred of Patrick Wilson's "Insidious 3: The Red Door" came more incrementally. For the first 30 minutes, the fourth installment of the James Wan/Leigh Whannell horror series establishes the anemia of its father-son relationship between Wilson and college-bound son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) as both struggle with the slow release of the pent up horrors of their past (through hypnosis) that eventually sees them both re-enter "the further" for more terrifying shenanigans. There are some creepy corner-screen movements that set the stage for something grand, however, the scares are ultimately neutered by the very bland performances and unremarkable scares. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that "Insidious: The Red Door" is content to create fan fiction (complete with shoehorned cameos by Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Wannell) and serve as greatest hits for a franchise that began with a shrieking sense of old school horror and a demented, go-for-broke mentality. None of that exists in the latest film.

Looking at both films and the wonderful filmic parents that spawned them, what went wrong? Granted, this is just my rhetorical question as I'm sure both films have their admirers.... although most of the accolades I've seen for "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" range from "well, it's better than Crystal Skull" and "fun!". Ever since its premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mangold's latest Indiana incarnation has mostly been met with subdued murmur. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to love both films. And since I was lukewarm on "Insidious 3" and could see the film getting further and further away from the genuine terror evoked by the first two "Insidious" efforts, I suppose my greatest frustration lies with "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny".... which also has strayed into a netherworld of CGI confusion and murkiness so far removed from the practical excitement of the first three Indiana Jones films that its tired set pieces play like a video game without physics or sensibility. Each action scene- its opening, a ride on a horse through the New York subway, a cart chase in Morocco- rely on so much wham-bam CGI green screen effects that they remove all heart and emotion from a series that once proudly succeeded on mixing true heroic characterizations with bracing, exuberant, practical adventures. I know this type of film is still hopeful in Hollywood, but both "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" and "Insidious: The Red Door" make the case that we're getting further away from replicating (or even marginally extending) the simple joys of what made these franchises so enjoyable long ago. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Flares and Squibs: Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War"

Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War" had me from its stunningly violent open in which a baptism ambush leads into hand grenades and helicopters. From there, it staggers into pretty much every late 80's/early 90's action film aesthetic- from the gaudy lens flares that visually accentuate Hong Kong 'actioners' of the time to the cop buddy narrative that sees two opposing worldviews combine to stop a global terrorist. Add to the mixture loads of cop swagger and "Undeclared War" is a pop masterpiece from a director known more for inspiring the skeletal outline of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" than for his own works. After seeing Lam's "Sky On Fire" at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival and then lapping up the brutality of his Jean Claude Van Damme collaboration (one of his many) "In Hell" last year, I've had the enjoyment of discovering one engaging action film after another. As usual, going beyond pop culture lip sync to observe the original purveyors holds so much more value.

And the value in "Undeclared War" hits the viewer in the face immediately. After the aforementioned violent opening, the stage is set for a visiting CIA Agent Gary (Peter Liapis) to team up with a local special agent in Hong Kong, Bong (Danny Lee), after his ambassador brother is assassinated by a terrorist named Hannibal (Vernon Wells). Played to cool perfection by Wells, Hannibal seems like a baddie ejected from the "Mission Impossible" universe.... prone to quickly dispatching those who fail him and eluding everyone through a variety of disguises. He's also a pretty good hand-to-hand combat fighter as well.

But beyond the mechanics of a plot that sees Gary and Inspector Bong putting aside their personal differences (Gary from the "Lethal Weapon" school of policing and Bong from the respect-bureaucracy phase of detective work), what stands out from "Undeclared War" is the clean and precise action set pieces. From a funeral home to a large hotel conference finale, Lam maintains a focused, organized logistics of violence. We understand where everyone is. The gun shots feel real. The delineation of good guys and bad guys is pronounced. Unlike so many Hong Kong action films, Lam doesn't lose sense of the placement of bodies and the elongation of suspense. Just watch how he handles a bomb in the finale. Or the cool confidence of police guys doing their work. Like the films of Johnnie To or especially Michael Mann, Lam infuses "Undeclared War" with a keen awareness of both public and private space in an action universe. I love discovering works like this and look forward to more Lam.