Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Film Review: INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE by Mike Sullivan

From the moment it was released, INDEPENDENCE DAY was already a yellowing Taco Bell Collector’s cup of a movie, awaiting the day when people at a flea market would absently pick it up, snicker and then put it back where they found it. A film so disposable and so of its time, it should have bypassed theaters completely and simply released in pog form. Like AVATAR, INDEPENDENCE DAY was an enormous success that somehow managed to leave almost no impact on the pop-cultural landscape. Apart from that exploding White House scene used in the trailer (but not the movie, for some reason) and Will Smith’s hotly contested pronunciation of earth, does anyone have memories of any other scenes or moments? Not even fond memories, just memories? As much as I dislike STAR WARS and the attendant fuzzie wuzzies brought on by the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I understand why people would be getting their nostalgic panties in a misty-eyed bunch. Getting nostalgic over INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is like getting wistful over a discarded Big Mac wrapper.


Taking place twenty years after the events of the first movie, RESURGENCE exists within a film world in which the characters reverse engineered alien technology for the benefit of humanity, although apart from propeller-less helicopters, moon bases with the structural integrity of a Jenga tower and the existence of slightly more monorails, it doesn’t look that much different from our world. Also, why? If the aliens’ technology was so advanced, why the hell did they use our primitive satellites to communicate with each other in the first movie? At any rate, like a lot of elements in this movie, the advanced technology doesn’t amount to much because the aliens are very big. So big, that characters are compelled to remind us about this at least twice. But instead of throwing down their puny weapons in the face of such towering bigness, the world (but mostly just America) stands tall by pissing on the floor of this stupid alien threat’s spaceship and gives it a good ol’ fashioned American middle finger! Yee-Haw! Listen up you Extra Terristicles, when all-star-Mr.-USA-American Liam Hemsworth (who is actually Australian and boring) finally puts his penis away, he’s going to jump into one of your spaceships (which he inexplicably knows how to operate) and piss on your squishy heads with your own space-bullets! HA, HA! That’s what you get for messing with “erf” (but mostly just America)! However, pissing space-bullets and murder isn’t enough. Once we kill off the alien queen, an elderly lesbian named Cheyenne who works at a vegan coffee shop (Brent Spiner. Didn’t he play a scientist who died in the first film?) brusquely shoos us out of the theater with a promise/warning that they’re going to piss earth-bullets on the aliens’ home planet in the next movie!


If that sounds clichéd and a bit on the thin side, understand that RESURGENCE isn’t just two hours of people trying to kill aliens, failing, trying again and then urinating on the floors of whom or whatever is frustrating them. It also has too many characters. Of course, that surfeit of characters is there mostly just to accommodate the giant Will Smith shaped hole that sits in the center of this movie. One of those square pegs RESURGENCE repeatedly tries to cram into the Smith-hole, is Hemsworth, and, for Christ’s sake, could we please leave all of the Hemsworthing to brother Chris from now on? Liam is like a Ken doll that somehow memorized a year’s worth of Garfield punchlines. I don’t want to watch him in a movie even if he’s pissing on the floor of a spaceship. But still, he’s here playing a test pilot or a moon miner or something and he’s also interacting with Jessie T. Usher and IT FOLLOWS' Maika Monroe as other test pilot-y, moon miner-ish characters who shoot things and say generic things like “Did you miss me?” and “We’ve got company!” But who cares about them? All of your favorite characters that weren’t Will Smith or Randy Quaid are back! Such as Vivica A. Fox who the film can’t kill off quickly enough. There’s also a logy Jeff Goldblum who appears to be losing a personal battle against the bottle of Nyquil he chugged shortly before director Roland Emmerich shouted “action”, Bill Pullman playing President Whitmore in such an inexplicably enfeebled way it’s like the screenwriters were challenged by Emmerich to turn the phrase, “get off of my lawn” into a character and Judd Hirsch whose role isn’t just unnecessary but so stereotypically, offensively Jewish. Imagine if Garry Marshall was called in to punch up THE ETERNAL JEW with a kvetching grandpa who just wants a nosh and you’ll understand just how awful Hirsch’s character is here. About the only element that works in RESURGENCE is Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who, for ten years, had to hunt down and kill the aliens from the first film after they crashed landed in his small village. Why the fuck couldn’t RESURGENCE have been about this instead?


If there’s a plus side to INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, it’s the fact that after 19 movies, the world is finally realizing that Roland Emmerich is Steven Spielberg with severe head trauma. Neither fun nor fun-bad, RESURGENCE is a slog and somehow manages to be dumber and emptier than its predecessor. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE rips the rose colored glasses off of our heads and reminds us once again that nostalgia is a virus that will never, ever leave us.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

It takes two to SKIDOO...

1968 newspaper ad for the Harry Nilsson soundtrack album 
 to Otto Preminger's SKIDOO ("the year's grooviest film").


Thursday, January 16, 2014

IN DEFENSE OF THE LONE RANGER by Mike Sullivan

This summer, THE LONE RANGER became the designated punchline of 2013. It was the movie you weren’t just expected to hate but encouraged. Like most people that are occasionally paid to complain about things, I wanted to hate it too. I wanted people at parties to ask me about THE LONE RANGER just so I could slowly give it a thumbs down as I made a loud, prolonged fart noise. And then, as everyone laughed heartily, I would dance an improvised, free-style jig as they clapped and cheered me on. But I never got around to seeing it and I don’t know anyone who would invite me to a party or even talk to me. It was not to be. I had to just wait for the thing to come out on DVD and then, THEN, I could I jump on top of the hate pile with Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers where we would wiggle our fannies to and fro and collectively despise a common enemy like a big bunch of cool dudes extraordinaire!


But as I watched THE LONE RANGER, a funny thing happened, I liked it. Not “liked it,” but actually, legitimately liked it. To me, THE LONE RANGER was one of the best films released this summer. A frequently subversive and incredibly entertaining action comedy whose only true crime is that it’s a little overlong. Here now are some reasons why you should open up your heart and let the Lone Ranger in. 

Gore Verbinski Is a Better Director Than You Think: I don’t know what the common consensus is that surrounds Verbinski, but I have a feeling it isn’t too positive. After all, the guy is responsible for giving us the Budweiser frogs and those unnecessary, painfully convoluted PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels. But for a mainstream director who ostensibly makes “family” films in the frequently obnoxious Bruckheimer mold, Verbinski is shockingly good. Unlike his peers, Verbinski’s films aren’t just a disconnected collection of loud, shiny objects punching louder, shinier objects -- as THE LONE RANGER beautifully demonstrates -- his films are scummy and surreal yet playful and silly. He’s also one of the few directors in Hollywood who can seamlessly integrate slapstick comedy into action sequences. His films have personality, a distinct identity. Additionally, THE LONE RANGER is the closest any film under the Walt Disney banner has ever come to being a Grindhouse movie. Not only do the characters spend time hanging around whorehouses and Victorian era freak shows, but it’s also pretty violent. How violent? In the film, William Fichtner plays a cannibalistic outlaw who, one point, tears the heart out of a character’s chest and eats it in front of stunned, vomiting onlookers (sure, it’s off-screen but still, this is happening in a Disney film!) 


It’s Weird: Some critics have actually compared THE LONE RANGER to DEAD MAN and it’s a comparison that isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds. After all, THE LONE RANGER contains a fair amount of nods to DEAD MAN and in some ways kind of functions as a dumbed down reinterpretation of the Jim Jarmusch film. But to me THE LONE RANGER has a little more in common with EL TOPO and the films of Terry Gilliam. Sure, it’s a very watered down Terry Gilliam film and an extremely Disney-fied EL TOPO, but the vibe is still there.


THE LONE RANGER starts fucking with its audience right away with a ballsy opening sequence. While visiting a Wild West museum a small child in a Lone Ranger costume comes across an exhibit depicting a very elderly American Indian insensitively dubbed “The Noble Savage” by a nearby plaque. After a beat, the exhibit comes to life and reveals itself as Tonto who proceeds to tell the oddly disinterested child the secret origins of The Lone Ranger. Admirably, the film never explains what’s happening here. Is the child imagining this? Is Tonto still alive even though this part is set in 1933 and Tonto is well over 110 years old? If he’s still alive, why is he wasting his golden years standing very still in a traveling carnival sideshow? Is he a wax statue that somehow gained sentience? Or a stuffed, mounted and undead conversation piece? Who knows? The movie may never let us in on its little secret, but this scene also sets the appropriate tone. Right from the start, THE LONE RANGER is announcing that anything can happen. Throughout the film carnivorous jack-rabbits feast on scorpions, members of an old brass band perform while confined to full body casts and Helena Bonham Carter plays the whorehouse madam whose prosthetic ivory leg (that everyone is hypnotically compelled to grope) doubles as a shot gun. Verbinski truly delights in subverting the expectations of mainstream audiences and it’s fun just trying to figure out what weird little path the film will tread down next (will it involve a vicious wall-eyed outlaw in a bonnet? I’ll never tell!) It’s a shame this movie basically destroyed Verbinski’s career because it would be interesting to see just how surreal his next film could get. 


It Reinvents The Lone Ranger and Tonto in an Interesting Way: Look, I understand why the original Lone Ranger was popular during the '30s. The world of entertainment was still relatively new and the idea of a man in a mask and another man in braids teaming up to sternly lecture cattle rustlers seemed groundbreaking back then. But times change, entertainment evolves and The Lone Ranger now seems boring and joyless. Which is probably why most audiences avoided the film in the first place. But much in the same way Joseph Losey brilliantly upended audience expectations with MODESTY BLAISE, Verbinski and his writers take The Lone Ranger and Tonto in a fresh new direction. While never outwardly treating the characters as jokes, Verbinski clearly isn’t taking The Lone Ranger or Tonto seriously either. Which is why The Lone Ranger is reimagined as an inflexible dork who can’t even manage to playfully toss a three-year-old child a toy without it being sucked out the window of a moving train and Tonto is depicted as a delusional outcast whose shamanistic wisdom is eventually revealed to be psychotic gibberish. Even better, The Lone Ranger and Tonto barely tolerate each other and everyone around them treats them with undisguised contempt (mostly because they assume The Lone Ranger’s mask is some weird sex thing). Even though the characters manage to do heroic things, they’re neurotic and deeply flawed but far more human than most characters in comic book movies.
  

It’s Funny: Obviously this one is a little more subjective than the rest and if I haven’t lost any of you yet, I’ll probably lose you now. I realize we’re currently in the middle of Johnny Depp backlash and, yes I’ve read all of the hit pieces on the internet that reveal he owns a lot of hats and I should hate him because only shitty, ass-barrels own a lot of hats, but I just can’t hate the guy. Even worse, I still find the guy charming. Worser still, I really enjoyed his dry interpretation of Tonto. Nothing he did managed to irritate me. Not even the near-constant mugging or the scene where he put a bird cage on his head to avoid a cat. Nonetheless, I make no apology for my taste. Except for the implicit one throughout this paragraph and this very explicit one that states, “I’m sorry for liking Johnny Depp. Please don’t hate me.”

But still, Depp isn’t The Lone Ranger’s only focus. Armie Hammer, who previously came off as almost criminally bland in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and MIRROR, MIRROR, really proves himself as a strong comedic actor here, effortlessly holding his own against Depp’s quirkiness. And apart from the (apparently now required) collection of meta-humor and surprisingly adult gross-out gags (who would have ever guessed there would be an anal rape gag in a Disney movie?), I really enjoyed the little nods to the films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton even though I usually can’t stand slavish recreations of creaky, silent-era comedy. Of course, I should stress that most of this is more amusing than laugh out funny. However, the most important thing is that you won’t be cringing through this (unless you can’t stand Depp anymore, in which case, you should probably avoid this).

Granted, I might be overrating THE LONE RANGER just a bit. It may not be as great as I’m making it out to be. I really don’t know. I’m just one person and my brain is telling the rest of my body that it really enjoyed the film. I don’t know who you are and I probably wouldn’t like you if I did but that doesn’t matter. All I’m asking is that you don’t automatically jump on top of the hate pile and wiggle your fanny just yet. Watch the movie and draw your own conclusions. Besides, I really think it’s worth your precious time. Just make sure you have a lot of it (This film is very, VERY fucking long. We’re talking longer than BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ long. Oof, it’s loooong!).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III (2013) by Mike Sullivan


Is it me or was Charlie Sheen an actor at one point? Because as far back as I can remember, Sheen has always been a guy who punched hookers and then appeared on a sitcom or in a bad parody movie to make fun of the fact that he punched hookers. 98% of this guy’s career has been one prolonged wink and it has never been funny or charming. He’s not an incorrigible rascal, he’s the kind of guy whose death will be ruled an apparent suicide because coke-fueled, auto-erotic asphyxiation is far too long to fit on a death certificate.


However, there was one slightly redeeming factor behind Sheen’s, ‘ain’t I a stinker’ routine and it’s the fact that he never tried to convince us that he was anything more than an enormous garbage idiot. He wasn’t a beautiful sensitive man who deserved love, he was a guy who joylessly mumbled out the word boner on TWO AND A HALF MEN. Unfortunately, A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III changed all that because now we’re supposed to give a damn about the man behind the STDs and, unlike Emilio Estevez, that’s not a step I’m willing to take.


Loosely based around the graphic art of Charles White III, SWAN tells the story of a dying blood hound in sunglasses (it could be a hard-partyin’ graphic artist named Charles Swan III. With Sheen in the role it’s really difficult to say) whose girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) breaks up with him and makes him very sad. So sad that he drives his vintage Cadillac into a pool, spends way too much money on caviar and throws a garbage can at a tall building. Eventually Sheen confronts Winnick about the break-up and tells her that he doesn’t want to never not love her (or something). Winnick then thanks him for all the experiences he gave her. Even the ones where he fucked other women behind her back. As they part ways, Sheen imagines himself singing an acoustic cover of "Aguas De Marco" with Winnick because stilted quirkiness equals genuine comedy. Sheen then goes to a party and feels better when he watches a marionette version of himself look up a woman’s dress. The End.

I know I’m in the minority here, but I find those elaborate, aggressively quirky, Etsy-ready products Wes Anderson calls movies completely insufferable. Additionally, I’ve always thought his comedies were for people who felt that laughter is something those grimy, dirt people do at Jeff Dunham concerts. But as much as I dislike Anderson, at least I can say that his movies are actually movies. At least they have a beginning, a middle and an end. At least his characters aren’t a series of vaguely defined traits awkwardly stuffed into a series of silly '70s inspired wigs. And that’s more than I can say about Roman Coppola who is basically everyone’s most negative opinions about Wes Anderson realized in one person.


Apart from the one-dimensional characters and the thin, practically non-existent storyline, CHARLES SWAN III fails because it’s trying to shoehorn Sheen’s eternally sleazy tabloid persona into the twee, artisanal sensibilities of a Wes Anderson film and it’s a combination that not only doesn’t work, it’s actually punishing to watch. It’s kind of like an issue of Maxim that’s been edited by Chris Ware or a movie based on the art of Henry Darger directed by Russ Meyer. Throughout the film there are numerous fantasy sequences where Sheen is murdered by shrewish women in stereotypical Native American drag or nearly murdered by the vindictive agents of the Secret Society of Ballbusters who are such totally, on the rag bitches they get all upset when their boyfriends try to pick up women behind their backs. Look, females! Understand that our penises just end up inside of things. Sometimes it’s a strange lady other times it’s a tepid bowl of Spaghetti-Os. Our penises are not a crime! Now get off the rag, get on the treadmill and go back to your stronghold on Bitch Mountain! Playful misogyny aside, CHARLES SWAN III makes no attempt to challenge or comment ironically on Swan’s sexist point of view. The film just shrugs its shoulders and happily agrees with him. CHARLES SWAN III is basically just a series of whimsical interpretations of a sexual predator’s self-loathing filled daydreams. Oh, and there’s also a scene with a hot dog couch, so look out for that.


Shockingly, apart from Sheen’s stuntcasting, CHARLES SWAN III boasts (and wastes) an amazing cast that includes Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Colleen Camp and Bill Murray. Yes, that Bill Murray. The same Bill Murray who’s extremely selective about everything he does and refuses to appear in things like COMMUNITY and PARKS AND RECREATION. What happened here? Was it a personal favor to Anderson? Did he pull another Garfield and wrongly assume this movie was directed by Francis Ford Coppola? Whatever the reason, he’s in it and he doesn’t look too happy about it. He just looks logy and beaten down. Maybe he pissed off Anderson and this was some kind of penance he had to perform before he could appear in MOONRISE KINGDOM.

Still, if I have to say something nice, I will say I enjoyed the Liam Hayes soundtrack. Everything else about this DVD can decay on the floor of that abandoned strip mall where Blockbuster Video used to be.

-- Mike Sullivan


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review: INVISIBLE WAVES (2006; available on Netflix Streaming)

Have you seen LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE? Or 69 (A FUNNY STORY ABOUT 6 AND 9)? Why not? There is a lot more to Thai Cinema than ONG-BAK, people. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has a devastating visual style, even on his lower budget productions. Star Tadanobu Asano has a long history of choosing crazy art-house directors to work with (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideaki Sato and Sogo Ishii, for example; and yes, I would even include Kenneth Branagh, despite the film being THOR). He also makes an effort to work with filmmakers outside of Japan -- appearing in Korean, Kazakh, Thai, and English language productions (yes, like BATTLESHIP).


Asano plays Kyoji, a Japanese expat living in Macau. He's having an affair with his gangland boss' wife -- or at least that's what it seems, before he poisons her and disposes of the body (the macabre composting equipment outside his apartment should have been a hint that this wasn't going to be a rom-com). The boss owns a restaurant in Hong Kong and Kyoji is a chef, though upon returning to work he is informed that he must leave via cruise ship from Hong Kong to Phuket Thailand for an unspecified length vacation. A suspiciously unholy “monk” gives him forged travel documents and a contact number for a person named “Lizard.” Much of the story takes place on the ship, a surreal environment that seems to have been created just to make Kyoji uncomfortable. A sort of floating purgatory. Nothing works, few of the people he encounters seem to understand him. His stateroom has a vent that fills with exhaust from the engine, his only “window” is a serene painting of a ship's deck that resembles nothing he's likely to encounter, the bathroom has a mind of its own, and a frivolous Korean woman named Noi (Hye-jeong Kang, OLDBOY) repeatedly saddles him with her infant daughter. He also appears to have a tail -- a man in a panama hat who is clearly not on the ship for leisure. On top of everything else, he's not coping with his new identity as a murderer well -- suddenly vomiting when triggered by seemingly random events. Even off ship he is perpetually lost, but the quiet is shattered as Kyoji's bad fortune closes in. 



Christopher Doyle's cinematography is exquisite, as always. No one photographs haunting, atmospheric stories the way he does. He shot LAST LIFE, too. And if INVISIBLE WAVES feels familiar beyond the look, it was written by the LAST LIFE's Prabda Yoon too. Much of INVISIBLE WAVES feel almost Lynch-ian, and so much more than a fish-out-of-water scenario. Asano has a sort of bemused yet dangerous demeanor that suits these types of characters well -- something of a Japanese Jean Reno. He swings from beaten-down teddy bear to black-hearted killer with barely a beat between, leaving the viewer feeling both sympathetic and uneasy. The supporting casts includes Eric Tsang of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS films (Gangster Monk); local-Macau celebrity Maria Cordero (Kyoji's maternal neighbor); Ken Mitsuishi, who appeared in Peter Greenaway's THE PILLOW BOOK (Lizard); and Thai celebrity Toon Hiranyasap (Restaurant Owner and Gangster Wiwat). The soundtrack features delicate ambient music that adds a hypnotic quality to the story without ever allowing one to get comfortable. There may well be Japanese hit men, murder and dismemberment in INVISIBLE WAVES, but make no mistake -- this is an art film -- a slow burn plot with a vague philosophical bend and a wrap-around frame that is hardly stereotypical.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

NEW REVIEWS


Every so often, I run out of space in an issue of SHOCK CINEMA and wind up with a leftover film review. I just added a few of these stragglers to the SC website.

THE FAILING OF RAYMOND (1971): TV-movie starring Dean Stockwell as a nutjob with a grudge. 


NO MORE EXCUSES (1968): Director Robert Downey Sr.'s loopy underground oddity. 



FLAREUP (1969): Exotic dancer Raquel Welch is stalked by murderous Luke Askew. 



KONA COAST (1968): Grizzled Richard Boone searches for a psycho in Hawaii.


CYBORG 2087 (1966): Michael Rennie stars in a cut-rate time-travel adventure.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: DUTCHMAN (1967).


The racial allegory runs deep when a seductive white woman targets a black man in this edgy adaptation of the groundbreaking Obie-winning play by Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones] -- a two-character confrontation which provides an acting tour de force for Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., and was also the first film by director Anthony Harvey (THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, THE LION IN WINTER). Only 55-minutes long, this often eschews reality in favor of two-ton metaphor, but that doesn't blunt its provocative (and often downright fucking angry) agenda.

It's a steamy evening in the New York City subway, and a suit-'n'-tie-attired black man named Clay locks eyes with a tempting young woman -- blonde, white, wearing a striped mini-skirt -- on the platform. She enters the same empty car, introduces herself as Lula, sits beside him, and begins to flirt so aggressively that it's a little creepy. No surprise, Clay is turned on by this unpredictable beauty, who keeps chowing down on apples that she pulls from her purse, but he's also confounded by her abrupt mood shifts. One moment she's sensually draping her bare legs over his lap, the next this Manic Pixie Nightmare is shouting, crying and eventually even calling him an "escaped nigger" and "Uncle Tom." For the film's first 25 minutes, it's just the two in the car alone -- though it eventually fills up with background commuters who pay little attention to them -- and despite all of her eccentric behavior antics, Lula keeps Clay's from simply bolting from this nutjob with promises of them doing "the nasty."


Steeped in Baraka's almost poetic dialogue, Knight has a field day with this batshit-crazy role -- flinging fruit about, climbing all over Clay, dancing around the car, berating the other passengers, until (like the legendary Flying Dutchman that its title evokes) Lula shifts her attention to fresh prey on this perpetually-moving subway car -- and it's like nothing the two-time Oscar nominee had done before. But while Knight has the showier role, it's only when Freeman's initially passive character finally unleashes his own personal rage that this long-simmering film comes to a full boil. Freeman is so incredible during his blistering diatribe that you wonder how he never became a bigger name in the biz. Meanwhile, its black-and-white cinematography by Gerry Turpin (THE WRONG BOX, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR) blends authentic, eerily empty shots of NYC subway platforms with its train car set. 

Sure, DUTCHMAN seems a bit heavyhanded nowadays -- what with Lula as a metaphor for America's treatment of the black man -- but when the play premiered in 1964, it was controversial stuff, with its shocking conclusion gaining additional potency following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and its interracial tensions still resonating 50 years after it was written.