Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross
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My experience with director Matthew Vaughn goes back no further than X-Men: First Class, a film that seemed a garage sale of inconsistent and wholly disconnected ideas to me, but whose shortcomings I oft heard redressed as the upshot of a rushed production that started with an incomplete screenplay. I was happy to give Vaughn the benefit of that doubt, but now that I’ve seen Kingsman: The Secret Service, I’m starting to think that these garage sales of inconsistent and wholly disconnected ideas represent a consciously chosen style, and I gotta say, it’s not a style I’m down with.

Well, maybe there’s some version of it that I’d be down with, and the opening shot hints at it: the camera tracks from an old boombox playing Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing”, and pans to a helicopter assault on a desert compound synchronized with Mark Knopfler’s iconically jagged riff, with each missile’s explosion forming the credits in a blocky yellow font. It’s the kind of goofy over-the-top, laid-back cool that, when done right, is hard not to smile at, and it transitions to a torture scene where the victim and one of his distinctly British interrogators is killed in the former’s suicide-by-grenade. Neither scene matters at all, beyond a smidgen of character setup: one of the surviving interrogators, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), feels guilty about the death of his protégé, and pledges to do right to his widow and toddler son any time they need help in life. He gives the boy, Eggsy, a medal with a phone number on the back; when Eggsy grows up he can use it should he ever be in great need of help. Then Hart is gone.

In many ways, this opening sequence is as near to a microcosm as a movie like Kingsman, a dismembered spread-eagle of a movie, can get. The airstrike has no logical connection to the torture scene that follows (besides a nonsensical transition gimmick and sense of aridity). The torture scene raises some pretty major ethical qualms about these British agents (whom we will later learn are from a non-government agency of self-proclaimed benevolent aims), which are never seriously addressed again. Hart’s visit to the bereaved family to deliver a prized memento of the father echoes the gold watch scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but unlike that director, Vaughn doesn’t have the good sense to de-emphasize the gruesome trauma by not showing it, thus emphasizing the character’s connection to the artifact over the audience’s shock at the torture; as Kingsman progresses, that inability to convey character motivations through anything but flamboyantly illustrative plotting is the most distinct failing of its storytelling. The stereo and the music it plays have absolutely nothing to do with anything, besides the fact that they give an excuse to play “Money for Nothing”, which is actually harmlessly silly and cool.

When Vaughn gets to indulge those whims at their most utterly arbitrary, Kingsman is fun. Sometimes. Not often enough to really pass muster as absurdist entertainment, and anyway, an action film is impossible to sustain with a parade of pop-violence fetishisms, no matter how good-natured and amusing they may be; it’s got to have a solid handle on the characters driving it. Matthew Vaughn, unfortunately, does not give a rat’s ass about his characters, especially not in comparison to their toys. He either can’t or won’t move or position to emphasize a character’s thoughts or feelings in anything but the most perfunctory way, but never misses a chance for a smash cut or wooshing camera or stylish wipe to emphasize a gadget or piece of action choreography or anything exotic and “cool.” That dichotomy takes the cool out of “cool” in a hurry, and if there’s one lesson that Kingsman hasn’t learned from the films it homages (Bond, the 60s Avengers TV series, et al), it’s that the reason why lighthearted spy larks are so enjoyable isn’t their outlandish tropes and exotic trappings, it’s their emphasis on having fun with the characters at their center. The really entertaining thing about Goldfinger’s opening sequence wasn’t that Bond had electrocuted a would-be assassin by throwing a plugged-in fan into his bathtub, but his devil-may-care reaction to the results: “Shocking. Positively shocking.”

This blithe sense of humour is the defining mark of the James Bond character, and particularly in the early decades of that franchise its good humour was dependent on the absurdness of the action. The silliness, even impossibility of the Connery and Moore eras was what made 007’s utter indifference towards the sanctity of life so easy to swallow, so forcefully did they position themselves as fantasy. But as the trends of action filmmaking have changed towards a constant pursuit of grit and perceived authenticity, Bond’s quips have seemed ever-more thuggish and morally uneasy, and though the franchise changed to address that, one can’t help but feel nostalgic for the more innocent high-camp offered in years past. This is where Kingsman comes in: it’s plain that Vaughn (and perhaps the film’s source material, a comic by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar which I’ve never read) wants to offer a modern equivalent to those films, one which captures the mock-seriousness and camp of the early Bond movies, but with sensibilities attuned to a modern audience. It doesn’t aim much higher than the Spy Kids franchise, though I won't hold that against it.

But Kingsman unknowingly admits defeat, first by opening with torture, then by continuing with any number of other scenes that beg for our interest via appeals to political and topical interests. First off is its vague sense of self-righteous class struggle: when Eggsy grows up (Taron Egerton), he becomes extremely intelligent and resourceful, but pinned to an unproductive life by his low-class upbringing and a devotion to his mother, who is abused daily by Eggsy’s stepfather. After being arrested for a spontaneous carjacking and joyride, Eggsy calls Hart, is released from jail scot-free, and promptly enlisted in the recruitment program for the Kingsman secret service. The Kingsmen, a century-old, absurdly well-funded collection of agents and technicians, hold deep class prejudices, especially the head of its training program, Arthur (played by Michael Caine, the kind of excruciatingly unchallenging role that seems to be par for his course these days). But Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, for all its derision for upper-crust snobs, reserves even more derision for lower-class rep Eggsy, who succeeds only through the hand-picking and “up by your bootstraps” urging of Hart; Kingsman, in the final analysis, affirms and protects the place of the wealthy as gatekeepers of status and proper conduct.


Kingsman’s preaching of class conformity extends to its villain, Richmond Valentine, a squeamish, nerdy environmentalist megalomaniac whose against-type casting and performance by Samuel L. Jackson may be the single most consistent pleasure on offer here. But that pleasure is negated by the film's distinctly elitist rejection of his Otherness: Valentine is mocked for his lisp, aversion to violence, and disdain for the going political order. He is an environmentalist more interested with principle than profits (Kingsman is also loaded with muddled suspicions of global warming and its defendants). Along with these overtly disdained traits is Valentine’s skin colour; he is the only black character in the film, and the most direct threat to the white-dominant class system that the heroes safeguard.

This is why Kingsman is not the lark it purports itself to be: it is interested, first and foremost, in justifying violence against political and topical frustrations, and then indulging itself and its audience in that violence. The best-crafted and most disturbing scene in the film comes when Valentine forces a caricatured hate group in the southern US to savagely murder each other. Regardless of how repugnant their bigotry is (and make no mistake, I find such views repugnant), its purpose is to draw an analog to a contemporary, real-world set of beliefs, and then unleash its own hyper-stylized, elevated hatred via whimsical ultraviolence. In this particular scene, it indulges its political revenge fantasy with a series of fantastically choreographed, ingeniously violent, extended shots set to — in a particularly mordant touch — the guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”.

The scene is politically deplorable and spectacularly hypocritical, but on a purely technical level, it’s momentarily redemptive of Vaughn’s direction. Kingsman’s action scenes use cranked-up shutter speeds and flailing camera moves to move the on-screen guns and bodies in sharp, continuous jerking motions. Sometimes, the dizzying effect of this works, especially when Vaughn keeps the audience barely grasping the rapid choreography until a big, splashy beat of violence that holds just long enough for us to register it and go “WHOAH, they did not just do that!” Other times, it’s just trumped up energy without any rhyme or reason. Often, he gets both results within the same scene. Either way, the faster things happen, the more fun they tend to be; the moments of Kingsman where it lingers over an especially exotic feat of murder (as in an early scene where a character is split in half with perfect symmetry) feel more like the work of a director trying to impress us with how far he can go than with how he gets there. Maybe it’s because Vaughn’s brand of showy action plays more as a parlour trick when it flashes by, and narcissistic when it’s lingered on. Maybe Kingsman’s attempts to function both as an earnest 80s spy movie throwback and a hard-R comedic subversion à la Tropic Thunder are contradictory, and so render its more demonstrative moments at best as a hedged bet, and at worst as an awkward crisis of genre identity.

That identity isn’t bolstered any better by the musical score. After Jupiter Ascending reminded me of what a cavalcade of symphonic pleasures a film score can be, Kingsman is a brutal comedown. Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s work here is exactly what you’d expect of the most dronish graduates of Remote Control Productions, boasting a small handful of ultra-simple, unaffected melodies as themes, repeating them ad nauseum with the emotional backing of blasting chord changes in the backing orchestra, with the modern sheen of electronic beats on every other scene (this is especially foregrounded in scenes with Valentine, whose leitmotif is, I kid you not, a single, repeated note). Jackman and Margeson make a few nods towards the  two-note, horn-blasting, semitone-dropping “What a twist!” stingers famous to John Barry’s Bond scores and the spy genre in general, and these references are both the movie's most amusing pieces of music, and completely out of place in a score that otherwise hasn’t a trace of parody or humour in it.

Kingsman is frustrating in many ways, but there’s one scene in particular that gives away the game, and it cannot go without remark: Hart goes incognito for a meeting with Valentine, attending the latter’s home for dinner. Valentine has an ornate dinner tray brought in for the two of them, and uncovers its contents to reveal a line of McDonald’s meals in brown bags. This has the rhythm of a gag, but it doesn’t make sense, even as a characterizing moment for Valentine (who later lavishes his wealthy collaborators with high-class food and drink); it is simply a bald-faced, out of nowhere attempt to pass out-of-place product placement off as a topical gag, and it’s far from the only instance of that (woefully far from it). I’m not a total puritan in matters of in-film advertising, but when a film so baldly expects you to accept blatant intrusions of corporate dealings into the story ostensibly being told, it’s pretty clear where its makers’ values lie.

by Will Ross
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It is very rare that you see a film that you know is, for all intents and purposes, a considerable failure, but which you nonetheless come out of stoked out of your mind. The Wachowski’s latest commercial disaster, Jupiter Ascending, is just such a film, alternating an over-designed sci-fi production with an undercooked screenplay, partially rescued by its action scenes and the best musical score Michael Giacchino has ever written.

There’s just no getting around it. I have to start there. The Wachowskis used the rare approach of having Giacchino score to the screenplay (rather than scoring to a near-complete edit of the film) and, then assembling the film around the music. It’s a technique they picked up from Tom Tykwer during Cloud Atlas, but it traces back at least to Sergio Leone’s legendary collaboration with Ennio Morricone in the 60s. I can’t speak to its efficiency or cost from a production standpoint, but it’s delivered some of the best music in the annals of film. Here, it seems to have given Michael Giacchino the creative breathing room he needed to write that classic sci-fi score he’s hinted at ever since 2009’s Star Trek. Giacchino, whose best work prior to this was Speed Racer, another Wachowski film, fires up a broad stylistic range, a score whose influences are so diverse — the agile orchestral grandeur of Jarre, the pounding fanfare of early Williams (Giacchino hasn’t thrived so much in this regard since his work on the Medal of Honor games), the trilling strings of late Williams, the action bombast of Goldsmith and, of course, Holst — yet so cohesive and unique and culminative of his prior work that eventually you have to just smile and say “It sounds like Giacchino.”

Happily, there’s a lot of the Wachowskis’ personalities on display as well, though not in their sporadically-reached peak form. Their “chosen one” protagonist, this time, is Russian-descended Earthling, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). Jupiter, the film is very fond of telling us, is destined for greater things than her menial life with a family of caricaturesque émigrés, and when a grouping of aliens tries to assassinate Jupiter and an elf-eared, dog-toothed mercenary (Channing Tatum) rescues her, those greater things come to pass; it’s not long before Jupiter discovers that the human race is not indigenous to Earth, and that she is the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abraxis family, an intergalactic corporate dynasty. This status grants her, among other benefits, ownership of her home planet. Her three corporateering children (Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Booth, and Eddie Redmayne) have other ideas, and it becomes clear that Jupiter’s genetic predecessor had one helluva dysfunctional relationship with her children that may have gone as far as matricide….

This is, er, silly. And Jupiter Ascending, of course, is aware that it’s silly. Were you to swap out this music for a pop soundtrack, and were the Wachowskis not the most reliably excellent directors of action scenes in the world, it would resemble nothing more than the notoriously campy (and amusingly hare-brained) Flash Gordon film of 1980, a work far more eager to distinguish itself from any other science-fiction on the market than it is to tell the story at its center.

Unlike that film, however, Jupiter Ascending is not so willing to laugh at itself, an attitude at odds with its lighthearted story. It’s not that the Wachowskis take the characters and material too seriously, it’s that they don’t take it seriously enough — there’s far more laughs and fun to be mined from a protagonist’s ongoing incredulity than there is with this lackadaisical “go with it” attitude of each and every character, especially Jupiter herself. One of the biggest assets to placing an Earth person just like this at the center of a sci-fi epic is allowing the audience to identify with that character, and given that this isn’t as stoic or grim-faced a work as The Matrix, humour is a practical necessity for us to identify with the fish-out-of-water hero. It’s alienating to see Jupiter gawk so little at the way her ordinary life has overturned and become a space opera, beyond a little quip comparing alien bureaucracy to the DMV.

Had Jupiter Ascending done more to sell its characters’ believability within such goofy trappings, instead of using those trappings to waive believability, we could be looking at a really terrific film. Visually, the Wachowskis are certainly up to it; though I have qualms about the digestibility of its giddily ornate and diverse production/alien designs, there’s not much arguing that it’s fun to look at, and John Toll’s cinematography is certainly a sterling presence throughout — though my 3D viewing suggested that the action works best in three dimensions, and all other material in two.

Those action scenes! Always count on the Wachowskis for their skill here, because nobody is better at redirecting an audience’s rulebook for gunfights, from the light push on the y-axis of “boots that let you surf gravity” to their uncanny ability to put the camera in exactly the most exciting position that will cut to the next shot in exactly the most exciting way. There is nothing here to match the quintessentially climactic ending of Speed Racer (which counted on our investment in the characters as much as it did its pitch-perfect confluence of light and design), but any time the movie transitions into a firefight it quickly becomes a joy to experience — especially in one contrived but elated scene that intercuts between a chaotic space chase and a fantastically overblown don’t do it! wedding.

The Wachowskis, however, seem far more interested in the things unique to a space opera than they are the things universal to any character-centered story. The downtime between action is hard to defend, and only becomes harder as the film goes on. Character attributes are introduced without much fanfare, left alone for most of the running time, and then treated with grave import in the 11th hour, and the cast’s performances seem roundly confused as a result (Redmayne's hammed-up malevolence is as unconvincing as you've probably heard). The plot’s episodic structure has thin premises and thinner payoffs. Perhaps most damningly for a movie about doe-eyed spacefaring, the inner workings of galactic society are treated with too much dry procedure (one parade of bureaucracies halfway through is toned for comedy, but written with no wit beyond repetition. It ends with a Terry Gilliam cameo, which registers both as a fun homage to Brazil and a reminder of how much better this kind of comic material can be handled).

Jupiter Ascending has big problems. How the superlative score elevates the film’s many shortcomings! Giacchino weaves a myriad of lovely motifs together, capturing the majesty and excitement of its genre’s tradition better than anything it underscores. I cannot give the music a high enough recommendation, and it works at least as well on-album as it does with the movie. I don’t expect any other 2015 film to surpass its craftsmanship in any given field. That can make you either grateful for its help in making Jupiter Ascending a much funner experience, or regretful that it’s not surrounded by a better movie. Depends on how you look at it. If you lean in close to any of this film’s most lovingly crafted parts, you’ll find much to delight in. Step back and look at the whole, and you’ll see a Jupiter that doesn’t really go anywhere. Me, I stayed on the edge of my seat.

Feb 10, 2015

The Double (2013)

by Will Ross
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In many ways The Double feels like a more logical continuation of Richard Ayoade’s TV cult classic Darkplace than his freshman feature Submarine. Like Darkplace, his new film locates itself in a world of 80s tropes, and whose story is told more through its formal mechanics than the ostensive plot. Like Darkplace, it is a farce, where people are unable to understand or overcome the mechanisms of their world, fail, and fall.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) seems to have been born without a spine. His fear of antagonizing others by interruption or assertion makes him anonymous, especially in a workplace where expedient charisma is valued above else (“Do you even know what we do here?” he asks, and we realize that we don’t). This means that when Simon loses his work identification and signs in as a guest under “Simon Ames”, his only proof of existence at his workplace is lost. Soon, his doppelgänger (also Simon, but casually called “James”) is hired, and no one except the two of them seem to realize that they look and sound identical.

James takes square aim at everything that Simon wants, including the eye of the company’s mysterious figurehead The Colonel, and the object of his desire (and stalking), Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). The plot details are familiar — this is, after all, based on the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name — but it functions first and foremost as a formal whirlwind, one that quickly calls to mind Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but takes on a life all its own. The film hardens its edges at every level of its craft, most obviously in the lighting: there is not a single soft or natural-looking light in the film; instead, lights throw sharp lines and vivid colours along actors’ faces with little logical connection to their environment.

Granted, for all their dilapidation, those environments hardly feel lived in; they’re more like a dream’s interpretation of aging 80s prefab than any actual attempt towards period set design. Machine functions seem to be built less towards the aim of functioning and more towards existing, and so poor Simon constantly finds himself on the losing end, soon watching James take the credit for his work, his ideas, and even his feelings.

Nonetheless, as Simon slowly realizes his plight and tries, too late and too feebly, to save his existence, every single thing he does is rendered a part of his world’s machinations, both by the incredible pitter patter of the script’s dialogue (any actual full-sentence by Simon is invariably talked over or taken with offense) and the editing, which cuts before and after any given movement or action, but not during, giving each and every movement a stilted, calculating feel. The soundtrack, too, is an absolute marvel, and blasts machinery over most everything (think of the buzzing and blasting of machines in a Jacques Tati film) and features musical score alternately comprised of crunchy, atonal electronics and sharp, doom-laden strings.

All of this praise for its mechanics, and I haven’t gotten to what they mean: The Double, as dark and deeply sad as it is, is fucking hilarious. Despite the integral use of sound in the film, Ayoade is channeling no form of comedy more than silents, where directors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin would build up a complex systems of logic that torments the hero until he learns to use that same system to triumph. In the end, Simon grasps the system perfectly well — but triumph might be bound up in self-annihilation.

by Will Ross
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Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a massacre. As six armed members of a street gang creep through a ghetto, they are suddenly ambushed and gunned down from above by LAPD officers as they flee from officers, none of them so much as raising their weapons. The victims are flying, collapsing bodies, spattered in red, lying in the yellow lights of an LA night; the cops’ faces are unseen, the frame dominated by their hands and shotguns. The scene dissolves to a serene pan across a tranquil LA suburb, as a radio press conference plays where a police commissioner justifies these actions as a necessary retaliation to an epidemic of gang violence. It’s a bold expression of cold-blooded brutality, a gritty, brutally direct piece of low-budget genre filmmaking that sets up the audience for both bloodshed and moral gray areas. As it turns out, writer-director-editor John Carpenter, here helming his second feature film, only really gave a damn about the bloodshed.

Which is fine by me, kind of.I haven’t got any major moral qualms with indulging in some exaggerated fantasy killing, but that’s not what the opening presents or promises. Either Carpenter wasn’t aware of its implications, or he was knowingly writing cheques that he couldn’t and wouldn’t cash as a sensational attention-grabber. Given that he was about to go on a tear of genre filmmaking that would define the transition between the New Hollywood of the 70s and the high-concept formulations of the 80s, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of a doubt. That leaves us with a John Carpenter who was still making mistakes, who still didn’t quite understand how to take an audience where he wanted them to go.

Still, though the soon-to-be horrormeister hadn’t yet parlayed his gifts for stylized violence into straight shots of terror, there’s no denying the forcefulness of this or any other moment in Assault on Precinct 13, which to its credit lays out an uncomplicated schema (first half set-up, second half siege) and pays off on it. The setup: newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to the all-but-empty Precinct 9, Division 13 on the final night of its decommissioning. A group of convicts, most notorious among them the death row-bound killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), are transported on a long trip by bus, but a sick prisoner forces a brief layover in LA — at Precinct 9, Division 13. A member of the street gang from the opening scene shoots and kills a 12-year-old girl, Kathy Lawson (Kim Richards, whose graphic death is a crazily ill-advised shock scene that nullifies much of the building tension), and the girl’s father (Martin West) chases the gang car down, shoots Kathy’s killer, and then flees into the police station with an ever-increasing number of gang members in pursuit. Through what the charitable would call “chance” but I’d probably call “contrivance,” all these parties have wound up at what just happens to be the least defensible location in all of Los Angeles on its least defensible night — minimally staffed, loaded with windows and entrances, surrounded by empty road and unoccupied houses for hundreds of yards. The street gang of the opening, who are randomly murderous, indifferent to pain and death, and apparently have dozens and dozens of totally expendable members, lay siege to Precinct 9 (there is no Precinct 13, which I forgive because the title was conceived in post and is really cool).

So for all the meticulous, carefully sketched out plotting undertaken to get to the assault on Precinct, uh, 9 — and boy, the first half takes its sweet time with that — the whole scenario winds up feeling forced and unbelievable, and this is a critical if partially forgivable flaw, because it’s important that everything in a zombie drama feel plausible except the zombies.

Let’s back up a moment. Assault on Precinct 13 is distinctly the work of a fairly green feature director who is absolutely gaga about genre filmmaking, partly due to nods to other films and directors: one character describes a childhood story lifted directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s biography, another makes dialogue references to Once Upon a Time in the West (“Something to do with death” and a promise to reveal a secret at the “moment of dying” are uttered within seconds of each other). But most importantly, Assault on Precinct 13 is a mash-up of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead set in modern-day LA, borrowing the committed police defending a prison and building camaraderie from the former, and the teeming, mindless, unexplained horde laying siege to a building from the latter. There is much to compare between Assault and those forebears, but those observations are well-trod ground that don’t take much work to spot; let’s just say that the archetypes and story mechanics are more or less what you’d expect from a cross between a western and a zombie movie (with a few specifics drawn from both Romero and Hawks) and leave it at that.

The comparison is an important one, though, because the structural influence of those films is a major asset. It’s not that the film is a well told variation of those stories — at a script level, Assault on Precinct 13 is at best serviceable, and not a particularly interesting new spin on its sources — but because their iconic sturdiness gives Carpenter more room to take risks as a stylist. Where his first film Dark Star’s shoestring effects and parody seem to constrict Carpenter’s incredible skill with building moods, the more focused story and looser production of Assault gives Carpenter the room to create the mood that would make him a star of genre filmmaking.

If you’ve seen a Carpenter horror film from the 70s or 80s, you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about, though can be difficult to describe (beyond a sense of dread and the wavering clicks and synthesizers of the soundtrack). Difficult, I think, because it is a purposefully elusive mood; Carpenter’s best genre exercises carefully define a scenario and the geography of the space it takes place in, and then subvert both with frenetic suspense and an irrational and mysterious threat of violence. And then he puts clicks and synth beats over it.

It’s a delicate balancing act, unsettling an audience’s understanding of the rules of the diegesis without betraying it, and all it takes is a quick survey of the countless Halloween clones and sequels to see that it’s a talent and tone very specific to one director. Nobody else can do it. Even John Carpenter usually can’t do it.

Here, he comes close, but he doesn’t do it. A few of his tricks are here; each space’s geography is laid out with slow, exacting detail — Bishop gets out of his car, looks forward, looks left, looks right, reverse shows what’s behind him as he heads in — and then when the action starts, that geography becomes almost totally unimportant as the action boils down to little more than the siege survivors standing at doors shooting at the hordes trying to climb in. But this neat dichotomy plays less as a subversion of expectations and more as a squandered opportunity for pay-offs.

Nonetheless, it does come close. In his commentary track for the film, Carpenter laments that he should have sped up the first half. He’s right and he’s wrong: it’s true that the characters and plotting aren’t well-built enough to stand up to the scrutiny permitted by such a crawling pace, but the distension of suspense and forestalling of violence is one of the best things the movie has going for it. When the assault does start, the bodies pile up so fast that Carpenter just about pulls off the sense of illogical, displaced terror that he so famously perfected one year later with the career-defining Halloween. The editing, which is plodding and almost totally momentum-free in all but the most hectic action, doesn’t help, but there are other mitigating factors in play as well.

Much of the problem lies with the gang, who register as a little too human to really work the audience’s fear of the irrational — they have distinct looks and clothes and, one can surmise, origins, even if their personalities are all the same register of psychopathy — that Carpenter always drew out with his least definable antagonists (“The Shape,” “The Fog,” “The Thing”). Even more of the problem lies with the cops and criminals defending the precinct, who don’t register as human enough. Performances in Assault on Precinct 13 are inconsistent or downright wooden more often than not (this is especially disappointing for Stoker’s work as the blandly heroic Bishop, one of the only black leads in a non-blaxploitation 70s action movie), which makes the bond-setting between the beleaguered station’s defenders a practical non-asset. Thankfully, there’s much to enjoy in Darwin Joston’s turn as Napoleon, the first and last (co-)lead in a career of bit parts, a blithe smart-ass of a character with a noir-ish pathos about him that makes him the best character in a walk.

Nonetheless, Carpenter’s personality is plain to see, and certainly has its moments, chief among them a brief, desperate scramble to break a shotgun out of a locked box before three gang members break down the door. That goes a long way with me, even if it's hard not to think ahead to the unvarnished white-knuckling as near as his next film, and his eventual mastery of the mechanics of an unnatural siege six years later with The Thing (a film I love so dearly that it’s difficult for me to contain that love to this parenthetical). Seeing an artistic personality all-but-fully-formed is invigorating in itself, but Assault on Precinct 13 is admirable more in bits and pieces than as a whole.

Feb 4, 2015

Blackhat (2015)

by Will Ross
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Of all the American auteurs who consistently work with huge budgets, Michael Mann is the most aesthetically daring. However much one admires the late careers of Scorsese or Tarantino, their most formally radical days are long behind them; each reinvented the toolbox of the American director, and their tools are now instantly recognizable and digestible, even if their makers still wield them with more boisterous precision than anyone else. Mann, on the other hand, has only pushed further against the grain in the last decade, shellacking ordinary notions of what is allowed in gritty crime action movies. The style he's worked is so difficult to imitate, so anathemic to contemporary ideas of what makes for an appealing action movie, and, most of all, so demanding of utterly confident tonal vision and control, that it is challenging to grasp and near-impossible to replicate, and so it hasn’t exactly set genre filmmaking on fire. What’s more, the aggressively unusual digital video of Miami Vice and Public Enemies was easily mistaken for slapdash tech fetishism, and oft-dismissed as such by critics. In those films’ case, that charge is not unfounded (their mutant formalism and narrative spines compete as often as they cohere), but it’s hardly a fair attitude towards a director who has proven his chops more than enough to have his experiments taken seriously. In each of his last four films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and now Blackhat), Mann has grasped more and more at the premises that define his craft, tangling and untangling each and every one of the innumerable strands that constitutes crime-thriller storytelling, and then tangling them together again into an almost unrecognizable new weave. He is, in short, trying some crazy shit, and doing it without the creative safety net of the arthouse community.

It is important to seize upon and celebrate this fact, because the disastrous box office take of Blackhat won’t permit us to celebrate it much longer. In a time where most high-budget affairs earn funding because of their franchising opportunity, or at best their ultra-high concepts, Mann remains a moving target. Nine years after he used Vice to flip his middle finger at the franchise-reboot gravy train, and received the punishment of meager ticket sales and befuddled reviews, Mann is still compromising less, not more. But the public isn’t biting, most critics aren’t biting, and lord knows Oscar isn’t biting.
For those of us who claim that the mainstream has dismissed Mann’s latter works out of hand, a new tech-thriller about hackers has been awaited almost breathlessly — all the more so since it marks his return to feature filmmaking after his truncated stint in television with Luck. Mann has been absent from cineplexes for six years, and is arguably facing down his lowest ebb of public opinion in that realm. He must have been aware of this when he cast Asgardian beefcake Chris Hemsworth, not exactly a respected àrtiste among cinephiles, as genius hacker Nicholas Hathaway, arguably the most broadly proficient of Mann’s long line of hypercompetent protagonists. Mann must have been even more aware when he decided that as the story begins, Hathaway would be called out of prison to help find and stop the blackhat hacker… after six years of incarceration.

The Chinese government and FBI form a small collaborative team to stop this menace, whose seemingly unmotivated attacks have so far devastated stock markets and a nuclear power plant. Heading up the Chinese effort, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) notices that a section of the blackhat’s code is based on an old virus authored by his former roommate as a college gag, and asks his FBI counterpart (Viola Davis) to furlough and enlist a certain musclebound prison inmate. Hathaway demands that if they succeeded, his sentence be commuted, and the Americans acquiesce. Which, besides his convict status, turns out to be a hell of a coup: other than the extreme computer savvy that makes him the most valuable detective of the team, Hathaway is skilled with a pistol, and even better hand-to-hand.

These skillsets may seem dissonant (“A ripped, action-ready hacker? Really?”), and prime ammunition for the claim that Mann, for all his insistence on cutting edge digital techniques, is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s looking at things the wrong way around: Hathaway is a modern criminal, and hacking is as important to his stock and trade in the 21st century as safecracking was to Frank, the diamond-robber in Mann’s 1981 film Thief. Hathaway is ruthlessly practical, constantly developing the talents that make him useful and bring him freedom; hacking is one adjunct to that, being a violence-ready badass is another. “I do time, time doesn’t do me,” he tells Captain Chen’s sister Lien (Tang Wei). “You talk like you’re still in prison,” she replies, and indeed he does. Like most of Mann’s leading men, Hathaway is faced with a call to emotional immediacy that flies in the face of his freewheeling careerist paradigm.

That conversation, held in a modest and cramped Korean restaurant, is the catalyst for a near-spontaneous love affair, another staple of Mann’s work. Though his screenplays sometimes falter in tying these B-plots to the A-plots (whatever its defendants argue, I have never been convinced that Miami Vice’s romance effectively merges with its undercover action), this scene gets things started on the right foot: it’s a setup for an action scene that also functions as a quasi-date, at the same time and for mostly the same reasons. Those two narrative elements only tighten further from there.

And the further Blackhat can tie things to its action element, the better, because holy cow, this movie’s set pieces are totally off the hook, easily the best the director has done since The Big One in Heat. Taken as a whole, it may be even better, as Mann takes a new tack with every scenario. In a three-on-one brawl, a swiping, handheld camera over Hemsworth’s shoulder. In a shootout among containers, the ominous metallic thunks of the bullets peppering Hathaway’s cover. In a sudden and terrifying ambush that totally reconfigures the remainder of the film, with audio and cinematography flying between authentic and dreamlike, gunshots churning between thooming drones and hollow plak-plak-plaks, movements shifting from smeary smoothness to sharp and jittery jolts. It’s a rare beast, an action film where every action scene is unique in its contours and purpose, where the metaphorical and tactile experience are just as important as the story stakes that hinge on each battle.

Or more important, depending on how you watch it. As much as he demands from his audience, Michael Mann is a truly generous filmmaker, and Blackhat works on a number of levels at once, in most any combination that the audience chooses. It’s easy, as you watch, to vault the maze of the detective story almost entirely, and just explore the textures and rhythms that a mixed frame rate, an erratic sound mix, and an impressionistic but hard-as-asphalt shootout can offer. It works so well on this level — it has all the sensory propulsion of Chungking Express — that you can take it on like a fever dream, fed by the snippets of plot and character that you catch in the low-mixed dialogue.

Not a scene goes by when Mann doesn’t glide over four or five twists of film form. He cuts from a smeary, blown out DSLR shot to a crisply defined frame from the Arri Alexa, from a comfortable 24 frames per second to a disjointed 30, from a snakey steadicam medium shot to a hyperactive handheld closeup. He changes a gunfight’s sound perspective in mid-shot, or drowns out nominally expository dialogue with music or ambience. These techniques often cue us into the subtext of a given scene, and they always beckon us to understand a moment, a movement, a motive in a new way. Blackhat is constantly experimenting, but it is absolutely not fucking around.


You can also watch it as a hard-edged procedural mystery, where the sharp corners and clipped pace of Mann’s aesthetic render each clue and technical term all the more critical to decipher and understand, where each problem solved is another pull of a long rope promising revelation on the other end. The hacking scenes don’t rest on a character clacking a bunch of code we don’t understand onto a screen and declaring, “I’m in!” Anyone with a working knowledge of computers can understand the technical principles at work in this film, but the real fun is in broader logistical strategies. These are often most entertaining for their ingenious simplicity, as in one scene where Hathaway sets a plan to hack into the NSA with password-stealing bait designed to appeal to their own paranoia. There is no shortage of pleasures for those who like to work out plotting puzzles, and the attentive are rewarded by a little gag in the final scene, where a character avoids a paper trail with a straightforward push of the “No” button.

There’s certainly a tension between these two approaches — the opulent, lingering emotions of aesthetic experience and the breakneck calculations of the plot — especially for the first two thirds of the film. That’s much of the point. Blackhat is the story of a man who senses in his life a rift between two worlds: one of data, of negotiations and sentences and the collection of strength and knowledge and power; the other, a more nebulous world that he feels, a world more readily perceptible, but harder to understand and solve. Though his chosen functions are those of purely practical problem-solving, Hathaway finds himself drawn to moments of contemplation, of internal mysteries, like a long but fleeting look at the heat waves of an airport tarmac (here standing in for the Mannian convention of looking out to the ocean for solutions to the soul’s enigma, as if they might just be buried somewhere in the infinite waves). Lien interrupts him with the question he’s no doubt asking himself, “Are you okay?” Later, he asks her, “Will you still like me if I fix garage doors?” and is answered with another mystery: “Maybe.” The cold, hard fact at the center of Hathaway’s world is that all the coding and decoding and decryption in the world can never unmask the abstractions that lie beneath.

That goes for the digital manhunt, too. Using the system of the good guys to chase the bad guys is a losing proposition, because this is precisely the system that the bad guys have merged into, always a cashout away from disappearing completely. Mann isn’t an alarmist, he isn’t suggesting an any-means-necessary solution to cyberterrorism. He’s suggesting that no level of systematization can save us. In a scene from his preceding film, Public Enemies, bank-robbing celebrity John Dillinger stumbles into a room full of phones, part of a coast-to-coast bookie racket, while looking for a safe house. He is told in no uncertain terms that he is too public, too willingly infamous for them to give him shelter anymore. Instead of rejecting the law, they live within its margins, a life antithetical to the free-spirited Dillinger’s personal goal of total liberation. “I can hit any bank I want, any time," brags Dillinger in one scene. "They got to be at every bank, all the time.” In Blackhat, both cops and criminals have given themselves over completely to this sublimation of the individual into the flow of information. They are at every bank, all the time.

But if Public Enemies fell into the trap of romanticizing the motives of a psychopathic murderer, or worse, the cynical moral that the principles of rebels and lawmen are equally soul-destroying futilities, Blackhat offers something of a corrective: perhaps rejecting absolute systematization is not, in fact, a soul-destroying futility, but a soul-restoring one. As the story progresses, Hathaway takes more and more risks, breaks further and further from his at-first selfish motives, and rejects the intangible systems articulated by trillions of binary switches for a direct, intimate, personal solution: get close enough, fast enough. It’s no accident that Blackhat’s story gets easier to follow as it goes along, nor that this correlates with a more direct involvement of the love story in the crime fighting story; the most delightful surprise of its structure is the way it becomes a lovers-on-the-run story without sacrificing one iota of integrity or intelligence. Under the story’s jargon and globetrotting is a straight line that only gets straighter as it goes along.

This is, you may have surmised, not the stuff of a character study. Few people who watch Chris Hemsworth’s glowering slab of a performance would describe Hathaway as a detailed or complicated character, and I certainly would not be among them. But humanity is not determined by the length of a bullet-point list of traits and hobbies, and there is a difference between complication and complexity. In Mann’s cinema, humanity is not expressed through what people know, but through their willingness to explore what they don’t know. It’s at the core of Blackhat’s themes, and a prime motivator for his exploratory, ever-shifting formal maneuvers. It’s why the most spectacular, emotionally rousing shot of the film is a red-smeared zoetrope, with a crowd cascading one way, and two figures locked in chase walking the other, against the flow, at opposite extremes of the frame. Because, argues Mann, deep down we don’t want to submit to pat answers and traditions of quality and procedures and institutions that constrict our view of what we can do. We want to approach old, impossible questions with new answers.

Like any art that poses a Gordian knot to its audience, Blackhat is intimidating and even confusing at first, but rewards our attentions regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails — and there is success in spades in this case. Blackhat is working with ideas so unusual that there is no standing shorthand to describe them. (What to call Mann’s improvisatory, reconstructive, yet highly precise approach? ‘Anti-découpage’? Eat your hearts out, film theorists!) One may even wonder, as they watch Blackhat, if Mann was so gleefully adventurous that he never stopped — better put, never has stopped — and finished making his film. But the film is too dedicated to detail to feel lazy, too sumptuous and full to feel incomplete. So instead, the film seems positively alive, almost as though it is being made as we watch it. If Mann’s irritating habit of re-editing his films for each iterative home video release is the price we pay for the experience of watching cinema unfold spontaneously and immediately before our eyes, then so be it. That is, after all, what makes for a good thriller.

by Will Ross
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You can’t blame a movie for trying, and oh, how hard Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tries; wildly, valiantly, messily, constantly. It tries so hard, and with such inconsistent success, that one might argue it tries too hard, but that’s a silly criticism that no self-respecting Abel Gance fan could endorse, and we at Sad Hill Media are resolutely pro-Gance.

A fairer argument would be “It tries too hard where it fails, and hard enough where it succeeds.” To its credit, one of the film’s many amusing meta quirks is that it's just as prepared to face the humiliation of public failure as its protagonist: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Batman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback), a dwindling movie star, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Birdman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. From that casting, the gist of the movie’s game is pretty clear: satirize show-business personalities and their egos in the public eye, with real-life know-how implied by metatextual nods in the film’s cast and screenplay. Given the slowly falling star of director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu since the wild acclaim of his debut Amores Perros, one can’t help but think of his own career; this resemblance is no doubt also intentional, if not necessarily autobiographical.

It’s set up as a critical self-satire, in a sense, one distanced from the movies mostly by the Broadway setting, but unlike Sunset Blvd. or , Birdman isn’t really all that excoriating. For all the barbs that Riggan and his cast and family throw at each other in the chaotic days leading up to the play’s premiere, Iñárritu is determined to redeem and humanize them all. All, that is, save for a businessman, a film critic, and the public at large, the harshest judgment of whom the film saves for its final sequence. One of Birdman's more unfortunate traits is that it paints an arts community where only the suffering, imperfect artists themselves have noble causes or motives at bottom, and the rest are preening or pompous leeches. Ironically, that makes Iñárritu and co. far more cynical than Fellini or Wilder.

That’s not the film’s main thesis, thankfully, and so it can be mentally backgrounded in favour of where the film’s strengths (and other flaws) lie: as a freewheeling, sympathetic character study. Keaton’s central performance is showy, but in a way that’s resolutely tuned to the showiness of the film around him, and he pulls off enough surprising character beats and turns that it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen him do. The supporting cast is strong all round, albeit sometimes the film’s tonal wishy-washiness seems to leave them a little at sea sometimes — the film doesn’t quite carry off its frequent and murky shifts between comedy and melodrama.

A lot of that is probably down to a lack of formal discipline. Much has been made of the single, unbroken shot that constitutes the vast majority of Birdman, which so far has been most commonly read as the heightened stream of consciousness of a man losing his mind. But if there is one unifying trait here, it isn’t internal subjectivity, but aggressive omniscience: Iñárritu’s camera seems to see every important moment of every character’s life in this theater house, eliding the passage of days with an elliptical pan, then showing a character’s hallucinations, then showing an intimate dialogue between Riggan and his girlfriend in a fairly objective mode, then snaking away from Riggan to an adulterous interlude, then to another adulterous interlude, then — well, it certainly makes its point about fidelity in the theater world.

The point is that the camera does and sees whatever it damn well wants to, and on one hand it’s a thrill to see a master innovator like Emmanuel Lubezki go so hog-wild as only he conceivably could. On the other, all this constant creative exuberance tends to stuff the running time a hell of a lot fuller than it could or should be. There’s not much of a formal arc to the cinematography’s craziness — it peaks with an astonishing movement through Times Square long before the film is due to climax — and that can often make the proceedings more hysterical than moving. But still, we’re talking about Lubezki here, and that means there are few images in Birdman that don’t carry emotional import, that don’t dazzle with their technical and expressive bravura, that aren’t throwing in new flourishes, even if it can get a little unsurprising in its surprisingness.

At least the film is of a piece in its messiness; the script runs through big, dramatic beats with characters far too often and too early, often robbing otherwise-good performances of the sense of development and discovery. It has an unfortunate habit of revealing someone’s foibles and redeeming them well before the halfway mark, and then topping those logical culminations with increasingly contrived interpersonal complications (usually adultery). There's more than enough material here to fill a very dense movie (much, much more), but for all the density, the histrionics lay so much bare so soon that the movie is front-loaded, and little resounds at the end.

Yes, this is overload with abandon, a movie jammed so tight with extremity and self-conscious stylization that it squeezes out much of whatever points Iñárritu was trying to make. Despite this — despite a schizophrenic mix of classic orchestral music and a jazz drumming score, despite its failure to deliver on its themes, despite an ending that is not really earned and comes off more glib than ambiguous — it’s hard to fault Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for bringing too much to the table when so many of its parts are so good, even if it doesn’t make for a proper meal.

by Will Ross
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Ten feature films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has solidified its scope and range more than perhaps any franchise of comparable scale has before, and for all its flaunting of effects and catastrophes, it’s proven a very narrow range indeed. Though blockbuster series have fallen under the close watch of branding before, the MCU may be unique in the sheer intensity of its efforts; in spite of their “universal” moniker, these films never venture farther from each other than the aggressive rubber banding of their continuity allows.

For the most part, both critics and the public seem to have accepted this, and when discussing the series’s merits, standards are kept in a vacuum: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was generally praised as a major stylistic departure for taking a couple camera cues from Jason Bourne movies. Marvel has set and distributed its own grading curve. It doesn't insist so much that it be taken on its own terms as it does on the a priori merit of those terms.

The latest entry is fairly self-contained, and though this frees it from the other films’ irritating pan-referential cameos, Guardians of the Galaxy is quick to remind us of its trappings: the film begins before the studio logo, showing the origin of a little boy visiting his hospitalized, dying mother. After her melodramatic death, he runs outside in tears, a UFO descends to abduct him, and up comes the Marvel Studios logo with accompanying fanfare; a clearer, more open proclamation of “this movie is primarily characterized by its studio,” I have never seen. It’s a ghastly intrusion of financial structure into art (the intrusion, most tellingly, is for “MARVEL STUDIOS”, not a more understandably titular “MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE”), but in a way it’s honest: these movies have constantly signposted their blockbuster appeal, and enough people have paid $10 to see Marvel throw money into a mold so that it makes sense to self-legitimize their ethos of marketing corporatized product.

That makes it very hard to see where James Gunn’s direction succeeds and fails on its own agency and personality, and where he's just running the gauntlet ordained by Kevin Feige. Guardians is very much modeled on The Avengers: a rag-tag group must learn to set aside their differences and co-operate to stop a galactic wannabe-god who’s acquired an ancient artifact that grants world-conquering power. Like Avengers, its solution to its bizarre ensemble is to take a more comedic tack with its characters, though despite being heavily pushed as the goofball entry in the Marvel canon, it’s far more reverent than Joss Whedon’s refreshingly light handle on the material.

Here, most of the outlandishness comes less from the bizarreness of the characters than their newness to the general public; let’s remember that the film features Peter Quill, a human man (Chris Pratt), Gamora, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being green (Zoe Saldana), Drax, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being grey and strong (Dave Bautista), Rocket, a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and a dumb humanoid tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). Only two of those are at all goofy for Marvel, and they’re not that much a stretch.

What’s more, only Rocket and Quill have much character to begin with. Though Guardians moves efficiently to form its band of misfits, the chemistry is more or less set when those two sardonic wisecrackers get together, and happily, they are not identical personalities. The rest are just foils: Drax is a slightly nicer, slightly less dumb Hulk, Groot is a much nicer and even dumber Hulk, and Gamora is plainly just the romantic interest. Indeed, Saldana’s is a pitifully thankless role. Her sole purpose is to be the object of desire (and occasional expositor) in an adolescent male power fantasy, and if you think I’m being cynical, consider her conspicuous exclusion from the film’s merchandise.

That can all be just fine (well, the Gamora thing would still sting) in an effective, exciting action adventure that doesn’t foreground its characters, but Guardians doesn’t deliver there. Being a Marvel joint, there is absolutely no sense of physical danger whatsoever (it’s not even a spoiler anymore to say nobody worth half a damn ever dies in these movies, despite their emphatic continuity). It doesn’t come off aesthetically, either; few of its moving parts show much unity or discipline, or divergence from the studio's cursed house style. The soundtrack choices are rote passages from classic rock standards, the visuals are overloaded by colours and a busy, unfocused camera, and the action scenes are toothless collections of disjointed beats (save for one brief moment involving spacecraft ramming through each other that ranks as the film’s only grounded, inventive piece of choreography).

There’s a good handful of inspired comic moments — mostly quips and straight-man reactions from Quill and Rocket — and the sense of timing and delivery in these moments is easily the film’s strongest point. But even these are more standalone, scattered jokes than a consistent sense of humour tying in with and advancing the story, so the film banks pretty hard on its “forming a team and putting aside selfishness is good” message. And, fine, that’s an okay message, but it’s a little hard to invest in that without the rest of the film working to earn our interest. There’s so little real thoughtfulness afforded to anything in Guardians of the Galaxy, except how to maximize its pull on demographics and create merchandising opportunities. The flashes of good ideas are subservient to the whole, which, as usual, never had a chance to really soar when it was towed all the way by the Marvel machinery.