Monday, August 29, 2016

VODepths: 'Der Bunker,' 'Collective: Unconscious,' 'There Is a New World Somewhere'

Der Bunker (Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller, dir. Nikias Chryssos) I'm not sure what to make of this bizarre German movie, which is a bit David Lynch, a bit John Waters, a bit Terry Gilliam and a bit completely its own unique thing. It all takes place inside the semi-underground home of a twisted family, a nameless mother and father and their son Klaus, who is either a childlike adult or just an adult actor playing a child. An academic (referred to only as "the student") rents a room so that he can have peace and quiet to work on his obviously nonsensical projects, but he's soon drawn into the family's demented world when they enlist him as Klaus' tutor. Oh, also, the mother has a leg sore that talks to her and may be the manifestation of an alien presence. The set design and costumes are fantastically ugly, especially Klaus' ridiculous little-boy outfits, and the actors really commit to their performances. But to me most of it felt like weirdness for its own sake, and eventually the oddball scenarios become repetitive. It's hard to have any emotional investment in characters who behave this strangely, and there isn't enough humor for the movie to work as a dark comedy. It ends on a moment that's probably meant to be cathartic, but just made me glad that the frustrating experience was over. Available on Vimeo.

Collective: Unconscious (dir. Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein) This omnibus feature played at a few festivals earlier this year (including SXSW) and is now available online for free, including via BitTorrent in a version that includes a bunch of DVD-style extras. It's an interesting concept, with five filmmakers each creating short films inspired by one of the other filmmakers' dreams. Like most anthology films, it's inconsistent, although the dream concept ensures that all five segments are surreal and unsettling in different ways. Only one features anything resembling traditional dialogue scenes, and none of them make linear sense. Even the most tedious segment, Decker's "First Day Out," has some striking and haunting images, and the whole experience is indeed dreamlike and disorienting. My favorite segment was the first, Carbone's "Black Soil, Green Grass," which is shot in gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white and functions powerfully as a sci-fi allegory for asserting freedom and individuality against harsh authoritarianism. It follows its own internal logic and is more plot-driven than the other segments, while maintaining the surprising and inexplicable qualities of dreams. The brief framing segments feature a soothing hypnotist advising the audience to treat watching the movie like listening to music, just letting it wash over you, and that's probably the best way to approach the experience. Available on Vimeo.

There Is a New World Somewhere (Agnes Bruckner, Maurice Compte, Ashley Bell, dir. Li Lu) Years ago, I was impressed with Bruckner in a little movie called Blue Car and hoped to see her graduate to bigger things, but nearly 15 years later she's still relegated mostly to TV guest appearances and movies like this one, obscure indie productions of dubious value. I saw this at the 2015 Las Vegas Film Festival, where it won an award for writer-director Lu, although I found it pretty tedious and uninvolving. Its setup, with Bruckner as an aimless young woman who impulsively sets out on a road trip with an alluring man she just met, is standard indie-movie fare, and Lu never takes it in an interesting or unique direction. This isn't the heady romance of Before Sunrise (although it does shamelessly copy one of that movie's more memorable sequences), but it also never quite takes the dark, dangerous turns that it hints at periodically. The two characters never have a strong enough connection or conflict, and neither one is particularly interesting or likable. The movie ends up as a dull road trip to nowhere, sadly reflective of Bruckner's career. Available on iTunes.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Fear of 13' (2015)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

At the beginning of David Sington's documentary The Fear of 13, a title card promises that all of subject Nick Yarris' claims have been independently verified, but it's still hard to believe a lot of the stories he tells about the 20-plus years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Yarris, a drug addict and small-time car thief, ended up convicted of the rape and murder of a wife and mother of three thanks to a series of poor decisions and unlucky circumstances, and his account of his subsequent time in prison seems equally far-fetched. Although Sington throws in occasional newspaper clippings to support some of Yarris' tales, the focus on Yarris as the movie's only interviewee gives the sense that he's the sole source of information, and his eloquent, engaging speaking style ironically makes a lot of what he says harder to believe.

Even if Yarris has embellished his story, though, the basic facts of it, reported in multiple news outlets, are more than amazing enough to justify this documentary. During his time in prison (primarily on death row), Yarris once escaped for 25 days (before turning himself back in), met and married an anti-death penalty activist, spent years advocating for DNA testing to exonerate himself, contracted diseases from poor prison health care, and eventually requested that his execution be expedited, literally months before that DNA evidence finally proved his innocence and he was set free. Sington films Yarris in a darkened, unspecified location, that at first looks like it could be a prison cell or meeting room (the opening title cards also seem to make it unclear whether Yarris is still in prison, for anyone -- like me -- not already familiar with his story).

This isn't just a 96-minute interview, though -- taking more than a few cues from Errol Morris, Sington uses select re-enactments, sound effects and arty close-ups of everyday objects to illustrate Yarris' accounts, and he structures the movie more like a narrative than a documentary, starting out with one of Yarris' most far-fetched stories (about a prisoner breaking triumphantly into song on a block where silence is strictly enforced) before doubling back at various times to fill in the details of the alleged crime that sent Yarris to death row and, finally, the abuse he suffered as a child that had a formative influence on his turn to drugs and crime. That last one comes off a bit like a cheap twist (and I am not a big fan of documentaries that withhold factual information for the sake of "plot twists"), but overall Sington (and Yarris, presumably) construct the movie very effectively, so that it's both suspenseful and emotionally wrenching, with the right amount of comic relief.

Yarris is a master storyteller, teasing out themes in each of his anecdotes (one of which provides the movie with its title) that make them sound like rehearsed, carefully crafted monologues. And given how much time he spent in prison, devouring hundreds of books, they might well be. Yarris professes his fondness for pulpy crime novels, and he seems to have fashioned himself into a character from an Elmore Leonard book, with a set of unlikely quirks and experiences and a strong, self-aware intellect. By creating such a cinematic, engrossing movie, Sington enables Yarris' self-mythologizing, but given how much the guy went through at the hands of a cruel and indifferent justice system, he can be forgiven a bit of hubris and self-aggrandizement.

Monday, August 08, 2016

VODepths: 'Observance,' 'Blood Shot,' 'New Cops'

I get a lot of PR emails about movies being released on VOD, which has become a vast frontier of obscure, strange, low-budget, niche-oriented movies, with even greater variety and oddity than the physical direct-to-video market, which it has essentially usurped. Occasionally I review more high-profile VOD releases for Las Vegas Weekly or Film Racket, but for the most part these emails just go into a folder and then get deleted, and for many of the movies, I never read anything about them from any media outlet. But I have a fascination with these unexplored corners of cinema, so I'm launching this little feature here, periodically rounding up obscure VOD and streaming releases that I've been sent for review (generally unsolicited), hoping to find hidden gems. Here are a few from recent months.

Observance (Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Tom O'Sullivan, dir. Joseph Sims-Dennett) This slow-burn psychological horror movie is a bit torn between completely arty abstraction (along the lines of something like Upstream Color) and more straightforward scares, and its creepy atmosphere is more effective than its ultimately frustrating plot. Farris plays a private investigator holed up in a dingy apartment spying on a woman (King) across the street, and slowly going mad in the process. Details about the woman and her mysterious boyfriend slowly come to light, as director and co-writer Sims-Dennett focuses on the often gross physical and mental deterioration of Farris' Parker. Sims-Dennett (working with cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson) has a real eye for striking, disturbing images (especially unsettling close-ups of everyday objects), but in the end they add up to less than the sum of their parts. Parker discovers just enough secrets to make the plot intriguing, only for the movie to give up on providing any real answers. The performances and style are enough to carry it through, but the end result is a little disappointing. Available on Vimeo.

Blood Shot (Dominic DeVore, Kate French, Skyler Day, dir. Drew Thomas) Originally known as Channeling, Blood Shot has experienced the time-honored direct-to-video technique of getting a more sensationalistic title to grab attention. The new title promises something a lot more gory than this social-media thriller, which is actually an interesting counterpoint to current major studio release Nerve. Although its budget is much, much smaller, Blood Shot has a more solid understanding of social media in many ways. Like Nerve, it posits a new online sensation that seems plausible -- in this case contact lenses that serve as GoPro-like cameras for people to broadcast their lives online -- and builds a thriller around it. The thriller plot, in which military veteran Jonah (DeVore) returns home from the Middle East to figure out who killed his brother, a popular "caster," is convoluted and not very interesting. But the movie's use of social media is clever, especially in a more subdued subplot about Jonah's younger sister (Day) that deals with slut-shaming and online trolls. The writing isn't quite good enough to overcome the budgetary limitations, but the movie manages to be more convincing than Nerve on what was probably less than a tenth of the budget. Available on Amazon.

New Cops (Timothy Morton, Jimmy Kustes, Beau Shell, dir. Timothy Morton) Co-star and co-writer Kustes actually emailed me directly about this movie, which is available on No Budge, a site run by indie filmmaker Kentucker Audley. No Budge hosts a bunch of micro-budget, no-name indie shorts and features, most of them available to watch for free (it also has limited runs and paid VOD releases of slightly more recognizable indie fare). At 52 minutes, New Cops doesn't quite qualify as a feature; Morton and Kustes label it a "labor of laziness," pieced together from footage shot over a period of years, and it has a certain ramshackle charm, especially for fans of the early, incredibly low-fi films in the mumblecore movement (like Audley's Team Picture, which co-starred Morton). Morton plays an aimless man who endures an irritating house guest (Kustes), watches the titular, nonsensical show-within-the-movie (shot with equally poor camera work and harsh lighting) and has dreams or visions in which he's the president of the United States. Mostly he worries that his girlfriend is cheating on him. None of it really goes anywhere, and the general lack of continuity (because of the years-long production schedule) keeps it from being coherent at even a basic level. But Morton and Kustes lean into that by making it a surreal, dreamlike story about a man adrift in his own life. It's more than a little tedious to watch, but every so often there's an unexpectedly funny or weird moment. Maybe if Morton and Kustes overcome their laziness they can put their talents into something more watchable next time. Available on No Budge.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Legacy' (2012)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Thanks to the existence of Jason Bourne, The Bourne Legacy has gone from the future of the Bourne franchise to a curious footnote, a detour in which producers briefly brought in an alternate protagonist when star Matt Damon declined to return as Jason Bourne. Legacy stars Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another enhanced super-soldier being hunted by his former handlers, but despite its often painfully detailed connections to Bourne's adventures, it's essentially a separate story, one that could easily have been made on its own with some very minor tweaks. That might actually have improved it, since all that director and co-writer Tony Gilroy (a co-writer on all the previous Bourne movies) accomplishes by constantly mentioning Bourne is to make his movie and its hero look worse in comparison.

One of the great things about The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (and to a lesser extent The Bourne Identity) is the way they jump right into the action, with Bourne in motion and ready to confront his enemies. Over the course of three movies, the original trilogy reveals more about Bourne's background, but that's never the main focus of any of the movies, and the details remain minimal. When he says "I remember everything" in Ultimatum, the audience has only seen a small portion of the events that he's recovered. In contrast, Legacy is crammed full of back story, with a narrative that focuses almost entirely on the kind of experiences that Bourne had before we met him in the previous movies. Cross is still in training as an agent of the military-sponsored program known as Outcome; he has all his memories and is very much aware of the program's purpose and structure, even if he's been kept in the dark about some of the details and logistics.

As such, the first hour or so of this overly long movie (at 135 minutes, it's easily the longest in the series) is devoted to getting Cross into a place where he has to go on the run and escape from his superiors, and for an action movie, Legacy contains very little action. There are really only two big action set pieces, one around the middle when Cross rescues scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) from a hit squad sent to kill her at her home, the other at the movie's climax, as Cross and Marta are fleeing from the series' latest version of the fellow super-assassin activated to take down the hero. That last sequence, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila, is actually quite exciting and well-crafted, and it dials down the ridiculous, over-the-top mayhem of the car chases in the previous two movies. It's one of the strongest action sequences in the whole series, but it comes too little, too late, at nearly two hours into the running time.

Taking a cue from Ultimatum, parts of Legacy take place in between scenes of the previous movie, and Ultimatum supporting players Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Scott Glenn each show up for a single, presumably contractually obligated scene (only Glenn actually interacts with any of the main characters from this movie). Bourne's name also gets mentioned frequently, and the idea is that because of his efforts at exposing the CIA's secret training programs (Treadstone and Blackbriar), this mostly unrelated military-backed private program must be shut down. Edward Norton plays the latest version of the ruthless bureaucrat determined to stamp out a rogue agent, and aside from being younger than previous versions played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, etc., he's pretty much the same character.

It makes sense not to have Cross as a carbon copy of Bourne, but by showing so much of his training and enhancements, the movie basically turns him into a superhero. There's no espionage in this movie, no secret government missions. It's just a rogue experimental subject being hunted down. Weisz gets probably the biggest role for any woman in the entire series, and she mostly holds her own, but Gilroy can never make Cross and Marta's escape feel like it matters even half as much as anything Bourne has done. After the great chase in Manila, the ending is an anticlimax; there's no catharsis or final confrontation, just Cross and Marta slipping away on a boat while all of their evil adversaries appear to remain in power. Just before Jason Bourne was announced, Universal had green-lit another Aaron Cross movie, but even with Bourne's return, it's hard to imagine why anyone would care to see the further adventures of this guy.

My final Bourne rankings (after seeing Jason Bourne):

The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Ultimatum
Jason Bourne
The Bourne Legacy

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Like The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy wasn't necessarily conceived as part of a franchise, and its ending provides a nice bit of closure for Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), as well as some hope for his continued alliance with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Like Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum then ends up undoing a lot of the resolution of the previous movie, and it actually does that in a sort of devious way, setting the majority of its action in between the final two scenes of Supremacy. It's the kind of blatant retcon that I would expect more out of the Saw series, but even though it stretches credulity at times, I think it mostly works. It recontextualizes Supremacy's final scene into something much more tense, which is a bit of a shame, but it also then gives Bourne a more definitive ending afterward (which, of course, will be undone again by Jason Bourne).

This time around there are no external storylines about foreign targets that the CIA wants to take down; it's just Bourne and his quest for the truth, which puts him in the crosshairs of the series' latest evil, sniveling bureaucrat, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Luckily, Landy is also back, and her antagonistic relationship with Vosen is a highlight of the movie, almost making her into a secondary protagonist. Also making a welcome return with an expanded role is Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons, getting her greatest amount of screen time to date as she fully commits to being Bourne's ally, even going on the run with him. Returning director Paul Greengrass re-creates one of Identity's most memorable moments between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) with Nicky standing in, but she never becomes a love interest. Instead she's a source of comfort and support in a world that Bourne increasingly feels alienated from.

Greengrass continues his interest in bringing current events into the narrative here, as the movie starts with a journalist from the Guardian investigating Bourne's case, and one of the series' best and most inventive action sequences involves Bourne attempting to guide that journalist (played by Paddy Considine) to safety as Vosen's forces close in around him. That's the movie's action highlight, but there's also a very exciting chase through the streets of Tangier that culminates in a great hand-to-hand fight between Bourne and the latest inferior super-assassin the government is throwing at him. At one point he uses a towel as a weapon, which isn't quite as cool as when he used a rolled-up magazine in the last movie, but is still impressive. Stiles also gets to participate in the action a bit, as Nicky proves to be resourceful in fending for herself, even if she's not as powerful as Bourne (because, of course, no one on Earth is).

The movie stumbles a bit in its efforts to give Bourne closure, with Albert Finney showing up in brief flashbacks as the doctor who led Bourne's behavioral conditioning, and then finally appearing directly in the final act, after the main villain (Vosen) has essentially been defeated. It's hard to see this as the culmination of Bourne's entire search when this character has never even been mentioned in the previous movies (and barely factored into most of this one), but Finney does his best to make the confrontation meaningful, adding gravity to a pretty thin character. In the end, the return of Bourne's memory is less about any particular antagonist than about his own self-actualization, and the ending offers a bit of hope that he could be at peace -- hope not seen since the first movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

By killing off Jason Bourne's love interest Marie (Franka Potente) within the first 20 minutes, The Bourne Supremacy places its main character on a grim path of retribution, one that sets the tone for the rest of his onscreen adventures. The Bourne of The Bourne Identity was lost and confused but hopeful, in large part thanks to his connection with Marie. He attained a sort of peace at the end of the movie that Supremacy immediately shatters, even before Marie's death. Here, Bourne is suffering headaches and flashbacks thanks to his intense Treadstone training, and even when he and Marie are successfully off the grid, he can't escape the torment in his head. Once a corrupt Russian official frames him for the murder of two CIA agents, he has no choice but to spring back into action, ruthlessly tracking down everyone who's wronged him.

That makes Supremacy a bit less fun to watch than Identity, but it's no less entertaining, and it has greater depth as a character study. Marie may be gone, but Bourne gains a fascinating ally/adversary in Joan Allen's Pamela Landy, one of the series' best characters. While Chris Cooper's Conklin (here seen briefly in flashbacks) and Brian Cox's Ward Abbott (who gets an expanded role in this movie) were fairly one-dimensional foes in Identity, Landy is a competent spy with as much integrity as Bourne, who also values the truth over political expediency. She pursues Bourne out of a genuine desire for justice, believing him responsible for the deaths of her operatives, and she changes course confidently when she discovers the truth. The tense but respectful conversation between the two in the movie's final scene makes for a very satisfying ending (and would have even if the series had not continued).

Before that, though, Supremacy is another excellent action thriller, with director Paul Greengrass making an impressive series debut, taking over for Doug Liman. Some people complain about Greengrass' use of shaky, handheld camerawork, but to me it adds a sense of immediacy and edginess to the story, which is about someone who is constantly on edge and on the run. And Greengrass knows when to use the jittery camera to increase tension, and when to cut to a smooth overhead shot of a cityscape. There are some very good fight sequences in Supremacy, including one of Bourne's best moments, as he uses a rolled-up magazine to fend off a fellow super-assassin played by Marton Csokas. Greengrass also stages an impressive car chase that seems designed to one-up the chase in the first movie, although it does so by going so far over the top at times that it stretches credibility.

And for all his superhuman abilities, the best thing about Bourne is that he comes across as fragile and human. He's angry and hurt by the death of Marie, and by the government's unwillingness to leave him alone. He feels genuine remorse about the things he did as a government assassin, even if he can't remember most of them. Supremacy tackles the corruption and greed of clandestine government agencies and the oppressive nature of the surveillance state, but it all comes back to the anger and regret of one man who just wants to set things right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Identity' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Director Paul Greengrass has become so closely identified with the Bourne franchise (his return is the reason the new movie, Jason Bourne, is even getting made) that it's easy to forget he hasn't actually been with the series since the beginning. Instead, The Bourne Identity, initially made as a mid-budget thriller without any long-term franchise plans, was directed by Doug Liman, a sort of journeyman director who's taken on many genres without a whole lot of personal style. That's not to say that Liman doesn't make good movies -- in addition to Identity, he directed Swingers, Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow, all solid pieces of entertainment (plus, let's not forget, the seminal first episode of The O.C.). But Liman isn't anybody's idea of an auteur, and his directorial style here is fairly anonymous, with lots of slick Hollywood elements (the sequence that depicts the activation of Bourne's fellow super-assassins, with its cheesy onscreen info text, is the most egregious).

That actually fits well with this movie, though, which follows a much more straightforward path than the sequels that come after it, without a lot of twists and surprises and backtracks. Yes, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has amnesia when he's found floating in the sea by a French fishing boat, and yes, he's surprised by his own seemingly superhuman abilities. But the movie doesn't spend much time keeping the audience in the dark, cutting fairly quickly to the CIA office where amoral bureaucrat Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first in the series' long line of amoral government bureaucrats, calls on all his resources to bring Bourne in and/or take him down. This is also the only movie in the series to give Bourne a real love interest (Franka Potente's Marie), and that makes its portrayal of Bourne himself a lot warmer and more emotional. And since this wasn't designed as a franchise-starter, it can have an actual happy ending, with the two lovers reunited for a new life together.

That's not to say that Identity is entirely superficial; Cooper and Brian Cox (who'd get a larger role in the next movie) make for perfect representations of the callous disregard of the government for people like Bourne. The scene at the end of the movie, with Cox's Ward Abbott casually dismissing the Treadstone project as a failed experiment before quickly moving on to the next budget item, is cruelly effective in depicting how irrelevant Bourne's suffering is to the people who created it. This movie was released less than a year after 9/11, and it depicts the growing paranoia about a surveillance state that would only become more all-encompassing in subsequent years (and in subsequent movies in this series).

It's also a very effective, suspenseful action movie, with one of the best car chases of all time (which subsequent movies would continue trying to top) and some awesome fight sequences between Bourne and the various killing machines sent to take him out (including one played by Clive Owen in a nearly wordless performance). The entire cast is strong: Damon proves himself to be a bona fide action star (even though he hasn't played many action roles outside of the Bourne series); Potente plays an appealing and believable love interest who isn't just a damsel in distress; Cooper and Cox are appropriately oily and ruthless as the villains; Owen gets a nice little speech as his character is dying, describing some of the dehumanizing treatment that would be explored over the next few movies; and Julia Stiles makes a promising first appearance as Nicky, the low-level agent who eventually becomes a key Bourne ally. They all play crucial roles in bringing the story together, and while the later movies may have more artistic ambition and real-world relevance, Identity works best as a self-contained popcorn thriller with just the right amount of substance.