Tuesday, September 27, 2016

VODepths: 'Brutal,' 'Burn Burn Burn,' 'Meat'

Brutal (Morgan Benoit, Jeff Hatch, Renata Green-Gaber, dir. Donald Lawrence Flaherty) Credit goes to this odd sci-fi thriller for combining MMA-style cage fighting and alien abduction, two things that most people probably would not have thought to connect. And it gets credit also for creating a semi-convincing alien prison on what is obviously an incredibly tiny budget, with just some low-tech computer effects and minimalist set design. Unfortunately, the writing and especially the acting are not up to the standards of the strange premise and the production craftsmanship. Benoit and Hatch play two men abducted and imprisoned by aliens and forced to fight each other over and over again in cage matches that are, yes, brutal and seemingly endless (the movie only runs 85 minutes, and the first eight are taken up by an interminable fight scene with no dialogue). Gradually they learn more about each other and figure out how to escape their predicament, while the movie periodically cuts to their loved ones left behind. The more that the two characters speak, though, the clumsier the movie becomes, and the performances are universally awful. The fight scenes are repetitive, the glimpses at the main characters' grieving relatives are pointless (and even more poorly acted), and the philosophical questions that writer-director Flaherty attempts to raise are confusingly framed and even more confusingly resolved. The movie's ambition far outstrips its makers' artistic talents. Available on Amazon.

Burn Burn Burn (Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing, dir. Chanya Button) This charming British road comedy follows best friends Seph (Carmichael, aka Lady Edith on Downton Abbey) and Alex (Pirrie) as they travel across the U.K. scattering the ashes of their recently deceased friend Dan (Farthing), who shows up via video messages he made before his death. Predictably, they learn some important life lessons from their late friend, they grow as people, they strengthen their friendship (after nearly breaking it apart), etc. Even though the dynamic is familiar, the movie mostly works thanks to the very appealing lead performances, the well-observed details of the relationships, the picturesque scenery and the warm humor. The various supporting characters are mostly entertaining and distinctive, although the movie takes a maudlin turn in the last 15-20 minutes when Seph and Alex pick up an older woman hitchhiking and help her reunite with her son. The generally balanced movie ends up a bit heavy-handed, but it still closes on a sweet grace note. Available on Netflix.

Meat (Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, dir. Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyferth) After making the festival rounds and getting a limited European release, this 2010 Dutch movie is available now commercially for the first time in the U.S. It's not hard to see why it took so long to find distribution -- it's a deliberately obtuse, avant-garde murder mystery of sorts, featuring lots of explicit sex, sudden violence and close-ups of raw meat (that's not a euphemism). Muizelaar plays dual roles as a butcher and the police inspector investigating his murder, both of whom get involved with Benner's potential femme fatale Roxy. What starts out as a sort of gritty, sparse drama turns completely surreal in the final act, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and between Muizelaar's two characters. It reminded me of David Lynch's Lost Highway, only not nearly as evocative or visually impressive. The directors favor the grotesque, especially in the many lingering shots of meat being sliced, and even the sex scenes are grimy and nasty (at one point Roxy gives a golden shower to what may be a corpse). I appreciate the boundary-pushing, but it just amounts to ugliness for its own sake when it doesn't go anywhere. Available on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Cameras' (2015)

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

Originally titled Slumlord, 13 Cameras has ended up with a less evocative title for its home video release, although the nastiness promised by the original title turns out to be in short supply. The movie opens with some ominous statistics about the use of surveillance cameras in the United States, with a mosaic of images of unsuspecting people having their private moments caught on camera. But it's not really a cautionary tale about technology invading people's privacy; the use of surveillance cameras is just a generic plot device to facilitate the stalking of boring young couple Ryan (PJ McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief) by their creepy landlord Gerald (Neville Archambault).

Gerald also isn't a slumlord -- the house he rents to Ryan and Claire is a perfectly lovely suburban home, aside from its many (almost certainly more than 13) hidden surveillance cameras, which he uses to spy on them from an unspecified remote location. Gerald is so cartoonishly creepy that it's hard to take him seriously as a threat, even when he eventually kidnaps Ryan's mistress Hannah (Sarah Baldwin) and holds her captive in the house's secret basement, as Ryan and Claire obliviously go about their business. That business makes up the bulk of the movie, which is more of a tedious relationship drama than a suspenseful thriller.

Ryan and Claire fight about little things while Ryan sneaks off to sleep with Hannah (his secretary) and Claire complains to her mom and her best friend. Claire is pregnant, and the couple has moved into this nice house in the suburbs to start a family, but there's no sense of connection or affection between them, even if it's been lost. They seem to barely even know each other, which makes it really difficult to get involved in their constant bickering. Neither one is particularly sympathetic -- Ryan is having an affair with another woman he also doesn't seem to have any passion for, and Claire is a stereotype of the whiny, needy wife. Also, Gerald is constantly lurking in the background, and Archambault and writer-director Victor Zarcoff make him such a distinctively repulsive character that he completely overshadows the boring, self-absorbed protagonists.

Finally, around 15 minutes before the end of the movie, Gerald and the couple confront each other, and Zarcoff builds some decent suspense out of what is a sort of home-invasion thriller in which the invader owns and is intimately familiar with the home. But all the effort to make the audience care about Ryan and Claire's boring marital problems is completely wasted with a nihilistic ending in which none of it matters anyway. Gerald isn't an interesting character, either, and Zarcoff never bothers to reveal his motivations or background or even what he does when he's not watching Ryan and Claire. He has a great look, and Archambault really commits to his unpleasantness, but he isn't an effective villain because he's a complete cipher. Like too much about this movie, Gerald gets an intriguing setup that amounts to very little.

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.