Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Battle Royale

I can accept in A Clockwork Orange that youth crime has gotten so out of hand, the fascist British government of an undetermined future develops a brainwashing technique to eliminate violent behavior and free will. I can also accept that the future rulers of society in The Hunger Games use a gladiator-style death tournament to subjugate and distract the masses. But watching Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese adaptation of a novel of the same name, a film which many have said The Hunger Games borrowed from heavily, I could not grasp the basic premise of the movie's scenario, and that bothered me while watching it.

Battle Royale refers to a law passed by the Japanese government sometime in the near future in response to a mass outbreak of juvenile unruliness in the wake of the country's economic hardship. Every year, a ninth grade class of students are chosen at random, dropped off on an isolated island, given weapons, and forced to fight to the death until only one remains alive. Collars have been placed on their necks that will kill them if they disobey, try to escape, or if more than one are still alive after three days.

Right off the bat, I'm already confused. How does this law address juvenile crime? What does it accomplish? If it's a random selection, what incentive is there for any class to behave and shape up? They could be the best and brightest class in the country, and luck of the draw might see them slaughtered. I could understand if it was the worst class or the worst students pulled from several classes, but this method hardly seems constructive.

I'm also puzzled by the Battle Royale's standing in society. The film's opening scene reveals the bloodied and disturbed face of the previous year's winner as she is driven in a jeep to a throng of swarming reporters, suggesting this a widely publicized, widely followed, and perhaps widely popular event. But when we meet the class that competes in the movie, they have to be explained what the concept is, why it's happening, and their role in it, indicating this is a secret government program. Which is it?

But on the other hand, maybe a bit of anti-logic helps the movie? Consider the students who participate in the competition, high schoolers on the brink of adulthood, independence, and responsibility. To the youth just starting out in the real world, being an adult, or at least having to the confront the responsibilities of one, can be a frightening, dispiriting, confusing, and overwhelming experience, not unlike the situation these students find themselves in.

Every adult in the movie, especially Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the students' former teacher who oversees the game, treats these kids with mocking contempt and ruthless authority. These students, who have been sheltered their entire life and who have had no real worries, are almost pathetic in their utter bewilderment about how the rules of life have changed. Adults, no longer understanding teachers and protectors, have become cruel, violent, demanding, and insensitive. Everything the students been taught or learned is void, and nothing makes sense. The world is not a nurturing, supportive lesson plan, but a cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed game of survival where only the smartest, most ruthless, and luckiest survive. From what I know about Japan (admittedly not a whole not), it is a culture that prizes group cohesion and conformity, but in Battle Royale, the students find out how individualistic and divided they are. The film is an examination of how these students behave when confronted with the harshness of reality.    

Some, like our main characters Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), try to escape, helping who they can and avoiding killing. Mitsuko (Ko Shobasaki) resorts to manipulation and seduction to murder those in her way of survival. Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), a transfer student who voluntarily joined the game, revels in the bloodshed. Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), another transfer student, operates on an unknown agenda. Some students band together to strike back at their adult oppressors; some panic, striking at anyone who comes near them and destroying lifelong friendships in their paranoia; and others commit suicide. Of course, had they all worked together and not so quickly resorted to violence, more of them might have survived.

Director Kinji Kukasaku also infuses the film with a dose of black humor. The students receive random weapons in their survival packs; some are useful, like a machine gun or a crossbow. Others are laughably nonlethal, like a trashcan lid and a pair of binoculars. Kitano, as the rules of the game are being explained, matter-of-factly throws a knife into the forehead of a student who talks out of turn (at one point, he laments about how in school he is forbidden from hitting his students to maintain discipline).

The violence is not as extreme as I had been led to believe, but it's not whitewashed either. Gunshots are bloody, panicky bursts, throats are slit, arrows lodged awkwardly into chests and throats, and one student's severed head is tossed into a building with grenade in its mouth. What gives the violence more impact is how the actors playing  the students actually appear to be of high school age and not in their late 20s or early 30s (as Hollywood is prone to cast for high school).

Battle Royale is a movie that requires either more exposition or less. More exposition would have clarified just how Japanese society came to condone a barbaric game and how the government operates it; less would have heightened the mystery and generated more uneasiness. Still, the film remains an effective and shocking motion picture. Not for the squeamish or faint of heart, it is rather unforgettable.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Machete

Fairly early into Machete (2010) , a doctor randomly tells one of his nurses that the human intestines are actually 10 times longer than the human body. This factoid proves to be foreshadowing because within minutes, our titular character (Danny Trejo) disembowels one of the villain's henchmen and uses his guts as a rope to dive out a window and swing to safety. Yep, Machete is that kind of movie.

Machete began life as a fake trailer directed by Robert Rodriguez that played in front of his contribution to 2007's Grindhouse, Rodriguez's collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.  Grindhouse was Rodriguez's and Tarantino's tribute to the sleazy, exploitation, drive-in cinema of the 1970s. These movies often fell into the horror, kung fu, sexploiation, blaxploitation, and spaghetti western genres, and they were often wall-to-wall with violence, sex, and other such marketable elements. To authenticate the grindhouse experience, Grindhouse the film featured a number of fake trailers of similarly and deliberately trashy movies (as well as deliberate scratches in the footage and missing reels). The fake trailers proved popular enough that talk emerged of actually turning them into movies, and the result is an expanded feature version of Machete.

The history of the film raises the question: can something that works as a tribute and inside joke for a two-three minute trailer work at full-length? Well, Rodriquez comes up with enough gross-out gags, action sequences, stylish posing, babes, and ironic humor to at least sustain interest for the running length. Machete is certainly never boring and at times quite exhilarating, but did we really need it? 

Machete (Trejo) is an ex-federales living as an illegal in Texas when he's offered a sizable amount of money by a shifty government official (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a state senator (Robert De Niro) who wants to build a wall to stop the flow of undocumented migrant workers. When he goes to perform the job, Machete discovers he has been set up and goes on a path of destruction to find the truth and retribution. As the tagline says, "They fucked with the wrong Mexican." 

This is going to sound strange, but I'm just going to come out with it: Machete lacks the innocence of seventies grindhouse cinema. Let me rephrase it; the exploitation movies of decades past do not have the same self-awareness of Machete. Sure, many of these types of movies are utter drek, but this is a genre that also gave us the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and Death Race 2000. Inventive filmmakers such Roger Corman and Larry Cohen produced compelling work on micro-budgets, scraping by however they could to make the best movies possible. I'm reminded of interviews of film noir actors of the 1940s; to them, they weren't making a new genre, just shooting B-level pictures.

Now, Rodriguez comes in with a budget that dwarfs anything these other directors and producers had, self-consciously aware of the trappings of the genre, and it's all one big joke. Everything is done to look cool or get a laugh. As a fake trailer, that's a hilarious approach. As a full-length feature, it kind of makes me want Rodriguez to strive for something a little more ambitious. After a while, I just wanted to say, "Yeah, I get it."

Still, there is plenty to like about Machete. Trejo is a consummate bad ass, and Cheech Marin is hilarious as his brother, a reformed priest who eventually says things like "God has mercy. I don't!" Fahey is wonderfully scummy, but the best surprise was Steven Sesgal playing a Mexican drug kingpin whom Machete has a history with (this is Seagal's best role in years). The action scenes are well done, and Rodriguez's direction remains as stylish and energetic as ever.

I watched Machete alone which probably wasn't the ideal way to do so. This a movie that begs to be watched by a group of friends, preferably those who appreciate so-called trash pictures and understand Rodriquez's sense of humor. This is definitely a movie you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate, and maybe I wasn't when I saw it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Tempest

The Tempest is generally accepted by scholars to have been the final play written by William Shakespeare. It concerns Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan who uses magic to bring his enemies to his secluded island where he restores himself to power and secures his daughter Miranda's future by marrying her to the king's son. With his task complete, Prospero abandons the fantastic realm of the island, leaves behind the mythical creatures, and forsakes magic.

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, and what strength I have's mine own, which is most faint," Prospero begins his final monologue directly to the audience. "... But release me from my bands with the help of your good hands ... As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free."

Looking back with the assumption that this was his final play, it's not hard to view this as Shakespeare's own farewell to his audience. As a writer of 36 or 37 plays (depending on what's counted), Shakespeare, like a sorcerer, could conjure up anything he wanted - kings, armies, witches - and like Prospero, he seemed to give that up and live out his remaining years in another realm. Within a few years, Shakespeare himself was dead, preceded by his son several years prior.

Director Julie Taymor 2010 adaptation of The Tempest understands the play is partially about impending mortality. Many of shots reduce the characters to tiny figures against the vast scope of nature, delicate little being caught among sharp cliffs, the oppressive sky, and the vast ocean. The magical visions and hallucinations conjured up are of giant, demonic images: black-winged creatures and fiery demon dogs that torment and pursue the play's sinners and schemers. The opening storm batters the men on the ship who are helpless against its fury. In a shot reminiscent of the dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal, the monster Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) leads the butler Stefano (Alfred Molina) and the jester Trinculo (Russell Brand) off in what will be a failed coup against the mistress of the island, Prospera  (Helen Mirren).

It was a curious decision of Taymor (who also wrote the adaptation) to recast Prospero as a woman. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only major deviation from the source material. The move results in a strong female at the center of the story. Previously, the only female character is Prospero's obedient, sheltered daughter Miranda whom he uses to further position his return to power by marrying her to the king of Naples' son (characters in The Tempest frequently confront the possibility of losing their children, either to death or marriage to a far-away nobleman that they may as well be dead). Here, Prospera becomes a persecuted woman of power, both because of her magic and her dukedom, who also has to raise her daughter. Talk about balancing a career and being a single parent. Ultimately, she proves the craftiest, carefully strategizing and remaining three steps ahead of everyone else.      

Visually speaking, Taymor's interpretation of the play is astounding. The film is overloaded with staggering special effects, particularly with Ariel (Ben Whisaw), the island spirit who serves Prospera. Naked and completely pale, he appears in bodies of water and the sky, is mostly transparent  and half visible, divides himself into copies, and is central to a number of spells Prospera casts.

However, this bombastic, almost operatic visual style would probably be better suited to a fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings because here, it all but overwhelms Shakespeare's words. I was intrigued while watching it, but I never felt entranced or moved. The Bard's play is a contemplative look about mortality, the lessons learned from a life of plotting, deception, and betrayal, and how even the worst of us have hope for redemption and beauty. That really doesn't come across in Taymor's film as much as it should; a quiet, more subtle approach would have been more appropriate (Of course, Taymor's biggest sin is to transform the final soliloquy into a Celine Deon-esque song that plays over the end credits). As a result, the movie doesn't emotionally resonate as much as expected; it's all spectacle.

Performances are good all around, and Taymor makes good use of the island setting for some beautiful scenery, but it  felt like The Tempest should have been more.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Survival of the Dead

In 1968, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a stark, nightmarish thriller that changed horror movies forever and captured the anger and turmoil of the 1960s. He followed it with Dawn of the Dead in 1978, expanding on the apocalyptic vision and utilizing comic-book style splatter as a satire of consumerism. Day of the Dead arrived in 1985 and was set in an underground military bunker, a bleak metaphorical tomb for a dead civilization. After a 20-year wait, Land of the Dead was a bigger, Hollywood-style epic about social and economic classes and a knock on the Bush administration. Diary of the Dead was a first-person, found-footage movie that followed a few years later, a reboot of the franchise for the Youtube generation about media manipulation.

Which brings us to Survival of the Dead (2009), to-date Romero's most recent entry in the series. What I hope the opening paragraph illustrates is how each entry in the Dead series uses zombies to depict or say something about American society and is crafted in a style that makes them unique from each other and to the time they were made in. Survival continues this trend by being crafted as a sort of modern-day Western: characters wear cowboy hats, ride horses, carry peashooters, and work on ranches. Thematically, the movie is about tribalism, the petty differences that become wedged among people, driving them into conflict to point enemies can't even remember why they're fighting in the first place, only that they hate each other.  

Tribalism here is represented by the Irish patriarchs of two families on Plum Island off the coast of Delaware: Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh) and Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). These two men have hated each other since their days on the schoolyard, and the dead rising is just another issue for them to fight over. O'Flynn rallies his kin to hunt the dead down. Muldoon, with some religious fervor, believes the dead should be kept alive until a cure can be found or to see if they can be taught to eat something else. Muldoon gains the upper hand and has O'Flynn banished from Plum. Before long, O'Flynn returns with a squad of renegade National Guardsmen, led by Sgt. Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), to wrest back control of the island.

In Romero's zombie films, the humans have proven on many occasions to be just as dangerous as the undead if not more so. In Night, the inability of the protagonists to cooperate leads to their downfall; in Day, the racist, sexist military goons descend into psychotic, murderous behavior; and in Land, the wealthy elite wall themselves off from reality, ignoring the suffering of their fellow man as the enemy evolves and grows deadlier. In Survival, the zombies are probably their least threatening in the series (Romero has joked they're at the level of mosquitoes) and are little more than an annoyance. Any advantage the dead gain or any victim they claim is a result of human conflict and mistakes.

The Western tropes transforms the plot into a variation of the Hatfields and McCoys. At first, O'Flynn is presented as a decisive man of action, a leader strong enough to do what is necessary, i.e. put down the dead.  Yet, we learn from his daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe) how he was a drunken lout, often passed out in his house, and how he couldn't be bothered to show up at his wife's funeral. "I was the only adult in the house," Janet scolds him. Before he enlists the aid of the guardsmen, O'Flynn tries to rob them and almost gets them killed. Muldoon is presented initially as a man of conviction, doing what he believes is the Lord's work, but he's soon revealed as a hypocrite; he shoots down the zombies who don't "show promise," keeps other zombies chained up around the island, and murders innocent people because they're interlopers to the island. Spare the dead, shoot the living. In a great final image, the two men, now zombies, continue to aim and fire empty guns at each other, their stubbornness and sense of entitlement extending beyond the grave.

In between the two men are their families who suffer and the guardsmen. The guardsmen are just looking to survive by finding a quiet, isolated place but get drawn into a blood feud they have no interest in or connection to. They were promised sanctuary (by O'Flynn) but instead found more death and destruction. In his review, critic John Kenneth Muir noted parallels between Survival's story and U.S. involvement Iraq, how an Iraqi exile provided false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida and said how the American military would be greeted as liberators. Similarly, the U.S. found itself in destructive quagmire, caught in the middle of a historical feud (Shias and Sunnis) it was not prepared for.

It's also worth pointing out how the soldiers in Survival come equipped with high-powered machine guns while the islanders are using outdated rifles and shotguns. The islanders are literally behind the times, both in technology and thinking. The rest of the world is changing, and the O'Flynns and Muldoons, in their own little world, are still acting like it's the Old West where swagger and inflated pride are considered values.

If Romero continues to find new thematic and stylistic territory to explore, then he is also becoming stagnant when it comes to how to utilize the undead. As indicated, the zombies may be the big problem that humans can't get past their differences to properly address, but I also think they're too marginalized and not threatening enough. When he does use them, Romero uses the zombies for a number of Looney Tune-like gore gags - a fire extinguisher hose in the mouth causing a zombie's head to go pop, for example - that are occasionally funny but often groan-inducing. Not helping matters is some truly atrocious-looking CGI effects, obviously animated in after the fact and never looking convincing. It really takes the viewer out of the moment.

When the zombies aren't being used as the "Wile E. Coyote of monsters" (a phrase Romero has used in interviews), there's really not much to distinguish them. They had the novelty of being new in Night while Day and Land depicted an interesting dichotomy - as humans grew more violent and barbaric, the zombies became more sympathetic and organized, seeming to remember habits and behavior of their former lives- but in Survival, they're just kind of there.

Everything builds to a final showdown between Muldoon and O'Flynn, and of course, the zombies get loose and eat plenty of people, munching on intestines and chomping on necks. There are also few tragic ironies, but compared to the powerful ending of Night, the exciting biker raid in Dawn, and the claustrophobic carnage of Day, the climax of Survival comes off as forced and weak.

Survival of the Dead is not a total write-off. As in his other pictures, Romero offers plenty of socio-political subtext to analyze and discuss, and I admire his willingness to experiment with the genre by incorporating Western motifs, but unless he can find a way to make his zombies scary again, I hope he moves on to different material.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Django

The term "Spaghetti Western: refers to the large number of Western movies produced by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s following the success Sergio Leone achieved with Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy. Unlike the polished Hollywood pictures starring John Wayne, these movies (often filmed in Spain and on low budgets) were rougher, more violent, and the characters more ambiguously drawn. 

I've been familiar with the concept of Spaghetti Westerns for some time, but in all honesty, I never gave them much consideration. I'd hear the phrase and be like, "Oh yeah, Sergio Leone," and move on. Until a friend loaned me a copy of Django (1966), I never really appreciated there were more offerings from the genre. While Django may not transcend the genre or reach the heights Leone achieved (an admittedly high bar for any film, Western or otherwise), it's a gritty, entertaining, and stylish movie.

Franco Nero is the title character, Italy's answer to Eastwood's "Man with No Name." With an intense blue-eyed stare, rugged features, and perpetual five o'clock shadow, Django is a grizzled, mysterious gunslinger you do not mess with. We first see him dragging a coffin through the mud, unsure of what's in it or what his purpose is. After saving a woman named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from being burned alive, Django arrives in a town torn apart by a feud between Mexican bandits led by General Rodriquez (Jose Badalo) and a gang of renegade Confederates and Klansmen led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). Django soon gets involved while operating on his own agenda.

Directed by Sergio Corbucci and using a plot reminiscent of A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo, Django is anything but subtle. Django the character is constantly surrounded by images of death, whether it's the coffin he drags behind or using a tombstone's cross as cover in the final showdown with the villains in a cemetery. Major Jackson is introduced taking shots at fleeing Mexicans for sport, and the bandits are first shown tying Maria up and whipping her for trying to escape. Like Eastwood's and Toshiro Mifune's characters, Django upsets the balance of power in town, but instead of playing both sides against each other and carefully mapping his actions like a chess player, Django whips out a machine gun and mows men down like grass.

Like Leone, Corbucci utilizes protracted buildups and explosive payoffs, most notably when Jackson's gang comes to town looking for Django, an occasion he uses to reveal what's in the coffin, and when Django and Rodriguez sneak into an army camp to steal gold. Like Eastwood's iconic character, Django is morally ambiguous and doesn't take any crap from anyone. His motives are murkier. Eastwood always had an ulterior motive he kept closely guarded  and had no qualms being completely mercenary and cold-hearted. Django at first appears to have just randomly come to town, but then he's revealed to be out for revenge, gold, and a chance to make a new life. It seems a bit like narrative convenience so Django doesn't kill certain people when he has a chance (otherwise the movie would be over), but it gives him a little more complexity. Unlike Eastwood, Django also seems to develop genuine feelings for Maria (at least when he's not ignoring or dismissing her).

One thing I always took away from Leone's movies were how dirty and sweaty they were; I always remember the closeups of ugly, perspiring men as flies buzz and land on their faces. If Leone's flicks were dusty, Corbucci's is muddy. Just about every path, trail, or road is soggy and seeping with gunk, and even quicksand comes into play a couple of times. Men and horses are regularly bogged down in filth as their corpses sink in the mess. The violence is a more drawn out as well. One character has his ear cut off and shoved in his mouth. Blood flows freely, and one massacre in particular, shot in slow motion with men getting hit multiple times, is more reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch than Leone.

There's nothing too original about Django, and the narrative doesn't build so much as go from one showdown to the next, but it remains a fine example of the genre, and Nero demonstrates he belongs in conversation with Eastwood as a resolute tough guy. For those looking to explore Spaghetti Westerns beyond Leone, this is a  good place to start.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Winter's Bone

Up until its final shot, Winter's Bone (2010) is a bleak, grim, and cold picture. Set in a poverty-stricken area of the Ozarks, the film shows us a world of almost unrelenting misery and divisiveness. The only industry anyone appears to be working in is the production of methamphetamine, which a number of the characters are addicted to; houses and cars are left to rot and rust; children are neglected by their parents; women are kept subservient to their husbands; and violence against and among family members is common. The drama of the movie isn't that this way of life is overturned or rectified, but that an individual acted with dignity in the face of all the hardship.

Written and directed by Debra Granik, Winter's Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence (in her first big role before gaining more mainstream attention with The Hunger Games) as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl looking for her father after he appears to have jumped bail, which he supported by leveraging the family home. If he no-shows a court appearance, the  family loses the house. To find her father, Ree goes up against a very insular, dangerous society that doesn't like it when people, especially women, talk.

Ree is a character of resolve, determined to find her father and protect and raise her younger siblings. She's smart and focused and has aspirations of enlisting in the army, but even before her father's disappearance, things are tough with little chance of improving. Early on, Ree takes the family horse to a neighbor, asking for feed because it hasn't eaten in four days, and the family is always low on cash. Even if she finds her father alive, Ree is not going to reunite the family for a happy ending; finding him or proving he's dead will avert the Dollys from becoming homeless, but it won't raise them from destitution. Every step of the way, she's told to walk and let it go, but she remains steadfast. The alternative is to lose what little she has.

We get a few hints about Ree's father. We learn he was cooking meth and involved with some shady people, but the movie wisely doesn't bog down with the details of drug-dealing and crime. It's just part of the background, soaked into the lives of these people that it goes without saying. This world is cold and grey, the trees stripped of leaves and fruit, and everyone seems to be bearing some kind of inner hurt. These characters aren't stereotypical rednecks and good ol' boys. They realize their squalor and aren't proud of some of the things they do.

Plenty of scenes are tense and occasionally hard to watch.  After refusing to listen to a warning, Ree is beaten by three women (it's against some unwritten code for men to beat women) to the point she loses a tooth, and her face remains swollen and bruised the rest of the movie. We don't see the whole beating, just the beginning as a beverage (coffee, alcohol?) is flung in Ree's face and  she is dragged off. The shot sequence ends with Ree hauled into a barn, the door closed behind her, and we hear her screams while looking at a long shot of the barn. You just know something bad is going down. Later, Ree is forced to participate in a squirm-inducing act when she is brought to what may be her father's corpse.

Winter's Bone is bleak, grim, and tough. The same story elements - girl on a search through the wilderness - could have made for a thrilling adventure tale, but Granik instead turns the film into an unflinching gaze at misery and determination.