December 27, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Tabu

by Vadim Rizov

Tabu

Miguel Gomes' third feature Tabu is as different from his first two (as yet, he has no recurring stylistic tics) as it is from any other film this year. What it shares with 2004's severely patience-testing The Face You Deserve (which prompted one interviewer to ask, verbatim, "what the fuck") and 2008's delightful Our Beloved Month of August is severe structural separation. The Face You Deserve morphs into a different movie after 20 minutes, while August playfully/evasively morphs from a quasi-documentary about itself to an overtly staged narrative halfway through.

The division in Tabu is less porous and more pointed. First, a prologue (narrated by Gomes) about a colonial expedition instigated "by order of the king and Bible," headed by a pith-hatted explorer. "Taciturn and melancholy, the sad figure wanders," Gomes intones in deadpan over images of the stone-faced explorer and his native bearers, a scene pitched somewhere between genuine pathos and parodic pastiche. The scene shifts to present-day Lisbon in late December. The first half's focus is the equally taciturn and melancholic Pilar (Teresa Madruga), on a mission to amend the sins of her national predecessors and the world in general. A lonely middle-aged activist, Pilar fills her time attending ineffectual demonstrations where the crowds yell "Shame on you" at seemingly empty government buildings and applaud themselves after completing a minute-long moment of silence.

Tabu

Agitated by her inability to change the world, Pilar is even more concerned about next-door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose dementia worsens daily. Aurora is convinced her black caretaker Santa (Isabel Cardoso) is a devil-worshipping fiend sent to torment and kill her (a la the Church Lady, Santa equals Satan). "We should do something," Pilar tells Santa in concern. "Madam, I do as I am told," Santa replies, speaking in reference to Aurora's daughter who pays her bills, but also to her larger dispossessed situation. In this first half, Gomes does for Lisbon what Kleber Mendonça Filho did for Recife, Brazil in his recent Neighboring Sounds: identify systematic economic inequality and racial tension on a (literally) black-and-white basis, lurking within huge blocks of anonymous residential towers.

"She had a farm in Africa," Aurora's former lover Gian Luca Ventura (played in his youth by Carloto Cotta) intones, a parodic echo of Out of Africa (a deliberate invocation Gomes qualified in a recent interview by saying "not that I'm very interested in that film"). Throughout the first half, subliminal cues pave the way for the second half's relocation into the past. Vines hang from the ceiling of Aurora's apartment and trees populate her ex-lover's retirement home: the second half—a flashback narration of Aurora's African youth—is set up in a mall whose food court looks like a particularly humid forest hothouse. The steam rising from Santa's ironing board rhymes with steam rising from washing done by Aurora's laborers; past and present are visually connected, even before the narrative makes clear why.

Tabu

In the second half of the film, the black-and-white, Academy ratio of the first half (which might initially appear to be a strong but somewhat arbitrary decision) suddenly makes sense as a frame for a silent movie, one set roughly 40 years after that medium's demise. It's both a double anachronism and present-day reclamation of lost techniques (with foley'd ambient sound, narration and music). By making use of silent cinema's ability to bring greater power to the expressive close-up, Tabu is an argument for the cinephilic necessity of watching older films and rediscovering lost techniques. "I think that there is the sensation of a whole bunch of films in my work, but I hope it’s not a cinema of quotes, of always quoting a certain film," Gomes has said. "I tend to make films that have the sensation of other films." There's a sense of dimly remembered '30s and '40s colonial outpost dramas in which the white man is courageous and the natives are restless, many programmers mashed up into one platonic whole.

The film is as beautiful as it is polemical: Gomes' exceedingly clever structure makes it impossible to separate politics and aesthetics. The point is that existence in any historical moment doesn't allow the luxury of opting out, even by choosing not to participate in certain acts. The story of Aurora and Gian Luca's affair takes place against the backdrop of excitable colonists getting out their guns to quash rebellion. In voiceover, Gian Luca explains that he and his lover were "indifferent to the fate of the empire," viewing the turmoil as excuse and cover to conduct their affair. But indifference is not the same as a lack of complicity, and Tabu's ingenious denouement demonstrates the impossibility of being truly non-political.

Posted by ahillis at 8:41 AM

December 26, 2012

Cruise-in' for a Bruisin'

by Steve Dollar

Jack Reacher

When Tom Cruise wants to make things interesting for himself, he usually goes in for disfigurement. The cocksure top gun he embodied as a younger man often has yielded to an ugly underbelly in the latter half of his career. I don't mean only his movie-stealing cameo as the corpulent, hip-hopping Hollywood suit Lev Grossman in Tropic Thunder. Some of his more diverting (or, at times, grandiose) turns of the last decade-plus have seen that pretty face go straight to hell: mutilated behind a mask in Vanilla Sky; eyeballs yanked out (briefly) in Minority Report; garnished with an eye patch (and missing an arm), in the Nazi actioner Valkyrie. You can even count his role as rebounding '80s hair-farmer Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, since his torso was covered in tattoos.

He's still recognizably Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher. Although creases of age have crept onto his face, they're still bolstered by his iconic all-American bone structure. His body doesn't betray a superfluous ounce of fat. Now 50, he's in flabbergastingly great shape. All the motorcycle jumping and 75th story window ledge-hanging he's handled for various MIssion Impossible installments have done him right. The movie marvels in that physique as if it were a mirror for Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-possessed chauvinist motivational speaker Cruise played in Magnolia, to gaze in admiringly and crow: "Respect the cock!" In Reacher, the actor is called upon to display his pecs and abs in the company of Helen Rodin (former Bond Girl Rosamund Pike), an attorney with the unwelcome task of defending an Iraqi war veteran charged with the murder of five innocent citizens in a psycho sniper tragedy. Though her name is Rodin, she's not much of a thinker. The character's main job is to go all goggle-eyed and gobsmacked at every little macho thing Reacher does. And seeing as Reacher is a self-styled man of mystery action detective with a heavy-duty military past and no data trail to stop him from kicking any ass he needs to, pretty much every damn thing he does is macho. Although the dialogue, penned by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie) from the franchise best-seller One Shot by Lee Childs, aims to display him as funny as well as tough, like some cross between Don Rickles and a better-looking Snake Plissken.

Jack-Reacher-Rosamund-Pike-2012-film.jpg

"For God's sake, put on a shirt," Rodin demands, straining to avoid eye contact, as they confer in Reacher's motel room. "This is my shirt," the shirtless wonder responds, wringing dry the only one he seems to own after laundering it in the sink.

Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom.

That's the kind of movie this is. The groan-inducing banter, the blithering idiot characters, the dramatic twists sapped of all surprise as mapped by GPS, undermine an essentially decent forensics/conspiracy yarn, in which the man beyond-the-law takes on a shadowy outfit that has framed an innocent man (whom Reacher once declined to arrest for a similar shooting spree in Iraq, hence his return to the scene after the crime is publicized, intending to resolve unfinished business). Someone with Cruise's clout could get all kinds of movies made, so why is he starring in this downmarket junk? Perversely, that's the riddle that also makes Jack Reacher hugely enjoyable. It's strangely satisfying to watch Cruise manifest one of his trademark performances, with all the ego and self-satisfaction and smug one-line comebacks, at the service of such crummy, cornball writing. He got handed a lemon, but damned if he won't squeeze it for every drop.

You take in this spectacle in the manner of "It's either this or sitting through Les Miserables with the extended family at Christmas" kind of way. The movie had the extreme poor timing to open in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, amid highly charged national agony over the issue of gun control. It includes scenes of a little girl viewed through a rifle sight and of pedestrians running in terror as others are gunned down, with news helicopters and vans of heavily armed police arriving almost instantly at the scene. Paramount delayed the release by a week, but probably should have waited longer: It pulled in less than half the box office of a movie no critics seem to like—The Hobbit—in its second week. (But still better than This is 40. Tom Cruise is kicking your ass, Apatow).

Jack Reacher

But I'm not going to blame the movie. I found its throwaway misogyny more offensive than its gun nut MacGuffin. If anything, Reacher is anti-ballistics, preferring to crush his enemies with his bare hands (or whatever tools happen to be within, uh, reach). Though he's still playing someone who is essentially superhuman, Cruise allows for some physical fallibility (getting his head cracked by a baseball bat) between heroic and impossible chase scenes. It could well be that his performance as a secretive guy no one trusts who is really only trying to do the right thing reflects how Cruise views himself after the dramatic getaway made by his ex-wife Katie Holmes and all the Scientology bean-spillage that followed. Or maybe it's just a movie, made because, hey, even Tyler Perry is playing bestseller detective-thriller heroes these days.

If nothing else, there's Werner Herzog. Speaking of disfigurement. He has a fraction of Cruise's screen time but will no doubt inspire a lot of drunken imitations at New Year's Eve parties, so irresistible is the act of mimicking that German mad-scientist accent, presented here at its most chilling. Reacher's shadowy arch-antagonist slides in just under the wire with the gnarliest bad guy spiel of the year, if only the second-best performance enhanced by a fake cataract. And hell no I'm not revealing it here. You'll have to sit through Jack Reacher yourself, like I did.

Posted by ahillis at 8:59 AM

December 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Avalanche (1978)

by Nick Schager

Avalanche [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the based-on-real-life tsunami disaster drama The Impossible.]

A Roger Corman-produced disaster film buried by its own clichéd cheesiness, Avalanche is ludicrous to the point of playing like a parody. As its title makes bluntly clear, Corey Allen's film is fixated on delivering terror via a massive snow slide, though impatient viewers will be disappointed to hear that said catastrophe doesn't arrive until the 54-minute mark—which is to say, long after the various mini-dramas of its characters have been laid out in torturously uninteresting detail. At the center of the cast is Rock Hudson as David Shelby, a Colorado developer determined to finish construction on his hotel resort on a mountain where studly photographer Nick (Robert Forster) warns that the removal of trees is making the slopes unstable. Being a blustery, arrogant prick who could care less about environmentalist warnings, David ignores such cautions, instead spending his time on a brewing scandal involving himself and a politician—a thread that the narrative soon ditches—and on winning back ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow). Why Caroline has come to visit is a mystery, but she somewhat humors David's attempts to reconnect, until she meets Nick, and immediately decides—after telling him that she likes snow storms because they make everything feel "different"—to bed him instead.

Avalanche

Everybody's having sex during the first hour of Avalanche, as David enjoys the company of his secretary—who, in a hilarious morning-after scene, serves him orange juice in the nude in a hot tub—and a lothario pro skier named Bruce (Rick Moses), who claims that "I ski like I breathe or talk or make love," sleeps with a figure skater and, in the process, infuriates his other infatuated girlfriend Tina (Cathey Paine), who's the wife of TV personality Mark (Barry Primus). Barry's macho credentials are established early on when he avoids a mini-avalanche while skiing downhill by leaping into a tree, a feat witnessed by an impressed Forster. But like the other peripheral characters who populate the film, including David's mother Florence (Jeanette Nolan) or another figure skater who's struggling to hone her technique, Barry is a grating nobody whose pre-disaster circumstances are the height of tedium. Still, he's the figure of greatest unintentional comedy, thanks in part to two separate conversations with his would-be lover in which talk of falling down on the slopes leads to leaden sexual double entendres.

Avalanche

Since David's greed and hubris blind him to the coming powdery apocalypse, the weekend's festivities continue as planned, the most amusing of which is a snowmobile race that turns violent as contestants, when not just flying off their rides like clumsy amateurs, attempt to punch and kick each other off their vehicles. Those fun and games are finally interrupted when a plane crashes into the side of the mountain and the avalanche begins. As befitting a Corman production, the effects that follow are of a resourceful variety, meaning that what follows is a combination of stock footage, imagery of falling snow superimposed over shots of people ducking and screaming, and scenes of people being bludgeoned by what are clearly white Styrofoam blocks. It's all pretty pitiful after such an interminable wait for carnage, though there are a few choice moments amidst the chaos, none better than the sight of the aforementioned figure skater continuing to practice her spins, with laughable obliviousness, while the snow crashes down upon her.

Avalanche

The ensuing rescue-mission conclusion of Avalanche is as lethargic as the performances of Hudson and Farrow, the former coming across like a creaky shell of his former dashing self and the latter gliding through the action with a bland, blank smile. The problem, of course, is that after an hour of making plain that none of these characters are worth caring about, the film's attempt to make their survival a pressing concern is doomed, and thus whether Florence can dig her way out of a snowy tomb with a dining room chair, or whether Bruce will be rescued after having been buried upside-down in the snow, are issues of little importance. A chair lift sequence that finds Mark plummeting to his death simply because he's a moronic slowpoke does provide a late laugh. Yet in terms of true humor, nothing quite beats a final twist involving Florence, who after being rescued by David—now convinced that his recklessness makes him responsible for this mayhem—meets a grizzly fate when her ambulance inexplicably skids off a bridge and explodes, killing her in what can only be one of the most random, out-of-left-field deaths in cinema history.

Posted by ahillis at 7:54 AM

December 21, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Barbara

by Vadim Rizov

Barbara

Christian Petzold's last film Dreileben: Beats Being Dead centered on a nurse who takes up with a girl after he's seen her performing fellatio in a forest; sex, surveillance and shrubbery again intersect in Barbara. The title character (Nina Hoss, in her fifth Petzold film) is a doctor who's been sent down from Berlin to an unnamed provincial area near the Baltic Sea, her punishment for applying for a visa to exit the country. Privacy is non-existent in 1980 East Germany: the first shot is a close-up of Barbara's pinched face on a bus, alone in the frame but surrounded by unseen bodies. Exiting into an empty square in front of her new hospital, she seems momentarily alone but isn't: from an upper-story window, her new colleague/watchdog André observes her along with his Stasi supervisor Klaus (Rainer Bock). Aware she's being watched, she sits and lights a cigarette, a mulish gesture of refusal to enter work even a minute before she's due.

Barbara's assigned a terrible apartment in a building managed by a dourly glaring landlady. The walls are thin enough to remind her she's never alone: the sound of barking dogs, reacting to unseen threats, is less unnerving than the constant shrilling of a defectively stuttering doorbell, a harbinger of unwanted visitors—most commonly Klaus and his assistants, including a woman on call specifically to conduct cavity searches. The visuals have the tense menace of a horror movie, a style Petzold's dubbed "spatial suspense". But Barbara never explodes into full shock: like its heroine, it bides its time quietly.

Barbara

The watchful eyes on Barbara turn out to be justifiable from an authoritarian perspective: she's planning to flee to West Berlin, using funds from boyfriend Jörg (Mark Waschke). Their relationship is clandestinely renewed in forest and hotel couplings. Though their sexual chemistry is genuine, their personal compatibility is otherwise uncertain. When Jörg tells Barbara she won't have to work in her new life, she's taken aback. Barbara's main point of suspense—will she make it out of the country?—is less important than the dilemma she faces: professional satisfaction and personal nullification in the East, the exact opposite in the West.

This dichotomy's a little too simplistic, especially when the ideological divide is literally embodied in two men, a thematic misstep in an otherwise assured work. (Though it's worth noting that Barbara's a rarity in one plot sense: a love triangle in which only the pivot point is aware of the triangle's existence.) Burgeoning professional respect and romantic tension between Barbara and André are compromised by their political roles as watched and watcher. Like Barbara, André is a former urban cosmopolitan sent to the boondocks; his loyalty to the GDR is possibly as much a matter of expediency as genuine belief in an order that would like its doctors to repay the cost of their training with service to The People. Between hospital and home—both under the ever watchful eye of the Stasi—Barbara snatches out furtive moments alone, using her bicycle to escape surveillance. As the plot screws tighten, whether she'll actually pull off her escape becomes a matter of suspense. The viewer knows something Barbara doesn't: within nine years, she'll be able to leave the country freely, a historical irony suggesting ambivalence about a transition towards capitalistic freedom.

Barbara

It wouldn't be fair to spoil the ending, but Petzold's final joke is well worth noting. Throughout the film, only classical music is heard, both on state radio and in Barbara's own piano performances (Hoss plays herself, something Petzold understandably can't resist highlighting in a rare pan up from her hands to her face). But over the final end credits, we hear the first pop strains: a live rendition of Chic's "At Last I Am Free." Sonic liberty's a start, but is Nile Rodgers the highest reward democratic capitalism has to offer? Possibly, but Petzold isn't saying.

Posted by ahillis at 11:50 AM

December 18, 2012

BEST OF 2012: The Underdogs

by Steve Dollar

Kuichisan

As a critic, each week brings a new stack of screeners, a marathon of film festival screenings or advance studio previews. It adds up and like the sorcerer's apprentice, you can find yourself quickly overwhelmed. So much goes by the wayside: ignored, misplaced, forgotten, neglected, put off for another day that never comes. Before 2012 comes to a close it seemed timely to dig into the pile and retrieve some overlooked winners. (Well, not entirely overlooked. I'd already checked out one of these films, but never officially reviewed it).

Below are five favorites—major sleepers all—and the festival or program where I first became aware of them. So far, only two have been (just barely) theatrically released in the United States.

Call Girl

Call Girl (Toronto International Film Festival)
Swedish (and more broadly Scandinavian) cinema has a well-earned reputation for sexual candor and a certain utopian spirit: hippies, pot-smoking, free love, socialism. Yee-haw. Set in the 1970s of ABBA and bell-bottoms, this slow-burning exposé, based on the true story of a national sex scandal, turns all that inside-out. It begins as a harmless enough tale of juvenile misadventure. At night, teenaged Iris (Sofia Karemyr) sneaks out with friends from the girls' home to which she's been assigned and gets into trouble. A local pervert pays them to take off their clothes and dance for his erotic amusement. The girls get some cash and some kicks, but soon they fall into the web of the seductive madam Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August, not shy about showing off some skin herself), who lures the sweet young things into her prostitution ring, servicing a who's who of the nation's political elite. It's all so uncomfortably rape-y that you're actually glad when director Mikael Marcimain turns his voyeuristic camera to furtive observations of the police procedural that shadows these close encounters. At two-and-a-half hours, the movie is way too long. Marcimain directed the second unit for Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and brings much of that film's terrifically fluid camerawork to bear. Best yet, the movie co-stars Sven Nordin as the madam's sleazy consort. Nordin played the abundantly emo father in the Norwegian coming-of-age comedy Sons of Norway, and has lost none of his Sex Viking swagger.

The Hole

The Hole (Sitges Film Festival, 2009. Now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD)
Three years after its festival premiere, Joe Dante's teenage supernatural suspense yarn was dumped into limited release in a handful of theaters—originally conceived as a 3D adventure. Not based on the Charles Burns graphic novel Black Hole, the film is instead a welcome throwback to the good-kid scary movies that Disney once specialized in, one whose adolescents are more-or-less as wholesome and the language, violence and skin exposure is kept to PG levels. New kid on the block Dane (Chris Massoglia) moves into boring Small Town, U.S.A. with his little brother (Nathan Gamble) and single mom (Teri Polo) in tow. But it's not so dull, after all, when the boys discover a bottomless pit tucked away in the basement. The mysterious portal even lures the cute girl next door Julie (Haley Bennett, who was dead-on as the faux-Zen Britney Spears wanna-be in Music and Lyrics). She delivers the movie's best line: "Is that what you do for fun in Brooklyn, play with your holes?" That's about as racy as it gets, but Dante compels grown-up interest with a simple if well-drawn narrative with flourishes of CGI-enhanced J-Horror and A Nightmare on Elm Street tropes.

Generation P

Generation P (Miami International Film Festival)
Something like a Putin-era edition of Mad Men hijacked by Tarkovsky and Jodorowsky (or maybe a vodka-soaked Lindsay Anderson), this satire of Russia after Communism has the capillary-zapping sting of a rail of cocaine. Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifancev) becomes well acquainted with that sensation as a chance encounter elevates him from the bottom rung of black marketeering to the sleek, shiny boardrooms of the rogue capitalist gold rush, where he's pressed into action as a copywriter. Much of the outrageous fun comes from director Victor Ginzburg's visualizations of the advertising campaigns, which spin on boldly irreverent parodies of Russian culture and politics. He's as brutal, sophomoric and awfully hilarious as Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park infamy, but guided by an actual perspective of social critique, not just shotgunning sacred cows. Babylen (his name is a conscious riff on Babylon and Lenin) isn't quite an innocent, but his naïveté aligns him with the audience as he makes his pilgrim's progress toward decadence, cynicism and enlightenment—from the mouth of a reanimated Che Guevara, whom he meets on one of several psychedelic trips, courtesy of mushrooms supplied by a mystic cohort who lives near a Babel-like tower in a forest (see: Tarkvosky reference above). The film played New Directors/New Films and is currently showing at a theater in Coney Island. This weekend, it opens at Manhattan's Cinema Village.

Tiger Tail in Blue

Tiger Tail in Blue (Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, Museum of Modern Art)
Chicago-based actor/writer/director Frank V. Ross is the least widely known, yet perhaps most splendidly singular of mumblecore-era filmmakers. His movies just get better and better. The fact that this delicate, nuanced and heartfelt comedy was turned down by every single festival to which Ross submitted it is just flat-out disgusting. This dude can't even get arrested, it seems, and what a goddamn shame that is. At least, the Museum of Modern Art got it right, securing Ross a Gotham Award nomination (alongside such worthies as Amy Seimetz, Terence Nance and the Zellner Brothers). Thanks to Kentucker Audley and his indispensable website No Budge, Ross got some overdue online exposure this year. He takes a rare lead in this one, playing a witty, struggling thirty-something artist (not unlike himself) who waits tables while his new wife Melody (Rebecca Spence) works as teacher. Because they work opposite shifts, they rarely see each other except for a few hours in bed late at night. Ross casually works up the premise into a subtle, realistic glance at the difficulties of adult relationships, throwing in workplace temptation in the form of Brandy (Megan Mercier)—a cute colleague at the restaurant who happens to look suspiciously like his wife (and, in portions of the film, is actually portrayed by Spence, setting up all kinds of Buñuelian curiousities). The original jazz score by John Medeski and Chris Speed has a lovely tinge of melancholy and upward lilt of hopefulness, its elegance an adroit counterpoint to the interludes of excruciation that Ross nails dead-on with his dialogue. (An awkward conversation with Brandy's hirsute housemate after he decides to accompany her home after work will trigger deep laughs and shudders of recognition).

Kuichisan

Kuichisan (LaDiDa Film Festival)
Saving the best for last, this is my top undistributed film of the year. Another one that slipped through the cracks of the festival process, Maiko Endo's impressionistic journey to Okinawa eludes category. Programmer Miriam Bale gave it a US premiere at her inaugural LaDiDa Film Festival, held at Manhattan's 92Y Tribeca in September, but it might be the most obscure great film of 2012. Broadly described, the film follows the adventures of a little boy (Raizo Ishiahara) and an American tourist (Eléonore Hendricks), among others, through the course of some seemingly random wanderings and encounters that variously evoke the transcendence of nature, the force of ritual, and the vitality and danger of the streets. There's not a lot of dialogue, and the cinematography (by ace cinematographer Sean Price Williams) uses rich celluloid in black-and-white and color to create striking and often mysterious compositions that both stand on their own as poetic images and flow into each other to establish a kind of psychic mosaic. The focus on themes of memory, place, childhood and landscape suggested, for me, the meta-documentaries of the Left Bank School (Agnes Varda, Chris Marker) while much of the image-making packed the vivid immediacy of seminal American independent cinema of the '50s and '60s. Maybe if Endo's concept had been more narrowly focused the film would have enjoyed some of the traction pulled by Turner and Bill Ross IV's (sterling) Tchoupitoulas, but it's a more abstract and challenging work—enhanced by an original soundtrack of traditional and avant-garde sounds—that isn't easy to crack. Seek it.

Posted by ahillis at 2:44 PM

December 16, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Krull (1983)

by Nick Schager

Krull

[This week's "Retro Active" is inspired by the heroic fantasy questing of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.]

For those who thought that Star Wars was awesome but could have used more elements from Greek mythology, the legend of King Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, true satisfaction came in the form of Krull, a shamelessly unoriginal attempt to piggyback on the success of George Lucas' iconic sci-fi franchise. Peter Yates' 1983 film makes plain its derivation from its opening moments, in which a star cruiser passes by the camera, and then table-setting narration lays out the narrative groundwork: on the planet of Krull, an evil race of world-conquering aliens known as Slayers, and led by The Beast, have taken over, but a prophesy foretells that a princess will choose a husband and together they will rule the land, and their son in turn will rule the galaxy. No need to worry about said offspring, however—that's just set-up for a potential sequel that never occurred, because Yates' saga is far too absurd to warrant a follow-up. Not that it doesn't have its pleasures, however, since the accomplished director (Bullitt, The Hot Rock) has enough visual sense to at least provide a few gorgeous fantasy-world sights, lending some aesthetic splendor to what's otherwise a rote save-the-princess tale overflowing with components borrowed from superior sources.

Krull

On Krull, no sooner has princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) agreed to wed Colwyn (Ken Marshall)—a blandly cheery stud with a perfectly manicured beard who admits that he won't be a subservient husband because he's a "warrior" (i.e. a manly man!)—then the Slayers have attacked the castle. Why these villains walk like the Tin Man is unknown, as is the reason why they primarily choose to swordfight when their weapons also function as laser blasters. Then again, for intergalactic conquerors with such fancy weaponry, it's unclear why the Slayers ride horses as well, rather than some high-tech vehicle. Nonetheless, after a round of combat in which clashing blades let off red sparks in lightsaber-y fashion, the Slayers make off with Lyssa, and Colwyn is forced to embark on a quest to retrieve her from the Black Fortress. He does so with the help of Ynyr (Freddie Jones), an aged, white-bearded sage who's come down from the mountains to aid Colwyn by helping him retrieve the legendary Glaive, a five-pronged gold-and-jeweled boomerang weapon that, like Excalibur, can only be retrieved by a chosen one. Ynyr is the laughable Obi-Wan Kenobi to Colwyn's bland Luke Skywalker, and soon they're joined by a C-3PO wisecracker in the form of shapeshifting Ergo (David Battley), who sports a British accent and, at a later point, turns himself into a basset hound, because apparently Krull has the exact same animal species as Earth.

Krull

After also teaming up with a group of escaped criminals led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and featuring a young Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, and later still joined by a thoughtful Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), the merry band of heroes wend their way to a blind oracle known as the Seer (John Welsh), who joins them through a misty swamp that proves to be Krull's signature set piece, both because the locale itself is so evocatively crafted, and because there's delicious creepiness to the black eyes sported by a doppelganger fiend that takes the shape of the Seer. The juxtaposition of this clearly artificial set and earlier, real mountain ranges (which Colwyn scales) create an exciting real/phony aesthetic dynamic that's aided by Yates' beautiful widescreen panoramas. The Beast's lair, in which Lyssa is imprisoned, is strangely beautiful, a surrealistic place fashioned like the expressionistic inside of the Beast's body, all rib cages, eyeballs, and teeth. Even the Cyclops himself proves a memorable otherworldly figure, courtesy of inexpressive latex facial features that are uniquely and unforgettably eerie.

Krull

Alas, the rest of Krull is a far more embarrassing creation, from the Beast himself—played by a guy in a rubber suit that's clearly so awful-looking, Yates habitually hides him in shadows—to a finale in which the Glaive boomerangs around with magical accuracy, felling the Slayers with an ease that negates any suspense. More Star Wars rip-offery continues throughout, from Obi-Wan—er, I mean Ynyr—sacrificing himself for the good of the mission, to a late scene in which the crew becomes trapped in a ship corridor where protruding spikes threaten to impale them (shades of Lucas' garbage-compactor scene). There's almost nothing that ultimately distinguishes Krull except its dull use of other myths' building blocks, which here form a whole that's not only uninspired, but—worse still—arbitrary, with the film ultimately coming across as an endeavor that was made up on the fly by a screenwriter and director blindly picking parts from their favorite books and movies and slapping them together with ridiculous randomness.

Posted by ahillis at 10:10 AM

December 14, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Consuming Spirits

by Vadim Rizov

Consuming Spirits

The 14 years of labor put into Chris Sullivan's animated feature debut Consuming Spirits are always visible. It's the kind of doggedly personal, adult-oriented labor of love rarely seen, aside from efforts from higher-profile names like Jan Svankmajer or Don Hertzfeldt. The ambition is front and center with no knowledge of the production history, starting with the opening subtitle: "A Parable in 5 Chapters."

Consuming Spirits takes its time revealing how its three main characters are related. In a post-industrial rust belt small town nightmare somewhere in Appalachia's "Gerry Mander" county, radio host Earl Gray (Robert Levy) turns every installment of the presumably innocuous "Gardener's Corner" into a nightmarish parody of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," dredging up apocalyptic portent in response ordinary questions about how to interact with deer ("Beware this cloven messenger of hybrid knowledge") in between sponsorship plugs for Manure Pit and similarly forthrightly disgusting businesses.

Consuming Spirits

Also foregrounded is Gentian Violet (Nancy Andrews), understandably careworn and cruelly worn-down after working three jobs and caring for a mother whose dementia leads to inappropriate sexual comments on the rare occasions when a gentleman companion comes over. Newspaper colleague/bandmate Victor Blue (Sullivan) spends his workdays getting chewed out for choosing inappropriately gruesome photos to accompany innocuous stories and his leisure time trying to get the truck left by his long-gone father officially transferred to his name, requiring the signature of his institutionalized, long-unseen mother.

The characters are paper cut-outs, their surroundings carefully built sets, two forms of uneasily co-existing stop-motion animation. Red light ominously beams out of blue houses, while vultures hang overhead. The devastation is personal and infrastructural: Gentian, Victor and Earl are all bottom-rung survivors, surviving off Rice-A-Roni and Hamburger Helper dinners. Like Gus Van Sant's forthcoming Promised Land or the recent documentary Detropia, the subjects' lives are the direct product of their surroundings, a connection never explicitly ratified.

Consuming Spirits

None have any illusions about their place in the universe. "I know I'm pretty ugly," Victor tells Gentian at the bar after a tepidly-received performance. "And you know what, Jenny? You're pretty ugly too." Gentian stalks off unamused, but the consistent emphasis on grotesque homeliness, though cleverly acknowledged, is off-putting. Throughout the film, there's a sense of forced American gothic, the construction of a meticulously closed-off microcosm of down-and-out America that would instantly collapse if someone halfway-non-horrific stumbled on.

Battling against the temptation to fetishize dejected sad-sackness for its own sake is an initially vigorous black comic streak, one which largely ebbs away as Consuming Spirits performs a clunky downshift from mordant comedy to generational family tragedy. The comic highlight is an advertisement for a nunnery doubling as an insane asylum ("Come up to Holy Angels and see if monastic life is your next career move"). As if in acknowledgment of its own indulgence, when Consuming Spirits finally launches into Earl Gray's final explanatory monologue, he keeps apologizing for his portentous digressions, protesting "This is all relevant."

Consuming Spirits

Given its attenuated length and questionably condescending (?) stance to its subjects, Consuming Spirits is most striking as a tribute to animation's tactility. Both drawn and set into (stop) motion, the people and the city are alternately rough-hewn and elegant, bristling with creative energy. The narrative, as implied by the title, focuses heavily on drinking, and the movie itself turns into an endless kind of bar crawl, leaking out energy as it trundles along, but it's a beguiling anomaly.

Posted by ahillis at 11:18 AM

December 11, 2012

BEST OF 2012: Lo-Fi Sci-Fi

by Steve Dollar
Sound of My Voice

People have plenty to talk about when they talk about the movies this year. Most of that chatter isn't going to be about how cool, low-budget, independent films embraced genre so effectively with so little cash at hand for the kind of wowzafied 21st-century 3D and CGI effects that made spectacles like Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas next-gen harbingers of the Cinema to Come. Which is too bad, since resourcefulness of that sort generally requires all the things you can't really pay for: clever scripts and concepts, an obsessive personal commitment on the order of a handcrafted artifact (like, say, a cathedral built out of matchsticks), a kind of cerebral elegance that isn't afraid of aiming wide for a punchline.

Resolution

One of the best was Resolution, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's little cabin-in-the-woods number (out Jan. 25 from Tribeca Film). Most of its 93 minutes consists of two guys talking. One of them, a bearded fatso named Chris (Vinny Curran), is handcuffed, confined to a mattress on the floor of a derelict shack on the fringes of an Indian reservation. His best friend Michael (Peter Cilella) has tracked him down and now stands vigil over him, hoping to reclaim his pal from drug addiction by forcing him to kick. The thing is, the dialogue and delivery—tar-black and sarcastic—works perfectly well as a kind of twisted buddy comedy (like The Hangover with real bullets). So when all manner of creepy WTF?!?! things begin to happen, as they always happen in crack houses built on ancient sacred lands with a chained-up sweaty dude in withdrawal, it's a bonus but also... of course! The filmmakers lap V/H/S in recent efforts to extract another reel of ingenuity from the found-footage conceit by introducing all manner of known media into the story, as discoveries of old Super-8 films, photos, scratched-up records and so forth yield mysterious perspectives on the uncanny occurrences, including surveillance images of themselves. (It's like a garage-rock cover of Caché). As the guys try to figure it out, amid threats from a local posse of junkies and a stern and mocking Native American who wants whitey to GTFO, the movie eases steadily from comedy to thriller—but never quite leaps into the fantastic until the final act, maintaining a delicious tension while commenting on that tension and the making of it.

Resolution

Much as the exponentially higher-budgeted Cabin in the Woods (a movie that plays like a meta-genius mash-up of The Hunger Games and the 2011 French horror film Livide, or perhaps Network as scripted by H.P. Lovecraft), Resolution is about the idea of narrative, how characters drive the story and the archetypes (those "Old Gods") that rise up from the cultural subconscious to come tapping at our window, ruining our sleep and haunting our waking lives. Cabin, for all its Joss Whedon wit, is as instantly forgettable as it is thoroughly enjoyable. Resolution doesn't resolve so easily. If nothing else, because Mssrs. Benson and Moorhead couldn't afford to pay Sigourney Weaver to come out and explain everything at the end, although I'm pretty sure, given the latter's knack for homemade special effects, they might have conjured a reasonable facsimile from a jar of pixels, some Elmer's Glue and a wig.

Looper

Elsewhere across the Indie-verse, filmmakers were consumed by time travel. In midsummer, Chris Marker, whose 1962 film La jetée, if not the greatest science-fiction film of all time, has certainly been the most-emulated, and Ray Bradbury, whose stories and novels inspired countless productions, both died within respective reach of their 91st and 92nd birthdays. Rian Johnson's Looper was released in their wake, and was as surpassingly adroit a tribute to both men as anyone could ever expect to encounter in Multiplex America. Enough has been written about Johnson's inventive screenplay and the film's original twists on the plot of Marker's classic. In the earlier film, a man sent as a guinea pig from the future discovers that an indelible childhood memory of a stranger being shot was in fact the instant of his own death. In Looper, the man from the future (Bruce Willis, who played a similar role in Terry Gilliam's remake, Twelve Monkeys) has been sent back 30 years (to 2046, and a ravaged America that looks like Blade Runner re-shot by Walker Evans) where a mob assassin (called a looper) will kill him. Only the looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a younger version of himself. There's a kid, too, only he's anything but a passive witness.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Johnson, who revels in film noir banter and Melvillian fatalism, enriches the mind-boggling logistics of time travel with his own love of movies, balancing out the skilled special effects work (check the endless credits) and snappy dialogue with a lot of heart (and Emily Blunt in cut-offs toting a shotgun, holla!). The filmmakers behind the year's other temporal dislodgment adventures, Safety Not Guaranteed and Sound of My Voice, didn't have a budget for flying motorcycles or groovy props. Colin Trevarrow's stealth rom-com had me at Aubrey Plaza (confession: I don't watch much network TV so I was unaware of who the Parks and Recreation star was until after I saw the movie). She's the investigative reporter who falls for a Pacific Northwest whack job (Mark Duplass, in a performance that finally helped me to "get" Mark Duplass) who claims to have built a time machine. Unlike brilliant no-budget movies that feature time machines and use them to generate stories that have your mind racing around their causal parameters—movies like Primer and Timecrimes—the time machine here is almost completely a MacGuffin. The movie's really about people casting off their defense mechanisms and finding their hearts and believing in preposterous things like love... and Mark Duplass. The film's screwball affinities sell all those emo goods.

Sound of My Voice

Sundance sensation Brit Marling is the big draw for Sound of My Voice (which seemingly got less popular and critical notice in release than the inferior half of her sci-fi diptych Another Earth). She plays a cult leader, "from the future," who lands in the San Fernando Valley with a warning, and a way, for the people of 21st century Los Angeles. As in a great Twilight Zone episode, the filmmakers (Marling co-wrote with boyfriend Zal Batmanglij, who directed) put everything in your head. Which is a great place to put things when you're shooting in suburban basements on a Canon 5D. Marling-as-Maggie is so charismatic (well, Marling-as-Marling, even: "I want to maul her with my soul," commented another young actress to me on Facebook recently), that she quickly divides a neurotic Silver Lake couple (Nicole Vicius and Christopher Denham) who infiltrate the cult for their documentary exposé. Maggie would seem to be bogus when, challenged to prove she is really from the year 2056, she sings a song made popular by a singer called "Benetton." It is, of course, "Dreams" by the Cranberries—and a terrific gag that tilts the audience towards skepticism. Maggie's a scam artist after all, one who might be better off skipping town and joining Mark Duplass in his time machine before the Feds catch up with them both. But no film in 2012 had the no-budget ingenuity to deploy a special effect as simple (yet, complex: try to do this at home) as "the handshake." In the very last frames of the movie, this eccentric bit of throwaway nonsense becomes the most poignant and unexpected mindfuck.

Posted by ahillis at 8:50 AM

December 8, 2012

RETRO ACTVE: Gleaming the Cube (1989)

by Nick Schager

Gleaming the Cube

[This week's "Retro Active" is inspired by the documentary portrait of skateboarder Danny Way, Waiting for Lightning.]

What does Vietnamese anti-communist activism have to do with rad skateboarding? Absolutely nothing. Except, of course, that they were melded together in hilariously random fashion in 1989's seminal skateboarding drama Gleaming the Cube, a work that brought to the multiplex masses the burgeoning sport and its fashion. At the center of this cult-classic is Christian Slater, sporting ratty t-shirts, spiky hair, and a lone left earring dangling from his 'lobe, the teenage actor striking a pose of rebel-cool that, along with the film's portrait of skating through city streets and in empty neighborhood swimming pools, helped inspire legions of kids to learn to grind and ollie. Slater is Brian, a prototypical high-school outsider whose parents don't understand his lifestyle and its attendant low grades and trouble with the law. His problems don't really begin, however, until his adopted Vietnamese brother Vinh (Art Chudabala), after expressing concern about trouble at work to Brian, is found hanging in a motel room, an apparent suicide that makes little sense given Vinh's status as the perfect child. Cue Brian's transformation into a modern-day Hardy Boy, with the skater snooping around despite the protestations of cop Lucero (Steven Bauer) until he discovers that Vinh was the victim of nefarious forces intent on covering up an arms smuggling operation involving efforts to combat Vietnamese Reds.

Gleaming the Cube

Consequently, Graeme Clifford's film is a many-headed beast, as concerned with portraying Los Angeles' Vietnamese community as it is with shining a spotlight on the burgeoning skater culture—two concerns that couldn't be less related. The result is a story that plays like some laughably bizarre mash-up in which cameos from Tony Hawk butt up against sociological snapshots of Vietnamese pool halls and park festivals. Stranger still is how little skating there actually is in Gleaming the Cube, which for long stretches details Brian's sleuthing to uncover the real reason behind Vinh's death. That investigation leads him to Colonel Trac (Le Tuan), the father of Vinh's girlfriend Tina (Min Luong), who's working with an American named Lawndale (Richard Herd) to smuggle guns and ammunition back to Vietnam—a plan that Vinh uncovered and was accidentally killed for, and which also soon leads to the murder of another accomplice that Brian partially witnesses. According to Clifford's film, such crimes are easy to cover up from the cops but difficult to hide from a punk like Brian, whose probing so quickly leads him to the bad guys in question that Lucero comes off like the dimmest of detectives.

Gleaming the Cube

Slater's lack of skating prowess and use of a stunt double is made abundantly clear by repeated close-ups of the character's feet while skating, as well as by silhouetted medium shots. Nonetheless, Gleaming the Cube's signature footage, while paling in comparison to more modern feats of skateboarding dexterity, adequately captures the devil-may-care attitude and daring that ignited the sport. Too bad, then, that between an intro in which Brian and his crew scout for skate-pool locations via a private plane flight and then tear up one swimming hole much to the homeowner's chagrin, and a finale in which Brian latches onto a sports car to chase and thwart Lawndale, there's very little impressive skating to be found. Instead, the drama grinds to a virtual halt as it details Brian's attempts to get close to Colonel Trac via Tina, whom he woos by ditching his skater couture and adopting a preppy look that alienates him from his pals. That Colonel Trac won't let Tina date Americans speaks to immigrant cultural insularity and intolerance, but such undercurrents are treated just like the plot's notion of covert anti-communist machinations—namely, as superficial window dressing for what amounts to a silly boy-detective fantasy.

Gleaming the Cube

Hilarity isn't in short supply throughout Gleaming the Cube, be it the opening credit sequence's use of a prototypical '80s-era title song, Lucero's penchant for flicking Brian in the ear, the fact that Lucero's apartment is decorated with posters of scantily clad models, or one character’s listening to a Vietnamese rendition of "Nowhere to Run." Eventually, Brian avenges Vinh's death by taking down the evil Lawndale, making himself a paragon of cross-cultural compassion even as he usurps his dead sibling's role by successfully romancing his girlfriend. Making heads or tails of what's being said about American-Vietnamese relations, however, is ultimately useless, since every element has been thrown together with haphazard abandon, exposing the film as a quick and ridiculous stab at celebrating a mushrooming trend—replete with two scenes of Brian blowing off steam by skating through abandoned industrial spaces that, along with a late game of vehicular "chicken," give the proceedings a decidedly Footloose-y feel.

Posted by ahillis at 10:41 PM

December 5, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Dark Knight Rises

by Vadim Rizov

The Dark Knight Rises

The overriding theme of Christopher Nolan's movies is a gloss on Guns 'N Roses: "Use your illusion." Guy Pierce's self-deluding Memento protagonist precedes Al Pacino's cop in Insomnia, whose titular sleeplessness makes it similarly impossible for him to separate truth from paranoid misperception. The Prestige places illusion front and center as a tale of dueling magicians, while Inception concerns implanting false memories to achieve desirable results. This interest extends to Nolan's Batman trilogy: not so much Batman Begins, but certainly The Dark Knight, in which the Caped Crusader agrees to let Gotham City think he's the bad guy for their own protection.

The Dark Knight Rises considers the fallout from following Axl Rose's advice. At its opening, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has entered his Howard Hughes recluse stage. His preoccupation during recent years has been developing a nuclear fusion project designed to provide cheap, sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel. The project was locked up when Wayne realized the gizmo could be used as a nuclear bomb, and the Dark Knight has retreated from the world both personally and professionally. Wayne's disappointed liberal funk has to be cast off when Gotham is menaced by Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked menace who speaks with an Oxford don's plummy voice. (Hardy should narrate every episode of "Frontline" in character.)

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane talks like a class warrior out of the Tea Party's worst nightmares. First he raids Wall Street, then he turns off bombs citywide, makes speeches and turns Gotham over to The People, encouraging them to pillage the houses of the rich and hold vengeful show trials. If Bane's rhetoric rings hollow, it's still appropriate that his nemesis is an angry billionaire. But it's hard to argue for The Dark Knight Rises as some kind of conservative manifesto given the slimy corporate boardroom machinations of John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and the "Scooby-Doo"-like revelation that one of Bane's helpers is also a member of the 1%. Rather than making any coherent statement (liberal or conservative) about business, corruption and tension stemming from economic inequality, Nolan just seems very agitated about the French Revolution: after Bane's reign of terror ends, the movie caps off with a pointed reading from A Tale of Two Cities.

Where normally it's all too clear precisely what Nolan's theme is, The Dark Knight Rises is surprisingly inscrutable (i.e., a mess). It's also goofy as all-out. Much was made of how un-comic-book-y The Dark Knight was, eschewing an elaborate origin story for The Joker and spending minimal time on Two-Face in favor of lots of Heat-aping helicopter cityscapes. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is very comic-book-y (in the pejorative sense), spending a lot of time on Bane's backstory, which looks through squinted eyes like Temple of Doom as lots of vaguely dark-skinned foreigners stand around chanting in the midst of boys'-adventure desert landscapes. The previous film's car chase is revisited, lengthened and tricked out with new Batmobile gizmos, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond with shiner tech.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is overstocked with both exposition (continuously, everything stops to deliver massive quantities of largely useless information) and action. Recovering a little from the incoherent, sludgy setpieces of Inception, Nolan does a fine enough job of keeping everyone's positions clear throughout the chases, even while introducing new inexplicable frills. These fillips are both dramatic and visual. E.g.: though the theatrical frame expanded vertically from widescreen to full-screen IMAX to accommodate Gotham's skyscrapers for spectacle's sake, you also got Christian Bale lying in bed in this format. Certainly his chiseled frame is a blockbuster special effect of its own—recall the shameless money shot of Wayne taking off his shirt in Batman Begins—but Nolan's way of showing Bale off is conspicuously odd.

Sometimes the bad judgments are even stranger: in a movie that cost at least $250 million, it's startling to watch the finale flunk a very basic editing task. A ticking time-bomb is being driven around the city, and basic principles of suspense are observed by intercutting the timer's countdown with Batman running around being violent/awesome. Yet the cuts make no sense: five minutes' passage on screen leads to only a 30-second difference on the clock, while 30 seconds onscreen might suddenly result in five minutes being shaved off the timer, an inexplicable and easily amended error.

The Dark Knight Rises

Shortly after The Dark Knight came out, critic Ty Burr reported that at a memorial service, he'd been approached by a slew of teenagers and college kids wanting to know if, in his professional opinion, this was the new greatest film of all time. The Dark Knight Rises isn't as slickly entertaining, and it doesn't seem to have shaken multiplex audiences up as much. But if hundreds of millions must be thrown at summer tentpole films, better an eccentrically stupid wreck like this than streamlined blandness. First comes exasperation, then—as the pricey chases and baffling missteps keep coming in equal measure—amusement at the sprawling excess.

Posted by ahillis at 9:07 AM

December 2, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

by Nick Schager

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by its sequel, the Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren horror-actioner Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning]

For a franchise predicated on resurrection, it's an unexpected twist to find Universal Soldier: Regeneration reviving the long-dormant Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren series by switching its focus from reanimation to cloning. Replication, however, does not breed derivation in John Hyams' 2009 direct-to-video gem, which ignores a handful of preceding sequels and picks up some time after Roland Emmerich's 1992 original, in which 'Nam soldiers Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Lundgren) were brought back to life as superhuman killing machines by the U.S. government. At the start of Regeneration, that covert project has shifted to cloning and modifying the deceased into unstoppable zombie warriors, and has fallen into the wrong hands courtesy of Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale), who's gone rogue and sold his services—namely, a behemoth dubbed NGU (Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski)—to Commander Topov (Zahary Baharov), who's threatening to detonate a Chernobyl nuclear reactor if political prisoners from his fictional Eastern European homeland of Pasalan aren't released. Making things even more complicated, he's kidnapped the children of Pasalan's prime minister, an opening-scene crime perpetrated at a museum that leads to a car chase shootout of such blistering intensity—every gunshot and car flip resounding like a small detonation—that, from the outset, the momentum and brutality feel dialed up to eleven.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

With his director-father Peter working as cinematographer, Hyams shoots that initial salvo with a clarity and physicality that defines Regeneration, as every subsequent action set piece is similarly marked by an attention to lucid spatial relations and a fixation on the nasty viciousness of kicks, punches and stabbings. One can feel the violence throughout, a tack assumed not just for shock value but as a means of maintaining concentration on the limits of the human body to endure manipulation and punishment, notions that (along with father-offspring undercurrents) are central to Victor Ostrovsky's script. Forced to contend with the NGU, the U.S. military re-enlists four dormant first-generation Universal Soldiers to help spearhead a rescue mission at Chernobyl. That siege is a model of action-moviemaking adeptness, with Hyams staging mayhem with methodical efficiency and breakneck hostility as, one by one, the Universal Soldiers fall to the NGU in showdowns that are characterized by fleet and inventive hand-to-hand combat that's always clearly arranged within the frame. With cold eyes illuminated only by the occasional sadistic glint, the towering Arlovski is a figure of terrifying cruelty, and there's an exhilarating scariness to the sight of him patiently stalking his victims, or running and leaping around Topov's industrial-warehouse Chernobyl base, his villain a militarized Frankenstein monster beholden only to orders, impervious to pain, and unburdened by conscience.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

The NGU is an unthinking, seemingly invincible fiend, and the notion of autonomy is ultimately central to Regeneration once the American government, faced with no other choice, re-commissions Luc Deveraux into service, despite the fact that for years he's been in a program under the guidance of Dr. Sandra Flemming (Emily Joyce) that seeks to rehabilitate him into a free-thinking human being. Regardless of the dividends reaped by Flemming's ink blot tests, an early encounter at a café reveals that altering Devereaux's true nature is likely impossible, and such a goal is thoroughly thwarted once he's brought back into service to kill the NGU. Courtesy of massive drug ingestion and military training, Deveraux reverts to ruthlessly lethal form. Hyams' story, however, treats this development as not a rah-rah climax—the badass hero returns!—but as something approaching tragic, both because Deveraux is again denied his basic humanity by a government interested in using him only as a tool, and also because this process is doomed to failure since Devereaux's newfound self-awareness isn't, in the end, completely erasable.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

An unwilling Terminator nonetheless forced by design to carry out his mission, Deveraux storms Chernobyl in a prolonged finale that's never more masterful than during a single-take scene in which the camera swings around Deveraux to provide 360-degree views of him killing a battalion of enemies in a building's narrow corridor. Before reaching the NGU, Deveraux is first forced to confront Scott, who's been cloned by Dr. Colin but turns on his creator because—contrary to his programming—he does "contemplate the complexity of human life," a flicker of the very sentience also found in Deveraux. Van Damme and Lundgren's meeting is a mirror-image of their first confrontation in 1992's original film, but here, their fight is infused with a melancholy over the fact that both of their characters are, in the end, mere victims of the Universal Soldier agenda. That mood may wane a bit during Deveraux's subsequent, bracing race-against-time efforts to defuse the bomb, save the kids, and kill the NGU, but it resumes, in surprisingly poignant fashion, in the last image of Deveraux—having completed his assigned task—fleeing into an unknown future, as well as in a closing shot that exposes warmongering inhumanity as something that, no matter the potentially disastrous consequences, endlessly regenerates.

Posted by ahillis at 5:40 AM