Friday, January 27, 2012
Chuck vs. The All-New, All-Awesome Adventures of Danny Baram
- In 2007, I was still a relative rookie at NBC Universal. I was already working in Digital Distribution at that point, though I still had a lot of contacts at NBC Development, where in late 2005 and early 2006 I was the resident NBC Page on assignment. So I pulled every string I could to get my hands on new pilot scripts. I got a huge thrill (and still do) from reading these, even though you had to wade through a lot of so-so scripts to get to the good stuff. In early April 2007 (I checked my old email logs to verify), I read the pilot script for Chuck and was blown away. I liked it so much that I wrote an email to some contacts in Development to tell them. It reminded me of Y: The Last Man meets Alias meets The O.C. It was probably the first TV script I've ever read that actually felt like it was meant for Gen Y. It wasn't like anything else on TV. It was a genre mashup - comedy, action, adventure, sci-fi, and romance. If it actually made it on the air, man, it was going to be awesome.
At that time, NBC would typically do early pilot screenings for employees, where we gave feedback and got an early glimpse of what was in development. As it happened, I was in a screening session with a lot of older people. At the time, I was only 24. Most had no idea what to make of the Chuck pilot, and certainly, it didn't go over particularly well with that crowd. People wondered who would watch it. They were confused - was it a drama or a comedy? Mostly, I think the fast-paced, self-aware mix of pop culture references, geek speak, and 20-something angst just went over the heads of the 40, 50, and 60-somethings in the room.
Flash-forward to the San Diego Comic-Con, 2007. Somehow, Chuck had been picked up for NBC's Fall schedule. The network had decided to take a risk on a show that was clearly different, unique, and younger-skewing. Heroes had become a smash the previous Fall, so there was a desire to do more high-concept, younger-skewing shows. But man, it was at that Comic-Con that Chuck cemented itself - before it had even aired - as a fan-favorite. My friends and I went to the show's panel in San Diego, and the place was electric. Josh Schwartz and Zachary Levi were given thunderous ovations. And as the pilot played, people laughed, cheered, and clapped. It went over like gangbusters, and Chuck was one of *the* breakout hits at Comic-Con. And rarely have I had such a gratifying experience as an entertainment industry professional. Not that I had any involvement whatsoever in the show - it was just that, there at Comic-Con, it was a victory for us, the fans, and I felt proud to be involved with this paradigm-smashing show even tangentially. It felt like a win for everyone who was sick of shows about white-collar yuppies and shows about young people that felt written by middle-aged writers who didn't have a clue. Chuck felt for us, by us. And maybe people who wear suits to work were never going to get it. But for the rest of us - those of us in our 20's, those of us who grew up with comic books and videogames and movies and pop-culture, this was a TV show that spoke to us - that was, nearly instantly, near and dear to our hearts.
Of course, this same group of geeky twenty-somethings is the same group that inspires all these articles about cord-cutting and the death of traditional TV. So the same people that were so passionate about Chuck from the get-go were the same people least apt to watch it on its regular NBC timeslot. It made Chuck one in a long line of shows with intensely passionate, loyal fans but relatively miniscule ratings. And yet, Chuck persisted, despite the odds. It seemed to face down cancellation two or three times each year, and always, it rallied. Sure, some of that was due to NBC's overall situation over the last few years. But a lot of it was the fact that the fans refused to let their show go quietly into that good night. Subway sandwiches were bought, the internets were swarmed with petitions and protests, and over and over again, the fans got behind this little show that could.
Chuck had its ups and downs creatively, but its heart was always, always in the right place. Even when the plotlines weren't totally clicking, the show worked because the characters were so great. Over the years, Chuck became one of those shows that was just nice to have around. You looked forward to checking in with old friends - Chuck, Sarah, Casey, Morgan, Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike. The show was overflowing with heart, and for that reason, it was deceptively heartstring-tugging. Despite an over-the-top sci-fi premise, the friendships of the characters felt so authentic that some of the big moments - like Chuck finally revealing to Morgan that he was a spy - were as impactful as on any, more serious drama.
Part of the reason for the authenticity, I think, is that stars like Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez were the real deal - true blue geeks who used their newfound starpower to do things like attend E3, become kings of Comic-Con, and in Levi's case, to start a company called The Nerd Machine. When you mix those guys with the all-around badassery of an Adam Baldwin, and the beautiful/dangerous combo that is the smokin' Yvonne Strahovski, well, it's that rare kind of TV chemistry that makes for something special. And I can attest - these guys are among the nicest bunch you'll find in showbiz. I'll never forget the night that I got to hang out with the cast at Comic-Con. Levi, Gomez, Ryan McPartlin (aka Captain Awesome), and the rest couldn't have been cooler.
If you needed further proof that Chuck's showrunners were themselves fanboys, recall the list of guest stars that the show's utilized over the years. Scott Bakula was brought in to play Chuck's estranged dad, and Linda Hamilton appeared as his mom. Superman himself, Brandon Routh, had perhaps his best role to date as the villainous Daniel Shaw. Carrie-Ann Moss was great this past season as superspy Gertrude Verbansky. We've seen everyone from Timothy Dalton to Chevy Chase to Gary Cole to Stone Cold Steve Austin to Stan Lee grace the show. And that's just barely scratching the surface.
I will miss Chuck, but it's one of those shows that will live on forever. A world was created that people will go back to, that people will revisit, even if only by popping in a DVD and sharing it with their friends. And I think that Chuck is going to have a major influence. Chuck was a show that brought a unique sensibility to TV. During a time when series like Lost, Veronica Mars, and others were playing around with multiple genres and high-concept premises, Chuck showed that there is a way to do a show that's funny and goofy and nerdy yet also action-packed and that has heart. Personally, as a writer, I find myself brainstorming new TV pilot ideas and thinking that it'd be fun to do something in the spirit of Chuck. I think in the years to come, we'll see a lot of shows come down the pike that get compared to Chuck. And when we look back, we'll look at Chuck as a key pop-cultural touchstone of an era when geek culture became mainstream culture. When Comic-Con became the center of the pop-cultural universe. When a mainstream NBC show like Chuck could make obscure references to things like Dune and the music of Rush and get away with it. Maybe Chuck was even ahead of its time. Maybe in a few years, we'll look back and laugh at the dark ages when a show like Chuck lived and died by an antiquated system of Nielsen ratings that didn't even measure the show's target audience and/or its preferred viewing methods in its sampling.
Most of all, I look at CHUCK and, as cheesy as it is to say, I see myself. Chuck Bartowski started out as a just-graduated geek who underachieved and looked for meaning, as his potential was wasted at a boring Buy More job. When fate (and Bryce Larkin) intervened and bestowed upon Chuck the Intersect - a vast database of information, knowledge, and skills downloaded directly into his brain - it gave Chuck a purpose, a mission, and a wake-up call that he was, indeed, meant for great things. As Chuck has grown, figured things out, and approached the big 3-0, well ... so have I. Chuck and I even share the same city - Burbank, CA. And yeah, anytime I head over to the local Best Buy, a part of me will be looking for Jeff and Lester and the rest of the Buy More crew. Now, I can only imagine where Chuck, Sarah, Morgan, and the rest go from here. But I like that. I like that what we've seen is, really, only Chapter 1. Somewhere out there in the metaverse, Chuck will grow old, maybe settle down, but probably have at least a few more great adventures. Isn't that the case for all the best heroes?
Thank you Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak, and everyone behind the scenes at Chuck. It's been an awesome ride, and even when I wasn't loving the show, it felt like its mere existence was a victory for the good guys, the geeks, the fanboys, and really, anyone who was sick of the same old crap on TV. Chuck fought the good fight, and was a success despite the odds against it. Its kung-fu was strong. And it taught us all to never, ever - under any circumstances - underestimate the power of the Nerd Herd. So here's to CHUCK. It's been a great run.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
RED TAILS Review:
- If you go in to Red Tails expecting a serious drama about the story of the fabled Tuskegee airmen, well, you'll probably be a bit disappointed. Clearly, executive producer George Lucas - who worked for decades to help get this movie made - has no real interest in serious drama. What has always interested Lucas is, of course, pulp fiction - and that's exactly what Red Tails is. Like Star Wars, Red Tails owes its storytelling lineage to old movie serials, pulp novels, and comic books.
That can be pretty jarring, to be honest. Given the fact that this is one of the first high-profile films made about the Tuskegee airmen, some might go in with certain expectations, and feel there's a responsibility on the part of Lucas and his team to give this story a certain dramatic weight and gravitas. For those people, Red Tails is going to feel off, and probably unintentionally funny at many moments. The film will, I think, feel most familiar to those who've ever perused an old war comic - Sgt. Rock, Nick Fury, or the old EC war comics from the 50's. As in those stories, the characters in Red Tails are all outlandishly nicknamed soldiers - with monikers like Lightning, Easy, Joker, and Neon - most with one or two defining personality traits. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character is - quite cartoonishly - never without his trusty pipe. The dialogue is seemingly lifted from one of those same old comics - you'll either find it charmingly simple or just plain bad.
And I think that's true of a lot of Red Tails. The movie as a whole walks a very fine line, and sometimes its hard to tell what is intended to be intentionally pulpy and campy and what is simply poor creative decision-making. I don't know, I sense that maybe there were some conflicting voices that went into the making of this one. I mean, you can't create a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink movie about the Tuskegee airmen ... can you? And yet, you can only hope that some parts of the film are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Like, there's a moment towards the end of the movie, where a soldier who had been kidnapped, taken as a P.O.W. by the Germans, and then helped pull off a daring escape, returns to his army base - miraculously alive after having been presumed dead by his fellow soldiers. We never really saw *how* he got off the base, exactly, or how he made it across enemy lines to get back to his base. In fact, his storyline is given barely any screentime once he's captured. And so when he returns to base at a dramatic moment - at the exact moment that a funeral is occurring for one of his fallen squad-mates - he says something like "hey everyone, I just got back from a crazy adventure where I escaped a P.O.W. camp, and now I'm back!" You almost have to laugh at the absurdity. But was this moment even meant to be funny? There's a lot of stuff like that in Red Tails.
And yet ... Red Tails has an infectious, boyish enthusiasm that makes it hard for me to hate on it too much. The dialogue feels cheesy and like something a 12-year-old would write (think the Star Wars prequels). The editing is choppy, and has a Star Wars-esque style that's, again, likely an homage to old serials - but too often just feels inelegant. And the acting - whoah boy, there's not a note of subtlety in the film. But like I said, it's a comic book come to life - an old, 1950's-era WWII comic book. Take a look at the photo above - I really do think it's emblematic of what this movie is. And for that reason, I enjoyed it. It's simple, over-the-top storytelling that oddly suits the subject matter. It doesn't suit it if you want a mature, nuanced telling of the Tuskegee story. But it works if Red Tails is - as Lucas has said - a modern-day fable for young boys - a live-action version of those old ra-ra comic books that made kids want to march down to Berlin and sock Hitler in the jaw. This is that sort of film. And while a lot of discerning adults are going to be able to nitpick it to hell, this is clearly a movie that looks to communicate a simple, patriotic story to kids about some of World War II's overlooked heroes. Suffice it to say, if you took this movie and made it animated, it probably would lose nothing in translation.
What Red Tails has though are plenty of big, bombastic moments that are undoubtedly crowd-pleasers. The Nazis in this film are sheer evil and utter supervillain-esque exclamations of doom. The heroes have their flaws (too much drinking, too much womanizing), but are all ultimately fun to root for as they zoom around performing death-defying aerial feats and saying things like "take that, Mistuh Hitluh!" In one of the movie's most laugh-getting gags, one of the Tuskegee pilots continually directs his prayers to Black Jesus in the midst of battle. Lots of cheese, but a lot of it is in good fun.
The acting is similarly campy, but I was impressed by the charisma and screen presence of a lot of the actors here. My favorite was Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard. Howard is an awesome actor, but here he chews up every scene and hams things up to perfection. It's just a fun performance. I'm not sure if I feel the same about Cuba Gooding Jr. - he just looks sort of ridiculous with a Sherlock Holmes-esque pipe jutting out of his mouth - and he's still got that boyish face that makes it hard for him to pull off the part of a grizzled army major. The real star here though is David Oyelowo as Joe "Lightning" Little. Oyelowo is fed some of the lamest dialogue in the history of cinema. His romantic subplot, in which he magically falls in love with an Italian woman who doesn't speak English - is one of *the* stupidest romance subplots that I've ever seen in a major movie. And yet, Oyelowo is a scene stealer, and he makes a lot of the movie's lamer moments somehow watchable due to sheer charisma and force of will. Similarly good is Nate Parker as Martin "Easy" Julian (a reference to Sgt. Rock's Easy Co.?). Parker helps make squad leader Easy into a fun character, even though his battle with the bottle is seemingly lifted from a "The More You Know" segment on old Saturday Morning TV.
Red Tails also gets a little lift from two small but effective performances from awesome actors. For one, the great Bryan Cranston shows up as an army official whose racism causes him to underestimate the Tuskegee airmen. Meanwhile, Gerald McRaney (from Deadwood and many other things), is great as an army major sympathetic to the cause and a proponent of the Tuskegee soldiers.
It's certainly worth noting that Red Tails is directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (after many, many years in development with various writers). But it's also inevitable that the name George Lucas gets thrown around a lot, because the movie feels so much like a Lucas film. There's a bright, digital sheen over the whole movie that makes it feel very Lucas-y, and everything from the campiness to the stilted dialogue to the editing style feels like the work of the Jedi Master.
It's good and bad. There are some really great scenes in the film - some fantastic, visceral action, and a handful of surprisingly poignant moments that show the sort of racism that the Tuskegee airmen had to battle in addition to the Nazis. There are some big action beats that really work well and get the heart racing. There are moments here that just flat-out pump you up, and make you proud to be an American. I mean, I'll admit it - as I watched this movie in a packed theater, surrounded by a multiracial audience of all ages and creeds, I couldn't help but look around as I watched the movie and think "man, this is sort of awesome - only in America!" It was easy to get caught up in the audience's feeling of pride for this story, for these Tuskegee airmen and the pivotal role they played in America's WWII victory. It was easy to forget about the movie's flaws and just enjoy the fact that here was a great American story, up on the big screen, being presented with all the flair and good vs. evil melodrama of Star Wars. At the same time, there were moments of the film that were so eye-rollingly lame that they just broke the suspension of disbelief and took me out of the movie completely. Even if the film is going for a campy, pulpy vibe, that's still a huge knock against it.
Red Tails isn't really a good movie in any conventional sense. But it's fun, and uplifting, and spectacularly cheesy in a way that just might appeal to your inner ten-year-old - the kid who still believed that America was the greatest country on by-god earth and that anything was possible. If you have it in you to appreciate a movie on that level - if the picture at the top of this post gets your adrenaline pumping - then by all means, go check out Red Tails.
My Grade: B
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Steven Soderbergh is a hard director to love, but an easy one to be intrigued by. Few if any directors relish experimentation as much as him - he's a guy who is always pushing boundaries, testing his own creative limits, and challenging himself to explore different genres and styles. You never quite know what you're going to get with Soderbergh, and that's to his credit - but it also means that, sometimes, his films feel like test tube concoctions rather than fully-formed movies. HAYWIRE is a really cool, interesting action-flick, though I think it does suffer a little from being a sort of offbeat experiment.
As the story goes, Soderbergh saw female MMA fighter Gina Carano in action, and thought she'd be perfect as an action star to build a movie around. And as it turns out, Soderbergh's instincts were 100% right on that front - Carano kicks ass and takes names in Haywire. Her acting is decent, but she has the kind of screen presence and charisma that all the great action stars have. And man, when she puts a beating on someone, the results are realistic, brutal, and positively bone-crunching. After seeing Haywire, I am 100% ready and willing to see Carano in more action roles - and I'd love to see her mix it up with some of her peers (male and female), from Sly Stallone to Jason Statham to Zoe Saldana.
Now the thing with Haywire is that, well, you might expect it to be a balls-to-the-wall style throwdown. But it isn't. It's actually a hyper-stylized throwback of sorts to 70's and 80's-era B-movies. It's a far cry from a sleek action-thriller like Salt, a comic book actioner like Underworld, or a Euro-style woman-on-a-mission movie like Colombiana. Instead, it's like a modern-day version of Foxy Brown or other such proto-grindhouse action cinema. In between the action, there's a lot of convoluted dialogue and plot setup. The movie feels stark, bare-bones - with a straightforward, unflashy cinematic style - the kind of thing that Tarantino paid homage to when he did Deathproof.
This style works well for Haywire in the sense that the fight scenes - shot straight-on without modern conventions like shaky-cam or rapid cuts - feel all the more brutal and wince-inducing. It also makes for some riveting chase scenes, which are allowed to run uninterrupted without unnecessary cuts or flashiness. At the same time, it's admittedly a big jarring to see a movie like this - one that delivers such satisfying, kickass action - deliver said action so sparingly, amidst some very slow bouts of exposition and stripped-down, bare-bones cinematography.
But if you can get past all that, and sit back, and allow yourself to get caught up in Haywire's B-movie trappings, you'll be in for a really cool ride. Some other recent movies (say, Tinker Tailor) frustrated me with their hard-to-penetrate plotlines. But I think the story in Haywire is sort of secondary. It's more about establishing a mood of intrigue and and motive of revenge. Despite some convoluted ins and outs and a multitude of characters woven into the narrative, the basic plotline of Haywire is fairly simple: Carano's character, Mallory - a spy-for-hire - has been set up to take a fall for her employer after a botched job. Mallory is a loose end, and therefore, she's now a target. It may occasionally be tough to figure out how all the various players fit into the story ... but one thing is clear: this is a story about Mallory's revenge.
One thing Sodenbergh does is that he surrounds Carano with a number of highly-regarded actors to play off of. While Carano does the bulk of the ass-kicking, most of the acting load is carried by the likes of Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglass, Bill Paxton, the omnipresent Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderes (sporting a super-badass beard) and, to a lesser extent, Channing Tatum. It's an interesting strategy - surround this amateur actress with a cast of experienced and award-winning actors. And it mostly pays off, as everyone does a nice job of giving the movie some added gravitas and dramatic heft. That said, you do sort of wish that Carano had some real physical equals to play off of. I mean, do you want a Bruce Lee movie where he's teamed with Sir Laurence Olivier? The result is a movie that has pretty jarring transitions between its more dramatic, dialogue-heavy scenes and its action scenes. Only Fassbender among the cast gets to do some solid acting as well as ass-kicking, and his appearance in the movie is sadly a fairly brief one.
On one level, there's a degree of frustration that HAYWIRE isn't an over the top, Kill Bill-style cinematic action tour de force, or even an Expendables-style frag-'em-up. With someone as awesome and as legit deadly as Carano, that's sort of what you want. And yet, there is a very interesting, quasi-arthouse style at play in Haywire that pulsates with retro-grindhouse-cool. And it's at its best when it embraces the absurdity of it all and just gets a little crazy. When it deliberately tries to be drab, Haywire can get a bit boring. But when it dares to be as badass as it can be - as in the highly entertaining final encounter between Carano and McGregor - Haywire is a stylistically-risky but still-satisfying action pic.
My Grade: B+
Friday, January 13, 2012
One thing that's always frustrating to me when talking movies: how hard it can be to talk about what separates a great action or genre film from a merely-decent or mediocre one. Sometimes, I feel like I'll complain about an action movie and get the response of "well, not every movie has to be intellectual." True, very true. But even within the confines of the action genre, there is good and there is bad. There is badass and there is weaksauce. There is awesomeness and there is epic fail. Seeing a movie like Contraband that's, overall, okay but just pretty unremarkable and bland, it's hard for me to just give it a pass. I mean, as I recently blogged about, I just attended a Badass Movie Night where I took in action classics like Rolling Thunder and Hard Boiled - movies that reeked of awesome and that positively kicked my ass.
I don't ask that an action movie be overly cerebral - I just want awesomeness. And on that front, CONTRABAND only marginally delivers. It's got a bland plot, boring characters, and few if any moments that really wowed me. Is it terrible? No, it's okay - and it's got an admittedly great cast. But the cast deserves better material. You can sense the likes of Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale and Giovanni Ribisi straining to make something out of their parts. They do their best - and they make the movie watchable. But good god - if you set out to make a movie like this, set out to make it kick all kinds of ass. Come up with a sweet main character, a memorable villain, jaw-dropping twists. Go for broke. Contraband feels totally "meh" for most of its runtime.
Contraband stars Mark "Say hello to your mother for me" Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler who's gone straight, and now makes a living running a home security company. He's settled into a peaceful, domesticated life with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids. But things go bad when Farraday's screw-up brother-in-law botches a smuggling job for Briggs (Ribisi), a ruthless, unhinged crime boss. The mistake could endanger the lives of Farraday and his family, so the onetime master-smuggler must go on one last run - a trip to Panama to bring back counterfeit money - to pay back Briggs and keep his family safe.
It's a classic story of the reformed criminal who's got to do "one last job." But there's nothing really classic about it as told here. The biggest problem is probably that Wahlberg's character feels so underdeveloped. We never find out what exactly turned him to the straight-and-narrow. And we never really understand why he was once the best in the biz at smuggling, except that people tell us so. Wahlberg is okay, but just bland in this. And another issue is that we never really are made to understand the world of smuggling. I never got why Wahlberg had to travel all the way to Panama to secure the counterfeit money. And I thought there was almost a comical obviousness to the fact that, hey, Farraday owes this crime boss money, so hey - let's do this massively complicated smuggling run to get it! It just struck me as funny that he never even talked about just robbing a bank or something. At the least, I wish the movie had explained why this was the best method to get the payload, Farraday's background notwithstanding. Also - I never quite got the dynamics of him and his crew, or how they worked with the captain of their ship. Speaking of which, JK Simmons plays said Captain, and it's a frustrating character - the dude goes on some random trip to Panama with a bunch of known criminals onboard, and yet he's constantly weary that they might be up to something fishy. Ya' think?
As mentioned though, the cast helps to give the movie what little spark it has. One standout is Giovanni Ribisi. He plays Briggs like a character from a much cooler, much crazier B-movie - he reminded me a bit of T-Bag from one of my favorite TV-shows, Prison Break. He has those snake-like mannerisms that make him a bad-guy you love to hate. But Ribisi is sort of in the background for a lot of the movie. When he does appear, business definitely picks up though. Same can be said for Ben Foster as Sebastion, Farraday's longtime friend and partner. The movie's one good twist revolves around Sebastion, and it's not that it's that clever or that it even makes sense, but more so that it gives Foster a chance to do what he does best: be a mean, creepy sonofabitch. When Foster is given the chance to really shine, that's when Contraband is at its best. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the movie was really losing me for a while, but I finally got re-invested when Foster emerges as a key player in the drama. I also liked Kate Beckinsale as Farraday's wife. My only issue is that the character feels a bit too much like a victim. When you've got a kickass actress like KB in a role, it's hard to watch her get pushed around and made into a damsel-in-distress. One last shout-out goes to William Lucking who makes a brief cameo as Farraday's incarcerated father, who himself was a smuggler. Lucking manages to be the most badass person in the movie, by far, despite only a few minutes of screentime. It made me wonder how much more cool this flick could have been if it was a story of father-son joint ass-kicking. Ah well.
But again, there just isn't a cool enough story or well-defined enough characters for these talented actors to sink their collective teeth into. The script seems intent on trying to make its characters cool through lots of tough-guy dude-bro dialogue, but it rarely if ever pops. Setting never plays any real role in the movie - the film is set mainly in New Orleans, but you'd barely know it. And the segments in Panama are bland. Director Baltasar Kormakur seems to be going for some sort of slick Michael Mann-style mood here, but I began rolling my eyes when I realized that *every* scene is punctuated by a kewl overhead, nighttime shot of either a.) a ship barreling through the ocean, or b.) a helicopter flying over said ship. We get it, big vehicles at night are cool - we don't need to see that same shot every minute.
Basically, the only signs of life in Contraband come from a stacked cast that is clearly doing their best to make this movie work. Nothing else about the movie gives you reason to care though. It's generic and bland through-and-through.
My Grade: C
- Pariah is a striking, powerful, emotion-packed film. It's also a hugely impressive debut from writer/director Dee Rees. The movie is a character piece, an examination of a young, African-American girl's struggle to embrace the fact that she is a lesbian. But, the film is shot in a way that's both naturalistic yet also heightened. There's a real feel of authenticity at work here (perhaps stemming from the autobiographical elements that Rees imbued the film with). And that feeling of peering into this world and living with these characters made Pariah moving and entertaining and also attention-grabbing. Even if you've had your fill of serious message movies in recent months, I'd say make room for one more, as Pariah is well worth checking out.
Pariah tells the story of Alike, a high schooler who has dipped her toes into the water of living a lesbian lifestyle. She's by no means openly gay - and is guarded about things in front of her concerned parents. But she hangs out with a lesbian clique outside of school, and is beginning to express herself in a way that's more true to who she really is. This manifests in everything from the poetry she composes for school to the way she dresses. Her parents are her biggest source of stress and self-doubt. Her mother in particular suspects that her daughter might be gay, but would be devastated if it were so. Church-going and rather close-minded, Alike's mother feels that her life is coming apart at the seams. Aside from Alike, her younger daughter is becoming a teenager and becoming older, sassier, and more rebellious. And her husband - a cop - is quite possibly having an affair with another woman. Alike's father is actually one of the film's more interesting characters. On one hand, he is more supportive of Alike and open-minded about her identity. On the other hand, he is helping to facilitate a miserable atmosphere in his home - sneaking out late at night, endlessly engaged in shouting matches with his wife. Meanwhile, Alike's friend Laura is even worse off - her mother kicked her out of the home when she discovered that her daughter was a lesbian. So now, Laura is living with her older sister and trying to get her G.E.D. Her mom won't acknowledge her existence. All this, plus: Laura may harbor a crush on Alike - and their relationship becomes increasingly strained when Alike meets someone else (a girl who, ironically, her mother introduced her to in an effort to set her straight).
Actress Adepero Oduye is a revelation as Alike. Her acting feels incredibly naturalistic, to the point where sometimes you almost feel like you're watching a documentary. That said, Oduye also shines when the script calls upon her to deliver some big, emotional moments. Oduye has an infectious smile that makes us happy when Alike succeeds, and she also renders certain scenes as incredibly heart-breaking - especially those that highlight her fractured relationship with her mother.
Speaking of which - whoah - Kim Wayans is pretty amazing as Audrey, Alike's mom. Best known for her comedic roles on shows like In Living Color, the Wayans sister shows some real dramatic range as a woman who teeters on the edge of breakdown. Charles Parnell is also fantastic as Alike's father, Arthur. Arthur is a really interesting character as well - a cop who is concerned for his daughter but also accepting of her. We also are left to wonder a bit about his infidelity - yes, he's hurting his family, but we can also see that his marriage to Audrey hasn't been an easy one. Pernell Walker as the rough-around-the-edges Laura is also really, really good. I also liked Aasha Davis as Bina, the pixie-ish girl who Alike falls for. It's a great cast overall - everyone is really doing A-level work here.
I guess my one qualm with the movie is that it's just too straightforward and by-the-numbers. There are very few surprises here, and the film never really deviates from its basic coming-of-age template. I kept waiting for some twists or turns that would shake up the story and make it a bit more memorable or distinct, but just about every trope here is standard-issue for this type of film. Now, few films are able to tell this kind of story with such a great cast and such a feeling of authenticity. But I guess I just wanted the film to truly take things to that next level. As is, Pariah is sort of a jolt of a movie - brisk, powerful, and then ... that's it. The narrative doesn't really go to any particularly unexpected places.
Overall though, Pariah is a really good film. It shines a light on a particular subculture in America that's got it really tough, and is only now starting to emerge from the shadows. It's an inspiring story about a girl who's able to rise above intolerance and forge a path for herself. To some extent, anyone can relate to the idea of breaking free of expectations and finding your own way, and that's what Pariah is all about. Like I said, even if it's now 2012, I think we've got to make room for one more excellent film in the 2011 cannon.
My Grade: B+
Friday, January 6, 2012
The Art of the B-Movie:
- Why is it that certain movies that are, on one level, sort of ridiculous, still resonate with viewers and find a cult following? What separates a great B-movie from a terrible "regular" movie? Oftentimes, it's a fine line. Just an ounce too much self-awareness, and you get a trying-too-hard wannabe like Snakes on a Plane. And yet - if there's no self-awareness whatsoever, not even the slightest wink, then you might have yourself a movie that's only "B" as in bad. But something magical happens when a movie dares to be weird, out-there, or insane, yet doesn't feel the need to explain or justify itself to anyone who doesn't immediately "get" what it's going for. That's when a movie becomes transcendentally entertaining. And that's when we get into the world inhabited by the John Carpenters and Sam Raimis and W.D. Richters of the world - movies like Escape From New York, They Live, Evil Dead, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. These are movies that - like the pulp novels and comic books that are their spiritual forefathers, are gloriously self-assured visions of highly-stylized adventure.
Nowadays, we get a lot of movies that are self-consciously "B." And that can be problematic, because as I said, one hallmark of a great B-movie is that, while watching, you can only detect the slightest sense of self-awareness. And yet, movies like Planet Terror, Deathproof (together comprising GRINDHOUSE), and Machete are self-styled B-movies. They all have metatextual elements that scream "hey, we're making a B-movie here!" And yet, they still work, because the script, direction, and acting so perfectly mimic the genuine articles. With Snakes on a Plane, what you saw was a movie that started out just being bad. At some point, people realized it was bad, and tried to turn it around to being ironically-bad. Insert a few jokes, crank up the absurdity, and wink at the audience a few times, and suddenly, your bad movie becomes a B-movie cult classic ... in theory. But in practice, it was obvious that Snakes came less from the genuine place of passion that all great B-movies come from, and more from a cynical, cash-grabbing place from which legitimately terrible movies tend to originate.
At the same time, movies like Machete have done a fantastic job of paying homage to B-movie/grindhouse cinema. Machete is a winking tribute, but also functions as a great grindhouse movie in and of itself - just with perhaps a little bit more self-awareness than is typical. Which brings me to ...
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN Review:
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, a movie that started as a trailer and evolved into a full-length feature. HOBO is a movie that, like Machete, knows exactly what it's trying to be, but is a bit more of an authentic grindhouse experience in that it rarely winks, or goes for self-aware humor. In Machete, star Danny Trejo plays things broad, almost like he's in a comedy (which he basically is). But in Hobo, star Rutger Hauer is deadly serious. Even though his character and the film are completely over-the-top, Hauer - in classic B-movie fashion - plays it all straight. Part of that may come from Hauer's Europeon roots - over there, action movies tend to be over-the-top and crazy without ever being ironic about it. Think of the movies of Luc Besson or Paul Verhoeven. Satirical? Sometimes. But there's also a straightforward sincerity to movies like Leon The Professional and Robocop that may even make them, at times, unintentionally funny to American audiences. HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN captures that sort of vibe - there's some very dark, satirical humor at its core, but it presents the social commentary with about the same degree of sincerity as the insane ultraviolence.
That makes for a movie that took me a little while to warm up to, but that ultimately won me over with its gleefully over-the-top insanity. The movie is flat-out nuts, but like I said, it presents just about everything at face value. The central premise - Rutger Hauer as a grizzled old homeless man who decides to clean up his city's dirty streets, one despicable criminal at a time - is a lot to take in by itself. But that premise may actually be the most banal thing about the film. Hauer's badass bum soon finds himself teamed with a gun-toting hooker with a heart of gold, pitted against an insanely evil and sadistic crime family, and, inexplicably, facing unstoppable, armor-clad demons summoned from the fiery pits of hell. Yes, you heard me. This movie starts out as being crazy, and very soon becomes *certifiable.*
Shot in extreme color and utilizing all sorts of classic B-movie camera techniques, Hobo looks like an old 70's grindhouse film with a modern, acid-washed twist. As it goes on, the action heats up and becomes increasingly, awesomely over-the-top. But the whole thing is anchored by Hauer's captivating performance. Hauer is one of those great, underutilized actors - but perhaps it's partly because he's at his best in these sorts of larger-than-life roles, aka, the kind that haven't been there in mainstream cinema over the last few decades. But man, does Hauer ever get stuff to chew (more like gnaw) on in this one.
Hobo With a Shotgun take a little while to get going, and at times, it does have the aura of a movie that's trying a little too hard to be shocking. In its quest to extend a premise tailor-made for a cool trailer into a full feature, the movie keeps throwing weird $%&# at you to keep you in a constant state of shock and awe. And some if it - because of spotty acting, off-kilter direction, iffy writing, etc. - doesn't work, and is more eye-rolling than jaw-dropping. But ultimately, the movie is a fun, freakish film that I found to be quite enjoyable.
My Grade: B+
Now, while I'm talkin' B-movies, a couple of other things that I'll mention:
- This past weekend, some friends and I gathered for our first-ever BADASS MOVIE NIGHT. A couple of incredibly badass films were watched that night, but I want to talk about one in particular: ROLLING THUNDER. This was a movie that we had been introduced to via a special screening of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair that we attended several months back at the New Beverly theater in LA. Prior to unveiling his re-cut version of Kill Bill Parts 1 and 2, the great Quentin Tarantino set the proper mood by showing us a trailer reel of revenge films that helped to inspire the creation of the Kill Bill saga. All of the films looked awesome, but one in particular stood out for its sheer badassery. And that film was Rolling Thunder.
Now, here's the insane thing. Rolling Thunder should be considered a classic, held in the same regard as movies like Taxi Driver (it's from the same writer, for one thing). It's an incredibly awesome 70's-era revenge film, starring William Devane (Sec. Heller on 24), and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie has kickass action, but it's also a fantastic character piece - a look at a man who comes back from imprisonment as a P.O.W. in 'Nam, only to find out that the America he's returned to is in some ways just as brutal and unforgiving as the war. This is a movie that any film fan should check out asap. BUT ... it's NOT AVAILABLE ON DVD. Yes, as of last year, you can order the film via MGM's pressed-to-order DVD purchase program. Okay, that's a decent first step. But this is a movie that needs the deluxe treatment. It's a movie that anyone should easily be able to check out, that should be a perennial best-seller at Best Buy or on iTunes. But, for some reason, it's been relegated to obscurity. Rolling Thunder - which I can now vouch for as one of THE most badass films of all time - is a movie that MGM, Criterion, Shout Factory, Kino - someone - needs to give a proper release to asap!
But since I'm talking about B-movies, I'll say that Rolling Thunder is one of those movies that's legit a great film, but also has some of the hallmarks of a B-movie classic. Whereas a more straight-laced action film might keep things less violent and more banal, RT is downright brutal and disturbing. It dares to go to places that other movies wouldn't. I mean, it gives Devane's psychologically-scarred Vietnam vet a hook for a hand! The movie just goes for broke, and never feels compromised or watered-down in any way possible. The people behind Rolling Thunder just give you the most badass movie they could imagine, and they aren't worried about keeping things sanitized or even 100% realistic, necessarily. It exists in a heightened reality, a dark, messed-up place - the same place as a movie like Taxi Driver. And that willingness to go outside what is realistic to make a point is what B-movies are usually willing to do. All I can say is, if you are able to find a way to see Rolling Thunder, it's a must-watch for any movie geek.
- The other movies we watched as part of our Badass Movie Night are more widely-known, but both were films I had, somehow, yet to see. Those movies were THE WARRIORS and HARD BOILED.
- Now, THE WARRIORS has a pretty huge cult following, and it's still sort of prominent in pop-culture. The movie recently enjoyed a re-released director's cut version, and Rockstar Games even did a videogame based off the film a couple of years back. Suffice it to say, it's a cheesy-yet-awesome film that I sort of laughed at while watching, but has 100% stuck with me in the days since. The idea of the film is just so far-out, and the characters so weird and imaginative, that it's been rattling around in my brain. But what makes it a B-movie classic is exactly that - the movie takes place in a strange world that is never really explained. It's a neon-lit version of New York City that's overrun with street gangs - colorfully-clad clans that come off more like teams of comic book supervillains. Is this the future? The present? Some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia? Who knows. But The Warriors doesn't bother to explain - it just exists and asks us to accept its outlandish premise and world. "Can you dig it?"
- HARD BOILED, on the other hand, is less a B-movie. It's more of a true epic - a Hong Kong police saga of crime, corruption, and double-crosses. But what makes Hard Boiled truly pop is the ultra-stylized direction of action movie maestro John Woo. Woo frames his action scenes as blood-spattered ballet, an orgiastic opera of bullets and badassery. I would say this is less a B-movie, because of its sheer epicness, big-budget production, and fully-formed characters and storyline. So ... B-movie? Not quite. Badass movie? Hells yeah.
- Now, one thing about the great B-movie classics is that there tends to be a sort of home-made, do-it-yourself spirit that makes them endearing. Even when they have a bigger budget, B-movies still tend to feel less like corporate products and more like singular passion-projects of filmmakers. Sometimes a B-movie might fall within the narrative confines of a particular genre (horror, fantasy, etc.), but sometimes, the slice n' dice mashup of genres is exactly what makes certain B-movies so cool. It's why they're the movie equivalent of rock n' roll - they're messy, weird, unpredictable, and dangerous. Hobo With a Shotgun is sort of Sex Pistols. Evil Dead is Alice Cooper-esque. Rolling Thunder is, I suppose, kind of a Neil Young. But getting back to my earlier point, the cool thing is that these are exactly the kinds of movies that a fledgling writer or director can have fun with. These are the kinds of movies that a small crew can go out and shoot, even with a low-budget. In fact, these are movies where low-budget is part of the equation - where creativity and imagination is key.
- And with that in mind, I'd like to close things out by giving a well-deserved shout-out to a little movie called PRIMITIVE. Directed by friend-of-the-blog Benjamin Cooper, Primitive is exactly what I was talking about above - a low-budget horror movie that was essentially made because all parties involved love horror flicks and creature features.
Essentially, Primitive is your classic story of a man with a monstrous id lurking inside him - a man whose subconscious rage forces him to, well, unleash the beast. It's the kind of thing that perhaps owes a tip o' the old hat to stories like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Incredible Hulk, etc. But what's cool about Primitive is that our hero doesn't *become* the beast, but actually unleashes this monstrous entity whenever even a small part of him feels a bit of resentment or hatred towards someone else. This twist on an old legend is particularly compelling, because it means that anyone could unwittingly become the target of the beast's wrath. One moment of jealousy between friends, one small spat with the girlfriend - any of these seemingly trivial incidents could lead to the monster materializing and doing the only thing it knows how - wreaking havoc and exacting deadly vengeance.
Primitive features a solid cast of up-and-comers, but the real bonus for horror fans is the presence of genre stalwart Reggie Bannister, who's appeared in countless horror flicks, from Phantasm to Bubba Ho-Tep. As the eccentric doctor who diagnoses the protagonist's rather strange condition, Bannister is a fun presence and, certainly, a scene-stealer.
The movie also features some really fun creature f/x and makeup. Again, this isn't cutting-edge CGI, but good old-fashioned man-in-suit action. The fun is in seeing the hand-crafted creature costumes, and the creativity that clearly went into making them.
Finally, I'll just mention that Primitive features several entertainingly gruesome kills - and as the movie approaches its climax, there's some pretty cool confrontations between man, woman, and monster.
In any case, it's definitely cool to look at a movie like Primitive and see what some talented and passionate horror-movie fans were able to do with relatively limited resources. It's the kind of film that will make you want to go out and shoot your own B-horror movie ... and sometimes, that's the best kind. If you want to find out more info about PRIMITIVE, check out this site: http://www.PrimitiveTheMovie.net/.
- And there you have it, a special post dedicated to the B-movie, the most rock n' roll of all movie genres, and the type of film that perhaps best encapsulates the can-do spirit of independent cinema. Because really, without these films, we wouldn't have the Indiana Jones, the Dark Knights, or the Aliens of the world. Those movies take the raw imagination of B-movies and refine them - smooth out the rough edges. But for a look at what unbridled creativity and unfiltered imagination can do when put to film - this, my friends, is the good stuff.