Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mabrouk El Mechri's "JCVD" (2008)

2008 is beginning to be known as a year of comebacks in film. We’ve already seen Sly Stallone continue his miraculous return to the big screen with the fourth film in the Rambo series. With hype swirling around Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler and a role that allowed Tom Cruise to slip out of the spotlight in Tropic Thunder (that eventually earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor) some big names are back on track. Jean-Claude Van Damme is the latest actor to strike it rich with his comeback vehicle simply titled JCVD.

JCVD, a French film directed by French-Algerian director Mabrouk El Mechri, stars Van Damme playing himself. It is a meta-action doubling as a self-spoof/parody in the vein of Being John Malkovich. Van Damme, who is struggling with his career and unable to raise sufficient funds to pay legal bills for his child custody case, gets confused for a bank robber when he stumbles into the middle of a bank heist.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen many Van Damme films. I’ve never been a fan of the Van Damme’s and the Seagal’s of the film industry. If there’s one genre I never got into that would be it. JCVD is a film that succeeds largely due to Van Damme’s inspiring and brutally honest performance. Van Damme even has an emotionally charged eight minute one-take monologue that ignites the film’s third act. The film strays from the ongoing plot and simply puts the viewer face to face with Van Damme himself. This moment in the film is where you realize as the viewer that Van Damme is back. Fan or not, you can’t deny the remarkable achievement he reaches at this moment by reflecting on his past.

JCVD is a fresh, original and cool film. El Mechri, who lists French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard as a major influence, seamlessly ties all the acts together with an irregular narrative complete with flashbacks and “point-of-view” storytelling. This tongue-in-cheek look at international film star is flat out entertaining. All the drama, comedy and action is tied together without a hitch.

There’s not much to say about this one. Whether you’re a fan of Van Damme or not JCVD is worth watching. It surely is one of the surprise success stories of the year. The film won’t sniff any major awards this year but even so, it is an ultimate achievement for Van Damme and the filmmakers. JCVD is brutally honest, enthralling and truly a testament to filmmaking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" (2008)

One of the most significant historical events that I never learned enough about in high school was the Watergate scandal and the fallout left upon Richard Nixon. Ron Howard’s new film Frost/Nixon, a film adaptation of the stage play, delves into the now famous interviews between talk show host David Frost and the former president Richard Nixon.

This dramatization of a series of interviews granted to British talk show host David Frost in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned from his presidency, plays like a back and forth cat and mouse thriller and a boxing match rich with suspense. The bizarre thing is that with any knowledge of the subject beforehand the outcome of this bout is already known. While this is true with all history-based films there’s something special about this one in particular.

This isn’t a retelling of a violent war. They are merely a series of interviews. What allows the viewer the ability to fall right into the film, whether they know the outcome or not, are the outstanding performances by the ensemble cast. Frank Langella gives a seemingly uncanny portrayal of Richard Nixon. Langella does something unique with Nixon. He, much like the real Nixon, gave the audience a chance to feel sympathy for him during the interviews. In the end everyone, including himself, is able to see right through this fa├žade of cover-ups. Langella’s performance is an award-deserving three dimensional take on Nixon. From the flawlessly replicated mannerisms to the sulking body posture to the profoundly deep and brooding voice Langella’s portrayal of the former president will be noted come Oscar time.

To applaud only Langella would be to applaud only part of the team. Michael Sheen seamlessly loses himself within this out of place character of a talk show host. Frost was a man that at the time lived for the limelight. He was a man seen as more of an entertainer rather than as an investigative journalist. Sheen portrays both sides of this before and after transformation very well by effortlessly slipping into character.

Supporting performances such as Kevin Bacon’s stern performance as Jack Brennan, one of Nixon’s protective advisors, and Sam Rockwell as the determined James Reston Jr., one of Frost’s main researchers, complete a cast worthy of praise all around.

is a film that flew right past me. Once the film reached the second half, and more importantly the fourth interview, I was locked in my seated position and rarely looked away from the screen. With the aforementioned brilliant and realistic performances coupling with the stark reality of the dialogue the film is as suspenseful as can be. Howard’s directing only adds to the mix as his up close and personal approach during the interviews locks the combatants down right in front of you never letting go until it’s all over. Every emotional portion of dialogue and facial gesture is perfectly captured.

For me to speak on the historical aspects of this riveting film would be for me to go over my head. I prefer to leave the history to those who know it best. What I do know is that Frost/Nixon is one of the more compelling and entertaining films of its kind this year. The script plays like a stage play script with its limited locations and focus on dialogue but none of that does harm to the film. Frost/Nixon will undoubtedly be up for Oscar consideration as far as best picture goes and Frank Langella, who led a strong overall group of actors, will be a heavy favorite to win best actor with his powerful and moving performance that almost made me feel a drop of sympathy for the lonely Richard Nixon.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Steven Wilson - Insurgentes (2008)

Steven Wilson
November 26, 2008

Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson claims his new solo album is “Different from anything I’ve ever done before”, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered. Insurgentes, Wilson’s first true solo album, is all that and more. Combining his musical past of progressive rock with drone, noise and post-punk shoe gazer music like Joy Division and The Cure, Wilson’s long coming solo project opens up new doors in the musician’s heralded career.

Wilson has done it all in his ever-growing career. He’s seen as one of the progressive rock masterminds of the modern era. He is to Porcupine Tree as Robert Fripp is to King Crimson. Wilson’s career spans the genres as he’s tackled all types of progressive rock with Porcupine Tree, an ambience-flavored type of drone with Bass Communion and an art rock collaboration with Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen. This is why Wilson’s brand new approach to his newest album comes as no surprise to fans.

Insurgentes, as Wilson himself describes the album, is an eclectic mess. It’s the good kind of mess though. It’s the kind of mess that you make but turns out to be a brilliant discovery. Except that Wilson made this diverse collection of sounds on purpose. Wilson recorded Insurgentes over a long period in many different countries. The project spanned from December 2007 to August 2008 as Wilson recorded during his busy schedule wherever he could. In fact, title track “Insurgentes” was recorded in a church in Mexico on a church piano.

The album opens with the harmonious Harmony Korine, a title definitely referencing the art house film director of the same name. This track sets the eternal tone for the album. It’s a true blend of Porcupine Tree-inspired rock with the shoe gazing influence Wilson himself mentioned. The second track on the album, “Abandoner”, introduces the dark, almost horror film soundtrack inspired drone and noise portions of the album. The final minute of the track is a barrage of grinding atonal sounds.

The time and distance spent recording Insurgentes has paid off for Steven Wilson. I was two songs into the album when I picked it as my album of the year. After listening to the full album and the bonus disc I realized I hadn’t jumped the gun too soon. Insurgentes is what music is all about. Wilson experimented with all his influences, abilities and styles to create an album he himself would love to listen to.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Remakes: The Modern Plague

Haven’t people these days heard the saying “Don't fix what's not broken”? Movie executives must turn the music up and jam the earplugs in tight whenever this sentence arises.

On what seems to be a week-by-week basis Hollywood gives the green light to a new remake. While the concept of remaking films is certainly not new, it has become a disturbingly tired and trendy occurrence. No film is safe in this modern era of filmmaking categorized by countless remakes that double as cheap money grabbers. Everything is at the risk of being remade – from science fiction classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still to smaller films with strong cult followings such as The Crazies.

In the past few months remakes have gone too far. Quarantine attempted to become one of the quickest remakes in recent history as it remade the superior 2007 Spanish film [REC]. This brings up remake type number one. The foreign language film made American. Other countries don’t do this. This type of remake is by far the most pointless of the bunch. 95% of the time the Americanized version of the film is a far inferior film. The horror genre is especially to blame for the recent increase in this. For some unknown reason an inferior version of The Ring just had to be created four years after the initial film was released. Ripping foreign films from the cultures and subtexts they come from spell disaster for the finished American product.

Earlier this month it was announced that Will Smith and Steven Spielberg would be taking part in a remake of the 2003 Korean film Oldboy. Recently, Smith noted that the film wouldn’t be a remake as much as it is a reworking of the original material. Without the success of the initial release Spielberg wouldn’t dare delve into such dicey and taboo material. Oldboy, one of the best films this decade, is one third of director Chan-wook Park’s revenge trilogy. All three films embody a visual style personal to Park and performances that will be remembered for quite some time. Oldboy isn’t exactly a pleasant film. The film is as twisted as they come. I, for one, can’t even begin to envision how household names like Will Smith and Steven Spielberg will even begin to handle the source material.

Not all remakes are bastardized gifts from the devil. John Carpenter’s The Thing is an example of how remakes, if necessary, should be done. Pairing a director like John Carpenter to a project like that is an example of a match made in heaven. Carpenter’s updated version and the original Howard Hawk’s production differ in terms of plot and style. I much prefer remakes that are the new director’s personal vision. Shot by shot remakes are extremely pointless and unnecessary. I still can’t believe someone allowed Gus Van Sant to remake Psycho.

Another type of popular remake is the updating of one of our own classics. As referenced to earlier, The Day the Earth Stood Still remake is being released this December. Rigid and awful as always, Keanu Reeves is set to play the iconic role of Klaatu that Michael Rennie immortalized more than 50 years ago. As if things couldn’t get worse for the project, director Scott Derrickson’s most notable film is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Oh boy, I can’t wait. Year after year films fall off the never should be remade list.

Searching for a list of film remakes on Wikipedia says it all: “Due to the size of this page, the main listing has been split into two sections”. I’ll give any film a chance. I realize some remakes are the result of a director wanting to pay tribute to one of their favorite films or directors. The best way that can be done is to concoct an original film in the same vein as the directors you were influenced by, not from replicating their style or work.

I’d recommend avoiding most remakes like the plague. If by chance the film you’re going to waste $10 on at the local cinema is a remake you should save your money and support the original. Remakes have the potential of ruining American cinema by sucking all originality out of films. Alright, maybe I’m overreacting a bit, but that doesn’t hide the fact that remakes are awful more often than not. I’d just like Hollywood to slow down a bit. I know it’s hard but put the thoughts of piles of green money aside for a moment and think about what you’re doing to the industry you supposedly love. Each new remake is just another proverbial nail in the coffin of originality.

Director Profile: Lloyd Kaufman

For a little over a month now I’ve been writing about a director I admire and appreciate on a weekly basis. The five directors I’ve chosen to write about so far are filmmakers considered to be geniuses and the cream of the crop within their respective genres. This theme will not change this week.

There’s a phenomenon in film known as the B-movie. That’s capital B for Bad. Although most B-movie’s fit into the exploitation, horror, and science fiction genres, being classified as a B-movie tends to relate to the low budgets used to create the films. These so bad they’re good films typically build up legions of cult followings of diehard fans that allow these low-budget films to be made.

Lloyd Kaufman, an American film director, producer, screenwriter and occasional actor, is the co-founder of Troma Entertainment. Troma, which is considered the longest running independent film studio, is one of the leaders of the modern B-movie. Kaufman and Troma are best known for their absurd, schlocky and gore-filled films that intend to purely entertain, humor, disgust and shock.

Troma and Kaufman’s most well-known film is The Toxic Avenger. In fact, Troma’s current logo features Toxie, the film’s hero. The Toxic Avenger, whose success has spurned out three sequels, an animated cartoon, and a video game, is about Melvin, a stereotypical scrawny nerd who accidentally falls into a bucket of toxic waste. This in turn causes him to mutate and become the Toxic Avenger, intimately known as Toxie. Toxie, with mop in hand, becomes determined to defeat all crime in Tromaville (the fictitious city Troma places most of their films in). While content-wise this might sound a bit absurd, The Toxic Avenger was executed with pure grace and charisma by Kaufman.

To achieve extreme appreciation for what Kaufman and the rest of Troma does one would need to view a couple of their behind the scenes documentaries. While extremely entertaining and funny, the docs do justice to painstaking work the team puts in for one of their films. Nothing seems to ever go right for Kaufman, the actors, the unpaid interns and the rest of the crew hard at work. Even so, the finished products don’t represent the struggles on set. Time after time Kaufman is able to create his newest B-movie masterpiece.

Making a B-movie that is both entertaining and re-watchable is not an easy task. For Troma and Kaufman it has become second nature. They consistently churn out memorable characters, quotable quotes and disgustingly impressive special effects. Take Troma’s newest film Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead for example. Kaufman attempted something different with Poultrygeist. The film blends the classic Troma formula with the musical genre. The new experiment worked perfectly as critics applauded Poultrygeist and fans like me claimed it to be one of Troma’s best films ever, a bold statement considering their long line of work.

It’s hard to promote Troma films to everyone because they aren’t for everyone. They certainly aren’t films I’d want to watch with my parents. If you’re looking to expand your horizons drastically – and I mean drastically – take a trip to Tromaville. Kaufman and Troma have earned my eternal respect. I’ll take this opportunity to rip a page from the Troma handbook. Rather than spending your hard earned cash this holiday season on a piece of junk one of the conglomerates stews together, spend it on one of the little guys. Kaufman and Troma do it for the love of the game, not for all that superficial fame.

Essential viewings: The Toxic Avenger, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, Terror Firmer, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, Trome and Juliet, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.