Election (To, 2005)

Johnnie To is a director of such visual skill, his stories and characters often lack the dynamism of his style. His camera moves in and out of dark spaces, past obscured faces, capturing only the slightest hint of bloodshed even when brutality is openly apparent. But his characters always feel darkened as well, on the edge of revelation, and this is both awe-inspiring and frustrating. Election, To’s fascinating and problematic gangster film shines light on the democratic and corrupt process of electing a chairman to the head of the Triads. An instant paradox arises – gangsters willing to vote for a head of state, when notoriously they are represented as willing to kill anyone for power (Scorsese, Woo). To handles these ideas with a firm grip on the world in question, allowing his characters to develop at a slow rate, only revealing intentions late in the third act. Even then, the two-faced nature of both heads vying for power, Loc and Big D, are hidden by perception and doubt. The film complicates the gangster image while adhering to the genre, much how To did in Breaking News (cops vs. robbers) and PTU (cop loses his gun a la Stray Dog). Most of all, Election is an intriguing starting point for these shape-shifting characters, making Triad Election (the sequel) a must see. In that respect, To has succeeded greatly.

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Smokin’ Aces (Carnahan, 2007)

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In a recent radio review of Joe Carnahan’s new action film Smokin’ Aces, one critic described the best thing the film had to offer was the trailer for Hot Fuzz. That’s a bit harsh and overly simplistic. While most critics have brought the heat by punishing this film in the press, Smokin’ Aces warrants a little more attention, albeit not always positive, than most film writers are showing. Unabashedly nasty in tone and glossy in style, Smokin’ Aces comes from the family tree of Guy Richie, who stemed from Quentin Tarantino, who stole from every film under the sun. The premise is promising: the story of multiple groups of hit-men (and women) who ascend on a Lake Tahoe hotel to murder one Buddy “Aces” Israel, a mobster/magician turned F.B.I. snitch. The killers come in all shapes and sizes, from the openly psychotic (The Nazi Tremor Brothers) to the subtlety deadly (everyone else). Trying to thwart there efforts are a variable cast of big names – Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta as Feds, Ben Affleck and Peter Berg as a Bondsman and a Vice Cop, and Andy Garcia as the Deputy Director of the F.B.I. manipulating the situation the entire way. Plot takes a back seat to the violent exposition, basically short glimpses of the shocking esthetic Carnahan could have brought to the table with Mission Impossible 3. See Tom Cruise, fuck you man, I can direct! Well, Joe, whatever coherence you established in Narc or your BMW film Ticker, you’ve left at the door for Smokin’ Aces. For all the violence, blood, and masochistic characters, Carnahan’s brutality feels banal and lazy, prisoner to the multiple story-lines, explanations, and turns in plot. This strange hybrid of hardcore intentions and the resulting overly deadpan (seriously misguided) results ends up being the most interesting aspect of the film. We get a studied mixture of the life or death modern crime scenarios mixed with the fantastical (i.e. the crazy karate kid in the woods, the stunning display of shots from the .50 caliber snipe rifle, and the ease with which killers escape any sort of consequences). Smokin’ Aces would have been much more effective if the balance of power shifted from deadly seriousness to brutal camp, making the jabs at films like Soderbergh’s Oceans films more apparent. But for all the negativity which has rained down on this subpar January release, it does offer a promising debut by Alicia Keys, steaming it up and holding her own with ease alongside a bevy of psychos, and that has to be equal to a trailer for a British action/comedy. Right?

La Scorta (The Bodyguards) (Tognazzi, 1993)

If you’ve got a taste for high quality action films, the Italian La Scorta offers a distinct and worthwhile vision of the moral codes shared between men of arms. Smart, gripping, and effortlessly cool, director Ricky Tognazzi’s look at politics, corruption, and assassination in present day Sicily is a no nonsense actioner based around character, not scenario, which demands comparison with the greatest modern crime film, Heat (1995). When a local Judge is brutally assassinated, the honorable Michele de Francesco is transferred in to take over the district. Assigned a newly formed group of bodyguards as protection, all parties soon realize the deception involved in keeping the corrupt status-quo in full working order. Their lives constantly in danger, these men come to see each other as an extended family, the last line of defense for man willing to stir the pot and makes things better for the common man. With every fast-paced scene, we feel the push and the pull on these men and their relationships with the outside world. The most amazing aspect of La Scorta is the friendships formed between the bodyguards themselves. Somehow, with the help of a dynamic script by Graziano Diana and Simona Izzo, the film exists on it’s own terms, avoiding the typical minefield of cliches found in the typical cop drama. As these men begin to care for each other as brothers and confidants, their survival and success become more essential to the viewer. The Bodyguards also forge a deep friendship and respect for the judge himself, a pillar of hard work and dedication to taking out the Mafioso garbage. A scathing critique of political apathy, La Scorta is a high caliber character study framed within an action film. Aren’t those the best kind? This one’s just waiting to be remade, revisited, and revamped by Michael Mann.

Unknown Pleasures (Jia, 2002)

Jia thankfully favors rich characters over style in Unknown Pleasures, his love letter to youthful disconnect and romantic delusions. Not as formally pure as Platform or The World, Unknown Pleasures fancies night clubs, concerts, beer, gambling, loan sharks and the like, showing a bare bones and fascinating vision of developing China. Still, it’s extreme containment and jumps in narrative feel forced, a hipster mentality merging with art house aesthetics preaching to the faithful.

– More to come upon a second viewing.

The Last King of Scotland (MacDonald, 2006)

The horrific and subtle progression of Barbet Schroeder’s documentary masterpiece General Idi Amin Dada (1974) balances it’s infamous subject’s charming and conniving rhetoric alongside his murderous and costly paranoia. Smartly framing Amin’s Jekyll and Hyde personality within the context of Uganda as a nation in transition, Schroeder captures what Hollywood can’t – real life crumbling before our very eyes. The common people suffer the most, while the General stubbornly plays God until there’s no one left to blame.

So why does mainstream American filmmaking even try to follow up such complex material? Oscars.Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin towers over everything else in The Last King of Scotland, a purposefully naive account of the dictator’s rise to power in Uganda during the 1970’s. His speech to a field of peasants in the opening minutes of the film sets the bar high, rallying both the spectator (represented by a traveling Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan) and the common people, with grandiose awe-inspiring prose. While these opening scenes live up to the hype Whitaker is grabbing for his flashy, over the top performance, the rest of the film languishes in mediocrity. Early on Garrigan gets talked into being Amin’s personal physician and the impending montage shows the two indulging in good food, fast cars, and countless woman. The superstar has drafted the rookie and it’s completely cliched story-telling.

But audiences and Oscar voters alike are drawn to Whitaker’s larger than life incarnation, overlooking the fact this monster had more depth and appeal than most. His atrocities, over 300,000 people killed, gets flashed on the screen over the film’s credits like an afterthought.The Last King of Scotland certainly doesn’t represent these numbers in terms of on-screen footage, nor is it concerned with the same things Schroeder addressed in his documentary. Scotland only sees it’s subject and historical consequences through the rose colored glasses of it’s protagonist, choosing blindness and arrogance over substance.

It seems any recent Hollywood film set in Africa, like the all too safe Blood Diamond, must have noble, black characters and naive, white imbeciles wondering “why” and “how could they”! The Last King of Scotland is an even more extreme example, building it’s entire narrative structure around Garrigan’s ignorance and blind eye toward Amin’s irrational and text book power junkie attitude. It’s easy to peg Amin in these terms and it’s exactly what Schroeder’s documentary avoids. But Hollywood wants an easy villain.

Kevin MacDonald, who made the incredible Touching The Void, seems to be sleepwalking through this assignment, using a monotonous blend of fast -paced editing and bleached out colors, the standard for Africa settings. One can look no further than A Constant Gardener for a unique, fleshed out rendering of Africa, the vision of a director attempting to say something pertinent no matter the mainstream consequences (that picture failed at the box office). The Last King of Scotland, awash in familiar good vs. evil characters, is only concerned with impressing Oscar.

Se7en (Fincher, 1995)

It must rain a lot in hell. At least it does in Hollywood’s trumped up version of urban decay and incomparable death. Having felt completely sickened yet fascinated during my first screening of Se7en on a shoddy VHS copy, it’s surprising, now eleven years later, how classy and uneventful director David Fincher’s breakthrough film feels. Noted for it’s brutality and edginess at the time of release, Se7en comes across nowadays as completely standard, by the books, much like Morgan Freeman’s Det. Somerset. Not only has Fincher made more radical, if not altogether dumber renditions of similar stories (look no further than Fight Club), but the serial killer genre itself has moved in a completely different and ridiculous direction, one based on torture and apathy (the Saw Trilogy is a good example) instead of detective work and psychology. Se7en exudes a beautiful understanding of crime film iconography, even while hindered by it’s sometimes idiotic dialogue and pointless characterizations. Still, the rain pours, and we listen to the horrific banter of Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, a killer who will forever haunt audiences gullible enough to take his acting seriously.

Update: I’ve since recently watched the film again, and have no idea what I was thinking previously. It’s a near masterpiece that is in no way “standard.” 6/21/09

Boogie Nights (P.T. Anderson, 1997)

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A first love of mine. Seen initially at the tender age of 16, Boogie Nights knocked me out like few other films have (except maybe Pulp Fiction). Watching it now, almost ten years later and hot on the heels of a revisiting of Magnolia, PTA’s second feature still glistens and gleams, but not to the point of delirium I remember so fondly . It remains a stellar example of Anderson’s love for movement, through both camera and music, sometimes at the expense of his characters. The first half especially, the “beginning of the end of the porn film industry”, does not succeed like Magnolia‘s heartbreaking modern but personal expose’. But Boogie Nights‘ descent into madness is even more fresh and frightening – the cross cutting between Dirk’s assault, Roller Girl’s beat down of a familiar frat boy, and Buck Swope’s fateful donut stop is one of Anderson’s grandest achievements in directing. It’s with these transitions that Boogie Nights shows it’s gravitas, the chance encounters that can define and destroy our very existence. Mark Wahlberg’s performance as the sweet, dense, and very endowed Diggler, gets better each time. Others, like Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) take full focus, while many characters are left behind unfinished and unexplored. Boogie Nights, while a stunning, epic, and fleeting mosaic, is slightly less memorable than Magnolia or Punch-drunk Love. Apples and oranges, though. The patented PTA long steady-cam shot which ends the film sums it all up; family is everything and they’ll probably forgive and forget, no matter how much you’ve fucked them [over].