“Actuality Dramas” of Allan King (1967-2005)

I had a sort of spiritual awakening watching The Actuality Dramas of Allan King, the new indispensable Criterion Eclipse box set containing five films that represent the wide-ranging scope of the Canadian filmmaker’s epic non-fiction career. Each film displays King’s genuine and generous humanity for human subjects on the fringes of society. King’s is a cinema of watching, waiting, and finally understanding the complexities of subjects like trauma, aging, marriage, and death. When taken as a collective piece of art, these films are nothing short of astounding. My review can be found at Slant Magazine.

Videocracy (Gandini, 2009)

Occasionally pertinent, always obnoxiously flashy, Erik Gandini’s Videocracy wants to be a viral shock to the culture system. But it’s a familiar jolt explored effectively elsewhere by more ambitious filmmakers, and Gandini’s vision ends up exuding the type of arrogant pomp he’s so bitterly critiquing. My review of the film’s DVD release is now up at Slant Magazine.

Wall Street (Stone, 1987)

I look back at Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for an inconsequential DVD re-issue in anticipation of film’s sequel. I fell hard for this film in college, but now on second glance it seems ridiculously uneven, at times downright silly. Still, I admire the hell out of Stone’s direction in the first half, the often brilliant banter spewed by great actors like Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen, and of course Michael Douglas.

The Webs We Weave: An Interview with Nash Edgerton

The short films of Nash Edgerton exist on the border of overlapping genres, cinematic categorizations simultaneously flexing their muscles to subvert audience expectations. One of the founding members of Australian collective “Blue Tongue Films”, Edgerton is a jack of all trades – director, actor, editor, and long time stuntman for Hollywood. His short films are hyper kinetic in the most potent sense, consistently driven in one direction by fast paced editing and impressive stunt work. But each packs a different kind of tonal wallop, whether it’s the devastating karmic ending in Spider or the tragically horrific metamorphosis in Fuel.

Edgerton’s debut feature film The Square, a contorted Neo-noir that twists everyday characters into dangerous psychological knots, exists in a collective quicksand box where deception and murder seem to organically spring from the best of intentions. The Square is now touring the United States after being a smash hit in his native Australia. I sat down with Nash Edgerton after a screenings of his short film Spider and The Square to discuss genre, the production process, and his future endeavors.

GLENN HEATH, JR: Many of your short films, from Loaded to Lucky, all contain an incredible amount of forward momentum in the narrative, no matter if it’s during chase scenes or dialogue driven moments. This stems not only from your fast paced editing but extreme physicality in the stunt work. Why was this approach so important to you as a young filmmaker?

NASH EDGERTON:I always liked the idea of movement and rhythm and I felt like filming it in that way gives the audience a sense of what those characters are experiencing. For me filmmaking is such a visual medium, I didn’t want it to be just about talking. I wanted to try and tell stories visually.

GHJ: Especially in the short film format, where you don’t have a lot of time to achieve this goal. There’s a real difference between your short films and THE SQUARE.

NE: With The Square, the story lent itself to a slower build, and if someone barraged you in that way for 90 minutes it would be quite hard to take. I set out with The Square to create a whirlpool effect, I mean to me Ray’s character is drowning, and I want to make it feel like it’s slowly creeping up on him and eventually his life starts spiraling out of control, and I wanted that feeling to come out in the film as more and more people get involved. Continue reading

Predators (Antal, 2010)

-Originally published at EInsiders.com

Up to this point, the 2010 Summer Movie season has been pretty terrible as a whole. With the exception of Toy Story 3 and hopefully Inception (released next Friday), Hollywood has more than lived up to its seasonal stereotype in unloading dumb, big budget drones onto the masses. So the release of producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal’s Predators proves to be an interesting road-bump for mainstream audiences. While fully living up to its expectations as a gritty, bloody action film, Antal and Rodriguez at the very least successfully transcend the wooden script and conceive a collective cinematic chaos that feels palpable, if only during certain clever set-pieces.

Not quite a remake or a sequel to John McTiernan’s 1987 Arnold Schwazenegger action film, Predators refurbishes the mythology surrounding the franchise, returning to the bare-bones badass aesthetic that’s been missing from the latestAlien Vs. Predator installments. The film starts mid free fall, with American mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) having been pushed out of a plane and tumbling through the air toward a jungle landscape below. It’s an exciting opening move, and Antal sets the stage nicely for a strategically paced introduction to each “killer” plucked from planet Earth and jettisoned to the game preserve of Predator’s home planet. We have the Mexican cartel member (Danny Trejo) a Russian Spetsnaz officer (Oleg Taktarov), a South American revolutionary (Alice Braga) and a host of other unsavory characters. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re being hunted by huge beasts of burden.

Story-wise, if you’ve seen one Predator movie, you’ve seen them all. Antal can’t help but conform to the expected plot points and structure, One by one; each character gets knocked off, alliances are tested, and physical and moral hurdles must be vanquished. The real joy of Predators comes in individual moments of combat, where these warriors of all shapes and sizes utilize their individual talents and histories to engage the enemy. This motif is highlighted by a scene between a Yakuza fending off a Predator with a samurai sword in a field of tall grass. Antal focuses on the details of combat, the swift and mortal movements of each gladiator. Brilliantly paced and effective, this sequence adds depth to the scenario instead of merely adhering to genre conventions. For the first time, Antal thinks outside the box and slows his camera down, taking in the gravity of the duel, allowing iconic imagery to take on new dimension.

In the end, Antal can’t help but succumb to the pressures of convention, culminating in a terribly inane denouement between man and beast. Predators attempts to please its base with familiar physical confrontations and decisions, never truly realizing that it’s greatest moments shine when playing against type. Ultimately, the film boils down to a series of captivating action set-pieces, inventive twists on iconography that don’t quite add up to a complete movie. In terms of Hollywood summer blockbusters, Predators probably doesn’t rank high on the list. But during this season of discontent, Predators feels like a well constructed, often engaging genre piece attempting to do greater things with iconography and archetypes. A brawny gut-punch with some surprisingly smart moments, Antal’s film is most definitely worth a look.

Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)

– Originally published at EInsiders.com

Like an old friend returning home slightly worn but undeniably vibrant, Toy Story 3 reminds us why the toys of Andy’s Room captured our imaginations in the first place. It’s been over a decade since Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang graced the silver screen, and director Lee Unkrich rightly constructs the entire narrative around the importance of passing time. Unkrich and his Pixar production team begin Toy Story 3 with a brilliant display of fantastical exuberance, reconstructing the opening sequence of the first film through the lens of an expanding big-budget imagination, exploring the fluid world these toys create for a young boy expressing himself with dreamlike irreverence. But this huge spectacle of force-field dogs, attacking dinosaurs, and Western iconography can’t last forever, and the mosaic of adventure cuts back to a videotaped recording of young Andy playing out the scene in his room. It’s all a distant memory, and Toy Story 3 becomes a film about transition and change within this age-specific landscape.

Andy, now 17 and on the cusp of a college departure, comes to a crossroads regarding his remaining faithful toys. Will it be the attic, donation, or the dreaded trash. This set-up spins Woody’s brood into another epic adventure outside the confines of their long-familiar ordinary world, into the depths of a potentially rotten day-care center run by a strawberry-scented pink bear named Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty). Loyalties are divided, expectations destroyed, and family dynamics tested throughout the escape-infused journey. Unkrich picks up where previous director John Lasseter left off, seamlessly infusing slapstick comedy and daring action aesthetics into the charming interactions between the toys. If Toy Story 3 seems choppy at times it’s only because the story calls for a certain amount of narrative uncertainty, a scattered sense of place that fits beautifully with the separation anxiety pumping the film’s thematic heart.

Hoards of new toys become the thriving fabric connecting Toy Story 3, including the hilarious costume asides between Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton), the improvisational monologues of Shakespearean Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), and a gigantic baby doll acting as muscle for the film’s heavy. The Toy Story franchise has always been about the different worlds just beyond the window, the new perspectives necessary to evolving in a place of constant worry, so these additions lend a necessary depth to the expanding universe. Unkrich uses these new experiences/characters to muse on themes of self worth, purpose, loyalty, and acceptance within this truly bustling locale. Once again, Woody and Buzz must come to grips with their role as leaders, but also as crucial distant memories for a grownup Andy. This dynamic gives Toy Story 3 a layered perspective on each relationship, providing a deep melancholy resting alongside the joy of discovery. No matter your age or status, these toys will always be a reference point for wonder, and watching each character come to this catharsis is a thing of beauty.

In terms of genre, Toy Story 3 comes closest in spirit and soul to the Prison film, matching perfectly with the characters’ fear of entrapment and uselessness. But Unkrich’s film sets itself apart from its predecessors by easing into moments of transition, focusing on the emotional elements of change rather than actual plot points. Even during its darkest moments, there’s never a real danger of physical death, just an impending doom of isolation and alienation. The film rightfully sees this as a natural process for every toy, and heroes and villains alike diverge depending on their reaction to these defining moments. The impressive final action sequence at the local landfill represents this wonderfully, pitting honor and virtue against indifference and hatred in the midst of a massive vision of communal waste. If this trilogy has taught us anything, it’s that every object deserves the opportunity to maximize their potential and avoid becoming just another throwaway item.

Yet Toy Story 3 doesn’t gain full resonance until the final sequence of transformation, when the passage of objects from one toy-box general to another becomes a deeply moving leap of faith. All the plot points, chase sequences, and cute humor lead to this one moment of pure adolescent bliss, a fleeting connection between two devotees respecting their love for play despite a huge age gap. This ending shows a deep seeded desire to rediscover the jubilee of childhood, but also a very necessary understanding that momentum must carry every kid-at-heart into adulthood. Boys and girls inevitably grow up, but their life-long inanimate friends will always be there to mirror their unique, special glimmer of a child-at-play. And these reflections speak volumes.