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Friday
Sep042015

7 Chinese Brothers (2015)

The Sliding Scale of Evolution

I had a low opinion of filmmaker Bob Byington after watching 2006’s Registered Sex Offender and 2012’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. Marked by a low-budget aesthetic and centering on aimless, self-centered, and unlikable hipster-types, both films left me with the mistaken impression that the writer/director was either expressing a self I didn’t care to know or pandering to an audience I didn’t want to be in. But there’s a third option that smacked me right in the face while watching his latest, 7 Chinese Brothers, a missing link in my unofficial study of Byington’s narrative evolutionary scale:

This guy feels so deeply that his movies are a challenge for the audience, a dare to penetrate his suffering characters’ walls of self-hatred and discover the parts of ourselves that reflect back from their jagged, rusty edges. Byington’s four most recent films are variations on a set of traits, values, and ideas that smack of Choose Your Own Adventure-style thought experiments played out to sometimes unwatchable degrees. RSO presented us with an ambiguously skeevy protagonist; Somebody Up There Likes Me asked us to root for (or at least tolerate) a smug and deliberately vile antihero; Harmony and Me falls somewhere in between a farce and an oddly affecting drama. 7 Chinese Brothers is Byington's most realistic (but no less challenging) configuration of these his key ingredients.*

Jason Schwartzman plays Larry, a disgruntled Buca di Beppo employee. He gets canned for stealing liquor, but quickly weasels his way into a "Courtesy Tech" job at the local Quick-Lube. He develops an instant crush on his boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta), and an instant fear of his supervisor, Jimmy (Jimmy Gonzales), who shakes him down for the change he vacuums up from customers' cars. Outside of work, Larry's hobbies include drinking, hanging out with his dog, Arrow, and visiting his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in a retirement community. He plays wing-man to one of the nurses, Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe), and also scores medication from him to chase the booze.

7 Chinese Brothers is the closest Byington comes to creating a recognizable adult world for his developmentally arrested protagonist to navigate. The film derives its comedy by breaking the impenetrable orbit of its snarky, entitled lead with characters who've got too many real problems to tolerate those of a man-child. It's a minor miracle that Lupe hires the charming but slightly-too-quirky Larry, but Byington drops hints of her desperation as an employer. Once in the door, Larry is given room to be himself, but not enough to Jim Carrey his way through the work day. More importantly, Lupe's intrigue with her new hire doesn't blind her to the fact that she's got a shop to run, a crazy ex to contend with, and a kid at home.

I won't elaborate much further on what makes this film work better than Byington's other efforts (with the exception of Harmony and Me, which I give a slight advantage to, entertainment-wise, thanks to one great song and one great moment). Suffice it to say, this is an oddly touching movie about growing up when one is well-past the age of society's ability to excuse juvenile behavior. Byington doesn't moralize, per se, but one can see (if one chooses to see) a Hand of God in the film that rewards struggle and punishes aimlessness. That's not to say a lack of direction is some kind of cosmic crime, but this time out, our antihero can't get away with antagonizing the ambitious and the upwardly mobile.

In addition to this shift in the writing (at least my perception of it), 7 Chinese Brothers succeeds thanks to some superb casting. Schwartzman is at once an extension of the typical Byington lead and a giant stride forward. The actor has built a strong career playing aloof know-it-alls, but here he gives a peek behind a frayed, tequila-stained curtain. We get the feeling that Larry's insistence on acting like an annoying sitcom neighbor stems from either a monumental loss early on, or a simple inability to understand why anyone has to grow up, move on, and die. Schwartzman is instrumental in selling the battle for balance within the character as Byington conceived him.

The other principal actors really put the "support" in "supporting roles". Aside from a pair of broadly drawn and perhaps superfluously recurring former Buca di Beppo managers, the film is full of natural performances from really interesting actors. Byington and company have every opportunity to invoke cliché in scenes involving bad double dates, visits to the ailing grandmother, and professions of love. They don't take the easy way out, choosing instead to let the laughs and the chills build naturally from somewhat relatable places. I would gladly watch spin-off movies about Norwood, Lupe, or even Grandma's attorney (Stephen Root); the actors make us believe that their characters' lives are rich enough to inspire compelling dramas, comedies, or casual, day-in-the-life mockumentaries.

Now that I've learned just what Byington can do, I would choose any of those adventures.

*I’ll elaborate on Harmony and Me next week.

Friday
Sep042015

The Transporter Refueled (2015)

Skrein Test

I'm a deliberate moviegoer. Leaving my house for the multiplex is always a mission. But there are people (maybe a lot of them, maybe only the few I've observed) who treat ticket counters with the same caution-to-the-wind passivity as they do fast-food counters. Mouths agape and mumbling to their companions, they await cosmic instructions from red dot-matrix marquee as to how they’ll spend their next twenty dollars and ninety minutes. For them, movies are amusements, not art, and carry the same spiritual currency as roller coasters, slot machines, and McDonald's burger sauces.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. We cineastes may bristle at the idea of such low-brow randomness the way Catholics sneer at cell phones in church. But these people are the movie industry's lifeblood, the ones who make multi-million-dollar opening weekends possible. With that in mind, let's look at The Transporter Refueled, a McMixing of McElements from an action franchise hoping to make a comeback after being yanked from the menu in 2008.

It's unclear how or if director Camille Delamarre's movie fits into the Transporter universe. Is it a prequel to the 2002 original? Probably not, since it takes place in 2010, at least that's what the movie's math tells me--even though our hero, Frank Martin (Ed Skrein), drives the new-model Audi, and femme fatale Anna (Loan Chabanol) talks to people on an iPhone 6.

Is it an alternate-universe take on the material? Possibly. Jason Statham originated the "Transporter" role, playing a character named Frank Martin, who makes huge sums of money delivering questionable packages and not asking questions. Skrein also plays a character named Frank Martin, but he's not even as old as Statham was in the first film.

This time out, Frank has a reluctant companion, his retired-British-spy father (Ray Stevenson). He's also named Frank Martin. He's too old to be the elderly version of Statham, though, since Refueled ostensibly takes place only eight years after Transporter 1.

In our fast food analogy, these questions are akin to asking if the creatures in my burger combo were grass-fed before becoming pink slime.

It's clear that the screenwriters (including Adam Cooper, series co-creator Luc Besson, and a guy who's name is, fittingly, Bill Collage) don't care about continuity. They know their audience doesn't, either. Transporter fans pay to see ninety-minute Audi commercials, with a shaved-headed guy in a black suit beating the crap out of vaguely European pimps. The movie delivers that in spades, but we've seen it all before.

I skipped the second and third installments because the first Transporter helped make Statham the kind of international action star who comes out with seventeen identical movies a year. The three things that keep The Transporter Refueled from being a complete rip-off (of, basically, itself) are a comparatively strong cast of rebel-prostitute characters; some really impressive slow-motion cinematography of equally cool practical stunts; and the father/son relationship that lends Refueled some uncharacteristic heart.

Of course, the street-walkers-taking-down-organized-crime bit was done better in Sin City. The car stunts lose a some believability when one considers that the beautiful Audi doesn't get so much as dinged (though it does take an orgiastic slow-mo jaunt through a ring of busted fire hydrants that would make porn producers blush). And the Dad/Junior banter is straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

But it works. I don't know if Refueled marks the beginning of a new series, or the death of an old one, but there's definitely something in Skrein and Stevenson's exchanges that makes the film hard to dismiss. Skrein may look like a smoldering cologne model, but he's got presence, and doesn't just build a Statham homage (the characterizations are so different, in fact, as to blow my continuity musings out of the water).

If the producers are smart, they'll take The Transporter to Netflix. I would love to see a thirteen-episode, job-of-the-week series whose main thrust is Frank and Frank driving places and having flashbacks to top-secret adventures. No mysterious bank ledgers needed. No mountaintop fisticuffs with the vanilla villain (vanillain?) from Die Hard 5. Just a boy and his regimes-toppling dad having some laughs while zipping through the French countryside on their way to some illicit, lucrative gig.

I wouldn't leave the house for The Transporter Refueled. But I'd definitely order in.

Friday
Sep042015

Queen of Earth (2015)

The Madness of Queen Catherine

Queen of Earth isn't a horror movie in the strictest sense, but it's unsettling in ways that most genre films would kill to achieve. Alex Ross Perry's latest film is haunting, hard to watch, and nearly impossible to describe without giving things away.

Following a nasty breakup and her father's suicide, Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) retreats to her best friend's parent's cabin for a week of crying, coping, and recovery. Virginia (Katherine Waterston) does her best to be supportive, but there's something "off" about Catherine's grief, signs that she may have much deeper psychological problems. As the days wear on, conversations become pointed and downright antagonistic--especially with the arrival of an attractive but almost preternaturally callous neighbor named Rich (Patrick Fugit). Perry cuts between two awkward social threesomes: Catherine's present-day grief retreat and a weekend from the summer before, when she and her domineering ex-boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) played house opposite a recently single Virginia.

I spoke with Perry after seeing the film, which he described as a self-imposed challenge. He wanted to break from the indie comedies that made him famous and go exploring with his collaborators outside their comfort zones. The result feels strikingly deliberate. Queen of Earth plays like an art-house homage to early 80s slashers or possession pictures, without relying on gimmicks to see it through. Considering how much I disliked Perry's previous film, Listen Up Philip (and the reasons I disliked it), I half expected Queen of Earth to be a snarky, self-absorbed exercise masquerading as a commentary on "cheesy" horror movies. 

This isn't that. This is a drama about how unexpressed feelings can drive us mad, especially if they go unexpressed with those we're allegedly close with. It's also a harsh critique of a culture that prizes pithiness over sincerity, and the demeaning cycle of uninformed, headlines-only criticism that can tip the balance of a mind that's timid and riddled with self-doubt to begin with.

Thankfully, Perry builds a case for these themes by dissolving his idyllic, wooded atmosphere gradually, narrowing the scope from expansive lake and tree shots to the confining, carnival-mirror horrors of Catherine's room. Keegan DeWitt's score is the film's unsung hero, providing a kind of soul-shaking jump-scare motif that doesn't hit the audience over the head so much as stab it in the base of the skull.

I don't mean to make Queen of Earth sound exploitive. Perry succeeds in his challenge not by replicating things he thinks will resonate with genre fans, but by extrapolating the elements that make those films effective and wringing out their done-to-death trappings. We all know precisely how Catherine's final encounter with Rich will play out--right until it doesn't. Perry follows up this momentary surprise with a beat that would have led to a "thrilling", bloody climax in a lesser picture, and instead leaves us wondering just what the hell is going on (placing us squarely in the shoes of the cabin's occupants).

These subverted expectations aren't just twists, they're well-earned payoffs to a film that asks us to look past surface concerns and question just how much we know about ourselves and our friends. Catherine is an artist who spends a good portion of the film drawing Virginia's portrait. Perry brings us into the mindset of someone struggling to capture a subject's essence, rather than just features. He lingers on Moss and Waterston's beautiful (and, more importantly, interesting) faces during an extended discussion about past boyfriends. We absorb their body language on an intimate level. We sit up in attention at the scene's subtext in ways that the characters having the conversation do not. We are free to see these warning signs, but become trapped in details of personality that elicit a kind of "Don't go in that room!" response.

Queen of Earth feels like it's on uneven footing at times, as Perry toys with our understanding of his character's reality, their understanding of their own reality, and reality's understanding of his characters. It all makes sense in the end, though, and I would recommend this as a repeat-viewing experience if the resolution were not so awful to consider. That's some of the highest praise I can give a film like this. It's so good, I may never want to see it again.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Ghostbusty: A Ghostbusters Burlesque (2015)

Puft Pasties

In the three years since I began writing about Gorilla Tango Burlesque’s black-box-theatre pop parodies, I haven't found a reason to negatively review one of their shows. The Law of Total Probability suggests that such a streak is unlikely, especially when the person writing the critiques is no stranger to spinning nitpicks into all-out assaults on the art form.* To anyone tired of reading my rosy, ecstatic endorsements of shows with titles like Holy Bouncing Boobies and Game of Thongs: please try back another time.

The company’s latest, Ghostbusty: A Ghostbusters Burlesque is another top-notch, hilarious re-imagining of a geek staple as a silly and sensuous all-female dance show.

Writer Jeremy Eden runs the familiar story of New Yorkers-turned-monster-hunters through an R-rated, Mad Magazine filter. The result is an obsessively detailed, ultra-modern take on Ivan Reitman’s 1984 blockbuster. Sure, the numerous nearly-nude dance numbers are great, but there’s really heady stuff in the details,  like Eden’s assertion that smarmy EPA worker Walter Peck (Jean Wildest) might have been a misunderstood good guy, and an utterly ingenious take on the ghost-containment-unit breakout that pushes the boundaries of what can be done in GTB’s small performance space.

This evolution was my biggest takeaway from Ghostbusty. It’s become increasingly difficult to think of GTB’s aesthetics as “charming”. The props, costumes, and lighting effects have evolved from a kooky cardboard Batmobile zooming around in circles to a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rigged to wither and fade under an assault from nuclear proton blasts. There aren’t any explosions on stage, of course, but a bizarre dance between Ghostbuster marionettes and a dancer outfitted with white balloons (which are filled with smaller balloons)—all set to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball--make for a truly surreal scene that transcends mere low-budget homage.**

I can’t be sure, of course, but it seems to me that this rolling sophistication has carried over into the performances as well. In particular, I was quite surprised by Bailey Irish, whose comedic work I’ve admired in previous shows. Here, she pulls double-duty as no-nonsense secretary Janine and as evil ancient god Gozer. In the latter role, aided by a slick outfit from costume designer Andrea Berting and some fierce hair and makeup,*** Irish actually looked possessed when she emerged on stage. In the same way Reitman and actress Slavitza Jovan created a genuinely unsettling character that enhanced their film’s comedy, Bailey commits to Gozer as an ultra serious presence who must contend with a quartet of affable cartoon idiots.

As for the Ghostbusters themselves, it’s hard to top Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson, but Royal T, Rosie Roche, A Myth Ist, and Cách Monet do a boisterous, bang-up job. Eden and director Liz Istrata help balance out these Level 11 performances by shifting focus between the main cast and a handful of low-key supporting roles. In particular, Louis Tully’s (Carolina Reaper) brief monologue about his kick-ass party offers a break in the action as well as a surprising bit of audience incorporation (yes, I meant “incorporation” as opposed to “interaction”).

You may have heard that Paul Feig’s female-led Ghostbusters reboot will hit theatres next year. You may have also heard the predictable Internet backlash that followed the announcement. I have no idea whether that film will hold a candle to the original, or if it’s just a brand-driven, gender-swapped cash grab in the making. I do know that Gorilla Tango Burlesque has already beaten Feig to the punch, in a manner of speaking, and that the creators’ reverence for the series is exactly what diehard fans deserve.

*For new readers, “the art form” is typically movies.

**I recommend getting a front-row or elevated seat, especially for the climax. Those puppets are awfully hard to see from the middle section.

***It turns out all the performers created their individual hair and makeup looks for the show, with input from Berting.

Monday
Aug312015

Back to School (1986)

Trumped-up Melon

"When logic fails, don't lose your head. You just turn to me instead. Hold on, baby, now here we go back to school."

--Jude Cole, Back to School

Last week, J. Matthew Turner's video thesis "The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully" became a minor Internet sensation. Yes, many have pointed out that How I Met Your Mother covered similar territory years ago, but the sitcom didn't do as deep a dive into the sociopathy of beloved 80s icon Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as Turner did. It's not so much an amusing piece as a head-scratching one, an off-angle examination of fictitious events that many of us grew up believing were heroic--but which come off as downright creepy when switching sneakers with the "villain".

Coincidentally, I revisited Back to School a few nights ago, thanks to a rabbit hole of nostalgia that began with my son starting kindergarten and ended with an earworm of Jude Cole's title song. I hadn't watched the movie in twenty years, but it was such a childhood staple that random scenes still pop to mind like the Triple Dent Gum commercial from Inside Out. As it turns out, I really didn't know Back to School at all, and that Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon character--once a hilariously flippant idol--has a lot in common with people I've grown to despise.

There's a lot to love about Alan Metter's film. A clever twist on the prevalent snobs-versus-slobs comedies that dominated the 80s, Back to School tweaks convention by making its chief institution-thwarting screw-up a wealthy businessman. Food-and-fun-obsessed Thornton Melon gained national prominence with a chain of "Tall & Fat" stores, and has parlayed his success into other ventures such as real estate and toys ("Melon Patch Kids are not adopted--they're abandoned!"). On the down side, Thornton must contend with a cheating second wife, an estranged son who's away at college, and an endless rotation of dinner parties attended by well-to-do stiffs who likely cannot relate to his own humble beginnings.

One evening, Thornton snaps and heads to the fictitious, picturesque Grand Lakes University. On arrival, he learns that his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) is not the star swimmer or ace academic he'd been led to believe. The out-of-place teen is one the verge of dropping out, in fact, when his father decides the best way to help is to enroll in the school. Thornton's boisterous, cavalier, say-what-comes-to-mind demeanor makes him an instant success among the students The faculty are divided between those who appreciate a shaking up of stuffy tradition (Sally Kellerman's hip Lit professor, Diane Turner), and those who believe stuffy tradition must be maintained at all costs (Paxton Whitehead's Economics professor, Philip Barbay).

Barbay's protestations to the Dean (Ned Beatty) are drowned out just as surely as the subplot involving Jason's journey from bullied towel boy to dream-chasing ladies'-man. This is Thornton's show, through and through. Yes, Jason gets up the nerve to ask out Brainy Babe on Campus, Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), and also to confront snooty swim team captain Chaz (William Zabka, also the ostensible heavy from The Karate Kid's), but these scenes feels like commercial breaks in a standup special.

And don't look too close at this love triangle, or you'll find it obtuse: maybe I've been jaded by age, but I can't understand what Valerie sees in Chaz, what Chaz sees in Valerie, or why Jason sees either as an intimidating force--aside from purely superficial concerns (Sweet, Hot Girl; Mean, Buff Guy; Scrawny Nerd). The actors do quite well with the limited material, but that material feels less integral than it does like mass-appeal desperation.

The problem with handing the show over to Dangerfield is that Thornton Melon isn't the easiest protagonist to get behind. His intentions may be noble, but his actions are indistinguishable from the kind of person Chaz might grow into if he ever develops a sense of humor. His entitlement compels him to not only buy an unearned Grand Lakes admission, but to disrupt every single class with jokes and tirades about how his teachers know nothing of the real world. He enlists his driver/bodyguard, Lou (Burt Young), to create a diversion during Registration Day so that he and his son can get first pick of their classes.* Melon also recruits the local police to bring cases of beer to his raucous campus party (which, I'm sure, had a strict ID-checking apparatus in place) and hires professional scientists, astrophysicists, and Kurt Vonnegut himself to write all of his papers.

Melon's casual corruption naturally creeps into the behavior of those around him, even muddying Grand Lakes' victory during the film's climactic swim meet. When Chaz fakes an injury to torpedo his own team's chances of winning, the coach (M. Emmet Walsh) enlists Thornton to compete in his place. In addition to being a successful businessman, Melon was once a professional diver--a fact the coach doesn't mention to the judges when lying about having misplaced the form with his alternate's information. I'm pretty sure that enlisting a seasoned pro to rig a college sporting event is a bad guys' tactic. Is there any doubt Thornton (or at least Jason) would have called "bullshit" if the rival school had pulled the same stunt?

Taken by themselves, these episodes are very funny, but as a whole, they speak to a warped culture of influence that I'm not sure Thornton would (or could) endorse if his own actions were laid out before him. He constantly tells Jason (as his father often told him) that, "in life, you can do anything you wanna do"--unless, Back to School subconsciously tells us, your interests don't align with wisecracking rich guys whose popularity hinges on buying everyone textbooks and booze.

Thank God for Sally Kellerman. Her Professor Turner is the key to helping Thornton understand that there's more to life than cheating and skirting inconvenient responsibilities. She's also one of the few characters who stands up to Thornton,** though her free-spirit demeanor becomes a tad questionable later in the film. She's dating Philip, you see, before Thornton shows up. She's so taken by his wit and charisma that she stands her boyfriend up to spend the night with Thornton. Thanks to screenplay conventions, she becomes indignant when finding Thornton in a hot tub full of girls, and then take him back when he professes...whatever comes closest to love in his mind.

The other Internet sensation that Back to School reminded me of last week was Presidential hopeful and walking 80s hangover Donald Trump. Brash, opinionated, and concerned only with his own (huge, fantastic, amazing) orbit, it's hard to accept him as anything but a cartoon character--a very wealthy and entitled cartoon character. He's an aspirational figure, for sure, appealing to the poor who want his opportunities and to the rich who want their opportunities protected from the poor at all costs. He's Thornton Melon, minus the jokes and zero-hour self-awareness.

*Lou also throws the first punch in a bar brawl that sees him beating the crap out of the football team--a fight, it should be noticed, that started when one of Jason's friends doused everyone at the pep rally in green paint.

**And the only female character whom the film draws with a fine-haired brush. Valerie is a passive love object, and the others are scantily clad coeds--one of whom Thornton accidentally encounters in the shower. She's understandably terrified of the leering old man poking around her sorority house, and I'd wager that dread is compounded when, after jokingly apologizing for his error, he pops his head back in the stall and yells, "You're perfect!"