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Thursday
Mar222012

Battle Royale (2000)

Wasted Youth

Imagine a totalitarian government that, aided by the media, forces randomly selected teenagers to compete in a harrowing fight to the death. Fans of The Hunger Games novels may be disappointed that this is not an early review of the new movie adaptation, but rather of Battle Royale--a controversial Japanese film that came out nearly ten years before book one was published.

I'm not here to argue my belief or non-belief of Suzanne Collins' claims that she'd never heard of Battle Royale before writing her wildly successful kid-lit opus--that will happen tomorrow, after I see The Hunger Games. Regardless, director Kinji Fukasaku and writer Koushun Takami's film (based on Kenta Fuasaku's book) is distinctly powerful and original in its own right. The decade-plus since its release has seen rampant speculation about an American remake--speculation always followed by head-shaking insistence that no mainstream studio would dare to go as far as the original.

At the turn of the century, we're told, Japan experienced a violent outbreak of teenage rebellion that led the government to pass the Millennium Education Reform Act. Under this law,several times a year, a class of high school students is randomly drugged, transported to a remote island, and then revived in order to participate in "Battle Royale".

They are provided backpacks stocked with food, water, a map, and a weapon--the effectiveness of which is not always apparent (a pot lid, for example, might seem pathetic compared to an uzi, until desperation and imagination kick in). At the end of three days, only one person can remain standing. Otherwise, the explosive collars with which everyone in the group has been outfitted will detonate. To keep the action moving, the island has been split into zones that emit signals to the collars during certain times of day. This prevents the children from simply waiting out the action or seeking a means of escape.

Battle Royale features a class comprised of forty-two students, many of whom recognize the man administering their collective torture: Kitano-sensi (Takeshi Kitano), a former teacher who resigned years earlier after having been stabbed outside of class. He watches them with the cool, distant stare of a zoo janitor, while cruelly barking out inspirational phrases over the island's many loudspeakers ("Go for it!").

The film tells many of the kids' stories through vignettes ranging from ten-second flashbacks to several sub-plots peppered throughout the long weekend. Mostly, it centers on Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), two friends who we know will eventually fall in love. Spinning out from there is a web comprised of his crowd and her crowd, plus their mutual enemies and their enemies' enemies--amping up the already magnified world of teenage drama and petty differences to epically lethal proportions.

It's a child-centric story, for sure, but don't mistake Battle Royale for the kind of movie where spunky, resourceful kids band together to defeat the bad guys. No, this film is a brilliant study in human behavior, particularly youth behavior. The movie's deaths are often sudden and shocking because the actors all look like they were picked from a real high school assembly. Many get picked off early on due either to clumsiness or not understanding how high the stakes really are. Others succumb to despair and exit the game early, of their own accord. Still others use Battle Royale as an excuse to get revenge for past wrongs and turn into far-from-expert, wannabe killing machines. If it weren't for the inclusion of two older boys--outsiders who'd survived previous battles--I don't know that anyone would have been left of this lot.

Ah, yes, the older kids. Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) survived a previous challenge and was recruited again to compete against students three years his junior. He befriends Shuya and Noriko as a sort of badass Han Solo; mostly, he helps them stear clear of the other older boy, Kazuo (Masanobu Ando), a psychopath who volunteered for the games so he could execute people. His status as the island's most dangerous hunter is rivaled only by Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki), though both of them share an appetite for blood that far outmatches their skills--Kazuo never learns to properly fire his machine gun, choosing to let stray bullets do most of the damage.

But I digress, sort of. Battle Royale takes the premise of teens killing each other as a form of discipline and population control to all the great, bleak conclusions the premise implies. Sure, it gets a bit goofy towards the end, as Kitano goes off the rails and professes what may or may not be inappropriate affection for Noriko--but his character stands as a great warning to both teens and adults. His is a tragic story of an educator betrayed by his students who gives up and runs in the totally opposite direction: if you can't beat 'em, give 'em weapons and a deadline. I also love his opening speech, in which he essentially lays out information that any one of the kids could have discovered had they paid attention to the wider world around them.

Battle Royale is the reason I have huge problems with most American movies aimed at teen audiences. Actually, my problem isn't with the teens--they are, after all, who Harry Potter is made for. No, I take issue with the adults who defend such things as entertaining, dark filmmaking. When someone tries to convince me how heavy the drama is in, say, The Deathly Hallows Part Two, I wonder what their reaction would be to seeing Hermione Granger stumble out of the enchanted woods with an arrow through her neck. Now, that's heavy drama!

I'm not suggesting that every film aimed at kids feature dismemberment and betrayal, but there's a big difference between movies made about children and movies made for children. If you're going to suggest that I give a story about pubescents legit consideration, at the very least I'd appreciate some emotional honesty and a conflict whose resolution can't be guessed by looking at the poster or release schedule. If you're truly hungry for a smart, gripping coming-of-age story with a sick sense of humor and a sicker body count, you can't beat Battle Royale.

Tuesday
Mar202012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)

Wish and Make a Foundation

I've spent a lot of time in toy aisles the last couple of years, but even before I had a kid, I couldn't stand Elmo. To me, he was the pinnacle of empty but eerily effective marketing ploys: a furry, red sock with big, dumb eyes and a small, dumb vocabulary. His squeaky voice seemed to emit a high-frequency call to parents, who trampled each other for the privilege of spending a day's wages on supporting the Muppet's latest addiction--be it starting a rock band or cultivating a tickle fetish.

After watching Constance Marks' superb documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey--about the inspiring career of Elmo's alter ego, Kevin Clash--I'll never look at any Muppet the same way again. 

Marks and writers Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein build a surprising and very compelling narrative from the get-go. Clash was a shy kid growing up in lower-class Baltimore, surrounded by siblings and other children from the daycare his mother ran. He fell in love with a new TV show called Sesame Street when two characters named Bert and Ernie broke the fourth wall and addressed him directly as their new, special friend. From that moment, Clash was hooked on puppets. His first creation was Mundo the Monkey--which he fashioned from his father's trench coat.

Rather than getting upset, his parents encouraged him to pursue his dream--not only as a way of getting out of Baltimore, but of breaking free of his shell. Years later, after he became a world-famous puppeteer working alongside the likes of mentors Jim Henson and Frank Oz, his colleagues remarked that Clash's true personality only came out when he was pretending to be the myriad characters he'd created over the decades.

In everyday life, Clash comes off as a quiet guy who's extremely confident in his craft. On a trip to help launch the French incarnation of Sesame Street, his passion manifests as slightly unnerved impatience (if you can imagine such a thing); he works closely with puppeteers to define the body language of their characters, not only through subtle hand gestures but also by having them examine their own bodies at rest (if a person's mouth hangs open when they're not moving, he observes, they look strange; a puppet, though, looks like it's smiling).

This dedication and a seemingly innate agreeability propelled Clash from dreaming about working on Sesame Street to landing a job on a local children's television show. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he landed work on two television series (one of them being Captain Kangaroo, another favorite) and got an offer from Henson to work on The Dark Crystal.

Much of Being Elmo doesn't concern Elmo at all. The filmmakers focus on Henson's vision for children's programming and how that changed the destiny of one child. Elmo pops up here and there, but it isn't until the last act that we learn of the character's origin and Clash's role in redefining him. This is the more bitter of the two whirlwinds that defined the artist's life: once Elmo becomes the ubiquitous, insanely popular go-to Muppet, Clash's schedule goes into overdrive. He travels the world, appearing on talk shows, premieres and celebrity events. Clash insists that no one else operate (sorry, "be") Elmo except for him.

This takes a toll on his family life, leading to a strained relationship with his daughter. It's here that the big problems with Being Elmo manifest. I realize I opened my review by calling the movie "superb", and what we're presented with really is. But this feels like half a movie. By the time I thought to ask myself if Clash ever married or had kids, his divorce was being mentioned in passing. Not a word is spoken on the topic of why his marriage fell apart; we can assume it had to do with his creative obsessions and insane schedule, but the ex-wife is never interviewed, and the daughter remains mum (if she was even asked those questions).

Clash begins the film describing himself as a "private person", but it is the job of the documentarian to open up their subjects and give the audience a reason to care. We get a taste of this when Clash talks about the difficulties of appearing in front of children his daughter's age, but there's a key element of his personality that's noticeably absent from the movie.

It raises the question of manipulation, the seed of which is planted in an earlier chapter chronicling his teenage trip to New York. When Clash ditches a senior class trip to visit the workshop of Henson's number two, Kermit Love, anyone familiar with reality television will immediately notice that their encounter has been conspicuously recorded for television--and this was the late 1970s. Shortly thereafter, we hear the story of how Love introduced Clash to Henson at a party. The puppet moguls were excited because Henson "didn't have any black puppeteers."*

This is another fascinating tangent that's just left flapping in the breeze. It feels as though Marks and company wanted to keep things upbeat, touching, and moving along--which is fine, but, dammit, don't tease me with this sinister "B" story and then jingle keys in front of my face. Speaking of distractions, I would have loved to have heard Clash's thoughts on what Elmo's commercialization meant to him; did he have any conflicted feelings about the "Tickle Me Elmo" riots? His greatest contribution to the controversy was to remark that Elmo would never refer to himself as "Me".

Perhaps I digress. Perhaps not.

I don't mean to hate on the movie. I love Being Elmo so much that I wish there was more of it. When Clash pays his success forward by inviting a young puppet enthusiast he'd heard about to his studio, I got a bit weepy--as I did when Elmo greeted the family of a little girl dying of cancer on the Sesame Street set. This movie is a perfect illustration-by-contrast of everything that was crass, commercial, and boring about the recent Muppets movie. Marks, Shane, and Weinstein not only explain why the Muppets are important (yes, I said "important"), they show it, too--rather than indulging in an hour-and-a-half of name-brand nostalgia.

The movie suggests that these lovable creatures are educational vessels as well as therapeutic outlets for the people that make and operate them. It's a heavy idea to consider, but the title is a bit disingenuous. I still don't know what it means to "Be Elmo" or, for that matter, Kevin Clash.

*Today's review is brought to you by the letters "Q", "U", "O", "T", and "A".

Sunday
Mar182012

21 Jump Street (2012)

Brothers Undercover

21 Jump Street is fucking awesome. There are other ways to describe it, but none are better. The comedic, big-screen re-imagining of the 1980s cop drama gleefully rolls around in filth and recycled plot devices with the carefree abandon of a really smart teenager tripping on mushrooms.

My dream double-bill of Chronicle and Project X has now become a triple-feature, with screenwriter Michael Bacall's astutely observed, hilarious take on modern high-schoolers serving as a perfect capper. I was skeptical as hell to learn that he and star Jonah Hill had teamed up to remake Jump Street as a comedy--especially since Bacall was partially responsible for the hipster misfire Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and the film's Great Big Idea was to cast Channing Tatum as one of the leads. But like the other two films I mentioned, this one surprised the hell out of me with its wit, invention, and big, beating heart.

Tatum and Hill star as officers Jenko and Schmidt, respectively. Seven years ago, Jenko was a high school big shot who loved to harass the overweight, Eminem-loving Schmidt. Flash forward to the two attending the police academy together, and bonding over helping each other overcome their various weaknesses: Jenko is a meat-head who can't memorize the Miranda Warning to save his life ("They always cut away before the cop finishes on TV."), and Schmidt needs a no-nonsense personal trainer to get through the program's brutal obstacle courses.

Upon graduation, they are assigned to patrolling a local park on bicycles. Following what they believe will be a career-defining bust of a biker gang called The One-Percenters, they are reassigned to the Jump Street Program. Run by the cranky, foul-mouthed Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), the unit is comprised of youthful-looking undercover cops who infiltrate schools to fight crime. Jenko and Schmidt are given new identities as brothers and tasked with tracking down the dealers and supplier of a new drug called HFS--the stages of which are beautifully illustrated via comic interstitials and some of the craziest tripping montages I've seen in a mainstream movie.

You've sat through this film before, innumerable times. It's been called Hiding Out, Plain Clothes, and most recently, Never Been Kissed.* The gag is that adults return to high school only to find it overrun by weird animals that they can't relate to anymore. 21 Jump Street twists this slightly by populating Jenko and Schmidt's new world with globally conscious, intelligent teens who think bullying is uncool and studying really hard is sexy. Jenko is completely lost here, but Schmidt rises to the top of the class by being a lovable geek. He gets in good with Eric (Dave Franco), who turns out to be the school's drug kingpin, while Jenko finds refuge in the company of science nerds; they turn out to be better partners than his actual one, who's fallen for Eric's girlfriend (Brie Larson) and now dreams of getting into college.

Unfortunately, the film slips into a thirty-minute dead zone towards the middle of act two. It's still funny (mostly), but Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller seem to lose confidence in the bold direction the first part of their movie was headed in. Despite an effort to turn action/undercover-agent conventions on their heads, Jump Street ends up relying on them as crutches--possibly to keep anyone in the audience from getting lost.

For example, a terrific freeway chase scene puts lie to most of the junk science of big, action-movie explosions, with several near-catastrophes fizzling out, where one might expect to see five-story fireballs. It's a terrific idea, but the filmmakers fall back on the Rule of Three rather quickly--meaning that the third near-catastrophe actually ends in a crazy blaze. Instead of sticking to their absurdist guns, Bacall and company push the bit too far, creating a dreary five-minute lead-up to an inevitable conclusion.

The same can be said for the entirety of Schmidt's love story. It is completely without twist or commentary, meaning there's nothing at all to appreciate or anticipate. Hill's chemistry with Larson is alright, even cute, but it belongs in a far more earnest movie than this meta-farce. I'm not even opposed to a love story in a picture like this, but it should at least live up to the out-of-the-box thinking that makes everything else so much fun.

There's a lot more to talk about here, but I don't want to ruin any of the surprises. For those of you wondering about the much-rumored cameo: it's true, and is a far more effective appearance than Bill Murray's over-hyped and underwhelming turn in Zombieland. What's so great is that Bacall stacks one revelation on top of another, on top of another, on top of another, until what should have been a disposable joke becomes not only the literal death of the old franchise, but also the thread that holds the new one together.

Oh, yes, the filmmakers leave the door swinging shamelessly wide open for a sequel. I don't know how I feel about that. I'd much rather this crew slyly tackle other material. Can you imagine Small Wonder in IMAX 3D? How about Alf by way of Prometheus, or a grim-'n-gritty Barney Miller?

I'm getting way ahead of myself.

Regardless of how you feel about remakes, Channing Tatum,** or the original 21 Jump Street, you owe it to yourself as a fan of outrageous so-dumb-they're-smart comedies to give this one a chance. That's assuming you're a fan of those movies to begin with. If you're not, I highly recommend this film anyway. It's a cheaper than drugs, and the high will likely stay with you long after the experience is over.

*There's probably a more recent example than a thirteen-year-old movie (!), but I can't come up with one at the moment.

**I'd like to formally apologize to the actor for recently having referred to him as being, "often stilted and unconfident, as if his brain is constipated and words are sharts weakly dribbling from his mouth." He's a real star here, sparring nicely with Hill and making a case for himself as a comedic actor more than a dramatic one.

Saturday
Mar172012

Streets of Fire (1984)

Nostalgia to the Rescue!

Until this morning, I hadn't watched Streets of Fire all the way through since I was a kid. I've seen parts of it--even most of it--over the years. But at some point, the urge to do something else always won out. That's not the greatest recommendation for one of my favorite films, so maybe I should explain further.

Walter Hill's self-described "Rock and Roll Fable" is a bizarre, compelling disaster whose earnestness also make it great. Set in "another time, another place", the movie stars Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, the lead singer of The Attackers. With the cosmic-passion vocals of Bonnie Tyler* and the stylistic sensibilities of Jem (and Bonnie Tyler), she belts out sappy, stardust rock operas like "Tonight is What It Means to Be Young" and "Nowhere Fast" to a sold-out crowd in her hardscrabble hometown of Richmond.

"Nowhere Fast" opens the movie with a pseudo-Shakespearian narrative flair: the lyrics describing a jilted lover who reluctantly returns home to save an old flame from danger effectively summarize the film's plot. As Ellen closes the song with a damn-the-man fist-pump, an army of savage bikers rushes the stage and drags her off into the night. Watching from the streets (which are not yet on fire) is Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the sister of Ellen's ex-boyfriend, Tom (Michael Paré). She fires off a telegram and, within a day, her little brother rides into town.

The meat of the film takes place during one, long night and sees Tom gathering a disparate crew of losers to help him rescue Ellen from the bikers. Among them are Ellen's current boyfriend/manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), a nomadic soldier-for-hire named McCoy (Amy Madigan), and a quartet of black blues singers called The Sorels (two of whom are played by Robert Townsend and Mykelti Williamson). Together, they infiltrate a trashy club and blow up several motorcycles--all leading to a showdown between Tom and the gang's leader, Raven (Willem Dafoe).

You may think the movie I've just described doesn't actually exist. But it does, and is as ridiculous as it sounds. Every scene includes at least one actor (in roles both significant, small, and uniformly weird) who would go on to really big careers: even Ed Begley Jr. and Bill Paxton pop up as an opportunistic homeless man and a goofy bartender, respectively. Half the fun of Streets of Fire is playing "Spot the Celebrity".

The other half is plugging your ears and chanting "La la la la la" for ninety minutes as the actors manage to butcher Hill and co-writer Larry Gross's dialogue while also stumbling over it. It's a toss-up as to whether the writing or the delivery is worse. Each line sounds like something an eight-year-old would dream up for a tough-and-tragic antihero--which is probably why I loved the movie growing up. Today, I can't drink anything while watching Streets of Fire because every word that comes out of these people's mouths compels a spit take.

Only Dafoe makes it out okay, though he can't seem to decide if his character is a Southern good-ol'-boy who got transplanted to the inner city or an androgynous, greaser warlord who's perfectly comfortable wearing nothing under a black, leather apron (making his interest in Ellen Aim seem a little...odd).

So, how can I, in good conscience, highly recommend a movie with terrible acting, a cornball story, and more silly music montages than the average episode of One Tree Hill? Easily. I proudly wear my "loved it as a child" bias on my sleeve, and have come to enjoy the great discomfort with which I shout down the inner voice that tells me how awful everything is.

From an unbiased perspective, there's a lot to admire here. This movie feels like no other movie. Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo bathe everything in watery neon pinks, greens, and oranges. A fine layer of scum smears every frame, like a print of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" dropped in a Detroit sewer.

Tom's climactic fight with Raven is also the stuff of legend. In one of the film's few daylight scenes, the two men square off between rival factions of cops mixed with locals and a horde of motor-criminals. What begins as an odd duel with large, metal hammers ends in a bare-knuckle throwdown that feels as authentic as the dialogue feels phony.

Streets of Fire's real triumph, though, is Tom and Ellen's love story. You'd need a deep-space telescope to locate the actors' chemistry, but their characters' doomed relationship is genuinely touching and surprising, and makes for one of my all-time-favorite good-byes. People with no exposure to the film will no doubt find all of this campy and probably unwatchable. But Hill and company are achingly sincere, and their movie is like the box of epic, teenage love letters one might keep in the basement: full of raw feeling, utterly lacking in perspective, and an embarrassing but crucial reminder of what it means to be young.

*Actually, Fire, Inc. performed the film's key songs--but it's hard not to think of Tyler when Aim takes the stage.

Thursday
Mar152012

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Big, Metal Dick

There's real danger in dismissing a movie for years, sight unseen, and then putting it on when you need a really good laugh. Sometimes, just sometimes, it turns out to be good. In those cases, pride has to go, immediately, making room for objectivity and joy. Had I allowed the Snarkometer to run unchecked during The Slumber Party Massacre, I would've missed out on something truly special.

You might think this review is facetious, but I'm completely sincere. The film surprised the hell out of me by not only holding its own as a fine bit of suspense, but also offering a meta-commentary on the slasher genre.* Sure, it's roughly the five-hundredth high-school-girls-in-nighties-stalked-by-a-killer movie. But it's also one of the elite few that was written and directed by women.

The first twenty minutes are pretty rough going. Rita Mae Brown's script offers little for the not-so-great actors to do except giggle about their parents being away for the evening while sufficiently soaping themselves up after gym class. We meet Diane (Gina Mari), the snobbish queen bee; Trish (Michele Michaels), the girl throwing an impromptu party; and Valerie (Robin Stille), the new girl who is universally hated for her shyness and mad basketball skills. There are other girls, of course, whose status as Inventive Death props makes them entertaining but hardly memorable.

Complicating the girls' night of fun is a recent prison escapee named Russ Thorn (Michael Villela). He was locked up more than a decade earlier for brutally murdering five people, and has set his sights on a fresh batch of local teenagers. During one, long night of terror, he kills them one by one, as well as the horny boys who crash the party...

Sorry. It's rude to nod off in the middle of a plot synopsis, but unless this is literally the first horror movie you've ever seen, I don't need to go on.** What's interesting about The Slumber Party Massacre is how it pushes the notion of the strong, female protagonist much further than predecessors like Alien and Halloween.

The film's vibe is not just pro-woman but also distinctly anti-man. Brown and director Amy Holden Jones paint the male leads are damsels in distress who make stupid and dangerous decisions, and freak out when the time comes to be heroic. There's also the matter of our killer: in a unique change-up, Thorn isn't a masked, shadowy figure, but rather a middle-aged white guy who looks like Billy Bob Thornton wearing an awesome red-t-shirt-and-jeans ensemble. His weapon of choice is not just a ridiculously long drill, but one that is often filmed from a low angle, bearing down on helpless girls like a big, metal dick. Yeah, that's crude, but so is the imagery--which, by the way, makes it no less fun.

The filmmakers' propaganda is effective. As the end credits rolled, I marvelled at how human beings have survived as a species. More than other movies of its kind that I've seen, the guys here are either completely useless or pure, drooling evil; not only did I wonder if women really see men that way, I wondered if the women I know see me that way.***

If you don't care for commentary in your slashers, The Slumber Party Massacre has plenty of chills and (mostly intentional) humor--some are one and the same. The refrigerator scene comes to mind, with Brown and Jones playing a horrific moment for sustained laughs; I also love a later moment in an upstairs bedroom, where two of the survivors have sufficiently barricaded themselves against the killer--except for that pesky, wide-open window.

The movie is not nearly as over-the-top, scary, or funny as my all-time-favorite, ridiculous splatter-fest, Pieces, but the spirit is the same. The cardboard character gain just enough dimension as the story rolls along to make their untimely deaths sting a little, and the setting (a college campus in that film, a suburban street with oddly connected back yards here) keeps the flow of action from getting stale--though Brown and Jones get a lot of mileage out of Trish's garage.

This will, I'm sure, be sacrilege to my fellow horror devotees, but on many levels, I appreciate The Slumber Party Massacre much more than Halloween. If this film had had a Detective Loomis character, it might have been the ultimate 80s bloodbath.

So, yes, I've learned my lesson. I will try to be better about not underestimating movies based on their stupid titles and kitschy poster art. It'll be hard, though, for I am but a man--nature's default idiot. 

*Unlike Scream, which did so fourteen years later, The Slumber Party Massacre simultaneously bucked and indulged in cliches at the height of the genre's popularity.

**If this is your first, please drop me a line and explain WHY?!

***Feel free to protect my feelings, ladies.