09 November 2015

What Makes Bone Tomahawk So Unsettling?: Review

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler
Full cast and crew at IMDb

This solid little Western–horror hybrid is practically science-fiction, turning the wild American west into alien terrain populated by inconceivable monsters. The plot is simple: two men and a woman are taken from a peaceful town by a mysterious native, and a quartet of white men take after him. As such, the movie resurrects hoary tropes of the savage Injun, though it clearly states that the Indians don’t even consider this particular tribe, which has no name because its members cannot speak, to be Indian. They’re something else, something unspeakable. 

So, don’t expect a movie that deals well, or at all really, with the problems of American history; it tries to riggle out of them. Expect instead satisfying storytelling, a movie that takes its time, allowing for digressions and jokes and slow tempos, all of which intensify the audience’s relationships to the characters, making the gruesome climax more affecting: you care about whether these men live or die. It helps too that they’re played by excellent actors: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox, the latter of which is the weakest of the bunch, because his voice is too high-pitched for the masculine gravitas of the Wild West, which this movie reinforces through Russell’s gruff tone and magnificent facial hair.

But it’s not these men that stand out, really. The movie reminded me of the end of Valhalla Rising, re-creating the mystery and terror of being a colonizer facing the indigenous population, of the inherent violence of the situation. I don't mean that the settlers deserve our sympathy and the Native Americans don't, just that it’s exciting to witness the real fear the former lived with: the vulnerability of desert-black nights or horseless days, the way a modest wound could kill you, the sudden unexpected thwap of an arrow or ghostly arrival of a tomahawk-bearing enemy or a stranger in your camp. 

But it's not even such tension that stands out, either. What has stayed with me from Bone Tomahawk is the men/monsters writer-director(-novelist-musician) Zahler has created: chalky bodies, howling like T-Rexes, cutting humans in half (starting at the crotch) with the title implement and feasting on the flesh—igniting the imagination with its horrors of the wild continent. These cannibals are terrifying—all the more so because they live not in outer space but in the United States.

03 September 2015

Queen of Earth, A Hipster Movie

Queen of Earth
Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry
Full credits at IMDb

The defining aesthetic of the hipster is the cooption of what’s come before, whether it’s their parents' suburban kitsch or fringed leather, Ray-bans, whatever. They have no culture of their own, which is why they can be vegans or barbecue fanatics, long-haired or short-, hip-hop or classic rock, a mashup of everything or anything. In that regard, and I don’t mean this with easy dismissal, Queen of Earth feels like intrinsically hipster cinema: it puts a modern spin on old tropes without quite changing them—that is, it looks a little different, but doesn’t say anything too different.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before. I mean, a few influences conspicuously pervade Queen of Earth: Persona, with two women of contrasting hair hues spending time together at a remote lakeside home; and Repulsion, with a woman’s unraveling sanity and the blurring of the lines between reality and nightmare. But, no, I mean literally, too. Is the shot of the ceiling fan just too Twin Peaks? Is Keegan DeWitt’s truly creepy score just too Anton Webern? Is there something about the camerawork that too closely follows Martha Marcy May Marlene's? (Or am I thinking of Silent House?)

At a certain point, I gave up. Perry’s influences are all over his fourth feature, not obscured at all, but the movie doesn’t necessarily feel derivative—at least, not tiresomely. It’s exciting: the mood he sustains with music, and Sean Price Williams's camera movement and composition, is compelling, but mostly it’s the actors, by which I really just mean the lead, Elisabeth Moss. (Everyone else is fine, but they feel like planets revolving around her star.)

While her former costars Jon Hamm and John Slattery have used their newfound superstardom post-Mad Men to goof off in silly comedies (most recently in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel, not that there’s anything wrong with that), Moss has spent it performing stripped-down on Broadway or in experimental indie fare like this, Listen Up Philip, The One I Love, becoming her old cast’s most Serious Performer. She’s riveting here, and Perry likes to let the camera move in close to her face to watch. She’s the least hipster thing about the movie: it doesn’t feel like you’ve seen it before, and definitely not in this way. It has the legitimate excitement of the new.

27 August 2015

The Phony Social Relevance of Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Full cast and crew at IMDb

You can live your life, make your art, in two ways: in service to yourself, or in service to something larger than you, like a community. For the first half of Straight Outta Compton, a feature-length advertisement masquerading as American political history, the boys who form NWA choose the latter; the screenplay, by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (from a story by a few others), posits the members' early singles and the group's debut album as reflections of and responses to the conditions of police oppression—it’s not just their own lives in Compton that their music describes, but the life of the city, which is by no means unique to the place or the time: many people did and will relate to the persistent harassment of law enforcement, which speaks both to the success of the film and the success of the music 25 years ago. “Fuck Tha Police” becomes in the film a rousing anthem, the culmination of their simmering anger and resentment at injustice.

So does giving voice to the voiceless continue to provide success for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and the rest of the characters? Not really: pretty quickly they abandon the realities of ghetto life for luxe pool parties and spacious recording studios, arguing about contracts and cuts of royalties, pressing records about whether MC Ren or Ice Cube writes better rhymes, smashing up corner offices with baseball bats. When the Rodney King video surfaces, and riots break out when the officers involved are acquitted, it feels totally perfunctory: sure, everyone in the group expresses disbelief as they watch it go down on television, but they don’t create memorable music in response; there's no "Fuck Tha Police II," more resonant than the original. Director F. Gary Gray shows members of the group driving in slow motion through the carnage, but it’s risible; it feels like a lazy way to force gravitas onto a section of the film that lacks it. (The same way all the quiet dramatic scenes have a little sad music by Joseph Trapanese behind them.)

In fact, the movie left me skeptical about whether it’s historically accurate to depict NWA as social-justice warriors, or if the film’s producers (which include Ice Cube and Dr. Dre!) recognized that, given what’s happening in the country at least since Trayvon Martin, there was money to be made from a mainstream film that seemed to address the inequities of modern policework. As one Flavorwire headline put it, in response to observers’ surprise regarding the film’s first-week success, “‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is Only a ‘Surprise Hit’ If You Aren’t Paying Attention.’” But the artists’ careers don’t seem to follow this arc. Ice Cube (played in the film by his son) and Dr. Dre became savvy businessmen, able to parlay their experience and resulting credibility into movie production and headphone sales, even to foster the career of a talent like Eminem—who rapped about himself without ever tapping into the country’s sociopolitical veins. The end credits are a a celebration of the money made by the two surviving stars of NWA, the ones who produced the movie, and the final word of spoken dialogue is, “Aftermath,” the name of Dr. Dre’s record label. Straight Outta Compton isn’t a movie about the social realities of growing up south of Los Angeles—it’s about the commercial success of two guys and their friends, whose stuff you can buy on your way out of the theater.