Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sherlock Jr.


             Oh Buster Keaton, even though you never do so yourself you always make me smile.  With a deadpan attitude and a near-suicidal knack for physical comedy, Buster Keaton proved to be one of the most inventive film comedians of all time with 1920s output alone.  One of his best and oddest films was Sherlock Jr., a bite-size, crazy, and surreal spy parody.  At 44 minutes, the film is infamously lean for a feature but it perfectly encapsulates Buster Keaton’s brilliance as a comedian, stuntman and technical innovator.
             Sherlock Jr. is about a film projectionist/amateur detective whose life is immediately put in disarray; the guy is broke, the Local Sheik wooed his girlfriend, life sucks for this guy.  Downtrodden, the guy starts sleep in the projector room and then dreams of becoming the silver screen hero Sherlock Jr.! The premise of a film within a film alone reveals how Keaton’s innovative was at the when it came to the cinematic structure of comedy. Gags like Keaton tripping over himself because the film keeps jump-cutting to different sets was something nobody did back then and Keaton aces them like a true professional. Keaton’s style of humor is firmly rooted in vaudeville, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, but unlike Keaton was the first and probably best at translating that style into film with such postmodern detail.
            Sherlock Jr. also shows Keaton near superlative physical commitment and knowledge of performing gags. Keaton was infamous for performing his own life-threatening stunts, including one in this film where he may have broken his neck, yet his deadpan delivery always makes them look so humorous and fun. In Sherlock Jr. Keaton jumps from one eye-popping stunt to the next with the grace of a bumbling magician.  Add to the fact that the Sherlock Jr. is about as a long as a TV drama episode and weird premise the film becomes less of a comedy than a live action cartoon, it is awesome.
            If there is one problem with Keaton is that he himself has a very cold and offbeat presentation. Lloyd was more lighthearted working class hero and Chaplin was a soulful bum; in contrast, Keaton looked like a stuntman that was pompous, confused or tired. He looked like a hipster but even then he had a better grasp at irony than anyone back then and now. Like when Keaton’s character is introduced as “Sherlock Jr.” he absolutely chews the scenery as this ridiculously foppish Sherlock parody in wonderful fashion.  Scenes like this really allow him to play with his deadpan face in order to mock the seemingly more sophisticated ideals of Victorian Melodrama.  Keaton’s offbeat acting style may seem distant but it adds up to some great comedy in this film.
            With Sherlock Jr. Buster Keaton made a powerful and complete statement about his identity as a performer and filmmaker.  He proved himself to be one of the great tinkers in filmmaking by dabbling in meta-filmmaking tricks like jumps cuts and still make a cohesive and hilarious film.  The film also featured some of his most audacious stunts and he executes them at a Looney Tunes pace.  Admittedly, Sherlock Jr. is less a film than it is a showcase for his film experiments and stunt work. Yet by showcasing all of his ideas into this one short film he creates a wonderful and funny starting point for anyone curious enough to watch silent film. It is a short and strange trip that will make anyone laugh and smile.


            (Sherlock Jr. is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Kino Lorber as part of a double feature deal with Keaton’s Three Ages. It is also on Netflix as a standalone.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Blackfish


            As a Florida born brat theme parks like SeaWorld were great for escapist fun. Nowadays, having grown older and lived outside of Florida for most of my life, I have become more aware and weary of the practices of SeaWorld and Blackfish only reinforces those feelings. Ever since its premiere on CNN, Blackfish became less a documentary than it was a news event. When people saw it, they wept. When Sea World rebuke, people hissed. When it was not nominated for an Oscar, people hissed even louder. Blackfish came out a time when I was on hiatus and even then films like 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and The Act of Killing caught more of my interest, putting Blackfish at the bottom of my list. Having now seen the film must say it is an interesting subject that is streamlined to a fault.
            For those you have not heard of Blackfish, the film is about the decades spanning history of abuse of and negligence by SeaWorld, as told from the perspective of former whale trainers with the tragic story of the killer whale Tilikum as a starting point. If there is one thing the film does well is that explains the issues of animal abuse and corruption in a very clear and precise manner. Pretty much everything that could be legally discussed is shown in this film with brutal honesty including the illegal capturing of whales to the injury and deaths of whales and trainers alike.  That being said at 86 minutes the film details seem to be heavily compressed. There is much content that the filmmakers clearly loved they became more worried giving each moment equal than making a cohesive film.
            The stories themselves are fascinating but presentation itself is not daring enough to do them justice. The problem I have is that the whole thing feels like any other CNN news documentary, not matter how emotional it is it always looks bland and dull. The film discusses a lot about Sea World but it makes little attempt to provide a face of the company beyond the generic “here’s the culprit!” freeze frames of their lawyers and pro witnesses.  The film spend so much time on the trainers that it is easy to forget about Tilikum until they mention his semen, which leads to one of the most comically jarring smash cuts in recent memory. Then are the dull slideshows, the simplistic animations and news footage montages, all of which are effective to a point but are boilerplate at best.  
            Ultimately, I am ambivalent about Blackfish; the film is a great conversation starter but is structured so dully that it is often not engaging.  The film discusses about shocking and disquieting but that tone never translates in the head.  For all I know, Sea World and other affiliates really did make it difficult on the filmmakers but it feels lacks the sense of daring that is found in any great documentary. Like any other CNN special, it is clear the filmmakers they were more interested in just finishing the film by a deadline than to create something truly powerful.  If the subject interests you at all then it will not waste your time but anyone interested in a documentary that actually transcends the cable TV medium should look elsewhere.

             (Blackfish is available on Netflix)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dredd


            Do you know what I think of when Independence Day happens? Violence. Based on the “Judge Dredd” comic strip from 2000 A.D the film Dredd is about a super cop known as Judge Dredd and his rookie partner Judge Anderson finding thugs and murdering them all, very cathartic stuff.  In the tradition of 80s action films like Die Hard and Terminator, Dredd is B-movie at heart with production values of a blockbuster but it has the added benefit of a strong setting and a very dynamic script. The film performs the near impossible task of making an arguably Fascist lead character sympathetic and it almost works.
            Dredd takes place in a future where crime is so vicious that the USA burned the Constitution in favor of a police state patrolled by Judges, which are policeman with the power to sentence and execute crooks on the spot. Feel free to comment about which part of that sentence that horrifies you the most but like every great anti-hero Judge Dredd has this intense charisma that is just magnetic. Played by Karl Urban, Judge Dredd is a cold, efficient killer that takes pride in his work and respects the law (as bizarre as it is) in such a way that is genuinely admirable.  The best character though is Judge Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, who may be a young and very sloppy rookie but is far from a dead weight. If anything, Anderson is the one character that could truly save the world whereas Dredd is just part of the un-empathetic status quo. In a way what makes them so interesting is everything seems so ordinary to them; the bleak setting alone would break Batman but the for Judges it is just a very productive day.
            Dark setting and characters aside, as an action film Dredd looks absolutely insane and tight.  Like The Raid, the film mostly takes place in one building as a set up for some obscenely creative violence.  The main course being some cool sci-fi guns that can carry some ridiculous types of ammunition, which leads to some hilarious moments of unexpected gore.  The film also contains some amazing slow motion shots. The slow motion is not in the same style as The Matrix or 300; if anything they are almost like still shots, which frame and establish single moments with nearly scientific levels of detail.  Slow motion shots tend to get flak for being over-utilized and it is refreshing to see filmmakers, like the special effects team on Dredd, take such a common trick and make it their own.
            As troubling as the Fascist subtext can be, Dredd is a B-movie at heart and is such grimy good fun that it is hardly problem, let alone a flaw. Judge Dredd is not a likable character but his discipline is respectable when compared to this violent and uncaring future setting. Like gourmet chocolate truffles, Dredd is so rich and satisfying that it is clear that great care was involved to make such fun junk food.  Actually, this film would make a great companion piece with Dirty Harry for a double feature. Harry Callahan was always tempted to take justice into his own hands and Dredd takes place in a world where that is legal and encouraged.  I wonder if Callahan would relish being Judge.


            (Dredd is available on DVD/Blu-ray, as well as for rent on Amazon Prime and Netflix. Do not confuse this film with Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone, that film is all kinds of awful.  Finally, in spite of what the poster implies, 3D is not required to watch and enjoy this film. This review is solely based on watching it 2D.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)


            First of all, I love this title; there is ambiguity to it like Them! or Night of the Lepus but it is just vague enough to be unpredictable, at least in a thematic sense. Anyway, Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes place in a pristine 1950s suburb where everyone is fine but only on the surface. In reality the people slowly being replaced by soulless, uncanny, alien copies that seek to destroy the concept of freewill!  As one might imagine, Invasion of the Body Snatchers reads like Joe McCarthy’s worst nightmare but the subtext is surprisingly malleable.
            Beyond the “classical” interpretation of the body snatchers as Communists, a more hip analysis of the film would be that it is about conformity.  The late 40s and 50s was a weirdly bland time in America when everyone thought they wanted to live in the conservative suburbs yet the kids were starting to break all of the rules.  The kids feared conforming to the old ideals of their parents and Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents that fear in the same way James Dean romanticized their defiance.
            In the end finding the true interpretation does not really matter; oppression is the same whether it is dressed as a Communism, Capitalism or the ice cream man, it makes no real difference.  What makes this film brilliant is that it preserves the paranoid, cynical atmosphere of 1950s without straying from plot itself. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and this is meant to be a compliment, is easily the most thrilling and well-made Twilight Zone episode I have ever seen.  It is a little silly at times but the premise delves on fears that are so natural that is still haunting to this day.  Ultimately, this film is great as a time capsule of one bleak decade, a philosophy exercise, and as a late night popcorn flick.


            (It is available on DVD and for rent on Amazon in HD, there also a ton of remakes and knock-offs so make sure you know what you are buying.)