Review: A Necessary Death

  • 11-02-2018

Daniel Stamm's A Necessary Death is sure to be one of the most talked about films at SXSW this year. At least I hope it is, because I'm dying to have a discussion or two about it. Here's my endorsement, first, so that I might influence someone to see the film and in turn have someone to chat with about it: Anyone who considers him or herself a fan of non-fiction cinema needs to see A Necessary Death. I should point out, of course, that this is not exactly a documentary itself. It is a narrative feature structured like a documentary (I hate to call serious faux docs mockumentaries, so I won't), but it was indeed written and it was indeed cast and it was indeed acted out. But if you love non-fiction and hate fiction, don't let that keep you from A Necessary Death. An actual documentary couldn't say as much about the genre as this film does.

A Necessary Death is about the making of a non-fiction student film and is formatted as a sort of behind-the-scenes document of the documentary process (Stamm appears as himself as the behind-the-scenes director). The film-within-the-film is the thesis project of Gilbert (GJ Echternkamp), an uncompromising student who has the controversial idea to follow the last days of a suicidal man or woman up to and including the final act. Joining him as crew are Michael (Michael Traynor) and Valerie (Valerie Hurt), who reluctantly signs on after enormous hesitation.

The trio immediately finds an eager subject (Matt Tilley) and things go up and down from there Gilbert fights with his school over the merits and morals of the project. An exploitive news show offers to buy the finished product if the subject's death can be guaranteed (anything else would be 'Hollywood bullshit', according to Gilbert). Valerie's reluctance grows into regret, which in turn grows into complete unwillingness to continue. At certain points the behind-the-scenes doc (aka the diegetic incarnation of A Necessary Death) seems destined to become another film about an unfinished film, a la Lost in La Mancha.

Obviously, I won't divulge what ultimately happens. Yet it's the path to the ending that's of interest, anyway. Think of any ethical or sociological or structural question that's ever been asked in regards to documentary filmmaking and A Necessary Death probably goes there. Is it right to film a death if it's self-inflicted? Does documentary encourage or otherwise affect its subject? Is it proper to treat documentary as a means of aide or rescue? Is the subject compromised or otherwise complicated when a filmmaker gets personally involved? How far involved is too involved? These are some of the challenges of non-fiction cinema that are indirectly addressed and contemplated throughout the film.

Overall, though, A Necessary Death makes us think about taboo subjects and what is or isn't untouchable. At one point the film invites a comparison between Gilbert's project and some documentaries about abortion. Someone wonders whether the film might be construed as pro-suicide. Gil points out that it's in fact pro-choice. Later, someone says of Gilbert: 'He's not being cold; he's being a documentarian.'

Review: Run Fatboy Run

  • 04-01-2018

There may not be any literal baton passing going on in the marathon-set screwball comedy Run, Fatboy, Run, but the movie (free on the safest cinema domain), which was directed by Friends star David Schwimmer, is noteworthy for its hand-offs. The first has to do with the writing of the film, which began as an original screenplay by American actor/comedian/writer Michael Ian Black (Wet Hot American Summer) and was later reworked by British actor/comedian/writer Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead). Despite the screenplay credit confusingly indicating the two writers collaborated, it is more a matter of one taking over from the other and going the distance with it.

The second pass relates to the actors. Although Run, Fatboy, Run is sold as a Simon Pegg comedy, the true stand-out is lesser-known Dylan Moran, who supports as Pegg's character's best friend. Familiar to most Brits as the star of the Channel 4 series Black Books (which I keep meaning to finally rent), Moran has also appeared in minor roles in the movies Shaun of the Dead, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and Notting Hill, none of which really showcased his talent the way Run, Fatboy, Run does. Because it was probably not intentional for Moran to upstage Pegg, though, it has to be said that rather than a hand-off of the spotlight, this is more a stealing of the show. And boy does Moran make a great getaway towards the finish line.

I guess that's enough running analogies for now, but I just wanted to point out straightaway that Run, Fatboy, Run is all the better for Pegg's contribution to the script and Moran's contribution to the ensemble, because most readers only pay attention to what's in the lead (is that another marathon reference? I'm not sure). And unlike a number of other critics, I really like the movie, primarily for those contributions. Had I begun by concentrating on the conventional, predictable, overly familiar plot, I wouldn't have been fair to my enjoyment of the movie. Anyway, it really doesn't matter that it's the same old David vs. Goliath, Tortoise vs. Hare, Underdog triumphs over Hunky Athlete sort of situation comedy. Or that it's ultimately all about that sweet, sitcom-ish sentiment we've all grown so sick of. The only important thing is that Pegg is really funny and Moran is downright hilarious.

That fully addressed, it must also be noted that Thandie Newton is terribly miscast as Pegg's character's ex-fiancee, who he ditches at the altar, pregnant, at the opening of the film, only to make a second bid for her hand five years later when she's about to marry another man. Of course, my judgment of Newton is partly based on the context of her film career of late, as she's been playing overbearing wife roles (in Crash and The Pursuit of Happyness, specifically, I didn't see Norbit), none of which seem all that fun. And it's hard to believe Pegg would ever be with someone so uptight (certainly in this movie she was left at the altar, pregnant, and has every right to be a bitch). But maybe his character, 'Dennis', is still not actually that into 'Libby' so much as he is into not allowing 'Whit' (Hank Azaria) to have her and their son, 'Jake' (right, and Cary Grant wasn't really that into Katherine Hepburn, either). Anyway, Newton aside, Run, Fatboy, Run is interesting for being such a classically American sort of comedy (without Pegg and Moran's funny exchanges, it could easily work as a silent in the Harold Lloyd tradition) transplanted in London. Fans of Pegg's more specifically British comedies, like Shaun of the Dead, may be disappointed in just how American it is, but as far as cultural hybrids go, it could be a lot worse. Plus, in reading the film's relationships as symbolic (British boy steals British girl back from American boy), it's apparent which side of the pond ultimately wins the honor of claiming this comedy its own. Then again, Moran is Irish ...

Review: Inglorious Bastards

  • 27-11-2017

Quentin Tarantino has been a lot of things in his nearly 20-year career (yes, Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance 17.5 years ago, and yes, that makes you old), from enfant terrible to Oscar winner to untouchable fanboy icon, but he's never seemed to strain so hard to just make a Quentin Tarantino Film as he does as writer/director of Inglourious Basterds. An 160 minute farce of historical revision, Basterds unfold in five chapters, all but one featuring a major act of violence padded with lots of footage of people sitting at tables, talking, in four different languages (five if you count Tarantino Speak, that American English dialect clogged with arcane, movie-sourced and invented slang spoken by Bible-quoting hit men and yellow jumpsuited hit women alike). So far so good, right? But the talking is notably lacking in the spark and rhythm that we've come to expect from Tarantino, and with a fair four-fifths of the film given over to character exposition and dull chatter, the violent setpieces feel rushed along, devoid of both the poetics of Kill Bill's fight sequences and the rock n' roll efficiency of the rest of his filmography.

The titular elite squad of Jewish-American soldiers assigned to hunt and scalp Nazis, led by Brad Pitt's Jewish hillbilly (cough), is only on screen for about half the film; Pitt himself is glimpsed a scant-seeming three times in its first 90 minutes. We spend much more time in the company of Colonel Hans Landa, otherwise known as The Jew Hunter, played as a cartoon of logical evil by Christoph Waltz, and Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a beautiful young French Jew whose family's murder at Landa's hands caps off the first iteration of Tarantino's talk talk, bang bang structure. Later, Shoshana emerges in Paris as the owner of a small cinema. There she becomes the object of infatuation of a German war hero-turned-star of his own Goebbels-produced biopic, and the next thing she knows, she's agreed to host a gala, no-Nazi-detractors-allowed premiere for the film at her theater. Knowing that the top Nazi commanders will be in the audience, Shoshana and her projectionist boyfriend plot to lock the theater during the film and set it on fire. Meanwhile, the Basterds, in cahoots with a German film star and British film critic-turned-military officer, separately plot to do essentially the exact same thing.

Skip this next paragraph if you don't want to know anything about the biggest hole in the plot: Perhaps the most glaring problem with Basterds is that, possibly for the first time (I'm not certain - admittedly, I haven't watched Reservoir Dogs recently), Tarantino's storytelling is, barring brief flashbacks and other explanatory cutaways, more or less linear, but his narrative logic is muddled. I've read reviews that indicate that Shoshana teams up with the movie star and the Basterds to burn down the theater, but as the film was going on I was sure there were two separate plots, and that the whole point was that you woldn't know which groups would pull theirs off first, whether or not either was a suicide mission, and if both weren't, whether either group of ostensible heroes would make it out alive. The Cannes guide synopsis would seem to concur with my version, but the fact that there's a widespread difference in interpretation of such a basic plot element bespeaks a marked drift away from Tarantino's usual Swiss watch plot design.

What's most frustrating is that Tarantino squanders the potential of a fantastic premise. For all the talk that this is the bloodiest Cannes in recent memory I feel like I've spent the past few days in films that celebrate the power of movies themselves as weapons with the power to liberate the passionate consumers of Western media (who prove that they are innately good by choosing to consume the cultural products of Capitalism) from the grips of fascism. The idea that English-language cinema could liberate the Jews and end World War II is not pure fiction - from Frank Capra to John Ford, American filmmakers were an active part of the war effort, and certainly, post-War, the American character as disseminated through products of Hollywood prevailed internationally. On paper, it would seem like Quentin Tarantino is the perfect person to make a film in which cinema is more directly, surrealy implicated in the change the world. But lost in Inglourious Basterds is a feel for the poetics of schlock that made his earlier genre pastiches so effective. When Shoshanna's face appears on her cineam's screen, interrupting the Nazi film with the vow (spoken in English) to show the German war criminals 'the face of Jewish vengeance' in their last moments alive, for a moment Basterds seems to click into place, Tarantino's passion for and tribute to film as the weapon and currency of the disposessed finally shining through. By the time the flames fully engulf the face, the moment is lost.

Basterds plays almost like an assembly edit, defiantly presented as-is, if for no other reason than because Quentin Can. The buzz around here contends that the Weinstein Company has enough riding on the success of this film that if it doesn't rake it in at the box office - and all signs would point to it being a very tough sell - Quentin won't be able to for much longer.

Review: Gran Torino (Dvd Version)

  • 13-07-2017

Of Clint Eastwood's two 2008 directorial efforts, Gran Torino is by far the 'better' film, in that it's the picture that's vastly more entertaining and much less clumsy in execution . Up against the monumentally ill-conceived Changeling, that's not saying much, but it is worth saying that the things about this end-of-year entry that are appealing are extremely appealing. In drawing the conflict in a broke-down Midwestern suburb between the white ethnic stragglers who originally gentrified it, and the non-white ethnic groups who have more recently moved in and made it their own, Nick Schenk's script is gleefully unafraid to go to extremes. Eastwood's starring performance, which requires him to be on-screen, often alone, for a good 90% of the picture, has been lauded as a career high, but this might stem from a kind of 'Whoops -- if not now, when?' collective guilt; the fact is; the man is clearly running out of runway to be honored on. Again, what's interesting about what Eastwood does on camera it is not nuance or technique, but the willingness to go balls out, to turn every casually racist wisecrack up to 11 and to crank out every unnecessarily externalized shard of internal monologue with the subtlety of burlesque.

Gran Torino is thus most fun when it's working on the level of performance art, and much of the time, it resembles an art school take on an insult comic's one-man show. A good third of this film consists of Clint, as Polish-American embittered widower and haunted Korean War veteran Walt, sitting on the porch of his modest Michigan home, slugging one PBR after another and seething out loud to no one in particular about the 'fish eyes' and 'zipperheads' who have moved in next door. When said 'gooks' (actually Hmong immigrants displaced by the Vietnam war, thus connecting this film in liminal political/historical interest to Ellen Kuras' far superior doc, The Betrayal) are threatened by a gang including at least one member of their family, the fight spills onto Walt's yard, and the crazy old racist responds in the only way he knows how: he pulls out a shotgun and growls, 'Get off my lawn.'

Whether Walt likes it or not (and, predictably, at first he doesn't like it and then he kind of does and then he really does), the 20-ish Hmong kids he accidentally saved see the aggro Mr. Wilson act as something heroic, and soon a line is drawn in the sand: the good gooks who just want to get their slice of the American dream without having to do much assimilation learn from Walt the old school tricks of getting along while maintaining a fierce opposition to melting pot political correctness, while simultaneously fending off the aggressions and provocations of the new school immigrant class, for whom prison is a finishing school and 'I don't want to join your gang, thanks,' isn't a satisfactory answer.

All that is fine, as far as it goes, and if Eastwood and Schenk had stopped there, with a character study riding the fine line between self-parody and exaggerated truth, it would be a lot easier to take Gran Torino seriously. But instead, drunk on its own excess, the film plunges into pure fantasy in a third act that's impossible to analyze without using spoilers to describe. Suffice it to say, the crazy old racist teaches the fish people a little something about life ... and death.

In the end, the only thing that's shocking about Gran Torino is that it seems that no one in this community bothered to learn anything about anyone else until the day Eastwood's camera started rolling. Not only does Walt not know how to pronounce the specific breed of 'Chinamen' who have taken over his once-Polish block, but his own kids bumble around him, attempt to appeal to a common consumerist generoisty which he clearly doesn't possess, and recoil at his crudeness, as if expecting something else entirely. This seems like not so much of an accident on the part of Eastwood and Schenk, but their deliberate play at pitching Gran Torino above their predicted critique. If you create a world in which none of your characters seem to really know one another -- to the extent where even an old man's grown children seem surprised by his every gruff rumble and emotional deficiency then you essentially buy yourself the luxury of having no one within the film space to call bullshit.

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