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Buzzard (Joel Potrykus, 2014)

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Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) hones a discernible distaste for authority. For those similarly trapped within a state of obvious arrested development, such a truth isn’t so much revelatory as it is presumed. Negligibly sticking it to the man via lowbrow con schemes, Marty’s decision to pilfer miniscule tax return checks from his temp employer plants him firmly if needlessly on the lam. Armed with self-deprecating naivety and an ill-altered Nintendo Power Glove, Marty does what he can to get by as his predicament worsens.

Given how focused as Buzzard is on its decidedly abhorrent subject, it’s safe to say that those not immediately taken by Marty’s… charisma won’t find anything on display enjoyable. The man in question lives for petty thievery, his understanding of what it is to do what he does remaining his only existential impetus. He isn’t the smartest, however his “Fuck the Man” mantra is easy enough to root for as a typically harebrained scheme of his inevitably goes tits-up at the hands of an unwitting manager.

Although largely and unavoidably inane, Potrykus’ focus intends to thrive on Marty’s misguided obliviousness. Through brief interactions with his mother via pay phone, it’s understood that this individual is one of unfortunate circumstance, a lack of discernibly beneficial parenting doing little to point Marty in the right direction. As this unfortunate reality unfurls as one expects it would, the alternately deserved and lamented loneliness benchmarking Marty’s troubled existence forces us to constantly gauge him as a character worthy of studying.

While no grey area exists regarding an opinion of Burge’s Marty, writer/director/editor Potrykus’ incisive illustration of this distinct individual procures enough credit for Buzzard‘s assured recommendation. Although slight in terms of scope and presentation, the film thrives as a purposefully grounded character study that deftly avoids melodramatic pratfalls. It’s certainly an acquired taste, however Buzzard‘s self-imposed merits are easily appreciated should you not be immediately turned off by Marty’s ceaseless abrasiveness and ignorance of etiquette.

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Faults (Riley Stearns, 2014)

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Initially unfolding as a satire of uncertain magnitude, Faults sets its sights on has-been cult buster Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) – a proven expert in analyzing and ridding subjects of various sects’ hypnotic strangleholds. Limited in terms of other skills and forever haunted by one case in particular, Roth’s floundering success is worsened by his latest immodest book tour. Following a presentation gone violently awry, two desperate parents approach our man to exploit his expertise for the sake of long lost daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Is this all a simple case of snatch-and-grab reprogramming, or will extenuating factors prove insurmountable as a mystery unfolds?

Faults immediately flaunts its strengths as a darkly comic character study by way of a familiar schadenfreude approach. With Orser’s laughable Dr. Roth stricken by a stream of varying existential woes, what ensues following a first-act crux is captivatingly imbued with a tranquil but lingering uncertainty that highlights Roth’s strengths as a disgraced professional, but a professional nonetheless. The initial interplay between him and Winstead’s Claire is admirably grounded by way of execution, the majority of which somehow avoids pretentiousness given the film’s offbeat specificity of purpose.

Thus brings us to Faults‘ inherently captivating mystery. Although the issue of twisty role reversal is suggested early on, Roth’s increasingly sullied path toward Claire and her well-paying parents’ happiness ultimately forces us to wildly speculate. With a wily ex-manager and pseudo-enforcer demanding reparations procured by Roth’s messy divorce, the duo’s involvement serves only to divert our gaze while Claire’s could-or-couldn’t-be ulterior motives emerge from the shadows. From here – and if you’ll forgive the crassness – shit pops off, forcing us to forgo any semblance of preconceived clarity as things come full circle if erratically in terms of tone.

In exercising the better parts of its concise, well-informed and particularly wild narrative, Faults frequently succeeds. Stellar performances aside, Stearns’ direction yields an air of ceaseless discomfort, even as Orser’s Dr. Roth remains palpably in control of earlier interactions with his subject. Despite falling victim to a particularly jarring set of reveals during its latter moments, Faults manages to retain us viewers’ interests thanks to our presumed unfamiliarity with and unpredictability of the core subjects and topic it employs.

 

 

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Run All Night (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2015)

Hard-drinking ex-mob enforcer Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is an irredeemable nobody and especially estranged father. Endlessly indebted to lifelong friend/mob boss Sean Maguire (Ed Harris), the bond between them is unbreakable despite the former’s worsening shortcomings. When one fateful night unites their respective sons Michael and Danny amid shady criminal dealings gone wrong, Jimmy’s left holding the smoking gun when circumstantial misfortune rears its ugly head. With Danny dead and the Maguire legacy short a heir, Sean’s left with no choice but to decisively exact revenge on Jimmy, his son and a family raised honestly outside of his father’s toxic influence.

As the latest in the annually perpetuated “Neeson-with-a-Gun” canon, Run All Night too comfortably coasts through its regurgitated substance to leave a lasting impression. Unlike Serra’s preceding Non-Stop, nearly everything lacks a palpable panache that transcends typical formula trappings, what with an A-to-B narrative doing nothing but introducing us to what the trailer did for the first third’s entirety. Engagement isn’t entirely absent as key relationships and impetuses are established, however the gravity of the situation becomes negligible as events unfold, twist and turn as they inch toward a coin toss conclusion.

For all of the redemptive “Don’t do it Michael!” self-martyr bullshit Neeson’s Jimmy peppers us with, none of it lands as emotionality rings hammy, unauthentic and ineffectual as such. Barring the eye-rolling trope perpetuated by the central ne’er-do-well’s efforts to be the father he never was – albeit under the literal worst possible circumstances – the script itself stuffs ten pounds of exposition into a one-pound bag. It’s not so much convoluted in this regard as it is drawn-out and ridiculous, elements like Common’s T-1000-esque Price entering the picture late in the game for the sake of simply fucking with our expectations. Even though the film does just this, the inherent silliness brought about by a hired gun with a night vision monocle detracts from the otherwise grounded true crime-heavy proceedings.

Despite the pratfalls I’ve outlined, Run All Night is mostly an exercise in non-oppressive R-rated suspense. Neeson, Harris and the gang are thankfully up to the task as solid performances overshadow their onscreen counterparts’ vanilla characterizations. As it falls victim to a considerable amount of ridiculous back-heavy shenanigans, Serra’s latest very intermittently exudes anything resonant by way of both poignancy and technical prowess. If you’re looking for a mindless, cluttered and violent foray into similarly themed Neeson-heavy territory, Run All Night is simultaneously middling and entirely forgettable. Additional props to Nick Nolte for still being able to tread the proverbial waters of celebrity.

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’71 (Yann Demange, 2014)

Outside of an obnoxious exploitation of shaky cam technique to elevate conflict, Yann Demange’s concise and engaging slice of history barrels through its no-frills narrative with considerable gusto. Thrusting unassuming British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) into the grasp of the IRA’s titularly set stranglehold on Belfast, Northern Ireland, things go tits-up for him and his own when a native-incited riot escalates. Abandoned behind enemy lines shortly thereafter, Gary is left battered, disoriented and without devices necessary for survival. Finding solace in the kindness of not many a stranger, his resolve wears thin as the plot thickens and the hunt for the young Brit by opposing parties becomes increasingly dire.

’71‘s strengths are exercised best via its steadfast and downscaled focus. In employing attitudes, beliefs and frequent occurrences coinciding with the post-’69 IRA split, Gregory Burke’s script imbues the proceedings with an admirably personal feel. While the struggle for all involved is palpably wide-reaching and ever-present, this remains more affecting as a straightforward drama than it would a partial history lesson.

Several parties are involved – one good, one bad, one questionable – and all are easy to read amid pulse-pounding foot chases through the war-torn slums of Belfast. Remaining appealingly devoid of convolution, palpable tension remains front-and-center as Gary’s safety is threatened at every turn by the foolhardy youths who don’t fully understand what they’re fighting for. Even though semi-archetypal characters, motives and shock value exist to solicit an assumed emotional response from viewers, nothing is thematically ham-fisted or particularly overwrought.

Although I’m partially biased based on my fascination with this time and place, ’71 is still a solid film mostly bereft of beginner’s mistakes. Bobbing and weaving through a concise timeline much like Gary Hook himself through dilapidated alleyways and tenements, Yann Demange’s feature debut is one of poise and worthy of praise. The action enthralls despite a rough-and-tumble overabundance of handheld pratfalls, and above all, everything meshes satisfyingly enough to create a tense and well-acted whole further elevated by an agreeably compelling sect of European history.

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Ani-Monday: Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

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Imbued with a fantastical cynicism only Miyazaki is capable of employing, Princess Mononoke follows valiant young Prince Ashitaka’s efforts to at-first pursue life in the face of certain death. Stricken with a fabled curse that’s essentially hatred incarnate, his preceding felling of a rampaging boar god segues into uncertainly retracing its steps. Rumors of similarly viral calamities hail from the woodlands west of Ashitaka’s homeland, prompting him to race against the clock in an effort play God(s) and live another day. Said objective soon yields many a complication, the mysterious wolf princess San entering the picture to combat a monopolistic iron monger’s desire to exterminate the deity of all deities – the Deer God.

Abridged synopsis aside, Princess Mononoke unashamedly wears its disdain for the human condition on its sleeve. Highlighting our inherently ignorant mindsets as the impetus for large-scale turmoil, a “People suck!” mantra remains effortlessly non-oppressive by way of standard Ghibli trappings. In fantastically holding a mirror up to society’s self-deprecating shortcomings, Miyazaki’s world-building panache accessibly illustrates the perils of intolerance set against the arresting backdrop of folkloric polytheism.

For all of the commentary the film thrusts at viewers, it’s as much an exquisitely-staged fable as anything else. Epic in both scale and scope, Miyazaki familiarly steeps Ashitaka and San’s turmoil in thicker-than-average exposition and historical context to precede the endlessly bleak proceedings. Dialogue and imagery are frequently laced with an affecting lyricism, of which instills but a semblance of hope amid setback after setback. Scenes showcasing the aforementioned Deer God’s soft-spoken but all-powerful capabilities are almost unnerving, an always-friendly expression belying its steadfast duties as the bringer of both life and death.

Thematically rudimentary as it may be, Princess Mononoke is undoubtedly a deservedly lauded triumph for Miyazaki. Transcending the likes of family-oriented fare for more mature commentary on the repercussions of humanity’s unfeigned ignorance, the film is a wondrously rendered collection of often touching narrative poignancy and arresting visual singularity. Exuding an artistic flair that evokes as much emotionality as a bittersweet narrative climax, some of Princess Mononoke‘s ideas and imagery will assuredly withstand the test of time. The Ashitakas of this world are certainly not a dime-a-dozen nowadays, and despite its atypical glumness, this film serves to instill hope – albeit tenuous by way of the animated medium – that unwavering moral compass still exists within the selfless few.

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TBT: The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)

In acknowledgement of Maps to the Stars‘ limited release tomorrow, I’ve decided to tackle one of the Canadian auteur’s earliest efforts.

A semi-autobiographical descent into the imaginatively hellish depths of one Frank Carveth’s (Art Hindle) post-divorce woes, The Brood offers an agreeably bleak vision of psychological distress at its most Cronenbergian. Single-handedly caring for daughter Candice, Frank’s paternal instincts are thrust into overdrive when he suspects his mentally ill ex-wife of abusing her, the act of which may or may not have been allowed by avant-garde psychotherapist and “psychoplasmic” advocate Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Just as Frank threatens to drop the hammer on the sole custody front, unfathomable, moreover mysterious tragedy strikes that prompts an investigation into increasingly violent recurrences.

Although a very modest triumph over the likes of more mainstream fare, The Brood effectively employs psychological distress as an involving supernatural centerpiece. The illustration of Nola Carveth’s sustained imbalance remains palpably authentic as Hindle’s Frank goes through the motions to ensure her overseer gets what he does or doesn’t deserve. Procedurally speaking, the film unremarkably revels in exploiting the mystery shrouding the presence of demonic dwarven assailants, the likes of which apparently don’t qualify as much of an anomaly following psychoplasmic revelations and a rather blase autopsy sequence.

Genre thrills are largely absent despite a tense dissection of Nola’s deep-seated issues and inherent suspense regarding just what the fuck Frank and his daughter are up against. Barring the lack of excitement lacing intermittent violent cruxes, Cronenberg at least tells a story worth investing in if only because of our naturally burgeoning thirst for a reveal. It’s The Brood‘s reveal that indeed satisfies, the auteur’s infamous body horror-exploitative tendencies playing Whack-a-Mole with one’s previously tame (and unnauseated) expectations.

It can be filed under “minor” Cronenberg surely, however The Brood isn’t without obvious merits as creative singularity and authenticity of subject combine to form a laudably unique whole. While not uninteresting to say the least, the proceedings thrive more on the basis of concept, fleshed-out ideas and performances than it does in the realm of horror. With the aforementioned latter act eye-opener managing to unsettle more than Dr. Raglan’s unconventional treatment methods, it becomes clear that Cronenberg’s flair was as discernible then as it is now across a prolific and diverse filmography.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015)

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When the stereotypically troublesome “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton) succumbs to a severe bout of misguidance, the truth behind the teen’s past is revealed in the form of his secretive, moreover prematurely deceased father’s legacy as a distinguished super-spy. With the heavy-handed aid of “Galahad” (Colin Firth), Eggsy is led steadfastly toward, down and through the same Kingsman rabbit hole his father traversed prior to recruitment. As events unfold, the basally antagonistic tech mogul Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) emerges as the means for the organization’s employment following Eggsy’s initial involvement, what with a discernibly juvenile desire to exterminate most of humanity reigning over much better possibilities for conflict.

What people should know before going into Kingsman – and pardon the tangential rant – is that source writer Mark Millar has a grating penchant for reductive bombastic bullshit. While nonetheless a distinguished talent via nigh-countless other works, Millar’s creator-owned material has often yielded juvenile renditions of classically-inspired, genre-specific crassness. Kingsman is the perfect follow-up to Kick-Ass in this sense, favoring pandering pop cultural machismo over genuinely inventive substance.

From Points A to B to C, Kingsman is glaringly reminiscent of everything vaguely associated with the frequently but ineffectually referenced James Bond, if only in terms of concept and a latter-act martini order. Comparisons aside, the film seems to confidently embrace the skeleton of a narrative it does with reasonable aesthetic aplomb. While Jackson’s Valentine spews his half-baked reasoning behind the justified extinction of humanity via cellular device, it’s particularly difficult to not roll your eyes in between bits of Eggsy and the gang’s pre-Kingsman initiative tribulations.

Denying the banality lacing the forward motions of Kingsman‘s narrative is nearly impossible despite requisite twists and turns. Whether it’s an introductory pub bout meant to cement a false organization’s validity or excellently choreographed genocide of Kentucky-bred churchgoers, Vaughn’s presentational expertise remains way too dominant over the largely forgettable events that occur throughout. Core relationships feel forced, key events play out because they have to and, frankly, a film shouldn’t bank on intermittent shock value for wholehearted entertainment purposes.

Barring obvious star-heavy charisma and Vaughn’s kinetic chops, Kingsman barely rises above similar fare thanks to how vigorously it tries to subvert its comic book-inspired origins. Vulgarity aside, most of the script reeks of entirely uninspired trappings, most of which serve only to pilot an ultraviolent “reinvention” of aforementioned super-spy legacies. It’s largely a misfire, yet Kingsman is elevated slightly above subpar schlock thanks to Vaughn’s successful conviction in exaggerating the film’s glaringly strongest suits involving guns, razor-edged prosthetic legs and other action-oriented strong suits.

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What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2015)

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Sometimes a cleverly conceived albeit rudimentary conceit works better than convoluted genre contrivances. What We Do in the Shadows epitomizes such an ideal, the film itself being a purposefully uncomplicated mockumentary centered on the lives of three vampiric flatmates. Going about their business in ways not unlike what a bulk of standard humanity is accustomed to, the trio laughably struggles to coexist in the days leading up to a glorified annual banquet for the comparably undead.

In applying the simplest aspects of the human condition to that of schlubby bloodsuckers, Clement and Waititi haven’t struck gold so much as they’ve decided to exploit a lesser-explored and comically grounded niche. It goes without saying that the approach itself is refreshing, injecting a modest shot of adrenaline into the long-floundering subgenre Shadows knowingly subscribes to as it forgoes overt lewdness for genuinely earned laughs. Gone are the dick joke and ultra-meta trappings of contemporary R-rated romps, of which are replaced by a more modest, organic sense of humor that functions well amid eventual subjective fatigue.

More than anything, What We Do in the Shadows is an easily enjoyable and inoffensive breath of fresh air. How often have you griped about dirty dishes piling to the ceiling? Played off your repressed but still present feelings for an ex? Apply these nonoppressive existential grievances to the vampires at this film’s core – sans-sunlight, sense of style, etc. – and you have yourselves a perfectly competent mockumentary laced with cleverly implemented tropes that inherit the allure of the relatably less glamorous.