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.

TBT: Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

A remarkably astute stage-to-screen adaptation, David Mamet’s self-adapted collaboration with director James Foley is a quintessential ’90s gem if only because of its performance-driven charisma. Set in and around a real estate agency that specializes in resort properties, the agents themselves are pitted against one another for the sake of securing their jobs and very livelihood. Intent on obtaining the titular Glengarry leads that promise imminent profitability, the individuals in question go to increasingly desperate and seedy lengths to one-up their competition.

Barring abortion-esque, cash-grabbing contemporary musicals, there’s something to be said about how competently translated some plays truly are. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross, the film consciously compensates for its limited spacing in terms of setting via whip-smart and engaging dialogue. It’s crass, sure, however the vulgarity is assuredly warranted in the face of each man’s impending fate as a career professional. Functioning as personality-driven light switches, the key players – despite their obvious sole impetus – are unique and unpredictable enough to push past conflictual banality.

Having mentioned what I already have, there really isn’t much else to laud the film in question for. It’s appealingly steadfast by nature, involving as such and a longstanding model of the pitch-perfect stage-to-screen adaptation, however the proceedings aren’t particularly thick with substance. Unavoidable simplicity aside, Glengarry Glen Ross is a worthwhile piece of well-acted entertainment that thrives thanks to its character-driven and palpably attitudinal atmosphere.

TBT: The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014)

While not typical Throwback Thursday fare because of it’s recent and still-expanding theatrical release, I still felt compelled to convey my thoughts on James Gray’s latest and near-career best effort. Enjoy!

James Gray is not your average American auteur. Like I stated somewhat recently in my review of The Yards, the man’s films explore human nature in a decidedly complex light, what with central characters often playing a dual morality card as illustrated through differing narratives. In the case of The Immigrant, we’re offered an earnest prohibition-era tale of female Polish hopeful Ewa (Marion Cotillard) as she and her sister Magda arrive on Ellis Island, the latter of whom does so in a noticeably poor state. Forced apart due to unavoidable circumstances, Ewa soon avoids impending deportation thanks to the enigmatic Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) – a volatile individual that provides her with a means of supporting her ailing sister if only by way of prostitution.

Although its first act noticeably employs stilted era-afflicted narrative and performances, The Immigrant more than saves face once its able to delve deep into the central characters’ moral compasses. Simultaneously illustrative of Ewa’s circumstantial misfortune and her aspiring suitors’ mutual interest in her, the film takes pride in its humanist spin on an obviously bleak historical timeline. Beyond what drives Phoenix’s Bruno and Renner’s Orlando’s respective professional ups and downs, we’re offered valuable insight into their relationship and how their falling out adds (dramatically) to Ewa’s ever-present struggle.

The ensuing conflict is what propels the film past historical familiarity, what with Gray and co-scribe Minello’s creative nuances steering clear of stock key player tropes. Despite The Immigrant‘s initially decided branding of Bruno as its antagonist and Orlando’s obvious foil, it becomes clear that these gentlemanly books aren’t meant to be judged by their covers. Like most people, these men possess discernibly muddy track records that paint them as imperfect individuals. While they’ve both made mistakes, it’s still entirely possible that either one’s possession of Ewa’s sentiments wouldn’t be in her best interest and, because of this, The Immigrant soars above the typical insipid period piece.

Barring the safely-played first-act portrayal of Ewa’s plight, James Gray’s latest thrives on its subsequent humanist excellence. The proceedings become as much about the titular transplant’s struggle as they do the people she meets and, coupled with an excellent era-specific aesthetic, it’s this distinction that effortlessly solicits engagement. Even if you’re not entirely familiar with Gray’s palpably personal style of filmmaking, The Immigrant is both well-made and unique enough in scope to outlast the qualms some may have with similar subject matter.

TBT: Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007)

An oppressive exercise in thematic redundancy, Death Sentence focuses on white collar archetype Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) – a lovable and loving everyman, husband and father of two sons as unfathomable tragedy strikes, claiming the life of his oldest boy. As Nick continually reels in the aftermath of the responsible hoodlum’s acquittal, he foolishly takes matters into his own hands, thus sparking an increasingly violent and entirely avoidable blood feud. Who will prevail and, more importantly, who cares?

From the get-go, the proceedings reek of basally cloying exposition, all of which is meant to build a sympathy stash for us to tap into following the loss of Nick’s son. Key relationships fall flat in the wake of sheer cheese and – unfortunately – emotionality takes a backseat to heavy-handed eye-for-an-eye impetuses. Following the delivery of initial deathblows, the film awkwardly employs a muddled dual-sympathy card – one that alternately brands both now-vengeful parties as monsters in each others’ eyes. Is Nick becoming the type of monster that took his son? Is Billy (Garrett Hedlund) merely a gangland-abiding victim of circumstance? Either/or, we all know the answers we once sought as the events that transpire speak for themselves.

In the realm of technical proficiency, director Wan finds solace in several key sequences benchmarked by a particularly involving and, oddly enough, appropriately overlong parking garage set piece. Putting aside the qualms one might have with Nick’s surprising physical finesse and previously absent killer instinct, Death Sentence‘s brutality becomes more resonant than the driving force behind the aforementioned motives of everyone involved. It’s at this point that the entire production falls to shit whilst banking on a wafer-thin man-with-nothing-left-to-lose mantra, you know, the kind that’s employed in a jarringly bombastic attempt to hold viewers’ interests.

While I’m not denying that people gravitate toward and subsequently like this type of film, I personally had a hard time figuring out the reasoning behind its existence. Are Nick Hume’s actions justified? Yes and no – an uncertain answer that’s destined to spark the sole discussion you’d expect to have at such a juncture. Technical proclivity aside, Death Sentence‘s motives are too transparent, its commentary on the fine line between right and wrong ringing entirely ineffective as Kevin Bacon’s efforts pale in comparison to an all-encompassing ineptitude. If anything, it’s an uncharacteristically grim affair that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities procured by its characters’ actions.

TBT: The Yards (James Gray, 2000)

Indicative of Gray’s future as an apt purveyor of involving, character-driven fare, The Yards is subjectively unique if eventually flaccid as it peaks well before its end. Focusing on recently sprung Leo (Mark Wahlberg) as his undereducated ex-convict status remains a serious obstacle, the young man promptly solicits his uncle Frank (James Caan) for a job opportunity in the NYC subway biz. Uninterested in the toil coinciding with honest work, Leo instead opts for a spot among best friend Willie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) lackeys, all of whom work to criminally sabotage their primary business rival, that is until one fateful night turns things from simply felonious to wildly tragic.

Among its noticeable strengths, The Yards is above all else a film with palpable humanistic heft despite unavoidably succumbing to genre-centric trappings. Even still, the film earns points for exploring deep-seated corruption in a niche industry, more specifically one that’s rarely if ever been tackled within the cinematic medium. Gray and Reeves’ script also oozes sophistication as relative narrative substance is deftly implemented, most of which competently engages as it all tries desperately to combat familiarity.

As it all remains appealingly and appropriately bleak – especially given the fallout of Phoenix’s Willie’s actions – the proceedings seem to lack a sense of sustained urgency. Despite the core characters noticeably struggling to either cover up or expose someone or something, the conflict and the individuals themselves are a bit too cookie cutter in the grand scheme of things. Is this unavoidable given the film’s aim and core concept? Absolutely, therefore considering this flaw to be a forgivable cross to bear is the fairest means of criticizing it.

In the realm of especially humanistic true crime efforts, The Yards is just compelling enough to warrant a view, at least from Gray’s admirers. At the risk of sounding tangential, he lives to produce fare like this – familiarly subjective if astute in other aspects – and he’ll continue to be for as long as his body of work remains this appealingly assured. It substitutes a fairly unique setting for what we’re used to and the developed characters are worth caring for despite their transparent motives, but to be frank, it’s shame that it all falls victim to an alternately hopeful and hokey conclusion, not to mention preceding trope-heavy elements.

TBT: Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)

6

Welcome to the first entry into my soon-to-be perpetuated Throwback Thursday series of weekly posts, of which aim to broaden my workload as my desire to write outweighs that of sticking to what one could call “standard programming” here on the blog. Enjoy, and feel free to post your thoughts on the film I choose to review each and every week!

As an out-and-out tongue-in-cheek cult classic, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is gleeful, ’80s-style action-comedy absurdity at its finest. Starring one Kurt Russell at his most disarming, the film underwent a meticulous rewrite – one that wholly transformed it from a late 19th century Western into a modernized martial arts affair peppered with ancient Chinese lore. Following the aforementioned leading man as fast-talking if naive and unassuming Jack Burton, the individual in question must aid buddy Wang in reclaiming his kidnapped green-eyed fiance.

Everything about the production reeks of self-referential silliness, whether it be in the form of overblown feuds between eternally warring factions or finding immortality in the color of a poor woman’s fatefully-colored eyes. Although vocalized bits of world-building border on gratuitous, there’s no denying the base-level appeal a film this cartoonish in composition possesses. Shot through with likable caricatures of the key narrative players, Jack Burton and the gang are a wonder to listen to and witness as they engage the supernatural, even despite the former’s bitterness over a stolen truck and penchant for womanizing.

As fun as fun can be in the realm of gleefully tacky ’80s cinema, Big Trouble in Little China benefits endlessly from the charm oozing figuratively from its every pore. From a charismatic lead at the height of his game to riotous, martial arts-heavy action set pieces, John Carpenter’s vision is something anyone can enjoy if casual escapism is your cup of tea. All in all, the film knew what it was going to be all along and the reception it aimed to acquire, and in that sense, Big Trouble in Little China embodies assured if unrefined filmmaking at its finest.