Month: March 2014

Tyler Perry Presents Dare Daniel

indexAlex Cross (2012; Dir.: Rob Cohen; dared by Jeff B.)
GRADE: D
By Daniel Barnes

An admission straight away: Rob Cohen’s would-be franchise igniter Alex Cross is literally the first Tyler Perry film that I have ever seen. A second, probably redundant admission: I am a white male.

This absence of perspective may distort my opinion of Alex Cross, especially since the film is clearly designed as a change-of-page image makeover movie. From what I have gathered via cultural osmosis, Tyler Perry’s film work falls into two general categories – broad comedies headlined by his Madea character that appeal largely to African-Americans, and more soap operatic, female-centric moral tales that, like a surprising amount of explicitly misogynist media, paradoxically appeal largely to women.

Alex Cross is intended to reinvent Perry as a more mainstream male lead and quasi-action hero. He is playing a loose version of writer James Patterson’s D.C. detective, although here the action is set in Detroit in order to capitalize on Michigan’s film tax breaks. This is reflected not just in the awkward location shooting (a surreptitious meeting is held in an auto museum), but in the omnipresent GM product placement that is written into the story, including the invaluable help that OnStar plays in locating the killer.

Even for a film that was created solely for the purposes of image makeovers and tax breaks, though, Alex Cross is terrible. It opens with a totally context-free chase scene, in which Perry’s Cross pursues and overwhelms an unnamed, unidentified criminal for unexplained reasons. The only point of the scene is to prove that Alex Cross is THE MOST TOTALLY AMAZING PERSON ALIVE, and it’s a point that gets reiterated in every scene to come. My favorite part of the sequence is the end, in which Cross attends to the unnamed, unidentified victim of the unexplained crime, who smiles and waves goodbye as she is wheeled off on a gurney.

As envisioned by Perry the screenwriter, Detective Dr. Alex Cross is a near-superhero, a totally butch and badass master detective/piano teacher/psychologist/supercop/action hero/family man that every other character envies and admires. But Cross’ powers of detection are not articulated to us – when Cross arrives at a crime scene and immediately deduces that it was the work of one killer, we never understand his process – and yet that does not stop everyone in the film from fawning over him. Whenever Cross is off screen, the other characters basically stand around and ask, “Where’s Poochie?”

Ed Burns plays Thomas Kane, Cross’ best friend since childhood and partner on the police force, which seems like something that probably shouldn’t even be allowed. Their relationship is one of many thinly developed character threads throughout Alex Cross – Perry may have been counting on this film to launch a franchise, but it already has the formulaic familiarity of the fourth or fifth entry in a tired series.

Cross and Kane are assigned to the case of a serial killer (Matthew Fox, insanely muscular and sinewy, and memorably awful in an over-the-top manner not unlike Jon Voight in Anaconda) who appears to be targeting executives of a mysteeeeerrrrrious hydrogen fuel cell corporation (although it’s a sure bet that “not General Motors = evil” in this universe). This is one of those films where the killer continuously taunts and leaves clues for the detective chasing him for no discernible reason, except that otherwise he would get away with it. Of course, the entire plan is revealed at the end by a stereotypical monologue-ing villain, which helps to clarify nothing whatsoever.

Perry is in way over his head here as both an actor and a writer, and he finally resorts to wearing glasses in order to look smart. His Cross is supposed to be a sort of African-American Sherlock Holmes, but he should have copy edited the idiotic script, which has Cross meeting with a maximum security prisoner at night (yet another dangling story thread with no setup or payoff), babbling lines like, “I’d rather take advice from a ham sandwich,” and surviving an explosion by ducking under a table.

I also doubt that any intelligent person would have allowed an exchange like this to remain in the script:

Obvious Villain: “Do you like nature, Dr. Cross?”
Alex Cross (smiles): “Human nature.”

That doesn’t even make fucking sense. However, gibberish is par for the course here – after Fox’s psychopathic killer takes out a couple of victims, Cross and his wife decide to take a “date night”, where they actually proceed to discuss dental plans. Obviously, when you’re a high-profile lead detective hunting an at-large serial killer with a penchant for profiling his victims and exacting sadistic vengeance in public settings, you want to take your wife out to one of Detroit’s many famed outdoor cafés in order to debate the relative merits of Aetna versus MetLife.

Surprising no one except for the smartest and most perceptive man in the known universe, Fox follows Cross to the restaurant, and murders his wife with a sniper rifle. This begins the most excruciating passage of the film, a massively indulgent grieving process sequence that gives Perry:

1) The “holding-his-wife-in-his-arms-while-he-wails-over-her-corpse” scene
2) The “crying-over-her-casket” scene
3) The “grieving-in-the-front-row-at-the-gravesite-with-the-choir-wailing-in-the-background” scene
4) The “holding-in-his-emotions-at-the-meal-after-the-funeral” scene
5) The “exhorting-his-crying-child-to-always-remember-her-mother” scene

On the updated Cinematic Narcissism Scale, this sequence falls somewhere between Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill and Kevin Costner in Draft Day. The last portion with Cross’ crying daughter is particularly nauseating, and just serves as another reminder that child acting is essentially child abuse. When Cross is done sensitively scarring his daughter for life, he immediately heads to the garage to saw off the barrel of his shotgun, always the first step on the road to vigilante justice. Cross is a straight-arrow detective with scrupulous morals, but a little girl cried, so the Constitution can go fuck itself.

After a bit of phony and hand-wringing and a little lip service to the moral implications of revenge, Cross starts gathering phony evidence, making death threats, and torturing suspects in order to work his way towards Fox. The pursuit culminates in the rafters of the crumbling Michigan Theater, a magnificent old location that helps make the final fight between Fox and Cross one of the better scenes in the film.

Alex Cross was released on an October 2012 weekend when Paranormal Activity 4 was its only new release competition, but it opened at just $11 million (right behind the 4th week take of Hotel Transylvania) and failed to make back its budget in theaters. There was some initial talk of a sequel, and there is certainly more than enough James Patterson source material to draw from, but any hopes that this would be Perry’s crossover vehicle have long since been sawed off.

For a full of list of every Dare Daniel movie dating back to 2005, check out my my Letterboxd page.

Thanks again to Jeff for the Dare!  Of course, with the publication of Dare Daniel XIX, that means there are only 4 weeks left until Dare Daniel XX.  If you have a film you want to Dare, hit me up on the Facebooks and the Twitters, and be sure to follow Jeff’s example by getting out the vote.

Netflix Instant Movie of the Week – “Somm”

somm-7Somm (2012; Dir.: Jason Wise)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

Of the many different subgenres of documentary that have surged over the last few years, one of the most popular has been the “subculture travelogue.”  These films tend to study quirky people in small groups that are somewhat marginalized, even people who may seem ripe for satire: high-stakes Scrabble competitors (Words Wars), children overwhelmed in an absurd contest (Spellbound), or middle-aged men who obsess over arcade video games (King of Kong).  These documentaries expose and humanize their subjects, often while exploiting readymade suspense that leads to an inevitable climax.  Jason Wise’s Somm, released in 2012, may not be the most nuanced example of the genre, but it is a worthy addition to the pack.

The film follows four brilliant sommeliers in the months leading up to their Master Sommelier exam, a test that has a frighteningly low pass rate.  If they pass, they will join an incredibly exclusive club – there have been less than 150 Masters in the world, ever.  Unprecedented opportunities, the film tells us, await those who pass, but the cost of success seems to be an obsessive, single-minded dedication.  Wives and girlfriends are ignored, outside pleasures evaporate, and there is no such thing as free time.

Like other films of its genre, Somm does its best to legitimize the importance of its subject, as though there is some special essence of wine that we interlopers wouldn’t know about.  Some experts predictably reference Biblical stories about wine, while others manufacture romantic elegies about nature and perfection.  Only the most grounded student of the group points out, “When you think about it, it’s just grape juice.”

To be fair, Somm works through that hazard relatively quickly, shifting the focus to the four men and their practice sessions.  The most interesting and exciting moments in the movie occur during practice tastings, when the four men blindly sip wine and, at a miraculous speed, run through a gamut of categories in order to eventually identify the type, region, year, and label of the drink.  With a jarring incongruity, they taste wine and spew out their conclusions with machine-like precision, less like James Bond sipping sherry than Rain Man counting toothpicks.

As the test draws near, the film easily lulls us into tacit cheerleaders, for there is no shortage of footage of these young men unraveling.  They are tutored by Master Sommeliers who delight in intimidating their students, throwing nearly impossible curveballs (so much so that one student insists that his test wine was mislabeled).  They even begin to annoy each other, and an interesting competitive/helpful dynamic develops among some of them.  The students are determined to pass, but like soldiers, they do their best to leave no one behind.  As one tester candidly explains, “The worst case scenario would be that everyone passes except one of us.”

Somm and other films like it work so well because it is simply awe-inspiring to watch people who are so good at what they do.  It is sort of wondrous to see these men decipher the wine they are blindly drinking, and marvelous to understand just how much they know about wine.  It reminds me of something Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) says in The Hustler: “Anything can be great… bricklaying can be great, if a guy knows – if he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.”  Somm is an airy, easy film to watch, and it’s the better for it.  Sitting down and watching it with a nice glass of wine may make it better still.

March Up All Night Movies – ESFS Classic

imagesThe Exterminating Angel (1962; Dir.: Luis Bunuel)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

NOTE: On the original 2008-10 blog incarnation of ESFS, one of my favorite programs was the Bunuel festival, in which we watched L’Age d’Or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and my personal favorite, The Exterminating Angel.  This is a combination of two different reviews written in March 2009, which sort of explains the reference tZack Snyder’s Watchmen.

Watching all three of these Bunuel films in such a short time span, you can see the common threads that run through fifty years of filmmaking – a compulsive urge to belittle piety, conformity, and bourgeois society; a penchant for the shocking, inexplicable moment; and the constant intermingling of dream life, waking life, and movie life, the last of which Bunuel would probably consider a combination of the first two.

If, as I’ve said earlier, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is like hearing someone talk about their dream (turgid, rambling), then The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is like seeing a performance of someone’s dream (clever, mannered), and The Exterminating Angel and L’Age d’Or are like peering into someone’s head and watching their dreams (paranoid, strange). In the latter two films, the action, however ridiculous, proceeds from a demented sort of coherence, just as dream narratives are usually compelled by a mysterious urgency.

Bunuel tended to pile gags on top of gags, almost like silent comedians or the Marx Brothers; he was as influenced by Groucho and Buster Keaton as by any other filmmakers. There is almost a self-aware acknowledgment of this method at the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel – a waiter trips and spills the food before serving, and all but one the upper-class guests applaud and laugh uproariously, thinking the pratfall was a joke. At first, we assume the nobs are being callous and juvenile towards the servant class, but when the waiter returns to the kitchen, we find out that it WAS a joke, and the man who DIDN’T laugh was the jerk. However, this explanation only muddles the logic of the situation further.

Shot in France after a long tenure in Mexico, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is by far the drollest of the three pictures, but you can see the same anarchic, gag-heavy comedy in the film’s best sequences. It’s consistently playful and fascinating, although perhaps a bit rote and formal compared to the other two movies. Discreet Charm… FEELS like the career-capping work of a great director, a little safer and more familiar, so naturally it won Bunuel his only Oscar.

The Exterminating Angel is the real apex of Bunuel’s brand of anarchic, surrealist satire, a genuine masterpiece that springs uncannily to life with every succeeding scene. The plot is razor thin, but with endless variations – a blabbering group of aristocrats convenes for a dinner party, only to find that all of the servants have fled, like forest creatures supernaturally aware of an impending disaster. This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the film, in which the well-dressed mob, with no servants to guide them, wanders into the same room over and over again.

Bunuel’s style is deceptively simple – almost all of the action takes place in one room, but the movements within the frame have the rigorous, hilarious, and almost poignantly beautiful choreography of great slapstick.  As the evening winds down, the guests grow outrageously weary and find that they cannot leave the parlor, even though there is nothing physically impeding their exit. It’s as though even the mildest diversion in the master/servant social order leads them directly into madness, despair, and a complete loss of faith.

Eventually, the nobs form a makeshift refugee camp in the lavishly decorated parlor (fittingly, paintings of angels gaze at these damned creatures from the wall), and within a few hours revert to drug use, savagery, and paganism. The layers of civility peel away to expose both petty fears and existential dread, and as the partygoers start dying of some unnamed plague, there are intimations of a great extermination bearing down upon them all.

While the motivations in The Exterminating Angel are mysterious and the situations are ridiculous, they are propelled by a queer inner logic that makes the film utterly dreamlike. Of course, the puckish Bunuel can’t resist undercutting and deflating this dream “logic”. Just as it starts to seem like the trapped party guests are engaged in mass delusional hysteria (one has a vision of a detached hand), we get a peek outside the mansion, and see that crowds and police have gathered. The “spiritually/morally trapped” guests are actually in a tangible but unresolvable hostage-like situation – no one can get inside the house, either.

The Exterminating Angel is like watching Bunuel’s subconscious unspool before our eyes, and the ending sequence is one of the most toxic satires of religion I’ve ever seen. Every black-and-white image in the film is saturated with a feverish immediacy; many scenes have the anything-goes self-awareness of the Marx Brothers or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker; and the performances are bizarrely pitch-perfect.

It’s especially bizarre because we never get to “know” any of the characters; no one ever emerges into a complete or even remotely sympathetic figure, and yet Bunuel has a buried empathy for them that almost matches their latent savagery. For the image-conscious bourgeois partygoer, it’s a savagery that only seems to emerge deep into the night.

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ESFS Festival #3 – Silent Sirens

Curated by Daniel Barnes

images

For my next ESFS Festival, I wanted to explore some of the silent film actresses who are unfamiliar to me, especially those who embodied their era’s ideal of cinematic sexuality.  Since titans such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson seemed like potential subjects of their own future festivals, I left them out of consideration.  I also excluded an actress like Lillian Gish, whose popular persona depended more on virginal purity than moral-draining vampish-ness.

Ultimately, I decided to dig a little deeper and focus on three iconic films from three very different actresses:

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FILM #1: A Fool There Was (1915; Dir.: Frank Powell) [Daniel Barnes review on April 7]

FILM #2: It (1927; Dir.: Clarence G. Badger) [Mike Dub review on April 14]

FILM #3: Pandora’s Box (1929; Dir.: G.W. Pabst) – available on Hulu Plus/Criterion [Daniel Barnes review on April 21]

The Silent Sirens festival starts here on Monday, April 7, with my review of A Fool There Was, but look for a full festival intro next week.

Criterion/Hulu Plus Movie of the Week

download (1)The Most Dangerous Game (1932; Dir.: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

Based on a widely adapted 1924 short story by Richard Connell, the 1932 chiller The Most Dangerous Game is the film that producers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper made right before King Kong.  There are suggestions of that more famous jungle-kink adventure flick in The Most Dangerous Game, and a number of the same performers as well, including Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.

However, this story of a rich psycho who hunts humans is more of a creepy chamber drama than an action adventure, and the final third dominated by the hunt is the least interesting part of the picture.  A film that compares more directly with the lusty and violent The Most Dangerous Game is Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, right down to the “exotic” foreign villain who equates bloodletting with sexual virility.

The villain here is Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, in a mesmerizing display of overacting), a Cossack who escaped the Russian Revolution with his fortune intact.  Zaroff elected to use his wealth in the way that most of would if we’re being totally honest – he bought some nice clothes, a sweet motorboat, and a centuries-old Portuguese island fortress where his mute henchmen help him hunt shipwreck victims like wild game (be honest!).  Zaroff claims that “Providence” made his island a magnet for shipwrecks, and at times the place has the feel of a purgatory, with the leering Zaroff playing host and satyr-in-chief.

Joel McCrea is the hero of the piece, a world-famous safari hunter (ah, the early 1930s!) travelling on the boat of his rich benefactors, where they wear high-waisted slacks with wide ties while discussing “the inconsistency of civilization”.  McCrea argues that hunting is sport for the prey as well as the human predators, and offers this ominous self-jinx: “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.”  Cue ironic shipwreck.

At only 63 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game doesn’t have time for wasted space, and as with many films of this era, the story moves so fast that it acquires its own inner logic.  Exaggerated gestures, such as the way Zaroff rubs his head scar whenever he gets a thirst for the kill, become the language of the film’s manufactured world, and only add to the eerie atmosphere.

Even so, some of the most unsettling moments are almost throwaways, like when one of Zaroff’s unwitting victims laughs maniacally, as though he were the hunter instead of the impending prey.  I also could not get enough of Banks’ succulent line readings, including the possessed and slightly pleased manner in which he says, “I shall hunt you like a leopard.” Even if it takes far too long to get to the “twist” that we all see coming from the first five minutes, the pre-Code brutality and sexual deviance of The Most Dangerous Game makes it a fascinating watch, right down to that sick and satisfying final shot.