Thursday, July 31, 2014

Movie Review: Doc of the Dead

Doc of the Dead
Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe.
Written by: Chad Herschberger & Alexandre O. Philippe.

Zombies are everywhere right now. As popular culture icons, they pretty much disappeared in the 1990s – after decades of movies by the likes of George A. Romero, and a host of imitators, the genre seemed to have pretty much died off. But the early 2000s brought them back in a big way – first in films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and then onto the Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman – and the insanely popular TV show it inspired. Zombies are everywhere now – they’ve gone mainstream again. A good documentary about the phenomenon could easily be made – and some of Doc of the Dead is fascinating. But a lot of it isn’t. Perhaps a feature documentary wasn’t needed – a short would have done.

Doc of the Dead goes back to origins of the genre on film – breezing through the first 7 decades of cinema in a few minutes – from The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (1919) to White Zombie (1932) to I Walked with a Zombie (1943) through some sci-fi of the 1950s. Quite quickly it gets to George A. Romero and Night of the Living Dead (1968) – which pretty much invented the zombie genre as we know it today. It then walks through Romero’s films, and its many imitators, and show how zombies have gone mainstream – with books, comics, movies, TV shows, and everything else – and then showing the conventions, zombie walks and everything thing the die-hard fans of the genre have done.

Some of this is fascinating stuff. I didn’t think very much of the analysis of the movies – which basically sticks the big hits, and doesn’t tell us anything new or unique about them (Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism? Who knew?) and doesn’t even delve too deep into any of them either. I was much more interested in some of the things I didn’t know – the origins of the zombies in reality, and the possibilities of a real zombie outbreak (it may not be possible for the dead to come back to life, but perhaps an infection could create real, zombie-like people).

Unfortunately, the stuff that’s of real interest to me about the film is about a third of the movie. Another third is going over the movies and books that anyone who knows anything about zombie movies already knows all about (but hell, if you think zombies begins and ends with The Walking Dead, then by all means educate yourself). And then another third is downright embarrassing – strange re-enactments, and stuff that is just plain boring.
A good documentary about zombie culture could easily be made. But Doc of the Dead, directed by Alexandre O. Philippe – who directed the far better The People vs. George Lucas, about fans who hate the man they once adored (which was strangely fairer to Lucas than I thought it would be) – isn’t that film. It seems to be made for people who know nothing about zombie culture – and if they know nothing about zombie culture, then why the hell would they watch a documentary about zombie culture? The film quite simply isn’t good enough.

Movie Review: The Other Woman

The Other Woman
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes.
Wrtten by: Melissa K. Stack.
Starring: Cameron Diaz (Carly Whitten), Leslie Mann (Kate King), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Mark King), Kate Upton (Amber), Don Johnson (Frank), Taylor Kinney (Phil), Nicki Minaj (Lydia).

The most shocking thing about The Other Woman is that it was written by a woman. The female characters in the film are basically the most idiotic clichés that you can imagine – the type of female characters usually written by men who know nothing about women. The film turns the talented Leslie Mann into a whiny, annoying imbecile. It turns the also talented Cameron Diaz into a cold hearted, career driven bitch who finds her heart – which of course means that she will eventually find a man, because every woman must be empty without one. I`m not sure if Kate Upton is talented or not – this is the first time I’ve seen her in a movie, and while I was not overly impressed with her acting skills, it’s also clear that the movie is not really interested in those skills as much as her other assets. Women in Hollywood is still shamefully unrepresented – especially in directing and writing roles – so it makes even more sad that one of the few mainstream films this year that is written by a woman is somehow more misogynistic than most other films we`ll see this year. The damn thing is basically two or three women spending the entire movie talking to each other – but still somehow manages to fluke the Bechdel Test – because all they can take about is a man.

In the film, Diaz stars as Carly – a high powered Manhattan lawyer, whose personal life is basically a series of affairs. According to her assistant (Nicki Minaj), she doesn’t eve refer to the men by name – just a vague description of them. But Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is different – or so she thinks. She dumps everyone else to be exclusive with him. But then, when she goes to his house to surprise him, she meets Kate (Leslie Mann) – the wife Mark never mentioned. Carly has no interest in being anyone`s mistress – so she stops seeing Mark. But Kate won`t leave her alone – not to call her a bitch or a home wrecker, but because she has no else to talk to about how big an asshole Mark is. Eventually the pair figure out that Mark is seeing yet another woman – Amber (Upton) – and they enlist her as well. The basic plan – make the bastard pay.

Even if the three main female characters were insulting, one-dimensional stereotypes – The Other Woman still wouldn’t work very well. For one thing – it isn’t very funny. The film seems to try to repeat the trick that Bridesmaids pulled off – that is showing that women can be just as gross and disgusting as men can be in the movies. But the jokes in Bridesmaids – as gross as they became at times – were mainly funny. In The Other Woman, they fall flat. In Bridesmaids, we get to know and actually like the main characters as people, not just the clichés they seem to be when the movie opens. In The Other Woman, the movie has no interest in moving past those clichés. When it came out, I thought that Bridesmaids was somewhat overrated – it was good, it wasn’t that good – but a film like The Other Woman shows just how hard it was to pull a film like that off at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time criticizing the performances in the film – especially by the three women. For Diaz and Mann, their roles seem to be the cliché ridden roles that they usually avoid – or in the case of Mann, when she works with husband Judd Apatow, often turns on their head to make the seemingly whiny woman into something much deeper. Here, she’s just annoying – and that’s a function of the screenplay more than the performance. I don’t even want to dump on Upton – who plays the bubbly, dumb but lovable blonde as well as they movie allows her to. She may never be much of an actress – but I cannot tell from this movie.

In short, The Other Woman is a bad film. A really, really bad one. Not only is the film not funny, which would be bad enough, but it also left a bad taste in my mouth. Its one thing for a comedy to simply miss the mark – it happens all the time. It’s another to repackage all the clichés people complain about all the time, and wrap it up in one movie – and turn talented actresses into offensive stereotypes. Sadly, that’s what The Other Woman does.

Movie Review: Adult World

Adult World
Directed by: Scott Coffey.
Written by: Andy Cochran.
Starring: Emma Roberts (Amy), Evan Peters (Alex ), John Cusack (Rat Billings), Armando Riesco (Rubia), Shannon Woodward (Candace), Reed Birney (Todd), Catherine Lloyd Burns (Sheryl), John Cullum (Stan), Cloris Leachman (Mary Anne).

Adult World feels like they took promising screenplay and filmed the first draft, instead of allowing the writer another draft or two to refine the material – eliminate extraneous plot elements and characters, focus on what works, and make a very good, if not overly original, film. As it stands, there are some interesting ideas that run throughout Adult World, but they never really get truly developed. Rework the screenplay a little, and you have an interesting coming of age drama – about an overly idealistic young woman who is destined for greatness – at least in her own mind.  But it’s also a story of a middle aged man for whom all that idealism is dead. Had the movie simply focused a little more on these characters, and the themes they dreg up, it could have been a good movie. Instead, the film adds layer upon layer of uninteresting story, useless supporting characters, and a lackadaisical pace that never really feels urgent. There are some decent performances, but that’s really just about it.

The film stars the talented Emma Roberts as Amy – a recent university grad, who has gotten straight A’s since birth, so she feels it will not take her long for her poetry career to get going. That’s right – she went to school for poetry, so she isn’t much prepared for life outside of university. Her parents tell her that if she wants to continue to live at home, she needs to get a job. She storms out – which leaves her still needing a job as now she has to pay some rent. She sees a help wanted sign in the window of a store called Adult World – and she goes in. They sell, well, what you would expect a store called Adult World to sell. Despite having no experience, in more ways than one, they hire her anyway.

Amy meets two men, who could become love interests. There is Alex (Evan Peters), who is the manager of the Adult World, and an artist in his own right – although not one with the self-confidence (or self-delusion) that Amy does. The second is Rat Billings (John Cusack) – Amy’s poet idol, who she wants to be her mentor. When he was her age, he was doing the best work of his career. Amy figures the same should be true for her.

If Adult World gets one thing just right, it’s that for many young people just out of college, they think they are destined for greatness – to the point of delusion. We never get to read any of Amy’s poetry, so I have no idea if she’s talented or not, but she is convinced that she is a poetic great, and that she’ll be discovered, and go off and have the type of glamourous life she always dreamed of. Everything around her – her parents, her town, the porn shop she works in, is just temporary for her. She knows she’s a genius – she’s just waiting for everyone else to realize it. There is a fine line between idealism, and arrogance, and Amy has crossed that line. For much of the film, she is an unsympathetic character – one that we know has a comeuppance in her future. We still like her to a certain extent though – in part because John Cusack’s Rat Billings is even more unsympathetic. If he once had the idealism that Amy had, it has long since been washed away. He’s a drunk, his most recent poetry is being dismissed and he is a complete prick to Amy – and everyone else – even if she never realizes. He then does something so cruel it’s practically unbelievable – and then, strangely, the movie tries to make him somewhat more complicated – perhaps even nice, as if he truly does understand Amy. It rang false for me.

Still, Amy and Rat are the film’s most interesting characters. The film introduces many others, and then doesn’t have much of anything for them to do. From Amy’s parents, to her roommate, to Alex – the seemingly nice guy, who is just kind of dull, to the customers of Adult World that the film basically mocks. Worse of all is probably Rubia – a transgender character played, fairly well by Armando Riesco, who the film introduces, makes us care for, and then basically abandons. Too bad – she`s the film’s most interesting character, and they`re pretty much done with her 30 minutes in.
There are many seeds of interesting ideas in Adult World – but none of them are fully formed. The actors – particularly Roberts, Cusack and Riesco could have delivered fuller, richer characterizations had they been given a chance to. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t give them the chance. I wanted to like Adult World – and think had the screenplay gone through another draft or two and refined itself a little bit, it could have got there.

Movie Review: Le Week-End

Le Week-End
Directed by: Roger Michell.
Written by: Hanif Kureishi.
Starring: Lindsay Duncan (Meg), Jim Broadbent (Nick), Jeff Goldblum (Morgan).

The couple at the center of Le Week-End has been married for years, are approaching retirement and their so called Golden Years, and yet are pretty much miserable when the film opens – and remain so for much of the runtime of the film. It opens with the two of them on the train from London, to Paris, with Nick (Jim Broadbent) going over all the plans he made for the weekend, and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) reading a book and ignoring him. Like many “old married” couples they bicker – but unlike the old married couples who bicker in most movies, when these two bicker, they do it to hurt. He is hoping for sex on the weekend, but he doesn’t do that cause any favors by telling her that for years now her vagina has been like a “closed book”. Not wanting to be outdone, Meg confesses to Nick that she has considered leaving him.

Yet, strangely, as cruel as these two can be to each other when they are alone, they do seem to work well as a team out in public – whether its pulling off a dine and dash, arguing with a cabbie or at a dinner party thrown by an old friend of Nick’s when Nick finally confesses the depths of the pair’s financial troubles. He’s about to be forced into early retirement from his job as a philosophy professor because of one inappropriate comment too many to female and minority students (the latest was telling a woman from African if she spent as much time studying as she did on her hair, she may be able to leave her background behind). This means that Meg will not be able to retire like she wants to. They’ve blown part of their savings on their grown son – who refuses to work - and his family – and still he wants to move back home one more time.

In short, this is a movie about an older couple who have been together for decades who both love, and kind of hate each other. They’ve grown bored and complacent. He’s boring – he hopes to have time over the weekend trip to Paris where they’re going to celebrate their wedding anniversary, to discuss the tiles in their new bathroom. She sees herself as more free spirited than him – although her idea of being free spirited means spending a lot of money on fancy hotels and restaurants they cannot afford and will only serve to put them deeper in debt.

And therein laid the problem for me with the movie – it’s a rather dull and miserable experience about two rather dull and miserable people. To be sure, both Broadbent – and especially Duncan – are great in their roles, giving us a real feeling of the decades spent together, and how comforting it is to sink back into their youth – after she is particularly cruel to him one time, Nick puts on his headphones and sings along to ‘60s Bob Dylan, the ending specifically references Godard’s Band a Parte, which had been referenced throughout the film as well by director Roger Michell – who takes some of his cues for 1960s Godard. The screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, who has collaborated with Michell several times – best of all in The Mother, about an older woman having an affair with a younger man – does a good job of sketching this longtime marriage in all of its love and hatred. What the screenplay really fails to do is make us care about these characters. It’s not just that neither is all that likable – although neither is, and when the movie finally adds another major character, it’s Jeff Goldblum at his Jeff Goldblumiest, who plays an even more unlikable character. It’s that I’m not quite sure the movie gets at anything very deep in its story. Some have said that this could be the final – or at least a later – chapter in the Richard Linklater-Ethan Hawke-Julie Delphy trilogy about Jesse and Celine – but those movies are more grounded in reality, more dreamily romantic when they want to be, and much harsher and more honest in the latest chapter. In short, they’re quite simply better. Le Week-End is not in any way a bad movie – the performances are great. And I’m adding it to a growing list of movies to revisit in about 30 years because maybe I’ll appreciate it more when I am the characters age instead of being in my early 30s. But for now, I didn’t see much point in spending this much time with Nick and Meg.

Movie Review: Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge
Directed by: Declan Lowney.
Written by: Peter Baynham & Steve Coogan & Neil Gibbons & Rob Gibbons & Armando Iannuccii based on characters created by Baynhan, Coogan, Iannucci and Patrick Marber.  
Starring: Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge), Colm Meaney (Pat Farrell), Tim Key (Side Kick Simon), Karl Theobald (Greg Frampton), Nigel Lindsay (Jason Tresswell), Felicity Montagu (Lynn Benfield), Dustin Demri-Burns (Danny Sinclair), Simon Greenall (Michael), Phil Cornwell (Dave Clifton), Monica Dolan (Angela Ashbourne), Kieran Hodgson (Exec), Elizabeth Berrington (Bettie).

I’ve known that Steve Coogan has played a character named Alan Partridge ever since I first became aware of Steve Coogan – when he delivered his excellent performance in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People back in 2002. Every American review didn’t seem to know who he was, and every British review mentioned the ever popular Alan Partridge. According to Wikipedia, Coogan has appeared as Partridge 33 times including radio shows, TV series, shorts, specials, charity appearances and pretty much everything a fictional character can appear in. The Alan Partridge phenomenon never really crossed the Atlantic however, and my knowledge of Partridge was limited to knowing the name, that Coogan played it, and that the character isn’t all that far away from Coogan`s own comic persona – that of the egomaniacal star who thinks more of himself than anyone else does. Like the big screen version of Veronica Mars, the theory behind the movie is to simply make a long version of what was on TV. I`m sure there are inside jokes to Partridge diehards in the movie that flew over my head, but I can say that the movie works on its own terms as well – for a Partridge virgin like myself, I found it easy to keep up with this movie.

Partridge, a one time TV personality, now finds himself in a mid-morning spot on a lowly, regional radio station – doing the type of radio shtick that seems to be the same no matter where you go. It may not be where he wants to be, but he seems happy enough doing it. That is until a corporate giant buys the radio station, and Partridge finds out that one of their first orders of business will be to fire one of two veteran hosts – himself or Pat Farrell (Colm Meany). Partridge has no problem selling out his friend to keep his job. But when Farrell returns to the radio station with a gun and takes over, putting himself back on air, Partridge finds himself being used by the police as the go between with Farrell – who doesn’t know about his betrayal. The whole thing becomes a media sensation – and Partridge thinks it is his ticket back to the big time.

In some ways, the movie plays like a funnier, less depressing version of Martin Scorsese`s The King of Comedy – with Rupert Pupkin's delusion being equally spread between Farrell and Partridge. But Coogan and his cohorts aren’t really interested in exploring the themes of fame and its toxic effects the same way Scorsese was. Instead, it’s basically a series of comic set pieces strung together. Luckily, those set pieces are usually funny – and the film is full of great one liners from beginning to end. Partridge isn’t precisely the normal Coogan character – for one thing, he has a different voice and mannerisms – but it’s not that far away either. Since he’s been playing the character since 1991, it fits him like a glove, and he can cruise through it without trying if he pleases. Luckily, he doesn’t. He surrounds himself with a good supporting cast, and no matter how ridiculous the plot gets, it’s still amusing.

In England, the film was a hit – both critically and commercially. In America, it’s been mainly greeted with a shrug. Alan Partridge isn’t a beloved character in North America – and probably never will be. But the film is entertaining, enjoyable and hilarious throughout just the same.

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Railrodder & Film (Both 1965)

The Railrodder (1965)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Gerald Potterton & John Spotton.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Gerald Potterton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Man).

The year before Keaton’s death came The Railrodder – which was the first film since 1951 that he did any – credited or uncredited – directing work on. It is a short film – 25 minutes – and made for the National Film Board of Canada. I think it’s fair to say that Keaton and Canada are the co-stars of the film – as there is at least as much – if not more – of the beautiful Canadian wilderness as there is of Keaton in the film. The film doesn’t really reach the level of genius of Keaton’s best work – nor is it really anything all that different that he had done before. Yet, it’s worth seeing for several reasons – the most important of which is that it’s a fun little film in its own right. But also because it shows that Keaton, even at the age of 70, still had it. It’s yet another little film, that while not great, makes you realize that Keaton could have still been making great films right up until the end.

In the film, Keaton starts out in England, reading a newspaper when he sees an ad touting the majesty of Canada and encouraging people to take a tour. Keaton thinks is a grand idea, and immediately jumps into the water. We next see him walking out of the ocean at the other side – apparently walking underwater from England to Canada. The bulk of the film has Keaton on a railway speeder – by himself – going from one end of Canada to the other.

Ironically, although there are many beautiful shots of Canada throughout the movie – as Keaton passes through the Rocky Mountains and other beautiful landscapes – he doesn’t seem to much notice what’s going on around him. He sits on his speeder reading the paper, or trying to get some sleep as the beauty moves all around him. He ends up on the other end of Canada – another Ocean – and he finally gets off his speeder and marvels at the beautiful view. Then, of course, someone else takes his speeder – and Keaton starts the long, lonely trek back across the country.

No one is going to mistake The Railrodder as one of Keaton’s masterpieces. It is an amusing film from start to finish – with Keaton doing some classic sight gags, as well as renewing his love of trains – that we saw so often in his 1920s films.

Yet I also think The Railrodder deserves to be more than just a footnote on Keaton’s career – as many seem to see it. It is the last film he directed (although, officially, he didn’t receive credit) – and it is certainly in line with his best films in that it sees the world in the same way, and touches upon some of his passions. It’s also the last time we get to see Keaton in full silent comedy star mode – and we should all be greatful for a film that shows that even in the last year of his life, Keaton was able to do some great physical comedy. So no, The Railrodder is not a masterpiece – but it’s a damn fine film – and a must for Keaton buffs.

Film (1965)
Directed by: Alan Schneider.   
Written by: Samuel Beckett.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Man).

1965’s Film – a 17 minute short film written by Samuel Becket (and who the credited director, Alan Schneider says was really the director as well) is the only film as part of this series that Buster Keaton didn’t have a hand in directing. It’s such an interesting film though, that I had to include it – if for no other reason than to have as an excuse to write about it. The film is one of the last of Keaton’s career – and it shows what a gifted physical performer he was right until the end of his life. Making his performance all the more remarkable is that until the closing minutes of the film we never see Keaton’s face. The camera remains behind him – leading some to call the film an extended chase sequence with the camera following Keaton. This is true for the first part of the movie – with Keaton edging along the street, looking nervously around, and trying to escape from whoever or whatever is following him. The camera seems to be an entity unto itself – and when it catches other – and there are three other actors in the film briefly in the opening shots – in its gaze, they are stricken with a horrible look on their face. What have they seen – or what is being done to them.

The bulk of the film however takes place in a small, rundown apartment. Keaton enters, and locks the door – still trying to keep whatever is following him out, but he’s unsuccessful. There is a dog and a cat in the room – and he tries – comically – to get them both out the door, but as soon as he gets one out, the other runs back in. There’s a picture on a wall – a drawing of a man with huge eyes – that Keaton rips up. He holds an envelope – one of those that close by wrapping string around two circles that look like eyes in the film. He’s paranoid – he doesn’t want anyone or anything looking at him. But why?

The film is a strange one, and not altogether successful. While there has been a lot of complicated critical theory written about the film – some of it quite pretentious, but then the film itself is at least somewhat pretentious – I think Keaton himself summed the movie up best saying "a man may keep away from everybody but he can't get away from himself." That is the film in a nutshell – Keaton plays a man who is trying to shut everything out, but in the end he cannot. He spends time in a rocking chair, eventually opening that envelope, to see pictures of himself at various stages of his life – eventually ripping them up. He is a man alone, trying to destroy everything about himself. But he cannot ultimately hide.

Does the movie work? Kind of. Keaton is brilliant in the film in his final silent film performance. He was old and dying, and the yet he still moves undeniably like Keaton. He holds the screen, even while his back is turned to it for almost the entire running time. By the time we finally see his face, it’s somewhat shocking. This is the Keaton we know but older, more beat up and weathered – more melancholy than we’ve ever seen him before.

The camera work is quite good. In Becket’s original screenplay he identifies the two characters as E – for Eye (the camera) and O – for Object – Keaton. The camera is in almost constant motion, moving along behind Keaton, keeping his distance, as if it’s trying to hide – not wanting Keaton to see that he is being observed.

The idea behind the movie is good, but I do wonder about the execution. Becket – who never wrote a film before or after this one – called the film an “interesting failure”. I wonder if he had continued to write for film if he would have come up with something better – perhaps a little more subtle, a little less ponderous.

The film works because of Keaton and the camerawork, and it is certainly an interesting, and somewhat ambitious film. I won’t argue with Andrew Sarris who called the title “the most pretentious in film history” – but I think there’s a lot of value in the film. It isn’t a masterpiece, and perhaps it is little more than the interesting failure that Becket described it as. But damn if it isn’t interesting.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Seasons (1975)

The Seasons (1975)
Directed by: Artavazd Peleshian.

Renowned Armenian director Artzvazd Peleshian is said to be the inventor of a film style called “distance montage”. Unlike many of the reviews online that I have read after watching probably his most famous work The Seasons (aka Four Seasons), I am still confused with what exactly that means, despite the director himself trying to explain it several times. Watching The Seasons it is certainly clear that he was inspired in part by two Soviet montage masters – Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein – and he has also been compared to someone more his contemporary – Bruce Conner. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what he means by “distance” montage, and how it differs from those other filmmakers as Peleshian has claimed. He does talk about how his films are not about single, isolated moments – but the entirety of the film itself. That no one single image has meaning unless it’s taken in context with the rest of the movie. It makes a certain amount of sense – although I certainly think you could argue the same thing about Conner.

Perhaps I need to see more of Peleshian’s work to truly grasp what he is talking about – because judging on my reaction to The Seasons, I’m clearly not getting what Peleshian is talking about. And that is because The Seasons is a movie full of beautiful, haunting imagery – and yet to me, it is these isolated moments in the film that stand out, and not the totality of the film itself – which is the exact opposite of what Peleshian is talking about.

The movie opens with a scene of a sheep herder madly clinging to one of his flock as the two of them hurtle down the rapids of a raging river. We will get many scenes like this over the half hour running time of The Seasons – the film ends with a very similar scene, bringing everything full circle once again. The images are undeniably beautiful – which explains why this is apparently the first film in which Peleshian didn’t use any archival footage in his montage, just images he shot with his cinematographer. But let me also say this – despite the beauty of the shot itself, for some reason Peleshian decides to use slow motion in the scene as well – and like most instances of people using slow motion, I don’t think it really works. It just draws out the image in a way we don’t need.

A better scene in the movie, with a similar view, is farmer running ahead and pulling down what looks to be huge haystacks down a very steep hill. You think there would be a better, safer way to do this (if one of these haystacks goes out of control, you could easily see someone getting crush to death). The images are once again beautiful, and brilliantly edited together. If Peleshian knows nothing else, he knows how to edit.

But finally, I must say that to me, I just didn’t much care for The Seasons. Yes, the images are beautiful, but to me they never came together in terms of making a larger statement – or really any statement at all. And there comes a point where beautiful images just isn’t enough – you have to have something to sink your teeth into, to challenge your mind, and The Seasons didn’t do this for me.

Even if Peleshian is not a very well-known director – that is what happens when you make shorts for your entire life – and even if I didn’t really care for The Seasons (unlike Conner, I don’t think I’m going to try to delve deeper into Peleshian’s filmography), he is undeniably an important filmmaker. His work has been said to inspire the later career of Godard (not Peleshian’s fault, folks), as well as Werner Herzog. Parts of this film even reminded me of Terrence Malick’s brilliant The Tree of Life (2011) – as both films look at the connection between man and nature. But as a film, The Seasons contains some beautiful imagery – and for me, not all that much else.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Post 1938 Career

Buster Keaton’s directing career pretty much came to a close after those three shorts for MGM in 1938.  Over the rest of his career, he would only get a few uncredited directing jobs – on forgotten films  like Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Easy to Wed (1946), In the Good Old Summertime (1949)  and Excuse My Dust (1951). I couldn’t find anything about what he actually did on those movies – with the exception of In the Good Old Summertime – where he devised a pratfall that would result in a broken violin – and was able to perform the scene himself (appearing in an MGM film for the first time since being fired in 1933) – and also working on a few other sequences in the film. I assume those other directing credits were something similar – filmmakers needing a gag to work, and getting Keaton to step in and direct a scene to make it work.

His acting career wasn’t much better. He’d appear in 11 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1939 and 1941 – before swearing those off entirely. They are even less well known than his work for Educational Pictures, mainly because he had even less control over them. Between the end of his time working with Educational Pictures in 1936 and his death 30 years later, he had some 65 screen credits – often in small roles in small films. TV gave him a second career – he had not one, but two different TV shows in the early days of the medium – The Buster Keaton Show and Life with Buster Keaton – but neither lasted long. He did quite a lot of work on other TV shows – either as a guest star or back when they used to air what were essentially filmed plays. Most of this work is long forgotten. For children of the 1960s, they recognize Keaton as the old guy who showed up in Beach Party movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Throughout most of this time, it was thought that much of Keaton’s work in the 1920s – especially the shorts – were lost, although they were re-discovered in the 1960s, and he finally got his due as the genius that he was.

His most memorable film roles during this span of his career are inarguably his cameo as himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) – playing one of Gloria Swanson’s card playing friends – the forgotten silent screen stars and in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) – where he played Chaplin’s onstage assistant – and apparently was so good that Chaplin feared he’d upstage him, so he drastically cut his part (what’s in the final film is genius by Keaton).

In 1965 though, he made two shorts – one for the National Film Board of Canada (for which he did some uncredited directing – the last of his career) and one a collaboration with the famed writer Samuel Becket – who initially wanted Chaplin for the film, but he couldn’t be tracked down. Becket, who had tried to cast Keaton in the original Broadway production of Waiting for Godot (but Keaton turned him down) later said Keaton was the right choice for the film – and he was. Tomorrow’s post will be about these two odd films for 1965 – The Railrodder and Film.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Movie Review: Lucy

Directed by: Luc Besson.
Written by: Luc Besson.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Morgan Freeman (Professor Norman), Min-sik Choi (Mr. Jang), Amr Waked (Pierre Del Rio), Julian Rhind-Tutt (The Limey), Pilou Asbæk (Richard), Analeigh Tipton (Caroline), Nicolas Phongpheth (Jii).

I wanted to like Luc Besson’s Lucy much more than I actually did. It’s rare to encounter a would-be summer action blockbuster that has this many ideas, that goes in such strange and unexpected directions and is as visually daring as this film is. Yes, the premise of the movie is based on a fallacy – that humans only use 10% of their brain power, which scientists everywhere agree is just not true. But what Besson does with that premise is still inventive, original and different. Besson himself has probably given the best shorthand to describe the movie – the beginning of Besson’s own The Professional, the middle of Nolan’s Inception and the ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life at times in the movie. Blockbusters in 2014 typically do not draw comparisons to Kubrick or Malick – but Besson’s does. But another description that I’ve heard often about Lucy also stands out – “it’s either the dumbest smart movie of the year or the smartest dumb movie”. I’m still not sure which one is true.

The movie opens in China, with party girl Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) with her new boyfriend outside a hotel. He wants her to go inside, ask for Mr. Jang and deliver a suitcase to him. She doesn’t want to go, but soon the choice is no longer hers, and in she goes. She is taken up to a large suite, where she meets Mr. Jang (Min-sok Choi) – who is soaked with blood, and clearly doesn’t trust Lucy. Inside the case are a few packets of blue powder. They tell Lucy it’s a new drug – and it’s clear they expect her to be one of several mulls who are going to smuggle it into Europe. They open her up, and sew it into her intestines. However, before she leaves, the bag bursts – and it has a strange impact on her. She becomes smarter, she has abilities she never had before. She escapes – and seeks out Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) – a scientist who has spent decades studying the brain and coming up with theories   about   what would happen if humans had access to  more than 10% of their brains.  He’s in France, and she wants to get to him – but of course Mr. Jang and his immense gang isn’t going to just let her get away.

Because this is a Luc Besson film – the director behind The Professional, The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita and others – of course what follows is a bunch of action sequences. There are multiple gunfights, and thrilling car chase, and some hand-to-hand combat sequences – that become increasingly strange, as Lucy gains more brain power, and more power to control people and objects without touching them. These scenes are well handled – if there is one thing that Besson has always excelled at, its action sequences, and Lucy has some of the best of the year in that regards.

The movie’s final act – the so-called 2001 act – is like Kubrick’s masterpiece in that it looks at the nest step of human evolution, and leaves behind much of the typical genre trappings that had dominated the first two act of the movies. Things get strange – very strange – and goes off into completely unexpected directions. They are selling Lucy is an action movie – which is smart, because I cannot help but wonder what sort of audience would be there for this film if audiences knew where it is going. Personally, I found it exciting. I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I wanted to know.

Yet, it order to get there, Besson takes, I think, too many shortcuts. The stakes don’t quite seem very high at times, as it becomes clear that Lucy can pretty much do anything she wants – and if that’s the case, what real danger is she ever in? The movie doesn’t set any real ground rules for Lucy or her abilities, as she seems to be able to do whatever the hell the movie needs her to do at any point in the film. Johansson is great in the early scenes in the movie – scared, paranoid and touchingly human. But as soon as her abilities kick in, she becomes essentially a blank slate. It’s similar to her performance in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in some ways – but without the resonance to the audience. She does what the movie requires her to do, but she becomes a not very interesting character as the movie progresses.

It’s also somewhat disappointing that Besson feels the need to wrap everything up in action sequences – right up until the end of the movie, taking an easy way out instead of pushing Lucy in more interesting ways. Yet, as flawed as I think Lucy is, I cannot help but admire it – and Besson for attempting something different in the midst of the summer blockbuster season. Yes, Lucy is kind of dumb. It’s also kind of smart.

Movie Review: Cold in July

Cold in July
Directed by: Jim Mickle.
Written by: Nick Damici & Jim Mickle based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale.
Starring: Michael C. Hall (Richard Dane), Sam Shepard (Russel), Don Johnson (Jim Bob), Vinessa Shaw (Ann Dane), Nick Damici (Ray Price), Wyatt Russell (Freddy), Brogan Hall (Jordan Dane).

Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is one of the least predictable movies of the year. Most movies, even great ones, are on some sort of narrative autopilot – following its plot and characters in a predictable pattern from beginning to end. Cold in July is different. Unlike most films, you’ll have no idea where this film will end up in its last act from its first act. Yet, amazingly, the plot makes sense. Mickle and his co-screenwriter Nick Damici have adapted a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, and while their plot is completely unpredictable, it makes sense from moment to moment. It’s just those moments are unexpected. It makes the experience of watching Cold in July exciting.

The movie opens with Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) hearing a noise in his house. Grabbing his gun, he confronts a would-be burglar and shoots him dead. The cops believe him – it was clearly self-defense – the guy had a record, and it’s a fairly open and shut case. But Richard isn’t so sure. He is haunted by what he did – he didn’t mean to, and feels bad about taking another man’s life – even if he did it to protect himself and his wife and young son. Then the burglar’s father – Russel (Sam Shepard) – shows up. He has spent years in jail, didn’t really know his son – but doesn’t like that he’s now dead. He may well want revenge.

Given that very basic setup, you are probably thinking you know where the movie is going to go. And you couldn’t possibly be more wrong. Director Mickle is mostly known for horror films – like his post-apocalyptic vampire film Stakeland and his ever disturbing cannibal family film We Are What We Are – and Cold in July opens like a realistic horror film – a home invasion film, perhaps along the lines of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. But then it twists, and becomes a strange, at times even comedic, buddy film with the arrival of a P.I. named Jim Bob (Don Johnson). And then it twists again, taking it in disturbing, noir territory.

The plot twists in Cold in July wouldn’t work if the performances in the film weren’t as good – and consistent – as they are in the film. Hall`s performance as Richard is the films core – and its key to the overall effect, as if we do not believe that he would do what he does, than the whole film would fall apart. But we do. For a while, we think Richard maybe a typical, albeit well meaning, redneck – it’s got a little bit of mullet, a bad mustache, and Hall exaggerates the accent a little. But he is, at heart, a good man – someone who wants to know why he did what he did, and will not leave it alone. He is, in many ways, a typical noir “hero’- a normal guy drawn into a dark world he doesn’t understand. Shepard is equally good as Russel – Shepard is one of those actors incapable of delivering a false moment, who never makes his `redneck` characters into stereotypes. His character is one who has a code – however dark it may be – and he`s not that unlike John Wayne in The Searchers. Then there`s Don Johnson, having great fun playing Jim Bob, until the film becomes too dark for it to be fun.

If there is a flaw in Cold in July it’s that the film spends so much time with its plot twists, and making them believable, that the film never really delves beneath its surface. This is not a very deep film at all – and it’s one that I wonder if it would work the second time through, once all of its mysteries have are known. Truly great thrillers, like Hitchcock`s masterpieces, are great even when the mysteries are known – arguably even more so, as the films get deeper the more you look at them. Cold in July isn’t really interested in anything deeper. This aside, Cold in July is still a perfectly executed thriller that works amazingly well on its first time through. That’s rare among modern thrillers that often make you roll their eyes at how silly they become. Cold in July follows its premise right to the end – and on a surface level, is terrific.

Movie Review: Hercules

Directed by: Brett Ratner.
Written by: Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos based on the comic by Steve Moore.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Hercules), Ian McShane (Amphiaraus), John Hurt (Lord Cotys), Rufus Sewell (Autolycus), Aksel Hennie (Tydeus), Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Atalanta), Reece Ritchie (Iolaus), Joseph Fiennes (King Eurystheus), Tobias Santelmann (Rhesus), Peter Mullan (Sitacles), Rebecca Ferguson (Ergenia), Isaac Andrews (Arius), Joe Anderson (Phineas), Stephen Peacocke (Stephanos), Nicholas Moss (Demetrius), Robert Whitelock (Nicolaus), Irina Shayk (Megara)..

Among directors, there are probably very few that are more hated by movie people than Brett Ratner. Do you remember that scene in Community, where Shirley goes on and on about how great Tower Heist was, and how Ratner is the new Spielberg, and Abed has to remove himself from the situation before he says something horrible (which he cannot quite control as he tells Shirley she is a bad person). That’s about the level of hatred Ratner inspires in online film forums. Even Michael Bay gets more respect – at the very least, Bay has his own distinct style, even if it’s a bad style. Ratner seems to have no personal style at all – aping Bryan Singer in X-Men: The Last Stand or Jonathan Demme in Red Dragon, and being basically bland in everything else. When I saw the previews for his latest film, Hercules, I have to admit I laughed out loud – and not in a good way. The film looked ridiculously stupid. It’s somewhat surprising then that Hercules is as entertaining as it is. It’s not a good movie in any real way – but it’s a lot more fun than it has any right to be. That probably has more to do with having such low expectations of the film, but Hercules, while dumb, is also kind of fun. It’s not a good film, but it’s far from the awful film I expected it to be.

The movie dispenses with the legend of Hercules within the first two minutes of the movie – as we hear a narrator who turns out to be Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Hercules’ nephew telling the story we know so well – that Hercules is the son of the God Zeus, and a human woman and that Zeus’ wife Hera hated Hercules, and assigned him 12 impossible tasks to perform in order to be left alone. But it quickly becomes clear that in this version of Hercules, that’s all a myth. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is not half god, but a mercenary with a team, who hire themselves out for money. They use the myth of Hercules because it helps them – their opponents are scared of the legend of Hercules, which get them off their game. Hercules and his team have just been hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) on behalf of her father Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to fight against an oncoming horde led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). Lord Cotys army is mainly made up of farmers and other inexperienced men. So Hercules and his men set out to train them – but they don’t have much time.
The movie is silly, but knowingly so. It wants to be an old school fun blockbuster, instead of the modern, more self-serious blockbuster than seem to dominate these days. Johnson is well cast as Hercules – impossibly big and strong, even if he isn’t the son of Zeus, he’s still a great warrior. He’s surrounded by a good cast of supporting players – none more so than Ian McShane as someone who, with the use of herbs can see the future, and expects his own death soon. The battle scenes are large scale; swords and sandals type action, and are entertaining to a certain extent – until perhaps they go a little too far in the final one. The film, at only 96 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s silly and goofy – not deep in any way, and not really that good. But it’s not an unpleasant way to spend a summer night. If you think that some of this year’s blockbusters are too dour and ridiculously serious, than Hercules is the movie for you.

Movie Review: Words and Pictures

Words & Pictures
Directed by: Fred Schepisi.
Written by: Gerald Di Pego.
Starring: Clive Owen (Jack Marcus), Juliette Binoche (Dina Delsanto), Valerie Tian (Emily), Navid Negahban (Rashid), Bruce Davison (Walt), Amy Brenneman (Elspeth), Adam DiMarco (Swint), Josh Ssettuba (Cole Patterson), Janet Kidder (Sabine), Christian Scheider (Tony), Keegan Connor Tracy (Ellen), Andrew McIlroy (Roy Loden), Harrison MacDonald (Shaftner), Willem Jacobson (Stanhope), Tanaya Beatty (Tammy).

It’s impossible to deny that much of Words & Pictures is incredibly silly. It’s a romantic comedy in which the central romance never comes close to being believable – and whose supposedly uplifting final scene is nearly laughable in its phoniness. The central debate in the movie – about what’s more valuable, words or pictures, is also silly – as if anyone can really make an argument about it, or should be forced to choose between them. To the movies credit, it seems to know both of these things – and at times feels like it’s simply going through the motions – checking off what’s expected of a movie like this in order to get to the stuff the movie is really interested in. That doesn’t make the movie work – it’s too deeply flawed for that to be true – but it kept me interested, and got me thinking throughout the movie – and after it ended.

The film stars Clive Owen as Jack Marcus – a once rising literary star, an award winning poet, who took a teaching job at an upscale, private high school. He`s a good teacher – but as a man he is a mess. Divorced and an alcoholic, with a grown son who he embarrasses, he hasn’t written anything in years, and despite how good a teacher he can be, he’s become a liability and an embarrassment to the small town school. They want to fire him, but give him a final chance to redeem himself. A new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) has just started. She is a world renowned artist, who has moved to this small town to be closer to her family – because she is stricken with rheumatoid arthritis – and can no longer paint the way she wants to. Marcus immediately eyes her, and starts a `war` with her about the value of words vs. pictures – and draws the students into the debate. Soon the whole school is involved – and although Marcus and Delsanto seem to hate each other, we know that sooner or later, they will fall in love – or something close to it.

At times, I couldn’t help but wonder if Words & Pictures is trying to satirize the typical romantic comedy. Owen and Binoche are both great in their roles, which seem like typical mismatched romantic comedy couple, but as the film goes along it becomes clear they aren’t quite that. Owen plays a character who we expect will eventually redeem himself – and get over his demons. But that doesn’t quite play out like we expect. Owen doesn’t worry about making Marcus into a sympathetic character – he’s really kind of an asshole and not a lovable movie asshole either. Binoche's Delsanto is similar in some ways – a smart, talented beautiful woman, but also somewhat of a cold one. In a typical romantic comedy, the cold woman finds love and learns to come out of her shell. But in Binoche's hands, Delsanto seems to not too interested in that either.

But the movie isn’t really smart enough to satirize the romantic comedy. Perhaps not everyone – like director Fred Schelpsi or screenwriter Gerald Di Pego – aren’t in on what Owen and Binoche seem to be attempting. The whole film has a weird disconnect to it. It’s a strange film, and one I have trouble wrapping my head around.

There are parts of the film that work wonderfully, and parts that are so phony they are almost laughable. The central concept is ridiculous, but the movie seems to know this – as if like Marcus and Delsanto, the filmmakers are simply toying with the audience, like they toy with the students, to get them to think of things in a different light, and take questions seriously, even though they know the debate is silly. I really don’t know what to make of Words & Pictures. It’s a different, more interesting film than I was expecting, even if the whole is way less than the sum of its parts.

Movie Review: Planes: Fire and Rescue

Planes: Fire and Rescue
Directed by:  Roberts Gannaway.
Written by: Jeffrey M. Howard.
Starring: Dane Cook (Dusty Crophopper), Ed Harris (Blade Ranger), Julie Bowen (Lil' Dipper), Curtis Armstrong (Maru), John Michael Higgins (Cad), Hal Holbrook (Mayday), Wes Studi (Windlifter), Brad Garrett (Chug), Teri Hatcher (Dottie), Stacy Keach (Skipper), Cedric the Entertainer (Leadbottom), Danny Mann (Sparky), Barry Corbin (Ol' Jammer), Regina King (Dynamite), Anne Meara (Winnie), Jerry Stiller (Harvey), Fred Willard (Secretary Of The Interior), Dale Dye (Cabbie), Matt Jones (Drip), Bryan Callen (Avalanche), Danny Pardo (Blackout), Corri English (Pinecone), Kari Wahlgren (Patch), Patrick Warburton (Pulaski), Rene Auberjonois (Concierge)..

As the father of an almost three year old I watch a lot of entertainment aimed at young children. Some of its isn’t that bad – I can even kind of enjoy episodes of Sofia the First or Doc McStuffins, even if I know I would never watch them if it wasn’t for my daughter. These shows teach simple lessons to children, and are wrapped up in an enjoyable, lightweight, musical package. The film Planes: Fire and Rescue – a sequel to last year`s Planes (which I didn’t see, because my daughter was too young last year to see movies) falls short of even those not very lofty standards. Its feels cheaply animated, and the story is not very interesting, even for young children. My daughter is not great at critical thinking right now – but normally when we go the movies, she sits in rapt attention at the screen even at not very good animated films like Mr. Peabody and Sherman or Legends of Oz. She grew restless during Planes: Fire and Rescue however. If a three year old is bored, what chance do the rest of us have?

The film follows the further adventures of Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) – who in the last film apparently went from a crop duster into a race plane. Now, his gearbox can no longer handle the strain of racing, and it’s been discontinued, so he cannot get a new one. He can still fly, but he cannot push himself very hard. When he gets into an accident, which puts his small town airport in danger of being shut down, unless they get a second firefighter, he feels responsible – and decides to become a fire plane himself. He heads off into a vast forest to be trained by Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) to get his certification.  Blade has his own problems – a new resort has just re-opened in the forest, and its superintendent (John Michael Higgins) has taken all the forest`s funds for the resort. Blade and his team pushes Dusty hard – there are lots of fires, some big some small, and it’s all a lot harder than Dusty thought it would be.

The film is lazily written and animated. It was apparently intended at one point to be a direct to DVD sequel, but when the first film made a surprising amount of money, they decided to go ahead and release it to theaters. If it doesn’t make as much money, that’s okay, because like Pixar’s Cars franchise, which this is a spinoff to, Disney makes a ton of money out of the toys they sell based on the characters. They have clearly aimed these films at a younger audience than even most animated films – which I think they use mainly as an excuse for the lazy writing and animation. Young kids apparently do not require much effort.

Planes: Fire and Rescue just isn’t a very good movie. There is no real effort put into the film by anyone, which to me lacks respect. My daughter may not be a critical thinker yet, but she knows what she likes. She did not like Planes: Fire and Rescue. If we didn’t have popcorn, I doubt we would have made it through the movie. That’s simply not good enough.

Criticwire Survey: Catch-Up

Q: We're heading into the dog days of summer, when the pace of new releases slackens enough to allow for some pleasurable catch-up. So: Name one thing — book, movie, gardening project — you'd like to finally get around to, and one piece of 2014 culture you love that everyone else needs to catch up on.

I recently caught up on the one movie I’ve been saying for years I need to catch up on – Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – so I feel good about that. Out of 2014 films, I think Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust (which never came out in Canada as far as I know – is one of the bigger ones I need to catch up on – unfortunately it looks like the DVD won’t come out until September. Luckily The Dissolve released a list of 88 must see movies from the first 7 months of 2014 – and I’ve only seen about half of those of those, so I need to catch up. In my defense, about half of those I missed didn`t come in Canada – either in theaters or on demand or DVD. I`m grateful for that list –as well as the ongoing list on Indiewire of the most acclaimed films of the year so far – as it allows me to catch up on films I should see before the year end critics polls come out, and I need to catch up on lots more in a short time period.

In terms of TV, my wife and I finally caught up last week on both seasons of House of Cards – which as many have noted got increasingly ridiculous, but I still think is still ridiculously entertaining. She really wants to catch up on both seasons of Orange is the New Black, so that’s on the list for August – and I really want to catch up on True Detective, so that’s there as well.

For TV recommendations, if you missed Fargo, than see that – I loved it more than anything else I saw on TV so far this year. I’m enjoying AMCs Halt and Catch Fire as well – even if it’s not quite as great. I’m still trying to figure out if The Strain is stupid but entertaining or just plain stupid. I’m keeping up with it though.

For films that I think people should catch up on, Ill point out several that didn’t get a lot of box office love but are now available for home viewing – Jonathan Glazers Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Jeremy Saulniers Blue Ruin, Lars von Triers Nymphomaniac and Jim Mickles Cold in July (review coming soon as it just reach iTunes Canada last week – approximately two months after everyone in the USA could see it). If you want to see something in theaters, make sure if you’re close to a theater playing Richard Linklaters Boyhood, you go. Same with Bong Joon-hos Snowpiercer – which I know you can see at home, but deserves to be seen on the big screen. Also Steve James Roger Ebert doc Life Itself.

And it’s not like there’s nothing to see in August. I’m looking forward to wide (or fairly wide) releases like Guardians of the Galaxy, Get on Up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (sue me, but I’m the exact right age to have been obsessed with them in my childhood), Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Giver and (presumably) Magic in the Moonlight. And the independent theater near me will be playing Obvious Child, A Most Wanted Man, The Trip to Italy and Calvary. So there’s still quite a lot to see.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Classicis Revisited: The Rapture (1991)

The Rapture (1991)
Directed by: Michael Tolkin.
Written by: Michael Tolkin.
Starring: Mimi Rogers (Sharon), David Duchovny (Randy), Patrick Bauchau (Vic), James Le Gros (Tommy), DeVaughn (First Boy), Christian Benz Belnavis (Older Boy), Will Patton (Deputy Foster), Kimberly Cullum (Mary).

Given how big a role God and Religion play in American life, it’s somewhat odd that there have been so few films made that take questions of faith seriously. Older, European filmmakers like Carol Dreyer, Robert Bresson or Ingmar Bergman took questions of faith seriously, and built their careers around exploring them through film. But in America, there haven’t been many. Perhaps it’s because of the fury that greeted a film like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – that dared to portray Jesus as a man plagued by doubt, and was tempted by a normal life, before accepting his place on the cross. The recent reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is another example – Aronofsky followed in Scorsese’s footsteps and made a film about a man who isn’t sure he can do what he is being asked by God to do – and was attacked by idiots who didn’t like that Aronofsky didn’t use the word God (although he did – once – and referring to him as The Creator is more in keeping with Jewish tradition) or that he didn’t make a shiny happy version they remember from their children’s books (because a story about nearly all of life on the planet being destroyed should, of course, be happy). When religious films are made at all in America, they’re usually those low rent, indie movies like the Left Behind films or the recent God’s Not Dead that (by all accounts, since I’ve haven’t seen the later yet) don’t really challenge their audiences, but rather congratulate them on their beliefs.

Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture from 1991 is that rare American film then that actually does take questions of faith and God seriously. In many ways, the film is deeply flawed – and not just by the admittedly poor special effects near the end of the film, that can be explained by the film being fairly low budget. It’s also flawed in that every character other than the main one – Sharon played by Mimi Rogers – is one dimensional, and rather flatly acted (the little girl in the film delivers one of the most annoying child performances I’ve ever seen). The film doesn’t even seem to address one of its main characters conversion to Christianity – it just uses a flash forward of several years and he’s been magically converted. Yet flaws aside, The Rapture is a fascinating film – and one that has the courage to follow the path it set to the only logical conclusion. It is hardly a great film – yet perhaps it’s something even more rare – an film that offers a completely unique view on God and religion.

The film stars Rogers as Sharon, who leads a life that has become monotonous and repetitive. Her job is as a phone operator, where she says the same basic sentences over and over again as she looks up numbers for callers. At night, she and her “boyfriend” Vic (Patrick Bauchau) head out to the bars and find couples to swing with. The non-stop party and sex have become boring to her though – and she starts to think that perhaps there is more to life. She overhears people talking about “The Pearl” and “The Boy” – and knows that this is something to do with God. She becomes determined to find God and leave her life of sin behind her. She finally has the visions the others have been talking about – and becomes obsessed with The Rapture. She wants it come now. She pretty much drags Randy (David Duchovny), one of those men she met while swinging with Vic along with her – even though he expresses the belief that there is no God. The film then flashes forward 6 years – and Sharon and Randy are now married (and he’s now apparently as Christian as she is) – and have a daughter Mary. A tragedy in their life makes Sharon convinced that she has received another message from God – so she and Mary head out into the desert to await The Rapture.

The Rapture has the audacity to take those Bible thumpers who proclaim “The End is Nigh” literally – there really is a full scale Rapture at the end of this film, complete with Horsemen, the Grim Reaper, earthquakes - the whole nine yards.  Yet while it takes those doomsayers literally, it also questions their belief system as well. Sharon’s faith is proven to be correct in the film, but it also leads her to some terrifying actions – actions that she takes no responsibility for – right to the end of the film when she still demands more from God than he is willing to give.

The Rapture didn’t make a large impression on audiences in 1991 – and has pretty much been forgotten in the years since. Perhaps this is because Tolkin never became a major director – directing only one other film (The New Age in 1994 – a film I’ve never been able to find) and because Rogers never really became a major star. Rogers’s performance in the film is great though – going from hedonist to holier-than-thou and making the transition seem natural. Her performance in the final act of the movie is quietly, subtly terrifying. The rest of the performances aren’t very good though – with Duchovny a boring monotone, as is Will Patton in the final act as a kindly cop. Patrick Bachau isn’t given a real character to play, and poor Kimberly Cullum is given nothing to do but annoyingly whine through the scenes in the desert. Perhaps the film never found an audience because it was too sexual in its opening act for the religious types, and too religious in the final acts for the non-believers. Or perhaps it’s because The Rapture is a deeply flawed film on many levels. This is clearly one of those films that is far more interesting to talk about than it is to actually watch. But it is fascinating to talk about – it is fascinating to ponder its implications and should inspire lively debate among those people who aren’t absolutely convinced that their approach to God (or lack thereof) is the only one worth having (so pretty much everyone who doesn’t go on television to talk about their faith or their atheism). The Rapture is far from a great film – but it’s utterly fascinating one that takes its questions of faith and God seriously. If for no other reason than that, it deserves to be more widely known.