Forgotten Favorites: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

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For this edition of Forgotten Favorites, I’ll be reviewing and discussing Buffalo Soldiers, a film from 2001 directed by Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan. I’d never seen or even heard of it before today. It was on Showtime On Demand, and while watching, I looked up some fascinating trivia about the film– trivia that could help explain why it was forgotten.

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th, 2001, the events of 9/11 just two days later pretty much destroyed any distribution potential in the US. Two years later, during a Q&A following a screening of it at Sundance, a woman verbally attacked the film and accused the filmmakers of being un-American, even going so far as to throw a plastic water bottle– aiming for the screen, but instead hitting an elderly man in the head, because that is more American somehow, isn’t it? From there, the film was only released in the US in a limited run later that year. The first theatrical release of the film was actually in Germany in 2002. Pretty interesting stuff, if you ask me.

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And I guess I could see why someone would come to such an accusation, but I can’t say I agree with hating a film for yielding such potential interpretations. After all, the film feels refreshingly and bitingly honest in its cynicism, and it is well-acted and entertaining. The problem is that people just don’t like to admit to or bear cinematic witness to any possible corruption, purposelessness, drug-addiction, boredom, greed and useless violence that may or may not have really transpired among at least certain American troops at certain times and in certain places. The time and place of this film is a US Army base in West Germany in 1989– just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was this premise that drew me to the film initially, and it was the trivia surrounding it that drew me in, but it was the story and even more so the execution which ended up hooking me for me good.

The plot revolves around Ray Elwood, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He and his fellow soldiers are not merely bored, they’re also fairly unenthusiastic about being soldiers in the first place, and we know as viewers that their training was all for nothing anyway, particularly as the Cold War is coming to a close (before ever heating up). The only thing Elwood seems even remotely driven by is his heroin-cooking and selling, and he and the rest of these men are all involved as buyers, sellers and/or users in a criminal subculture that surely does make these Americans look irresponsible, spoiled and at times foolish. One notable scene is when a tank barrels through a German town, causing all kinds of needless destruction that is both devastating and comic at the same time, all because the men operating the tank were high to the point of stupidity.

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Anyway, when a sort of rivalry– equally rooted in American male hubris and aggression, and militaristic status– begins between the strict, stern and unforgiving Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) and Elwood, Elwood decides to court Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), out of vengeful spite. But Robyn and Elwood soon fall for each other. And with a massive order of heroin to make, tensions continue to rise from all these various origins until the ironic ending. The film’s conclusion, without giving too much away in terms of content, is so cheery, so devoid of any character’s maturation, growth or change and only confirming a willful stubbornness instead, that the message that comes across to us is alternately skeptical and bleak, accentuated by a Nietzsche quote about there always being a war somewhere.

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Genre and tone are everything when it comes to any kind of war movie, I think. Based on a novel, this film is satirical and turns the American’s involvement in the Cold War’s final moments into a joke. I am, however, in no way against that. In fact, the film was immensely enjoyable and its critique was clear without being obnoxious. Other war movies may be critical of war itself– Jarhead (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2008) might come to mind– but even those are “patriotic” in some sense, again criticizing the act of war more than those fighting it. Buffalo Soldiers took a darkly humorous approach and perhaps that is what led to its demise commercially.

But I think it is all the smarter and better for it, because it isn’t necessarily any less about war itself, especially where the Cold War is concerned– a war that was inherently tense but also understandably slow and uneventful, especially at this juncture for the Americans. The Americans act the way they do here not only because they are Americans (to whatever extent that was actually intended, if at all) but also because they were soldiers in a war they’d never actually get to fight in, everyday losing ambition except for perhaps within their black market dealings. With Sergeant Lee as a nearly sadistic Vietnam veteran though, it’s hard to say whether or not the film is suggesting that seeing actual action would have made these men any “better” after all.

I think the film begs these kinds of questions and I think it’s a shame that it was somewhat dismissed for inciting these kinds of conversations before it could ever fully do so among audiences here. As a film though, it is a hidden gem that deserves rediscovery, especially if you’re unafraid of its rough, sharp edges and feisty, fiery glow.

Redhead Temper: Revisiting My Summer TV Picks (Includes Spoilers!)

Early last month, I wrote a post about three shows I was either loving or excited to love this summer: Penny Dreadful, True Blood, and The Strain. When I’d written the post, each show was at a different point in their respective series, and they were all at different points in their seasons (one had just begun and two had not). Now, Penny Dreadful‘s short first season is complete, while the final season of True Blood is a few episodes in, and The Strain just premiered on FX this past Sunday. So, I thought (since I don’t do recaps or reviews for any TV shows besides The Walking Dead) it would be kind of fun to reassess my expectations and opinions now that we’re at that different point– how was Penny Dreadful‘s first season as a whole, what are my feelings on True Blood so far, and what’d I think about The Strain‘s pilot episode? Well, let’s find out!

First, Penny Dreadful: Okay, I would be lying if I denied that the first season of this show was a bit of an incoherent, inconsistent mess. It was incoherent and inconsistent, yes, but I loved it unashamedly. Its main strength was its Frankenstein subplot. The main flaw?: The very fact that the series’ main strength was a subplot at all and that sometimes, that subplot was sacrificed for a plethora of other less interesting, less developed and less important subplots. The show jumped around at times, while at others it seamlessly weaved together the new characters and stories with the classic, familiar ones.

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With so many things going on, the series sometimes felt confused and unfocused, not knowing what, or how, to prioritize. For example, what ever happened to the Egyptian vibe concerning the vampires? Well, not a whole lot. Vanessa is possessed in a late episode, probably one of the most gripping and genuinely scary episodes of the whole series I will add. It seemed on the one hand that she was possessed, or would become possessed if something wasn’t done to stop it, by this sort of evil Egyptian goddess entity, but then even that gets muddled when we also learn that the devil wants her to be the mother of evil and witness Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, perform a last minute exorcism on her.

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Again– a truly creepy and intense episode, but one which raised more questions that were not yet answered, and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. For one thing, the main storyline concerning Sir Malcom Murray’s daughter, Mina, is brought to sufficient closure; Mina is found but cannot be rescued, as Malcolm chooses Vanessa over her in a pretty climactic showdown. But, that storyline wasn’t always the most exciting in the first place. So while I do wonder what new classic literary figures will be introduced or what the new central conflict will be, the most exciting prospect for season two is, again, the Frankenstein arc, which looks like it’ll include the creation of the creature’s bride. So, no it’s not a perfect series, but the best parts of it are truly great and even the flaws are still intriguing exercises in Gothic-hodgepodge-horror.

Next, the final season of True Blood: I’ve been hearing less than positive things from fans about this final season, but I can’t say I agree with all the anti-hype. In fact, all the negativity is somewhat making me wonder, are we watching two completely different shows here? I am loving this final season, even though it is not without its usual flaws. Mainly, I think it is nostalgic in all the right ways. It has so far proven to be a reasonably fun, relatively shocking and acceptably action-packed season filled with funny-haired flashbacks and hyper-stylized fight scenes.

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I love that Anna Camp’s adorably conniving Sarah Newlin is back and that the Hep-V-infected Eric will presumably go after her for revenge as only he could– after he helps out a much jaded Sookie and the gang, of course. My only concern at this point is that the two seemingly central groups of antagonists have been eliminated within the first half of the season, and with such a quick set-up and resolution like that, what will the second half have in store? All in all though, I think for a show that has technically worn out its welcome a few seasons ago already with many fans, this season feels like a perfect way to go out– wrapping things up, killing them off, and making some kind of impact once more.

And lastly, there is FX’s The Strain: The pilot ran almost two hours long but moved swiftly and speedily through cheesy dialogue, gruesome visuals, and complicated, interweaving stories. As someone who is currently working her way through the source material(s– novels and comics), a big part of the fun for me was matching the episode to those texts, gleefully picking apart the adaptation choices and changes. Overall, the episode seemed very reverent, and it was directed by Guillermo del Toro himself.

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Many people were expecting it to be better, but I think it was exactly is del Toro intended it to be– after all, if anyone has read the books or the graphic novels, it is clear that the campy qualities and tonal shifts and shallowly-defined but still likable characters are drawn directly from those very things, as opposed to resulting from a poorly executed adaptation process. In a sense, this is Pacific Rim del Toro, not Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro– it is B- movie wonderful, part medical mystery and driven by a truly unique and mysterious and not to mention creepy approach to vampire lore. I have high hopes for the season and the series as a whole, and I’m perfectly content with the show as it is, instead of wishing it were something it never even intended or claimed to be in the first place.

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Well there you have it– a sort of recap/review of these three shows since last I talked about them on here. Perhaps if I deem necessary, I’ll write revisit this same topic yet again later in the summer. By then, I can write about whether any of my True Blood questions are answered… Or I guess I can always just reminisce about why the show has meant so much to me over the years, no matter how the series does or does not end, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if I know how I personally would prefer for it to conclude. Or maybe I’ll speculate more on whether we’ll get Jekyll and Hyde or more information about Ethan’s true identity as a werewolf in season 2 of Penny Dreadful. And it might be fun to take note of what has in fact been changed from book/comic to screen as we get further along into The Strain. Either way, I felt it was important for me to once more highlight and discuss these three horror shows all within their differing stages.

Review: The Lego Movie

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Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, Alison Brie
Rating: 3 out of 5 Lego bricks. I really liked this movie when it first started and had high expectations going in (based on all the positive buzz it had received when it hit theaters), and I loved the final act quite a bit as well, but in the middle stretch, I started to grow weary of its frenzied pace and its equally hyper comedic timing. It’s a very clever and ambitious animated-comedy, don’t get me wrong– but I think I was expecting to actually laugh more than I did. For me, the experience was more often a strictly cognitive recognition of humor, with the exception of certain moments that seemed more heartfelt and driven by the actual narrative, and less rushed for the sake of maintaining the film’s frantic vibe and also less burdened by the very same self-aware, jokey pretension that makes the film so smart in the first place.

And I know people will probably hate me for not loving the film as much as it perhaps deserves to be loved– again, it is smart and slick especially with regard to the very question of product placement, but there was only so much entertainment I was able to consistently find in that, somehow. And its themes and morals are particularly wonderful too (like imagination and creativity over order and control, for instance), but as far as enjoyment goes, this movie simply didn’t mesh quite as well with my sense of humor as I would have liked or hoped.

For those who don’t already know, the film tells the story of Emmet (Pratt) who, despite his bland, average every[Lego]man appearance, demeanor and profession as a construction worker, unwittingly becomes the “Special:” a figure who is meant to save [Lego] humanity by finding the piece of resistance and using it to stop Lord Business from gluing the universe into place. I loved the way objects from our human world were implemented into this fantastical Lego world, and the way our understanding of Legos as a toy was also an integral part of the tale (the piece of resistance being a cap for the dreaded “Kragle” weapon which is, in fact, Krazy Glue).

The adventure that drives the film is certainly exhilarating, but also exhausting, and I think the film works best when the jokes are subtle and referential. The film is smartest in those moments, and yet some of the other jokes seemed alternately stupid, albeit on purpose maybe, and the shifts between the two were often confusing and tiresome.

That being said, this film is good, and I’m in no way saying it isn’t. I think my expectations were perhaps too high and my sense of humor too slow, or at least it was, in a sense, too unprepared– for the brightly colored sugar-rush of gags and characters that this film builds with such a rapid and giddy fervor, a fervor that is impressive but which I often found a chore to keep up with.

So, all of those complaints being aired out now, I really want to emphasize what I did love and enjoy about this film. It was fun to pick out the many voice cameos to be had from comedians and actors both random and expected, and its main cast of voice actors treat the script with a certain kind of gravity that is, again, both endearing and also a little jarring. The film’s final act which contains a twist of sorts was my absolute favorite aspect of the film– these final scenes were creative, thrilling and emotional, and they sold me on the film as a whole, I think. I loved that the film is not devoid of lessons for its younger viewers.

The Lego Movie, like the messages it boasts, is truly special in all its hodgepodge glory and in its ability to draw inspiration from a toy and become something more innovative and meaningful, giving the Lego building blocks we all know and love a renewed creative potential. In the end, I only wish I had found the film funnier, but Miller and Lord’s other strengths are definitely still discernible in what is otherwise a visually astonishing and intelligent animated feature.

 

Review: Snowpiercer

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Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 protein blocks. Aside from having to get used to some of Bong Joon-ho’s signature stylistic tendencies– mainly a jarring pace filled with tonal inconsistencies and abrupt, drastic mood shifts (all potential flaws that eventually become some of the film’s most distinct and intriguing characteristics)– this film is thoroughly enjoyable on visceral, intellectual and emotional levels. Riveting and intense, Snowpiercer is a refreshingly smart alternative to many summer blockbusters and a uniquely stylish approach to some familiar dystopian science-fiction tropes/themes as well.

Snowpiercer exceeded my expectations by almost as many miles as the train in the film can travel. The premise is in some ways familiar, and in many other ways, it is as unique as its execution: after almost all life on earth has been wiped out by a failed experiment to combat climate change, a portion of the world’s remaining human beings are saved by a train that runs around the globe, turning icebergs into the passengers’ water supply. On this train, a dangerous class system emerges. Evans plays Curtis, the anti-heroic leader of the most recent of revolts– the tail section’s poor inhabitants against the front cars’ rich and privileged ones. The latter are led (or at least represented) by the hilarious-but-also-really-scary Mason, played by the insanely talented Tilda Swinton.

The film chronicles this carefully planned and brutally fought revolution with stylized violence, dark humor, and some pretty shocking twists and turns; the length of the train is filled with discoveries, some gruesome (what are protein blocks made of, anyway?) and others beautiful (gracefully floating snowflakes, anyone?) in nature, and the film remains exciting and gripping– while also increasing in its absurdity– the further toward the front (and thus, the almighty engine) our protagonists get.

Reaching the engine is of the utmost importance to Curtis, whose own past on the train (which has been running for 18 years around the inhospitable globe) is revealed through a heartbreaking monologue near the film’s conclusion. He wants nothing more than to come face to face with the elusive Wilford– the inventor, engineer and conductor of the train, and the true leader of its population.

The biggest twists come in the film’s final act, and the ultimate resolution is hypnotic in its unpredictability, hopeful in its ambiguity– the payoff of the long, strange and often difficult journey is, in a word, satisfying. This film achieves the rare goal though of actually satisfying the need for action, the hunger for morals and messages, and the desire to feel for and relate to characters, all in nearly equal measure. It takes all the most brilliant and disturbing (and not to mention eerily timely) elements of dystopian sci-fi and heightens and reinvents them, resulting in one of the most aesthetically-stunning, fascinatingly intricate and awesomely original movies to come out of the genre recently. Available on VOD platform, this is one of my most urgently recommended movies of this summer.

Review: The Immigrant

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Director: James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 ships to Ellis Island. This film is a visually beautiful and emotionally resonant period piece– moving and rich with a stunning aesthetic and stellar performances. It is less than revolutionary, and it moves slowly at first (as the genre dictates, perhaps) but it is overall a solidly executed and thoroughly engaging drama.

James Gray’s The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa, played brilliantly and impressively by Cotillard (who even had to learn enough Polish to speak lines in her character’s mother tongue and speak English with an equally effective accent). She arrives in New York City with her sister, who is detained in the infirmary of Ellis Island for having, we learn later, Tuberculosis. The rest of the film powerfully chronicles the desperate lengths that Ewa must go to in order to raise enough money to pay for her sister’s release, so they may finally be reunited and given a fair chance at the American dream.

Those desperate lengths, of course, mainly involve prostitution– Bruno, Phoenix’s character, runs a sort of cabaret/brothel business, and Ewa grows to hate herself for continuing to demean herself for not only her own survival’s sake, but for her beloved sister’s (since Bruno not only has the money to help her– but also the connections and, increasingly, an infatuation for Ewa as well). The film is painful in many ways– devastating proof that women have always been exploited and left powerless, but Ewa is spunky and strong in her own ways despite her objectification, and that makes her even more compelling.

The human characters on the whole are complex, and their interactions are often complex as well– pained and gripping, the drama eventually mounts quite a bit more than you may expect it to. With the appearance of Bruno’s cousin, Emil– a magician who also loves Ewa, and who seems, at least somewhat, more level-headed than Bruno– the film seems like it may devolve into nothing more than a 1930′s set love triangle. But, Renner gives a performance that is particularly out of type for him, refreshing and endearing, and yet our complicated feelings toward all the characters ensure that this film more or less remains an emotionally intense character-driven tale of not merely love and passion, but also spirituality, sanity, desperation, survival, and sin, all shot in gorgeously bleak sepia tones that likewise somehow never seem as trite as they could.

Review: Closed Curtain

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Director: Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 darkened windows. I have not seen any of Panahi’s previous films, but know enough about his current status as a dissident filmmaker– banned in 2010 from making films by the Iranian government for twenty years– to feel the weight of that throughout this film. Enigmatic and deeply affecting, Panahi’s latest draws upon themes of politics and imagination in complicated, intricate ways and explores the cinematic medium as a means of expressing pressure and protest. As such, it is a mesmerizing and challenging testament to what a brilliant creative mind can produce even when forced to work in the most dire of conditions. 

Closed Curtain begins with a long take, shot through a wide gated window. The shot is still, and gives the film a tone of claustrophobia and restraint. Panahi makes restraint feel like artistry though, and the slow pace induces both a sense of dread and intimacy with our protagonist, the writer, played by co-director Partovi. The plot, so far as the film remains narrative anyway, revolves around this writer and his dog, Boy– an impossibly, wonderfully expressive dog, might I add– who go into hiding of sorts at a seaside villa. He drapes black sheets over all the windows, and his paranoia seems at least partially resultant from a ban on dogs in public for being “un-Islamic.”

One night, a man and a woman enter his sanctuary and break the albeit tense tranquility. If the film remained one of narrative progression, the central mystery would be who this woman truly is that the writer has been left to look over, and why she knows so much about the writer.

The more questions the film answers, the more mysteries it begins to spin, larger more meta mysteries that create a sometimes frustrating experience that is rewarding nonetheless; perhaps it is actually more rewarding the more mangled and muti-layered the film becomes, and even at its messiest, each and every moment is impressively punctuated by purpose and precision. The film is a puzzle, particularly as Panahi enters as himself.

The film becomes more of an exercise than anything else from that point on– rather than revelations or resolutions, we are left only with Panahi’s self-reflections and the interpretations we make about the writer and the woman in relation to Panahi himself– are they figments of his imagination, or characters he has yet to film, or divergent identities within his psyche? All options seem valid and possible, and the film is more concerned with how this medium can create such symbolism, rather than actually answering our questions about what the symbols are and what is being symbolized.

The film is not easy to understand, perhaps not even after repeat viewings. But it is one of the most important films I’ve ever seen. As expression, as protest, and as self-reflection, the film is a difficult but, again, ultimately rewarding journey. As much as the film will probably always evade my fullest comprehension, it is an experience that I am grateful to have had and an experience which I will never forget– after all, with even a basic understanding of Panahi’s struggles and bravery (working in Iran even under a twenty year ban, secretly shooting in confined spaces partly on smartphones and sending the finished products to film festivals on USB flash drives hidden in cakes), the film will reach your soul and remind you of why cinema still matters.  

 

Forgotten Favorites: Fido (2006)

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For this edition of Forgotten Favorites, I wanted to just say a little bit about 2006′s Fido, a clever yet lighthearted, somewhat underrated zombie-comedy directed by Andrew Currie and starring Billy Connolly as the title character. I re-watched about half of it earlier this week on Netflix, and hadn’t forgotten how amusing and well-done the film was. But certain other aspects had definitely gone over my head when I’d first seen it– namely, the film is not merely a zombie-comedy but also a successful and witty satire, and its cheeky, sarcastic tone and over-the-top elements shone brighter upon a more recent, albeit partial, viewing. 

Fido opens with a Cold War-esque instructional video– the kind that children in the 1950′s had to watch to learn about nuclear threats in the most hokey, falsely pleasant ways possible– that recounts a zombie war (wrought by radiation, of course). A company named Zomcon has implemented an intricate system of collars, rules and regulations to domesticate these living dead to be used as maids and butlers, pets and pals. Fido belongs to Timmy, a young friendless boy who treats his zombie as the latter– even when Fido wreaks havoc in town by accidentally acting in his nature.  

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The satire of the film is successful because it is obvious but never annoyingly so, and it is also multifaceted– there are many smaller components of American society at large being satirized in seemingly equal measure and with similar purpose. The blending of genres surely helps– and there are enough gory moments and references to zombie-lore that horror buffs could enjoy immensely– but the film never feels stale or overly familiar either.

The film’s setting– a generic sort of any-town, USA locale within a pseudo-earth during the plastic-pristine 1950′s– especially helps the film feel totally unique and jokingly nostalgic. Essentially, this backdrop is what allows for those multiple layers of satire: keeping up with the Joneses and that perfectly suburban fixation on appearances and status, servitude and obedience and ethics, and of course, the kinds of fears and emotions that ran rampant in our actual post-WWII world– a world that had truly painted itself as a disturbingly picturesque vision of an actually lacking stability.   

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The film is outwardly silly at times in the sense that it is really funny and fantastically retro, but in actuality, it is one of the smartest genre-benders in recent history. It intelligently comments on a number of things with a sense of humor and creativity that is often sacrificed for the sake of making some broad statement. Billy Connolly is great, as always, even as a bumbling zombie. His performance makes us believe that even the undead can have working, beating hearts, and that these creatures can love and be driven by other emotions besides a hunger for human flesh. I hadn’t forgotten how great this movie is, but I had certainly forgotten some of my many reasons for feeling that way.