Forgotten Favorites: The East (2013)

large_4BdJyWnDnDOd3bvixHFJh9txIcmThe East (2013) is probably the most recent film I’ll ever write about as part of this feature, but upon a second viewing a couple of days ago, I realized why it might be forgotten; it inhabits quite an interesting position in independent cinema, and poses a kind of conundrum as to what independent cinema is or should look like. It’s a film whose genre might have prevented it from reaching any kind of indie-infamy (the kind of fame that many festival darlings receive, for instance). After all, it is a thriller of sorts. But it is also carefully paced, intelligent, and driven by its humanity– thematically and literally, with characters you come to ache for– not to mention stylish and mostly devoid of worn-out cliches.

The reason I consider it “forgotten,” just to reiterate, hinges upon this strange dichotomy– not mainstream enough in its genre sensibilities for people to respond to it as a thriller and yet perhaps not indie enough to reach acclaim, despite it garnering fairly positive reviews at the time of its release. I saw it in theaters last summer, shortly before I decided to make this blog. And I loved it. Yet, somehow, I keep forgetting about it myself, or so was the case until my second viewing.

I have no way of guaranteeing whether this film will remain “forgotten” for me from this point forward, but I like to think that it won’t. Morally complex and endlessly compelling, this film– the second collaboration between director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling– somehow manages to be intellectual and emotional, entertaining and sophisticated, all at once. But, for whatever reason– and it could be as simple as my lack of film reviewing experience when I first saw it– it affected me more deeply this time. It tells the story of Jane, undercover as Sarah (and played by Marling), sent to live with, observe, and thus help take down a mysterious eco-terrorist group called The East. But, somewhat predictably, she gradually begins to learn from them, growing to maybe even respect their aims (although perhaps not their means). Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson co-star in what becomes a subtly intense and timely tale of morality and criminality.

hero_TheEast-2013-1One of my favorite moments of the film is actually its opening– a wonderfully edited, deeply chilling introduction to The East’s goals and approach– Ellen Page’s voiceover bridges both surveillance footage and harrowing images of animals covered in oil after a devastating spill. We learn that the group’s philosophy is that of “an eye for an eye,” as security cameras capture their awesomely disturbing retribution: thick globs of oil spilling through the vents of a CEO’s house. We see each of their subsequent “jams” as they are being planned (aka debated over) and brilliantly (if not also tumultuously) executed, and the viewer is often in a similar position to Sarah’s; we know their acts are illegal, but are they anymore unethical than the acts they are punishing? Who is really to blame for these crimes against our environment, and does revenge actually spread awareness? Is it actually effective to target the rich and powerful who don’t seem to care?The East - 4

The film is a wake-up call of sorts to viewers though– if you want it to be one– that these injustices are real and that they matter, but it also questions what the best way of handling these problems might be. And this makes the film political but also purely thrilling, for all its wonderful, psychological complications. Skarsgard’s leader Benji is elusive, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes cold, but altogether, he is human. Sarah’s boss on the other hand, played by Clarkson, seems to be no better than the CEOs she works to protect. It is precisely these kinds of complications that make the film so engaging and difficult to grapple with on a deeper level– but it isn’t a film that requires you to think on that level necessarily to enjoy it.postfull-where-and-when-to-see-the-east-near-you-0S_083_TE_07276-2

On this deeper level though, these complications make the film a perfect thriller for our current climate– no pun intended– and that is why I don’t want it to be forgotten. It isn’t a perfect film, of course– in fact, many critics might say it falls flat in the final act with a conclusion that comes too abruptly and a shaky resolution that plays out in stills throughout the credits. But, The East does raise thematic questions through powerful, human lenses, and for that alone, I think it’s a success in whatever genre or label you’d prefer to place it in. It is a film that caters to the cerebral, the emotional, and the visual– it feels hip and intelligent and gripping, like I said. So for all it has going for it, it’s a shame that, by occupying such varied spaces and satisfying in so many ways, it is nearly impossible to categorize and thus really hard to remember. Again: a real shame for a film that should technically reach more people as a result of all it has to offer– entertaining and awakening us all, and achieving that rare balance with grace.

Advertisements

Forgotten Favorites: Gremlins (1984)

gremlins-movie-poster-1984-1020496735When Todd over at Forgotten Films invited me to join his next blogathon, which was set to be 1984-themed, I knew exactly what film I wanted to write about: Gremlins. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is really a strange film in a lot of ways; it is nearly impossible to categorize because it is unlike anything else. It is also a movie that I’ve loved since childhood. That, in itself, is a loaded and interesting claim to make– is it a kids movie? No, not really. But it’s also not mature enough to be not for kids, if that makes sense… Truth be told, the film is the one of the most uproariously and outrageously fun and refreshingly eccentric blockbusters partly because it is so unique. It straddles a fine line that no other film had yet straddled in 1984, of course; for those who may not be aware, what I am trying to say with this cryptic analysis of the film’s tone and intended audience is simply that Gremlins is the movie that gave rise to a whole new rating: PG-13. Upon its release, the film was rated PG because R was a bit much– understandably so, for a movie about cute, cuddly creatures (even though they do not remain so cute and cuddly). But many parents felt PG was too soft– again, the creatures are anything but cute and cuddly for a solid portion of the film, and besides their now-creepy aesthetic, their bad behavior is laced with mischievous double entendres perhaps not suitable for children under 13.

While I often try to reserve a little space in my Forgotten Favorites features to discuss something slightly outside the film itself, I feel I’ve already digressed enough about the MPAA and if I go any further, this may devolve into me venting about the issues I have with said rating system. Needless to say though, this film was really more important than it ever seemed like it would be. I mean, there may be some deeper commentary going on (but just barely– much of the critique of consumerism is left for the film’s even zanier 1990 sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch) but overall, this is just a thrilling popcorn flick that flings you giddily, almost violently, through a number of emotions and reactions with every bit of hijinks that ensue.

Gizmo

These hijinks (and the hilarity and minor scares that come with them) all begin when Billy (Zach Galligan) is given a pet who comes with three very specific rules for taking care of him. The pet is a gremlin, specifically the lovable Gizmo (voiced by none other than Howie Mandel). The rules are as follows: don’t feed him after midnight, don’t get him wet, and no bright lights. All three are eventually, and inadvertently, broken, causing Gizmo to reproduce and spawn evil, green, reptilian counterparts– evil gremlins, if you will, who wreak havoc on Billy’s small town. They’re more like punk-rock pests than they are mini-Godzillas of any kind, but they are genuinely horrifying as well as being genuinely humorous in their actions.

gremlins-movie-theater-rampage

The film is popcorn fodder at its best and brightest– smart but also undeniably silly. Almost every way in which the evil gremlins frighten the townsfolk is meant, above all else, to make us laugh, but there’s something else about this film that is fun… A kind of glee in feeling disgusted by and even a little bit scared of these fictional monsters, who are so destructive and so comical.The movie is and always will be one of my all time favorites. I was the kind of kid who was into horror movies and all things ghoulish, but as a kid, you still want there to be humor and a sense that this is just too preposterous to ever be real (although I’m sure most kids, like myself, wanted a Gizmo of their very own and would swear to never break any of the three rules).

And yet, as a young adult, the film still holds up, nostalgia not withstanding. It has moments that might go over a child’s head (hence the need for that parental guidance). And the visual effects that went into creating these evil gremlins are actually quite creepy and thus gloriously effective. It is for all these reasons and more that the film doesn’t seem overly corny or outdated even today; imaginative and endlessly enjoyable to watch, Gremlins is one of the great unexpected, oddball/black sheep treasures of popular cinema. Its legacy as such has lasted this long and won’t be fading anytime soon, as far as I’m concerned.

For all the other wonderful posts from the blogosphere that Forgotten Films will be sponsoring and promoting as part of his 1984-a-thon, I encourage you to click here and marvel in the awesomeness of that year in film. Thank you all for reading and to Todd once again for letting me revisit a film that I love so much. 

1984_blogathon

Forgotten Favorites: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

Buffalo_Soldiers_film_poster

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.

buffalo_soldiers_1

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.

1326921879402

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.

still-of-anna-paquin-and-joaquin-phoenix-in-buffalo-soldiers-(2001)-large-picture

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.

Forgotten Favorites: Fido (2006)

fido

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.  

fidorev05

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.   

fido2

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. 

Introducing New Feature: Forgotten Favorites! From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Hello readers! I’ve been meaning to blog more this summer, but with job searching, returning to my ushering gig part time, and writing a lot of stuff for the three other wonderful websites that I contribute to, it has been harder than I’d hoped to set aside time to work on my own blog! But, with that said, I think it’s time I introduce a new feature called Forgotten Favorites; it’s something that I’ve wanted to start for quite some time now, and I’m really excited about it! Plus, it’s a perfect way of celebrating the official one year anniversary of my blog!

The focus of Forgotten Favorites will be one film per post that I’ve been reintroduced to recently– for instance, even if it is a film that is universally loved and respected, I may still choose to write about it, especially if it is a little bit older and if I’ve seen it before, but too long ago for me personally to remember how great it truly is until a repeat viewing. Or maybe it is a cult classic, or a movie that I deem totally overlooked or underrated, or something I’ve actually always loved but had kind of forgotten about until it was playing on TV, perhaps. Per post, I’ll probably break down what about the film is “forgotten” (in other words, I’ll indicate clearly what category, out of those I just went through, the film belongs to– Is it a classic whose glory solely I  had to be reminded of by revisiting it years later? Or is it forgotten by more than just me, ignored by the masses and deserving of more acclaim?) and then discuss why it is or should be a “favorite” nevertheless.

For this first edition of Forgotten Favorites then, I’d like to re-evaluate Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). I had seen this film as a kid (much to my mom’s retrospective and extremely halfhearted, if not totally uncommitted/unconvinced regret– “eh, I probably shouldn’t have shown that one to you at that age either;” the “either” being an imperative term that indicates just how many horror films I’d seen during the formative years of my childhood and yet how relatively unscathed I came away from them). Anyway, I had only seen it (and thus remembered it) in bits and pieces ever since then, the kind of movie that I’d say is “so good” but I wouldn’t be able to tell you why, not concretely at least. So I watched it yesterday on Netflix in full for the first time in years.

From_dusk_till_dawn_poster

So, that’s why I “forgot” it; this is one of those examples where it’s more of a personal lapse than a communal one. With this year’s TV series based on the film and of the same name, I knew it was about time that I re-watch and remind myself of the campy, pulpy flick, so that my love for the movie was based more in truth than in nostalgia. And, the truth is, the film is not perfect, but it is just as much fun as I remember. For the first half of it, it’s hard– no, impossible– to predict that vampires are going to come into play by the time the second half rolls around. The film stars George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay, and it shows), as thieving bandit brothers on the run and with a plan, or rather plans, plural since they keep going somewhat awry and require subsequent re-evaluating. So the first half of the film, feeling particularly Tarantino-y as I said, is bloody and almost comically brutal but only through less-than-supernatural means.

It’s only when we get to the crazy biker and trucker bar over the Mexican border that the true fun, for me anyway, begins. If there was any one scene that I remembered vividly, it was that first transformation scene, the all out brawl, when we realize that the bar’s staff– from the servers to the bouncers to the strippers and dancers– is comprised of horrific, creepy, over-the-top vampires.

If we’re going to delve into what about the film is my “favorite” aspect, or why the film is a favorite of mine (especially now that I’ve seen it recently and fully enough to say so with integrity), I would say it’s the makeup effects. Greg Nicotero, who has a cameo in the film alongside his predecessor and teacher, Tom Savini (who’s character is named “Sex Machine,” because why not?), did the effects for this film, and they are as campy and glorious and intricate as ever. You can see his traditions and trends and characteristics from his work on Evil Dead 2, I think, and each vampire is a little different, and all equally gruesome; they’re not merely pale people with fangs, they are horrible, disgusting creatures, and I love that about them.

tom-savini-dusk-till-dawn-vampire

Plus, this movie is perfect at making a case for makeup over computer generation: even in the hoards of vampires, you can see and feel the textures of every individual one of them, and when they melt, burst into flames or explode during the fight scenes, it feels real (because it basically is real– and that is something CG can’t replicate, in my opinion).

So, before checking out the TV series, which I haven’t yet but really want to now, I’d recommend everyone revisits From Dusk Till Dawn. It is a sometimes uneven but awesomely outrageous crime-caper-turned-vampire-horror-comedy, and it was exciting to remember aspects of that while being refreshed and reawakened to other aspects it had been too long for me to have remembered– if you’re like me and haven’t seen it in a while, you might just be seeing it through new eyes yourself, and that kind of movie re-watching experience is precisely why I am really happy to be embarking on this new feature for you all! Thanks for reading this first edition of Forgotten Favorites! Check back soon for further editions and important edits, including a new category tab along the top of my site for easy access to the feature as well as a permanent description of the feature in my About the Blog[ger] page! Any suggestions or feedback is always much appreciated.