Month: March 2015

Classic Film Review- ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (1985) (***1/2)

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Guess which one is Susan?
Guess which one is Susan?

Desperately Seeking Susan  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, Will Patton, and Laurie Metcalf

Written by: Leora Barish

Directed by: Susan Seidelman

 

Simply stating “I saw that many times when I was younger” is not sufficient enough info to explain a film’s quality.  On the eve of the 30th anniversary for Desperately Seeking Susan, I revisited the film, curious to see if what fired up on my TV screen coincided with what my nostalgic mind had etched in.  The result was interesting, for I remembered everything; as an adult, however, I saw it all differently.  Plot-wise, it is a standard film about mistaken identity and breaking out of your shell, and just by watching, you can nearly smell the Aqua Net.  History now tells a slightly different story.  Looking back we can see that the film is, quite possibly, a landmark- not just for culture and fashion, but also from an oddly feminist perspective in a time where capitalism and machismo ran amok.  With memorable characters, great music, and a carefree sensibility, it’s an 80’s film that actually works.

Rosanna Arquette stars as Roberta Glass, the embodiment of the wealthy stay-at-home 80’s wife.  She’s bored, naturally, as her husband Gary (Blum) runs a hot tub business while fooling around.  Roberta resorts to sifting through the personals to generate some excitement in her life.  One such personal, an ongoing, coded conversation between a ‘Jim’ (Robert Joy) and a ‘Susan’ (Madonna) catches her eye, and she decides to ‘participate’.  First, she not-so-subtly tails Susan to a meeting with Jim, then to a thrift store, where she manages to buy what Susan has just traded in, a sequined jacket.  This just happens to be the same sequined jacket that caught the eye of a mob killer (Will Patton), who now tracks her.  In a twist, she’s knocked unconscious after an altercation with said killer, and Dez (Aidan Quinn) comes to her rescue.  Of course, Dez is the aforementioned Jim’s friend, and he’s just helping him out by checking up on her.  Dez now thinks that Roberta is Susan, and since her identification disappears, well, she basically becomes Susan.

I completely understand that this film offers no breakthroughs in plot framing, but it does work, even if it asks the audience to pay attention.  The issue with amnesia/mistaken identity films always becomes when and where the lead is ‘found out’, or begins to remember.  The writer always knows to place that moment wherever it is needed, not when it necessarily would happen.  In this case, the coincidences are plenty, but thematically it works.  Roberta, for all intents and purposes, wanted to be like Susan anyway- fate just sort of pushed her in that direction.  She becomes attracted to Dez, gets a job working with a magician, and begins to dress how her mind apparently wants her to dress.  I appreciate this film’s rebellious spirit and renegade fashion sense, not conforming to the entrepreneurial 80s.  You can almost feel society moving with the film, as Roberta drops her shoulder pads for a monogrammed leather coat.

In that sense, one could classify Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan as a “feminist” film; one that recognizes the jolt that Aidan Quinn’s character gives to Roberta, but establishes that it’s Roberta herself that makes the choice to leave her husband, and to succeed on her own, establishing her own identity.  The rogue, expressive freedom that Madonna exudes through her character and her wardrobe is sexy, yes, but not exploitative.  Susan is a character that controls her sexuality, and maintains her independence.  Make no mistake- Madonna started something in the mid 1980s, and this film is a fair portrait of her influence.  I remember in particular a fellow student raising a ruckus back in second grade when she dressed like Madonna.  Certainly, while it was inappropriate wear for a second grader, it’s clear that Madonna’s personality and style permeated our culture like few stars before- or after.  While not a narrative masterpiece, Desperately Seeking Susan is still fun, and quite deserving of its’ position as a declarative 1980s film.

 

 

Film Review- ‘The Gunman’ (**1/2)

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Jeff Spicoli encountered some rough times after his fast times.
Jeff Spicoli encountered some rough times after his fast times.

The Gunman  **1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca, Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba

Written by: Pete Travis & Don MacPherson (screenplay), based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Directed by: Pierre Morel

An all-too-familiar feeling surrounds director Pierre Morel’s latest film The Gunman.  As the saying goes, familiarity does occasionally breed contempt.  I cannot recommend The Gunman to you, but by acknowledging my contempt, I should be fair in saying that it is not a bad film.  The performances are steady, the pacing is fine, the foreign locales are well shot, and the action is tightly edited.  We’ve just seen this film too often, so we neither need, nor should we want for this film.

Sean Penn stars as Jim Terrier, a mercenary-for-hire with a heart of gold (aren’t they always?).  Penn is another quinquagenarian (yes, of course I looked up the word) trying his hand at an action role, but I sincerely do not believe it was for that reason alone.  It’s clear to see why Penn was attracted to the role, as it’s laced with a potent whiff of liberal guilt, topped with a crème fouettée of extreme anguish (yes, I looked up crème fouettée also).  When the film begins, he’s basically a hitman, doing bad things, with little to no thought on the moral complications, and voraciously loving a woman (Jasmine Trinca).  Typical man (amiright, ladies?).  He’s clearly in love with this woman as well, but stays true to the ol’ mercenary code and walks away after killing the “Minister of Mining” in the Congo.

We meet up with him eight years later in a different state, working to basically right what he hath wrought.  Hell, as it is wont to do, comes to breakfast for Jim, as he’s targeted while on one of his humanitarian missions.  Scared stiff, he seeks out his mercenary brethren to warn them, then kill the killers before they kill him.  Two of his former mates have already been offed, while the third (Mark Rylance) and fourth (Javier Bardem) are running their own multinational companies.  Rylance’s character is befuddled with Jim’s story, and gives half-hearted assurances that he’ll look into it (which, of course, tells the audience that we should be leery).  Bardem’s character, on the other hand, has wedded Jim’s former flame, and immediately gets on the defensive with him.  We know he’s bad news, because he’s Javier Bardem.

Luckily for Jim, he’s got a pal he can rely on.  If I asked you which actor was cast for the role of “trusty yet seedy English sidekick on the inside”, you’d guess Ray Winstone, right?  Of course you would, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  He even has a perfect trusty sidekick name in Stanley.  Jim, and the plot, need Stanley to get ‘another job’, which will inject him into the situation so he can find out why he has been targeted after all this time.  Of course, with international murder mysteries, we must have Interpol show up at some point, and that’s where Special Agent Awesome (Idris Elba, on-screen for all of three minutes) comes in, patiently waiting for the mercs to kill each other before he swoops in to catch the survivors in the act.  It’s all very standard and not very interesting.

If could call attention to one special item in regards to this production, it is Bardem.  For what seems like the umpteenth time now, he plays a role in which the character suffers some sort of massive bodily injury, contemplates or tempts death, or in which his visage is horrifically altered.  It pains me to think of why he continues to accept roles like this, and for that matter, appears to enjoy them.  I wonder why I haven’t sensed this before, but join me in reflection, dear reader: No Country For Old Men, The Sea Inside, Love In The Time Of Cholera, Skyfall, The Counselor, and now The Gunman.  The man clearly enjoys seeing himself maimed, harmed, or in decay.  You could say I’m done being excited about seeing him in films, at least until his Danse Macabre is finished already.

It sounds like I hate this, but I truly don’t.  The film doesn’t offend, and is made with a deft action hand.  Therein lies the issue, however.  As a tried and true formula action picture, it exists with the Bournes and Bonds and Takens that came before it; I’m going to forget this one, though.  I may have already.  Without a single memorable line, moment, or exuberance of charisma from any character, it would take a great deal of faith or fandom in Sean Penn or Bardem to truly remember it.  It simply exists, much like the Taken franchise does, but with a better actor in charge.  Wait, I remembered something- when I’m a quinquagenarian, I want my veins to pop out of my skin like Penn’s do here.  I’ll have what he’s having.

Film Review- ‘Chappie’ (***1/2)

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He is consciousness.  He is alive.  He is Chappie.
He is consciousness. He is alive. He is Chappie.

Chappie  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Sharlto Copley (voice), Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Sigourney Weaver

Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

 

The furor and my personal excitement surrounding the announcement of another Alien film may have had me biased towards director Neill Blomkamp’s latest film Chappie.  I admit that I fawn over his gritty, real-time visual style, and his big ideas.  I also don’t shy away from his too-obvious social commentary, either.  That being said, I was still prepared for an incomplete experience- after all, he had four years to bring us his District 9 follow-up in Elysium, and that offered little in the way of enjoyment, other than the idea.  Chappie, is a slightly more developed film, on both the ideas and execution front.  Even Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner-esque score works.  Sure, it is something of a mess at times, has some unnecessary gore and two characters that cinema and the world can do without; but I liked the mess, especially as it plays as an earnest mess.

Chappie (the robot) is an incredibly likable character, and never ventures into silly “Johnny 5” territory.  His naiveté, eagerness to please, and hyperactive behavior embody an endearing and fascinating look at what a manufactured intelligence might actually do, how quickly it would develop, and what lengths it would go to understand itself and humanity.  Chappie is almost literally thrown into the fire with humanity, and in the process gets a crash course in understanding us.  That the robot can even function with the chaos surrounding it is remarkable, and Blomkamp frames his experience well.  Also boosting the character is Chappie’s design- his chassis is conducive to allowing for fluidity with the CGI, as well.  Not once did I doubt that Chappie was a tangible, real being.  Even the designs of the computer programs used to upload firmware, etc, are believable and grounded, unlike most tech films.  The science and the science-fiction behind the A.I. ideas in Chappie are is better than anything films like Transcendence, and dare I say even Terminator 2, have to offer, which I suppose is more a commentary on how poor Transcendence is than the quality of Chappie.  The film gives us (maybe a bit too obviously) clear examples of how humans can be so inventive and yet so destructive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Blomkamp may actually prefer robots and aliens to humans, or simply enjoys using them as a tool for self-reflection.  In his dealings with supposed lesser beings, we see how his filmmaking is possibly a reflection of his own upbringing, and his way of covering social injustices or opinions.  Is it overdone and a bit ham-handed?  Possibly.  If you’re looking for that, you’ll find it.

Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) is Chappie.  The best of him as an actor comes through as he only voices the role, and the worst of him is left out.  Hugh Jackman is actually pretty great as a frustrated, foolish, lonely man with a mullet.  He’s the embodiment of every middle-aged conservative that believes their patriotism should automatically result in fortune and glory, or that the sword is always mightier than the pen.  You know the type.  Dev Patel brings a believability to the role, even if he’s not all that charismatic.  On the other hand, Die Antwoord (Ninja and Visser), for all the odd, shrieking rapping talents they may have, took far too much of the spotlight.  We get it, Neill, you like their music, but they needed to tone it down- or go away.  I vote for going away.  Are they an embodiment of post-Apartheid South Africa, and that’s why Blomkamp chose them?  Are they perfect match for him?  He may have started down the road of possibly casting them, then figured it worked for whatever image of urban Johannesburg he wanted.  Weaver, as she has been for some time, is lost here, constantly moving her head oddly about, but never grinding her teeth.  It pains me to say that I long for the scenery chewing of Ellen Ripley, or even the demanding of respect as the first lady in Dave.  Now we get the random and ill-conceived Avatar role, or lacking the leadership she should exude here.

It’s no mistake the film invokes the term ‘black sheep’; this film knows it is different, or an “acquired taste” if you will.  Look beyond that to find the heart of it, and may just see it.  As I see it, Chappie is simply the red-headed stepchild of Blade Runner.  Obviously, I liked Chappie, and the glimpses of creativity we see from Blomkamp are such a wonderful breath of fresh air.  I’m just a blogger, though.  Most professional critics have lined up to swat at this film like a proverbial pinata.  They want to hate this film, and from what I’ve read, many of them have.  Many have resorted to lazy puns in describing the film, such as “Chappie is a scrap heap of regrettable storytelling”*, or in multiple places ‘crappy Chappie‘.  Sigh.  In one breath, they’ll praise the aforementioned Blade Runner because it’s artsy, and in the next breath they’ll decry this, the more direct film.  I saw through the noise, and understood Blomkamp’s intention.  Am I giving him the benefit of the doubt because I want him to be good?  Sure, but as my review for Elysium stated, I have no issue blasting him, either.  I liked Chappie in spite of what I’d like to change about it.

The sum of Chappie opinions show a clear critic/audience divide, and I think it warrants further examination.  Chappie is the best “fan film” you’ll ever see- made by a geek with an excellent eye and a nice budget.  I’m a geek, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I gathered that Blomkamp isn’t a master filmmaker, but there are certain parts of this film that spoke to the unrealized, undeveloped, yet creative young geek in me.  Critics, on the other hand, lack the wherewithal to see this, and they refuse to respect geek material and/or culture.  It’s why superhero films and comics are sometimes loved, but usually loathed, and have blanket opinions on the quality, or even an acceptance of their existence, thrown on them.  If The Dark Knight comes along, then of course it’s a sheer miracle that it is good.  It’s a superhero, or simply a geek film, not just a film.  I’ll take a stand here and say that bias prevented others from enjoying the majority of Chappie– but it won’t prevent me from recommending it.

 

*Fanboy Nation, 3/6/15