Same Kind of Different as Me
It can be hard to disagree with the heart and events of this true tale, except for when the movie reveals itself to be mighty…
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
A report from TIFF on two films from John Woo and Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Simon Abrams' last report from Macau, involving a look at the "Crossfire" sidebar and a review of found footage film "1974."
Simon Abrams reports on two unmissable films shown at the inaugural Macau Film Festival.
A report from the inaugural edition of the Macau International Film Festival.
A report from the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie questionnaire and 2015 reviews of RogerEbert.com editor Brian Tallerico.
With another Police Story film opening this week, 30 years after the original, Simon Abrams offers a primer.
A guide to the best new releases on Blu-ray and DVD, including Nightcrawler, John Wick, Dear White People, Force Majeure, and more.
An excerpt from "Tom Cruise: Anatomy of An Actor."
A look at the cinematic and political history that resulted in Bong Joon-Ho's "Snowpiercer."
Why critics keep getting laid off; about That Episode of "Louie"; Robert DeNiro, anatomy of an actor; classic cars on film, posterized.
Barbara Scharres conveys her fourth day at Cannes, including screenings of "Saint Laurent" and "The Wonders," along with a press conference for John Woo's "The Crossing."
Tony Leung discusses his preparation for the role of the most famous martial arts master of the 20th century in Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster."
Nick Schager ponders the new crop of action directors, who bring 'serious film' cred to the genre, but can't seem to show personality where it counts the most.
The biggest taboo in American cinema may be the direct-to-video (DTV) market. Director John Hyams was dropped by his agent after making the DTV "Universal Soldier: Regeneration." Fellow director Isaac Florentine has said "I discovered that being a straight to DVD director is…worse than saying you have malaria." To some extent, one can understand why DTV films have such a bad reputation: just watch the SyFy channel on Saturday night, or Cinemax at 2 am any night. Yet there's a certain freedom in making genre films without the budget to use extravagant CGI effects, and Hyams and Florentine have put it to good use. Over the past few years, a handful of critics, like ex-con Steven-Seagal-expert Vern and RogerEbert.com contributor Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, have championed their work. As the concept of vulgar auteurism has become a hot topic among the cinephile blogopshere recently, something's gotten lost in all the debate about whether Michael Bay and Tony Scott should be taken seriously. At heart, what seems worthwhile to me about vulgar auteurism is its championing of the best DTV genre films. Most 1950s intellectuals would have been horrified by the notion of taking Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour" or Sam Fuller's "The Steel Helmet" seriously, and today they're considered essential. Isaac Florentine's "Undisputed III: Redemption" (2010) suffers from a surface cheesiness that manifests itself in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that the cast seems to have been assembled as much for its fighting ability as its acting talent. However, that turns out to be a strength in the end. Vin Diesel, pumped-up muscles and all, is no longer so convincing as a tough guy. Scott Adkins, who has teamed up with Florentine six times, is thoroughly believable as a man who's spent years in jail, and the rest of the actors who play prisoners look equally rough. Adkins plays Boyka, a Russian boxer forced to compete in a contest where eight prisoners fight each other for the amusement of depraved gamblers and jailers; the winner supposedly gets his freedom."Ninja "(2009) is the other consensus favorite in Florentine's filmography. While less reliant on long takes than "Undisputed III: Redemption"—apart from one breathtaking swordfight caught in a single take—it also uses zooms heavily and conveys a sense of the actors' genuine athleticism. However, it ventures further into fantasyland. Casey (Adkins) is an American raised at a Japanese martial arts dojo and sent to New York to safeguard a cache of weapons from a rogue assassin. The film is marked by an enjoyable goofiness, expressed through subplots like the one involving secret cult rituals staged by a huge corporation. John Woo seems to be a prime influence: the action mixes guns, swords and the body itself. There's a dubious Orientalism around the whole project: While it gives lots of screen time to Asians and creates a Japanese villain who turns out to be more charismatic than Casey, its story ultimately depends on Casey rescuing the Japanese from themselves. Also, his Japanese girlfriend is basically an object to be rescued. (That's a common trope in DTV films, unfortunately.) Despite these flaws, it's extremely entertaining, on a lighter note than "Undisputed III: Redemption", and the sequel will be Florentine's next film.Dutch-born director Roel Reine has landed one film on Jack Lehtonen's "official" vulgar auteurist top 20 list: "The Marine 2" (2009). While I'm less enthusiastic about it than Lehtonen, "The Marine 2" shows the marks of a distinctive stylist. Reine only shoots close-ups when the narrative really requires him to. He prefers long shots, sometimes taken from a vast distance. He also seems to have more of a special effects budget than Florentine, as the film contains a number of CGI explosions. However, it suffers from a formulaic script that transplants the narrative of "Die Hard" to a tropical island and a protagonist—a Marine (wrestler Ted DiBiase) on vacation with his wife—who has all-American good looks going for him but suffers from an overriding blandness. The film has one astonishingly choreographed fight scene, shot in a 30-second take with a pirouetting camera. I'd love to see what Reine could do with a satisfying script.Reine's latest film, "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" (2013), suggests a marked improvement in his work. This time around, he's working with a script by David Benullo that suggests the David Fincher of "Seven" and "The Game": paramedic Nick (wrestler Randy Orton) is called by a vigilante (Brian Markinson) and forced to play a bizarre round of games connected to an event in their pasts. Stylistically, it's less reliant on long shots than "The Marine 2," but doesn't shy away from them. The nocturnal cinematography is quite beautiful at times. Despite the requisite ass-kicking, it feels more like a film noir than an action movie: The narrative turns out to be surprisingly complex and willing to shift focus from character to character. This impression is enhanced by Reine's tendency to film light streaming through venetian blinds. The movie concentrates on the plot with admirable economy and breakneck pacing. It only spends a few scenes setting up Nick's home life, and as soon as the game is over, the story ends, too. Without endorsing vigilantism, "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" understands populist anger at a two-tiered justice system that tends to spare the privileged. The film's only major flaw is a stiff performance from Orton, who's called upon to do more than just fight.John Hyams' reputation rests on his two "Universal Soldier" sequels: "Regeneration" (2009) and "Day of Reckoning" (2012). In "Regeneration," a terrorist with an android "universal soldier" (Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski) has seized a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Luc (Jean-Claude van Damme), a decommissioned universal soldier, is sent to stop him, but once there, he discovers that he must fight Andrew (Dolph Lundgren), another soldier. The two face off in an epic fight that lasts about fifteen minutes."Regeneration" plays with fantasies of invulnerability, only to constantly remind us of aging and bodily decay. By casting middle-aged actors with lined faces—and, in van Damme's case, a perpetually depressed expression—it undercuts the notion of unstoppable force. Luc never indulges in one-liners à la Schwarzenegger. When he prepares for battle, he doesn't become a cool badass, but a machine that must be constantly tuned up with booster shots. (The title of Hyams' documentary "The Smashing Machine," about boxer Mark Karr, seems relevant here.) I'm not sure where the film was shot, but one can practically smell the odor of industrial decay. Cinematographer Peter Hyams, the director's father and an accomplished director in his own right, livens up the film, particularly its fight scenes, with an array of blue, red, gray and gold filters. Rarely does "Regeneration" look naturalistic—it creates its own world, with a distinctive and unique feel. Like Florentine, Hyams avoids CGI, apart from blood-splatter effects."Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" brings back van Damme, Lundgren and Arlovski, and introduces Scott Adkins to the "Universal Soldier" world, yet it feels very different from "Regeneration". It begins with the murder of John's (Adkins) wife and daughter by a group of thugs led by Luc. He falls into a coma and wakes up after nine months, but he seems to be suffering from mental problems. "Day of Reckoning" shows off Hyams' cinephilia, drawing first-person camerawork from Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void," ominous walks down corridors from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" and a boat trip down a swamp from Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." It's slightly less stylized than "Regeneration"; shot in Baton Rouge, its images sometimes resemble the real world, but that only makes John's psychological collapse more disturbing. Dozens of sci-fi films have drawn from Philip K. Dick's novels over the past thirty years; "Day of Reckoning" is one of the few to get his sense that everyday life could turn into a hallucination at any moment."Day of Reckoning" relies on the notion of living and dealing with implanted memories for its emotional charge. But what is cinema if not the art of implanting false memories? The film's DVD box features two separate quotes touting its brutal nature, and it is indeed startlingly violent. (Hyams himself describes the NC-17 cut as an endurance test.) Yet there's more to the violence than meets the eye. In an interview with Sara Freeman for the website MUBI, Hyams shows that he's thought seriously about the ethics of depicting bloodshed. "Day of Reckoning" takes place in a world where life is spectacularly cheap due to the proliferation of clones. This technology allows it to bring back a character who died in "Regeneration." Its ending shows a man dying and immediately being replaced by his clone. Both in its treatment of violence and the theme of memory, "Day of Reckoning" evokes the visceral power of good fiction and its ultimate artificiality. It's not cynical: its final scenes affirm the force of emotion, even if separated from real life.Hyams, Reine and Florentine's work seems at once part of a Hollywood tradition—their fight scenes look like Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan compared to the chaotic blur of mega-budgeted blockbusters like "World War Z"—and hyper-modern. Beyond the genre tropes, they capture the physical and psychological pressures of the world we're living in. Florentine and Reine's films are less ambitious, but "Undisputed 3: Redemption" and "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" evoke the same kind of weight as Hyams' "Universal Soldier" films. They may be working in the DTV ghetto—technically, "Day of Reckoning" played for one week in a New York theater last year—but they're describing the same world as a more prestigious filmmaker like Olivier Assayas. (Without making a big deal of it, Florentine uses casts drawn from all over the world.) I can't say that I've been impressed by the entire vulgar auteurist canon, but in the DTV arena, its critics have made some real discoveries.
The plot in "Face/Off" (1997) may sound ridiculous in real life terms but allowing our imaginations to experience and accept such preposterous events, the kind none of us will ever be able to live through, is a prime example of the great feats that cinema can achieve. And what a fantastic concept "Face/Off" had to begin with. There have been recent features where I've had a hard time grasping how boardrooms full of film executives could possibly green light the spending of millions of dollars when being pitched ideas that no filmmaker, however talented, could ever have succeeded with ("A man cures his depression by talking to a puppet beaver!" "A young archer princess grows closer to her mother when a witch turns her into a bear!").
Today looks to be a day of renegades and gangsters from the start, with "Killing Them Softly" by Andrew Dominik, the second American film to premier in competition, first thing in the morning. The all-male cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, who also starred in the director's Oscar-nominated "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. " This is a talky tough-guy movie that is heavy on long interchanges among thugs with odd accents and/or speech impediments. Talking like a tough guy means modifying every noun with the f-word (and I wonder what the grand total would be for this film).
"Killing Them Softly" is set in New Orleans, although pains are taken to avoid any distinctly identifying landmarks. The grey, wet, boarded-up desolation of the landscape could only be the post-Katrina lower 9th Ward, and I found the film's fleeting glimpses of that more electrifying than the introduction of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of lowlifes setting up a robbery with Squirrel (Vincent Curatola).
The two bumblers manage, just barely, to pull off the robbery of a high-stakes poker game, which makes it only a matter of time before they're marked men. It also makes Markie (Ray Liotta), the pudgy mid-level gangster who was running the game a suspect. Whatever higher authority these thugs answer to calls in its enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort it out.
The first and only woman, who is also the first and only black person in the story, makes her appearance one hour into the film. She's a prostitute who's treated like garbage in her approximately two minutes on the screen. This is not only a man's world, it's a white man's world.
Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.
Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:
Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]
Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.
It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.
For tax day, the editors at MSN Movies came up with an idea for contributors to write short essays about the most, ahem, "taxing" people in modern movies. Each of us picked a person whose presence, behind or in front of the camera, we find wearisome and debilitating -- as in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of taxing: "onerous, wearing."
You've probably already guessed my choice. I've written quite a bit about why I find Christopher Nolan's post-"Memento" work lackluster, but this exercise gave me an opportunity to condense my reservations about his writing and directing into one relatively concise piece:
Let me say up front that I don't think Nolan is a bad or thoroughly incompetent director, just a successfully pedestrian one. His Comic-Con fan base makes extravagant claims for each new film -- particularly since Nolan began producing his graphic-novel blockbusters with "Batman Begins" in 2005 -- but the movies are hobbled by thesis-statement screenplays that strain for significance and an ungainly directing style that seems incapable of, and uninterested in, illustrating more than one thing at a time: "Look at this. Now look at this. Now look at this. Now here's some dialogue to explain the movie's fictional rules. Now a character will tell you what he represents and what his goals are." And so on ... You won't experience the thrill of discovery while looking around in a Nolan frame. You'll see the one thing he wants you to see, but everything around it is dead space. [...]
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Tina Mabry's "Mississippi Damned," an independent American production, won the Gold Hugo as the best film in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival, and added Gold Plaques for best supporting actress (Jossie Thacker) and best screenplay (Mabry). It tells the harrowing story of three black children growing up in rural Mississippi in circumstances of violence and addiction. The film's trailer and an interview with Mabry are linked at the bottom.
Kylee Russell in "Mississippi Damned"
The winner of the Audience Award, announced Friday, was "Precious" (see below). The wins came over a crowed field of competitors from all over the world, many of them with much larger budgets. The other big winner at the Pump Room of the Ambassador East awards ceremony Saturday evening was by veteran master Marco Bellocchio of Italy, who won the Silver Hugo as best director for "Vincere," the story of Mussolini's younger brother. Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi won Silver Hugos as best actress and actor, and Daniele Cipri won a Gold Plaque for best cinematography.
The Chicago International Film Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary in better form than ever, I think. The festival, which opened Thursday, will be presenting 145 films from 45 countries. That's fewer than Toronto or Cannes but more, I believe, than any other American festival -- and besides, can you see 10 films a day?
Q. Having been a fan of the short-lived and vastly underrated animated series "The Critic," the episode "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice" never ceases to make me laugh. Having also been a fan of yours, I wondered three things: 1. How did getting you and Gene Siskel on the show occur? 2. Did you have any say-so in your lines? 3. Were you a fan of the show?
CANNES, France — Tommy Lee Jones walked away from the 58th Cannes Film Festival here Saturday night as a double winner, after his film “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” won him the award as best actor, and the screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga also was honored. The movie stars Jones as a Texas cowboy who kidnaps the border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who has murdered his Mexican friend and forces him on a long journey to rebury the corpse in the man's hometown.
CANNES, France – If you’re going to make a movie about a rock star who drifts into drugged oblivion and death, you basically have two choices. You could make one of those lurid biopics filled with flashbacks to a tortured childhood and lots of concert scenes and sex, while the star savors success before it destroys him.
LOS ANGELES--Tom Cruise had just flown in from Australia and he was tired and a sad. Sad because he was talking about the new Stanley Kubrick movie, and Stanley wasn't there to pitch in.