Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Don’t freak out or anything, but I don’t really like this movie all that much. I know we all sat down and took a vote and the unanimous decision was that this was the greatest movie ever made, except for maybe—–maybe—–Empire Strikes Back, but then the whole Special Edition debacle kind of split the vote so Dark Knight came out on top by, like, a swillion miles. Then there was another vote about whether people who didn’t like it were either “fucktards” or “douchenozzles,” and that went back and forth a couple times before cooler heads prevailed and we went with “douchetards,” just to make sure all the bases were covered. Then we were gonna vote on which part was the best, so we popped in the DVD, but then we got distracted when it got to the part where Christian Bale says “I’m not wearing hockey pants!” (#21 on AFI’s list of the 100 Most Awesomest Fucking Movie Lines Of All Time, right after “You had me at hello”). Then the one handicapped guy who was there was suddenly able to walk again, so then all the lepers started pressing their open sores to the screen to absorb the movie’s healing light. I also hear it cures racism and brings the passion back to sexless marriages.
So I don’t know if I was born an asshole or if I worked at it my whole life, but either way it worked out fine because The Dark Knight is really just not all that great. I mean, it definitely puts out the vibe of greatness. And there are definitely lots of moments when it’s got the coordinates of greatness locked into its tracking system. But then somebody must have spilled some Mountain Dew into its guidance module or something because it suddenly veers off course, missing greatness altogether and instead landing right in the middle of pretty goodness.
I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what irks me about this movie, which by all rights I should probably love. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it in the theater, but almost immediately my memory of it soured. I forgot all of the awesome parts and only remembered Christian Bale’s stupid Robert Loggia voice. Through multiple online arguments with various non-douchetards, I realized that the character of Batman is at the heart of my dissatisfaction. I’m a big fan of the Batman comics (or at least I was until the Scottish Dadaist Grant Morrison killed him off in the recent crossover event Final Crisis, possibly the worst-told story ever published in any medium), so I know Batman. And Mr. Bale, sir, you are no Batman. The suit looks dumb, the voice sounds like Corey Feldman in The Lost Boys trying to act grown-up, and the fights are so clumsy that it looks like they filmed the rehearsals. The guy just isn’t badass. He has a few moments, but then he opens his mouth and I just can’t take him seriously. He’s trying waaaaaaaaaaaaay too hard to sound tough, and it's frankly laughable. I can see what the Joker finds so funny about him. I keep expecting him to pull an inhaler out of his utility belt. It’s fucking distracting.
But I am, above all, a reasonable motherfucker, so I decided to give it another chance to see if maybe I was just being a joyless curmudgeon. I know that sometimes one’s recollection of a movie can take on a life of its own that is quite different from the actual viewing experience. Also, if I was to be the only douchetard on a planet of angry Dark Knight fans, I Am Legend-style, then I wanted to restock my ammunition for the lifelong battle that lay ahead of me.
Well, for the first two hours I wondered what the hell my problem was. I still didn’t like Batman, but I enjoyed every scene that he wasn’t in, and I’m counting the scenes where Bale is out of costume. The robbery at the beginning is hardcore, all of the secondary characters are likeable and well cast (particularly Gary Oldman, who so disappears into the role of Jim Gordon that I stopped thinking of him as an actor altogether), and it has fucking Eric Roberts in it, for christ’s sake. This is a dude who has credits like Raptor and Fast Sofa on his résumé. I mean, I like The Wrestler and all, but this is the comeback of the century.
And of course, the Joker is awesome. Heath Ledger totally nailed the character’s use of nihilist humor and unmotivated violence as a means of existential terrorism, and I will forever treasure the shot of him tottering away from the exploding hospital with his weird Crispin Glover/Frankenhooker gait. He also made a surprisingly sexy nurse. Just saying.
However, despite its many strong points, Batman himself is still a problem. For one, there's the fact that Christopher Nolan simply refuses to shoot him like a badass. Instead of using shadows or dramatic angles, he just points the camera at the poor guy in full light so you can see how chintzy the suit is. I used to think that the main reason I didn’t buy his tough guy credentials was because he didn’t do anything in the movie, but on rewatching it, I can see that I was wrong. He fights attack dogs, performs a daring raid on a Hong Kong highrise, jumps out of a perfectly good building, rides a motorcycle with monster truck tires, violates the Joker’s civil rights, and dangles a bunch of cops off a building like a human wind chime. So he does plenty of stuff. The problem is he doesn’t accomplish anything. He’s the most ineffectual hero of all time. He fails to save his childhood sweetheart from a fiery death, lets Harvey Dent get his face CGIed off, can’t protect the mob witness, gets his secret identity uncovered by a nerdy accountant (who really should have been played by a bigger actor, since the name “Mister Reese” is clearly code for the Riddler), and has to take the rap for the murders committed by Two-Face, which, consisting as they do entirely of mobsters and dirty cops, constitute the only progress for the side of law and order in the whole movie. Even those attack dogs kick his ass—twice. True, he saves those people on the ferries (Most obvious trap ever, by the way. When someone like the Joker warns you about the bridges and tunnels and there’s only one other way out of town, maybe you should be a little suspicious) and he catches the Scarecrow, but come on, that guy’s a has-been, a washed-up holdover from the last movie. It’d be like if the only person Jason killed in Friday the 13th Part 2 was that one survivor from the first movie. I recognize that maybe the filmmakers were attempting to make some kind of statement about the futility of vigilantism, but I don’t buy it. If you’re trying to subvert the superhero paradigm, you can’t show the protagonist fucking up for two and a half hours and then end the movie with a money shot of him riding off like a conquering hero while Gary Oldman delivers a soulful but uncharacteristically poetic monologue about how fucking awesome he is. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. When you try, it’s called vomit.
And that’s really my problem with the movie. It violates the #1 rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell. It’s constantly telling me things that it fails to illustrate. It tells me that Harvey Dent was considered duplicitous by his colleagues in the police department, yet fails to show him being anything other than sincere and well-meaning. It tells me that Batman is a meaningful symbol of justice to the people of Gotham City, yet fails to show him doing anything for them besides blowing up their cars and trashing their streets. (In fact, we never see the citizens of Gotham at all, and we especially don’t see any of the poor neighborhoods where a self-appointed guardian angel might do the most good. All we see are glistening office towers and pillared government buildings, but what’s the state of the ghetto that the escaped Arkham Asylum inmates burned down in Batman Begins? How do its residents feel about Batman’s crime-busting efforts? Has he made an appreciable difference in their quality of life? Do they feel safer, or would they rather be left in peace with their cheap recreational drugs?) It tells me that Dent has some kind of obsession with the capriciousness of fate, yet he seems to have a Type-A take-charge personality that leaves little to chance. It tells me that the Joker is a seat-of-his-pants engine of chaos rather than a planner, yet he concocts absurdly intricate schemes incorporating intimate knowledge of the response times of various law enforcement divisions, hospital evacuation procedures, and the Gotham City municipal school bus schedule. It tells me that Maggie Gylenhaal is beautiful, yet Wally Pfister’s harsh lighting leaves her looking like Pumpkinhead in a dress. There always seems to be a disconnect between what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing.
Basically, I’m saying that the movie bites off more than it can chew, so it takes shortcuts. It brings up interesting notions like the ethics of privacy invasion, the expediency of dictatorships, and the occasional necessity of shielding inconvenient truths from the public, but immediately drops them after its ham-fisted, flagrantly schematic screenplay has paid them off with a line or two of dialogue, usually delivered by Michael Caine, who has made a career of sewing silk purses out of sows’ ears. However, this ideological confusion is not readily apparent until the unnecessarily protracted ending. Bottom line, if the movie had stopped after the Joker blew up Maggie Gyllenhaal (spoiler), I would not be a douchetard today. It would have left the movie at the perfect length, at the perfect pace, and with the perfect Empire-style downbeat set-up for the more triumphant Jedi-style trilogy capper, The Dark Knight 2: Knight Moves, in which they would replace Heath Ledger with Jake Gylenhaal because he’s the only actor the public would accept, what with him basically being the guy’s ex-girlfriend and all.
But instead it goes on for 40 more minutes, and that’s when all of the chinks in its Kevlar open up and let its true sloppiness spill out. Two-Face is too interesting of a character to fob off on the end of a movie, especially when his corruption seems to be the entire point of the Joker’s Jigsaw-like morality play. The climax, despite its gratuitous length, feels rushed, because it’s trying to cram an entire sequel’s worth of character arc into the third act of a movie that already had a perfect ending: Batman has lost the love of his life and is forced to see the limitations of his ideals, which sets up a movie-length confrontation between a pushed-to-the-edge hero and Two-Face, a fallen angel who represents the dark side of the vigilante coin. I rarely fault a movie for having too much ambition, but I feel that The Dark Knight’s overbusy and thematically muddled endgame squanders most of the goodwill that its first three quarters engendered. For its opening two hours, I wondered why I’d disliked the movie, but its final 40 minutes reminded me. They took a tightly paced and ruthlessly plotted battle of wits and turned it into a confusing mess of half-baked ideas. Sort of like this review, which started out debating the merits of the word “douchenozzle” and ended up bandying about phrases like “flagrantly schematic” and “thematically muddled.”
In the end, I don’t really dislike The Dark Knight anymore. I regard it as an ambitious failure, like communism or Crystal Pepsi. But that’s just one douchetard’s opinion. Take it for what it’s worth.
Remember that part at the end of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey where Wyld Stallyns are about to perform for a sold-out crowd and they suddenly realize that they still don't know how to play their instruments? So what they do is, they hop into their time machine, and when they pop back up onstage a second later, they've both got ZZ Top beards and they're like, "Whoa, that was a most excellent 18 months of intensive guitar training with Eddie Van Halen." I think the same thing happened to Jean-Claude Van Damme right before shooting started on JCVD, only with acting. I think he suddenly realized that he didn't have the chops to pull off a movie that involved more emoting than kicking, so he broke his old Timecop temporal displacement device out of mothballs and went back to the fifties to take some Method classes with Brando.
Actually, I don't think even that would be enough to explain the thespianic transformation Jean-Claude underwent for this film. I think he must have pulled an Excellent Adventure and traveled throughout the seventies, assembling all of its best actors. He kidnapped De Niro from the set of Taxi Driver, snatched Pacino from Godfather II, gave Hackman the Vulcan neck pinch on The Conversation, and had just enough room left over to stuff Dustin Hoffman into the time machine in his Ratso Rizzo costume. Then they had all kinds of crazy fish-out-of-water adventures in the present day (You should have seen the look on De Niro's face when he accidentally caught Meet the Fockers on cable) while Van Damme finally, after more than 20 years in Hollywood, learned that there's more to the art of screen acting than making your eyes get all buggy and cross-eyed while yelling "Nuuuh!" in your weird, flat Belgian accent. He learned that you can't just imitate the bells and whistles of human emotions; you have to feel them deep inside, because if you don't, the audience never will. And I'm also thinking that he taught all these great actors a thing or two in return and, in doing so, accidentally changed film history for the better. Just think, without Jean-Claude's influence, Pacino's legendary kickboxing sequence in Dog Day Afternoon would never have existed.
Granted, there are probably a few non-time-travel-related factors that may have contributed to the effectiveness of Van Damme's performance in JCVD. For one, he's playing himself. It's the role he was born to play. For two, most of the dialogue is in French, his native tongue. But that doesn't fully explain it, either. I've seen plenty of jackasses try to play themselves and fail miserably, and Jean-Claude's even pretty damn good in his few English-speaking scenes in JCVD. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more the time machine thing is the only explanation that makes any sense. The only other thing I can think of is that he's secretly been this good all along, and that, my friends, is too mind-blowing to contemplate.
Okay, here's the deal: JCVD is the new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean-Claude Van Damme. The first scene is amazing. All the other reviews are gonna tell you about it, so I will, too. It's one long tracking shot, Touch of Evil-style, in which the camera follows Jean-Claude around a warehouse full of bad guys. In a single unbroken take, he engages in hand-to-hand combat, shoots a bunch of people, throws a grenade, and evades a flamethrower. It's well-choreographed and shot, with an awesome funky but melancholy soul song playing, but the funny part is that it's not very well executed. Punches miss by about a foot, and the timing is always a little bit off. It's all very subtle, until the scenery starts falling down, and you realize that you're on the set of Van Damme's latest straight-to-video opus, directed by some punk HK music video director with asymmetrical hair who doesn't have Jean-Claude's commitment to excellence. From the first scene, the Muscles From Brussels is characterized as a man who feels that he is capable of much more than world is offering him. He needs a mission, a calling, a raison d'être, and for his sins, JCVD gives him one.
After this straightforward opener, the structure of the movie gets all Tarantino-y, as the story is broken up into out-of-order chapters with pretentious titles like "The Answer Before The Question." It's kind of cool because you have to work a little harder than usual to piece together the story, but I'm not sure if the story itself requires it. It's pretty simple: Jean-Claude is in the middle of an expensive child custody case, but when he goes into a Belgian bank to transfer funds to his lawyer, he gets caught up in a hostage crisis of which the cops think he's the mastermind. Then he has to find out if he really does have a hero inside of him or if he's just a full-of-shit actor whose best years are behind him (and they really weren't all that great anyway).
I wish I could tell you more about the movie, but I kind of had a hard time following it. It's not really the movie's fault, though. It's just that I saw it at the Angelika, where Jean-Claude himself was supposed to appear for a Q&A, only he cancelled because, I shit you not, his puppy was in a coma in Thailand. How fucking sensitive is that? Can't you just imagine Jean-Claude sitting by the puppy's bedside, holding his paw and whispering, "Dun dew eet, ma fren. Dun go indo da lide." (Side note: "Thailand Puppy Coma" should be a Melvins song.)
Anyway, the Angelika is one of them there arthouses, which I'm all for, except that the Angelika sucks. The theaters are so long and skinny that it feels like you're watching a screen the size of a postcard through a paper towel tube. And the print of JCVD I saw had white subtitles, which wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that the cinematography is all blown-out and sun-blasted. It looks really cool, except that there are glints and sheens and splashes of white everywhere, making a lot of the dialogue illegible. You're trying to follow along, but you can only read half the words, so it's like "No, Jean…do it…gun here…police will…understand?"
This won't be a problem on DVD, though, so home viewers willl be able to fully enjoy the script, which is witty and self-referential without ever losing sight of the drama, particularly in this one scene where Jean-Claude suddenly levitates up above the set of the movie and, hanging amidst the lights in the rafters, proceeds to give an unedited five-minute monologue directly to camera. I didn't catch a big chunk of it, but he talks about his childhood and his marriages and his drug problem and his dreams. He promises to be the hero he always wanted to be, the one he pretended to be for so long that he forgot who he really was. He even starts breaking down and crying a little. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Not a single person in a theater full of hipster douchebags let out so much as a giggle while this man, this washed-up has-been who was a joke even in his prime, laid it all out on the line. I couldn't even understand half of what he was saying, but the emotion, man. The emotion came through loud and clear. Jean-Claude was never my favorite action hero, but he won me over with this speech. I don't think any other tough guy could have bared his soul so nakedly. Seagal might have tried, but I don't think he would have let his guard down like this. There really was no bullshit in Jean-Claude's speech at all. This was the beating, yearning heart of Van Damme, the one muscle he never got to exercise in any of his other films. I never thought I'd say this, but I wanted to give that sweaty, bulging bastard a big fucking hug right then and there.
Then I remembered that YouTube clip where he got a boner live on a Brazilian dance show and I thought better of it.
Anyway, you should all definitely see JCVD. If enough of us check it out, there is every reason to believe that Van Damme's action contemporaries will follow suit and step their game up. He's proved with this film that everyone, no matter how seemingly talentless and ridiculously accented, has hidden depths. Personally, I'm holding out for a remake of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries starring Chuck Norris as an elderly martial artist reliving the many, many asses he's kicked over the course of his life and the effect they've had on him. Or maybe even Seagal Satyricon. The point is, if Jean-Claude can do it, so can they. C'mon, guys. Let's see a little hustle out there.
P.S. How bullshit is it that the marketing department didn't use "Stock up on penicillin, because on November 7, America will catch JCVD" as the tagline on the poster? I really do have to think of everything, don't I?
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Brain Smasher: A Love Story is easily the second best bouncer movie ever made. If you have to ask what that first best is, I don’t know, man, I think you might be on the wrong page.
But that’s not its biggest achievement. Let’s be frank, there haven’t been all that many bouncer movies. It’s not that crowded a field. The same cannot be said for Albert Pyun movies, however. As of the writing of this sentence, he has directed 46 motion pictures. I can’t verify that number past that, though, because by the time I get to the end of this paragraph he might have knocked out a few more Nemesis sequels or something. I can’t keep going back to IMDB every two seconds. You’re just gonna have to take my word for it that this dude has made more or less a metric shit-ton of movies. And Brain Smasher is his best one.
Okay, fine. It’s the best one I’ve seen. Full disclosure: I have not seen even a quarter of the total Pyun filmography. I do have somewhat of a life. I have a job. Friends. Family. I go out on dates sometimes. Really. It’s a rich tapestry, the life of me. You’d be amazed.
So while I was out there trying to lay my hands on some ladyparts, it’s entirely possible that Pyun managed to squeak a masterpiece by me. Maybe Vicious Lips has a lot to say about the fragility of the human condition. Maybe Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor is that one movie that comes along every now and again that teaches you how to love again. I’m not discounting the possibility. Right now, right this second, there’s a mammal running around with a duck bill, laying eggs. Anything can happen.
So maybe being the best Albert Pyun movie out of the six or seven I’ve seen is not that big an accomplishment. But I liked it anyway. If you don’t dig loveable underachievers, you shouldn’t be watching Albert Pyun movies in the first place.
Right away, you can tell that Brain Smasher is a little different than the average Pyun movie because there don’t appear to be any cyborgs in it. Cyborgs are to Albert Pyun as big-breasted women are to Russ Meyer. I can neither verify nor deny that Pyun once lived in a house full of cyborgs in a polyamorous relationship, however. That’s where the analogy starts falling apart.
What Brain Smasher is about instead of cyborgs is this dude named Ed, a.k.a. the Brain Smasher. Ed’s a bouncer at a club in Portland, Oregon, and he’s proud of the fact that decent, hard-partying folk can have a good time in peace as long as his two fists are around. That’s what I like about Ed. He takes his work seriously and he honestly believes he makes a difference. He doesn’t get all philosophical about it like that other bouncer in that other movie. He’s more pragmatic.
He’s even got an honest-to-God origin story. Seems that when Ed was a young man, he was in a club that didn’t have a bouncer, and he took a beer bottle to the face that left him scarred. He vowed then and there that no one else would ever have their mellow harshed the way his mellow was harshed that night. It’s like if Batman’s parents got killed in the moshpit at CBGB’s. It’s not a job. It’s a calling. Someday, he’ll probably take on a young ward who also got hit with a bottle one time, and he will teach him everything he knows about smashing brains. Then someday he’ll retire and pass on the mantel of Brain Smasher to the next generation. Maybe there’ll even be a Brain Smashess or something. There’s no telling who might be inspired by this noble smasher of brains.
One more thing about Ed: He’s played by Andrew Dice Clay. Right away that’s gonna make a bunch of you not take him seriously, just because he’s a grown man who once upon a time asked other grown men to call him the Diceman. I always liked Dice, though. I was like 11 or 12 when he was a big stand-up, so his potty-mouth tough guy schtick was right up my alley. The only tape I had at the time was N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, so I was and am a big fan of profanity. If you were talking about fucking somebody or something, I was listening. (Note to the kids: a "tape" or “cassette” or occasionally "cassingle" was what people used to listen to music on before it was beamed directly into your cerebral cortex by the sentient Lawnmower Man-style computer program known as will.i.am) Then Dice started making movies, and shit, I liked those, too. His starring debut, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, is an underrated gem in the Hudson Hawk vein, and it introduced the world to the action stylings of one Renny Harlin, the wacky Scandinavian who proved that Finland’s national flower is the explosion. The problem with Dice, though, is that he was too good at being a pig. People really believed that he spent every minute of his life making bitches make him sandwiches. They didn’t get that it was a character he was playing, like Pee Wee Herman or Sarah Palin. So when it was time to branch out into other characters, it was like Big Bird trying to play a CIA agent or a lawyer or, I don’t know, anything that’s not a giant transsexual bird or whatever the hell he is. I think this hurt the Diceman’s feelings, so it added a subtle layer of sensitivity to his performances. You can see a nice guy under all that bluster, wondering why no one ever noticed that his filthy nursery rhymes were a cry for help.
That’s why he fits the character of Ed perfectly, and not just because he has prior bouncing experience from Pretty In Pink. Ed is a real stand-up guy, a brave, selfless white knight, but everybody thinks he's just a crude bruiser, simply because he punches people in the forehead for a living and wears a jacket that says his retarded nickname on the back. Both Ed and Dice want to show people that there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Ed’s predicament is mirrored by that of his love interest, played by Teri Hatcher. Everybody thinks she’s a ditz because she’s a model. So when she has to protect this ancient red lotus that gives the person who eats its petals infinite power, nobody takes her seriously.
The people who want the lotus are these Chinese monks in Phantom of the Opera masks who get really pissed off when people call them ninjas, because ninjas are Japanese. See, everybody in the movie is wrestling with public perception issues. This is a very deep movie about punching, in my opinion.
So what happens is that Teri is running from these not-ninjas and takes refuge in Ed’s club. Naturally, Ed protects her, because that’s what Ed does. Then they’re on the run, and I don’t want to give too much away, but they may possibly start to kind of like each other a little bit. Sure, this is a contractually mandated romance, but there are some little touches along the way that make it work. There’s a part where Ed brings her to his apartment and she realizes that he has a calendar that she’s in. She tries to show him her page and he stops her. He doesn’t need to see her in a bikini to like her. Then there’s a point where he decides that he’s in over his head but then when she storms off, he ends up helping her behind her back. Then he catches up with her in a bar, and he’s like, “Maybe I should stick around. If anything happens, there’s no bouncer…”
I like the idea of the bouncer as a symbol of safety and order in a chaotic and dangerous world. It’s ridiculous but kind of true. A lot of times I like to go to the bar on Mondays. Most of the time, it’s really quiet so you can get a good conversation going, but it’s also when the crazies come out. I mean, if you’re the type of person who’s going to get fucked up on a Monday, you’re probably the type of person who’s going to get really fucked up on a Monday. And while I like to rubberneck at the ranting racists who try to explain to the Mexican barback why he’s the exception, and the off-duty truckers who’ve been drinking since 2:30 and are willing to fight you because you played “Beth” instead of “Strutter,” and the shoeless junkies who are trying to steal your bag from under the bar, I’d really rather somebody dealt with them before they hurt somebody and/or jack my iPod. That’s where the bouncer comes in. They’re out there every night protecting your good time, because sometimes a good time is the only good thing you have.
You know what I mean? That’s what this movie is about. Fuckin’ heroes.
Anyway, Brain Smasher moves along at a nice clip. There are a bunch of good brawls, some excellent backflips from the not-ninjas, some entertainingly arch dialogue(“Do you think I want to be a kung-fu thug forever?”), and two great cameos from B-movie vets Brion James and Tim Thomerson as the asshole detectives who don’t believe in ninjas. Then at the end there’s a nice twist where Teri has to rescue Ed instead of the other way around. She could just walk away with the lotus but she pretty much loves the big lug at this point so she risks it all for him. Then there’s some punching and some kissing, and then credits. Way to stick the landing this time, Pyun.
By the way, I like to imagine that “Pyun” is pronounced like the sound effect of a bullet ricocheting off a rock in an old western. And like those bullets, Pyun doesn’t always hit what he’s aiming for, but at least he makes an entertaining sound when he misses.