Tuesday, September 29, 2009

India-Born Terror

About ten years ago a film came out of India that created quite a buzz in the independent film community. It was The Terrorist, a film that attempts to put a human face on human bombs. (Don't believe the hype on the poster, either. "She's a natural born killer" makes this sound like an exploitation film. I don't know whose idea this was, but it was a bad one.)

The film doesn't make apologies for terrorism, but it also doesn't make it into some scary monster that's out to eat your children. It instead focuses on one woman and her mission. It delves into her mindset, and it paints her as a human ... a concept foreign to a lot of American viewers, which is why the film didn't get as much play over here. Terrorists are always evil, and any attempt to figure them out and understand their motives makes you just as evil.

This movie couldn't have come out of America. Foreign countries, who have lived with terrorism longer than we have, don't have as many issues with it when it comes to examining it for artistic/political means. (I'm also convinced that had this been an American film it would have been deluged with gun fights and explosions.) That leaves the foreign film community with the ability to actually delve into places American cinema won't go ... at least not on the same scale. The two Battle Royale films from Japan fall into much the same category (and when it comes to terrorism, especially the second one). That's not just a political thing, but a cultural one.

Americans just don't want to see film where a terrorist is the main character, no matter how attractive she may be. We want soldiers and cops. We want good guys or safe anti-heroes. We want to make sure the characters are only killing the people we think should be killed. Terrorism, while often targeting specific people, often takes down innocent people. If our films feature buildings exploding, we don't want to see the people inside. And that's where The Terrorist did such a grand job. It put her in your home, and at your rally. It surrounded her with the audience, and it also had you wondering whether or not she would do her "job" at the end of the film.

Movies that tackle sensitive subjects like this one walk a very fine line. This one pulled it off. The movie is not perfect by any means, but it was handled very well. It got its point across, and it presented some very interesting questions. It also, in a roundabout way, showed why a war on terrorism will never work.

Could this film ever come from a major American film studio? Yes ... but only if it starred Bruce Willis taking down the terrorist before the "big one" could happen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Exploitation of the Innocent

I was asked why I like exploitation films. The person said, "You kind of have a reputation of a movie snob, so why those films?" (I am actually not a movie snob, as my love of exploitation films proves. I just know what I like and am able to articulate. More importantly, I know what I don't like and am very vocal about it because it's part of my job.)

The answer isn't easy.

Exploitation films, the ones that had their heyday back in the late Sixties to about mid-Eighties, pushed the envelope of what cinema could show and was capable of. Yes, it was often done with the intent to be lurid and make money, but these films have an artistic flair that can't be dismissed, and their impact upon worldwide cinema cannot be mistaken. These movies were risky, bold, and somewhat alarming, and that's everything I love about the art of film.

I've heard people argue that movies like Transformers are modern-day exploitation films because there is no artistic merit to them, they are made simply to make money, and they appeal to the audiences' most base instinct. That is only somewhat true.

I'll admit that Transformers and films like it aren't made with artistic sensibilities in mind. Many exploitation films (not all) were, however, made as someone's artistic vision ... usually because the director was given lots of leeway and was left to his or her own devices.

I will admit that the blockbusters are made simply to generate cash for the studios. They are vehicles to sell toys, tickets and TV rights. But almost all movies are made with the hopes that money will be made. Especially those made by major studios. Yes, the studios release more artistic films (usually in hopes of obtaining an Oscar and thus generating more revenue), but at the end of the day the studios are businesses. Art doesn't matter much. Exploitation films were often art meeting cash. Often the financial backers of the films were somehow involved in organized crime and money needed to be laundered, hidden, or someone had a bug up their ass to get a film made for some kind of "artistic cred." Because of this the exploitation directors were left alone. Major studios leave very few directors alone. Focus groups dictate the outcome of a film. I doubt focus groups had no say in Thriller: A Cruel Picture.

There is something there about appealing to the filmgoer's base instincts, though. Time and time again audiences have proven they love a big explosion, big tits and big plot holes. Exploitation films did it differently, however. They lured audiences in with promises of blood, tits and sex (and often lived up to that promise), but then they went further. They took audiences to places they weren't expecting to go. Again, go back to Thriller: A Cruel Picture. The sex scenes are hardcore. An eyeball is removed in a horrible scene, and that's just a beginning. Nobody going into that film, even after seeing the trailers, could have any idea of its impact. (It made enough of an impact upon Tarantino that he supposedly made a character after One-Eye in Kill Bill. Guess who?) Transformers, again as an example, is happy to deliver what it promises, but nothing more. (And, no, I haven't seen it, but I have heard enough to be able to make that statement and feel fairly secure about it.)

All those things add up to give an more complete picture to the blockbuster versus exploitation film angle. Exploitation films are, at some level, challenging. Yes, some are amateurish and filled with every genre standard you can think of, but there is still the feeling of chaos to them. The major studio summer pictures can embody many things, but challenges and artistry are two pieces of the puzzle they cannot lay claim to. Does it make them worse than exploitation films? No, not really. I don't prefer them, but that's just me. I think most people can't handle the sorts of things that happened in the exploitation films of old. The gore would be too much. The tone too brutal. And the style would induce headaches in those raised on movies-by-the-number. If there's one thing I've learned audiences hate it is to be given something they can't predict (with rare exceptions). Exploitation films did that in spades, and that's why I like them and respect them for what they are.

I don't hate blockbusters for what they are. I dislike many of them for what they aren't. They aren't a challenge. They aren't anything new, and they take a captive audience and refuse to take advantage of it. That isn't bold filmmaking. That's cowardly, and that's insulting. But that is just me. Your opinion may very well differ. I can guarantee, though, that I Spit on Your Grave offers more to debate and discuss than Independence Day. I guarantee it offers more shocks and actually makes a far better social statement than that summer blockbuster. Both had similar exploitative film campaigns, but one delivered the goods. The other was a standard story with all the usual plot points. One insulted its audience. The other challenged it.

Why settle for less? Because now you don't really have a choice. The exploitation era is pretty much gone (though there are bright pockets here and there). Hollywood won. I would argue we are all worse for it, though far safer in the long run. Unfortunately, when it comes to art, safe is not a good place to be.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gone Missing

Some of you have e-mailed me wondering why my reviews haven't appeared on Film Threat for some time (since 6/09 to be exact). Here's the answer.

Yes, I am still writing for Film Threat. There has been a change of guard there, and things got lost in the shuffle, including a lot of my reviews. I have been given the power (which I may have always had but never knew) to post them myself. So yesterday I tried it, figuring I'd just post everything I've sent.

It didn't work.

I don't know why it wouldn't work. It just didn't. I imagine the problem is being looked at now, but I don't know when or if it will be fixed, and if I have to send in the reviews again, I can see the same thing happening.

Frustrating, yes, but that is the way of the world.

At least your questions are answered now. I'll keep you all posted.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sexy Poker Players and Cheaters

I finally got around to completely watching Rounders. It's only been out 34 years, so I figured it was about time. Since I like Matt Damon and play poker when possible (not nearly as often as I like), I also figured I'd enjoy the movie. All of my friends have liked it, and while their tastes aren't often the same as mine their recommendations rang true and made sense.

I liked it. It wasn't great, but it was good. As a poker movie I think it captured that special feeling you can only get from the game. It also captured the personalities involved in the game pretty damn well. Matt Damon, who should play Captain America before he gets too old, is his usual nice guy self, and it worked for the role. Edward Norton, who plays his friend Worm, was his sleazy friend who used and abused everyone on his way to the bottom. There were good dynamics between the two, though they didn't share a sex scene, which I was hoping for. (Perhaps under Obama's America, as detailed here, homosexual sex scenes will become the norm.)

Complaints about the film are few. The most prominent being was that it suffered from the same malady as most Hollywood movies: predictability. I knew the ending long before I arrived there naturally. I could've turned it off and still knew what happened. Poker players know this kind of predictability does not happen in the game, though you try to skew those odds so it does. Mainstream film audiences, though, think differently.

Filmgoers want their movies to end neatly wrapped. They want to take comfort in the ending. They want to leave the theatre as they came in: unchanged and unmoved. Had I written this film, Damon's character would've ended the film broke and laying dead in an alley, bullet wound in his head. There would be a small hole in the forehead where a decent amount of blood was coming from. As his eyes slowly closed, his on screen narration (which was helpful in this movie) would be, "And this is how it ends. If I would've listened to myself when I said I wouldn't have gone back as good as I listened at the tables, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be dying in some alley, hoping someone spots me in time to call an ambulance. This isn't Hollywood, though. This is poker ... and sometimes there are no happy endings. Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront has a famous line. He says he could have been a contender. I know I could've. I would've won, too. I would've won."

But I don't write movies, and perhaps I would refine that line more, but I think Damon's death would have been a better ending. Not because I hate the guy, but because when the pressure is on sometimes even the best sweat and flop. It would have robbed the audience of what they expected and instead given it what it deserved. If you love cinema as an art, you understand that is what is supposed to happen.

Good movie. Not great. Standard end, which renders most of what came in the previous two hours and forty minutes moot.