Another week, another viewing diary! This week we’ve got RZA chaining a woman to a rocket, Tom Hardy driving in a car, and a bloodily intense indie that has been turning a lot of heads in the last year. Plus, another version of Jesus Christ Superstar, a brief look back at one of the best films ever made, and the recent release of The Raid 2 inspires me to revisit its predecessor. Happy viewing, all! I hope to finally have a non-diary post up later this week.
Last week, I had no real interest in seeing Brick Mansions. The last few EuropaCorp films have been downright horrible, and watching the late Paul Walker attempt to salvage the latest from the Besson factory didn’t exactly fill me with a sense of excitement. On top of that, the reviews were not good. Then a funny thing happened Saturday afternoon: I was bored. So I went and paid my hard-earned money on a matinee of Brick Mansions, and I did not anticipate just how hilariously goofy the film actually was. The whole thing is beyond stupid, but for whatever reason it hit my dumb movie sweet spot. Absolutely nothing in it makes logical sense. This is a film in which RZA’s villain character Tremaine Alexander says things like “Tremaine Alexander don’t do anxious. I cause anxious.” Yes, he refers to himself in the third person. It’s that kind of movie. RZA has never been a particularly strong actor, but his stilted delivery of lines like these is part of what makes Brick Mansions so endearingly bonkers. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth seems like an attempt at a new catchphrase, and that can be applied to the whole movie around him. Brick Mansions often feels like it’s making everything up as it goes along, but at least that means it’s rarely boring.
I knew I was on board for Brick Mansions early on. There is a scene where RZA, the drug kingpin who has taken control of the eponymous neighborhood, seems to be setting up the conflict that will take up the rest of the movie. He has kidnapped Lola (Catalina Denis), the ex-girlfriend of co-protagonist Lino (parkour founder David Belle) and he intends to keep her hostage until Lino returns and atones for his crimes. Immediately after he finishes the sentence laying this out, Lino comes crashing down through the ceiling in an attempt to free Lola. This is when the film takes the first step from standard stupidity into next-level stupidity and never looks back. The primary threat involves a missile that RZA has aimed at downtown Detroit, and it’s up to Belle and Walker to parkour their way to disarming it. Brick Mansions is every bit as absurd as other recent EuropaCorp products, but it’s good natured and playful where films like 3 Days to Kill and The Family were mean-spirited. This is due in no small part to Walker, who made a career out of giving ridiculous action movies a soul they might not have otherwise earned.
When described, Locke can seem more like homework than a entertaining film experience. Writer/director Steven Knight’s follows Welsh construction manager Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drives from Birmingham to London and fields various phone calls from co-workers, friends and family members. This isn’t any old car ride. This is a drive that will define the rest of his life, and as he takes every phone call he is powerless to stop his life from unraveling. As Knight said in the post-screening Q&A I attended last week, the great irony of Locke’s situation is he has the technology to talk to everyone in his life from his car, and yet there’s nothing he can really do from behind the wheel except talk. Locke is an examination of a man who has already made perhaps one of the biggest decisions of his life, and we are left to watch as he deals with the consequences.
Knight’s work here is plenty strong. He gives Hardy a solid foundation on which to build his character, and he chooses to film the journey by layering headlights and reflections both on top of and behind his protagonists face. The world continues to function outside of his car, even though a way of life is slowly collapsing within. However, it is Hardy who is the real star of the show. Locke is a man who has carefully and meticulously put his life together and made it something he is very comfortable with. Now he has made a mistake that forces him to potentially tear it all down. This could all very easily feel hokey–this is a script packed to the gills with obvious symbolism–but Hardy sells every line and commands the audience’s attention right from the start. Almost the entirety of the film is spent staring at his face, and if he didn’t completely embody this character then it likely would have rang false. Locke might have been a good film with another actor, but without Hardy it could have never been this compelling.
“That’s what bullets do.”
This is the defining line of Jeremy Saulnier’s magnificent revenge film Blue Ruin, but you may not know it when you first hear it. It’s said by a secondary character; tossed aside as he helps the protagonist clean up a rather bloody mess. However, it might as well be Saulnier’s mission statement. This is often a violent, brutal movie, but where others try to add a sense of style to the revenge they’re depicting, Saulnier examines his subject in disarmingly matter-of-fact fashion. This is not the first film to explore an increasingly dispiriting cycle of violence, but Blue Ruin is a mighty assured piece of work, and a fine chance for a new director to show just how skilled he is at putting together a suspense thriller. In this case, very skilled.
In the lead is Macon Blair, who plays a man wholly unprepared for the murderous world which he is about to enter. Once he decides to commit to a life of endless revenge, he is trapped and is forced to deal with the seemingly endless consequences. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen a film deal with the subject of violence this directly and powerfully. We may have a protagonist, but the audience doesn’t root for him as much as they’re rooting for it all to end. Unfortunately, that seems like a wish that cannot be granted until every last drop of blood has been shed.
I bet you thought I was kidding last week when I said I’d revisit the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Well, unfortunately for you, I never kid about such things. As I mentioned before, there was a time I was obsessed with this musical, and this film in particular. As I also mentioned before, any production of Jesus Christ Superstar lives and dies based on who is playing Judas, and this film is mostly successful because it features Carl Anderson as the definitive Judas. So good is Anderson in this role that he was still playing it on stage just two years before his death. I actually saw him play Judas at a production in Buffalo, alongside–you guessed it–Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach as Jesus. There was much screaming during “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”
The one thing that bothers me about this film, however, is Ted Neely’s occasional decision to talk-sing some crucial lines. In my opinion, this show works best when everyone is committed to singing as much as possible. Even so, this may actually be my second favorite Jesus-based film behind The Last Temptation of Christ. Behind all the singing and hippy nonsense, Jesus Christ Superstar actually takes the characters rather seriously. Judas is motivated by believable human feelings, and Jesus is played in such a way that you can understand why his “right hand man” would want to turn away. It’s ridiculous, of course, but I was surprised by how much I still genuinely liked the movie all these years later.
It may seem unnecessary to write here that Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made, but… well, Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made. In this case, there’s no real mystery to why. It’s just a great story, perfectly realized by everyone involved. In that respect, it’s not unlike Casablanca. There’s no juicy story behind it, nor can it be pointed to as particularly innovative. It’s just flawless at every turn. The script by Robert Towne is perfect. Roman Polanski’s direction is perfect. This is probably Jack Nicholson’s best performance. It’s the rare movie that’s almost too good for me to write at length about. It just… is. And it’s fantastic.
The Raid: Redemption (2012)
Dir: Gareth Evans
Speaking of masterful storytelling, I re-watched The Raid: Redemption this week in the wake of the sequel, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I didn’t actually remember too much of this movie going into this viewing, and I could see why. It takes 35 minutes for the good stuff (specifically, Iko Uwais) to kick into gear, and before that it’s mostly a lot of simply gunfighting. Even when Iko Uwais starts doing Iko Uwais things, the fight sequences aren’t quite as memorable as those that would be seen in The Raid 2. It’s still a whole lot of bloody fun, but I can’t claim to have the connection with it that others seem to. There’s no arguing Gareth Evans is a talented filmmaker, but I’m anxious to see what he does with non-Raid films once he moves on. I think there’s a ceiling to what he can accomplish in this universe.