9/24: The Rock (1996)
The Rock’s Criterion commentary — featuring Michael Bay, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Jerry Bruckheimer, and a former Navy SEAL/technical advisor — is nothing short of fascinating. Some recent revelations:
- Michael Bay has considered marketability and audience demographics since *at least* 1996
- Sean Connery does not like getting wet
- Someone really ought to write an essay on the influence of 50’s rockabilly on Nicolas Cage’s acting — I’ll get on that right away
Bay never truly capitalizes on the mobility of his camera to explore the robust textures of Alcatraz, but much like Armageddon, The Rock‘s action benefits from Bay’s do-or-die cataclysmic direction.
9/25: The Grey (2011)
The Grey loses points in the convenient slow reveal of its side characters, and any human struggles are shoved aside when it’s “wolvin’ time.”
That said, this is likely Joe Carnahan’s strongest film, a gorgeous, haunting, and (amazingly) moving piece of pop cinema — one that holds up even after subverting its wildly misleading marketing campaign. It’s all too rare that a moody character piece advertised as “no holds barred” actioner doesn’t avoid tying up all loose ends. It rises above them completely.
9/26: Hunger (2008)
It’s clear Steve McQueen is fascinated by the persona of the late IRA volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), so Hunger begins decidedly off kilter, delaying a face-to-face meeting by first broaching the confines of this loyalist prison with the shocking acclimation of an overwhelmed newcomer (Brian Milligan). McQueen’s roundabout introduction however, affords the opportunity to ease into these confines, such that Fassbender arrives on screen with veteran status, a regular to the prison as much as the guards who commute daily to their shifts.
Hunger’s 17+ minute long take is impressive and gratuitous, with McQueen exhibiting oodles of confidence in Fassbender opposite Liam Cunningham, but it’s the director’s uncanny knack for visual storytelling that provides far more impressive results. McQueen blends bodily function with architecture, structures synthetic and natural forming a bloody, fecal, unholy bond: Fassbender’s bloodied mouth against his cell floor; shit-covered prison walls; inhaling a snot-rocketed bit of clandestine instruction; bloody stains from bed sores on hospital sheets. McQueen’s eye hones in on a single elbow, bathed in grey sunlight as it pokes through a cell window. Cinema.
9/27: Drug War (2012)
Johnnie To employs a remarkable reversal of perspective in Drug War. In one moment, pieces of information are relayed to captured drug dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). The next, Inspector Zhang (Honglei Sun) is taking the next three pieces and forming his mode of attack in a sweeping drug bust of a Hong Kong meth ring. There’s a density and complexity to a lot of its setups, and little time is wasted in Drug War. Police officers, including the intrepid Zhang, are solely defined by their work, never shown going home or calling significant others. Instead, they eat and nap in police vans during late night stakeout. Choi’s family, as UW-Madison’s David Bordwell notes in his excellent piece, takes a main stage in the character’s psychology — that is, before ultimately falling by the wayside like Choi’s other tenuous allegiances. Choi may be a snake, willing to betray anyone and everyone to further his survival, but his dedication, mirrored by Zhang’s fastidiousness, forms a symmetry between the two — singular forces of criminality and justice, and equal lengths of dedication.
In one of several breathtaking sequences, Drug War features a double fake-out meeting between two arranged parties, a fast one pulled over by the police squad’s drug investigation unit. Much like an Ocean’s Eleven heist or a similar setup in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the exchanges between one drug dealing party and a disguised officer, and then another are gripping, but To never talks down to his audience. Rather than lay everything out in advance, he shows snippets of cops preparing for the faux dinner meeting before allowing both confrontations to unfurl naturally. It’s a difficult balance to strike, that of an organic crime thriller, but To does so quite spectacularly here.
9/28: The Lords of Salem (2013)
Rob Zombie manages to mess up a premise that’s roughly Hocus Pocus meets The Cremaster Cycle — only the worst parts of both.
To his credit (?), Zombie puts the spotlight on his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, a Massachusetts DJ who falls under the gaze of three servants of Satan, but much of the film’s attention eschews dialogue for elongated arthouse imagery. Mercifully, so, as Sherri Moon Zombie’s line deliveries range between wooden and godawful. The promise of a predominantly visual effort from this director seems enticing on a surface level, especially after playing in the Halloween mythos with his two previous efforts. The visuals vacillate from moderately horrifying — holy shit, what’s that in the corner of your kitchen?! — to ridiculous hilarity.
Lest anyone confuse erratic, wafer-thin plotting with “story” and three wasted, overqualified actresses with a nefarious cabal of spinsters, The Lords of Salem little more than Zombie testing the budgetary waters. This is a game of chicken between studio and director, one with possessed LPs, goat rodeos, and impregnating tentacle babies. Fer rizzles.