Posts Tagged ‘michael k. williams’

the-purge-anarchy-2014

Writer/director James DeMonaco’s The Purge was one of those flicks that came out of nowhere and impressed me (and its financial backers, given its surprise box-office success) last year,  so it’s actually good to see a sequel not only come out, but come out so soon after the original, given that DeMonaco is still at the helm and probably hasn’t had much time to second-guess what made his first film work and is therefore still sort of on the same “creative hot streak,” so to speak, that started this whole ball rolling — and now  that The Purge : Anarchy has met with essentially the same strong response at the nation’s ticket windows that its predecessor did, odds seem pretty good that a third installment will be out by roughly this time next year, and as long as DeMonaco remains in the director’s chair, I’ll be there for that one, as well.

Yup, as if you couldn’t guess by now, I enjoyed the second chapter in this safe-to-now-call-it-a-franchise quite a bit, not only because it builds upon the unpleasant socio-political ramifications of the first, but takes the action — quite literally — out onto the streets, and away from the gated suburban subdivisions of the original, which results in something of a loss in terms of the claustrophobic atmosphere the prior movie had, sure, but DeMonaco more than makes up for that by expanding his story’s scope while deepening it at the same time. The end result is that The Purge : Anarchy is every bit as compelling and immediate as its celluloid progenitor (if not moreso), but the stakes feel even higher this time around.

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Most of the proceedings in this sophomore outing take place outside, on the decidedly savage streets of an unnamed American city on the night of the sixth annual “all laws are suspended” shindig known as the titular Purge, where a series of accidents of fate have brought together a rag-tag group of wannabe-survivors under the tenuous and unwanted (at least as far as he himself is concerned) leadership of a guy named Leo who was apparently a military or police sergeant at  one point and is playing it pretty close to the vest as to why he’s out and about on the most dangerous night of the year. His charges consist of a newly-homeless mother-daughter team (played by Zoe Soul and Carmen Ejobo, respectively) and a couple at a — let’s call it transitional — stage in their relationship whose care broke down (portrayed by Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez). All the various players do right by their characters, but it’s Frank Grillo who really shines as Leo — he’s got natural “leading man action hero” charisma and bad-assness to spare, to the extent that I honestly have to wonder why he’s never been given center stage like this before.

Rounding out the cast is Michael K. Williams as Carmelo, a Black Panther-type urban paramilitary guerrilla who is the unofficial head honcho of a growing anti-Purge, anti-New Founding Fathers resistance movement. Carmelo’s doing his level best to educate the public to the fact that this whole nightmare scenario is basically the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill The Poor” come to life, and while he only appears in one scene as himself (so to speak), video images of his revolutionary (and entirely sane) message make their presence felt at several intervals throughout the course of events here.

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Also figuring into the ebb and flow are a “safe house” that turns out to be a whole lot less safe than anticipated, roaming armored battle-trucks cruising the streets for easy pickings, hard financial realities that force loving parents to sell themselves to the economic upper-crust as human sacrifices in order to earn enough cash to support families that they will never see again because, hey, they’ll be fucking dead, a nauseating “victim auction,” and, finally,  a “most dangerous game”-style human hunting scenario. All fairly compelling, dramatic stuff that DeMonaco and his no-name cast bring to life with considerable aplomb.

Beyond the well-realized and tense horrific action, though, it’s in the area of drawing obvious parallels to the real world that The Purge : Anarchy  stands out from the crowded genre pack. I hope I’m not blowing anyone’s illusions of how the world actually works here  too much, but despite the fact that outlets such as Fox “news” will scream “class warfare” every time somebody proposes hiking the top income tax rate by a couple of measly percentage points, it’s the rich — specifically the astronomically rich — that have been waging (and, sadly, winning) a very aggressive sort of slow-burn class war against the rest of us for decades now. What? You thought all those public service cutbacks, welfare and unemployment benefits trims, reductions in public education spending, spiraling student loan and health care costs, and busting up of unions was just a coincidence? At the same time massive corporate tax breaks are touted as being the “solution” to our economic woes? Oh, have I got a bridge to sell you.

The Purge : Ananrchy, like its fore-runner, simply removes all of  the intentionally-choreographed pretense obfuscating these issues in the world today. This is precisely the sort of scenario that the ruling elites want — they just don’t have the balls to come out and hack you to death with a machete themselves, and would rather have their paid lackeys in government do the job for them by killing us all off on the installment plan. That DeMonaco is managing to get away with laying their scheme this bare is pretty cool — but then, I’m sure the reason our ruling corporate overlords don’t have too much objection to this is because they own the studio that’s raking in the bucks off these flicks, so hey, it’s all good with them.

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My only real problem with this film, truth be told, is its title — the vilification of anarchism,  and even of the concept of anarchy itself, is getting pretty tedious, and it strikes me that if folks really understood that anarchy means a society not just without government, but without bosses, rulers, or power over others of any kind — be it governmental, corporate, religious, you name it — we might come to see it as a potential solution to the very real socio-economic “purge” that is going on around us. I admit that’s a pretty small bone I’m picking, though, and that beyond that, DeMonaco is to be congratulated for producing yet another tightly-paced, fraught-with-peril-at-every-turn horror/thriller/sci-fi/action movie hybrid that has the added advantage of actually being amazingly relevant. Definitely a very strong contender for the title of summer’s best movie.

"Life During Wartime" Movie Poster

So, anyway, Todd Solondz is back with a new film, and not too many people seem to care.

I caught his latest, Life During Wartime, a sorta-sequel/sorta-variation on his 1998 breakout hit Happiness,  at a Saturday matinee showing at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis, essentially indie film central of the upper midwest, the day after it opened — and there were exactly seven people in the auditorium, myself included.

Talking briefly with a couple of moviegoers after the show, they essentially had the same reaction I did — it wasn’t bad by any means, but we all felt, I dunno — kind of underwhelmed by the whole thing. Todd Solondz has grown up and learned to divorce himself from his characters a bit, but I think I preferred the less-analytical, more directly-involved (for good or bad) style of his previous efforts. Hold tight and all will (hopefully) be explained —

First off, if you haven’t seen Happiness, don’t bother with this at all. Solondz assumes the audience is all familiar with the characters,  even though each and every one is portrayed by a different actor than last time around (Solondz seems hooked on the idea of changing our perception of his characters based on changing who’s playing them, and uses those changes as a way of questioning the fundamental nature of identity itself — an interesting and challenging move, to be sure, but frankly one that he used to much better effect is his last (and for my money best) film, Palindromes, where the actress (and in one case actor) playing the lead role of Aviva changed several times within the film itself), and he doesn’t bother to really provide much of a point of entry for anyone late to the party.

Fair enough, I guess, it’s his call to make, but certainly the effect on any new viewer is going to be alienating to say the least. But given that alienation is a central  concern in all of Solondz’ work, maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly carried over into his overall approach approach as a filmmaker.

And that’s where my main beef with Life During Wartime lies — in his previous efforts, Solondz has either treated his characters with outright disdain (Happiness, Storytelling) or something approaching a sort of genuine level of sympathy and human concern (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes). In this flick, though, he approaches his subjects with a kind of detached, almost journalistic eye that works decently enough in conjunction with the minimalist production design and straightforward scripting in creating a sort of bare-bones, take-it-or-leave-it environment for his characters to function in, but it never really directly involves the viewer in any sort of way with the events unfolding onscreen.

I’m assuming all of this is quite intentional on his part (Solondz is too talented to assume anything else), and furthermore I can see why he’s chosen to go down this road — as with Happiness, the themes he’s dealing with here are intensely painful and harrowing, and viewing them through a kind of cold, clinical lens produces a juxtaposition, and a tension, between storytelling style and subject that’s interesting, to be sure, but in the end not entirely rewarding.

It’s been a full decade since everything went to hell for the Jordan family in the first film, and the three sisters who were the focal point of the first film have moved on — eternally depressed optimist (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not) Joy (Shirley Henderson) has settled down and married former (or so she thinks) obscene phone caller Allen (Michael K. Williams), but things aren’t going so well and she’s haunted by visions of her ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, Andy (Paul Reubens —one of the truly great things about this film is seeing Pee Wee Herman himself back in action). Uptight-and-always-in-denial Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida and told her kids that their pedophile father Bill, who’s actually due to be released from prison any day, was a  great and heroic sort of guy who died a tragic death.  She’s met an older guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whose staunch support for Israel and sexual — well, normalcy — have made her fall instantly in love with him. And uber-successful sister Trish (Ally Sheedy) has given up poetry for screenwriting, moved to Hollywood, cut off ties with her family, and started dating Keanu Reeves. Yes, really.

Things start to go south for the family pretty much from the word go, though — Joy (who gives this film its title with one her corny musical compositions, as was the case with Happiness) learns that Allen hasn’t been able to give up his X-rated prank call habit and flees to Florida, then Hollywood, hoping to find solace with her family (good luck with that). Cracks start to form in Trish’s carefully-constructed dam when her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns the truth about his dad. Things only get worse when the old man gets out of  jail and seeks out his their eldest son,  Billy (Chris Marquette) at college. And Helen is — well, Helen, and essentially completely divorced from basic concepts of human empathy and understanding, wrapped up in a completely self-absorbed cocoon of pure selfishness.

At this point I may as well admit that I find some of the casting choices a little bit disappointing in relation to the earlier film — the sisters are all well-chosen, but Jon Lovitz was a lot more interesting as Andy than Reubens is (painful as it is for me to say that), Philip Seymour Hoffman was a much more memorable Allen than Williams is, Dylan Baker was a much more terrifyingly real Bill than the detached and damaged figure Hinds portrays, and geez, Renee Taylor as family matriarch Mona can’t hold a candle to Louise Lasser (the ladies’ father, played with his usual consummate professionalism in Happiness by Ben Gazzara, is missing and presumed dead).

I have no doubt that a lot of the differences between how the characters came across the last time around and how they come across here can be more than adequately rationalized as being a realistic portrayal of where they are in their lives now versus where they were then, and represent a natural evolution of the kid of people they would become given the events that have transpired in their lives. I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t mean the actors, and the director, necessarily chose the best way to try to make this phase of their respective stories as interesting as the last was.

Sure, each character’s “arc” (God how I hate that term) is interesting enough in and of itself, but again, Solondz’ detached approach never makes any of the various plotlines as genuinely involving as it could be, and that makes all the difference here. And I’ll state again, while I have no doubt this artistic decision was made quite deliberately, it still doesn’t make for as satisfying a viewing experience as we got the first time around.

I guess a lot of folks are going to say that our guy Todd has simply matured as a filmmaker, but it seems like some of the fire in his belly has gone out a bit. Happiness was as genuinely disturbing to this reviewer on first viewing as films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust (and no animals — or humans — were harmed in the process), but Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel, or even a variation, and more like an addendum. It’s central theme of forgiveness for the unforgivable feels heavy-handed and frankly shoehorned in, as if to prove there was more of a point here than just saying “oh, by the way, here’s what happened to these people in case you were wondering.”

I don’t to bitch too much here, this is still a more interesting and challenging film than 99% of what’s out there. But given the high level at which Solondz set the bar with Happiness, it has to be said that his folow-up feels like something of a missed opportunity.