May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Foxy Brown (1974)

I’m by no means an expert on the so-called ‘blaxploitation’ genre, but this particular title seems to get a lot of play in popular culture. Quentin Tarantino, after all, sampled the title character’s name — not to mention its actress, Pam Grier — for his own Jackie Brown, and generally Foxy is considered an icon of embattled black femininity striking back at an unjust system. Yet for all the rhetoric around it, the film itself is a rather sleazy little piece of low-budget exploitation cinema, as is perhaps hardly surprising.

Undeniably, its saving grace is its star, the luminescent Pam Grier. Even as the minor characters shuffle around in polyester, delivering cardboard dialogue on under-furnished sets, Grier is wonderful to watch and has an ease and charisma that rather shows up the lack of polish elsewhere. She is avenging her boyfriend, a federal agent slain by members of a drug syndicate/brothel headed up by the creepy “Miss Katherine”. It turns out the boyfriend was turned in by Foxy’s no-good drug addicted brother (Antonio Fargas, a jittery livewire, better known for his turn as a pimp in the TV show Starsky & Hutch), just one more weak man in a film filled with them.

Yet it’s hardly any kind of feminist statement, and I would be wary of making such claims. In order to infiltrate the drug ring and take her revenge, Foxy goes undercover as a prostitute and is seen in various stages of undress. Still, if the camera at times seems to leer at her, Grier sends back a pretty grim visage when she needs to, and it’s clear that her revenge will always come even when she finds herself in peril — of which there’s plenty, and some of it rather nasty.

That all said, for what is avowedly exploitation filmmaking, it leaves less of a nasty aftertaste than something like the recent Kick-Ass 2. There’s also a lot more interest to the moral quandaries that the characters deal with, especially in the dynamic between Foxy and her brother, even if ultimately there are some strong elements of stereotyping. Yet the trump card of Foxy Brown, moreso even than many other films in this genre, is the propulsive brass-led soundtrack from Willy Hutch. When it drops in — as it does periodically, breaking up some longueurs — so many other caveats and complaints can more easily be forgotten. Foxy Brown may not be a classic, but it certainly has its pleasures.

Foxy Brown film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jack Hill; Cinematographer Brick Marquard; Starring Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Thursday 5 September 2013.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

There’s a refrain that’s repeated over and over in this film: “this is real life”. It’s repeated often enough that I get the feeling the writer-director must have a bit of a complex about quite how abstracted all this stuff is from any kind of recognisable reality. I mean, that’s fine — it hardly hides its comic book origins with all those luridly saturated colours, the glib violence, the superheroes and supervillains storyline and the superimposition of comic book captions — but the repetition of that particular phrase just comes across as witless irony in such a uneven work.

The unevenness is in the tone, which bounces around in a rather discomfiting manner. There are so many big melodramatically emotional crescendoes that it’s very easy to stop caring about any of the characters, though certainly the filmmakers must expect their audience to be fairly apathetic given the casual slaughter involved (most notably of a squad of police officers, who appear to have done little to merit such treatment, unlike the misanthropic ‘super’-branded characters). There’s scarcely a scene lacking a major character repenting of his/her actions, pledging to change, being confronted by the bitterness of life, and grappling with their life choices. There are earnest close-ups and stirring music but little real emotional catharsis — it feels more like desperate sententious back-peddling to justify the next bout of “real life” cartoon violence, all nunchucks and red dye packs.

And yet, somehow, I don’t really hate this film. It’s not that it’s particularly funny — it may be going for action-comedy, but the latter never really gets much beyond the colourful cartoonishness of the characters and a bit of underage swearing, and so is easily forgettable. It also has a troubling relationship to race — (white) characters make jokes at the expense of racist stereotypes yet the fact that there are always other characters to call them on it doesn’t really change some of the racial dynamics in play. Almost all the ‘super’ characters are white, and more often than not possess a fair amount of independent wealth, while there’s an extended sequence of them battling a group of shady oriental clichés lifted straight from some fever dream of Hong Kong cinema. Plus there’s a real underlying nastiness to the film’s worldview, that familiar reactionary politics of vigilantism with which filmmakers like Michael Winner or John Milius would surely be comfortable — but that was all there in the first film, and every bit as troubling.

No, I think what I like is Chloë Grace Moretz as an action hero, and as Hit-Girl she’s very much the focus of this second film (over the nominal titular character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, gawky, geeky and very much post-adolescent by this point). She’s charismatic and capable, with greater fighting skills not to mention self-confidence than most of the rest of the cast, and hardly requires saving at any point — except perhaps from her ‘normal’ self, as she spends rather too much of the film not being Hit-Girl. Her nemesis in the film is Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s pathetically-likeable supervillain Chris, who dubs himself The Motherfvcker, and gets the closest in the film to laugh-out-loud comedy, generally while doing something unspeakably vicious. Pretty much everyone else is rather lost amongst the peaks and troughs of ersatz emotion.

Reading back over what I’ve written makes it sound like I was seething throughout this film, but if that’s not the case, it’s certainly not a film that leaves me feeling particularly charitable. It’s a nasty vision of a broken society that’s only barely held together by brightly-coloured spandex and pleather.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Wadlow (based on the comic books Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.); Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 September 2013.