The Outsider (2019)

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A standard revenge saga set in the Old West, Timothy Woodward Jr.’s The Outsider offers little to distinguish itself from countless films of similar persuasion. Its title alone lumps it in with almost half a dozen movies sporting that spectacularly uncreative appellation—surely it couldn’t have been that hard to come up with something a little more descriptive? This ‘Outsider does boast “Country Music Legend” Trace Adkins, so his fans might like it. Adkins, with his gruff, imposing presence and deep, whiskey-cured voice, is ably cast as Marshal Walker, the Law in this no-name boomtown. He’s called into service when his uber-degenerate son commits a heinous crime against an immigrant family living in a work camp on the outskirts of town. After his wife is brutalized by the lawless low-life James Walker (convincingly played by Kaiwi Lyman), high-kicking railroad worker Jing Phang (martial artist Jon Foo) swears revenge and, in a hand-scribed note to the town’s aforementioned lawman, promises he won’t stop until the culprit is six feet under. By “won’t stop” he means killing just about everybody in town who isn’t James Walker, unfortunately, which only serves to prevent the film from becoming an animated short. Most of Phang’s revenge takes place at night, in the teeming Western rain amidst the muddy Western mud, so there’s not a whole lot to actually see. Lacking, as it does, exciting action sequences that aren’t mostly obscured from view, an original story (this run-of-the-mill retread is penned by Sean Ryan), or even some gosh-darned country songs courtesy its marquee attraction Adkins, The Outsider—like many a B-movie, is destined to disappear without a trace. Although technically speaking, Timothy Woodward Jr.’s film is more likely to disappear with one. With Sean Patrick Flannery, Nelli Tsay as Mrs. Phang, and that staple of standard revenge sagas set in the Old West (or elsewhere), Danny Trejo.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

9 Songs (2004)

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“Dear Mr. Winterbottom. Intercutting unsimulated sex scenes with concert footage does not a movie make. Love, David B.”
     At barely feature length (67 minutes; it feels ten times that), 9 Songs quickly establishes its predictable rhythm: song, sex, repeat (eight times). The Brixton Academy (a musical venue in the suburbs of South London) gets as much exposure as do our two lascivious leads—Margot Stilley as Lisa, an American college student, and Kieran O’Brien as Matt, a British glaciologist (meaning he studies glaciers in Antarctica, not that he does things really slowly; there are a few scenes of him flying over the tundra to mix things up a bit… and this film needs things mixed up a bit).
     Lisa and Matt’s lovemaking is raw and urgent and not without prurient interest; they’re physically attractive people, sure, and we don’t often get to see real live sex in a mainstream movie (if you can call it that) by a mainstream director (if you can call the aforementioned Michael Winterbottom that; he’s probably best known Stateside for his culinary series of comedic road trips with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon—The Trip, The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Spain).
     But there’s no semblance of a story here, let alone a raison d’etre. It’s as if Winterbottom started out by making nine separate concert films but discovered, at the end of the day, that he didn’t have enough footage for one. Or, alternatively, he decided to craft an explicit sex film but realized halfway through filming that watching people coupling for an hour or so can be pretty boring (no pun intended).
     Whichever: splicing the sequences together in the editing room might have solved his particular problem of presenting a “complete package” but it doesn’t solve ours. To be fair, Lisa and Matt are actually in attendance at these shows (all of which tend to blur into one another after a while). They bump and grind to the sounds of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Elbow, Franz Ferdinand, and The Dandy Warhols, then they go back to his flat afterwards to bump and grind some more.
     9 Songs isn’t as grim or grimy an erotic experience (or experiment, perhaps?) as, say, 2001’s Intimacy, another NSFW British bonk fest, or as unintentionally hysterical as Catherine (Fat Girl) Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell from 2004 (with Rocco Siffredi!), or as campy as Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film about a bunch of horny New Yorkers. Truth be told, the sex scenes in 9 Songs aren’t embarrassing, even if a little does go an extremely long way. The film’s construction, however, ultimately does it in. We, as audience members, feel manipulated. What’s the point? What does it all mean, or amount to? Who was that band I saw you with last night? (Super Furry Animals, maybe.) Maybe, like an author with a book contract, Winterbottom had promised his producers something by Tuesday week and 9 Songs was, unfortunately, the best he could come up with by the deadline.
     Just a final point of clarification: this review refers to the “full uncut version” of the film. An R-rated version would probably run closer to 40 minutes.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

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If, like me, you’re completely and utterly exhausted by the sheer saturation of superhero movies everywhere you look these days, then you should definitely give Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a try. Say what!? Isn’t that a superhero movie too? Well yes, but it’s something the majority of these Captain Avengers’ Age of Infinity War: Wolverine-styled films and their overbearing prequels and sequels aren’t, and that’s fresh (THWIP) and inventive (KR-RUNCH!) and beautifully drawn (BAM! CRACK! POW!). It’s also got, hands-down, the absolute best of everything a superhero movie—or any movie for that matter—has to offer: an engaging storyline, indelible characters, immaculate casting (voice work by Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Kathryn Hahn, and the ubiquitous Brian Tyree Henry), a vibrant and cutting-edge look, and excellent tone—funny, dramatic, irreverent, and surprisingly touching in places. In short: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse truly moves and feels like a comic book, brought to life by the talented directing triumvirate of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Clearly there’s room for multiple Spider-Men out there, as evidenced by the box-office popularity (and subsequent returns) of the recent—and not-so-recent—Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland starring reboots. Why would they need to come up with a clever subtitle like “Into the Spider-Verse” to differentiate this animated version otherwise? But this latest entry, by the hip creative team behind the LEGO movies and, I’m told, 21 Jump Street—pushes the cinematic envelope by bringing us a film that, to quote Rotten Tomatoes’ elegant Critics Consensus, “…matches bold storytelling with striking animation for a purely enjoyable adventure with heart, humor, and plenty of superhero action.” I’m quoting here because I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Simply put, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not Just Another Superhero Movie. It’s a Marvel.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Headhunters (2011)

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Woohoo! Headhunters. Have you seen this film? It’s nuts. It’s one of Robert Pattinson’s favorites, apparently. The guy from the Twilight movies? It’s also probably Norwegian. It doesn’t start out nuts, necessarily, just gets more insane as it goes along. It stars this guy called Aksel Hennie (he’s definitely Norwegian). Imagine the bastard child of Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi—that’s him (no offense). He plays a high-powered corporate headhunter, hence the title (partly), who’s married these seven years to the very Norwegian-sounding Synnøve Macody Lund. He’s sort of in over his head, lots of debts and stuff, so he steals art to finance his high-flying lifestyle. A nice little sideline, if you ask me. And he’s very good at it too—in and out in ten minutes, lest the owners return unexpectedly. His wife doesn’t know any of this; she thinks he inherited all his money. She wants a kid but he clearly doesn’t. He’s 5’6” (the film begins and ends with that stat; it’s got a whack sense of humor). Eventually, of course, he steals from the wrong guy, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whom he meets at his wife’s gallery opening. That’s when the nutso starts. NCW’s character used to be in black ops, tracking—that kind of thing—so our headhunter has his work cut out for him. I love the scene right when he’s stealing the Rubens and he sees some kids playing in the street and decides to call his wife, probably to say “OK. Let’s have a child then” and her phone rings… Choker. It’s like that a lot, cross and double-cross, kill or be killed—it gets nuttier and bloodier by the minute and it rarely lets up, just the once for a deliberate gross-out outhouse break. It’s based on Hodejegerne (The Headhunters), “the bestselling international thriller by Jo Nesbø.” Never heard of him (or her). But I bet it’s a good read if it’s anything like the movie. I should warn you though that a dog does come to grief in the film—not in real life of course—but it was pretty mean and had it coming. I really enjoyed this and you might too. Check it out: Headhunters from Norway, made by a guy called Morten Tyldum (never heard of him either).


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

 

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

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I suspect playwright Eugene O’Neill never ever envisioned (spoiler alert!) “…a staggering 59-minute 3-D tracking shot that must be seen to be believed” (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times) when constructing his four-act drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1941-1942. But writer-director Bi Gan (Kaili Blues) sure did, and it’s right here in all its stunningly choreographed and unbroken glory in Di Qiu Zui Hou De Ye Wan (Long Day’s Journey Into Night). Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey’—a creative English translation which has nothing whatsoever to do with O’Neill’s famed play of the same name by the way—is ostensibly about a man searching for a woman, but it’s as much about the difference between movies and memories—“The difference between film and memory… is that films are always false. But memories mix truth and lies. They appear and vanish before our eyes.” And it elects to demonstrate the truths and falsehoods of each in two distinct halves divided by its stark title marker which splashes big upon the screen approximately 75 minutes in. I don’t typically read up on a film much before watching it for fear of being unduly influenced, but Landmark Theatres’ brief synopsis had me at “…noir-tinged stunner featuring an hour-long, gravity-defying climactic sequence.” After that most titillating of revelations all bets were on! Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018) is a rich and sometimes rewarding riddle, “a mystery broken into a jigsaw puzzle, wrapped in a conundrum, and hidden in a Chinese box” (The Riddler, The Long Halloween). Sumptuously photographed (by Hung-i Yao) and enigmatically performed (by Jue Huang, and Wei Tang as the object of his fervent obsessions), this art house conundrum is as aggravating as it is mesmerizing. My main gripe is that the technical triumphs of its dream-laden second act weren’t in service of a more narratively-coherent first, with its karo syrup-paced non-linear timelines accented by layers of poetic if oftentimes indecipherable dialogue (“Dreams rise up and I wonder if my body is made of hydrogen. And then my memories would be made of stone”). Fortunately, there’s enough style and visual substance on hand—saturated hues and lots of wet to reflect them—to more than make up for the impenetrable bits. As for that much-lauded tracking shot, if this 28-year-old auteur can pull off such an accomplished, outrageous stunt in his sophomore effort, one wonders what wonders we can expect from him in the future.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com