Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reviews from gulag: The humanitarian diet

Hey, when our own food supply is contingent on patent ecological unsustainability, the brutalization of millions of slave laborers, and the mass torture of billions of defenseless animals, who the heck are we to judge what "ethical consumption" really means?  Today, we dig into Bone Tomahawk, Quest For Fire, and The Green Inferno.

When two bandits blunder into the territory of an unnamed, heretofore-unknown tribe of Indians not too far from the frontier settlement of Bright Hope, only one (David Arquette) comes out alive.  Making his way to town after his ordeal, it's about two minutes before he runs afoul of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his aged deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and gets half his leg blown off.  That's how the local medicine woman Samantha (Lili Simmons) happens to be at the jail that night when the Indians track their enemy down; naturally, they seize both.  Thus the sheriff, his deputy, the woman's husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and the Indian-killing fop Brooder (Matthew Fox) embark on a mission of rescue.  Their journey is long, and arduous, and longer and more arduous still thanks to Arthur's broken leg and the random encounters generated by writer-director S. Craig Zahler's twenty-sided plot dice.  Ultimately, however, the four doomed men find what they're looking for, and the fate in store for them is more horrific than they ever could have anticipated.

It probably ought to be a spoiler, though obviously it isn't, to say, "They're cannibals."  This is the selling point of Bone Tomahawk, as well as its Achilles' heel: it is a movie, written and produced in 2015, about a bunch of white guys following the trail of a bunch of red guys who turn out to eat white guys, and thus need to be eradicated with all the force the white race can bring to bear upon them.  But Tomahawk takes some of the edge off with a helpful token Lakota professor played by Zahn Mcclaron, who has the thankless role of explaining why nobody ought to get mad.  These Indians, says he, are better described as "troglodytes," and they're sure as hell not part of any tribe that he recognizes.  The real shame of it is, that despite being onscreen for just a couple of minutes, Mcclaron occupies the screen with a sufficient force—particularly as he pushes back against the arch-racist Brooder—that you kind of wish that he had accompanied the gunslingers on their quest, and maybe even that Tomahawk had more of a point beyond, "We wanted to do a Western with cannibals."  But, you know, there turns out to be an awful lot of wisdom in the Professor's refusal of the Sheriff's invitation.  So perhaps the point is that Indians are smarter than us white folk.

Anyway, that leaves us with a full squadron of Caucasians, but when they're animated by what might be the year's best ensemble cast, it's hard to complain.  Now, I've been a booster of Matthew Fox' underrated acting abilities for years now, and he's in fine form here as the self-loathing yet nonetheless violence-prone Pierce Hawthorne of this otherwise-enlightened band of rescuers.  And given that I've never failed to love Patrick Wilson in anything he's ever done, it's no surprise that he's fantastic as the man whose love for his wife drives him to some truly rarefied heights of survival-heroism—equaled only by the depths of his rash stupidity.  Then there's Richard Jenkins, doing unsung work creating a version of his stock character that is permitted to retain all the fun inherent to the Stupid Geriatric Sheriff's Deputy role, while the screenplay gives him the leave to elevate Chicory beyond what, at first, looks like positively nothing but the same old butt-monkey stereotype you'll find in every third Golden Age Western.  Finally, there's Kurt Russell himself, and while we can admit that, out of the film's primary cast, he's doing the least amount of capital-A Acting, he imbues our good Sheriff with such a sense of solid, old-fashioned authority that it's Russell, above everybody, who anchors this film right to the ground.

So!  That sure is a lot of praise for the nuanced performances of a movie that, at first glance, seems like it really ought to be nothing but a rip-roaring tale of colonialist action-horror, not unlike a latterday Temple of Doom.  Of course, this isn't first-time filmmaker Zahler's scheme at all.  Tomahawk winds up being, for the great bulk of its two hour plus runtime, a character piece, occasionally punched up with a physical complication befitting its Old West setting—but far more often it's nothing but four men riding over hill and vale, and talking while they do so.  That's why it's to Tomahawk's supreme benefit that it is so well-acted—and so well-scripted.  A loopy yet subdued sense of humor and a whole bunch of Tarantinian dialogues about nothing are what keep Tomahawk compelling from its prologue until the top of its third act.  It is only at this extreme that the actual "action-horror" part finally begins in earnest, with one simply radical scene of cannibal violence that was all the more effective because I hadn't watched Green Inferno yet.

Yet it's here that Tomahawk starts to wobble slightly.  Whatever skill Zahler evinces for directing performances (substantial) and for carrying a camera around the less-tamed parts of southern California (likewise substantial, albeit with a naturalistic eye that halfway-succeeds in debeautifying it), Tomahawk's climax doesn't quite live up to the expectations raised by its initial flare of ultraviolence.  Afflicted with all kinds of staging problems—most of them boiling down to the fact that the cannibals are obviously outmatched but run blindly into gunfire anyway—there's also a distinct impression of cheapness, in the depiction of the cannibals themselves (reduced to twelve men, clearly to keep production costs down), and of the cannibals' society (reduced to a single set that is very obviously a set).  With the promise of gore going at least partly unfulfilled, and the action operating in a decidedly desultory mode, there's just not enough here to distract you from Tomahawk's most off-putting conceit, namely the cannibals' voices—the howls and wails we've heard on the wind since the beginning of the film turning out to have been produced by some kind of cyborg pipe, stuck in the base of their necks.  It's probably for the best that nobody even tries to explain this, since it's more-or-less inexplicable, but it's the kind of thing you expect in an even weirder movie than the one you're already watching—which is, in the final analysis, perhaps just not quite weird enough.

Score:  6/10

80,000 years ago, a clan of human cavedwellers is pushed from their home by a band of violent australopithecines, and in the process lose the precious fire that they stole from nature long ago.  Unable to make their own fire—for they have not advanced to this point on the technology tree of the game of life—three men (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nicholas Kadi) set out on an epic and dangerous journey through the dawn of time to find another flame.  They meet peril after peril—sabertoothed cats, bears, and (more than anything) their own stupidity—but when they run up against a tribe of Neanderthals, who have some fire they'd like to steal, they also find the Neanderthals' captive, a young behaviorally modern human woman (Rae Dawn Chong), who leads them to her tribe—where, at last, they learn the impenetrable secrets of frictional heating.

Quest for Fire, which is replete with problems, is probably best enjoyed less a "you're there" experience than just another 1980s-style barbarian adventure film, albeit one that is more concerned with realism than the average entry.  Beginning with a fire raid by what amounts to a group of sasquatches—when australopithecines were long, long extinct by the time period covered in this film—and continuing on to a confrontation with a band of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis who have been heightened into a race of Tolkeinesque beasts, Quest doesn't cop out when it comes to movie monsters.  As an entertainment, this is probably to its benefit.  And yet it's beyond obvious that the avowed purpose of Jean-Jacques Annaud's film was to create an immersive and believable prehistoric environment.  As a result, its traffic in the basest cliches of caveman fiction, not to mention whole heaps of mythopoeic nonsense, hurt it one whole hell of an awful lot, leaving a final product not totally distinguishable from a Roger Corman movie, except it's crafted with a little bit more sobriety.

Indeed, the easiest thing to point out are Quest's deeply lacking visuals.  While it may at first seem terrifically unfair to judge a movie from the Before Times for its effects, it's still very much worth mentioning them, when "prehistoric cats" are rendered by lions with fangs uncomfortably glued to their faces—whereas the elephants, draped with carpet to make them look like mammoths, are so awkwardly doctored that I thought they were actually props, and not the living, breathing behemoths they were.

But even though movies five decades Quest's senior, like King Kong, were able to parlay their less objectively-real production methods into rather more viscerally realistic visuals, let's not be too hard on the picture for what it would have had a hard time helping, short of some unlikely charitable intervention by ILM.  Let's instead dwell briefly on the cutting schemes used to haphazardly mash all these images together, since Quest is conspicuously poorly edited: from disconnected shots of the animal actors that don't feel like they're remotely in the same world as our heroes, to disconnected shots of Scotland and Albeta that unconvincingly pretend to represent the same biome as Kenya, a certain awkwardness of montage makes itself exceedingly evident throughout the proceedings, but never more than in a gory fistfight between our heroes and the Neanderthals, or, more accurately (albeit at the risk of repeating myself) between disconnected shots of our heroes and the Neanderthals, respectively.  It's this last one that's really damning, because there's just no reason (beyond lousy stuntwork and general ineptitude) for this contest between Naoh, our leading caveman, and one of the Neanderthal warriors to look this deliriously fake.

As for its heavily-betroped narrative, Quest is rife with all the most obvious caveman happenstance, starting with the ensemble's distractingly chimpanzee-like play-acting, and culminating in the deeply off-putting rape-as-seduction romance between Naoh and Ika, the Cro-Magnon they rescue from the Neanderthal camp.  It's just lazy to say that it's "realistic."  It'd be just as realistic, you know, to not indulge in such a hackneyed element (whereas Ika's ultimate reaction, in fact, courts psychological implausibility).  And this kind of judgment-free amorality is bound to stick even deeper in the craw when it's delivered in the context of what amounts to an adventure movie, particularly one which—for all its flaws—really does seem to be less interested in advancing a dour naturalism than it is in building a genuine emotional bridge between the audience and our put-upon Pleistocene heroes.  (Plus, when Naoh advances upon poor Ika, he's just had a bite taken out of his nards by a Neanderthal—and while I can't say I've ever been in that exact situation, I like to think that even if I were a caveman rapist, a genital injury would give me pause.)

But, at the last, let's not overlook what Quest For Fire does right (even if, to a noticeable degree, it does these things right simply by being just about the only movie to do them at all, and therefore lacking competitors).  More than anything, Quest's charms are bound up with its linguistic conceit, with the cavemen speaking an invented primitive language without subtitles (of course, if you happen to be a member of a certain Canadian First Nation, you'll no doubt roll your eyes right out of your head once we get to the Cro-Magnons, who speak random phrases in Cree).  Still, for the Anglophone, there's a certain dreamlike quality to Quest that serves its paleolithic reverie incredibly well; the silent storytelling with which Annaud challenges himself is honestly half of this film's fun.  We thus shouldn't overlook the imagination that went into everything on the screen, even when the finished results of that imagination are subpar—because when they aren't subpar, they're legitimately fantastic.  Quest didn't wind up in this cannibal-themed post for nothing, and the Neanderthals' depredations are perhaps the most conceptually horrifying to be found in the three people-eater films we're looking at today.  The Neanderthals, you see, butcher their meat only one limb at a time.

Beyond this limited but effective gore, we have those performances—which can also be described with the words "limited" and "effective," though not always in regards to the same person.  Rae Dawn Chong inevitably steals the show, not solely because she runs naked through the whole movie with an extraordinary lack of self-consciousness (although, admittedly, this is the biggest reason), but because she's not nearly as hamstrung with that aforementioned "ooga-ooga" pastiche.  The cavemen themselves wind up a mixed bag: Quest is famously the movie that jumpstarted Ron Perlman's career, but perhaps there's a reason that contemporary commentary regarding his supporting role as Anoukar consists almost exclusively of mean-spirited remarks regarding the shape of his skull.  The real winner of Quest For Fire, I think, is Everett McGill, whose Naoh gets only one scene that goes beyond his character's stereotype, but what a remarkable scene it is, when Naoh is shown the secret of making fire, and is allowed to react as a human being actually would—with soul-quaking, head-slapping, overjoyed awe. 

Score:  6/10

Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is a young woman at her first year of Privileged Elite University, where she learns, for the very first time apparently, about all the Problems in the World, and she resolves to do something about them.  It's only too bad that, in the process, she falls in with Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a rain forest activist whose ruthless pragmatism is revealed to be nothing but self-serving hypocrisy when their tree-hugging protest in the Amazon goes disastrously awry, and a plane crash delivers them into the clutches of a tribe of indigenes who've developed quite the taste for human flesh.

Here's what I wish.  I wish that the two Lil' Tarantinos of 2015, S. Craig Zahler and Eli Roth, had teamed up.  (And, before you stop me while I'm rolling, please be assured that I'm well aware that Roth's own history of provocation goes back a pretty long way itself.)  If you took Bone Tomahawk's brilliant character creation and willingness to build a little thing called "tension," and paired it with The Green Inferno's balls-out hyperviolence (and, perhaps, generally superior shot-to-shot craft), you'd probably have something awfully close to the best film of the year.  Of course, this is only a silly thought experiment.  Inferno, you know, was actually made something like forty years ago, but it's only this past September that Roth somehow managed to coax a distributor into releasing it.  And that's a minor miracle, given that Roth's film only ever adds up to an arch-reactionary screed—albeit one that still manages to have some profoundly excellent gore effects (not to mention one scene, with a tarantula creeping up on an exposed penis, that literally knocked me off my couch).

But first, and maybe foremost, Inferno is that arch-reactionary screed.  We discovered above how easy and even unavoidable it was to give Tomahawk a certain degree of shit for the defensive posture it takes; visibly nervous about its own scenario, Zahler's picture displays a remarkable willingness to stop itself in its tracks to explain to you 1)that Tomahawk knows that racism is awful bad, which is why it's such good thing that 2)Tomahawk totally isn't racist.  However, when you watch it back-to-back with Inferno, you realize very quickly how much Zahler's good intentions matter, for although Roth's film is certainly one hate-filled romp through the Peruvian Amazon, it's not even entirely clear which group of characters he hates the most, the cannibal natives, or the band of activists, who vary in their characterization quite a bit, but only in the precise nature of the negative traits Roth ascribes to them.  "What kind of left-leaning Millennial are you?" Inferno asks.  Take Eli Roth's quiz and find out: you could be a dire bitch motivated by petty jealousies; you could be a deluded naif; you could be a vainglorious monster; or you could be merely fat and soft-spoken.  Of course, if you're lucky, you're simply preposterously stupid, and you'll walk forehead first into your downed plane's spinning propeller.  In any event, Green Inferno is a film where the closest thing there are to actual heroes are the gunslinging paramilitary thugs from the logging company whom Alejando and Justine went down to Peru to expose in the first place.

Ultimately, however, the most offensive thing about Inferno isn't its political program, it's the confused and incoherent pursuit of it: if Roth wanted to make a movie about the ways in which young Americans suck, it wouldn't be his first, although by no means has he succeeded here.  Whereas if he wanted to make a movie about how some cultural practices are so vile that colonialism presents itself as the lesser of two evils, then, by all means, let's hear the man out—female genital mutilation, for example, gets a big push in Inferno, and that stands alongside slavery when it comes to things that even a lot of progressives wouldn't mind devoting some drone sorties to stamping out.  But Inferno, which demonstrates a deranged tone and a garbled pace all through its runtime, essentially collapses as a functional narrative with five minutes left to go.  Growing indecipherable even at the level of basic syntax, the only ideological point that Inferno winds up making is that "Eli Roth hates everybody," and to the extent that a nihilist is worth listening to in the first instance, nobody cares at all what an inarticulate nihilist has to say.

But, hey, we're not here for high-minded art, we're here for the Goddamned geek show, and on this level, I can tell you that Inferno delivers.  Let's be clear: it wastes an awful lot of time in the United States and in the civilized parts of Peru; and when it finally does come time for that plane to go down in the Amazon, Inferno blows its load much more quickly than you'd prefer—if there are even three whole minutes in between the plane crash and the activists' capture by the cannibals, I'd be surprised.  Indeed, even once the human livestock is in its cage, Roth the Screenwriter seems to become allergic to the very concept of atmosphere, puncturing his perfect horror scenario with bouts of unruly humor—which, in some cases, could easily have added to the atmosphere, but Inferno lacks maturity as well as gravity. Thus, for example, a scene of a woman uncontrollably shitting in the cannibals' livestock pen is pitched at roughly the same level as the analogous scene in your typical Farrelly Bros. comedy, except that Farrelly Bros. movies are actually funny.  (Meanwhile, it's instructive that both Tomahawk and Inferno each feature Chekhovian drugs, introduced early in the first act, that wind up ingested by their respective cannibal tribes—but, in Inferno, it's just some harmless pot, and the outcome, in case you somehow couldn't guess, is a dumb joke about what happens when cannibals get the munchies.)  Man, if you were to take Roth at his word, and actually believed him when he said he wanted to do something akin to Apocalypto, or the films of Terrence Malick (!), I'm sure you would wind up very annoyed.

And yet: there is still just so much to enjoy about Inferno, even including (albeit in a distantly ironic way) its awful sense of humor.  I've touched on the gore already, but it absolutely bears repeating—every piece of violence in this film is rendered with love and affection and consummate skill.  The central setpiece must be 2015's champion example of squirmy gruesomeness, and the costuming and makeup design on the cannibals is both terrifying and colorful, a superbly cinematic combination.  (And perhaps it's worth noting that the Peruvian tribespeople whom Roth enlisted for his essentially anti-tribesperson movie all look they're having a total blast.  The sheer joy they appear to obtain from eating other humans lends the film an extra dimension of terror.)  Finally, between Inferno's irreproachable spectacle and the arbitrary suddenness of its many, many kills, we have a film that somehow remains grounded in legitimate horror long after after Roth's tonal inconsistencies should have watered it down into a full-on splatter parody.

I'll say this too.  If absolutely nothing else, it was certainly a pleasant thing to watch on a snowbound day in Pittsburgh, PA.  A green inferno it might well be—but at the very least, it's nice and warm.

Score:  5.01/10


  1. Green Inferno's plane crash scene is definitely one of the most exciting, visceral moments of Roth's entire career. It's across the board the best film of his career (which frankly, isn't great news for his career).

    1. In all honesty, I *love* it when that guy walks into the prop.

    2. And I think I just realized why I liked it: in its intense randomness (and punishment of physical ineptitude), it reminds me strongly of that part of Halloween II when Ben Traemer explodes, which I think we can all agree (citation needed) was amazing.