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Review: Vehicle 19

As one incoherent action scene follows another, we stare at a film with nothing to respond to, waiting for it all to be over.




Vehicle 19
Photo: Ketchup Entertainment

Vehicle 19 may call into question one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most famous quotations, which proposed that a movie only required a guy, a girl, and a gun—though, to be fair to Godard, he probably meant that a film with such a spartan conception would work only if these properties were incorporated semi-competently. Alas, the girl and the gun barely register at all in director Mukunda Michael Dewil’s film, and the guy is played by Paul Walker, who desperately writhes and gnashes his way through the thin, absurdly conceived role he’s been assigned.

This is one of those one-location movies typically conceived as a series of puzzles to test the filmmakers’ collective ingenuity at the expense of any consideration as to whether audiences will find the resulting production convincing or entertaining. Walker plays Michael Woods, a recently paroled recovering alcoholic visiting South Africa in an attempt to make amends with his estranged ex-wife. In the opening, Woods picks up the wrong rental car and finds himself thrust into a kidnapping scenario that unfolds more or less in real time. We never leave this vehicle, and the bad guy, a South African law enforcer with high connections, taunts Wood over the phone as the newly beleaguered hero dodges bullets and pursuing enemy limos.

In other words, Vehicle 19 is basically Phone Booth or Buried, but this time with the hero trapped inside an anonymous minivan. Those films weren’t great either, but they featured actors who sold you contrivances with a brio that was admirable and somewhat amusing. Walker, obviously cast for his association with the Fast and Furious franchise, simply isn’t an inventive enough performer to carry a movie, as he lacks both the sense of humor to invite our winking complicity with the absurdity of his predicament and the gravitas to allow us to accept his plight at face value. As one incoherent action scene follows another, one’s left staring at a film with nothing to respond to, waiting for it all to be over.

Cast: Paul Walker, Naima McLean, Gys de Villiers, Leyla Haidarian, Tshepo Maseko, Andrian Mazive, Welile Nzuza Director: Mukunda Michael Dewil Screenwriter: Mukunda Michael Dewil Distributor: Ketchup Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: R Year: 2013 Buy: Video



Review: The Brink Sees Steve Bannon As a Nitwit’s Idea of an Intellectual

Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary cuts Trump’s Rasputin down to size but doesn’t completely dismiss his power.




The Brink
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz on Donald Trump, conservative firebrand Steve Bannon is a nitwit’s idea of an intellectual. A semi-book-smart gadfly with a decent sense of humor, the vainglorious Bannon thinks in century-spanning terms that always involve him and his cohorts standing heroically at the barricades defending Western civilization. This portrait of Bannon comes through with sharp clarity in Alison Klayman’s immersive documentary on the Republican party’s new Lee Atwater—or maybe their Sun-Tzu, as Bannon would likely prefer. In some ways, The Brink serves as a visual addendum to Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green’s electric and somewhat terrifying 2017 book describing Bannon’s “storming of the presidency” and his battle plan for the nation-changing “populist” revolt whose opening salvo was the election of Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Starting in the fall of 2017, Klayman tagged along after Bannon while he launched into his post-Trump career. Red-eyed, snaggle-haired, and powered by Red Bull and a river of Citizens United-cloaked funding from the people he proudly terms “deplorables,” Bannon doesn’t seem to be letting anything get to him. This, even though that August he had been pushed out as Trump’s chief strategist—possibly in part because Devil’s Bargain’s take on him as the brains behind the operation upset the president. The Bannon we see on film isn’t holding grudges. He’s charging forward, pushing the same nativist message that he funneled through Trump, carrying water for every paleo-conservative candidate he can find at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and even still hanging out and happily joshing with Green.

For much of the documentary’s fast-paced and verbally clangorous running time, Klayman shows Bannon in his preferred state of happy malcontent as he tries to extend his brand outside of the United States. Styling himself as the strategist for the “global revolt,” Bannon flits around Europe through late 2017 into 2018, helping to stoke the fires lit by proto-fascists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen, and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage. The meetings Klayman records with Bannon and his white European anti-immigrant confederates, all of them high on Trump and Brexit as they hash out a way to unite their message as “The Movement,” could serve as a helpful rogues’ gallery for historians looking back at this hinge moment decades from now. Back in America, Bannon puts together a stable of candidates he thinks best equipped to carry forward the Trumpian message of Muslim bans, tariffs, and America First-ness. His first choice? Judge Roy Moore.

The results are mostly a disaster, with Bannon’s American candidates being resoundingly defeated and the Euro populists hitting what looks in the movie to be a peak. Throughout it all, Bannon keeps his stubbled chin high, even after being defenestrated from Breitbart and losing his Mercer family funding in early 2018 after Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury showed him exhibiting insufficient fealty to the glory of Trump. (Though Bannon clearly thinks of Trump as, at best, a useful idiot, Klayman doesn’t have the journalistic chops to get him to cop to it on camera; hers is a more insinuative and less confrontational style of political documentary.) The Brink suggests somewhat strongly that the fight is maybe more important than victory for Bannon. One especially effective segment intercuts footage of chaotic unrest in Europe, including images of Germans chasing down refugees in a kind of impromptu purge, while one of the architects of that chaos zooms high above in his private jet.

Like the most successful trolls, Bannon has mastered the art of turning a face of pure sincerity to those he considers less sophisticated and delivering his fire-and-fury sermons with a wink to the writers he so loves being interviewed by. Klayman stitches together a montage of Bannon in a series of MAGA hat-filled conference rooms declaring “divine providence” was responsible for Trump’s election. To Klayman, or around his crew of Breitbart editors or Politico writers, Bannon is more prone to wry sarcasm, such as his pondering semi-seriously about a pro-Trump film he’s just made, “How would Leni Riefenstahl cut that scene?”

But when he’s on the spot, Bannon can’t always wiggle out of it. When a Guardian reporter tries to pin him down on his “globalist” George Soros commentary being an anti-Semitic dog whistle, Bannon manages an uncharacteristically weak defense, leading the reporter to snap, “You need to stop smirking.” But he can’t. This fight is the game of Bannon’s life. He’s putting everything he has in to it, to the point of musing to Klayman at one point about whether there’s even a purpose for having a “personal life.” But it’s still a game.

Director: Alison Klayman Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Dirt Doesn’t Fulfill the Self-Flattering Promise of Its Title

The film is at least a gleefully nasty piece of myth-cementing jukebox hokum.




The Dirt
Photo: Netflix

Rock n’ roll movies offer up sin, music, and redemptive platitudes that allow us to feel virtuous after we’ve initially been encouraged to revel in the lure of rockers’ vices, which is the true reason for this subgenre’s existence. The recent Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t get the formula quite right, stinting on Queen’s excess and bad behavior and foregrounding the pious self-actualization that seems to be required of nearly every contemporary pop film. By contrast, Jeff Tremaine’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt is a somewhat pleasant surprise—a gleefully nasty piece of myth-cementing jukebox hokum.

The Dirt opens in 1981, at a point when the members of Mötley Crüe appear to be primarily concerned with living as kamikaze hedonists. Bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) narrates the band’s early events, giving the audience the lay of the land while tracking shots prowl a debauched party that’s raging in a small apartment on the Sunset Strip near the Whisky a Go Go. Drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker) is going down on a woman in a recliner in the middle of a living room. Lead singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) is having sex with someone else’s girlfriend somewhere in the back of the apartment, while lead guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) lies in bed, probably recovering from booze and drugs.

This lively, amusing, deliberately tasteless sequence cuts to the heart of the appeal of rock n’ roll movies and particularly of ‘80s-era metal at large. The irony of rock n’ roll is that it revels in a fake rebellion while ultimately gratifying the capitalist system. And the intoxication of ‘80s metal resides in its open ownership of this hypocrisy, as it embraces mercenary superficiality with a fervor that allows the genre to have its cake and eat it too. This bluntness is also fake, of course, a way of keeping rock “dangerous” for a generation that’s bored with the tropes of its parents’ music. At its most raunchily free-form, The Dirt honors this weirdly exhilarating and self-deceiving transaction between audiences and musicians.

Tremaine’s obsession with Mötley Crüe’s antics—his recurring shots of rockers passionlessly screwing groupies, the endless and exhausting close-ups of coke being snorted and Jack Daniels being chugged—have a cathartically naughty pull, especially in our uptight and guilt-ridden era of ongoing, efficient mutual shaming. A few formalist tricks also spruce up the proceedings. Initially emulating Martin Scorsese films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, Tremaine allows various voiceovers to cast doubt on one another, underscoring the contrivances of, in this case, biopics. When Mötley Crüe’s manager, Doc McGhee (David Costabile), is introduced, the action is interrupted so that someone may tell us that, no, this event didn’t happen this way, but that this version plays better dramatically.

These sorts of gimmicks emulate the fake honesty of metal itself, softening our guard for the clichés to come. Occasionally, Tremaine even springs an authentically sensitive moment, such as when Vince gets in the infamous drunken car wreck that resulted in the death of Nicholas “Razzie” Dingley (Max Milner). As Razzie dies, Tremaine lingers on the glowing lights of the other car involved in the accident, which become an oddly beautiful harbinger of death.

But fake honesty only gets one so far. Tellingly, Tremaine doesn’t show the people in the car that Vince hit, who were seriously injured, and he never emphasizes anyone else who was negatively affected by Mötley Crüe’s insane antics. As the novelty of the bad behavior wears thin, one notices other short cuts, like the fact that we rarely get to hear a Mötley Crüe song in its entirety. (The music was one area in which Bohemian Rhapsody was quite generous.)

Like most biopics, The Dirt crams so many events into its narrative as to compromise the sense that these are real characters in the here and now. Marriages, parents, children, and the production of the albums are, with the exception of a few vivid bits, all generically glossed over. The protagonist here is really the rock n’ roll lifestyle, which is a potentially revelatory conceit, but Tremaine doesn’t have the technical chops to dramatize such a diaphanous idea. Lifestyles are also the true antiheroes of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, which are much better “rock” movies than any film that’s ever been made about a musician. Scorsese’s fluid style and visceral feel for characters offer both a critique and celebration of excess.

Despite accusations he’s weathered to the contrary, Scorsese also isn’t afraid to confront the exploitation of hedonism. However, for all its sleaze, The Dirt is a kind of insidious hagiography that never risks shaking us off Mötley Crüe’s wavelength, with flattering archetypes and narrative abbreviations in place of characters and arcs. True badasses, or real artists, would be willing to look into the deepest and least flattering recesses of their souls. The Dirt isn’t quite up to fulfilling the self-flattering promise of its title.

Cast: Douglas Booth, Colson Baker, Daniel Webber, Iwan Rheon, Trace Masters, Matthew Underwood, Kathryn Morris, Vince Mattis, David Costabile, Tony Cavalero, Max Milner, Rebekah Graf Director: Jeff Tremaine Screenwriter: Amanda Adelson, Rich Wilkes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 108 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.




A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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