Saturday, May 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Sacrament, The Wolverine, 13 Sins

The Sacrament
directed by T.I. West
The Sacrament was directed by one of the actors who was in You're Next and stars three of that movie's leads. I don't remember the first time I really felt the presence of real evil in the world. But certainly one of the earliest moments had to have been the Jonestown Massacre. I was just a child when it happened but all these years later I still remember the pics of the massed corpses, most of them black, huddled together, even the kids, in the ugly and final equality of death. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about Jim Jones, alleged CIA links he had, and whether Jonestown was an MK-ULTRA experiment. Some claim that only a few people killed themselves and that most Jonestown residents were actually killed by mercenaries or even more outrageously US special forces. I don't know about any of that. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is that over 900 people, including many children and young adults went to a foreign country because a swindler and megalomaniac convinced them to do so. They gave up their meager savings, social security checks, passports and family ties because he told them to do so. And they drank the Kool-Aid, were injected with poison, or were shot dead.

We read vampire stories about reanimated corpses who survive on human blood and convert their victims into willing slaves. Well there are real life vampires out there. Jim Jones was one such beast. He victimized people who had already been deeply harmed by racism, capitalism, rape, molestation, family alienation, the criminal justice system or other failed institutions. These people, a great many of them older women, really needed someone to love them and tell them they mattered. Instead Jones turned their desperate hopes into fear. He used the damage they had suffered to turn them into dead trophies to his own insanity or willing accomplices to suicide, murder and mayhem. Like a tick he grew swollen on the adulation of others. When that worship was threatened, no matter how remotely, the parasite destroyed the host rather than set it free. The Sacrament is then a re-interpretation of how the Jonestown Massacre occurred. It skillfully mixes reality (VICE magazine) and fiction in an intoxicating and grim melange that builds suspense even though we think we know what's going to happen.
Sam (A.J Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) are journalists for VICE magazine. They are proud to handle stories which the corporate media won't touch. When their primary photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) suddenly hears from his long lost junkie sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) he wants to accept her invitation to visit. Sam and Jake ask to tag along with Patrick as Caroline has moved out of the country to a commune named Eden Parrish. There have been rumors about this place. Sam and Jake would love to do a story on it. And the fact that their photographer has a personal link to Eden Parrish makes them even more interested. Upon arrival the three men are a bit nonplussed by the presence of armed guards but feel better upon meeting Caroline who seems to enjoy some authority within the commune. They also meet a diverse group of people, all of whom seem to be happy, despite having left most technology and creature comforts behind in the U.S.

The commune religious leader, known as Father (Gene Jones), agrees to an interview but insists on having it in front of the entire congregation. During that interview Father lets his genial mask slip ever so slightly (though the creepy shaded glasses stay on) and Sam's suspicions are raised. If you've ever read Mario Puzo's The Godfather you know that one of Vito's constant instructions to his sons was to never make an open threat. We see that threat here or think we do. Sam can't be sure. It's ambiguous but given the context, it really isn't. I liked the writing and Jones' acting. Just one additional bit of information can cause a massive shift in your perceptions. I think the filmmakers could have given a little more explanation of how the people who followed Father to Eden Parrish saw him and why so many of them were fanatically loyal. There is a part of love which is almost madness which makes you give yourself over completely to the other person. People need this. Father seems to offer this. 

The Wolverine
directed by James Mangold
I think part of the reason that Japan looms large in the Western imagination is because it was one of the few modern non-Caucasian nations to not only escape European colonialism and settlement but also for a while even beat the Western nations at their own game of imperialism and conquest. Anyway this movie is similar to The 47th Samurai, The Last Samurai or any number of other stories which have a Japanese and a Westerner entangled in bonds of honor and obligation. So the story is not something which is new but who cares, right. Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is a baaaaaaaaaad man who protects his friends, harms his enemies and obviously spends a lot of time at the gym. This was a fun movie with the proper amount of hijinks, derring do and last minute rescues. Logan is hiding out brooding over his dead love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and making examples of hunters when he is located by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) the cutest little assassin/action girl you ever did see. Yukio, who can see the future on occasion, is not there to kill Logan. She has a message for him.

Yukio works for the Japanese corporate CEO Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who is dying. Yashida and Logan are linked together. As a POW in the last days of WW2, Logan saved Yashida's life during the bombing of Nagasaki. Yashida views this as a debt he's never paid and so wants to see Logan before he kicks the bucket.
Being nothing if not understanding of honor and fellow warriors, Logan decides to go to Japan to pay his final respects. There he sees Yashida. But Yashida's idea of paying his debt to Logan isn't just kind words or a samurai sword. No, Yashida somehow knows that Logan is conflicted about his mutant healing abilities, which confer virtual immortality. Outliving all his loves has left Logan lonely, bitter and cynical. Yashida's bio-tech company has been at the cutting edge of some very interesting research. Yashida offers to remove Logan's healing factor and transfer it to himself, thus saving his life and allowing Logan to die naturally at some future point. What a guy. Logan declines the offer. Although at times he hates his abilities, they are his abilities. Yashida dies and a power struggle breaks out for his company, which is supposed to pass to his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Logan saves Mariko from an assassination/kidnap attempt but discovers in the aftermath that something is off about his healing factor. The "doctor" Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), literally a femme fatale, probably has something to do with that. All the usual special effects, double crosses, street fights, bada$$ one liners and set piece battles take place. If you like action or like Jackman, this will be an enjoyable flick.

13 Sins

directed by Daniel Stamm
This is a remake of an Asian horror/black comedy film. Initially it raises some interesting questions about how much we all need money and what we'd be willing to do to get a lot of it. For some of us that might mean working 50 hours per week with people we generally dislike doing things we don't much care about for 40 years. Other people might view that as an intolerable constraint on their happiness. Some people might look for the big score or decide that little things like legalities are for other people. Anyway most of us probably want more money, whatever lies we tell ourselves, our friends or our loved ones. Elliot (Mark Webber) is a salesman. What he sells isn't very important. What is important is that he's not very vested in his work, something which his greedy and sadistic boss has noticed.
Elliot still has a conscience about sales and often holds back from selling stupid people things they don't need. So even though Elliot has just completed the biggest sale he's ever made his boss has decided that Elliot isn't cut out for the job. The boss thinks that Elliot lacks the necessities. The boss thinks himself proven correct in his opinion when Elliot doesn't curse at him, get in his face, punch him out or do anything which might hint that Elliot actually does have a swinging pair. I thought the film should have continued this examination of gender expectations but it put those aside. As Elliot mopes and whines his boss gleefully fires him. This scene resonated with me as there are definitely situations in life where people test you to see just how much testosterone you have/how much crap they can get away with. Elliot fails his test. Elliot does have needs. He has to support his mentally challenged brother (Devon Graye) and his caustic, cranky bigoted father (Tom Bower). Elliot is engaged to marry his sweet supportive relentlessly happy fiancee (Rutina Wesley). Not having money and not having health insurance makes doing all of these things much more difficult if not impossible. Could you look into the eyes of your disabled brother and tell him that yes even though you promised always to take care of him he'll have to go into a public institution?

While he's driving home, Elliot's cell phone rings. A cheery man with a British/Commonwealth accent tells Elliot that he's been chosen to play a game. There are 13 challenges to overcome. Should Elliot complete them all he will get $6,000,000. Each challenge Elliot performs will result in monies deposited into his bank account. Quitting the game, telling anyone about the game or refusing a challenge means he loses all the money he's won so far. Elliot decides to play the game. The first challenge is to swat the fly in his car. Elliot is taken aback by the knowledge that he's apparently under surveillance but decides to go for it. The second challenge is to eat the fly which he does as well. The challenges become more dangerous and crueler. Elliot comes to the attention of Detective Chillicoat (Ron Pearlman doing his trademark worldweary take on things). Pearlman gives this movie some much needed gravitas. There are a few comedic moments as well as nods to conspiracy theories. I wonder if 13 Sins would have been better had Pearlman and Webber switched roles. This was an okay watch if you're into that sort of thing but not something I would remember a year later.  I'm skipping the trailer here because it shares too much. 
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