Shopping (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1994)
A telling exchange from an early scene in writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson's 1994 debut Shopping:
"What's prison taught you, Billy?" "Don't get caught."
Yet the film that follows is, in large part, all about getting caught—about being swept up into the Hollywood big leagues, using this enjoyable, eye-catching display of kinetic prowess as proof of talent. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with such calling card features, though they're often ascribed cynical motivations, and you can't necessarily say you've seen one until the artist behind them has got a few more projects under his-or-her belt. The aesthetic impulses and inclinations mostly become clear in retrospect. And from our current vantage point, you can absolutely see the filmmaker behind Mortal Kombat (1995), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and the Resident Evil series (of which Anderson will have directed four installments by the year 2017) in every frame of Shopping.
So based on that curriculum vitae (which also includes such other critic and viewer-drubbed features as 1997's Event Horizon, 2008's Death Race and 2014's Pompeii) what position should we take? Should we make fun? Dismiss outright? Or is there more here than meets the eye?
Anderson's certainly been a punching bag to many in the fan community, a ruiner of the many video game-to-movie adaptations he's overseen. Yet he's also collected—and not always wrongly, in my opinion—a fervent number of proponents among critics and cinephiles like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Dave Kehr (be sure to read R. Emmet Sweeney's 2012 conversation with the latter about Anderson at Movie Morlocks). If I were to hazard a guess, their admiration has something to do, at heart, with the relative unpretentiousness of Anderson's approach to filmmaking. He's a genre guy through and through—at best (and I can't say he reaches this level all that much for me), Anderson is the digital cinema heir to analog master John Carpenter. The work is the work, and any meanings to be gleaned are purely incidental and instinctual. Better this than the pompousness of the artist who forces himself and his high-falutin' convictions on the text in question.
Thinking back on the several Andersons I've seen, I find I appreciate pieces of them more than the wholes. I recall several beautiful slo-mo pans up, down, and across a rain-slicked Shibuya Crossing in one of the Resident Evil movies. I think of the Mortal Kombat combatants posing themselves pre-fight against some stunning color backdrops. I smile remembering Alien and Predator leaping toward each other, claws out, teeth bared. If there's something common to all these images, it's in their sense of anticipation—a feeling that something beautiful and profound is about to occur. But the expert buildup rarely pays off for me. When monsters, heroes, villains finally collide in an Anderson movie, it has the effect of a dull thud rather than a spine-tingling (and –shattering) resonance.
Watching Shopping with all this in mind was instructive because where Anderson tends to lose me is in his over-reliance on CGI vertiginousness. The images, finally, have a weightless quality that keeps them from echoing in the heart and mind. In Shopping, at least to my eye, Anderson fully restricts himself to gravity, as well as to the mostly unaugmented pleasures of his very photogenic cast, and the results are consistently sublime.
Certainly it helps that he has a very young Jude Law playing the film's delinquent protagonist, Billy, who wants nothing more than to leave a mark on the near-future British city that he wrecks and robs with abandon. The actor smolders from his opening scenes. Look at the way Anderson and cinematographer Tony Imi photograph him as he sits patiently in his jail cell like some cross between a seething adolescent and Buddha, or as he struts down a long hallway with the kind of brash confidence that isn't only character-related. There's a movie-star aura to Law here that he was never quite able to capitalize on, and this natural allure is all the more poignant in hindsight.
Billy has a rawness and unpredictability that Anderson has mostly scrubbed out of his other films. Gorgeous as Milla Jovovich looks in the Resident Evil movies, she's still something of an inert presence—as designed, in her way, as the geometric sets she flips and kicks her way around. There's a moment in Shopping, totally throwaway, where Law and Sadie Frost (as Jo, the cocky Bonnie to Billy's hothead Clyde), lounge on the elegant stairway of a mall they're thinking of burglarizing. As they talk through their plan, several shoppers have to navigate around the duo; though the frame is clean and rigorously composed, the performers stand out roughly against it. Law's beguilingly slack posture is key, beautifully emphasizing Billy's innate need to defy anything that reeks of commonality and submission to power, though one of the most fascinating arcs of the film is how Jo goes from being Billy's enabler to his reprover, recognizing that there are limits to dissidence—that it, too, can stagnate and become a conformist crutch.
For all its look-at-me-Tinseltown! show-offiness, Shopping is still the work of a free man, possessed of the same heedless energy that Law brings to Billy. Certain elements entertain even more now, such as the cameos by then lesser-known performers like Jason Isaacs (sporting a baseball cap and speaking in a vaguely hip-hop patois) and Sean Bean (as a hilariously mulleted Patrick Bateman type). The copious car chases are very well-staged and effective precisely because Anderson lets the forces of nature do their work with no visible digital augmentation. And Anderson weaves a potent commentary on consumerism throughout the demolition derby; store mannequins are, especially, used in ways that nearly equal the best visual jibes of Stanley Kubrick and George A. Romero.
To this writer, Anderson's first is his best, though hope springs eternal that he might reach Shopping's subversive peaks again if he'd only come down to earth.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay, 2016)
Elsewhere, on the Planet Misanthropy (with its orbiting moons Misogynist and Homophobe)—Michael Bay's latest. I've called consistent bullshit on this particular Herr Direktor since suffering through his debut, Bad Boys (1995), in first run. But he keeps making 'em and I, with a few exceptions, keep going back for more. (Know your enemy, I suppose?)
2013's Pain & Gain was a nadir, a purported satire of excess helmed by cinema's reigning douchebro. It so angered me that I signed off my vitriolic review with a florid entreaty for Bay to be kicked squarely in the nuts. The best that can be said of 13 Hours, his true-life-gleaned recreation of the September 11, 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is that it only made me want to give him a hearty smack upside the head. (Why do I think he'd be up for that, and return the favor in kind?)
Much of my comparatively tempered reaction has to do with getting exactly what I expected. Though Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper seem to be the film's models (both of them alternately ambiguous and dubious works), Bay has in no way tempered his rancid, rah-rah politics. An early exchange between the two main military contractors, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), who lead the attack on the Benghazi insurgents set the tone for me: "Payback's a bitch, and her stripper name is 'karma.'" Clearly it was going to be a long 144 minutes.
Lines are quickly drawn: Soldiers are unimpeachable heroes and devoted family men. (In a torturous, near-endless montage, every one of our beefy militants FaceTime home to their wives and children at exactly the same moment.) Intellectuals like David Costabile's CIA leader Bob are cock-blocking obstacles to be humbled after shit starts blowing up. Women like Alexia Barlier's facilitator Sona Jilliani are on hand to be screamed into submission by their male counterparts. And brown people are hairy and scary others who point accusingly, spout vaguely threatening Arabic gibberish and say morning prayers with guns by their side. (When Bay includes actual footage during the film's climax of an actual Middle Easterner holding a sign that says, in sum, "Not all Benghazians," it only adds insult to injury.)
The lengthy attack sequence itself is, for Bay, fairly well-done, though finally pretty dull in all its subwoofer-busting chaos. There are lots of mesmeric floating drone shots amid the usual shaky-cam dross, as well as one fleeting, but memorably poetic image of an artillery shell shooting past the rising sun. And Bay's beloved American flag of course makes several appearances, first riddled with bullets in slo-mo, then panned over, all caked and muddied, as it rests at the top of a formerly pristine pool. Doubtful Bay will ever come to realize that his movies are blotches on the very American spirit he intends to exalt. At least his dehumanizing delusion is so total that we can always safely know where he stands.