Friday, 11 December 2015

Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck/The Boy Next Door (2015)

In 1991, out of the haze of hair metal and obnoxiously overblown metrosexuality, Nirvana broke onto the pop music scene and pretty much razed the entire landscape around them. From there, they rebuilt from the ashes to create what would end up being the definitive musical attitude for the 90’s. All of a sudden, “alternative” artists broke out into the mainstream, bringing with them a sense of raw vulnerability and unflinching emotion the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. This would later give birth to the rarely-if-ever-good nu-metal movement and, God help us, Nickelback, but for the time being, Kurt Cobain and company were at the level of new rock gods. But then, typical rock star backstage drama took place, unfortunately ending in Kurt’s suicide in 1994. We’ve seen plenty of documentaries emerge about the artist, as well as a film loosely based on his story by Gus Van Sant in the form of Last Days, but this should prove to be something different. Not only is it co-produced by HBO, the only TV channel that carries consistent quality when it comes to feature-length productions, but this is also the first doco to be made with the support of the Cobain family. Will that extra access lead to something special? Time to press play and let go. This is Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck.

The plot: Through interviews of Kurt’s family and friends, Super 8 footage taken at the time and dramatizations set to audio recordings by the subject himself, the film sets to show the life & times of Kurt Cobain, from his upbringing in Aberdeen, Washington, to his creative works and, ultimately, to being the front-man of one of the biggest rock band successes of all time.

For those not in the know, the subtitle “Montage Of Heck” comes from a mixtape that Kurt made way back when from numerous samples of old vinyl and bits he added himself. What resulted from all that experimentation was a deranged ocean of noise, a collage of pure psychedelia that seemed to have no real form to it but nonetheless served as a creative and personal insight into the man himself. Judging by the composition of this film, and the fact that clippings from that mixtape can be heard throughout, I can only assume that director/co-editor Brett Morgen wanted to do the same thing here. There are a lot of elements that make up the film: Rotoscoped sequences to accompany audio recordings from Kurt, excerpts from his writings, montages of his performances and home videos and animations comprised of his drawings; this is all coupled with the more traditional documentary additions like interviews with people who were close to him. As all these aspects intersect and contrast each other, it induces a mental state of almost anarchic bliss in how much chaos can be on the screen at once, and yet the way it is all arranged fits together perfectly. It’s like taking a jigsaw puzzle and forcing pieces together that aren’t meant to fit; sure, it’s not the ‘right’ way of doing it, but then when you get a better look at the overall picture, it actually looks pretty damn good as is.

Grunge is one in a long, long tradition of artistic movements that were borne from the dissatisfaction of the youth of a given generation; same with the hippies, same with the punks, same with the current-day hipsters. As we learn about Cobain’s upbringing and the Baby Boomer attitudes of his family, we see the origins of someone who was almost destined to be part of that history. Among many other labels, Kurt Cobain is probably most remembered as one of the archetypal tragic poet musicians; the tortured artist who saw through every string pull of the higher-ups and delivered the truth to his listeners. This smacks of pretence from the off-set, which immediately sets off my bullshit detectors, but that feeling doesn’t even make it past the sub-subconscious. The depiction we get of Cobain here is of a guy who loved being creative, whatever form that ended up taking, and who had a wicked sense of humour. We see him being cute with Courtney Love, joking around with his friends and bandmates and showing the kind of mindset that loved the euphoria that performing live delivered, but hated the magnifying class of the media that came with it. It’s not all that nuanced but, with the way it’s portrayed, it is still feels damn honest. It also helps that it doesn’t feel like it’s deifying him at any point; the depiction of him in a blonde wig singing The Rose before making a pratfall was not only a humourous way to start out, but also humbling in the best way possible.

The music, when not using Nirvana’s catalogue and instrumentals to great effect, takes a similar tone to that of the eponymous sound collage; in that, it is occasionally nightmare-inducing. When it reaches the tension-raising crescendos and cacophonous screeches, played alongside the poetic ramblings of Kurt’s journal, it sometimes comes across like the inner workings of a disturbed mind in a serial killer fashion. Think a grunge reinterpretation of the opening credits to Se7en. Then again, considering this consistently feels like delving into the inner workings of its subject, that feeling of unfiltered exposure ends up working to the film’s advantage. It’s unnerving but enlightening at the same time, as would be any case of getting to know more about a person that thought possible before. It even gets to the point where they use a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit to similar effect, almost as if Morgen overheard people talking about how overplayed the song still is and wanted to show that it could still be effective. He certainly delivered on that front.

All in all, this is an amazingly well-constructed documentary that gives a genuine sense of getting into the mind of the subject. The footage utilized is used to great effect, the Rotoscoped sequences are brilliantly realized and the animations of Kurt’s journal, both his writings and his drawings, can get legitimately unnerving at times thanks to how they’re used. Kurt was always worried about being humiliated during his lifetime; with how much effort Morgen made to honour not only his name but also his artistic sensibilities, I don’t think he has much to worry about. It’s better than Spy, as the artistry and dedication to honouring the subject matter made for a more technically sound production. However, while I maintain that they both set new benchmarks for their respective genres, Mad Max: Fury Road was a greater overall experience as a film.


Rob Cohen might be one of the best examples of how not to age gracefully when it comes to the more creative fields. I think at some point after making The Skulls, Cohen had a mid-life crisis that he still hasn’t entirely gotten over because every single film he’s made since then reeks of someone desperately trying to relate to “them young people today”. The Fast & The Furious was full of so much posturing that I’m still surprised that it ended up creating a legitimately good action franchise overall, xXx tried (and failed) to show how it was cooler than James Bond, Stealth was just plain stupid, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor was a CGI-ridden missed opportunity, and Alex Cross made the oh-so-bright decision to cast Madea as a genius criminal investigator; I’ll probably never forgive him for replacing Idris Elba after that crap. It’s already a bad sign whenever someone wants to make an “erotic thriller”, but when that someone is primarily known for overblown action spectacle, the already low chances of success drop even further. Let’s just see how this turned out. This is The Boy Next Door.

The plot: High school teacher Claire (Jennifer Lopez), while being separated from her unfaithful husband (John Corbett), catches the eye of her younger next door neighbour Noah (Ryan Guzman). As he connects with not only her but also her teenaged son Kevin (Ian Nelson), Claire is seduced by him into a one-night stand. Even though she saw it as a short lapse of judgement, Noah saw it as something much more… and he is not willing to let her go.

Erotic thrillers are notoriously difficult to tackle without just being softcore porn. As much as people tend to fondly remember Basic Instinct, other than the most famous leg-crossing in all of cinema, chances are we mostly just recollect how hot Sharon Stone was in it. Erotic thrillers, even erotic films in general, take a certain nuance and restraint to work; in record time, it becomes clear that this is severely lacking in both. Let’s start with the acting. Jennifer Lopez has never struck me as that great an actor, and she does absolutely nothing here to change that assumption. I can be forgiving of the whole ‘impossibly hot teacher’ thing, but not with the performance we get from her. Kristin Chenoweth as Claire’s best friend/co-worker Vicky is really great in more comedic roles and she honestly isn’t that bad in this film. As back-handed a compliment it may be, she’s probably the best actor here. John Corbett is stock cheating husband, not much else to add there, and Ian Nelson is stock teenager. And then we come to Ryan Guzman and I don’t know if this is more his doing or the writer’s, but he actually worked at being normal to begin with. Then the film carries on, and this is why actors knowing how to properly transition between character modes is important because he goes off the rails and just continues to get more deranged as the film goes on.

The writing never once tries for anything clever. It is legitimately at the point where having the antagonist be underage, as was the original plan, would have made the film better; at least then some moral questioning could be made. Instead, we have stereotyped strips of cardboard who have somehow gained sentience who spout out dialogue that I thought died off somewhere in the 90’s. Seriously, double entendres about “getting wet” have no place in a film not made for horny adolescents. However, this film’s writing transcends standard bad writing in that not only are the plot twists painfully predictable, but some of them don’t even amount to anything nor do they ultimately make sense. There’s an entire subplot with Kevin and his love interest that ends on such a bizarre note that I wouldn’t be surprised if a page or two from someone else’s script got picked up by accident during shooting. This is all small potatoes, unfortunately, to the rather unsettling “romantic” tone that this takes. Even considering that this is about a crazy, love-struck stalker, the amount of times that Claire says no to sexual advances (not just from him, by the way) and yet still acquiesces is troubling to say the least. This runs alongside Fifty Shades Of Grey in terms of painfully tenuous consent.

Rob Cohen is not known for doing anything subtle since the turn of the millennium. At first, it’s kind of weird how he chose to do a film that didn’t involve intense violence and/or explosions. Once a hack, always a hack. This film reaches the levels of cartoonishly over-the-top, both with the acting and the action as well. Noah’s temperament and scheming is the stuff of utter schlock and almost descends into the realm of self-parody, except this film can’t even do that right. Add to this the hilariously out-of-place action scenes involving cars, complete with nonsensical explosions, and how atrocious some of the effects work can be and this would almost be yet another film to recommend for unintentional comedy… except the film is taking itself way too seriously for that to work. There’s an egregiously long zoom out where Noah is talking to Vicky which you would think is leading to some kind of big reveal, but it never does. It’s almost like he was dared to hold a single shot for more than five seconds; congrats, but you still needed to have a point behind that shot. All it results in is more of Cohen’s legendary over-direction that feels like this guy wants to be known as someone who is “stylistic” but doesn’t really know what the word means so he just slaps together shots in the hopes that it will suffice. I was even going to bring up how, even with how overcooked this turkey is, it’s at least an improvement over the dog’s breakfast that is Alex Cross. Here is where I say that, if you are going to watch this film, stop immediately as the credits start as they are full of the nauseatingly excessive editing that so plagued Alex Cross.

All in all, this is just hilariously awful. The acting is either bland or outrageously hammy, the writing is riddled with clich├ęs and the least subtle characterization seen outside of a Lifetime Original Movie and the attempts to keep audiences interested through unnecessary action scenes and disastrous special effects keep attention, but for all the wrong reasons. If you’re in the mood for an extremely campy thriller (read: no frills, no thrills), then this is worth a watch. It’s worse than The Quarantine Hauntings, as that film had some form of ambition behind it and a decent concept at its core. However, whatever comedy can be squeezed out of this thing is at least more consistent than Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.

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