Friday, 15 December 2017

Movie Review: Bushwick (2017)



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The plot: When Lucy (Brittany Snow) steps off the subway into Bushwick, New York, she unknowingly enters a war zone. A new civil war has broken out, with unknown military factions fighting on the streets, chaos and gunfire turning what was once home into a battleground. After being rescued by ex-Marine Stupe (Dave Bautista), Lucy sets out to find her family and, hopefully, make it to the demilitarized zone and escape this carnage.






Jane Levy, who previously wowed me and others as the lead in Don’t Breathe, was originally slated to play Lucy. Instead, she ended being replaced with Brittany Snow. To call this a downgrade is a laughable understatement, as Snow only seems to get across the ‘damsel in distress’ side of the character. Whenever she’s called upon to be assertive, it is always shown to be the wrong choice by her; every other time, she ends up having to be rescued by others. I’m not saying that this role would be salvageable under a different actor; what I am saying is that Snow in no way helps in that regard. Bautista as the Marine medic turned janitor (a natural career path for a guy built like a living mountain) continues to show his cred as an action star, absolutely slaying in the action scenes, and even managing to get some more dramatic moments in too. Angelic Zambrana as Lucy’s sister Belinda does okay, even if she ends up delivering some of the film’s bigger mindfrags, Myra Lucretia Taylor as Ma (seriously, that's all she's credited as) makes for an engaging presence as a domestic general, and although Arturo Castro as Lucy’s boyfriend Jose only gets a quick burst at the start to performing, he ends up being one of the memorable characters here. As I’ll get into later, though, that’s not a good thing.

Before we get to that, I want to go over the main thing that got me interested in checking this one out: The soundtrack. This film’s score is handled by Aesop Rock, a legendary figure in the realms of underground hip-hop and one of my absolute favourite MCs. The man exists in a series of lyrical puzzles, employing an impressive vocabulary and a nimble arsenal of flows to create music that isn’t immediately accessible but highly rewarding. Of course, since most of his contributions here are strictly instrumental (with the exception of his song Dorks, which can be heard in the background of one particular scene), that doesn’t really apply here. What does is the man’s style of production which, when laced underneath what we’re shown, fits far better than even I would have guessed. He’s an undoubted student of the old school, employing smack-you-in-the-face boom bap drums combined with subterranean basslines that are evocative of the New York hip-hop scene. However, he also injects some other elements into the mix as well, using heavy reverb, sampled singing and sci-fi synth whistles to add even more texture; it sounds like it was made in an alien graveyard. Like a UFO landed in the middle of all this chaos, promptly got blown the fuck up, and then went on to haunt the soundtrack. It combines native sounds with things not of this world, a fitting backdrop for the story being told.

Said story is one that, with how politically heightened a lot of today’s landscape has become, feels like a prophecy just waiting to be fulfilled. Once we finally discover what the cause is for all this fighting in the streets, we learn that several Southern U.S. states are planning to secede from the larger United States. To this end, they have sent insurgents into U.S. states like Washington, Chicago, and of course New York, to take hostages and enforce their intent. Of course, New York residents are about as stubborn as they get, so their initial semi-peaceful plans had to be altered to account for that. The notion of American citizens needing to take up arms against the government is a recurring part of Southern mythos; it’s also a common retort in discussions of gun reform, as I briefly got into yesterday. As we watch this rather to-the-letter reprisal of the American Civil War, we see a country so torn between its own citizens that not only are frightened to leave their homes but are so surrounded by calamity that they’re not even sure what is going on anymore. With how much the political divide has been stretched over the last few years, now reaching points of legitimate lunacy to maintain, this feels like the sort of speculative fiction that represents both a very real fear for the future and a very real possibility of it occurring.

Here is where the problem comes in. Alongside the sonic backdrop, the visuals do a hell of a lot to reinforce the sense of constant threat posed by the scenario. Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion along with DOP Lyle Vincent present said scenario largely in real-time, with only a rare few edits to break up the action. We are meant to be right there alongside Lucy and Stupe as they navigate this urban hellscape. Unfortunately, between the visuals, the sounds and the story, we are given an environment that turns out to be far more interesting than the people who inhabit it. Snow as our focal point character is a big part of that dilemma, but she’s not the only one here who feels like a cardboard cut-out in a living and breathing world. Hell, as good as Stupe is as a brawler, how his arc concludes is easily the most insulting treatment of a character I’ve seen since Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Because of this, no matter how much the film is trying to make us engaged with the story, the people in that story don’t raise much more than a slight shrug when something happens. Credit to the filmmakers that this film flows as well as it does, but what it’s flowing isn’t something I’m likely to touch without gloved hands.

All in all, even considering the rather shallow reason I decided to watch this in the first place, this is pretty underwhelming. All the right pieces seem to be in place, with the doomsday jams courtesy of Aesop Rock, the gliding mostly-one-take camera work and the intriguing story premise all creating a solid bedrock for the narrative to exist on. However, between some really off-point casting decisions and a general lack of development for the characters, that bedrock ends up being wasted on something that feels like just another standard action-thriller. Oh, and the crudely-rendered CGI flames and explosions didn’t help either.

It ranks higher than iBoy, which was also a bit compromised thematically but this film had far better production values and a real sense that it knew how to use them… for the most part. However, even with how technically proficient this is, it still falls flat from an emotional and narrative point-of-view. Murder On The Orient Express, despite not managing to do the first word of its title that much justice, had moments that made legitimate connections to the audience because of the performances, not in spite of them like here.

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