Wednesday, September 17, 2014

norman reedus film festival: the bad seed

(2000. dir: Jon Bokenkamp) This movie is fundamentally flawed, at its core, and then again at nearly every layer up to its skin. The editing is bad, the pacing is off, the music is intrusive and godawful. In other hands, it might have been an interesting psychological thriller. Maybe. But it's another one of those plots predicated on a woman A) dying B) being idealized and C) existing solely to instigate a cycle of violence among men. (See Sand, for instance, which distributes the three conditions among two women, but both exist solely for the one purpose. Or A Crime, in fact, fits the same bill, although it redeems itself through strong direction and by employing a living, flawed, active woman as its main character and internal dynamo.)

The basic premise is this: a woman tells her husband she's been having an affair, but it's over. He storms out of the house, and when he returns, she is dead. After that, the ex-lover and the husband set about trying to kill each other while the cops are after them both.

Much of the dialogue and feeling-tone of the movie (set in Tacoma, in the rain) can be summed up in the statement (I'm paraphrasing, of course) "Women. Can't live without 'em, can't shoot 'em. Oh, wait, yes, you can." It's about men being abandoned by women and how they deal with their anger and grieving. That's what it wants to be about, anyway, but instead it pretends to be an action movie, with chase scenes, then fight scenes, then chase scenes, then fight scenes, few of them compellingly captured. It's got a three man cast: Luke Wilson is fully bemused in the nice-guy-in-a-trap role that Edward G. Robinson used to play in the old noirs, Dennis Farina gives a game effort as the private dick he hires to help him, but it always feels like he's a character in a television drama, and Reedus is surprisingly miscast and one-dimensional as the jilted lover of the dead woman.

The role as written calls for a young (or emotionally-stunted, anyway) man who's led an entirely sheltered life, devoting the bulk of it to caring for his damaged brother while working in a bakery. The dead woman is the only adventure he's ever known, and this is the fiery internal furnace which fuels his homicidal rage at her loss. The trouble is, Reedus is too streetwise to come across that way. In order to make it work, we need some of the innocent-Reedus we saw in Six Ways to Sunday or Gossip, and he's just not here. When the husband reads the lover's old diary, the wow-I-got-a-girlfriend entries are absurd coming from the jaded, even world-weary Reedus.

In the end, there's some sweetness to the melancholy, but it's not in the saccharine places the script-writer wanted them, which were at the bus-stop, in the jail visiting room, and in the cemetery. Those are all clumsy and unaffecting. Without giving too much away, the sweetness comes from Reedus' face at the gas station, when the actor's world-surfeited persona finally melds with his character's emotional exhaustion.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: two stars

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

norman reedus film festival: sand

(2000. dir: Matt Palmieri) Here's a hypothetical situation: you live a quiet life in a mellow, surfside town with your beach-bum pals. Two cokeheaded, trailer-trash douchebags (John Hawkes and Rodney Eastman) show up from the desert and try to rape your beloved sister. You take the toughest of your beach-bum pals, find the malefactors and fuck them up, really humiliate them. Then, once recovered, the aforesaid douchebags catch you alone on the beach. They pull a couple of Glocks (maybe not Glocks, but some kind of badassed weaponry) on you and, just as they're getting ready to dust your sorry ass, your surfer buddy Trip (played by Emilio Estevez) shows up swinging a piece of driftwood and knocks them both cold.

This is my question: what do you do next? Do you
A) take their guns to the cops and tell your story, trusting that you'll get the benefit of the doubt over these obvious criminal low-lifes, or
B) take their guns and destroy them? perhaps you might throw them in the ocean, or bury them someplace unobtrusive, or even disassemble them and distribute the pieces throughout various dumpsters in town, or
C) have a laugh with your friend Trip and leave the lethal weapons lying next to the now-twice-humiliated, violence-prone douchebags, assuming they won't bother you anymore?

If you chose option C, you're of the same mindset as Jack (Norman Reedus), which is really kind of sad for both of you.

Sand looks like it wants to become a love story, but it doesn't, and the eponymous girl (Kari Wuhrer) actually turns out to be a lesser character. She has a few good scenes in which she comes to life, but in the end you might be forgiven for mistaking her for a gussied-up plot device. In truth, this is the story of how men kick the bejesus out of each other while citing women as the excuse, and how you can tell the bad ones from the good because the bad blame women for their problems, whereas the good blame the fucked-up male side of their family.

Whoever this Matt Palmieri guy is, he has some friends in the business. (And now that I'm looking at his bio on IMDB, I can see why.) He gets people like Harry Dean Stanton to take tiny non-roles. He hires Denis Leary to do his motor-mouthed jive-talk thing, depending on it to carry too many scenes. There are way too many endless partying improvisations, his cameraman doesn't know when it's appropriate to pull in for a close-up, and there's a protracted near-rape scene which was probably majorly improvised or it wouldn't have gone on so long, as if the director, and then the editor, got really impressed by what the actors were coming up with and didn't want to cheat us out of a single moment. There's also Jon Lovitz and Julie Delpy who are just plain awful as bickering motel-owners. There's so much wrong with this movie, it's hard to know where to start and how to proceed, how to rate what's most important in the wrongheadedness.

But it carries a heap of refulgence, as well. Lots of good music playing while the camera watches an old Ford drive down Highway 1, and the colors of the whole thing are vivid and lovely, stunningly lit. David Baerwald (remember that one-hit-record band David & David? Alright, you're probably too young) is in charge of the music, and that works to the good. In fact, Palmieri leans too much weight on that, too, expecting it to carry long segments and segueways and one particular b&w memory sequence which he just LOVES and sticks on perpetual, annoying repeato-loop mode.

Jack is the kind of role a lot of actors would have suffered some difficulty over, having to reconcile that he truly is a nice, good-hearted kid with his switchover (well-motivated, granted) into a ferocity of violence. Not Reedus, though. This is the kind of apparent contradiction at which he excels. His vastness easily encompasses this dichotomy; in fact, he specializes in it.

Rating: one and a half stars
Reedus Factor: three stars

Sunday, September 14, 2014

norman reedus sick and twisted double feature

Six Ways to Sunday: (1997. dir: Adam Bernstein) Whoa! Sick and twisted! It feels justified in styling itself a dark comedy because its tongue is shoved so far into its cheek that its face is deformed. Certainly it's not comic in the sense that it tries to use humor at all. The only laughs it wants from you are the shock-value groans inspired by the grossness or vulgarity or unbearable moments of awkwardness or sudden violence. It's not the lowest form of comedy, I guess, but it's probably the least enjoyable one.

This is a modern gangster story about a young man with severe Oedipal problems who, between his long-suffocated rage and a peculiar sexual peccadillo which demands that he commit violence in order to get hard, finds that he possesses unusually strong talents as a hitman. Technically, the movie is well done, with fine acting, editing, camera work, and particularly good lighting. Reedus is especially well photographed, showcasing his subtlety of facial gesture to great effect. He gives us a believable character arc, from graceless boy to suave assassin who turns back into a clumsy kid when his mom is around.

If there is a weak link in the cast, it's Deborah Harry in a thankless turn as the predatory, maternal harridan. She has good moments and bad, but it's a tough role, with an absolute zero chance of garnering the smallest sliver of audience sympathy, and absolute zero chance any of us will ever relax in her presence. All we, the audience, can do is tense up and endure until she's off the screen and we can loosen up a little with some more prettily-colored ultraviolence.

It's a story which finds its pleasure in flaunting its perversity. At the end, young Harry (Reedus) says, "I didn't come out clean. I took a bath, but I didn't come out clean." And that about sums it up. I feel exactly the same way.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: five stars


8mm: (1999. dir: Joel Schumacher) My heart always sinks when I'm watching the opening credits roll and I see the words, "directed by Joel Schumacher." Still, although he has a penchant for taking a potential piece of gold and making shit of it, he also has a way of taking a piece of shit and making... not gold, exactly, but a less stinky piece of shit, anyway. I like his editing on this one (by frequent collaborator Mark Stevens). Very smooth, and the camera movement, too, smooth and creeping without drawing attention to itself. Schumacher loves building up tension in a scene the cheating way, through the use of bombast-music. Although it's a dirty trick and I hate it, I have to admit he (along with his collaborators) knows how to do it well. Then there's one great, climactic scene in which a death metal record comes to a screeching halt and the tension is built by the sound of the phonograph needle stuck and repeating in that end groove. Very nice.

As far as the story goes, though, why does anyone think it's a good idea to make a picture like this? Why would anyone pour money into it? It wasn't a good idea when Schrader made Hardcore, why would it be now? A billion-dollar movie fixated on showing us the inner workings of the snuff-porn industry? Who exactly was the audience for this?

This is the gist of it: an apparent snuff film is found in the private safe of a dead tycoon; his grieving widow hires a private dick (Nicolas Cage) to trace it, find out if it's real, hoping that it's not. He follows the trail of a missing girl to Hollywood and delves into its seedy underworld, risking the loss of his soul, just as George C. Scott before him. The moral of the piece is succinctly spoken early on by Joaquin Phoenix's Max, a wonderfully, drily funny kid working in a porn store: "You dance with the devil, the devil doesn't change. He changes you." So we delve further and further into the world of porn and potential snuff, hanging out with dirtbags played by James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare and Chris Bauer, all having a whale of a good time.

But first, we see Norman Reedus in his single scene. He's a kid whose dreams have prematurely died and his heart with it, a cold-blooded, nasty-talking kid doing a dime in the state pen for a B&E. Reedus knows just what to do with it, but we only get him for a few minutes.

After that, it's a matter of following along as the self-righteous vigilante violence gathers steam. There's a saving grace, in that Cage has that great, broken-looking, dissolute face and at the end, when he's bravely smiling at his wife and daughter, who are the only reason he didn't lose his soul entirely, the smile is so brittle and threadbare that we are willing to overlook the fact that this just barely escapes being, as I so recently described a different Reedus vehicle, "a prurient pile of crap masked as hardcore piety."

Rating: two and a half stars, creeping up on three
Reedus Factor: two stars

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

norman reedus film festival: a crime


(2006. dir: Manuel Pradal) At a skin-surface viewing, the story looks so precariously balanced on such a massive and untenable coincidence that it invites rejection. It's not, though: Pradal makes it clear early and throughout that this agitated, eruptive piece of film-making is, first and last, a sort of aching ode to Fate, to the workings of the Dharma and how it employs humans and human obsession as tools with which to manifest itself, to recreate balance. It's about reaping what you sow, about the total impossibility of escape, not only from the consequences of your own actions, as embodied in the boomerang which Harvey Keitel's cab-driver so lovingly hones and wields, but also from the repercussions of occurrences thrust upon you.

It's another three-human piece: Reedus is Vincent, a man suffering a perpetual uproar of grieving over his murdered wife, Emmanuelle Beart is the drunken neighbor, fixated on him and determined to arrange his emotional closure, and Keitel is the fall guy she seduces to her purpose. The thing Pradal does best is to give these actors plenty of space in and around the dialogue, room in which to move into fullness and life, and they do. It conjures some of the best from Reedus, who communicates wonderful things just through breathing, stillness and watching. There is a long and electric sequence, mostly wordless, in which Vincent sets up the man he is certain murdered his wife. Once his prey is in his power, he drives at night to a riverside, a wild place. There, he hesitates, retreats into the brush and we see him, lying still and silent, completely on fire with triumph and anticipation and a sort of incredulity that his dream of vengeance is coming true. It's a breathtaking moment.

The second half of the film drags some, but it's interesting to watch Alice (Beart), once she has achieved her own dream at such terrible expense, enjoying the companionship of the man she has so long desired. There's a hint of Adele H. in it: she seemed so much more alive when she was actively yearning for him, and, once he's in her arms, it seems she has to dampen herself, that her joy becomes an enforced mask behind which she hides. When she at last sets out on her final trek to finish redressing the wrong, it is not with Vincent that she shares a protracted, emotional, and loving farewell, but with his dog, the beloved Vickie, itself a symbol of both characters' ongoing blood-quest to bring the killer to recompense (Vincent's wife had bought the puppy the day she died, and Vincent races it, sort of feverishly, living off its meager third-place winnings).

"A love from hell," the cab-driver calls his relations with Alice, and the whole movie is sort of a chthonian love-song to the city, raising urban angst-scapes into hard, cement-gray life. When Alice and the cab-driver make love, wordlessly, in his subterranean flat with the subway trains thundering past, there's something infernal and awesome about it.

Rating: three and a half stars
Reedus Factor: five stars

(photo courtesy of fanzone50:

Monday, September 8, 2014

reedus on television

Hawaii 5-0 "Pilot" 1.1: *SPOILER ALERT* Look out. Here comes the Steve McGarrett of the new century, self-righteous uber-soldier who will tear Hawaii apart if he must in order to drag, howling, to justice the doers of evil. And here's the new Dano, the Lear's-Fool who will ground McGarrett to all that is good and earthly using humor as his weapon and humble him when necessary with well-placed jibes.

I admit it. I was excited. (This was several years ago, in my defense.) I marked the date on my calendar, and looked forward to it. First of all, the theme song, right? Right up there on any list of the best, alongside Perry Mason, Peter Gunn, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then it had Alex O'Loughlin, who (in my defense) was a real actor back then, not just a muscle-bound action-toy with a sack full of soap-opera emoticon-faces he swapped out as queued by the script. (In fact, they probably have little colored dots next to his lines on the daily pages: red for anger-face, green for betrayal-face, a jaunty damask for flirty-face.) Not only did it serve up those attractions, but the pilot offered BOTH Reedus AND James Marsters as terrorist brothers who piss off the wrong set of folks on the island. It sounded like some kind of heaven to me.

It's not, alas, any kind of heaven at all. In the early episodes, Steve and Dano enjoy a pleasant rapport, which I'm guessing (I gave up during the first season) has worn thin with age and enforced proximity. As far as Reedus goes, he's fantastic in that opener, shackled as Steve's prisoner and riding in a military transport, his eyes shining with it as he gently taunts his captor like a feline playing with its food. Then there's a big action sequence with lots of gratuitous shaky-cam, and the long and short of it is that Reedus is DEAD BEFORE THEY EVEN PLAY THE THEME-SONG. Sheesh. As for Marsters, his role lasts longer, but we still barely ever see the guy, and he never shines with it like Reedus did, for his TWENTY DAMN SECONDS.

Rating: a grudging two stars, with reservations
Reedus Factor: two stars, for one shining moment, but blink and you'll miss it

Law & Order SUV "Influence" 7.22: It's hard not to love Mariska Hargitay. She projects a warm genuineness, there's a gentleness to her undeniable strength, and she's attractive in the way a real person is attractive, as opposed to the Hollywood way, with its fascistic fetishes for symmetry and thinness.

Regardless, this show is still black-hearted and dishonest. Just because it's one of the better cop shows on network television doesn't mean it's not a prurient pile of crap masked as hardcore piety. It seems to want to project itself as a forum for discussion of issues facing us as citizens of a troubled modern America, but it's fearmongering propaganda, all the same.

Concerning Reedus, here's a gentle digression about what separates American actors from British: the British get training. Great training. Some yanks do, too, sure, but it's not the priority like it is there. Over here, if you've got the looks, the charisma, the "intangible X", and a wellspring of natural talent, that's the crucial thing. In England, you get taught skills: tricks on which you can fall back when you're cast in a role which falls awry of your strengths. Bob Hoskins once told a story about being in a play directed by Olivier, and there was a line he had which he knew for a fact ought to be funny, but no matter what he did, he couldn't coax the audience to laugh. He confessed as much to his director, and Olivier said, "Before you speak it, take two steps back and throw your arms, like so," and, sure enough, when Hoskins followed the instructions, the audience laughed every time. The point is this: not that taking two steps back makes any line funny (in fact, Hoskins said it never worked for him again, on any other line), but that acting doesn't just involve inspiration from within. There are external tactics you can use, as well, which can communicate emotion and intention with as much or more clarity and honesty than unadulterated, mumblecore spontaneity can.

I mention it because Reedus needs an Olivier to teach him some of that. If a role is written well and plays to his strengths, he can fascinate and shine with the best. If it's badly-written and one-dimensional, like this one is (he's a rock star who's on a crusade to wipe out what he sees as the totalitarian hold that psychiatry, and in particular the mood-altering drugs shrinks wield, have over our culture), he is utterly lost. He glibs through his lines uncertainly, seemingly afraid to commit. His hands gesture weakly and often block his face, as if in subconscious flight. He is never at his ease, and if you didn't already know it, you'd never guess at the extent of his talent.

Rating: one star, as a gesture to the lovely Mariska Hargitay
Reedus Factor: zero stars

Charmed "Sense and Sense Ability" 5.20: Wow, what a bad show. It spans a whole range of mediocrity from cute right across the board to cutesy. It's constructed mostly of the darlin'est filler, shamelessly comprised of babies, evil monkey totems, torch songs, ham-faced mugging and nice, simplistic relationships between one-dimensional people. Everyone in the Charmed-verse is either all good or all bad; there are no greys inhabiting this spectrum. Reedus is actually great for that kind of problem, because even at his squeaky-cleanest, he always brings some bad. And because even HE verges on cuteness here, you know for a fact that something is very wrong with this show. Grace Zabriskie is also guest starring, and I love her, and it's still bad.

Rating: no stars
Reedus Factor: one star. because he's cute.

Charmed "Necromancing the Stone" 5.21: OK, this one is better. It's still a bad show, obviously, but Nate (Reedus) gets a truth spell cast on him, so he gets to be funny, and how often do we get to see that? If you're going to suffer through an episode, this is the one to go for. Just fast-forward through everything that is non-Reedus.

Rating: no stars
Reedus Factor: three stars

Saturday, September 6, 2014

reedus acting badly in bad movies


Cigarette Burns: (2005. dir: John Carpenter) I'm a sucker for film geek lore; of course I am. Things about searches for Apocalyptic Lost Movies, things like Theodore Roszak's Flicker, attract me and generally leave me apathetic in their wakes. They tend to be great on atmospheric build-up in incipient stages, petering out in the end.

That said, you wouldn't describe Cigarette Burns as actually "petering out". The ending is, yes, a climax of no small proportion, built of blood and guts (seriously) and dramatic catharsis. In a nutshell, the guts wind up in the film projector, our hero is dead but, in the chaos, the mutilated angel at last escapes. How's that for a power-finale?

One of the many oddly disappointing entries in the "Masters of Horror" series, this one fails for lack of a sufficiently strong and binding vision. Certain elements are great: Udo Kier as the mad instigator of the affair in another of his perfect Udo-Kier turns, taunting an angel by throwing ice cubes at its head, and the angel itself, which is balefully otherworldly, with nothing of the earth in its makeup. But the world which surrounds them is too much the one we live in, untouched and untouchable by the battles of angels and devils, and it's impossible to imagine that any of what they're doing really matters beyond one or two lives (lives of mad cinephiles, and let's face it, those fellows make their own beds).

Reedus is wildly miscast as an ex-junkie cinema-owner haunted by his dead girlfriend and hired to hunt down, yes, an Apocalyptic Lost Movie. It is a movie produced by the Devil, a sort of snuff film in which the destruction of an Angel is recorded. The role really calls for one of those pale, skinny, intellectual junkies, not Reedus' tough, streetwise brand. (I see a very young Jeff Goldblum in the role.) The only moments in which he really finds his power are when he stops pretending to be a normal person, and sinks into the fullness of his dark: the junkie flashbacks, and the climax in the screening room, when, painted with blood, he sits in the shadow and flickering and comes to terms at last with his own demons. Throughout most of it, he seems uncertain, delivering half-assed line readings (granted, it's not Shakespeare) and unable to conjure a strong sense of character.

The cigarette burns of the title, -- this is interesting,-- refer to the circles in the upper, right-hand corner of a frame of film, the signal to the projectionist that it's time to change the reel.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: two stars

Tough Luck: (2003. dir: Gary Ellis) Sometimes a movie is dead in the water from the get-go. Something about the way it's shot, or sounds, or is assembled, something is so off that it never fits together as a single entity. This is one of those. You don't see a story, but disconnected scenes. You don't see a room or a street; you see a set. There is never a question that these are only actors; even the good ones (Reedus, Armand Assante) can't overcome the handicap. It's a carny movie, another genre for which I always have high hopes which are often disappointed. Maybe, as with searches for Lost Apocalyptic Films, a carnival promises more in the way of darkly High Strangeness than can fruitfully be delivered by your average film-maker.

It's got a bold, truly hideous palette in the first half: garish oranges and neon pinks, and actors' faces are washed boneless by overlighting. The second half mutes down to cooler blues and silvers, but every outfit is still a costume, not chosen by a person to wear, but fitted and accessorised by a costume designer with questionable taste. The effect is not helped by the music-video editing, the "rave, baby" kind which tries to hypnotise you with quick, sharp cuts over lulling, sensuous music.

It may not be so much that Reedus is acting badly as that he's making his default choices, the ones he makes when he's uninspired, coupled with the fact that he's photographed in an uninspired fashion. Whatever. It doesn't ever shake itself into any kind of life, but moves from one set-piece to another: from a snake-dance to an explosion to a cock-fight to a shambolic tour of all the most frequently photographed corners of New Orleans. In dull pseudo-Tarantino fashion (or is it pseudo-Mamet? or pseudo-Oceans Eleven?), the plot gets heaved along its leaden way by con artists (as dictated by the dull pseudo-Tarantino/Mamet/Oceans rulebook, everyone is a con artist) coming up with The Perfect Grift, then double-crossing one another.

It's got a twist ending. It beggars belief. Completely impossible.

Whatever. Don't go out of your way.

Rating: one star
Reedus Factor: two stars, for lots of screen-time and some skin but very little else

Thursday, September 4, 2014

norman reedus film festival: dark harbor

(1998. dir: Adam Coleman Howard) The first time you watch it, it seems playwrighterly and contrived, in that way you feel gypped sometimes when you're watching a Sam Shepard play and keep thinking, "Why do they stay in the same room with each other? Why doesn't somebody just leave?" or like when you're watching a Pinter or Genet and think, "Nobody plays that kind of absurd dress-up game unless they're written by a playwright dabbling in sadomasochistic psychobabble." It's also difficult to sit through Dark Harbor without squirming because the characters seem so skinless and vulnerable, their interactions so often embarrassing. Judging from feedback on Netflix, many seem to find it a tedious slog. It is, rather, a very carefully written psychological thriller, performed with something approaching perfection by all involved. You just don't realize it until the second time you watch it because the first time through you think you're watching a whole different movie.

It's a three-human show: Alan Rickman, Polly Walker, and Reedus, and all three actors give incredibly brave, even consummate performances. I've always been a Rickman fan, and I seriously love Polly Walker in this. It's only Reedus, though, who has to dress up as Marilyn and sing "Happy Birthday" to the President, an impossible task, but in context, and I'm including Walker's reactions, particularly the second time through, when your eyes have opened to the true circumstances, it's a piece of mastery. The second viewing, in fact, seems no longer playwrighterly and contrived but thickly, darkly psychosexual, envisioned and communicated with an intoxicating, earthy fecundity. (Like those mushrooms, now I think of it! which is a trope that keeps slithering its way through the symbology.) It's got a great dream sequence, and, in retrospect, there is no single loose end, no moment that does not lead in its way toward the final outcome.

The less you know going in, probably the better. I had an idea it was going to be a remake of Knife in the Water, so when it began to veer a little sideways, I was exactly the tabula rasa it needed. If you can sit through it once, and I understand that not everyone can, then you can sit through it twice, and the second time is infinitely rewarding.

The other thing is the sex appeal. Rickman and Walker are both extraordinarily sensuous actors, and Reedus is unbearably sexy in this. Really, even unwatchably sexy. I had to pause it sometimes, get up and walk around, just to keep from being overwhelmed, like those girls you see at old Beatles concerts who are obviously going so berserk with rapture that they're just going to fall right over.

Rating: four stars
Reedus Factor: five stars