Tuesday, February 14, 2017

two-minute warning: the dawning of a bleak era



*SPOILER ALERT*

(1976. dir: Larry Peerce) About the time that Star Wars and Jaws were about to change the face of Hollywood, two variant strands of popular cinema were fading away: the blockbuster, cast-of-a-thousand-stars, disaster film (the Towering Inferno, Earthquake, the Poseidon Adventure), and those brilliant, American Paranoia films which began darkening the landscape as the sixties turned into the seventies (the Conversation, the Parallax View, culminating in All the President's Men). Two-Minute Warning, which seems to have taken its inspiration from Peter Bogdanovich's low-budget Target, is a clumsy attempt at the first, but finds its few bleak moments of epiphany when rising into the second.

It's Superbowl Sunday. We meet various folks, many of whom will be dead before the movie ends, follow their various paths to the Coliseum: a pair of pickpockets, a middle-class family whose paterfamilias has just lost his job, a pair of lovers, a schlub whose life depends on L.A. winning the game, a priest. We also watch, from the killer's point of view so we never see who he is, a random bicycle-rider shot dead from distance, through a hotel room window, using a sniper's rifle. We watch him, as well, pack his weaponry into a coat and smuggle it into the stadium.

As he stations himself above the crowd and the cops become of aware of him, we find ourselves trying to guess at his motives and his targets. It's all standard fare until the head cop (Charlton Heston, naturally) tells the the SWAT team honcho (John Cassavetes) that he's ordered all the politicos (mayor, governor, president) smuggled quietly out of the crowd. Cassavetes asks why, to which the stolid Heston responds, "To get rid of potential targets," and Cassavetes, in his best, flat-practical, cynical voice, says, "Everyone's a target."

It's interesting. It marks the dawn of a new era. Heston never gives up trying to make sense of the slaughter, finally shaking the dying shooter, demanding reasons, but all he gets is, "Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me." Cassavetes is right. In the end, we don't get our answers. Was he there to shoot the President, or the first black quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl, or someone against whom he had a grudge we don't know about, opening fire on the crowd when his plans were stymied? We never know. Cassavetes' nihilistic end-speech, which I wish to God I'd written down, is a baleful portent of our ongoing state of emergency today: there is no reason, there is no logic, and, by extension, no real hope.

Friday, December 30, 2016

in a valley of violence: the man with a name and a dog for a girl



(2016. dir: Ti West) If the directors from the Nouvelle Vague were the first generation of self-reflexive filmmakers, that is, to make films inspired by a lifetime of cinephilia, at least they used their own lives and experiences as grist for their mills. The American generation who are the grand old men now, --Spielberg, Lucas, --were the first to make movies entirely based on other movies, as if they grew up imprisoned within the confines of movie-houses and it is here, in this generation, in which life and movies become blurred. As years pass, the two become the same thing. The most obvious example today is Tarantino, who gives the sense that his personal memories are all earmarked by films: he'll remember being seven years old not because of where he sat in grade school or the pinata at his birthday party, but because that was the year he stayed up late and snuck into the living room to watch "Naked and the Dead" on his parents' black and white TV set. (I made that up, but it might as well be true, right?)

My point is this: I try to like Ti West. I do. I've given him every opportunity to win me. House of the Devil was cute, OK, it was zingy, but it was a nostalgia trip, with ultimately very little life of its own. Although I liked the Innkeepers and didn't dislike the Sacrament, I don't recall much about them, either. I think "very little life of its own" might so far be a key phrase in summing up West's work to date. And, like House of the Devil, West is back to movie tributes: this time, to the Spaghetti Western. I am not at all opposed to those: Sam Raimi's the Quick and the Dead sits on my shelf as a wonderfully flawed, recurring pleasure. West's Valley, on the other hand, has some inspired moments, but they are connected by long passages of filler, some of it so damn cute you want to puke, much of it anachronistically modern, most of it very badly written indeed.

Ethan Hawke (who is absolutely the best of the two or three things that were good about the Magnificent Seven remake) is the cheroot-smoking, stoical Man With No Name, although, disappointingly, his name this time is Paul. He travels with two girl-companions: his horse, Lady, and his dog, Abby, with whom he carries on an endless, one-sided conversation, only becoming stoical in the presence of humans. See what I mean? It's a cute idea, but it doesn't carry well. When we first meet them, they are, by Paul's description, starving and water-deprived and dirty, although he looks suspiciously healthy and clean, always the first warning sign that you're watching a faux-Spaghetti instead of the real McCoy. He is hailed by a man in trouble, a drunken criminal of a preacher, horribly written but gamely played by Burn Gorman. This is the Eli Wallach character. There's your second warning sign.

*SPOILER ALERT:* Once Paul's showed us his alpha-male cred by effortlessly stripping the treacherous preacher of his bullets and his water, he leads his girls into a town built on malevolence and cowardice. A recalcitrant hero, he's the fellow to set it straight on its true path. Call him John Wick of the West: today's movie-men are less likely to be motivated by love of humans than by vengeance for their pets. In fact, Abby the Dog is well established many times over as the love of Paul's life. The bad guy calls her his "wife", and the girl who will be his love-interest, when she first meets Abby, says, "We look exactly alike!" (The love interest is, by the way, sixteen years old, to Hawkes', what, fifty? The logic seems to be that since she's not a virgin, since she's already been debauched as a child, it's OK to "Woody Allen" her. Join me, please, in puking.) From them on, you know Abby is a goner; she has to die so Paul can move on to a human relationship (with a sixteen-year-old girl! Ewwwwwwww).

The other thing about Abby is that she's the dog from the Artist. Not literally, I mean; that dog was French, but she may as well be. She performs all manner of stupid dog-tricks, from rolling herself up in a blanket on command to covering her eyes with her paw to indicate a hackneyed emotional response to Paul's words. The only decent joke in the movie is that every time someone asks if Abby does tricks, Paul intones deadpan, "She bites." And she does, she's a killer guard dog (except, naturally, when it really matters), but she saves her adorableness solely for the eyes of her true mate.

The obligatory scenes are here, but often elided. In a true Spaghetti Western, the hero always gets the crap beaten out of him by the villains; it's from his pain and humiliation that he rouses up his own internal "murdering ministers", the dark rage which fuels the second half of the picture, the vengeance part. In this (*SPOILER ALERT AGAIN*), they take him by surprise (he's taken with ridiculous ease; if he was watching, Clint Eastwood would flip the TV off in that moment) and throw him off a rocky ledge, never checking that he's dead. I want you to read that again. They don't put a bullet in him, or a knife's blade, both of which are close to hand. They don't hang him from a tree, or even beat him up much. They just push him over a rock at night then head home for a pint. If he hadn't turned off the TV before, Clint Eastwood is definitely flipped over to the Weather Channel at this point, because when Paul rises in the morning from his rocky, rattlesnakey bed, he's FINE. Barely a scrape on him, but mad as hell.

I have to take my hat off to West's obligatory flashback scene, achieved with the greatest economy using a couple of flashlights to illuminate glimpses of a night-time Indian massacre. West went out of his way to avoid wasting our time with inessentials here, then threw us to the dogs in that respect for most of the rest of the movie. There's a bright spot, sure, in Toby Huss as one of the townsmen; that actor continues to be a downright inspiring presence even in the smallest roles (watch the Invitation. For God's sake, man, watch it!). John Travolta has the Kurt Russell/Sam Shepard role here, the one-legged town marshal, one of the few characters that is written in shades of grey. He does well initially, then stumbles as the plot grows shriller and the script drowns in sad little puddles of its own mediocrity. And the guy who plays the town bully, --I'm not even going to dignify him by looking up his name,-- he takes a scriptful of badly-written lines and masticates then over-masticates until you're done with him, absolutely done, by the end of his first damn scene. When will they learn that even in a Western, every villain should have one good, redemptive quality, as every hero should have a convincing darkness?

Believe it or not, it's possible that this movie passes the Bechdel test. It's got two women in it, young sisters running an inn. They're both named and they speak to one another; I'd have to watch it a second time to make sure they speak of something besides men. Still, even if they do, the way they interrelate is cartoonish, slapsticky, kind of awful. These days in Westerns, women are often given a "you go, sister" nod in what you might call the Grace Kelly Moment, when the noblest of the downtrodden females gets to step up with an uncharacteristic shotgun and deliver the coup de grace when it looks like The Chief Scurvy Varmint might have our hero on the ropes. (He doesn't, really, ever. There's always kind of a winking assurance that the filmmaker is just letting the ladies have some fun here, letting them feel important, when really Ethan or Denzel or whomever would play through his bloody wounds and kill the fellow just fine on his own, thank you.) This has one of those. It's not satisfying. And when the 16-year-old girl embraces the older man (who has abandoned a beloved wife and daughter of the girl's same age), although it never becomes overtly sexual, West is still winking at us, letting us walk out of the cinema with no doubt that Paul will come to his senses, overcome his nagging scruples, and bed the girl. Because he is the red-blooded alpha-male, and, apparently, that gives him the right to Woody-Allen to his heart's content without our negative judgment.



ADDENDUM ON ANTOINE FUQUA'S THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN REMAKE: It's not interesting enough to warrant its own review. It feels like it was assembled by committee: the whole is not good, and most of the parts are just serviceable. Granted, it was a tough assignment, since it was already done, not just right, but just about perfectly, TWICE, once in America, before that in Japan. So these guys did the right thing in making changes, but, alas, the wrong ones. In the Sturges film, each of the Magnificents has a definite character, you can describe each one not just by the actor who played him, but the vanities, fears, and aspirations which drive them. In this one, you've got the Comanche, the Mexican Bandido, the Mountain Man, the Asian. They're types or ethnic symbols, and nobody bothers to write them actual characters. Even Denzel-As-Yul-Brynner and Chris-Pratt-As-Steve-McQueen are not written well enough to register.

Only one character, Ethan Hawkes', inspired somebody to write well. He's the Cajun called Goodnight Robicheaux, an amalgam of Lee (Robert Vaughn) and Harry (Brad Dexter) from the earlier film, and he not only has been given some wonderful lines (when his cowardice kicks in, he tells his friend that he dreamt the owl called his name), but Hawke communicates his conflict beautifully and often wordlessly.

The other good part is Vincent D'Onofrio as the mountain man: his voice squeaks and his gestures are twitchy and awkward, a thoroughly convincing portrayal of someone who's spent very little of life in human company. Again, nobody bothered to write a decent role for him, so he has nothing of interest to do with his hard work, but you've got to give him credit for holding up his end.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: let's scare jessica to death



(1971. dir: John D. Hancock) The turning of the sixties into the seventies gave us a fascinating moment in horror cinema: Woman v. The World. Highlighted by Rosemary's Baby and the Stepford Wives, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is another in a series in which an ordinary woman finds her everyday world transformed in eerie, almost imperceptible increments, until it seems like a malevolent conspiracy and she cannot tell whom she can trust. In fact, in these films, she can trust no one. Even those who sincerely want to help her are powerless to do it, and the husband who seems at first benign and well-meaning always fails her colossally before the end. The question at the heart of the mounting tension is always this: am I crazy, or is the world conspiring against me?

Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a significant entry in the category for a few reasons. First, maternity is never mentioned. Even in the Stepford Wives, mostly concerned with connubial matters, there is a sense that our heroine might escape but is held back by thought of her children. A movie like this one about a couple trying to piece their marriage back together after a crisis in which children or the prospect of parenthood never comes up is a treasurable oddity. The other lovely factor is Zohra Lampert in the lead. Her performance, which we view largely in close-up, is mesmerizing. The director wants us inside her head, keeps us there throughout, where we hear audible voices, voices which only she and we hear, and which may or may not be her hallucinations.

And,in fact, we are left in the end with an uncertainty. Those other two classic movies leave us in no doubt as to the breadth of the evil mesh closing around our heroine, but this one is different. From the title, we go in with the assumption that we know something: someone is trying to drive the woman back into the madhouse. By the closing credits, we're not so sure. Which things we've seen are real, and which are hallucinations? Is there a conspiracy? The scars on all the locals are an eerie touch. Why are they all bandaged and wounded? ARE there vampires?

You could call it a lost classic, rounding out a trilogy with those other, unforgettable two. It was a movement rising directly up out of the feminist uprising, giving expression to the new uncertainty and angst in the feminine subconscious as we relinquished our "safer" roles and moved out into the places of greater potential power in the world. It may, in fact, be time for a new wave of such films, as American women woke on November 9th to find our country had banded together overnight to declare us second-class citizens, not only unworthy to make our own reproductive decisions, but unworthy even of basic human respect, as amply demonstrated by our sociopath-elect and his contempt for our gender. Our government, for the next four years, will be defining "human" as white, heterosexual males with, preferably, at least one million dollars in the bank and a cupboard full of guns. Because horror is always the bellwether, the genre in which the black bile and dread spew first from the collective underconscious, this might be a useful path. Although we often see women as the brutalized protagonists in modern horror, we tend today towards the physically tough, ridiculously resilient and resourceful grlz, leaving those of us who are normal women, with no super-strengths and no instinct for fighting or gun-play, without proper mirrors.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

belated and truncated halloweenfest: a double feature of christmas grue



A Christmas Horror Story: (2015. dir: Steve Hoban, Grant Harvey, Brett Sullivan) Revisiting the classic "anthology" format, here's a foursome of holiday chillers bound together by a shared locale and a drunken DJ playing a Christmas music marathon as all hell breaks loose outside. William Shatner is wonderfully droll as the the DJ, and the performance values are high all around. There's a troll changeling, wickedly funny zombie-elves, the ghost of a mistreated convent girl, and it all culminates in a showdown between Santa Claus and Krampus. Or does it?



Krampus: (2015. dir: Michael Dougherty) Viewing this before and after the election are two very different experiences. When it came out, Krampus was a well-executed, twisted moral-fable fashioned from the darkest humor and exaggerated versions of every American's modern experience of the holiday. Mobs draw blood and show no mercy for the privilege of paying too much for products which will be stuffed into a closet and forgotten the day after Christmas. People you dislike crowd into your home and criticize your way of living, and you let them do it, because they're "family". The cynical and ruthless bully those dreamers who have not given up hope, and once the bullies have won, once we have all given into ennui and despair, that's the invitation to Krampus, and Santa Claus stays home that year. Toys turn into monsters: teddy bears grow jagged teeth, tree-top angels morph into translucent harpies, gingerbread men lure children onto hooks and into chains, and you don't even want to know about the jack-in-the-box.

Now, post-election, this movie leaves a newfound chill, a hideous reminder of how hellishly low we have sunk. It is, believe me, exactly the Christmas movie deserved by a people so fucked up and cynical they'll elect the embodiment of self-serving, capitalist pig-dog evil into the highest seat of power.

Keep the fire burning hot in the hearth, kids. Krampus is coming.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: the devil's pass



(2013. dir: Renny Harlin) Sucker that I am for horror films inspired by True Fortean Incidents, the most interesting aspect of a Fortean Incident is its inexplicable nature, and movies, perhaps necessarily, strip away that layer, rarely providing anything more interesting in its place.

This one rises from the mass death in the Dyatlov Pass in 1959. It starts out as the Blair Witch Project, almost weirdly so, becomes a video game later on when the characters are exploring the underground bunker, and ends with a cheap trick. Along the way, it references the Philadelphia Experiment and the Mothman Prophecies, but doesn't shed any particular new light on the mysterious story of the dead hikers (except for one moment when they realize the "strange orange lights" that were reported in the sky the night of the calamity may have been flares sent up in desperation).

This is a "found footage" movie which cheats, just a little, just at the end. A group of American hipsters are retracing the dead Soviets' steps (although when the main girl claims to be a student at U of O but says it's in YOO-jeen AW-rygun, you know for a fact she's never been anywhere near the place), and the acting is, at any rate, better than the script. I tend to enjoy some things about Harlin's work. The best thing about this one is the easy rapport amongst the hipsters before the hellishness breaks loose, but that's a mighty weak peg to hang a thumbs-up on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: i, madman



(1989. dir: Tibor Takacs): And, for a change of pace, toss on I, Madman, a good-hearted, unpretentious slasher film built around beloved 80's-diva Jenny Wright as a girl who works in a used bookstore and finds herself menaced by characters in the dark fictions she reads. None of it makes much sense, but it doesn't matter, because the details are so engaging: an avalanche of misplaced books acting as a dream-quicksand obstacle, seamless travels from life into fiction and back again, twisting staircases and flashing neon. It's also bookended by the Art and Dotty Todd rendition of "Chanson d'Amour", a truly great song which evokes in detail an entire, lost era in one bouncy, repeating chorus: absolutely brilliant.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

the belated, truncated halloweenfest: deliver us from evil



(2014. dir: Scott Derrickson) A return to form for the Catholic Horror genre. As has become de rigeur in the past twenty years, the Catholic priest is allowed to wear a white hat only if he is a) sexy and fit, b) fully indulgent in harmless sins, such as smoking and drinking too much, c) obviously lustful after beautiful women, and, most importantly, if he d) fell into his calling only after "real life" so devastatingly disillusioned him as to drive him into it. This priest, played sexily by Edgar Ramirez, doesn't even wear the collar, working, as he puts it, "under cover", allowing hot chicks to hit on him in bars.

It's an exorcism film, and a good one, delivering some genuine frights and three-dimensional characters (including one obvious red-shirt who I really, really didn't want to die). Eric Bana gives his usual greatness as a tough New York cop with a talent for sensing the supernatural. Among other dark delights, the movie offers a sly joke about the instinctive association we make between cats and devils.