Wednesday, October 29, 2014

samhainfest 2014: the black death

(2010. dir: Christopher Smith) This is the nightmare version of the Hobbit. A young monk (Eddie Redmayne) embarks on an adventure through a plague-stricken landscape, guiding an embassage of God's soldiers (led by Sean Bean, a Boromir calcified in his own darkness) on a mission to investigate reports of a town beyond the marsh over which death holds no sway. The constant threat of what appears to be a divine genocide sweeping across the land brings the worst out of its denizens: even good men give in to cowardice and become immune to empathy, while the worst become witch-burners, predatory outlaws, blood-crazed fanatics.

It is advertised as "an occult thriller", but its horror lies in man's continuing cruelty to man. The supernatural element, which is almost overpowering sometimes, comes from the unseen, exulting presence of a God so malevolent he is exterminating his people. The power of Smith's presentation of his world is that God is sometimes felt as an impartial, amoral, balancing force, while at others you can almost hear Him cackling with self-satisified delight at the ingenuity of His torments.

The acting is uniformly wonderful, from David Warner as an abbott fighting theodical thoughts, to Bean, an actor who is always at his magnificent best when exploring how nobility and tyranny can exist within the same breast. Redmayne is perfect in an introspective role which becomes extraordinarily complex by the astonishing ending, and John Lynch is utterly marvellous as our everyman narrator, a veteran soldier returned from France, a man who has faced the darkness of this world head-on while managing to keep hold of a sense of honor, and even he finds himself befuddled by the horrors around him. The final words of his narration, the melancholy optimism of them, are, in context, heart-rending.

samhainfest 2014: prophecy

(1979. dir: John Frankenheimer) Is it ancient Native American vengeance, sprung up red-clawed from myth? or grotesque mutation from mercury dumped into the waters by the white man's paper mill? Frankenheimer is coy on the subject of choosing. Indeed, why choose? Perhaps the denizens of the daimonic dimension make use of what gateways are available.

I love these old 70s horror things, love them for their flaws. I'm not talking about the greats, about the Exorcist. I'm talking about the cheese: the Fury, the Car, Motherlode, Burnt Offerings, and this. The pace is set at so easy an amble, the orchestral music so overbearing and lush, that a child today wouldn't recognize it as a horror film. When you get to the brutality and gore, it's doubly surprising.

It's an ecological showdown between the Indians and the loggers, the former represented by a thunder-browed Armand Assante, the latter by an amiable and avuncular Richard Dysart, both formidable actors who do very well under the circumstances. (To demonstrate the circumstances, I'll point out that the initial clash between the two groups involves a duel between an axe-wielding Indian and a logger sporting a chainsaw. I guess it must have looked good on paper.) To give Frankenheimer his due, there are some marvellous pieces of skill here. One scene in particular, in which our intrepid group hides from the beast in an underground tunnel, is especially masterful, his use of framing and silence and lighting. There is also a poetic murder in the mist, a dreamlike glimpse of the village elder being borne aloft by the gargantua. On the flipside, there is a notoriously risible bit in which the beast attacks a family camping and a boy zipped into a mummy-bag explodes in a cloud of feathers when it throws him with force against a rock. It's almost as if there were multiple directors involved, as if Frankenheimer lost interest and the project was taken over by a hack.

Our heroic lead is Robert Foxworth, a disillusioned do-gooder who set out to save the world and is growing cynical in his failed effort. Talia Shire is his cello-playing wife, the true lead, since we begin with her, share the secret of her pregnancy, and follow her emotional process more intimately than his. It is, in fact, her pregnancy which is the true heart of the movie, and it feels like a cheat that its story is never completed.

The local animals (in this far, far northern forest) who eat the mercury-poisoned fish are giving birth to monstrous hideosities. The Foxworth character has a key speech in which he describes the development of a fetus as going through marine, amphibious, reptilian and finally mammalian stages, and his revelation is that these monster-babies have been retarded at each stage, and so carry over traits from each. His wife, having tasted of the poisson maudit, listens in horror, realizing she has damned her unborn baby to an inhuman existence. The theme is not ignored, exactly, giving us particularly apt and eccentric images like the couple carrying a squalling mutato-bearcub, swaddled like an infant, as they are pursued by its fearsome and ursalike mutato-mater. Still, in context of horror films of the time, the fate of her child and her attitude towards it are the main issues, and that end is left dangling. What is growing within her womb? how will it emerge into the world, and what will happen then?

The seventies were obsessed with choices about mothering, childbearing, and the question of the "demon seed". Consider not just Rosemary's Baby and its many Z-class offspring, but It's Alive, the Brood, Demon Seed, the Manitou, the first two Alien films and their focus on gestation and motherhood, even Eraserhead. Prophecy (which is a misnomer; it should be called after its mythical daimon, the Katahdin) is very much linked onto that train of thought, but defaults any definite comment on it, prefering to stay within the safer realm of beasts attacking, men defending, and, sadly, all the Native Americans dying while many of the white men get to survive, probably to poison another river on another day.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

welcome to my samhain horrorfest

Deer Woman: (2005. dir: John Landis) Another entry in the tepid "Masters of Horror" series, this one is actually fairly funny. Jumping off from Native American legend, it brings a figure from myth into modern life. Told the story of Deer Woman by a worker in a casino (she is a beautiful woman with the legs of a deer; she seduces men, then stomps them to death), the cops ask what her motive is and are told, "Why does everything have to have a 'why' with you people, you know? She's a woman with deer legs. Motive isn't really an issue here." True to that myth-persistent ambiguity, there is no real closure to this case, only a sort of temporary cease-fire.

Why do I think it's funny? I'm not sure. It's got a nice, light tone, and there's something funny about a cop walking down a city street and knowing he's being stalked but the footsteps sound like the clacking of bipedal deer hooves. There are nice touches like the talking stag named Steve who's the "official greeter" at the kitschy casino. There's something funny about Bambi turning killer, and Landis makes great hay of that in the dramatised daydreams the cop has about how the murders might have occurred. There's even a direct reference to the werewolf-killings in the director's own an American Werewolf in London. Landis, for all his faults, is usually unpretentious, and I may at last be coming to terms with his idiosyncratic preferences in story-telling.

the Four-Sided Triangle: (1953. dir: Terence Fisher) One of those early b&w Hammer films from before they caught their Hammer groove and sailed into glory on the technicolor waves of fear and lust underpinning our collective unconscious.

More sci-fi than horror, it involves a pair of boffins in the English countryside who invent a machine which will exactly duplicate ANYTHING, from a cashier's check to an atom bomb to... a living girl! When they both fall for the same girl, complications ensue. Slow-paced and talky and very, very English, it's of interest as an oddity more than a genuine success. There are shades of early Goth recognisable in the girl's character, sounding like she might have walked off a Val Lewton set with her deadpan justification of suicidal thoughts ("I never asked to be born, so it's my right to die.") and slow, assured, glamorpuss way of moving, as played by sex kitten and fading Hollywood starlet Barbara Payton.

I'm convinced that studying the genre films of an era is as important in understanding a time as delving into the accepted tomes (who won what battle, what explorer planted what flag on that promontory first). In that respect, these early Hammer films are a treasure trove, giving us unbroken surface complacency electric with a crazed current of malcontent and barely-controlled hysteria slamming up beneath it.

On its own merits, however, it's a little slow.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

norman reedus film festival: let the devil wear black and hello, herman

Let the Devil Wear Black: (1999. dir: Stacy Title) "We can so easily fall back from what we have struggled to attain, abruptly, into a life we never wanted, can find that we are caught as in a dream and die there without ever waking up. This can occur." It's from Rilke, it's a recurring coda throughout, and it's indicative of the note of poetic melancholy to which this movie keeps returning.

I knew three things about Devil when I got it: it's a modernized bowdlerization of Hamlet, the actor in the lead is best known for a stint on "Survivor", and the Ophelia character eats dog-food. Three strikes against it. My expectations were low.

It's surprisingly, refreshingly, strange. The script is strange and well-written, about 90% of it plays, and the cast is splendid. What was I just saying about vanity projects? Johnathan Penner co-wrote and starred in this, and it was directed by his wife, but I guess he left sufficient checks and balances in there that it all works out. (It doesn't hurt that his wife is a damn fine director.) Maury Chakin has a great supporting role, and Kevin West is fantastic in his one scene as a sugar-huffing night-pharmacist. Mary Louise Parker is absolutely Ophelia, she's great, exploring her incipient madness with childlike curiosity and wielding moments of clarity like weapons, calling the sexism so deeply imbedded in our relationships "neo-colonialism by proxy" and reprimanding her shouting father with, "I'm unbalanced, not deaf." Chris Sarandon as the Dead King is also perfect. There's a moment at the end, once justice has been done at terrible cost, where he ascends, and we see he is barefoot, as the young Hamlet is now wearing his shoes. Jonathan Banks, standing in for Horatio, and Tony Plana as a menacing cop also have small but excellent turns.

This director, Title, has vision. It all falls together in odd, unpredictable but unified fashion, held together against a groovy trip-hop score.

Reedus plays Brautigan, the Rosencrantz character, a thug, young and thick. The action takes place all in a single day and night, and much of the time Hamlet (Jack, played by Penner) spends driving around in the company of Brautigan and his cohort, Bradbury (Randall Batinkoff). They're good; they inhabit a decent plot twist; the time snakes inexorably towards death.

Rating: four stars
Reedus Factor: two and a half stars

photo courtesy of fanzone50

Hello, Herman: (2012. dir: Michelle Danner) Ill-written diatribe on the Columbine Aberration, all preaching and no insight. Reedus gives it a game effort but stumbles again. You know how directors like Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine and Larry Clarke can put kids in front of the camera and they're, like, kids? The kids in this movie are like drama geeks, culled from Acting 101 university classes, who feel like they have to ACT like kids. (Albert Finney does this. He's an old man, but I think he doesn't believe it, so he's always trying to act like an old man would act.) It dulls an already dulled effort. Soapboxes so rarely work, unless they're sweetened with humor or, you know, written well.

Rating: one star
Reedus Factor: two and a half stars for lots of screen time

Monday, October 6, 2014

norman reedus film festival: floating and pulse

Floating: (1997. dir: William Roth) It's one of those movies about a kid (once again, Reedus is playing younger than his age) asking the question, "What do I do with my life?" and getting Hollywood's only answer, "Either college, or crime. There is NO THIRD CHOICE." (Which is a funny message coming from Hollywood. Think Woody Allen went to college? thrown out of NYU after one semester, then dropped out of CCNY. Kevin Bacon, Jack Benny, Naomi Watts, Quentin Tarantino, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Peter Bogdanovich: all high school drop-outs. Brando was expelled from both high school and military academy. Paul Thomas Anderson? left NYU after two days. David Fincher? jumped straight from high school into Lucasfilm to work on the ewoks, and Humphrey Bogart flunked out of Andover. Charlie Chaplin never finished the English equivalent of grade school. Norman Reedus? one semester at Bethany College, in the Swedish part of Kansas, in 1987.)

This boy, Van, lives on the edge of the '90s punk rock scene (no women in the mosh pit, bands with heavy-muscled, sweaty, shirtless, Rollins-type singers) but the film itself sports a super-sweet soundtrack by David Mansfield (the fellow who was my personal favorite part of Heaven's Gate). It's ostensibly a coming-of-age movie about a straight boy finding his way without sacrificing his honor, but in truth it's a fairly thinly disguised gay fantasy with a Madame Butterfly finale.

Flawed as it is (slowly paced, with an unevenly-told story), it's a beautiful coming-out party for Reedus. It's his first big film: not his best work, but he's already strong enough to bear it aloft, and the whole thing radiates outward from him, from the easy command of his presence.

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


Pulse: (2002. dir: Marcus Adams) On a late night drive, a mother and teenaged daughter bicker and hallucinate. By the end of the night, they have fought their way free from the clutches of a murderous cult. Or have they?

The story is so disjointed and dreamlike that it's possible it only makes sense if you think of it as a fever-dream in the pill-addled, half-asleep, at-the-end-of-her-tethered mind of the mother (Madeleine Stowe). Mischa Barton is the petulant girl-child, nubile of body but still a girl elsewise. There's a lot of tricksey photography and effects which bolster the dream-quality, but can be annoying until you sink into the aesthetic. The only successful way to watch this, in fact, may be late at night in a fever or a dream-stupor, so you can turn your left brain off and let the right brain play.

Reedus gets a different kind of turn as a lurking, watcher guy, The Recovery Man, he's called, the guy in the tow-truck. These cultees, they kill people by causing auto accidents and lure girls estranged from their families into the ongoing rave in the back of their empty oil tanker. The Jim Jones is played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, who is good at that sort of thing. He's the sort of guy who can slice his tongue open, slow and sexy for shock appeal, then still has no trouble speaking clearly. Lots of minor mutilation in this one. We watch close-up the piercing of a belly button, that sort of thing. There's a lot of fascination with the mingling of cars and blood, sort of Crash-inspired, but nowhere near as inspired as Crash.

And what's with the razor blade ending? What is it supposed to mean, exactly, beyond a gesture of ill-defined menace? How did it get into the car? are we to take it as confirmation that the whole thing is a folie-a-deux, a shared and manifested hallucination from the two women's brains, and the razor blade is a sign that although the night of terror is through, the underlying tumult which launched it into being still lurks at the threshhold, and may, like Dracula, rise up again?

Well, OK. When I put it that way, it's far more interesting. I initially read it to mean the film-maker didn't know how to end the story.

Rating: two stars, maybe more late at night if you're stoned
Reedus Factor: three stars

photo courtesy of fanzone 50:

Friday, October 3, 2014

single-scene reedus, part two

Luster: (2002. dir: Everett Lewis) This was a projet du coeur for someone, writer/director Lewis, I guess, a fantasia to his own erotic homosex. It's a z-grade indie film with romantic pretentions to punk-rock DIY, made on a budget of five bucks and a case of beer, with a ton of heart, really bad sound, and exactly two good performances in it (Shane Powers as Sam and Susannah Melvoin as Sandra). That said, I know for a fact that this is somebody's favorite movie ever made; some gay kid in, I don't know, Nebraska, is even as we speak wearing out his old VHS copy with multiple viewings, using it as a doorway into a dreamworld of deliverance. There's an argument to be made that there is no greater achievement, no higher calling for a film-maker than that.

Reedus has one scene; he is the Sextools Delivery Boy. He comes in, gets the guy to sign for the delivery, stretches provocatively, flirts nonchalantly, taking the pen out of the guy's mouth, then doesn't hesitate when he's invited into the bathroom. Once there, he's asked if he wants a blowjob. Following the time-honored tradition of straight guys throughout history in that position, he asks, "How much?" Once a deal is brokered, he advances toward the kid who's going to do the work.

That's it; that's his whole bit. Mostly, he broadcasts that particular admixture of jokey embarrassment, blush of flattery, and edge of belligerence which is also the traditional response from straight men on finding themselves desired by other men. Reedus the Superstar has always had a sizable gay following, though: between this, Floating, Dark Harbor, and the so-homophobic-it's-homoerotically-epic Boondock Saints, he's like a gay icon. Plus, he donned drag for a Bjork video (what could BE more gay?), and now, they hint darkly, it will come out that Daryl Dixon is perhaps the world's first sympathetic, rednecked queer. He's a ground-breaker.

Rating: one and a half stars, but not for lack of trying, and I'm not part of its specific demographic
Reedus Factor: zero stars

A Lot Like Love: (2005. dir: Nigel Cole) Ward Bond used to do this to me all the time. I waste a whole Netflix rental on a movie I know he's going to be in for like a second, and then it turns out that second is right at the beginning, like he plays a cab driver stuck in traffic and the heroine leaps out of the cab and runs down the street and that's the last you see of him. Then I'm stuck with two hours of a movie I never would have chosen to watch of my own free will.

If you're like me and tend to avoid the romcoms, this is neither the best nor the worst you will ever see. It's actually closer to the top of the scale than the bottom. It's derivative, yes, most shamelessly of Four Weddings and a Funeral, but if you're going to derive, might as well pilfer from the best. On the plus side, the Girl is not only played by Amanda Peet, she's also not obsessed with weddings, children, shopping, shoes, accessories, or her career. Also on the plus side, Ashton Kutcher is never as bad as you think he's going to be, and he wields a certain charm.

Reedus is Peet's musician-boyfriend when we first see her, dropping her at the airport and breaking up with her over the credits. He's like a blur of activity. Honestly, you never even get a clear glimpse of him.

Rating: two and a half stars
Reedus Factor: zero stars

Cadillac Records: (2008. dir: Darnell Martin) Sentimental journey backwards through the history of Chess Records and the original black superstars of the blues. The characters are full and complex, the relationships realistically fraught, the music is (as demanded in such a venture) great. The color scheme glows with a sort of warm amber light. The cast is particularly good, led by a downright inspired Jeffrey Wright, who shines as Muddy Waters. It's still nostalgic hogwash, of course, highlighted by sometimes shrieking melodrama, but there's a reason the movies keep returning to this formula. It's got legs: there's enjoyment to be had in travelling ancient, well-scrubbed roads.

Reedus officially has more than one scene, but he's always just hanging around in the background. You never really see him properly.

Rating: two and a half stars
Reedus Factor: zero stars

Pawn Shop Chronicles: (2013. dir: Wayne Kramer) A pawn shop in the deep South plays centerpiece to this comic-book-shaped tryptych of stories. There's a coulrophobic tweaker, an Elvis impersonator, an army of naked zombie women, a pair of white supremacists who are trying to puzzle out why they should hate Jews and black people ("I went to the meetings for those little smoky sausages, next thing I know I'm a card-carrying member, with the tats and everything"), salvation showing up in the form of the Marlboro Man driving a pickup with a gun-rack and the devil in the form of an evangelical handing out leaflets, a lot of very smooth and inventive camerawork, and, even more surprisingly, very fine acting. (So that's Paul Walker. I get it. It's sad in so many respects.)

Reedus, I'm guessing from the musculature and the tattoos, is the meth-cook in the gas-mask. It's hard to judge a performance that's filtered through a gas-mask, but his scene is extreme in a good way, and it's kind of funny when a guy in a gas-mask cracks up laughing at a guy in a clown mask.

And why is it funny when a guy in a grinning clown-mask is screaming in terror? I mean it. It made me laugh. Is there something wrong with me?

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

Mimic: (1997. dir: Guillermo del Toro) Del Toro loves some visual tropes: the aesthetics of plastic sheets draped over things, for one. (Thanks to my friend Sam Gregory for pointing it out.) Underground tunnels, slime on stone. Wetness in general: viscera, effluvium and discharge, and bodies, often of the young, caught and preserved in jars. In Mimic, the young are of a superstud cockroach species, one which has evolved to a stage at which its physique mimics that of its primary predator: namely, us. So, as later in Blade II, we have a humanish face which cracks open and unfolds to reveal the monster beneath. Quite the metaphor.

We also have a vernal Norman Reedus, in one scene, vivacity amid the darkness. He's young, vibrant, doofus, full of life, and we only get him for a minute before we plunge back into the subterranean slime.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: two and a half stars

Sunday, September 28, 2014

single-scene reedus: pandorum and i'm losing you

Pandorum: (2009. dir: Christian Alvart) It's a darkly-lit, quickly-paced, sci-fi psychological thriller, and monsters come included in the package. Probably it belongs loosely in a category with Alien and Pitch Black, but also with a foot set firmly in Moon territory. If it fails ultimately to satisfy, the fault lies with its method of communicating the onset of madness: filming with quick cuts and from strange angles a man moving fast and erratically, giving a beetle-like effect, coupled with the usual "I'm mad! I'm mad!" grins and grimaces. Unfortunately, enough of it is included in the climactic scenes that it's hard to hold the tension; it crosses into unintentional humor.

Outside of that, I can't find much to fault it, as long as you're willing to exercise your suspension-of-disbelief muscles some, but it's hard to get excited about it, either. The monsters are a sort of nefarious cross between orcs and Firefly reivers, and waking disoriented from suspended animation on a long space voyage is a brilliant device for setting up ongoing horror and doubt. Ben Foster is the lead, and there's something inherently creepy about him, which plays well when we're trying to figure out the good guys from the bad, but in the end it's hard to fully buy his nice-guy act.

I just watched this movie about half a year ago, and I honestly didn't remember Reedus was in it, so I watched it again. There he is, in one great scene, a member of the flight crew on this vast, crippled, chaos-riddled ship, living in the throes of ongoing terror and privation, when our newly-roused hero runs across him. He gives us a full five minutes of nothing but varying degrees of panic, dread, and psychic anguish. When I watch him in something like this, or Red Canyon, in which he's so fully assured in his task, it makes me think that his failures come when directors fail simply to give him enough to do. When he has a pointed task to accomplish, or a heightened enough emotional state to explore, he never sets a foot wrong. It's in the meandering movies in which he stumbles, when the stakes aren't high enough, the emotional demands diffused. Maybe the director's hand is too weak to guide him. Or maybe he just gets bored.

Rating: two and a half stars
Reedus Factor: two and a half stars

I'm Losing You: (1998. dir: Bruce Wagner) Unapologetic melodrama, leavened some by Jewish mysticism, set amongst the Hollywood elite and its offspring. (Wagner is the guy who wrote the screenplay for Cronenberg's new and controversial, anti-Hollywood acid-scather, Maps to the Stars.)

The best part is that there's some interesting talk about menstruation, a subject infrequently addressed on the silver screen. Reedus is going down on the Rosanna Arquette character until interrupted by, well, menstruation. She says to him, "Older men like the blood," to which he retorts, horrified, "Well, then, go fuck an old guy." As he's leaving, she laughs and says, "Don't go away mad. Just go away." Those two lines of hers, taken together, are some of the most startling and unexpectedly delightful I've heard from an onscreen woman's mouth in some time. Reedus' unnamed boytoy character (she avoids introducing him properly to her brother and niece as he's leaving, and after he's gone, refers to him as the plumber) really only exists to more sharply delineate her, and then he vanishes, nameless, no doubt to find a less complicated woman, leaving her to her philosophical musings and the crowd of whispering voices in her head.

This movie is a kind of a familial soap-opera fortress from which one stands protected whilst staring at death: the main characters are a grown brother (Andrew McCarthy) and adoptive sister (Arquette) whose father (Frank Langella), the wealthy producer of a Trek-ish type sci-fi TV franchise, is dying. Death, in fact, is omnipresent. The dead and dying and death-obsessed pile up in heaps before the end. This film-maker wants you to think about it, the shuffling off of the mortal coil, but his attitude can pretty much be summed up in the fact that the AIDS-stricken Elizabeth Perkins character is in the story as long as she's still beautiful and well-coiffed, but tastefully leaves the screen before crumbling into the unsightly grotesquery of her death-throes. In short, this guy wants you to think about death, poetically and philosophically, but he doesn't trust you to deal with its physical realities.

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