Sunday, April 5, 2015

robert patrick / james mangold double feature: cop land and walk the line

Cop Land: (1997) Cop Land is a sublime movie, and let me hasten to remind you that I don't even like cop movies, as a rule. This one is extraordinary. It moves at an assured pace, just right to tell the story, never rushing, never lagging. Stallone projects a heavy, world-weary sweetness that is so flawlessly communicated you forget that you ever forgot he could act. He stands out, and this in a movie filled with fine performances.

It was here that Michael Rapaport first caught the world's eye with his admixture of boyish good will and potential violence. In his first scene, we follow him through a titty bar as he says good night to his friends, and there is that combination of smooth camera and smooth, improvisational finesse that reminds one a little of the old De Niro things, the old Scorsese things. Liotta, Keitel, and De Niro are all here, and all have their moments; Cathy Moriarty has a striking turn as an aging and bitter sex-kitten.

Patrick is Jack, one of the stalwart, "bent" cops in Keitel's fold. His role is secondary: he's sort of the hammer in the Keitel character's tool-chest, he spends a lot of time scrapping, but we see his depth in the unspeaking way he looks at his trusted boss after one of their own has been killed under suspicious circumstances.

The element that sends this one over the top as one of the greatest cop films ever made is its aural presence, its soundscape. Exceptional throughout, its most obvious greatness kicks in at the end, after Stallone’s sad-sack but relentless Sheriff is deafened by a gunshot while he goes forward on his quest for justice. Everything slows down, the atmosphere thickens. We hear all sound as if from underwater, through a wall of deep, ambient roar, and accompanied by a distant, haunting bagpipe refrain, a leftover from the cop funerals we’ve witnessed. Then, the first clear thing we hear after a long time is Stallone’s voice, saying, “I can’t hear you, Ray,” to the last of the bad guys. It's really stunning.

Walk the Line: (2005) Dirt-poor country boy transcends poverty, a mean daddy, and drug addiction to become a beloved musical legend and leave a profound, game-changing legacy. Yeah, it follows the musical-bio-of-the-week formula, but this one has a few extra things going for it: not just a very good cast (they all have that), but a better-than-average script (the one that particularly gave me shivers was the section where Sam Phillips is describing to Cash the song he needs to sing instead of the safe gospel he's been doing) and a truly sweet love story. Most of these movies, you have to take it on faith that the fellow in question really found his soul-mate and it's not just Hollywood gimcrackery, but anyone lucky enough to have seen Cash and wife June Carter perform together will have come away with the romantic notion that this was, in truth, a match made in heaven. It lends extra charm to the early scenes in which they're innocently coming to know one another, and it's necessary to shore up the story, which lies balanced evenly across two pillars: the love story, and Cash's daddy issues.

Robert Patrick, as Cash's hard-drinkin', sharecroppin' daddy, performs a crucial task in relatively abridged screen-time, and does it with admirable command, never relaxing into black and white but using a whole sfumato-palette full of minute gradations in grey. You never doubt that he's a real man, with both virtues and flaws, which are communicated in a stoical manner that rings true from a Depression-era dirt-farmer. There are beautiful touches: the panic around his eyes in the life-changing moment when his beloved eldest son is dying and he spits at Cash, "Where were you?" and -- this one really got me, -- when he pulls Cash's cap off his head as he pushes him into his dying brother's room. When they finally have their showdown, over an awkward Thanksgiving supper alongside the Carter clan, it's the son who picks the fight, but daddy doesn't wince, shows no sign of embarrassment or doubt. Patrick's paterfamilias knows who he is, knows he is the alpha-dog, and his face relaxes just barely into a smile as he launches, uncowed, into the proffered duel of words, knowing it's his boy who will roll over in the end.

And, Shelby Lynne, by the way, is just about perfect as Cash's mom, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

norman reedus film festival: hero wanted

(2008. dir: Brian Smrz) The worst thing about Hero Wanted is its Netflix blurb, which gives away a crucial plot-twist. If you haven’t read it, don’t; if you have, know that the thing plays better than it reads. I’m not the world’s biggest Cuba Gooding Jr. fan, but he’s good here. The whole cast is. Kim Coates and Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy tear it up as bad-assed, petty crooks. Ben Cross gets the Sam Shepard role, which must be fun for him, playing at the gun-toting, grizzled veteran. Even Paul Sampson, the arrogant cat who will lead Reedus down the straight-to-hell garden path that is Night of the Templar in a few years, is well-cast and totally loathesome.

And then there’s Reedus.

I’ll be frank: towards the end of my Reedus-fest I was hitting a wall. Roles that would have inspired enthusiasm in me just weeks prior were leaving me cold. After watching so much of him in so concentrated a period, I was jaded, even blase. I had to give it a rest. Now, after four months Reedus-free (I’m not even watching the Walking Dead this season, check me out), I see him in this, as a sad-sack overgrown kid who just wants to go to the beach, for chrissake, and it all comes back to me. Even in this relatively unobtrusive role, his greatness is apparent. He can communicate the tiniest hurt, defiantly masked, by a few twitches of facial muscles. He can take weak dialogue and speak it like it’s something credible that an interesting person would actually say. And (spoiler alert) his death scenes always kill me.

Smrz is mainly a stunt-guy with a resume as long as your arm, and he and cinematographer Larry Blanford find some great camerawork, like long, zippy dollies speeding smoothly across action scenes. There's also an ambitious tracking shot in the opening, following a suspicious-looking canine into a seedy neighborhood, lifting up to detour through an apartment and back out the window to reunite with the dog, which crosses paths with one of our ne'er-do-well characters, and we attach ourselves to his journey instead. It's fabulous stuff, and although the backbone of the plot sprawls across some absurdities (the hero takes enough gunshots, burnings, savage beatings, you name it, to lay even a Clint Eastwood character in his grave, and, aside from the odd scar or burn-mark, he looks great), the whole package is tied together with sufficient moxie and conviction to carry it off.

Rating: three stars
Reedus Factor: four stars

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

a bad robert patrick double feature

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999. dir: Scott Spiegel) Straight off: Robert Patrick is good in everything, and I'm not just talking the ever-classic T-1000. He works hard, throws himself face-first into some outlandishly difficult roles. Things that, when he read the script, he must have thought, "This is just embarrassing." But he's one of those guys, like Walken, like McHattie, those Working Actors. The guys who never say no. You gotta hand it to them. You gotta, in fact, love 'em.

And he's good in this.

That's my preamble on the actor. Now, about the movie.

I'd say at least half, probably more, of folks who watch the first From Dusk Till Dawn come away unimpressed, even scornful. It's a tough ride, grinding away at your suspension of disbelief with its nonstop gore, fetishistic violence, and flights into absurdity. It is, at the same time, groundbreaking, not least for its dyptych shape: the first half is Natural Born Killers and Tarantino bloodlust, the second is bloodlust of the crazy Mexican vampire variety. The cast is great, and Rodriguez's intoxicating combination of mastery over detail and jubilant playfulness elevates even this ridiculously violent blood-bath into an exuberant game.

This first sequel (there are two, plus a television series) is not so lucky. The director, Spiegel, he put his back into it, I have to say. There are death sequences, like the opening in which Tiffani Thiessen is killed by a swarm of bats in an elevator, or that of the obligatory, post-coital, Mexican beauty being bat-killed in the shower, which are composed of literally thousands of quick shots. The shower scene in particular stands as a sort of gleeful tribute to Hitchcock and Psycho. It also stands as proof positive that if you haven't made us care about a story or your characters, fancy cinematic tricks will leave us totally cold.

It is certainly not devoid of friskiness and mischief, but the success of the first one has been set into formula. A criminal gang is mobilized to rob a Mexican bank, vampires (in the form of Danny Trejo and kin) intrude about about forty minutes in to "change" the murderous gang-leader, causing a domino effect until the climactic endgame involves the Mexican police-force, along with one dogged Texas ranger (Bo Hopkins) and the last human criminal (Patrick), waging an all-out war against the four criminal-vamps still inside the bank. Even its coltish exuberance takes on rote dimensions: continuous shots from inside ribcages and skulls, for instance, get old, and probably took more effort to create than was worthwhile. The conversational quirks of the criminals before they turn (discussing a porn film, for instance), have nothing of the spark and delight of the Tarantino-talk which the script is obviously trying to emulate.

Muse Watson, Hopkins, the ever-great Trejo, and, of course, Patrick, lead a decent cast, but the story sort of throws itself whole-hog into mayhem, then disappears up its own metaphorical asshole without ever, well, reappearing.

the Forgotten City (the Vivero Letter): (1999. dir: H. Gordon Boos) This is a dreadful movie, really awful, with nothing to offer outside a couple of good actors slumming and some pretty jungle scenery. It wants to be a Roger Corman B-film, but lacks that odd and irrepressible combination of whimsy, shamelessness and pragmatism which comprise the Corman je-ne-sais-quoi.

An everyman insurance guy (Patrick) is lured to Mexico by an enigmatic call from his estranged brother, and, once there, finds himself embroiled in a treasure hunt alongside a beautiful archeologist and a dying zillionaire explorer (Fred Ward). The plot makes no sense, there are a couple of gratuitous tit shots thrown awkwardly in, some explosions and gunfights, lots of dying, and an utterly ridiculous happy ending. There is no actual reason to watch it, in fact, unless you're trying to overcome a stubborn animus-fixation on Norman Reedus by watching everything that Robert Patrick has ever done. Which is crazy, and why would anyone ever do that? so forget I even mentioned it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

wolves: bad dog. no biscuit.


(2014. dir: David Hayter) Somebody started salivating over the successes of Twilight and True Blood and decided it was time to reboot Teen Wolf. Alright, fair enough. Rage and lust turn bland dreamboat quarterback BMOC (Lucas Till, a boy with a terrible sense of timing, putting pauses and stammers in all the wrong places) into a parricidal fugitive. He goes on the lam, running from himself, looking for answers, a way to exist in the world. Meanwhile, he tells us all this in really badly written narration. He finds his way to Lupine Ridge, home of... well, you know.

This doesn't remind me of other lycanthropic ventures so much as it does Renny Harlin's the Covenant. It's overstylized, particularly in the lighting, banks on its beefcake appeal, sports a badly-written and over-emphasized "we are the last of the old families" backstory, only this time it's wolves instead of witches. It's still about boys coming into their power and learning to control it, and it's still about the father issues. In this one, after eating his human parents (OK, spoiler alert! We find out in the end he didn't really; he was set up by a bad doggie. Our boy is way too nice a killer dog to do that) he seeks out his wolf-dad and they engage in to-the-death combat, ostensibly fighting over the favors of a wolf-girl. See, papa wolf wants to continue his line by mating with this last of the true wolf-girls. But, wait, our bland hero is already his son by a different, dead, true wolf-girl. That never gets addressed, though. They just start right in on killing one another. Their last name is Slaughter. Yeah, I know.

The reason to see this is for Jason Momoa, who has a killer time as Papa Bad-Dog. He and Stephen McHattie, in the obligatory avuncular role, give a good go at setting the place: the ancient hills of West Virginia. They do it with accents and strange-looking pipes. Other than that, these wolflings could be anywhere, or nowhere that exists in the real world.

Let me tell you the best parts. When Momoa's lupine uberlord undergoes his first change: we're watching him from the back as he walks forward, about to join a manhunt, and we see the supreme confidence with which he tears open his shirt, cracks his neck like he's walking onto a playing field, saunters forward. The next best part is when Hanni El Khatib sings that old New Orleans standard "You Rascal You". The best line is when our bland hero comes home half-dead and says, "I need a hospital. Or, you know, a vet or something." The other best part is when Momoa is enjoying his intended wedding night, joking around, sort of playing with his food. He's got charisma to spare, that fellow. Then there's the way all the wolfmen whimper like puppies when they take their death-blows; that's a good touch.

And fear not. It turns out, after embodying the most brutal of villains for most of the movie, on his deathbed (OK, death mud-pit) Papa Bad-Dog gives his son (who really doesn't look wolfish at all. He looks like a reject from the Lion King. No wonder dad wouldn't claim him) a song and dance about how he didn't REALLY rape lion-boy's mother; lion-boy was, in reality, a love-child. Which doesn't explain why he's spent these past two hours trying to murder the love-child. And, of course, the kid has to give the whole, anguished, "This is all your fault! You made me a monster!" rant.

To which I say wolf up, lion-boy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

black and white double feature: a place of one's own and the search for beauty

a Place of One's Own: (1945. dir: Bernard Knowles) Knowles began as Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood cinematographer, and this was his first jaunt in the director's chair.

James Mason plays thirty years older than his true age, and does it with a certain Johnny-Deppian glee, and without a hitch or a falter. This is a ghost story, but plays out like an old parlor-play or chamber-piece, with the servants ducking in upon occasion to act as a Greek chorus, providing exposition and letting us in on the mood of the house. Mason and (also artificially aged) Barbara Mullen shine unfailingly as the unlucky couple who have retired to a haunted house, but Margaret Lockwood, a big star in Britain at the time, gets clumsy with the kabuki over-emoting and nearly ruins the piece. Well, the piece is so slowly-paced that it really ruins itself; she helps it along towards its inevitable failure.

It doesn't hold a candle to the Uninvited, another British ghost story from the same period. This one is like a short story stretched to try and fit across a novel-sized frame, with the same dull conversation about whether ghosts exist repeated as a sort of coda, just to fill the time. Its twist-ending, when it comes, is not sufficiently impressive to justify the build-up. Its best moments are when Mullen is watching the ghost (which we sometimes hear but never see); she is so entirely convincing that one can almost see the phantom reflected in her eyes, and these are the only chilling moments the film has to offer.

the Search for Beauty: (1934. dir: Erle C. Kenton) An early vehicle for Ida Lupino (when she was still blond and English) and Buster Crabbe (with the day's equivalent of a Schwarzenegger physique) about a shyster trio who want to cash in on the sex appeal of Olympian superstars to make a million bucks under the thin veneer of respectability offered by a "health and exercise" campaign. The film itself, pre-Hays and cheese/beefcake focused, achieves some inspired moments of levity with its skipping dialogue and the wonderful powers of reaction owned by James Gleason, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, then of the stage, then a frequenter of the backlot from the earliest times of Hollywood. Mostly, though, it's about healthy young bodies parading around wearing very little.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

the guest: bravo

(2014. dir: Adam Wingard) I don't have a ten-best list for 2014 (because I went to the cinema exactly two times all year), but if I did, this would be on it. This film is great from the opening: we see, from behind, a guy running, then a title card drops in against a very effectively ominous strain of music, then cut to another great shot, a pumpkinheaded witch-scarecrow, beautifully framed, with a quiet, parental voice over it asking someone if they're ready. It never lags, either, this film; every detail is spot-on, right to the end. The music is especially lovingly chosen, and the sound is awesomely good, as in a moment when a distant thunderclap, just barely registered consciously by the audience, emphasizes a direful facial expression.

It's an old story. A stranger ingratiates himself into a household and, one by one, wins the trust of each family member, until some trifle slips and someone gets wise. This version is just better told than most. Even in the end, when it inevitably descends into shoot-em-up, it's such wonderfully well-filmed and well-edited shoot-em-up that it still works, and I don't remember the last time I was able to say that about a gunfire scene. (Yes, I do. It was the Lone Ranger, which you still ought to see.)

Dan Stevens gets my Oscar as the enigmatic stranger, equal parts corn-fed Kansas boy and psycho-robot Kansas boy. It is as self-assured a performance as you'll see. The scene towards the end when he realizes that the daughter of the house (Maika Monroe, channeling Kate Hudson to very good effect) has fooled him with the army boots, and a slow grin crosses his face while he lets his head fall sideways, as if he's falling a little bit in love, is just plain one of the best moments I've seen in a very long time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

the visitor: he jodorowskies, he misses!


(1979. dir: Michael J. Paradise) In his interview in the extras, Lance Henriksen says he thinks the explanation for this welter of confusion (or camp-classic, depending on your perspective) is that the Italian director had worked for Fellini and was attempting his own "Fellini", landing wide of the mark. I see no Fellini here: I think he was trying to "Jodorowsky", and missing by a country mile.

You've got Franco Nero in book-end appearances as a Christ-like teacher/storyteller. You've got roomfuls of pale skinheads, some of them kids, some young adults. You've got an exploding basketball which throws an important game to Atlanta. A woman with alien DNA who gives birth to super-mutant children. A bad-seed evil mutant girl who bears a resemblance to the young Linda Blair (even wearing her satin jacket from Roller Boogie) and keeps an attack-kestrel named Squeaky as a pet. She gets a toy bird from her aunt as a birthday gift but it morphs inside the box into a handgun with which she shoots her mom, then she does gymnastics while her mom is undergoing life-or-death surgery.

You have opaque cubes filled with moving silhouettes on top of a building; John Huston walks amongst them, looking regal. You have Sam Peckinpah as a philanthropist doctor who saves the world by performing an abortion. Lance Henriksen as an evil basketball magnate (what? who's ever heard of those?) and Mel Ferrer as the ringleader of the evil aliens who are apparently trying to take down the world. Glenn Ford is a cop who has his eye taken out by Squeaky while he's driving and ends up in a ball of flame. Shelley Winters is a housekeeper-slash-spiritual-sentinel, who holds her own against the devil-spawn child and tolls the death-knell for poor Squeaky after he turns into a hawk and attacks the mom.

The mom has been paralyzed by the gunshot, but adjusts to life in a wheelchair with remarkable rapidity, managing to move around, remain stunningly dressed and maquillaged without assistance, still drives a car and manages to climb in and out on her own, somehow folding the wheelchair and depositing it neatly in back before doing so. The best part may be a battle in a mall ice-rink in which the demon-child takes on a thuggish band of teenaged boys, making short work of them in the time it takes John Huston to walk down an endless flight of stairs. There's another showdown, between Huston and the little girl, amidst funhouse mirrors ala the Lady from Shanghai, and, not surprisingly, it's nowhere near as gripping as the original.

In the climactic scenes, John Huston orchestrates a groovy light-show in the skies which culminates in an army of pigeons who take vengeance on the little girl, while the basketball magnate gets skewered by a flying metal bird-sculpture.

I've left out some psychedelia and some chase scenes, some talking and a lot of hyperventilating, but you get the gist. It's quintessential seventies; check out the haircuts! Yes, I've given away a ton of spoilers, but "spoilers" is a misnomer here. The point is not enjoying the unfolding of the plot, because there is no "plot" in the sense of a cohesive, logical story-progression. This is meant as a double-bill alongside something like Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. You get baked with your friends and laugh at it.