Saturday, December 25, 2010

Revengeance with the Coens! TRUE GRIT

"You can't stop what's coming." - No Country for Old Men

Would the Coen brothers, Joel/Ethan (aka the "Two-Headed Director"), be the first people on my mind to remake True Grit, the John Wayne vehicle from 1969?  Perhaps, and perhaps not.  Until I heard the announcement of their being assigned to direct it I didn't think of it either way.  But upon further inspection- that is to say, the film itself in complete form- I can see why they would tackle this seemingly straightforward story of a headstrong and highly intelligent fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hallie Steinfeld)) getting a drunken Marshall Cogburn (Jeff "The Dude" Bridges) and a straight-laced Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) together to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin).

The Dude Abides with a pocket full of shells.  
If one is to take Charles Portis' novel (unread by me but compared to the likes of Mark Twain for its panoramic view of America with wit and grace), and to update it, it might as well be the two guys in Hollywood who can make something highly stylized but grounded in a realistic template at the same time.  True Grit also has a distinction for me as one of those remakes where I haven't bothered, somewhat by choice and somewhat by laziness or lack of time, to see the original 1969 film (also directed by Henry Hathaway).

By accounts that film was purely a showcase for The Duke - which is fine if you're a big fan of said Duke, of which I am not - and had its own problems.  I have to wonder if the Coens were fans of that either; from other accounts (such as other critics or the likes of fellow Creatively-Stumped Podcaster Matt) its much truer to the nature of its own material.  Rather, it takes a look at a West that is rough, violent, turbulent and unexpected in its brutality and witticisms.  The Coens are actually just right for this material, having previous neo-Western experience on No Country for Old Men.

Yeah, that's right, I'm lightin' that pipe, right outta Texas.
However if one is looking for distinctive trademarks of their Auteurism, it's not really as out there as in something like last year's A Serious Man.  This time they're smugglers in the genre, bringing their stylized sense of dialog into the framework of Portis' text.  As someone who hasn't read the book nor seen the original film, I have to try my best (by choice and just at the present moment of analyzation) to take it on its own terms.  It's a full-blooded genre film, and yet there are moments and flickers of their distinct personality, or odd touches, coming through.  One wonders if, for example, when Marshall Cogburn and Mattie Ross are in the woods and realize they're being followed and wait for the tracker, and it happens to be a hermit with a big-bad beard and a bear covering his head to body, that if this isn't the Coens pulling one of their eccentric little moments.

But maybe it's also just the tenor of the dialog, the way characters have a rhythm to their step.  The Coens are some of the best in the filmmaking world at making dialog flow like the flow of music, put to the beats of emotion of a scene more than the usual points of plot and story, though it's there as well due to their adoration for genre.  So when Mattie Ross early on goes to get the money due after her father's passing from a shifty-weasel of a clerk-man and is able to talk him into giving her all of money due (whether it's what's totally fair is besides the point, it's what *she* thinks is the only way to go), the dialog is snappy but not so much so that we are distracted.  I wouldn't be surprised even if the dialog is right out of Portis' novel, staying faithful as they did to McCarthy in No Country.  And yet there's that flavor, slipped in like a thief in the night - or like a partner in bed.

The visual approach of True Grit is masterful seemingly with a sense of ease.  It's like the Coens have been waiting their whole career for a chance at a Western like this, practicing in little spurts and starts in other films, and finally giving chance for Roger Deakins to do his wonderful work (watch that courtroom scene where Cogburn is on the stand giving his portion of the story of a shoot-out and look how it's lit - it all looks so natural, yet it's painstakingly prepared to look just so, a light touch that is hard to really make).

Compositions are full of the scope and vistas of a Western setting in the plains and fields, woods and snow, innards of a cottage made of logs or in a cave full of snakes, or of course in the good ol' Western town like the one Mattie Ross goes to find herself some vengeance-helpers.  It's so startling that I wasn't even aware how detailed the cinematography and direction was; a second viewing may give, as has been the case with almost all of the other Coen films, further illumination to their vision, such as when Cogburn heroically rushes along with Mattie day-through-night to get her home.  To put it another way, snow has rarely looked this startling and beautiful - those are the only words I can note for now.

And what about the characters, and the actors, the ones who always give the Coen movies that memorable appeal?  Hallie Steinfeld imbues Mattie Ross as one helluva tough female protagonist - and yes, she is the lead, NOT a supporting actor despite what the Awards people will put it (if she is a supporting player, than so was Frances McDormand's character in Fargo) - a character who, nevermind even sex, is just damn smart and sharp in the face of ignorance or swindlers or those who are headstrong themselves like LaBouef.  At first Mattie Ross may look persistent, on the verge of being pushy, but it's just straight-on determinism to do what has to be done and what's right, and the natural ability to talk to people in such a way as to let them know she means business.  She may be a fourteen year-old girl, but verbally she can wipe the floor with any varmint in the county.

And Steinfeld is up to the challenge.  You almost forget, here and there, that she is as young as she is.  It's such a tough character to pull off (indeed, from what I've read and heard, the actress in the 1969 film was far from up to snuff), and one needs both confidence and maturity, and at the same time, if not all the time, a little bit of innocence tucked away underneath.  It's possible that an underlying emotion is over-compensation; she's lost her father, vengeance must be paid out in due proper.  But Steinfeld makes Mattie complex in her emotional reach.  As the somewhat-secret star of the film, at least if one were to look at the poster, she commands attention and never over-plays anything even up against potential hammy acting or character-player wildness like in Barry Pepper's criminal Lucky Ned.

Staring contest.... you lose, at life.  
And everyone else?  One can't count out Bridges in any performance, and it's a joy to see him do something different than what another actor might have done.  I could see someone else just trying to imitate John Wayne's version of Cogburn, but this would be wrong.  Instead it has to be a closer approximation to the Cogburn from the book (in that sense it's akin to Chris Pine's Kirk from last year's Star Trek, less Shatner than just Kirk).  At first it does look like Bridges could fall over into caricature, and if so, then why carp anyway?  He's a gruffy old bastard who is fun to watch, and commands his own level of respect just by the whip of a gun.  Simultaneously there's a bit of an air of self-deprecation, either on Bridges end or via the Coens' direction.  Rooster Cogburn is a bad-ass, but sometimes laughable in his bumbling way.  He's a very human hero.

Damon, too, is fun to watch, in a different way as he goes under mustache and Texas-accent and cowboy-spurs, only giving in unintentionally to some morbid humor when he gets in a jam with his own bit tongue.  And  as for Josh Brolin, all I can say is he's forgiven for Jonah Hex earlier this year.  His performance is smaller than others in the film, mostly confined to the third act, but he is removed from the Brolin we've seen him play in recent memory.  And what a joy to see a villain who is not some epic monster, but a pathetic kind of creature, more under the whim of the other more bad-ass gunslinger Lucky Ned (also, Pepper, where did he come from with this?)  He creates a character that feels raw and mean and as natural in his own skin as Cogburn is in his.

"I did not regret W!"
The Coens never shy away from the brutality that could come about in the West.  Life and death are more tentative things when it comes to outlaws and Marshalls and Rangers and other such people.  Early on we see three people being hung in the town square, as two of the men get a chance to say their final words and the third, an Indian, is silenced by the black bag before he can come to peace.  Another hanged-man appears again in the woods, and it's a mysterious, crude sight.  It's a West that on the surface should be conventional, but the layers of fine-protection that were in films fifty years and so on past are stripped away.  And at the end, death still comes about anyway, but at least, for a little while, people can do something about it, either to keep life going on or to end it with a swift and mighty hand.  Usually on a trigger, repeatedly.

It's a violent, surprising film that gets better as it goes along, soon revealing itself as one of the finest Hollywood productions of the year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Last Tango in Paramus with the Cineplex Blues

You might notice, if your eyes glance up to the picture at the top of this blog, a movie theater.  Or, rather if you have to call it so (which it is), a cineplex.   At one time it was technically owned by the chain Cineplex Odeon (a company that also released movies too, like The Last Temptation of Christ among others - later, mostly in the years I went there circa 1994 to 2007, it transferred technically to become a Loews, albeit still with the Cineplex Odeon moniker outside).  It was a place that meant so much to me for a number of crucial years in my adolescence.  It might still be memorable if it had only been the place I had seen the somewhat bastardized re-release of the 1977 Star Wars in January of 1997, or gone with friends for a 13th birthday night-out to Liar, Liar.  Or when we sneaked in ever so gently via the back-doors to see Half Baked, most of us (though, sadly, not me, stoned out of our minds) in a packed screening room with the movie mysteriously starting half an hour late, us clamoring away for the show to start.

Original theater circa... many eons ago, before the dawn of history.

There are memories like that, and more.  But the theater gained most of its significance in my life in 1998 and then even more-so into 1999, 2000, and 2001, and even somewhat into 2002.  There was another cineplex in closer proximity, the Loews (now AMC) Ridgefield Park 12-plex, but that theater usually didn't grab my fancy, despite that being the hollowed ground where I saw many of the formative films of my youth (Batman, Aladdin, The Lion King, uh, Batman Forever, Starship Troopers, I could go on and on and bore you to tears).  Maybe it was the facet of not being able to drive and taking the bus points towards Paramus instead; at the time buses still went to the Bergen Mall, in very close walking distance to the theater.  And then there were buses that gave equal time to the less-prestigious but still conveniently located rt.17 movie theater in very close proximity with the Garden State Plaza (though not connected with it) with three screens.  And in walking distance as well right in the middle of these two theaters distance-wise (if somewhat hazardous due to the nature of walking along frakking route 4 west) was the Paramus Picture Show, the one-screen art-house.

I hearken back to this particular Cineplex Odeon for two reasons: first that it is, as mentioned, one of the hollowed places where, on a big-screen, I got much of my cinematic education, all brought on by my slightly insane and decidedly anti-social way of being a loner in those goddamn years of fourteen to seventeen, where one's body and mind via hormones turned into wretched hives of scum and villainy, usually of the slightly mopey and melodramatic nature and occasionally veering on would-be criminal.  Ah, such dreaded years are ones that might as well be a blackout, and for some might be rather pleasant.  The vast majority can relate to them being accursed years indeed, both physically and mentally, but mostly physically.

Secondly, I started reading this book last night by Kevin Murphy, one of the MST3K-cum-Rifftrax guys, My Year at the Movies: One Man's Film-Going Odyssey.  Murphy, without a job after the cancellation of his days as Tom Servo, went on to see a movie a day, or at least to average a movie a day, for the entire year of 2001.  He didn't just go to Cineplexes: small indie theaters, the Smallest Theater in the World(TM), Cannes, Sundance, a movie with seven dates at once, bars, and an igloo.  He saw old movies, new movies, crap, indies, ventured into the heart of darkness and got through Corky Romano with his fellow-riffer Mike J. Nelson.  He's a man after my own heart.  By that he may also be a man who eats large blood-muscles, but that's neither here nor there.

Bad-Ass Inc.
But reading the book, at least as far as I have gotten through (just a few chapters, but it's substantial writing for each small chapter), Murphy brings up a point visa-vi the experience at the Cineplex, as something symptomatic of something deeper, uglier about what's been going on with American movie-going, and which I can relate on a bittersweet level:

"Some people will argue that beyond a good print, good sound, and comfortable seats, a theater might as well be a black box.  These people are simply wrong.  They're wrong because the films are being designed to fit the market, and that's us, the poor bleating ewes who show up at the googolplex, and order a film like a Number Three combo, Biggie Sized.... if you told me when I was ten that I'd be going to an eighteen-screen theater to have my choice of pretty much every current Hollywood release, I would've thought you were crazy, and I also would've thought it sounded really cool... What have we gained?  A consistent level of product, delivered with a dependable level of convenience, to a consumer base that wants their money's worth every time and gets it.  And what have we lost in the process?  Only passion, risk, and community - in short, the things that make a public art like cinema both public and art."

Murphy is not wrong on his points, and at this point as a 20-something movie-junkie who now dreads certain experiences at the Cine(or 'googol')plexes I can sympathize with him.  Of course a theater should be more than a black box, though there are also times when I want the rest of the world blocked out for just a simple theater with four walls, a roof, and a solid projection system (and, as one has already proclaimed in this blog this month, no yapping).

But at the same time I feel mixed about what it meant to me, initially, when I was still impressionable and just wanting a cinematic fix whenever and however I could on a big screen.  To be sure I often had better experiences when I traipsed over to the Paramus Picture Show in the little mini-mall right before the Garden State Plaza cross-nexus.  That was a "real" theater, made up with a big mural on the wall of images painted of characters from Pulp Fiction, 314-give-or-take seats wonderfully laid out, and always with a sense of community when a group of people were there en mass.  I'll get back to this theater in a moment.

Original size, but not of Paramus Picture Show, sadly.  
But the Loews/Cineplex Odeon rt 4 theater.  Yes, it was a big-corporate-sized type of place.  And yet there could also be a sense of community there as well, when one was waiting on the long lines to get tickets outside, and sometimes inside the place for a specific theater-screen, or, depending on the movie playing at a particular night with the right crowd keyed into the movie but not obnoxious about it.  It became like living in a big mansion some days, and I got intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of every screening room (well, not *that* intimate, though as a puberty-plagued teenager the temptation to jerk the gherkin in a hot R-rated erotic movie with no one else there crossed my mind I must admit, never did though..... sorry for the tangent, back to focus).

Each theater had its own kind of character.  A few of the theaters were specifically stadium-sized, or small-stadium-like.  The theater #1 was the big one, and was indeed the one that used to host big 65mm screenings in the days when I was a twinkle in my father's eye (it opened in 1965 and didn't expand to being a 10-plex until the 1980's).  Other screens were smaller; there were screens 2 and 3, where the smaller or more-maligned (or slightly "smaller" movies were screened like Life Aquatic and Match Point, and even in #2 The Wizard of Oz).  There were what I would call "skinny" theater-screens, # 8 and 9, usually playing mid-level movies or ones that would come back around on re-release.  And of course good ol' theater 7, which gave me the Half-Baked story.  And in my time of being a sneaky 15-16-17 year old scamp, I got used to knowing how to sneak around the joint.

One other such memory still sticks in my mind as a happy one, even with it being almost embarrassing to tell, but it's my blog, I can go into the shameful and strange (just look at the near-masturbation admittance two paragraphs ago).  In 1999 I went to see a very forgettable if not totally horrible sci-fi actioneer based on a video game in the days before Uwe Boll called Wing Commander with Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr (ok, laughed enough, welcome back).  The significance of the movie though in most history would be that it was the first movie, being released in March of 1999, to have a full trailer for Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (the previous teaser was with A Bug's Life so no one could say they didn't see that).

So many kids and teenagers would sneak into Wing Commander just to see the trailer for TPM (that, I should add, also gave me an un-ironic happy memory at the same theater when it came out opening night with a full-load of Star Wars fans two months later, before it was full realized how flawed it was, but I digress).  I was in the theater not for the trailer, albeit a nice bonus, but for the movie itself.  A theater employee came in and sat down next to me, not really saying anything for a minute during the movie, then asked me why I was still there.  "I"m here to see the movie," I said.  "... Really?" the theater geek asked.  I nodded.  He saw my sincerity.  And slowly backed away...

Why was I there for that movie?  The same reason I was there for practically every movie that came out in theaters between 1999 and the early part of 2002 before I entered into college as an undergrad.  It was my own self-made education.  I was, in all likelihood like Murphy suggests, one of those 'poor bleating ewes.'  At least, maybe, at first.  There was a time when I was simply interested in going to the movies for just stupid entertainment time.  But then there was a period of a few years, starting when I got obsessive with The Lion King and hand-wrote out the entire screenplay as I saw it happening as I watched the movie (this is before I knew even fully what the fuck a screenplay was), when I realized movies were more than what they seemed.  And by the time fourteen rolled around - and lost a few friends, by choice and/or by their deciding to move on - I found a lot of free time...

Approximation of theater-size

(... other time was spent by being a bad little bastard; as another personal aside after years of hesitating to cut classes in middle school, I became a fiend for it - not always to go to the movies as the timing didn't always work, the Cineplex didn't open until 1 most days so other times it was to that dreaded but safe bastian of the Mall(s) as Paramus has three of them technically - aided in large part to a stack of blue absence slips and a carefully modulated knack for forging a teacher's signature.  Not proud of it, but, to be honest, not too ashamed of it either.  It was what it was, and if I could take it back I would in some part, depending on the class and teacher really.  It was high school, and it was miserable many times, and only got better in Junior and Senior years...)

In some part it was a time when I was more susceptible for the Hollywood-crap machine.  This was a time period when, for example, I genuinely loved Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and I genuinely enjoyed Phantom Menace until my critical faculties got sharper.  At the same time seeing so much shit helped to refine my sense of what was the bullshit was out there.  And I became a self-made expert on spotting conventions and cliches and formulas in movies (both the mainstream and foreign/independent ones too).  And  I found a lot of surprises as well; one day I would go to see three, even four movies in a day (perhaps the epitome of being able to see so much in a theater offering the current crop of movies - not *all* of them, most of them), and the first two would be more or less in quality (good: High Fidelity, so-so: Rules of Engagement)... and then American Psycho would come out of nowhere and blow my mind, once again in a theater packed of people not knowing what they were getting into.  A case that, perhaps for Murphy, might be an exception, a community-feeling for a Cineplex "offering" that was more like an art-house flick.

Some of my affection for that route 4 ten-plex is nostalgia for a time that was spent like another home away from home, or another school away from school.  Sometimes it was also with other company, friends with dumb comedies (sometimes one or both of us totally drunk), a brother for a movie or two, my mother during a tough personal time for the movie Traffic.  And on the lower-wrung of the scale the rt-17 plex, not as good in quality (a once first-run theater that became run down and got the movies weeks after they played at the regular-plexes), but with its own subtle and dark charms, especially in the really large old movie-room.

And of course that Paramus Picture Show, where I got my first real dose of late 90's and early 00's indie and art-house and foreign films.  Memento, Mulholland Drive (that was a good one, with a GREAT Lynch-fan crowd), Bowling for Columbine, Run Lola RunBeing John Malkovich, obscurer work like The Sunshine State, The Widow of Saint-Pierre.  The dichotomy of cinematic experience in those years of the pre-driver's license, and then into the realm of the license where I could and did expand to other theaters, was crucial for me.  I got the best and worst and middle of both worlds, with a certain gritty appeal even with the cineplex if only for its age and stamina as an establishment

Then it's also, in retrospect, what has been replaced today.  What Murphy saw in 2001, in theaters that were ungainly 'googolplexes' with 15+ screens, was brought out in full in Paramus in 2007.  After the close of the Paramus Picture show in 2004 and the rt 17 3-plex in 2005, the 10-plex closed its doors somewhat suddenly.  'Somewhat' in that it was an eventuality that couldn't be dismissed as a large portion of the parking lot at the big ol' Garden State Plaza was torn apart and new land was made up for at gigantic AMC multiplex with 16 screens, including 3D access and eventually (shoot me now) an "IMAX screen" that is really one of those regular theaters given the awful would-be IMAX treatment of taking a few seats out of the front to make the screen bigger.

My love for this movie theater, measured in length if not width...
A movie theater attached to a mall; before it was only at the Palisades Center in West Nyack I could, if I so desired, see that with a whopping 21 screens and an actual IMAX.  Now it was (and is) in a mere ten minute drive, maybe shorter or longer, from my house.  And with that, how could a measly little 10-plex with old-school film projection compete?  Why go all the way out there- albeit in immediate proximity to a Toys R Us, and nearby the "small" mall (or what Chris Rock would call the "Other Mall") at the Bergen Towne  Center- when one could go to the food court, go to Hot Topic, go to whatever awful hipster store, and then walk on over to see Transformers on four screens?

In comparison to this monstrosity that is the Garden State AMC 16-Googolplex, the Loews Cineplex Odeon was a gift to humanity.  Aside from the sneaky incentive of easy access in that theater- if one is so inclined the sneak-ability rate at the mall-plex is easy as pie- it has drawbacks like jacked-up prices, super-long lines, a bigger cadre of annoying citizens washed up from the dregs of VANS and Abercrombie and whatever douchebag hipster-of-the-week store is opened.  It is, indeed, comparable to what Murphy also describes in the same chapter: the "Walmart experience" of the movies.  Consumer in, consumer out.  There is the occasional odd-room for an indie movie, but even that is given a white-wash for the sense of oddness placed at a theater like that.

Enough cholesterol/fat to choke a horse, but there's free refills on large orders!  
I know, it's kind of odd to be praising a theater that was also in the heart of consumer-land, which is what route 4 is in Paramus, NJ (maybe not as much as route 17, but it's close enough).  But it's not just simply nostalgia.  Perhaps I was too young or not well-versed enough, or just too stupid at the time, to see what Murphy fully saw and that I've known for a while, certainly since I've been friends with ex-workers at cineplexes.  At the same time I always prefer a good art-house/indie theater like a Picture Show or the also dearly-departed Rialto in Ridgefield Park to a behemoth place with screens large and small in a big-ass building.  And, again, at the same time it's where I've been raised.  Maybe I would have better perspective if I were born years before, or lived in an area with a deficiency in art-houses, if it was all I knew like some poor plebian stuck with Burger King and Walmart and Jesus for the bulk of his/her life.

But it's what I knew that takes me back, and makes me ever-so excited to see what Murphy has in store with his international-adventures in movie going past the realm of the googolplex world.  It's an obsession that fermented over a set period of years, spent in a haze of punk rock and South Park, Opie & Anthony and a personal life scrambled up with limited friends, hundreds of dollars spent on local bus fare, and boatloads of marijuana (that would be for another post altogether).   I look back with delight and with some regret, for perhaps not going further or venturing out to other pastures in the years before the license and car.  I look back knowing the Cineplex wasn't always a "good" thing.  But it was what it was, and in the face of further monopolization and the cut-backs on single-screen movie-houses like a Rialto or PPP it's sadder still.  And I wouldn't take back barely a moment spent there.  Not even, yes indeed, the final film seen at the Route 4 theater: Spider-Man 3, which is still enjoyable despite what you've heard.

So there.

(forgive the lackluster music in this video, but it's the only video I could find of footage of this olde theater):

A Christmas wish from Sergeant Hartman!

Do you maggots understand that?


Silent Night, Deadly Night is respectably trashy.  It knows that it has to just live up a little bit to its title.  Nay, it has to just try and live up a little to its tagline.  It's also a kind of cultural artifact of a time in the 1980's where there were "themed" horror-slasher movies (i.e. Mother's Day, My Bloody Valentine), later parodied in the Grindhouse trailer by Eli Roth, Thanksgiving.  Does it really matter too much how the mythology begins for each one?  There's a psychopath on the loose and he'll gut a bunch of teenagers- or some older people too, but no, no children, heavens no not the children- and then maybe (or maybe not?) get it at the end.

This time around with the 'Christmas' theme it all begins when a little boy, little Billy, goes with his family to visit Grandpa.  Grandpa hasn't moved or talked for years... but then he's left alone with little Billy, and becomes animated - by that I mean he's creepy as fuck and tells the kid that if he's been naughty, even once in the past year, Santa will get him!  And then on the way home, coincidentally, the family (parents and little baby) get caught off guard by a Santa Claus stick-up guy who sticks a gun at them and fires away till the car screeches to a halt.  The father gets shot, the mother gets (almost) raped and throat slit, all in eye-shot of Billy hiding in the bushes.

Cut to a few years later, Billy is a basket-case - that is when it comes to Christmas time and Santa is there.  Hey, when you see one killer Santa, all of them are Killer Santas.    Then the movie cuts ahead again to current-day 1984 as Billy gets a job at a toy store, nice but on the edge of insanity (cause, you know, if you see a Santa killing your parents then you're screwed for life, I guess, since all Santas are the same).  He also has a thing with sex.  Ooh, naughty, naughty sex, those people must be punished!  It's after seeing two co-workers going at it, the woman resisting and being raped by the Guido-creep (not to be racist, he fulfills the stereotype by the nature of the acting and writing), and then Billy *click* snaps.  Killing spree!

Perhaps there's that one point in the movie's favor: you don't need to wonder much about the identity of the killer.  He's right in front center, doing to children he comes across what Santa originally did to him: traumatizing with lots of BLOOD!  It becomes a laugh riot to see Billy go off on anyone and anything he comes across; only one he comes up against is spared, though the pay-off of this is even funnier than you might expect.  In terms of the 80's slasher-mythology, people get it all over the place in some semi-creative ways, the women usually without any shirts on (cause hey, when you go out to let the cat out, don't put a shirt on, just little short-shorts will do), and the guys maybe have a shirt on, depending on their physique.

Naughty children get punishment.... or orgasms, maybe orgasms.
Most of the killings are overly gruesome and stupid, and one of them especially, maybe the most memorable, is the most random as Billy goes out to a sledding hill at night to ambush a couple of stupid teens doing a sledding competition.  The pay-off for that scene is one of those deaths that gets people talking after the movie ends (maybe not as bad as what happens to one girl and a stuffed deer head, but you do what you can here).  But maybe most interesting is how the movie takes a position on the traumatizing of little Billy.  Sure, he could've gotten the help he needed, but where's the fun in that?  Better to have nuns like the Mother Superior at the orphanage whip the crap out of him until he... continues to be pathologically afraid of Santa and have images of his parents' slaughter replay in his head.  Punishment... urge to kill rising... that's basically Billy's mantra here.

All of this adds up to really idiotic entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless.  I think a certain attitude has to be taken here, as an antidote for all of that usual Christmas-bullshit cheer, and as another in a long series of slasher movies with a killer loaded with blood.  It should be forgettable, just by the nature of it not having anyone particularly memorable in the cast, or its director.  But due to a series of sequels (one of which directed by, I shit you not, Monte Hellman! oh how the mighty fall), it is memorable, and something of a minor Christmas classic for exploitation freaks out there.  Certainly fills a sleazy-quota of the night, and maybe with an eggnog and gingerbread cookies and chestnuts by the roasted fire, it'll do just the trick.  And you may wonder if Jack Skellington is around to kick some ass and take names and so on.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Baby, baby, baby, you're Moments in Time...

I was inspired by finding out on Jim Emerson's good ol' blog about a montage, or a collection of scenes and images, that perforated the cinematic landscape (to sound good ol' pretentious bout it) in 2010 over at MSN movies.  It's an excellent list, some for movies I've still yet to see (though, hopefully, may see in the next week like Blue Valentine and True Grit).

For now, here's just 25 movie memories (one movie I repeat a memory from), as I don't want to go overboard with movie-memorial talk and stuff, especially as I won't have a top 21 still to come (following Ebert's lead a top 10, honorable mention, and then 10 more as we're greedy dudes) for a little while, not until I see aforementioned movies, and some more (i.e. The King's Speech, Rabbit Hole, maybe The Tillman Story).  I may stray a little bit here as the MSN people were more interested in looks, gestures and lines, but I tried my best to incorporate that here....

- Olivia Williams' face after reading a piece of paper that has glided along hand to hand in The Ghost Writer.

- Dicky Ecklund's tiny son in The Fighter imitating his father's punches to a locker after the bad news his brother gives him.

- "You know, you always scared me." "That's cause your smart."  A heart-to-heart with niece and uncle in Winter's Bone.  

- A deadpan homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, playing on the a TV screen with momentary fanfare in BIG widescreen in The American.

- Unreality gets a wee-bit crazier: a fight scene turns into a Bollywood musical with Demon Hipster Chicks in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

- In Black Swan, Nina's mother almost dramatically throws out a congratulations-cake after she refuses a piece.

- Suave motherfucker Sean Parker in The Social Network: "One more thing: drop the 'the', just 'Facebook'.  It's cleaner."

- Arthur in Inception does a Spider-Man jump-move onto the ceiling during a hallway fight in the second-layer of a dream sequence.

- Banksy brings Guantanamo to Disneyland, and Thierry Guetta becomes a momentary bad-ass.  It's a Small World in Exit Through the Gift Shop.

- In Catfish, Nev Shulman discovers the Tennessee Stud he thought was sung by his FB-GF is not what it seems.

- A moment of hesitation with Andy and Bonnie as Woody is the last toy to pass on in Toy Story 3. ::sobs::

- Anthony Hopkins in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has a blank expression at the bottom-low of his life with the obvious revelation that his fiancĂ©e is a philanderer.

- "Why are you all wet baby?" in Shutter Island.  Two characters distinctly say the line, maybe more, in the film's runtime, however Ben Kingsley's is most deadpan.

- Harry Brown monologues about a war story he's never told before to a bloody sod he's somewhat fatally wounded.

- A woman, trapped in a home in Vincere, goes up to the window and climbs up to look outside at night during a snowstorm.

- The Killer Inside Me's mentally dislocated sheriff addresses the "cast of characters" who may or may not be there by story's end.

- Two characters, embarrassed Scott Pilgrim and 'Huh?!' Knives Chau, have a break-up after the latter tells the former she's in love, set against a black-abyss backdrop.  The rest of the world gives way to nothingness.

- Eliot Spitzer's physical appearance goes to battle with his own carefully constructed words via interrotron answering his biggest flaws in Client 9.

-  In Animal Kingdom, a criminal bastard sits in a kind of religious (or dazed) silence in the middle of the night in a recliner as "I'm Out of Love" plays on the TV off-screen.

- Get with the times old man: the magician in The Illusionist plays to an empty house save for an old lady and his brat little kid following the emptying out of a million screaming girls for a rock band.

- The deadened eyes and moment where his mind is elsewhere mid-interview of a soldier in still can't come to grips with the biggest clusterfuck of time in Restrepo, Afghanistan.

- "(Jokingly) Oops.... (Depressed) Oops....(stares at his own camera in stunned silence)." 127 Hours.

- I Love You, Philip Morris, As Jim Carrey ejaculates into another man's anus, he does a little dance.  "Wooh!"

- A Mother gets up and rejoins the chorus of life: people dancing their cares away on a bus.

- A (final?) showdown between two old crotched Irishman who become crotched old zombies about to have it out against the REALLY FULL moon in Survival of the Dead.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lucio Fulci's SODOMA'S GHOST

Ah, late-period Lucio Fulci flicks.  You know somewhat what you'll get - which is stuff that varies from decent to not very good, at all.  One of those, just before Sodoma's Ghost, was Zombie 3 (what about 2?  Well, technically Zombie 2 *is* Zombie 1 here in the states, but it's two in Italy as 1 is Dawn of the Dead and, oh, nevermind)  That film could be somewhat excused for its shittiness as Fulci didn't even direct half of the movie.  But this time, with this slice of would-be Nazi-haunted-house-sploitation, it's all on him.

What's the big problem here?  Frankly, it doesn't know what it really wants to be.  It also doesn't have the best grasp on context.  One is just thrust in by way of an awkward dolly-to-zoom in shot on an old house in the woods in Italy (or Germany?) in the 1940's as a bunch of Nazis with a bunch of hookers and blow - cause, you know, Nazis didn't have much better to do DURING THE WAR (again, nevermind, let's move along).  They have a wild orgy and dance session where they play pool with balls shooting towards girl's cooches and other shenanigans.  And then, via some intercut footage of planes flying up and getting ready to bomb, we see a quick - very, all-too-quick (and bad-fx), explosion.

Then it's, um, today (that being the 'today' of 1988), and it cuts to a van full of 20-somethings (three guys, three chicks) who are on their way to, um, somewhere.  They come across the not-really bombed-out home of the former pad the Nazis hung out at, and, well, since they don't know that they decide to crash for the night.  Such a cool pad it is!  Swinging, man - full of wine bottles and old records and original paintings that could be worth a lot of money (though they never think to take them despite the deserted nature of the place, whatever, that's giving them too much credit).  And then that night something 'strange' happens, as one of the girls, conveniently only wearing panties, is visited by the ghost of a German-Nazi Don Juan who does his misogynist thing and has his way with her... but is he even there?

Oh, this movie is a mess.  And kind of dull, too.  Not well acted by anyone really.  Not too many likable characters; the guys are dicks or just misogynists, and the girls are either feeble or a little repressed in their desire to have another girl in the proverbial sack.  Sometimes the Fulci we know and sometimes love pops his head.  There are a few creepy moments.  When one of the men goes through a suspenseful (and it is, surprisingly, suspenseful if only in a conventional way) card-game with an ghostly Nazi in order to get the "prize" of hot sex with another ghost-Nazi-chick, her revelation of having weird black molasses instead of breasts is a big shock.

Actually, that's the one sequence, as the guy is looking very wearyingly at this skinny blonde fuck shuffling cards and trying to get the 'good' guy to shoot himself in a bad game of Russian Roulette, that seems to work best out of the bunch.  Or, at least, isn't doused in lameness.  A lot of this movie just feels kind of half-assed, like the actors aren't trying, the editor is barely trying (some of the laziest transitions and dissolves I've ever seen - it's a small point but significant as a really good editor could make some better tension and scares here), and Fulci may not even be all there despite being credited as co-writer (and creator of the story) as well as director.  He's all here... OR IS HE?!

Another problem, for me anyway, is that the film didn't quite stick with something to be.  For example a character at one point dies, and the body just lays there on the floor and decomposes.  This is done in pseudo-classic Fulci style with lots of pustulous sores and popping weird crap all over the place on the body... and why?  Sure, it looks kind of cool, at first, until he keeps pushing it.  And there is nothing else in the movie that should indicate this.  The opening of the movie, too, is misleading, as it has a rather raucous and actually well-shot and paced orgiastic sequence with the Nazis and lots of coke and dancing and fucking and so on with a guy shooting it all (heh, meta, is there nothing it can't do).  Where else is this in the movie?  And what about these 'ghosts'.  Are they ultimately going to kill these kids, or make them Nazi sex slaves, or make them insane?  There could even be something with the Bunuelian tact of a bunch of kids trapped in a house that they can't leave.

It has a lot of these elements, and yet in a 82 minute movie doesn't feel quite complete, or doesn't have the kind of direction that should lead it well.  The premise isn't too bad.  It's the execution that leaves one lacking, unless if some spare Nazi-sploitation and a few odd breasts (one set, subjectively, and I won't say which, are better than the other) make it an alright viewing.  That it also has a real cop-out ending - not for the end result of the Nazis but for the fates of some of the characters - is a further disappointment.  Except for a few key scenes, like the roulette or the discovery of the man to the decomposed woman (which itself is a slight rip on The Shining's bathtub scene), it's forgettable.  Not the worst of the director's long career, but not something one ever has to revisit, if one has to watch at all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Alex Gibney's CLIENT 9 (or Citizen Eliot)

When I first heard of Eliot Spitzer it was in a Playboy interview with George Carlin about five years ago.  He was asked if there were by any chance any politicians he admired.  He mostly scoffed at the mere nature of the question, but did name drop an attorney general from New York state who was going after corruption.  As soon as he noted this, I took note of the man immediately (if he's good enough for Carlin, who thinks the politicians sucking stems back to the public itself, and he may not be wrong on that count by much, he's good enough for me).  And Alex Gibney's Client 9, a tragic-comic story of a politician's rise and fall, is marvelous for how it never lets its subject off the hook, but at the same time reveals just how crooked everything else was around him.  It's that rare documentary on a public figure: balanced.

What is politics except people who are in a position of power who can be virtuous or be heinous, or maybe both at the same time.  One of the interviewees, a man who helped facilitate many meetings with prostitutes and their clients, mentions how there is an old Chinese saying of man being the product of lower nature (animals) and higher powers (angels).  It's a bit of a hifalutin statement, but it does call to mind what a human being is.  Another person near the end, one of those "summing up" kind of sentences, makes the point how we look at politicans at times like Gods.  And they're not.  They're just human beings.  Eliot Spitzer, who became governor of New York, was mostly undone by his own flaws as a human being.  But what about his enemies, or just people who would love to see his downfall?

Spitzer, to my thinking after seeing a story that encapsulates what he was about, was a hero for people getting screwed over, by Wall Street, the environment, corruption, anything.  Looking to politicians and people in authority like a prosecutor to not only go after people doing corrupt things, but to try and change the laws to make sure it doesn't happen again.  Spitzer gained notoriety in his years as an AG in New York for going after corporations, busting up Wall Street, environmental protection, you name it, he went after it.  He could be abrasive, and when he became governor there were times when he flat out couldn't work well with others.

But he had guts and balls, and when you're a Democrat that's a really big attribute.  For some, if you're as dogged in pursuing like Spitzer, it puts a red flag in front of one's bull's eyes.  One has to be able to push back when Republican bullies (who are a dime a dozen really) get up in one's metaphorical grill.  Spitzer wouldn't have that.  He's the kind of man whose principles and policies and ideas were for regulation.  Ironically after he resigned, many of the reforms he did on Wall Street were reversed.  Six months later, the economy collapsed.  Some of his enemies, oddly enough, blame Spitzer as the sole reason (one of them the ex-CEO of AIG).  Others are more of the wonky-wacky sort, like this guy pictured below, Roger Stone, who goes between political consultant and gigolo with private-eye thrown in there.  And a helluva tupe and boob job.

But yeah, Spitzer.  He's not the only focal point here, though as the central tragic-heroic figure everything seems to come back to him.  One of Gibney's interests here is to show the inner-workings of the High-End escort services in Manhattan, specifically the Empire Club, which hosted Spitzer (under his pseudonym "George Fox").  He wasn't the only person of significance frequenting the club, which was international; one such story of a British international figure of royalty is an anecdote that gets a few laughs (mostly from watching the former owner of the club giggling away).  But he was the one that attracted the attention ultimately of prosecutors when they looked into busting the club anyway.  We learn about the process of the girls rankings.  They aren't degraded or stupid like many think prostitutes usually are, but are more like (to the elite and rich who can pay at cheapest a grand for an hour of high-class sex) pieces on a new car lot.  They got to read the details of the item, maybe ride it out for a bit, and if it's good maybe they can take it home and show it to the wife... okay, maybe not that last part.

And a true stroke of genius on Gibney's end is how to deal with an interviewee who agrees to speak with him but not on camera.  Instead of the awkward position of putting in lots of footage of her not looking at the camera- when Spitzer himself, for example, gets the Errol Morris style 'interrotron' device of speaking at the camera in interviews to really *see* him- Gibney takes all of the words spoken by this "Angela" person, and gives it to an actress.  What's incredible is that this woman is interviewed for several scenes in the movie before one is told that she's an actress.  Could have (and did) fool me!  This is not to say that the woman looks trashy in her high-class call-girl way.  On the contrary, she's such a good actress she's able to fool one with a double existence on camera.  A double life that is carefully created is something Spitzer, by nature of the tragic flaw that makes his undoing, is exploited beautifully by Spitzer.

But it's a flaw that was exploited ultimately by those who wanted to bring him down.  It just has to be said, he was railroaded.  Gibney stacks up the odds, as they were in reality, against Spitzer when he was an attorney general and then as governor.  Again, sometimes he made his enemies very calculatedly (calling up someone and saying "This is war, and I fire the first shot" at someone is fighting words, partner).  Other times, they (they being the rich like the CEO Hank Greenberg at AIG or the man who ran the floor at the Wall Street) saw Spitzer as a direct threat.

Keep in mind that Greenberg, as shown in the film from an interview with Charlie Rose, thought once he was out that his stock was "Worthless... only 100 million."  Spitzer was the kind of guy who is a threat because he looks out for the 'little' guy, like, you know, people who might make *less* than a million a year.  In other words, someone who was moral and had a conscience, and in a place like the Governor's mansion in Albany; Gibney, by the way, gets evocative shots of the Escher-staircases and gargoyles, like entering into a castle out of Shakespeare's wicked royalty plays.

Watching Spitzer in the 'interrotron' is captivating for what he says, but then as we get to know him a little better as the movie goes on the little facial flinches and moments where he gathers his thoughts as to what to say.  He's very careful with his words, but he never sounds dishonest or 'off' like other interviewees with various players, even those who look genuine like the former Republican he worked with in the Governor's office.  And there is a deeper truth that comes out through body language in certain moments, like when the more cringe-worthy questions are asked of him of sex or the 'what-ifs' or thoughts in retrospect about what he did or thought might occur.  It's not quite the same as with, say, the 'interview' with the actress playing Angela.   Spitzer doesn't need to perform for anyone.  He's got little to lose at this point (he now has a show on CNN he co-anchors, a step down into the media-land, but it'll do for now).

As it stands, Client 9 paints a sordid, heartbreaking but cruelly funny portrait of politics and corporate America as something very fragile and distasteful, and that in comparison Spitzer is a God-send.  So what, he had sex?  I'm more upset over the hypocrisy of him busting prostitution rings and then being caught in one himself (albeit, as the movie points out, "clients" of these escort services are almost never sought out for prosecution, save for this case with the Mann Act), than for the so-called moral outrage of his indiscretions.  At this point, following so many political scandals (and some of those politicians still in office, guess which political party they're with), can you trust anyone in that department?  So what's left?  Integrity to do what's not only right but possible with the right sense of what Spitzer had drilled in to him when he was younger: make the move on the tennis court that strikes hard and deep.  If you're going to fuck with Spitzer, as one interviewee notes, "use a spike with steel, wood will just break off."  

And as for the "#1" herself, Ashley Dupree?  Oh, she's doing just fine, what with her NY Post advice column and Playboy spread and singing career like on Fox News.  Oy vey.  One man falls, another woman rises.  Check, if not Checkmate.

You & Me & Andy Warhol & The Velvet Underground & Nico & Vinyl & Every-Damn-Body Else We Know

Ah, the wonders of foreign exports. I love to be an importer-exporter, as Art Vandelay might put it. And in this case I decided to shell out a few extra clams to finally see my first Andy Warhol directed movies - for the most part you can only see his directed underground films at museums, these ones even have the Museum of Modern Art as title cards before the movies.  

Did I want to start with the real extremes of this, if nothing else, daring and just don't-give-a-shit arteeste?  Would I be able to sit through an 8-hour shot- only breaking to change the film cans in the camera- of the Empire State building at night?  How about some random dude sleeping for 5 hours?  Warhol went to such extremes almost as ideas more than actual movies.  You first hear about Empire or Sleep, or somewhat less extreme by today's standards Blow-Job (what do you think that's about? actually it's just a shot of the guy receiving's face so go figure), and you go (in full Lewis Black voice) "That's fucking NUTS!"  Why do such a thing?  Well, maybe someone else would?

Maybe the crumbling Hollywood system circa 1964 might get some funny ideas of ways to lure in audiences.  Who needs a sleeping pill when you can come in and pay a dollar to fall asleep watching a fucking double-epic film of a building?  For a lot of his movies you don't even need to see the movies themselves; just hearing about them is probably the point.  Or maybe it's attuned to his ingratiating sense of repitition (see the soup cans or silk screens for that).  As Banksy said, "Warhol took iconic images and kept repeating them until they became meaningless, but at least there was something still iconic about them."  I have to wonder what will happen when Thierry Guetta picks up a camera... oh wait, Life Remote Control. Dog help us all.

But where was I?  Yeah, this DVD.  So, I picked it up for two specific reasons: 1) it was a very good deal to be able to get two movies in one, and each was at least somewhat reasonably short in length for movies, each just a little over one-hour each.  And 2) they contained subject matter that intrigued me, one being a movie showing the newly formed Velvet Underground with Nico performing, and the other a movie called 'Vinyl' that is supposedly a "loose" adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, long before Kubrick's film did its iconic work.

So I sat back, relaxed, and knew I had to keep my eyes to the screen....

I started with The Velvet Underground and Nico.  And boy howdy, it was a trip.  It's the kind of trip you wish you hadn't taken after a while, and it only intermittently delivers some good times.  The first thing you must, must, MUST know if you are a Velvet fan- as I've been becoming over the past couple of years- is that this is the earliest period, their starting point with Nico, the Swedish model-singer-actress-what-have-you and that Warhol's participation was more as a booking agent and producer.  It was "his" band the way that The Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren's group, which is to say not really.  Sure he 'produced' the group's first banana-covered album (ho-ho), but the band arguably really hit their stride once they left Warhol, specifically with their final album (albeit without John Cale) titled Loaded.  Jam that shit in your car some time, it's a lot of fun.

When they were with Warhol, however, they were still extremely experimental, and doing long-ass jams in a similar way as the Grateful Dead would do later: so long as jams that you would need Raoul Duke's whole carload of psychedelics to get by.  And Warhol's "Film" (must use quotes here for justification) is not them performing some of their more well-known songs from the debut LP like 'Heroin' or 'Venus in Furs', or even one of their best songs 'Femme Fatale'.  No no no, this is one of the jams (there is a track I believe on that first LP like that, only that was cut way down due to the constraints of an LP at the time).  And Warhol and his camerman Paul "Flesh for Frankenstein/Dracula/etc" Morrissey, decided to document this auspicious occasion of their jamming out.

And... what the fuck is this?  I really have to wonder what Warhol's intention was here.  As a document of a performance, as a "concert movie" it's all over the place, a total mixed bag of nuts.  The biggest problem is an inconsistency with what to do with the camera.  When Warhol/Morrissey keep the lens focused on a face or a full person or an instrument, hell even that cute little kid that Nico's got there, it's actually kind of interesting.  Kind of.  At least you can see some raw attitude in those moments of momentary stillness on a person or an instrument.  And even at first the experiment of zooming in and out on faces and roaming around works.  Kind of.

But this is an hour-long jam, and the camerawork continues to go through its motions for a full hour.  An hour of a Wayne's World intro-style EXTREME CLOSE-UP can be annoying as all hell after a while.  Such as for an hour.  And this doesn't count the out-of-focus angles as Morrissey tries to hone in on the band members, or sometimes just wanders off (later in the film the Fuzz comes to break up the distorted-rock commotion, but nobody can hear the cops even after the band stops so the documentary aspect is also totally shit).  I have to think that it was a camera test, that maybe Morrissey was still a novice at cinematography and decided to test out his lens and tri-pod and pans and zooms and the lighting (which also goes in and out) on a performance at the "Factory" of the Velvets and Nico just doing their thing.

One of the things Warhol was known for was for trying to make an audience feel bored and empty, which he thought was "good" somehow.  "Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel." (hey, his words, not mine)  This isn't a case like Empire where one looks at the same image non-stop- or doesn't, as case might be- this is for all intents and purposes and document of the band in its time and place.  Who knows, maybe for its time and place it was all so innovative to do such crazy things with a camera (like zoom-in, zoom-out, zoom-IN, zoom-in, focus-in, focus-out).  It's like camera aerobics or something.  For some it might be captivating - or if it's projected on a wall at a party and one only has to glance at it for short bursts while talking with friends.  Maybe that was its reason for being.

But what about the band?  Those are the bastards I wanted to see play.  It doesn't help that the jam, as good as the musicians are at it (save for Nico who doesn't have much to do except to play maracas and at one point try some weird slide crap on a guitar that no one can hear), is so long and repetitive that it, too, loses its meaning in the miasma of the camera style.  I should also note there are no edits at all- hey, who needs a flatbed when it can be all in-camera, man?  To be sure, there are moments where the band picks up and makes it rock a bit, and a lot of this, ironically, comes in the last ten minutes when one of the guitarists steps away (I forget which as Lou Reed is the one given the most screen time, maybe due to proximity or his "cool" detached manner), and a violin player comes in.  I suppose if you love a good, long jam, this is at least musically (when the sound doesn't DIP OUT, argh), it's enjoyable experimental/alternative listening.

But as a movie of any kind of sort outside of a test or an experiment, it's a mess.  I have to wonder of Warhol and Morrissey were just fucking with people with this.  Who could they show it to outside of little underground cliques or the slavish-adoration at the Factory?  Maybe... that was enough for him.  I also wonder if the intention was to bore or to get an actual emotional reaction?  Perhaps the worst thing one could say to Warhol after watching it is that it was 'great' and made one feel something positive.  It's an assault on the senses, and even as a rock and roller it goes too far and becomes dated in its anti-conventional style.  It both bored and annoyed me.  Guess that's a win for the 15-minute dude, eh?

"Bring out the gimp."
"But the gimp's sleeping."
"... well, I guess you're just gonna have to go wake him up now, wont you?" 

Pulp Fiction

Vinyl is significant in it actually does, after the really, really mixed-bag of The Velvet Underground and Nico, show me that Warhol is somewhat serious about his craft as a filmmaker.  It's daring as an experiment actually pays off, for the patient and willing viewer that is.  Where-as Velvet took its camera cues from an epileptic monkey on amyls, Vinyl is more ambitious in its minimalist way.  And as an adaptation of Clockwork Orange it's... only so close as to maybe reference street crime and being "bad" or "good" and signing your life away.  If your looking for droogs, need not enter here you do.

Vinyl is, as Velvet was in all actuality and Sleep and Blow Job and Empire, all in 'one shot'.  Curiously I never really saw the film change its cans, though maybe that was an editing trick (or maybe not, I'd have to see it again to be sure), but it all looks to be a movie 'in-camera' as it were.  It's a kind of deranged classic of framing and composition.  Warhol of course is open for improvisation- he doesn't seem like the kind of guy, on the opposite end of Kubrick ironically enough on this project- to do a lot of "takes".  Just roll and let it happen.  In that sense Warhol had a perverted sense of mixing documentary and fiction, or maybe as with Herzog the lines could blur.  This is no way to compare the two filmmakers, but there you go I just did by accident.

So, the movie.  It's about a, uh, I guess a street hoodlum who see the cops as "good" but doesn't want to be "good" and wants to rail against the fuckers.  The film starts out on a shot of this man's face (played by a not-good-but-interesting actor Gerald Malanga) and pulls out to show the whole scene: a woman (Edie Sedgwick) on the right side, a 'doctor' or some authority figure on the left, and a few figures in the back.  One of these figures, for at least the first half of the movie, is being tortured while standing up.  This makes for a morbidly funny picture as Malanga and Sedgwick dance not once but twice to Martha and the Vandella's fantastic "Nowhere to Run" (this is where Warhol has his best sense of play and fun, something that seems uncharacteristic but must have its moments).  Then it goes on to have a 'story' of Victor (Malanga) being caught, brought in for the "treatment" of the Ludovico sort, though it's never called that here perhaps for copyright reasons, and then Victor proceeds to get tortured.  Oh, and there's a Gimp in there too.  And he's not sleeping.

This is a movie that, if one can get keyed in to it, does entertain.  I was never bored by this, and I have to give credit to Warhol, whether by actual direction or by accident, had a vision for where he wanted to go with the actors and the framing of his 'shot(s)'.  It's all content and some style, as the actors move in and out of the frame and it barely changes once it makes its move down into its wide-angle position on all of the players for the movie.  Another weird note is that Warhol didn't write the dialog that's given to the actors, many of whom are clearly not professionals by any stretch of the imagination.  They even look like they're reading off of the newspapers and stuff they have in their hands, which gives the movie a kind of bizarre theatricality to it.

Vinyl takes a look at what few didn't realize was around at the time, if anyone outside the factory or small underground NYC theaters saw this, which is the culture or mentality of S&M and punishment, maybe for pleasure, maybe not.  I have to wonder if it was all a put-on, and maybe it was.  Warhol must have had a sick-puppy sense of humor, and it comes out here.  Certainly I was laughing through a lot of it- maybe at it, but who knows, it is meant to be camp to an extent- and it succeeds on the level of actually being about "something".  What that is fully, I don't know.  Whatever themes it gleams off of Burgess' novel are very trivial; it could have been any book that's anti-authority and about a juvenile delinquent.  The one thing separating it is its science fiction nature of torture and surrendering the body to "science" as it were.

I suppose as a recontamination it could go like this: If you have to see one Warhol movie in your life, it might as well be this one.  But only if you despise things like cut-aways and montage.  If you've also been looking for the longest-take-imaginable, it's here.  If you're looking for a coherent adaptation of Burgess' novel... stick with Kubrick, even if he possibly, though not likely, ripped-off the opening shot of his film from Warhol's opening of this movie.  Like it or not, its a deranged would-be master piece of single-shot filmmaking.

Velvet Undergound and Nico - Femme Fatale

Sunday, December 19, 2010

R.I.P. Train Bonus Round: Arthur Penn's LITTLE BIG MAN

(Ok, granted I already had another post, or maybe two, about Arthur Penn, specifically a review of his movie Mickey One.  But I had this coming from the library out of nowhere, and decided to do a bonus round for the man.  Who knows, we might get some more bonus or lighting or whatever rounds in the coming days or weeks as other people who have made movies and passed on this year- Dennis Hopper, Blake Edwards- haven't yet gotten my due)

"A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out ... where it's failing." Arthur Penn

Little Big Man purports to be a Tall Tale, a humdinger.  It even states on the back of the DVD cover that everything its main wandrin' hero in his own story- Jack "Little Big Man" Crabb- could be an elaborate hoax or fiction.  Maybe it is myth.  That's what's so brilliant in Arthur Penn's film is taking on mythology and storytelling, what happens to the rituals of time and the legends of old and how they're viewed in the scope of history.  Wild Bill Hicock.  General Custer.  The Cheyenne.  This character is sometimes a fly on the wall, and other times an active participant, or both, or just passing through.  But whatever it is, Crabb is Penn's figure of history who in his own way has enough truth in his "lies" to counterbalance the lies of history, or the facade of it.

It's one of the first great examples of the de-mythologizing canon of Western films, most notably to follow in the 1970s' with Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill & the Indians.  It doesn't totally denounce the West as horrible, but it does show that it wasn't so pretty and serene and wonderful as American books and movies and history paint it to be.  To be sure by now some of this isn't news.  Yes, the "White Man" killed many, many, many Indians, making many tribes and nations either extinct or endangered species.  And yes, some of the characters on both sides were not as pretty or good or clean as they could be.  As a Tall Tale, however, some things do have to be embellished upon, and it's through instinctive and creative humor and on the flipside stone-faced tragedy that Penn is able to carve a new page in history with his elaborate, epic fiction.

It also helps that Dustin Hoffman, who puts in a performance that ended up on the Guinness Book of World Records for Greatest Age Span for a Movie Actor, is so perfect for a role like this and pulls it off so smashingly.  He tells the story, with a face not unlike Saito in his limbo state in Inception (albeit not too much filled with regret, maybe), with a clear vision of the past.  He was taken by a tribe of Indians, the Cheyenne, and raised up in their ways after his sister deserts him.  He is dubbed the name of the title due to being so short, but "filled with heart".  But then after another attack on the Indian tribe as a teenager he's brought into the realm of the "White Man" (or not "Human Beings" as the tribe calls its people) and brought up in his "religious period" by a Mrs. Pendrake (hilariously rigid Christian-type played by Faye Dunaway).  Then he leaves from there, meets up with a bootleger and swindler.  He moves on from that to his own business and wife.  Then she's kidnapped buy the Indians.  Then he goes back to the tribe.  Then he goes back to he white people.  And so on, and so it goes.

Perhaps its not befitting of the nature of the narrative to go on about the plot specifics.  It's akin to a Big Fish or even Forrest Gump story where it takes so many turns into unexpected and riotously funny short-cuts, and always one knows the main character will be fine except to the extent he can get out of situations buy the skin of his teeth.  Crabb is not real 'hero', but he's not an anti-hero either.  He's like a side character one scoffs away at- or, depending on point of view, pays a little more attention- in a John Wayne movie.  And incidentally the big White Hero of the story- General Custer- is one of the biggest bastards in all of history, what George Carlin would dub a "blonde blue-eyed criminal fuck".  He's amusingly, though dangerously, adept at getting his way, not reversing a "Custer Order" unless under extreme circumstances, and listens to the advice he wants to hear at a pivotal moment from Crabb.

Mirror, mirror, in my hand, who has the curviest mustache in the land?
To a character like Wild Bill Hickcock there's a little more respect paid, though only as a side-character.  The real respect, albeit sometimes with a elbow-jab-grin, goes to the Cheyenne and the other Indian tribes who are the "Human Beings" of the story.  Penn doesn't make them entirely sympathetic- they kill and maim and take women as their wives (like, say, Crabb's, this revelation is one of the funniest moments), and are so in-tune with nature it's a wonder some of them survive at all.  Some of them are kinda goofy, like one such member of the tribe who is (forgive the language) 'flaming' as a homosexual of the tribe.  And there is the one guy who can't seem to get the respect he wants from Little Big Man by having him over into his teepee.  But overall, the look at these people is far different than the one-sided brutes one might see in a conventional western.

Indeed on both sides there is complexity to the Western mythos.  Not all of the white people are 'bad', and not all of the Indians are 'good'.  Some go through their bizarre paths in life like the swindler Mr. Merriweather who is seen at one point tarred and feathered and later appears looking like a pirate.  Others fall from grace like Mrs. Pendrake, but there's still a humanity there that is aching and true.  And then there's Grandfather, the one Little Big Man looks up to the most, who is so in tune with nature he's able to see himself getting out of a murderous jam by being "invisible" (with a little help from his Son of course).

Penn shoots his film, from a script by The Graduate scribe Calder Willingham, with a clarity and entertaining swagger that is astounding.  I was completely drawn into this film from start to finish, and its the kind of work that defines what's best about the director.  There's the sympathetic but humorous treatment of its outsider protagonist who by luck catches breaks.  There's the violence, shot with a directness that is shocking (some of the killing in this film, by the amount of it and how it comes about, is a logical progression from the end of Bonnie and Clyde).  And classical storytelling is mixed-around wonderfully with a playful and serious attempt at breaking down the genre.  In its own right, though not acknowledged as much, Little Big Man does as much to breathe new life and celebrate its Western roots the way Bonnie and Clyde did the gangster film.  Only here, for my money, it stands up better over time, has dynamite acting all around, and assumes people can keep up with its episodic narrative.

And, again, Hoffman steals scenes practically without trying.  Actually, that's not entirely fair.  He works a helluva lot to make Jack Crabb/Little Big Man into a character who starts an innocent and becomes a man who must find redemption.  His comic timing is precise and instantaneous when its called upon, and his serious, tragic reactions bring out some deeper emotions (watch when a character is killed, and how he, and Penn with an audio drop-off to momentary silence, make it a powerful sequence).  Director and star combine with this film, which is delightfully full of its own central mythos and satirical about history and the how we look at our country in general (or maybe what Herzog might call 'ecstatic truth').  A knockout really as subversive Hollywood genre entertainment.