Sunday, December 28, 2014

Papa Mike's Video #10: Guy Maddin's TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL

(With this film, I decided to try something that I have never really done - or, at least, probably, since those pot-fueled hazes when I was in my early 20's late at night in my bedroom watching movies - which is to experiment with the form of criticism WITH poetry.  Yep, I decided that not only did I have to write notes while taking in Guy Maddin's feature-directorial debut, I had to go a step further.  Part of this was just due to how fucking weird the movie is, which is to be expected when it comes to the man who could be called the Canadian David Lynch (though he never has quite reached Lynch's cult-level heights, but then Maddin never tried to adapt Dune or The Elephant Man).  Part of it was just... wanting to get it back to a sense of discovery when it comes to being a film critic, or a poet or whatever.  So.... yeah, let's see how this came out):


0) In one hour
a mother tells a tale to the curious children...
Tales from the Gimli Hospital...

Squeezes inner fish parts onto hair
quick cut, when a man slices finger
to what
it looks like under a microscope.

Fisherman.

Shaves between eyebrows.
Black and white, old 20's music,
but sometimes rock AND roll.
Canadian David Lynch, something else too...

A man follows a woman with a lantern.

Hospital feathers, cow n sheep sounds
while showing human patients.

Using a seagull over surgery wounds.

Man watching a puppet show through small binoculars, sweating,
a leg being cut into - it doesn't look fake
and, a man in blackface, WHAT?  Reactions.
Uses a gun

to shoot

a... duck.
inside the hospital
a man winces into a fade out.
The face in the mirror in dreams...
blackface awakes.

The face in the mirror in dreams...

FRESH FISH!  no excitement
in the faces.
What's he doing here really?

gibberish or some obscure language this man...

Oh, a narrator describes a Winnipeg winter.
Of course.
A woman knitting scarves
and mittens
and time
from her hair.

I) A curse!

Nine years full of promise.
A dream into the woods
the girls gone.

Three tiny wooden coffins
This horror
made into a sad, rich beauty, dead,
wrapped in toilet paper.

Then back to the gibberish,
nurses whatever
faces and smiles
and scorn.

FRESH FISH (reprise)

A dissolve into the nothing of a face.
"Envy is a terrible ogre, children."

The narration fades,
SCRAMS!
What is this?
The hospital, I guess.

Still more half to go...
Sex behind curtains
No notes needed
except,
what a way to cut,
from start to finish,
no middle,
rize and full.

The man's eye lids remind one of Cocteau eyes in the 'Blood' movie...

Sleepwalking
in this movie?
Eating a napkin
back to bed.

Amar weeks,
time is nurses
walking past
Gambit of sideburns
rough hewed montages
and fish-cutting appreciation and statuses.

Springtime lucky stones
on a beacha woman pile
soft, soft light
and that creamy gel on the edges
of the lens.

Laugh at a man bringing flowers in one hand
and oh boy
a scythe in the other.

II) New things with toes
and marks.
An epidemic -
NOW you tell us!

Getting busy
with clothes on.
With the art of cutting
with bark in the shape of a fish
with a blonde bob-cut
(is there one below?)

Shouting vows
across the water,
an Indian next to quarantine.
Hey, and it's a Christmas movie too?
Is this mistletoe hanging from the window....


Is it surreal
to see a man who a hairy chest
more than the make-up scars?

The pain, the sex, the marriage.


Ok, now this is getting ARTSY...

Death.  Cough.
Bad fissures.
Expressive close-ups
SACRIFICE!
No, a sacrifice of a person...

Maddin as a Madman!
gravedigging
hey, this story seems
to be coming together
kinda sorta maybe
I dunno let's see....

Actors talking
like reading
not believable
except in a trance
or under hypnosis -
is this movie under the hypnosis of the director? 

Yes, all are.

If I turn away
a moment, I miss
things... things....

A fire on the bed,
the atmosphere of feathers
and the voices of a crowd
that's never there.

And a hint of bondage?!
Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

III) To say this film appears often like it's unearthed from a psychopath's attic is an understatement.

With a touch of night
of the living dead.
With a touch
of Caligari.
With a touch of
Carnival of Souls.
With a touch of
Canadian Gothic.

Is the scissor your totem?
A heart-beat
is a flaw

but then...
A PURPLE TINT!
CHOIR OF ANGELS!

Nothing says surrealism
like synchronized, high-fidelity swimming!

... One minute ahead,
a foot on you!

Did I mention
now it's making less sense
than before?

Scarecrow with a beard.
Shadow and Child.
Stalking a magnificent
horror of a composition.

Scottish bagpipes
for a fight.

Because... Why the Fuck Not?

IV) Guy Maddin
Likes Butts
And Blood
And Intense
Is-this-Homo-Eroticism
(or how is it not?)
Or-something-murder-something-something.

Realer than the 'real
thing slow and steady.

In a word:
VISCERA.

And now,
if you'll excuse us,
we have a song of
two humans to attend to
as you chop your fish.

You know....

FOR KIDS!


Friday, December 5, 2014

CITIZENFOUR - a Lauren Poitras film on NSA, Snowden & Greenwald



Laura Poitras points out at the start this is the third film in a series of works looking at post-9/11 policies, previously about the Iraq war, that have made large problems for the country/the world. Citizenfour does do that as well, in a way, but the root cause of the NSA surveillance issues are only mentioned briefly by a speaker who talks at a conference about what went down for him in the intelligence community a week after 9/11. At the time that directive was: start spying, now, on everyone, ASAP. It took time, but when Edward Snowden, the (secret) protagonist of this story, came to the conclusion that what he's been put to task to perpetuate in his organization is just wrong, and it's been a long time coming. Potras sees this as a continuation of this post-9/11 quagmire that America has gotten into, and then, by proxy, the rest of the world.

The bottom line from this, whether you like it or not (why you'd particularly like it is anyone's guess), is that the government, particularly the NSA through a rigorous computerized system, has been looking at Americans - and people across the world's - records for years. What to find exactly? Anything, really, and of course the excuse is that it's to find any terrorist connections. At the end of this film, which has gone from over a year and a half when Snowden first contacts Poitras and by proxy Guardian journalist Glen Greenwals, to mid 2014 when Greenwald shows Snowden that 1.2 million Americans have been spied upon (for certain) and the chain of command goes back to Obama, it's clear it's about fear and the almighty word - control - trumping freedom of speech.

The power of Poitras' film is that she explores what all of this has in terms of consequences and conflicts for the public at large - not just America but, as we also see, Brazil, Germany, and, we find most of all thanks to Tempora, the UK - in a unique way. This isn't a 'talking heads' style documentary, at least how we usually see it. Normally a story like this would have a group of people, in interview fashion talking to a person off-screen (maybe the director or whoever) giving the details of the story in past-tense about this or that. Poitras could have done that, ala Gibney's Wikileaks doc from not too long ago.

What she does instead, as the one person with a camera (or cameras) on the inside, during the interviews with Snowden and Greenwald in China, hours on end in that little hotel room in China, waiting, typing, watching TV... it's not even fly-on-the-wall filmmaking exactly, though there is that aspect to it. What is so outstanding is that all of this is taking place in present tense, one thing to the next, from the first communications from 'Citizenfour' to Poitras (who, due to her previous work, has put her on Snowden's radar) to the setting-up of the interviews, to shooting those over the course of a few days, the first leaks of information, the setting-up of what will come with revealing the identity, the reveal, the media pandemonium, Snowden's escape, and then what happens for this filmmaker and the journalist(s) and even the pro-bono lawyers and conferences on these across the world after this. It really moves more like a thriller - it's remarked at one point this is the fodder for a modern 'John Le Care' spy story - and we're watching this every step of the way, down to the smallest (but always crucial) texts and conversations between the three players.

I don't feel like I being always *told* why this is important; like a powerful storyteller should, especially for a story as dynamic and all-encompassing-important as this in the world we're still living in, I was *shown* what's going on and could decide for myself. This isn't to say that Poitras and her team don't get some scenes that mean to hammer the point home about how wrong all this surveillance s*** is; we see an OWS meeting where who's being spied upon already is the topic; we see a former analyst (noticeable for missing one leg) testifies about how this has been going on for so long, and Snowden just made it louder to the public. Stylistically, this all moves more like an actual dramatic, fictional story - albeit with people talking in rooms - cut together with the person talking, the other people listening, shots outside that emphasize the vastness of a citiscape like Hong Kong, and little visual things like mountains and the lights of a tunnel - akin to a stream of information across computer lines. But it's all real.

Snowden himself is fascinating to watch, too. He may be tense on the inside, but he has a mostly cool exterior, and perhaps he is calm enough. Or, with his background and how much time he's had to work everything out, he's rational to how this process was going to unfold. A little moment here or there may seem odd - like how he puts a red shirt over him as he types something, so, you know, he won't be watched - but it all builds up over the course of the film. By a certain point he's not on screen anymore, as he's in hiding in Russia, but his presence is still felt very strongly as Greenwald does his press, the fall-out continues, and lawyers discuss how the 'Espionage Act' is so crucial here to Snowden's troubles.

Some of this may not be new to you. For me, some of it was, some of it wasn't. I don't think Poitras' really cared about that, at least to the extent that she couldn't help people knowing the information already out there (this isn't, you know, a SMALL story after all). But this is a document of raw, intense dramatic power, how words and actions count, and not from this one guy - he says he wants it to be about the information and this surveillance program - but by the 'powers that be'. This is meant to last five, ten, twenty years from now, as a document of what happened, in real time, and it works first and foremost as well shot, well edited, well timed and paced dramatic filmmaking. You could have this subject matter by someone looking to puff everything up, and that's not what's done here.

Citizenfour is better than that. And it leaves you shaken, disturbed, and maybe a little paranoid too. And it's presented unlike any other film, fiction or documentary, this year.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

RIP Train - Bobby Keys (of the Rolling Stones and other groups)


Bobby Keys of the Rolling Stones has passed away at the age of 70 (and as many comments on social media say, once again, Keith will outlive them all).  This is what the Guardian wrote in their article:

"He was born on the same day as Keith Richards, and the pair struck up a lifelong friendship, with Richards giving over pages of his autobiography Life for Keys to tell the band’s story from his perspective. In that book, Richards describes the saxophonist as “my closest pal. A soul of rock and roll, a solid man, also a depraved maniac.”

Keys played during the band’s Glastonbury headline slot in 2013, although in October he was forced to pull out of dates in New Zealand and Australia citing poor health.

Even after such a lengthy career, Keys’s love of rock’n’roll remained undimmed. In an interview with The West Australian, shortly before pulling out of the tour, he said: “It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve played Brown Sugar, I never get tired of playing it.”  The cause of death is as yet unknown."

Indeed.  (below is taken from Martin Scorsese's "Shine a Light"):







Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

"Why is it worth telling one story and not another? Well, the easy answer is it's really secretly about all our lives." - Mike Nichols



What a loss.

Of all things, this is a small anecdote, when I was twelve years old my Mom wanted to see The Birdcage and wanted some company, so she took me (part of the thinking was, hey, it's Robin Williams, it's Nathan Lane, it's Jack-friendly).  I dug the movie even then, so much so that I saw in either the newspaper advertising it that there was this thing called a "website", so I decided to finally try out this newfangled thing called the Internet that I didn't understand.  It probably wasn't THE first, but it's the first website I can remember ever going to... for the Birdcage.

But anyway, talk about a career!  In film, on stage, in comedy with Elaine May.  If he'd only directed (also the late) Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman (with Hoff as Willie Loman) and his last film, Charlie Wilson's War, he'd be a legend.  Hell, The GRADUATE was enough.  But you also had Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, The Fortune, Working Girl, Wolf (damn, him and Nicholson together, watch the fuck out!) Primary Colors, Closer, Charlie Wilson, the HBO Angels in America adaptation... and by all accounts on the interwebs, pretty much sounds like the nicest, funniest person to work with too (also gave a helluva commentary track with Steven Soderbergh on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf).  It's hard for filmmakers who care about strong dramatic/comic stories with dynamic, big-and-small personality-driven characters (mostly big, but with PRESENCE) our day and age haven't been inspired his work. 

As is usually the case, the work speaks for itself - here's ten scenes - and though Nichols didn't write his scripts, he exemplified what it means to be a strong filmmaker with a point of view.... taste:

Carnal Knowledge (1972) - Nicholson.  Ann Margaret in bed.  Nuff said



Sex.


How to do 'awkward' on camera:


Spader.


Clinvolta


Man oh man... speaking of RIP (also a lesson in knowing where to cut in a scene, it's almost three minutes and three shots):


And this too (speaking of political... just smash a window when you can)


And does it get much more epic than... Orson Welles?


Hoo-hah. 


And, at the beginning, 48 years ago - George and Martha




BONUS ROUND!



Saturday, November 15, 2014

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH



Recently I've been seeing films, from this year and other ones, where it's not about simply one thing. And a movie shouldn't be that, it should be about things that can touch us and move us and entertain us in different ways. Whiplash is one of those - possibly the most intense/best film of the year - where it appears to be for a 'niche' audience.

Who rushes out to see movies about jazz drummers? (Well, aside from me with my father, who's been a drummer all his life, but I digress).  Indeed that was the obstacle that faced writer/director Damien Chazzelle when he went ahead to try and make this film (a short was produced first, also featuring J.K. Simmons as the band instructor), and finally when he got his funding together he was clearly ready to go with it - shot in 19 days and executed with an intensity that is reminiscent of Scorsese pictures: fast cutting, intense and dramatic camera movements, and a fiery language and soundtrack.

If you make one J Jonah Jameson joke I will make you eat that fucking cymbal!  (I can't confirm if that's dialog in the movie)



Though this is about people who play music and play jazz, it's about more, much more. It's a protégé/mentor relationship, with a guy who, for most of us, would not want this guy, Fletcher, as an instructor, especially if one is trying to be the very best like the hero, Andrew (Miles Teller). It's a tale of artistic drive and motivation, pushing past the limits of what's expected - think The Red Shoes, or think in sports movie metaphors Rocky (and in ways this is shot and formed like a sports movie, including a finale that is like the "Big Fight" or the "Big Game" or whatever) - and how this can take someone to places that are at best uncomfortable and at worst totally and, by nature logically, self-destructive. And it's a tale of... love, actually (another reviewer pointed this out, but I feel it must be stated again). Love of art, love of life, love to keep going. And the flipside of that: anger, hatred, resentment. This could be a drummer or it could be a friggin' Jedi! And the task-master... well, you seen Full Metal Jacket?

I make all of these comparisons, and they come to mind when such a tremendous work of art is presented before me - I like to try and put it into a greater context, because it is good and strong enough to join those ranks. Chazzelle's film follows Andrew as he joins Fletcher's jazz group at a prestigious music school (no, not like Fame, get that comparison out of here). Fletcher seems like he shouldn't fit into a 21st century educational environment; when he gives later in the film his reasons for doing what he does, it comes down to a railing against what George Carlin called the "P*ssification movement". Why tell someone "Good Job?" That's not enough, certainly at the school this takes place in - or, at least, that's how Fletcher posits his class, and Andrew, who wants to get that good, who has Buddy Rich as his idol, and who may be a nice guy and he wants to have relationships with girls (a she does a nice one who works at a movie theater). 

But to get there... it's rough. It changes you, if you make it your point to go. that. far.  And in this case, the jazz that's played in the film keeps up the tempo that the filmmaker is going for, and it's electrifying, astonishing, and FAST, super fast. Hell, there's a moment involving the speed of playing that could, if, say, marijuana in the 1930's were involved, could be comical. Maybe it is. There are many moments where Simmons, going for it like nobody's business with a character that is so no-BS that you can't take your eyes away, IS funny in a blackly comic way.


Other reference.... Back to School?
Or just by his salty language. Or that it should be absurd. But it's deadly serious - this music, for him, for Andrew, is very serious, could be 'life or death'. It gets to the point where drumming makes the hands bleed. This movie plumbs the depths of "bleeding" for one's art, physically and mentally (usually physically) while creating this absorbing portrait of two men at odds - and yet, in a way, total agreement - with one another.

Whiplash has excellent music, though even for people not usually into jazz; there's almost an element of rock (again, going back to Scorsese and how everything moves to such a rhythm that you're along for the ride), because of the intensity and the pitch. It may be TOO intense. There's certainly a point, let's say right before the third act, it could be incredulous and unrealistic. Chazzelle's reasoning here is to say: who cares? It's a tale of someone reaching for Larger-Than-Life status, so why not go there once or twice.

Damn.


And the performances are a major asset for the filmmaker, with Teller going further than he's had with The Spectacular Now (the character here is likable, to a point, but his drive turns him into a kind of monster that, in part, just wants to be noticed or stand out in some way), while Simmons gets the role of a lifetime. He's been around and working for so many years, one of those character actors that you can just grin seeing him pop up (or, on Oz, get terrified to see), and here he gets such a meaty character.

It could even be dangerous to play, to go over the top - only Kubrick could usually find the tone for such a performance as with Ermy in the FMJ comparison. But Simmons finds those subtle moments too, where he becomes vulnerable or down to Earth (they're few and far between and, in his character's way, not really part of his make-up).  It may seem reminiscent of other 'Big Bad Instructor' roles, but Simmons finds the grooves and focus to make it his own.  Fletcher is one of the towering, sometimes eerily relatable monsters in modern movies.

And yet there's another level too: the old cliché is "those who can't do teach." The man talks about going beyond greatness - the Charlie Parker anecdote - and yet here is teaching others. The self-hatred is there too, and Simmons taps into that for sure. So that every interaction he has with the people in this band, with Andrew especially, we know where he's coming from and can hate him as the antagonist and driving conflict of the film. And by the end, the question comes: has he met his match?

No confirmation if that's a Blue Velvet ear later on in life...


There's so much to this movie, not to mention the climax which takes two right turns and a left to become one of those masterpiece-climaxes you love seeing in movies, that I hope to return to it for many, many years to come. Chazzelle is now a director to watch, like, for now on.


PS: As for Buddy Rich:




PPS: and the song Whiplash, this is what I thought of first when I heard the title (aside from it being the name of my production company by the way..)

Friday, November 14, 2014

FRIDAY NIGHT CLIP FIX: Dumb & Dumber (1994)

Saw Dumb & Dumber To.  It was missing things like you can see here - comic timing, ingenuinty, original moments, and actual heart.

And yeah, he was pretty old.

PS: It's interesting to think that my first exposure to Nick Cave was when I was ten, before I even knew who he was.  Another reason the sequel sucks - no Nick Cave! 


JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (or: 'The Joyous Attempted-Rape of Frank Herbert')

(Originally this review was written for another site.  Somehow, it never got there.  Like what this film is about!)


A lunch with Alejandro Jodorowsky would be an interesting prospect.  I picture sitting down with him and him being all smiles and cordial, especially if he is someone who senses just the slightest artistic trace in another person, and will leap off into a million different directions and with fervor, zeal and a kind of charm and charisma that comes with true freaks of the avant-garde. 

And I don’t mean ‘Freak’ in the demeaning sense – unless you’re a mindless Hollywood hack who only sees the middle-ground in the top dollar.  Which, of course, was a bit of a problem when Mr. Jodorowsky presented his proposal for a film from Frank Herbert’s Dune series - in a giant book that basically acted as a cornucopia of unique, odd but nonetheless groundbreaking visuals – to executives at studios in 1975.  Not soon after, sci-fi movies became the biggest thing in the world.

Few men can hold such a cat and not look evil

This documentary traces how this man, who is still one of those cult-film icons that will be here to stay long after his death (his films El Topo and The Holy Mountain play regularly at midnight at the IFC Center here in New York, always to big audiences wanting to re-experience things like a man in black on horseback with his naked (!) son, and a diorama of small lizards reenacting Christian satire in a diorama), came to try and make Dune.  He was approached after his early cult successes – he also had a mind-bending run in the theater in the 60’s – by producer Michael Seydoux to make a “big” project next. 

Jodorowsky picked Dune… because why?  He admits, almost gleefully, to have not read the book but had heard about it from friends as it had become itself a phenomenon.  And he wrote a screenplay that he admits also as if at times laughing about it that in the course of adaptation it was like “having a wife” (paraphrasing best to my ability), and that he, for lack of a better word “raped” his wife, that being the Dune book. 


Indeed fans of the series may see some differences just from what Jodorowsky presents to us, and what director Pavich shows to audiences for the first time as excerpts from the Dune workbook – countless drawings, as supervised by French comics legend Moebius, with such changes as, um, the protagonist Paul Atreides, was conceived by his castrated father Duke getting his finger pricked and that blood impregnating his wife.  Oh, and the all-powerful spice that is a major driving force in the books is a, well, blue substance of some sort.  Ultimately it was all an excuse to, as its director put it, would be the cinematic equivalent of “taking acid”. 

This was JODOROWSKY’s Dune, however, not Frank Herbert, and in this immensely entertaining and absorbing documentary, a lot of humor comes not just from the Chilean director himself (and odd flourishes like in an interview his cat just comes up and he takes it into his hands and pets it while talking!) it’s from how he got this ‘team’, or as he called them his “Warriors”, together for pre-production. 

Yes, warriors!  Like.... this proto-Gimp right here!

After just not getting the right vibe from special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, he moved on to a young film student who somehow scored with a B movie called “Dark Star”, Dan O’Bannon, and he was brought on for visual effects.  Pink Floyd was approached, and initially agreed, to do the music for one of the “planets” in the film.  HR Giger, a semi-obscure European artist who had a radical style, came on board to design the evil Harkonnen planet.  And aside from Moebius, who was already a major figure at the time, artist Chris Foss was brought on to design as well. 

Oh, and did I neglect the cast?  Oh boy.  How does this sound: David Carradine, who agreed to do the part after ingesting a whole lot of Vitamin C in Jodrowsky’s presence; surrealist Salvador Dali, who only agreed to do the part for $100,000 dollars per hour (though Jodorowsky, in an interview segment so funny it made my sides hurt, talked about how he decided to offer him even more money – a hundred grand per minute – but to get him off set within a few minutes and use a robotic Dali for the rest of the film); Orson Welles, who agreed on the basis of having a great chef on hand to cook meals.


I think every artist says this at some point...

So much of Jodorowsky’s Dune has the flavor of ‘too good to be true’, which could be a detriment to the proceedings - 'too much' of anything is such, and the movie's pre-production was a testament to that.  What makes the film almost a bittersweet experience as it comes to its final twenty minutes, when we learn about, naturally, every studio in Hollywood rejecting the film proposal in part due to budget (short $5 million) but also as Jodorowsky planned it to be a six hour epic at a time when science fiction movies were almost always 90 minutes. 

YET Hollywood execs still seemed to like that production book that he and his talented team had put together, which included a detailed storyboard that almost acted like a pre-visualization of the entire film.  Not so soon after we got Star Wars, Alien (written by O’Bannon, designed by Giger and Foss), Blade Runner, The Matrix, even David Lynch’s own Dune (which is another funny part – Jorodowsky cheerfully explains how he was afraid to see it… and loved the experience because it was so terrible a film!) 


When you see the film, you may be mixed about how to feel with this experience that Jodorowsky had, of the Great Project Not Meant to Be.  In a moment where he stops being a kind of happy old man, he holds up a dollar bill and proclaims it to be ALL about this, which lacks art and emotion.  At the same time one could argue Jodorowsky, high off of his previous cult successes, didn’t compromise for a moment and saw the production crumble before it could truly begin.  On the other hand, many of his good ideas ended up being filtered back into Hollywood and used by the liked of Lucas and Scott.  The film poises a good question worth exploring: how far can original, innovative ideas go, and at what point do they become part of the marketplace.

 Though there are still silver linings, even for its beleaguered creator (who until this past year at Cannes with The Dance of Reality had only made three films since The Holy Mountain in 1973); he ended up using several visuals and ideas from his Dune project for comic books illustrated by Moebius; an animated series take-off on his Dune script and workbook would be interesting; and by doing this documentary, he reconnected with producer Seydoux, leading to the production of ‘Reality’.  At the age of 84 it could be his last film... and yet, once again on the other hand, to look at a man so vibrant, weird and fantastical making up such radical visions, who ever knows? 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE (1922)



Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (aka Dr. Mabuse: The King of Crime) was not an original creation from Fritz Lang and his collaborator/wife Thea von Harbeau, but rather a novel by Norbert Jacques. Or was it a novel? I'd like to think it was more like a serial, or it had to be. This is the kind of material that lends itself to those pulp fiction serials that were to become the thing among people who dug writing that reveled in tales of crime and the bizarre, of people in the underworld getting by with nefarious means, and the cops trying to get them. It's in this realm that Fritz Lang's film of Dr. Mabuse comes from, and he would later go on to make it into a loose trilogy with Testament (1933) and, his swan song, 1,000 Fingers (1960).

In a sense, for me, this unfolds over the course of four and a half hours like some kind of epic comic-book. And I don't mean the ones with Batman (if he was here in this German town, Mabuse wouldn't last an hour). It's more akin to the hard-boiled crime fiction from the past twenty years in the medium - think, for those initiated, Ed Brubaker or the likes of Brian Michael Bendis might do - where a cat-and-mouse game develops between the cop going after the criminal, and the criminal being such a mastermind to always be one step (or more) ahead of the game. Hell, why not craft the game to one's will? And in this sense the good Dr. Mabuse is a classic comic-book ARCH-villain (in caps), complete with a mind-control/hypnosis/'will'-bending power that no one else can take on but him.



Bulls?  Bears?  No - only MABUSE'S BRAIN!


Over the course of this story we find that Dr. Mabuse has this ability, usually through just a cold-dead stare with those blazing eyebrows and varying from different faces (he's also a master of disguise), to get what he wants. This includes, early on, manipulating the stock market to such a degree that he gets fat rich off of a day that goes way down and then way up in quick time. Why he doesn't do this again isn't explained; maybe he just did it to show he could really do it to himself. It's also that he's a megalomaniac, as all great super-villains are, though he doesn't see it. How can he, when he cheats at cards by making the other guy (such as the good Edgar Hull) not see the hand he's got? Or repeating the same Chinese phrase to make someone actually cheat at cards? Matter of fact, he doesn't always have to be right at the table, just in the vicinity like with the poor sap of a Count.

What's impressive, in an odd way for me, is how Lang lays it out in large part in straightforward style. There may be the expected 'German Expressionist' style here and there, but it's mostly just a solid crime story, with the leads going cold, the moves advancing, the supporting players under Mabuse like the fiery Carozza (a sensuous, sorrowful Egede-Nisson) who starts off alive and enchanting dancing on stage and becomes a jail-bird for Mabuse, and the various plays to find out just who this person IS that keeps going from game to game playing people. The only downsides that come up story-wise really is that, in parts, one wonders how this Inspector really can't see some of the signs that things are fishy earlier on (i.e. when the Count and Countess, some of his closer allies, at least with the Countess at a couple of crucial points and scenes, disappear and he doesn't follow up on it right quick).




Hair by Mabuse-and-Shoulders
Maybe it was just the times though, when things were more innocent. I don't think Lang is really that foolish though with his narrative; he's too smart for that. And the epic has plenty of time for subtext for sure; Mabuse comes right out and declares that love cannot be - there's only WILL, and people will follow it when they are called to it. This may be more prophetic of things to come years later - a certain 'Triumph of the Will' may come to mind - but Lang is crafty to make his big fat burger of a crime epic (maybe the first in cinema history like this I wonder) about the rising of power, and what comes when desperation rules. Why even gamble? Well, why not when the game is fixed? It's not that Lang makes Mabuse exactly the 'hero' of the film, very far from it, in conventional terms it's more of a 'team' effort of the Inspector/Prosecutor and those he tries to get to help him.

But Mabuse, with his dark magic and costumes, is the most magnetic thing about the movie, and I'm sure Lang knew in the back of his mind that audiences in Germany could see it as a parable for the times: in desperation, what will people do? Of course, Lang doesn't disappoint with giving some wild images though. His visual tricks and flourishes come when the occult and the Chinese voodoo super-powers come into play; when the Inspector is in disguise - as is Mabuse - and they're playing cards and he repeats the phrase, Mabuse's head becomes disengaged from his body as Lang's camera goes from far away to close, and it's a shocking sight to behold, like a demon, all the more harrowing as neither man knows who the other is.

Either he's your antagonist, or watch the fuck out because he's about to score one helluva symphony!

Also, when the Count, under the hypnosis to stay indoors while his wife, the poor, good-hearted Countess, is being held captive by Mabuse (for what reason is unclear exactly, perhaps the 'sex' question is just never posed, maybe one of the few real flaws for me). He is getting worse, due to drink and desperation, and starts to see Ghosts at the table. It's a wonderful effect, in a way made even more potent because of the means it was done at the time in 22, as each member appears in super-imposition and the slight shakiness of the beings adds to the ghastly effect. And, of course, near the end as, without giving away too much, machines come ALIVE around a particular character.

It must also be noted how magnetic a presence Klein-Rogge is (he'd return as Mabuse in the 1933 sequel/follow-up). He is having the time of his life playing this guy (or one would hope, given Lang's notorious slave-driving tactics on set with his actors). He gets to play an ultimate bad-guy in shades sometimes subtly sinister, like when he makes a surprise visit to the Inspector - and that's one of those scenes which you can point to as 'holding up' over centuries for pure tension between predators - but more-over when he has to really go BIG.

True story, women used to look like this.  What's another word for classy?  I... got nothing.

The make-up and hair changes help, to be sure, especially when (to quote another comic book) he goes all Doctor Strange when being the fake persona of the one who 'invented' this technique of his on stage. That sequence alone would make Dr. Mabuse a must-see, for the staging, for Klein-Rogge, for the tension beat to beat. And this isn't to discount the other actors, either: an aforementioned scene between the actresses playing the Countess and Carlozza in the prison cell, where one may try to 'turn' the other, is delicious in how tables go from one side to the other, and stays kind of sophisticated in how it all goes.

This first Dr. Mabuse isn't perfect, and I'm sure there could be other holes or moments that stand out as unlikely. But for what it is, for its time, for how much energy and passion and guts and action and devilish drama that Lang and company put into this, it's irresistible genre cinema, silent or otherwise. It takes its characters and situations seriously, but is crafted not as some serious polemic about good vs evil - though if you want to take it that way, Lang won't stop you - it's a gigantic "popcorn" movie of its time and place. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Collected Focus-Film

So here's a little something: for about the last year and change, I've been writing off and on for the UK site, Focus-Film.  The good people there brought me on (as an intern in the latter part of my time in grad school) to write news, reviews, and coverage for a whole host of stuff - for a while I even had an awards corner called "Jack's Award Focus" (GET IT?! ::FACE::)

I more often than not did the news pieces, but I got some coverage on films as well there.  How long I'll continue writing for the site, and/or producing reviews for them, I'm not sure.  It's been a while since I sprung my "Classic of the Month" or one of my "Remake Risk" categories where I did an 'Old Vs New" thing with movies.  I could've certainly continued both of those, as well as the regular reviews I did.  Trouble was, there just wasn't that much time with the job I had.

But here I list the films I have reviewed for them.  Hope you enjoy my time having a 'swing' with this British lass...


Classic of the Month:
Henri-Georges Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE

Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP

Wim Wenders' PARIS, TEXAS

Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP





Remake Risk:

Park Chanwook vs Spike Lee: OLDBOY

Brian De Palma vs  Kimberly Pierce: CARRIE


Everything Else:

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

FROZEN

DON JON

BLUE JASMINE

GRAVITY

LIFE ITSELF (kind of a reprint of my review on this blog back in July)





Papa Mike's Video #9: The Monkees in HEAD

'Written' by Jack Nicholson and featuring wildman actor Timothy Carey AND Frank Zappa in the same movie.'  'nuff said, right?

In Head, Bob Rafelson, who had been producing and directing the Monkees TV show for the BBS production company (later to put out Easy Rider, Last Picture Show, his own film Five Easy Pieces and King of Marvin Gardens among others), anything goes.  That's the prevailing attitude, anyway.  Musical numbers are chock-a-block, and for someone like me who is not a Monkeeys fan - nothing inherently against them, I didn't grow up with them is all really - it's actually a great place to go to for not even their mood exactly, but a lampooning of it... ney, a harpooning, exploding, transmogrifying, any way you want to shake at it.



Some of the movie is uproariously funny too, with a few fun songs (and some kinda lame).   Actually, it might just be better than telling you exactly WHAT the movie is about to just show you clips.  I can tell you I dug the movie all I want (I did), but it's hard to put this movie into words.  It's a freak-out, it's a happening, baby.  It's lots of commercial satire and girls screaming and random dream sequences and anything you can shake an LSD stick at kind of filmmaking.

(Oh, and this is a genuinely charming dance sequence, and for me the highlight of the film among many):




You could also put it on double bill with Brian De Palma's Greetings and get a crash course in late 1960s absurdism, tossed with circus-style theatrics (did I mention Zappa has a talking donkey with him?) and with Vietnam as the omnipresent spectre of doom. All the while, the Monkees - Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith- are still charming throughout the picture, as they are - and this is close as I can get to making this actually sensical - in the midst of filming crazy segments for their TV show, which includes disrupting (at the start of the film) a bridge opening ceremony).    It's all OF a piece in a way and not at the same time.

Nicholson and Rafelson wouldn't make a movie like it again, including the sense of rabid and almost dada-ist montage, and if nothing else, whether you actually DESPISE the movie (and I'd hope not), it is a unique document of a time when Columbia Pictures - a major studio - would green-light this all because of the name of the band.  Head is the kind of movie you smile while having your head tilted at, like a dog looking at a couple of humans fucking.





Oh, and did I mention they're sometimes (or always?) imprisoned by a big black box?  No kidding.

Also, the moral of the story is um.... if you're wandering through the desert and you come across a Coca Cola machine, it better not be empty or that thing is being blown up by a tank!  OR SOMETHING!

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #5: Lee Daniels' THE PAPERBOY

(Note: the actual title wasn't released *as* The Paperboy, Lee Daniels directed it but he doesn't put his name on ALL his films, sad to report - imagine if that was the case!)


This won't be a long review.  Here's what I have to tell you about The Paperboy, if you want to seek it out - and why shouldn't you, in theory anyway: it's one of the movies made amid the "McConnaisance" where Matthew McConaughey, since I think around William Friedkin's Killer Joe, has been hooked up with a string of movies that are making him one of the biggest stars in the world all over again, preferring directors to subject.  This movie is... weird.  Bizarre.  And it has meaning to it.  And sweat, lots of sweat.  I feel like there must have been outtakes where Daniels' DP had to come in and wipe the brow of the lens.


llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllladies?
The story is basically a murder mystery and legal drama, with McConaughey as a Miami report going back to his hometown - this all takes place in Florida or parts around there, it's the South - to investigate a man who is on death row for murder (John Cusack, quite a plum role which he eats up for all his scenes by the way, but I'll get to that more in a moment).  He has a younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), who is fairly directionless and, of course, got sexual energy to burn.  Ward (McConaughey) puts Jack on his payroll as a driver, and they go about re-tracing the steps of the case alongside reporter partner David Oyewolo.

... and then comes the 'Dame', in Film Noir parlance.  This being Nicole Kidman's character, who is the fiancee of the death row guy.  She uh... has the hots for Efron.  Or maybe he does for her.  In either case, there's a lot of sexual tension in the air, and at one point it comes out in the form of Kidman peeing on Efron... yeah, that happens.  How does it happen?  Should I tell you?  Would you care to know or do you HAVE to know?  

(Seriously, it's not really for a full-blown sexual reason, you might just THINK it is, you sick pervert you..)

In any event, this is all sleazy material deep down, despite there being a story about this guy and did-he-or-didn't-he with McConaughey keeps as the one sort of 'normal' character in the bunch (everyone else is high-strung, too loose, or too crazy to care).  Daniels may actually be creating a really potent, strong atmosphere for the sexual tension in this film - again, sweat, lots of sweat, and sometimes Scott Glenn pops up, too - but it's all just this side of morbidly done in terms of acting.

The 'Oh' face.  I mean... geez.  How about those earrings, huh?
Kidman, it should be said, is having a ball though.  In the past few years, let's say going back even ten years, she's had some characters who are hard to play in the sense of a lot of deep-dark-dramatic emotions (think Rabbit Hole for example).  In this, in gaudy make-up and platinum-blonde hair and heels and a trashy Southern twang, she gets to let loose with a character who doesn't give a flying fuck.  She struts around and makes the men who notice her rather crazy - for Oyewolo's partner character, he's the only one to fully go 'No, thanks' - and this goes for Cusack too, who ends up rubbing one out in a scene.  No, that's not a misprint, he actually masturbates!  (Ok, ok, the actor doesn't, but the character does, during a 'conjugal' tease as it were).

I don't like the movie, on a logical level.  Stuff  in the plot, especially the ending, sometimes doesn't make total sense, some of the dialog is stupid (there's no other word I can find for it), and it's compulsively lurid.  It's the kind of movie I can't say is worth watching, but it is, too.  It's a lurid misfire, and it's hard not to take your eyes off of what Daniels and his actors do here with this hogwash.  But maybe they know it's hogwash, you know.   And it's got Kidman, who steals the show away from McConaughey, who is usually acting in a 'real' movie.  So...



Hmm...  this review did go longer.... huh-huh-huh, 'long'...

Oh, and Macy Gray... damn.  That's some narration there.

PS: That 'ladies' reference is courtesy of Rifftrax.

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #4: Bret Easton Ellis' THE INFORMERS

Oh what a web we weave, when we live in Los Angeles...



The Informers is drenched in the 1980's; mostly in the synth/techno-driven music but also in the clothes and some (though not all) of the hair, and the dedication to debauchery, drugs, sex, and everything that else comes with the high life when you got money.  Well, let me rephrase this then: the 1980's from a certain point of view.  Reaganomics, baby! 

That of course is from Bret Easton Ellis, the man who has two of the masterful, black-death satirical, quintessential 80's books, Less Than Zero and American Psycho, albeit the latter came out in 1991 it concerns that decade and a mind-set and way of living.  He wrote the book this film, which was directed by Gregor Jordan, was based on but also (co)wrote the script.  Later he had some harsh words about the adaptation and how it was brought to the screen.  Can't blame him.

Ok, naked Amber Heard smoking weed, we good?  Let's move on.
It's one of those multi-story-line type of movies, kind of like Short Cuts if you took out 2/3rds of it and left it out to bake in the LA heat for a few days.  Among the lines (some pun intended) that are laid out here: Billy Bob Thornton as a sleazy movie producer (mostly in his adultery and the movies he makes, Thornton plays him straight) and what his affair with a newscaster played by Winona Ryder is doing to his marriage with Kim Basinger's pill-popping depressive wife.  Their kids are also in the loop of a drug culture, and among this (as the film opens) a young man gets run over by a car while... just standing around getting into shit with another pretty-looking yuppie 20-something, and dies.

In the midst of this, Amber Heard is a party girl - she's mostly naked through the whole movie for you "fappening" assholes out there - but getting too close to the edge of going over-board.  There's a hotel bellboy at one of these places, the late Brad Renfro's final performance (he's good but not much used), and he's connected to Mickey Rourke's super-sleazy criminal who kidnaps a kid for some sort of... well, don't want to get into too much here.

Suffice to say Rourke is Rourke, playing it tough and stoic and not much else.  Which is fine, up to a point.  But did he just wander on set to play the role, or could Jordan give him sufficient direction to broaden the character at all, who knows, it could be the script?  He gives enough presence just to make the scenes go by, neither his finest nor worst work. 


Oh, and there's a rock star in the midst as well, coming from England to perform in a concern, shoot lots of heroin, and be miserable as he listens to over-blown movie pitches for gaudy rock spectacle movies - and the young people in the movie are fans of his.  There's also other relationship stuff, Basinger at one point fucks one of the yuppie guys with the wild-and-whatever 80's hair, and someone shoots a music video.

So a lot of THINGS happen in the movie.  And some of the actors are actually game for this.  Basinger really brings her all to the material, in scenes where she tries her best to hold back - a family dinner where the intentions of estranged husband and wife getting back together after a separation nearly comes apart due to tension on all sides - and when she explodes and confronts her husband for being such an asshole.  She goes for broke in that scene and a couple of others, but I felt like the script could have been stronger, that she had to go that much harder into the melodrama to make it click at all.  Same for Winona Ryder's few scenes, though she doesn't have as complicated a character to play (her big moment is actually at a restaurant confronted by obnoxious fans).

Well... at least Ifans isn't the Lizard from Amazing Spider-Man...
It actually starts promisingly, with this group of young people and their drama, some 'soap' some 'melo' in nature, involving the aftermath of this guy dying.  What are they to do?  Does it matter?  Oh, and there's another side involving Harry Connick Jr (I think - no, Chris Isaak, sorry) and his son and him being a womanizing jerk... And then... more things.  Like, get this you guys: AIDS!

Well, maybe it IS an accurate portrait of Reagan era 80s, with all its aimless LA people unsure what to do if it doesn't mean fucking up or fucking others or fucking over or all kinds of 'fuck'.  But it flails about in its second act, and the director see-saws too much between this material becoming soap opera and actual penetrating drama.   It's frustrating, and I think it may be more on how Jordan gets these people to go in a scene, to work with material that if not played for the icky satire it is deep down can be just ugly stuff on practically all irredeemable characters/situations.  Like, pick one and stick with it guy!  It also doesn't help when people who COULD be better, like Amber Heard, don't have anywhere to go - by the end the thought I had was: who cares?

Twin Peaks: 90210
In other words, it's a fine line to tread, reveling in the decadence and bawdiness and errors of people who have a lot of money and a lot of time and have lost their ways and hearts and minds completely, and criticizing it, or finding new interesting ground to probe.  The Informers doesn't get there.  

And with that rock star... is he fully a vampire?  I thought that was the idea in the book, but I digress, sort of.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Michael Fassbender in FRANK



If Hal Ashby were alive today, he would probably make a film like Frank. Lenny Abrahamson's latest feature (from a script from in part Jon Ronson) has Ashby's sense of eccentricity but a contentment with that. The characters here are all alive, even the ones who don't have a lot of lines (the ones who speak French, yes them too). It's a story about creativity and process, and how it can tear a person apart or make someone who doesn't have it down yet that much hungrier to achieve it.

It is extremely funny through its off-beat dialog, how a line will come out from where you completely least expect it, and yet it's got a core that is very serious. Frank deals with mental illness in a way that is both delicate but subtle; we know a good many in this band are crazy, some maybe just more clinically so than others. But the director and writers never go to mocking them. It's completely sincere, and so, hopefully, most of us buy it too.

The audience surrogate, at least in a sense, is John (Gleeson), who happens upon this group on an Irish beach - he happens to play keyboard relatively and is up to play with the Soronfbs just by reputation - and it changes his life. They go off into the woods to record an album (naturally), and it's here that John thinks, of course via a Twitter and blog (like, duh), he'll become a real artist. The problem is, in comic-dramatic fashion in this story, Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the boss, and the second in command, Clara (Gyllenhaal), doesn't want any of this ginger-haired upstart. The main chunk of the film is about this friction, how John changes or... actually, how he doesn't exactly. Not, as a good story would have it, until near the end.



Frank is a rock and roll movie, but I've rarely seen one as funny as this. And it's disarming in its humor, its asides, and the dark edges that wrap around so much of the storyline and characters. I have to think without a character like John this movie would still be watchbable, but a bit more impenetrable. John gets into the weirdness of this avant-garde group, the kind that records sounds of the wind and water being poured for their album, and experiment for a full year, fourteen hours a day. We feel the weirdness right along with him.

For how unusual Frank looks, a great amount of the power of Fassbender's performance is that we don't see him for 99% of the film. Fassbender's voice is enough, and he uses it as well as his body to convey so much. He makes a fully realized character and a soulful, uproarious deadpan satire of rock stars - but without the face, which is quite hard to do; in a sense though he's playing a rock-n-roll Darth Vader (maybe crossed with Jim Morrison if he'd gone through five different alternative scenes). But despite Frank's trajectory is that of someone with mental illness, there's not too much of a feeling of cringing when he does some oddball choices (for example, for a friend's ashes, he instead tosses out into the wind flour), and the writing hatches on to these folks being true to themselves.


So, by the time the group makes its album, and heads by luck to SxSW to play a gig, they're not so unusual anymore. The movie emphasizes this band as family, and it's here that the movie has yet another level, about the dysfunctional brothers and sisters (are there even any parents? maybe Frank and Clara, but it could go either way), and John as the adopted child or pet who tries to get in with his music, which falls up short more often than not - at least in the midst of the eclectic and strange. So yet another thing, about who's got it and who doesn't in art; this is a sort of topic that is not new to movies, to be sure (hey, Amadeus for one). But here, it gets a fresh take thanks to the characters being likable and unlikable in equal measure. We don't know what could come next for John or Frank or anyone really.

And the music itself... it's actually pretty cool. Or maybe it's terrible, but it's a cool-terrible, if that makes sense.  Of course, if you don't have any sort of open ear for experimental stuff - whether this goes past like Radiohead or Pink Floyd for you I don't know - it might seem like a big laugh at experimental music's expense. And yet it's all so original and of its own (the actors playing the music and Fassbender singing with everything he's got live by the way) it's hard to see it being mockable except in almost an intellectual way. I remember before seeing the film the band performed on the Colbert Report, and the initial shock of seeing these actors playing and singing with this giant head included faded in like ten seconds. It's real music, as bizarre and left field it is.

A slight downside is that, maybe just at first but here and there, Gleeson is a little one note. Or, maybe that's the character himself, harping on the same beat of 'I want to make good music, here's a song!' Where he goes and how he takes charge and deals with the conflict of this group, while things go from weird to shocking to sad to weird and off-putting and delirious and sad again, makes so much of the film engaging and different and with integrity. And the ending is simply extraordinary. So much leads these characters, through ups and downs, to a point where they're just on a stage (in part) and find the song a certain way.

I love when stories go on such a real but absurdist journey, and there's no lack of humor in the face of a dramatic story that has characters facing personal odds and ends, and can find a place that feels true and heart-breaking in a way. We don't know what will happen to the Soronfbs from here, but they don't lack artistry. Finding a movie that can handle that really well and true is rare.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Papa Mike's Video #8: HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH


Ok, good advertising at least... hey, wait, isn't this movie about ::becomes muffled, taken away::
It's a strange, unlikely and usually joyous thing when a movie that got dumped by fans and critics upon its original release gets (semi) resurrected as a cult movie (whether it's a cult favorite or cult "classic" is up to the viewer), and then it comes time to give the movie another evaluation.  I have scant memory of Halloween III: Season of the Witch - which was produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill (writers of the first two Halloweens) and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (later to helm the TV mini-series of IT) - except the ending, which has the character played by Tom Atkins yelling into a phone to stop the TV showing what is showing, and the screen flashing a pumpkin over and over again.  That had a certain factor to it that made one stop and go 'Whoa' in one's tracks.

Actually, come to think of it, I'm not a hundred percent sure I watched this movie when I was younger, or at least completely.  At the time when I dug into the Halloween movies, and to date myself this was before the return of Jamie Lee Curtis for her very brief re-run in the franchise with H20 and Resurrection, this was the odd film out.


A new heavy-metal band mascot?  Could be...
 The One Without Michael Myers (which, technically, isn't entirely true as he appears on a TV screen showing the original Halloween, hey, if you want an in-joke, go to Carpenter for one sledgehammered in your skull!)  The one that seemed kinda weird and about Halloween masks and stuff.  So, returning to it some 32 years later, and from the perspective of one who loves the first film, likes the second, and the rest of the series can be taken or left as standard slasher fare?  How does it just work as a movie unto itself?

The story of this installment, which according to IMDb trivia was supposed to be the start of Halloween as more of an anthology franchise, concerns a small town where a man comes in to a hospital after being attacked by an unknown assailant in a suit.  He's not quite dead, but another man in a suit (the same one, who can tell) comes into his hospital room and kills him in a gruesome way (fingers through eyeballs, ugh!) and then goes into a car, sets himself on fire and that should probably be that.  But there's no need for this to go to the authorities, heaven's no: the doctor played by Mr. Atkins, joined by the dead man's daughter played by Stacey Nelkin (is it the 80's? check the hair), to venture to the town where the Silver Shamrock Novelties company is being operated and had something to do with this man's murder. 

Don't worry!  This plastic surgery worked wonders for Joan Rivers AND Renee Zellwegger...


There's something odd about this town, and its cameras placed all over the place, and how one or two of the citizens who have their own outspoken ways wind up dead due to mysterious circumstances... well, not that mysterious to the audience anyway.  Pretty quickly it becomes clear this is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario... or a little of They Live... or a little of that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where it's Halloween and everyone becomes their costumes.  Of course here it's a bit different, and without spoiling too much the whole thrust of the villains' plans is to... well, honor stonehenge's wishes.  Yep, you read that right, it's all about the stonehenge.

Interesting ingredients abound in Halloween III, and Wallace is adept at finding some sinister, creepy and disturbing ways to kill people.  My favorite involves a family who become prey to a mask work by a kid, and it shouldn't be very creative as a death scene but the sheer abundance of 'stuff' that comes to kill the people the family is satisfying as far as a horror movie death goes.  Oh, and lest I forget to tip the hat to Carpenter (and Alan Howarth) on the soundtrack, as the music punctuates things in fun and fantastic ways (in the 'carpet' style that Carpenter has said he likes to lay on his movies, that is for the story to have a footing).

But certain things don't quite make sense throughout the story, some of these can be chalked up to just Bullshit Screenplay Maneuvers (in capital letters, so you don't forget).

MY FATHER IS DEEEEEAAAD! 

For example, Daniel and Ellie (the doctor and the daughter) go to investigate this death and share a motel room, and right away they get together.  Sexually speaking.  This days after this girl's death.  A little... soon much?  This same framework of the Man and Woman (again in caps) being the people who go into this conspiracy involving mind control and robotics and children being killed, is still akin to Body Snatchers, or at least follows that sort of formula, which this wasn't the first or last to homage.  But the quickness which these characters get together is completely unbelievable (yes, the man is now an 'ex' husband, but c'mon).  It doesn't really add much to the story and if anything takes away what is set up, at least through a majority of the direction and Dean Cundy's smooth stedi-cam cinematography and big compositions (not a Carpenter film but a production all the same) as a quasi-realistic setting.

For another example, this man in charge, I think his name is Cocker or Cochran, he's old and has sideburns, again the early 80's, he has his reasons he's doing this.  All of this laid out in careful Villain Exposition by the way, the kind that is relayed to our main character simply because how else would the audience know for God sakes(!)  It seems to involve the ritual of Halloween itself - before the candy and trick R treating of course - but this still seems murky, even with the explanation.  What's the end game here with all of these masks at this precise time?  And seeing the ending, which by itself is a solid terrifying end that, again, apes the Body Snatchers formula of a man yelling to the world "THEY'RE COMING FOR YOU!" seems sillier in this context....

Greater Good Inc.


OH ALRIGHT, SPOILER:

How can a man call up ALL of the TV stations, like, everywhere?  In 1982 there were fewer TV stations, but how would he get to all of them?  And across the country?  And the entire factory is destroyed by the time Daniel leaves town, why is it still broadcasting the signal?  Did they explain it?  Perhaps it was explained like other things - briefly and in a way to keep the action movie.

On its own terms, Halloween III is not altogether bad.  The filmmaking has some skill and craft - again, with the DP who in the same year lensed The Thing it's hard to muck that up - and I liked the performance of Dan O'Herlihy as the villain, stock as it is.  It's just hard to see the holes not poking out, and to look to other examples of this type of story, better ones, with more (intentional) humor or better acting or a stronger message, and to wonder if it would have been the Old Standard as a Twilight Zone episode.

It has that shape and scope and central aims as far as the 'world going upside down' mode goes, which is fine on paper, and then things like the sexual tryst and a couple of dips with side characters that are presented just to get offed in creative ways distract from what could have been a nifty B movie.  It's almost as if the movie if being pulled in directions of being a quality horror story, with some believable special effects and make-up and production design and being about 'something', in this case about the dangers of conformity, maybe, and... being an exploitation quickie to cash in on the franchise.

A Plague of Formula befell the movie


In the end, it comes out to be... middling.  It's not bad, and it's not very good.  And contrary to one or two critics, it doesn't come off like parody of cliches to me.  Sometimes a mask with a special microchip is just a special mask with a microchip, to quote Freud.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

RIP Train: Alain Resnais' HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR

(NOTE: Alain Resnais died earlier this year.  To me, that still counts.  May he rest in peace, and now let's remember this film):




"Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents. Otherwhise we'd suffocate."

This movie is beautiful, not because it shows a love that can last but because it shows how fleeting love and life and everything is - that, and how good it is to hold on to it. The late Joan Rivers said pretty succinctly once, "life sucks, and if you don't enjoy every good moment, then you're a fool." The characters in Hiroshima mon Amour aren't fools. They've been through hell, and they aren't quite sure how to enjoy the good moments, or if they can. All they have are memories.

It's interesting to note that in this film it's not really so much about the man's memories. We find out he's been in the war, he was fighting in it, but that's it. Maybe Resnais didn't want to stoke those flames of anti-Japanese sentiment (in 1959 it was either still there or had receded perhaps). The real focus here is about the malaise of living in a world where death is all around - that and madness. It's mostly about the woman then, and of course the film was written by a woman, an acclaimed writer (Margeurite Duras), and it's about this woman's memories for the most part mixed in with that of Hiroshima.






The first ten minutes actually is presented mostly like a companion piece to Resnais previous masterpiece, Night & Fog. That film, if you remember (no pun intended), was about the horrors of the holocaust shown in montage. Hiroshima gets the same treatment, and we see mostly the bodies laid to waste, the victims who were left with scars and mutations and radioactive treatment. The narration makes it compelling on an other level as the woman voice says what she saw, and a male voice responds "You saw nothing."

Is this about one experience over another? It can't be the character Emmanuelle Riva plays, right? She is still in Nevers, the French town which has an alliterative touch with a character sometimes saying 'Nevers again'. Is it her, or her in another format? The third person instead of the first? And this comes with editing going between the shots of Hiroshima devastation and the couple in bed, close shots, their skin wet with sweat (this after the very first shot of the skin in ash). If this ten minute sequence doesn't suck you in with its stark poetic touch, the ache for loss and power of witness revealed with then and there, just stop watching the movie.




What most of the movie about isn't quite about Hiroshima, at least up front and center... well, after a certain point. Certainly in the first half Riva's character Elle is in Hiroshima for a reason, as an actress she is in a (good) propaganda movie about "Peace", and most intriguing is how this brings this couple of Elle and the Japanese man she's having an affair with, Lui, closer together as he has to get her out of the way of the "actors" marching along.

There's so much depth with the atmosphere around them that it's touching and so effective how Resnais makes it about this couple. And few things are as effective in movies of this period as Riva as an actress. I'd only known of her from the 2012 movie Amour - and that I knew she was in this movie most famously. She's beautiful in the role, but her beauty isn't that of a "STAR" ala, I dunno, Brardot or even Anna Karina among French stars of the period. Riva is like a woman you might meet on the street, and you could fall in love with and have children with. And behind being a naturally attractive person is an actress who delivers so strong with this character - this character who has this world of pain that she's buried deep.

It's ironic, perhaps most poignantly so then, that the Japanese man doesn't tell his story of war horrors (who knows if he has them, perhaps being Japanese he is too reserved to reveal them), but it's this woman's war story. She mentions at some point madness is like "Intelligence", and that it's hard to explain how it comes or people get it. It's just there. Why does she go so mad? She says she had a love, the ideal one, and then he went off to fight in the war and she went nuts... How so? Perhaps it's said, but it doesn't matter as much as the sensory details of her experience. Being in that cellar. Clawing at the walls. Eating the dry blood. Being THERE with the short-hair and then trying to escape. 



This is aching, evocative cinema of a high order, especially in that mid-section where Liu plies Elle with liquor at a restaurant, and Elle get so far into it that he has to smack her to bring her out of it. He's not even abusive, it's simply that she gets it at that moment (also, the period, sad to say, maybe now he'd do something else). But what makes this even better as a classic tale of love and loss and bewilderment is when Elle walks around Hiroshima in the middle of the night. She knows she can't stay, and Liu does as well (he's married too, his wife somewhere in the hills or something, it's Brief Encounter 2.0 of course). 


But she doesn't want to go. She now has THIS memory to contend with. And he does too. There's so much sadness between them that, if you're right there with the characters, and the way Resnais paints them it's realistic but also poetic in equal measure, which is so hard to pull off it's hard to tell if he did it in the next film, Marienbad, which is also about memory and loss but is more... shallow, perhaps?



This is about the loss of a civilization, but we see in this opening ten minutes, in part in a museum, that life goes on (or it doesn't for those who are already gone or about to die), and yet life and death and madness can happen on an intimate, small scale as well. It's a companion to Brief Encounter, but also to Lost in Translation (like the greater Aunt to it or something) in depicting people trying to find their places in the world. By keeping it as honest as possible, between Riva revealing her characters pain and (at times) happiness and love, and yet by the late Resnais letting Duras bring some dialog that could be confusing for those not keeping up - watch how characters use the word 'you' at times, mostly Elle - it brings it to a whole other level. I love this movie.