28 July 2014

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: since the Italian genre film began revving up after the Second World War, filmmakers have been putting Greek hero Heracles into some pretty damn dumb movies anchored by mean noteworthy more for their build than their acting, so at least the newest Hercules can claim for itself the merit of a leading actor who has actually done good work in movies before in addition to having a gigantic chest. There was clearly an inevitable place to take this.

There are a handful of movies that, even having seen them and processed them and understood that they exist, you still can't quite believe it. In that august company, we now find Hercules in New York, variously described as being from either 1969 or 1970, but which really comes from the timeless space in the hearts of all children. Because what child, hearing the classic myths of the great Greek hero Heracles, didn't idly think in the moment between waking and sleeping, "fighting lions and boars is all wonderful, but what do you supposed he'd have done if he was on a date with a modern-day lady in Central Park? Maybe he'd fight a bear!" And the child would then drift off into dreams of Hercules punching a bear in the face while his mortal date sat watching, cooing with staged nervousness like Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. Only it wasn't a bear, but a kind of bear-man; like, it looked like a bear, but it moved like a man trying to feign being a bear. For in the boundless world of a child's dreams, all manner of things are possible.

Anticipating this, the makers of Hercules in New York really did include a scene where Hercules punches a bear in Central Park, and that bear looks exactly like a man in a bear suit doing his best, but it's not very good; and many more delightful things besides. It's a remarkably fucking bizarre movie altogether, to begin with springing from a question that nobody in history probably ever asked, viz. "What would happen if Hercules arrived in New York? Not for any reason, but just to sight-see?" And the form the answer took functions exactly like a star vehicle, except the the people involved were not remotely the kind of stars you'd build a movie around. They being Arnold Stang, the platonic ideal of the diminutive, neurotic New York comic, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the reigning Mr. Universe, an Austrian bodybuilder with no previous acting skill and an impenetrable accent that had to be overdubbed in order to make any of his dialogue remotely intelligible.

Schwarzenegger, credited as "Arnold Strong", is obviously the reason that this very odd little movie remains somewhat infamous down to the modern day; it was to be his only significant role in a movie until Conan the Barbarian, 13 years later, and it's uncomfortably clear that he had no real idea what to do in front of a movie camera, nor did director Arthur Allan Seidelman have much of a sense of what to do with the enormous man-slab in front of him. There's a vacant desperation on the actor's face that's obvious even in the dubbed version that was for a long time the only way to watch the film; when it was released on DVD in 2000, the original recordings were included as an additional audio channel, making it clear that Schwarzenegger's discomfort was compounded by his complete inability to communicate in English, forcibly coughing out phonetically-learned lines that resemble speech in only the most incidental ways. It's certainly a much funnier "let's watch a bad movie!" experience to subject oneself to the unadulterated Arnold, but it's so outlandishly painful to watch that I will confess that I pretty much relied on the original dub; at least it results in a movie where one can follow the plot.

The plot is sheer fever dream madness. Hercules is bored with the passage of changeless eons on Mount Olympus, and over the objections of his father Zeus (Ernest Graves) - the only mythological figure given his Greek name instead of the Roman one (Apollo doesn't count) - he journeys to the mortal places of Earth for the first time in centuries to have a little fun. Not realising or apparently caring that the worship of the Olympian gods has been over for centuries, Hercules openly admits to who he is, but most of the New Yorkers he meets seem to regard it as just some Greek thing, and take him for a socially underdeveloped fellow with a charming personality. He quickly falls in with a pretzel seller, Pretzie (Stang), because screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg has an amazing facility with names. And together, Pretzie and Hercules decide to jump into the world of professional wrestling, which causes him to cross paths with Helen Camden (Deborah Loomis) and her professor father (James Karen). It also, more explicably, sets him on a collision course with the mob. And this wouldn't be a problem except that Zeus's angry wife Juno (Tanny McDonald) arranges for Hercules to lose his powers at the exact moment that puts him most directly in the path of some angry mob thugs. And despite having Schwarzenegger's comically jacked-up body, Hercules has absolutely no residual strength as a mere mortal.

Hercules in New York is a deliberate comedy, which would ordinarily be the kiss of death for a film like this: bad comedies are virtually never fun bad movies. And this is a deeply, unfathomably bad comedy, addicted to hoary ethnic jokes, opening with the most colorfully caricatured old Jewish lady in the annals of cinema gawking loudly at the naked bodybuilder who has just fallen past her airplane window, and never really letting up; any movie that puts Arnold Stang front and center (he's the top-billed actor, though Schwarzenegger certainly gets more face time) would, anyway, have a very hard time escaping from the shadow of ethnic jokes. It's a very Borscht Belt-ey collection of creaking, awful bits that are too labored even to be corny; there's a chase scene with the punchline that a hot dog vendor has been running after his customer to put sauerkraut on the dog that made me want to set my TV on fire.

The thing the film absolutely has in its favor, though, is that it's so damn weird. In far more ways than I have even begun to imply. For one thing, there's the extremely present score, by John Balamos, dominated by various cues of higher or lower energy, all played on solo bouzouki. It's unmistakably Greek, but very modern Greek - very Zorba the Greek, as though at any moment Hercules was going to take his robust love of life and teach Pretzie how to dance, and if that had happened, Hercules in New York would have become my absolute favorite moment of all time. Since that does not happen, nor anything like it, the music instead sits atop the movie in the most bizarrely incongruous way. And you never, ever can stop noticing it.

Also - and this is not a small thing when we're talking about epically bad movies - it's the one of the most shittily-made things ever. There are a few shots where the camera visibly wobbles on an insufficiently tightened tripod, but the really bad stuff is in the audio. This is exacerbated in the dubbed version, where the anonymous fellow providing a thoroughly bland voice for Schwarzenegger is clearly speaking in a studio, and everyone else is clearly speaking on location, but that's the start of the problems, not the end of them. Because most of the dialogue was recorded on set, and most of the scenes take place outside, the ambient noise is all over the place: in between cuts, the volume jumps or plummets by a huge amount, or one person sounds fine and one person sounds like they weren't facing the microphone. Or in one astonishing moment that I will take to my grave as a happy moment among happy moments, Nemesis (Taina Elg) and Pluto (Michael Lipton) are conspiring at the gates of the underworld, and you can't just hear New York City traffic in the background (that actually happens several times): the sound of the New York City traffic actually starts to overwhelm the characters' speech.

And of course, there are the usual problems with low-budget productions: rinky-dink sets (Olympus looks like it was shot in a hurry in a public park), low-talent actors overplaying everything with no sense of scale or continuity (Loomis is especially bad in this regard), no chance to redo moments that didn't go right the first time.

The sheer volume of things going wrong is more than enough to make Hercules in New York an exceptionally bad movie; the outlandishly peculiar concept upon which everything has been strung, married to the almost miraculous lack of basic filmmaking competence is what makes it memorable above and beyond all but the very worst. I haven't decided if it's so bad it's good, or so bad it's really bad - there's a lot of strained comedy - but I am sure of this: it's a completely singular object. There's a fearless madness at play here, and it makes Hercules in New York a magnetic experience far beyond the joy of watching a future celebrity humiliate himself, and beyond simply laughing at the overwhelming awfulness of it all.

27 July 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD BONUS: AND ANOTHER THING

1951's The Thing from Another World is one of the weirdest cases that we those of us who generally subscribe to auteur theory will ever have to deal with. It's a Howard Hawks production (Hawks was one of the key names when the Cahiers du cinéma crew began formulating the theory), but not a Howard Hawks film; directorial credit was given to Christian Nyby, an editor who had cut several of Hawks's directorial efforts. But it looks for all the world like a Hawks film, and it sounds like a Hawks film, and over the decades, many people have rather casually assumed that Hawks actually directed it, giving Nyby credit as a favor; that, or he simply leaned on Nyby awfully hard, taking the film away from him without openly confessing to it. That assumption, though, runs against the recollections of the cast and crew, who deny that Hawks was more than a particularly attentive producer. Except for the cast and crew who assure us that yeah, Hawks totally took over and Nyby was just there to watch.

It's insoluble (though not quite as much so as the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg film Poltergeist), but the general consensus is that Nyby was learning by doing on the set of The Thing from Another World, practicing the craft of directing by mimicking Hawks, and constantly checking in with Hawks to make sure he was doing things right, and occasionally handing his producer the reins when things got too difficult. And that results in a Howard Hawks film that was physically directed mostly by somebody else. The results were that Nyby worked almost exclusively in television for the rest of his career, and Hawks never again made something even remotely in the same generic wheelhouse as The Thing, and so it feels like a weird outlier either way. But a good 'un.

So having at least acknowledged the one Big Difficulty with the film, let's turn to the next: any viewer coming to the film in 2014 - or hell, even by like 1956 or '57 or so - is going to be doing it at the significant disadvantage that The Thing from Another World was one of those groundbreaking, genre-defining masterpieces that set out a new litany of rules that proved so influential that everything amazing and revolutionary within it very quickly became indistinguishable from dozens of other movies. If you didn't know that The Thing more or less invented the alien invader genre of the 1950s, but assumed it simply came out alongside all the others, the only things that would distinguish it even slightly would be its more naturalistic-than-usual dialogue and a far more present, effective female lead than just about any other American genre film of the decade that I can immediately recall. But for the most part, it seems every inch as clichéd and dopey as the likes of It Conquered the World or The Deadly Mantis (which isn't an alien movie at all, but the shared Arctic setting has always led me to think of it and The Thing in the same thought), if you just come to it blindly.*

And there's no real way to undo that impression, which makes The Thing from Another World neither the first victim of its own success. Still, it doesn't take strict historical contextualising to see how this is, for all its generic elements, a much better piece of filmmaking than most of movies it's most easily compared to. For it does have that dialogue, and it does have that female lead, and other charms besides.

Based, with very little fidelity, on John W. Campbell, Jr's 1938 novella Who Goes There? - which would be adapted again and much more closely in 1982, with John Carpenter's The Thing (the films are dissimilar enough that I don't want to go on a whole "which is better?" tangent, but if I did, I wouldn't hesitate for a second before picking the one from '82) - the script credited to Charles Lederer with known, and rather apparent, additions by Hawks and Ben Hecht tells of an Air Force detachment send to a remote Arctic research station to investigate the crash of an unidentified flying object. The leader of this mission, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and the head of the research station, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) butt heads repeatedly over what should be done with the find: a large flying saucer that is accidentally destroyed in the attempt to remove it, and a giant humanoid body (James Arness) in the ice some way apart from the ship. Carrington desires to study the thing for the Advancement of Science; Hendry mistrusts anything unknown as likely to be dangerous, and he turns out to be quite correct in this doubt. When mischance causes the thing to thaw out, it goes on a bit of a rampage, killing two of the facility's dogs, and losing an army. Carrington and his team are able to determine from this limb that it is in fact a plant, not an animal, and later events reveal that it's a plant that feeds on mammalian blood. And so do its seedlings, which it begins to raise in the station's greenhouse.

The primary conflict of The Thing isn't between man and alien, but between science and action. This is the background of damn near every science fiction film of the era, of course, but few movies are so interested in making it as clear as this one, with its depiction of Dr. Carrington as the worst kind of meddler who speaks of the emotionless thing with awestruck admiration, and whose desire for knowledge leads him to openly confess that he'd rather die along with every other human in the station than allow the thing to be destroyed. Between its prodding dialogue and visual codes, the film makes an explicit connection that scientist = sociopath = communist = homosexual = the worst kind of insidious Other that wants nothing more than to stop the barreling might of the U.S. military making things safe for everybody. Hard rightwing overtones in sci-fi and horror are nothing new, but the unmissable way that The Thing from Another World says, all but so many words, that anyone who wants to think and use reason is bad news, and should be barred from any position of authority.

Being as I am entirely unsympathetic to that message, I guess I should find the movie problematic, but the thing is, it's such a terrific thriller, with such tight, relentless pacing. Even though the thing doesn't begin to make its presence felt till near the halfway point (of 87 minutes, none too short by '50s sci-fi standards), the control of character scenes is so great that the simple act of watching men discuss strategy ends up being terrifically absorbing. We owe that in part to Nyby's appropriation of the most important of all Hawksian innovations, overlapping dialogue; nothing this side of Hawks's His Girl Friday (adapted by Lederer from an original co-written by Hecht, not coincidentally) shows off the extreme kinetic energy of people talking over and around each other, trying to pull as much attention for themselves and their ideas as possible, recklessly blasting by the stateliness of so much filmmaking and sci-fi filmmaking especially. Oh, how many sci-fi pictures bog down in scenes of grave men gravely describing grave ideas with ponderous import? Most of them, but never The Thing, which is full of messy, vividly human moments of bickering and hashing-out ideas and sardonic asides. It's a movie where the sheer impact of how people talk is enough to make you lean in to absorb it all, making an absolute virtue of the small variety of locations.

The other great Hawksian element is "Nikki" Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), Carrington's secretary and a failed conquest of Hendry's, who represents one of the best examples of Hawks's women who can best all the boys at their own game. The first thing we find out about her is that Hendry's attempt to get her drunk enough to give in to his advances ended with her outdrinking him, and leaving him in a woozy stupor; as the film advances, she'll tie him up in a surprisingly open admission that BDSM is a thing for a '50s movie, and later gets one of the best lines of dialogue in the genre's history, when an exhausted Hendry announces, "I've given all the orders I want to give for the rest of my life". Without missing a beat, she tosses back, "If I thought that was true, I'd ask you to marry me". She's still ultimately just the Love Interest (her entire contribution to the plot consists of informing Hendry that Carrington has been cultivating thing-seeds on the sly), but there are few women who fill that role, and virtually none at all in this genre at this period, whose fulfillment of Love Interest duties is so clearly on her own terms and at her own pleasure. Sheridan's performance isn't great, necessarily - she's too obviously being coached to ape Rosalind Russell, and isn't quite able to do so successfully - but it's certainly good enough, and an already sturdy, tense film explodes with life every time she enters the frame.

Aesthetically, The Thing is perfect solid without being necessarily brilliant: the early going, with the team investigating the crashed ship, features some great images contrasting the men with the blank tundra, but once the action moves permanently inside, Nyby/Hawks and director of photography Russell Harlan pretty quickly exhaust the potential options for shooting groups of people talking in close interior spaces. Far better are the pace, and Roland Gross's editing; horror as it was practiced in 1951 barely resembles horror today, and I don't suppose most people would find this movie particularly scary anymore, but there's one superlatively-timed jump scare relying on the thing showing up considerably earlier than the beats of the scene would lead us to expect, and the slow accelerations in the speed of cutting let the film move smoothly from its tense opening to its frantic climax. The only problem, really, is the thing itself: Arness looks like a dimestore Frankenstein monster (he disliked the movie immensely, we are told), and while the filmmakers play the usual "keep the creature offscreen as much as possible" game, even the handful of glimpses of the alien we see are enough to puncture its effectiveness. And this isn't chronological parochialism talking: I am a great fan of many '50s movie monsters. The thing just looks damn cheap, is all, and not Corman-style cheap-thus-delightful; just plain and boring and bereft of imagination.

But luckily, The Thing isn't really about the thing, but about how the characters respond to its existence, and the internal friction that come up as a result, somewhat like a latter-day zombie movie only with a more overtly pro-militarism theme than any zombie movie I've ever seen. Still, the main takeaway from the movie isn't "fuck yeah, the Air Force!"; it's about how people deal with a tense, dangerous situation, and how interpersonal conflicts can exacerbate external threats. And also how you can never trust when those damn space Commies will show up next time. It's obviously dated, and it takes some willingness to look past its genre trappings to really appreciate how smartly crafted and beautifully written it is, but it's not the fault of a movie from 1951 that it's a movie from 1951, and the rock-solid core of the piece is just as nervy and insightful as it ever was.

Body count: 2 humans, unseen; 3 dogs, all seen, and possibly more unseen; and 1 thing from another world, plus an uncertain number of seedling things that had not yet emerged as independent life forms.

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 11 POLL: SLASHER-ADJACENT FILMS

Film producers, a cunning and savvy lot, are never prone to ignore a bandwagon to jump on if there's money to be made in it. This is, of course, the reason for the massive glut of slasher movies released between 1980 and 1984 (they were cheap and had enough of a steady fanbase that it was hard to lose money on them) but the impulse spread beyond the limits of the genre at its purest. Slasher-like storytelling and slasher tropes became depressingly prominent in all horror subgenres in those days - and in certain respects, they still are - and even found their way into some non-horror places. This week, I offer up three very different movies with entirely different audiences in mind, made at three different levels of prestige; the only thing that unites them is that all of them aren't quite a slasher film, yet all of them clearly emerged from the same crucible that resulted in Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees cutting their way through the world.

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
From IMDb: "Suddenly Laura Mars can see through the eyes of a serial killer as he commits his crimes."

The Hitcher (1986)
From IMDb: "A young man who escaped the clutches of a murderous hitch-hiker is subsequently stalked, framed for the hitcher's crimes, and has his life made into hell by the same man he escaped."

Silent Rage (1982)
From IMDb: "Dan Stevens is the sheriff of a small Texas town who checks out a disturbance which turns to murder."

Or write something in!

This poll closes on Thursday, 31 July, at 11:00 PM CDT (GMT -5:00)!


26 July 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD: SOME WICKED THING THIS WAY COMES

Considering how much its visceral, rubbery gore effects, electronic score, the niceties of its lighting and film stock, and especially its position in the center of a maelstrom of controversy about these goddamn violence-driven horror pictures with no characterisations beyond "this guy dies then that guy dies" all mark it out as a quintessential product of the early 1980s, it's going to sound like I'm being deliberately contrary when I say that John Carpenter's The Thing is a gloriously classical piece of filmmaking. But I swear I'm not. And of course, we have now the luxury of more than three decades to reflect on a film that was initially received not only by critics but even the biggest part of horror fandom as pure nihilistic, style-over-substance drivel, and there has been a hard, long fight that has ultimately resulted in the film's canonisation, more or less, as an iconic work of modern horror. If I had tried to claim that The Thing was "classical" or anything like it in 1982, I would have been screamed out of the room, not least because in 1982 I was a baby, and babies talking about films are just about the creepiest.

But classical it is: swooning, romantic classicism. It's no secret that Carpenter has spent most of his career in the shadow of Howard Hawks, cryptically re-making or pointedly reversing that director's Rio Bravo in, like, half of his movies. And with The Thing, he went so far as to explicitly remake the Hawks production of The Thing from Another World of 1951, a film whose authorship is much, much, much too complicated to say something as blunt as "it was directed by Howard Hawks" or the opposite. But at least as much as the spirit of Hawks informs The Thing, with its hotbed of masculine games of dominance and authority, it's a film in thrall to Alfred Hitchcock as well, for The Thing is something close to an absolutely perfect exercise in how to construct a thriller. A thriller, mind you, cloaked in the most thoroughly unnerving body horror that mainstream cinema had ever seen before body horror specialist David Cronenberg decided to mount his own '50s remake a few years later with The Fly.

But it is a thriller where the film's heart lies. Adapted by Bill Lancaster from a novella by John W. Campbell (much more closely than the '51 film, which barely resembles the source material), the scenario is blunt and basic: 12 men are trapped in a remote location with the awareness that some of them are deadly killers, but nobody knows who or how many. Cue the paranoia, which Carpenter elegantly spikes by occasionally punctuating his film with a showstopper sequence of some of the very best practical effects in the more than 100-year history of cinema special effects, which the gives the film an incredibly clever structure by which a steady rise in tension is jacked up at irregular intervals. If most thrillers are like being put in a pot of water being brought to a boil over a low flame, The Thing is a film in which the dial is turned up a few notches every now and then, and left there.

I have no better demonstration of the film's genius than in noting that the very nature of its tension shifts after the first time you've seen it, arguably increasing the film's impact rather than dissipating it, and when a genre film can do that... So the thing that happens - and if you haven't seen The Thing, please do stop reading and go see it. It's maybe the only heavily gory film that I think works so well as a piece of cinema that I'd urge on even the most squeamish and gore-averse with an unsympathetic "it's a masterpiece, you're just going to have to deal with it". Those who aren't squeamish, I surely hope don't need my encouragement.

So the thing that happens, is that the film opens with Norwegians chasing a dog across the Antarctic tundra, firing at it from a helicopter, and it's a marvelously disconcerting opening; eventually they both end up dead, and a nearby American research station ends up with the dog and no sense of what the hell is happening. Carpenter keeps bringing our attention to the dog, with low camera angles favoring its height and frequent cutaways to it simply mulling around, with a little bit more sobriety than in dogs. The first time you see the movie, the dog is a synecdoche of the first-act mystery: what happened to the Norwegians? What has that dog seen, what has that dog done? The second time, when we know what the dog is up to, it's completely different, but even more tense: what is the "dog" thinking, what is it plotting? Innocuous if slightly disconcerting moments of the dog jumping up on somebody, or following them into an empty room, suddenly become nerve-wracking instances of raw terror: GET IT OFF YOU! STOP TOUCHING THE DOG! If there was nothing better in The Thing than a first act that becomes so greatly deepened in its effect and complexity on second and later viewings, I'd already be prepared to call it a great and timeless thriller. Since The Thing is, instead, a movie where nearly everything is better than everything else, because everything is just that goddamn good, I am obliged instead to call it instead one of the greatest thrillers, on top of being one of the greatest horror movies.

The film sometimes gets shade thrown its way for being too concerned with surfaces, populating its remote station with a group of men no more distinctive than you'd find in any slasher movie of the era, and that's not a complaint that can really be argued against, except to point out that it doesn't matter: the specific men involved don't matter nearly as much as the dynamics between them, and these are precisely and obviously delineated by the uniformly terrific cast, headed up by Carpenter's most reliable actor, Kurt Russell.

I might even argue, in fact that The Thing finds Carpenter for once out-Hawksing Hawks: one of that director's most important recurring themes is his breakdown and analysis of codes of American maleness, and The Thing takes that theme to an extreme end. It is among the best depictions I can name about the group dynamics of men, where the individual psychological details of those men's lives (who has a kid? who is playing two women back at home? who secretly wants to play the violin?) are less important the psychology of the group as a group. And of course, The Thing games this by putting that group dynamic, almost from the beginning in a state of heightened tension and awareness, which gives way at a certain point to outright paranoia and violent mistrust. Carpenter and Lancaster depict the backbiting, misjudgment, and rank-pulling that comes out of such a situation with supreme clarity and force.

That being said, this is still mostly an exercise in pants-shitting terror, and it's a pretty good one. Its depictions of bodies splitting apart, and bodies betraying their owners, and being forced into constant, weary awareness with death lying a split second way if you don't pay enough attention are horror of the best, purest sort: this is a movie whose depiction of the deadly, destructive, and unknown invading the safe, secure, and routine (which is my basic concept of where the borders marked "horror" reside) could not be better, owing mostly to the Lovecraftian extreme of its design of the shape-shifting, body-snatching alien force picking off the men one by one. And owing to its depiction of that force less as a monster to be fought than as a disease exploding through barely-understood vectors and perpetrating foul violence on the carrier. Indeed, with its all-male cast (the entire list of women in the film includes a female-voiced computer program snottily dismissed as a "bitch", someone seen in a videotaped game show, and a drawing of a '40s-style pin-up girl), and its depiction of something inescapable and fatal being passed between them, with the in-group tension that creates, The Thing would be an absolutely irresistible metaphor for the early years of the AIDS crisis, except it was came out too early for that to be anything but a remarkable historical coincidence.

That doesn't necessarily make it "scary" (that has never been my response to it, anyway), but it's one of the highest peaks the genre has ever reached. This is what happens when you give a genius the right mixture of budget and freedom to explore, though I am sure that Universal, who took a bath on the film in 1982, wouldn't necessarily agree with me. What it is, though, is sublimely tense: doling out info just enough that we can see the shape of the next 10 or 15 minutes, but not the details, and letting us sit and wait in agony while the not-quite-predictable shock moment happens - there's a blood-testing scene that's paced with deliberately glacial emphasis, clicking from one close-up to the next with a jagged rhythm (Todd Ramsay's editing is pretty terrific throughout but it especially makes this scene), until you can barely stand it, and then it blows up when we're looking the other way. It's simply one of the great sequences in any thriller made since 1980.

And then we have Ennio Morricone's score, a very uncharacteristic piece of thumping, bass-heavy menace. It feels like one of Carpenter's own compositions in a lot of ways, and it adds to the film a tense, driving heartbeat that becomes terribly agitating as it moves on. And also - I'm cramming stuff in at this point, because with movies like The Thing, you don't run out of things to say, just space to say it in - there's Dean Cundey's brilliant Panavision cinematography, with its uncanny color-tinged lighting (Russell is introduced with a sickly green cast over half his face), its fearless use of negative space, and moments that capture the bleak blankness of the tundra as well as anything in cinema's greatest movie about how snow looks, Fargo. Like this beauty, our first establishing shot of the research station in the whole film, and one that as much as says "oh, and in case you were wondering, this film shall be about the raw hell of isolation and being trapped with your fate".

There's a tendency even among the film's boosters to dismiss The Thing as "just a really great horror/thriller". Which it is. Also, Singin' in the Rain is just a really great musical romcom. Perfection is perfection, wherever you find it. And The Thing? Oh my yes, it's perfect.

Body Count: 11, plus a Norwegian already dead when we see him, plus the corpse of a Thing, plus three dogs (onscreen) and several more (offscreen), plus the dog form of a Thing, which doesn't count, but it's the bloodiest moment in the film and it would feel wrong not to mention it. Also a number of individual Things that would be hard to quantify. And the survivors aren't looking in too good of a shape as things end...

TL;DR Body Count: All of them.

25 July 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1961: In which things start to get out of hand

The one thing that can never be claimed of the 1961 Western One-Eyed Jacks is that it's like other movies. Lumbering and bloated, often compelling, always gorgeous, and at times astonishingly bizarre in its attempt to force the psychological impulses of mid-century naturalist theater acting into the framework of a bog-standard Western revenge thriller, I haven't decided whether or not it "works", though I am inclined to say it does. But this is the kind of film in which functioning according to any conventional metric was out of the question long before the filming wrapped and the final cut was issued into theaters, and its considerable fascinations are mostly disconnected from its objective quality or lack thereof.

The film began life as a screenplay by Samuel Fuller, adapting Charles Neider's novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, then just emerging from his enfant terrible years, and starring Marlon Brando. It certainly did not end up that way. When the film entered production in the second half of 1958, Brando's early career as cinema's most famous practitioner of Method acting had just begun its slow but steady drift into the wobbly and weird middle period, where he seemed more interested in indulging unspoken private whims than serving the needs of the picture (for a more graphic depiction of this process, I would point you to the actor's next released film after One-Eyed Jacks, the marvelously clumsy 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty). To put it a little more bluntly, Brando had begun his irrevocably slide into becoming a prima donna of the first order. Kubrick had ego problems of his own, of course, as would shortly be thrown in to the sharpest relief on the production of Spartacus, but in the late '50s, there was no question who was going to win. Brando was one of the biggest names the movies had, and he pulled rank over Kubrick at every turn; eventually, the conflict between the men resulted in Kubrick leaving the production, either because he simply couldn't stand to be around his star any longer, or because Brando demanded that he be fired.

This left a movie with no clear direction and an in-progress rewrite by Calder Willingham, and nobody in charge to make things right; eventually, Brando assumed the role of director himself, for the first and only time in his career, extensively re-working the screenplay with yet a third writer, Guy Trosper (he and Willingham received final credit onscreen). It would be easy to regard the finished product as a vanity project, and in a lot of ways, that's precisely what it is. Undoubtedly, there's no missing that it's a first-time effort by a man who didn't necessarily want to direct (the film's box office failure certainly hurt Brando's future dreams in that direction if he had them, though I feel like a man of his stature could have finagled another directing assignment somewhere in all the years to come, if he'd been inclined), though it also doesn't feel lazy or slapdash. Without having ever seen the film, I had rather assumed it would resemble secondhand Elia Kazan set in the West, Kazan being the director most responsible for shaping Brando into the cinematic figure he became. But there's barely a trace of any such influence in a film that gives itself over to plenty of poetic, narratively fuzzy sequences in which the stillness and peace of the outdoors trumps anything to do with character or plot (and there would have allegedly been plenty more of them in Brando's original cut, running well in excess of four hours; Paramount carved it down to two hours and 21 minutes, and neither the studio nor the actor-director were happy with that process).

Brando was lucky to have a seasoned old vet to help him shape the visuals: One-Eyed Jacks was shot by Charles Lang, a great and varied cinematographer who worked in everything from light comedy to film noir to character drama, and made visual successes out of material that wouldn't seem to require any visual sensibility at all (he triumphed on what must have been the immensely thankless job of filming Some Like It Hot, a screenplay-dominated movie if one ever existed). Westerns are, of course, the exact opposite of movies that don't require strong visuals, and his contribution to One-Eyed Jacks is the glue that holds everything together no matter how badly the drama wants to strain apart or, more often, dissolve into a fog of aimlessness. This is a film with a truly inspiring amount of depth to its compositions and blocking: how much of that was Brando's theater-honed sensibility, how much was Lang's desire to show off, how much was simply the sheer power of collaboration, it's not mine to say. The results are what matter, and the result is a film that constantly offers to pull us in, through the action, into the rooms, and to appreciate the spaces between characters and what that says about their motivations and relative domination of any given moment. It is as impressively three-dimensional as any actual 3-D movie I've ever seen. And that's without even pausing to mention the gorgeous use of color, the penetrating blue of the sky and the dusty, out-of-time feeling to the ground and the interiors.

Anyway, One-Eyed Jacks is something of a visual masterpiece, which I don't mean as a slight, or as a backhanded compliment. Westerns, as much as any genre, tend to live or die on the quality of their images, which often do a lot of the heavy lifting for defining characters and conflict and themes and emotions. And so it is with this movie, where the way that people exist in the context of their environment tell us more about them than what they say or how they say it. And this is useful to the film, since it is in a lot ways a very stiff and unconvincing piece of storytelling.

Anyway, here's the idea behind it: there are two bank robbers, Rio (Brando), and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden, whose casting was a chief sticking point between Kubrick and Brando). They're being chased outside of Sonora, Mexico, in 1880, by the Rurales; Dad promises to get fresh horses and return for Rio, but he simply chickens out, leaving his partner to be taken by the law and imprisoned for five years, till he escapes. At that point, Rio teams up with fellow inmate Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) and the clearly untrustworthy Bob Amory (Ben Johnson), and tracks Dad to Monterey, California, where the turncoat has established himself as the much-loved sheriff, with a beautiful Mexican wife, Maria (Katy Jurado), and a beautiful stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Eager for revenge on all fronts, Rio plots to steal from the Monterey bank to humiliate Dad and seduce Louisa to symbolically cuckold him, but then he goes and falls in love with the girl instead. And after Dad administers a terrible injury to his hand, and he has a chance to think for weeks while he recuperates, Rio begins to reconsider everything he has planned.

There's absolutely no obvious reason under the sun for this to take 141 minutes, and One-Eyed Jacks doesn't provide any non-obvious ones. It's an indulgent film, is all: full of lengthy, go-nowhere scenes that allow Brando and his co-stars to bat dialogue and situations back and forth in longueurs that I suppose resemble Actors Studio exercises, or something those lines; there's an aimlessness to the rhythm of scenes for which the only possible justification is that it "feels like life", not that it in any way works dramatically. And, too, a lot of the film consists of the camera resting on Brando, doing a lot of small-scale business to show off his character and what he's thinking about. A little bit of it goes a long way, and it doesn't help that Brando's performance is nowhere near one of his best: he strands himself with an accent that's so off-base it's rather more funny than anything, and threads the script with the most bluntly obvious "overthrowing the father" metaphor imaginable (for serious, Malden's character has the given name "Dad"?) that provides very little to play that isn't flat and obvious.

The acting as a whole is a mixed bag, which surprised me a little - apparently, Brando-the-director spent most of his time helping Pellicer into her character and out of her pants, and not to much of an end: she still gives the stiffest performance in the movie with the least modulation of her line deliveries, and only comes alive when she gets to play bigger, negative emotions. The rest of the cast range from excellent (Malden's flop-sweating authority, Slim Pickens in a remarkable reined-in performance of admirable nastiness) to simply mediocre (Brando himself), and given the film's obvious desire to be a modernist psychological drama in Western trappings, the inconsistency of the characterisations is a real problem.

The good thing, then, is that One-Eyed Jacks works best when it's not the film it openly wants to be, and instead can be some kind of weird fever dream of clashing tones and visual abstraction. Especially in its opening quarter or so, the film induces a kind of whiplash in its extreme fluctuations of mood from scene to scene, and cut to cut; it's laid back here, angry here, mildly comic here, tense here, thoughtful here, and all within five minutes. There's a deranged electricity to it that's not exactly the same (or even in the same wheelhouse) as solid genre filmmaking, but it's a movie with real, palpable ambition to find new, challenging, different things to do with the form. Its radicalism has been overstated by its partisans (psychologically deep Westerns, and Westerns fronted by antiheroes, weren't exactly new news in 1961), and so has its effectiveness, but that the film is brassy and unique is pretty much beyond dispute. It's symptomatic in some ways of the bloat and loss of focus that marks so much Hollywood filmmaking of the 1960s, but it would be a lot harder to consider that a problem if every one of those bloated epics of the period had such demented, unpredictable personality as Brando's captivating folly.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1961
-Stanley Kramer contends that the Holocaust was bad, in Judgment at Nuremberg
-John Huston directs Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in the final film for each of them, The Misfits
-Doris Wishman creates the legendary nudie-cutie Nude on the Moon

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1961
-Kobayashi Masaki completes his epic trilogy on one Japanese soldier's experience of World War II, The Human Condition
-French director Alain Resnais combines experimental and narrative film in the unclassifiable Last Year at Marienbad
-Jack Clayton directs Britain's classiest horror film, the psychological ghost story The Innocents

DISNEY SEQUELS: FLAMES. FLAMES. FLAMES, ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.

There's no intellectual merit in expecting a sequel to Planes to be anything other than a sequel to Planes. So can any of us be "disappointed" by Planes: Fire & Rescue? On the contrary, it's a bit of a pleasant surprise: it's probably a little bit better than Planes, with a far more engaging third act and prettier scenery throughout. It also jettisons the first film's ensemble full of ethnic stereotypes for just one cringe-inducing parody of sexually active women, which may or may not be "progress" as such, but at least it cuts down on the number of individual characters I wanted to watch plunge into a vat of acid.

Intuiting, undoubtedly correctly, that its audience consists only of children who enjoyed the first film and very little children who didn't see the first one but only really care about color, movement, and peppy voice acting, Fire & Rescue spends very little time mucking around with a recap, only throwing in a brief montage at the very start to remind us how Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a sentient plane, went from crop dusting in middle America to winning all kinds of races and becoming quite the celebrity. As Fire & Rescue opens, though, we see that his new lifestyle has taken quite a toll on Dusty's insides: his gearbox has begun grinding itself into a pulp due to all the stress he's putting on it, and he's told by Dottie (Teri Hatcher), the forklift doctor in Dusty's hometown of Propwash Junction (that is, she is a doctor who is a forklift, not a doctor who specialises in forklifts), that if he doesn't slow down, he'll die. The word "die" is never stated, it's a kid's movie. It's just unambiguously and heavily implied multiple times across the film's 83 minutes.

It's tangential to the actual film, at best, but I'll never live with myself if I don't go on a little rant about the internal reality of the Cars/Planes universe. Ever since the very first Cars, the rules haven't made much sense: it's a world exactly like our own, only without any life from the animal kingdom. But buildings and agriculture and, well, cars and planes still exist, even though cars and planes have no immediately obvious need for many of the things we see them with in these films. But after enough exposure, that recedes into the background. But now along comes Fire & Rescue, and it's just taunting us with the sheer unacceptability of the films' world, pushing the camera right inside Dusty's mechancal core and defying us to pretend that these are living beings, even living beings who need gasoline and oil to function. These are planes, and by hinging its entire narrative on that one fact, Fire & Rescue insists that we deal with how much the world of the film could not possibly function given all we have ever seen of it. These are planes - these are actual, constructed vehicles for passengers who never were or will be. They have nor brains nor souls, just engines, internal combustion engines like the ones on the street outside, right now, as you're reading. Anyway, maybe "kids don't care!" as irritating parents who feel bent on defending these things will occasionally say, and setting aside whether the fact that kids don't care is germane to a goddamn thing - kids also don't care if they only ever eat chocolate bars, morning, noon, and night, but we don't tend to act like it's their privilege to do so - I have to wonder if kids don't care. Maybe the kids of the 2010s really don't. Maybe they devour this kind of blunt commercial nonsense. All I know is that when I was six years old, if I saw this movie, when the camera suddenly plunges right into Dusty, I would have flipped my fucking shit.

Anyway, for reasons that aren't worth belaboring, Dusty needs to pitch in to serve as adjunct firefighter in Propwash Junction, now that he's retired from racing, and this requires him to head off to receive on-the-job training at a National Park that mostly resembles Yellowstone with a healthy dose of Yosemite thrown in (the hotel that figures prominently in the story is, at any rate, a dead ringer for Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, inside and out). This doesn't make sense, but it does permit the filmmakers to create some genuinely gorgeous pine forests for their plane characters to zoom around, and that alone is enough to make Fire & Rescue the superior Planes film. Certainly the plot, in which Dusty learns the ropes from cranky helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who has a mysterious past, doesn't do that; it's trading one pack of clichés for another, and overtly ripping off Cars instead of overtly ripping off Cars 2. Which I suppose is also a trade-off, though not a very honorable one.

So the plot focuses on a punch of planes putting out fires, along with some weirdly out-of-place material about facilities restoration in the National Park Service, and Dusty keeps having to dodge the horribly pushy advances of Dipper (Julie Bowen), the film's most prominent female character, who exists solely to be everything wrong with gender representation in contemporary North American pop culture. Oh, and there's a helicopter named Windlifter voiced by Wes Studi, an archaic stereotype of the wise old Native American mystic, so I miscounted when I said there was only one character who made me want to eat all my own skin off. I might be vaguely willing to forgive the filmmakers if I though there was some torturous riff on Apache helicopters going on, but I think that's far more clever than anybody was trying to be.

Between all the bad characters and the hopelessly generic "do the right thing" lesson-mongering (it is, at least, not another "be yourself" piece like virtually every other animated movie of the last generation, so I have to thank it for that), the story of Fire & Rescue is nothing of the remotest interest for anybody old enough to make the decision to see it, but it does come alive in the last third, when a massive forest fire breaks out and Dusty has to prove himself by etc. and etc. and etc. It's kind of fun to watch individual piece of foreshadowing click into place, and predict the exact shape of the finale one beat at a time, but in all honesty, it does work at the level of G-rated action spectacle. Though I see that in the United States, the film got a PG rating, so scratch that. The point being, the fire lighting is beautiful, the sweep and scale of the action are impressive, and the sense of drama is higher than anything else in the film has even implied might be a possibility. That getting there requires the film to jettison everything about its characters and render them as small figures in the face of a widescreen hellstorm of flame and smoke pretty much says everything about Fire & Rescue's liabilities as a piece of storytelling, but I'm willing to concede that it does, in the end, manage to push itself over the hump as raw entertainment.

5/10

24 July 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 10 POLL: READERS' CHOICE #2

VOTING CLOSED - WINNER: THE THING
Thanks to everyone who voted!

It's time for the Summer of Blood's second grand experiment in democracy. The following 31 titles have been nominated by the readers of Antagony & Ecstasy for next week's review, and now it's up to everybody else to pick the final winner! Because of the high number of candidates, I'm going to let everyone vote for up to three titles. Or fewer if you'd like, of course.

28 Days Later (2002)
From IMDb: "Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary."

Atomic Dog (1998)
From IMDb: "When a pooch is irradiated by a nuclear plant and threatens the town, only a teenage boy can redeem him."

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
From IMDb: "Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind."

The Company of Wolves (1984)
From IMDb: "A bag full of symbolic folklore about werewolves, or, rather, their sexual connotation. Granny tells her granddaughter Rosaleen strange, disturbing tales about innocent maidens falling in love with handsome, heavily eyebrowed strangers with a smoldering look in their eyes."

Dead Ringers (1988)
From IMDb: "Twin gynecologists take full advantage of the fact that nobody can tell them apart, until their relationship begins to deteriorate over a woman."

Enemy (2013)
From IMDb: "A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie."

The Fly (1986)
From IMDb: "A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong."

The House by the Cemetery (1981)
From IMDb: "In New York, Dr. Norman Boyle assumes the research about Dr. Freudstein of his colleague Dr. Petersen, who committed suicide after killing his mistress."

The Innocents (1961)
From IMDb: "A young governess for two children becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted."

Kill List (2011)
From IMDb: "Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness."

The Last House on Dead End Street (1977)
From IMDb: "After being released from prison, a young gangster with a chip on his shoulder decides to punish society by making snuff films."

Lisa and the Devil (1973)
From IMDb: "Surreal goings-on at a Spanish villa in this poetic horror fairytale, which was crassly re-edited into The House of Exorcism (1975) for US release."

The Mummy (1999)
From IMDb: "An American serving in the French Foreign Legion on an archaeological dig at the ancient city of Hamunaptra accidentally awakens a Mummy."

Maximum Overdrive (1986)
From IMDb: "A group of people try to survive when machines start to come alive and become homicidal."

Nightbreed (1990)
From IMDb: "A troubled young man is drawn to a mythical place called Midian where a variety of monsters are hiding from humanity."

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
From IMDb: "Jack Skellington, king of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas Town, but doesn't quite understand the concept."

Peeping Tom (1960)
From IMDb: "A young man murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror."

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
From IMDb: "A darker version of the classic Gaston Leroux novel. A young soprano becomes the obsession of a horribly disfigured composer who has plans for those oppose himself or the young singer."

Phenomena (1985)
From IMDb: "A young girl, with an amazing ability to communicate with insects, is transferred to an exclusive Swiss boarding school, where her unusual capability might help solve a string of murders."

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
From IMDb: "During a rural picnic, a few students and a teacher from an Australian girls' school vanish without a trace. Their absence frustrates and haunts the people left behind."

Pin (1988)
From IMDb: "In this low-budget descendant of Psycho, Ursula and Leon are sister and brother, living alone, save for a large wooden puppet they call 'Pin' (for Pinocchio). When Ursula starts hanging around with new boyfriend Stan, Leon and Pin take action."

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
From IMDb: "Aliens resurrect dead humans as zombies and vampires to stop humanity from creating the Solaranite (a sort of sun-driven bomb)."

[REC] (2007)
From IMDb: "A television reporter and cameraman follow emergency workers into a dark apartment building and are quickly locked inside with something terrifying."

The Ring (2002)
From IMDb: "A young journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone in a week of viewing it."

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
From IMDb: "A young couple move into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and occurrences. When the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life."

Theatre of Blood (1973)
From IMDb: "A Shakespearean actor takes poetic revenge on the critics who denied him recognition."

The Thing (1982)
From IMDb: "Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills."

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
From IMDb: "A young FBI agent disappears while investigating a murder miles from Twin Peaks that may be related to the future murder of Laura Palmer; the last week of the life of Laura Palmer is chronicled."

- To those for whom this effects their vote, I have seen the entirety of the TV series Twin Peaks, including this movie, twice through

Unrest (2006)
From IMDb: "A young pathology med student suspects that the spirit of a dead cadaver in the hospital morgue where she works is killing off all those who handle or desecrate the body."

Wolf Creek (2005)
From IMDb: "Stranded backpackers in remote Australia fall prey to a murderous bushman who offers to fix their car, then takes them captive."

The Woman (2011)
From IMDb: "When a successful country lawyer captures and attempts to 'civilize' the last remaining member of a violent clan that has roamed the Northeast coast for decades, he puts the lives of his family in jeopardy."

Nominee removed from the poll owing to its future presence elsewhere on the Summer of Blood schedule:
-Student Bodies (1981)


23 July 2014

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

To get the grubby part out of the way first: Life Itself is a somewhat banal piece of documentary craftsmanship. A lot of talking heads, e-mails represented by onscreen text, old clips. It's something we've all see a billion times, and it is frankly disappointing that Steve James, the man who made the expansive epic of African-American teenage life Hoop Dreams and the exemplary social commentary boots-on-the-ground vérité piece The Interrupters would make something so gosh-darned safe, aesthetically speaking.

Now that's the nitpicky part, whereas the important part is that Life Itself doesn't really have any cause to be aesthetically complex or outrageously creative. It is a tribute to an individual man, as fully fleshed-out as any one depiction of any one human being might need to be. That man being Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of a succession of "dueling critics" TV shows with Gene Siskel over the course of more than two decades, and the inspiration for more current professional and amateur movie critics than anyone else who has ever lived. And of course, because movie reviews are written by movie reviewers, that makes it kind of hard for any of us - the present author happily discloses himself as having been intoxicated by Ebert's writing ability and obvious, overriding love of the art-form, long before I ever even dreamed of doing it myself - to take a genuinely objective view on what James has given us. It is a love letter that's incredibly difficult for most cinephiles to disagree with, and a deeply sweet, affecting balm on what remains, for a lot of people, a still-raw wound all this time after Ebert's death in April, 2013.

But a lack of objectivity is kind of the point of the thing. This is not about Steve James studying a famous man, but eulogising a person to whom he owed much (Siskel & Ebert basically created his career with their effusive love for Hoop Dreams), a friend he came to know well during the last few months of the critic's life, as he worked with James on creating the film that he eventually realised he wouldn't be alive to see completed. James's Ebert is personally warm, quick-witted even when his quips have to be translated through the electronic voice program Ebert relied in his last years, and a clear enthusiast for movies and for living. It's a view largely reflected by the wide range of interview subjects from his closest friends to other critics, not all of whom have had terribly kind things to say about Ebert's contributions to cinema studies. And even his friends are disinterested in whitewashing Ebert's crazed past, his peccadilloes, his occasional selfishness, and his irritable relationship with best frenemy Siskel, a professional rivalry that had some real nasty flickers on the edges, to judge from what we see (James includes footage of the two men bitching each other out while filming promos for their show; if Life Itself served absolutely no other function besides putting that footage out in the world, it would be worth every penny).

The small genius of Life Itself is that it is a film about a generous and open soul that is itself generous and open; eager to embrace Ebert for his fullness and messiness as a critic and a person, and thus reflecting the version of the man it depicts. It's structured to largely take place in the last months of Ebert's life, looking backwards to tell his story but always returning to the hospital where Ebert went through one health crisis after another with the support of his wife Chaz. The contrast between Ebert's late physical impairment and the ebullience of his younger days is striking, but James doesn't use it to beg for sympathy on his subject's behalf; instead, it's a way of throwing into sharp relief how Ebert had only deepened in his appreciation for living even as life became a chain of disgusting, obviously uncomfortable medical procedures and an increasingly circumscribed ability to move. There is never a moment when he complains, or bemoans his fate; the overall impression is of a man greatly at peace with his impending death, and anxious to find the pleasure and beauty in every day he had left.

It sounds trite in its uplifting, inspiring sentiment, but so fully based in the very specific details of who Ebert was and how he thought that it never even once comes over as a bit of pandering "let the cripple show us the way!" exploitation. Mostly, it's getting to learn a great deal about one person, and finding out that he was sensitive, prickly, loving, egocentric, and above all things an infectious communicator of ideas. Inasmuch as it's a hagiography - and I suppose it's awfully hard to claim otherwise - it's a hagiography of Ebert the person that James studied and observed, not a hagiography of Ebert the movie critic.

Of course it has its decent share of flaws, including some fuzzy generalisations about the non-Ebert state of criticism (Pauline Kael, by no means a favorite of mine, deserves better than she gets), and while I understand James's decision to have voice actor Stephen Stanton read excerpts from Ebert's blog and memoirs in an almost-but-not-quite perfect impression of the critic, it never quite managed to stop feeling ghoulish, for my tastes. And it is a pretty straightforward biopic-documentary; immensely likable but always more impressive on the level of content than craft - though that content, including surprisingly personable chats with directors legendary (Martin Scorsese) and obscure (Ava DuVernay), and the always delightful archival footage of Ebert getting into hissing matches with Siskel, is absolutely terrific stuff.

Anyway, James isn't trying to be clever or cunning, but simply to be honest; and he is wonderfully honest indeed. It is a warm film but too intimate not to include some uncomfortable moments, gross truths about the human body, and the occasional moment of bleak sorrow. And it fully lives up to the demand that the subject made in an e-mail to his last chronicler, in explaining why he wanted James to push on through the nastiness even though Chaz would object:
It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn't contain the full reality.

I wouldn't want to be associated. This is not only your film.

Cheers,
R
8/10

22 July 2014

BEST SHOT: UNDER THE SKIN

For this week's edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has chosen (as he does about once a year) a brand new movie: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary mood piece starring Scarlett Johansson. It's fresh enough (just out on DVD last week!) and surprising enough that I want very badly not to spoil it for anyone; also, my pick for Best Shot is within the wheelhouse of Not Safe For Work. So I'm putting the rest of this below the jump.

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: FIGHTING FIRES

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: we've hit the point where something as dire as Planes: Fire & Rescue legitimately qualifies as one of the week's biggest releases. So anyway, fire and rescue. Pretty much one place you can take that. Anyway, I let the Christian firefighters have their go-round, time for the godless Hollywood heathens to have some fun.

A family drama about firefighter brothers crosscut with a technically audacious action-mystery about firefighter brothers might sound like a weird candidate to become a Zeitgeist hit, but the 1990s produced some really weird big popcorn movies, in retrospect. So here we are with Backdraft, anyway, one of the big "showing off our effects work" movies from the summer of 1991, as directed by Ron Howard channeling Robert Zemeckis copying Steven Spielberg.

The film tells of two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) McCaffrey, sons of a Chicago firefighter whose death was witnessed by Brian in childhood, an event depicted with slow motion and hollowed-out sound effects and aching, mournful music, because at least Backdraft tells no lies about what it is. 20 years later, Stephen is one of the toughest sonsabitches in the Chicago Fire Department, a reckless genius who plays by his own rulebook and gets results even if he takes risks that make his colleague and father figure John Adcox (Scott Glenn) freak out. Because it's only a soul-sapping cliché if it takes place in a police station, y'see. Brian, meanwhile - having made the cover of Life magazine back in '71 for the picture of himself standing dazed while holding his dead father's helmet outside the burned-out building where the elder McCaffrey met his fate - has drifted aimlessly through young adulthood and now has come to realise that his goal has always been to follow in Dad and Stephen's footsteps and prove himself a man in the fires of... well, fires. Stephen greatly fears his little brother doesn't have what it takes to hack it, and so he treats the "probie" (firefighter slang for new recruits learning the ropes) with a particular barking roughness that masks his tender concern under dictatorial cruelty, and the relationship between the McCaffreys begins to deteriorate. Will the brothers come to a new understanding of each other and find a respect for the relationship they share, to be tested in the heart of a burning building? Will they ever!

Snarking is easy, but honestly, Backdraft would be a hell of a lot stronger if that's at far as its ambitions had gone, but writer Gregory Widen instead buttressed the tired old tale of dueling brothers with a subplot in which Stephen tries to win back his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay) and be a more present father to his son Sean (Beep Iams). Meanwhile, Brian has just reconnected with an old flame, Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now working in the office of Alderman Marty Swayzak (J.T. Walsh). She convinces Brian to use her connections to get himself a safer job than the madness of rushing into burning buildings, getting himself involved in the investigatory wing of the CFD, where old vet Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) teaches him the fine art of investigating possible arson cases. Will the brothers make hard decisions about the men they want to be, and weigh the merits of being safe and secure family men with the terrifying rush of serving the greater good at risk of life and limb? Will they ever!

Having already pressed two movies into one, Widen apparently figured "what the hell", and added a third: Brian and Rimgale's investigation reveals that a series of recent fires are indeed arson, but arson perpetrated by a real genius with fire. Consulting the unmistakably Hannibal Lectery convicted arsonist Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), the investigators start to piece together a puzzle in which they find out how some genius firebug has been staging incredibly complex traps to trigger a very unusual type of explosion called a backdraft, in which the act of introducing oxygen into a room very quickly - by opening a door, for example - causes it to burst into flame quickly and decisively, yet the same cycle of air that creates the explosion also puts it out almost instantly, leaving just enough fire to kill whatever bastard triggered it. So this isn't mere pyromania, but specific, targeted assassinations, designed to leave no damage other than to a single victim. Will the investigators find out how this mystery is tied to the shady, hopelessly corrupt world of Chicago politics and land development? Will they ever!

In Backdraft, we see a flawless representation of a problem that had plagued summer movies before it was made and continues to plague them over two decades later: it has absolutely fantastic setpieces strung along an absolutely dimwitted script. Not just because it's cliché-ridden, though that doesn't help in the slightest: Backdraft is structurally broken at a truly remarkable degree even by the standards of Ron Howard films, given that director's insistent problem with keeping stories moving along steadily, tending to instead treat things with plodding episodic ebbs and flows; his best films (e.g. Apollo 13, Rush) don't get that way because they avoid that tendency, but because it works well in the context of the narrative. Backdraft compounds the problem: not only does it lack flow, it doesn't ever actually decide what its plot is - what the one-sentence "who is chasing what stakes and what's stopping him" logline is that describes the movie. And Christ knows, I don't want all movies to utilise the barbaric structure of Hollywood storytelling, but Backdraft is every inch a Hollywood movie and Howard a quintessentially Hollywood director; it is the very kind of project that the limiting rules were designed for. And having watched it more than once, I still can't tell you if it's "about" the brothers' patching things up, or if it's "about" Brian investigating the arson case. Because, the thing is, it's about both: basically, it takes place in two chunks, before and after Brian joins up with Rimgale, and there is no communication between those chunks. And even if there was, neither story that the film is telling in its clodhopping way justifies the film's solemn closing title card, "There are over 1,200,700 active firefighters in the U.S. today", which suggests a story about the travails of a firefighter which Backdraft has at no point since the opening scene come close to becoming.

At times, the movie on the edges is interesting: the film captures the way that ethnic stratification works in Chicago better than a lot of other movies, even if it still leans a little hard on the "Chicago Irish" stereotypes. The casual way that life in the firehouse is depicted suggests a far more nuanced and lived-in film about characters who aren't the ones we've been granted as our main subjects. These little strengths serve more to sharpen how devoid of insight most of the movie is, rather than provide a welcome respite from it.

But, the thing is, the fire scenes are great - not just, like, "this is is perfect serviceable disaster porn", but quite probably the best depiction of fiery destruction ever filmed, or that ever might be filmed for all the king's horses and all the king's CGI. Howard - or at least his second unit - film the action scenes with remarkable visual poetry: flame, as more than one character notes, is a beautiful thing like an animal, something to be loved as much as feared. And Backdraft captures that sensation beautifully, while also depicting a kind of creeping tension about what happens from moment to moment that is unlike anything else in Howard's career, and suggests that the man has a decent pseudo-Hitchcock thriller living inside him somewhere. It's mesmerising, brilliant thriller craftsmanship, and it makes for an incomprehensible viewing experience that it swaps places with the tedious human drama at such irregular intervals.

And boy, are Backdraft's humans tedious. Given nothing remotely like interesting character arcs to play, none of the actors leave a huge impression: De Niro and Leigh, usually reliable to provide a certain live-wire energy, are both sleepwalking through nothing roles, and Russell only gets one moment where he does anything besides play a gruff-talking man's man (it's when he screams, frenzied, at Brian for not staying put, and the actor allows us to understand that it's fear and love, not authoritarian bullying, doing the talking). That Baldwin is flat and uninteresting is hardly surprising, and the film elects to make him the de facto protagonist as Stephen sits out most of the last hour. Only De Mornay and Sutherland feel like they did any homework at all in building their characters, and they're both in, like, three scenes apiece.

Aesthetically, it's all over the place. Howard favors some unfortunately over-emphatic slow-motion throughout the film, and tries for an iconic feel that his skill hadn't worked up to yet by that point in his career - Russell is introduced coming out of the smokey building backlit like an alien in a Spielberg film, and it's almost comically over-serious. Hans Zimmer's score, one of the most wildly over-used in the history of film music (you couldn't watch a random sampling of 10 film trailers from the 1990s without encountering it at least a couple of times), gets points for the sheer fist-pumping flag-waving grandeur it evokes, though its a little blunt in its emotional manipulation (but hell, something needs to engender emotions, somewhere in the movie.

The highs are so, so high, and the lows so suffocating in their mediocrity, it's really impossible to make any kind of qualitative judgment about the movie as a whole: in some ways, it's essential '90s action cinema because of how great it is, and in some ways, it's essential because of how perfectly it typifies all of the boilerplate idiocy of that decade's popcorn formulas. Either way it's essential, I guess, but I can't think of another so-called essential movie that, having now watched it twice, I have so little desire to ever revisit.

21 July 2014

LITTLE SCREEN, BIG SCREEN

A couple of days late, but I had limited computer time over the weekend. Team Experience has lately published our cumulative list of the Top 10 movies adapted from television series; as is my wont, I shall here include my own ballot, though I'd especially urge you all to check out the post at Film Experience, there's some really great writing going on.

Anyway, my list, which has so many caveats attached that I won't even bother listing them: eligibility was a bitch for this one, both officially and in my own head, and some of the more conspicuous missing titles (two of which made the group list) aren't here simply because I didn't think they passed the smell test for "based on a TV series". And there was also a question I never quite resolved in my own mind, of how much the question was "is a great movie" versus "correctly adapts the spirit of the show to a cinematic setting". I tried to split the difference as much as possible, but the results are, I concede, lumpy, and the rankings beyond #1 a little arbitrary.

1. In the Loop (2009) [#1 on the TFE list]
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
3. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) [on the TFE list]
4. Pennies from Heaven (1981) [on the TFE list]
5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) [on the TFE list]
6. Traffic (2000) [on the TFE list]
7. Serenity (2005) [on the TFE list]
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
9. The Fugitive (1993) [on the TFE list]
10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

My five runners-up, alphabetically:
21 Jump Street (2012)
Maverick (1994)
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) [on the TFE list]

20 July 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1960: In which contemporary history gets the epic treatment

The signal characteristic of Otto Preminger's Exodus from 1960, a story of the founding of the modern state of Israel, has nothing to do with the film's sensitive political content; nothing to do with the iconic, stirring Romantic main theme of Eric Gold's deservedly Oscar-winning score; nothing to with the fact that this is the only movie to pair Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, two of the most beautiful people in midcentury American cinema. The signal characteristic of Exodus is its length - at 208 minutes, it is not the longest movie ever made, or even close to it, but those 208 minutes take their goddamn sweet time in expressing themselves. After Gold's music, probably the best-known thing about the movie is a story too perfect too be true and too good not to repeat, that comedian Mort Sahl stood up a few hours into the film's premiere to loudly proclaim "Otto, let my people go!", and while perhaps impolite, it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiment. I find myself irresistibly drawn to compare the film to Lawrence of Arabia, made two years later, in broadly the same part of the world and running to a slightly longer length; while that film is beautiful, and full of driving incident, it has that bit in towards where it starts to grind down and get bogged down in talking and politics and even the main character seems impatient for the thing to end. Exodus is like that draggy 20 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia stretched over the entirety of three and a half hours, instead of just coming at the wrong time near the end of three and a half hours.

In this regard, Exodus is a fine representative of what had just about started to become a trend at the beginning of the '60s and would turn into a full-fledged addiction by the decade's end: exhausting, pointless bloat. For all that it's fun to bitch and moan about how, in the 2010s, we can't have a movie about superheroes or giant robots that can find its way to a genre-appropriate running time, contemporary cinema doesn't have anything on the heaving immensity of a real good Indulgent Monstrosity from the 1960s. Some of these movies were good, or even great: Lawrence of Arabia, for one. Many more of them are just enervating, endurance tests which make the cardinal sin of assuming that a broad sense of capital-H History and enough widescreen panoramas justifies plodding through a narrative with far too much attention to detail in every last tiny way: Doctor Zhivago jumps to mind, David Lean's very next film post-Lawrence.

Exodus is damn near the patron saint of this latter group. Carved out of Leon Uris's 1958 Zeitgeist-dominating novel by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - allegedly leaving a great deal of plot and depth of backstory behind, which makes one gawk to think how jam-packed the book must have been - it follows a handful of key people during a specific chain of events in 1947 and '48, all of which contribute to the partition of Palestine and the formation of a new country to serve as save haven for the world's Jewish population, reeling from the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust. And it follows this people with extremely close attention, though not necessarily historical precision (the event it portrays as being the key event in the events of those years plays out in literally the exact opposite of how it did historically). And this focus is more invested in minutiae than dramatic momentum: even if you read a scene-by-scene description of the film's plot, I don't think you could rightly fathom how it could cross the two-hour mark, let alone three.

But I'll stop bitching about that before this review becomes as long as Exodus itself. The film opens in Cyprus, in 1947, with American widow Kitty Fremont (Saint), a nurse whose photojournalist husband died recently covering a story about the Jewish agitation to be permitted entry into the British-controlled Palestine. She is given a tour by General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), commander of the British forces on Cyprus and a sympathetic figure for the Jews; he convinces her to volunteer as nurse for the internment camp where displaced Jewish refugees are kept while the British government flails around trying to figure out what to do with them. This puts her in a perfect position to see firsthand the act of rebellion by which Ari Ben Canaan (Newman), formerly of the British Army and now of the revolutionary group Hagannah captures a ship which is renamed the SS Exodus, and peopled with over 600 refugees. Ari plans to take these people to Palestine, and stages a hunger strike and also threatens to blow up the ship if the British try to interfere; eventually, the Brits cave in and allow the Exodus to go on its way. In Palestine, the plot blossoms into a kaleidoscopic view of the radical attempt to form an independent Jewish state: Ari's father Barak (Lee J. Cobb) is the leader of a diplomatic group working for that goal, while his brother, Ari's uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu) is a high-ranking member of Irgun, a group preferring more violent means. This makes it greatly appealing to Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a refugee from the Exodus and survivor of Auschwitz, who has meanwhile struck up a close relationship with Karen (Jill Haworth), a Danish-Jewish refugee who has been unofficially adopted by Kitty, hoping to take the girl back to America and a better life. And Kitty, in the meantime, has begun to fall in love with Ari.

Confusing and convoluted, but not enough for three and a half hours which are not, anyway, mostly taken up with character material, but with scene after scene after scene of talking. Talking about the hunger strike, talking about the negotiating with the British government, talking about dealing with the UN, talking about performing acts of terrorism, talking about the encroaching hostility of the Arab populations surrounding and inhabiting Palestine. There is, probably, no other way to dramatise the events of this scenario than to show people talking, but there's not a whole lot that's less interesting in cinema, unless the filmmakers are keen, aggressive stylists, and this is not something that is typically true of Preminger. He was a talented director, and a phenomenal journeyman when making something like Laura; as he began to grow in stature as a producer-director, he demonstrated fine instincts for picking controversial projects that would allow him to grip Modern Society by the balls and twist and tug and force it under his unforgiving microscope. Sometimes this worked out brilliantly, and we get Anatomy of a Murder or Advise & Consent (the films he made on either side of Exodus). Sometimes, this resulted in the idiotic frippery of The Moon Is Blue. While Exodus is undoubtedly better than that film, it's on the same side of the Preminger Scale, where the desire to do important, edgy, groundbreaking things in his storytelling (which included hiring Trumbo, whose script for Spartacus in '60 was the first time a blacklisted artist had received onscreen credit) outweighs such trivial things as entertainment or human interest.

Exodus is appallingly boring. That's a subjective word, but I can't think of a better one. And the main reason why is its central pair of Newman and Saint, neither of whom works in the film's interests whatsoever, and whose portrayal of Ari and Kitty, protagonists and the source of all the alleged emotional involvement in the human-sized drama playing out amidst all the Important History, is completely without warmth or interest. Newman, the WASPiest half-Jew on the books in all the history of Hollywood filmmaking, played every moment of his performance as a cold, angry rageaholic, admitting nothing but glowering contempt for anyone and everything, even the people who agree with his goals and his methods, and it's both tedious and unenlightening to have him as our primary guide to the human story of Israel. But at least his simmering anger is an emotion - Saint's performance is so devoid of affect or inflection that it would be hilarious, if it were in the context of a movie that wasn't so goddamn long that every little thing that makes it feel more stilted adds hours to the subjective experience of watching it. If it's not her mechanical depiction of physical attraction to Newman, its her false smiles of warmth towards Karen, or worse things still - the film opens with a scene in which, among other things, she discusses her past miscarriage without altering her tone of voice or facial expression even slightly. It's all so contrary to anything that the movie or the character needs at any moment that I'd almost guesss that Saint was a rabid anti-Zionist hoping to single-handedly ruin the film by torpedoing its emotional throughline with her wooden non-acting.

There are, thankfully, some stronger performances around the edges, with Richardson standing out heads and shoulders above everybody, though Mineo's gaunt expressions of pain and resentment, which are likely what earned him his Oscar nomination for the role, are moving and vulnerable like nothing else in the movie is. But it's always pretty clear that Preminger wasn't chiefly interested in telling the story of Ari and Kitty and Barak and Dov and Karen and whoever the hell else, he was making an advertisement for Israel's moral right to exist. I'm not getting into the argument over whether or not that was a worthy goal in and of itself; for one thing, I have absolutely no idea what kind of opinion most of the world had about the state of Israel in the late '50s, a full decade before the Six-Day War changed everything about Israel's place in global politics. My only claim is that it makes for rough cinema, especially in the bluntly detached, observational style that Preminger always favored. A spoonful of sugar helps the propaganda go down, if you will, but Exodus lacks any visual flair or clever structure to sweeten its reeling off of scene upon scene of social studies lessons and recapping what was then recent enough history that the film allows itself to skimp on some details that would be awfully nice to have available nearly 70 years after the events the film depicts.

It's not exactly ill-made, though sometimes it's awfully sloppy - the lighting is sloppy, the sound is often tinny, and the refugees on hunger strike look awfully hale and well-kept. But even if Preminger and his collaborators - cinematographer Sam Leavitt, editor Louis R. Loeffler - weren't in a particularly inventive mood when it came to making and combining their images, this was still a movie made with obvious talent and resources, with handsome location photography of Israel giving the film a sense of place that suits it well. When it allows itself to loosen up, as happens somewhat regularly in the last 90 minutes, after the intermission, there's even some genuinely great filmmaking. The chaos in the aftermath of Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel (which is pushed back by a year to fit into the dramatic chronology) is captured with tense momentum, and later on, there's a prison break sequence that's a triumph across the board: well-choreographed, scored with bellicose impact, sharply cut.

More moments like that, and the living history of Exodus could have been genuinely involving, its retelling of Israel's dramatic, contentious founding turned into something rich and moving and exciting. But it's such a lecture in its current form, and a particularly dry and inhumane one to boot. I understand having motivations that have nothing to do with entertainment, and the urgency of Exodus is apparent throughout - oh my, is it ever an urgent, urging movie - but there has to be something compelling to watch or all that impassioned political argument adds up to nothing but a bunch of noise, playing out for what feels like an eternity and never adding up to anything.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1960

-Director-star John Wayne makes the tiresome, bullying epic The Alamo, which he then humiliates the Academy into nominating for a Best Picture Oscar
-MGM's The Last Voyage births the modern disaster picture
-Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho changes everything

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1960
-Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura also changes everything
-Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless changes everything that hadn't been changed yet
-Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid changes nothing, but it is one of the essential masterworks of South Korean cinema nonetheless