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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

FURY, WORLD WAR Z and the Tyler Durden Experience (Great 70s Dads: The Brad Pitt Edition)


I started writing this post a few months ago during the 2014 Golden Globes, prepared for the usual mawkish acceptance speeches and self-congratulatory montages, but I was shocked instead by how much blubbering was occurring over, of all things, kids. On and on these winners went about how they love their kids, how their kids are shining stars of Bethlehem that transport them safely across the deserts of artistic blocks and emotional meltdowns and give their life's work Myrrh-ish meaning.It was appalling.

Sure, I'm being a curmudgeon, but I have nothing against the kids themselves. I feel for them. Imagine being one of the children of those Globe winners, staying over at a slumber party and everyone's watching of course on TV and noticing your dad is a wussy crybaby who's totally bound to you hand and foot. Christ, I would have packed my sleeping bag and bailed on the spot. Kids have honor, a code! In order to grow into decent human beings these kids need to know you aren't going to fall apart on them, crying and clinging and making them fight for every second of privacy. They want to know that they can move out one day and you'll have some one else to thank, for a change, like your agent!  Or God! Or Brad Pitt, to show you the way a great 70s dad behaves.

The Pitt-staring 2013 zombie disaster film World War Z can help. I  may be the first film to actively redress the ongoing problem of what I call the Dads of Great Adventure, i.e. the ones who wind up with custody of their kids during the apocalypse because it happens to come on a weekend, and so they spend the movie trying to return them to the upscale hottie mom and the bland moneyed stepdad who's everything the deadbeat dad of great adventure is not, to an almost Ralph Bellamy-esque degree. As Gerry Lane in Z, Brad seems to be actively healing the fisher king wound left by these adventure dads. He's still married to the children's mother, and is competent and responsible for the world outside his immediate family as well as for said family, and the wife too, all are taken care of without over-protecting, sanctimoniously belittling, clinging, or simpering (or on the other side, ignoring, spacing, procrastinating, stalling). Pitt's professional compassion exonerates him from the usual sense of proximal guilt that trips up rubes like Cage in Knowing, Viggo in The Road, Cruise in War of the Worlds and Cusak in 2012. More than all of them, World War Z makes a genuine manly effort to show male viewers a kind of post-Fight Club code they can live by without feeling like second class citizens in their own home. Gerry Lane and family (including urchin collected en route) are choppered off to an aircraft carrier packed with refugees, so he can jet off to help a doctor locate Patient Zero. A global journey takes him from South Korea to Israel to a remote medical testing facility in Wales, and finally to a refugee camp in the one place savvy doomsday preppers have eyeballed since 1999 as the place to be in a crisis, Nova Scotia.


The real-life pair of Jolie and Pitt  got started on their global betterment tour when Jolie starred in Beyond Borders. As if continuing that film's message, Brad plays a selfless UN worker who has survived some of the most harrowing places on Earth, so the disasters of this zombie plague don't stress him out the way they do other dads. He has a strong, supportive wife, two glowing children, and great fun family rapport. Over the course of the movie these kids (they adopt another kid whose soon-dead family they bond with while hiding for the night in a NJ tenement), and wife are never really in danger, or at any rate, they don't panic because they trust in their heavenly-faced father. We sense that even when the zombie spittle is flying fast and furious no harm will come to them. In fact those who stay super close to Pitt miraculously survive even as everyone else around them are infected and/or dead. The concern is solely as to where and how Pitt's UN semi-unfazable superdad will solve the zombie problem,


Pitt avoids the issues that plagued the earlier dads of great adventure exceedingly well, regularly making eye contact with people being bitten and devoured but then not helping them or stopping to save them. There's something reassuring about how being a representative from the UN gets you driven all around the world without need for check-in or bag search. Telling moments reveal a savvy about the proximal responsibility issue: the grateful singing of the Palestinians being let into Israel to avoid the plague excites the zombies and drives them over the impregnable wall; The one moment of true Brad danger comes when his wife's phone call rings as he's trying to sneak around sleeping zombies. This is a movie that knows how any glimmer of empathy, proximal responsibility, etc. can set off a chain reaction. Only Brad's compassionate but survival-based mojo manages to know when to cut and run in true triage fashion.


Fury (2014) finds Pitt not saving the world while mom and foundlings wait at a Nova Scotia refugee camp with slippers and pipe, but blasting the hell out of the German homeland defenses with a motley tank crew of uncouth but loyal brigands. A clean-shaven newbie from the typing pool who quivers and quakes and resents Pitt forcing him to shoot an unarmed German prisoner just to show he's O.G. (as he earlier didn't fire on a soldier kids he saw, leading to another Sgt. being killed). We're put inside the mind of this kid (Logan Lerman) and there's some of that distasteful anachronism where he's way too wussy for 1945, hell, even for 1975, but wussy like they only started to make 'em in the post-PC 'declawing' of masculinity beginning around the early 80s. Wardaddy does the right thing in forcing him to kill an unarmed soldier, it's a matter of Pitt and crew's on personal survival the kid give up his squeamish morality and suggesting all sensitive typists (like myself) could use a few months on the front lines of a war with a guy like Wardaddy to toughen us up to the point we can turn compassion into an asset rather than a liability, that we don't hesitate on the trigger when its time to kill. 


We've seen this PC young typist character before, in Saving Private Ryan (played by the ever-mugging Jeremy Davies), though there we also had the chronic complainer (Ed Burns), and the "Wardaddy" there wasn't a mighty Pitt but 'decent guy' Tom Hanks. Pitt had proved he could be wild and liberated even whilst a young scrap of a fella, back in Thelma and Louise, so that's never been in doubt, but even so, here we got some extra layers of toughness as borne out by his scarred and diesel oil-stained face. We see him get kind of cleaned up when a nice little breakfast served up by Pitt and a couple of frauleins is invaded by the rest of his motley tank corp, and we see Pitt forced into a weird no-win zone between solidarity with his rapey crew and an innate gentlemanly spirit. It's the most tiresome scene in the film, and I'll confess I FF-ed part of the way, but it's almost worth it for the brutal pay-off, which finally brings the sudden deathliness of things to bear for our milquetoast. Eventually the lad even learns when to let a kraut fry to death and when to chop him in half.  Hell yeah, Sgt. Rock loves this movie, wherever he is.


And if the whole last stand thing means that yet again the Saving Private similarities come too close to call, what is so important about Fury is what's not there, no balderdash bullshit about needing to ask a goddamned woman whether or not you 'earned it' and all that trying to find some greatest generation noble cause lollipop at the center of the severed head tootsie roll.

We all knew Pitt could bring the nihilistic badassitude as could Michael Pena (Observe and Report), the real surprises in the crew are Jon Bernthal as the unkempt creep whose iron john energy finally connects with Lerman after the fraulein incident and Shia LaBeouf, whom I've always regarded with some level of contempt, but completely changed my mind with his bible-quoting sonofabitch here. When it comes down to the nitty gritty of sharing last cigarettes and drinks before almost certain doom, it's Shia who really brought it home to me, deep in my socks, the feeling of being fully cognizant of the true finality of extinction, how one's death is pressed right up on the glass and always just a tap away, and of standing firm anyway, fully in thrall of the only thing that can transcend the overwhelming instinct towards self-preservation, devotion to one's team, the crew, the captain, the Pitt, the king. It's something that for all its' greatness the entirety of Band of Brothers was never able to achieve, and yet it's all right there, in Shia, who gets his voice down a full octave and takes swigs of booze so believably (as in, the pain of no chaser, rather than the blokes who drink it like ice tea) that you can smell the fumes inside that tank, adding to the pungent manly aroma of dried blood, sweat, gun powder, diesel oil, and cigarettes.


There's no voiceover in Fury, either, which also sets it above so many of its 'mother, am I a good man?' counterparts. And yhe ending credits are some of the coolest I've seen, with Steven Price's great A Silver Mt. Zion-esque soundtrack blasting over high contrast color-res images of the rest of the war, the idea that we all think that by the time we rolled over the German border the war was already won, but there was still a whole lot of pointless killing and destruction left undone. What I mean is that in Fury war is hell, and in 1945 was mostly over anyway, so the dirty jobs left for doing were somehow double heinous, a pure waste of property, architecture, and lives rather than a noble cause. The war's all over but the signatures, half the soldiers they're fighting are old men and kids, therefore the continued bloodbath has no more meaning or political importance, it's not preserving democracy anymore, it's just slaughter, which makes the relationships of the tank crew that much more important.

Ask the guys in Afghanistan and Iraq what they're fighting for and the answer's always the same: the guy next to them in the foxhole, their buddy, their brother by fire. That's the kind of thing that would sound trite in a voiceover but if a movie like Fury can show rather than tell, then maybe the senselessness itself can make sense. War is hell right up to the end and so is life when the stuff's stripped away. More so in Fury than most war films (since maybe the 1930s) if you're going to survive, you need to become Hell's chosen badass. So here we finally learn what Spielberg only hinted at in his clutching for decency, that every milquetoast has it in him to face death with both barrels blazing if it comes to that, and to let go of burdensome humanity and at the same time find a whole new Nietzschean paradigm. Patton knew it. Kubrick knew it. Pitt's "Wardaddy" knows it and director David Ayers knows it. Scuttlebutt is he had the boys play in a real life morning fight club, to toughen up their faces and get them hardened, amped but low key, weary but jacked, cool but not cold, the way we all wanted to be after Fight Club. Coincidence? No such thing. In filmmaking as in war, the comfort of phony personae is the first thing that must go and the fastest way to shuck it is in a bare knuckle brawl. Whether as Sgt. Wardaddy or Sgt. Aldo Raine, Tyler Durden or Gerry Lane, it's the Pitt persona who's never wavered from that punchy code. He is our tousled lord and king, he is our approximate Arthur, our Kalifornia king. He is Hollywood's ice cream face emperor Joe Black, and all that's standing between us and the terrible apron string hydra called mother. 


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Rothrock Rules! YES MADAM!, ABOVE THE LAW, MERCENARIES, BLONDE FURY; Carano Crushes! HAYWIRE, IN THE BLOOD


It seems we're living in an age where feminist worries about the detrimental effects of sexual violence in the media really have proven valid. Popular cinema is awash in white slavery, sexual sickos, date rapists (the horrible disillusioning for those of us who loved Cosby as a child) and how a dead hooker is now just part of the whole Vegas black-out experience. Was Laura Mulvey right, the male gaze is a horrifying all-consuming evil? Her "Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema" essay opened a dialogue on the male gaze but unfortunately spawned a downer academic feedback loop as, in their drive for tenure, liberal arts faculties have sometimes erred on the side of humorless baby stifling. But at least it keeps them off the streets, which aren't safe, if the last million films starring Nicolas Cage or Liam Neeson are correct.

But as winter melts away and pollen and seasonal depression lurks, man need deliverance, need a break from the heavy theory and artsy shizz, and liberal arts guilt. And I'm supposed to go to a damn Laura Mulvey lecture/film screening at 6PM today/tonight (no joke)!  Jim, I'm becalmed, and no avant garde collage detournement deconstructions of 50s Hollywood's feminine ideals can raise me spirits. Not tonight, Josephine!


I'm sure Mulvey will crush it, or whatever term is gender-awareness allowable, but I need to see women literally crush it to feel better instead of worse. Not the usual direct-to-cable bimbos in halter tops running along some Philippine beach with plastic guns in hand, nor dour sermonizers who feel bad about all their violence. I'm talking women who are confident, fearless, and could believably put a hole through a windshield with a single punch....

YES MADAM! (1985)

Dir. Corey Yuen
***1/2

This Hong Kong hyperkinetic comic ballet has as its comic center three bumbling petty crooks who accidentally grab a MacGuffin microfiche, with the ballistic Cynthia Rothrock and graceful Michelle Yeoh as cops trying to get it from and/or protect them. Both women are great, but Rothrock is ballsy and fights like she's really fighting (she was a karate champion). Yeoh fights like she's dancing which is perfectly fine, and her balletic style matches that of most of these guys. She tends to kick a guy then let him recover and kick back and then kick him again on and on, like one might at a martial arts demonstration rather than a competition. Rothrock never gives her opponent time to recover, she just moves in bam bam bam, like a boxer, no chance for her opponent to shake off the previous blow, or even the one before that, until he's down and out for the count. Yeoh is supremely graceful but her kicks never seemed believable to knock over big guys, whereas you can believe even really big dudes would be fall bloody at the feet of Rothrock. Best part is a great climactic knockdown brawl wherein their two styles merge and they bond, and its glass-and-face-smashing greatness elevates the soul. The three doofuses wear on the nerves quickly but you'll believe a girl can fly through a glass window to dodge a guy's kick and then swing around underneath it and kick him through the same hole in the glass all in one smooth flip. And you'll be right: ROTHROCK RULES!

ABOVE THE LAW (1986)

Aka: Righting Wrongs
Dir. Corey Yuen
***

Biao Yuen stars as a Hong Kong lawyer who watches as a Dirty Harry-era scumbag rich criminal gets off scot-free in court by having all his witnesses, plus their children, blown-up and/or shot (by a black guy in an American army uniform); there's an undercurrent of the old British rule being corrupt and the powdered wigs they all have to wear in court look horribly itchy. Yuen winds up pissed off so takes the law into his own hands and goes gunning for the bad guys on his off hours, but where's the 'fu? He's not a very good driver but he's good at close quarters fighting with hired hit men trying to run him over in a third-story parking garage. Cop Rothrock talks about vigilanteism while watching a toy train run its track and the only drawback is the slovenly cop she picks as her assistant; he's one hell of a sloppy gross eater, to the point a sensitive guy like me has to look away. Rothrock though, man, she can fight... so I have to look as soon as he's gone.


The final climactic brawl occurs in an airplane hangar and makes good use of everything from a propellor to an on-airplane fight to the death. Yuen more than holds his own, but its Rothrock--as an HK cop who starts out investigating the murders of all the high level scumbags but winds up on Yuen's side--who really registers. She's not here to make friends, and though she doesn't get near enough screen time, it's enough to make us realize just how much ROTHROCK RULES!

BLONDE FURY, THE (1989)

(AKA Lady Reporter, Righting Wrongs 2)
Director Mang Hoi
**1/2

Lots of the typical HK action-comedy elements, this time centered around an American FBI agent (Rothrock) who works the SF Chinatown beat and has friends in HK, so she's sent back there to crack a counterfeit ring by posing as a reporter. As per usual, all the men are either spastic morons or grinning evil bad guys, crooked pols and cops with shady motivations. Rothrock isn't quite the boxy brawler from YES MADAM! and ABOVE THE LAW anymore. She's more along the Yeoh lines: graceful, acrobatic, agile, but the fights are often sped up slightly more than usual and her kicks don't look like they hurt as bad as they did a few years ago. Now the guys just bounce back up again and the spastic imbeciles with their bugging eyes run hither and yon with equal speed, the main offender being the director Mang Hoi, though we must make allowances for Asia's love of 'big crowd pleaser' comedy, the kind that gets theaters full of all ages people rolling in the aisles but seems labored when you're watching at home with your discerning film snob cronies. Still, the lame jokes make the bumbling crooks in MADAME seem like the goddamned Ocean's Eleven. That said, the two films (this and MADAM! I mean) are a lot alike... this time it's an incriminating file that winds up in the hands of Rothrock's female boss at the paper. Whatevs. Corruption. Stay with the story. There's a great fight on bamboo poles along the three or four stories of a half-finished domicile of some sort. Its DVD is OOP but it's streaming free on the old YT and one day I swear I'll spring for the iOB. 

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HAYWIRE (2011)

Dir Steven Soderbergh
****

Smoky-eyed UFC fighter Gina Carano is most believably ass-kicking American babe since the early Hong Kong Rothrock, but this is no Hong Kong street brawl, this is Soderbergh making up for the outrages of his ill-conceived CONTAGION. Here Carano herself is the contagion and the boys don't have a chance for a cure.  I could go press play and re-see it right now. But I'm at fookin' work. This is Steven Soderbergh's big masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. I've probably seen it ten times and I can't get enough.  I wish it had a bigger ending and I sure wish it made a ton of money so he'd make a dozen sequels like those damned OCEANS,


There's so many things to love about this film: the touching military sense of cool in the face of danger that bonds her to her father (Bill Paxton), a former Marine (like her) now writing books on WW2 desert warfare; the cold blue-eyes of Michael Fassbender as an MI6 agent lured into thinking he can kill her easy; the way Michael Douglas as a Washington insider doesn't buy her high level betrayal frame-up, and just encourages her to keep killing her way up the ladder; Channing Tatum as her lover / would-be assassin and their great diner brawl; the confused but smart hipster who gets told the backstory; the cool reflective Soderbergh surfaces to post-modern globalism that only he and a few other directors--Assayas, Liman, Greengrass--can really deliver.

Too bad though, that Carano hasn't been given much other proper material after this. She could be a new kind of Jenn Bourne, instead her best post-HAY work is in the most recent FAST AND FURIOUS epic which allows her one big subway steps battle, where we're supposed to believe Michelle Rodriguez would have a chance against her.

IN THE BLOOD (2014)

Dir. John Stockwell
**

We see the importance of Steven Soderbergh's way of pulling out great depth of dark-eyed beauty from Carano's face and movements, the way she seems to be leaning way back into herself, even while throttling guys in waves of UFC leglock mount moves. Here in IN THE BLOOD all the best moves occur early on in a big nightclub brawl where Carano rescues her husband from Danny Trejo's ho stable. That said, there's sunshine, island mood, and unrepentant violence including some sideways likenings of Carano's actions to those of Shagur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. She even commits some cold-blooded outright murder, including several cops. I enjoyed that aspect because female action heroines are seldom more cold-blooded than even their most despicable enemies. The story is a kind of THE LADY VANISHES or BREAKDOWN as a zip-lining accident leads to Gina's fiancee's disappearance, and his rich father (Treat Williams) and sister accuse her of killing him for the inheritance. It's up to her to carve a bloody torturous trail through the brush; her particular set of skills ensnaring several mostly innocent people along in her swath. Director Stockwell gave us the excellent INTO THE BLUE and BLUE CRUSH, so he knows his tropical island island action, and TURISTAS, so he knows his gringos on the organ chopping block racism. But has he ever seen a lassie go this way and that way, so goddamned fast? He tries to catch up via limb-shredding and gun fire brutality, but we'd rather just see Gina kick some crap out of some Triads or Golden Tongs and aside from that nightclub scene, there's woefully little fight choreography. The anti-climactic Danny Trejo speech at the end is priceless, though. His island ladies need tourists after all, and when rich white people are attacked, it's no good for anybody's business, especially, it seems, Stockwell's.

MERCENARIES (2014)

Dir. Christopher Ray
**

Zoƫ Bell has doubled for Xena and Buffy and Uma long enough. She's stepping into her own here (after breaking out atop the Challenger in DEATH-PROOF) and her hair looks great. Directed by the ersatz maniac behind MEGA SHARK VS. CROCOSAURUS, This is the B-chick version of THE EXPENDABLES, with fellow Tarantino alum Vivica Fox, Asian American badass Nicole Balderback and TERMINATOR 3 babe Kristanna Loken teaming up with Bell against a dyked-out Brigitte Nielsen. The unsavory white slaver angle is handled with some level of tact, though a massive machine gun carnage bit leaves a bad taste. There is a lot of mean talk and discovered bodies dealt with via vengeance of a mostly cathartic order and everyone seems to having fun in the boondogle EXPENDABLES tradition, albeit with around a 1/100th of the budget (its director is Fred Olen-Ray's son, as if the word 'Crocosaurus' wasn't enough of a tip-off). Mostly though it's a chance for Bell to kick some serious ass and for Cynthia Rothrock to pass the badass torch and take her seat in the pantheon of action heroes-turned-action movie 'behind the desk' good guy government liaisons who send younger ass-kickers on their dangerous missions. Low budgets never stopped Hong Kong actors from delivering the goods, so why should the word 'Crocosausus' convince these ladies to phone it in? Ray can barely figure out where to put his camera but ROTHROCK RULES Eternal, even when leaving the high kicks to the kids.


Monday, March 02, 2015

Young Jack in the Post-Poe Po-Mo Hellman Hole: THE TERROR, THE SHOOTING

The legendarily muddled Roger Corman Poe-ish Gothic horror THE TERROR (1963) famously came together spur of the moment when, supposedly, Corman still had two days on Karloff's RAEVN shooting schedule and not wanting to waste them shot Boris walking around in what remained of the castle sets, trusting a film could be built around it with minimal effort. He was right about the minimal, but that's just part of the film's shaggy dog-eared charm. Francis Ford Coppola went up to Big Sur to shoot some exteriors, and then later, Jack Hill as writer and Monte Hellman as director came along to reshape, rework, and reconfigure the results, shooting in and around Playa del Rey, Leo Carillo Beach, and what was then the AFI. So there's a lot of hands in the mix here, with the final product being enigmatic as intentionally as possible while hitting all the traditional Poe Gothic bases.

But if the final product is more than the sum of its parts, whose authorial voice is it that results when the 'more' is factored? Corman's usually wry, hip but never anachronistic Gothic "voice" isn't here, and Coppola's style isn't really noticeable (any more than, say, Dennis Hopper's might be on THE TRIP), and Hill's balls-out stealth feminist drive-in moxy isn't there, but Hellman's vanishing point identity and existential narrative-dissolution is all over the place. And in the context of his subsequent enigmatic masterpieces, THE TERROR fits beautifully, perhaps even situating his two later acclaimed existential works THE SHOOTING (1966) and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) within a more immediately graspable mythic context then they might have if seen solely as examples of their respectively associated genres, and vice versa.


The Hellman style wasn't yet a recognizable 'thing' in 1963, but after seeing his more well-known works you feel that innate "Hellman-ness" maybe formed in THE TERROR's dreamy 'edge of forever' tide pools and in the the ambiguity of relationships and the fluidity of identity, especially where "the woman" is concerned. Hellman's female characters tend to control the men and natural world around them almost unconsciously, yet they themselves are often void of distinct personae except as surfers of the oceanic unconscious, archetypal currents billed in the credits as "the woman" or "the girl." This anima ambiguity perfectly fits the ghostly figure played by Sandra Knight in THE TERROR as she appears to lost Cavalry officer Lt. Andre Duvalier (a young Jack Nicholson) at various points along the shore or cliffs, sometimes luring him to a would-be doom, sometimes in her other form as a falcon, or she was the falcon the whole time and asked the sky witch for human legs, or she's a ghost or a girl who thinks she's a ghost in the middle of an elaborate revenge scheme.. You could lump that concept in with NIGHT TIDE, THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE SEA WITCH, THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER, i.e. low budget horror films that use a girl and some waves (both super cheap, especially if one is your girlfriend) as a low budget Bergman art-horror hybrid, but you'd be selling the talent of Jack "SPIDER BABY" Hill and Hellman short, who were coming in for the second half of a project begun by Corman as a straight Poe-ish Gothic, and rather than twisting further toward the expected ghost revenge story normalcy brought it farther out, into the suggested transmigration of souls, the transitory nature of the flesh, and the relentless ocean tide whiplash, as a mirror to eternity's corrosive caress..


Part of the weird effect THE TERROR has on fans such as myself, is that it never seems to tell the same story twice. In order to understand how and why, you just have to dial your focus out and consider the film's post-release history, the differing hands at the helm being just one aspect. THE TERROR fell into Public Domain a long time ago, and ever since has shown constantly, first on local TV in the pre-cable era, then on $5 video tapes, then nearly every 100 movies for $10 DVD horror collection on the market. And since there's no quality control, the film often appears edited for time, with out-of-order (or missing) reels, faded color, cheap VHS tracking issues (carried over onto cheap DVD burns), scenes cut and added from different prints of different quality, etc. If you're a classic horror fan you've seen THE TERROR dozens of times, maybe never even intentionally... and seldom all the way to the end, making it perhaps the benchmark for what fantasy and horror fans call dream (or nightmare) logic. Because it's so atmospheric, and fun--especially considering Nicholson is so young and sometimes confused--it's endlessly re-watchable even if you're not really watching. You can fall asleep to it real easily, and dream your way right in.

Young Jack with then-wife Sandra Knight - THE TERROR;
Middle Jack with Maria Schneider - THE PASSENGER
This has helped, of course in making the film 'great' in the sense that you can watch it a dozen times and never understand it or have any idea you've seen it before, and it never gets boring (or exciting - it's perfect), making it a great gateway drug to dream logic extremists like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. And if you're a filmmaker of any caliber it's a call to arms, because it's an example of how in our mind fills vaster voids than bigger-budgeted auteurs can etch, and absence of coherence is the same as just enough, and our unconscious savors the randomness our conscious minds resist. And I don't mean that with any disrespect. From the loftiest Kubrick enigmas to the accidental Brecht of your child babbling at you about a film they saw in school while you watch TV commercials with the sound muted, that's it, that's the end of sentence. For true artists find the third route, neither right nor left, but purple; not forwards nor backwards, but red, and balloon, and Jeff. And it is thus that man can become totally lost in between, where dreams cohere and dissolve above the sordidness of conscious ass-dragging desert, a cloud of slow-mo exploding books lapping into seahorses, and against all this might a Napoleonic officer be separated from his regiment and wind his way among the staggering primordial cliffs of Big Sur, California.

Karloff, making three movies at once just by standing there
And all that is my way of defending the loopy narrative of THE TERROR, which answers unasked questions with more questions. So it's the daughter of Isla being hypnotized into seducing her father to kill himself by posing as her own mother, whom he killed 20 years ago... did I get that right?... Or was Erick Ilsa's lover who posed as count after killing him in an effort to assuage his remorse? And she's the ghost because... he killed her too? As she and the count were having an affair? And the witch is the girl's mother who brought her spirit back to wreak revenge or is she Erick's mother? Is young Jack like one of those smitten lovers who winds up alone as his vampire lover vanishes in the waves at the end of a typical Jean Rollin vampire movie? Supposedly Sandra Knight's Helene isn't really 'Isla, the Ghost of the Baroness von Leppe' but Eirk's real daughter (or wife) whom he tried to kill and so an old witch keeps her around... hypnotizing her? But who is Karloff, then? The servant or the Baron? Substitute a dotty old handyman for the witch, and that's the plot of the similarly elegiac Monogram Lugosi film THE INVISIBLE GHOST, another Public Domain title we all saw constantly back in the 70s and which made no sense at all for kids too young for 'nightmare logic' --in other words, we didn't need our linear narrative preconceptions disrupted, we were still trying to form them!
One patriarch's madwoman in the attic is another man's ghost on the lawn
So, yeah, there's a lot of contradictions and cross-current enigmas, but that's when semiotically inquisitive post/modernists like Monte Hellman come alive. And the final cumulative impression of THE TERROR when you finally do see the whole film, after all these centuries, on remastered Blu-ray, sober as a judge, at a beauty contest, with a cracked AA chip he's trying to bet in a poker game, is a weird bittersweet reverie on death, memory and how film disintegrates when washed in a salt water flood tide lapping up against moldy stone.


Because in the end there is no right answer to what's really going on or who these people are, and that's the film's charm, that's Monte's modernist difference. Every thread doubles back on itself, refusing to pick a side, until the strange and haunting ending, where it's just yet another beautiful girl's youth and beauty slowly peeling away in the Big Sur tide to reveal the ancient foe, eternity's ancient ally, time's twisted waxwork skull as the soul flies free as a predatory bird in the Bergman dawn. When all is revealed as melting clay returning to the sandy foam of the Pacific, then the world will be seen as it really is, not meaningless but so packed to overflowing with meanings and counter-meanings and alternative deconstructions and author intents and last minute story changes that all meanings are there at once, exposed on the forked rocks. Ironic then that it had to be pulled from the sludge, cleaned up and digitized before we could savor its analog tactility.

from top: TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING
If "Monte Hellman's THE TERROR" still doesn't resonate with a profound metatextual dimension, consider its ambiguous 'collapse of identity' aspect as not accidental, but as creating an ancestry, a back story, for Hellman's acclaimed existential western THE SHOOTING (1966). It was Hellman's first western, and he filmed it back-to-back for Corman (but without Corman's influence or presence), with the more recognizably 'genre-specific' RIDE THE WHIRLWIND, out in the Utah desert. With colors recently remastered for the Criterion Blu-ray, under the eye of Hellman himself, the two films look better than they probably ever have, even on drive-in screens (where they were created to be, as a cowboy double feature). They were the first films Hellman had made in the States since working on THE TERROR (he made two films, also starring Jack Nicholson, in the Philippines--where life is cheap, and so is Corman--in the interim), THE SHOOTING especially echoes THE TERROR in the way the characters seem adrift somewhere between life and death, outside the normal confines of civilization and its conforming consensual notion of cause and effect. It starts in a recognizable location, but there's never any 'town' with a sheriff, nor bar fight, nor whore house; only alien primordial terrain, characters hoping their forward movement will mask their amnesia (i.e. like Karloff's character in THE TERROR, Warren Oates here may either be a twin or actually is his own brother, and one regularly wonders if even he knows the difference).


It's this terrain-based amnesia that makes THE TERROR and THE SHOOTING readable as parts one and two of a very strange textural existential genre meltdown Hellman trilogy (along with 1971's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), a strange mirror to Antonioni's trilogy of BLOW-UP (1966), ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) and--also with Nicholson--THE PASSENGER (1975). In TERROR,  the plot twists are layered back on themselves, then unwound back to separate fibers as if time's moving diagonally backwards while moving up and down the shore, in and around the castle, as Young Jack continually tries to find the mysterious woman, demanding answers from Old Karloff when even the writers might not know. THE SHOOTINGs movement is out into the white blank of the desert, until its far too late to turn around (or reach civilization), all Warren Oates' common sense outvoted by a headstrong nameless "woman" and a smirky gunsel dumb enough to buy her damsel act; TWO-LANE BLACKTOP also has a nameless young girl (Laurie Bird) making trouble for some men otherwise involved in wandering the landscape, but this time in cars, no vengeance, just a race for pink slips. A marked step up in art house complexity from THE SHOOTING (which was itself a step up from TERROR), BLACKTOP manages to keep in almost constant motion along America's back roads and highways without going farther than a few inches inward or outward, or anywhere: Oates is now a GTO driver who sees each new hitchhiker as a chance to change his backstory; and the "Driver" and "Mechanic" have no backstory at all, it was slowing them down, so they tossed it overboard. When the dust finally settles on 70s cinema, it will be TWO-LANE BLACKTOP that wins the pink slip AFI road movie run, all else is vanity. (See Stillness in Motion: CALIFORNIA SPLIT / TWO-LANE BLACKTOP).

Mystery Woman thy nameless Hellman 

Sandra Knight as ?? ("Helene / Isla The Baroness Von Leppe")  - THE TERROR (1963)
Millie Perkins as ?? ("Woman") - THE SHOOTING (1966)
Laurie Bird as ?? ("the Girl") - TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
The plot of SHOOTING involves Warren Oates as a tough as nails gold miner laboring at he and his brothers' claim in the middle of the Utah Nowhere. One of his brothers has rode on out of there like blazes after maybe running over a kid or something the night before Oates returns - it's never entirely clear. So when a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) shows up offering to pay royally for his service as a guide across the desert to a nearby town (where the brother may have went), Oates agrees to handle it, but is he the one who did the thing she's going to go avenge, whatever it is? Is he really going to let them shoot his brother? The vagueness of motivations is clearly intentional, which makes us wonder if the TERROR's was too. Which came first, a love of open-ended existential landscape wanderer identity-collapse (fueled maybe by Antonioni's 1962 film L'ECLISSE), or the need to situate Corman's low budget and off-the-cuff 'shoot first make sense later' raw material in some kind of framework? Did Julian Schnabel break a dish by accident, and decide to use it in a painting, or did he break the dish on purpose? Answer: chartreuse. 

"The Patients and the Doctors" (detail - c. Julian Schnabel)
By the end of Hellman's trilogy (I've dubbed it the "The End Trilogy"), we know for sure that he's finally reached the 'break with breaking' as TWO-LANE BLACKTOP runs into an abrupt and final apocalyptic projector jam celluloid burn, the ultimate fusion of experimental, narrative, pop culture, and metatextual Mecha-Medusa media formatting. But it's been a long road to that apotheosis along two fronts, the meta one being a result of the first two films enduring decades of public domain (or in SHOOTING's case, pirated) dupes, and BLACKTOP encountering legal troubles due to lapsed royalties on a Doors song heard for less than a minute on some guy's radio as the boys drive past the entrance to the drag strip.  In THE TERROR the decomposition and erosion of Helene's face (or rather, Corman's drizzling carmel syrup on her to save money on make-up effects) mirrors the billion year-old erosion of the stones the Utah desert and its scorching emptiness in THE SHOOTING, which mirrors the vacant highways of BLACKTOP, that's textually, but the metatextual mirror is the ever more blurry and washed-out duping, now recently replaced by gorgeous remastered Blu-ray. The vistas in THE SHOOTING are now staggering, dwarfing the people traveling through them while mirroring their actions or vice versa in the way the stars predict our fates (or vice versa).

THE SHOOTING: In nice remastered form
Average blurriness for PD dupe: THE SHOOTING (1966)
I remember seeing the shitty SHOOTING Madacy disc awhile ago and imagining how great it would look if ever seen in the proper formatting and with colors restored instead of the muddy muffled blur it was on that crappy disc (Madacy may you die a thousand deaths). But now that this has been done and I have both Blu-rays, I can't help but feel that they, too, miss something that those blurrier 4:3 crops had, the protective fog feel of the crumbling, outmoded non-digital reproduction, the protection from real life offered by the abstracting bath of video to video to video to video, that oceanic whip of disintegration, the law of the universe, until all is white as snow and wan and gone... but our imaginations fill in the fog.

From HD to PD: THE TERROR (1963)

If I had the artsy time, I would edit a 'dissolution edition' of THE TERROR into a cohesive 'unfinalized' cus, I'd make an edit that starts for the first half hour or so with the new widescreen HD remaster, then devolve to the widescreen new DVD, then the old shitty dupe full screen DVD, and so on down the ladder of quality and formatting... until it's as impossible to see as those old dupes of dupes that Max and I made in college, while drunk, from our two connected VCRs and then never watched, and eventually threw away. I think, then, it would all make sense, kind of like Bill Morrison's DECASIA, but in reverse:


What initially appears to simply be a surface effect that is not a feature of this world rapidly begins to suggest otherwise: that the decay we see twisting faces, burning bodies, and cutting holes in the world is not just the effect of time on nitrate film stock, but rather an inherent feature of the world itself rupturing the imaginary divide between then and now. The ravages of time apparent on this film are also the decay inherent in the world it depicts, and a part of the world that produced these images." - Michael Betancourt [Dread Mechanics: The Sublime Terror of Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) - Bright Lights 1/14/15)
In other words, it moves into Hellman existential country, the dissolving coherence of the image mirroring in nitrate clouds Hellman's vanishing point ambiguity. I'd add that the Blu-ray of DECASIA itself might be factored into this. Very old celluloid after all decays in very trippy ways which on Blu-ray are impossibly beautiful, abstract in ways no lifetime spent on After Effects or Final Cut could match. The compromise of the media formats of lesser quality in the century between the nitrate of the '10s and the Blu-ray of the other '10s aren't as aesthetically gratifying: streaky, not aesthetically pleasing or artsy in the DECASIA sense. In fact there's just such a video! VHS GeneraTion LOss! It has its own weird poetry...this is my generation!!


But even that wouldn't be complete,
the madness doesn't end there.
Clips from THE TERROR
would be used again, intertextually,
by Peter Bogdanovich.
It's what plays on the drive-in
during the Aurora-esque shooting spree of


And so, THE TERROR's exquisite cadaver
refracts further than its border.
There's no melting Knight can end
Post-Modernism's funhouse mirror runoff.
Only Orlok/Karloff coming down off the screen
to cane crazy Bobby can stall the carnage.
Even then, no end,
any more than an ever-forking 
hydra capillary river, which
Even dried to the bed or flooded to the hills,
never unspools in full


but permutes long past 
its original intentional
meaninglessness, its 1920s gallery opening
purpose. Its refraction's
Long since ceased to shock,
and still its taloned hawk truth
affixes anchor barnacles
to the Big $ur Prometheus.
Hear the groaning and sloshing of tides up his crevasses!
How twisted deep the hawk's talon shadows
between his glossy, mossy rocks,
his liver, like the liquor, is gone
but still post-modernism's waves lap dance on.

It rewards only stereogram-staring patience, then strikes on
the perfect meditation-intent-determination-entheogenand-paranoia combination night
at the perfect showtime... one night a decade.
Oh Young and Saucy One,
Oncle Promethesarus

free yourself with fire!
BLAM! BLAM!
BLAM... BLAM..
You are forgiven

You are for.....given

Monday, February 23, 2015

10 Reasons DREAMCATCHER (2003)


Whenever it gets super snowy and chilly as it has recently I think of DREAMCATCHER, the unreasonably maligned gonzo sci fi disaster-masterpiece from the minds of Stephen King, William 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' Goldman and Lawrence 'Big Chill' Kasdan. Sure it's not great, maybe it's not even very good, but it's got a gonzo self-determination that transcends so many traditional horror and science fiction annoyances I can forgive it near about anything. Right now for example I'm watching half-watching THE GIVER, a hungerer after the teen dystopia market that may as well have been written by a computer. I wanted to see it to continue my teen dystopia thread from a few months ago and see what kind of magic Jeff Bridges could whip up, but it was so glaringly simplistic I felt cheap just for having it on. And so I exhumed this piece from my drafts folder instead, for there's no doubt that DREAMCATCHER is written by humans.... who freely aim not for the teens, or the adults, not the elderly but... ex-stoners in the middle of their fourth midlife crises? Wherever and why ever, I salute its far out gonzo glory. It may miss the ball a few times, but at least its swinging for the parking lot instead of the LCD dugout.


1. ESP altruism as children - The boys get their talents by first rescuing the 'special needs' human Duddy, and then using his and their powers to locate a missing girl. The dreamcatcher is visualized as a web that connects them and each develops a psychic special power - and remain connected by the threads of their psychic energy, which gives them a collective courage. I felt my heart soar when the littlest kid picks up a rock and says hell yeah I want to fight, even if the the guys way bigger than all of them torturing poor Duddy behind the woodshed. He picks up two rocks and is ready to go down swinging because he's sickened by the sight of their sadism and how it reflects on these guys - they even say no doubt the fastest one in their group is going to run home and tell his gossipy mom. No hesitation about ratting them out, never considering making it a playground thing rather than a genuine offense. I subscribe to the adage in Over the Edge that a kid who tells on another a kid is a dead kid, but assault of big on small kids is a different matter entirely.

Most these sorts of film, the Stand by Me and so forth are totally about growing up "normal" oddball kids, the one fat dork, the thin little nerd who be good on computers, the older hunk with a drunk single dad, the token black kid with no real personality other than being black, etc. - but these four dudes who we see in flashbacks to their formative elementary collective ESP Dead Zone moments, are a believable group of friends, genuine badasses who give each other extra strength, and they stick up for the little guy, even if they're even littler. This one little kid just picks up a rock to even things out, and is totally ready to jump in and fight guys twice his size. It's how sticking up for someone else can give you lion courage unavailable for ordinary self-defense, and it's world's away from most of the rote bullying we see in childhood movies. These scenes of childhood aren't rushed or slowed, not given DP-craftsmanship autumnal glows, et al. they don't need that shit because they're legitimately well done. I don't mind if the film is exploring very familiar Stephen King territory (the ESP or psychokinesis of The Shining, Carrie, FirestarterThe Dead Zone etc.), Howard Hawks did the same thing! Keep riffing on what works, keep exploring but using what you know how to do as a base.


2. Donnie Wahlberg as The magical mentally challenged-psychically savant Duddy - Unlike so many magic mentally challenged kids, this one is never seen as somehow backwards so much as 'sidewards,' i.e. once you 'speak' his language you realize he's a genius. And I know how these kids can trigger psychic awakenings because one happened to me with this kid, Victor. Learning how he thought, what he was trying to say, while I was still way out on a psychedelic acid awakening. I got what he was trying to say and he got all excited because most strangers couldn't understand his garbled syntaxes, but I could in my state. I would delight him by acting all normal and straight when other people were around but when it was just us too I'd play music and dance on the couch like a five year-old maniac. He'd be in paroxysms of happiness, and in return he cast some weird mystic spell on me - where I knew as long as I avoided negative thoughts and my first thought each morning was positive I would exist in this state of transcendent gratitude. Plus, Donnie W. really disappears into the role giving Duddy a comprehensiveness as a character that's worlds away from "Gotta watch Wopner" or "Life's a box of chocolates."


3. Gonzo goofball Resolve - the whole thing with Lewis inside his inner filing room shouting out the window as the alien who possessed him sets about eating people - some people might call that a way too literalistic drawback but I say hey, this film is going for distance (1), and it doesn't care if you think it's dumb. A lot of horror movies work better in an audience, but I can imagine seeing Dreamcatcher with the wrong crowd being a pretty miserable experience as all the exasperated sighs and confusion take hold. But without critics in the room, and no cash or drive time outlay, it's weirdness can stretch its legs.

4. Starts in the middle of a covert alien war, sparing us all the doubt on the part of the military's willingness to accept what's going on. And I dig the alien invasion in the snow motif, which recalls Hitler's big Battle of the Bulge campaign, i.e. wait until it's super snowy to catch them all unawares.


5. It's like reading a real Stephen King novel:  With twists and turns and each character doing their thing, and encountering a military presence in the midst of another skirmish, lots of snow and New England charm, all very Kingly. And rather than constant crosscutting it plays little mini-chapters between characters. It takes it's time and spreads itself over two hours and fifteen minutes, which since it's on streaming is just fine as it can be watched like a Stephen King novel... in chunks where you occasionally put it down, but it keeps you reading because you have no idea where it's going except deep into the blood-strewn snow of King's New England. Like most of his fiction it might be a little overdone and not have a strong ending, but more than any of his other filmed works, DREAMCATCHER really captures the internal monologue conversations, pop culture situated references, prosaic four letter New England cut-the-crap-itude, and pressure cooker fear generators so intrinsic to his enduring popularity.


6. The aliens can do just about anything and look like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors on crystal meth when they're not in The Thing x Invasion of the Body Snatchers disguise. Plus they are not without a self-aware sense of humor: they can come right up your ass or down your throat like a combination tape worm / moray eel / ALIEN face hugger, and plant not just one little monster egg, but a writhing legion.

7. Lawrence Kasdan bringing wily, witty profane 'Big Chill'-ish dialogue and black humor to a zippy script. 

8. Duddy's mom: Rosemary Dunsmore creates a nice aura of loving gravity and courage around her son in her one big scene. Knowing her son is dying and that he might die by the end of the weekend, but she's aware that he's called upon in service of something higher even if she can't quite understand what that is."Okay, go save the world," she says as they mount their stolen military black Humvee. How rare is it that a mom can be so chill about sending her critically ill mentally challenged son off into the freezing cold to battle some abstract alien menace on what will certainly be a one way trip? Kasdan and King are fans of horror and know just when to have characters step up to the Hawksian heroics plate even if it flies in the face of Hollywood's treasured 'logic of the heart' and all its tedious inside-the-box moral inevitability. Mrs. Duddy knows this is a boy's movie, so don't bother trying for a BSAO, stand the fuck back and let the kids play through. It's the most heroic gesture in a movie full of them.

9. The great cast also includes: Jason MALLRATS Lee; Timothy THE CRAZIES Olyphant, Thomas "I just want my kids back" Jane; Donnie SIXTH SENSE Wahlberg; Damian HOMELAND Lewis; Tom THE RELIC Sizemore and frickin....

10. the Zu Warrior eyebrows of Morgan "Passin' Water" FreemanThere's usually a sense that either the military is good or bad depending on the political orientation of a film but here they are both good and bad and the natural likable gravitas of Morgan Freeman is cast against type as a man who's been dealing with these aliens for the last 25 years and is thinking globally to the detriment of the infected locals, all of whom he wants to kill off to be sure the disease doesn't spread. A less draconian superior is called in and so there's two military factions one good and one dubious, or too harsh for most. There's a great moment when the aliens are acting all childlike and innocent and Freeman's like doooon't trust them. He might be wrong but he's so very right, just like DREAMCATCHER itself!

Last but not least is the groovy snow blanket creating just the right mood of preternatural stillness and you have a flawed gonzo classic I enjoy a lot more than the critically acclaimed 'kids together experiencing weird small town events' King adaptations like STAND BY ME. It's got the loopy flashback-laden middle-of-the-action, slow built-to-nowhere structure of one of King's novels, weird and wondrous cast and a plot that, like other 'Ten Reason' entries THE THING (2011), GHOSTS OF MARS (2000), and DOOMSDAY (2008) ping-pong pinballs past so many classic genre film bumpers it becomes a whole new kind of beast/s


NOTES: 
1. "Going for Distance":  a common drunken Syracuse treehouse expression from 1987-91, i.e. to puke as far away from oneself as possible, while standing, head held high, rather than bent over a toilet like some common scrubwoman - but then also extending to mean not holding back in genral, burning up all your stashes and telling your old lady to go home and go to bed because you're staying up all night, all the next day, and forever, until -'poof' magically you wake up on some floor or couch somewhere. An example of going for distance might be Lennon and Nilsson's "Lost Weekend"