Friday, January 26, 2018

Trooper Hook (1957) and Jungle Fever (1991)

** spoilers below, especially for Trooper Hook **

Some time ago I was in a store and flipped through 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Gelernter.  His distinction between now and then (pre-1960?) stays with me: then, Americans respected authority, not just the power to punish but the words of those in authority.  And we looked forward with hope, rather than backward with regret.

Snipes and Sciorra defying friends, Hollywood, the IRS
Trooper Hook (1957) is a minor-key cavalry Western, from a story by Jack Schaefer (author of the novels Shane and Monte Walsh), and directed by Charles Marquis Warren, the Western specialist who drove Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.  Joel McCrea plays a good man at a dirty job, defending the frontier against the Apache, who respectfully call him "Face of Stone."  McCrea's character has been hardened, too, by the Civil War.  The character's name (Clovis Hook) playfully evokes the devil.

In this journey-Western, Hook escorts Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck) to her husband, after her captivity as squaw of Apache chief Nanchez.  Hook defends Cora against bigotry, intensified by the presence of her mixed son.  The film is politically correct for the day; likable Earl Holliman plays a cowboy in love with a half-Latina.  Of course, the film assumes Cora wants to return to her husband (John Dehner).

Fred Sutliff is built into a villain for rejecting the would-be stepson, leading to deus ex machina, with both he and Nanchez falling to gunplay, leaving Hook to marry Cora.  Fred's feelings are actually understandable, given he's only just learned of the boy's existence.  By pretending otherwise, the movie winks at audiences: the parable of tolerance is half-sincere.  Despite such flaws, the film glows with the optimism and faith of postwar Americans.

We have reason to exaggerate our differences from those of mid-century.  Consider supporting character Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews): eager to protect newfound wealth, he goes to pieces as Nanchez and braves bear down on the party.  After failing to bribe Cora into trading the son for peace, Travers tries to defect, hurting his chances by promising Nanchez "all the whiskey you can drink" (the Indian shoots him).  Travers is comparable to many white people today, so eager to make their way accusing each other of racism.

Until recently, films of interracial romance tended to be like Trooper Hook, comfortably displaced into the past (The Searchers, Far From Heaven) or the future (Supernova, The Time Machine).  A noted exception: Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991).  Though tougher-minded than Trooper Hook, it's become vaguely innocent.

The film is set in a hyper-ethnic New York City: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play, respectively, characters from Harlem and Bensonhurst.  Compare 2018, where blended couples are relatively common -- not only in cosmopolitan cities -- even as we criminalize the phrase "jungle fever."  Humans need tribal identities and the contingent territory, but in an integrating society, words, fashion and other customs serve as territory, therefore disputed.

The simple morality of Trooper Hook is long replaced by turf battles and relativism.  Spike Lee plays a teacher, an implicit capitulation.  Lee's films defy the American assumption of a better future: in Do the Right Thing he wears the jersey of a team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, that ceased to exist the year Trooper Hook was released.

The 1950s weren't as sanitized as sometimes assumed, and Trooper Hook includes a modest version of Quint's shark monologue in Jaws.  Hook tells Cora about surviving for weeks in Andersonville prison, pretending to be a dog so a canine-loving (and mad) prisoner would share food.  The analogue in Jungle Fever isn't a recounting, it's the apocalyptic set piece at the so-called Taj Mahal.  Stevie Wonder is ironic soundtrack as we tour a rambling crack den, where the Snipes character looks for his addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson).  In Trooper Hook, hell is endured for a good cause, on the way to eventual reward; in Jungle Fever, the good cause is perpetually half-in-ruins, and hell a lifestyle, with plummeting returns.

in memory of Jon Bellis, LCSW (1952-2015), 
who lived with optimism and faith, and inspired the same. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trigger Effect (1996) 2 of 4

** this post contains increasingly severe spoilers **

What if an extended blackout hit North America?  Would friendships survive?  Use of force?  What would you do?

The Trigger Effect is surprisingly glossy for its low profile (perhaps given a nip/tuck for Netflix play).  The surprise evaporates, knowing it was the directing debut of writer David Koepp, better known for (co-) writing the ginormous likes of Death Becomes HerJurassic Park and Mission: Impossible.
our lives need some excitement ...
Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue are married with youngsters, as they juggle upper-middle annoyances: home renovations, a kid with an earache, a loud conversation behind them at the movies.  The latter, the dynamic opener, illustrates the boxed-in male: when the wife shushes, the stranger curses.  If hubby gets into it he risks the enjoyment/safety of bystanders; if he retreats (as here), he's a pussy.  Later he tries the wild side, stealing the kid's med (fleeing the world's most intimidating pharmacist), emboldening himself for armed standoffs.

Koepp's working relationship with Steven Spielberg makes sense: each is a master of craft without having much to say.  Flirting with both multi-strand and apocalypse, The Trigger Effect is like a formative, risk-averse Crash (2004) or The Walking Dead.  There's a vagueness to pre-9/11 political thrillers, but from the blunt-force 21st century, this movie seems coy and unfinished.
The script occasionally fails the plausibility test, all-important in high-concept.  Example: homeowner (MacLachlan) watches a prowler from cover, then turns his back.  Dialogue (unnecessarily) references the Indian Point power plant (outside NYC), underlining the sunny California locations, less than ideal for the indie-dramatic variant of Koepp's War of the Worlds.
Still, it's a mostly smart film, with characters recognizable amid anomaly.  Male friends buy a shotgun, but between ambivalence and a few drinks, it ends up at the bottom of the in-ground pool.  Shue's character increasingly flirts with Dermot Mulroney as the friend/carpenter; they kiss, only to mutually pull back.  Too bad the entire movie pulls back. 

The film is a '90s elaboration on the 1960 Twilight Zone "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."  Thus there are black characters, namely the theater talkers, one of whom (Richard T. Jones) is fated for a more serious altercation with MacLachlan.  (Note: I cover this aspect while horrified by the ID politics of 2018, created partly by media criticism.)
The race factor remains unspoken.  It's a valid choice -- until aforesaid prowler is shot dead.  Like the neighborhood, the intruder is white; he's also slight, and known to be armed only with a knife.  The (white) neighbor shooting from a distance seems unlikely: now it's the movie avoiding race.    
Finally, I wished for resonant dialogue predicting future grid-interruptions.  Maybe Koepp leaves this implied, too, but the film ends up anticlimactic: there was a blackout, they survived with hurt feelings, sadder-but-wiser.  

Sunday, December 3, 2017

spike heels trump feet of clay

Watching 1970s TV for my series on Pop Matters, it felt vaguely like walking the site of a war crime.  As a film buff I'd heard the stories, perhaps most memorable was Christine Lahti's, of a proposition rebuffed when she was young and struggling.  The showbiz sleaze told her, "You'd better do something, you're not that pretty."

The misogyny of Hollywood leaves traces, if needing translation (the examples remembered offhand): Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were each subject of an accusatory book by an adult daughter.  Veronica Lake was America's object of desire in the mid-1940s; in the early '60s she worked as a cocktail waitress.  Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly fled to marry Arab princes.  With Three's Company on top, Suzanne Somers wanted a raise: she was fired and blackballed.

In 1966, Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand on Star Trek even as she spiraled into alcoholism and prostitution.  She later found religion, becoming a substance abuse counselor (Trekkies always treated her as regular cast, though she appeared in only a few episodes).  In her candid autobiography (The Longest Trek, 1998), Whitney elaborated on her early exit from the Enterprise, alleging a sexual assault by an executive.  She took that man's name to her grave, presumably to protect a franchise loved by millions.

The recent revelation that disappoints me is Quentin Tarantino, though his sins are (apparently) of omission.  I couldn't help thinking of Kill Bill, his least assured film: hypocrisy takes a toll.

Some say we're in a witch hunt -- they're right.  Without due process, there's a vigilante aspect, and there will be unintended consequences, and regret.  (We can only wonder what would've happened, had Hillary Clinton been elected president: hell has no fury like millions of women scorned.)

Some say The Sopranos (for example) trades in the noble outlaw, but we buy the myth because nobility is lacking in other quarters.  In the U.S., we punish the guilty with the acuity of a darts game before last call.  As the law quails before money and power, the capitalist badlands (sometimes) have room for frontier justice.  Hang 'em high.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 3 of 4

** only minor spoilers **

The publication on Bright Lights Film Journal of my essay brought to mind this Jim Jarmusch indie.  In 1999, The Sopranos was briefly in the shadow of Analyze This, about a mobster (Robert DeNiro) in therapy.  Less noted was the overlap with Ghost Dog, which could almost be The Sopranos as seen by an African-American, if a self-taught samurai.  Here's more evidence of television's resistance to change: as HBO launched David Chase's novel-for-TV, the American New Wave was well into a second generation of (postmodern) gangster films: see also Miller's Crossing, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Summer of Sam.

Forest Whitaker is ideally cast as a reflective loner living off-the-grid in a modern U.S. city: no amnesiac, he's a spiritually awake hit man.  He steals a car but prioritizes the sound system, pumping eclectic hip-hop.  He'll break his meditative isolation for other noncomformists: a man building a boat on a rooftop; an elderly man who's a poor choice for a mugger.  Perhaps most resonant: an encounter with white hunters who've killed a bear.  When the bearish Ghost Dog objects, the elder hunter says, "This isn't an ancient culture."  Ghost Dog: "Sometimes it is."

Even as conflict rises, Ghost Dog stresses its title character's mutual respect with the local mafiosi, for they too have a code.  Arguably, these Italians are too comic: they watch cartoons, are fatter and older than The Sopranos, even more clearly on-their-way-out.  But maybe that's why Ghost Dog is reading (the basis for) Rashomon: it's how he sees the Mafia.  Consistent with the slowed pulse of his oeuvre, Jarmusch counters the chop of culture-change with Ghost Dog's Zen calm.

Like any Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog has cinematic cool and a great soundtrack (by RZA), while being not-for-all-tastes.  If Analyze This was cute but disposable, Jarmusch tends to improve on second viewing, as we adjust to the intriguing protagonist aloof from Western society.  As a substitute, Ghost Dog liberally quotes his dog-eared copy of "The Book of the Samurai": he's relation to the seekers in The Tao of Steve, Amelie, and The Matrix.  And like Marlo on The Wire, he keeps pigeons, a chance to practice patience, even as he gently urges the birds home to roost.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Dead & Buried (1981) 3 of 4

** this review contains moderate spoilers throughout **

Dead & Buried doesn't fit neatly into horror's plot-based subgenres: despite year-of-release, it's not a slasher.  The undead are represented, but it's not exactly a zombie movie.  A weird tale set in New England, it's arguably Lovecraftian.

On the extras, Dan O'Bannon admits he wrote little of the film, his name used for marketing purposes.  In any case, the nebulous story is excuse for remarkable craft, especially the direction,  cinematography, and practical effects (by Stan Winston).  Gary Sherman's follow-up to  the legendary Death Line is oneiric and rapturous as any Mario Bava film.  It also evokes Salem's Lot (1979), The Beyond, Twin Peaks and the grindhouse aesthetic.

"you might feel a prick" (Lisa Blount)
Sherman and company made economical use of a cast better known (ultimately) for television: James Farentino (Dynasty, Melrose Place), Jack Albertson (Chico and the Man), Melody Anderson (St. Elsewhere, Jake and the Fatman).  Lisa Blount (cult series Profit) makes an impression, especially in the knockout opening scene, and Robert Englund appears, pre-Freddy.  Cinematographer Steven Poster would shoot the TV movies Mysterious Two and Testament, and theatrical films such as those of Richard Kelly, including Donnie Darko, also about the seductiveness of death.

Where Europe is haunted by the Black Death, colonialism, and the Holocaust, America has its own ghosts rattling chains in the national attic.  U.S. horror references slavery, if obliquely, as with this film's serial victims, and maritime references including a foghorn.  The maritime theme is present in such movies as The Uninvited, Night Tide, I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Mist, and monster movies such as King Kong and Jaws.

A film maudit, Dead & Buried was itself buried, reportedly by studio bankruptcy.  While perhaps not a classic, it's evidence of what's been lost for today's iPhone eyesores (everything's gray -- no long shots -- "progress").  By turns lush and gory, Dead & Buried is ideal for high-performance blu-ray.   

Thursday, October 19, 2017

underseen for Halloween

** no (major) spoilers to fear **

Eric Hoffer famously said, "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil."  In parallel, Halloween has expanded in significance: we'd celebrate monthly, given a way around the cognitive dissonance. 
Six low-budget films for observance:
consulting a physician, Body Parts
Body Parts (1992) is one, like Starship Troopers and Con Air, best enjoyed as self-spoof.  Despite financial modesty (top-billing Jeff Fahey of Lost), Body Parts is equally wicked as it rolls the chestnut about transplant recipient possessed by not-quite-dead criminal donor.  Eric Red directed (after writing The Hitcher and Near Dark), aiming for the cult celebrity of The Evil Dead and Re-Animator.

Frailty (2001) is a solid horror-drama (and an early credit for Matthew McConaughey).  The late Bill Paxton directed and stars as a dad with his own ideas: raising sons to be homicidal.  The plot holds some unusual twists, if not to the end.  Paxton had planned to re-team with screenwriter Brent Hanley to adapt Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms.

Danvers State Hospital (Mass.), 1893
Also from the shadows of 2001, Session 9 is set at the amazingly creepy (since demolished) Danvers State Hospital, the reported inspiration for Arkham asylum in the Lovecraft (and Batman) mythos.  David Caruso is the only "name" in an asbestos-removal crew discovering their site, a shuttered mental hospital, is not empty like the work-order says.  It's a slow burn, but truly frightening.  Directed and co-written by Brad Anderson, who's since made The Machinist and Vanishing on 7th Street.

At one time, the American cowboy was sacred, such that a horror-Western was almost unthinkable, excepting self-sabotaged junk like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.  Westerns are fewer today, but a high percentage have horror elements: The MissingJonah Hex.  The Burrowers (2008) is the Old West equivalent of Pitch Black or The Descent, as white settlers and natives discover a common enemy.

You're Next (2011) is a slasher film that asks if anyone deserves to survive, as an entitled/dysfunctional American clan reunites to celebrate the parental anniversary.  Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett announce their presence with this shuffle of thrills, humor and social criticism.  Part of a cycle in which the suburbs are hell, including A Horrible Way to Die (also Wingard and Barrett), Martha Marcy May Marlene and We Need to Speak About Kevin.  

The latter's Karyn Kusama directed The Invitation (2015): slow-building and dark, it leaves a mark.  While the mainstream offers crime films about horror-down-the-(L.A.)-street (Training Day, Crash, Lakeview Terrace), The Invitation bypasses righteousness for the disenchantment of Right at Your Door and Sound of My Voice.  To say more would spoil the party.