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 mildly responds, "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.  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 Way 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.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Grey (2011) 3 of 4

** moderate spoilers **

Liam Neeson is close to a Western star for recent decades, based on films not quite Westerns: Ethan Frome (1993), Rob Roy (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), Kingdom of Heaven (2005).  The underrated Seraphim Falls (2006), also with Pierce Brosnan, might be Neeson's only literal visit to the genre.  (He's also in the parody A Million Ways to Die in the West.)

In The Grey he's Ottway, salaried killer of wolves for an oil company in the Arctic.  We'll learn he's lost his wife, which has made life an onerous duty.  He describes the oil crew he's protecting: "ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes" (compare Deadwood and The Hateful Eight).  As in John Carpenter's The Thing, men are a dangerous subculture to be exiled at 30-below.

As a company plane takes off, the karma's bad, as in Alien.  A nervous roughneck can't shut up, blurting the plane may crash: the trigger sin.  It crashes.  The good news: they have a wolf expert, as Ottway takes leadership of the dwindling group, informing them wolves have a 30-mile "kill radius."  The bad news: they have no way of knowing where's the den.

The Grey is a neat trick, a hit film about death.  While downbeat, it's an exciting, inventive thriller, with spectacular action as the men deal with wolves, weather, and unforgiving terrain.  The wolves are CGI, and not fully believable, but as in Frozen (2010), they're mostly off-screen.  The British Columbia locations are thrilling; evidently, the actors and crew endured bitter cold.

It's an open question what the title refers to: grey wolves, presumably (although these as often appear brown or black).  The weather is grey.  The characters face death, a grey zone shielding mystery.  Finally, most of the men are white: if "grey," they're fading, becoming historical.

It's implied the plane crashes because delayed by workers acting up and complaining (a supervisor says "You guys are fucking this up").  Sometimes, we allow a narrative to say what's taboo, thus we've lately seen many film-narrative plane crashes, and many widowers: the dead (missing) wife (or child) represents a line ending.  Unlike Stagecoach and The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Grey presents an afflicted band without women.  Unlike The Searchers or Open Range, this alpha male isn't protecting a settlement: he fights for his own survival, because it's-what-you-do, even when there's nothing decent left to protect.  Even when the wolf is at the door. 

** dedicated to the memory of Roger Ebert, who praised The Grey 15 months before his passing in 2013 **

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Not of This Earth (1957) 3 of 4

not of this earth 
** spoiler warning **

In a society based on assimilation, infiltrators need only learn language and behaviors, but terror unfulfilled eventually yields to laughter.  As the paranoid decade cracked a smile, Hollywood sci-fi enjoyed its first golden moment: 1956's Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, and 1958's The Blob, The Fly, and I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

Garland posing for Corman's Gunslinger
Unlike those, Roger Corman's original Not of This Earth is overtly comic.  It settles an alien vampire in Southern California, his predatory habits escaping notice of suburbanites working their own angles.  They include teens with their insistent slang (a new phenomenon, meriting extended notice).  Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna's script is witty and inventive, yielding a hybrid of The Outer Limits ("The Duplicate Man," maybe) and Mad Magazine.

The alien passing as businessman "Paul Johnson" (Paul Birch) has the power to cloud men's minds.  His easiest mark is the 40ish blood-bank doctor; later, a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (Dick Miller) provides lunch: as paperbacks and magazine articles warned, (aging) corporate men were at risk of dehumanization.  Stalwart resistance comes from the margins: a free-spirit chaffeur (Jonathan Haze), a motorcycle cop and his love interest, nurse-with-moxie Nadine Storey (Beverly Garland).

Garland was a pistol, and the droll center of the movie.  Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia notes Garland's career was "hampered by frequent confrontations with producers and the press"; collating with her persona, she had a backbone before fashionable.  In any case, Garland is more alive than anyone else (there's a pall over Johnson), and credible as alien fighter: she's used to deflecting predators.

There's inherent humor in a beautiful woman, e.g., the only thing creepier than an old man advancing on a beauty is one (like Johnson) who refrains completely.  He hires Nadine, charging her with "seeing to it I do not expire" -- he always talks that way.

His troubled planet is Davanna.  Like the ottoman Dick Van Dyke tripped over, "divan" could suggest a xenophobia of objects.  As in The Invaders a decade later, these aliens are collectivists who literalize pejoratives: anemic, bloodless, dead-eyed, death-warmed-over.  Their quasi-vampirism has scientific causes, as in I Am Legend (published 1954).  Finally, like the Vidians in Star Trek: Voyager, the Davannans will sacrifice others to save themselves from disease. 

Nadine isn't quite a final girl, requiring male assistance to survive.  Old weird Johnson's mission is evaluating humans for "pasturing," i.e. as livestock (compare Daybreakers), with transport to Davanna, evidently, via a mirror frame outfitted with ping-pong balls.  The enthralled Nadine is the beta-test, but the cop runs Johnson into a ravine and fiery death.  The tag seems to tease a never-made sequel.  Not of This Earth was remade in 1988 (with Traci Lords) and 1995; it's past time for another.     


  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gangs of New York (2002) 2.5 of 4

** minor spoilers only **

I see good and bad here, much of it stemming from Martin Scorsese's status as Hollywood elder.  The bad news: at the end, candles are placed on the dead after the draft riots, so survivors can identify loved ones.  The problem: the scene is lit such that candles wouldn't be necessary (on the DVD).  Judging from Scorsese's progressively impersonal output, he's lost the will to defy industry SOP.  Gangs of New York mostly ignores the overcrowding, debilitation, vermin and stench that prevailed in slums of the era (if not today's).

At the same time, Scorsese had the pull to deliver a star-filled epic about an historical period usually avoided (even so, the film was shot in Rome, with both Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly taking reduced salaries).  The ethnic and regional divisions of the 19th century remain, thus the appeal of the Western, which skirts the issues, and Civil War films that flirt with "Lost Cause" Confederate nostalgia.

While it may simplify local history,
Gangs of New York implies a disturbing truth: at one time in America, white supremacy was inclusive, it was multiculturalism.  (The film gestures anti-racism, but partly for our sensibilities.)

Divisions between Euro-American groups threatened to tear New York City -- tear the nation -- apart.  The U.S. stayed united by exalting whiteness (as do Lost Cause movies).  Of course, American racism held other benefits, especially free or cheap labor.  Today, white supremacy as national identity seems pathological, like losing weight by smoking cigarettes.  Still, it's our history, its legacy unresolved.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Red Planet (2000) 1.5 of 4

** spoiler warning  **

best sequence: landing on Mars, with air bags
I've always heard this was a stinker, but as a sci-fi fan couldn't help car-wreck curiosity.  Red Planet is one of those movies so poorly sewn together, the subtext is evident while watching, as if the screenwriters did a nude scene.

Red Planet is a "deal movie," crossed with a feminist take on white males as the problem-population-at-millennium.  The movie opens with clunky narration from mission leader Carrie-Anne Moss -- who is she talking to? -- sound techs should avoid cosmic echo when the actor speaks colloquially, as in "we were kidding ourselves" and "gonna."

It seems Earth is dying of pollution etc., so a motley crew goes to Mars to check on automated terraforming.  Behind the green veil, the movie is an overlong, indecisive PSA on sexual harassment.  Tom Sizemore jokes about being king of Mars and making Moss queen, his repartee landing like a boulder.  Then again, confining five men with the statuesque Moss is a moral hazard.  Val Kilmer corners her as she exits the shower, then fails to pull the trigger; later, facing mortality, he says (by radio) he should've kissed her, and she quietly agrees.  No wonder the human race is dying.

[Edit, 11 Nov. 2017: Apparently, I was onto something.  The script's coy confusion reflects the hypocrisy of a culture that accepts sexual harassment and rape.]

The five guys are shipwrecked on the ginger orb, soon to be stalked by AMEE (pronounced "Amy"), a homicidal robot evoking the days of The Black Hole and Saturn 3 for viewers of a certain age.  On the mothership, as it were, Ms. Moss spends much of the movie thinking her misbehaving boys are dead, and increasingly, she's correct.  Terence Stamp (as a scientist, nevertheless spiritual) is the first to cash his check.  Future Mentalist Simon Baker, a weasel here, responds to feelings of inadequacy by knocking Benjamin Bratt off a cliff.  Later, Baker's character himself succumbs to guilt-related misadventure.

I mentioned it's a deal movie: Red Planet seems to originate in an alternate universe where  Hollywood is autocratic socialist state.  In alt-Hollywood, no one wants to work with Val Kilmer or Tom Sizemore, but as Party Members they're entitled to stardom until retirement.  Thus, this perfunctory (Red-themed) sci-fi with younger stars paying dues, and a Brit (Stamp) playing Latin for global buzz.

Sizemore is supposed to be the scientist blind-to-the-dangers, so he gets killed, when a new lifeform uses his body as a hatchery.  Unfortunately, Kilmer's character survives the end of the film.  Mars now has oxygen, but it's infested with carnivorous CGI locusts, which means someone was readying Red Planet 2.

Fortunately, there are better films set on the fourth planet, including Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Last Days on Mars.  Even Mission to Mars (also from 2000) is watchable.  (I haven't yet seen John Carter or The Martian.)