Friday, October 21, 2016

When a Stranger Calls (1979) 3 of 4

** this reviews contains moderate spoilers, but no major ones **

I'd never seen this film; sometimes I mistakenly think of it as a TV-movie, because in line with the previous When Michael Calls (1972) and Are You in the House Alone?! (1978).  Actually, it's both cinematic and too raw to have been shown on TV at the time.  (I have seen neither the 1993 sequel nor the 2006 remake.)

The rap on When a Stranger Calls (1979): the first 15 minutes are much better than the rest of the movie (Wes Craven apparently liked the scene; Scream opens similarly).  I didn't respond that way.  Although I already knew the (now-famous) reveal, the entire film held me, offering style, strong characterization and a level of tension.

The story's apparent digression, with the villain stalking an older woman, is actually essential, because it shows how damaged people affect others even if (or when) they aren't violent.  Colleen Dewhurst is part of an outstanding cast that also includes Carol Kane and Charles Durning.  Note that Dewhurst is almost as leery of private-eye Durning as she is around the creep: an older woman on her own, she has a weary deftness with risk.  (As in many movies of the era, Durning's quest obliquely echoes that of The Searchers.)

Pretending not to be repulsed.
An atomized society can't adjust to people who are randomly homicidal, or even bent on hurting others from a distance.  Like so many horror villains, Curt Duncan takes advantage of modern anonymity -- "privacy" -- after escaping from lockup.  When his social idiocy provokes a beating, it barely slows him down; clearly, he's used to being victimized.  He can't cope with other human beings but goes through the motions of trying, for reasons of self-justification.  (British actor Tony Beckley makes an impression in his final film; he died the next year, at 52.)

That name is striking: "curt dunkin'" implies a perfunctory, weak religion.  The German first-name is especially noticeable in that Carol Kane is clearly Jewish, regardless of her character name (why not say so?).

Initially, Durning goes after Duncan with some kind of poisonous needles (call it a citizens' lethal injection), presumably to avoid a murder charge.  The needles are almost comically ineffective, another symbol of a society grown arthritic from its exhausting battle between arrogance and self-doubt.    

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Quintet (1979) 2 of 4

what the white pages will look like in the (very cold) future
** mild spoilers below for a nearly plotless film **

Most of us dislike winter, but I think most people like a snow-and-ice film.  The snow film gives us the beauty and starkness of winter without the discomfort.  People and things pop out of the white background, there’s a pleasing sterility to it.  Also, winter in a movie charges every scene with life or death stakes: in real life, we’d just go inside, but in a snow movie there’s a good chance the character(s) will face death.
Quintet is very much a snow movie, thanks to the Montreal locations (the ruins of the Expo '67 World's Fair, the same event that gave a name to baseball's Montreal Expos, since moved south to be the Washington Nationals).  We're in a future ice age, in a vaguely medieval town populated by the enervated, accented denizens of the European art film: Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson.  Paul Newman stars, vainly attempting to recoup the film’s budget.

Newman is Essex, a simple, good man; his wife is collateral damage in an apparent terrorist attack.  The bombing is actually part of the game, quintet (Videohound describes it as a variant of backgammon, but gleaning rules from the scant references is a job for someone who cares more than I do).  The bomber is himself killed, and Essex appropriates items from the corpse, including a hit list.  He pretends to be the dead man (hmm, like Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, 1975) in an attempt to find out what the hell’s going on.  He’s not the only one.

One of the things you learn watching science fiction is that cheesiness is not deadly to the genre, in fact, a layer of cheese can be great for the recipe (for an example, see the disturbing snow film The Colony).  What’s fatal to sci-fi is pretentiousness.  Maybe this is because science fiction grows out of ideas, about human beings and where we’re headed, in other words, science fiction tends toward pretense.  The sci-fi filmmaker needs to get busy grounding things, or else.
Robert Altman, director and co-writer of Quintet, did not understand this, in fact his film is even more portentous than his snow-Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (the films are vaguely similar).  Quintet is one of a number of 1970s films inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, which set an infelicitous vogue for alienated men struggling to care amidst futuristic entropy.  Most of these films merely demonstrate there was only one Stanley Kubrick: The Andromeda Strain, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, Zardoz, Rollerball.  (Using a game as metaphor for our meaningless power plays recalls Last Year at Marienbad, another inimitable work.)

Like that cycle, and like the chilly Star Trek--The Motion Picture, The Thing, and The Big Chill, Quintet echos the sorrow of baby boomers as the hopefulness of the 1960s froze and shattered.  At one point, Andersson cries as she cuddles with Newman, helpfully pointing out that the intimacy “makes me think of the past, of what we’ve lost.”  Later, she notes that Essex still has hope, “like a little child.” 

All of this might have been fine if the film had distracted us with an actual plot and characters, like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Unfortunately, we get little of either, in favor of much walking about in the snow, guarded questions and halfhearted threats between the game’s opponents, and people warming hands by fires (some even stick gloved hands into the fire: See how callous they've become!).

And by the way, even given the whole ice age thing, why is it just as cold inside as outside (judging from visible breath)?  That’s not just symbolic, it’s a good way to freeze to death.

Over the decades I’ve watched this film two or three times now, and seeing the name Fernando Rey in the end credits, I realized why.  I was weaned on Harlan Ellison’s non-fiction screeds about benighted Hollywood; Ellison was always ranting about how science fiction and fantasy should be treated as any other art form.  In fact, Ellison once dropped a fictional sci-fi movie into one of his stories, an adaptation starring, if I recall, Franchot Tone.  Or was it Fernando Rey?

That’s what Quintet is, an attempt at a sci-fi art film.  I keep returning to it because I want to believe any post-apocalypse drama, filmed by Robert Altman in the 1970s with a world-class cast, is some kind of lost gem.  It's not.  However, the snow and ice are pretty.

this blog post is part of the Nature's Fury blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Creation (2009) 3 of 4

** if you're interested in this film, you already know the ending **

Creation is a biopic giving a glimpse into the crisis of conscience of Charles Darwin, when he could no longer procrastinate publishing his theory of evolution.  The reason (as we now need to be reminded) is that Darwin was raised in a Christian society and well knew he'd be dealing a severe blow to the Bible's primacy as a perspective on the universe.  Darwin (Paul Bettany) was a naturalist, not a dogmatist, and much less sanguine than his acquaintance and foil, Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), who cheerfully tells him, "You've killed God, sir!"

Darwin's other friends are more gentle in urging him to publish the book we know as On the Origin of Species.  The other key players are Darwin's wife and their daughter.  Jennifer Connelly (also Bettany's wife) plays Emma Darwin as a sincere, rather strict woman whose staunch faith doesn't prevent her from supporting her husband (indeed, when he can't take the pressure any longer, he allows her to make the decision whether to publish).  Tragically, the couple lose their vivacious daughter, Annie.  The resulting grief, combined with the professional worries, makes Charles ill and nearly drives him to madness.

This is a solid film, if a bit staid and conservative, perhaps to balance the still-divisive subject matter.  Although it makes no apologies for celebrating a famous scientist, we also see Charles mocking his own youthful hubris, and there are touches of horror as he realizes his work leaves the universe a messier place than he found it.

Creation is one of those biopics you watch to find out what happened, as opposed to having a cinematic experience.   In that sense it reminded me of The Passion of Ayn Rand with Helen Mirren, and the recent abolitionist film Belle.  The viewer picks up some nuggets about the 19th century, for example, they were very big on "hydrotherapy": standing in torrential showers was supposed to cure various ailments.  That reminded me of a story about director John Huston, how he supposedly overcame a sickly youth by immersing himself in a waterfall.

I think of Darwin as one of the non-Biblicists of the 19th century (into the 20th), along with Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein.  All felt at least some guilt or anxiety over their discoveries, although from what I know, Marx's suffering was mostly from not being paid for his work, appropriately enough.

Along with the family drama, we learn that Darwin was actually the co-discoverer of evolution, sharing the accomplishment with Alfred Russel Wallace.  The DVD extras indicate Creation exaggerates for drama at least a bit, but then these are upper-crust Brits, so we shouldn't be surprised they stayed relatively polite even in these epochal circumstances.  It took the Americans to make the theory of evolution into a contact sport.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Gone Girl (2015) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers **

As a movie, this is an effective potboiler, if hampered by length, and the now-inevitable orange-and-teal, stone-washed photography.  The aspect of Gone Girl that most interests me is the parable about white Americans, our fortunes over recent decades. 

When we meet Nick and Amy, both write for lifestyle magazines: he writes for a male audience, she, for women.  This evokes the entitlement of white America, presuming to define what makes a good or successful man or woman.  (When Amy wonders if his job means that Nick "is an expert at being a man," he shrugs it off, but that doesn't make her wrong.)  We'll learn they are both pretending to be better than they are, for each other, but then what's white good for if not a lingering, guilty-but-relieved suspicion one is automatically better than other people? 

In recent decades, this supremacy has been hit with a twofold problem: white Americans are accused of benefiting from a history of oppression; as they attempt to tame or elude that charge, they're losing any immunity to economic collapse.  It's getting so the Nicks and Amys of the world can't complain about the Recession without being charged with white entitlement. 

Nick's mother's cancer prompts a move to Missouri, where the couple will start a family; this move repeats the immigrant's journey: New York City, then West to set down roots.  Financially, their salvation is Amy's trust fund, thanks to her parents' Amazing Amy books, a romanticized version of her own childhood.  We hear disparaging comments about this childhood "exploitation," but really, Amy's parents were doing the same as Nick and Amy, packaging the (white) American fairy tale for mass consumption.  They're just more successful at it, until Amy shows what she's learned. 

Assuming financial stability, the problem of white America is a public relations problem, created by brute force, very much a male specialty.  It's exacerbated by the fact that most people still marry within their race.  These facts dictate that women play a central role in any solution, and considering their own history of victimization, it's no surprise white women want to be well-compensated for any fix.  They want to call the shots. 

In this sense, Amy's scheme isn't crazy, it's clever.  Amy knows it isn't hard to make people revile a straight-white-male in today's world, they just need a little help.  Notice how Nick seems twice the size of any other white man in the film: white men are shrinking and big, virile Nick sticks out like a sore thumb, at least until he hires a black lawyer to block for him.  Nick's not as smart as Amy, but he's not a moron

Amy knows her gender takes the curse off whiteness, which is why "missing white women" is  ratings gold for TV news and TV talk shows.  People of color may find it hard to resist these stories, because compassion for white women implies the world will get around to people of color, in time.  To think otherwise would be awfully cynical, right?       

Amy's been paying attention.  She gives Americans a narrative they can understand.  She also proves herself, not only with guile, but with some brute force of her own, dispatching a straight-white-male who's too weak to be of use except as a corpse.  (Note that her worst setback comes when she trusts a woman; the blowback removes her last sentimental weakness, feminism.)  Nick is horrified, and afraid of her, but so what?  Why shouldn't the husband be afraid, for a change?  He'll get over it, as he appreciates that his wife has used changed social standards and technology to immensely improve their financial prospects.

In these difficult times, why shouldn't women take their turn, like good sports?  Amy only does what so many white men did when they built this country: connive, lie, steal, exploit, and kill.  They tamed a frontier, Amy dares the digital frontier. 

What's the matter, are you threatened by a powerful, successful woman


Friday, March 25, 2016

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) 3 of 4

** this post contains only mild spoilers **

In this film, the Coen brothers are saying that the "birth of the nation" wasn't the reversal of Reconstruction, as in the D.W. Griffith film, but the New Deal of the 1930s.  That this is a story of national origin is signaled by its recapitulation of Homer's The Odyssey, revised as the story of three fugitives from a Southern prison work-gang.  The film also draws from a younger classic, Sullivan's Travels.  Although the Coens agree with Preston Sturges that movies should entertain, to give us relief from our toils and sorrows, O Brother admits movies have become our national literature, the source and mirror of our values. 

And if we feel our U.S. culture is less magical than old Hellas, we need to look again, as at the haunting scene of supplicants going down to the river.  If you're not sure you believe, well just hang on, and something will turn up -- a hand cart driven by a blind man, a talent scout, a flood -- to change your luck.   

The New Deal of the 1930s was a key part of the rise of the Federal government as the seat of power in the U.S. (note that Americans used to say "these United States are," now we say "the U.S. is").  Thereafter, it was harder for local or regional authorities to abuse prisoners or otherwise deny human rights.  The planned flood, referenced throughout the film and seen at the end, is a baptism for this new nation. 

One unforgettable bit has Everett (George Clooney) repeatedly frustrated by his inability to secure his preferred brand of "pomade" (hair-grease).  It's hilarious, but even here, he's urging his countrymen to a higher standard.  The Coen brothers are known for inventive, off-the-wall humor, but may be unique in their ability to smoothly insert an extended visit with the KKK into a whimsical comedy.   

In summation, good people, since the days of the New Deal (with its many dams), we're closer to our stated ideals about everyone having a chance to pursue happiness, etc., whether ethnic minority or ex-convicts.  The down side is that major corporations now call the shots, and regional cultures tend to be discouraged, unless expressed through the arts, such as music (cue The Soggy Bottom Boys). 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spaceballs (1987) 2 of 4

** Spaceballs spoils itself, when the characters fast-forward a VHS of their own movie! **

Considering the amount of mockery it inspires, sci-fi hasn't been a fertile field for movie parodies.  In the parody golden-age of the 1970s and 1980s, both Young Frankenstein and The Man With Two Brains favor horror over sci-fi.  Woody Allen's Sleeper was derived from prose science fiction, thus its plot twists are more sophisticated than most serious s.f. films of the era. 

Dark Star (1974) remained sufficiently obscure as to be reworked, just a few years later, as the terrifying Alien.*  GhostbustersBack to the Future, Tremors, and Coneheads were sci-fi comedies, despite containing moments of parody.  Mars Attacks! went splat.  Only in 1999, with Galaxy Quest, was the genre successfully spoofed in a theatrical, English-language movie.   

Many questioned the timing of Spaceballs, a full ten years after the release of Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you insist).  It's more to the point to note that Mel Brooks left science fiction till last amongst his genre parodies, evidently because he had no particular understanding or affection for the genre.  If you look at Brooks's best films, all spoof the pre-1950 movies he saw as a child, with the partial exception of his Hitchcock riff High Anxiety.  By 1987, he was also well past his prime, witness his remaining spoofs going downhill from the title:  Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Mainly, Brooks understood that sci-fi and outer space were wildly successful, so we get lots of jokes about merchandising, home video, and sequels.  These don't parody sci-fi so much as 1980s Hollywood, and a space-mad society.  An exception, and one of the film's better jokes, comes when a starship commander orders the ship to "ludicrous speed," which mocks the blithe manner sci-fi throws around made-up terms like "warp speed" and "hyperspace."  (As indicated by the recent Nolan brothers film, many scientists believe interstellar travel is practically impossible.) 

Science fiction is rich for parody, of course, in its moralizing (how is it that every alien race reminds us of social problems on present-day Earth?), its Statue-of-Liberty reveals, and its recycling of adventure movies in the future, but Spaceballs mostly ignores these areas.  Instead, we get endless puns, most of them weak: a dog-man named "Woof," a "Druish princess."  The whole thing is too jokey: most of the gags would work as well on the radio. 

I'll admit Spaceballs offers some laughs, including the sight of stormtroopers "combing the desert" with giant combs.  The lack of CGI helps: it's funny that the production actually created giant combs marked "Ace/Genuine Hard Rubber."
* Also obscure: Flesh Gordon, Strange Invaders, The Stuff, and Space Truckers.  I'm excluding superhero parodies. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Psycho II and III (1983, 1986)

** minor-to-moderate spoilers, except at the end (as indicated) **

In order to enjoy these two films, you need to accept the fact they're not even in the same style as the original.  The original Psycho is an off-its-rocker horror film made by the premier suspense director of cinema history.  The sequels are horror-inflected melodramas, more in the vein of such post-Psycho gaslighting films as Scream of Fear and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  As such, they resemble Hitchcock's original less than the current, addictive, and feminist Bates Motel

Both the 1980s films turn on Norman's acquaintance with an odd, slight, half-pretty young woman, a go-between for the audience.  In Psycho II, this is Meg Tilly, whose character may not be the rootless outcast she appears to be.  In Psycho III, Diana Scarwid is a failed nun.  You know this right away, as the film opens with her wailing, "There. Is. No. God!!!"  (By that time, Tilly had also played a troubled nun, in Agnes of God.  Hollywood values!)

Psycho II is the work of two non-prolific but estimable horror talents, director Richard Franklin (the enduring Road Games) and writer Tom Holland.  Holland is a seminal figure in 1980s horror, writer of the original Child's Play, and writer/director of Fright NightPsycho III uses different filmmakers (Anthony Perkins directed) but makes for a matched pair, with both films competently paying homage to Hitchcock's signature camera work and set pieces. 

In 1983, the filmmakers lacked the nerve to abandon the Norman-and-his-mother relationship that shocked the world in 1960, which necessitates character(s) pretending to be Norman's mother (or is it a hoax?).  This plotting sets up a franchise, but also lets some of the air out of a claustrophobic universe, making it a typical goth-soaper in which most of the characters are half-nuts.  Whereas the original seemed set in the Southwest, the sequel is vaguely Southern. 

Psycho II is well-directed, but plays out like a good TV-movie, never as good as you want it to be.  (Ironically, Hitchcock shot the original with the crew from his TV show, but at the time, the TV aesthetic meant down-and-dirty and under-the radar.  It also meant black-and-white, an ascetic denial suiting the horror genre.)  The plot of Psycho II is pleasantly twisting, and gratifyingly sicko, and the ending sent 'em home grinning: that-Norman-he's-incorrigible

If II is more of a crowd-pleasing roller-coaster, III is small and gritty, but also meaner, involving the deaths of innocents.  As before, the script lays on the coincidences, as Norman Bates becomes involved with another fleeing blonde with the initials M.C. 

If you haven't seen the movies lately, it's probably impossible to keep their plots separate: which one has Jeff Fahey, and which Dennis Franz?  In which does Norman flash back to poisoning his mother?  Which murders are actually committed by Norman?  This isn't meant as a criticism, in fact the conflation implicitly reflects Norman's mental state. 

These are potboilers, sure, but a slash above most horror sequels; they also have compassion for the mentally ill without soft-soaping the symptoms and possible dangers.  In retrospect, Psycho was a coming-out film for Tony Perkins, not so much for sexuality but for its implications about his mental health.  Perkins already had a successful film career, but had the guts to play possibly the most disturbing character in film history, in a film that many in Hollywood expected to be a disaster (see Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins).  He was typecast, but that couldn't have been too much of a surprise (I haven't yet read his autobiography), and Perkins made a nice career of sketchy loners: The Trial, Pretty Poison, Crimes of Passion

In the 1980s films, Norman is a serial killer who's spent 20 years in prison; he's also a closeted cross-dresser and voyeur, an isolate, and a socially awkward oddball.  Still, his basic goodness shines through.  He's trying to cope with mental illness, and with the inevitable mocking and scapegoating that go with it.

Psycho II and III don't try to match one of the best films ever made; like Norman, they have some humility.  Norman likes to say "we all go a little mad sometimes."  In the original, he's self-justifying, but in these two sequels the world has caught up to Norman: motels have become notorious, and many people are anxious to harass or exploit a troubled ex-con.  The original Psycho is famous for making viewers identify with a psychopath, but by 1983, Norman had us with the opening credits.  In the current TV series Bates Motel, both young Norman and his smother (a remarkable performance by Vera Farmiga) are sympathetic heroes, despite their massive issues and homicidal ways.    

** major spoilers, remainder of post **

In Psycho II, someone keeps calling Norman claiming to be his mother (who, presumably, is still dead).  The viewer doesn't know if this is part of the gaslight hoax engineered by Lila Loomis (Vera Miles, returning from the original film), one of Norman's hallucinations, or -- ?  Finally Mrs. Spool, a background character, turns out to be the lucky lady: the tag of the film has her visiting Norman at night and revealing she's his mother, although she didn't raise him.  Well past his wit's end, Norman poisons her and, before the poison can fully take affect, brains her with a shovel.

In Psycho III, this plotline is put on hold, as Norman resumes his life's work of killing sexy, available women.  At the end, a nosey-feminist-reporter-type reveals to Norman that Mrs. Spool wasn't his mother, although in her madness she may've thought she was.  Spool was Norman's aunt, and part of a love triangle with her sister and brother-in-law (Norman's parents).  Spool unraveled and killed her lover (Norman's father), then spent years in an asylum.  Upon hearing this news, Norman fights off his demons in order to destroy his mummy (the preserved remains of Mrs. Bates, or is it Mrs. Spool?  I've lost track.) instead of attacking Venable, the reporter.  Since Norman has already killed several others, he's hauled off to the puzzle palace.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jarhead (2005) 3 of 4

** no major spoilers **

After watching this film it occurs to me that it must be difficult being a Gulf War infantry veteran, at times, due to the perception the war was a picnic.  I wouldn't have thought the Gulf War could produce its own version of Full Metal Jacket -- traumatic training followed by traumatic deployment, the need to be half-crazy to survive, lots of cursing and internal sadism -- but Jarhead is that film.  It's a notch from Kubrick's Vietnam flamethrower, but a good war film in its own right. 

Although admitting the relative lack of combat, and though it never overtly references Gulf War Syndrome, Jarhead inspires respect for veterans with its conviction and accuracy, detailing why Marines called service "the Suck."  It's an episodic film, but every one's potent.

In one sequence, we see a line of Iraqi vehicles that have been blasted by U.S. fire, the occupants now charred corpses.  If you stumble upon this scene, you could mistake it for an episode of The Walking Dead or the like.  This is a frequent parallel, between war films and sci-fi/horror films.  Aliens is part of the Vietnam cycle, even if it never mentions that conflict.  Military units were standard in the sci-fi films of the 1950s. 

The commonality between the two genres, war and the fantastic, is that both venture into alien territory (for most of us), and both have to somehow bargain a compromise between skepticism and subversion on the one hand, and loyalty to the familiar on the other.

On their return, the men are greeted by a Vietnam veteran who boards their bus.  The older man fits the stereotype: while not a total flake, he's seen better days and has lost 2-5 marbles.  Still, the young vets betray no disrespect, no matter how many times he says "Semper Fi."  They'll soon be his age.  More important,  the old dude knows combat and the cost of "heroism": what  we stateside pussies will never know.  This received knowledge may be why vets are so often mistreated, down through history: they've done our dirty work, and we resent them, even as we clap them on the back.  If we didn't resent combat vets, we'd give them what they deserve, and their money would be no good in these 50 states.