Friday, June 25, 2010

The Wringer of Ringerhood: SURROGATES (2009)

Dystopia rules! At least if you're the type who'd rather stay home and stare at screens than get all scuffed up in the big city of real life Boston. Bruce Willis and Rhada Mitchell are two plastic cops who care... in a world where everyone gets to be plastic and pretty, so what's the point? It's based on a graphic novel with roots clear down to every sci fi dystopia premise and routine cop plot that starts with seemingly unconnected murders and ends at the top of the world about to be destroyed (Correction, Mr. Bond, saved!) in the sci fi annals, from WATCHMEN to METROPOLIS.

The premise is artificial limbs run amok... why stop at an arm? Do the whole person and let everyone hang home in their robes and send their plastic fantastic representatives careening through the world via brainwave radio. It's a good internet analogy-ready premise, but no subtext worth exploring (for starters, what do looks matter in a world where everyone is pretty and literally plastic?) is explored. Instead, we get the routine-byzantine cop thing: Who's killing the surries (the slang for 'surrogate,') in such a way as to fry their owners by remote control? Could it be Ving Rhames as the Rastafarian leader of the back-to-skin coalition? Uh oh! Here comes a car chase!

Underneath the self-conscious dehumanizing, the film's actual subtext turns out to be a depressing exploration of the awful habit humans have of trying to impose their personal beliefs on everyone else. What they feel is missing from their lives is what the world needs to have forced down its collective throat. Not to spoil the plot, but apparently there's some people in the inner city who don't like surrogates, and want to ruin the party for everyone else. Hey man, if you don't like to rock it like a plastic-raincoat wearing replicant pop star, then you can just stay home in your robe... and write a blog about it!

So that's the clash: Ving Rhames' back-to-human coalition wants to ban the surrogates, like a mom who turns off the TV because it's a Sunny Saturday afternoon and you're wasting it on the couch. Those citizens who are happy to be plastic zombies on the other hand, like our hangdog cop's shallow wife, resent being accused of avoiding real life, especially if 'real life' involves coitus with a groggy Willis. A hulk of a robe-clad  pot-bellied shell at home (his surrogate on the other hand, wears blush like he's in a Blake Edwards movie), he browbeats, feebly, at his wife (Rosamund Pike), whose plastic Sex in the City fantasia is much more interesting (and therefore less examined) than the tired premise of ole Willis condescendingly trying to 'reach' her (you know, on a "human" level) before once again the center of a big car chase and foot chase and brawl, getting yippi-kay-yanked around like the whole film's a wringer for his ringerhood.

And of course, of COURSE!--he knows what it's like to lose a son. He and wife lost their (real!) son in a car accident, before the film commences. As Richard Corliss writes, the kid is "a victim of lazy screenwriters." (Time 9/9)

Pike does way more than seems humanly possible with a dual role that requires Stepford wife steppin' out-ish avoidanc and repressed grief as the real-life spouse to a real-life Willis. In a big "acting" moment, Willis--the real version--breaks up her plastic people party like a drunk ox, repeating "you're my wife" over and over to her fringe-topped surry, as if he's hurt--deeply hurt--that his wife doesn't want to shuck said surry and join him in looking old and grizzled just because he's taken a mind to do so, her soiree be hanged. Are we supposed to think he's brave? He's more like a spoiled kid, genuinely bewildered why a electronic toy he's kept in the closet for five years doesn't spring automatically to life when he deigns fit to dust it off. Dude, no one likes the party guy who was once fun but is now in AA and demanding "his" wife quit drinking too, like Hickey in ICE MAN COMETH. Bruce wants it all. His wifey has turned herself into an object, as his gender requested, but now that's not enough: he wants her real body, too, to be under his literal thumb.

It's kind of ironic/interesting that the parent company of SURROGATES is Disney. Those imagineering masters of artificial humans (as above, from Disney World's Hall of Presidents), whose love of CGI overwhelms every stop of their corporate mandated quest for suburban family values. Willis' nasty beard and stubble burns the digitally artifactual screen like a baby's cheek getting its brusque first kiss from an unshaven daddy, but his character ends up being no better than a common censor, sanctimonious preacher, or Tea Party conservative. He's the type who pours out "his" wife's Xanax when he decides she's taking too much and ignoring him. She's his wife, damnit. His wife, not Pfizer's!

Covert ideology aside,  the best scenes involve large groups of people on the street in young and attractive shells, doused in CGI like a Maxim group photo retouch. When their hairy bathrobe wearing middle-aged owners finally come out come out wherever they are to blink in the light of post-surrie era, you feel like you just left Beverly Hills 90210 and are back in Compton, like magic! At least the car chases come off as real and crunchy (like they did in the director's previous sci-fi film, TERMINATOR 3, featuring the very surrogate-ish Kristanna Loken, of whom I've written here) and many key internet-analogies are tapped. This is a world where anyone can sign on as anyone and go into any body--so any gender, age, criminal record--can be anyone else. Old fat dudes can go out on the town in the guise of slutty young club girls (and hey, vice versa). Skeevy as the idea may be, it surely happens all the time on the world wide you-know-where. Clearly, A stoic plea for sticking with our original ugly ass forms needed to be made, and I thank my credit card it's been delivered by the only one who can do it right: Bruce Willis, in fake blonde hair and cheek rouge.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lana Turner Overdrive

LANA TURNER OVERDRIVE from Helsinki Productions on Vimeo.

Screen legend Lana Turner takes a hallucinogen-fueled journey deep into her own inland empire in this mix-up from director Michael Frost. Life becomes stage becomes cinema as Lana spins out of control over loss, regret, spiteful teenage stepdaughters and LSD substituted for mom's Valium.

For my loving if reserved praise for the rather slippery source material, 1969's THE BIG CUBE, click here. For my review of FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), here. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Great Films of the 80s: CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

What a time 1982 was to be a comic book addict and Robert E. Howard-ophile with a shellacked completed jigsaw puzzle of Frazetta's "Death Dealer" up on his wall and a stack of paperback reprints on his shelf (including Howard's non-Conan stuff, like all those grisly stories about sailors' bare-knuckle boxing). Suffering the 15 year-old virgin blues in a world gone mad with headlines rabid with neighborhood pedophile sex rings (careers and parents wrecked forever by hypnotized children witnesses who only later proved tragically unreliable) and tales of LSD-using hippies microwaving babies and tucking the turkey into the crib, for us Howard was like a proto-punk rocker, bidding us keep working the wheel of woe until into this hell might ride a horseman to deliver. Herald of the new world! Conan! The Thulsa Doom serpent cult was a perfect analogy for the hippie movement (which we were too young to be part of) with its focus on converting young people to blood orgies and training them to kill their parents and ignore us--their little brothers-- and the whole twin serpent motif was very pagan and old school unchristian, (everything seeming serpentine and reptilian in nature is a common line of hallucinations in psychedelic drug experiences, and exist today in our conception of the double helix and in the symbol of the American Medical Association). For kids, wondering why they weren't growing up drowned in orgies like they saw their older brothers do in the 1970s, the Thulsa Doom crown was the perfect demonization tool. We didn't do orgies by choice, not because we weren't invited. In fact, we'll crash yours, knock over the punch bowl, steal the vodka, and--while you're all too stoned to fight back--set you on fire and drag our half-naked drugged-out older sister home by the hair to face mom and dad's mighty scolding.

Directed by John Milius from a script he co-wrote with Oliver Stone, the movie was better than we could hope. You could fit the dialogue in this movie on the back of a bar napkin, but every jewel, rune-covered sword handle, and jade pendant has a whole progression of deep meanings; the orchestral score probably took down a whole old-growth forest on its own; the deceptively ornate (rich with unique Italian artistry that's never gaudy or showy) costumes change and morph naturally over the film's passage of time (we can read into Conan's progress by the upgrades in his chain mail). These are some of the reasons why it works so well as a repeat viewing mythical rite. Conan doesn't even say a word until his famous answer to the question 'what is best in life" -- "To crush your enemies, to see 'dem driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of der wimmen." 

Seeing the film for the first time with my buddy Alan (between us we had most of Marvel's Conan comics (though we pronounced it "Con-An" (like Con Air), I remember we both laughed at this first sign of Arnold's German accent and thrilled to it in a kind of pre-stoner rapture.

Still, the film would be a thunder-headed ponderous downer if not for the lively, lithe and lovely Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. She had a whole arc of her own in the Marvel comic books, where she had black hair and was a pirate captain (and looked a bit more like Catherine Zeta Jones). The Valeria of the movie is blonde, and not in it nearly enough, but that's why the film works so well as a revenge scenario, since we experience the horrible pain of Conan's childhood for the first half hour of running time--forced into slavery, forced to kill like a pit bull, forced to watch his parents be murdered and his people destroyed by Thulsa (James "Vader" Earle Jones)--and then the next ten or twenty minutes swooning as he finds this weird kind of outlaw love, and then--after kicking ass and trashing Doom's orgy room in one of the best sequences in all movies, Conan loses Valeria, also to Thulsa, this time via a serpent arrow. Oh man but seeing this for the first time as a 15 year-old, damn right you're pissed at old Thulsa by then! "I am the wellspring from which you flow," Doom tells him, and he's right. In killing him, Conan loses his entire reason for being and so the movie ends mainly watching him watch the massive stairway set burn and light up the darkened desert. And then we see a shot of him much later, during the King Conan era (a whole separate Marvel comic, from when he's older and established). We're promised, by Mako's narration, a whole series of films to come, even moodier and more adult than this one. All the more tragic, they would not come.

Though time has worn my vengeance-craving edge down to a dull memory, the scars of being a sexually frustrated, physically un-mighty teenager linger on, as does the memory of the exaltation I felt watching Conan, the sense of vindication (which would not come again in any movie until Fight Club) for my masculine angst. Finally, here was a hero we teens could get behind. He was swinging for our team, crashing our older sibling's orgy and trashing the joint, and if there's any place that howls of bloodlust are still okay, it should be in the theater, with the old ladies behind you going "sshhhh!" We may not have been raised pushing a dumb wheel in the middle of nowhere for seemingly no reason, but we could relate, in our hatred of school, of third period geometry class. Conan was our liberator. School's Aowt foah Summah!

Back to Valeria for a moment. When she and Conan bond in a luxurious fur-covered tent after robbing the tower of serpents, we feel him finally beginning to relax, and the whole unbearably rough and dismal film unclenches its fists for the first time and our heart melts as these two orphaned lone wolves find a temporary peace. Though we see lots of Bergman's hot dancer thighs, some breast here and there, and of course Schwarzenegger's acres of muscles, Milius clearly doesn't intend their sex scene should titillate so much as warm our hearts a bit, sincerely and without mawkishness. Bergman is pretty in a rough sort of way, she doesn't know her angles, doesn't wear noticeable make-up; her nose is a big long and in some frames her neck kind if disappears under he chin, but she's beautiful and desirable to us. That's why when she talks about wandering alone and cold watching lovers silhouettes behind their tents in the night, you believe her, and so it's one of the best sex scenes of all time. She's a realistic 'girlfriend zone' beauty, with just as much detail on faces and textures--furs, fires, tent walls, jewels--as nudity and moaning, and it's all "earned" so to speak, through character development. Valeria's newfound love comes with a fierce devotion. We too, in the theater know what it is to pass lovers in the night, that's why it breaks our hearts, no matter how many times we see it, and when Conan leaves her to pursue his quest for vengeance we understand her sorrow and still understand his quest, because, in this case, Valeria's reasons not to ride against Doom aren't based on fear of death, but fear of losing this love so soon after she found it. 

Laugh all you want, but this was our Titanic!

Re-visiting it on DVD is cool, because there's a lot of stuff a boy who saw this film a million times on duped, cropped VHS would finally get to see again after the one time in the theater. I was always pissed that the visceral early raid on Conan's village, which blew my mind in the theater, was cropped to the point it was impossible to follow on the pan and scan. Did I only remember it that way? No. And now it all seems new, especially in the new remastered extended (!) version, which includes a monologue wherein Conan remembers picking blueberries with his father, and in it he seems for the first time both eloquent and at peace, a bit straight out of The Seventh Seal but that's okay --it's earned, even if it does kill the mood of slowly building menace (and we understand why it was removed, it's a bit labored, like a shout-out to Von Sydow who plays the king who sends them on their quest). My sharper adult eyes and the high res of DVD now notice the importance of a huge jewel stolen from Thulsa Doom, which Conan gives to Valeria which she wears around her neck from then on, and which he later takes back and wears after she's killed; and the way Doom's riders in the beginning of the film know to take off their helmets in respect to Conan's mom, via admiring the handle detailing of an animal skull on her slain husband's awesome sword. In its weird militaristic way (Milius is a great one for armor and warrior codes) this nearly dialogue-free film is stunningly eloquent. Is there a more perfect fit for Howard's prose, his love of ancient military history? If we doubt, we can just compare with the relatively shitty Richard Fleischer-directed PG sequel. 

Because of all the hack job imitations that followed in the wake of Conan's box office success we've become conditioned to dismiss 'sword and sorcery' (as it was known the) as juvenile tripe, and indeed most of the other films in its wake came weighed heavy by contemptuous screenwriters, low budgets, and incompetent directors who can't afford fight choreographerr. Some of these imitations are made with wit and mythic savvy (mostly from the Corman camp, like Deathstalker or Jack Hill's Sorceress), some are made with money but no care (i.e. the two Richard "make ten million dollar budget look like two" Fleischer Conan sequel and Red Sonja). But John Milius has respect, knowledge of ancient military history and pre-Christian iron age weaponry, budget, and Jungian mythic savvy to spare. Despite (or maybe because of) his crazy militarism, he's not just a close collaborator of artsy fuckers like Coppola and Paul Schrader, but a genuine NRA badass, and producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to give the film a huge budget. Every cent is up there on the screen: thousands of extras, vast beautiful serpentine sets, dozens of horses, a huge temple exterior staircase on a hilltop and a vast interior mountain cave with a marble orgy chamber that looks like something out of a genuine nightmare (designed by Ron Cobb, of Star Wars and Alien fame). Whatever happened to beautiful, boldly original art direction like this? What have we lost since 1982? I think I know, but if I told you, I'd go to hell, or PC jail.

On widescreen DVD, so much more is revealed: I never realized there actually lots of corpses hanging upside down along the walls in the orgy scene, though you'd expect an orgy scene to be more smoky and with more writhing. But I love the special effects here, which occur without rupturing the soundtrack, which plays almost nonstop thunderous versions of De Falla's El Brujo and doesn't break from the track to announce, ala John Williams or Mickey Mouse, "hey look, Doom is turning into a snake!" (i.e. it's what Carpenter calls a carpet score). Thus we, like Conan, don't know how to react when a giant snake starts to stir in the background. The effects are never grandstanding. For example, consider the sandy wind surrounding Conan's crucified body--covered in writing ala Kwaidan to protect him from evil spirits---is writhing like shadowy reptoid men with long wind tails. The animated bits are slight and beautiful, clearly frame-by- frame hand-painted, using the actual sandstorm wind in the scene as the jumping off point for whirling figurative specters (see below). Not since Forbidden Planet and never since has this sort of thing been done with such class.

Nothing quite illuminates that you're old like, so many decades since you were 15 in that theater, realizing the last time you saw Conan you saw him and Valeria as adults and now you see them as children. Arnold's youthfulness and pre-catch phrase sincerity make him quite charismatic; this is the film he made before launching into superstardom with The Terminator and as with that film, it's a true original, made with lots of care and imagination and research, that should never be confused with the imitative junk that followed.

A lot of us Conan fans were initially wary that a German body builder who'd never starred in a major film, Pumping Iron as himself, would be too flippant, too jovial, too A-Team, if you will, to be a good Conan. We figured he'd make sure through his contract that he doesn't actually kill anyone, just beats them up and tells them to drink milk and stay in school and don't do drugs. So we were all surprised by the gleeful amorality and downright thuggishness of his barbarian. That's one of the things that makes Conan great -- he ain't no role model. On two different occasions Conan basically breaks into someone else's party, trashes the joint, kills loads of frightened security guards, kidnaps a girl and/or kills a priceless pet snake and steals jewels, all without direct provocation. He doesn't wait for them to draw first; he kills people in cold blood, punches out a camel who was just standing there (Conan bumped into him), pushes beggars, steals property and throws witches into the fire.. And he doesn't just conk them on the head and then lament about killing to Gabrielle, like Xena used to do. He chops off their heads and kicks over their candelabras. He's been dealt a raw deal by fate and he's out to steal and kill to his heart's content, as he's entitled. And there's no dutiful cop trailing him, determined to take him down; there's no annoyingly liberal captain of police telling him to do things "by the book." Conan is not asking for the liberal government's help in getting his revenge --he's a true conservative antihero, ready and able to lead us out of the 70s, beyond even the range of Clint's .44 Magnum.

And so, to our surprise, we loved Arnold to death. Every line he speaks in the film became cherished and repeated endlessly: "Can we go over theah? Wheah the others do not see?" / "Crom, I have never pwayed to you befoah!" / "Oil the sowahd... and feed the hoahse." Man, we could crack up for hours saying lines like that in our German Arnold voices, even well past college. I don't mean that at all as a put-down. We all love Arnold. And he does a great job. He invests himself. He does most of his own stunts, as do Sandahl and Gerry Lopez. It makes a difference.

Time doesn't permit me to praise Lopez, also a fountain of quotes ("Dinner for wolve"). A surfer Milius bonded with making Big Wednesday. Lopez speaks in the broken English expected of an Asian-looking actor at the time, but isn't stupid and when he occasionally breaks into Cali bro-style enunciation, it's a joy. With Schwarzenegger a bodybuilder, Bergman a Fosse dancer and Lopez a surfer--none of the are three actual trained actors--there's a kind of outsider status amongst the three that binds them to each other and works beautifully for conveying their outsider status within the film. They are not just "high adventurers," not bland actors cast for their looks or accomplished stars burdened with a sense of responsibility for their good guy image. They're just young, motivated, physically fit people willing to try anything. They rejected society but it rejected them first. They have their own code of honor as bodybuilders, surfers, and dancers - each an insular world with its own codes and mores. They were as we felt we would become once our goddamned schools were burned forever to the ground and the world became divided by lawlessness, and warring gangs of the road had to be fought by whatever weapons one could steal from the dead. Until that day came, we would wait, and watch Conan the Barbarian over and over, and stockpile shields and swords, and later, thanks to the NRA, guns.

It would be only a matter of time before Columbine. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Wicker-Shutter Laffin'-Spittin' Man

Watching SHUTTER ISLAND last night, I felt kind of like how I did watching EYES WIDE SHUT or THE WICKER MAN remake, two movies where big budget and directorial over-thinking were applied to a story better served perhaps by a grimy, no-budget backyard or city-without-a-permit shoot full of unknown actors, discovered on a Something Weird double bill from 1972. There, any of these three films would be instant "discoveries" for the cult film niche dwellers, but with so much high tech Oscar-reaching craftsmanship involved in these B-movie plots, so many highbrow toots and expository whistles, we end up looking at both less and more than the sum of parts that probably originated in some screenwriters collection of DC House of Mystery comics and was never intended to bear the full brunt of 21st century Hollywood craftspeople.

Spoiler Alert! 

Here are some issues I had with the film:

1. "GOOD" GRIEF: If Leo's character is going to be delusional and alcoholic from issues of Holocaust and infant murder, I can assure you he'd a) start drinking again as things got really fucked up on the island and b) his first instinct when finding all that death in his big flashback would not be to scream "Noooooo!" up at an overhead camera--as has been a cliche as far back even as 90s "McBain" satires on THE SIMPSONS (and which I even made fun of Leo doing a few years ago, before he even did it!)

No sir, he would not.

A real alcoholic in dealing with something as horrific as that big climactic flashback would have calmly gone back in the kitchen for that bottle and started drinking and calling the cops, going safely into a fugue state of numbness from booze and repression, winding up a bit like James Stewart after his VERTIGO breakdown, which he'd clearly never emerge from. He's a Ranger, for Christ's sakes, not a wailing widow, and if he's going to process grief in huge cathartic Oscar-baiting howls of anguish that means he probably won't repress the memory two seconds later; you can't have it both ways: you can't process grief and repress it at the same time. The person who has hysterical hallucinations in denial of reality years later likely never properly reacted in the first place. Leo seems to be accepting all the blame and grief of the war in his ghastly howls: primal scream therapists would surely approve.

2. TOO TOUGH - Leo needs to learn that gaining a bunch of weight won't make him look coppish, just bloated. He still needs to try that thing of leaning on his baby face for dangerous criminal associations, ala Richard Widmark in ROAD HOUSE and KISS OF DEATH, which I've been urging since his Ridley Scott film, BODY OF LIES (2008). Instead, Leo acts as if he's been obsessed with the JFK-style "Bahstin" accent he learned for Marty's last film, THE DEPARTED (pronounced "the dee-pAHted") and is determined to perfect the "tough cop who cared too much" martyr role even if it kills us. As it is, he's still one of those actors who becomes laughable when they try to be menacing, to get information. Until he plays on his strengths rather than weaknesses, he'll seem petulant rather than assertive, sulky rather than manipulative, comical rather than dangerous. A role with John Wayne in a Hawks film might have saved Leo from this strait-jacket, as it is, he's like Lancelot without an Arthur. And Scorsese ain't no Arthur, he's more like the New York Yankee in King Arthur's Court, scribbling down notes in awe as Lancelot prattles about his ability to poke other dudes in the shield. And PS, Lancelot would have been a wash-out if he didn't weaken and sleep with Arthur's wife. Until Leo does a similar high horse-dismount and armour removal, he'll always be just a guy on a horse with a rod, trying to be tough, like Wilmer the neurotic gunsel in MALTESE FALCON, only he's cast as Samuel Spade.

3. BOOZE: Alcoholism is not a trait you can pick up and put down with the ease that Leo's characters seem to, in Marty's films anyway. For THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, Leo ably--nay, brilliantly!--conveyed the effects of opiate withdrawal, so why in THE DEPARTED is he a Xanax head when the mood suits him, as if he felt his cranberry-drinking little pisher character needed some edginess, then forgot about it two minutes later once Farmiga scribbles him a script for 20 Valium, even though she recognizes his sulky petulance as "drug-seeking behave-yeh." And why is his SHUTTER ISLAND United States mah-shall an alcoholic only in flashbacks and  thus able to refuse offered drinks when he's clearly sweating and shaking like a lunatic and there's about a thousand justifications for a relapse all around him? No alcoholic suffering so much delusion would be likely to forget that relief is just a swig away. Also, his shakes and migraines would make much more sense if he was detoxing... i.e., if he never intended to spend the night at the island and so didn't properly, ahem, pack for the trip. If I'd have seen this with my old AA crew, we'd have walked out over these details!

4. DACHAU BLUES - The use of Nazi concentration camps could have been very effective but again it's overkill and explains nothing, as Leo's memory of it is refracted enough to make him a hero of the war by shooting unarmed Nazi guards during liberation. This actually one of the film's most hilarious moments - a cliche'd ridiculous tracking shot along a huge row of disarmed German guards lined up against a fence, all patiently waiting for the camera to reach them before dying in a spastic dance, falling only as the camera passes onwards; before the camera reaches them they just cower in little clusters rather than running for it like any sensible soldier of the Reich - they're filmed like a bunch of bathing beauties in an Esther Williams musical number, diving into the pool one at a time as the camera passes by. Giving Leo this cathartic moment should be enough! Leo, you avenged the Jews singlehanded, how can they ever cower, Schindler-like, before you enough in gratitude!? But no, Leo also has to brood and sulk about it later (and maybe it didn't happen we learn later, not that anything matters by then). Again it's a matter of having cake and eating it too. He's processed hate and grief and anguish but repressed them at the same time and that ain't how it works, except when Oscar beckons, and Scorsese indulges.

As I've written before, these things seem to point to some inherent fear on Leo's part to alienate audience sympathy, and yet, Leo! Leo! Look at your antecedents who might have starred in this film were it made in the 1950s when it's set: Bogart, Van Johnson, Aldo Ray, Robert Taylor, Robert Ryan, Dick Powell (hell Powell's face was even babier than Leo's, yet Powell pulled off playing tough guy Phillip Marlowe pretty damned well in MURDER MY SWEET), none of them would have been afraid to delve into audience alienation via realistic displays of sadism, greed, delirium tremens (Mitchum in EL DORADO expertly plays one of those rare drunks that's funny, sad, and realistic at the same time), lust, avarice, masochism, uncontrollable rage, moral weakness, humor, or hostility. Look at IN A LONELY PLACE or ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Imagine the tortured resilience Ryan would have brought to SHUTTER ISLAND. Leo might have done all right if SHUTTER was directed by Nicholas Ray, but instead we get lost in a house of guilt-edged mirrors that's both a noir-flypaper doom device and a taunting reflection of Leo's own inability to "go all the way"  into audience-alienating ambiguity the way, say, Nicolas Cage does so well in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, THE WICKER MAN and KNOWING.

Another baby-faced brother, Orson Welles, explored all the ambiguities of a would-be romantic lead/fall-guy in LADY FROM SHANGHAI when he should have been playing the cranky genius crippled lawyer, a demon who gets all the lines and which Orson surely meant at least unconsciously for himself to play (his old Mercury Theater stock player, Everett Sloane, does a good job, but lacks the charisma that even slimy lawyer villains need if they're going to get so many lines). As a leading man, Orson's all wet, and the wet becomes part of the thing. If the wet could become part of the thing for Leo, then well, maybe Stumpy could put the bottle away.

All that said, the film is still cool and I loved the ultra-ambiguous (tragic? who knows?) ending which leaves you with a lot to think about, and then forget ever happened. But hey, at least they freaking smoke in this movie, which was the style of the time and don't let 'em tell you different!

There's a lot of beautiful little ways in which the always superb and surprising Mark Ruffalo steals the show as Leo's fellow marshall (maybe). As his voice lowers, with only a hint of sadness, back to saying "What's up, boss?" we get a nicely understated and ambiguous look at the way insanity reasserts itself, a veritable entire MEMENTO warped and shrinky-dinked down into a single line.

P.S. If you liked the whirligig weirdness of SHUTTER ISLAND I'd also recommend the 1962 CABINET OF CALIGARI, an in-name-only remake of the old silent expressionist classic. Penned by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch, it's got the budget of an anthology TV show but really uses the limits of the frame and dodges the cliches of horror films and "sanitarium" films to play with audience sympathy and narrative expectations. And it tells almost the same story. Or does it? Mwhahahaha! And instead of a pudgy man-child determined to convince us he's Russell Crowe, we have a hot blonde chick with retrograde amnesia and a tendency towards violent outbursts, making this film like the limbo world between the two halves of PSYCHO (that is to say, HORROR HOTEL and DEMENTIA).

I'd still recommend SHUTTER ISLAND, but I'd lower my expectations, drink a bottle of whiskey and smoke "laced" cigarettes before watching, otherwise you might suffer from the compulsion to remember the trauma of watching millions of dollars and acres of craftsmanship and talent all laser-beam focused on telling a story that's been told before, but it's still better than that ambulance ghost movie Scorsese made awhile ago, WAKING THE DEAD. Well, even Hitchcock had his SHUTTER ISLAND moments, i.e. SUSPICION and STAGE FRIGHT. And sure, SHUTTER is entertaining and refreshingly free of sex or violence. But frankly, it's the sort of story John Carpenter would probably pass on as too cliche'd. And he's the one who should be making it, on a budget of $5, in his backyard, in the dead of night, with Adrienne Barbeau as the cop.

And Leo, if you keep frowning your face is going to look as Satanic as Robert Taylor's in his sleek MGM late 1950s prime. Is that what you want? AWESOME! But you've still got about fifteen years to go before the lines will set. May I recommend next time you make a film like this, that you go ahead and play the evil doctor? Or learn some karate? Or take some freakin' challenges other than the testesteronally-challenged wunderkind asserting his fierceness and cracking up in the process? What Hawks would have taught Leo is that being "good" has nothing to do with gruffness or bulk, and crazy has nothing to do with screaming up to heaven while cradling a perfectly dead child in your arms, it has to do with being a good shot, and sticking up for your friends, and most of all, being true to your nature, and freakin' takin' a drink once in awhile. Luke, I am your Fah-thuh.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Die Vikaren (THE SUBSTITUTE) und die Nordic Land sind sehr schon!

Summer in Manhattan I like to turn up the AC, weep for the environment, and escape into Nordic horror cinema, which is currently undergoing a major burst of (dark, what else?) energy thanks probably to the surprise art house success of Sweden's GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008, below).

Strangely enough, no one in the overpaid brain trusts of Hollywood marketing seemed smart enough to sink their talons into the whole Nordic cold/blonde/snow/stillness rubric as a romantic selling point for these films. What are they, racist? Anyone with a crayon can connect the dots between RIGHT ONE and the TWILIGHT series, and stuff like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and THE SUBSTITUTE miss big dollars by not stressing the Nordic / Scandinavian connection to TWILIGHT and RIGHT ONE (Yes, RIGHT ONE came out technically after the SUBSTITUTE, but that's what re-releasing is for).

Consider 30 DAYS OF NIGHT's graphic novel ink splatter poster (left): it looks like drug-deal-gone-bad with Ice T, rap soundtrack, and probably a gaggle of bad CGI vampires and bright red digital blood splatter. In reality it's balls-to-the-wall awesome, with enough dark, moody, grim stillness to earn it a spot right in between Carpenter's THE THING remake, Kathryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK, and any 80s-90s film where the sheriff of a small northern town is a young buck all alone save for his wizened but still hot ex-girlfriend deputy... This time, it's Alaska, and the literal 30 Days of Night have sent most of the population to other areas for the month, leaving the place wide open for invasion by Swedish Goth vampires.


Like the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the countries just outside the Arctic Circle--Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Tibet--are all way up North, where it's cooool! In this way TWILIGHT has more in common with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THE SUBSTITUTE than it does with other American movies. Consider these factors:

1. Cold, dark, underpopulated - good place to film in stark contrast, since the light is constant and diffused - gives everything a doomed, foreboding quality.
2. Polar Bears adrift on ice cap islands = suicidal ideation on a global scale
3. Sarah Palin, the Younger, Hotter Mrs. Iselin
4. All the girls (and guys) in Scandinavia are hot, blonde, single, and wowed by an American accent. (according to America)
5. Beautiful children with stunningly above average intelligence and quiet speaking voices.
6. Long nights of depression but for once you have a legit reason
7. Turtlenecks, wood-burning stoves, promiscuity
8. A lulu of an excuse to drink continually (it's never the morning after)
9. The idea of endless nights freeing you from the day/night duality, the tedium of the endless cycle of night and day.
10. Connection to real alien grays, eugenics, Nazis, genocide and Aryan reptillian insanity (See: Uma Thurman is from Venus) 
11. Lots of blonde hair... and the evil that implies
12. Black Metal
13. Vancouver, City where it's cheaper and easier to shoot 'on location' in NYC
14. Pale skin - vampires in the land of the midnight sun wont die of skin cancer like everyone else, lack of sun damage preserves eternal youth.
15. Bibi Andersson - she looks just like my mom (when I was the age of the kid in the morgue in PERSONA) yet is terribly, terribly sexy, forcing me at least, into a delirious Hitchcockian fugue state every time I see her.
16. In short, cinema.

In shorter still, a disruption of the fantasmatic, or a break between the real and the vividly painted. The Nordic fantasia short circuits our normal sense of light and dark - the ever-grayness of these regions makes them like a timeless dream. We can't even admit to ourselves how sick we are of night and day, day and night and day, over and over, here in the non-Pacific Northwest states, but we are, let's face it, or we wouldn't be hiding out in the eternal cold darkness of the movies.

The Scandinavians rock because the guys are all asleep or mysoginists and their chicks are way hot, educated, cool and see Americans as sexy the way we see, say, the Italians (again, according to our simulacratic mental fantasias). We're practically a Mediterranean country compared to them!  It seems in these films there's nothing in all of Scandinavia to do except drink, kill your tormentors , watch TV, have sex, and wander around in the dark in a drunken fog like Max Von Sydow in PASSION OF ANNA (1963, below).  Even if you don't get a beautiful blonde, or you do and she leaves, you can still drink and pass out in the snow or get bit by a vampire or animal mutilator. Oh slow death by alcoholic and hematological causes, where is thy sting?

Even if little to none of the items on that list turn out to be true, who cares? This is a Nordic land of our collective imagination, born of our need to escape from the hamster wheel of 9-5 living into the cold, calming comfort of the eternal night.

So that's the fantasia, mine anyway; I listen a lot to Lee Hazlewood's Cowboy in Sweden, savoring the "empty whiskey bottles / and records scattered on the floor" and dream my way up to Sweden or Denmark for a soul-searching vacation, falling in love with a sweet wondrous blonde-haired beauty I meet at the coffee bar; it turns out he or she lives in a cool pad and asks me to move in; everyone speaks English and they all appreciate my tortured depth; I fall into a hip alt-rock crowd; my art's not "too dark" for them, nothing is too dark for them!  I just quietly disappear into the fields of white, gray, and black, like that kid in INTO THE WILD, which "coincidentally" also co-starred Kristen Stewart (below, left).

Am I the only one who's got this Nordiclust? Not if the TWILIGHT sales figures are a judge, because I'd say the Pacific Northwest-teen horror tradition counts, too, and Alaska. It's the last American frontier, the last world frontier, a place where the rats of humanity can still escape and live like... kangaroos, or kings, or at the very least colorful truckers and waitresses that get killed before the opening credits.

 When you rent the teen-friendly and highly recommended Danish horror/sci fi film, SUBSTITUTE (2007), on DVD you also get endless trailers that all look pretty good, from an obviously Nordic-looking series called the Ghost House Underground. If you're wondering which films are actually in English or just dubbed/subtitled, keep your eyes peeled on the lips. In the foreign language trailers you will never see anyone actually speak. Everyone talks offscreen, except maybe to say "hey, man" (the way we say "gesundheit"). When you go to actually watch these films, make sure to see them in their real language with subtitles rather than the English language dubs, which kind of defeat the purpose, especially when there's great acting like that of Paprika Steen, who also starred in Dogme 95 hits like THE IDIOTS and THE CELEBRATION, here as a crazy kind of Aryan Nordic alien uberfrau who tries to turn her 6th grade class into a mini master-race (below).

The typically doltish releasing companies behind THE SUBSTITUTE also failed to pick up on how this is a LET THE RIGHT ONE IN waiting to happen. Even better, a LET THE RIGHT ONE VS. THE TWILIGHT GENERATION  (our lead lad broods Edwardianly, as if to announce the future American benchmark teen look--one of privileged grief and numb disinterest) + some of the sensible-ages-and-up ready fun of THE FACULTY, a 1999 Rodriguez film that's still my favorite of his oeuvre, and maybe a little PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE and THE FORGOTTEN (below) thrown in for good measure.

I mean, seriously, look at all these SUBSTITUTES already out there! Can you even guess which one I'm reviewing in this post?

Love that Mark Wahlberg vs. Amanda Donohoe frowning contest! So, yeah, it's the last one, but how would you know it's cool, cold and full of fine stuff based on that cliche-ridden poster?

Since Alaska is a northern cousin of the Nordics, there's a strong whiff of Sarah Palin teaching THE CLASS here in THE SUBSTITUTE, and if the marketers were smart, they would have played up that angle. Like Palin, Paprika's alien-monster teacher plays heartstrings like a lute and drives whole nations to cataclysm, but there's also some of Colonel Krebs (Lotte Lenya) in that she's not as hot as you'd expect given the Skinemax-ish title, but kind of ravaged around the gills, especially compared to Sonia Richter (all the way atop and below) who plays the single cop mom to the cute new girl student in class. There she is at left, reminding me of a girl I loved in college. Man, she was flaky.

It's too bad THE SUBSTITUTE doesn't focus solely on the classroom scenes with Paprika, which are magnificent to watch as she switches from deep emotional manipulation to heartless, laughing cold-hearted Nazism on a dime (imagine She-Wolf Ilsa crossed with the Bibi Anderson from WILD STRAWBERRIES doing THE CHILDREN'S STORY). She's still good in lots of those "o why won't our parents believe us?"-style angst moments, but it's the classroom scenes that are golden: Ulla isn't afraid to run a gym class like a Treblinka death run, and she spouts brutal philosophies that would win the applause of James Mason in BIGGER THAN LIFE! Those Danes don't miss a trick and it's nice to see all the old dogme faces (the single dad looking to love again is played by Ulrich Thomsen, also from THE CELEBRATION).

Ah the war. How sweet that we need no longer miss the sound of howitzers, or the threat of angelic blonde faces in Hitler Youth neckerchiefs, running their SS daggers down our backs like warm September rain. It's all still here, or rather up there, along the shining Blu-ray way... they're all blondly waiting to gobble us up, and seldom before has death seemed so coldly inviting, at least for an hour or two out of the stifling humidity of summer and into the cold, windy climes of the cinema, where death is life and love is two cold fangs in your warm, hot neck, like blood stream air conditioning.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Coolest of Couples #1: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

"Joanne is one of the last of the great broads." 
- Paul Newman 
The weirdness aspect here isn't age, but that Paul Newman is actually hotter than his own wife, and yet they were together and happy from the 1950s right through to Newman's recent sad passing. The actual physical beauty of Woodward is not insubstantial, but as Newman is still probably the closest thing cinema has had to a living Greco-Roman god one would think he'd need someone like Rita Hayworth or 1967-era Raquel Welch to be evenly matched. And yet! Newman seemed to have an altruistic gift--perhaps an old soul too cool to be shallow--in realizing excessive beauty can be a curse after few months into a sexual relationship, as anyone who's dated a painfully hot girl can tell you. A woman who is too beautiful becomes like a dagger, stabbing you in the heart with recrimination because no matter what you do, somehow, you can't live up to her, the ideal, the pedestal, which advertising and the media has helped raise to ludicrous heights in this country... so you end up fighting against becoming an insecure drunken wreck over all the skeevy attention she gets and she instinctively recoils and acts out against your spinelessness by playing it all up, like Marlene Dietrich in DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Conversely however, Newman is almost too hot to cheat, it's just too easy. Men cheat because they need validation; a guy as hot as Newman never needs validation. Also, if you're a girl with a guy like Newman in your hands, you know better than to bother getting jealous.

Woodward's suspected uninhibited sexuality, then, is a blessing that comes with the phenomenon known as "ugly-sexy," i.e. someone is enough themselves that even their conventionally unattractive features become incredibly sexy (perhaps defined ultimately by Serge and daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg). Woodward's healthy lust is something Newman was always quick--even wolfishly proud--to confirm in the press. He praised her as one of those rare and all-but forgotten creatures of the 1960s and 1970s, the broad. Women extroverted to the extent that their sacral chakras hum like spinning tops, theirs is actually the highest level of sensuality short of the tantra. It's a casual, open-hearted lust that prettier women sometimes never develop thanks to an excess of skeevy male attention at too early an age. Instead of learning to go after the boys they like, to parlay out into the field to claim a particular prey, the too-pretty women cultivate a defense against "men" as a whole, a facade of shallow bitchiness that repels close contact but rewards long-distance worship. While gorgeous women become obsessed with making themselves prettier, no matter how pretty they may be, the clock ticks and they recoil from each new wrinkle like Baby Jane in the mirror. The ugly-sexy girls don't worry so much and so wiggle free from narcissism's trap, staying eager for the flesh of their opposite rather than their own ego ideal. As a result, ugly-sexy women often get the hottest guys, while the hot girls wind up with rich short dudes, looking around their expensive lofts and wondering if their girlfriends' are bigger.

As for Newman, as goddesses would throw themselves off horses just to touch his garment, carousing around on a midnight creep carries no 'thrill of the chase,' so marrying Woodward and being faithful to her becomes a key to spiritual enlightenment, as Shakespeare intended, like Siddhartha chucking his kingdom for a spot on the river. If Newman spent most of his career free from the shallow insecure vanity that leads men astray, the cause lies perhaps in this sacrifice.

Newman and Woodward's relationship is built, in Newman's words, on "equal parts lust and respect." The "broad" comment atop may be lost on today's generation outside of MAD MEN fans, but I still remember flirting with drunken secretaries at my dad's bridge games as a swingin' eight-year-old in the 1970s. I value and remember those "broads," and if the juggernaut of feminism has them steamrolled, I hope they don't look back on their swinger days with any remorse. They shouldn't. Sex needn't always be a weapon or means to an end. If you give it a little effort you can wiggle free from guilt, shame and repression and just have a good time. It's clear Newman and Woodward did, and they probably helped usher in 1970s permissiveness as a result. Acidemic salutes them and all broads. Ladies, please come back.

But blue eyes and Greek god sculpted features, sex and slinkiness, aren't the true measure of Newman as a man, it's his unshowy altruism and wry, self-effacing humor. He's a veritable Otto Kruger from MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, as is evidenced in the couple's preference for rural Connecticut over Hollywood, and in the many amazing food products-- popcorn, salsa, cookies, tomato sauce, you name it--all delicious, well-made, affordable--the profits from which go to charity. Yeah, man, not just "a portion" of the profits but all. ALL PROFITS!  And the company's been a huge success without having to hoist any TV commercials on the public, nothing with Newman in overalls, intoning gravely about the importance of natural ingredients. Just sunny pictures of Newman and sometimes Woodward clad as farmers on the labels.

Just look at those still-hot sweet elderly beaming faces! So much wisdom. They're in the documentary on LONG HOT SUMMER, looking great and radiating enough matrimonial calm assertiveness to fuel twenty Thin Man movies.

Now, to confess, LONG HOT SUMMER is the only movie of theirs I see over and over. PARIS BLUES (1961) and A NEW KIND OF LOVE (1963) were okay but dated in their winky attitude towards sex. I'd love to see FROM THE TERRACE (1960) but RALLY ROUND THE FLAG BOYS (1958) pissed me off no end, as I couldn't stand seeing Newman's character being cock-blocked at every step by bratty children and Woodward's community activism; I cried seeing him struggle to get a much-needed after-work drink: he can't even fit into the crowded bar car on the commuter train home from the city, and at home there's barely enough gin in the liquor cabinet to make even one gin and tonic, and--right as the lip of the glass is reaching his lips--one of his bratty boys knocks it out of his hand with a pillow thrown from across the room. And the kid is not punished! Rather the dad is supposed to be very tolerant that neither his sexual or alcoholic needs are  being met.

And then when Joan Collins--the only other awake, sexually frustrated human being in this gossipy white collar settlement--tries to get him into bed (all the way safely over in Paris, mind you), who should show up but the wife for a surprise visit. Woodward is great, of course, but what's the point of watching a match not burn?

Sexual Politics and Narrative FilmI did stick around for Collins' Pocahontas dance at the Thanksgiving-cum-fertility festival. Whoop! Whoop! And since I'd read Robin Wood's essential but slightly bitter Sexual Politics in Narrative Film, I knew to see it as the "repressed erotic (barred from the home) returning in the exotic" (p. 170) Whoop! Whoop!

Ah, but THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958), that never fails me. Their first co-starring vehicle, it does what so many films, including CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, can only try and do and don't often get right: that whole American Gothic style whoop-whoop that was so hot in the television-competitive Cinemascope-crazy late 1950s. Colliding a couple of Faulkner stories and contrasting acting styles. Unlike some of their other vehicles, here the passion between Newman and Woodward is allowed to be super hot in its non-hotness, as Newman's hustle only strengthens her spinsterish desire.

Woodward is deliberately school-marmish here the way a modern hipster chick might be today, all she lacks is granny glasses--promoting an implied gender neutral celibacy via unsexy clothing and carting around devoted and coded momma's boy, Oscar Madison from SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Gender, man, it's a weird thing when a girl tries to not be sexy. I don't know how to handle it! Neither does Newman. He can't steamroll over it, so he surrenders into a calm, submissive state for the first time in a tender final monologue.

 Masters of staying humble and in character, there's no more spark or heat than needed between these two, yet they still sizzle. Their bond has developed naturally through antagonism and begrudging respect-- though offscreen they were--according to the DVD extras---racing down to Florida to ball all night during their days off. Man, I know what it's like to be in love, don't you? If not, just learn from the masters: Newman and Woodward were a solid front, completely devoted, and it helped no doubt that they were in acting class together and probably got all inside each others' heads through hours of improv and exercise. So often stars dictates to what extent the supporting characters around them are allowed to flesh out and develop in any particular movie (they don't want anyone stealing their show). But no one in the family dynamic here feels the need to spell out their connections to one another in any showy or expository manner. It's all direct non/interaction, immediate, forceful! It cuts through the artifices of poetry and grabs right at the bull's balls, without seeming to grab a damn thing. Son, that's mythic!

Orson alone seems oblivious to such dynamics, and is thus superb. We see the way living with such a boisterous, animal breeding tyrant--no matter how benevolent and witty he may be--takes its toll on his children and shows in Fanciosa's and Woodwards' sense memory resignation. Welles' complete obliviousness to all but his own charm links him to Kane and Quinlan, and matches a current of self-loathing running below Newman's self-satisfied drifter--a mutual respect forms between them, one not sullied by confusing issues of trust.

But it's humility and vulnerability that win out. As they said in later years, their relationship was built on affection and tolerance, an understanding they didn't need to meddle in every aspect of each other's life. Noted Newman: "You can’t spend a lifetime breathing down each others' necks ... We are very, very different people and yet somehow we fed off those varied differences and instead of separating us, it has made the whole bond a lot stronger.”

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