Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bolling Thunder! - TRIANGLE, BONNIE'S KIDS

Meeting men's lustful gazes the way Clint Eastwood's meet liberal DAs and unlucky punks, Tiffany Bolling was always too good for her 70s projects, elevating them one full grade just for showing up. Well, here's two of them!  

TRIANGLE (1970) would be some unwatchable dreck if not for Bolling's luminosity. She's a fiery private school damaged soul type, locked in loose orbit around the bland new teacher (Paul Richards). It would be against the rules of the school for him to act on their mutual attraction, I guess, wouldn't it?. He's also caught the lascivious bisexual sculptor art teacher's eye, and is so dopey he can't pick up the signals of either one. Watching it on a Netflix rental recently, I assumed the two men were shacking up in the shadows or closet and that the DVD print lost those scenes to some queer projectionist's private reel or a hateful redneck's fire (1970 was still a fashionable time to be homophobic). Bolling is the whole reason for the film existing (I guess?) but most of the time it's the two male teachers trying to smolder with the kind of situation I'm sure was common in the era before gaydar. (Don't even get me started). 

The result of all this longing and cluelessness is a very weird road that Triangle seems scared to pick a lane and drive on, which makes for a turgid, irritating time (like a lot of those 'closeted gay historical' near-romances I get assigned to review as a second stringer film critic). So we spend a bit of time watching these two wet dude rags trying to light each other's fire, impatient for Bolling to show up and spark the back half of the film to life. We finally catch fire over one long night spent trying to get her out of a psychedelic rape stomping orgy at the local vineyard, the sole moment which might give the film the 'psychedelic' tag that first drew me to Netflix it. 

The film really meanders until that orgy, but finally the film finds its groove and rides it to the end of the night. Dr. Paul is sent to rescue Bolling from the party and the stomping vat (the cops were friends of her late father) and he does, but, rather than go back to the school, they spend the rest of the night wandering in the woods and Rohmer-esque love blooms betwixt them, made all the more intoxicating by just how dangerous it is to his career, even in 1970. 

Thus TRIANGLE asks the the big issues for sexy male educators everywhere: is it better to give in or resist when some unstoppable nymphomaniac keeps hitting on you?  Refuse and they could get their ripped-up 'hell hath no fury like a scorn woman' dress on and destroy your reputation with wild accusations. On the other hand, if you accept, they could 180 on you and start crying afterwards, minutes or even decades later-- and in hindsight who knows what they might say? You could be part of some mad cycle where they seduce strange older men and then say they were taken advantage of just to feel powerful as men who remind her of her father are reduced to smoldering wrecks. But wouldn't it be worth it, Dr. Paul, especially if we're talking about a girl as mind-meltingly hot as Bolling? 

Of course not! Fight the power (of every fiber in your being) and if you fail, don't forget you almost made it. You tried to stop it but you were outnumbered. When you're always fighting yourself you lose at least half the time, like gambling. Roll 'em, Dr. Paul! 

But, what about if what she really needs a friend, one who'll give her the warmth of human contact and an orgasm to prevent her from suicide? Why does sex befoul straight co-ed friendships in the movies?  It's only our ever-shifting moral compass that, lately, damns these sorts of things when they're as old as education itself. To want a friend of the opposite sex is, in our New Repression, to have a secret agenda, whether you realize it or not.  Bolling's seductive allure, those crazy curves, can make normal sane men very irrational, and lead them straight to death, or unemployment.

What makes me want to descend so deep into this film of otherwise tedious neo-Victorian hand-wringing is of course Ms. Bolling, whose Barbie-doll face and figure evoke Jane Fonda and prefigure Sharon Stone, but where Bolling comes into her own is in the way she lets that kind of doll-faced poise go out the window as needed, busting past the limits of method acting (the need for 'sense memory' immersion that bogs down 'serious' actresses) when needed to crash through the gutsy drive-in trash operatic plate glass, i.e. she knows just when to play it subtle, just when to pour it on over the top in ways neither Fonda nor Stone ever could or ever will (Stone tries but just comes off cold and actorly). Her wheelhouse includes the kind of limit-busting that makes Quentin Tarantino write your name down on a snack bar napkin in the drive-in dark. Could she play Shakespeare? Don't ask me. But could Meryl Streep or Fonda deliver the goods like Bolling does in BONNIE'S KIDS (1973)? They cannot. Barbara Stanwyck is the only other person I can think of, actually, who has that hits thje same past-the-parking lot depth on the long bat connects. 

If Bolling and director Arthur Marks had made BARBARELLA instead of Roger Vadim, and put Bolling in the lead instead of Jane, I'd bet your bottom dollar it would be as beloved as FLASH GORDON (1980) is today. I guess it's got camp staying power, but does anyone ever love it and see it over and over? Sure there's Anita Pallenberg, and the crazy art direction, and the space strip-tease, but there's also John Sebastian songs and sophomoric winky jokes that have aged like cheap wine left open on a table for 10 years. 

There's another movie about a mixed-up blonde called TRIANGLE out there, so don't get confused. This newer one is from 2009 and is a weird variation on Poe's classic short story, "Descent into the Maelstrom." In this one a yacht full of himbos, beeyatches, and Melissa George (who leaves her son "at school") take a three-hour boat tour but wind up passing through a strange electrical storm off the coast of Florida (circa the Bermuda... Triangle) and wind up exploring a seemingly abandoned cruise ship after their boat capsizes. It would be wrong to tell you anything more, except that it plays nearly nonstop on Showtime Extreme, and it's the kind of film you can come in on anywhere, over and over, without knowing the plot, and it only fits the metatextual oomph of the proceedings to a Golgothian T.

But Bolling ain't in it. So let me just say by way of bringing it back to Bolling that she rose to fame via a spread in Playboy, which she's since lamented as pigeonholing her as a sex symbol instead of an actress. To me, and no doubt Tarantino, too, she's better than an actress! She's nothing less than a psychotronic goddess. After all, Claudia Jennings--a spiritual drive-in sister to Bolling--also got her start in that esteemed rag too. 

Here's BONNIE'S KIDS (1973) --"Thank God she only had two" is the sublime tagline. After QT's praise of it, I was expecting streaks and flecks and scratches like any drive-in print but instead it's on a beautiful anamorphic DVD from Dark Sky. Equal to Bolling and the image quality is the wild roster of character actors and a witty script along the lines of an exploitation Elmore Leonard.

Bolling plays KID #1, Ellie. She works as a waitress where she's regularly stared at by lusting local diners, cops too. She could feel violated or bored by all that sleazy staring but instead she meets their gazes with a steely 'who gives a shit?' brazen authority. She's not afraid of leading them on or making them mad by brushing them off. She almost dares them to start something. She stares back when they stare, her steely look saying something like "I'll knee you in the balls before you even get to first base, and if you try for second you'll be bleeding out." Men respect that look because it acknowledges their attention, doesn't blame them for it or condemn them, or cry and expect the social order to step in and slap them for her.  She even flatters them while at the time circumventing their biological inner demon impetus so they don't kick themselves later for not asking her out OR hold a grudge. In other words, She might get them all hot and bothered, let them know that--as long as they're willing to risk going home with wives with at least one black-eye and a lip or ear half bit off--they can try to make a move. But things will only escalate from there. And if you push too far, she won't hesitate to kill you.

Her kid sister Myra is played by Sharon Gless and she's also a teasing badass ready to shout in your face if you get too close but also fixing to drive you crazy with teasing if you get too far away. Marx's widescreen frame makes sure to get the sister's long tanned legs as they luxuriate across vast expanses of 70s furnishings while everyone else--including a rich, closeted lesbian--lean on our shoulders and cry with forlorn longing. Meanwhile, the macho stepdad has just about had it with the little sister's bathrobe teasing, and--drinking whiskey to bolster his courage--makes an ill-advised move.

Later, the sisters head to the big city, drop in on their model agency-owning/crime boss uncle and start posing and making big money drops. Bolling is on unrepentant greed mode here and when she gets wind of the cash therein--hijacking a package her crooked uncle asks her to deliver to a dimwitted detective (Steve Sandor) enslaved against his better judgment to acquiesce to her scheming... who could resist the tractor beam of hotness that is Bolling when she wants something from you. Those heavenly legs and flawless waist, her perfect lovely blonde hair, piercing eyes, and lips as if carved from wood by an artist at Mattel. And if you recognize Sandor, it's because maybe you remember him (and how could you not?) as the psychotic biker who harasses Stacey Keach in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION! Yeah, Sandor, you thought your hurt was over! 

The film also has Casey Adams (the genial square husband in NIAGARA) as a grinning traveling salesman "on an expense account" (typecasting!) who gets caught up in Miss Bolling's machination. Alex 'Moe Green' Rocco and a smoothly-suited Tim Brown are a pair of hitmen with great THE KILLERS-style deadpan scary-comedic patter (i.e. "Hear that Eddie? The girl said she's out of coffee").  Their tough guy back-and-forth rapport is so on point you will recognize it as the inspiration for that of Jules and Vincent in PULP FICTION (1)

BONNIE'S KIDS is so good, in short, it has me dutifully poring through the whole oeuvre of not just Bolling, but Arthur Marks as well. In a great director bio video from Elijah Drenner (on the BONNIE DVD) I learned of a hard-to-find gem called THE ROOMMATES (PS - since seen! Go here) and an all-but lost 1978 film called WONDER WOMEN.  You can try to get into Al Adamson or Ted V. Mikels if you want, but it's a grueling uphill hike. Instead take the downhill/emergency break-off path offered by auteurs Jack Hill, John Flynn, Russ Meyer and...  Arthur Marks. So jump aboard and let's cruise downhill with Bolling and Arthur, straight to Hell!

PS -  she had a guest spot as a crazy snake charmer yogi in "Game, Set, Death!" in Season 2 of Charlie's Angels
PPS - Check out this great 1991 interview with Bolling, reprinted over at TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK!

1. along with Galager and Marvin in the 1964 or Charles McGraw and William Conrad in the 1946 Killers adaptations

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"You rolled, you really rolled" - ROLLERBALL and a 70s Bloodsport Overview

One of the advantages of age is added hues of golden 20/20 hindsight when discussing retro-futurism in movies and for me age doesn't factor into any retrofuturist film more than ROLLERBALL (1975). Today I finally actually watched the whole damned thing (it came on TCM), and understood it, and was thrilled by it in that low-key adultly 70s thrilled way. Why did it take me so long? There are reasons. Roll with me...

ROLLERBALL was a film that seemed to come across the TV quite a lot when I was a child but frankly it seemed far too adult for me to understand and I didn't need a film to tell me football was a violent, icky business. Why bother criticizing our penchant for media violence with more violence? To know the answer you must understand the 70s, the last decade before cable TV and the VCR changed the fabric of American life. Prior to then there were only three major networks, plus PBS and a few local stations on the UHF antenna, and most of them signed off around four AM with the Star Spangled Banner. Football would dominate the ratings any night it was on. Everyone in the family almost had no other choice but to watch it--especially if the principal breadwinner (the dad) called the TV shots-- and because it was so universal it developed a dirty kind of bourgeois cache it doesn't have anymore. It became shared culture across all classes, ages, temperaments. Once families had two TVs, VHS and cable, only the dads stuck around. The intelligentsia moved upstairs to the other TV. Suddenly ROLLERBALL had no choir left to preach to.

And anyway, it was hard to understand the appeal of both football and ROLLERBALL on analog (square) TV, no matter how big the tube. Unless the TV was huge and your eyes 20/20 you had to take their word for it there was even a ball down there. Now they put a digital yellow line to mark first down and with the big HD widescreen even I can finally enjoy it. But back in the day, sports movies and sports action was hard to keep track of, just a lot of 'half images,' and the 'editing for television' endured by the raucous (R-rated) sports movies further abstracted the story into oblivion.

In short, TV was no place for ROLLERBALL. If you wanted the real flavor of caustic satire about the NFL and glorification of macho violence, you needed to get a babysitter and go out to the cinema, the R-rated adult-aimed 'mature' cinema. Little kids like me would have to hear what it was all about second hand, by kids who'd overheard their parents talking to other parents about it.

But today I salute the sports movies of the 70s. They were wild, woolly, untamed, sexual, manic, a bit thuggish but also warm-hearted, loyal, shaggy, and drunk off their asses. Nowadays guys get kicked off the team for so much as a single toke of weed. What the fuck is the point? In the 70s, they would have pissed on your shoes before they pissed in your cup.

Perhaps the ball got rolling thanks to one of the big novels of the era: a savage insider tale of drugs, sex, and violence in the NFL called NORTH DALLAS FORTY, which in 1979 was made into a very popular movie with Nick Nolte-- then a young hunk who'd rose to fame via an early mini-series called RICH MAN POOR MAN (1976 - above right). Nolte wore a big 'stache in NORTH DALLS FORTY like Burt Reynolds, then the #1 box office star in the country thanks to the huge popularity of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (also 1976), which singlehandedly launched a craze for all things trucker-related: CB radios, diners, cowboy boots, biker bar brawls, convoys, sexy hitchhikers, jugs and speed.

smoking! today that would be a thousand dollar fine
Now I can re-examine these films from time's sweet retro distance and what I especially find healthy about NORTH DALLAS FORTY-driven sports satire popularity is the irreverent amount of sex and drugs involved vs. the sanctimonious, sober, overcoming-all-odds feel-good sober tedium in today's editions. Burt Reynolds' roster of characters may have been smarmy shitkickers at times but they were goddamned men. Even the kids got a version of this 'fuck you to niceness' in our own sports satire, BAD NEWS BEARS (also 1976).

While these kind of off-the-cuff sports films weren't necessarily critically acclaimed, they were beloved by many parents I knew (parents were younger then): they had broad, causal performances, tough locker room bonding, drug-induced hotel smashing, and Jack Warden as a weary coach going up against shadowy team owners who would do anything necessary to pack the stadiums, including pumping so much cocaine into their star quarterback he could keep playing even on a broken leg.

But for ROLLERBALL, director Norman Jewison is clearly aiming for something loftier. Jeff Kuykendall theorizes Jewison was trying to ape Stanley Kubrick and turn the film into a kind of Clockwork Football:
The problem here is that one could simply summarize the premise of the film, and the message would be inherent: society craves violence and leans toward corruption. The result is a film which is frequently pretentious: grasping at profundity and failing to glance it. Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel and released the same year, ironically succeeds where Rollerball fails, tackling almost the exact same story but delivering it with such over-the-top violence and comedy that the whole achieves the sublime (and on a Roger Corman budget). Perhaps Jewison should have let go of the Kubrick approach; though it’s fascinating to see what happened when John Boorman took the exact same tack for the even-more-ridiculous Zardoz. - Jeff Kuykendall - Midnight Only

So sports movies were the rage along with car chase movies and truckers, in the mid-70s: aside from SEMI-TOUGH and NORTH DALLAS FORTY there was the tangentially-related BLACK SUNDAY (1977 - terrorist blimp attack at the Super Bowl); TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976- assassin at the super bowl); SLAP-SHOT (1977 - brawling bespectacled brothers in hockey, below); BAD NEWS BEARS (1976 -smoking, beer-drinking, cursing in little league); THE LONGEST YARD (1974- prison football team); hell, even M*A*S*H (1969, but popular in the 70s) had a football game to satirize America's love of bloodsport.

And you can see the fundamental difference between today's and yesterday's sports movies with the remakes: The remake of BEARS loses the bulk of the profanity, smoking and drinking (so I hear), which mind you in the original was done by the kids; boy-man Adam Sandler replaces macho man Burt Reynolds in the remake of YARD; the remake of ROLELRBALL is a co-ed affair set more or less in the modern era on a sleazy Eastern European underground circuit, because America is so PC it's out of touch with good old bloodsport so they have to go where life is still cheap. The nanny state mentality makes it far less likely the heroes will bed numerous hotties and snort coke and shoot up steroids and more likely to cry at the bedsides of little dying kids, or scrape themselves up from poor neighborhoods, watched over by magical sober godparents. You know, like they did in the 40s, with the Catholic Legion of Decency breathing down their necks. What's our excuse?

In the 70s, you had games like this:

ROLLERBALL came out before both BAD NEWS BEARS and SEMI-TOUGH, but then again it's 'futuristic' and so is both ahead of the times as well as, now, behind them. Set in 2018, a lot of 'BALL's tropes have come true -- Caan pops in something between a DVD and an old mini-disc to watch home movies.... right there on the TV! In 1975! How did they know? And there's something like a TIVO and at one point Ralph Richardson kicks a big console computer intelligence that talks like a male version of Siri. And all the books ever written have been loaded into the computer-- though instead of being released as Kindle files they're summarized, i.e. stripped of any offending content or ideas that might run counter to the edicts of the shadowy ruling corporation and everyone knows that, um, today shadowy corporations don't control um... us.

But Jewison's 2018 is still a land without cellular technology and digital circuits so it's not that ahead of itself. They're still using punch cards and reel-to-reels and everything's huge and clunky. In the real future we get rid of all that heavy stuff, but keep the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  Roll, baby!

In between the violent sports games, John Houseman lurks and makes grim decisions on behalf of his shadowy corporation not unlike our own Dick Cheney. There's a decadent party where jet set kids blow up the last few surviving trees for sport. And everyone pops these things that come in little Sucrets-style boxes that makes people totally wasted. And like in SOYLENT GREEN, women have been reduced to chattel. James Caan is first given Maud Adams as a wife but then some high ladder salaryman whisks her away and Caan's pretty bent out of shape over it so won't retire when Houseman leans on him. Seems Caan's lone warrior rep is conflicting with the corporation's idea of the game as showing the importance of a group effort (i.e. a North Korean-style halftime show). They keep upping the violence quotient of the game namely to get him killed so his impudence doesn't go unpunished.

As tough a warrior as he is, you can tell Caan's not very bright; he's like the kid who'd rather kill all his friends than let them play while he has to go into dinner. He mopes around at libraries and computer desks trying to get some books about the corporations but none are forthcoming. He really can't understand the motives of the corporation! He's too OLD! Dude, why can't they just say it to his face. Caan's kind of grandiose behavior wouldn't fly in Hollywood no matter how many millions he was worth.

And then Rebecca Romjin (left) in sexy pads in the remake lets us know that now the future is much less macho; it's also tied in with the Twitter generation so that the bad guys can watch their stocks in the franchise rise in value with every kill that happens live on TV. Yeesh!

So what does it all mean. Yes, the original film is still pretty boring so I'm proud I managed to get through it yesterday, partly due to nostalgia and the new widescreen HD TV I got making it easy to keep my eyes on the ball. In honor of my violist dad I also constantly mentioned aloud the names of all the classical music dirges being played by Andre Previn's orchestra on the soundtrack. Also, my subsequent drug experience allowed me to understand the goofy chilled-out attitudes of the partiers. No decade did decadent, spread-out party scenes like the 70s.

But most of all I liked the final ending, where we see Jonathan slowly skating around the corpse-strewn arena in a series of twisted freeze-frame close-ups, his face unrecognizably distorted, as if all the violence and death around him was something he'd been waiting for all this time, so he could devolve into a rabid subhuman pixelated blur. This is a man who will always be the last one standing, a veritable reverse Horatio, holding the Hamlet head of dystopia in his hands as it dies, but then morphing into Roy Batty crushing the skull of his maker.

Trouble is, nothing's ventured or gained in ROLLERBALL, just the struggles of an innocent corporation's TV ratings as an ancient prima donna tries to keep playing a young man's game. Based on the level of drug-free helicopter hovering over today's athletes, the corporate masters in ROLLERBALL seem now to be the good guys. As Houseman's shadowy corporate ruler notes of Caan's mustached sidekick after the opening game, "You rolled, you really rolled." He sure did. Houseman may be the ostensible villain, but hey - he likes a good show. Anyone try to roll like that now, boom! Tested positive for MDMA and out of the game! I say a corporation that doles out drugs and applauds all the things they profess to loathe is A-OK with me. So roll on, Big Daddy, roll on! You may have been druggy and sinister but you were part of that last gasp of the era wherein parents were allowed to be raunchy, excessive and mature at the same time. Now we don't even know how to spell half those words.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Saw SCREAM (1996) again last night, and it just gets scarier every time! I've figured out why: metatextual dread. Characters are hip on horror movies and die anyway, so all the stuff we told ourselves as kids--like how we'd never be dumb enough to get ourselves killed because we learned the lessons of survival watching these kinds of cautionary films-is bupkes. We're going to be killed while watching them. The only thing close to that kind of meta is THE RING, but a ghost girl coming through the TV is too literal. In SCREAM, the danger comes not from where we're facing on the couch but from behind it. If you catch a knife's reflection on the screen, from behind you, then the TV image switches to an audience watching you and gasping in fear, shouting "Look behind you!" And it's too late. You've switched places with the image. You are the victim and the movie is the movie audience. You die watching the watchers shrink in terror mid-popcorn shovel.

If you want to really get this full post-modern affect then after SCREAM watch HALLOWEEN (1978), which the characters in SCREAM watch. After that, watch THE THING (1951), which the kids in HALLOWEEN watch. And imagine that when the characters inside these films die they switch sides, and watch you from the joint heavenly-hellish living room from which you once watched the characters in SCREAM watch HALLOWEEN --and the name of the film they watch from heaven is 'real life.'

What was new in HALLOWEEN more than any other slasher trope was the banal suburban environment, and it scared us because that's where we lived. We didn't live in sororities or Bavarian ballet academies, or in closed-down campgrounds, or Manhattan--and yet those place held the most killers: New York City horror movies weren't as scary unless you happened to see them there, but New York itself was scary back then--and I imagine going there to see a movie like MANIAC (1980) would be terrifying even before it started--but if we were out in the suburbs, we presumed we were safe. In the city you had sicko Vietnam vets and street gangs, in the country you had rapists and cannibals. What did we have in the suburbs? Nothing.

But in 1978, Michael Meyers came home. Our home.

All the subsequent slasher films between HALLOWEEN and SCREAM tended to neglect that suburban element, even Canadian rips like PROM NIGHT wound up in condemned old buildings and high school attics, places no normal, repressed teen would be caught dead or otherwise. Costume parties held on trains, or gold mines, or even sorority houses? No.

These films were only scary to us kids if it felt like being our being killed not only could but what was going to happen later that night. They weren't scary unless the whole movie felt like a cosmic message aimed square at us and later we're trying to sleep and then some small noise downstairs, or upstairs would wake us. For me it was the branches against my 2nd floor windows, scritch-scritching, like little fingernails, in the dead, Central NJ silence. What were they signaling me was coming? It was a Cassandra complex sketched into the grains of the faux wood aluminum siding.

Do you dig how it works, the Cassandra signal? If you were to die by fire the TV would show you The Towering Inferno the night before... and so on. Successful horror films know we know about the Cassandra Signal, and that we all watch TV.

And if you look at TV long enough you know it starts to take you over like a cult, making it impossible to turn it off without pangs of fear and alienation, making all your other activities--friends, school, kickball--fade into unreality, warping your mind like living too long next to a magnet. Suddenly normal silence seems curiously empty, and scary, so you need to turn the TV on and just find something to watch with no slashers in it, leave the set up bright and loud and start reading DC war comics and thinking about General Patton, and finding an excuse to keep two butcher knives handy and one stashed under the couch.

If you live chained to the TV like I did in the early 80s and now do again you live with all of this death coming at you--interrupted only by endless commercials rattling off catastrophic side effects of prescription drugs; cancer patients finding a center that makes them feel like there's hope; twisted up old townies nearly dead from smoking croaking their ghastly warnings; abused killer whales gasping in the sludge; tigers hunted near to extinction; starving kids in Africa--it all gathers inside you like maggots on a rotting corpse until all the veils of illusion are chewed away and you realize you are riding an eternal journey of ghastly mortality, always near death, but protected by the thin LED screen. You will never escape! Better get Geico.

The TV works you like any good cult brainwasher: terrorizing you and then comforting you, back and forth, over and over. In its overall guise as a continuing soap opera it hides the fact that it's your soul that's being soaped cleaned of its wallets and keys and sanity and precious dirtiness. Like raging waters in a flash flood that never ends the TV draws you under, promising any moment now the bubble bath soap salts will be added to the water and suds will lift you up from the lead albatross of your body, back onto land like a spittoon Jonah, PINGgg! leaving free you to wander in Elysian Fields of bubbled spittle and to Wendy's and through the mall, and the monsters taking shape in the ominous twirl of water by the black void mouth drain are now, at the very beginning of the cycle, naught but hazy shadows.

See, you don't even need the suburbs if you have a TV in your horror film, because no matter where you live you are watching TV-- and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Wes Craven understand how to bring you back to the suburbs of childhood via their films, to re-capture the terror of your early teen life or death struggle, to find what you do to escape, and use it like a Trojan horse. Carpenter and Craven are all about taking advantage of the antipathy and numbness caused by excessive TV, and how a very real threat is buried under signs and THEY LIVE sunglasses. So in SCREAM, even after many murders have rocked the community the kids go to school and tease each other with fake blood and knives because they can't quite take their own deaths seriously (unless they see themselves on TV as it happens). Thus there is no more 'real' in horror films after SCREAM made horror characters self-aware. We all imagined waking up in a slasher movie, figuring we'd survive since we knew the rules. And now we knew even that awareness was no guarantee. Now we need a whole new game plan.

If we see a scary film in the theater with a packed house of amped up teenagers then we have a moment's grace afterwards, a moment where we the audience are all safe in an exiting herd. we shuffle nervously out into the near-deserted mall parking lot, spooked cattle ready to stampede in giggling fits back into our cars the minute someone lets out a playful scream, and we sneak into our darkened homes to not wake up mom, and then we're finally all alone with the upstairs darkness of our frail, vulnerable bed rooms, full of easily broken windows and doors, flipping on our radio or TV or white noise machine just as fast as we can to drown out 'the house settling,' and the mirthless, accusatory voices calling our names from deep inside the layered silence.

Me, I have two white noise machines, and after SCREAM and HALLOWEEN I watched TNT's three AM presentation of TERMINATOR SALVATION, a film I wasn't overly crazy about the first time, out of loyalty to the underappreciated Nick Stahl in RISE OF THE MACHINES. But last night, the time was right. Saturday into Sunday early AM, a time to reflect on old favorites, the DVD album dusty with photographic memories. We find even John Connor has the Sunday at three AM blues, listening to the tapes of his mom's guidance, which we ourselves heard her make back in the 1984 original.

In other words, like us, John Connor is addicted to the past, to childhood memories brought to life by old pictures and recorded voices, to a time when The Terminator was just a low budget sci fi film from Orion created mainly to fill the dwindling drive-ins, not change the world.

His passion for his mom's tapes extends its own weird mirror in the trans-existence love affair between executed criminal (Sam Worthington) and terminal cancer patient (Helena Bonham Carter) that begins in our present day and decade later morphs into SKYNET future. The computer itself is now embodied and voiced via Helena who lures Sam--now an unwitting amnesiac terminator/robo-cop hybrid-- back into the mechanistic fold.

Director McG may not be a James Cameron but he handles the vast scale of T4 well: the depressing combat zone high contrast grays of the landscape are a respectful advancement on the Hong Kong blues and obvious miniatures of the 1984 original.  Then again we're not quite--in the time loop of events--up to the era that 'begins' the first film. Connor doesn't seem to remember that Arnold saved his life as a kid (no Arnold at all in this one), so he never imagines the 'good' terminator here isn't out to kill him, instead he blasts the hell out of the one guy who's not a dick in the film; in a sense it's Connor's the bad guy now. For awhile anyway, doesn't even say thanks when the guy later saves his life a million times. T5 will hopefully bring us right up to speed, with Skynet developing time travel thus necessitating Connor's sending Reese back in time so he can ensure his own birth, and advancing to the point Cameron is back to using miniatures instead of CGI. (Postscript 2016: I was right!)

Deep? In 1991 maybe, but such time travel glitches are not even eyebrow-raising in our age of a thousand screens seen swirling around wide-eyed families in 4G commercials, everyone plugged into their laptops and phones, reacting and laughing to different things at different times while in the same room, and seeing horror and science fiction movies over and over to the point we make them happen in real life (if in no other way than via endless sequels, late night anxiety and pop canon quotes slowly shaping one's reading of the world).

So now you know: if you watch TERMINATOR: SALVATION six more times you ensure it will come true. If sooner or later we will master time travel, and rest assured we will, then time travelers are already here. We who watch sequels to films that won't be made until after we're dead know these things, and we keep quiet as a tomb lest plot spoilers destroy the world's willingness to pay to see itself destroyed. Above us sleeps a giant mom, oblivious that we're up at dawn on a school day taping monster movies. She too will surely grow disapproving of our slacker ways so we must move out as soon as possible. But for now, she sleeps. John Carter, I mean Connor, I am your father. Put down your headphones and behold the soap of power! Shhhh, it has already begun.

Some screencaps borrowed from inside the Stale Popcorn

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Cheryl Ladd!

Today, it's Cheryl Ladd's birthday. Happy birthday to an underrated actress, sparkling beauty, sultry singer, and first-class Angel!

It's unfortunate that in between the Farrah-mania that erupted in the first season of Charlie's Angels--and led to her leaving to do movies, namely the ultra-bomb Saturn 3--and the later seasons with derided Kate Jackson replacement Shelly Hack and the decidedly awesome method-acting goddess Tanya Roberts in the still not-on-DVD season five, people forget that there was solid work regularly turned in by the steady presences on the show Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd.

Ladd worked long and hard, from seasons two through five, and never wavered. Though Tanya Roberts' gorgeous eyes stole the show in season 5, Ladd did all the heavy lifting - her face sporting some mature woman lines that somehow made her even more gorgeous, Ladd merged into a full formed actor, taking advantage of the 'no one still watching' freedom to do some of her most fully realized work.

Cast as Jill's sister Kris Munroe, Cheryl Ladd was an ideal replacement for Farrah in Season 2, of whom people tend to forget brought sparkling athleticism and sweetness to her iconic Jill Munroe, not just hair and teeth. As her little sister Kris, Ladd tapered the same qualities to a little sister point and wowed in a brown bikini, swimming up and around to jack a gangster's yacht to rescue the kidnapped Charlie in a wow of a Hawaii season two opener. She had a pop album out early in season 3, modeled in the style of the mega-successful Olivia Newton John. She got to do some synergy singing/ plugging on the show. I remember taping it with my my audio cassette player and even though she only sang a few bars of her song "Take a chance on me / love will never be / for chance" I still know it by heart, 30-odd years later.

Another peak Cheryl role came a few decades later, in a film that saw Drew Barrymore being super sexy and seducing TV op-ed newsman and bender enthusiast Tom Skeritt (his sneaky morning vodka pull is straight out of my own life at the time). Cheryl Ladd is the rich, pampered wife upstairs, terminally ill but still achingly gorgeous, a kind of still-breathing REBECCA. Ladd is great in her few scenes, conveying huge amounts of woe and regret at having spent her life in front of a vanity mirror instead of learning a skill or developing a literary passion. In the process she turns what could have been just a marginally above-average Skinemax-ish potboiler into something truly marvelous, digging up surprising gravitas. Once again, however, she's not the first thing people think of on  that show--ever a team player, it's Drew on a tire swing we all recall. I have a burnt-in memory of seeing it on my friend's couch, where I was crashing having left my wife for a girl very much like Drew Barrymore's character. We had just come back from a Monster Convention in PA where I didn't win the Rondo. We drove straight to Saint Mark's and I got a tattoo, and we were breaking up. It was a once-in-a-lifetime midlife crisis kind of day, and POISON IVY turned it into poetry...  

Here she is with Waylon Jennings. Just look into her naturally loving and open eyes as she looks up at this sexy, noble beast of a man. It's enough to make you go country on the spot.

People love to pigeonhole and over the years the original Charlie's Angels has been maligned with accusations of it being mindless T&A, but if you watch these shows now, as an antidote to the super flashy crap of today, these angels are extraordinarily intelligent and skilled. Over their careers they pose as everything from professional ice skaters, race car drivers, circus folk (above), rich illegal baby adopters, poor bumpkins looking to buy bootleg motorcycle parts, and helicopter traffic ladies... of course they've also gone to the less athletic side, posing as masseuses, prostitutes, fashion models, strippers, belly-dancers, and Playboy-ish bunnies (cats instead), but through it all they're always sweet and kind to the nice guys. Figuring out which alleged playboys are all talk by coming onto them and watching them shrink away, they flirt with kindly old men and talk nice to troubled girls; they show you can be capable, badass, wear awesome flare slacks with turtlenecks, and still be warm.

I'm grateful to the show for being on DVD and on cable. I'm grateful to Ladd, for having lived up to the possibilities Kris Munroe embodied, and beyond. So happy birthday, Cheryl! You have helped make this world brighter for we who dwell in darkness. You have seen our slimy, slothful troglodyte hearts, and instead of wincing smiled and forgave our obscene mental trespasses, refused to see anything but the heart of a knight under our monstrous criminal hides. And all the while, your smile has lighted the world, in illumination, and in load.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Rage of Huberty: CHRONICLE (2012), CARRIE (1976)

The film CHRONICLE (2012) is a teenage daydream of telekinetic power acquired from an alien source and like few others it explores the motivations fate itself might have for bullying kids into becoming homicidal agents of vengeance. The same thing happens in CARRIE (1976) except the telekinesis seems more linked to feminine hysteria; in each film there's an invisible Kali goddess strolling through, monitoring the bullying and torment of a high school loner the way a brewer might monitor fermentation. Kali wants not beer though, but fiery retribution, for the grand unleashing. That's what we want too, but there's a problem: though CHRONICLE has a fine unleasher in Andrew (Dane DeHaan) there's also goody-two-shoes type in Alex's popular but sappy cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) who's acquired the same powers and wants the film to be the touching tale of a regular dude getting back together with his nerdy 5th grade sweetheart-turned-senior class hottie video blogger (Ashley Hinshaw) and sticking by his bullied bud through thick and thin, not realizing the condescension associated with placing said bud in a victim mentality. Meanwhile their nonthreatening African-American pal Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a student body president candidate, just wants CHRONICLE to be a badass superhero film where he, Steve, gets laid a lot. The glowing subterranean alien blob of intelligence meanwhile, should be familiar to fans of Jack Arnold's SPACE CHILDREN (1958) and in a more oblique way, THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960). In CHRONICLE, the powers are given when Steve and company find a big hole behind a rave and descend with the loner Alex since he brought a camera thereto. They behold a big (luckily for the camera's sake) glowing blue orb, touch it, and are Kubrick obelisk-like transformed into dudes with massive telekinetic skills, thus fulfilling their destiny, Huberty-cum-Kali-style. If only they all had the balls and psychotic tendencies to be as wanton in their destruction as Andy, what then a film to make.

Top: Chronicle / Bottom 2: Space Children
Instead, CHRONICLE really "stands" for something. The handheld camera thing isn't just laziness or copping a Blair Witch feel, it's actually used with some poeticism and with none of the grain and odd grays of real HD video (presumably one of the telekinetic gifts is a Steadicam camera hand); the celluloid shines and yet the DP is free to move from all sorts of angles, and sudden poetic and interesting jump cuts. Eventually police 'copter and car footage and news footage, and the camera of the cute blogger, all enter into the found flow. There's some great tricks with mirrors and the whole conceit about Alex's ability to film himself via telekinetically-adjusted angles, the camera employed like a magical selfie Tinkerbell to his maniacal Peter Pan.

Thanks to bullies in school, a dying mother, bullies on his block, and an abusive father who drinks up his disability checks and gives his son a hard time, Alex doesn't get far into the realm of being accepted due to his new power before he shrinks back into his peevish first person shooter shell (boosted by some premature ejaculation). It seems Kali is sparing no expense in ensuring Alex's ensuing rampage!

 The end result is that the survivor of the three is the one who gets to decide what tone the movie is taking, what footage will be used and when, and I won't spoil the ending. But just imagine the troubles that might have arisen if Amy Irving in CARRIE (1976) also had some telekinetic abilities and could give Carrie a run for her money? It might not have gone off so perfectly. And that's the real element of greatness in CHRONICLE: it's ragged at the edges as in a real friendship where each person is conflicted and pulling the others in a different direction than the one they want to go. None of them get the movie their demons or angels were hoping for.

I relate with that. As a teenager I started out an Andy, isolated, no social life, days spent in as many study halls as possible, reading endless violent adventure stories, ala Mack Bolan "The Executioner" series (above left) and entertaining vicious vigilante fantasies towards anyone who ever crossed me, no matter how minor an infraction. My best buddy at the time was just one level crazier. As I was getting out of the whole war thing he was buying guns from the back of Soldier of Fortune.

Right at the height of his simmer, James Huberty killed a mess of people at a San Ysirdro McDonald's, and my buddy was enthralled by it; he soon knew the exact arsenal Huberty had brought with him, the order of the victims, the final stand-off, the anti-immigrant underpinnings, and he expected me to honor Huberty in my heart as well. Rest assured he made sure I knew every detail during our long car rides to nowhere. Finally I pulled way back, pulled away from him, and got into drugs and Lou Reed instead. He wound up who knows where, but when Columbine happened I knew it could have been us who went ballistic in that library, but I pulled away. God knows we thought about it and fantasized about it and drew pictures 'chronicling' it. Neither of us was bullied enough to go that route, but if he had pushed me to join him in a cathartic rampage before I left, well, I may even have gone along with it. Teenagers.

The chronicling aspect is also an important part in CARRIE, a film so iconic now it's basically our century's Red Riding Hood. As if handheld by a demonic spirit Hitchcock fan, De Palma's camera circles and swoops and looks down with a telekinetic blood bucket-blue eye, or slows down or splits the screen and fractures into diamond-insanity or clever close-ups. De Palma splatterd onto the map with this film, like a bat out of hell colliding with the  demonstrating the patience to let the build-up to the big release come with agonizing tick-tock mom70s windshield.  De Palma's film seems to occur in an alternate dimension much slower than real time, as Carrie's victorious climb up the steps to the stage to receive her crown takes so long, for example, you feel as if De Palma is playing a merciful God, allowing her big moment to stretch into infinity, slowing the clock down so those few seconds of 'acceptance' Carrie feels last a lifetime. For her.

Red is her color, so I see the film now and wonder if she couldn't have just rolled with the punches and laughed it off, a good-natured sliming ala the Kid's Choice Awards, red instead of florescent green. Instead she sees, Bunuel-style, everyone in the audience mocking her, though they are just shocked, for the most part, in reality, at least the reality we see, but it's too late; her Kali-endorsed madness ensures she sees them as all laughing evilly. Revenge can't help but be fiery, and final.

Just as with the the feeling of belonging and togetherness that happens, for a brief time, with loner Andrew and the cool kids Matt and Steve, it's clear Kali is deliberately sabotaging his life in order to indirectly inflict outward damage. The whole cast of high school faculty and students around Carrie is being manipulated by an unseen director to prod and abuse Carrie so her powers can be used later to annihilate them, the way Nazi Kevin Bacon uses Magneto's parents' lives to trigger the big mutant displays in that X-MEN prequel. This also fits very well with theories about telekinesis and poltergeist activity being the almost exclusive domain of teenagers reaching sexual puberty and dealing with huge amounts of repression and changing hormones:
The first part of our theory is the most well-known, childhood/teenage puberty is the cause of most Poltergeist activity and is more often than not caused by a young female in emotional or psychological "crisis". In many cases, this young girl doesn’t even realize that they are causing the disturbance. The poltergeist uses this person to transmit and transform their paranormal energy to move objects and oftentimes cause damage or harm to people and items around them. It is not a possession of a human, but merely the human being used like a transmitter for the psychic energy.

The Southern Pole of the magnet is the young female starting up the "baby making factory". As she projects her emotions outward (as most teenage females do), the poltergeist pushes its own energy toward her. The two energies repel each other often causing objects to move or harm to others. The stronger the stress she feels, the more this spirit will want to feed off of her emotions, the move likely the poltergeist activity will increase. As stated above, the spirit is using the young female as a transmitter to project its energy outwards. 
It has been brought up by Italian researcher Pierro Brovetto and his colleague Vera Maxia that this action of opposing energies can result in teenage telekinesis (a possible excuse for object movement). Brovetto and Maxia believe that the extra fluctuations triggered by the pubescent brain would substantially enhance the presence of the virtual particles surrounding the person. This could slowly increase the pressure of air around them, moving objects and even sending them hurtling across the room. - Theory 4

But of course, De Palma's film does the same for us, and that's important. We in the audience initially aren't necessarily on Carrie's side. Her overreaction to her first period,--shrieking like some kind of NELL-ish hill person--is such that even the kindly gym teacher slaps her. From that one incident flows the entire film, and after seeing the traumatic abuse suffered by Carrie from her crazy Christian mom, we're completely on her side, even as she goes ballistic and kills even the nice gym teacher, it just feels right. We're not possessing Carrie, we're using her as a transmitter for cathartic humiliation-repression exorcism.

In CHRONICLE, Andrew's gradual turning back into madness happens not because abject material--pig's blood or green slime--was dumped on his head, but because he involuntarily dumps on himself. Any loner-writer type will relate, that feeling of being held back by one's own self-sabotage from full participation in the sense of group camaraderie, or making a move on a girl, as if driven to return to your lonesome rumination the way a vampire must return to its native soil. CHRONICLE's big pig blood moment occurs off camera and is caused by Alex's own anxiety, skeeving out a girl who was ready to take his virginity and sending her running, and spreading the news (he puked) - Andrew becomes his own worst John Travolta. The betrayal blood of the lamb/pig baptism of Carrie, or the winners at the Kid's Choice Awards is inverted, and the effect is twice as horrific yet anticlimactic, a mere fuse lighter rather than the bomb itself.

In each case the offending 'abject' telekinetic is finally destroyed but remembered forever, by someone like Amy Irving, who's altruism in sending Carrie to the prom is always slightly suspect: her heading to the prom in her normal clothes to spy on her boyfriend and Carrie makes no sense. How could this end for Carrie in any way other than heartbreak? Does she even know smirky William Katt is already making out with Carrie on the dance floor? Couldn't Amy have talked someone else into asking Carrie? It's to the film's everlasting credit that we're never quite sure, even when Amy spots the rope and figures it out, is she maybe just trying to cover her own ass? Certainly Carrie suspects the same, otherwise she wouldn't be pulling her down into the grave.

Similarly, the 'friend' cousin with the need to constantly express his feelings in CHRONICLE, Alex (Matt Garetty) ends the film--which has held onto its found footage-style narrative structure with great tenacity and awesome results--by speaking directly to Andrew in the final closing 'captain's log'-style letter, attempting to bring closure to his experience. There are atypical bullies in both CARRIE and CHRONICLE but Alex and Amy Irving represent a unique kind of villain--the 'good-intentioned' road-to-hell paver. Certain kids decide to take it on themselves to stop the evils they perceive in their peers. In refusing to let the evil flower, they stunt its growth and the root system rises up to level the town. These do-gooders somehow never see it's really all their fault that Kali was awoke and half the town is in flames.

Or maybe I'm just telling myself that to excuse my own walking away from the budding evil in my gun nut friend. He never went ballistic, as far as I know, in the biblical sense. But he could have. And on his walls the cops would find his tacked up pictures of James Huberty to prove his madness.  Who knows what I may have provoked him to do had I gone all noble on him, demanding he throw out his Solider of Fortune collection and renounce his violent convictions?

Instead I just left him, for college, where I eventually found a true posse of first punks then hippies and finally felt accepted, extroverted, and washed clean in the blood of the lambsbread, mon. Thirteen years later my old buddy was finally doing everything I used to, but I had by then been forced by my own weakened constitution to abandon whiskey and orgies and was in AA.

But for all the negative things people say about drugs, the right ones, the good ones, have a way of raising your evolutionary perspective --the haters who demonize have usually never tried them, and that's contempt prior to investigation. They don't believe in UFOs since they've never seen one, so how can they believe drugs are bad if they've never tried them? If the Columbine kids had a joint instead of Luvox would any of the carnage have had to happen? God forbid a natural drug like pot be legal. It might curb the homicidal urge in a whole damned generation... no longer the CHRONICLE but the chronic. No longer "Carrie White burns in Hell," but "Carrie White burns spliffs," 4Eva mon. So kill all the people who want to ban what they don't understand.  Line them up and... oops.. start over.
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