Thursday, November 28, 2013

For the whole drunk family: GRABBERS

Ah laddies and lassies faire, are ye home this Thanksgiving? Will the family be looking to you to pick a film from the Netflix once all football and food is done and the wee ones and pious old folks safe in bed, and only the serious drinkers left coherent (read "serious" in that beautiful accent Claire Florani uses in those "All Hail the Drinkin' Man" commercials for Johnny Walker Black, the only reason to watch TV anymore - my praise here)?

Well, of course Netflix'sh got you covered.


(2012) Dir Jon Wright

It's an Irish horror-monster-comedy hybrid that's part of the lineage of solid drinking films from the more remote and storm-swept parts of the UK, like LOCAL HERO, TIGHT LITTLE ISLAND, I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, and MAN OF ARAN. Drunker family members might scoff during the first bits, but hush them and soon they'll be noting how gorgeous the emerald scenery and the leads most attractive. Ere long they'll be singing "Jug of Punch" and recalling aloud John Wayne in THE QUIET MAN and Gene Kelly in BRIGADOON with a merrye twinke in their eye. 

And there's a great hook: to avoid being eaten all the residents of this tight little island must drink, a lot. 
Dig that caption!
H.R. Giger-esque (but not too much) industrio-tentacledness
There's an adorable little lady ball-busting cop (Ruth Bradley), similar to how Holly Hunter used to be, pre-PIANO, but cuter even, and it's rewarding watching her character get drunk for the first time, like a little two-fisted Gallic faerie, falling for the drunken officer who decides to stay relatively sober just this once, even though it means having to stall the first kiss with this newly forged firebrand. Bradley makes the most of the chance to cut loose and is a wet-eyed mussy haired miracle in a big jeep stakeout, which is also craftily lit to make every rain drop in the deluge glisten with pregnant menace and/or romance. There's some taking time to capture lovely sunsets and the stark treeless beauty of the coastline, a few too many green and azure filters, overdoing it just a dram like we're watching the film through green sunglasses, but the whole third act is over one long night, filters gone, so 'tis no burden. And like all my favorite films, it ends at dawn.

AGE GROUPS: Unlike most monster films, the American ones for example, there's no guns on the island, it's Europe, after all, so when monsters come they have to improvise with various devices of a non-gunpowder-related nature. Violence is mostly of the squishing and severed head variety, nothing the hip kids haven't seen in frog-cutting class; there's nothing sexual or overly traumatic, and even old grandma can respect how, even under monster duress and whiskey inhibition lowering, the romance stays chastely Fordian. By the same token, fans of the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost films (such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD) shall know it by the same approximate seriocomic fan's eye view attention to squeam-and-squish minutiae. In sum, if your family's been known to have a wee dram, slither in. 

Friday, November 22, 2013


Lately when I meditate all that happens is my unconscious/anima rummages through forbidden memory drawers, exposing afresh long-buried shames as far back as ninth grade gym class. I'm all cool about it, of course--"oh thank you ma'am, for saving these precious memories"--and I believe once I accept them she's going to just toss 'em out. But I doubt she will, 'cuz my unconscious is a bitch, yo. Still, my unconsicous' scathing anima is nothing like the one pulling Julian (Ryan Gosling) apart in Nicolas Winding Refn's career-sabotaging follow-up to his career-making DRIVE: ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

Yeah, but She doesn't, Blanche!

The tale of an Oedipus complex writ large by white people across the dirty expanses of Bangkok, it's more of a Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch play exquisite corpse with an Argento hotel bar napkin than it is the kind of all-too-standard Asian action-revenge thriller it pretends to be.

Then again, everything is a Jim Jarmusch plays exquisite corpse with David Lynch on an Argento hotel bar napkin for Sweden's dark lord of the Seijun Suzuki-esque macho melt-down post-modernist gangster genre, Nicolas Winding Refn. GOD is his special love letter to those Angelica film snobs who saw VALHALLA RISING and said "very good, Sven, but maybe slow it down a bit. Maybe don't have a protagonist who's such a chatterbox." There has to be one such film snob... somewhere.

Maybe it's even me.

I'm keenly aware (since I'm Swedish) that to stand out from the legions of 'corrupt but honorable cop vs. redeemable but doomed Oedipissant' Asian vengeance-athons loitering sullenly along the neon- drenched "Dark Foreign Revenge Thriller" avenues of Netflix, Refn has to import his own brand of ice and snow onto the eternally wet floors of le Bangkok Dangereuse. We Swedes know that Thai swordsman cops can out-swing us, so we have to out-stare them and, more importantly, be willing to lose a limb without blinking. That's how you get their respect!

No, please, don't get up
Critics haven't been kind to ONLY GOD FORGIVES, though some have been maybe too kind and maybe they shouldn't be. It practically begs for a beat-down, craves it like William Devane's masochistic ex-POW in ROLLING THUNDER (1977). It promises to not even fight back, just proffer its hands for good severing (or garbage disposal grind).

But for a film with such ornate and original visual style it sure is shy about saying anything, or making a single unanalyzed move, unless it's to judge misogynist ex-pats for slapping frightened little Bangkok sex workers. Unlike Devane's more macho amputee masochism, there's some much more bizarrely Oedipal form of apotemnophilia going on here, associated with the fear of the vaginal void. As in: if I stick my hand into the darkness, into some stripper's inner gates of paradise, will I ever get it back, or just pull out a stump?

In a land of bare knuckle boxing and grim black dragon wallpaper, Gosling's hand bravely goes where only Jessica Harper doesn't fear to tread.

From Top: Suspiria / Only God Forgives
And there's this thing with brother Billy who is so mad about a Bangkok dad pimping his daughters he kills one of them to teach him a lesson. Some weird karaoke-singing cop first lets the dad kill Billy for revenge, then cuts off the guy's hand right to punish him for that right. Meanwhile Julian (Ryan Gosling, apparently now the Michael Fassbender to Refn's Steve McQueen) is getting his hands tied in a lap dance, and imagining his hand cut off by the same cop.

Dude, it's all connected.... by ligaments.

So the next week (or hour- there's no sense of time on the Bangkok streets) brings in on her sky chariot the brassy Clytemnestra of a devouring Mother (brilliantly essayed by Kristen Scott Thomas)with a typically Lady McBeth-ish streak of not thinking her dark deeds through to the end. She's clearly the evil instigator who made the boys so nutty and she has an incestuous love-hate bond with Julian, and who we learn eventually-- if our TV is on loud enough and there's no traffic outside our window to mask their fetid whispers---once ordered her boy to beat his father to death with his bare hands. And he did!

You know how hands are...

But all that stuff is minor. One of those exquisite corpse bar napkins could have covered more Freudian territory purely by chance. Though feature length, ONLY GOD reminds me a lot of my own small short films: there's no time for a plot so it all has to be delivered on the sly in expository fragments. No one leaves or arrives; they just appear in one of the many dark red-lit Chinese serpent dragon wallpapered rooms like clients at the bordello of the unconscious. When the mom lets down her long, sexy hair it contrasts dazzlingly with a silk dress that both blends her into and stands out against the hotel wallpaper. It's presumably a rose on the front )above) but looks more like the kind of hole an alien or baby (Julian) would burst out of (and where we will rather grotesquely return in the final act). When mom demands to know why her son hasn't killed the guy who killed his brother, (instead of letting the severed hand be enough of a warning), Julian mentions the dead son killed a sixteen year old girl. "Well, mom snaps. "I'm sure he had his reasons."

This old broad is a real pisser.

The film's been compared to the westerns of Sergio Leone, but in Leone all those long stares were connected to hands hovering over holsters. It was more about the eyes than the hands, and eyes are more apt for movies than hands. There's the adage in RED RIVER where John Wayne tells the kid who will soon be played by Monty Clift that he knew when the other guy was going to draw by "watching his eyes. Remember that." Flash forward a few decades and Clint Eastwood and his confederates no longer look anyhere but eyes. They no longer look at their gun or even aim it, or even blink, just stare. And then WHAM, one or more guys die - the guys who look at hands instead, one presumes. Hitchcock had that line about how the only difference between comedy and suspense at breakfast is that only the audience knows a bomb's under the table in the latter. in Leone, everyone knows everyone else has a bomb under the table, and that gives their every move meaning; they don't take their eyes off each other even as they pour the coffee, with one hand, super..... slowly. Each ready for the bomb in each other's laps. In ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn takes the coffee away, the table, and the bombs, and most of the hands too, by the end. If it's not suspense at least it's the first violent masculine deconstruction to feminize the macho staring contest, and dissociate vengeance from the minds of tortured heroes. Now, instead of being about facing death the action movie is about Sleeping Beauty, with Gosling spending the whole movie in a glass case, waiting for God's samurai sword to cleave him free, of both that outer (glass) shell, and the inner (body) too, so the nothing trapped within him can rise rise rise.

There's a great piece comparing the film with Lynch's FIRE WALK WITH ME over on Very Aware, with a Refn interview, wherein he says: the original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God."

Note the austere white Great Wall image behind him, a more logocentric version of Julian's twisted dark red wallpaper, setting off a contrast that's about far more than good vs. evil, or right vs. wrong

Hey, I know about that! That's why I love Moby Dick's Capatin Ahab so much, and all my college poetry was about it, like my classic "The Bug that Would Swat God" - but in my case it was drunken bravado and feeling inspired by Gregory Peck's twisted oratory (see here, shipmates). Here it's less about wanting to fight God and more about doing it just to get your awful mother off your back.

And then there's the "villain," the cop in the white collar doesn't just kill people straight up, he does it with a show of torture, hand slicing offery, etc. And for all his swift brutal gestures, our homicidal momma's boy Julian is not much of a fighter, it turns out. He gets his ass kicked by this little guy. It's embarassing. The mom's confidence, and our own action film expectations, have led us to believe that once he's given the signal, Julian is going to be as lethal as Clint Eastwood in the climax of UNFORGIVEN. He's going to be like Popeye given the 101 proof spinach. But instead he gets beaten down... by a middle-aged balding Thai cop! That's like Sly Stallone losing a fight to Burgess Meredith, and Refn knows we'll feel that way and Julian's losing seems somehow on purpose, to piss off his mom, and us by extension, to subvert our and her expectations in a passive revenge plan he probably isn't even conscious of. We know Ahab is going to lose in his battle with the white whale. That's kind of the whole point, that knowing this, on some deep level of the unconscious, he still goes for it anyway is why we love him.Such crazy fighting spirit is what the East is all about! And inner demon battling, trying to drink you're way sober, etc.

It seems absurd that mom should be so eager for vengeance that she'd go up against a supernatural cop like this but on the other hand, without her around to shake things up, everyone would still be sitting where we left them, motionless, like a flock of ventriloquist dummies after their owners have all gone to bed. Refn's out to do more with his dolly shots than deliver a mere Asian revenge thriller; he's gone way past the 1967 Seijun Suzuki deconstruction of BRANDED TO KILL (above; below) and exposed the hideous mom-hating apron string hacker under the hot skin of Ryan Gosling's new Action Figure persona.

It helps to learn that Refn shot in chronological order and kind of winged it for large stretches, with Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas both having lots of input and collaboration in their characters' outcomes, and genius DP Larry Smith (who worked with Refn on BRONSON) seems to have been given free reign with the surreal gels. There's a feeling that comes across when submitting to that kind of spontaneity, Godardesque perhaps, but more open-ended, in the moment, from second to second. The drawback? It seldom builds to any satisfying catharsis or ending. It's like that stare of the Leone gunfighter with his hand over his gun has widened and lasts the entire film, and then no gun is drawn. And there are no hands left to pull a trigger. The first credit at the end is to announce the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is pretty steep company. The man is a God himself, a shaman first class, and tellingly has much armless symbolism and actors. Look ma, no hands, indeed.

from top: Only God Forgives, Santa Sangre
All we know is Julian was pretty twisted before all this revenge got started but he quickly loses it thereafter; watching his stripper girlfriend cry jeweled tears behind the strings of a crystal bird house he hears some laughter at the other end of the club. They could be laughing at anything, they're all deep in a conversation way down there, but Julian has had a vulnerable emotion and now he thinks they're laughing at him. Next thing you know he's smashing a glass in one of their faces and dragging him around by his upper palette. Dude, that's so paranoid!

From top: Buffalo 66, OGF, B66 OGF ,The Fighter, OGF, B66, The Fighter
So paranoid in fact it reminds me of two other movies about bruised masculinity: BUFFALO 66, THE FIGHTER. The great music by Cliff Martinez even becomes Angelo Badalamenti at times (the music from TWIN PEAKS was supposedly what Refn cut the film to), linking it as a kind of sequel to THE FIGHTER if Mickey Ward and his ma set up shop at a fight club down in Thailand, and she left to do various deals, but she still flies in like an avenging angel when son Dicky the crackhead is killed. Meanwhile there's some BUFFALO 66 meets THE WRESTLER nonsense as Julian's favorite crying stripper, who gives the drowsiest lap dances in history, is supposed to wear a dress and meet the foulmouthed Madea of a mom. Interesting too that the dead son is named Billy, and had a huge, enormous cock (according to the mom). If Gallo had played him (and if we saw BROWN BUNNY you know he could), oooh synchro-gorgeousity made flesh.

from top: B66, OGF, OGF, B66
And it's clear Billy and Julian both have some seriously warped misogyny going on with women as a result of their mom and--as in BUFFALO 66's strip club owner--father figures they've killed or are determined to kill in one way or another. The Billy in both films skulks around the periphery of slow motion druggy sex dens, forever denied the presumed pleasures of full psychic abandon. Both have way too many mother issues to permit anything approaching even a feint at that sort of enjoyment. They can only take it out on women who seem weaker and more submissive somehow even than themselves, to vicariously relive their primal scene in an attempt to rewritezzzzzz zzzzz

Zzz- eh? I nodded off.... or did I?

Did I miss anything? No --they're all still just staring.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wronger than the Storm: SHARKNADO, THE REEF

If November persists, talk to do your doctor.

If the 12 month cycle was Dr. Moreau's island, November would be the House of Pain: "there's no twilight in the tropics," Moreau says, "darkness falls like a curtain." So does night in November. The hushed chill of dying leaves rustle around in the corners of streets like packs of shuffling Bed-Stuy crackheads during the walk home from work at five PM! You absorb their shoulder-ache withdrawal and the cold of their torn feet from the corner of your glazed thousand yard stare as you sweep past, muttering incessant vile oaths (you, not them). November: the New York marathon ends on a cold Sunday evening after Halloween is over --and thus all that is good in fall. You obligingly weave your way to the finish line to meet them, your wobbly friends in their reflecting mylar disposable ponchos shining against the foggy grey afternoon; your pride in them is a little flicker of warmth in your freezing jitters. Going out to a bar to celebrate, sitting at a long table of celebrants with pitchers of beer and drams of Wild Turkey, none of which you can have as you're on the wagon, but you know that one shot--one single gulp-- and all that ache and misery would melt into an amber glow, all the pain converted to heaven in the time it take your leviathan blood to swim an arterial league. But No... No No November. Daylight savings begins like a long slow wet dog shudder; now it gets dark before you have a chance to emotionally prepare, the curtain that falls in Moreau's tropics. Suddenly the couch is extra cozy and every fibre of your being says "Let's not go out tonight. Or this weekend. Or ever." The sight of those shivery runners, high with endorphins (and later whiskey) they're the last you see of your crew. But with each missed party, another nail in the social coffin. But are you trembling? No. Why?


Apparently it was all the rage in "Twitterverse" but I saw it later, or 'just now' on Netflix. After work. Alone. I'm not going to pretend I was in on its "trending." But I will confess I needed it. Didn't want no boring bits or glum nonsense the night I first saw it, just now, under lots of Brooklyn stress and soggy socked sinking from the weight of atmospheric conditions. There was none, and soon I was feeling warm and dry while watching Los Angeles get flooded with CGI sharks, in what plays out like almost like real time, snapping-up spoiled Beverly Hills brats and swimming along the freeway or raining from the sky with a rare-for-Syfy propulsive inland-rushing tidal energy. Rather than blithe news cutaways there's long car rides with fellow drunks, looking out from behind rainy windows as confused news reports crackle on the FM radio. Life goes on; even as LA falls apart under the rain of sharks, assholes still bicker and hardcore surfer exes overreact and have to save every endangered chum.

November. The bitterest, crushingest month demands a city (not mine) fall in totem if its to spare us its crushing measure. We watch LA drown in sharks the way barleycorn huskers watch their effigies burn, before family obligations rise like a prematurely buried Usher to wrest even the highest of kites back down to the beige carpets of a vacuumed earth, at least that kite will fly, and the husk will burn. The darkness will creep up towards the end of lunch and by the walk home we'll be snared in the trawling net of cold autumnal night. Relationships will crumble, jobs melt away, the windows shutter, the air conditioner will be taken hurriedly from the window... like a reverse burglar. But first, the fire.

The point is, SHARKNADO comes along, and a Ferris wheel rolls into the side of a four story international style apartment building like it's no big deal. Charlton Heston might drag that Ferris wheel roll out to three hours, but this film rushes along past it. Sharks in the bar, sharks in the traffic jam; "It's like old faithful!" as water shoots up from the sewers. "We're gonna need faith to get through that" over a flooded dip under an overpass. A douchebag boyfriend of the sulky daughter says: "Even if it is the storm of the century, Beverly Hill's rescue services are second to none!" And then he looks out the window, sees a shark in the swimming pool and before he can react a wave crashes through into the living room and his head gets bit off. And there was much rejoicing. If you ever played the game as kids where you had to be halfway up the stairs or on a chair or couch to avoid getting eaten by a carpet shark then yes you are in bad movie heaven. If the leader of the survivors, Finn, is a typical bleeding heart idiot who has to stop to help everyone, even school buses that look empty. "This is your problem, Finn!" bemoans the weary ex-wife (Tara Reid) - and we kind of agree, but then Boom! Turns out --there's scared kids in there, and a TJ Miller-ish bus driver way out of his depth! You saved another busload from the shahks, Finn!

What a man that Finn, what a tool. The real rooting interest is in his barmaid Nova (Cassie Scerbo) who wants to be more than a maid to Finn, but he's not into it (What a mensch Finn is! He has to stay loyal to an ex-wife who's already got a mule of a boyfriend literally kicking in his stall). As the loyal hardscrabble Nova, Scerbo proves the most interesting and non-cliche'd character. And she's also the source of larger-than-life wit and humor; a combination Brody, Quint and Indiana Jones, in the Goldilocks Zone of mild hotness (i.e. down to earth and accessible), toting a shotgun, and actually pulling off the kind of lame in-joke lines ("Sharks.... why did it have to be sharks?") that would make lesser actors crumple up in defeat. Later she even has her own 'Quint on the USS Indianapolis' style monologue as to how she got that sexy thigh scar. There's also John Heard as a dissolute bar regular, using his stool as a shark bashing device, and others that come and go and are gone in a flash of dark CGI blood spatter.

Effects are serviceable without worrying too much about perfection. Sharks fly in the wind but there are no other fish nor even a shred of seaweed in the wind, not even a wood splinter, and best of all, this apocalypse of sharkiness seems to follow Fin and friends alone -- other cars continue to drive by, unaware of any problems, even ignorant that the Hollywood sign is down to " Hol  o d". And even the biggest disaster of all: cell phone reception is gone is handled. Would it be half as funny anywhere else than LA? Car rental agencies are still in business, cops are cordoning off areas of downtown for no particular reason. There's no cause to panic unless you've been attacked, but meanwhile half a block down they're still waiting in line at the liquor store. Priorities.

There's been a ton of similar junky films from the SyFy-Asylum complex: Corman Y-generation ripoffs of Italian ripoffs of JAWS' rip-offs, which in turn reach back through cocktopus tentacles into the era of the 50s bug movie (ripping off Corman's originals). Most of them are pretty weak, effects wise, acting wise, script wise. But this one, it's different. It's like it overheard every excited kid hanging out on the beach in 1974-78, every kid wistfully imagining sharks flying out of the sky. 'NADO took notes like these kids were holy prophets. And let Tara Reid stand as a lesson against growing up under too much sun and peroxide. Yea.

In the end, it's Scerbo's Nova who really stands out, who makes it work as more than a high concept stunt. With her Jersey girl hair and raspy voice, way with a gun, and foolish crush on the one guy too self-righteous to get with her, she's a unique new creature in these sorts of movies, and may SyFy remember to keep her in the sequels; and remember too the uniquely comforting sound of a car radio giving out updates low amidst the conversation about what LA shortcut to take and who to rescue first. And remember too that--unlike the Dads of Great Adventure movies--this one is more wryly critical of unwelcome meddler Finn's bad habit of problem of having rescue everyone he meets, all the time, whether they want his help or not. The critique, Nova, and the gentle flap of wipers, sound of rain and the roof, and shotguns being reloaded --these are what makes this film so good. I worry those very things won't survive in the sequels to come, in favor of crazy cameos, wacky synergized marketing tie-ins, product placement, stoner dumbness, has-beens the producer owes a favor to crowding onto the Fin-boat, and all the other stuff sequels accrue like barnacles when something this low on the totem pole hits viral on Twitter. And there will be sequels. They already have the sharks in the disc drive, after all, just waiting to be used again.

Unlike real monsters--or people, or seasons--they don't go bad.

It's not just that these barometric eating machine projections have hit such a comforting firelight-style chord, it's that all these decades later and we're still happy to be reminded we were once afraid of the water. We can project our darkest unconscious fears right into the murky dark, right there as we lounge around under the beach sun. We all know the hard truth, even kids: the ocean takes it all. Soaks it all up it does, like a combination stress pillow and life jacket around your albatross neck, to make room for all the misery November has to offer.

Netlfix told me to watch THE REEF next, so I did, anxious to stay in the zone. Well, of course it's not as fun. Maybe it's something in their accents and cheery disposition but it's hard to distance oneself from a single Aussie in distress as easily the entire city of Los Angeles. The clear blue water under blazing sun is divine, but the money shots in THE REEF all occur under the surface. The story of a jaunty weekend boating expedition to some reasonably far away Aussie island in the a clear blue inlet (?) that ends up sinking and leaving the boaters dog-paddling around trying to make it to the island in one piece, it's not even the attacks themselves that rivet or make the gut sink, but the sight of great whites slowly materializing out of the crystal blue blankness around our frightened water-treading castaways. Like a distant rider in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, they circle and you can't tell if they see you or not, their dead eyes betray no sudden interest. They just orbit lazily, then Bam!

But there's only so many times you can do that and have the same groovy effect. After awhile all you have is a lot of anxiety and monotony commingle even if you're glad to be relatively dry. There's so much damned blue between the sky and the sea, you pray for red just to liven up the palette.

The other problem is the sheer stupidity of the outdoorsman captain. Why, if you're sailing in a really remote area with a bunch of people, wouldn't you have some kind of radio or distress signal? Or goddamned lifejackets! A goddamned flare gun. Anything!! Australia is crawling with sharks, so wouldn't you have something? Maybe shark repellent? Magnets? Life vests??!! Why if you are all in the water and completely vulnerable would you swim towards the friend of yours being eaten? What are you going to do to help, gather his falling limbs? You're just going to spread more blood in the water.

I doubt even SHARKNADO would argue that THE REEF (2010) is a better film, quality-wise. But aside from the stark blue scenery, it's a wee bit of a bummer, with wayyyyy too much acting. Do we see shark movies to get bummed out? No, we don't. (Though for me, I haven't even seen BLUE WATER for the same reason). SHARKNADO understands this. Actors need to be either confident enough to understand that too much screaming and hyperventilating in irrational panic can bum us out rather than make us scared, or be incompetent enough that it becomes fun to see them try to do either one. Here it's that they're good but not good enough to be bad enough that it's enjoyable.

The Aussies have a great advantage when it comes to monster movies: their country is lousy with great white sharks and giant crocodiles, and god knows what nameless evils lurk in the Outback, including all manner of Dundee-esque outdoorsy-worsy walla big knifed WOLF CREEK-ies, but they should never forget what we want out of a monster movie, laffs, mate! There's a baller Aussie croc film called ROGUE (2007) with the new queen of B-movie monsterdom, Rhada Mitchell, for example, that works a similar territory to REEF and is better for being so much hipper to our needs. And it's based on a true story, too. Take a note, November Netflix: THE REEF is just blue water and screaming, but SHARKNADO is deliverance from the cold dark depths and up into the sweet, sweet shallows. We can finally stand.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beyond the Bruges Horizon: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

I meant to see Seven Psychopaths (2012) and then saw it, some of it, hated what I saw- returned it - then I forgot I saw some of it, re-Netflixed it, and only remembered I'd seen it halfway halfway through, so it was already pointless to stop a second time. I know what that says about me (nothing good) but what does that say about its writer-director, the "Irish Tarantino," Martin McDonagh? His play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was bloody funny. I saw it on Broadway totally by chance via a relative of my last AA sponsee who was in the cast. It was a great thing to see free. McDonagh's first big film In Bruges was also refreshingly dark and hilarious, and didn't even need a point, aside from that McDonagh loves that Stephen Frears movie, The Hit (who doesn't?). But Psychopaths, McDonagh's tale of a drunk Irish writer (Colin Farrell, modeling himself no doubt after McDonagh) who has come to Hollywood as Barton Fink once did, high on Hollywood's reverence for playwrights, is worse than some Vancouver-shot made-for-Cinemax After Dark crime sex thriller which at least would have the integrity of sucking. This has too many established cult stars for that. They make it worth not turning off within 20 minutes, which is the best option. But who can turn off a film with Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson? At least you got to slog halfway through, or keep it on while you get back to your book.

As an alcoholic writer though, I might be prejudiced to hate any film that presumes we'll root for the sort of well-to-do dissolute drunk ex-pat who thinks coming up with the name Seven Psychopaths makes him a genius, and who then expects his friends to write the rest for him via their crazy stories while he lives the semi-high life with hot girlfriend, and is daily ushered on adventures by a crazy motherfucker Boondock Saint of a broheim, played by the ever-jiving Sam Rockwell (the role played by John Goodman in Fink). Dude, even for self-reflexive blocked writer movies--an insufferably pretentious lot--doing the whole 'blocked screenwriter's low life muse gets him into jams that slowly become the movie he's writing' thing is really played out, and was even in Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation (2002), which at least had the good sense to blow up the bridge behind itself as far as writing about how hard it is to write scripts, and had the decency to actually have a source text not about itself (The Orchid Thief by Susan Lean, instead). I don't mean that as a compliment, because instead of dry heaving the day away kneeling on his bathroom floor like a real writer would (ala William Faulkner in Barton Fink), Colin's character thinks it's enough to writhe in self-conscious writer's block torment under a California sun, never getting the severe solipsistic narcissism at the core of such emotions (he should be inside drinking! Like a boss!) and Farrell's character thinks its enough to feign both narcissism and torment while smoking and drinking, but only as much as the producers will allow. Struggling screenwriters around the world, some of whom might even be talented, would blah blah...

Hey, I'm guilty too. I've always thought about one day writing a feature length script, and am sure it would be a smash hit, and I plan to write it one day, maybe, don't rush me, goddamn it... Meanwhile, I know a screenwriter who wrote lots of them, makes a decent amount of money, and lost some of it to me at poker, and none of his films made it past 'turnaround' then, starting around 1997, a script was picked up, Boom! Soon he was scouting locations and letting us know he had Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon on board, and then he was on set and working hard etc., only having the whole thing dump right to video at the last minute. After sinking years and years of his life into it, his film didn't even make a tiny 'plop' of a splash. The irony? It was about Elvis impersonators who rob a casino and the same year there was this "other" Elvis impersonator crime spree movie 2000 Miles to Graceland. He came away from it relatively well-paid anyway, but good lord, my sensitive soul would have shattered if--after all that--it was just dumped to video. All those years of effort right into the $2.99 remainder bin at Blockbuster.

But hey, hey got paid. And he finished the damned thing. And it wasn't about his adventures in the screen trade. Because that's shiite, and nothing gets me more pissed than hearing a screenwriter on easy street trying to pass his writer's block off as entertainment via sly post-modern mirror effect, and writing his characters into saying how it's a kick-ass idea, and getting away with it.

So.. Colin Farrell... he's got the title "seven psychopaths".. so great. Why wouldn't it be great? He was so good in In Bruges he would seem a no-brainer as McDonagh's drunk Irish screenwriter stand-in. He's got it all: a bitchy American girlfriend (the perennially indignant Abbie Cornish from Limitless), his two-bit charismatic hustler buddy (Rockwell) leading him into scrapes, and... what else... oh yeah, a pen. Y'know... ferwritin'.  Everything's set for brilliance, and I refuse to believe that the man who gave us one of the most climactic final act cat entrances in the history of the legitimate theater could crank out something so pleased with its half-baked 'stale-even-when-Guy-Ritchie-was-first-ripping-off-Tarantino' po-mo laddishness-ness.  It may have helped if we'd seen in the film some of Farrell's character's earlier work (as in Adaptation when we see Charlie on the set of Malkovich). How great it would have been had we seen him in Bruges giving script notes? Then Farrell could have the crazy projection of his own unconscious ego and it wouldn't seem so unearned. I mean it would serve a point, an escape valve because he's got to kiss so much executive ass to keep every expletive.

All writers have them, counterbalancing their schtick, for Woody Allen it's Bogey (as in Play it Again Sam), it's John Goodman in Barton Fink; the brother in Adaptation; the bunny rabbit in Donnie Darko. Instead Rockwell's more like the rabbit in Harvey, or John Goodman in Red State. Sure there's Christopher Walken as a dognapper but man he's gotten old, and he has a dying black wife who may or may not be a younger black wife of Tom Waits in flashback, both of whom have been unfairly perhaps left off all the Seven Psychopath posters and publicity tours. If that didn't sting, to be in a movie about vengeance and being maligned by society and be in turn spurned by even that very movie, left off all the advertising for the crime of being.... what? A black woman?

But what's most unforgivable is that Farrell is not convincing as either a drunk or a writer and he's certainly not one of the Seven of the title. He's too kinetic and cocky, terminally sane. He has no shakes, no quivers, he is just barely hungover and even at the height of his abusive cups he never slurs a syllable. Imagine if he did, or if his Irish accent got more pronounced, blacker, more violent as he drank, something to go with his sudden outbursts? Imagine if he had brought some real intensity to the role, given us a reason for him to be Irish, been acting a Wellesian uber-serious Macbeth in a room full of vapid scenesters! Instead, his drunknenness seems a facile pose, the kind of drunk character no true drunk would ever write. Waits and Walken and a little bit of Harrelson offer the only mountaintop gravitas to be found.

You know what was funny In Bruges!? Everything was funny in In Bruges! 

Amanda Warren, vengeance shall be thine!
I'm no social activist, usually, but it's also quite galling in this day and age that a black woman plays a key psychopath role here and deserves to be one of the seven alleged psychos (above), yet is not mentioned or seen: Psychopath #1 Olga Kurylenko has little more than a cameo and is just a gold digging Russian model. Psycho #5 'the passive-aggressive girlfriend" is a bit of a bitch but as she's dating an abusive Irish hack it's quite understandable --not a psychopath either, just dumb with her choices, and terribly written,  a compendium of ball-busting career girl naggishness. But the biggest psychopath is the self-defeating racist PR people who thought that a black character shouldn't be visible on the posters, but rather 'hidden' deep in the basements of the film's memory. Has Pam Grier's massive 'fro been for naught? Coffey could kick the asses of everyone in this film, but why bother if she has to sit at the back of the table read?

Meanwhile the script tries so hard to play like Elmore Leonard that it sounds desperate. The writers McDonagh apes here are always smart enough to keep a few genuine rough edges on a film about rough edges; they know that you always put the cool black lady up front. Quentin did that and Jackie Brown is a classic. Does McDonagh really not know how sick we are of the whole quipping hitman lad thing? Trends die much more slowly outside the US, I realize. I personally lost interest in Brit "Lad" movies before and after Snatch, which was great don't get me wrong, and that old guy in the thick glasses made for the most terrifying gangster villain since Peter Brandt in The Song Remains the Same. And I love Get Carter and The Hit. But did McDonagh even see them?

Martin McDonagh is a good looking lad with a Sting-esque jaw and crystal blue eyes. I haven't given up on him. He should have played the Farrell character and left the directing to someone else who might have hipped him to the fact that unironic post-modern self-reflexivity has become banal. It's not McDonagh's fault, coming up as he has in the very very different world of theater, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which rocked a similar tack, only with the psychopath having a cat instead of a little dog. But that had a genuinely dangerous girl psychopath with some actual dialogue, and a lot more blood and guts. If we bear this past triumph in mind, the desperation of Farrell's character is understandable. When operating far away from the Irish minutiae he knows, McDonagh falls back like a panicked bronco, flaring up in all directions in the off chance Hollywood will just at some point rise to its feet, cry bravo, and grant him a green card.

Theater has always been self-reflexive, much more so than most other idioms. Half the early Hollywood pre-code sound films were loosely based on the back stage experiences of Broadway playwrights and wits, lured west by big money. Movies based on plays based on movies (ChicagoPhantom) are ingrained in the celluloid conscience as suitable for framing and all are about razzle dazzle and the great White Way in one way or the other, to name only a few (older ones, of course, more so: A Chorus Line, Twentieth Century, All About Eve). Gotta dance Gotta dance God... ta...   dannnse.. But what works in the theater doesn't play in action movies all a-stud with stars playing halfway ass up into Entourage-ville.

All that said, I really loved In Bruges (above) but even that would have been impossible outside of its setting (a film shoot); what worked there was a horror and fascination with the beery surrealism of Belgium and the way what we consider enchanting and old school is just icky in the eyes of Brits; and all they can agree on is that Yank tourists need a good thrashing and that if you have any cocaine they will go home with you and stay until it's gone and then help you find more. And the filmmakers-within-the-film shooting a scene with baller little person extras and fog machines make for plenty of coke ops. It was original, clever, but not at all full of itself. But now, alas, every self-effacing moment in our drunk screenwriter's odyssey carries a coded message of self-aggrandizement that sticks in the craw almost to Shyamalanian toxicity.

I usually don't bother with negative reviews. Life is too short and I'm too marginal to afford alienating anyone, but if I don't say something this time, I'll probably forget I saw SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and watch it again in a few years. And that I cannot allow. So forgive me, Woody Harrelson, as I forgive those directors who trespass on your unique comedic brilliance like drunken burglars.

Next time, a speaking role!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Halloween is over. The gloom of depressing November descends. If it warms up and is a beautiful fall day like today, don't trust it, private! It's a trap! That fall foliage is the color of death, those leaf piles hide ninjas in autumnal-colored shinobi shōzoku! 

Stay inside, instead, with Netflix streaming. You will learn things. Did you know pink lipstick is never out of style in combat? (see Walken, driving above). War and action films are an essential ingredient in any red-eyed, white-pallored, blue-balled American male, and Netflix has enough to make any armchair general's saber rattle in its sheath. I recently spent some time with a few, picked both by me and a few choice allies. Private, hit the lights... 

The Expendables 2
Starring: Everyone
It's typical of the series' self-effacing humor that this group calls themselves Expendables (ala the old comic book?) as every expensive A-list action star (and even B-list) of the last 30 years shows up, riffing on their Hollywood personas with a wry chuckle and deadpan sneer. As with the first film, there's a refreshing lack of cliche or complications: no chain-of-command incompetence, sudden death of best friends, tedious romance, tenuous familial connection (no wives bemoaning that their husbands are never home and their sons are getting in fights at school), no moral lip service against running over innocent bystanders, or any of the other crap that makes real life war and most war movies a drag. When you send these guys in, it's clear you're not looking for them to bring home prisoners, or see border treaties respected. You send them in when you wan typhoon-size body counts and first-rate dudes-in-a-pack humor. Period. They'll deliver. The spirit of Howard Hawks all but lights Sly's stogie! 

Most A-list stars here show up only for a few big scenes, but Stallone carries it all on his back like a champion bred with a workhorse. He's pushing 70 but is in great shape and has a wondrous sense of self-deprecating humor. It does a man good to watch his masterful ease handling a stogie in the dead of night, or to hear his tectonic plate of a body ripple with a single seismographic chuckle at zingers about his age. The camaraderie he generates around him rings as true as it does around John Wayne in Rio Bravo and one feels, as a man, reborn in its sounding. We don't have to worry about anyone getting the jump on these guys. We're here, digging the Expendables 2 (superior to the first) because we're tired of blind realism and liberal sermons. At the tail end in age and politics of the demographic these films are made for, I want cathartic explosions and killing, not suspense or 'bad faith' guilt. There's no need to heed the laws of averages (i.e. of all the thousands of rounds fired at our guys, they don't get so much as nicked) or national diplomacy (we don't even know what country we're in - other than the fictionalized Eastern European province). They just go blasting in, blasting out, and flying in their own badass plane, on their own time, with their own weapons, even their own brand-monogrammed lighters. - everything is cool and black, with a skull on it. Their whole life aesthetic seems to exist in the empty space between a Jack Daniels bottle (the old kind) or a cigar and a Zippo lighter (with a skull on it) while shooting pool in your friend's basement. See it while your significant other is asleep, so you can blast it through headphones, the expensive kind, with heavy bass, so you can feel each boom, bang, and breath of tough guy bonding in your bones, but she can't. That kind of Hawksian men-in-a-group lived-in overlapping dialogue dynamic is all but extinct, because women mostly don't get why we need it.

Dogs of War 
Starring: Christopher Walken, JoBeth Williams
Like a prelude to The Expendables, here's a tale of a group of hired mercenaries led by Christopher Walken, who also like to decimate their opponent with superior firepower--hitting them first, out of the blue, and super hard, wiping them out in a few well-planned minutes, after much a movie spent strategizing, reconnoitering, planning, running, loading, and aiming, all of which The Expendables skips). The whole recon mission, jail, and torture and release, the stealthy journey forth in boats that have to pass through customs with all the weapons hidden in oil drums, etc. ---it can all be a lot of minutiae for little payoff (the inverse of Expendables). On the other hand, if you want to know the minutiae involved with overthrowing an evil African dictator, and installing a western corporate interest-friendly African dictator all in a single night, this is your better bet.

Making its cinematic debut, the revolving six-shot M32 grenade launcher all but steals the show from Walken - the two make a perfect pair, like a mirthless Hope and Crosby. If, like me, you loved the Deer Hunter but are dubious over Walken's character's survival on the Russian roulette circuit (which, as I've written, was against both military history and the law of averages), you can imagine Walken's post-Nam mercenary career as a much more logical and realistic alternative for gratifying a PSTD-related death wish. And when, after a whole movie worth of build-up, he busts out that crazy M32 and practically destroys the whole compound singlehandedly, it's pretty damned cathartic. Walken is so magnificent he doesn't turn us off even after turning noble. 

Also, his NYC life is well-etched in that uniquely 70s 'when the city was still dangerous' modality, so that's another plus, since when isn't it worth it watching Walken hustle around the mean streets in a black coat with the collar up? Why hasn't he ever made a movie with Scorsese? It seems like he must have. JoBeth Williams is the girl he makes idle plans to get away from it all with. She's too smart to believe him but tosses him a hotel room lay anyhow. He even finds time to teach a wayward local black kid to work for his living. What... eva, Christian, Time to pack up the gear and go. I remember this film as one of the very first VHS rentals my dad ever brought home, back when they weighed like ten pounds and renting tapes still had a mystic magic. Though I was best friends with a Soldier of Fortune-reading nutcase (see: Rage of Huberty) and loved DC's WW2 comics, I didn't like Dogs at the time --too much plot, not enough jumping out of exploding watchtowers in slow motion. But now I need a slow lead up to really feel the cathartic unleashing... unless it's of course Expendables 2.

Street Fighter
Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, Kylie Minogue
Twice the action of Hot Shots Part Deux! Twice the laughs of Saving Private Ryan! Say what you want about this film, like BOMB (Maltin), ** (imb), or 13% (rottentomatoes), my girl and I think Streetfighter is delightful romp perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon when you can't summon the will to vacuum. If you haven't seen it but heard of the game, well, just don't confuse it with all those first person shooter films like Doom, where everyone's trapped in a locked-down maze of drippy subterranean tunnels shooting at CGI. This one's pretty sunny and merry, full of nice analog special effects, with a dry sense of welcome wit and divine costumes. It's got that good international style, that Jackie Chan aesthetic, crazy steroidal villains, and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue is Van Damme's right hand woman ass-kicker (no romance, so don't worry about that); Raul Julia laughs maniacally as the big Bad Guy Dyson, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip." Worrying about the size of his future city's food court, showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, feigning outrage no one wants to be paid in Bison-bucks. wolfing up the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy, Cool Raul is a five alarm gas. Holding a pitload of UN hostages, making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress, he also finds time to swing around on jet boots in his main command center, full of exposed levels an chain pulleys to swing down from in ripped derring do. Great lines ("you got... paid?"), hilarious bits of business (Bison punching a video monitor in disgust when it shows a boy frolicking with his dog), wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches (the bed chamber of Bison has a wall of Bison portraits ranging in style from Napoleon to John Wayne Gacy) top off the blood(less) sundae.

In some ways it reminds me of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China but just not quite as good. What is? It's at at least 75% as good. Okay, 50% as good. Still, how many other video game action films rate even that high. And like Big Trouble, critics were confused by its deadpan tone and only after seeing it a few times on Saturday afternoons did we figure it out (we'd forgotten, you see, that the 1980 Flash Gordon was in on its own deadpan joke too). While we wait for that happy era of re-evaluation, countless dumber, worser action films escape the critical hostility lauded on poor Street Fighter. Why? Is it a global conspiracy? Every evil critic in the world: my right hand woman and I challenge you to mortal combat! Vivat gloria stupiditatem! It was Raul Julia's last theatrical film, dedicated to him with the words vaya con dios. And you still deny its godhood? Even if his accent is not as funny as Arnold's, if you can't chuckle at Van Damme's ridiculous American flag tattoo and inflectionless accent ("The main foah-arce will come from the noah-oarth") then sorry, but you must go back to "da chambuh."

Documentary about Mark Hogencamp
Not only is this a fascinating psychological documentary about one of those odd personality traits a nasty blow to the head can instill, but MARWENCOL says volumes about the opiate-like effect of imagining combat--explosions, the threat of immanent death, guns, noise, recognizable enemies, chains of command, desire, and most of all, camaraderie--on the average male psyche (mine included). WW2 especially resonates because it was the last time our liberty really was at stake and men had to rely on each other - we were a vast family looking out for each other and shit, vs. common enemies. And we won by working together like our collective and personal life depended on itl; and we were armed, well-armed but not so well armed all the chance and skill was taken out. Thus, rather than lording it over the poker table (with our nuclear flush) and occasionally fight a limited skirmish through some third world sock puppet, we were all in, not guaranteed a victory. When it cam, it was perhaps the last time we as a nation rejoiced unanimously, red and blue states one mass out in the streets, in a spontaneous outpouring of joy and relief. All our wars since have ended in draws, or quagmires that just wear us out - no one has ever come remotely close to invading us and our enemies are all either nuked up so we can't all-out with them, or else we just fight well-disguised third world guerillas with depressingly narrow rules of engagement. It takes all the joy out of life being so invulnerable, which is weird to think about, considering the opposite effect that has on the damaged psyche. I myself used WW2 as a mantra myself, during my squirrelly pre-teen phase in the slasher-filled early 80s. Just thinking about Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury, or The Unknown Soldier or the tank corps. in All-Out War kept me calm. Seeing a film on TV like Battle of the Bulge or Force 10 from Navarone could keep me less spooked as I tried to sleep in the dead quiet of the suburbs. That's to say nothing of all the HO scale army men - not plastic GI Joes or bags of random sized army men. I mean HO scale Afrika Corps, HO scale Messerschmidt models, etc. etc. 

Mark Hogencamp shares this weird warm fondness for a time and place he wasn't at. But his army man thing goes wayyyy beyond mine. A former depressed alcoholic, he was given a weird brain damage after a near-fatal beating thrown by a random cabal of douches coming out of the bar, and after a long recovery found an outlet for his brain damaged madness in creating Marwencol, a fictional Belgian town occupied by both allied and Nazi forces (a kind of Brigadoon Bastogne), overrun with sexy spies and good time taverns, intrigue, amor, and action.  Hogencamp gets such a naturalized feel from his (GI Joe-size) action figures, getting the right amount of dried mud on the jeep tires, etc., that it's truly astounding. He's an inspiration for all outsider artists.... and like Ed Wood he's a straight cross-dresser - not that there's any connection to that and outsider artistry (unlike Wood he is or was able to work on his artistic outlet full time rather than be ever hustling for $$). A poster child for letting go of any notion your work will ever be discovered or your genius recognized, Hogencamp is an inspiration for all outsider artists. Follow your craziest dreams, even if they lead you over a magical cliff back to WW2 and then--if the right person ever finds you--a New York art gallery. 

Battle of Britain
Starring: Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Laurence Olivier,
Susannah York, everyone else
This bloated yet under-whelming film shuffles around an all-star Brit cast and a lovingly restored bundle of German Heinkels, Stukas and Messerschmidts vs. British Spitfires, which were light enough to bounce like rubber balls on the landing fields but had great speed and maneuverability, including absurdly strong climbing rates thanks to the Rolls Royce Merlin Engines. We see Spitfires polishing off Heinkels by the dozen, occasionally getting nicked by a turret gunner or fighter escort, bailing out over the Thames, or whatever. Home court advantage, mate!

The thing is, has England ever really had so much clear weather, ever? There's no more than a handful of clouds in the whole film, and no anti-aircraft guns are ever seen and only two barrage balloons show up. It's as unrealistic in its way as the snowless tundra in Battle of the Bulge. We're supposed to believe there's a war on but it always just looks like a small local airport hangar down some auld country lane that occasionally gets bombed. Hey maybe that's how it was. Meanwhile, across the channel, Goering rants and raves and struts while his army of about three German soldaten extras in a raft stand around waiting to invade.

Still, this was the age before CGI and while the explosions as planes are shot out of the sky are clearly superimposed, it's only because the planes are all real, restored war artifacts, and one gets a surprisingly clear idea of how it all worked and how massive dogfights really do resemble a swarm of hornets. Though it's odd that after a few months of preparation the Germans bomb British airfields that are still a) undefended, not even with an alarm, b) totally free of anti-aircraft guns and/or any sign of having been bombed in previous sorties (not even a golf divot), c) even the sound of approaching bombers or the sounds of bombs dropping don't seem to rouse the crew; they shuffle around in search of an unbroken tea cup while the hangers burn, perhaps lacking clear direction from director Guy Hamilton.

Of the few women bravely shoehorned into the cast, there's Susannah York as a high ranking air traffic officer who continually denies her pesky husband's insistence she transfer out to safer Scotland. Good for her! And what's up with her anachronistic mod hair cut? No time to find out! Here comes the Heinkels for another round of daytime battle so similar to the round that came before one suspects they're recycling shots (the way nearly every WWI aviation film out of Hollywood in the early 30a recycled footage shot for the 1927 film WINGS).

And after enough dogfight scenes and ground support chatter has been contrasted, Goering calls it off, takes a train back to Berlin from the Pais de Calais, and the film ends.

We win!
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