Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 (probably). As with the first film, there's a refreshing lack of cliche or complications: no incompetence, sudden death of best friends, tedious, tenuous familial connection (no wives bemoaning that their husbands are never home), no moral confusion over 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 prisoners or honored border treaties, just typhoon-size body counts and first-rate dudes-in-a-pack humor. 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 champ. He's pushing 70 but is in great shape, has a wondrous sense of self-deprecating humor. It does a man good to see his masterful ease handling a stogie in the dark of a deserted 'American' bar the night before a big attack, 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 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 can relax and dig the carnage. 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 can tell you I want cathartic explosions and killing, not suspense or 'bad faith' guilt. There's no need for this film 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 town/cityscape so beloved of today's action films). They just go blasting in, blasting out, and do it all their own way, flying in their own badass plane, on their own time, with their own weapons, even their own 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), 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, but she can't, because that kind of Hawksian men-in-a-group lived-in overlapping dialogue dynamic is all but extinct, because women mostly won'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 like to decimate their opponent with superior firepower--wiping them out in a few well-planned minutes, after much superior strategizing (there's also lots of planning, running, loading, and aiming, 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.

Best of all, the Walken. If you love the Deer Hunter but are dubious over Walken's character's survival on the Russian roulette circuit (which, as I've written, was frustratingly unrealistic, both historically and via 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 repeating grenade launcher and practically destroys the whole compound singlehandedly, it's pretty damned cathartic. Walken is magnificent, even when he turns 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, and she doesn't believe him anymore, but tosses him a hotel room lay anyhow. And he finds time to teach a wayward local black kid to work for his living. What... eva. 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 renting movies still had a sexy bizarro 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.

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 for a lazy Saturday when you can't summon the will to vacuum or go outside. 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, and breaking bones. This one's pretty sunny and merry, with a dry sense of welcome wit and divine costumes. It's got that international style, the Jackie Chan film aesthetic, but is also populated with crazy steroidal villains and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue as Van Damme's right hand woman ass-kicker; Raul Julia laughing maniacally, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip" while worrying about the size of his future city's food court, showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, wolfing up the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy. In addition to ransoming a bin full of hostages, Cool Raul is making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress. But the fortress also is full of high places and 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 a dog), and wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches (like the super dope bed chamber of Bison, its wall 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 only not quite as good. What is? It's at at least 75%. Okay, 60. How many other action films never even make it to half that number. 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). 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, desire, and most of all, camaraderie--on even the average male psyche, mine included. See, we love WW2 because it was the last time our liberty really was at stake, for real, 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 it, cuz it dead. And we were armed, and involved. Rather than lording it over the poker table (with our nuclear flush) we were almost out of chips, so the game mattered more, and so our victory was, and remains, 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. 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.

Mark Hogencamp shares this weird warm fondness for a time and place he wasn't at. Given a weird brain damage after a near-fatal beating thrown by a random cabal of douches, he's found an outlet for his 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 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 with that odd strata and outsider artistry (unlike Wood he's able to work on his crazy outlet full time rather than be ever hustling for $$). A poster child for letting go of any notion you'll ever be discovered all the better lose yourself completely in your awesome world, Hogencamp lets the madness of it keep him sane. Follow your craziest dreams, even if they lead you over a magical cliff back to WW2 and then a New York art gallery, you know you'll be back. Just don't let any shrink 'cure' you out of it, for god's sake.

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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