Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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. very 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) working for scale + percentage. As with the first there's a refreshing lack of cliche or complications: no incompetence, betrayal, 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 such a drag. When you send these guys in, you're not looking for prisoners or honored border treaties, you're expecting massive enemy 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. Does a man good to see his masterful ease with a smoke in the dark of deserted restaurant 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 it. We don't have to worry about anyone getting the jump on him more than once, for he is the man. We can relax and dig the carnage. We're here 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 our films to heed laws of averages or national diplomacy. They just go blasting in, blasting out, and do it all their own way, in their own plane, on their own time, with their own weapons, even their own lighters - everything is cool and black, including their badass plane. Their whole life aesthetic seems to exist in the empty space between a Jack Daniels bottle (the old kind), a pack of Marlboro reds, and a Zippo while shooting pool in your friend's basement. And if that's not ideal for an action movie I don't know what is. 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, because that kind of Hawksian men-in-a-group lived-in overlapping dialogue dynamic is all but extinct. 

Dogs of War 
Starring: Christopher Walken, JoBeth Williams
Like a prelude to The Expendables, these Christopher Walken-led mercenaries like to decimate their opponent with superior firepower after much superior strategizing. Though in Dogs there's also lots of planning, running, loading, and aiming, while 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. But if you want to know the minutiae involved with overthrowing an evil African dictator and installing a western corporate interest-friendly African dictator this is your better bet.

Best of all, 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 mercenary career as a much more logical and realistic alternative way to express 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 teaches 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 war 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 out in the rain. If you haven't seen it you might 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, but it's pretty sunny and merry, with a dry sense of welcome wit and divine costumes (dig the powder blue on the coded UN guys). 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 and showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, demolishing 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 (Bison punching a video monitor 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%. 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? Though admittedly 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, and 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.... He's a poster child for letting go of any notion you'll ever be discovered all the better lose yourself completely in your awesome world - let the madness of it keep you sane. Follow your craziest dreams, even if they lead you over a magical cliff back to WW2 and then 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. 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. 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 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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