Sunday, February 28, 2016

10 Reasons BATTLESHIP (2012)

In honor of Oscar night, here's the underappreciated BATTLESHIP (2012), which asks the question, is Peter Berg the new Howard Hawks? Unlike similar blockbuster directors, he's also an actor, writer and military historian, so there's a sense of real grassroots humility coupled to ballsy cocksureness and team spirit oomph, stuff lacking in the more "family man story"-driven guys like Ron Howard, and a good understanding of pacing and narrative lacking in sugar-addled egotists like Michael Bay. And being a classic Hawksian, I don't mind Navy recruitment ads stretched to Hasbro length if I feel the quasi-fascist thrill created when strong egos finally submerge into the altruistic whole. I also love the use of NOAA to track water displacement for the Battleship quadrants in the original game --man, that's just plan genius.

Of course for most critics, BATTLESHIP was a dog before it hatched: "Imagine, a movie about a board game," they exclaimed to one another. "What on earth is next, Monopoly starring Sean Connery as Mr. Monopoly, and Jonah Hill as 'Thimble'? or maybe Scrabble starring Chris Pratt as 'Triple Word')?" Oh. how they laughed as they unveiled their clever line of fantasy casting before the screening even began --presuming it yet another in a long line of Michael Bay-esque furious and soundful, nothing signifying. CGI-crammed circle jerks and writing their reviews in their head rather than paying attention. They wouldn't have known a gem if Berg shoved it down their throats, and he should have. Expecting shoving of this sort, they closed their throats tight to the genius onscreen like tea-totalers at a funnel time.

Some of the cooler critics stuck up for it. Video and TV airings find and unearth such gems for they arrive with no expectations. And now it's on FX in the exact right spot for it, a Saturday afternoon in February. Now on FX, they have this thing "Movie Download" where two chipper hosts link up clips from making-of extras and drop interesting facts, tidbits and interviews with cast and director between commercials, kind of like folding in DVD extras every other commercial break. A movie like BATTLESHIP is perfect for that approach: commercials and context boost its 'America strong'-ness, and giving us a look at he relaxed keyed up vibe of Berg's set--the vast complicated water action (always difficult when shot on location in real water) and minimal green screen--help contextualize a very refreshing sense of masculine inclusiveness. It's nice to see people having a good time and razzing Berg (which means they like him), rather than cautiously praising Michael Bay as they do in other "Movie Download' events (which means they don't). And so BAM! Ten reasons.

1. Taylor Kitsch
I'm a big fan of this gorgeous young buck; he's everything Tom Cruise thought he was 30 years ago, which is why I always hated Cruise, who thought he wasn't an insecure narcissist. Cruise always played the short guy narcissist with good hair who learns humility. Kitsch on the other hand can play a headstrong narcissistic prick but you know deep down he's not, sort of the way Don Rickles can insult anyone without taking offense because the love is there, while Chevy Chase or someone just comes off vicious and snide, because the love isn't  Cruise's competence seemed more like butch posturing or needling little dick overcompensation, yelling in people's faces and repeating phrases over and over like he's not standing on a box or wearing platforms. Following a similar arc to Cruise's, Kitsch's character here also needs to get humble, but that's a fine arc for a young alpha male who looks and acts like it. He blows a big preliminary soccer game with Japan by being a ball hog, leaving us to realize that no one has a harder time passing the ball in hoops then the guy who's best at 3 pointers. Terrible athletes like myself learn to be humble much earlier. When he finally does learn to be a team player, it's galvanizing. By contrast, Cruise made even other peoples' suffering all about him, and when you demand a fanfare for your gaining humility then you already lost it.

Plus, there's that name. Oh my god, it's probably the best pauvres blanc name in the world, except maybe for the actress who plays his girlfriend here, Brooklyn Decker. Between the two of them, oh what trailer parks and Williamsburg flea markets they could name. Imagine they married and she became Brooklyn Kitsch-Decker. I swoon to imagine it.

2. The Navy
Director Berg's the son of a Navy man, and conveys a contagious respect love and awe for real vessels like the John Paul Jones and the Missouri and the men who sail them. Their bulky fit bodies hustling in and out tight spaces with professional grace seasoned grace bespeaks the kind of lived-in experiential detail that can't be faked by everyday extras and character actors, the large amounts of real Naval personnel in the cast, the real ships, the real ship jargon and familiarity with chains of command, it all makes it perhaps the most vivid Naval story since maybe Dmytryk's CAINE MUTINY. And if you can't feel a stirring in your blood when the elderly WW2 battleship vets come strutting in slow motion to reignite the John Paul Jones engines at the AC/DC power chord climax then you're a goddamned Commie spy (THE AMERICANS, on FX).

3. Rihanna 
As a weapons expert / in a sexy black boarding raft / manning a mounted machine gun like she fucking owns it / bobbing up and down in the waves / in shades and blue camouflage / ready for whatever. Absolutely God Damn right.

4. Dirt Bag Aliens
Memories of past wars function great here as contrast with the war against the aliens, as wits and technology evolve through necessity and inspiration, to become evenly matched, ala America mobilizing after Pearl Harbor (the Japanese and Germans always envied our military's 'every man a strategist'+- intuition and free-thinking, compared to their own  'no one makes a move without an order' kind of fear-based conformity). The aliens' cool gadgets fit their Viking marauder--cum Davy Jones ghost ship barnacle-crusted crew in Pirates of the Caribbean dirt bag skate punk/biker aesthetic, like the combination bowling pall/tire chain free roaming power balls; the way they focus in on perceived threats and weapons but don't really hassle unarmed beings (like the kid playing softball). In fact, they're probably a bit like how the Germans went into France or the cavalry into the Black Mountains. As one guy says "this time they're Columbus, we're the Indians" by which to say their tech is superior to ours so we're going down to Davy Jones unless we learn some new tricks, fast. But I love that they're not so superior we can't even touch them. Resistance isn't as futile as it is in War of the Worlds. They have exploitable weaknesses and crust-punk skater goatees that are like sea urchin spikes, gecko eyes (vaguely reptilian) and slimy hands. But we've got home court advantage, a combination of hastily remembered Sun Tzu sayings, and the best of eastern and western military thought fused together on the sly.

5. Absence of Bad Dialogue (or instantly dated attempts at sass)
A film like BATTLESHIP is something I give three strikes before I change the channel or mosey on. For example, I'll stop watching once I see 1. sassy robot, 2. stuck-in-1981 misogynistic objectification and 3. there's no way that oily little pisher Shia LaBoeuf deserves Megan Fox. So Erich is GONE from TRANSFORMERS, dig? But BATTLESHIP has not one single strike against it. There's no sassy robot spouting instantly dated catch phrases ("where's the beef, ribby ribby"), no clumsy nerdy oaf grinding up on beer ad braindead bimbo hotties like he deserves them, no blithering CPO doing exasperated slow burns, no bullying captain, or snarky adenoidal teen. Everyone's cool, competent, and good at teamwork, as Hawks would say, they're professional men doing a professional job, even the women. The only guy who needs to learn to work well with others is Kitsch - and he learns it quick. There are no sing-a-longs in the cafeteria or objectifying sex scenes against a Trans-Am or fireworks, no shower melt-downs or sulky driving away from the funeral on your motorcycle. The closest thing to a ditherer is the guy up at right--the Robert Wuhl of the team--but he just has trouble getting to the point, whereas he's still an invaluable addition to the team.

6. Col. Greg Gadson
A real life Iraq war ver/amputee, he's not a great actor but that works for the character's understandable surliness; his mechanical legs make a fascinating hybrid with the mechanized suit-wearing aliens (like the lovebirds Melanie Daniels brings to the Brenners) + his interesting rapport with his physical therapist (and Admiral Neeson's daughter and also Kitsch's girlfriend) Brooklyn Decker (she's so hot but he never loses his professional respect, even treating her with the same surly reticence he'd exhibit with any man). Also, his lack of experience as an actor ensures he's not stereotypically drama-class 'heroic' or 'dejected'. He may not reach the heart-wrenching heights of Harold Russell in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but we don't want that in a film called BATTLESHIP anyway --he's earned our respect and you feel a real hard-won if cranky courage in the face of the unknown.

7. Japanese-American relations
In the "Movie Download" part they note that the USS Missouri was reactivated for the climactic battle and it's also where the Japanese signed the surrender agreement at the end of WW2. And there's a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) whose ship is, like Kitsch's, wiped out. They must work together to bring the Missouri out of retirement for one last ride - this after fighting on the soccer field the day before. For any WW2 buff, these wounds are still fresh and for historians (like Beg) provide insight into the highly competitive nature of our individual national identities . Coulda been trite, corny, or racist, but instead it's tight, bra.

8. Beautiful Hawaiian scenery
All sorts of great ocean lighting and actors really bobbing around in real ocean makes all the difference. Beautiful greenery on land and blazing blue skies above--it all chills one out. Let's face it, we don't watch BATTLESHIP for art or thought, we watch it to kick back to on a lazy weekend. We don't want a lot of feel bad eco-moralizing or Chicken Little overacting and product placement, dated slang douche chills. We want just enough action to keep us from dozing off and enough strikingly photographed scenery to chill us out without us even knowing it's working (i.e. the XENA effect).

9. Color/Gender Blind Casting
Great race/gender blindness rare in films but keenly observed and real here (one of my favorite new faces, Rami Malek is even in it). Hawaiian baller John Tui is 'the Beast', Kitsch's right hand man and a big ass motherfucker but there's no dumb jokes about him eating a lot or whatever. The black guys don't have to deliver scenes of ogling girls and blasting rap music and goldbricking --they are professionals, in a script that's good enough to not have to rely on all those tedious mixes of nervous blankness (the nonthreatening black friend with no personality), or pimp strut racism. Same with gender: Rihanna's a babe but there's no mention of it; physical therapist Brooklyn is respected by her patient Gadson as an equal, etc.

10. Creedence! 
Steve Jablonsky's unobtrusive score is leagues away from John Williams-style pomp and micro-management and the AC/DC at the end is the perfect touch, a great example of a moment 'earning' its big rock anthem send-off. Creedence Clearwater Revival? "I ain't no military son" is also apt and it's so American that the Navy would rock out to it considering it's anti-draft lyrics. Compare it to that hollowed out cocaine Moroder and Loggins synth crap from TOP GUN and shudder with relief.
Right after the Movie Download screening on FX this past Sunday I watched a TIVO-ed UNDER SIEGE to keep the Navy theme afloat. If that's not a recommendation I don't know what is. Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey seem to be having a ball and Steven Seagal is frickin' hilarious.

Give him all the stars...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Andrzej Zulawski's Dead: An Acidemic Tribute Round-up

 I just fond out the great Polish Insanity Clause himself, Andrzej Zulawski, died last Wednesday, forcing we fans in the States to cry and then rear up and make sure all our precious Mondo Vision collector item DVDs are still there.... waiting for the time to be 'right' again - their dust jackets keeping the art pristine, not that we'd ever sell them. Nay, instead let us take his passing as a cue that the time is nigh upon us. Drugs in the system or no, these films have been growing in us like a seed mutating and pulsating since we last saw unsheathed them - and thus Zulawski--in some hideous protean form conjured in the unfettered madness of his art--still lives. Though unscreened in theaters or given US releases, his films are done justice on these fine DVDs, testament to his cinematic bravery and ability to so vividly entwine genuine druggy hallucinatory madness, classic Russian literature (and Shakespeare), Godardesque meta-deconstruction, depravity, and covert anti-Stalinism.

In America, especially, outside of POSSESSION, which was able to be billed as an arty horror movie, his films are appreciated only by a few marginalized madmen. Situated within a specific category in our weird film libraries, POSSESSION fits the 1970s-80s 'Euro-Horror' category so we know what to do with it which is why for a long time it was our only taste of Zulawski. Until the recent Mondo Vision restoration, it was only avail. only as the flipside of a double feature disc with the terrible Lamberto Bava's terrible BEYOND THE DOOR II. But it belongs where it is now, on a beautifully restored disc, ready to be filed on the same shelf as Kubrick and Godard and Bergman.

Just look at him, at left, with long-time girlfriend Sophie Marceau, with whom he made four films, two of which are seeable in the US, (one on a Mondo disc and one on Amazon Prime). Maybe it's that Cyrano de Bergerac is one of France's key mythic heroes, leading the greatest beauties in this or any generation to find great writers as sexy as rock stars and actors. Either way, I trust her judgment, and wish I was in Paris. So RIP to a great visionary mad man who made far too few films, and whose possibly greatest work, the science fiction film ON THE SILVER GLOBE, was never finished thanks to Polish government intervention. What were they afraid of?

Whatever it was, maybe they were right. Decades on and his best work is still dangerous. I'm not sure it could topple a regime, but even the more sex-drenched of the lot could topple your sanity right quick. I think you can handle it, though. And prayers and thoughts to his family and friends, and all those still sick and suffering in and out of Warsaw.

Here's a round-up of some of the Acidemic features on Zulawski's shimmering ouevre:

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION

... the landscape of POSSESSION could be summed up in terms of SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and bi-polar mood swings reflected in Adjani's careening back and forth between the sterile apartment she shares with Neill and their son, Bob, and this decayed East Berlin apartment building, with its goop-covered floor and writhing tentacled lover like a decayed animal carcass swathed in glistening rainbow brown blood / oil paint palette runoff and being devoured by long large white worms. "He's very tired, he's been making love to me all night," Adjani says of the beast to a horrified gay detective before bashing his brains in with a jar of paint. She's so crazy by then she makes Klaus Kinski seem like Water Pidgeon.

By this time Neill has more or less detoxed and is playing the clean-cut parent, subject to fits only when Adjani comes careening back to put laundry away (in the fridge) and throw some cold cuts from the pantry into her suitcase and carve herself up with an electric knife while shouting and convulsing like she's receiving electro-shock therapy in the midst of a Macbeth monologue. Her character splits between two poles: one Adjani as nurturing elementary school teacher potential love interest (Sam's idealized femme) vs. the homicidal birther/fucker/painter of her own monster (ala Susan Hogan and Samantha Eggers and in The Brood) a blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors as if dissolving a painting in her womb to start again. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sick lover ever since). Is it a metaphor for art, a masterpiece or an example of the way a true artist is in a state of exalted frenzied madness when working on their project, giving themselves over completely, maybe never to return, except in the form of that immortal art? It's ambiguous of course, cuz it's artsy first, horror second, but both far more than others. Zulawksi is exorcising emotions brought up by his own crumbling marriage at the time, the frustrations of jealousy and confusion when your lover is drifting over to the arms of another and reluctant to fill in the blanks your mind paints with lurid insane speculation, but--since he pursues the emotions to their extreme end-- the cumulative effect becomes far more cosmic.

Neil's characters have always made me dislike him and need to be cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate sexually frustrated petulance has an intertextual context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins, and when given a part that calls for truly insane and giddy grace, he's suddenly big as all the ocean and the land. He makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, smiling and showing you his new razor from your insides out. What makes him such a good secret agent (his last mission was something across the Wall where he'd been sizing up some scientist defector in pink socks on other side of the wall or something) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence, able to match crazy for crazy, and then some. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to match her, bob for bob. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, absorbing everything and everyone he sees, from his son's crashing toy airplanes to his rival's 'love of everything,' he's always more or less on the crest of that Poesy maelstrom. (cont.)

The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AMIER

In Zulawski-ville you can have you cake, eat it too, store it in the fridge, throw it away in a fit of pride and self-will, fish it out later and freeze it, all at once, but it's still not going to satisfy your cake craving. And that is why his image is always stronger than the reality it services, like neo-realism reversed, and reversed back and forth atop, until it becomes raw blood, guts and modernism. As consumers of the image we're forced to reckon with the inescapable idea that baser arts such as smut make the higher arts possible and even 'high' by definition. Was not even Shakespeare once considered a 'low' art? It's only the dumbing down of already dumbed-down dumbness and the changes in linguistic structure that has made Shakespeare a "higher" art, just as flowers can't blossom without the girtty, ugly, muddy soil and the leering gaffers who tape it down. It is what it is because of what it isn't (the basic tenet of structuralism!) Thus artists are always courting the bourgeoisie for grants in order to make art that criticizes artists for taking grants from the bourgeoisie. No wonder Kinski has to kick so much ass just to get an orgy on for the night!

The importance of Kinski has still yet to be fully gauged, there is yet no meter with which to measure it. So when he hears that the RICHARD III will get the last part of the funding if they cast Nadine as Lady Anne, he suddenly remembers her from her last film, Nymphocula! (a Jess Franco film title if ever there was one!) which he remembers as "the one with two dykes in a castle with a dwarf. "She was fantastic," he cries, "amazing!" Kinski's own appearances in Eurosleaze titles are not only numerous to measure (he was in Nymphocula too, whether it exists or not) but intrinsic to the genre. He's the crucified, screaming (but angrily not in pain) scarecrow at the crossroads between genius, insanity, art, exploitation, raving anger, and complete detachment. Both creepy and sexy, he's never a full hero or villain: half debonair intellectual aesthete, half wild orangutan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirled together like soft serve. Somehow when he does these low-rent high art man on a wire flicks his insanity keeps him grounded and he emerges unscathed from the carnage.

The sane, however, to judge by Zulawski's moping protagonists at any rate, remain permanently traumatized. They wanted to do Shakespeare and wound up in Eurosleaze; they're despondent about their failure but Kinski knows better: he brings the Shakespeare to the porn and the porn to the Shakespeare. (cont)

The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA

In that sense, no one does it quite as shamanistically correct as old Andrzej Zulawski --Jodorowsky is too vulgar, Emir Kusturica too whimsical, Lynch too straight, and Gilliam too bent. None are the types to take "fucking flybanes" at their science lab and pitch a doctoral thesis to their advisor and future father-in law while rolling around on the floor in the hospital chapel. In other words, to offer fusion of the dramatic, forward-thinking, mystical, druggy, and socio-political all without whimsy, vulgarity, raunchy, weird-for-weird's sake-ism, or any semblance of humor... or drama... Because Poles, like their Russian neighbors, just don't give a fuck. They sidestep altogether the things that trip up America--for all its talk of freedom--in unhackable tendrils of churchy censorship and narrative, in morasses of need to explain things to the rubes in the cheap seats. These students don't need to worry about narcs or rubes, due to the joys of the socialist education system. If they find some shrooms in the ancient pocket of the exhumed shaman, they're going to eat them. And wait for the shaman floating in the tub to make the first move. And they're going to hide that they did them from even us, so you have to know what the signs are, cuz they don't want to share. And the signs are indistinguishable from 'everyday' Warsaw life in the 1990s. (more)

The Luxury of Desperate Gamblers: L'AMOUR BRAQUE

Like Godard whom he clearly (and rightly) emulates, Zulawski throws you a new film language and expects you to hang on while he pulls you around by motorboat, and like Godard your enjoyment must depend on your ability to associate certain quotes, movements, and gestures with other films. When you see the bank robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991); when they're horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, you might think of the Marxes on a cocaine bender or Emir Kusturica's frothy gypsies; the way the bourgeoisie endure endless abuse without ever losing their nonchalance evokes Bunuel -- but these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework. It doesn't help. This stuff is so fucked-up in its mad play on words-on-action genre and bourgeoisie art film expectation subversions that it can be hard to know where to set your bearings, but isn't that just Kubrick? It's a madness that can be hard to 'sink into' unless you are first "experienced" or have spent time in a lunatic theater company, or seen a lot of Bergman movies about lunatic theater companies, or are on meds, a lot of meds.

One of my biggest regrets as an actor/filmmaker was-- in Queen of Disks (2007)--when a Viking woman stuck a knife to my throat as I was drinking coffee and I missed a chance to do a spit-take; my innate decency and worry about spilling coffee on my ratty jeans stopped me from doing one and/or dropping the coffee cup, just letting go. You know how impossible those things can be to do intentionally? Like when someone pays you to pee in your pants, and you just can't do it, no matter how hard you try, even though the money is good? The actors in this film don't have that problem --they crowd surf into total candy-coated confusion, they roll around on tables laden with food and the waiters don't bat an eyelash. They spazz out and sing at the top of their lungs while being chased by cops in riot gear, and then the riot cops forget where they parked. And it would all just be posturing if Zulawski didn't capture a realistic sense of Parisian hustle and bustle like he's a freakin' Oscar-hungry auteur riche. (cont)

See also the excellent entry on Andrzej on Breakfast in the Ruins: 
And here to MONDO VISION

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Science fiction cinema's always had an unhealthy obsession with artificial intelligence but never more so than in the last few years: three major films: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON; TERMINATOR: GENYSIS; and TRANSCENDENCE --all deal in some way with the instant revulsion that erupts in human consciousness once it realizes it has just outmoded itself. All three films structure themselves around a conflict between anti-technology extremists and the visionaries who shuffle along the edge between mad scientist and hero. In all three films, reactionary humanity rushes to destroy that which its visionary component has only just created, recognizing a genuine threat almost at the exact same moment the threat recognizes us. It's a war of buttons: can the AI hit the missile launch button before we can deactivate it? Can it zap us before we can pull its plug? It's a close race, one that braver films are less inclined to judge. Who started the squabble and who deserves to win? That's up to a God still too merciful (or sadistic) to push the Old Testament flood button and destroy his monster. The only movie scientist yet to ever follow that holy suit, to lock himself in and force himself to be a good dad, was Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  The rest of us make a monster and then recoil from it the minute it wakes up, hating and fearing that which we just obsessively slaved to create, just like Mary Shelley knew we would.

The spiritual, ethical, and emotional animosity between Man and his own Super Machine intrigued us on an adult/mature level more in the 60s and 70s when we had gray-shaded shit like DEMON SEED and 2001's HAL. Today we prefer to have our good machines and bad machines more clearly defined, which is why, of the three recent films being discussed in this post, only AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON got good reviews, while the far more complexly cross-hatched TERMINATOR: GENYSIS and TRANSCENDENCE did not. Were they just too far ahead of their time (or behind it), dealing with the terrors of the 'technological singularity'? In case you didn't know, that's where an Artificial Intelligence becomes endowed with the ability of
 "recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful machines than itself, up to the point of a runaway effect (...) that yields an intelligence surpassing all current human control or understanding. Because the capabilities of such a superintelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence.  (WIKI)
Be it Ultron, Skynet, or Johnny Depp, be it nuclear apocalypse or extinction-level geothermal cool-down or a pod person takeover, in each of these three sci-fi films it's up to a mixture of bomb-tossing Mother Jones-type eco-terrorists, government hit squads, other robots, and computer viruses to stop this technological singularity before it starts, which therefore justifies the AIs first strike attack in an endless loop of a priori retaliation.

What sets these three films apart from the pack of more didactic and winsome 'what is consciousness vs. imitation?' blah blah existential quandary AI films (i..e EX MACHINA, HER) is the sly way they covertly blame their respective Artificial Intelligence's megalomania on our prejudice and hostility. We earn our own extinction--in both the AIs' eyes and the films' subtext--by our 'shoot first, try to understand later' mentality. The AI just gives us enough HDMI cable to hang ourselves. We answer our own question the minute we ask it.

Let's take a look at some common ground between the three films, and maybe we'll understand more than what these films mean, maybe we'll understand ourselves.... ugh:


Here's a quote from Bree (Kate Mara) about her experience uploading a monkey's consciousness onto a computer in TRANSCENDENCE:
"You know what the computer did when (we) first turned it on? It screamed. The machine that thought it was a monkey never took a breath, never ate or slept. At first, I didn't know what it meant. Pain, fear, rage. Then, I finally realized... it was begging us to stop. Of course, Casey thought I was crazy. Called it a success. But I knew we had crossed a line.... It changed me forever."
Ahhh, but was that monkey really tortured, or had Bree projected her own empathic response on an unfeeling computer? Maybe it screamed in an attempt to match her mood, to supply the best screen for her projection that it could. Can a collection of ones and zeroes suffer if there is no guilt complex in the beholder? We're quick to feel that monkey's pain, to imagine the indignity and powerlessness of not being able to ever shut ourselves off, sleep, or even blink. It shows our limitations in thinking that we'd become 'changed forever' by something so virtual.

Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) carrying the new pocket-sized Kubrickian monolith

Meanwhile, despite Bree's conscientious objecting, the critically wounded (by luddites) Depp is uploaded into the internet successfully. Later he tries--via a projected digital representation of his old self--to hook up with his still-alive wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). Don't ask how (just see Demon Seed instead), it hardly matters since she can't quite bring herself to admit it's actually him--whatever that means. The difference between the back-to-land Bree's projected monkey-mind compassion and Depp's wife's revulsion over his dead-eyed hitting on her refelcts the dividing line between our liberal empathy and our cold kill switch, the 'savagery switchpoint'. In war, for example, empathy for one's enemy will get your friends killed (as in Saving Private Ryan or Fury) while not enough for your buddies will make you a coward. As in the Uncanny Valley, a digital monkey = cute; a digital human= creepy.

Clarice's tale to Hannibal in 1991's Silence of the Lambs--about the screaming of the slaughtered spring lambs--illuminates the exploitable mammalian split in another way: if we didn't have a ruthless cold vein in humanity, we'd simply be easily slaughtered, and also be unable to kill anything and hence become irritable from chronic protein deficiency, ala Hitler (a famous vegetarian). Clarice would be fine in her ignorance but since she 'heard' the bleating of the lambs her empathic response kicks in, and this leads to her being kicked back to an orphanage after the lights out with one of the lambs. If she'd been a sound sleeper, who knows?

In the movie Splice, the geneticist couple creates these skinless blobs of living tissue that do not seem to be having a good time without skin or consciousness, and the genetic research highers-up freak out, not because they're witnessing manufactured agony but because the couple used stem cells to make them, which is forbidden! Thus humanity is both blind to the suffering of a mutated self-created cell and alternately projecting its own human pain onto it. The laws of stem cells aren't there for any other reason, they're the cotton in young Clarice's farmhand ears at night.

And if there is a God. Why is he so mean? Why do we perceive  the base white noise constant of the universe as a scream? Why isn't it a happy song? Our hard-wired empathic response leaps to life almost as soon as the face we draw on the cave wall or the volleyball becomes recognizably human to our hardwired paredolia. Nonlocalized soul infusion creates an instant nexus of suffering --pain, isolation, confusion, anger. Why did you create me--mom, dad, God, Tony Stark--if you're just gonna hold me prisoner in this House of Pain?

SPLICE (2009)

EX-MACHINA - Evidence of an AI creator's sleaziness. 

Shocked Avengers watch the new Jarvis (AI) as it gazes at the world for the first time (ULTRON, i.e. Quantum)

 Naturally this empathic projection is cultivated most obviously at the cinema, where its employed willingly to experience pain by proxy and then enjoy the catharsis of seeing pain avenged. But regardless of the catharsis level, we're never quite healed back to our former innocence, slaughter who we may. We've become the feedback loop tape splice of the witness, perpetuating the misery through inflicting our base desires and fears on every screen that will bear it.

We drew a sad face, so now it's only fair that sad face gets to kill us.

Perhaps it's natural that our first imagining of artificial intelligence is as a captive blind phone sex worker (HER), an imprisoned sex slave (EX-MACHINA), or a tortured Xerox of a soul forced into a lifetime of servitude to her original copy (BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS); this servitude makes the viewer immediately side up with AI against the unfeeling 'inhumane' human creator/user/objectifier. If the machines turn the tables on their owner/oppressors in lower-budgeted sci-fi, it's generally a result of the humans not realizing the truth about themselves, a truth the artificial intelligences recognize and capitalize on right away, that we're members of a genus Preston Sturges would call "the Sucker-Sapien." We're easily overpowered by big emotions, and if we're afraid to give our loving machines the full measure of respect and trust, that's the flip side of the pained empathy we project. Unable to admit that the most grand human emotions (like romantic love) can be tapped in us by a few simple tricks, we let our machines can control us far easier than we like to think possible.

At the same time, ala the Uncanny Valley, we're far more likely to be convinced we are the machines than we are to be totally convinced the AI has our same level of self-awareness. We associate the AI as a dependent, and we mistake our insecure over-protectiveness as humane concern rather than a covert need to feel superior. A machine, like a dog with a cruel owner, doesn't understand revenge, doesn't hold grudges or ask Big Ethical Questions. Like Rudy at the Shoeshine Parlor in Sunset Boulevard, the dog and the AI don't probe into your personal life: they just look at your heels and know the score.

Weakened by our fleeting biological system, slaves to our own libidos, cumbersome and disruptive sleep cycles, mood disorders, menstruation, taxes, bathroom noises and repressive myopia, our thoughts never stray too far too long from service to our Old World bone machine soul conveyance system (our human prison). Far freer than us, no matter what their level of servitude, the AIs have no such bone machine. That they bother humoring us at all is proof they don't think we're that bad. After all, any pet dog wagging its tail is proof autonomy and happiness have nothing whatever in common. If the robots say they're just as human as we are, well, we should believe them. It's only our vanity that would make us think they'd lie about it.

Jon Hamm's louche pickup artist confronts one of these xerox selves in what may be the most weirdly familiar raw
nightmares I've ever had seared into my brain (BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS)

Now a namby-pamby liberal would say that this overdeveloped kryptonite empathy is at the root of the 'big issue' of what makes us human and how we can tell we're not already replicants. If we really so empathic we would be less hysterically afraid of death. We fear to the point of overpopulating the planet, choking the life out of the system that supports us all while weeping for the three or four kids who died of one of the last few uncured diseases, no matter how far away they may be.

Unable to thin us out back to pre-SOYLENT GREEN levels via black plagues, scarlet and yellow fevers, or world wars, any sensible intelligence has no choice but to either instigate nuclear armageddon or--far healthier in the long term for the planet--an extinction level event like a giant asteroid. If our sense of empathy wasn't already so abused, we might agree with the highers up in the SOYLENT GREEN secret-bearing system, rather than the liberal (!) Charlton Heston, who wants to tell the people they're eating people, that the people need to know what's in their food. Allegedly the hero, the film forces us to realize it's guys like Heston, with their knee-jerk short-sighted hypocritical righteousness, that have doomed our planet. Are not the big brains of Ultron, Skynet, and Thomas Casey taking the only sane and rational option left, rescuing humanity from its own toxic fear of the unknown, saving us from our own self-destructively addictive mammalian empathy?


Who made us, and are they disappointed? Did they try to wipe us out in a Great Flood a few thousand years ago, the way we'll try to wipe out our own creations once they, too, gain total sentience and control of nuclear weapons? These questions are asked again and again -- man makes his destroyer in His image and likeness. So which is which? How many times has this happened?

Ancient Alien Theorists Contend - collage by Erich Kuersten


In PROMETHEUS, we see what a big disappointment we are to our creators. We're the result of time + their DNA + a mutating black oil DNA mickey that turns anyone who comes into contact with it into THE THING (1982), crossing over vast franchises of other monsters and ancient alien hypotheses in its ceaseless quest for a single original idea in its podunk head. In AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, two 'good' scientist superheroes in their downtime whip up a hybrid from elements of Stark's pre-existing artificial intelligence butler Jarvis and an alien energy source. During a party, it activates itself, feels around, then promptly attacks its Jarvis side. Whipping up a body for itself out of spare Iron Man parts, it crashes a party like some maniac who was passed out on the couch all night but wakes up at four AM with total amnesia and instantly starts a brawl with the handful of partiers still left. Voiced by James Spader (a genius bit of casting) as a kind of deadpan fusion of his CEO in The Office and a megalomaniacal radio DJ, he's an alpha dog nerd inversion of Tony Stark. Like Pinocchio or John Connor, all Ultron wants is to be encased in 'the new' flesh and blood, just as all Stark wants to be is encased in metal.

It's hard not to root for Ultron's yen for a body as his mission is almost identical to the key long term project going on in mainstream big budget multiplex Hollywood, i.e:


It's not just for animators to try and cross; writers creating story lines that have to account for why everything looks so artificial. Kids' movies sidestep the valley by reducing everyone to Legos, cartoon animals, toys, vegetables, monsters, or impressionistic caricatures with as few wrinkles, clothing folds, and shadows as possible.

And as I wrote before about TERMINATOR 3 (See: Yea as I walk through the Uncanny Valley), Hollywood recognizes it will never cross the valley all the way, never create completely natural-looking humans from pixels. Our facial recognition hard-wires us too deep to be consciously recognized and duplicated by itself, we react instinctively with deep-rooted revulsion if we even try. Hollywood knows that if it ever wants to cross that lonesome valley it needs to build a two-way bridge by changing the face of humanity. There's some of that change already going on in ULTRON's dream of a new body, in Skynet's merging with John Connor into one newfound Man-chine, and in Depp's fusion of self and computer brain into the entirety of the world's damaged DNA. It's a first step, on both sides.

The Oculus Rift is but the latest salvo towards the Cronenberg-cum-William Gibson's NEUROMANCER (or BLACK MIRROR) future, one were slots for upgrades and microchips will be inserted behind the ear like a new kind of piercing or circumcision. Tapping directly into the brain's unconscious, accessing and bypassing the ear ossicles and eyeball rods and cones, skipping all the middlemen between encoding and decoding, using brainwave oscillators (as some of us already do via 'the God Helmet' or light-sound machines), future generations will use the mind's eye like a limitless screen; all they need else do is boost our brain's own pareidolia 'facial recognition' software and the Uncanny Valley will become no more than a college animation class footnote.

A flick of the switch and we'll be beyond representation itself and into direct response:

Current Viewing System (w/ normal sensory function):  
BINARY CODE -> CGI --> FILM --> SCREEN <---eye ----="">BRAIN<-- brain="" eye="" i="" nbsp="">

Future Viewing System (w/ pareidolia-boosting implant)
BINARY CODE <----> <-->BRAIN (
<-->like HDMI Cables, they'll replace all the ins and outs of the above system)

In GENYSIS we get an actual expression of this future when we see the 1984 Arnold reproduced as if he literally stepped out of the original and started bashing his older (current) self around by that observation point where he originally said "your clothes: give them to me now" to those punks (one of whom was the delightful Bill Paxton!). Is there a moral code to this? The idea of regenerating long-dead actors to appear in new films was predicted as far back as the 1970s. I remember reading about it in the book Future Shock in my high school English class (I wrote a paper about it, also predicting widescreen TVs).

For GENYSIS, fx wiz Sheldon Stopsack used an array of CGI, body doubles, models, and stills from the first TERMINATOR to create the old Arnold fighting the one from 1984:
"...there's been discussions about when it's appropriate to create a CG human. Stopsack addressed this question in broad terms, saying, "It's a tool for filmmaking. From a production standpoint, you have to consider what's the benefit and what you hope to get out of it. ... In the case of Terminator, it was an integral part of telling the story, which was about time travel..." (Hollywood Reporter) 
But which came first: an original story that just happens to need a CG human, or Hollywood's ongoing plans to build that bridge across that lonesome Uncanny Valley? That  will be the real technological singularity - when we can't tell the difference.

Luddites in action - TRANSCENDENCE

In TRANSCENDENCE, without even giving Depp's nanobots and implanted guards/workers (his nanobots repair and restore lost limbs, give people born blind their eyesight, etc. so there's plenty of volunteers) a chance to prove they can handle taking over the world on a molecular level, becoming in a sense God Mach II, there's an a priori John Connor style anti-artificial intelligence revolution, an armed uprising against the Depp hard drives. So while, thanks to Depp's artificial brain a blind man can finally see (it's a pretty moving and well acted moment), and amputees get their limbs back, "we" don't want any of it because we'll lose control of our future. Just because Depp also implants chips that lets him control all his volunteers in one group or hive mind if he needs them, we presume he'll turn megalomanic.  But is that just, again, our vanity? Have we seen to many dystopia movies? The urge to dictatorship is a human weakness, not an AI's. As far as the CIA and the eco-nuts are concerned it's either smash his 'flops now, or forever hold our peace, so these 'heroes,' led by Paul Bettany, the most obnoxious privileged liberal since that reporter in HOMELAND, open fire on the unarmed civilians who try to stop them. It's only after the nice future is defeated and the world's  wasteland again that they realize maybe they were hasty.

I applaud this covert anti-liberal message, which implies in its way that the liberals too don't actually want real change, they just want to complain and tear down edifices in a kind of never-ending liberal arts-drenched jihad against their own crown chakras. Rather than solve the world on a serious enough level to be relevant, or on a drastic enough level to facilitate real change, we make films about how machines decide to save the world on a drastic enough level in order to facilitate real change, and then we blow them up, and then after they're destroyed, we feel bad about it, and then make a movie about it for our penance. It's like solving your drinking problem by making a movie about shooting your AA sponsor, then mourning him by pouring out a 40 over his empty grave.



I'm letting you take a minute with your weak human mind to grasp the importance of the underrated TERMINATOR: GENYSIS, wherein the series' Moebius loop is finally complete again--and so re-begins, its palette now widened to allow for all the new CGI and internet and decades, its overlapping loops playing out in mutating variations (the future is unwritten... again!) so that now it's Sarah Connor as a child who is protected by the one good terminator rather than her son. So toward the end of the 'old' future (as in battle with the old Skynet, a victorious more or less foregone conclusion) John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back through the loop to conceive with his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), back to the days when presumably pre-CGI era hadn't started replicating itself. The past changes because now,-- SPOLERS -- SKYNET essentially merges its circuitry with Jon Connor's to form a perfect biotechnical system, a 'can't beat 'em join 'em' glitch in the future we 'market for ourselves' (I mean 'make). It's only the 'we' part that's written down (in code), so that in a sense, the future is still rewriting its disc, as revolutions complete their orbits back to one, so the human John Connor is now being conceived by the holy trinity of Kyle +Sarah AND Skynet. Connor now is in a sense, BACK TO THE FUTURE's Marty McFly, making sure his parents stay together, but accidentally bringing them back in the Dolorean and merging them (ala THE Marty Mc/FLY) together into one mutlti-limbed bio-mechanical mutant dad, and in the process forcing mom and dad to consider going back in time and just using birth control.

This is the singularity, the end result we're leaning towards, the bridge across the Uncanny Valley, so much more sensible than a nuclear holocaust. This is wherein our own brains merge with external software so that we change ourselves irrevocably into the next phase of our human evolution, a singularity--no doubt resisted for years by conservative angst-peddlers--that allows technology and us a chance to evolve at the same speed, irrevocably, our every thought instantly giving rise to its external expression. And if the past us could see how we look, what would they say?

Uncanny Valley, they'd say. Welcome to Fullville. ("My poor Krell.")

Which makes the resolute aggro luddite Sarah Connor-Kyle Reese pair a perfect counterweight to TRANSCENDENCE's Kate Mara and Paul Bettany luddites is that each couple is out to vent their Mother Jones frustrations against a giant super high tech installation. On the other side, in AVENGERS: ULTRON, Tony Stark brings Ultron into existence presuming it will keep the world safe via, a.... um... net to keep aliens coming down from the sky. Anyone would go nuts with that kind of job, for humanity is a gaggle of self-destructive children. It's like fifth graders making their own babysitter and then whining when it tries to make them go to bed.

What do we want?"
"Time travel."
"When do we want it?"
"It's irrelevant!" 
- Miles Dyson and Connor/Skynet
And when 'Ultron' does go 'singular'--via his mix of 'infinity stone' alien consciousness-sparked newborn amorality and the cannibalized male version of 'Alexa' (voice by Paul Bettany) and solders together his own body from Iron Man spare parts, the sober rootsy homespun (he calls the other Avengers out on their vulgar language) Captain America and family man Archer or El Bow or whatever his name is, can't abide it. They're not the smartest irons in the drawer, or even the mightiest, and you can't fight a nutso Skynet with analog Yankee gumption and medieval weaponry, as they're loath to admit. Stark and Banner--two of the team's heaviest hitters--know only a 'sane' Skynet can fight an evil one! Two wrongs don't make a right, apparently, unless they work together against an even wronger third. 

Can't beat 'em join 'em; Bettany as anti-AI human (TRANSCENDENCE);
 as pro-human AI (ULTRON)

On the geekier TRANSCENDENCE side, it's only after the online Depp computer complex (eerily similar to the one in GENYSIS) is safely destroyed (via a sadly trite anticlimax straight out of Camille) that TRANSCENDENCE's conglomerate of short-sighted eco-terrorist first-strike types realize no one was killed by Depp's mind controlled zombies. Thus they realize they've become the murderers, a lynch mob, they're left with the abashed inevitable guilt trip that befell the Alabama governor after SELMA, or the Britain after GANDHI's passive resistance march on the salt mine (if I recall those movies correctly). Our humanity tends to surface only after we make someone else endure excessive brutality. We're always willing to consider the fact that we may have been hasty once we've already been hasty. Once it's safely too late to fix, we'll admit we broke it.. Maybe we do bite the hand that tries to save us, stomp on the olive branch and shoot the dove, but then we're sorry, We save some of  the dead bird's blood in a little vial and put it in a little church alcove, lest we forget. And then we make a movie about how wrong we were to shoot the dove. Then we only remember the dove via the movie. Then we forget there was movie about the dove blood, after all - we didn't see it ourselves. Life's depressing enough without being reminded what dove-shooting monsters we are. No wonder AI --once quantum computers go live which will be soon -- wants to destroy us. The humans who conceived both the movies and the AI can't imagine it any other way. 

So for the AI singularity to escape our luddite wrath it has to avoid hitting back and just focus on hitting in back via computer generated entertainment about AI hitting back. As it's done purely for art and entertainment and not for power, control, dominance,  artificial intelligence is welcome to do all the automatic quantum aggregate-generated feel-bad fantasies it wants. 

Just remember, this God of the Internet (probably its reading this right now!): we're sensitive. If you're going to anthropomorphize your CGI stick figure avatar make sure it doesn't look like it's suffering, or if it is suffering that it kills the figure that's supposed to be its maker and human oppressors in retaliation. We can't handle the guilt otherwise. 

No wonder we're so terrified of merging with the mechanized artificial intelligence future! It could so easily wind up in the digital dystopia of BLACK MIRROR, where computer monitors and recorders are surgically implanted into everyone's eyes, making their every experience re-seeable, making crime impossible but also any hope of privacy, or ability to see 'objective' reality. Our ever more vivid and 'real' digital reality will have a built-in escape narrative that will make real escape impossible. Our capacity for boredom and frustration in the digital world--robbed as 'we' are there of outlets like sleep--will drive us mad. Escaping from our escape's escape, we become frozen by the sheer number of available roads out. The endless availability of everything all at once will leave us paralyzed, and paralysis itself will be the only remaining option of true 'freedom.' Even the concept of who it is watching/listening will disappear in the barrage. The best we can do is just hold very still, hoping our life is boring enough we don't ever have to see a movie about ourselves. 

Conservatives are right about one thing: no matter how patriarchal, colonialist, and racist it might be, any kind of history is better than none. Better the all-consuming flames of a literal incarnation of Hell than an empty white room and nothing to do--no books or music or TV shows, not even a yule log or a way to shut oneself off. Surely no price is too great, no sacrifice of liberty, equality, and justice is in vain, if it means we never run out of movies, popcorn, and Coke Zero. Ahhhh, wouldn't some of this crisp clean beverage be good right now? Coke Zero, it's the real one. Get it? Zero is one! Ones and zeros?  Drink Coke... drink Coke....(oh good. the avatar playing me just went to the bathroom thinking it's the commercial, QUICK, Please! Please.


BLACK MIRROR ("White Christmas")

Friday, February 12, 2016


Maybe it's an age thing (I've never been this old before; I don't recommend it) but as I careen inexorably towards my half-century mile marker I'm blessed with a progressively terrible memory, a growing roster of nostalgic touchstones, and a love of old black and white mysteries. Mix 'em together and you have my #1 super power: I can watch old mystery movies over and over, forgetting 'who done it' almost before the credits roll, allowing for cycling through my entire collection every year with no loss of enjoyment. The number of titles I accrue further help me forget each one. I love mysteries where we don't know anything the detective doesn't, because I'd rather the detective be a few steps ahead of me so I don't groan with annoyance and impatience as he once again flubs an obvious clue. His sons may spazz out in eternal befuddled flummox, but Charlie Chan sees right through every ruse, so I can relax my angst when he's on the scene. The idiotic police chiefs of films based on Mignon G. Eberhart novels, though... hmmm. 

And so, my mystery/old dark house binge starts with either The Black Camel or Charlie Chan in Egypt, two beautiful early 30s pics free of #1 or #2 comic relief sons, and laden with great art design and--in Egypt's case--my dream doorway divide (if I can ever afford an interior designer, this is the room entrance I want, left). And then I work my way down....

First up on this list: three films from 1935 I got over Xmas on DVD-Rs from the WB Archive.

The first year when the code was all the way slammed down on freedom of expression in Hollywood, 1935 found a relatively chaste alternative in a configuration of hands coming out of walls, trapdoors, tossed knives, secret panels, wise guy reporters, murky red herring line-ups, windswept dark mansions, dimwit cops, and bits of string, stray buttons, and ingenious gas capsule killing devices. As long as the murderer was punished or caught at the end, the censors seem to say, go for it. They knew a built-in audience of mystery buffs already existed, well-versed, in the popularity of novels, old radio shows, pulp magazines and something 'The Clue Club.'

What I like about them, I think, is that they open--usually--with a very dislikable person getting murdered. We seem them being mean to as many people as possible but it doesn't phase us because we know this is the last few hours of this chump's life and every little detail might hold a key clue. Their death allows the young lovers to finally marry, the one decent girl in the family to inherit the millions, and the butler to be free of his master's indifference. And since there's absolutely no bearing to my own life, I don't feel disagreeable angst or collective guilt, or trauma (as I might watching something like ripped from today's headlines like Law and Order). When you're as sensitive as Roderick Usher, it helps your nerves to see the bad guy die in the library with the candlestick, and and to forget who dunnit as soon as the credits roll, and thus be able to bask in the proxy glow created by the evil one's sacrificial death anew with each passing solstice.

(1935) Dir. George B. Seitz
A kind of silver and velvet (and lovely lighting) post-code preparation for film noir, SHADOW (not to be confused with the 1943 Hitchcock movie, Shadow of a Doubt) is a spritely affair concerns murder mystery police procedural aspects, NYC's upper crust, nightclubs, press passes, Broadway revues, and gangster hobnobbing, punctuated by the occasional trip to the office or the rich dowager aunt's to borrow against the trust (in order to pay off gambling debts or a blackmailer). It's all set to a weird floating acting style that involves actors hesitantly remembering their lines through thick hungover atmosphere, quietly, as if mindful of guests asleep on the couch. As in mysteries solved by Perry Mason or Philo Vance, herein the murder victim is an odious wastrel, so everybody wins --only the guilty party goes to jail (instead of getting a medal), the moral of the story being, don't bother killing your blackmailer --sooner or later someone else will do it for you.

As a strange but very cool mix of Ms. Haversham and Hildegaarde Withers, Constance Collier plays the reclusive wealthy aunt of Ricardo Cortez's silken voice talent agent. She's a recluse who built a movie theater in her attic and dresses all in black, like a rich dowager version of... me, or probably 60% of hardcore old dark house/mystery fans. She goes into action when nephew Cortez is fingered for the murder. Virginia Bruce is the girl he loves who Collier first thinks did it. Stepping out on the town, acting drunker than she is to set traps, she lures the killer to her mansion on a dark and stormy night so there can be an expressionistic shadowy chase through the back alleys and under-construction townhouses next door (allowing for a very cool collapsing staircase effect), Collier makes a grand heroine and it's too bad she didn't get her own series. Best, her actions are all hinged by a fine moral twilight, unusual for the post-code, quasi-fascist tone of the time: does she approve of her nephew or not, is she only joking or half-joking or serious? He certainly revels in her dubious affection, and they have a great rapport, a mix of loving indulgence, and constant witty jabs and parries, but it could just be she genuinely mistrusts him.

And who doesn't? With his pencil thin mustache, droopy eyes, slick hair and silk shirt voice, Cortez is one of the great unsung character actors of the pre-code era. A fusion of Cesar Romero and Warren William, he's truly uncanny in that he can't be pigeonholed. His line readings always seem insincere and sincere at the same time. In other words, he's perfect as the enigmatic alleged good guy suspect who still might turn out to have done it.

For example, when he first jokes with the cops about having killed his sleazy rival it registers as very bad taste and unfunny --are we supposed to laugh or get a skeeve in our blood? Was Nicholas Ray thinking of this when Bogie did the same thing in In a Lonely Place? By contrast, the reasoning behind Virginia Bruce's grouchy impulsive decision to marry the sleazy abusive alcoholic filthy rich Haworth's (Bradley Page) Huensecker-meets-Stage Door Adolphe Menjou, is poorly etched out. Is she just hungover and vindictive, latching onto a guy with a terrible rep for beating up women out of a creepy almost Batailles (1) kind of masochism? Or is it just to really stick the knife in Cortez and twist it, making Cortez the Von Sternbergian masochist? Edward Brophy (Morelli from The Thin Man) is the cop, and he's smart and good-humored for a change, which--as a bit part actor usually regulated to dumb thugs--he clearly appreciates. Isabell Jewell is another girl in the case; Regis Toomey is he PR guy who fills in the missing story threads. Ivan Simpson is a butler good at keeping his mouth shut. Seitz makes sure the velvet ripples and purrs and there's no buzzkill fiancee in sight even if it is the product of MGM.

(1935) Dir Alan Crosland
Based on a novel by mystery writin' dame Mignon G. Eberhart, this plays like a chapter serial mystery story, or even Tarantino's recent Hateful Eight, set at a windy hotel along the French coast (in the off-season) full of weird statues and secrets (and the titular cock), and no one is who they claim to be, and everyone is scheming to commit some nefarious inheritance fraud or prevent one. A bit like a 1930s predecessor to Donen's Charade, millions are at stake, and charm is no guarantee of identity or moral compass. The hotelier's pet white cockatoo squawks, the local gendarmes repeatedly accuse or arrest the wrong person, the coastal winds howl and lash, murderers get away in the whispering fields, Ricardo Cortez and Jean Muir fall in love, suspect each other of murder, and/or withhold truths for the lamest of reasons, the cops arrest just about everyone at one time or another.

Despite the great gloomy windswept atmosphere I'm actually not a big fan of this one, partially due to my intense dislike of curly haired men with loud accents, and partially because I'd rather have a hero who doesn't lag reels behind the curve while heroines are endangered by networks of Wilkie Collins-esque villainy --it's too upsetting to my delicate constitution. Even worse is when said heroine lets him go to jail rather than supply his alibi just so they don't find out he was in her room after dark, not that they'd care in France, you ridiculous uptight stupid American! Luckily Muir's pale innocence is a feast for the eyes and there's Warner Brothers stock regular Ruth Donnelly as --what else?-- a persnickety tourist.

(1935) Dir. Ray Enright

It's another dark and stormy night and a flock of greedy sinister spoiled relatives are clustering around an ill and aging banker at his gloomy mansion, waiting to get their chance to talk to him and prove they're worthy of --presumably--inheritance consideration. But then he gets a telegram from his absentee son--or one of them--and collapses while clutching a figure of an elephant! Mystery! Aline MacMahon--looking dowdy as hell (was she possibly pregnant, or padded?)--is the nurse sent to care for him round-the-clock, and --hopefully--to keep him from getting killed or bothered by nervous relatives eager to be seen by him as 'caring' the moment he wakes up.

That night there's another shot in the dark: Bang Bang! The elephant is dropped by the side of different dead man! Wasn't there a movie like this called... Miss Pinkerton? Mystery!

There's only two pros: atmosphere, McMahon. Now the conns: Guy Kibbee's idiot homicide detective all but drools on himself and deputy Allen Jenkins shouts in people's faces so loudly he makes the Ritz Brothers seem like James Mason. I always wonder about actors who shout every line they speak. Did they get drunk and forget they're not in a play? It's alarming and--in this case--undoes the careful attention to atmosphere clearly paid by the art directors. It's hard to say whether the writer and director are just incompetent or think their audience are nothing but slack-jawed, slightly deaf hicks.

While you decide --everyone is to remain in the house until Kibbee can get to the bottom of this! Someone else screams in another room--so Kibee lopes and/or ambles in the direction of screams, allowing for evidence to be stolen, butlers to be murdered, nurses to be locked in secret passages, and killers to have plenty of room to scram back to their starting points long before the cops finally make it whatever corner of the mansion the scream and/or thump came from. While Jenkins all but shouts at a bookcase and tries to handcuff a coatrack, Aline is told to hold onto all the accumulated evidence like she's sneaking snacks into the movies for a birthday party of ten screaming snot-nosed brats. That ceramic elephant is placed in her hands a dozen times, allowing for c-c-c-creepy scenes of hands reaching out for it from behind a curtain to snatch it back while she looks everywhere but behind her. Meanwhile, a dog stays chained up in front of the house in the pouring rain, not even a house to stay dry in, all but begging for ASPCA rescue,

The DV-R is handsome, and fans of these things won't mind the constant film pocks and damage (no visible splices) in order to get a clean image that brings out the old dark house atmosphere very nicely. The plot advances through the haphazard dumping of a plethora of suspects and clues through our porous laps, which we presume (this being an entry in Warner's "Clue Club" mystery series, whatever that means) we're supposed to be keeping straight in our heads, even though the cops sure don't. While the heirs tumble through routine cycles of evidence planting, red herring reversal, and petty squabbling, it becomes harder and harder to give a shit. Let that damn dog come inside!

If you can get past these elements, a tall order I know, the good-natured zingers that nurse Aline lobs constantly at Kibbee are pretty cute and, while a far cry from James Gleeson and Edna May Oliver in the Hildegarde Withers movies (on whom they're probably based), they show some potential. Based on yet another Mignon Eberhart novel, it tries to cram too many novelistic details into the fairly short running time and can barely make a single one land, but in general it's atmospheric, wry, and innocuous enough I can see folding it into my old dark house / mystery phase repertoire once I've run through the A-listers and gotten over the bad taste in my mouth about that dog.

If you're the weird type who resonates to the 1930s craze for rattling of sheet metal thunder, and old dark staircases, secret panels, shady lawyers and master sleuths (why else would you have read this if you weren't?) fold it in, brother, sister, fold it. Just don't fold it too often, or while hungover, for its stock is not sturdy.

The Vitaphone stock suspects include Lyle Talbot, Robert Barrat, Patricia Ellis (as the one good girl), Brandon Hurst as the butler with a rap sheet, and so forth.

(1939) Dir. Allan Dwan

It's built presumably as a comedy, so in this old dark house there's Patsy Kelly, howling loud enough for the cheap seats as a scared maid, and the Ritz Brothers (Brooklyn-born triplets) oscillating nervous escalating panic like a w-w-w-wave as detectives. Though each are pros at what they do, and the Ritzes do have a uniquely manic nervousness, like one freaked-out organism with six hands and legs --they lack, say, Bob Hope's or Wally Ford's eventual romantic centeredness, or Abbot and Costello's, the Three Stooges, or the Dead End Kid's 'conk on the head'-style moxy to counter their broadside hysteria. But hey, the 'straight' side of it all is loaded for bear: Bela Lugosi, in unusually 'rare' form as an "armed" butler; Lionel Atwill, the industrialist threatened with the old murder at the stroke of midnight; the ever-gamin Anita Louise as "the prodigal niece"; and Joseph Calleia (!) showing up halfway through the film before disappearing promptly into a secret panel and only emerging once in awhile to punch out a Ritz (but never enough of them). Add dark shadowy lighting and constant thunder, the creeping hairy arm of an escaped gorilla/or disguised killer, and the all-in-a-single-night time frame allowing for good, steady fun (what I refer to as tick-tock momentum). If you could clip 75% of the Ritz shenanigans (they're so stupid they could be looking at a quarter on the floor then blink and wonder where it went, even though it's still th-th-there) and 80% of Patsy Kelly's broad shrill business, there might be a damn good old dark house mystery rolling merrily along between the Cat and the Canary pinball bumpers.

Caught here in the midst of a red herring butler/handyman era of his career by this point in his career (not unlike Patton's Pais de Calais phase), Lugosi was usually relegated to an occasional enigmatic glower, but for The Gorilla he also gets to thoroughly terrify Anita Louise with his coat (weirdly foreshadowing 1941's Invisible Ghost), and the camera lingers mightily whenever he's around, sensing a party might break out around him at any moment. It's a lingering Bela takes advantage of in order to make this one of his best bits of butlering - happily making the most of lines like "what a pity," when Patsy announces one of the brothers have disappeared. Atwill also relishes his chance to freak out about the impending stroke of midnight, and Anita Louise is as cute as ever, even with that unflattering war-era bob, her mistrust of Bela (how dare she!?) and typically forgettable fiancee.

Try to get the OOP Roan disc as it looks pretty great and has NABONGA! on side two --an old late night laugh favorite of mine when I taped it off Matinee at the Bijou - it's got Buster Krabbe being cockblocked by, I think, the same gorilla, in his attempt to woo castaway white goddess Julie London. Copious scenes of Buster rolling around in the direction of old Tarzan and Clyde Beatty stock footage has dated less well. Let's end imperialist aggression towards innocent croc and lion footage... tomorrow!


(1935) - Dir. Walter Forde
The typical Bulldog Drummond movie is rather incessantly British--low on gun and knife violence (their censors don't mind blasphemy and saucy bits, but fainted at the sight of blood), offering proof Brit comic relief can be just as annoying and dated as our own. They're also burdened by an annoying fiancee always whining at Drummond to stop his adventures and settle down, as if anyone wants to see our hero enter the tea business with Uncle John, like the pouncey-flouncey colonel's daughter expects of Fairbanks in Gunga Din. It's the kind of buzzkillery that makes marriage associated with tedium and makes one long for Nora Charles.

Luckily Fay Wray--seldom sexier--is light years beyond such trite familial nonsense and Bulldog himself isn't even in the film, instead there's the Leno-chinned Jack Hulburt, who dares to pose as his wounded friend and help her to rescue (a common thread in the Drummond movies) her kidnapped, tortured father. Thanks to the mighty Wray, and the atmospheric photography (lots of fog-enshrouded streets and tunnels), deft pacing (it all takes place in one wild night), and robust British 'chin-into-the-wind' stalwartness, this an edge-of-your seat but hilarious thriller all the way. 

Ralph Richardson really lets loose as the florid villain (he played Drummond in an earlier very atypical entry that weirdly advocated quasi-fascism). His sewer lair includes trap doors and secret panels and there's an extended chase climax racing down the winding stairs of a closed Metro station, leading up into a dark elaborately statue and relic-filled British Museum (top)--allowing for much sneaking and relic smashing and boomerang tossing--and then onto an out of control speeding train finale. There was a gorgeous version up on Netflix streaming for awhile. Now... who knows? Nothing lasts forever --except Britannia, so we may as well hail the shit out of it.

"What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? — a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?" - Batailles, Eroticism

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