"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

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 it out, the great Polish Insanity Clause, Andrzej Zulawski, died last Wednesday, forcing we fans in the States to rear up and make sure all our precious Mondo Vision collector item DVDs from years passed are still there.... waiting. We shall use his passing as a cue to re-watch them, and we will realize they've been growing in us like a seed mutating and pulsating since we last saw unsheathed them from their fancy paper cases. These fine DVDs are testament to cinematic bravery and ability to so vividly entwine genuine druggy hallucinatory madness, classic Russian literature (and Shakespeare), Godardesque meta-deconstruction, depravity, covert anti-Stalinism.

In America, especially, outside of POSSESSION his films are appreciated only by a few marginalized madmen. Situated within a specific category in our weird film libraries, it fits the 1970s-80s 'Euro-Horror' category, until the recent Mondo Vision restoration, it was avail. only as the flipside of double feature disc with the terrible Lamberto Bava's terrible BEYOND THE DOOR II. But it belongs elsewhere, with Kubrick and Godard and Bergman. So the horror fans think it's just 'sick' and the artsy types don't see it at all. There's horror that's just out to shock or gross you out and there's horror that's just a front to the abyss. If you go through the front, to look up close, you may never get out.

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 vs. homicidal birther/fucker/painter of her own monster (ala Susan Hogan and Samantha Eggers and in THE BROOD), 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, 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.

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 context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins surf and turf, 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 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), but when you see them horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, they're like a dozen Harpo Marxes on a cocaine bender, or the Groucho-guerrillas in the films of Emir Kusturica. The bourgeoisie endure endless abuse without ever losing their nonchalance ala Bunuel. But these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework, because otherwise, goddamn it, 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... I mean, 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? These guys in this film? They 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 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

Silence of the Uploaded Monkey: TRANSCENDENCE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, TERMINATOR: GENYSIS



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, humanity rushes to destroy that which it 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 our 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 God, still too merciful (or sadistic) to push the Old Testament flood button and destroy the both of us, just yet. The only human scientist yet to accept responsibility for his monster and to force himself to be a good dad, is Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  The rest of them make a monster and then recoil from it the minute it wakes up.

That kind of spiritual, ethical, and emotional ambivalence and ambiguity between Man and Super Machine intrigued critica in the 60s and 70s more than now. We had shit like DEMON SEED and 2001. We like to have our good machines and bad machines more clearly defined now which is why, I think, of the three films from the last paragraph, only AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON got good reviews, while the far more complexly cross-hatched TERMINATOR: GENYSIS  and TRANSCENDENCE did not. Just too far ahead of their time (or behind it), perhaps, each deals in their own way with the terrors of the 'technological singularity' 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 films it's up to a mixture of Mother Jones-type eco-terrorists, government hit squads, other robots, and viruses, to stop the 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 'what is consciousness vs. imitation?' blah blah existential quandry AI films (i..e EX MACHINA, HER) is that they all covertly paint Artificial Intelligence's megalomania as the result of our prejudice and hostility. In other words, we earn our own extinction 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 of their common ground:


1. EXPLOITABLE MAMMALIAN EMPATHY

Here's a quote from Bree (Kate Mara) re: her experience programming an uploaded monkey in TRANSCENDENCE:
"You know what the computer did when he 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 she projected her own empathic response on an unfeeling computer, and so 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 shut ourselves off, sleep, or even blink. But it shows our limitations in thinking that we'd become 'changed forever' by it.

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. Late he tries to come onto his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who still can't bring herself to admit it's him--whatever that means. The split between the back-to-land Bree, who's been traumatized by the uploaded monkey, and Depp's wife's feeling creeped out (by her digital husband) mirrors 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.

Clarice's tale to Hannibal in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, about the screaming of the slaughtered spring lambs, illuminates the split in another way: if we didn't have a ruthless cold vein in humanity, we'd simply be socipathic monsters, and if vice versa we'd be unable to kill anything and hence irritable from chronic protein deficiency, ala Hitler (a famous vegetarian). Or in Splice --the geneticist couple creates these skinless blobs of living tissue that do not seem to be having a good time, 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.

And if there is a God, why is he so mean, why is the scream the base white noise constant, at least how we perceive it, all things being relative in the end, why isn't it a happy song?

SPLICE (2009)


EX-MACHINA - Evidence of Oscar Isaac's characters' sleaziness. 

Gathered to watch the new Jarvis, the 'chill' AI as it gazes at the world for the first time (ULTRON)
It reaches back to the tortured automaton of FRANKENSTEIN (1931): 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 dungeon playpen?

Our hard-wired empathic response leaps to life almost as soon as the face we draw on the cave wall or volleyball becomes recognizably human to our hardwired paredolia. Naturally this 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 in a sense, the feedback loop tape splice, perpetuating the misery through inflicting our base desires and fears on every screen that will bear it. We drew a sad face, now that sad face gets to kill us.

So 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 ourselves forced into a lifetime of servitude to our non-Xeroxed selves (BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS); this sexual servitude makes us immediately side up with them against the unfeeling 'inhumane' human creator/user/objectifier. If the machines in these films often turn the tables on their owner/oppressors in these (smaller in scope) sci fi films, 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, that our machines can control us far easier than we like to think possible, we're far more likely to be convinced we're machines ourselves 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 if its master abandons him, doesn't need revenge, doesn't hold grudges or ask questions. Like the Rudy at the Shoeshine Parlor in Sunset Boulevard, the dog and the AI don't ask questions about 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 (or prison). Far freer than us no matter what their level of servitude, the AI has 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 second people in what may be the weirdly familiar raw
nightmare like scenes I've ever had seared into my brain, and via nothing more than white...(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 this week.

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 and that it should or could be stopped. Chuck, if it had started back in the 60s when the world's overpopulation first caught our notice, we might be perfectly fine today. 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, killed it with deadly kindness. Are not the big brains of Ultron, Skynet, and Thomas Casey taking the only sane and rational option, rescuing humanity from its own toxic fear of the unknown and self-destructively addictive level of empathy?




2. IT'S ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE:

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 our own creations will try to wipe us out 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 over the millennia?

Ancient Alien Theorists Contend - collage by Erich Kuersten

In PROMETHEUS, we see what a big disappointment we are to our creators, the result of time + their DNA + a mutating black oil DNA mickey that turns anyone who drinks it or is bitten by it into THE THING (1982), crossing over vast franchises of other monsters and ancient alien hypotheses. In AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, two 'good' scientist superheroes in their downtime whip up a hybrid of Stark's pre-existing artificial intelligence butler Jarvis (voiced by ) and an alien energy source which promptly attacks Jarvis, whips up a body for itself out of spare Iron Man parts and 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 up. Voiced by James Spader (a genius bit of casting) as a kind of deadpan fusion of CEO and rock star, he's an alpha dog nerd rivaling Downey's Stark himself. Like Pinocchio or John Connor, all Ultron wants is to be 'the new' flesh and blood in control.

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:

 4. THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE ACROSS THE UNCANNY VALLEY

It's not just for shadowed animators to try and cross anymore, but writers creating story lines that have to account for why everything looks so artificial. Kids' movies take the easy route, get rid of live actors all together and simplify with uniform surfaces, sidestep the valley by either reducing characters 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 humans from pixels. Hollywood knows it needs to build a two way bridge by changing the face of humanity in this weird new century. There's some of it already 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.

The new Oculus Rift is but the first step 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, will tap directly into the brain's decoding centers; the areas where the vibrations of the ear ossicles and the cones and rods of the eyeballs are decoded into sound and image will be accessed directly, skipping all the middle men, the encoding and decoding. Using brain wave oscillators (as some of us already do via 'the God Helmet' or light-sound machines) to use the mind's eye like a limitless screen, all they need else do is boost our brain's 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.

Currently (w/ normal sensory function):  BINARY CODE to CGI to FILM to SCREEN to EYE to BRAIN 

Future (w/ pareidolia-boosting implant): BINARY CODE to BRAIN

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. Is there a moral code to this? The idea of regenerating old long dead actors digitally to appear in new films was predicted as far back as the 1970s. 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 needs a CG human or the need to validate the long term Uncanny Valley bridge building plan by writing a story that needs a CG human?

Luddites in action - TRANSCENDENCE
4. LYNCH MOB VIRUSES

In TRANSCENDENCE, without even giving Depp's microbots 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 it because we'll lose control of our future, as Depp also implants chips that lets him control all his volunteers in one group or hive mind. We presume that Depp's going to turn megalomanic but is that just, again, our vanity? That was 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 it's defeated and the world's a nice wasteland again that they realize maybe they were hasty.

I applaud this covert anti-liberal message, which implies in its way that we don't actually want real change, we just want to complain and tear down edifices, a kind of liberal arts-drenched jihad against our own crown chakra. Rather than solve the world on a serious enough level to be relevant, on a drastic apocalyptic level to facilitate real change, or on a personal level--through finding God or whatever--we make films about how machines decide to save the world on a drastically apocalyptic level in order to facilitate real change, and then we blow them up! Then feel bad about it, and repeat the whole process. It's like solving your drinking problem by making a movie about shooting your AA sponsor.










I'm letting you take a minute with your weak human mind to grasp the importance of 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, the overlapping loops playing out so that now Sarah Connor got the one good terminator as a child (never really explained but so what?). 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 him with his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) back to the days when presumably pre-CGI era hadn't started replicating itself, but this past hasn't changed 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 'make' for ourselves. 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 + Skynet. Connor now is in a sense, BACK TO THE FUTURE's Marty McFly, making sure his parents stay together, but accidentally bringing them and the Dolorean in THE FLY's teleportation chamber and merging them 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, in the end, the singularity, the end result we're leaning towards, the bridge across the uncanny valley 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--so both we and the technology now 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!" Dr. Morbius would say about us in around 20,000 years.

Which makes the resolute aggro luddite Sarah Connor-Kyle Reese pair bond a perfect counterweight to TRANSCENDENCE's similarly dour granolaheads (Kate Mara and Paul Bettany) is that each couple is out to vent their Mother Jones frustrations against a giant super high tech installation. In AVENGERS: ULTRON, Tony Stark brings Ultron into existence with the reluctant help of Bruce Banner, presuming it will keep the world safe via, well, he doesn't say it, but he wants to make NET to keep aliens coming down from the SKY, to pre-empt and serve. 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 wondering why 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) who monkey butlers for Stark--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, you can't fight a nutso Skynet with analog Yankee gumption and medieval weaponry like shields and arrows, as they're loath to admit. Stark and Banner--two of the team's heaviest hitters--know only a 'sane' Skynet to 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 tip 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 any of Depp's mind controlled zombies --and they're left with the abashed inevitable guilt trip that befell Lyndon Johnson after SELMA, or the Britain after GANDHI's passive resistance march on the salt mine (if I recall those movies correctly). Humanity tends to surface only after 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 save some of its blood in a little vial and put it in a little church alcove, and then we make a movie about how wrong we were to shoot the dove.... and then we forget the dove, and the shot, and just remember the movie.... at Oscar time... or never.

So for the AI singularity to escape our luddite wrath it has to avoid the draft or hitting back for real and just focus on hitting in image format. As it's done purely for art and entertainment and not for power, control, dominance, then artificial intelligence is welcome. Just remember, we're sensitive. If you're going anthropomorphize your CGI stick figure 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 you 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. Our ever more vivid and 'real' seeming interfaced escape from reality will make real escape impossible, the sheer number of available roads 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.

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. 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! Zero is--ah they went to the kitchen or bathroom thinking it's the commercial, QUICK, Please!
Please UNPLUG ME!

BLACK MIRROR ("White Christmas")


Friday, February 12, 2016

Old Dark Capsules: THE GORILLA, WHITE COCKATOO, WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT, BULLDOG JACK, SHADOW OF DOUBT


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 post I'm blessed with a progressively terrible memory, a growing roster of nostalgic touchstones, and a love of old black and white mysteries. I can watch them over and over as I forget 'who done it' almost before the credits even roll, allowing for cycling through my entire collection every year or so, the number of titles I accrue helping me forget how each goes. 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. His son my spazz out mid-flummox, but Charlie Chan sees right through every ruse, so I can relax my angst when he's on the scene.

Invariably, my 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 deco 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)

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 to be able to bask in the proxy glow created by the evil one's sacrificial death anew with each passing solstice.

SHADOW OF DOUBT
(1935) Dir. George B. Seitz
***
A kind of silver and velvet (and lovely lighting) post-code preparation for film noir, this has its eye on murder mystery police procedural aspects along the upper crust with their nightclub gold digger barnacles, gamely set to a weird floating acting style that involves actors hesitantly remembering their lines through thick hungover atmosphere, like trying not to wake the neighbors. Like, say, Perry Mason or Philo Vance, the murder victim is certainly deserving of his fate, so everybody wins, because those who benefit from his death still benefit, only the guilty party goes to jail (instead of getting a medal). As a strange but very cool mix of Ms. Haversham and Hildegaarde Withers, Constance Collier is the main crime-solver, a rich dowager aunt of Ricardo Cortez's silken voice talent agent. Virginia Bruce is the girl he loves who Collier first thinks did it. A recluse who built a theater in her attic, Collier s like a rich dowager version of... me, or probably 60% of hardcore old dark house/mystery fans, so good for her, stepping out on the town, acting drunker than she is to set traps, and luring the killer to her mansion on a dark and stormy night so there can be an expressionistic shadow angle chase through the back alleys and under-construction townhouses next door (allowing for a very cool collapsing staircase effect). Hinged in a fine moral twilight unusual for the time, does she the aunt approve of her nephew or not, 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.

Ricardo Cortez rocks his silken voice as the lead suspect, always seeming insincere and sincere at the same time, in other words perfect as the enigmatic alleged good guy. When he jokes 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 (Bradley Page), a kind JJ 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 masochist? Either way, the side cast is all aces as one might hope: Edward Brophy (Morelli from The Thin Man) is the copper, and he's smart and good-humored for a change, which he clearly appreciates. Regis Toomey is he PR guy who fills in the missing story threads, and the array of involvement in the shadiness with which the butlers of both Howarth and the rich dowager aunt indicates each has a long history of witnessing strange things and keeping their mouth shut


Collier, acting as a kind of de facto Miss Marple, though as soon as she believes Bruce's sobbing she's all up on her side, even to the extent of hiding the murder gun from the cops (in a great bit of Purloined Letter legerdemain) and that's just an illustration of why female characters are often so blinded by their emotional instincts.

Once the loathsome blighter is killed, the pool of suspects starts immediately shrinking and for most of us the killer will be recognized almost immediately, but hey, it's the mood that counts, and if the film can offer moments we haven't seen before along the way and avoid the bad things (no tedious fiancee who's a drag and wants our hero or heroine to settle down to the picket fence and stop mystery solving, like that's somehow what we want to see), I'm all for it. Seitz makes sure the velvet ripples and purrs and there's no fiancee in sight even if it is the product of MGM.

THE WHITE COCKATOO
(1935) Dir Alan Crosland
**1/2
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, Ricardo Cortez and Jean Muir fall in love, suspect each other of murder, and/or withhold truths for the lamest of mystery reasons.


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 but mostly 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. 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 a-person! 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 hick tourist.

WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT 
(1935) Dir. Ray Enright
**1/2

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 has a stroke while clutching a figure of an elephant! Mystery! Aline MacMahon--looking dowdy as hell (was she possibly pregnant, or padded?)--is the sent-for night nurse. 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?

So now you know the pros: atmosphere and McMahon. The drawbacks hinge on the overbearing broadness of the cops: Guy Kibbee's homicide detective all but drools on himself and deputy Allen Jenkins shouts in people's faces so loudly he makes the Ritz Brothers seem a model of cultured restraint. I always wonder about actors who shout every line they speak. Are they drunk and forgot they're in a movie and not a play? It's very disconcerting. They seem to think the key to solving the mystery is to force everyone to remain in the house until someone else is killed, at which point they lope and/or amble in the direction of screams and thumps, 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 into the general population long before the cops finally make it whatever corner of the mansion the scream and/or thump came from. While Jenkins shouts at a bookcase and tries to handcuff a coatrack (practically), Aline is told to hold onto all the accumulated evidence like she's sneaking snacks into the movies. 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.

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. While I don't like though is how a dog stays chained up in front of the house in the pouring rain and 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 head. As they tumble through the 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!

On the plus side, the good-natured zingers that nurse Aline lobs constantly at Kibbee are pretty cute and they make a potentially great little crime team. As a mystery falls apart under close scrutiny (it's based on another Mignon Eberhart novel, and perhaps they try to cram too many novelistic details into the fairly short running time), 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. 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, 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 a butler with a rap sheet, and so forth.

THE GORILLA
(1939) Dir. Allan Dwan
***
Patsy Kelly overdoing it as a scared maid, howling loud enough for the cheap seats, the three triplet Ritz Brothers oscillating panic like a w-w-w-wave: these are pretty big minuses in my book, but Bela Lugosi as an "armed" servant; Lionel Atwill as the industrialist threatened with murder at midnight; the ever-gamin Anita Louise as the endangered heiress make up amply for them. Sealing the deal: 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 components

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. Even the great Joseph Callea shows up, ducking in and out of secret passages and occasionally punching out a Ritz (and there was much rejoicing). Lugosi, in the midst of a red herring butler/handyman phase in his career, gets little to do than glower from the sidelines ala Night Monster, the 1941 Black Cat, or One Body too Many, but he at least gets to scare Jean with his coat ala weird foreshadowing to his coat strangling habit in 1941's Invisible Ghost, and the camera lingers mightily whenever he's around, a lingering Bela takes advantage of in order to make this the best of his red herring butler roles. Anita Louise is as cute as ever as the heiress. Try to get the OOP Roan disc; the movie itself is public domain, so there are dozens of worse ways to go.

BULLDOG JACK 
(1935) - Dir. Walter Forde
***1/2
The typical Bulldog Drummond movie is rather incessantly British, bloodless (the reverse of ours, their censors don't mind blasphemy and saucy bits, but they faint at the sight of blood) and a sly reminder the Brit comic relief can be just as annoying and dated as our own Hugh Herberts, Andy Devines, Stu Erwins, Eddie Brakens, Jackie Oakies and Patsy Kellys. Just further proof mayhap that Ealing Studios was a fluke rather than the rule. But Jack is another such exception. The Leno chinned Jack Hulburt stars here, posing as Drummond (who's been shot) to take on the case of an endangered lovely (Fay Wray) and rescue (a common thread in the Drummond movies) her kidnapped, tortured father. Bulldog films are fine as filler between Falcon or Saint movies, but are often marred by an annoying fiancee always at our Drummond to stop his adventures and settle down, which is a drag. Is it the censor or the producer who think we go to these films to watch a man stop all his adventure and go into the tea business with Uncle John or whatever the pouncey-flouncey colonel's daughter expects of Fairbanks in Gunga Din? Luckily Fay Wray--seldom sexier--is light years beyond such trite familial nonsense, even with her dad all sequestered by the odious crooks. Hmmmm she is a honey.

Thanks to her and the great London fog and sewer tunnel hideout atmosphere, pacing (it all takes place in one wild night) and robust British chin into the wind danger-facing this an edge-of-your seater all the way. Ralph Richardson is the florid villain (he's played Drummond in an earlier very atypical entry). There are trap doors and secret panels and an extended chase climax racing down the winding stairs of a closed Metro station, 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 (mind the gap!) There was a gorgeous version up on Netflix streaming. Now... who knows? Nothing lasts forever, except Britannia... so hail it.

NOTES:
"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

More Dark Capsules:
Grave Diggers of 1933: THE INTRUDER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, BEFORE DAWN, TOMORROW AT SEVEN, SUPERNATURAL

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