Tuesday, May 30, 2017


TWIN PEAKS is happening again. Agent Cooper has returned in different places as different selves; DANGER 5 is no longer on Netflix, but THE LOVE WITCH is. Things from the past come back yet nothing from the moment leaves--the selection is so vast picking something is impossible. So we go back in time to when--if we wanted to see weird shit, sex or gore--we had to go the R-rated movie, or... rent it. Limited by what wasn't checked out, and by circumstance, now we miss that simplicity, the narrowness of options. So we make movies that evoke those golden years of limited selection. If you want to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made 20 years ago then you might be a retro-metatextual, but I won't judge you. I'd have to pick a version of me to do that, and I'll leave that to the professionals serenely rooted in space and time, you know who I mean. 

What's important is that the acclaim for STRANGER THINGS and IT FOLLOWS helped convince a batch of filmmakers to make the kind of stuff they wanted to see back in the day, their child's mind thrilling to the lurid covers at the store, ominous Carpenter synths dancing in their heads. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy has been washing over things to free us all from the terrible burden of the slick but washed-out HD CGI present --wherein STAR WARS films look like video games and video games look like neorealist crime dramas.

Neither feature film discussed below is specifically great (which is why I added a short at the end that is). In fact I'd love to sit them down with each other and have them compare notes. Each has what the other lacks: THE VOID lacks patience, tick-tocakality, self-confidence, and focus; BEYOND THE GATES lacks daring, action and the strength of convictions. One needs the willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation; the other needs to dial it down to four and take a deep breath.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

An art director and make-up artist teamed up for this co-debut that serves a nice showcase for their specific sets of skills. Solid analog/latex effects and a bizarre Lovecraftian mythos (replete with an transdimensional world of floating black pyramids) liven up an 'all in a single weird night' tale of an understaffed hospital, caught in the midst of closing, deep in the meth belt, that gets hit with a very weird outbreak of... tentacles... and cultists. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is by brining a gunshot wound case into the hospital, then shooting him in the head for the crime of weirding him out. Soon, other guys arrive to hold everyone hostage, and then the hospital is surrounded by a cadre of cultists in white robes with black triangles on the hoods. All Hell breaks loose, literally, and quickly and its all a lot of badly edited, misguided overkill. There's way too much shouting and waving guns to even notice the four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movie borrowings melting together in the hallway trying to get anyone's attention like a bunch of ill-behaved moppets at the grocery store. Elements of THE THING and ASSAULT PRECINCT 13 merge together and then run screaming IN(to) THE MOUTH OF MADNESS with the PRINCE OF DARKNESS, up to the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, then out to Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND and the Solaris-from-Hell space ship in EVENT HORIZON, there's probably others. These boys don't want you to be bored, so they bludgeon you into an irritated stupor, like the immigrant grandma who mistakes loudness for strength. 

Gillespie and Kostanski clearly have a lot to learn about what makes those films they're borrowing from 'good', like when to use dialogue and when not to, how much dialogue is too much, where to put the camera, when to cut, and how to set up an ominous mood or make effective use of a  synth drone score. They go for a Carpenter vibe but don't have the patience for Hawksian cool or the slow-building relentless dread that is Carpenter's best auteur trait. Instead there are way too many balls in the air at once. Screaming "c-c-calm down!" in a room full of over-acting, under-directed actors for minutes on end doesn't count as plot development. When the film quiets itself long enough to focus on just one or two characters at a time, sun of a gun if it doesn't almost work! But the drawbacks of the 'more-is-less' approach escape the VOID, probably the one chapter of Robert McKee they shouldn't have skipped over.  It's as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a make-up artist reel-cum-fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so backed up the film will end before they can all get their moment.

That's not to say it's all that bad. As one of the nurses is played by Kathleen Munroe (above right), a gorgeous blue-cat-eyed creature in the Famke Janssen x Franka Poetente mold who stole a lot of pieces of my heart as a wild Irish lassie equestrian zombie in Romero's unjustly ignored SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (see my comparison of it with PET SEMETERY + the RNC National Convention). Here, looking all coy in her green scrubs, she reminded me of the cute nurses who gave me Ativan and Librium when I was flipping out at NY-Presbyterian Hospital this past February. Exuding actorly grace and sultry depth, Munroe might have saved THE VOID the way she saved SURVIVAL had the writers allowed her to be a cool Hawksian heroine in the vein of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. But that would perhaps take cigarettes and balls and low 'indoor voice' talking voices, which maybe made them nervous. Gillespie and Kostanski prefer yelling and hamming, so you know it's intense!

 And, worse, after the first chunk of film is over, and all the tableaux in place, Munroe, the one gem in all this dross, is whisked down the rabbit hole of the hospital sub-basement to wait out a few reels before becoming just another imperiled Pauline for our trusty rattled sheriff to rescue. Ugh, hia lame attempt to find her proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the empty, quiet hall in search of drugs for a pain-wracked pregnant lady. (They also shoehorn a kind of tired 'mourning a dead child' subplot [the grief broke her marriage with the sheriff], i.e. the kind of lazy screenwriter's shorthand for 'character development' that Carpenter studiously avoids).

Another thing missing that would have helped here: a 'gateway' drug for all the craziness: meth is name-checked (and seems all around) but there's no evidence of it. The source of all this strangeness turns out to be bizarre rituals carried out in some lonesome meth lab cabin.

But where is the meth, damn it?

I don't have much experience with amphetamines, but it seems to me, from what I have experiences, meth would make a great key to Lovecraftian horror evocation. Gillespie and Kostanski might be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done any meth. Dudes, write what you know, bros (sniffles) - betcha Carpenter wouldn't be afraid of a little meth 'for research purposes only.' and I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs - why would he even need to bother with cheap ass meth? Imagine if the bad guy cult leader doctor had synthesized some new drug - a kind of meth-DMT combo that shattered the fourth dimensional wall? I would have loved to see all sorts of directions that could have gone (and it would have, no doubt, if Stuart Gordon, Carpenter, or maybe Matthew Bright were involved). It's not too late. Matthew Bright and John Carpenter, let's collaborate, call me and bring some... 

Ah.... nevermind, I'd probably land right back at NY-Presbyterian.

Another drug-relevant angle: fostering the connection between drug withdrawal and the hell dimension. The high of variation of meth opening their pineal glands the way FROM BEYOND's tuning forks do or my own Salvia Divinorum + Robitussin + light-sound machine + Mingus "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" journey to the breathing balloon machine elf time-space mandible-weaving beyh\ond-space-time fourth dimension back in '05. Or the anguish of suddenly losing all connection to that bliss as the inevitable pay-back recovery shows us that Hell is as easily accessible as Heaven and that, indeed, one may seldom experience on extreme without inevitably spending time in the other. That, my brothers, would rock. 

These caveats aside, Gillespie and Kostanski do offer some superb sequences near the climax, and it's inspiring that they demonstrate the chops to create their tentacled visions in real analog latex. But--once again--the problem is perhaps lack if real-life experience (they don't know what they don't know). The blurry frenzy of action in THE VOID has the air of fear and doubt, like an insecure painter who just throws all his paint on the canvas and runs out of the room, hoping it passes as art, or who wants to hang with the cool trippers but is afraid to take drugs so figures all he has to do is make weird noises, call everyone 'man' and do that annoying "you're going down a tunnel" hand gesture thing that troglodytes all love to do when they find out you're tripping. A seasoned experiencer would know that a huge tentacled thing erupting out of a dead man's stomach would be plenty great on its own; it doesn't have to occur with a flickering overhead lights, crazy Andy Milligan-style camera movements, cross-cuts to a screaming pregnant woman about to get a C-section (with no anesthesia), an over-acting pre-med intern refusing to help cuz it's too gross, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs while shooting and swinging axes. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it and none of these elements help establish any kind of mood, making Carpenter's genius for getting out of his own way all the more remarkable and precious.

Like Hawks, Carpenter took his time to make sure we got properly creeped out by the slow evolution of the THE THING. It was creepy because it was a legitimately fucked-up movie trying to pass as 'everything's cool' normal. At the end of, say, the intense autopsy arm-chomping scene, for example, after noticing the king crab eye stalks and legs sprouting out of the removed, crawling head of the dead man, Kurt's exclamation 'Jesus Fucking Christ" has the natural ring of something we might say while trying not to panic. It's funny and all the more terrifying for keeping it 'real' like that. Carpenter knows horror takes time, suspense must be built piece-by-piece. 

It's like when making out with someone for the first time: the slow build, just one light kiss first, then going back in for more, the teasing push and pull, ebb and flow; the in-between breaths are just as important as the actual kissing. If you just lunge at the person with tongue extended and don't give them a second to breathe, well, honey, it's called 'suffocation.' It's also called THE VOID. There's so much going on in this film, nothing ever has time to happen. Carpenter's movies seduce you into bed, VOID just runs up and starts humping your leg.

Further detriments: a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably, instead, we get twangy guitar and the usual orchestral pointlessness. There's four different composers used and none can hold a candle to retro-futurist synth gods like Disasterpiece or Umberto. Those guys were probably available! You wanted to ape Carpenter but didn't want an eerie synth score? Do you watch HALLOWEEN and think, if only there was a nice John Williams or Howard Shore orchestral score instead of that annoying theme song? UGH! 

 Next time, boys, instead of just emulating John Carpenter movies, watch the movies he emulates. Watch RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and THE 1951 version of THING. I've HAD IT! Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks. 

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is the best thing about it: an effective melange of Goblin-esqe synths by retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. Like VOID, BEYOND is not set in the 80s so much as set within a universe clearly indebted to, haunted by, and styled after Videos The Director/s Rented as Impressionable Kid/s. Here however, it's not the Carpenter movies of youth but a video board game called NIGHTMARE. I'd never heard of video bored games before! Now I learn they had real commercials in the early 80s, and everything! Must have been a regional thing because I would have remembered. I'm the type.

And it's because I am the type that I hoped this story would resonate more than it did. A pair of semi-estranged "adult" brothers reunite at their old homestead after their video rental store owner father vanishes. They want to find out where he went, so mull through his old shit back in his office (the store is out of business but still right where they left it, still full of videos, which they exhibit no interest in). Then they find the game.... is it a clue?

The 'dead' video store is a great location for a horror film but it's not utilized nearly as effectively in Beyond the Gates as it is, say, in the Blockbuster/Shining episode of SOUTH PARK. It's barely even used at all, except as a means to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching. 

Aside from the bitchin' score, the next best thing about the film is the video board game itself, hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, and easily stealing the show. But even that is given short shrift by the moronic brothers. Instead, most of the film occurs in dad's suburban tract home, where things get scary but nowhere near as scary as they would get a dead video store (what that tells us about ourselves is maybe something some of us aren't ready to hear).

Missed opportunities aside, at least--unlike THE VOID-- Stewart's film has a compulsive watchability, due perhaps to taking time to develop the characters, and establishing a mood wherein some dreadful thing seems always waiting around the next corner (not easy to do in a tract home).

Too bad then, that the pair of brothers at the center of the story don't make too much sense. They seem to have nothing in common, not even antagonism. They seem to share no common memories, no shared history, and --though they both supposedly worked at the video store-- and despite of all the time they must have spent in and around it -- they never mention or reference a single film, customer, event, ex girlfriend, or anything remotely video-related. Also, though one brother is coded as kind of cool, it's a bit odd that they're both such pussies that they to stop playing the game the moment it gets the least bit spooooky.  When Crampton mentions they need to find their father, the first thing they do is call their cop friend, like there's anything he can do about an old 80s board game  ("Officer, I demand you place this 80s videotape under arrest!") Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too? 

Nothing's worse than a kid who looks and acts cool who turns out to be just another narc.

Also, if any movie seemed to invite some SCREAM-style meta commentary it would be this one. None. Similarly, one is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges, either together or separate. Now me, I've been sober 20 years (give or take, heh heh -see The Void review above) and that's all my brother and I ever talk about! It's a way to connect across our gravitational reverse polarity. Alcohol is the great unifier, even between sober people and hammered drunkards. But here there's no connection or even a shared joke here (the sort of thing that some improvisation or rehearsal might have brought forth), nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why one brother--the sober anal nerd--seems to have inherited the house and store and the other (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END) just stays a kind of stumblebum afterthought, except to add a kind of EAST OF EDEN foreground to its JUMANJI-ish basement backdrop.

You da man, Chase, you almost finished a whole beer!
My main issue with the film, however, isn't Chase, but the worminess of the square brother (Graham Skipper -intentionally unpictured), a fella so intrinsically unlikeable it makes it impossible to tell why anyone would want anything to do with him (imagining him fooling around with his girlfriend is singularly unsavory). I wanted to smack the glasses off his head and make him do whiskey shots. There are always one or two dorks like Skipper in any given AA meeting, i.e. what we call 'tourists'. They have like a single drink at a single party, get busted by their control freak parents, OR are whisked off to a rehab boarding school the minute mom finds a bag of weed in their sock drawer; OR they just like AA because there everyone has to be their friend OR becasuse their sibling is in it and they're jealous so they need to 'do' AA like they would steal a girlfriend or a soccer ball or an action figure, i.e. some sibling competitive bullshit of the sort they would have to examine in a fearless moral 5th step inventory if they expected to stay sober, but since they're not real alcoholics, they can stay sober without any self-inventory, which they mistake for 'winning'). 

It's not all bad though. In fact GATES works its way to some pretty cathartic fifth step style carnage. When the square brother finally gets around to killing and stabbing everything in sight alongside his cooler brother, it's like a cloud parts. Still, there needed to be more of a character change to believably get there -- a kind of change a slug of whiskey would have brought out, like Popeye's spinach, or the magic elixer from Wang's six demon bag in the climax of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or like Nick Frost's two-fisted relapse in THE WORLD'S END. Now that's a reunion movie.

Instead, what does this pisher Graham do? Earlier in the film, when cleaning up the house, he finds and then pours his dad's liquor down the sink! Why, to make sure his brother or a guest or his girlfriend can't have any just because he's so righteous and smarmy??? And there's still a whole film to go! I may be back to being sober after my--ahem--6 week Suicide Squad-style work release/vacation-- but my thought was still to kill him! KILL! There's no excuse for such criminal alcohol abuse. In AA we hate hearing about people who commit that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers (it's the sort of thing those tourist siblings I was ranting about a few paragraphs ago love to share about, as if they think it will endear us to them). Instead, "Skipper," why not stash it in case dad comes back, or give it away to some needy friend, like that tweaker at the local pub (go-to dirtbag Justin Welborn), who--incidentally--is right to want to deck you and steal your horny girlfriend (Bea Grant). Urgh.

I wish these girls (from the NIGHTMARE-esque viral trailer
actually were in the movie, they'd have made it a lot better,
but the filmmakers think we'd rather see a
pale buster like Graham Skipper pour liquor down sinks.

Still, much more so than THE VOID, GATES managed to hold my and my co-viewer's attention all the way through, and is helped no end by Barbara Cramtpon as the master of" the game." She looks terrific and seems to be having a pretty good time --more so than anyone else involved. Brian Sowell's elegant low-budget video cinematography finds new roads within GATES' suburban 70s track house milieu and purple/red/blue video game weird color scheme is like an Easter Sunday afternoon SUSPIRIA)]; Golczewski's synth score keeps burbling, throbbing and buzzing; and seeing the brothers bonding by hacking and stabbing undead demon versions of their slain parents and foes is--in the end--quite heartening.

Also, Chase has a fucking beer once in awhile, thank fucking god.
and speaking of God....
(2014) Dir. L. Gabriel Gonda

If you want to see something funny and fleet-footed after these msiguided retro yarns, check out DARK DUNGEONS a 40-minute straight-faced adaptation of Jack Chick's infamous Christian tract denouncing Dungeons and Dragons (as well as books like  Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) as gateways to Satanism and witchcraft. Come along then as two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the dark side during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) session during 'club' rush week. Debbie (Alyssa Kay) turns out to be a natural spellcaster (with real magic) rising under Mistress Frost's (Tracy Hyland) dark red tutelage to a 'level-eight' sorceress; her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush, Marcie (Anastassia Higham), on the other hand, hangs herself because she's left behind at level-seven! Poor Marcie! She just couldn't keep up. After that tragedy, and being sent on a mission into the tunnels to other dimensions, Debbie finally realizes her soul is in jeopardy. Will God's love find her in time?

Shot off the cuff, DD has a great zero budget gonzo spirit, a deadpan reverence for the Chick source material, a funny, talented and mostly female cast, and a great deadpan "embrace me, Jesus!" ending. If you've even been out on a deep end-bad trip limb in your younger druggy days, and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' prayer (ala AA) then you'll relate to the god stuff, and maybe even mist up. I don't know the extent to which the ending is meant satirically or not, and I don't ever want to. It's both more inspiring and funnier not knowing; and I respect that the spiritual solution is at least treated with some modicum of respect and real love. I don't think either Satan or Jesus would be offended. I'm so proud of these filmmakers, the Ron and Suzy Ormond of their time ! After a weekend enduring THE VOID and BEYOND THE GATES, I really needed DARK DUNGEONS, Otherwise, I think I would have to stop seeing new indie horror films for at least a year. Instead, I'm back on board. 

Speaking of the Ormonds, know what else can now be found on Prime? MESA OF LOST WOMEN!

See original tract here

PS: Let me also point you towards the following retro-chic gems, all of whom get my personal, higher recommendations:


Friday, May 26, 2017

Pitt Daddy Blasts Again: WAR MACHINE + All-Out War Acidemic Memorial / Father's Day Round-up

I never fought in a real war, but growing up we played war with cap guns or plastic Uzis and I had HO scale planes dogfighting over my bed. Today's toy guns are fake looking, made of yellow or orange plastic to allay the triggers of nervous cops. But in the 70s-80s our guns were real-looking, heavy and loud. I hear the squirt guns have way more range, so maybe it's a trade-off. We need George C. Scott as Patton and Nazis; instead we got Afghanistan civilian insurgents and Brad Pitt as General McMahon. Snap to, private! I'm watching the released-today-on-Netflix WAR MACHINE, the true story of the crazy gung-ho general brought in to 'fix' Afghanistan not too long ago (?) and who was taken down by a snide Rolling Stone reporter and his own reckless urge to shoehorn the complexity of counter-insurgency into a war model he can 'win.' (He's not the general taken down by an affair with his sexy biographer; he's taken down by a snide journalist --don't let it happen again!). Adopting a comical (and overused) bowlegged running style that lets him show off his barrel-chested burliness (as if he's always about to fall forward and give you twenty), Pitt's SLING BLADE-on-the-half-baked-pasta-shell voice and pillow factory energy makes watching him like reading a paperback military biography on a long plane ride rather than being there. After the coiled cobra calm he brought to David Ayers' FURY and Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (above), it's a bit of let-down how slack he is here. The calm is there, the cobra is gone. Looking back at those earlier films it's clear he had a few things going for him, trait-wise, other than a comically stiff Fearless Fosdick chin and an ostentatiously silver head of hair. One of the easiest traits to admire was the easy way he had with shooting or carving into unarmed prisoners (the kind of thing a Tom Cruise or Leo would worry might alienate their fan base). Where's that 'madness of war' gone, Brad?

As with Jolie's fall from feral madwomen grace, I blame their children.

In other words, WAR MACHINE's General McMahon is a bit too obviously the work of a beaucoup liberal screenwriter trying to be balanced while taking down as a well-meaning warrior who's blind to the fact that America hasn't won a war since 1945. As a sniping journalist voiceover burdens itself with all the usual suspect hearts-and-minded critiques we all know by heart, it never asks why we'd want to hear this 'embedded' opinion rather than the believable military-speak offered by someone like Kathryn Bigelow, Mel Gibson, John Milius, or Clint Eastwood. It's pretty easy to throw Tilda Swinton in a German press briefing and have her deliver the 'Big Message' lines the rest of the film's too distracted to convey, but if it is supposed to be all based on a Rolling Stone piece we'd have been much better off going with a more nuanced 'gonzo' journalist approach, i.e. focusing on the journalist''s personal experience situated within the events, their observations, and the drugs they were on that may have distorted those observations, with background press and history folded into it rather than this kind of presumption that liberal bias equates truth. And that trying to win any war is Bad. It's the kind of bias that makes me wonder just how many Marxist spies were embedded in the screenwriter's liberal arts school. 

The script starts out well but soon winds up in situations no journalist could possibly witness, like the generals date with his rarely seen wife (be in more stuff, Meg Tilly. We miss you) or 'typical' FUBAR moments of chaotic boots-on-the-ground implementation of the general's 'big' strategy.  Rather than focus on the war room or his base of command, or attempt anything remotely close to the lived-in professional atmosphere of  Bigelow or Eastwood, or the true satiric madness of a Milius or Southern, where there's admiration for the courage as well as savage critique (and a sense of eyes and ears embedded into the actual rhythm of a professional workplace), here we have the impression only that the writer-director has seen THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and probably was unable to light a fire under Pitt's ass the way a more recognizably macho name like Tarantino, Ayers or Fincher has.

When I saw that Pitt was going to play an older man with silver hair, as stars often do to segue their advancing age within the mythic scope of their public persona, I was excited. Gone is the tiresome Pitt role of rear echelon for the Jolie traveling humanitarian circus, I thought. Now he can get back to being a wild man! Aging males rejoice! Alas, the Jolie-drained version of Pitt--all edges sanded down in a believe the liberal hype bullshit--is still with us. On the other hand, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is up on the Netflix stream. It's always worth revisiting whenever the drums of war and remembrance sound.

Also worth revisiting:  my own humble (hah) writing on war movies I've seen, loved, tolerated, for I've always tried to honor both sides of myself: one the kid with the WW2 dogfight in his bedroom sky, his arsenal of cap guns and HO scale armies; the other, a satiric deadhead sophomore heading off to see PLATOON with a headful of mushrooms like goddamned Lance going up the Kurtzy river. 

War, what is it good for? Men. It's good for men. And prosthetic limb-manufacturers.

"Pitt had proved he could be wild and liberated even whilst a young scrap of a fella, back in Thelma and Louise, so that's never been in doubt, but even so, here we got some extra layers of toughness as borne out by his scarred and diesel oil-stained face. We see him get kind of cleaned up when a nice little breakfast served up by a couple of scared frauleins, and when it's invaded by the rest of his motley tank corp, and we see Pitt forced into a weird no-win zone between solidarity with his rapey crew and an innate gentlemanly spirit, it's the most tiresome scene in the film, and I'll confess I FF-ed part of the way, but it's almost worth it for the brutal pay-off, which finally brings things to bear for our milquetoast gunner. Eventually the lad even learns when to let a kraut fry to death and when to chop him in half. Hell yeah, Sgt. Rock loves this movie, wherever he is." (more)

"In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Fuller you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man is holding the tent up, even if he's just acting tough to keep the children from crying. No wonder the boys love Marvin and follow him around all throughout BIG RED ONE (and why Fuller became lifelong friends with everyone from Godard all the way to General Omar Bradley). In the end, the kids getting blown to bits come and go, but old paragons of salt like Marvin keep the world turning. You love him even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointy gesture. " (full)

"The most essential (we desperately need it back) yet dangerous of the unassimilated abject pantheon tends to be defined by his utter lack of social graces and his surplus of animal power. He's a bit too large for ordinary civilization so he lives--by choice and necessity-- in the wilderness (until he's needed for war or shark killing). His hair and wild beard and maniacal eyes give him away... he's the wild man! Any hero's journey requires a visit with him for the wild man holds onto the element that is 'circumcised' or castrated to make a civilized man, and that element is required for the journey to be a success and not end in an office cubicle. When the rest of his tribe was being declawed for city living, the wild man stayed behind, and kept his claws. His isolation represents a possible outcome for the hero's journey if the hero decides not to return to the social order with his beanstalk prizes and instead shuns the company of soft-handed mortals and stays in the forest where nymphs and satyrs run free. The wild man can be terrifying or gentle but either way he lives larger than the average bear, and way larger than the civilized schmuck, for better and maybe worse." (5/12) (full)

"..Fuller's actual war experience makes his spirituality move far beyond religions or borders, or even life and death. When Sgt. Zack (Evans) watches his young war orphan guide Short Round (Spielberg used the name for Indy's sidekick in TEMPLE OF DOOM) turning a Buddhist prayer wheel or singing "Auld lang Syne" which is also the Korean national anthem, for example, you can feel Zack's respect for even the simplest gestures. He knows they are so much more important than things like dog tags, burials, objectives and rank. Fuller's awareness of the power that little motions like this can have--butterfly wing tsunami-style--in the greater scheme of war makes the film hum past the parameters of its situations. In a world where every movement might be your last, everything is imbued with profound significance, the moment expands and enlargens past any map, and in Zack's strange integrity we begin to even understand how Buddhism works." 5/11 (cont)

Is it any wonder that cinema fans in our media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama;" it asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game, to drown out that soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man would, if he ever played it -which he didn't.  (12/07) (full)

But that's the thing, most of us don't have to submit to this once we are 21 and/or out of our parent's house. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with whole dinner times going past, or lengthy conversations, with people trying to be their parents, with laws that remove rights already instated and strip classes and races of social equity. A parallel might be trying to get through a whole dinner with strict parents as a ten year-old trying to hide the fact that you're stoned and drunk out of your gourd, and by dessert you think you've got them won over so your mask starts to slip a little, and you keep hitting the wine even though your mom glowers at the water level. And your friend who stayed for dinner is like dude, ixnay on the ineway tilunway erway outway the oordway. (more)

Patton's discipline is intended to create that condition of initiation, Stockholm syndrome in the service of country - there's still going to be the odd soldier who resists the comfort of berserker madness and thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his childhood persona will preserve rather than destroy him. In the end all the military drilling and exhaustion is to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets--against all self-preservational logic. But as long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. Hence a little bitch-slap, which he performs in a sense as performance for the other men. Watching this with my dad as a child I used to think Patton was being a bully for slapping the soldier. Later, as a hippie, I thought he was existentialist and square. Now I'm all into his heart of darkness. Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequences that may stem from disrespecting boundaries, for the best defense is a good offense and therefore disrespecting boundaries is the mark of a good general.
3/10 (more)

PLAY DIRTY (1969) goes for the existential vibe where that's concerned: tire repair, driving stolen trucks up a mountain, weathering a sandstorm, and other SORCERER-waiting-for-Godot-style existential tomfoolery. Michael Caine is the by-the-book officer, Nigel Davenport the hardened cynic, Nigel Green the dissolute, cynical and well-worn Colonel who plans the mission (another fuel dump, by Jove!) Together they shoot unarmed Red Cross workers, (nearly) rape a German nurse, kill innocent bystanders and otherwise commit egregious and unclean deeds in the name of 'the mission.' Also anachronistically, they blare tons of music on the jeep radio like it's goddamned Top 40. The acting is all good but the existential vibe a bit souring. Part of my yen for WW2 movies is that they provide a rare chance for noble Hawksian male camaraderie but PLAY DIRTY denies that fantasy, trying to shoehorn post-1969 Vietnam bitterness into pre-1945 history - 5/10. (full)

The film is all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Just enjoy the luridness, the Enno Morricone score, and the first rate B-movie international cast: Suzy Kendall as the title spy (a confederate of Mata Hari), Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA) as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's World War One, not World War Two, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as you would in a few years. (Full)

If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders, where dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage (and shots of the Red Baron) from the silent film Wings (1927- based on Saunders' book) the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens and accentuating the anonymity of death. The same Red Baron-type hun shoots and dies and salutes either way, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films but that only serves to unite them, and together they make a startling picture of a moment in time in between the advent of sound and the arrival of Hitler and Tojo, whose combined barbarity crushed-out Hollywood's anti-war sentiment like a brief candle, or at any rate made it seem willfully naive. (full)

"Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth, what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle)." (more)

"Time and again we see in [HOMELAND] how men believe whatever narrative will make them look like they're in charge, that nothing can slip by them; they fall in love with caution, the ritual of work, the process, the secret handshakes. Women threaten this slow steady safety not only by diluting the male bonding epoxy with their estrogen and logic but by their incessant pointing out of the men's blind spots. The men don't want to think outside the box, but if needed for her own success, women will drag them out, breaking the bones and resetting them correctly like a patient but resolute (and unconsciously sadistic) mother." (more)

Twice the action of Hot Shots Part Deux, twice the laughs of Saving Private Ryan, say what you want about  STREET FIGHTER, like BOMB (Maltin), ** (imb), or 13% (rottentomatoes) I declare it a delightful romp for a lazy Saturday when you can't summon the will to vacuum or go out in the rain. If you haven't seen it you might confuse it with all those first person shooter films like Doom, where everyone's trapped in a locked-down maze of drippy subterranean tunnels, and breaking bones, but it's pretty sunny and merry a lot of the time, with a dry wit and divine art direction (I love love love the black-red look of bad guy's boudoir) It's got that international style, the Jackie Chan film aesthetic, but is also populated with crazy steroidal villains and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue as Van Damme's right hand; Raul Julia laughing maniacally, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip" while worrying about the size of his future city's food court and showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, demolishing the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy. In addition to ransoming a bin full of hostages, Cool Raul is making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress. But the fortress also is full of high places and chain pulleys to swing down from in ripped derring do. Great lines ("you got... paid?"), hilarious bits (Bison punching a video monitor when it shows a boy frolicking with a dog), and wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches, like Bison's wall portraits ranging in style from Napoleon to a John Wayne Gacy-style clown version--all great little termite touches." (full)

There's nothing wrong with adding fantasy / fictional elements into war films, ala, say INGLORIOUS BASTERDS but we know from the beginning that BASTERDS isn't about war but about war films. We presume from the beginning that THE DEER HUNTER is about war's victims, 'real people' from small American towns who play with fire and get burned, but it turns out it's not about them at all. It's about Cimino's desire to morph blue collar alcoholics into Slavic mountain gods who are then consumed and brought low by gibbering Asian devils and their own thousand yard staring contests. Suicide may be painless, but make a habit of it and you become a pain... in the ass... of valor. (full)

"APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is the ultimate trip for Vietnam, the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of war films, updating the original acid story, Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS to accommodate a broad spectrum of black comic situations. Brando's ambiguity as Kurz in the last section is always a bit of a let-down to what came before (Brando wasn't 'experienced). But before that, the peaks happen often: the Colonel Kilgore scenes of course, and the scene that's preceded by Lance mentioning to Frederic Forrest as they're cruising up to the final checkpoint, beyond which is Cambodia. "You know that last tab of acid I had? I dropped it." Forrest replies, as if barely listening, "Far out."

Willard (Martin Sheen) gets off the boat at the bridge, bringing Lance with him like a magic protection symbol, like the white cloth pinned to the nurse's jacket in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Everyone fighting at this bridge seems lost and abandoned ("Who's in charge here?" / "Ain't you?") until they find a taciturn spectral presence named Roach (the Duane Jones zombie figure equivalent from IWAZ) who they bring out of his pot smoke and Hendrix-filled cubby hole so he can take out a crazed VC sniper in the black night distance. "He's close man... real... close", says the Roach, his eyes glazed over with the 1000 yard stare. He loads his grenade launcher and just fires it straight up into the air without even looking, BAM, all is quiet, no more sniper. Roach's face barely changes except to snarl a bit as he whispers, "motherfucker." 

Says it all, man. (full)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anti-Authority Nowhere Land: CONVOY (1978)

America needs a hero again, c'mon back Rubber Ducky 10-4 and remember that song "Convoy" by ole Cash McCall? Sure, now that the trucker craze is decades gone, and rap is here to stay, McCall just sounds like some grizzled old Marlboro man babbling into his CB receiver while a Curtis Mayfield instrumental plays behind him on the FM dial, but in 1975-6, his "Convoy" was haulin' ass up the charts until it became the hood ornament on a full-on cross-country trucker fad going no place at 80 mph, downhill. It was the kind of thing we all heard on the radio in the car nonstop and either loved or ignored. We didn't really 'hate' things in the 70s, there weren't enough options. We had to listen to what the DJ played, so we just figured it was 'new' and we'd get used to it, all passive-like.

Well, now, Convoy's been gone, but now it's back - on Blu-ray no less, so c'mon, good buddy, put the hammer down all the way through, and join the CONVOY at long last.

Why? Because Pauline Kael liked it. And cuz Kristofferson is in it.

But why? Why was it ever made?

It's hard to fathom nowadays, because songs are too scattered along generational formats but, back in the 70s, a single could get so big across so many demographics that movie versions of goddamn songs were commissioned. We loved some songs so much we needed, some producers guessed (wrongly), to see a film version the same way we needed the novelization of a movie (but that's different since --don't forget--this was the time before videotape, so the only way to 'own' a film was via the paperback).

But the more we pull a song to us the harder we push it away later, so the movie inevitably comes out too late to catch the wave. It bombs and quietly sneaks off the marquee never to be seen again. Ttday only a few of us remember it even existed. Let me give you an example: a 'softie' radio obsession crept upon us, tugging our heartstrings mightily: Debbie Boone's 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life." Whole families (including mine) would pull over when "Light" came on the car radio, and cry in unison. It was such a hit, such an obsession, that a Light up my Life movie was immediately commissioned. Its producers ill-advisedly presumed America wouldn't be long sick of the emotional hit by the time the film came out later that same year.

We were, mighty sick of it. And to this day no one has ever seen the movie version of You Light Up My Life.

But Convoy (1978) had more than a feelin', by which I mean Peckinpah directing, which meant slow-mo bar fights, so maybe it'd be all right. It came out three years after the song had been forgotten and besides, truckers ain't as fickle as the sedan types. For the hard riders, emotion didn't enter into it, not the sappy kind anyway, rather a comforting feeling of strength and solidarity. The trucker as an icon sat in our minds next to Burt Reynolds' middle finger. Truckers were the friends of all children, bored in back seats on long drives. We all had the ability to get truckers to honk real loud if we turned around and made a 'toot-toot' gesture as we passed them. We loved that!

The real appeal for those of us too young to drive, though, was the novelty of the CB radio and all its crazy code words: You could get on there and DJ to maybe millions, maybe no one; you could tip off the reverse going traffic if you spotted a 'bear in the woods'. We didn't have Twitter or cell phones. CBs were 'it'- but you needed cool parents to get one and install it and teach you how to use it, usually in conjunction with a 'fuzz buster.'

Car culture was huge, still. Once in awhile we got rides in the older kids' cool Trans-Ams or Firebirds and it hooked us. The automotive store became a kind of secondary Spencer Gifts. We eyed the Playboy bunny mud flaps and bought novelty rearview ornaments to hang over our beds like dreamcatchers. We'd sit in our sixth grade class wearing black driving gloves. Meanwhile at the movies, the masses clamored in love of the motorized outlaw. Sugarland Express (1974) and Vanishing Point (1971) paved the way for the whole "mass of Americans rallying 'round one outlaw car'" cause thing, so big at (of course), the drive-in. By the time Convoy rolled off the line that moonshine running high-balling racist sheriff-baiting thing was quite overdone. There was High-Ballin' and Every Which Way But Loose, Smokey and the Bandit, Handle with Care, Breaker Breaker, White Line Fever, Truck Stop Women, and Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw. On TV, the genre devolved into Nielsen scavengers like BJ and the Bear, Dukes of Hazzard and TV movies like The Great Smokey Road Block and Flatbed Annie and Sweetie Pie. I could go on and on,

If you're curious, the junkyard in the back of Amazon Prime streaming is laden with them. Most look like shit but some still got the gleam in their grille. (Ed note: recommended: 1974's Truck Stop Women!)

I never really had more than a fleeting yen for the trucker life back, myself. And even as a grade schooler in the 70s, catching the stray commercial for Convoy during Saturday morning cartoons, I was horrified by that cropped afro look rocked by Ali McGraw. The commercials seemed almost apologetic for being so post-curve, like that straggler who shows up at your party at dawn after it's already over and your parents are in bed, but you're up watching Captain Kangaroo or Hong Kong Phooey, and he's drunk and snoring /laughing to himself on the couch as you sit on the floor in front of the TV, keeping the volume low to not wake your hungover parents.

That cropped afro, man, what a bad bad bad decision.

Still, Pauline Kael defended it, and 38 odd years later, that was enough for me to get the Blu-ray:
"Peckinpah uses the big rigs anthropomorphically, and while watching this picture, you recover the feelings you had as a child about the power and size and noise of trucks, and their bright, distinctive colors. Graeme Clifford's editing provides fast, hypnotic rhythms, and sequences with the trucks low in the frame and most of the image given over to skies with brilliant white clouds are poetic gestures, like passages in Dovzhenko. As a horny trucker, Kris Kristofferson lacks the common touch that might have given the movie some centrifugal force, though he's as majestic-looking as the big trucks. 
Hell, forget it. As Kristofferson might say, "Dovzhenko, my ass!" But I am a Pauline Kael disciple and thanks her odd associations and my mancrush on Kristofferson, for better or worse, I have joined the Convoy. Wanna ride with the Duck, come on back?

Burt Young - the king of country
Yep - Kristofferson's handle is 'the Duck' and despite the name--and Kael's opinion-- he, alone in the film, looks, talks and acts like real live trucker might, and is the only member of the main cast who does. Peckinpah clearly didn't know much about the trucker red state mystique because for the rest of the cast he apparently didn't look farther than the NY Actor's Studio: Queens-born Burt Young (handle: "Love Machine") is about as cowboy as a Nathan's egg cream. When he delivers lines like "Long highways sure grind the souls off us cowfolks," you wonder if it's supposed to be a joke. If it is, it sucks. Couldn't Peckinpah find real country boys to ride these rigs instead of a bunch of uber-ethnic NYC character actors? Brooklyn's own Franklin Ajaye is the black trucker (handle: "Spider Mike") and Brooklyn's own Ernest Borgnine ("Cottonmouth") plays such a foul, greedy Southwestern cop he entraps Duck, Spider and Machine on an off-road, shakes them down for $50 each, then follows them to a crowded diner where he tries shake down Spider Mike a second time, with everyone watching, which is beyond idiotic, like getting away with stealing someone's wallet, then following him into a crowd and shooting him in broad daylight for not having a second wallet.

In sum, Peckinpah ain't thinking things through. Is he even reading his own rewrites? Maybe he can't see straight. Maybe it's the booze. Hell yeah, it's the booze. But the truckers need a reason to be chased by the law, because Burt Reynolds was chased by Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, and Gleason had such a grand time that he birthed a whole archetype: the fat and sassy Southern sheriff, a comic foil for every subsequent picture ever made that has a fast car in it. The Fat Sheriff archetype even made his way into Bond films, a mere four years earlier. (1)

But Borgnine sucks the fun out of it. Convoy aint a fun picture. Cathartic at times (the big trucks smashing the jail scene), but not fun.

But hey - fights happen, truckers all become outlaws and then folk heroes without ever bothering to question any weird plot device that happens along. Duck picks up this close-cropped perm-fro'd Ali McGraw on the way out of the diner fracas (she jumps ship from her previous ride) and she becomes his chronicler with her fancy camera.

And that's the final outrage: McGraw may be still gorgeous, but  her close cropped permed hair is continually depressing. In the annals of 'bad hair' decisions it makes Orson's cropping Rita's long tresses for a short blonde flip in Lady from Shanghai seem inspired instead of merely churlish.

Together, in fact, Rita's and Ali's hair crops make a great collective illustration of how a petulant male auteur unwittingly reveals his misogyny. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time: "to transform a naturally beautiful woman into a figure of such androgyny seems, at best, short-sighted; at worst, it's mean-spirited."

Don't mean to shit on this otherwise interesting flick but considering the amount of shitting on our collective hats Peckinpah does during the movie, well, we need plenty of venthillation.

On the plus side, there are some stretches of Peckinpah brilliance vis-a-vis his signature rapid editing through tight shots of crazy locals in various states of intoxication. A series of old faces, drinking and smoking in the proximity of flags, feels authentic enough - and all done without Easy Rider's redneck-demonizing, Altman's tacky judgmental mummery, or Smokey and the Bandit's lecherous bouncing and guileless harmonica score.

Then again, it also lacks Easy Rider's truly revolutionary spirit, Nashville's sense of moveable feast community, and Smokey and the Bandit's star chemistry. In the latter, especially, Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds, and Sally Field bring out a special something in each other hard to duplicate.

See, Burt Reynolds might come off macho for the press, but he genuinely loves (and is not threatened by) strong female co-stars like Fields, and it's clear that goes. vice versa. A deep love and respect is apparent from the get-go in their bankable chemistry; and Jerry Reed well, he loves Fred, his hound dawg. All four of them look authentic, like they could have driven straight up from Florida or Texas, and all of them got charisma to burn. Even Gleason's sheriff and Reynold's Bandit kind of love each other. Fights end in handshakes and laughs; CB radio conversations post-chase between Smokey and Bandit confess admiration for each other's driving skills, their feeling of emptiness once the chase stops, their willingness to keep it going just for the hell of it. See, that's the part of the red state mentality whiny blue state liberals don't get. To them boxing is brutality. To the red states, it's a sport. In the end which attitude generates the most negativity?

CONVOY clearly is a leftist blue state product. The only authentic looking 'red state American' main character in Convoy is Kristofferson, and even he feels out of place. He's too cool to behave logically, too pointlessly iconoclastic to even try to save himself from 20 years in the pen, even if it's the easier, righter thing to do. There's no love anywhere in the film except between Duck and 'America' as faceless adoring mass. The sheriff isn't fun but unaccountably vile. Yet it's hard to root for Duck either - the whole mess of issues this "ain't so good at stringin' words together as you are" folk hero creates for his self, his stubborn insistence on not being this and not being that, begins to feel less like working class heroism and more like of Munchausen-by-proxy stupidity. He's like the idiot kid who's too dumb to hide his weed going through customs, and who then bitches and moans about violations of human rights when it gets taken away. (If you let the officer see it, he has to take it, idiot! Just make the effort).

And Duck's hypocrisy is glaring. He likes to drink "Everclear" and listens to "we don't smoke marijuana and we don't take LSD" like there's no hypocrisy there. Again--a joke? The alcoholic Peckinpah has no right to get anti-anti-establishment.

That said, Duck's not afraid to have a few big rigs get together to smash open a police station where Spider Mike's been violated, rights-wise. Shit gets smashed up for real (it's pre-CGI) and that's why films like Convoy will endure. If you see a cop car go flying off the interstate and through a billboard, better believe some stunt man did just that. And it just feels real good.

Alas, when not crashing cars or eye-fishing roadshow funerals, the Peckinpah signature over-editing thing does not always work: that truck stop cafe brawl with Cottonmouth, for example, isn't quite the same ode to violence as the opening or closing of The Wild Bunch (1969). With all its slow motion and quick cuts it becomes abstract and unseemly: cutting back and forth to about eight different characters in various states of falling, rolling, punching, ducking or running - all in a very close quarters diner environment--is numbing and dumb rather than riveting. It's a fight that would have blown our minds in the hands of a tight-editing Walter Hill (as in the bathroom fight in The Warriors) but Peckinpah infamously wasted weeks filming and it's clear that about 100 different takes are all used for one single movement to create a bewildering sense of time and relative space (a character might start falling off a stool at one end of the counter and land behind a table on the other, his eyes indicating he somehow has aged 20 years in frustration with his director in between the two angles). Then there's the big events and demonstrations as the rebel convoy gets longer and longer, word spreading analog viral through the CB network of all the 'little' people from Flyover USA who are tired of getting pushed around. Yawn. It works at times, in others, it's just a lot of nowhere shorthand for 'everyday' America. I guess it's inspiring, but man, that food in the back of them trucks crawling along is gonna spoil. And what about them poor live pigs being hauled by Love Machine? What about their freedom? The sooner I can stop associating Burt Young's harsh face with actual pigs and the tang of sulphur, methane, diesel and asphalt, the better. Son, dump them pigs loose upon the plain! Set the pigs free and you'll prove you really do like freedom. If not, get thee to a ROCKY pinball machine, stat! Gaze in drunken brother-in-law rage at what a real hero looks like, and make sure that pint bottle of whiskey you're about to throw at his picture is empty! There are sober children in India who could really use that last sweet swig.

Young in Rocky II - made the following year (1979)

1. J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die (1971) and Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
2. This coming weekend I'll be one-year quit -- not being able to absorb any oxygen in your burnt lungs - that'll do 'er.

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