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

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


America, Canada, the North, vast empty night skies, rows of dreary tract homes without trees or sidewalks. The Winter, the dwindling Fall, dying err it arrives. Can it be here at last, the chill, the leaves and the first day of school all at once? The bell of the end, the clicking wheel of life and death, and, in film, dreams fill the void of the empty road, sky, and life.

Autumn comes everywhere, even Italy, whose art is older than America by many centuries --the orange hair of Nicoletta Elmi as she comes roaring at you with a hammer like a modern instance - and all on Prime... Can such deals be real, even at the tragic cost? 

(1988) Dir. Ed Hunt
*** / Amazon Image - B- (SD)

The Prime thumbnail image for this film might fool you into thinking it's another 50s black-and-white Donovan's Brain retread (there are over a half-dozen movies with the same ironic title) but accept no substitutes: Your Brain of choice should be in color, from 1988, and bathed in wintry Ontario wanness. The titular brain for this one is a giant fanged, alien, floating head (less Donovan, more Arous), so don't worry about being gypped on the monster end (I haven't ever seen Donovan, out of principle). This evil brain isn't possessing gangsters or John Agar, it's using local TV signals to brainwash parents into believing their children are dangerous illegal drug addicts! 

If that brings you a shudder of recognition, maybe you were a teenager in the 80s (the decade of urine samples and 'surviving straight'-style kidnap rehabs). Too, it might make you think of the divine Carpenter's They Live from the same year, but that was less about suburban teenage rebels and more about the inner city homeless. Not as relatable for me (thank the gods)!

there's obviously no such thing as irony on this Brain's planet
The mise-en-scene of The Brain boils down to the welcomely familiar Hitchcockian lovers-on-the-run model as a smirky antihero (Tom Bresnahan) reaps the bitter fruits of his practical jokes when no one believes his conspiracy babbling; his girlfriend (Cynthia Preston) works at a local diner and doesn't brook his tomfoolery. Escaping from rehab leads to a great stretch of film where he's just driving around his local streets, eluding the funny farm wagon. Its driver is a hulking hipster of a thing, and the sight of his lab smock wafting gracefully out of the van, brandishing ID tag and hypodermic and slinging a doped Tom over his shoulders like a bag of dog food--all while fighting off Tom's buddy and girlfriend--is one of those stealth cool/creepy film moments we take for granted in 80s movies, but we shouldn't - for they have not yet come again. 

Anyway, old Tom deserves his fate for wasting his chemistry skills on spiteful pranks too gauche even for a detention-magnet hesher. But he'll learn... oh yes.

 "he was dead before he ate here, sir."

Hypnotizing the whole Canadian town in order to suck up their brainwaves for his alien disembodied head ruler, Dr. Anthony Blakely (a re-animated David Gale) is a kind of Dr. Phil meets Dan O'Herlihy in Halloween III. He plans to launch a global satellite system that will enslave the world, but in the meantime, kill that rascally kid! The knack the big brain has for motivating the populace to kill smirky Bresnahan leads to great moments like housewives grabbing up jackhammers and swords whenever they see him and going crazy and hallucinating tentacles if they try to disobey. Meanwhile, the evil brain grows ever bigger the more consciousnesses it devours inside the TV studio. Outside, car chases and fights occur on the same drab suburban roads we all drove up and down every day while in high school, the kind with no sidewalk, or trees: tract homes hung in brick rows along soggy front lawns, it might be Ontario, but it's still griml familiar territory for a lot of us 80s kids, and we may well remember taking backyard routes along tiny strips of shrubbery-filled no man's land just to sneak home to get a change of socks while our parents were at work. And the TV studio/ rehab looks just like the high school and the high school looks just like your dorm rooms --it's all made out of those drab concrete blocks, painted white or grey -- prisons without bars.  For me at least it's so familiar it's like the filmmakers are inside my head, rooting through public high school memories like the evil brain is ransacking my own unconscious dreams.

Today we can watch a film like The Brain and--in addition to reveling in the great, over-the-top but super slimy and welcomely analog latex monster--remember back to a time long before the internet, when cable and video was new and our current erosion of consensual reality was only in its infancy, early enough that films like Videodrome and They Live seemed more speculative than historical. The Brain and They Live coming out the same year reflects a moment in time when parents were turned against their own children by hysteria-mongering TV pundits even as every other facet of outlaw self expression was slowly rolled back on us by our own consumerist impulses. Our only quasi-legal 'fun' came in skipping school and then going to the mall and smoking cigarettes at Spaceport. Too specific? For those of us living in this post-real America of the Now, where dueling 24/7 news channels turn America agains itself as Russia crashes our future's hard drive with flag-pumpin' sock puppets fanning flames of the phony fires they faked us into fearing, this has never been more prescient, blah blah.

Forget all that relevance. Come back to when this was all just science fiction, when it was all just part of a mid-80s micro-wave that saw deep into the 'reality' that cable TV and video rental stores seemed doomed to propagate. The Brain never caught cult status like fellow Canadian Cronenberg's Videodrome or Carpenter's The Thing, but it's more fun than both put together, with the teen couple like a suburban version of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, running around the TV station chased by zombified guards and an ever-growing fanged beach ball. If you were a pot-smoking hippy or punk teenager in the 80s you may well remember back to that time, when hysteria-mongering news reports convinced your mom it was OK have you shanghaied by Christian extremist rehabs if she found a bag of oregano in your jeans.

Now that weed is practically legal, the real addiction is cell phones. There is no rehab for that ailment, and the world is already in the thrall of some ancient online Slavic monster that has no name... let us call him - Yogxander SoPutggi'noth- and his Necronomicon the Faciem-liber!

(2016) Dir. Monica Demes
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Brazilian director Monica Demes has clearly taken some points from other b&w womyn's rites vampire features, like Michael Almereyda's Nadja and, especially, Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone in her feature debut, filmed in Iowa while under David Lynch tutorship at the University of MUM (i.e. Maharahrishi University of Management). Sophia Woodward stars as Lucy, a dissatisfied woman living in a twilight world of the flatland emptiness-drenched midwest, where she's bossed around by her dad (she works at his gas station as a cashier), almost raped by his creepy-hot mechanic (Matthew Lloyd Wilcox), and bossed around by her doughy husband (Sam Garles).  Lillith (Barbara Eugenia) rides into Lucy's dreams to wreak some vengeance, which then seems like reality. When it seems like it's almost always night, when days pass like dreamy flashes, which is which? That could be a sign to click 'stop' and keep scrolling, but resist! In a lot of ways this works as good as or better than Lynch's own Twin Peaks: The Return in that it's at least not boring and there's not as many badly-aged once-cute actors to remind us of our own crumbling mortality.

What helps most is that Demes and her cinematographers have found a way to capture the deep spooky blacks of the Iowa flat straight landscape, where the night extends outwards ever blacker into the vast distance, while letting us see, gradually, as shapes and faces emerge into an invisible lighting spectrum; there are blacks on blacks in ways one hasn't seen since straining to find Joe Spencer's tattoo on the cover of the Velvet's White Light/White Heat album. 

Filmed mostly in the dead quiet of night, with huge empty starless skies- it's a kind of 80-minute nightmare logic poem that could have been a real bore in lesser hands. Demes takes a few pointers from Lynch (who cameoed as a security guard in Nadja so it all fits full circle!) by papering the cracks with a droning avant-garde minimalist underscore, adding intensely hypnotic layers to the empty darkness of the landscape; its few twisting trees tapping into a meditative, pleasurable unease.

This is a dark movie, and the camera settles in for long-held static shots comprised often mostly of darkness, shadows of tangles of trees overlapping, or long flat stretches of road, with angry or zombified faces illuminated by dashboard lights at the wheel. Since it is so dark we're always peering into it, straining the emptiness out for faces; and sometimes, when one does show up, Demes ingeniously keeps the score quiet about it --there's no jangle of music letting us know what to feel and when we should feel it, and/or see what may even not be there. Thus, along with Lucy, we quickly begin to go crazy ourselves, as a defense mechanism against such unyielding emptiness. Sometimes 'daylight savings' time is almost a relief, crushing out the latter half of the day from the reminder there's nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Strain real close now, and let your paredolia fly! 

It's not perfect. Moments like sudden CGI flash of fangs, or a dumb shot of Lilith hanging upside down from a tree like a bat are more dumb than scary or dreamy. (Demes might have taken a look at the way bat conversion is subliminally alluded to in films like Daughters of Darrkness rather than spelled out); it would be the same in Witch Who Came from the Sea if we saw shots of Millie Perkins wearing a pointy witch's hat and straddling a trident. It also doesn't seem believable that Lucy's chucklehead husband would announce to her that he invited his boss and his wife over for dinner and therefore he expects Lucy to cook some nice meal for them when their kitchen is the size of a matchbox and it's not the early 1960s anymore and it's clear she never cooks anyway and holds a full time job of her own.

We hope she'd tell him to go fuck himself, or that Lilith, her dream anima-avenger shadow, will rip him asunder, but this is a movie not really on a realistic level -instead it has a kind of dreamy 'is Lilith real or is this girl hallucinating?' (ala Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came From the Sea); but who's complaining when--instead of the usual trench-coated middle aged working stiff investigating detective we get lovely Eden West in big aviator shades and a leather jacket is the cute lady motorcycle cop investigating the rapist mechanic's mysterious disappearance. With directorial debut horror movies it's sometimes not about the cumulative effect and the cohesion into a nice wrap-up payoff, it's about the mood and the moment. And on that, Demes delivers! 


Il medaglione insanguinato (malocchio)
aka "The Cursed Medallion"
aka "Together Forever" 
(1975)  Dir. Massimo Dallamano
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B

Despite its banal title/s, this autumnal-hued, Exorcist-tinged supernatural Freudian Italian thriller has the goods. Richard Johnson (The Haunting) stars as a British documentary filmmaker whose new subject is "Diabolical Art," specifically a nightmarish, ancient Italian painting with a tragedy-speckled provenance that has some eerie connection to his Elektra-complexioned young daughter Emily (giallo redhead mainstay Nicoletta Elmi). She's still getting over her mom's death (in a horrible fire which Emily witnessed) and is so clingy she ends up tagging along to Italy with him (at her shrink's insistence) to watch daddy film the cursed painting and its creepy condemned historical old private gallery/museum setting. Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) is his sexually available new assistant; Evelyn Stewart (the stringent sister in The Psychic) is the governess who maybe waited too long to make her own move in that department. As you may guess, all sorts of similarities between the events depicted in the painting and reality start to manifest, especially the young girl in the painting is starting to look a lot like Emily, who's growing increasingly possessed by the homicidal spirit attached to a mysterious medallion that used to belong to her witchy mom. Contessa Capelli (Lila Kedrova, Torn Curtain) tries to convince Johnson to leave Italy at once, but he won't! He doesn't believe in the supernatural, countess, I'm sorry. He keeps insisting the accumulating deaths are "accidents." The discovery of a duplicate to Emily's locket inside the statue that breaks at his feet when looking at the painting?. That too, countess, is coincidence... Sigh.   The countess can only see his death and see the roots of all the problems in her weird dreamlike trances, she can't convince Johnson to believe her warnings.

Meanwhile, Emily has terrible nightmares whenever dad is off scoring with sexy Cassidy. Everyone standing in the way of Emily's Elektra-Freudian desires starts dying off, and each time the dried blood or other strange gunk falls off the painting to expose more and more eerie detail. What is Emily doing? Why is her image appearing on this ancient canvas, holding a sacrificial double-edged knife? And what size rock has to fall on our documentarian's head before he wises up to the ghostly goings-on?

Johnson and his vaguely bossy/patriarchal manner and dismissiveness of the supernatural are familiar from The Haunting, so the real surprise here is Nicoletta Elmi. There's a scene where she goes from having a kind of nightmare seizure to a kind of Helen Keller plate-breaking fit to outright maniacal psychosis: in the scariest scene-- her eyes wild with merry homicidal glee--she starts lunging at her terrified governess with a hammer! Even just trying her mom's old dress, Emily's eyes light up with such dirty malice a viewer may get a deep, satisfying shudder.  When she smokes a cigarette, she does so with a look that's startlingly adult, easily outpacing other smoking 10 year-olds trying the same look (as in Tatum O'Neil in Paper Moon.)

Though it's a 70s post-Exorcist horror film, Italian cinema rarely let go completely of its old obsessions when adding trappings of a new (their history is too damned ancient to escape into a ground zero canvas the way we can here in the States). Maybe that's why the past is never through with the present there. Don't Look Now-style weirdness includes a muttonheaded skeptic chasing a strange child through twisting old narrow twisted Italian alleyways (in Spoleto instead of Venice). Maybe that's why Stelvio Cirpiani's score comes at it all like some sweeping sinful post-neorealist romance, with building strings and wistfully gamboling fifths soaring and lilting until you practically smell the autumn leaves and see pairs of lovers lost in blissful montage like it's some 60s softcore erotic vacation. He then plays that tune over and over and over, all that banal grand piano sweep. Only a three-beat recurring solo heartbeat line provides an in kliung Cipriani even watched the film. Suddenly the soapy dross drops away like mortality's curtain for this spare, ominous line.

The lush Italian scenery and ancient buildings and art--often seen via reflective windows--lets you know they really are driving around the Italian countryside; and the dreams Emily has are layered in extended overlays which only reluctantly give way to dissolves - a trick seldom employed as brazenly or as effectively as here. The painting that so fascinates dad so much is just the right blend of classical and heavy metal (Bosch meets Kiss) without it becoming tiresome (since we look at it so damned much). All in all, it might not be as great as The Exorcist or Don't Look Now, but the combination of Elimi's terrifying smile, the unabashed Freudian murk of the central relationship, and Italy's leafy old world foliage more than make-up for Cipriani's generic scoring, the low body count, the ultimate emptiness of the resolution, and the flat dubbing of everyone but Johnson.  

Friday, August 16, 2019


Leave it to Europe to deliver on the promise of HD cameras and non-union expressionist German handwerkers, taking the time to bring old masters' lighting and composition to even their low budget fantasy. Here are three fairly interesting, more or less family-friendly but dark, fairy tale-style forays into deep Jungian crypto-horror from the Emerald Isle, Germany and Italy. The accents might not always be there (they sometimes seem to be doing 'American') but the lighting runs from good to decent. These aren't your average DIY SOHDV mile-wide misses, they're legit little minor key gems looking for a rocky outcrop in the middle of the YA fantasy fiction and horror waterfall to nestle in, there to patiently wait for the right mopey young person--perhaps the type to read Bronte or Keats while perched on a fractal-patterned tapestry spread over the mossy rocks--to catch the secret glint of in the corner of their glasses.

That they are all findable in the rocky maze of Prime is a blessing. Normally we'd be able to see these only at a 'Fantastic Film'-style festival, where sneaking out after ten minutes would be, well, you'd hate to do it since you know the filmmaker and cast are probably in the row behind you and you're the only non-crew/cast member there, and really, it's not them it's you, etc. One of the reasons I stopped submitting my own work at festivals was to avoid this very thing. Just know this: the genesis of this post began after my surprise at the loveliness of The Forbidden Girl's cinematography. The other two films listed were the only ones I could watch to the end. I've started, stopped and flicked around on, dozens of similar titles on Prime just to get to these three (I was hoping for at least five); so bask in your moment if one of these lost kittens are yours! The rest of you, bring your grains of salt, your huddled sage-and-sandalwood candles yearning to be lit... and press play.

(2013) Dir. Riccardo Paoletti
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

You'd be forgiven thinking this a UK production --the actors are all Brits, Welsh, Irish. But it's an German-Italian joint and--despite the near constant UK-style dinginess of the skies--filmed in Italy! Independent-minded Jenny (Daisy Keeping) is spending a summer with her absentee archaeologist father near an ancient Etruscan lake, from which he's been exhuming ancient fetish totems. In ancient times, these small carved stones used to be tossed into the lake as sacrifices to the spirits. He's been taking them out, but also throwing other stones in, for some reason. Mostly he's gone, researchin' - so she's stuck at home, semi-bullied by a dimly evil au pair named Olga (Joy Tanner) or reading Shelley down by said mysterious lake, a practice that soon draws her an audience of handicapped children with the kind of pale ghostly faces that raise all sorts of red flags for any normal person. But Goth-crazed Jenny gathers them up like a babysitter den mother. Uh oh....

In addition to the whole Etruscan statuary element (shoehorned into the narrative with the finesse of a frostbitten safecracker), there's passages from Shakespeare (guess which play? Hint: one of the pale urchins is a brooding older boy with Edward Cullen facial planes).

Enriched with mythic meaning, often to the point of anything else, writer-director Martin Gooch clearly knows his Maria-Louise von Franz, and ably uncorks the genie of Jungian archetypal psychology which brings glowing Meaning to everything, as Jenny takes on the job of recovering the statues stolen by dad and throwing them back into the lake, and in the process finding a mysterious doorway hidden behind a log pile leading to a secret chamber!

What new mystery lies beyond!?

Fans of 70s-80s Italian horror will be pleasantly surprised to see ember-eyed David Brandon (Scarlet DivaStagefright) aging nicely into the sort of enigmatic Irish dad role usually monopolized by Gabriel Byrne; Keeping is a keeper as the can-do 'Nancy Drew on weird drugs' heroine, and--thankfully--there's no romance with the doe-eyed Edward-clone boy beyond some brooding gazes. Instead, we get just the Jungian archetypal challenges, triumphs, and dark father pursuits we find in all the best crypto-Jungian fairy tales with teenage girl protagonists whose moms are either dead or in Florida or both. The underwater photography is crisp and eerie, and for the most part Paoletti wisely keeps the less-successful CGI chimeras at a hazy distance.

Occasional missteps: the Medusa hair effect of one of the water nymphswould have been much more effective if they moved languid like flowing seaweed (as Val Lewton would have done it) and the Etruscan statue tossing thing is kind of bum rushed past us, as if the writers sincerely hope we won't notice the stank of an upcoming social studies quiz creeping in like a dad trying to interest his children in state history during a long car ride.

Either way it's fairly engrossing, makes interesting use of pans and dissolves (as in the above, where a painting of robed figures seems to imprint itself on the twilit lake), and features a pretty riveting climax with lots of drug use (I can't say more). It's great to see movies where the new girl in town isn't saddled with cumbersome school alienation tropes or romantic sogginess and has just the right level of Elektra complex. Jenny might get pissed when dad keeps ignoring her, but she finds things to do other than pine for some dead boy, and if the climax doesn't quite make as much sense as the filmmakers seem to think, at least they have the courage of their convictions, and one ends up feeling compassion for most everyone of the characters, save one....  

(2016) Written and directed by Martin Gooch 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

Though on the surface it's yet another modernized fairy tale where the intrepid young daughter of a slightly-overwhelmed, gruff but lovable widower (Simeon Willis) recovers mysterious stones in order to defeat a horned monster of the ancient woods, there's a lot more going on here than just the usual trite nonsense we'd get in an American movie following the same beats (the dad doesn't mope around watching videos of his dead wife, and when he flashes back, it's of them getting drunk in a canoe together!) Their ghost Mom appears to both father and daughter, warning them of coming danger, so dad can't just blow it all off, like usual. By day, dad occasionally raises his voice and flies into overwhelmed fits while trying to follow the strange clues ghost mom leaves and fix breakfast for his super-inquisitive daughter Eternity (Scarlett Rayner) --- but the pair can also share uniquely nice moments together, like treasure hunts and evenings outside on lawn chairs looking up at the stars ("if I ever get to ill or too old to have a beer under the stars," he tells Eternity, "I want you to put me in a little boat, and set fire to it...") Right on, Willis.

Fans of Irish horror will recognize the oft-used fairie lore moral of 'if you take things from out of the woods you had best return them', which was also underwriting another Irish horror, 2015's The Hallow. Here, Gooch wisely keeps the focus on the brilliantly precocious and alert Eternity as she mucks about digging holes, looking for treasure; she may not be quite aware of the forces she's messing with (as when she hacks into a power cable in the front yard) but she's able to meet the creepy gaze of the enigmatic shotgun-toting neighbor (Linel Aft) without so much as an imperceptible shiver.

But what really sells it is the well-tempered rapport between Eternity--her super long straight hair picking up impressions like a 10 year-old Maria Orsic--and her only-mildly overwhelmed and disheveled, vaguely taller-Ricky-Gervais-ish dad--they seem like both opposites and clearly related--with him gruffly giving her pointers for sticking up for herself against bullies, and gradually realizing he'll be totally overwhelmed on his own search for answers unless he brings her along. Once his investigation into the magic stones leads him to the truth, it's nice that he has no problem totally believing his daughter. How often do we see a dad offering anything but sleepy irritation or pasteurized reassurance when his daughter starts screaming about something being under the bed? Not this dad! He gets down on his knees to look, and he's scared, and so is the musical score! This is a world where bumps in the night aren't just delusions; we've crossed over into fairy tale land but without ever being quite aware there was a door to go through.

There's an ecological message underlying things but it never gets heavy-handed. In this case the CGI is better modulated than in most such low budget films: branches reach out and victims of a woodland "Green Man" style horned guardian of the forest captures those traveling through the woods and meshes them into the roots of trees - a pretty scary, well-done effect. There are also some terrifying parental dreams dad has, as when he cuts off his daughter's fingers because she won't put down her iPad! The fairy tale intensity of this all works to keep things uneasy and may scare children into realizing the emotional fragility of adults who become shut out of their kids' lives due to cell phones. People die in this film, in true fairy tale grimness; even an innocent lady cop who spends the day wandering around the woods, evoking a mix of Winona Earp's sister's cop girlfriend Nicole, and Amy Pond in her cop costume in the first Matt Smith episode of Dr. Who. (2)

My favorite bit is the third act, when both mom of the babysitter and dad finally believe the kids and they all go on an armed expedition into the woods to find the horned god, and there's even a Goth psychic (Anda Berzina) friend of the sitter (Zara Tomkinson) who drifts over to read tarot cards. As with Neverlake, strange country houses turn out to have hidden rooms deep within secret chambers accessible only from trap doors hidden in the base of closets or woodpiles.  By the end one has grown quite fond of all the characters (save one) and we wouldn't be averse to a nice sequel. Like Neverlake it has the air of a YA fantasy novel, and there are virtually no boys at all, just a few adult males pointing dad towards the horned truth, and the strange Mr. Sykes for counterpoint.

PS: For a similar film, more adult, check out another big favorite discovery of recent years, Michael Almereyda's The Eternal (1998)

(2013) Dir Til Hastreiter
*** / Amazon Image - A+

What a difference a talented ambitious cinematographer makes! Merely OK films become great, or at least worth a glimpse. 99% of the unknown stuff floating on Prime is shot on HD video, in this case it's the staggeringly pretty looking (especially for such a dismal and unfair imdb rating, a staunchly undeserved 3.4) movie that lets you know just how good digital film can look with the right painterly craftspeople at the helm. My observation through relentless slogging is that such brilliance is almost always the result of an Eastern European craftsman, with the artsy eye to deliver beauty that, like in Ivan Brlakov's stunning work The Bride, transcends the film it services. In this case, it's Hungary's Tamás Keményffy, who brings a golden dusk sharpness to German-Dutch production, The Forbidden Girl, a (filmed in English); a tale of Jungian high weirdness I stumbled on via Prime when I was drawn to the cover art.

The result? It might be my favorite random discovery since Bitches' Sabbath (i.e. Witching and Bitching). It's a little rough around the narrative edges, but it's a nicely acted and sometimes well-written tale of the anointed (American) son whose mysterious (German) dream lover may well be either a witch or imprisoned by one. Toby McLift (Peter Gaidot) is sent to a mental hospital after his looney-tunes Baptist preacher dad murders his girlfriend; he's hired as a tutor in residence at an ancient, crumbling mansion that just happens to hold his true love chimera girlfriend. But if he thinks he's going to have an easy time teaching her though or rekindling their passion, he's wrong. For one thing, she doesn't even remember him! For two, her guardian is a towering, supernatural, controlling Germanic watchdog played Klaus Tange (Strange Color of Your Body's Tears), who skulks ever within hearing range.

Hamburg-born, Strassberg-trained actress Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen is alive and wild as this forbidden girl Laura, a classic Jungian anima figure, whose kept in a tower, away from the eyes of strangers, though why her guardians should want a doe-eyed lovestruck mental case like British-born dreamboat Peter Gadiot up there as a tutor is anyone's guess, unless it's because he bears 'the mark' that will open doors to Hell. That's not really a spoiler if you've seen enough of these kinds of films. But what's unusual is the great use of the crumbling mansion as a sprawling set that puts the Overlook and Hill House both to shame. Scenes take place by a leaf-filled crumbling half-full indoor pool, for example, or along dark twisted hallways, and into small ditches around the property. We get a real feel of the architecture through the ever-prowling camera. 

And in bed in a different room, withered and dying though slowly growing mysteriously younger with Gaidot's presence (ala Hasu, or I Vampiri), waits is the enigmatic witch Lady Wallace (Jeanette Hain). You won't need a copy of Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces to figure out what's really going on (or why even a tiny amount of sunlight--as when a shade accidentally flips up--can set fire to ancient books and generally wipe these witches out. As the light creates a weird camera obscura image on the side of what looks like a transparency projector, we're forced to admit that, unconvincing as it is, it's all way prettier, better, and more genuinely surreal than Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return

But these kinds of dark fairy tales are never about either story of beauty - they're about the journey, these are the equivalent of the tales children love hearing over and over, because the story rings deep into the fabric of our unconscious tapestry, shaping the way we view the world and giving our dreams the narrative structure our unconscious is often not enough of a dramatist to provide. Here we get the same balmy 'living all ages of life at once' thing we get in Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Lemora, and even Muhlholland Dr. to a weirder degree. It's not 'better' than those films, but it is certainly lovely to look at, with deep blacks and rich moody colors that evoke the saturated interiors of Next of Kin's old folks home, or the autumnal leaf-bedecked scenery of José Ramón Larraz films like Symptoms and Vampyres. The CGI is bad, but you can't have everything!

Performances, too, are all superb in their offness - the 'American' accents give these European actors an uncanny frisson - with special praise to Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen, so alive from one moment to the next that capturing a good screenshot for her was like asking fire to hold its flicker; and Hain, who proves herself a real master at the sort of raspy, old world seduction wherein we believe she could hold both young and older men in her sexy cobra stare on separate floors at the same time. Tange is legitimately frightening yet also romantically tragic and Gaidot shows he's more than just a pretty face through all his can-do gallivanting in the face of insurmountable supernatural cockblocking. Less successful CGI elements depict a kind of shadowy quick-moving ghost creature ever trying to steal back Laura to Hell or wherever, but the CGI black smoke whiffs don't overstay their welcome (except for some tacky fire effects here and there). And the score doesn't become too bogged down in tacky Danny Elfman whimsy cues, though composer Eckes Malz's reliance on familiar orchestral and chorale themes does seem a missed opportunity (oh what a Klaus Schulze could do). But the camerawork overcomes all: it zips and prowls on padded feet so we feel like we're skulking around the mansion's spooky vastness on stocking feet in the dead of night. It's a hard thing to get right, but by the end of the film we feel like we know all the ins and outs of this weird wondrous place, including how to escape it, or die trying, and trying again even after that.

One of the story's many strengths is the total absence of a distinct black/white dichotomy. We empathize with the romantic yearning and sense of irrecoverably lost time in the sad eyes of the older pair of lovers and can't help but wonder whether the real villain is actually Toby in his blind determination to rescue Laura whether she wants to go or not.

Jeanette Hain

All together, taken as a triptych, we get in these three films what can happen when imaginative low budget filmmakers let loose with enough of a European sensibility that their work isn't stepped on by a lot of second-guessing producers. We learn that children in fantasy movies needn't be doe-eyed drips or crass morons, and parents needn't be saints or sex offenders with no room in between. Childhood fairy tale wonderment and adult sexuality (portions of Forbidden Girl get pretty racy) go hand-in-hand. Wether it's delivering stolen ritualistic stones back into the hands of woodland spirits or shagging 300 year-old witches during arcane rituals, these tales take us home, to the real home. When told with the feeling of real danger, alive with real magic, the secret doors hidden in our gatehouses open, and along with the demons comes everything we ever thought was lost, all those traumas too rough to recall in the same decade they happened, all those intense in-love moments that were so great they left you feeling hollow and lost for years after they ended, vainly trying to get back to the garden until, by the time you got there, that garden was a wasteland, plants all dried and dead... You took too long to get there with the watering can and now aren't even the same person that left. But maybe the golden intense love you lost is still waiting, inside the innermost secret chamber of your dream castle. 

Stop looking for the key and there it is.

2. Surprise! If you get those two references, thou art a geek

Monday, August 12, 2019

Air Auda Beya Lah: THE BEACH BUM (2019)

One of a trio of neo-'head' movies (along with CLIMAX and MIDSOMMAR) that marks 2019 as the year psychedelics became the new weed and weed became a nootropic, THE BEACH BUM signals the return to the ever-in-style bad boy auteur Harmony Korine, his stoned-ass hour has come! All three films make a successful conscious effort to capture the highs and lows of the psychedelic experience, in an array of settings (Climax being the worst trip ever; Bum being the best, and Midsommar moving between both like Jacob's ladder angels), to not just use drugs to tell a story but to make the viewer feel like they are on those drugs, either via remembrance of one's own experience or -- well, I can't imagine the other way: would people watching these films who've never done drugs 'get off' from them or would it just seem like a bunch of idiots cavorting around in loud circles?

Furthering the sunglasses and turquoise Florida ecstasy-dilated forward kinetic momentum of his 2012 masterpiece Spring Breaker, Korine also shows his age. He's too old to party with college kids by now - so he's put himself in the headspace of an old stoner, who--unlike the Breakers folks, works the Keys sans guns, unless you count poetry as violence, and if you think the occasional cold cocking a cripple with a beer bottle is somehow deserving of legal repercussion. Moondoggie (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't. Sailing with the ocean wind at full speed, damn the too torpedoed to keep up with the headlong momentum of a poetic madman on an everything that comes his way binge, swapping out Saint Pete for the party-hearty Key West - a 24/7 raging town where everyone knows and loves the Moondog (no relation to the famous NYC street musician - except perhaps subliminally).

Once a literary lion, now a sun-trippin' chronic-bong-rippin' alleycat, Moon spends his days fishing on his crazy Rube Goldberg-does-gravity-bong-hits houseboat with a few naked girls, and at home with an understanding maid who helps him to the couch if and when he passes out on the kitchen floor. Shidappens. Welcome to drop in on any party, make out with anyone's girlfriend, or rush anyone's stage, Moondog keeps his buzz going by never bringing bad vibes to his transgressive personal space invasions. He makes 'the Dude' seem uptight and reminds me of my previous parlay with enlightenment (see my 2012 Galactic Awakening and its ensuing poetry here), the kind when the idea of a "you" starts to vanish and you become the world (scratching a tree or a neighbor when you have an itch, for example).

Alas, these kind of good vibrations are awfully hard to maintain once reality sniffs you out like a police dog and sinks its judgy-wudgy fangs into your tender fetlock. Fame sure helps keep that dog leashed though, allowing the Moondog to sashay through life as if it's his own private dream where only he knows he's dreaming. Shhhhh. A fantasy of drunken acceptance, this is life as a continuous surfing wave, powered and maintained by fame.

Maybe he is dreaming though (no one gets rich on 'poetry'), maybe we're seeing people's reactions to his behaviour through his own rose-colored shades, and there might be a different movie, through the eyes of a sober, weary soul who just wants to drink in peace, for whom Moondoggies' antics are just tiresome reminders of how much less 'fun' such behavior actually is (forcing the witness to re-evaluate how charming booze actually makes him). We see a bit of it in the way he judges his daughter for marrying a straight-edge dillweed, but it should be clear enough to him why his daughter is so hungry for structure.

And indeed, it seems like a dryly self-aware fantasy for delusional poets, those of us who surrendered the dream of being the next Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson shortly after realizing the real world had no space for such people anymore, except as small chapbook distributing visiting professors who spend half the year traveling the country giving readings at tiny bookstores. In real lifethere's simply no more room in the pantheon of greats for us - the living rockstar poets of today, man. Times have changed, man. The idea that anyone could be famous for poetry in a party town like Key West is itself a fantasy, like going platinum for your self-produced album of mostly in-key acid rock jams.

In case you can't tell by my veiled bitterness, I had a mild taste of the dog's life back in Syracuse back in the late-80s and NYC in the early-90s, when I was doing radio and TV voiceovers; a time when someone like Maggie Estep could still get on MTV (so there was hope/ for us all / to rise / like dough / on flour-strewn boards / the rolling pin and the proving / the open mic salted but not too soured  / over thyme, etc.), but I needed far too much chemical enhancement to stay that positive for more than a few months straight without winding up getting strep throat or a massive flu (impossible to avoid up in Syracuse where the snow never melts and the heaters carry molds stretching back to the dawn of time). But I talked the talk and walked the walk, and I knew the Moondogs, and loved the drugs and sometimes could even stand listening the Grateful Dead or reading Wallace Stevens, But that's the genius of Moondog, he sails through life irregardless of the clammy claws of the social order. Even stripped of his riches, he finds wealth in an endless assortment of local color with which to run wild, never judging the violent anymore than the righteous.  Even forced into rehab, he finds a way to handle it - to just break out at the first opportunity and go deep underground. A real outlaw.

Matthew McConaughey is brilliant in the lead, playing an extension of the character he'd already perfected to the point of godliness 26 years ago in 1993's Dazed and Confused, the Zen floater on currents of non-focalized amorphous fraternal love and bliss that make him able to pull down complex poetically-phrased thoughts that stun and reduce his pot-struck cronies to near tears. We see how he's tapped into the same divine hedonistic source that made him so deft at pulling the tachyon potentiality strings that alerted his daughter to his presence behind the bookshelf in Interstellar (see 'Space is the Place: Sun Ra vs. Mathew McConaughey). He's a high brother. He reminds me of me in college, of course, thanks to the band I was in; I too had a rep where I never had to pay for drinks or covers, and would sell xeroxed copies of my chapbook for $1 each, and was welcome on any stage, to improv poetry over jams from my fellow bands, at least for a few years. All that went away of course, and its absence crushed me like an empty can, almost sending me on that long swim until Night of the Iguana saved my life. But I would have loved to show my dad this movie as if to say "see dad! You can get rich on poetry and unemployment."

Still, in the end it's a fantasy to imagine anyone could make enough money on a book of poetry to be able to please a cash-guzzling southern "literary agent." Coupled to this willfully fantasy-tinged view of the lucrative world of publishing (no doubt a beard for filmmaking itself, and the agent and friends' needling to finish his book being the rub that it's been so many years since party animal Korine's last movie), is the idea that with enough weed you can float past the consequences of busting out of a court-mandated rehab, stealing a boat and going on a wild crime and auto theft bender spree with a vaping felon (a thugged-out Zac Effron), breaking a bottle over a crippled man's head as he steers home in his electric wheelchair and robbing him, all without it affecting your pristine beach karma, because you're so filthy rich and famous it's an honor to be cold-cocked, like how it was once considered 'in fashion' to be robbed by Jean Genet. So though the cops are after him, the Dog never serves time or is caught - putting on women's clothes for the rest of the film (and what clothes, like he's Gloria Swanson on her 50th honeymoon) seems too make him invisible to cop eyes. Fleeing to his house in the Keys seems to wipe clean his slate. As with the ending of Taxi Driver, or the little 'ride to jail' escape dream shard by Edward Norton in Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, we've, somewhere along the line, crossed over into wish fulfillment fantasy.

One aspect of the brilliance of Korine's work, stretching back to his script for Larry Clark's seminal Kids (1995), is that he trusts his audience to navigate this kind of deceptive murk as it were the clear water of a tropical beach, that hides broken glass and invisible jelly fish -- which sting you without the music on the score changing from happy beach jams. He gives us in The Beach Bum, as he did in Spring Breakers, a morally bankrupt antihero on a truly endless summer, encouraging us to identify without emulation, to get a feel for the kinetic freedom of those willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the bliss of the moment, unattached to possessions so much as seeking intoxicants and never saying no to weird opportunities, nor even judging people's actions as right or wrong, to not go on a crime spree after seeing the film's ostensible heroes commit crimes and get away with them.

There's a brilliant druggy breathy moment between college students Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson (who funded their trip south by robbing an all-night cafe), and James Franco (the drug kingpin of "Saint Pete", who bailed them out when they got busted for drugs in their hotel room during their initial massive coked-out orgy) - the three are all twisted up in a weeklong naked threesome on beds of money, guns, and drugs, when suddenly the girls grab a gun and stick right in Franco's face, as if to say, sucker, we got you now, and are going to take all his cash and split. Franco is we're expecting to either get pissed off or panic, but he quickly brings himself back into the moment and starts fellating the gun. Is this something they improvised? Either way, it's brilliant - all with repetitive whisper ASMR whispery drug/sex talk. It's that kind of kinetic in-the-moment response that earns our admiration and makes both Breakers and Bum work as twin masterpieces of duplicating the best highs of the drug experience, they are the corbeille américaine nouvelle vague - as accomplished in their heedless momentum as Truffaut's one-two punch of 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player at the dawn of the swingin' early 60s. Of course those weren't separated by seven years in which Truffaut only managed to make two music videos. But there were so fewer drugs floating around then. The best one could do was expired US Army amphetamines and endless wine. God knows the shit Korine's been doing, it probably doesn't even have a name yet, just a molecular number.

There is a moment early on when, to inherit his share of his late wife's millions, Moondog must first publish his long-delayed new book of poetry. To motivate him, he's totally cut off, and even kicked out of their Miami mansion, essentially forced to look for hand-outs as he bums around with his typewriter in a pillowcase. Then, he's arrested and forced into a 12-month rehab but he escapes after a few days and never looks back, nor does he have to! Between that and the way his rather dubious poetry is so highly regarded that he can stagger up to the podium at the Pulitzer Prize award dinner and babble about his cock and be embraced like a scruffy saint, his daughter now laughing at his jokes again, his cash released and presented to him in a giant slab, lets you know this is the kind of fame imagined by a stoned poetry class freshmen ranting at his school's open mike nights, but he rants / to no avail.

To no avail.

But I know these Moondog types, I partied with them, and it's certainly true that they liven up their corner of the scene. As long as you don't expect coherence or to be your own center of attention, you're bound to have a good time when they're around. Certainly they're no mooches, unless they don't happen to have anything, which they seldom do as they're too generous with it so it's gone very fast (Jesus with the loaves and fishes they ain't). Still, we understand why Snoopp would give him a plane, a massive wad of cash, and a wheelbarrow full of weed, to make his getaway when the law closes in on Snoop's pleasure palace. At the same time, none of his new friends ever proves hard for the Dog to leave when he gets the least bit bored or called off on his magical road. He end up never having to shoehorn a glommer off of his leg, which alas happens quite often in real life. Everyone is as welcoming as they are understanding of the cosmic forces which draw him thither (or they're just happy to see him go).

On the other hand, for every one of the charming Dogs there are about 100 mooches. Magically, Moondog never attracts such needy barnacles. After I graduated I'd drift back to that scene and there was a would-be Moondog (but really just a joneser townie) named Doug E. Fresh (who actually looks a lot like MM does here, as far as facial hair, but with that angular, starving dog face so familiar to those of us whose parents could afford braces or complex proteins). He didn't do poetry but he did have raps, which were the nu-poetry in 1991, and he'd never stop reciting them. You'd hear him recite the same lame rhyme flow over and over through the night as he hit on each new girl at the party. I'm sure, in his mind, he thought he was as irresistible as Moondog, but that's the genius of having McConaughey in the role. Swap him out with, say, Robert Wuhl, Ethan Hawke, or Eric Schaeffer and see if he gets the same howda ya do without it feeling like someone is buying him friends.  (1)

I can't spoil the ending, nor do I want to give up many plot points since there are so few of them - let's just say that he walks it likes he talks it, and no amount of challenges in his late wife's will can prevent him from doing just as he pleases, whether that includes leading a chorus of homeless inside his wife's and his pearly gates, to go swimming and then trash his own living room (shades of 2017's Mother!) or celebrating... something by a kind of ritualistic self-immolation (and Korine loves to film outsider derelicts smashing rich people furniture, a tribute to his beloved Werner Herzog, and perhaps Bunuel).

It's all just a dream anyway, so why not do as thou wilt? Jonah Hill's accent as the super rich literary agent lets you know just how much of a fantasy this is, especially in this day and age. The only literary agent living that high on the hog today is JK Rowling's.

As I get older and older, the kind of in-the-moment hedonism, McConaughey displays here leaves me feeling both assured and slightly lost, not that I didn't get enough of a taste for that kind of life in my prime, but that I could never sustain it for long. Other people in my group could ride it all the way, and in some ways that wave is only now beginning to break. I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall during this shoot to see just what they were all smoking, if they actually smoked that much. Like Nick Charles with his drinking, one can really only smoke so much pot without hitting a kind of plateau and either crawling over to the TV to waste the rest of the day, crashing onto the beach, or going into a paranoid heart-racing tailspin. Nick's drinking consumption would probably kill a normal human being but it's a kind of fantasy of excess. Especially in this day and age, weed has become so strong most of us can barely handle more than a single hit or two before reaching that breaking point wherein it's no longer fun.

I'm sure that's not true for all of us. Couple guys I know... they could. But they sure ain't about to write poetry. The biggest weed smoker I know did get one to write memoirs, with my encouragement, when he was in jail, and he was a natural with lots of sharply-observed details. But he didn't have access to weed then, I assume. He stopped writing once he resumed smoking.

Thank god then, there's a man like Moondog, out there smokin' and livin' a dream and writing about it.

Where will the crabs go,
when there's no more crotches like his?

A key element of Korine's success, if any, is an obsessive need for speed, for sharply observed moments tumbling after each other in a blithely stumble-forward momentum. Without this, Spring Breakers would wind up in plenty of circular eddies, with sound bytes repeated over and over, like a breathy, coke shiver mantra, and dead ends like jail and the wearisome Catholic reticence of Selena Gomez. There's none of that here, just a forward march move of the Dog, so that even rehab seems like it's part of an incredible outlaw journey undertaken while stumbling genially forward. There's never a dead stop. We seldom, if ever, see Moondog either eat or sleep --he's never shown as starving, dizzy from lack of a decent meal, looking for a place to shit or pee, or throwing up from too much booze; he passes out once on the floor once early on, and his loving housekeeper rescues him but as soon as he's back on his feet he's off and rolling away the doobs.

Korine captures a very rare and difficult to do right interiority in his mastery of this style. Just as he did with Breakers, we're given the 'inside' view of a very high man. We don't get a 'true' external but we do sense that, with just a slight shift in the POV, Dog's antics might seem the height of uncool tragedy. We get glimpses of the underside to Moondog's shenanigans in the corners of frames sometimes, like the poor old lady in the wheelchair he sends flying across the veranda into wall while bounding into his daughter' wedding ceremony. It's okay because she's not really his mother, or something - and she's forgotten. We don't even see if anyone helps her back into her chair. Indeed, the way the other person in a chair we see is cold-cocked and robbed, we wonder if the Dog and/or Korine has an unconscious resentment against the physically impaired, which is uncool. On the other hand, there's his erstwhile dissing on the loathsome banality of his daughter's choice in husband, which he does right there on the wedding floor. On the other hand, he doesn't recognize him as the kind of straight edge type of spouse sought after by adult children of flaky drug-addled partying celebrity parents (ala Saffie in Absolutely Fabulous or Christian Bale in Laurel Canyon). In other words, her choosing a doofus is partially his fault.

What makes Korine's view unique, is that the Moondog gets away with it. Is it because he's a celebrity or because he's Matthew McConaughey? Take for an example of the other side of it all - Johnny Depp in the awful same-year (2019) manly literature dude setting the people straight while coasting into a middle aged white man oblivion cock wave, The Professor, and you see just how great Korine is at his job. Unlike Professsor's director Wayne Rogers, Korine would never have the Dog make grand, insufferably bourgeois self-congratulatory demands to "seize your f--cking existence, folks!" He'd rather show than tell, which is what real writers and filmmakers do, Wayne. And if in the process we see just how unsightly it all may look if you don't have rose-tinted star-shaped shades on, that's just how it is, baby. You'll come around, and anyway he'll be off on another adventure and you can start cleaning up and soon he'll be just a funny anecdote.

A few years before I had my first drink there was a chapter on alcoholism in my middle school health class. (Actually it was that textbook that inspired me to try and smoke weed for the first time, being up til then a depressive punk rock straight edge: on the very last page at the end they point out they quietly mention pot has no long-term negative effects and indeed might promote immunity health and that psychedelics have immeasurable therapeutic value when done in the right circumstances -you had to read between the lines but there it was). Alcohol, the book said was a poison en par with heroin as far as detrimental health value and erosion of competency. We learned on the other hand that, though weed made you stupid if done to excess, it was reversible. Quit smoking dope and all your brain cells would grow back. Alcohol, on the other hand, was brain damage. One step up from glue sniffing

In this health class the teacher also showed a movie on the dangers of booze in which we see a thing those of us with alcoholic parents might be rather used to already: in the story, there's girl acting in a high school play and she's a big success. On opening night, during the curtain call, down the center aisle of the crowded PTA-packed assembly room comes drunk mom, in her bathrobe, staggering onstage to bring her embarrassed daughter a tattered flower bouquet, babbling to the gasping throng about what a great daughter she is, before crawling off to sleep in the wings. Ugh! God only knows how well that must have come off in her head.

We might also think of Norman Maine's (above left) drunken crashing of his wife's award speech (either at the Oscars or Grammys in any of the Star is Borns).  Seeing such naked sloppy attention grabbing is not unlike lifting the rock off a bug nest, for we see the externals not the camaraderie and hilarity we'd see were we as drunk as he is, or that stage mom, or Moondog is high. I know my dad ceased to be annoying once I too was drinking. I know too the cushy inside of that - I know what it's like to be all warm with whiskey mixing heroic grandeur and emotional sweep into the blood, so that every flourish of your hands in time with the sweep of some Bernard Hermann passage feels as if you're conducting the whole of Odessa across the steppes, a one man Dr. Zhivago of emotion and scope all encapsulated into your every head turn. You only find out how un-all that is years later, when you see it parade before you in the next generation, while you are painfully sober - aware of all the problems, rippling through time, your 'merriment' has wrought upon the world.

What's genius about Korine's and McConaughey's excellent work on the Bum is that it captures that rush of genius feeling without the need to either back it up with genuine brilliant diegetic poetry or anything like actual consequences. We're so conditioned to presume that with the wife's dying will edict about getting his act together coupled with the judge (who even confesses she "used to be a fan") remanding him to rehab, that he'll emerge with a haircut and a suit and we'll have the other polarity, which is what--if Korine was a 19 year-old screenwriting student at some generic writing workshop, he'd be told is important for character arc (I can just see the teacher drawing a big half-circle on the white board and gazing hopefully at Harmony like he's a precious little five year-old), workshopping it all down until it's another 28 Days (2000).

Clearly, Moondog needs no lessons in learning boundaries or how to open up to people, he can just do it while getting lit with Snoop Dogg (Here called 'Lingerie' so we don't get our 'dogs' mixed).

Cigarettes helped obscure how unattractive that all looks from far enough away. Now in bars you can see all the way across the room, and smell the way proximity in a small space while drinking and being flushed with drink leads to a boozy mist in the air that smells like a tang. Luckily, we have Korine here to remind us how wondrous it all looks from close enough we're on the inside looking out, and everything sure is beautiful. The jokes keep coming, from Moondog shaking off his jealousy before it can blossom (when he sees wife and Lingerie making out on the dock) and goes deep into the fountain, swimming around while masterfully keeping his drink always above the waterline; or his temporary affiliation with Martin Lawrence's hilarious 'swim with the dolphins' boat guide, who winds up leaping in to a pool of sharks by mistake and has his foot bit off (which Moondog helpfully tosses into the ambulance before ambling onwards).

In the end, bro. It's all good. It looks great. And it even ends in such a way as we expect movies to end, with millions caught up in empty explosions and a cat in jeopardy. And along the way, Matt McConaughey is so very much his stoner self he all but smokes the film right in front of you.

And in the end we're spared trite 'third road' solutions like in Depp's awful The Professor, because the Dog doesn't want you to 'shepherd your own life' or stand on your Dead Poets desk. The Dog doesn't want anything, not even millions of dollars. The dog just wants a doob, and a kitty.

And the cat lives!
(Visit my own site of trippy poetry here)

For a nice chaser to the Moondog's shaggy antics, check out the paralyzing bad trip energy of Michael Cera in two underseen little gems from Chilean director, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus. 
The other two psychedelic hits of the year: CLIMAX, and MIDSOMMAR

And for more on debauched middle-aged SWMs giving the crowd one last finger before turning it over to... you know, everyone else:

Now bleed for Me: THE WRESTLER (2008)
An American Rohmer: Clint Eastwood's BREEZY (1973)
Beards of Bleak: THE ROAD, WINTER'S BONE
The Foxy, the Dead, and the Foxier: DEATH-PROOF (BL 1/08)
Fantasy Phallus Fallacy: SATURN 3 (1980)
Quixote Ugly: THE SWIMMER (1968)
The Flower People Screaming: DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)
You rolled, you really rolled: ROLLERBALL and a 70s Bloodsport Overview
Where's the Love, Man? THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Paters Horribilis: Hookers, Harvey, and a Man called Pollack: EYES WIDE SHUT
The Narcissistic Male Gaze: It's not you it's Me because I am You
Great Old Drunk Writers and their Big Black Death (12/07)
Charge of the White Elephant: POLLOCK (2010)
Bride of Bogartstein: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
Mendacity A-Go-Go: Liz vs. the Little Monsters (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF)
All Hail the New Flesh Keychain: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Born to be Childless (WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?)
The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANTE C'EST D'AMIER
Mid-Life Crisis Superstar: Humbert, LOLITA and the Bait/Switch Cycle
Butler of Orbs: THE MASTER, THE (2012)
The Well-Tempered Poitier: Thanksgiving with AMERICAN GANGSTER (11/23/07)
Chop Wood, Carry Sponsors - The MAD MEN - Finale
A Great Hook: ROLLING THUNDER (1977 - Blu-ray review - BL 7/7/13)
Out HUD (New Years 2008)
Forgotten Men with Steam
All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives: Kubrick's LOLITA (BL)
Procedurama!: PUBLIC ENEMIES (BL)
I Aims to Scan your Big Bald Head: HITMAN and the New Male Chastity (07)
CinemArchetype 25: The Fisher King

1. Astute readers will analyze my loathing for Doug E. Fresh as a kind of projected self-loathing anxiety (that was the Doug E. Fresh, and not an erudite, occasionally coherent mix of Mick Jagger and Zoot (from the Electric Mayem). Just having to write all that judgy stuff up there kind of shows I still worry about that. 

Ride on, Moondog - you never worry, or project, right down to your core of cores. 

Friday, August 02, 2019

Sharktopi vs. Various Things: Best of Syfy Shark Movies Part 2

Summer always brings three old familiar film re-binges back to casa de Acidemic: Marlene Dietrich-Von Sternberg films, Val Lewton horrors, and bad shark movies. For reasons known only to them, Syfy isn't deluging us with their Asylum and Offshoot giant and mutant shark movies this summer. Maybe because they don't have a Deep Blue Sea 3- Blewing Deeper, or an Arctic Sharktadon vs. Lobsterdamus (the visionary lobster who predicts a grim future of hot butter)or Sharknado 7 - Drowning Around. to debut. It doesn't matter, as no fan of this genre would remember having seen all their back catalogue, even if they had (cuz, you know). And most are still either Syfy 'on demand' or Amazon Prime. So just play catch up and leave it to me to make the notes, together we'll remember everything, and won't that be fun?


And believe me, like oceanographers themselves, I've only plumbed about 10% of what's down there, so am likely to be 'swimming' in the CGI depths for Julys to come.

As before, ratings are all relative to a certain level of badness and audience indulgence. And though sure, the effects are usually bad CGI, it's not always the case. For example take a close look at the shot above, a screenshot, mind you, and the excellent shadows cast on the beach, and the heads on each other, the glistening shark skin reflection off the unseen (lighthouse?) light source at right. Details like that take some amount of care and patience to get right. And it looks great, regardless of what you may want to think. Sneer away! These sharks were made with some amount of love and you can feel it - there's effort and low-key talent afoot!

Still, the criteria for quality here is how well the film fits in with the Platonic ideal of the lazy Saturday afternoon half-nap, the kind of thing you want on during a rainy Saturday afternoot after a strenuous week, where you really earned a day of total indolence. There should be a certain level of dry wit (i.e. deadpan cool rather than doofus clowning), good pacing, a game cast, beachy vibes and Bechdel professionalism, i.e. women (as per the Corman tradition) capably playing professionals--sheriffs, scientists, grizzled shark hunters, unscrupulous corporate mongers--as well as the usual lifeguards and screaming bathers. The ideal ratio, as per baking (literally and figuratively) is just enough thrills to keep you watching but not enough to bum or stress one out. It should be witty without getting puerile and sexy without being tawdry or vulgar. Tough order? Not for (most of) these Syfy/Asylum shark bytes!

(2015) Starring Catherine Oxenburg

The third best Casper Van Dien movie (after Starship Troopers and Modern Vampires), it's further proof he is on his own joke and knows to play a hungover charter boat captain, operating out of the scenic and tropical Dominican Republic, dead straight. His first mate and drinking partner Pablo (Jorge Eduardo De Los Santos) at his side, and one left-field fast ball after another beaning them square on the sconce, Casper becomes the hero by sheer chance But hey! This here is the kind of drinking movie when Casper might get his leg bitten down to the bone, but his main concern is whether or not he spilled his beverage.

We here at Acidemic salute such dogged concern!

Casper's troubles begin when he wakes up after a deep bender to find his boat is hosting a funeral at sea. One of the bereaved mourners is grabbed and sucked under by a malicious clawed tentacle, and Van Dien is blamed and jailed by his ex flaca, Inspector Nita Morales (Asylum regular Akari Endo). But what Casper mainly worries about is that the other prisoners stay quiet long enough to sleep off some of his whale of a hangover.

As we say in AA, I really related.

In a refreshing (and very Corman) gender update, the divine Catherine Oxenburg is a mysterious and unscrupulous doctor in genetics (i.e. a mad scientist) named Dr. Reinhardt, who runs an unlicensed genetic 'undetectable' doping clinic, illegal even for the DR. Fans will remember Oxenberg as the girl who was almost sacrificed to Dionyn 30 years ago in Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm. Here she is doing the sacrificing - on the altar of science! It's a great piece of ironic casting as her face bears the traces of having been subject to sad array of anti-aging processes over the past. She can really deliver science-flecked lines like "I merely inquire so I can coordinate the correct gene sequence for your physiology" as if they trip off her tongue. Oxenberg's flat Arianna Huffington-impression German accent, however, quickly wears on the nerves.

Still, seeing this decade-spanning horor cult semi-icon turn a has-been Dominican baseball player (Mario Arturo Hernández) into a 'whalewolf' via radical gene therapy, just to improve his swing, is pretty rewarding. It gets sadder though when she feeds her devoted and very sexy nurse (Jennifer Wenger) to the ensuing monster, especially after she rocks a very groovy slow-mo walk to through the DR streets and into the office (poor Reinhardt doesn't live much longer, after Whalewolf overhears her trying to pawn him off on a pet adoption agency.)

Pros: Caspar Van Dien and De Los Santos' drunken rapport as Pablo and Ray is very lived-in and dryly hilarious. I love that their approach to finding the sharktopus (in order to please the local voodoo priest who demands they deliver its heart for his juju): just hide out and get drunk. Genius! It's a great affront to the MO in these movies where, for some reason, it's up to one or two attractive B-list actors to save the world from some massive threat, even as that world remains totally unaware of it. Meanwhile his ex-novia shoots at both the wolf and the sharktopus; a local live dating competition show is compromised by monster attacks right onscreen, but it's all up to these two drunks and a lady cop to save the whole island, leading Whalewolf on a mad car chase tour through all sunny DR has to offer, from their state-of-the-art docks and shopping malls to their brand new baseball stadium. That the pedestrians crowding the streets don't even look up from the phones while these giant monsters race past them makes it all extra surreal.

Cons: As usual, the quality of the CGI seems to steadily devolve as the film goes on, as if the animator's wrist is getting tired. Once the climactic fight supplants Dien and Ray's drunkenness and the crazy juju priest, we're like 'okay, what's next?'

Extra Props: Casper recognizes who the Whalewolf is (or used to be) by his baseball swing!

(2014) Starring Katie Savoy

Naturalist Lorena Christmas (Katie Savoy) has a tight relationship with Sharktopus, having raised it from a pup at a local indoor/outdoor Sea World-style aquarium. But Sharktopus isn't ready to see the general public despite the naggings of Christmas' cash-strapped boss. Sharktopus especially gets irritable when CIA handler tough guy and black budget spook Robert Carradine puts a chip in its brain and lets it loose in the ocean to fight their already loose genetic weapon test creature Pteracuda (what a great plan!). But they don't even have control of that one for very long, since a snarky Russian spy has hijacked the signal and also the Pteracuda rips the chip out of Sharktopus during one of their tussles. Who could have predicted that?

Pros: Robert Carradine seems to be having fun here in B-movie central. I was never a fan of him in things like The Big Red One - way too ordinary, but here his ease and comfort in this slippery agent role is very refreshing. Naturally the three of them--Carradine, his muscle, and Lorena, will have to work together to reign in the collateral damage - which is ever worsening by the fact that the Dominican Republic's approach to monster control is to just go about their business. After all, it's just a giant shark with stinging tentacles. Akari Endo (the cop in Whalewolf) is the TV newswoman who disseminates information in case anyone's watching who's actually engaged in the affair. As with all the best DR movies, there's never a thought of calling in any national guard or riot squad - leaving it all to either a single cop car or a CIA analyst and his hostage. In this case it's all very current events as the real enemy is an evil Russian hacker is trying to hack into the chips and program one or more of the monsters to attack the nuclear reactor.

Pros: The first thing one notices is the animation is a slight but notable step above the normal (for Asylum, that is) with extra care taken to get the lighting right in both the fuzzy underwater and breeching action, as all the tentacles and fluttering wings send water beading out in all directions, glinting in the sunlight and so forth. There's a lot of moving parts when the two behemoths guys go at it, and they can make it from the depths of the ocean to high in the sky no problem, which leads to a lot of lighting changes, the water beading out in all directions, hitting the sunlight as all the tentacles and flapping wings furiously interact. Harryhausen would be proud!

Cons: By the time they're both on land, the animators, nearly exhausted, are phoning it in. Who can blame them?

Cameo: Conan O'Brien appears as a jerky yachtsman, clearly dressed in a nod to Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot while he's in disguise as a Shell Oil scion. His head is bit off and used as a volleyball. That never stopped Conan before!

Cons: Almost no women except in major roles, except Katie Savoy, who is ignored in her pleas for this or that but at least has a keen level of intelligence.

It makes me pretty mad when Robert and his man get the drop on the KGB spy but then turn their back on him so he can get the jump on them. Oy mios dios! 

(2018) Dir. Mark Atkins

A lot of the South African lunatic fringe Mark Atkins cast from EMPIRE OF THE SHARKS and PLANET OF THE SHARKS are back - including the bad guy #2 in EMPIRE, now Jonathan Pienar (the marvelous "Mason Scrimm" in EMPIRE) steals the show during his short early reign, evoking the holy power of Timothy Carey as the maniacal guy who gets to blow off one of the shark's heads with a 'boom stick' (a tribute to Hemingway) before he's ripped apart.  Sexy-ugly gutter-voiced Brandon Auret is William, a scruffy islander in the midst of a divorce but nonetheless hosting  a couple's therapy action vacation. His credibility is bound to suffer, but even worse in the credibility dept is the CGI of the shark, aside from some good deadness in the eyes (top image). He's the only one who doesn't really hide his South African accent. For the most part.

Pros: There's an interesting side project with a 40 year-old floating lab that no doubt is responsible for the mutation. Megan Oberholzer is a cute meteorologist who lets them all know a huge hurricane is coming their way and the whole island is about to be underwater. Her boyfriend is another beautiful South Africa blonde named Chris Fisher. "You're the smartest guy I know" she tells him. "That this has SIX heads, we have EIGHT heads! We ought to be able to outsmart it" -- "That's your reasoning?" says the smart freaked out black comic relief. Yes, there's time for hilariously over the top acting - Atkins gives most of the actors a chance to really lose their shit before they're eaten. The Timothy Carey lunacy of Jonathan Pienar; the crazy "I make good decisions!" shouting of the blonde couple, lapsing into Dutch, working each other up ("we got this!" / "we got this! It's GONNA BE OKAY!" Great stuff.

Cons - James, the redhaired bearded idiot is ridiculously miscast - it's unbelievable that this dipshit middle-aged ginger would be with a Strong Black Woman or that she would put up with his mess one bit. The idiot hero, after chopping off a head with a giant threshing blade, sending the rest of the shark/s running back to sea, immediately drops the blade on the ground. Nothing like getting rid of your one effective weapon in the midst of an all-out battle.

Meta - the weird sight of this tween in glasses talking about looking for his forever soulmate on eharmony. If you can't find a girl at that age you should just keep your virginity, or worse - that you'd want to find a soulmate so young. Jesus Christ! Sew some goddamned oats. He doesn't even the good sense to be gay. That this kid has found his soulmate already is disturbing - so is the idea that some of these couples are together - James -good lord, the idea he could get any kind of girl who wasn't a forty year old grandmother of five is not a pleasant one.

Conclusion- The shark animation eventually grows on one, especially when it gets out of the water and starts walking around on its heads like a scorpion (the sunlight glistening and reflective shadow work is pretty good and--rare for a shark movie--the animated sharks seem to incorporate real shark film into their movement - it's pretty close in rare moments to crossing the Uncanny Valley of sharkiness. In South Africa, they give a shit. And as the body count mounts and the survivors get crazy desperate. The music is always in on the deadpan joke and if you can handle suspension of disbelief that lets you imagine one of the heads ripping off another and throwing it up at the top of a lighthouse to knock out a jealous raging ginger sniper, then you're in the right place.

(2016) Dir. A.B. Stone 

Weirdly there's another Atomic Shark movie out there (I wish there a dozen more!), also from 2016 - so this one was changed in some markets to SALTWATER which is what imdb calls it. But to me it's SIN JAWS, unless the nifty poster above is probably for the other Atomic Shark flick. Whatever it's called, it's a cheeky web-savvy thrill ride that centers around a cadre of lifeguards who use drones to rescue bathers and track mutant sharks. The boss of the lifeguards is a douchebag who makes the hottie lifeguard go swimming to encourage bathers to go in the water, as if the ocean demands a percentage. He also doesn't approve of the use of drones, and so is made fun of by the smartass who can't swim but uses his drone to keep an eye way out and bring lifejackets out to people who've drifted out on riptides. Meanwhile the irradiated great white comes rolling in, setting people on fire if they swim within range. It glows rather nicely, if generically.

In addition to the use of drones, this very environmentalist and social media savvy employs all sorts of web based communication. ("We're nowhere near where we need to be yet - we're not even at four million viewers!") Jessica Kemejuk as a vain lifeguard selfie enthusiast with "87,000 followers and counting" and the silvery-gray eyed Maria Bonner as Felice, the camerawoman for the edgy environmentalist channel in scenic San Diego.

Pros: When he finally does go in the water, the drone nerd gets creamed by a pair of literally flaming parasailers after the hot shark belly flops up on their boat - practically setting the water on fire as it does so. The sight of a lip of flame shooting slowly up the rope to a parasailer, before turning the chute itself into a flaming radioactive meteor is pretty badass. 

And who amongst us doesn't love seeing the piercing blue eyes and hearing the centering growl of Jeff Fahey? Here he's driving around and drinking and trying to get cops to believe him about an atomic shark. He's only in the film three minutes but he still helps bump the score up 1/2 a star. Another half goes to the well-showcased abs of Rachel Brooke Smith (far left) as the environmentalist lifeguard Gina (the 'cute but doesn't know it' environmentalist is by now, I'm sure you've noticed, o patient reader, an Asylum SyFy shark movie staple.) "What would radiation do to a shark? Make it glow?" asks the far-left underground environmentalist TV host. "This shark would be radioactive - and emit very intense heat," notes Gina. They rendezvous a restaurant (with the great name of "Tales from the Dockside") where they're either extras or the next guests for a different (?) host, the bratty food critic Skip Forte eats a radioactive fish and bursts into mutant flame - as does everyone else who ordered the catch of the day - or handled it - it seems. Uh oh. Lots of funny throwaway gags meanwhile help keep the suspense and laughs evenly mixed.

Cons: the effects are terrible - folks vaporize right as the shark eats them in clouds of laughable FX. As with 5-HEADED SHARK ATTACK, there's way too much time spent with the tool - these tools need to get eaten faster. The pervy slob they steal the drone from, for example, should be fed unto it stat.

(2012) Dir. Christopher Ray

There's a certain artless schlock director who long befouled the lines of Corman's libsploitation trawler, named Fred Olen Ray. But this is made by his son Christopher, and for Asylum, so it's paradoxically more mature, slightly less tawdry, less 'augmented' and relatively less puerile. It's got bad editing but enough bikini clad heroines (young and natural rather than artificially augmented -as far as one can tell) in professional jobs to make it almost worthwhile.

As with dad's work, theres's way too much shouting and douche baggery-- but unlike dad's work, the scenery is nice, the photography is good. The story involves a large schooner hosting n semester-at-sea college  (though they're more like some shanghaied community college) who winds up crashed at an ever-shrinking island menaced by a two-headed shark. Carmen Electra meanwhile, earns a day's pay for lounging around on a yacht, pausing to help some of the kids on board when they're hurt.

Pros: As Kate, Brooke Hogan conveys a vividly realized characterization of a slightly 'out of her element' shy girl, the sort able to fix a boat and be courageous while the buff boys whinny and wave their limbs in panic, or snicker and try to hit each other in the nuts all day and one thinks hmmm the apple falls not far from the tree.

Cons: As with so many films (such as  5-HEADED SHARK ATTACK), we spend a lot of time waiting for the douche/s to get eaten. Eat 'em sooner!

(2018) Starring Daniel Savre
"Tradin' dreams for nightmares" / "drownin' in the deep blue sea" goes the interesting (low bottom synths) coupled score. "Fallin' from the light," and holding long vowels in a style seldom heard outside out of Fast and Furious end credits, though sans late inning rap beatz. Danielle Savre is " Misty Calhoun" - a sanctimonious sharkitecht hired by eccentric billionaire Michael Beach (doing his best Denzel impersonation) to wrangle the sharks he's using for underwater brain boost tests.

Everything else seems CGI - even, hilariously, and sadly enough, the dressing room.

The eccentric Denzel drinks some unnamed nootropics and they make him see geometry problems (is he stepping on the shark's supply? Scientifically that's not cool.) Jeremy Boado and Kim Syster) are (sort of black-Asian) married science partners also hired on for the trials ("Durant has a shady reputation" / "we'll be rich."/ "we didn't go into science to get rich"). Throughout the girls are the idealists and the boys are the practical ones, but at least these two do have a certain newlywed cuteness and do seem like actual scientists vs. the one-channel bitchy shark conservationist with the dubious name Misty Calhoun whose sole expertise seems to be acting all bitchy because "bull sharks are not lab mice!" I tell you, Misty, I don't think they feel the same way about you. Savre is very pretty but terribly one note. It's like she read that her character was idealistic and forgot to make her anything else, i.e interesting or appealing. What she really needs is better lighting as her complexion/make-up scheme seems to be straining against some long digitally-removed blemish. Her hair tells the story of a stressful shoot as does her lifeless performance at least when squaring against the suspiciously yellow tie-wearing big pharma recruiter. Meanwhile the Scott Walker (RIP - you beautiful himbo soul) role is filled Rob Mayes, a kind of hybrid of Mark Wahlberg and Collin Ferell (I think he's the guy who pushed around Scott Walker in a few Furiouses back)

Pros: Always good to see illegal 'finners' get eaten. There's A memorable death in the flooded phone booth slowly filling with water and blood, screaming, while his buddy watches horrified from atop a bunk bed that's right at the water line.

Smart Tip: Never threaten the boss when you're trying to escape a flooding complex with him.

(2016) Directed by a pair of Kondeliks

When a pair of nature photographers dive to check out a beaver dam, it turns out it's not a beaver damn at all, but a shark dam chock full of human corpses. Janelle Beaudry pulls up her partner, his whole lower half is gone. It all takes place in a single long day along the long river, which works very well for its 'flow' as everyone farther upstream is heading right towards this climactic corpse pile.  Jessica Blackmore is Kate, the game warden who teams up with her longstanding river nemesis, an irascible fisher outdoorsy poacher type named Carl played by the familiar-seeming Robert Craighead (he "saw a one armed man fist-fighting a hare krishna one time") to investigate the happenings. Meanwhile even farther upriver comes an outdoorsy team-building software company's best and palest. Jason London as a smarmy stereotype software CEO, the type whose whole company seems to be an excuse for him to make people be his friends until, finally, one of them learns he's run out of money and everyone else in the company is being fired while these guys are all away on the trip.  Most of the employees all are eaten in fairly short order no matter how much we like them, though. We hope he'll be first on the menu; he is not. The never are.

Pros: My favorite new (to me!) sharkstar, Kabby Borders (as seen starring so very nicely in 2017's TOXIC SHARK) is here as London's eager beaver assistant, fluttering behind and alongside him with clipboard, indulgent smile, and sublime mix of the outdoorsy and executive assistant garb in black power suit with an open midriff displaying her magnificent abs. She livens the whole film up. Though playing a cretin, London seems very comfortable. And it's nice having a woman game warden who is no nonsense without being a dick about it. Kate's begrudging rapport with her longstanding old salt nemesis is pretty endearing in its gruff way. I also like the sheer grim spectacle of a dam made of human corpses, though it's hard to believe those sharks wouldn't just wolf down all that meat. Then again, why would anyone suspect 'believability' with a title like "Dam Sharks"? Because bull sharks can survive in fresh water, that's why.

Cons:  When the game warden girl lets out a scream of rage after having to shoot a man getting ripped up by sharks, it's this week high-pitched scream like she done seen a mouse in the kitchen. It gets pretty gross when Kabby has to endure the sweaty come-ons of the limpid uber-nerd (who won't be swayed in his ardent wooing, despite a buddy warning him off with a frank talk about staying in his league). I've hung out with girls of that same hotness level over the years who've had to endure the same thing, as if their beauty requires them to endure one lame stuttering amateurish overture after another, which is why I hate John Hughes and Cameron Crowe movies (1).  Worse though is a pale, smarmy Jim and Pam type of passive-aggressive smart alecks (Matt Beyond the Gates Mercer and Neka Zang), will they ever get over their shyness to become more than close work buddies? Of course they will, but their passive-aggressive smirks and overly-indoor pallors are not comely. Why can't they be eaten first and Kabby live to fight another day?

Moral: When a hungry shark is in the water and you're safe on land - stay there. Then again, would there even be a movie if they did? Kabby! Kabby I loves ya.

See Also:
The Old Man and the Feminist and the Sea: ORCA (1977)
Great Acid Movies 1/300: MOBY DICK (1956)


1. Hughes teaches geeks that if you really love the prettiest girl in school (i.e. your naive enough to mistake your crush over her beauty for something unique to yourself) of course you'll get her, because you are special! So there is a constant parade of dumbass dorks and wallies, totally unconscious of their stepping out of their own class, hitting on her day and night, hoping their stuttering imbecile awkwardness will charm her with its mealy-mouthed sincerity, as John Hughes and Cameron Crowe promised. 
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