Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Summit Of His Knowledge

The prologue that opens 1983’s TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, has held up just great. The Joe Dante segment is fun as well. The George Miller remake is of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” is simply fantastic. But the entire film is somewhat problematic. Of course, it always was, so that’s no surprise.

It is, however, a pleasant surprise that the film has come out on DVD at all. Just a few years ago there were rumors going around the internet that Warner Bros. was going to let the title simply drop out of circulation when it was not contracted to appear on any cable outlets past at a certain point . The circumstances surrounding the death of star Vic Morrow and the lengthy trial which followed cast a shadow on the film even while it was still being made but several of the other segments are fondly remembered and watching this new DVD admittedly made me a little nostalgic as well.

First what I’d rather get out of the way: The John Landis segment isn’t very good. The only part of the movie not based on an old TZ episode, this piece, apparently titled “Time Out”, is about a hateful bigot, played by Vic Morrow, who is suddenly and without warning given a very harsh taste of his own medicine. I’ll admit to liking some of John Landis’s films (and yeah, part of that is a nostalgia thing as well) but the more you watch them the more a certain streak of nastiness comes out—a real cynical worldview and this might be one of the truest examples of that. I don’t know how different that would have been if “Time Out” had ever been completed as intended, but as it is we’re basically watching twenty minutes of very bad things happening to an unlikable, irredeemable individual. And no matter what, it’s near-impossible to separate it from the truly bad thing that happened to the real individual who was starring in it. There is an in-joke in the Vietnam portion that follows up on the end of ANIMAL HOUSE and if we weren’t so uncomfortable watching this thing it might actually be funny. But there’s not much more to say about it.

I also don’t have much to say about the Steven Spielberg segment, a remake of “Kick the Can”. Scatman Crothers plays Mr. Bloom, a new arrival to the Sunnyvale Nursing Home. While engaging his fellow residents in a conversation about what it was like to be children, he convinces them to take part in a secret game of Kick the Can. But they don’t know that a surprise is waiting for them when the game begins. Maybe there should be an official rule: any director who has just made his most successful film (E.T. had just happened) should never follow it up with directing a chapter in an anthology film. Tarantino learned this with FOUR ROOMS after PULP FICTION. And didn’t Fellini take part in a badly-received omnibus after LA DOLCE VITA? Spileberg obviously found out the hard way here. It’s been reported over the years that after the accident he wanted nothing more to do with this project, which he displayed by shooting out his segment in six days, during which he even relegated tasks like blocking to others. After it wrapped he took off for England and began prepping INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. However much we should assign credit, the film he left behind is pretty weak. While it’s not as unwatchable as the likes of ALWAYS or HOOK—it sure helps that it’s much shorter—in many ways it does offer the worst, the most saccharine, the most artificial of what we expect from this director. There’s no real point in being too hard on “Kick the Can”, but I will say this: Scatman Crothers turning to the camera at the end and saying, “He’ll get it” has to be the single worst moment in all of Spielberg. There’s nothing wrong with watching Crothers in anything, or Selma Diamond for that matter, but none of these actors can rise above this lame material. Not to mention that COCOON did this sort of thing a lot better a few years later.

Now the good news: the pleasure of revisiting the prologue with Aykroyd and Brooks. Written and directed by Landis (although some lines have to be embellishments by the two actors) the extended scene is about a driver and his passenger who engage in a game of TV theme song trivia, followed by reminiscences of the old Twilight Zone TV show. But one of them has a surprise, something really scary, for the other. It’s an amusing way to state right up front that this is going to be the baby boomer version of The Twilight Zone. Coming at it from that perspective it’s like watching an early version of the sort of thing Tarantino would be doing ten years later. And even if it were just a stand-alone short by Landis it would still play as very funny.

More good news: The Joe Dante segment based on “It’s a Good Life” is still a lot of fun, if not the favorite it maybe once was. Dante has been on record as saying that because of what was happening with the project he had very little interference in making this, his first assignment for a major studio. It’s hard to imagine other circumstances where a studio would allow a film like this to contain material so strange, so deliberately surreal, as this sequence. The tale of a schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) who encounters a young boy (Jeremy Licht) and is taken into the bizarre home he lives in, “It’s a Good Life” is the first real example of Dante’s preoccupation with cartoons that would continue into the GREMLINS pictures and other works, presented here in the most freewheeling style possible. Almost from the get-go the house is presented as obviously off—we’re just not sure how. And as it goes on, and the Bava-like light swirls begin to take hold, the setting becomes what has to be the most audacious entry of live-action into the cartoon world ever attempted.

If I don’t love it as much as I’m used to, that may just be because I don’t identify with the boy like I once may have. There’s also the issue of the young actor being a little….lacking. For the first time, I found myself thinking of Henry Thomas’s E.T. performance in relation to this and how he may have worked here. Fortunately, this is more than compensated by the enjoyable performances by old pros like Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert and Dick Miller, but especially by Kathleen Quinlan. Still a few years younger than thirty when this was shot, the film is undeniably boosted by how much gravity she gives to it. No matter how unbelievable the events going on in front of her, her reactions never feel less than totally real. There may even be too much weight—looking at it now, I’m not entirely sure just how happy the ending is supposed to be. Maybe it’s hard to tell with someone whose eyes display so much soul. Dante’s work is at times excellent, with lots of unexpected touches-- for the first time ever I really noticed the “repeat” effect at the end and how it uses two separate takes. You can really feel that Dante loves making this movie while you watch it.

But best of all, George Miller’s recreation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” remains truly gripping, scary and exciting. John Lithgow (back before we really knew how over-the-top he could go) as the man who is convinced that there is something out there on the wing of the plane rants as much as we remember but still straddles the line just right. We like him instantly and know he’s telling the truth, but we can still accept why everyone else thinks he just may be a lunatic. There’s also some good work by the various actors playing the crew members, including Donna Dixon, John Dennis Johnston and especially Abbe Lane as the Senior Stewardess. I don’t know if George Miller experienced the same lack of interference that Joe Dante did, but watching “Nightmare” steal the thunder from the other, better known directors, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t become the biggest name in town. Of course, he hasn’t done too bad for himself, but still. Best of all is that hundred seconds of screen-time consisting of the unbroken shot where we slowly move in on John Lithgow’s face, trying to convince himself that there is nothing out there on the wing of that plane. With that closed window behind him as Jerry Goldsmith’s strings seems to be pricking him on the shoulder, daring him to turn around, leading to that literally eye-popping (Freeze that frame!) revelation, George Miller reveals himself right then to be a sort of master. It’s a moment that everyone who ever makes a suspense movie of any kind tries to accomplish and is as good as any that is remembered long after anything else about the movie is forgotten.

Which reminds me of one of my very favorite parts of the movie: Jerry Goldsmith’s score, possibly one of his most underrated. The atonal nature of the “Time Out” section recalls PLANET OF THE APES and his continually propulsive music for “Nightmare” is a true triumph, with the aforementioned prickly strings seeming like a warm-up for the theme to GREMLINS that he would compose for Joe Dante a year later. But most of all I find myself loving the more lyrical stretches in “Kick the Can” and the end of “It’s a Good Life”. It’s easy to refer to some of this material as being too sickly sweet, just as the Spielberg section is. But listening to it now, separating it from the film, I find myself genuinely moved by some of it, making me think that Goldsmith wasn’t just scoring the film he had in front of him. He was scoring the very essence of The Twilight Zone, that place within each of us that makes up our memories, loss and our regret. Perhaps because hearing it takes me back to an earlier time, as if it’s beckoning me to return to my own childhood, to watch this film just one more time in the house I grew up in. It’s not going to happen—but if I close my eyes hard enough while Kathleen Quinlan drives off at the end of “It’s a Good Life”, I almost believe it can.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Little Sensitive on the Subject

In the audio commentary for THE HOWLING, director Joe Dante mentions that John Sayles was writing the scripts for both his film and ALLIGATOR at the same time. Both films contain dream sequences where the lead character is haunted by a recent trauma and Dante wonders if maybe one of the ALLIGATOR dreams accidentally wound up in his film or vice versa. Since the sequences in THE HOWLING seem to fit with the movie better, I’m going to guess that ALLIGATOR is the film that got the extra scene.

Released in 1980 and now on DVD, Lewis Teague’s ALLIGATOR is a deliberately old-school monster movie that tells the story of a baby alligator flushed down a toilet, just like the urban legend, which reemerges years later much, much bigger after being exposed to an experimental growth formula which has gotten down there due to illegal dumping. When human body parts begin turning up in the sewer system of an unnamed Midwestern city, Police Detective David Madison (Robert Forster) begins investigating, not realizing that he will have to deal with the alligator himself.

I like ALLIGATOR, but wish I liked it more than I do. Sporting some pattern baldness up top which is so evident that it gets worked into dialogue, Forster is the best thing about the movie. He’d just come off THE BLACK HOLE at this point, which I’m guessing couldn’t have been the most satisfying production and here he seems to be fully embracing how he gets to play a somewhat real character, even in the context of a monster movie. The hair thing (which is also mentioned much later in Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN—an intentional reference?) just makes him more likable and the film wouldn’t have whatever endearing qualities it has without Forster to ground it.

The evil-corporation subplot in the film fits in well with Dante’s earlier PIRANHA, which Sayles also co-wrote, but while ALLIGATOR is probably a “better” film, PIRANHA, even with its wildly varying tone, still feels more enjoyable. This one has a supporting cast equal to the Dante films, but the difference is that he seems to really enjoy coming up with ways to use them—just look at what Dick Miller does in any of those movies. ALLIGATOR offers Michael V. Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Jack Carter, Sydney Lassick and Perry Lang but at times I wondered why Lewis Teague wasn’t really taking advantage of them. The most amusing person in the cast is Henry Silva as the Great White Hunter brought in by the city to deal with the alligator. Funny stuff, I just wish there were more done with him.

But hey, the movie’s called ALLIGATOR and the good news is that the enormous title creature is fun to watch and well handled in how it’s shot. Teague never really brings the personality that Dante brought to his films (especially THE HOWLING), but the movie is honestly fun to watch. A lot of the credit has to go to John Sayles for his script, with his maverick tone providing a fast and funny update on the standard monster movie plotline. The most shocking scene, taking place in a swimming pool, is pretty effective and things do pay off well on all points once we hit the climax. It might not be everything I want it to be, but the truth is that it’s hard not to get some enjoyment out of Robert Forster going up against a giant alligator. If you can’t, then I really don’t know what to say.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Way The World Works

I spent last weekend up in Santa Barbara which means that this during this past weekend I had plenty of movies to catch up on. But wait: what am I actually supposed to go see anyway? I spend most of the year complaining about how there aren’t any movies for adults. Now they’re out there and I’m finding it tough to get interested in any of them. Besides, I’ve seen this past Thursday’s 30 ROCK which contained, among other things, Special Guest Star Carrie Fisher, an out-of-nowhere joke involving H.R. Haldeman (“Was that a person who lived?”) and a scene with Alec Baldwin that was so jaw-droppingly funny that if it doesn’t surpass his GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS appearance as the quintessential Alec Baldwin scene then at least it ties it for the title. So why shouldn’t I just watch that 30 ROCK over and over? Should I really go to the Arclight and see if there’s anything I would actually pay money to see?

Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with GONE BABY GONE, a film based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, author of MYSTIC RIVER. Like that earlier film, it involves the Boston working-class and crimes involving children, in this case a little girl who is kidnapped. It’s an impressive debut, but there is little of the operatic feel that gave a lot of the power to the earlier film This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if there’s any real drawback it’s that Affleck’s visual style feels like it’s still being developed. Way too many scenes involve people having discussions in close quarters that involved alternating close-ups and medium shots. By a certain point I felt like I needed a little variety, a little breathing room, but something more than the occasional helicopter shots of Boston locations that the film continually cuts to. But by the time the events of the final half-hour begin to come into play the movie really does take hold and linger afterwards. It is a first film, yes, but there are signs that the star of REINDEER GAMES may just do even better work in the future. Those helicopter shots aside, there’s also a lot of interesting location footage of Boston and there’s probably enough left over that Affleck could probably cut together an interesting piece to music which focuses just on a lot of the found moments he happened to pick up.

Stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are all very good, as expected, though in the case of Casey I think it’s his work in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES that will be remembered from his screen appearances in 2007. Really, it’s the more weathered faces which pass in front of the camera—such as Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, John Ashton, along with the many bit parts which are obviously local Boston hires—that give GONE BABY GONE a lot of its resonance. It doesn’t provide the hysterics that this week’s episode of 30 ROCK gave me but if I had to choose something to see this weekend, I think I did all right.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Canned Tomatoes

I like PLANET TERROR more than most of the other Robert Rodriguez films I’ve seen, but I don’t want to go overboard in my praise or anything. Here’s how I look at the two halves of GRINDHOUSE: Rodriguez likes these films, from Carpenter to Fulci. He may have grown up watching some of them and probably got introduced to some of the more obscure titles (probably by Tarantino) when he got older. He likes them, he thinks they’re a blast. Period. But to Tarantino, he knows and loves these movies down in his bones. Somewhere in there is the difference in their approaches.

Instead of a spoof, it’s more of an arch pastiche of Carpenter, Romero, Fulci, regional drive-in fare, lesbian subplots and who knows what else. Maybe some Cronenberg—the hospital setting of the first half reminds me of RABID, but maybe that’s a reach.

Among other borrowings, and I'm sure the film is filled with them, the way Marley Shelton holds her hands in front of her face when being assaulted by husband Josh Brolin seems directly patterned on something Angie Dickinson does in De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL, just as a later scene seems to directly ape a bit from BODY DOUBLE.

It’s fun, but it’s so paper-thin in its archness that I’m not sure I have much of a reason to return to it all that much. In comparison, I still find myself getting more out of DEATH PROOF in multiple viewings. The DVD is a longer version than the GRINDHOUSE cut, with some cool transitions reinstated, but nothing that really changes my opinion of the film. (The missing reel is, amusingly, still missing).

If there’s anything that stands out for me on seeing PLANET TERROR again (not counting the extreme gore, which goes without saying) is Rodriguez’s use of his actors. Whether they are younger actresses who haven’t been used much lately (Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton) older actors who haven’t been used much lately (Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn) or semi-names who work fairly regularly anyway (Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin) there’s the continuous feeling throughout that he’s trying to use them in interesting ways. You can tell that he just loves putting them in front of his camera and givng them interesting things to say and do. It's a large part of what makes this movie so consistently enjoyable. That’s one thing missing from these genre films these days—characters, and the actors playing them, are way too colorless which make too many of these things no fun. If I do revisit PLANET TERROR most of my pleasure will probably come from things like Marley Shelton’s eyes, Josh Brolin’s on-point presence, the bickering between Fahey and Biehn and the offhand comments of the paramedic played by Andy Samberg-lookalike Tommy Nix.

It’s pointless to figure out what the ‘rules’ in this sort of grindhouse movie should be (many CGI shots, but the occasional set-up has that old-school locked down optical feel as a joke) since that’s just no fun. Maybe we could look at Rodriguez’s film as something that’s made in an alternate universe, where digital effects have developed differently and these lowbrow genre films still get made. Sounds pretty fun to me. The fake wear and tear on the ‘print’ works great here as well, maybe even better than in DEATH PROOF and adds to the feeling that PLANET TERROR should only be watched very late at night, maybe during heavy drinking, so it can correctly come of as some bizarre, twisted nightmare. That’s probably the best way to look at the movie, since reality is not what’s going on here. If PLANET TERROR can really only be looked at as a fake movie (unlike DEATH PROOF) at least it’s a fun fake movie. And at least the film proves that Rodriguez knows how to deliver the fun and enjoyment along with his gore and tasteless sleaze, which shows that he was paying attention back when he first saw these movies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Not A Bad Question

Several weeks ago I was having dinner at Il Capriccio with two delightful people. At the next table there was a young couple who had a baby, maybe about ten months old. The kid seemed happy to be there as he waved at everyone, including one of the women I was eating with, who happily waved back. The husband stepped away as they were about to leave and my friend asked the wife what the baby’s name was. “Clu,” she replied. “Clu?” asked my friend.” “Yes, Clu,” was the answer. “He’s named after his Grandfather.” “Oh,” I said. “There’s a terrific character actor named Clu. Clu Gulager.” “Yes, that’s his grandfather,” was the reply, explaining that her husband was Clu’s son. I mentioned that I had seen Clu Gulager at the New Beverly a few times, we chatted briefly about what he was up to, then as the husband arrived they left, with little Clu continuing to wave up a storm. Once they were gone, my dinner companions grilled me on just who Clu Gulager was.

I filled them in on some of the basics, like Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS and his son John (not the son who was at the restaurant that night) who recently directed his father in FEAST as part of the Project Greenlight series. But I neglected to go into much detail about one of my very favorite films that he appeared in, 1985’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

An early example of a horror film that makes use of comedy in addition to prior knowledge of horror films, Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was something that I watched a lot when I was a teenager. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned this fact to somebody recently, she replied, “It’s a perfect movie for a teenager.” She meant that in the best possible way and I unerstood. Maybe this was why I was a little reluctant to watch it again—that cynical punk clusterfuck feeling of the film was perfect for a certain age, but maybe I would just be a little cold to it now, especially after countless viewings of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, a movie which I connect with now even more than I ever did with RETURN. The happy surprise was how well RETURN still played in its own scrappy way over twenty years after it was first released.

As Uneeda Medical Supply foreman Frank (the great James Karen) is showing new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES) around the warehouse he takes him down to the basement to show him a few containers containing a few corpses which inspired the “true” story that was made into a certain famous zombie movie. Unfortunately, they actually release the deadly Trioxin gas which not only leaks but begin to revive several nearby cadavers and even a few lone body parts. As warehouse owner Burt (Gulager) and the local mortician (Don Calfa) are brought in to help deal with the problem, some of Freddy’s friends hang out at the cemetery next door, unaware of the smoke that will begin to rise from a nearby chimney and how it will affect the cemetery’s residents.

James Karen’s Frank doesn’t just mention zombie movies to Thom Matthew’s Freddy. He specifies NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, going on to explain how the whole thing was based on a true story. Exactly what the legalities for this consisted of, not to mention the issue of the near-concurrent release of DAY OF THE DEAD in the summer of ’85, is something I’m a little hazy on, but right from the get-go this helps establish RETURN with its own reality. It’s very obviously a spoof (or, more, correctly, a comedy) but set in “the real world” where the issues of how to deal with the zombies won’t be as easy as Romero made it. Attempts to deal with them wind up failing (“It worked in the movie!” “You mean the movie lied?”) and it also presents us with the then-novel concept of zombies who run. The DAWN OF THE DEAD remake presented this idea as a revolutionary concept, but it’s more naturalistic use in the film’s deadpan aesthetic works just fine for me.

The sociopolitical angle used may not be exactly how Romero would have approached such a scenario, but it is fairly consistent with his films. In fact, the character interplay is one of the things that holds up so well for me after all these years. The adults as represented in the film by Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa are a terrific bit of casting. Karen’s performance (one of two that most people seem to remember—more on the second coming up) pretty much welcomes us into the film, as he fills us in on the exposition in a jovial manner. His continued freakout as his character gets progressively worse has an amazing effect. Gulager serves as the rock of the whole film and his screen presence make us sit up and listen to everything he says. The most stoic character of any of them, he has to make some bad decisions which kick the plot into high gear, but the movie accepts them as being more cautiously pragmatic than evil in any way.

Most surprising to me was the performance of underutilized character actor Don Calfa as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner. Calfa’s basic screen persona gives the impression the he’s going to function as a sort of comic relief, but he unexpectedly turns out to be the most level-headed and resourceful of anyone. He’s a fairly familiar face—maybe best known as Dudley Moore’s neighbor with the “iniquitous” arrangement in “10”—but his work here is so funny, so fully realized (it’s strongly implied on the commentary track that his character is supposed to be a Nazi in hiding) that he walks away with the film and I’m surprised he never became more of a name. I just looked up the Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor from 1985—none of them measure up to Don Calfa in this film.

The other group in the film consists of the gang killing time waiting for their friend Freddy by hanging out in the nearby cemetery. It’s a genuinely unique ensemble, with some characters displaying quirks that are enjoyably never really explained. Some of them are punks but some of them are, um, what exactly? What’s the deal with the preppie kid? Linnea Quigley’s performance as Trash (along with James Karen’s Frank, possibly the character most representative of the film) is the cult actress’s finest hour but each of the younger actors make a favorable impression, especially Thom Matthews’ performance as Freddy. The Laurel and Hardy act he cultivates with Karen (“Watch your tongue boy, if you like this job!” “Like this job?!”) was always one of my favorite parts of the film, so I was happy to see how well it held up this time around. The two actors returned for the semi-related sequel RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II, paired up again as different characters, but it just wasn’t the same.

One of the things that remains most interesting to me is how when the disparate elements come together in various ways there are no unnecessary pieces of conflict, like the normal guys against the punks. Everyone focuses on the matter at hand and even within the totally unbelievable scenario which is occurring all of the characters remain consistently drawn out. The movie never treats the punks as being extra-weird just because they’re punks. If anything, the way the Gulager, Karen and Calfa characters treat them make them seem more normal, and the older characters more strange and likable because of this, making them seem like outsiders as well. It’s no surprise that the DVD audio commentary by writer-director O’Bannon and production designer William Stout references Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. These guys knew exactly what kind of movie they were trying to make and weren’t going to ignore the people in the film just because it was a zombie flick. If anything, one of the things that really makes the film memorable (and, I suspect, kept drawing me back to it when I was a kid) is its unique array of characters. That, and the extreme gore, of course.

But most of all, the fact that the film places each of those characters on the same level with each other underlines just how much they’re all the same in the grand scheme of things. It’s the government who is really in charge in this world and it’s one of the great mistakes the characters make to put such trust in it. It seemed an appropriately cynical ending when I was a kid. Now, the fact that the ending seems all too real makes me realize just how cynical I’ve become.

There are points where the low budget begins to show, such as how certain scenes are staged and the feeling at the end that maybe certain things hadn’t been shot when the production wrapped. But the deadpan comic tone holds along with the scares, the gore and the appropriately nasty overall tone(“I love you…and you’ve got to let me eat your BRAAAINS!!”. Plus the ensemble is a reminder of how the actors in some of these movies are so important to the reasons why some of them last for people. Top-billed Clu Gulager is only one part of that ensemble that helps make this movie so special, but he’s an important part of what was a big favorite of mine a long time ago and now I guess still is. I don’t know if he takes any pride in his work in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, but he deserves to. Everyone involved with the film does.

Friday, October 19, 2007

But Then Again Who Does

The Final Cut of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is now playing in very limited release. I’ve seen the film many times in its different forms and it just may be the only film that I’ve seen at both the Chinese and the Cinerama Dome (one for the Director’s cut, one for the Workprint Cut). But this time it wasn’t actually playing near me so I had to drive all the way across town in rush hour traffic to the recently opened Landmark. A theater with an aesthetic that could only be described as the nicest bus station in the universe. With assigned seating, even though I’d never been inside, so I felt like I was rolling the dice and then there was about half of the audience who, since they had their assigned seats, chose to all enter the theater for the 7:50 show at exactly 7:50. I had to go through all this to see BLADE RUNNER yet again, even if it was a new version, what is being trumpeted as The Final Cut.

Then that Ladd Company logo came on, followed by the first booms of the Vangelis score and I was sucked right back in again. That movie is able to do that to me. The enigma of the power of BLADE RUNNER is something which, for me, dates back to when I was first watching it on cable, probably at an age before I could appreciate it. I would periodically watch it during my youth, trying to make sense of it and the puzzle it created. I’ve seen it many times now, but the film still carries its enigmas with it. The enigma of that photo that Joanna Cassidy is located in—is that a cheat or not? The enigma of how the world came to be in this state by 2019, the enigma of whether or not Deckard is a Replicant, the enigma of that damn Unicorn. The enigma of that narration which may be gone now but is still remembered. The enigma of the red lipstick Sean Young wears in her first scene. The enigma of Los Angeles. The enigma of all girls named Rachel.

There’s very little I could say about BLADE RUNNER that hasn’t already been said. The nature of the film’s continuing history over the years has long made it seem like a work in progress, so it’s refreshing to see most, if not all, of the tiny problems which always seemed to be present finally taken care of. I’m not entirely certain just how much has been tampered with, but the movie felt complete to me more than ever before. Mistakes which have always been noticeable have been fixed. Rutger Hauer’s line “I want more life, fucker,” has now been changed to its shot-for-network-television alternate “I want more life, father,” and the change somehow jumps off the screen with an immediacy that is startling. Even the reaction that Joe Turkel’s Eldon Tyrell now has to the line gives the sequence, and therefore the entire movie, more dimension. And I may have been decidedly mixed about the theater but the presentation, in 4K digital, was flawless.

I’m glad I went to see it at night. Driving home through the Los Angeles night after seeing BLADE RUNNER with that End Credits music by Vangelis still kicking around in my head just makes the movie stay in my head longer. Each of the film’s characters are isolated in their own ways—Deckard in his apartment, Sebastian in his building, Tyrell in his penthouse, even Rachel is isolated in her way as being an ‘experiment’, as Tyrell puts it, something which I’m sure people who live in this town can understand. A film that famously flopped when first released, BLADE RUNNER’s life has continued not just because of special effects or alternate cuts, but because there’s something in there which lingers after it ends that people respond to. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles thing, maybe it’s a human thing. There are a number of Ridley Scott films that I don’t ever need to see again, but what lies within this film, an achievement which to me is his finest, makes me continually willing to see it again. Whichever version it is.

Have a better one.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Suddenly Immersed

“It was the paintings, wasn’t it? Works of art have…power over us. Great works of art have great power.”

When I first viewed Dario Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME more than ten years ago, I was struck by how different it was. It felt like a brave new step for the director, setting it apart from all other thrillers which were being made at the time. The film is genuinely disturbing in many ways, but not just in how it deals out its shocks. Unlike most thrillers it actually attempts to get into the true psychology of its lead character even if it is in the darkest way possible. Its scares are harsh, messy and personal. Its sensations are ugly, brutal and at times lyrical. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but sometimes ease isn’t necessary. That STENDHAL never got a decent release at the time never really surprised me. As an attempt to move into different territory for the director, it’s too arty to be sold as a standard horror film, yet its extreme gore and brutality makes it too violent for the art house crowd. This has led to it being difficult to adequately critique the film in America--not only was the eventual DVD release by Troma one of the worst imaginable, but even those lucky few who got to see 35mm prints saw a version which was dubbed into English instead of being subtitled. Of course, every Argento film has been dubbed in America but it seemed to hurt this one more than it had others. Fortunately, the new DVD release from Blue Underground with the original Italian language track allows its admirers, however few there may be, to view THE STENDHAL SYNDROME in the best way possible.

It’s a brutal film, but also one that is very elliptically plotted, making it difficult to adequately summarize. Rome policewoman Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is in Florence investigating the case of a serial rapist/killer. Following an anonymous tip she goes to the Uffizi Gallery where she is suddenly overwhelmed by a strange sensation as she views the paintings. Unbeknownst to her, she is actually being tailed by the killer (Thomas Kretschmann of Polanski’s THE PIANIST and Jackson’s KING KONG) who watches this as it occurs and uses it to his advantage so he can later invade her hotel room. Anna’s protracted torture and rape follows and, following her escape, she learns that her response to the paintings was due to the fact that she suffers from the Stendhal Syndrome, a real-life form of illness that can result when people have physical responses to certain works of art. As Anna is aware that the killer may once again come after her, she attempts to further understand the strange affliction that she suffers from.

Much of the background is not revealed as the movie begins, with the first several minutes playing dialogue-free as only Ennio Morricone’s imposing score is heard as we follow Anna Manni through the gallery before her first encounter. In fact, the character of Anna, after fainting, contracts a form of temporary amnesia at the point the syndrome first occurs before we’ve learned anything about her. For several minutes of screen time, we are in the unique position of feeling just as disoriented as the character does. And just as certain plot points begin to be revealed, the character is thrust into the most horrific situation imaginable. The basics of the set-up sound like familiar territory for the director, but almost immediately the tone makes it clear that this is something else. His previous films, both supernatural and grounded in the real-world, were all rooted in the genres of horror and giallo. There’s a pulpiness to them and many succeed as enjoyable horror movies, as graphic as they may be. But with this, there feels like a genuine attempt to break out into new disturbing territory, by adding levels of depth and seriousness while still maintaining elements of what Argento is best known for. His 1987 film OPERA featured a heroine tied up with needles taped under her eyelids, the killer forcing her to watch as her friends are killed. STENDHAL feels like an attempt to take this theme of dealing with what we’re seeing further, by addressing the nature of what is being looked at. In exploring the nature of art and what it can do to us deep down Argento is acknowledging that sometimes what that art does to us cannot be gotten rid of easily. It’s almost as if Argento is, for the first time, trying to go beyond the simple sensation of the violence that he presents and address what it really means deep down. Even his shooting style feels different in this film. Sequences involving the paintings are as audacious as you would expect, but aside from that it seems to deliberately avoid the wide Scope framing so associated with his earlier films. When Anna Manni arrives back in Rome, we are told this in a simple profile shot of her walking down a train platform as an intertitle reads “Roma”. The deliberately stripped down nature seems appropriate for a film which is focusing on the psyche of a single character, as opposed to the mechanics of a body count. It may not be his best or flashiest film, but more and more it seems like his most adventurous achievement.

The plot of the film is made up of an unusual two-act structure—after the events of the first half, the second hour proceeds as if it’s unclear at first where the story could possibly go. It’s a bold move on Argento's part and maybe one that doesn’t always work. At the very least, it feels like there could be tightening up in places both in the script stage and in the editing—maybe it’s a feeling that there are so many disparate plot elements he wants to explore that he’s not sure what to leave out and what to focus on at expense of other elements. In that sense, such issues help make it clear how much this film is really Argento’s equivalent of Hitchcock’s MARNIE (with a little VERTIGO in there too), a film which itself wasn’t without flaws.

In addition to certain pacing problems, there are other issues that are tough to ignore, especially certain special effects, maybe some of the earliest Italian uses of CGI, which come off as overly cartoonish and distracting. Fortunately these sequences are relatively brief. The expected Argento tropes of hard-to-swallow plot points are fortunately at a minimum here (such as the infamous moment involving a fish), the most glaring possibly being the blonde wig Anna begins sporting which no one comments on despite the fact that at that point in the film you’d think the characters would be paying close attention to her behavior.

But while Hitchcock had ‘Tippi’ Hedren, Dario Argento has his own daughter Asia. The various rape and torture scenes would be graphic and disturbing enough for many viewers, but using his daughter lends an extra level to this, whether it was intended or not. While she may very well be too young for the role, there’s a power that Asia brings to it that remains present for me on multiple viewings. Maybe I’m letting it slide a little, simply because this is Asia Argento, who I slightly worship anyway, so I can’t bring myself to be overly critical. But while watching her in this film I can see the continuous combination of pain, fear and encroaching madness that is truly present in her. Just looking into her eyes makes this clear enough. That her character is presented as becoming more and more isolated and uncommunicative from not only her friends but her own family as well is also something difficult to ignore, lending other possible levels to how personal a film this may have been. And the overriding power of Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography (his final work in a feature) and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score work expertly in maintaining the mood that help make it unique among Argento’s body of work.

When I first saw THE STENDHAL SYNDROME all those years ago its final scene struck me as a sort of inversion of the ending of OPERA. But watching it now, I’m struck by how the opening and final shots somehow mirror each other in ways that I’m still contemplating. At the beginning we see Anna Manni lost as one in a crowd, but by the end, which has to be one of my favorite shots in all of Argento, we see her surrounded once again but under circumstances which are very different and I honestly find the final moments of the film to be emotionally shattering. Fittingly, that final shot won’t fully let us off the hook even as the credits begin to roll. The new DVD of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, especially when viewed with the Italian track, reveals it as a work of bravery which, even if it is difficult for many to watch, shouldn’t be casually dismissed. The disparate array of flaws which turn up throughout are such that I am forced to acknowledge their presence, but even if in making this film Dario Argento’s reach exceeded his grasp, as the saying goes, he deserved better than what he got. He still does.

“Most of them, they’ll never understand, but…I do. I think you do too.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I may complain about remakes of films that I love, but what am I supposed to do when I haven’t seen the original? Like with 3:10 TO YUMA? Or like now, with SLEUTH, one of those many films I’ve been meaning to get around to seeing for a long time. So I never did. I’m not perfect. On the other hand I have seen DEATHTRAP and, as it turns out, the two pieces share a few things in common, not the least of which is its use of Michael Caine as a writer who we gradually learn more about as the plot progresses. I think it’s entirely possible that DEATHTRAP was the first Michael Caine movie I ever saw in a theater and it’s interesting to consider it the hidden link between these two versions of SLEUTH. Even if I still haven’t seen the original.

But for now I’m faced with the remake of SLEUTH and I still had an interest in seeing it mostly because my reaction is “Hey! New Michael Caine thriller!” and really, how many more of those are we going to get? So Caine is now playing the old Laurence Olivier role and in the old Michael Caine role is Jude Law, also known as The Other Alfie.

Everything I’ve read indicates that this is a near-total rewrite by Harold Pinter from the original script by Anthony Shaffer, but either way the plot is simple: Andrew Wyke (Caine) is visited by Milo Tindle (Law) at his country home. Tindle, we learn, is now seeing Wyke’s wife. Wyke is hesitant to agree to a divorce but has a proposition for Tindle which he thinks will satisfy everyone.

There’s an intriguing idea there, set in the ultra-sleek, high-tech home of famous author Wyke, and right away you can sense director Kenneth Branagh working overtime to transform this into a visual piece of work. However, the degree of artificiality becomes an issue almost immediately, both in the set design and certain plot surprises. I found myself wondering why Law’s character would agree to certain things that Caine suggests, when anyone could see from the word go that he can’t be trusted. The big plot twist, one that I gather is well known by those who have seen the original, is beyond obvious to the point where it’s open to question how it could possibly even be presented as a surprise. On the other hand, it’s the kind of twist (I’m deliberately avoiding specifics here) that wouldn’t be a problem when presented in a stage play, where the degree of artificiality can be presented in a different context.

So the problem with this new film isn’t that it’s artificial. The problem is that SLEUTH, at least this version of it, seems expressly designed to be a play and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with that—certain plays are meant to be plays, films are meant to be films and so on. I’m even reminded of the suggestion Julie Walters had in EDUCATING RITA, yet another Michael Caine film, when she has to write an essay about how to deal with the staging problems of PEER GYNT she offers, “Do it on the radio”. The staging problems of SLEUTH seem like they would be solved by saying, “Do it on the stage, don’t bother with a film version.” The basic flaws in SLEUTH ’07 ultimately mean that no matter how well it was shot and directed—and to be fair, some of it is very well shot and directed—it could almost have been considered a failure before the first frame was shot.

That said, there is a good deal of enjoyment in the Pinter dialogue, as well as Patrick Doyle’s harshly symphonic score. There’s some very good sound work as well, with certain effects used to startle to maximum effect. And there is the man who is Michael Caine of course terrific in this role. But even better, he’s being directed by Kenneth Branagh, an actor himself, who at times seems to be taking pleasure in exploring how many ways he can shoot the screen legend in front of him within the frame. There’s a long-held medium profile shot of the actor which comes at a key moment and it’s a work of beauty. And there’s the joy of seeing Michael Caine, the star of GET CARTER himself, once again holding a gun on somebody while yelling at them. SLEUTH ’07 doesn’t entirely work, and judging by the audience of about twelve at the Arclight yesterday, it won’t be around for long. But there are pleasures to be found while it lasts.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

We Haven't Located Us Yet

As I begin to think about THE DARJEELING LIMITED, I first have to admit that as much as Wes Anderson’s films are what they are by now, I’m more than willing to go along for the ride. His newest film begins in motion, with Bill Murray (playing the role of “The Businessman”) racing to catch the title train on time but failing. There seems to be something symbolic in this, saying that not only won’t Bill Murray be along for the ride this time, but the film has no real place for the paternal force that he represents in the Wes Anderson universe. This time, the characters are on their own.

It’s an intriguing idea, but how does something like this make any sense to somebody who hasn’t seen Anderson’s films? How much this really matters is open to debate but I find myself enjoying the notion that Anderson’s films make up an ongoing story—not through characters that recur but through thematic concerns that are ongoing, yet shifting. His last film, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, may be a bit of a mess but to me it’s a glorious mess. There’s something about it I simply love and more than a few times I’ve found myself popping in the DVD to watch a few scenes and before I know it I’ve sat through nearly the entire thing (I must remember to write up a ZISSOU appreciation soon). If that film was the most elaborate take on Anderson’s overriding themes, then DARJEELING is a deliberate stripping down of them. Fittingly, to strip everything down he chose to go as far away on the map as was humanly possible. Of course, that’s something that the characters in the film are in the process of doing as well.

DARJEELING tells the story of three brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, meeting up in India as they on the train of the title. The siblings are named Francis, Peter and Jack and it’s been pointed out elsewhere that the three of them share the first names of three famous individuals who got their start with Roger Corman back in the sixties. What this could mean is difficult to say, though it should also be noted that Francis Coppola's son Roman (director of CQ) co-wrote the script with Anderson and Schwartzman. The three characters are meeting up at Francis’s (Wilson’s) behest, to go on a “spiritual journey” one that he clearly hopes will heal all the wounds in the family. Things of course do not proceed as planned. Even in such a distant location, many of the rules of Anderson’s universe still apply, with notions of functionality that seem to exist as if in the late 70s. For example, do train conductors still punch holes in the tickets? And if they do, did they ever do it in India?

The three actors fit perfectly with each other, as brothers should. And I have to mention the beguiling Amara Karan, who plays the main stewardess on the Darjeeling. Much is made of the baggage they carry with them everywhere they go, clearly something that is weighing them down before they can move onto the next step in their lives. “We haven’t located us yet,” is something said when the train becomes unexpectedly lost. Wilson’s Francis of course sees the symbolism in that. Anderson sees the symbolism in everything, even down to what the characters have packed for the trip and what certain characters think other characters should eat for breakfast. And as the movie goes on, we learn more and more that these things are that cause Anderson to love his characters as well. They may be lost in various ways, but the eternal optimism he sees in their behavior comes through. It's what makes THE DARJEELING LIMITED such a huge pleasure.

Also of interest is the film's prologue HOTEL CHEVALIER, now on iTunes, which introduces Schwartzman’s character Jack in a Parisian hotel room, as he is visited by a woman who is presumably an ex, played by Natalie Portman. An intriguing 13-minute short, it plays very much like a Wes Anderson-directed segment of PARIS JE T’AIME that we didn’t get to see until now. CHEVALIER can be considered simply a stab at experimentation, but viewed alongside the feature, one’s appreciation for DARJEELING grows, not out of any kind plot payoff—although that does happen—but in the continuation of the mood that lasts from one to the other. It’s all part of the unique design Anderson brings in telling his stories and it gets harder and harder for me to resist it.

As a movie set in transit, I can’t shake the feeling that THE DARJEELING LIMITED is deliberately transitional, as if Anderson is using the film to go from the excess of his last film to whatever is next. Since BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE, both filmed in Anderson's home state of Texas, his films have progressed further east on the map. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS was New York, then AQUATIC was Rome and Cinecittà. Now, with THE DARJEELING LIMTED, we’ve arrived in India. Will this trek on the map possibly continue to Hong Kong or Tokyo? Hawaii? Los Angeles? Would it eventually lead him back home? Time will tell. Even if he hasn’t located himself yet, he knows where he is.