Monday, October 28, 2013

House

The Criterion Collection really promoted the hell out of the 1977 Japanese oddity called HOUSE a few years back. It was confusing. They announced as if a truly amazing lost treasure had been rescued from obscurity. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised; Sam Fuller's campy but potent WHITE DOG is also in their library. But it seemed that everyone was singing the praises of HOUSE. Even Turner Classic Movies ran the movie once!? Despite my considerable knowledge of ‘70s B-movie lore, including many Asian titles, I had never heard of it. It was in fact never released in the U.S. but quite a hit in its homeland. A fan base grew over the years.

Criterion’s description led to puzzlement. “.....like an episode of Scooby Doo”?? How did this film fit in the oeuvre? Was this another head scratcher, like the company's inclusion of  the Michael Bay films THE ROCK and ARMEGEDDON? Were the folks at Criterion becoming more lenient with their choices as to what to spiff up and pluck from the abyss? I can think of many other cheesy offerings that deserved a Criterion treatment besides/before HOUSE.

I was tempted to just buy the damned thing and trust them. I’d never been let down before. But, I just couldn’t. As much as I appreciate a good ol’ fashioned exploitation, this one just looked too silly. So…one afternoon I rented it from iTunes.

Were my purchase reservations confirmed? Well, had I spent the money on the disc, I wouldn’t have exactly demanded a refund, though I can’t exactly say I found a lost classic. Haven't rushed to join the cult. At least, not yet.

The plot: a teen called Gorgeous joins some classmates (who have names like Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac - short for stomach as the girl can't stop eating) for a summer at her aunt’s place in the country. It all happens because Gorgeous is angry at her widower father, who wants to bring along his new wife to a father/daughter summer vaca.  Auntie, long a widow who lost her husband in the war, is expectedly eccentric. She utters forbodences and has a mysterious cat named Blanche who will figure prominently in the movie (and whose fuzzy mug you see on the poster). But why does Auntie disappear into the refrigerator at one point? The questions will only get more curious.

One by one, the giggly girls are bumped off, Ten Little Indians style. But this is no traditional mystery or slasher. Not even an imitation Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Victims are eaten by pianos and light fixtures. Kung Fu has her own cool theme music. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi stages a live action cartoon with some of the most endearingly low rent special effects you’ll ever see. The imagination overflows. Plus, there are completely random freeze frames at inappropriate moments. In other words, my kinda movie (on the right day).

You’ll be tempted to hunt for meaning during HOUSE. Like wondering if all that blood is supposed to represent the girls' menstrual cycles. Or why you hear the sounds of war machines when the house is exploding. Worse yet, perhaps some political statement? Resist such ideas. In fact, you may well hear Auntie's demonic shrieks if you try to ponder too deeply, as well you should!

The Scooby Doo description is not that far off. What also struck me is how Tarantino-ish HOUSE is. I did not get any David Lynch vibes, as I had expected. Quentin has surely seen the movie, but did he have the opportunity before he made his own films?  The influences on his work are everywhere, from the fighting skills of the girls to the use of music to the endless bag of camera tricks. And certainly the editing. Like Quentin, Obayashi seems to be in love with every shot.

The tone of HOUSE is surprising. While quite goofy, and not really scary, there is a certain poignancy throughout, and the finale is actually pretty effective. Even when one character turns into a pile of bananas.

Does the Cinema Snob have another legitimate beef with Criterion? You could argue, but it illustrates that film appreciation (should) covers a broad canvas, one that goes far beyond Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray. HOUSE is an absolutely ridiculous, inconsequential Grade Z flick that is way savvier than you might think. The hipsters got this one right, I think. 

And I’ve said it before, one must be able to recognize great trash. Maybe I'll watch this again for Halloween?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Gravity

It was an encouraging notion: what appeared to be an heir to the great science fiction artifices in cinema history was also a smash hit with mainstream audiences. Were folks finally able to sit back and pause for a change? Rather than hold their bowels as they waited for the next cataclysm to unfold? Was Sandra Bullock stretching a bit beyond the crowd pleasers that have made her one of the most bankable stars ever?

My instincts said otherwise.  When I first watched the trailer for GRAVITY this summer, I nearly fell out of my chair with laughter.  Bullock and George Clooney desperately floating about in deep space, gasping like rookies in an acting class. I thought for sure that Bullock was headed for a Razzie nomination. I stopped laughing when I saw that Alphonso Cuarón  was the director.  Then I just felt deflated.

But maybe I was wrong.  When the film opened a few weeks back, it became an immediate sensation. The majority of critics - many of whom I greatly respect - were filled with declaratives, stating a new classic was on display. I wasn't convinced or otherwise persuaded to see the film until I read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal last week. I decided to take the plunge, to blow $30 on the IMAX and 3-D showing 'cause a movie like this demands it. It was the first film I've seen in the theater since LIFE OF PI late last spring, at the tail end of its run before it went on video and On Demand. I did not see a single summer release, the first time since I was about 6. You know, 'cause most of them featured non-stop mayhem and I'm flat out bored with that.

So that feeling of deflation continued as I watched GRAVITY, one of the most hyped films in recent memory. I should have known. I should have known. My hopes that a neo: 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS was about to unfold were very quickly dashed as the actors exchanged cheesy banter that included references to the "Macarena" and Facebook. But yeah, it looked amazing. Sandra and George rotating in our faces. I don't think anyone will argue that the film hasn't raised the bar for effects and overall technique. Longtime Cuarón cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's work is crisp.  I did indeed find myself wondering how they did certain shots.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA scientist on her first Space Shuttle mission. She's admittedly more comfortable in windowless laboratories, doing low profile work. Clooney is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut on his final spacewalk (and determined to break a previous such record). We barely get to know them when Houston warns of a storm of debris headed their way, the result of a destroyed Russian satellite. After the storm all but decimates the station, Stone and Kowalski are detached and float through space, armed with backpack thrusters but groping their way back.  When they finally succeed, they discover the vessel is unusable and the crew is dead.  Equipment in the nearby International Space Station is similarly (mostly) impaired.

I won't say more. But instead of the expected slow meditation on life and death in this most foreign of places, we're treated to a series of crises, not just metaphysical. The kind of action audiences crave, have been weaned on. Have seen a thousand times before. Where is HAL when you need him?

So disappointing. I happen to love close call adventures as much as the next guy in short pants, but GRAVITY had the potential to be so much more. How is it that the director of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and CHILDREN OF MEN  (and even the darkest of the Harry Potter movies, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) spit out such a patently Hollywood movie? All the more surprising was the banal dialogue, scripted by the director and his son Jonas. Bullock's character also relays a story of her deceased child that was supposed to add dramatic weight to the scenario but to me just felt cherry picked. It was no more effective than Phoebe Cates' grim Santa Claus memory in GREMLINS. It pains me to say that the drama here is about 5th grade level.

Don't ask about the film's scientific accuracy, though most of the time in works of fiction one must try to ignore such shortcomings. But is it that difficult to have consultants and advisers on hand to tweak the scenario in a logical direction? I remember watching in disbelief an episode of House that featured cochlear implants. It was embarrassing at how off the science was.

Once Stone flies solo (the remaining hour of this 90 minute film), she whimpers, swears, tells beeping control panels to shut up and even at one point utters, "I hate space."  Towards the end, she has a hallucination that underlines the films themes a bit too neatly and obviously, though it is an enjoyable scene. But it illuminates what is wrong with GRAVITY, a film that never trusts its audience to make their own connections, to ponder Stone's dilemma in any really meaningful way. Theological elements therein are largely dependent on the viewer, though there are a few shots of dashboard crucifixes and Buddhas.  Despite long, unbroken (albeit computer generated) shots, the film seems more concerned with the next big action sequence. And Stephen Price's near unbearable score only adds to the frustration.

I do have to say that I liked the very last scene.  It allows some degree of ambiguity that hints at what GRAVITY could have been for its entire hour and a half. I read that Warner Brothers wanted to add something to those shots to reassure the audience. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

I know I will be in the minority with my thoughts on GRAVITY. And honestly, I did enjoy it. Bullock has several good moments; both she and Clooney utilize their familiar screen personas to mostly good effect. The film is good popcorn that can be enjoyed and experienced without guilt. But I wanted more than just a theme park ride. The thinness of the screenplay was disheartening. Was I expecting Malick-type poetry? Maybe.  I am due for another screening of TREE OF LIFE............

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stand by the Seawall

Another lost Steely Dan composition.  The instrumental "Stand by the Seawall" was intended for the Aja LP but discarded as it did not meet Fagen/Becker's exacting standards. Parts of it were pilfered for use in the album's title track.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Busting

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 6

Spoilers!!!
 
1974 was apparently the year of the mismatched male buddy comedy drama. Ones we've covered: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE DION BROTHERS, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. BUSTING came out earlier in the year and disappeared quickly. It was quirky and filled with action like the other films, with a healthy dose of 70s cynicism, but perhaps proved to be too much of a downer to succeed, even while films by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman were box office champs. What a beautifully odd time for cinema.

Keneely (the omnipresent Elliott Gould) and Farrell (Robert Blake) are Los Angeles vice cops who dutifully accept their lot on the shit detail including, appropriately enough, staking out a public mens' room for perverts. They also find themselves busting prostitutes in massage parlors and even one who services a dentist - in a patient chair during office hours! There's an uncomfortable shakedown in a gay club that is followed by an even more humiliating court date in which Keneely is grilled on the witness stand.

But the big prey is a crime kingpin named Carl Rizzo (the omnipresent Allen Garfield). A man who prizes his ability to remain absolutely unflappable when constantly badgered by the duo, at least initially. He likes to give speeches, explaining the sad reality to the boys. They'll never nab him, and if they do, he'll serve a short stint and then get right back to his business.

After each misadventure, our heroes are dressed down by the chief in the same tradition as other movie mavericks. The pair's desperation grows with their obsession. They decide to up the stakes on Rizzo - constant stakeouts of his home, setting his car on fire, and busting one of his strip clubs in a raid, frightening away every patron. Hitting the slippery SOB where it really hurts.

BUSTING is likewise similar to a cache of 1970s cop dramas such as THE NEW CENTURIONS and SERPICO - films examining police corruption. Keneely and Farrell are sardonic cut-ups but unrelenting about upholding the law.  And they suffer for it. Get bloodied up and berated. Those things come with the job. But when they learn that their fellow officers are on the take, in Rizzo's pocket, they find that they may well be alone in their pursuit for justice. That crime may indeed pay.

Peter Hyams, in his directorial debut, navigates a bumpy but engaging drama; a straight faced movie with many humorous moments, but rarely as goofy as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, to which it's often compared. There are plenty of wisecracks and even a few pranks, but otherwise there's serious business here. The two films do share a penchant for elaborate action scenes. In BUSTING, Hyams stages wild chases/shootouts through an all-night farmer's market type grocery and also a climatic ambulance spree. His camera races far ahead, pointed back at the actors, as if leading them. The atmosphere is vivid in each sleazy location. It's as '70s as any movie could possibly be.

Gould is just about right as the tired, forever gum chewing sad sack. He mumbles and growls his way through the movie effectively and believably. Blake, seen in far fewer movies than his co-star in those days, is more of a straight man but gets a few good moments. BUSTING is not a satire, but a bleak, defeatist reminder of the ambiguity of good versus evil. A really cynical essay that questions why anyone would dare, or even bother to fight the good fight. Possibly, the film is also a denigration of capitalism, but that may be reaching.

And in the great tradition of downbeat '70s wrap ups, ponder the final moments. The final shot - a freeze frame on Keneeley just after he apprehends Rizzo. We hear a flash forward to a few months later, when the exhausted lawman is applying for a civilian job.......

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cross of Iron

It's surprising that Sam Peckinpah only made one film set in and around the bloody fields of war, 1977's CROSS OF IRON. So well suited to the milieu of battle is the director that it just seems as if he would've set more of his films in the trenches with gore stained soldiers, in tents with Colonels and Captains as they clash no less harshly over the ideas and symbols of rank and bravery. It is left to this film to incorporate it all, to blend the horrors of war with stinging insight and some gallows humor. To make potent statements on valor and the psyche that only knows purpose when in harm's way.

If you're just seeing this film today, much of it may seem old hat.  Unoriginal. Derivative of both films before and after it. Perhaps yet another '70s war pic that makes statements about Vietnam in a WW2 setting, if you're so inclined.

In fact, much of CROSS OF IRON plays like a solid B movie, much the way Samuel Fuller's THE BIG RED ONE from 1980 does. Peckinpah didn't have Lee Marvin (how is it that they never worked together??) as his lead, but rather James Coburn in one of his very best roles. As the thoroughly weary Corporal Steiner, his character is never heard barking purple prose, false bravado and all that. Quite unlike his adversary, Stransky (Maximillian Schell), an officer who positions himself on the front lines in hopes of earning the Iron Cross.

CROSS OF IRON uniquely views WW2 through German eyes, following soldiers as they push their way into Russia. The bulk of the film focuses on Steiner and Stransky, each with differing points of view and attitudes that are equally frowned upon by the high brass. Steiner is the jaded grunt, any sense of pride long since sucked out of him. When questioned by superiors such as Colonel Brandt (James Mason), he bluntly concludes a rant with "I hate all officers." But he respects his men.  Following injury and a hospital stay, Steiner refuses a chance for home leave and even the comforts afforded by a nurse (Senta Berger) to rejoin the platoon. He has a conscience and a heart, but also just wouldn't know what else to do. His stock allows nothing else.

Stransky is the grandstanding power grabber, a liar, a coward. He'd make a perfect politician. Schell excels in the role, which is possibly based on more than one historic figure of the time. His final scene with Steiner will be inconclusive to some, but is absolutely perfect to me. A damning and wicked coda to a strong film.

Peckinpah, who may have channeled much of his own worldview through Coburn's character, again demonstrates his flair for action scenes, relentlessly, unblinkingly staring into violence. Here, a way of life. The norm. But perhaps not so strangely, very much like many of his other films. Certainly THE WILD BUNCH.  He once stated that he felt all of his films in fact were Westerns. In CROSS OF IRON, it's hard to argue.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Razor Girls

On September 12th I had the privilege of seeing Steely Dan live; only the second time. The tour was entitled "Mood Swings, 8 Miles to Pancake Day".  This time outdoors at the Mizner Park Ampitheater in Boca Raton. I expected mainly a sea of grey (and maybe even blue) hair but was quite surprised to see a good bit of younger faces, and not all seemed to have been dragged by their parents. And they sang along with even the lesser known cuts!

One of them was "Razor Boy" from the Dan's second album, 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy (though Fagen drolly announced it being from 1911!). It's a very good one, the lyrics of which are about as cryptic as most of their tunes, though I think materialism plays into it. But the version that night was an extensive re-work: almost entirely unrecognizable arrangement and instead sung by the always sexy as hell Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, La Tanya Hall, and Catherine Russell ("The Borderline Brats"). While the ladies' rendition added a cool sheen, the music was, well, scattered. Like an experimental jam. An outtake or demo that was still in the larval stage. Unfinished. Interesting, but a mess. Somewhat like their odd live version of "Jack of Speed" heard back in 2011.

Most of the rest of the set was just out of sight. I was expecting a pleasant but unremarkable show but, wow, these guys still have panache. "Aja", "Your Gold Teeth", "Time Out of Mind", "Black Cow", "Home at Last" - all excellent. The horn section, the drummer (Keith Carlock, a maniac) - everyone was tight. Donald Fagen was shabbily dressed and still looked like the Crypt Keeper. At times his voice seemed this side of disintegration, but he still has it. Still does those long endings, too (like in the 1970s). And right before the encore, "Kid Charlamagne", he yelled "You 'Do It Again'" to a woman calling out requests. Vintage!

Walter Becker, as during the "Rarities" show I saw 2 years earlier, didn't move very much and still appeared like he needed more belt loops. He also hung back and deferred most guitar solos to John Herington (who was amazing). But his licks on "Josie" were as tasty as ever. His usual monologue during "Hey 19" was much more amusing (and coherent) than the one I heard last time.  And, he tailored it for a South Florida audience quite amusingly.

Speaking of which...there was no mistaking where we were. From the bitchy wife behind me ("...twentieth row? This is more like the fiftieth!....this is the worst venue evah!") to the whining guy in the beer line ("I had to park a mile away!"), to the crowd's indifference to the opening act (Deep Blue Organ Trio, who played some nice Hammond B3 organ and did their damndest to get to crowd to pay attention) it was Boca all the way. We had dinner outside at Max's Grille in the Mizner plaza before the show and were treated to a parade of bad plastic surgery. Let me further resist the temptation to crack on this most unusual of places.

And yes, "Reelin' in the Years" was played, a song I've heard enough times for several lifetimes. But it rocked and the original guitar part (for years substituted with saxes) was intact. The tour winds down in the next several days in NYC. Check it out if you can, scurvy brother!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tadpole

2000's TADPOLE occupies its short (barely 80 min.) running time with a very familiar plot: younger man is seduced by wiser, older woman. But this boy is not as naive as his cinematic progenitors. Oscar (Aaron Stanford) is a 15 year old who favors Volatire and speaks French. He can't relate to/has little interest in girls his own age. There perhaps is nature and nurture at work here: his divorced father, with whom he lives in Manhattan, is a university professor and his mother is a Frenchwoman back in her mother country (Oscar makes frequent visits).

Dad (John Ritter) has remarried, to an attractive research scientist named Eve (Sigourney Weaver) with whom Oscar is horribly smitten. He loves everything about her. Her air of sophistication. Her physical beauty. Her red scarf. Especially her hands. He seems to have a hand fetish. Those teenage girls' hands are just so, girlish.

One night, after a desultory walk home with his father's friend's daughter, Oscar gets tipsy and is spied by family friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who is an alluring forty-something. She brings him home and before he knows it, he awakens next to her. It was all so confusing. She (a masseuse) had given him an innocent massage and was wearing that red scarf she borrowed from Eve. She had mature womanly hands. Oscar is somewhat horrified, feeling as if he has betrayed Eve, and sent the wrong signals to Diane. Ensuing is an entertaining, low key comedy of awkwardness, one Eric Rohmer might've made.

TADPOLE is a very low budget film, its cheap look sometimes hampering things, though the delights of upper class Manhattan are near impossible to taint. Gary Winick's direction is mostly nimble and light, the right approach. But the actors carry this movie. The best scene is a dinner with the four principals, one where both verbal and physical comedy both illuminate the characters and further the plot. I could've easily seen Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert et al performing this scene.

Interesting is that Weaver's Eve is not made into a luminary, a larger than life angel; she's a fairly drab, ordinary (though quite attractive) woman whose intelligence is obvious but perhaps does not match Oscar's.

Quotes from Volatire preface each chapter, the sort of device I usually enjoy but by now seems worn, too easy. As if the film is trying too hard.  Sometimes even pretentious. Thankfully, most of TADPOLE lets the actors occupy spaces and act naturally, even if the scenario is derivative of many that came before. It's really all about them, and they are what drive an often unskillfully paced (how does such a short film feel drawn out?) film, often feeling like someone's home movie. Though, certainly more enjoyable and wittier than your nephew's Justin Bieber impersonation.