Friday, October 30, 2015

Psycho (1998)

In the annals of Unnecessary Remake Shame, 1998's PSYCHO has to rank very close to the top. A more pointless cinematic exercise I cannot recall witnessing.  Many redos that I have watched may have angered and saddened me, but this one was a weird non-experience.  Very odd.  I sat there feeling numb, embalmed.  As if I had ingested too many benzodiazepines.  But the effect wasn't calming, rather disbelief. Allow me to borrow the words of a music critic - this film is "an almost perfect blandness".

Director Gus Van Sant plays it near letter perfect to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 original.  The script is still credited to Joseph Stefano.  Much of the dialogue is the same.  I guess we can applaud the Imagine team (who created a ridiculous tagline for this new film, btw) for not trying to create a baldly contemporary take on the strange case of Normal Bates.  Although if they had, maybe it would've been bad enough for me to respond with some degree of emotion.  As it is, this version of PSYCHO does inspire my negative review, with enough behind it to prompt me to make caustic remarks, but really, I was just overwhelmed by pure bafflement. Why, Gus?

I wonder why so much effort was put into a shot for shot remake.  Why they felt it necessary for Norman to masturbate while watching Marion through the peephole. Of course we knew the shower scene would be a little more explicit.  I also wonder why such a fine cast, which includes Vince Vaughan, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, and others, agreed to this project.  Maybe they all loved their director.  I've mentioned before that William H. Macy (who plays Milton Arbogast here) is quoted as saying that he heard Hitchock was a real bitch to actors.  It pains me to say that maybe such an approach is necessary to tease out a classic? Just compare the two films.

Van Sant is a director I admire.  DRUGSTORE COWBOY, TO DIE FOR, GOOD WILL HUNTING, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, and others are impressive.  I can't join the chorus of negativity towards EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES as I haven't had the pleasure of seeing it yet.  Was PSYCHO some sort of experiment? A proving point to himself? I just don't get it.  It's truly a textbook case of artists/craftsmen/what have you studying the same blueprint and erecting something very different.  Or, as Ebert discusses in his review, different musicians playing the same piece: one getting all the technical points down, but losing the music.  The late critic really says it all when he explains what "genius" is behind the camera:

Genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.

Think about that, even with some of the obvious visual stylings on display,  the next time you try to quantify why Max Ophuls, Satyajit Ray, Stanley Kubick, the Coen Brothers, or several others deserve the title.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Re-Animator

SPOILERS!
 
Many gross out horror films are far from timid in treating viewers to all manner of vile and disgusting make-up effects, and accordingly many are just so dour and ugly.  Cheerless marches of unpleasantness.  All such films are potentially ridiculous, and 1985's RE-ANIMATOR not only recognizes but fully embraces this notion.  Of how violence and gore can be taken to an extreme that far surpasses any inherent shock and transfigures into a comic ballet.

Sam Raimi skillfully orchestrated such a dance with the original EVIL DEAD and its sequels.  If I described to you what occurs in those films, you might be repelled, but the cartoonish approach tempers what otherwise might play as unwatchable in other hands (pardon the pun if you've seen those flicks).  Director Stuart Gordon's style is not kinetic like Raimi's, but rather a steady approach to a third act crescendo of outrageousness.  Over the top carnage that set new lows for the genre.  This is high praise, indeed.

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has concocted a reagent that can re-animate the deceased.   His reputation precedes him as he arrives at Miskatonic University and almost immediately sets about to show his med school roommate Dan (Bruce Abbott) the results of his labor.  After bringing Dan's dead feline to life, the duo are expelled and are forced to find corpses in the local morgue as subjects.  But, the re-animated tend to be uncontrollable and quite violent.  You can't reason with them.

Soon, the reagent will be necessary to use on Dr. Alan Halsey, dean of the school (Robert Sampson), and his egotistical colleague Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who ends up with a separated re-animated head and lower body.  In his new state, Dr. Hill is still coherent, and lucid enough to devise some rather perverted designs on the dean's daughter/Dan's fiancee, Megan (Barbara Crampton), in a scene of wicked invention and demented humor.

Those words sum up RE-ANIMATOR entirely.  Director Gordon's screenplay - based on an old story by H.P. Lovecraft - is a trashy good time that adheres to the conventions of the genre while drolly commenting on them.  The story follows an insane logic right to its final fade out.  Gordon's tone is straight faced and that is the only way such an absurd movie could possibly work.  Yet it is never relentlessly somber or self-serious.  There is a wink in every moment, with Richard Band's score an apt accompaniment.

That is not to say that if you are squeamish you should give it a go, but the cabaret of excessiveness here approaches heights (or depths) that put it firmly in the schlock Hall of Fame.  And I was not at all surprised that this movie was later adapted into a Broadway musical.   RE-ANIMATOR could easily be LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' even more twisted cousin.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Videodrome

I would consider nearly all of writer/director David Cronenberg's films to be ahead of their time, though my revisit a few weeks back with 1983's VIDEODROME was downright startling.   Its foresight disturbs me now more than any of its violent or sexual content possibly could.  Cronenberg was always either in line with or ahead of the medical and technological worlds with his visions.  The director was surprised to learn that the research behind the amorous parasites in his 1975 low budgeter SHIVERS actually existed.

VIDEODROME follows Max (James Woods), president of a small Toronto cable TV station that features softcore programming.  He's been seeking different fare for his viewers, something "tougher".  He begins receiving curious satellite transmissions from what his technician believes is Malaysia.   Staticy, barely visible shots of people being tortured in a single room. Intrigued, Max begins pirating the signal, called "Videodrome" believing this to be the sort of edgy material that will boost his ratings.  He learns the transmissions are actually coming from Pittsburgh.

Max will learn quite a bit more about "Videodrome" - who created it, who's currently behind it, what its actual purpose is.  How his new girlfriend,  radio psychiatrist Nicki Brand (Deboarh Harry),  responds to it. Cronenberg's screenplay incorporates many conspiracy theory elements and corporate misdeeds, much like in his previous film SCANNERS.  The subject was so ripe.  People were increasingly glued to their TVs in the wake of cable and video game ubiquity in the late 70s/early 80s.  It seemed natural that the government or some corporation would seek to control the minds of such a captive audience.  To perhaps thin the herd of those who would seek to disagree with their agenda.

Max discovers that viewers of "Videodrome" develop brain tumors, which in turn cause hallucinations.  Are those screaming about cell phone use causing acoustic neuromas so off the mark?  Will virtual reality soon no longer require special gear? Is this part of the Plan?

It's hard not to wonder about the proliferation of reality TV over the last decade plus in such a context.  But TV as a whole (along with the plethora of devices on which to view it) has indeed become more real than people's real lives, as a Marshall Mchuan-esque character called Brian O'Blivion states in VIDEODROME. How, as another character muses, "North America is getting weak, soft.  The rest of the world is getting stronger".  Sound familiar? The devolution has been happening for some time.

Cronenberg continues his "body horror" stylings to great effect in VIDEODROME, featuring characters who become human VCRs, plunging videotapes straight into their abdomens.  The disgusting manifest of "Videodrome"'s effects, sexual and otherwise.  There is both creation and death in this imagery. Makeup whiz Rick Baker does some nauseatingly good work, especially in a late death scene that outdoes the exploding head in SCANNERS. 

So how long before we assume "the new flesh"? Or has it already happened?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Shallow Grave

I recall my first viewing of 1995's SHALLOW GRAVE.  Tara Theater in midtown Atlanta during its original release.  I attended with an old high school friend with whom I'd reconnected.  We both loved this twisty, relentlessly dark movie.  I was pleasantly surprised, as back in the day she seemed to favor the sunshine of mainstream pop.  Within eight years, her tastes had become far more adventurous.  I watched Jarmusch's NIGHT ON EARTH with her later that summer. We even discussed Nakobov!

Director Danny Boyle's inaugural outing is a sly thriller which I believe Hitchcock would've applauded.  I don't throw that phrase around lightly, or at every Hitchcockian effort I've come across.  SHALLOW GRAVE earns that compliment with its stealthy plotting, sneering black humour, and gradually suffocating tension.  Hitch never made a film quite like this, or as grim, though had he been offered the screenplay I think he might've at least been tempted.

A trio of young, caustic Scottish professionals need a roommate for their Edinburgh flat.  David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (Ewan McGregor) take joy in humiliating several candidates before settling on Hugo (Keith Allen). He's an elusive one, and when he mysteriously turns up dead the roommates discover a trunk full of cash in his room.  The baser instincts overtake these otherwise intelligent individuals. And it is a shame that it doesn't occur to them that someone - possibly quite murderous- may be looking for the money.

As they often say with films like SHALLOW GRAVE, to reveal more would be criminal.  John Hodge's script expertly and logically rides the serpentine plot line to a deliciously and satisfyingly bleak conclusion.  This is what you might call a supreme example of a "just desserts" thriller, where everyone gets exactly what they deserve.  In some ways, this movie is like a grislier, coal black version of Seinfeld.   I'll leave you to discover that knockout finale, one of my favorite ever, but throughout the film each character suffers for their misdeeds, often quite evil.  I especially enjoyed David's comeuppance in a men's room, even if the moment is marginalized from the central plot.  Greed drives every sordid action,  rapidly changing the relationships among the three principals, who begin as close friends.  No possibility therein is left unexplored.  Boyle wastes nary a moment.

Stories with multiple plot twists have always stirred much conversation among myself and cinema mad compadres.  I recall having a mildly intense debate with another old friend over A SIMPLE PLAN, which bears some similarity to SHALLOW GRAVE.   That would be a nifty double feature, though I'm not sure if Sam Raimi's 1998 thriller earns the same treatment Criterion has given the other film. Wonder what my old hs pal thinks?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wiseacre Duos, 10cc, Part VII (CONCLUSION)

By the late 1980s our two pairs of wiseacre duos had each gone their own ways. Eric Stewart was working with Paul McCartney and producing others' output.  Graham Gouldman formed a group with Andrew Gold.  Kevin Godley and Lol Creme had an impressive resume of music videos and a hit single ("Cry"), and in 1988 recorded the harmonica heavy Goodbye Blue Sky, which tackled some weighty subjects.  But soon afterward the relationship deteriorated.  Maybe they were just tired.  How long can the manic creativity burn before it consumes its author(s)?  Both men would continue to direct videos and make music in separate ventures.

In 1991, what appeared to be a minor show business miracle came to pass: all four of the original members of 10cc appeared on a new album, ....meanwhile.  But this reunion was not bona fide, not a return to the days when the guys composed and performed together.  Stewart and Gouldman wrote the tracks, but Godley and Creme had no creative input other than background vocals and one lead - Godley, on "The Stars Didn't Show".  It is reported that the only reason G & C appeared at all was due to an obligation to Polydor Records.

There was another promising element: Gary Katz was called in to produce.  You remember him, the guy who worked with Steely Dan in the '70s?  Many critics noted similarities between the two groups but other than a certain causticism I hear very little.  Nonetheless, it must've seemed like a good pairing, though proving otherwise. Stewart and Gouldman did not mix with Katz's style, one that was always controlling of every detail. Both state they were disappointed with ....meanwhile.  I read that Godley felt a distinct uneasiness in the studio, an atmosphere far from conducive for relaxed creativity, which might've been a better approach for this album.   Katz brought in several session musicians (including Dr. John and Jeff Porcaro) as he had on the Dan's later records, but the results are fair at best.  No hit singles, either.

In 1995, 10cc's final album to date, Mirror Mirror was released to an even cooler reception from fans and critics.  There might be some justice in that as the songs are mostly separate solo efforts from Stewart and Gouldman, aside from an acoustic redo of 10cc's smash "I'm Not in Love".  That track's presence only serves to elucidate how the mighty had fallen.  Sometimes I guess it really is "better to burn out than fade away".  Soon after the Mirror Mirror tour Stewart left the group, with Gouldman trudging on.

In the next decade, in a surprising turn of events, Gouldman's old band mate Kevin Godley joined him ("unfinished business..") to compose several songs for their new website:  http://gg06.co.uk/.  The tracks are downloadable in MP3 and FLAC formats.   It would prove to be an interesting cross-reunion, one that to date has not happened in any other permutation with Lol Creme (who would become a member of Art of Noise and The Producers) or Eric Stewart, who continues to produce other acts.

A bit sad too, as these things usually are.  Geniuses come together for a time to create something unique, magical even, then disband.  Have the inevitable falling out.  Fans want them to work together forever and even like each other, too.  But we know how it goes.  David Byrne is at odds with the other members of his old group, Talking Heads, to name but one example.  Rush is an exception, still together after over forty years and still making solid music.   Maybe the guys in 10cc did in fact "make me a million for when I get old", but I for one would like to hear that they plan to play the Cambridge Festival or the like.   To one more time tell the world "I'm not in love".  No, really!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Elana has lived beneath the Arboria Institute her entire life.  A facility espousing a synthesis between spirituality and science, The Institute in fact serves as her prison, where she can be examined by Dr. Barry Nyle, a protege of founder Dr. Mercurio Arboria.  Elena possesses telepathic ability which allows her not only to convey messages but also kill those who seek to violate her.   Dr. Nyle, however, can shut her down with a mysterious illuminated prism.

Nyle (Michael Rogers) is a very strange dude, never quite the same after his mentor baptized him in some black fluid in an effort to seek supernatural power.   That was in the mid 1960s, when Dr. Arboria's New Age ideals were novel and embraced and Nyle was a promising disciple.  2010's BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW takes place in 1983, by which time Nyle has become a total psychopath, subjecting his (only?) patient to interrogative "therapy", teasing her with pictures of her mother, in harshly lit rooms.  He speaks in a tone that registers calm and sinister in a near one to one.  The doctor also ingests large quantities of pharmaceuticals and wears a wig, returning each night to his near catatonic spouse, Rosemary (Marilyn Norry), who watches Reagan give speeches on the perils of totalitarian societies.

Elana (Eva Allan) plots escape.  How will she manage the outside world? Soil under her feet? Can she bypass Nyle, the prism, a zombie, and the red suited "Sentionauts"?

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is in that tradition of glacially paced, jargon heavy science fiction with weird musical accompaniment (Moogs and Mellotrons).  Usually, we're placed in a dystopian future.  The atmosphere of 1983 is integral in this film, even as much time is spent in a labyrinth of geometric bright hallways and mirrored rooms.  It is a movie that recalls Cronenberg in many ways, right down to its being a Canadian production.  The director is Panos Cosmatos, son of George, who directed several action films in the '80s and '90s.  RAINBOW does not recall such movies in the slightest.

In other words, most viewers will neither have the inclination or patience to see this movie beyond oh, say, fifteen minutes. My first viewing was filled with impatience and a haste to write it off as a pretentious failure, an amateurish stab to create the sort of vibe ala SOLARIS,  2001, or even THX 1138.   The grainy 35mm visuals with their striking use of color command attention but sometimes lose it in several static moments. A few too many repetitive shots.  You really drink in this film.  It is not a narrative piece, but its story line does give some thought to issues of both mental and physical awareness, memory, and of course control.  Individual and societal.   Setting the movie during the Cold War is a good tip off to Cosmatos' ideas.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Mr. Tufts

The Rotor Rooter Man's image was on the back wall of my seventh grade English class.  Every time a student said something that struck our teacher as inane, Mr. Tufts would shoot his hand from his forehead and salute: "I have another one for you!"

Mr. Tufts was quite funny.  He sometimes used foreign accents ("That is a propah noun!").  He gave everyone cryptic nicknames (still trying to figure out mine,  "BillyMikal"). He had a long wooden switch he would occasionally clutch and wield that he dubbed "The Stick".   He concocted some elaborate fantasy of how it was once part of a magic tree.  One of my trouble making classmates named Rodney was dubbed "Yendor" and described by Tufts as a super villain, a nemesis.  The byplay between them was quite lively.  And one day our teacher played Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good", not for any sort of lyrical analysis, but just because he loved the song.   My teacher also had this specific fondness for peach flavored Nehi soda.

But make no mistake, Tufts was serious about the mechanics of grammar: conjugation, diagramming, subject/verb agreement, parallelism.  He would drill us hard, then break out with something like "Remember, not snot a verb".  Get it?  He incorporated high and lowbrow humor into his lessons, and I'm sure many things flew past me.  We devoured literature.   I'd love to watch/hear/read transcripts of our classes.  All I have left are memories.

I think about Thomas Tufts often, even nearly 35 years later.  Did you have a teacher like this? Who not only inspired you but created lifelong instillation of knowledge and love for the English language, the arts. Or whatever subject he or she taught.  Maybe not unlike Mr. Keating from DEAD POETS SOCIETY.  Tufts' methods involved humor that, while sometimes at the expense of others, were always designed to jolt us out of mediocrity.  To warn us to eventually become something more than a "slop jockey".

I actually had several memorable English teachers.  My 10th grade instructor, Mr. Trotsky, had similar desires for his students but his methods were verrrrry different than those of Tufts.  I'll save that for another time.

But with all that, Mr. Tufts also predicated something in '81/'82 that seems to be truer every day: "Someday we'll all probably just be robot polishers".  Even those of his pupils would go on to become surgeons can't counter that prediction.

Monday, October 5, 2015

American Pop

Spoilers

While writer/director Ralph Bakshi ultimately fails with his fascinating 1981 animated drama AMERICAN POP, no one can accuse him of a lack of ambition. Or his attempts to make a film free of his usual grotesque outlook on life.  Compared to FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC, and some others, AMERICAN POP is a restrained, serious, and mature piece.  Still adult themed, but much easier to watch and just as thought provoking.

The film spans over eighty years.  Bakshi's saga tracks several generations of a Russian Jewish family, some of whose members harbor musical talents.  AMERICAN POP opens in late 1890s Russia, before a rabbi's wife and young son Zalmie escape the Cossacks and flee to New York City.  Zalmie grows up in the world of burlesque later becomes a singer and then a clown.  He suffers injuries during WWI and gets mixed up with mobsters, a mistake that will bring tragedy and frustration for the rest of his days.

Zalmie has a son named Benny who likes to play the piano, but he too suffers during wartime, WWII,  paying with his life as he plays "Lili Marleen" on a piano in Nazi Germany.   Tony is Benny's son, who in the '60s travels cross country to chase his dream of being a rock star.  He meets a group led by a self-destructive female singer (ala Janis Joplin) and for a time plays with and writes songs for them. Heroin nearly destroys them all.  Backstage before a show one night,  Tony meets a young boy named Pete, eventually realizing he is his own son - the product of a long ago one night stand.  

But Tony doesn't learn from his mistakes, becoming in the '70s a dealer in NYC with Pete, teaching the kid his trade before disappearing.  Pete, like his many progenitors, exhibits a musical bent, with a fancy for writing songs and playing the guitar.   While waiting for his big break, he becomes a highly successful supplier of narcotics, mainly to musicians.  In a curious moment, while bopping down the street, Pete stops to nod at an Hassidic Jew as he chants over his Torah.  A nod to his own heritage? To Bakshi's?

I've summarized many of the events in AMERICAN POP not to spoil the plot, but to demonstrate the breadth of the project. This was a huge, personal project for Ralph Bakshi.  I have an attraction to the epic narrative, one that leapfrogs from event to event in history, usually against the backdrop of true life occurrences.  Bakshi spends just enough time with each character to intrigue us.  Some we get to know fairly well, others are like faint glimmers.  I found myself wondering about them, all the events we don't see long after a time period is covered. Any episode could've been expanded and stretched to feature length on its own.  The film gives more screen time to the late '50s onward, right up to the punk/New Wave era and the climactic concert, when Pete performs, no, not punk rock but a medley of covers of old songs (an homage to the past?), with a bit of Heart thrown in.

The songs used in the film are well known, many of them standards. Instead of new material, Bakshi uses the familiar tunes (for the screenplay it is explained that the characters wrote them) to recount history, the zeitgeist.  All the mores and attitudes of the ages, many the same over time.  But with each generation comes a greater sense of entitlement, wanting more for less.  Characters in the earlier decades acknowledge loyalty and sacrifice, while the later ones reject the work ethic and turn to intoxicants to fuel their creativity.

It sounds like moralizing, like some grumpy voice from the "greatest generation" kvetching about contemporary youth.  But Bakshi is no conservative hack, quite the opposite.  His quill is still sharp, as it was in his earlier stingers, especially COONSKIN.  This time the tone is more wistful and melancholy.  For all of the energy of the final scenes, a real heaviness pervades.  That all that came before did indeed happen, but now gone forever.  Did they all suffer for art, just so that their descendent could finally realize The Dream?  AMERICAN POP gives us a montage of the earlier scenes with his ancestors as Pete wows an arena crowd.  Did Bakshi mean for it to feel so empty and depressing?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith


When asked about the STAR WARS prequels, writer/director George Lucas replied "One and two won't be so bad.  Three will be pretty bad".  He's speaking of the tone, not the quality of the films, of course.  And he's right.  REVENGE OF THE SITH is a necessarily grim and somber entry in the series, one featuring a surprisingly brutal third act, when Anakin Skywalker's (Hayden Christiansen) transformation into Darth Vader is complete.

We were all curious as to how Lucas would stage those concluding scenes, and whatever criticisms I spew on this blog about the prequels, I have to compliment the director on his handling of the intense closing scenes that detail the birth of Darth Vader, and the demise of Anakin.  Some critics have compared the crosscutting of the clone troopers' and Vader's massacres of Jedi commanders and Separatist leaders to the bravura final moments of the original GODFATHER, directed by Lucas' old pal Francis Coppola.  I can see it.  Lucas even had the chutzpah to feature the murder of children during these scenes.   These moments are so effective at closing this chapter of the franchise that almost all is forgiven for the missteps in EPISODES I and II and even some of the earlier moments in this one.

Anakin spends his final hours wracked with frustration, feeling betrayed by Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman), who is about to give birth to twins, Luke and Leia.  Premonitions of her death torture his conflicted soul as he is tempted by Chancellor Palpatine, revealed to be a Sith lord and a new mentor to the fallen young man.   The Council's decision to not rank Anakin as Jedi Master is perhaps the tipping point.  Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) will intervene in perhaps his last action as a Jedi.  Yoda will swing a light saber yet again.

These events comprise the latter part of EPISODE III.  The earliest scenes are distressingly similar (in tone and execution) to the earlier prequels, with more wince inducing acting, though this time the contrast seems logical, giving those crucial final minutes an almost unbearable weight.  Lucas goes out on top, leaving the audience somewhat satisfied, providing a decent bridge to EPISODE IV.  Though the original STAR WARS film takes place some years after REVENGE OF THE SITH, leaving opportunities for much yarn spinning of the early lives of Luke Skywalker and friends.  I would've enjoyed seeing big screen treatments of their stories, of Leia's privileged upbringing on the planet Alderaan, hidden from her father.   Han Solo's likely post adolescent hijinks and petty theivery - there's a story that would amuse rabid fans.  It could be like a juvenile delinquent version of the INDIANA JONES flicks.

So by now you're aware that Lucas sold his franchise to Disney for four billion dollars, prompting them to get to work on EPISODES VII-IX.  Lucas had entertained then abandoned completing his nine film dynasty years before.  After his lackluster handling of the newer trilogy, this was perhaps a sensible thing.  But the hearts of dyed in the wool STAR WARS fans are again racing with immeasurable anticipation, stoked by the teaser trailers over the past year.  Original screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to work on the script! John Williams again conducts! Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford will reprise their iconic roles! I read that Disney discarded Lucas' original script treatments for the new films, perhaps also a good thing.

We're counting on you, J.J.  See you in December.