Friday, October 30, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13

Writer/director John Carpenter, when he's on his game, does some of the best genre stylings in the business. His name is virtually synonymous with horror. You're probably familiar with his genre-defining HALLOWEEN from 1978. Two years earlier he made a compact little thriller called ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, a minor classic that may first appear to be merely just another low budget exploitation exercise designed to kill an hour and a half. Give it a chance and tell me this isn't an eerily effective, potent movie. The genre here? Not the sort of slashing and bloody horror for which the director became infamous, but rather a lean, sober, and visceral crime drama that tips its hat not only to horror but also the Great American Western.

Even as a teenager who watched hours and hours of dreck, I was skeptical as to the quality of this one at first, skipping several airings on pay cable back in the day. I eventually decided to tape it. Wow. I think I watched it twice in one day. Damned if Carpenter didn't knock it out of the park. I love it when I'm blindsided by a work that seemed less than promising.

Firstly, the director managed to convey a variety of moods, shifting gears seamlessly throughout. For me, the primary attribute, the single most important aspect of any film is the atmosphere. If a filmmaker cannot evoke time and place convincingly, it's difficult for me to appreciate anything else. The acting may be stellar, the screenplay Pulitzer worthy. Such things may make a film worth seeing; the truly great ones get the stage set correctly, the place on which the action occurs. Maybe this movie isn't great in the traditional sense (whatever that is), but it certainly scores by getting the first rule of great filmmaking down.

In PRECINCT 13, this success owes much to the electronic scoring (done by Carpenter), with its hypnotic synthesizer drones. That's what continues to make this picture memorable for me. I'm hearing it now. I recall the slower, more meditative bars during the low key (but still emotionally draining) moments. The main theme thunders over the story's set-up and subsequent development: the plight of a small group of people trapped in an almost empty police station, forming unusual alliances against a bloodthirsty mob armed with serious weaponry.

Precinct 9 in District 13 is a South Central Los Angeles substation that is about to be closed. Highwap patrol cop Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given what seems to be an easy assignment: oversee the quiet station for its final night. With only a smattering of staff and empty jail cells, it appears to be a cakewalk.

Meanwhile, a local gang has gotten its hands on a cache of automatic weapons during a robbery, but not before the fuzz bring down several members. The gang leaders swear vengeance, on everyone, it seems. We see them plunge switchblades into their forearms and spill and mix their blood into a bowl, a deadly symbolic rite known as "Cholo."

A little later, we follow a man and his daughter through the ghetto as he cautiously tries to find someone's house. An ice-cream truck happens by and of course, the little girl wants a cone. The father heads to a phone booth. In what is one of the most shocking and unexpected scenes in any movie I've seen, the little girl is shot and killed by one of the gang members. Cold blood, no expression of any kind on the assailant's face. Nothing. The ice-cream man is also wounded, and lives long enough to inform the dad that there's a gun under the dash. The father hunts down and kills his daughter's murderer. He seeks refuge at the police station. The gang follows. There will be violence.

There are more plot details that I will let you discover on your own. Suffice it to say that Bishop and the crew, which includes some convicts who were rather unexpectedly brought to the station, find themselves under attack. Those odd alliances form. Societal rules literally go out the window in a bid for survival. A full-on siege wages against the precinct. Gang member after gang member empties their rounds at the windows, eventually trying to break in. They are positively kamikaze in their efforts. As we learn, "Cholo" means "to the death." The attackers are merely soldiers whose goal is to take the fort, and waste everyone in and around it. They succeed to some degree, again, left for you to discover how. Before that, there is a lot of retaliation. The "quiet" precinct won't go, um, quietly.

Along the way, we meet each of the desparate defenders of that fort, the aforementioned cop, criminals, grieving father, as well as other cops, secretaries. In between the explosive action, there is reflection, hope, even boredom. I said the movie is lean, and it is, but Carpenter still allows his characters to breathe, to be dynamic. Usually, characters in films like this are cardboard cut-outs, mere bodies to fire off bullets and wisecracks.

We don't learn anything about the gang members. They are voiceless, anonymous automatons, stalking like the zombies in George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. This movie owes a lot to that one. I also mentioned how Carpenter pays tribute to Westerns. If you've seen a few, you'll see note more than a few similarities to them in the plot. The dialogue among the principals also reminded me of Henry Hathaway and John Ford pics. For his work as the film's editor, Carpenter even used the pseudonym John T. Chance, the name of John Wayne's character in RIO BRAVO. Additionally, the themes of machismo are an unavoidable undercurrent throughout PRECINCT 13. Witness the behavior of convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and his fascinating conversations with Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a secretary.

The unknown cast is excellent. The script is airtight. The editing, brisk. Carpenter continued the promise he showed in 1974's DARK STAR (sci-fi). HALLOWEEN would make him a household name. He would go on to have a wildly uneven CV, with some bright moments (CHRISTINE) and clunkers (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED). But like that of Walter Hill, even the lesser films were still directed with verve. His ability to evigorate lesser material is only the work of some sort of master.

Ultimately, PRECINCT 13 may be a B-movie, but it puts a lot of "A"s to shame. That likely includes the 2005 remake, which I haven't bothered to watch. Not in a hurry. Maybe you can tell me about that one.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Haven't we all been Max at one time? Never mind that he's just a kid. He cowers from the same Life Things we all have. Being a mere boy of nine or so, he's just not yet learned the grown up art of supressing emotion, curbing urges, reeling in the Id. Sure, he's probably wise beyond his years, but, he's still just a child. Prone to acting up in ways deemed unacceptable to his mom, especially when he runs around in a woolly outfit and bites her shoulder while she's trying to entertain her boyfriend. Max (Max Records) is likely upset that Mom (Catherine Keener) is trying to move on with her life, but that is not explicit. Childhood can be a hellish canyon of loneliness. This is not helped when your father is gone and your sister doesn't try to protect you when the big kids smash your igloo. Running wild is Max's response. When the tear ducts have run dry, what else is there to do? The boy needs an outlet for his restlessness, a place in which to soothe his nervous energy.

By the time he's bitten his mother and suffered indignations at the hands of his sister and her friends, he's ready to take flight. He runs out the door and eventually paddles a rowboat across treacherous waters for days before he meets a group of shaggy, frightening-looking (yet oddly loveable and cute) creatures. We don't learn anything about their evolution, their species. We never see them consume anything. Their origin-never explained. They speak English. Well, of course they're not real, silly! Isn't this a children's story?

Much has been made of just what the creatures first seen in Maurice Sendak's 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are are supposed to be, who or what they represent. Any psych undergrad could draw conclusions citing Freud or Carl Jung, or hosts of obscure therapists. In director/co-scripter Spike Jonze's new film adaptation, we are shown galleries of imagery absent from the source material. Not difficult, as the original book had only 9-10 sentences of text and about 50 total pages. Critics have for years debated the significance of the mysterious world in which Max lands. A world where deep woods, desert, and beach seem to exist within a few miles of each other. Each creature living there, distinctively illustrated and characterized. Physically, they're all hairy, tall, generally imposing, armed with claws. Well, except for Bob and Terry, who are owls, but anyway....

These creatures, many fans believe, are pieces of Max's personality. Ah, the Gestalt! What a fractured puzzle, indeed! Put together, a most disturbingly familiar mess. Maybe that's why Sendak's story is so fondly remembered. Perhaps too why it remains popular with adults? Why several kids going to see this movie are ready to bolt. Maybe the too-young ones haven't yet had to reconcile their angst. Maybe the older ones want escape, not reminders of what awaits them in their bedrooms when the lights go out and all is quiet. Movies like TRANSFORMERS are popular because they are so loud and fast you don't have time to feel sad that you were the last one picked for the kickball team at school. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE instead looks right into the jowls of low self-esteem and nausea. Yeah, it's a children's story.

Accordingly, each creature, for all his or her differences, share a common melancholia. These are some of the saddest beings ever seen in children's literature. Any of them make Eeyore seem like an extrovert. As we gaze into the wild things' expressions, so amazingly rendered by Jim Henson's workshop, we see flat out despair. A resignation to crushing loneliness. Their eyes seem to sigh. If you watch the end credits, you'll note that a crewperson was in charge of just the eyes. In this dire world of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, he had his work cut out for him, full time.

Max, after some understandable apprehension, befriends the disparate group. Carol (voice of James Gandolfini) is the reluctant leader, a brooder prone to whacking and destroying things both when he's upset and happy. Judith (v/o Catherine O'Hara) is the instigator, malcontent, forever demeaning everyone else, not at all happy to see that Max is declared "king" of this roost. Her companion-cum-lover, Ira (v/o Forest Whittaker) is a frumpy whiner in perpetual disagreement with Judith. Douglas (v/o Chris Cooper) is Carol's wing man, of sorts. Mainly, he's an attempt at moral support, and a wellspring of patience. There are other characters, including K.W., apparently quite enamored with Carol and vice-versa, but they seem to be on the outs. K.W. has broken away from the others, more apt to spent time with Bob and Terry, whom none of the others trusts because they are so different. K.W. also speaks like a twenty-something post-irony drenched alternakid from the 90s. Hmm, in Jonze's and Dave Eggers script, it may be surmised that Max has seen too many movies or listened to too much Liz Phair.

After he is kinged, Max temporarily brings joy to this sadland. He teaches them to be more affectionate and even rallies them to build a new palace. All these monsters even pounce on each other in a love pile, a place so cozy they all fall asleep. The warmth is short-lived. The "king" will be questioned, the utopia will collapse.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is not like any other "family" film I've seen. It always feels off-kilter, from the opening shots when Max stalks his living room, howling and chasing the family dog. Throughout this adventure, Jonze keeps his frame filled with grotesque beauty, somehow creating an atmosphere of dread and energetic discomfort. Every scene is uncomfortable, but exhilirating just the same. I'm not sure how he did it, honestly.
The script provides the butterflies-in-the-stomach tale, but the actors (clad in hairy costume or not) also play it with a nervousness that is just right. I don't know how many kids casting had to screen test before Max Records came along, but it must have been nerve warcking for all parties. Records inhabits the role with perfect dis-ease. The wild things are truly marvels of f/x. Their facial movements create more emotion than you'll likely to see on real human's faces anymore. Viewers will recognize the gamut of concern, disappointment, feigned glee, jealousy, all of it. The crew deserves a special Oscar for this feat.
While Jonze and Eggers (who penned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) can sometimes be a little too clever and self-congratulatory for their own good, they were the right people to bring this beloved story to the screen. Both men are creative visionaries in an industry lacking imagination anymore. When a film like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE comes along, a film so singular in its creativity, I just want to tell everyone about it. If for no other reason than that it's so rare.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two-Lane Blacktop

I've forever been wondering when science will provide us with a way to record our dreams. Some device that can capture the imagery running through our subconscious as we sleep, saved on some medium of storage, then retrieved for later analysis. The results may be quite terrifying. Or, they may be utterly ridiculous. Like sexual activity, for example. To the participants, it is obviously of great importance. To an observer, often, it appears quite silly. In any event, many of us say that we wish we could remember our dreams. We explain that we plan on keeping a pad and pen on our nighttables to try to jot something, some piece of this most mysterious of natural events, something humans and animals alike do every time we doze for a sizable period of time.

Is it feasible? I could conjecture, but my guess is that we don't know enough about electroencephalogy (to say nothing of neurology) to make it happen. Meantime, many artists have, perhaps by accident, created aural and visual likenesses to dreamlike states. Director Monte Hellman certainly did with his 1971 art house cult film TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, one of the most ambiguous bits of film ever to be produced by a major studio. It came out during those lovely years when Hollywood was producing all manner of personal films, when the "inmates were running the asylum." While there are lots of movies with dream sequences and those that ressemble and are about nightmares, BLACKTOP looks as if someone figured out how to put someone's subconscious in glorious Panavision.

The camera roams all over the American West. We drift through service stations in Utah and California. Look, there's a guy lifting a bottle of Coke, watching two other guys fueling their '55 Chevy. We hear their conversation. A challenge for pink slips. A race from the West Coast to D.C. in their hot rods. There's your "plot", dear viewer. The first guy (Warren Oates, absolutely great) drives a G.T.O. That's how this film identifies him; no traditional Christian name. The other two guys, quite younger (James Taylor and Brian Wilson) are called The Driver and The Mechanic, respectively. There's also a girl, called "The Girl" (Laurie Bird). Writer/director Walter Hill also did this sort of thing some years later with THE DRIVER, a far more conventional pic. Easier to just call these blank souls by their occupation or archetype than to personalize them.

Taylor and Wilson, of course, were far better known for their music than their acting. They're rank amateurs, as are most of the cast, and that's the way it should be. Would Method emoting have suited this milieu? On the other hand, Oates, as I said, is terrific. He is a professional and gets G.T.O. to his core, whatever may lurk there. He's the most human of any of this lot, and his electricity is perhaps a statement in itself. This film, by the way, is very likely the only chance you'll get to hear Sweet Baby James utter the phrase "mother fucker", a dubious but nonetheless entertaining thing.

The characters don't need traditional names. It barely matters who they are in this universe. They are ideas, abstractions, part of the dusty locales. You can hear and touch them, but they seem more like Representations. Of what, exactly? As with other existential works, it's all in what the consumer brings to the table. The obvious themes of freedom, youthful wanderlust, distrust of the Establishment are here. It seemed that the Baby Boomers (before they cashed in their peace buttons for keys to the executive washroom) were questioning these insane notions of personal responsibility, or least the conventional blueprint of 1) School 2) Job 3) Marriage 4) Mortgage 5) Kids 6) Retirement. Who could blame them? I've always been distrustful of this myself.

But the Man at Universal Studios (distributor), chief Lew Wasserman, was not amused. Even in the wake of the breakout success of EASY RIDER, several associated with this movie attest that he found this film and its loose ideas quite offensive. The characters here don't seem bound to societal rules and norms. They just, wander. They don't seem to have goals, or even cares. Their communication is impersonal. Staccato utterances that just get down to business. No meaning, yet volumes expressed at the same time. They just, go. They race. Could be familiar to you? Also, does TWO-LANE BLACKTOP care enough to let you know who wins the race? The movie, like the characters, are endlessly sidetracked. Even though no vehicle in this movie has a bumper sticker reading IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH, MAKE PLANS, it wouldn't be out of place. Hard to tell if God figures into this universe, though. It all seems so random.

G.T.O. does try to reach out a little. He picks up a hitchhiker (Harry Dean Stanton) and actually tries to communicate with him. It's mostly a monologue, though. G.T.O. is pretty lonely out there. When someone crosses his path, he's just grateful to have someone there to listen to his nonsense. He won't even bother to check to see if the other is listening. However, when his passenger makes a pass at him, G.T.O. will have none of that. Yeah, he's straight and all, but it's mainly because he doesn't have the time. He's got a race. To D.C., right, but maybe he's not sure.

Writer Rudy Wurlitzer reveals on the Criterion DVD commentary that he and Hellman (who made more unique films and later produced RESERVOIR DOGS) certainly weren't so sure. There are lots of themes to derive from repeated viewings, but who's to say they're valid? So goes subjectivity. TWO-LANE makes no attempt to explain anything, or to provide, if you will, a clear cut Point A to Point B. It's a dream, a collection of someone's subconsciousness, put right there on film. It will frustrate the hell out of many viewers (even gearheads looking to gawk at the machinery), guaranteed. Not me, though. Watching it, for me, is the closest I've come to thinking I'm watching something unwatchable, so abstract that it can't be reduced to mere imagery. It's so oblique, so alien. The sights are familiar, the American landscape and its hamburger stands and petrol station blandness. You can almost smell the motor oil and the stale air conditioning in yet another fleabag motel. It all seems real, yet not. I hesitate to call many entertainments "art", but here you go.

And so, the stage seems to exist in another unreality, its characters, ghosts. They appear and vanish. We learn a little about them, but by the time the film's final seconds (one of the most inconclusive wrap-ups in film history) play out, they have blurred into the dream. Maybe that's not so inconclusive after all? Maybe. But why don't you go ahead and tell me about that dream you had last night, you know, the one you didn't write down.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The DD

Last Sunday night I found myself behind the wheel of a 1984 Monte Carlo. The car had roughly 45, 000 miles. The owner? A very intoxicated sentagenarian who was ready to (scarily) once again pilot his tank homeward. This night, I snatched the keys and made him ride shotgun. Whew.

There was a birthday party for a friend of my mother-in-law's. It was a splendid night of BBQ, cool climate, fun group. One of the guests was a professional siren who sang renditions of "At Last" and others (she's appearing with a band at a local venue in November). And libations. When Harry, our subject, comes over he's usually already armed with a jug of red wine. It's a standing joke. He's also usually pretty sauced by the time he gets there. Normally, this is OK, as most of the soirees are at my MIL's, right across the street from his house. This particular party was a few miles away.

As usual, Harry was roaring (and I mean roaring) with laughter and singing in French. Also, asking everyone if they were fans of Edith Piaf or Sydney Greenstreet. His knowledge of film/music is unparalleled. He has me on a mission to retrieve UN CARNET DE BAL, a 1937 French film that, thus far, I've only been able to find on Amazon Francais. 40 Euros (~60 American dollars) for a VHS!!!

So yes, Harry was pretty blitzed come 8:30 P.M. We stood around and watched him as he was still laughing and clutching a wine glass. We were concerned. It was decided that I would convince him to let me drive him home while my wife followed in my car. I anticipated some hostile resistence, but surprisingly it wasn't too difficult. Maybe a little pride bruising, but he went along. "I've driven MILES while drunk," he bragged over and over on the way to and in the car. His front seat passenger side was covered with magazines and assorted crap. On top, an empty whisky bottle. Oh, dear.

The car handled well. What a solid ride. Anyone hits this chassis, we're safe. Harry mentioned that when he goes to the grocery store many of the young 'uns approach him about buying it. They think it's very cool. He ain't sellin'.

I've been the designated driver before, on the same streets in this same town. Years of being the only sober one amongst happy drunks. It's damned depressing sometimes, but also leaves you feeling as if you've prevented some potentially awful thing from occurring. That alone made all the unpleasant confrontations and near-confrontations in the old days worth it.

This night, no such ugliness. Just a chatty guy denying he had imbibed too much and some sweet alignment. I pulled the Monte Carlo into Harry's garage, and then my wife and I (as many times previously) tried to politely say goodnight while he continued to not take a breath. As usual, we prayed for him. Maybe you could, too. We may not be there to stop him another time.....

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On the Super-Realism

Another BLADE RUNNER post. Indulge me.

Here's a letter Philip K. Dick sent to the Ladd Company, producers of the landmark '82 film.


Monday, October 12, 2009

The Informant!

It's amazing the FBI really didn't just outright hire corporate V.P. Mark Whitacre. Put him on the payroll, already. A multiplicitous type like him would've been ideal to assimilate into other environments to ferret out whatever espionage was required. Whitacre's resourcefulness indeed serves him well as he wears wires and makes tape recordings of his collegaues and superiors at real-life Archer Daniels Midland Corp., engaged in international meetings where the order of business is the price fixing of commodities. Commodities like corn and lysine. In fact, some of the most notable lysine execs are there at these meetings. Said execs are also ADM competitors. All at the same table.

The FBI had been looking at ADM for some time. When Whitacre (Matt Damon) contacted special agents Sheperd (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale), it seemed a lucky break for the Bureau: a high level whistle blower was able to provide the evidence needed for even higher level indictments. There were some of the usual glitches: nervous "spy", faulty surveillance equipment, unwitting subjects sitting in front of hidden cameras, but there was also the more relevant problem of the spy himself, a deeply troubled soul who really saw himself as a crusader, a white-hatted hero who would be a champion for even the common man who got hoodwinked even at the grocery store when he bought yet another product laced with high fructose corn syrup. Perhaps this piety wouldn't be a problem, unless of course our hero was simultaneously trying to rise the corporate ladder at ADM. Whitacre is a real person, by the way. It all sounds like a perfect segment for NPR's This American Life, right? In fact, it was in 2000! Truth, as it is said, is quite often stranger than fiction.

If you've seen the trailer for director Steven Soderbergh's THE INFORMANT!, you know as much as I've provided thus far. The details are far more labyrinthine than what I or the trailer editors have let on, however. The story also does not end there, but rather we learn just how multiplicitous Whitacre was. Not only was he playing on both teams, but also running a clandestine embezzlement all the while. It works, because he comes off as just so affable, kind of like Frank Abagnale, the center of another true story brought to celluloid in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. With the FBI, Whitacre plays the bewildwered everyman quite well, articulating the stressful existence of being a mole, crying that he still has to work at ADM and provide for his family. Too bad the FBI never noticed he had 8 luxury cars in his garage until it was too late.....

As the film progresses, the screenplay also reveals more and more about the enigmatic Whitacre, just what a sheister he was. It's fascinating how in the dark we are in the first reels, as snowed as all the other characters are. Then we get to spend the more revealing moments alone with him. Why is he messing up his hair? Ripping his sleeve? Cutting up a doctor's letter and pasting certain sentences onto another sheet? When we eventually learn why Whitacre acts the way he does, habitually lying as naturally as others would breathe, it's no surprise. But it leaves lots of unresolved inquiries: how engineered were his actions? Why did he justify them? Did he really care about anyone else? Was he merely in some serious denial? Was he afraid of confrontation? Was he a fatalist?

The answer is probably "yes" to all of the above. In addition to Abagnale, Whitcare reminded me of Stephen Glass, the infamous writer for The New Republic who fabricated interviews (and even people) to concoct colorful articles. His so-bizarre-it-has-to-be-true tale was documented/fictionalized in 2003's SHATTERED GLASS. Glass exhibited some alarming misanthropic behavior, a delusional passive-aggressiveness that smelled psoitively pathological. Whitacre doesn't seem quite as cunning, though one never knows. Even at the end of THE INFORMANT!, after he is being videotaped in an attempt to receive a shorter prison sentence via governor pardon, he quotes yet another different figure to the FBI as to exactly how much he swindled from his former company. "Eleven and a half million? I thought it was nine and a half, Mark", Herndon asks. Whitacre again puts on his game face, though far less convincing then before, and states that the extra two mil was interest accrued. Uh huh.

How about Whitacre's compulsion to talk to everyone? Execs, the Feds, the press. He can't help himself. Perhaps it's therapy to him. Like some sort of secular confessional? Confounding any potential positive in all of this, is that his loose lips sabotage everyone's plans. For example, he tips off his colleagues when he knows the FBI will come storming. Isn't he supposed to be working with the Feds? And why is he telling everyone he is adopted? More evidence that his heroism was hard won?

Soderbergh, to my delight, has made his Next Film. Recall my entry a few weeks ago, stating that I feel the director has done little else than putz around with his talents this decade. THE INFORMANT! is a more disciplined effort, a straightforward movie that is minimally "directed", allowing this fascinating story to unfold naturally, and Damon's on-the-money portrayal to drive it. Matt put on several extra pounds, as well as a comically cheesy hairiece and mustache to embody this character. The supporting cast is well chosen, with several past stars of TV (Bakula, McHale, Tom and Dick Smothers) and quirky character actors of film (Candy Clark, Thomas F. Wilson), embodying this sorta retro vibe Soderbergh has working. The film takes place in the 90s, but has a distinctive late 60s/early 70s look and feel. The very first shot is of a miniature reel-to-reel recorder. Then we see opening credit typeface so common in that time period. We continue with a soft focus, making things seem distorted and dreamlike-from the harsh toxicity of fluorescent lights to the lush sunlight outdoors.

And Marvin Hamlisch did the score! Seriously? Seriously! It's just as peppy as the countless earlier ones he did. Just as jarring, too. Very playful use of piano and even kazoos. It is but another tool Soderbergh is using to keep the film off balance, lest it threaten to become another serious True Story (like the director's own just fair ERIN BROCKOVICH). The wacky score often occurs during/following Whitacre's odd voiceovers, a series of random musings on things he's read. Very effective at conveying, or at least attempting to convey, just what is going on in the troubled head of Mark Whitacre. What that really is/was is anyone's hypothesis. But even certifiable cases live on: Whitacre currently runs his own company. What I wouldn't do to interview one of his current clients.

Friday, October 9, 2009


The undead have been portrayed in a myriad of ways in literature and films. The short story "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs, poignantly climaxed with the newly deceased son of a couple beating down their door after the father wishes his son alive once again after he was killed in a factory accident. The father was conflicted, knowing that his offspring wasn't the boy he used to be. Answering the knock would surely reveal something gruesome.

Horrormeister George A. Romero, creator of the "Dead" series of films beginning with 1968's seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, began to portray these zombies, by turns, as both reptile brained simpletons only looking to feed on living flesh and also as slightly more thoughtful creatures who might have the slightest gleam in their eye that maybe perhaps some spark of their former selves was lurking behind the drool. Or, as in DAY OF THE DEAD, a zombie named "Bub" seemed more interested in learning how to use a Walkman than chomping down on someone's limbs. And what about Richard Matheson's novella I Am Legend? After a plague reduces the populace to hordes of glazed over, bloodsucking zombie vampires, we learn that one of them still recognizes the story's main character, nightly calling out to him by name.

ZOMBIELAND has as its scenario a similar crisis, in that a virus has caused most of us to become undead. This zombie apocalypse apprently was triggered something akin to Mad Cow Disease and spread very quickly. As the young hero (Jesse Eisenberg) narrates over an opening sequence/montage that is sure to become a classic, surviving such a holocaust requires adherence to certain rules. Travel light. Don't be a hero. Beware of bathrooms. Cardio! Check the back seat. And, pehaps most importantly, double tap (clock that undead SOB at least twice in the cerebrum to make sures it's dead). We see a series of scenes as many unfortunates meet their dooms by not following these rules. It sets the pitch black stage of the wittily macabre beautifully.

Columbus, our young hero, has also somewhat maintained his sanity in this rather dire predicament by acknowledging that things really haven't changed that much in his world. Before everyone turned to zombies, he was pretty isolated anyway. Hours of video games and Mountain Dew, holed up in his room, all alone. Bad luck with the ladies. He also explains that his parents were neurotic shut-ins just like him. He felt more comfortable being a recluse. While at college, the final blow to Columbus' attempts at courtship comes when his beautiful neighbor seeks refuge in his apartment one night. She falls asleep in his arms, only to awaken him later with a taste for his blood and innards. She was bitten by, something, and ready to feast herself. Columbus barely survives this date gone very sour, and then finds himself the only survivor in a world gone dead.

Or so he thinks. He meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a good 'ol boy badass who races his Escalade with rifle in hand. He's quite good at killing zombies. You want him around when the hordes come a calling. This guy can pick off a hundred rotting wannabe corpses with just a glock and a handful of magazines. The two team up, hoping that their families in their respective hometowns of Columbus and Tallahassee (answer your question?) are still alive. While en route, they meet a pair of sisters (dubbed Wichita and Little Rock) who turn out to be a couple of schemers. There are cons, double crosses, acquisition and loss of arsenals and vehicles. When Tallahassee finds a whole sack of sawed offs in the back of a Hummer, he cries, "I love rednecks!". Eventually, the four have no choice but to band together, their adventures leading them to gnarly showdowns with a wide variety of zombie specimens, climaxing at a supposedly zombie-free amusement park out side of Los Angeles.

Director Ruben Fleisher has fashioned ZOMBIELAND as a horror comedy, a cross-genre that rarely works. For every AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, there are a dozen SCARY MOVIEs. Maybe that was a bad example. ZOMBIELAND is a full-blooded thriller, and does not scrimp on the gore, either. We see the usual gruesome scenes of brain and entrail eating, disembowelments. Gunshots point blank to undead heads. But this film is hilarious, too, sometimes disgusting and hilarious simultaneously. Romero did this in DAWN OF THE DEAD, showing an army of zombies trying to go up the down escalator in an abandoned shopping mall while Muzak drones in the background. Or, when the zombies use one of those public blood pressure cuffs. Or, when a very live motorcycle gang crashes the mall to do battle with the slimebags.
The opening scenes of ZOMBIELAND play against all the genre cliches, often going even further over the line than others dared, such as when we see a group of little girl zombies attacking a suburban mother in her minivan. Sounds horrible and mean, and it is, but the social observation more than makes this a hoot. It goes back to how these creatures have been described in the lit. It's hard not to laugh when we get an insert shot of the rear bumper of that minivan, which is sporting one of those annoying "My kid is an honor student at..."

This film could've easily been a misfire, but the timing, the performances, the tone, it all clicks. Fleisher exhibits remarkable energy, yet allowing the quieter scenes for bona-fide character development. Harrelson again dons the tough guy persona and has great fun chipping away at it. We learn that, of course, underneath the swagger and quick trigger is a broken man, someone who lost a lot. He also has an insatiable lust for Twinkies, a dessert that continually eludes him as the group drives cross country. When he lucks upon a crashed Hostess truck, it turns out to instead be filled with those dreaded Snowballs. Eisenberg is perfect as the wimpy and timid collegiate, who, even amongst unspeakable horror, just looking for a girlfriend. Bill Murray also shows up, playing himself, in a sequence that is just great. Fans of the actor (and especially GHOSTBUSTERS) will be tickled.

Zombie comedy has been attempted before (note 1985's just fair RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, no relation to Romero's films), but none so enjoyably. Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have written something quite unique, a film that has both contemporary and retro pleasures. Nostalgia like Van Halen songs and Bill Murray;up-to-date thrills from great effects and pop references of the moment (when asked to cite a "pro" for zombieland, Columbus states he no longer has to read inane Facebook updates). There's also plenty of loud metal of recent years accompanying the action scenes to ramp up the thrills. Thankfully, this movie was loud enough to drown out the idiot a few seats down from me who kept insisting on talking on his cell.

For tongue-in-cheek (um, literally) merriment and terror, you should check this one out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!

Odd as it may sound, FASTER, PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! is a film that I would suggest (heck, proclaim) that is mandatory for the serious filmgoer's education. If you're not familiar with this movie, and you're judging my request against the above photo, you may be arching an eyebrow about now. But hey, Steven Jay-Schneider did list it as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. And Russ Meyer, the writer/director responsible for this cult extravaganza, is a filmmaker whose work is well overdue for another look. Not that that would be easy, seeing as you'd have to luck into a revival screening in order to see most of his films.

That's how I caught this one. 1995, Atlanta, GA. Reperatory house near midtown. I knew of Meyer from his most famous film, an item called BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. It was a satire (penned by, yes, film critic Roger Ebert) skewering Jacqueline Susan's earlier novel The Valley of The Dolls. Meyer's take was a visual shmorgasbord of spoofery-all stops pulled out. And, a major studio fim, to boot. But Meyer's relationship with Hollywood was short-lived; he would only do one more major film (the unfortunate THE SEVEN MINUTES) before returning to low-budget home grown fare. Oh, and I see I have neglected to describe the type of films Meyer made. Some might call them, smut. Indecent. Pornographic, even. The latter is a bit strong, but there were definitely some softcore offerings on his ouvre: UP!, BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRAVIXENS, and others were reputed to be quite racy. But of the Meyers I've seen, there was nothing that I would consider porn.

They're just, well, energetic. And filled with women with enormous chests. Meyer made a point to cast his heroines based on bust size rather than the more traditional attributes of screen acting. There was usually a fair amount of (mostly offscreen) rolling in the hay, but surprisingly Meyer usually wrapped his naughty packages in some stinging commentaries. Political mores were addressed. Racism was often a target, especially in films like VIXEN. Gender roles are explored in probably every Meyer film, quite extensively. If feminists raised their ire at what they perceived as misogyny in these movies, they just weren't paying attention. Many more "respectable" filmmakers are far more guilty of making women into playthings, domestic servants, window dressing, often little more than just pretty objects to comfort the hero. Meyer empowers his women, perhaps none more than the lead actress in 1965's PUSSYCAT, Tura Satana. And yes, she is buxom.

However, her character, Varla, ain't no mere pinup in bluebrint blue. She's a hellcat, a fiery tough chick who leads a trio of strippers (that's their profession) on a killing spree. These three do it just for kicks. They're not nice girls. Varla kills a guy in a karate fight, then she and her collegaues kidnap the deceased's girlfriend and drag (and drug) her along for more adventures. Eventually, they learn that an old man in the desert has a stash of money and some rather dimwitted sons. Opportunity knocks. Varla and co. visit the family, stay for dinner, and then all hell breaks loose. But not before the single funniest line (in a film filled with hysterical dialogue) is delivered by the patriarch after Varla slaps one of her friends, "Women! They let 'em vote, smoke, and drive-even put 'em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for President!"

The women as presented here are cunning, calculating, and tough as nails. Dispicable, too. At face value, FASTER PUSSYCAT may seen like any other exploitation quickie. But Meyer is making some very sly points about how society perceives the fairer sex, especially in movies. If the leads were men, acting all slick and ruthless, few would find it unusual. Also, lest I make Varla sound like some vampy sex kitten, don't be fooled. She's a scary looking broad: frightful makeup, grotesque expressions, an acid tongue. She beats the crap out of anyone who pisses her off. So yes, I guess you could call this film a female fantasy. Payback for (even in '65) all the celluloid devoted to male triumphs. All the war pics and westerns. So many others. Now some chicks got to kick ass.

Meyer was quite the stylist. PUSSYCAT is filled with razor sharp editing, breathless action, quick, smash cutting, crazy camera angles. When I watched this, I thought of all the current filmmakers who were obviously influenced. Tarantino came to mind. So did David Lynch. Many admitted students of the Meyer school, I bet. Lynch's WILD AT HEART owes a lot to PUSSYCAT, what with all the dizzy fantasy sequences and bizarre happenings, to say nothing of the abrupt bursts of violence. PUSSYCAT is far more violent then sexy, by the way. No nudity, no explicitness, yet it has such a reputation. That's because Meyer directed it. His other films are far naughtier, but all are worth a look, if they ever come to DVD in the States. The VHSs are floating around (how I saw many of them years back) You could also try bit torrent if you're so inclined.

So, the movie's wild fun, a true guilty pleasure, one that stayed in my mind since that 1995 night I saw it. What about the more academic analysis we started? The gender thesis. Female fantasy. Many more came later, like Abel Ferrara's MS. .45, about a woman who kills every males in sight after she is raped. I spoke of feminists who may rally. Perhaps if they watch Meyer's films again, and stop being so busy being outraged, they may see some very astute observations of just who gets to carry the gun (or whip).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Latter Day Ruminations on BLADE RUNNER

BLADE RUNNER is one of my all-time favorite films. Some time back, I wrote an appreciation that was posted on my friend Stephen's excellent blog, Frightfully Pleased. Read it first, si vous plait.

So even since that review, I've watched the movie several more times. Having that deluxe 5-disc set just lends itself to repeat viewings. The documentaries just feed the obsession. Also, I am no longer the innocent lad who first discovered this darkly ambitious tale back during its original release in 1982. My recent screenings have brought questions that I perhaps had entertained in the past, but never thought on beyond a fleeting musing. The 21st century has since come, and some of the film's (and source author Philip K. Dick's) technology has gotten closer to the original vision. It prompts some further inquiry:

1. The replicants in the story, the mechanical men and women with a 4 year life span, are created by the Tyrell Corporation. What was Dick's view on cloning? Immoral? Was the very crux that drives the narrative, that the replicants run amok, begin to question things, his statement on the danger of playing God?

2. Was Tyrell supposed to be God? Why does Roy, the protype replicant, the golden boy, seek out his creator, then kill him? Does this suggest that BLADE RUNNER is espousing that there is no god? That Roy represents rationality, man himself, destroying the god myth? Then dying like man always does? But what about the dove Roy was clutching? The dove that ascends after his death? Is it going to the afterlife?

3. Perhaps Roy was Dick's way of saying there IS a god, and that the wrongheadedness of cloning corrects itself by having man (now Tyrell) destroyed. Perhaps the replicants were manifestations of godless science, then God himself takes replicant form and corrects the situation. Then he sacrifices Himself, later to ascend to Heaven.

4. In light of these questions, just who made who?

5. Why would Tyrell give the replicants perspectives? Because he is God? Or were the replicants not given perspectives, but the Nexus series evolved, and gained them? Was natural selection at work?

After your own screening, have a roundtable, a coffee klatch, whatever! Discuss!