Sunday, December 19, 2010

Absolute Power

Clint Eastwood stars in and directs Absolute Power (1997), a reasonably entertaining thriller that's well acted, well directed, and certainly exciting, but given the subject matter, it's not provocative enough. While entertaining, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Consummate thief Luther Whitney (Eastwood) breaks into a mansion and proceeds to rob the place when a drunk couple stumbles into the bedroom. Whitney ducks into a hidden room behind a two-way mirror and watches as their kinky behavior becomes violent. The man starts roughing the woman up, and when she fights back, he screams for help, and two men storm in and shoot her. Turns out, that man is the President of the United States, Allen Richmond (Gene Hackman).

That's just the first 20 minutes or so. We're introduced to a whole crowd of conflicting parties: the President's chief of staff executing a cover up (Judy Davis), the elderly billionaire who helped Richmond become president and husband of the dead woman (E.G. Marshall), Whitney's estranged daughter (Laura Linney), a sympathetic detective (Ed Harris), a remorseful secret service agent (Scot Glenn), and another agent whose loyalty never falters (Dennis Haysbert).

To Eastwood's credit, this cast of characters never falters or becomes hard to follow. All the parts are well cast. Everyone is recognizable and easy to follow, so you're never asking yourself who's who. Plus, each character has his or her own angle on the events that went down, and it's fun to match them up as the viewer, figuring out what they know and don't know. There are some characters who are forgotten about for long stretches, and some, like the hit man Marshall's billionaire hires, hardly factor in at all once their initial scenes are over.

Unfortunately, as skillfully made as Absolute Power, I think it missed something of an opportunity. Instead of making a movie about the president involved in a scandalous murder and cover up, we get a cat-and-mouse thriller that just happens to involve the president.

Hackman is good in an all-too-small role as the hypocritical sleazebag who embraces at a press conference the man whose wife's death he caused. But very little is made of the fact he's president. There are hints of scandal, and there's the obvious cover-up. I'd like to seem more of him. We never meet his wife or learn about his presidency. Is he a family values conservative or a man-of-the-people liberal? How has he managed to conceal his private habits from public view for so long? That's never developed; he's just the bad guy.

There are tense moments: the initial break-in, a meeting between Eastwood and Linney as police and others plan an ambush, and an effort on someone's life in a hospital. Even the dialogue heavy scenes, such as Harris and Eastwood's meeting in the museum, work well because they're laced with delicious irony, and some characters, especially Marshall's, are more complex than expected.

Absolute Power is an enjoyable thriller. There's plenty of suspense and thrills, but I'm somewhat disappointed. I'd have liked to see the subject matter explored as more than just a backdrop. Still, it's worth checking out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rumble Fish

In many ways, Rumble Fish (1983) is a perfect double bill with The Outsiders (1983). Both are about troubled teens from the wrong sides of the track, both are based on novels by S.E. Hinton (who helped with the screenplays), and both are directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But whereas The Outsiders maintained a degree of gritty realism, Rumble Fish is more stylized and has an almost mythic quality.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) idolizes his older brother, the feared and respected Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who built the gang Rusty James now leads. When the Motorcycle Boy returns after a lengthy absence from town, Rusty James believes the glory days of gangs will return, but the Motorcycle Boy has no interest in reviving the past.

It seems off putting at first the protagonist is always referred to as Rusty James: not Rusty, not James, or even RJ. But consider what Coppola is going for. The name brings to mind the urban youth punk made famous by James Dean, the dashing, brooding anti-hero of the 1950s. But in the 1980s, that idea feels a little antiquated, a little long in the tooth, rusted out. Instead of a rebel without a cause, Rusty James, in a modern light, is a thug who idolizes a questionable role model, cheats on his girlfriend, drinks, smokes, picks fight, and gets thrown out of school. The rebel role isn't so romantic anymore; it's merely self destructive.

Coppola shoots the film in a style suggesting the end of an era. Except for a couple of fish a and brief reflection, the entire movie is shot in black and white with many deep shadows and off-center angles, very reminiscent of film noir and German Expressionism. Those genres employed often employed the dark, stylized cinematography to reflect existential angst. While those genres flourished against the backdrop of the rise of fascism and Cold War paranoia, Rumble Fish is about the downfall of a legend.

Strangely enough, the Motorcycle Boy's relationship with Rusty James reminds me of the title character's relationship with the boy in Shane (1953). Here is this violent individual with a mysterious, shady past, hero-worshiped by someone younger who wants to be just like him. And just like Shane, the Motorcycle Boy seems aware his time is drawing short and that he's no hero. Patterson the Cop (William Smith), an officer who'd loved nothing better than to be rid of him, follows him everywhere like a uniformed angel of death. A colorblind, somewhat deaf individual, the Motorcycle Boy sees and hears things differently from everyone else, giving him a different world view. One character says of the Motorcycle Boy he has no idea what he's thinking. Most just conclude he's crazy.

That central relationship between Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy is really the strength of the movie. To be honest, anytime Mickey Rourke is not onscreen, the film falters. He makes his entrance atop his motorcycle not unlike a gunfighter appearing on his horse and brings to halt any activity. He never yells. He just stares off into space and barely speaks above a whisper. Dennis Hopper shows up as the boys' drunk father, and he's good in a role that amounts to little. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, and Chris Penn show up in early supporting roles, but they seem forgotten as the movie progresses. Vincent Spano is a clean cut childhood friend of Rusty James, and he has a little more do. I think he's meant to be the audience stand-in, the outsider in the fold.

My recommendation: watch The Outsiders and Rumble Fish back-to-back. More than anything, it's a fascinating to see how the same writer and director can explore similar themes in such divergent manners.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stroszek

German director Werner Herzog believes in the "voodoo" of a location, meaning audiences sense when there's something about a genuine location that can't be replicated. It's why he led his crew hundreds of miles into the jungles of South America to push a large boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982) and used local natives as extras.

In Stroszek (1977), while he doesn't go to such extremes, Herzog once again relies on authentic locations and non-professional actors to create a movie simultaneously grim and bizarre. Whether in the rundown slums of Berlin or cold, rustic Wisconsin, the film's settings are real, and while undeniably sad and bleak, Stroszek captures several surreal and funny moments as its character grow distant from each other.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) has just been released from a rehabilitation house in Berlin after his alcoholism got him into trouble with the law. Outside, he goes back to playing instruments in the street and makes friends with prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). To escape her violent pimps, the two, along with Bruno's neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), decide to move to Wisconsin. Scheitz's nephew is a mechanic there and promised jobs and a place to live. But even in America, there is no escape from hardship, and hopes for a better life become dim.

I don't usually discuss the DVD box art, but I think it's warranted. Instead of Bruno, the cover depicts the Native American mechanic's helper (Ely Rodriguez), who works for the nephew. We see him on the cover holding a little American flag, and in the film, he doesn't do or say much. Why include him? To serve as a historical and cultural reminder. Bruno, Eve and Scheitz come to America hoping to improve their lot in life, as many Europeans have over the centuries. But there was a problem; the land already had tenants, Indians. Most tribes were wiped out or assimilated as America came to be. To fulfill their goals, the colonists, immigrants, and settlers destroyed an entire civilization, and this mechanic's helper is a reminder that despite promises to the contrary, not everything is harmonious and beneficial. People get hurt, and not everyone reaps the rewards of prosperity.

Bruno's first disappointment with the country occurs when his beloved pet bird Beo is confiscated by customs (off screen). Instead of being open and promising, his new home is already restrictive. In another, more humorous set piece, he witnesses two farmers wielding rifles as they pass each other while riding tractors because they both staked claims on a slice of land. Even the land itself is a letdown for Bruno. While not as crowded or dirty as Berlin, Wisconsin is just as cold and alienating. The land is flat, and there are not many people around. Worse, only Eva is bilingual, the language divide yet another isolating factor.

All this precludes what finally drives the main three character apart: the threat of losing their home. Bills pile up, their jobs don't pay enough, and the bank threatens to re-possess the trailer. Hard-working as they may be, they can't keep up. The bank employee tries to be helpful and is overly polite, but he's got a job to do. In perhaps my favorite shot, after the trailer is auctioned off to the public, we see Bruno, alone and small in the foreground from a slight high angle as the home is taken away. All this is one unbroken take as the full frame gradually empties.

However, the characters aren't blameless. While they start out fairly happy in America, their troubles cause strain and lead to a lack of communication. Bruno descends further into beer drinking, Scheitz becomes paranoid and delusional, and Eva, working as a waitress, starts seeing the truckers she serves as her ticket out of an overwhelming mortgage. Bruno, a man of little ambition or vision, doesn't seem to realize or care. He accepts everything that happens as just another day and really doesn't do much to advance himself.

Not everything is bleak. There is a degree of nuttiness. Believing the loss of the trailer is a conspiracy, Scheitz takes a shotgun and drags along Bruno to rob the bank, but it's closed. So, they rob a nearby barber shop for about $15. Bruno buys a frozen turkey, but Scheitz is arrested, so Bruno carries the turkey and shotgun. Later, at an Indian casino, Bruno finds several animals performing weird tricks: a piano-playing chicken, dancing duck and riding rabbit. I'm not sure how to describe that sequence except strange and dream like.

Strange and sad are probably the best descriptions for the movie. Herzog has always valued authenticity even when events come out of left field. Stroszek shows how people come to America hoping for a better life, but they don't achieve the American dream because the country isn't the utopia they're promised and their own nature.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fury

This is my first Salman Rushdie book. I wasn't too sure what to expect. Apart from his various appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher, my knowledge of Rushdie's work was limited to knowing his novel The Satanic Verses (1988) resulted in a fatwa being issued calling for his execution, and he had to go into his hiding. From hearing him talk, I knew him to be a very intelligent, well-read, thought-provoking individual, and it was my hope those elements would carry over into his 2001 novel, Fury. Thankfully, that turned out to be the case.

Malik Solanka, a well respected professor and acclaimed doll maker, carries within some sort of rage. He's not sure why it's there or what to do about it, but when he fears he might bring harm to his wife and child, he leaves London without warning and flees to New York. There, he traces the source of his fury, all the personal, historical, social, financial, and professional reasons, as he tries to escape who he was in Great Britain. .

Fury reminded a lot of the novel Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow. That also featured an intellectual retreating into his mind and analyzing his relationships and past, and just like Herzog, this novel sticks to it protagonist's thoughts and interpretations to a large degree. Both protagonists are separated from their wife and child, in mid-life crises, angry at the world and developing a relationship with another woman, among other parallels. Both feature uncertainty about the reliability of our main characters.

Unlike Herzog, Fury maintains more clarity and isn't written as stream-of-conscious, nor does it shift from third person to first person. Rushdie also will go off at times to explain the backgrounds of other characters and historical events from a more detached standpoint. There's numerous other differences: Herzog's wife leaves him, whereas Solanka leaves his; Herzog wants to find himself while Solanka wants to lose himself; Herzog is a writer while Solanka makes dolls; Herzog wants to kill his wife, Solanka wants to keep his safe.

Fury can be difficult. Rushdie packs the novel with numerous references and allusions, ranging from deep philosophical concepts and historical events to pop culture. It's easy to get lost. But it's also very funny, and darkly so. It's also sad at times. Some of the people Solanka are particularly tragic and more miserable than he is. The novel essentially describes how people, shaped by their experiences with society and others, can drive them to make more destructive decisions.

I don't know. This is a hard book to write about because to describe the character would be giving away stuff you learn as you read. It's not really a high concept plot you can summarize easily. On one hand, I risk saying I didn't get it and having people say it's beyond me. On the other, I can pretend like I get it and hope no one notices. I guess the best I can say is it makes want to read more Rushdie.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke is best known as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which served as the basis of the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. Childhood's End (1953), while never made into a movie, bears many hallmarks of that classic piece of science fiction: deep philosophical questions about mankind's destiny and evolution, a detached, almost impersonal tone, mysterious but benevolent aliens, and an examination of man's relationship with science and technology. While I can't say it's the most exciting book I've ever read, it's a serious piece of hard sci-fi that poses some fascinating ideas and questions.

The Cold War is at its peak. American and Soviet scientists pour their efforts into a nationalistic, competitive space race. All that changes when the Overlords arrive. Lead by the "supervisor" of the earth, Karellan, this race of beings positions ships all over the world and puts an and to war, famine, poverty, disease, and the petty concerns that have overtaken human society. This leads to a golden age for humanity, no more war, and no more suffering. But the Overlords are preparing the human race for something. They answer to a higher power.

Clarke writes his novel almost like it was a news report or scholarly essay (minus text citations). He tells rather than shows. The result is a very cerebral book. To Clarke, sci-fi is not a gimmick for adventure or satire; it's an examination of a point and a serious argument. There are characters, but they exist symbolically to reflect a certain part of the Clarke's thesis. That does make for dry reading, and it takes a while to get used to, but the book feels a historical account rather than a piece of pulp fiction. It's strangely plausible, thought-provoking and at times, frightening.

Human knowledge has its limits. The Overlords have long mastered mankind's achievements, and they could destroy everything if permitted. Their appearance is built up, and while it is inevitable the reveal would somewhat be anticlimactic, it's still pretty effective. They could be anything, even something completely beyond human comprehension. Humans are essentially the children of the universe, in need of guidance before they can fully mature. What that level of maturation is is unsettling.

Clarke's greatest asset is strict logic and utter seriousness to his subject. He has a hypothesis and sees it through to its final destination. He did that in 2001 with a computer on a trip to Jupiter with astronauts, and he does it here with the human race on earth and its benefactors. It's not Star Wars, that's for sure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Born on the Fourth of July

If you're looking for an entire movie about how things were in Vietnam for the infantry, I recommend Oliver Stone's Platoon, based on his own experiences. If you're looking for a film illustrating how an individual soldier and the nation were scarred and forever changed by the war, look no further than Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989).

Based on his autobiography, the movie follows Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a young, idealist whose heart always sings a patriotic hymn. As a child, he became inspired John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and when the fighting breaks out in Vietnam, he feels it's his duty to do join. He enlists in the Marines, but overseas, he finds the war confusing and disheartening. Soon, he's injured in a firefight and paralyzed from the chest down. Back in the States, he tries to recover, and we see his progression from bitter, angry reclusive to a leading anti-war protester.

Casting Cruise was a wise choice. Early on, he has those pretty-boy, youthful Hollywood looks and a fresh, open, naive face, and as the film progresses, we see him harden and transform, for the better and worse. The story is essentially how a generation of veterans felt betrayed by the country they defended: lied to about why they went, what they were doing, and how they'd be treated and hurt by the reception they got back home from families and friends who didn't understand their pain and the protesters who called them "baby killers." To take one of Hollywood's most recognizable stars and reduce him to such a level captures some of that.

The film around Cruise convincingly changes as well. One thing I've always admired about Stone is his sense of history. The set designs of his films always feel like they're straight from the time periods they're set in. This one goes from the 1950s nostalgic suburbia to the sweltering beaches of Vietnam to the chaotic college campuses of the sixties.

While the combat is not featured as much as it was in Platoon, aspects of the film are just as disturbing and shocking. When he's brought back to the States after his injury, Ron stays for months in a dank, rundown veteran's hospital in Brooklyn that is underfunded, scummy, filthy, and run by people who don't care. It's enough to make your stomach twist. The film is also painful when Ron lashes out at those around him or confronts his actions in the war.

Stone has always been a bold, visionary director. He does not make quiet, small motion pictures, and he's not afraid to take chances. Sure, he strikes a out a few times, but he always swings for the fences, and when he's on, he's makes stellar films. Born on the Fourth of July is one of his classics.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Messenger

With Johnny Got His Gun, I could console myself with the fact the condition of the main character is highly unlikely. While many young men are killed and crippled in war, the notion of a mind trapped in such a reduced body feels improbable, and Dalton Trumbo was not so much sketching a real medical condition so much as being symbolic. Even if such a thing were to happen today, medical technology would offer hope of some recovery (I hope).

But with The Messenger (2009), the situation hits close to home. With two wars in the past nine years, more than 5,000 American soldiers have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins. Someone has the job of informing their families.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a decorated Iraq War veteran with three months left in the service when he is assigned the task of telling the next of kin when their sons, daughters, and spouses are killed overseas. Montgomery doesn't feel he's up to it, but he's paired with Captain Tony Stone (an Oscar-nominated Woody Harrelson), an officer who's been doing this job for a long time and rigorously sticks to procedure and protocol: keep on script, say "killed" or "died," park a distance from the residence, and never make physical contact. You're telling them the worst news of their lives, Stone says, not there to be a new best friend. Needless to say, no one takes the news well.

I considered turning the film off after about 20 minutes. Not because it's bad; it's very good, but the sadness and loss is palpable and almost overwhelming. We see Montgomery and Stone inform several people over the course of the movie, and it's impossible to say which one has the most impact. Nothing feels like a throw-away scene or exploitative. Director Oren Moverman relies on a hand-held camera and unbroken takes for these scenes, and the viewer is forced to confront a lot of raw pain: tears, anger, threats, shock. Each one is heartbreaking in its own way.

So do I recommend the film? Absolutely, but be warned, it's hard to sit through at times. It addresses an issue that's hardly discussed when the nation goes to war. After all, it's always someone else's kid who gets killed, and it's always someone else who has the duty to notify the family. Until it's you. That's the truth of The Messenger.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Now here's an anti-war movie. When I found out Dalton Trumbo made a film in 1971 out of his own novel, my first thought was how the hell did he pull that off. Not only is this one of the most disturbing, sobering, and saddest stories ever written, there are the built-in limitations of the setup that make me wonder how does any filmmaker pull it off. Well, Trumbo did.

Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), a young, idealistic soldier in World War I, somehow survives a direct explosion from a mortar shell, but his limbs, eyes, mouth, and face are gone. The doctors, believing him brain dead and keep him alive to learn what they can. With only dreams and memories to sustain him through the years, Joe struggles to hold on to his sanity and find a way to reach out to the hospital staff.

What is there I can add? Forget all the ideologies, politics, and reasons cooked up to justify conflict. Here's a character who embodies on the most extreme personal level the cost of war. Even though he survived the blast, Joe's life is completely destroyed, as were the lives of countless other young men. The fact he's aware of his condition and conscious makes Joe, to paraphrase him, the army's dirty little secret. Dead men piled in the mud tell no tales, but an armless, legless survivor can reveal the ugly face on war, even though he himself doesn't have one anymore.

The flashbacks, memories, and dreams are in color while the present reality is stark black-and-white. I'm normally opposed to so many flashbacks in a movie, but given there's not much a narrative drive to begin with and how overwhelming the movie would be if it was entirely in the hospital, it works. The greatest accomplishment of the film is how Joe manages to come off as a fully rounded character through the voice over and flashbacks. You feel awful for him but root for him to find some way out of it even though you know he's doomed.

While there are brief moments of hope and memories of happier times, the tone of Johnny Got His Gun is overwhelmingly grim and despairing. Even in his dreams, Joe is haunted by freaky and disturbing images. His conversations with Jesus (Donald Sutherland) offer no reprieve, he feels he abandoned the girl back home, and his conversations with his father (Jason Robards) are filled with regret.

Make no mistake, Johnny Got His Gun is not a pleasant movie-going experience, but a more accurate and disturbing picture of the horrific cost of war you will not find.

I tried to find the music video of the Metallica song "One," which is inspired by the book and features clips of the movie. But you'll have to accept just the song.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Big Red One

In honor of Veteran's Day, this will be the first in a series of reviews of different war movies. We kick off with Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), based on his own experience in the army's first infantry division in World War II. For clarification, I'm discussing the reconstructed version, which is 158 minutes long (the theatrical version is 113 minutes, and I haven't seen it).

There's no real overarching plot. We follow a squad of G.I.s from the 1942 landings in North Africa to the campaigns in Sicily and Normandy through the drive across Europe and finally the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. The central character is the sergeant whose name we never learn (Lee Marvin), and he commands a faithful foursome: Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Johnson (Kelly Ward). No one else survives long.

So what separates this from being a feature length version of the TV show Combat? For starters, Lee Marvin. He's always in action. I don't mean running around and shooting all the time, but nothing about the performance suggests he is merely playing sergeant. All the little details ring true. To see Marvin in the role is to be entirely sold on the idea this is a man who leads others in combat (the fact Marvin was a marine in the South Pacific adds to the authenticity).

The other distinction of the movie is how much variety in tone Fuller manages to include. Many scenes display the camaraderie of the unit, like when they pick off German troops one at a time while hiding in a cave. Others are rather sweet. After liberating a Sicilian village and celebrating with the villagers, the squad moves out but not before Marvin accepts a flower decoration on his helmet from a little girl. Still, others are haunting and dark, particularly the liberation of the death camp. Marvin finds a young boy still alive and shares his rations with him. Outside, he lets the kid ride on his shoulders, but after a while, the boy slumps dead across his neck. As Zab narrates, the sergeant carries him for 20 minutes before having the heart to take him down.

The plot can be described as episodic, but really, it feels more like a collection of a soldier's memories and the different emotions he feels: the fear, the anger, the joy, the despair, the friendship, the elation, the relief, the humor, and more. Fuller has no real message or agenda to push. The movie's not really pro or anti-war. It's just how Fuller remembers it.

Fuller also captures the weirdness and absurdity of war. By absurdity, I don't mean Dr. Strangelove-esque satire showing the futility of war; I mean the ridiculous stuff that goes on: the soldier who wades ashore with a roll of toilet held above his head, the German doctor that hits on a captured Marvin, delivering a Frenchwoman's baby inside a tank, and others. Some people find these aspects of the film campy or dated, but really, a lot of things when you think about them are pretty silly, even in a war.

Fuller's working on a low budget for such a scaled war movie, but it hardly shows. It's impressive. The settings look like the countries they're set in, and the battle scenes, though limited in scope, pack a punch in energy and intensity. Even though we're focused on one small squad, it feels like they're part of a much larger campaign. Even though Marvin is the standout, the others do fine (hard to believe there's a good film outside of Star Wars with Mark Hamill in it).

The Big Red One is not often mentioned in lists of the greatest war movies, but it should be. Fuller covers a lot of ground and depicts the life of a first division infantryman in World War II. You won't find John Wayne theatrics, but then again, you shouldn't.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Exorcist III

It's actually become something of a cliche for horror fans to prefer The Exorcist III (1990) to the original. I'm not here to weigh the merits of one versus the other, although I will say I've seen The Exorcist once or twice while I've seen its second sequel much more than that. If the original is an exercise in physical, emotionally grueling terror, then The Exorcist III is an intellectual challenge of the psyche. Whereas the original played graphic violence and shocking imagery, the third is built more on suggestion and ideas.

George C. Scott plays Detective Bill Kinderman, whom you might remember as a supporting character in the original played by Lee J. Cobb. Kinderman is investigating a series of murders committed in the style of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), a psychotic murderer put to death in the electric chair fifteen years ago. Soon, a patient in a mental hospital's disturbed ward awakens out of a 15-year coma claiming to be the Gemini. Curiously, he bears a striking resemblance to Kinderman's friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest killed performing the first film's exorcism.

It's really strange to consider the original is the one most remembered by mainstream pop culture. When you think about it, the original featured pea-soup projectile vomiting, spinning heads, and the infamous Crucifix bit, graphic elements you'd expect to find in an exploitation horror film (which you could argue The Exorcist is). Watching that little girl and those around her experience what they do is a grueling visceral experience and really puts you through the wringer. The Exorcist III, while not shying away from disturbing material, is more restrained. The violence is implied, the script dialogue heavy and concentrated on heady philosophical and spiritual issues, and there are crowd-pleasing cameos (such as Fabio and Patrick Ewing as an angels) and quirky humor that have been embraced by genre fans. It's a curious audience inverse, and I'm not sure why.

That paragraph above illustrates a key mantra for the film: those expecting the shock tactics of the original will be disappointed. Director William Peter Blatty (adapting his own novel Legion) keeps the horror on an intellectual level. The suggested ideas are what's frightening because they mess with your head.

The Gemini is a fascinating character. He's clearly insane, but he quotes John Donne, praises Shakespeare, and apparently is a medical expert, judging from his knowledge of tranquillizers and blood, uh, letting. I guess he's a perversion of human knowledge, susceptible to the devil and wanting to defy his father (both his biological father, whom he killed, and God). What's strangely effective is we only see him in the isolation cell, restrained in a straight jacket. Blatty films him in mostly shadow, his seemingly disembodied head floating in darkness and madness.

Meanwhile, Kinderman is a man who has lost faith, not just in God but the world. He's an officer who has seen every ghastly violent act possibly in the line of duty, and as he explains to his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), he can't accept a god that would blindly allow all this happen. The people he encounters don't inspire much hope: priests without much guidance, a corrupt psychiatrist more nervous than his patients, and a hospital administrator more concerned about procedure than stopping a serial killer. People and setting of comfort do not offer sanctuary.

Blatty reinforces this by defacing religious, specifically Christ, iconography. The first victim is a young boy who is not only crucified on a pair of oars, he is decapitated, and his head is replaced with a statue of Jesus' head. Priests fall victim to the killer, and a nurse's body is stuffed with Rosaries. Churches are violated, and hospital rooms with crosses on the walls become crime scenes. This accumulation of violation creates an atmosphere of unease and disorder.

The ultimate violation occurs in the nature of the killer SPOILER! The demon cast out in the exorcism allowed the spirit of the Gemini to enter the body of Karras to continue his reign of terror. The image of such a holy and righteous man being used to spread death is no doubt the most despairing message possible for the faithful. END SPOILER

Scott, on one hand, channels General Patton in a few scenes. He really can pull off anger, but he also is vulnerable and wounded. Note the scene in which he snaps at the hospital administrator and then immediately fights back tears. Matching him in fury is Dourif, raving gleefully the joy he takes in killing while being able to ominously ponder and quietly explain how he commits the murders. When he stares straight at the camera and speaks, it's unsettling.

Every review of The Exorcist III must mention the ending and the shoehorned climax involving an exorcism, which the studio insisted on lest the title be misleading (or they could have let Blatty call it Legion like he wanted). What was a quiet, subtle film becomes a full-blown special effects extravaganza with fire, snakes, lightning, and the earth opening up. Considering how unnecessary it is, it's reasonably well done, and Nicol Williamson as Father Morning is a solid bedrock of faith and authority.

So that's The Exorcist III, an intellectual exercise and quiet, unsung masterpiece of the genre. It's certainly different from the original and effective in its own right. Who cares which is better?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shock Around the Clock

Today, I completed my very first movie marathon. It's amazing to consider this was my first time. I'm such a movie buff, some people probably assume I attend festivals and marathons all the time, but I'm the cheapskate antisocial type, so I don't go out as much as recommended.

The second annual Shock Around the Clock Festival at the Grandview Theatre was a good initial attempt. For 24 hours, the theater showed a variety of horror films. Some I had never seen before but wanted to, and others I had seen but figured seeing them on the big screen would enhance the experience. Over all, it was fun.

The festival opened with two versions of Frankenstein: the classic James Whale version with Boris Karloff and the 1910 short made by Thomas Edison. From a historical standpoint, the Edison was interesting, but he essentially combined the entire story into twelve minutes and features the lamest method I've ever seen defeat the monster. It sees itself in a mirror and disappears, followed by his reflection. The Whale version was great to see. I'm amazed how well Karloff's iconic performance holds up. The problem was the theater was having reel problems, so there were passages of blank screen.

The next movie was 13 Ghosts, the original by William Castle. Not a classic by any means, two things kept people amused: the Illusion-O Ghost Viewer and their collectively dirty mind. The ghost viewer enables you to see the ghosts when you look through the red viewer when prompted. Kind of neat but ultimately a gimmick. Then, there's the dealings between the little boy and the lawyer. Everything the lawyer said to the boy could be interpreted as deviant, and everything he did made him look like a child molester: having him keep a secret, taking him away alone, and carrying him out of bed. The fifties were a more innocent time. The audience erupted in laughter at every innuendo members found.

Next, Psycho. You know a movie's great when the crowd of hardened horror buffs refrains from their usual catcalls and sarcastic commentary to pay attention. Incidentally, Alfred Hitchcock was voted into the marathon's hall of fame that night by the audience.

Then, there was a short film series: Night of the Living Bread, Loaf, and Sandwich, a trio of spoofs by Kevin S. O'Brien who did Q-and-A with some cast members. You can guess the joke from those titles. I'll admit, they were funnier than I thought they would be, and O'Brien, who flew in from Australia for the festival, had a good talk session.

There was also a costume contest before the next movie. Entries included Elvira, Dorian Gray, Jack and Wendy Torrance, a bread victim, Princess Popcorn, and several zombies. Winners were determined by applause while losers were booed off. The grand prize was won by someone who dressed as one of the marathon's organizer's, Joe Neff. Everyone got some good prizes: DVDs, model kits, posters, and more. Grand prize also got $100.

Dressed to Kill was up next. By the time this started, the festival was about an hour behind schedule, and we were seven hours in. Seven hours in, and this is the first film to have graphic bloodletting and nudity. You'd have expected those to be a constant. The opening shower scene drew cheers from the largely male audience, and when the reel faltered again, there were boos. This was a movie I had wanted to see for some time, and it didn't disappoint. Michael Caine was warped but very good as a psychiatrist, and director Brian De Palma really played with audience expectations of a Psycho knockoff.

Then it was the first adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, re-titled The Island of Lost Souls. Charles Laughton was good as the mad doctor, and he definitely looked imposing standing on a ledge cracking a whip, but the beast men looked like cheap Morlocks, and the filmmakers included some lame melodrama.

At this point, I was dozing off and decided to call it a night. I've never pulled an all-nighter, and I don't drink coffee. I missed Martyrs, House, They Came from Within, and Robogeisha. When I got back at 8:30 a.m., I waited for the current film, Robogeisha, to finish. Every time someone walked out, I could hear the mellow sounds of bloodshed and violence.

Back inside, I was amazed so many people were left. They were bundled up in blankets and pillows, and here I was all refreshed and alert. It was fitting the music playing before the next show was the Dawn of the Dead muzak. Everyone there was a zombie by this point. I felt awkward. You know all those movies from the seventies where the guy joins a Devil cult, runs away, and incurs their wrath when they find him? That's kind of how I felt. I felt disappointed I had cut out, as if I had let my fellow fans down. Thankful, no one seemed to notice or care. I got to talking with some people, including Joe Neff, in the lobby about the state of horror movies today, and we lamented the proliferation of remakes and the waste of talented directors .

I resumed my participation with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and it was elevated a bit by seeing it with an audience. I realized I'd probably like it more if twenty minutes were shaved off to make it tighter and snappier. Some parts just drag on and on. And I love Bill Moseley, but a little less Chop Top would have made him more effective.

The festival concluded with John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. Throughout the show, various actors and filmmakers were cheered when their names appeared on screen. This movie got four such cheers: Carpenter, Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, and Alice Cooper (Chainsaw 2 got two cheers: Dennis Hopper and Tom Savini). The organizers said this was a new print of the film, and it looked beautiful.

So overall, the marathon was fun. I wish there had been less time between movies, and the technical glitches were annoying, but when the movies were rolling, it was fun. They just seemed to fly by. Hopefully, this won't be my last festival, and hopefullym I make it through all of next time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Resurrected

I hate to say the book is better than the movie, but "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft is better than the movie adaptation it inspired, The Resurrected by Dan O'Bannon.

The novella chronicles the descent of the main character into black magic and madness as he delves deeper into his family legacy. Lovecraft writes in the style of a psychiatric report by the young man's doctor. At first, I thought all the detail and exposition to be excessive, but as the paranormal crept in, the story felt plausible and thus more effective. When you take out all the back story and details, you're left with a series of events that feel unconvincing and unsupported.

The Resurrected opens in film noir fashion. Mental Patient Charles Ward (Chris Sarandon) has escaped from the insane asylum, leaving a gruesome mess in his room. Meanwhile, injured private investigator John March (John Terry) narrates into a tape recorder how he was hired by Ward's wife Claire (Jane Sibbett) to investigate why her husband spent time in an isolated cabin. The film flashes back to show how Ward developed a fascination with the black arts, a mysterious ancestor, and raising the dead while March's investigation brings him closer to the truth.

It could be argued noir is the best style to bring Lovecraft to life. Lovecraft mythology concerns people being driven insane by the horrors they find lurking beneath everyday reality and how puny the human race is. Noir involves deep shadows, Expressionist imagery, world weary protagonists, a cynical outlook, psychologically neurotic villains, and plots in which the hero uncovers a labyrinth of betrayal and corruption in the criminal underworld and respectable society. That almost describes Lovecraft perfectly; the only difference is the addition of gruesome monsters. John Carpenter accomplished this merger in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Sam Neil located a missing horror writer whose work allowed beings from another realm to enter reality.

But in The Resurrected, the plot just feels hokey. John Terry as John March is no Sam Neil; he doesn't have the same craftiness, cynicism, humor, or smugness. While Neil is reminiscent of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, Terry is a plot function. That's fine in the story when the psychiatrist is analyzing his patient and not really involved with the main action, but in film noir, your main character should not be bland. Similarly, Sarandon is not very convincing as the driven scientist or his evil ancestor. He captures the physical decline of Ward well, looking gaunt and haggard, but his performance doesn't feel inspired (although his final confrontation with Terry is effective).

I think the problem is the adaptation tried to be faithful to Lovecraft's plot while working in the investigator aspect to give it narrative drive. It might have been more effective to stick with Ward and watch events unfold chronologically, so we empathize with him and his loved ones. The private investigator business feels like an excuse to explain everything. These two tracks feel half-hearted when put together instead of supporting each other.

Ugly monsters turn up in the end. The exploration of a subterranean dungeon where undead creatures are being kept in darkness for experimentation was probably the creepiest section of the story. In the film, it feels tacked on to provide some action and unconvincing makeup effects.

The Resurrected has all the ingredients for a winner, but they don't come together. O'Bannon incorporates Lovecraft's ideas and is mostly faithful to the story, but the overall effect just doesn't carry the punch it should. I guess I'm disappointed because O'Bannon's work in The Return of the Living Dead, Alien, and Dead & Buried shows he had a solid grasp of Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror. The movie just feels meh.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Underrated Scare Scenes

Everyone remembers the first time the shark appears in Jaws, the shower scene in Psycho, and "They're coming to get you, Barbara." There are a vast amount of iconic fright moments people are still talking about decades later.

But there are some moments that don't get the same attention. While these scenes are just as well crafted and frightening, they don't match the cultural importance of others for one reason or another. That doesn't prevent of us from giving them their due respect.

Here is a list of my favorite underrated scary movie moments.

1) Death of Dallas Alien
The chestburster scene is the defining moment not only of this movie but the entire series. It's such an out-of-nowhere moment and really illustrates the ferocity of this creature. But my favorite scene is when Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is hunting the alien in the air ducts. The pacing, buildup, lighting, sound effects, music, and acting really come together. With only the glow of his lamp and flamethrower, Dallas huffs and puffs his way through the cramped darkness while the crew monitors his and the creature's movement with those beeping devices. Then, the tempo picks up as they realize its moving toward him. They scream for him to get out. He turns around, and there it is, for all of half a second. The signal cuts out, and Dallas is gone.
2) Police station shootout The Terminator
Drop all the pop culture baggage, and forget that's the future governator on screen. The Terminator is a frightening movie. Say what you want about Arnold, but he gives an excellent performance as emotionless killing machine. There are so many physical mannerisms he does to suggest he's not human, and the best scene to demonstrate this is when the terminator storms the police station. Everyone thinks of it as just an action scene, but it's really shocking to see dozens of officers (good men protecting Sara Connor, even though they don't trust Kyle Reese) get mowed down. If these trained officers with machine guns and shotguns can't stop this thing, what can?
3) Lightsaber duel The Empire Strikes BackA fantasy-adventure space opera, you say? When Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader for the first time, you can see how valiantly and desperately he fights, but Vader just toys with him. The whole setting is a weird futuristic Gothic chamber with the carbon freezing machine, pits, catwalks, mist, dark corridors, and hissing machinery. Then, Vader uses the Force to hurl objects at Luke and just pummel the holy hell out him. He could kill him in an instant if he wanted to but instead drops that famous bombshell after slicing Luke's hand off over a chasm. The atmosphere is unrelenting. You can feel the weight of the Dark Side of the Force oozing out of the screen.

4) Ghost haunts a woman Black Sabbath
Not many people know this as anything other than a Boris Karloff movie that inspired the name of the first heavy metal band, but it's an effective anthology in its own right from Italian director Mario Bava. Heavy on gloom and doom, the film concludes with a tale of a nurse who steals jewelry off her elderly charge's corpse and is haunted by her ghost. There's are dark, bright colors in the lighting that give the sequence an otherworldly feeling, but what really sets it apart is how we never see the corpse move. It appears unexplained in various places, but it never seems to be alive, and for some reason, that makes it more effective. Nothing shatters the illusion, and our imagination does the rest.
5) Unmask the monster The Funhouse
So four teenagers decide it would be fun to stay over night in the carnivals funhouse when they witness one of the carnies murder a woman. This carnie is a massive mute lug wearing a Frankenstein mask, and he gets his father, the barker, to help him cover up the death. The barker, angry at his son for the trouble he caused, yells at him and tells him to hit himself. In a fury, the carnie yanks off his mask to reveal a deformed mutant, a grownup version of the deformed baby in a jar the kids saw in the freak show. Beneath the harmless facade, show business has a seedy, dangerous underbelly.
6) Knock, knock children The OrphanageOur protagonist Laura discovers the way to summon the ghost children who took her adopted son is to play their favorite game: face the wall, knock several times, then turn around (sort of a variation Red Rover). Each time she turns around, they get closer and closer. No music, no jump cuts, and if I remember correctly, it's all one take because the camera moves with Laura. Once again, we don't see or hear the ghosts moving; they just appear. There are no special effects here; it's very subtle and keeps the mystery intact.
7) Courtroom drama It's Alive III: Island of the Alive
Ridiculous? Yes. Convincing? At least for this scene. The movie itself is campy, but the third film in the It's Alive series opens in convincing fashion. Stephen Jarvis, as played by Michael Moriarty, is suing for his son's life, one of the mutant babies born around the country that kills when threatened and the government has been putting to death. The government lawyer has the child brought into the room in a cage and demands Jarvis get close to it. If he can prove the child's father is afraid, he'll win the case. When the child breaks free, Jarvis pleads for his son's life and in a moving, passionate speech, wins his case. The scene works because of Michael Moriarty. He captures perfectly how petrified Jarvis is of his son and his decency to want him to live. That sells the whole scene, more so than the stop-motion baby monster.
8) There's a Kruger in my closet Wes Craven's New Nightmare
To this day, this scene still gets me to jump. Following an earthquake, Heather opens her closet and peers inside, suspecting the demon inhabiting the Freddy Kruger's visage (long story) is around. He leaps through a rack of clothing and attacks. We know Freddy's in there, we know he's going to leap out, and we know when he'll do it, but it's still effective. There's a sense of inevitability and dread built up. Every time I see it, I'm thinking "Don't go in the closet!"
9) Creeping shadow Nosferatu (1979)Not many people seem to be aware of this remake of F.W. Murnau's masterpiece, and that's a shame. Starring Klaus Kinski as the count, it's an interesting take on the Dracula legend by Werner Herzog. In this scene, Lucy is brushing her in front of a mirror, and in the reflection, we see the door open and shut behind her. She's paralyzed with fear as a striking shadow falls across the wall, looming larger and larger. Then, the vampire appears. It gets under your skin.
10) Giant Ants Them
To a degree, Them kicked off the giant atomic bug craze of the 1950s, and because of that, it's often lumped in with the rest as a cheesy, goofy enterprise with unconvincing effects and hokey acting. Having watched it for the first time several weeks ago, I'm amazed how well it held up. Sure, some aspects are dated, but the overall effort is effective. The ants are kept hidden for the most part, and their threat is suggested. The creepiest part doesn't actually involves the ants. Scientists and military personnel are discussing how to take out a hive, and they reason they can't bomb at night because most of the ants are out. Just the idea of a horde of giant ants, marching unopposed through the night gobbling everything in sight is tense and unsettling. The power of suggestion at its finest.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Martin

Here's another movie about an alienated young man and the living dead, but whereas Franceso Dellamorte applied ironic detachment and morbid humor to his battle with zombies in Cemetery Man, Martin Mathias (John Amplas) believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire even though he looks to be 17. The result is the gritty and shocking Martin (1977).

Director George Romero famously turned the zombie genre on its head with Night of the Living Dead, replacing Voodoo slaves with rotting flesh eaters, and he does something similar here. The vampire here is not a seductive, alluring, supernatural creature of the night nor is he the threatening, foreign outsider. If anything, he's a scared, lonely, confused American teenager with sexual anxiety, an oppressive family upbringing, and a taste for human blood.

The film is an examination of a peculiar individual. Martin may be a vampire. Yes, he drinks blood, but sunlight doesn't kill him, crosses and garlic don't repel him, and he doesn't have any supernatural abilities or fangs. The opening sequence shows him on a train to Pittsburgh waylaying a female passenger with an injection of some kind of tranquilizer. Then, he slices open her wrist with a razor blade, drinks the blood, and arranges the room to make it look like she killed herself. Shortly after, he arrives in the town of Braddock and moves in with his much older cousin, Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an old world religious fanatic who vows to save "Nosferatu's" soul and destroy him.

It doesn't matter if Martin is really a vampire. What matters is he believes he is and so does Cuda. Everything that happens supports both interpretations. As Martin stalks his victims, Romero intercuts black-and-white footage of a suave Martin in period clothing being beckoned by seductive women in low-cut clothing who give themselves willingly. Those may be memories or fantasies, but either way, they're a stark contrast to the reality of what Martin actually does, which is rape and murder. These are not buxom sirens; they're terrified, everyday women who struggle and fight.

This image of the vampire is not a romantic, foreign interloper but a clumsy boy-next-door who is more confused than evil. Martin desires female companionship, but he considers himself too shy and alone to seek out, so he plays (or is) a vampire. This differs from the popular presentation of the vampire of the time; this movie came out roughly around the same time audiences were experiencing Frank Langella, Louis Jourdan, and George Hamilton as dapper, aristocratic Count Draculas. This inverse is reflected in the environment as well. Braddock, Pa. is not Victorian London; it's grimy, depressed, and falling apart. This is a town of drug dealers, homelessness, and unemployed, directionless people. Martin is just literally draining people.

Of course, Martin's derangement might stem from his oppressive family upbringing. As the would-be Van Helsing to Martin's Count, Cuda is a petty tyrant who uses religion to force his way. More than anything, he's behind with the times and prone to superstitions and outdated ideas, even going so far as to bring an exorcist to the house. Martin mocks him often for believing in magic. Whereas Martin is isolated by his shyness and crimes, Cuda is self-isolated; he doesn't even own a phone until his granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest) has one installed. She represents the voice of reason in the movie, calling Cuda a hypocrite and declaring Martin needs help.

Just from those descriptions above, you can tell Martin is a violent, bloody film since our title character's rough methods aren't as clean as two pinpricks to the neck. Effects are by Tom Savini, who would later go on to do Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. He's not as accomplished here as he would later be. The blood in particular looks like melted crayon, but the effects serve their purpose overall.

By reversing many of popular themes and images of traditional presentations, Martin certainly is a unique spin on vampire cinema. That is, if you believe Martin is a vampire.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cemetery Man

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) has an interesting job. The watchman for the cemetery in the town of Buffalora, Dellamorte and his mute assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) dispose of the dead when they come back to life with a hunger for flesh, shooting them in the head or splitting their skull with a shovel. He would report the phenomenon, but then the cemetery would be shut down, and Dellamorte would be out of a job. It's cheaper to buy more bullets. Dellamorte keeps himself isolated from the world around, even spreading a false rumor of impotence. Everything is in routine until She (Anna Falchi) arrives. A widow who visiting her husband's grave, she draws Dellamorte's attention, and soon, he's in love.

To say more would spoil some of the best jokes. Many of them come out of left field, and director Michele Soavi films the the violent and outrageous material in such a droll manner, it becomes hysterical. The best way to summarize Cemetery Man (1994) is to call it the existential zombie movie. We get meditations on life, love, death, sex, indifference, madness, violence, obsession, and necrophilia. It certainly isn't conventional or forgettable.

The structure is more or less episodic. The only connection from one series of events to another is Dellamorte's increasing despondence and derangement. Everett is very good as the weary, cynical, philosophizing, charming loner, and his narration adds layers to his character and provides some good laughs. My favorite has to be explaining how killing the living dead is a public service but shooting someone while they're still alive gets you into all sorts of trouble.

The zombies, while threatening, are mostly a comical afterthought to Dellamorte. He's more bored by them than anything, resuming a telephone conversation after stopping to shoot one at the door. They have good designs, with roots protruding through heads and scrapped fingernails. Even Death himself, the Grim Reaper, pops in for an appearance in what has to be one of his coolest cinematic versions.

So what we have here is a zombie art house movie. Gory violence, gratuitous nudity, bizarre scenarios (I'll just say Gnaghi has one love interest), stylish filmmaking, and grand statements about love and death. It's certainly not for everyone, but those who would love know who they are.