Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tiger Force

Now here's a book that could have been called "American Carnage," but unlike the exciting heavy metal tour I previously covered, this book will simultaneously disgust and anger you while reading it. Not because it's a bad book. It's almost impossible to put down, but learning what some American soldiers and officers did will stir up emotions. If you want to know why the United States lost the Vietnam War, read Tiger Force by Michael Sullah and Mitch Weiss.

How could an Army unit rampage through the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam for seven months, kill unarmed civilians they encountered, commit ghastly atrocities, and get away with it? That is the question at the heart of the book.

The title refers to a unit within the 101st Airborne Division created by Major David Hackworth as a force to operate deep in enemy territory as a reconnaissance and commando group, to "outguerrilla the guerrillas." Working in small teams, the Tigers were an aggressive force, inflicting and sustaining heavy casualties. Experienced combat soldiers were recruited, specifically soldiers who displayed little or no qualms about killing. They were designed to operate with fewer restrictions and command than regular army units, cut through the red tape, and take action. They were praised by the likes of General Westmoreland and heavily distinguished.

Things turned ugly in the summer of 1967. After a battle known as the Mother's Day Massacre in which many Tigers were killed, the unit was replenished with less experienced soldiers, and the Tigers were deployed to the central highlands of South Vietnam for a clearing operation. The area was considered strategically valuable, and the Buddhist farmers were suspected of aiding the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, so they were ordered to relocation camps. Those who refused were forcibly removed by gunpoint, and their homes and crops were destroyed. Angered by their friends' deaths, frightened of an enemy they couldn't find, exhausted by marching through the jungle for weeks' without rest, the Tigers gradually lost control until they regularly shot any Vietnamese they encountered and leveled every hut with gunfire. Other war crimes included torture, humiliation, rape, and murder. No one was safe.

How did this happen? Failure of command. Rather than prevent this behavior, battalion officers looked the other way and even encouraged it in some cases. Officers such as unit leader Hawkins, who got the team drunk in the jungle, led them on patrol, and executed prisoners. Veterans who set bad examples for rookies. Officers who kept the Tigers in the field far past their physical, mental, and emotional breaking points, treating them as flags on a map rather than as men. Generals such as Westmoreland who thought the best way to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people was to force them to leave the farms of their ancestors, draft their sons into an obviously corrupt regime that never cared about them, and burn their homes. Those who taught the men that all Vietnamese were subhuman and Communist, unworthy of living, and all alike.

Soldiers who complained were either transferred or too intimidated to speak up. Sergeant Sanchez resisted the others and tried to balance the rookies, but he was wounded and evacuated. Sergeant Bruner pulled a gun on Tigers who killed a farmer and wanted to shoot his family, and he defended them until a helicopter took them but ultimately was the one to be disciplined. Those who refused to join in at first succumbed to fear and felt trapped, eventually joining in the killings. The mental poisoning of these men is truly frightening. The Tigers operated on their baser instincts of fear and anger, just plowing through anything in their path. The worst ones took savage glee in what they did, laughing as they burned homes, bragging about how many "VC" they had killed, collecting trophies of body parts, and fashioning them into necklaces.

The one to stand out the most is Sam Ybarra, a half Native American who spent his life on an Arizona reservation before enlisting with a childhood friend. He's one of the most disturbing people I've ever read about. Ybarra always seemed to be filled with rage, angry at the world and Vietnamese people, and I can't even bring myself to describe the things he did. There was "One Punch" Varney who, after failing knock out an old man with one blow, punched him into a bayonet held up to his neck. Others include Barnett who, in an early episode, knocked an old woman off her bicycle as she was on her way to a camp and had been cleared by another soldier. Then, he stole her money. It only got worse.

Accusations appeared in 1972, and the book devotes time to the investigation of Gustav Apsey, who spent three years building a case against the Tigers. He found official reports, interviewed subjects, and even got several Tigers to make statements under oath about what they saw and did. Some were remorseful; others rationalized. All were traumatized. Many had sunk into addiction and were suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. There lives were shattered because of what they did.

But no hearings were launched. No one was called before a court martial. Why? In the wake of the My Lai Massacre, the Watergate Scandal, and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the Pentagon wanted to avoid anymore bad publicity and covered it up. It was about saving political face.

Everything about this unit's actions is sickening and disgraceful. From the soldiers who committed atrocities to the officers who encouraged them to the general who looked the other way, it's disgraceful. By letting the perpetrators get away with their crimes, the Pentagon sent a message that war crimes are excusable. There wasn't just one scapegoat; the entire system is at fault. Reading this account was like watching a nightmare spiral out of control.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

American Carnage

Heavy metal fans do not clap. They don't applaud either. They raise their hands in devil horns and roar. When the band appears on stage, at the conclusion of a song, or anytime something cool happens, thousands of headbangers erupt in a geyser of noise.

After counting down the months, keeping the tickets safe in the top drawer of my desk, and searching in vain for a school friend to bring, I attended the American Carnage tour when it played at the Time Warner Amphitheater in downtown Cleveland. It was a fitting location: right next to the Cuyahoga River among the old steelyards and factories, geographically beneath more respected venues such as Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. Heavy metal emerged in the early seventies out of Birmingham, England with such bands as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Birmingham was considered one of the major industrial centers of the world at the time (even seen as a major location for the Industrial Revolution), so it makes sense a showcase for American metal be in the industrial heart of Cleveland.

Testament opened and perfectly worked up the crowd for the following acts. Their background consisted of a Gothic church steeple and village rooftops that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Sabbath album cover. I'm not too familiar with the group, but I enjoyed what I saw and heard, so I'll definitely be checking out more of their work. Singer Chuck Billy proved he had an intense set of lungs, bellowing impressive vocal on such songs as "Practice What You Preach" and "The Formation of Damnation." He was easily the best vocalist of the night (unlike the others, he didn't play an instrument, but that didn't stop him from strumming along on the mic stand) Before singing "Into the Pit," he riled up a mosh pit and encouraged those smoking the weed in the front to keep it up because it smelled good.

Megadeth followed, playing the entirety of Rust in Peace plus a few other hits including "Peace Sells," "Symphony of Destruction," and "Trust." Their background had the album cover of Rust in Peace, focusing on the skeleton head, and the drum set had biohazard warnings on the bass. Lighting frequently changed: hellfire red, toxic green, tomb-like blue, and that really helped establish the atmosphere. During Dave Ellefson's bass solo on "Dawn Patrol," the band's mascot Vic Rattlehead (the skeleton) came out in a business suit. He didn't do much except walk around and look intimidating, but it was cool.

Slayer closed out the show with the album Season in the Abyss as well as "Angel of Death" and "Raining Blood." I was told to expect an epic, in-your-face performance, and I wasn't disappointed. Slayer, I discovered, plays much better live. Everything about them seems in sync and matched; it's hard to imagine them anywhere else except on stage. Unlike the other bands, Slayer had a giant curtain blocking the stage before showtime. When the music kicked on, the curtain was yanked out of sight, and there they were bathed in red light. They were machines. It was wicked. They had this presence the other bands just couldn't match.

So was the show worth it? Absolutely! There really is nothing quite like a heavy metal show. The performances contain excellent musicianship, and the fans are rabid. It's intense.

Note: I got these photos off the Internet and not at the show. I didn't have a camera.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fat City

When I was a college freshman, my screenwriting professor showed us the final scene from John Huston's Fat City (1972). Right after Stacy Keach's Tully tells to Jeff Bridges' Ernie to stay and talk with him, my professor said, "Watch this great conversation."

We watched. No words are uttered. The two men sit in silence as the closing credits roll, a fitting, final lamentation a life of unfulfilled promise. There's nothing left to say.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal the final scene. In a film tinged with sadness, regret, and hopelessness, it makes sense those feelings continue to the end. Set in Stockton, CA, the movie concerns hopeless people in a downtrodden city. Everyone's on hard times. The movie opens and closes with a song by Kris Kristofferson: "Help Me Get through the Night," a fitting track for wounded characters struggling to get by in life.

Watching Fat City in its entirety for the first time, I was amazed at how clean cut and baby-faced Bridges is playing the 18-year-old rookie boxer, but what's even more astounding is to learn that Tully is only 29, yet he carries himself like a broken old man, a once great boxer who let his career fade because of booze, bad fights, and his wife leaving him. He sees potential in Ernie, a kid with a great reach but not much power. Tully sends the kid to his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who begins training Ernie for low-level fights. Meanwhile, Tully starts a relationship with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), an alcoholic who's man is in prison. All the while, Tully, who's been picking crops with migrant workers, hopes to get back in training for another shot at greatness.

While the final scene shows the art of non-conversation, my professor could have picked any number of scenes to depict one-sided dialogue. Many characters talk and talk, not realizing the person they're addressing isn't really listening. These people have their hopes and fears, but they are utterly alone, seeking human contact which they don't get.

Tully eventually gets a match against a fighter from Mexico with a reputation, Lucero (Sixto Rodriquez), but when we first see him, Lucero is also a shell of his former self. Arriving in town, one of the first things he does is urinate blood, and even though Tully gets the win, it's a hollow one. After all the training and pain, his payoff is $100. Instead of reinvigorating his career, the match is a bitter sendoff.

Director John Huston keeps everything intimate and gritty, and at times, it feels like a documentary. I'm sure Darren Aronofsky watched this before making The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke, another movie about a professional fighter reduced to working small venues as his body and life fall apart.

Fat City is tough, sad, brutal, and honest in its depictions of a has-been boxer and those around. It's strongly acted but also depressing. Just like the end, there's nothing left to say.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Genetic Strand

The Genetic Strand is a lot of things: the memoirs of a man who wants to reconnect with his family history, an examination of Southern culture and family life in the nineteenth century, a science lesson in DNA and forensics, and a challenge of the exalted status of that science.

Ball became inspired to look into his family history after he moved to Charleston, S.C., where much of his ancestry sprung from. He had spent his childhood in various places around the South and recently spent ten years working in New York, which tagged him as an outsider among his extended family. Ball purchased a desk from an elderly cousin in an effort to reconnect and found a secret compartment containing strands of preserved hair as well as the names and ages of those they belonged to. Curious, Ball decided to have the hair tested by DNA specialists, and he ended up learning a lot more and less than he thought he would. One result indicated his family, with its white, southern aristocratic legacy, might have ties to Native Americans and African Americans (which, Ball ultimately learns, it didn't).

The big problem is the book's structure. After the opening chapter in which Ball describes how he came across the desk and hair samples, I expected a more linear path, we would follow him chronologically across his search and learn as he did. Instead, Ball presents the material more like the findings of a study than a narrative, and the organization feels random. Ball jumps around from the science to sociology to history that it's easy to get lost at times. For example, Ball will go from explaining a concept of DNA science to an brief biography of a scientist he interviewed to a summary of an ancestor's life without much transition.

The science is interesting at times, but too often, it feels like a dry lecture. Ball explains some concepts and vocabulary in layman's terms, but it gets overwhelming at times and easy for the reader's attention to wander. In addition, according to several reviews on Amazon.com and other sources, there are several inaccuracies. One reviewer named Margot from North Carolina notes how Ball describes accurately how the hair samples might still contain mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which passes from mother to child, but then he proposes an idea of how a daughter of an Indian father might have passed on native genes, which wouldn't be possible through mtDNA as he implies. In another review, Suzanne Amarra (a top 100 reviewer) contradicts Ball's assertion that Queen Victoria was a carrier of hemophilia, but rather, her kind of hemophilioa was X linked, a "big difference."

In addition, Ball devotes most of the final chapter going after what he believes is the deification of DNA science. Ball asserts we shouldn't put our blind trust in a science still in its relatively early stages and it shouldn't be the end-all be-all. That is an admirable stance to take, but other reviewers pointed out that DNA testing's limits are pretty well known and Ball shouldn't rail against DNA for not getting the answers he hoped for when he should have known he wouldn't. I take issue with Ball because after getting one test indicating there might be Indian blood in his heritage, he learns from subsequent tests that probably isn't the case, so he calls in the reliability of DNA testing. That is science: repeatedly testing a hypothesis to see if it's duplicated (even Ball notes that part).

While the science is confusing and misleading at times, the history and sociology included is far more successful. Using the hair as a springboard, Ball learns much about his family history: marriages, deaths, plantations, mercury and lead poisoning (because of the type of dishes used), Civil War experience, etc. It's a little banal because Ball doesn't recreate any scenes; he summarizes. I liked the poem by Isaac Ball, a Civil War veteran who emerged physically unscathed but was scarred emotionally. Another Isaac Ball (born in 1785) and his wife Eliza were the ones who began collecting hair of their children after two of them died of malaria, and it was those deaths that changed Isaac from a man brought up in vanity and privilege into someone more morose until he died as well.

It was also fascinating to learn why some people collected hair. In that time, the only representation of people available was a portrait or statue, very expensive expenditures. Lock of hair were intended as cheap keepsakes. That all changed after 1850 with the appearance of photography. And it was also an interesting sociology lesson to find out why so many people in southern aristocracy practiced endogamy, or marrying within the family. Ball learns between 1750 and 1900, twelve sets of cousins married in his family tree. This was done both because of the limited number of potential partners (couldn't marry blacks, Indians, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, shopkeepers, or people who worked with their hands) and to ensure money remained within the family. As a result, many people of this lifestyle were nonchalant about marriage; it was something they knew would happen.

The Genetic Strand is more interesting in parts than as a whole. The starting point is great, but the structure is confusing, and the science is suspect. Fortunately, the family and social history carries interest through to the end, even if they work better as self-contained pieces rather than as an overall narrative.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

They Live

How can a corporate executive be so greedy that he would loot his company, drive it into bankruptcy, leave his workers unemployed, ask the government for a bailout, and then give himself a bonus? Maybe he's not human. Maybe none of those corporate types are.

For a low-budget sci-fi companion piece to Oliver Stone's Wall Street, I give you John Carpenter's They Live. Gordon Gekko may be a metaphorical wolf in a business suit, but the rich in They Live are literally aliens, intergalactic free-marketers who have taken control of every nation and transformed the earth into a Third World planet. The aliens have lulled humanity into submission by altering their state of consciousness into something resembling sleep. Most people are blind to the truth. They don't question how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

At its heart, They Live is classic Carpenter anti-authority. It's a glorious celebration of giving the finger to the government, big business, police, and the media, any entity out to screw people and exploit them. Ultimately, it is the individual, resisting the efforts to be brainwashed and bribed, who defies the system and brings it down. This provides for good macho action, but there is a sense of disappointment because Carpenter keeps the movie at B-level ambitions when he really could have gone for something bigger.

John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a drifter, taking whatever job he can to get by. In Los Angeles, he winds up in Justiceville, a shantytown near a church, and gets a job at a construction site with Frank (Keith David). After noticing strange behavior on the part of several people, including camp leader Gilbert (Peter Jason), and the destruction of Justiceville by the police, Nada finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal a shocking reality. Aliens walk among us, subliminal messages are printed everywhere with phrases such as "Obey," "Marry and Reproduce," "Consume," and, on money, "This is your God." After getting Frank to go along, Nada falls in with a resistance group that plans to destroy the TV signal that constructs the false reality.

While not as deep as it could have been, the satire is good. The aliens use the media to breed apathy, greed, vanity, and complacency in people, and pay off people in power. Coming from the same decade that gave us the mantra "Greed...is good," that is eerily plausible. Carpenter said in an interview he wrote the movie because he was fed up with how everything is designed to sell something. Consume, consume, be happy, and forget about the lost jobs, crumbling infrastructure, and the consolidation of power in the hands of the few. If anything, that trend has only escalated since the film came out. At one point, Frank, a former steel worker from Detroit, says he took a pay cut to help his company out, but the executives gave themselves a pay raise before shutting down. Golden parachutes, anyone?

There is also anarchistic glee in watching "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, wearing sunglasses, holding a shotgun, and standing in front of the American flag, declare, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." Then, he blows aliens away left and right. Similarly, you couldn't find any more testosterone if you tried in the infamous six-minute fistfight between Nada and Frank; it's not well choreographed or objectively good, but there is perverse enjoyment in seeing these guys beating the holy crap out of each other.

Which I think is part of the problem. The scene where Nada dons the glasses and unmasks reality is an incredible sci fi moment. Through the glasses, the world is black-and-white, colorful advertisements and magazines have been replaced by simple text with the above commands, and the aliens move about unnoticed. No music is played, and Piper really sells the shock and awe. Then, he begins to mouth off (very funny, I must add) at the more dignified looking aliens (well, they're in suits and gowns. The creature design is goofy) before shooting several of them, and that's when we realize Carpenter has created this intriguing world but done little more than film an action movie in it.

Many questions are never answered. How did the aliens take over and when? What is there plan beyond make money? Where do they come from? How could someone with this knowledge function in this society? Why are there aliens as cops and soldiers if they're here to use us for labor? How does the resistance group operate? Why do the aliens bring in some humans but not others? What is the alien society like beyond the ultimate capitalist system? How much of the world is controlled? The answers are disappointingly vague.

Other plot points are dopey. The alien signal controlling the whole world is one satellite dish in Los Angeles. The subplot involving a potential love interest (Meg Foster) is handled poorly. She's introduced about half-way through, and it's obvious she's only there to betray our heroes. That Nada falls for it only makes him look dopey, and Foster's performance is rather stilted, so you know something's off. Also, there is another homeless guy (George "Buck" Flower, the guy who always played the drunk homeless guy in every 80's movie that called for a drunk homeless guy) who shows up at the end having been recruited into the alien fold. I can understand bribing government and business leaders, but what does this guy bring of value to the aliens? My guess, an excuse to see George "Buck" Flower in a tux.

There is another point, that's not really a complaint so much as an observation. One of the resistance people is a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) who acts like a prophet and voice of truth in the movie. That's a curious decision on the part of Carpenter, an admitted atheist who has taken shots at religion in other movies (The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Vampires). This preacher values the working class (he knows Nada is human by feeling his hands), and perhaps Carpenter blasts the hypocrisy of organized religion in his other movies, but here, the church is working directly for the needs of the people.

They Live is a fun movie when it could have been a great movie. The first half is intriguing sci-fi satire that holds relevant parallels to today's environment, but that gives way for shootouts, one-liners, and muscle. It has a great rebellious streak to it, and the style is all Carpenter. While not all it could have been, it's not hard to see why many consider this to be the last great Carpenter film.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Serpent and the Rainbow

George Romero famously stated Night of the Living Dead is about revolution. The zombies represented a new society literally devouring the old one. Wes Craven has taken the concept of zombies and revolution back to their Voodoo roots in 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to Haiti to identify and retrieve a powder believed to be used for creating zombies. Here, zombies are not lurching corpses with a hunger for flesh but people who have been so drugged, their vital signs are undetectable, and after they are buried alive, brain damage leaves them to susceptible to claims they are the walking dead. A pharmaceutical company believes the drug can be used an anesthetic. Once in Haiti, Alan teams with a local doctor (Cathy Tyson) and runs afoul of the corrupt government's secret police and its chief, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), a Voodoo practitioner who administers the zombie powder to anyone posing a threat to the regime.

You can't believe what you see is real; lurking beneath the illusion is a real danger. That's a common theme throughout Wes Craven's work whether it's the nightmares of Freddy Kruger, the upper class landlords imprisoning cannibals in The People Under the Stairs, the horror fans who take their love of scary movies too far in Scream, and in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Inspired by the non-fiction book by Wade Davis (and much altered to make it a genre piece), the movie concerns the traditional Voodoo zombie, the battle between science and fantasy, and the breakdown of reality. Pullman stumbles onto an organization in which magic is no trick and beneath what he thinks is a hoax is something genuinely terrifying. This point is illustrated in an early at the night club of Lucien (Paul Winfield) when a man under the influence of Peytraud and attacks the doctor; the tourists applaud thinking its part of the act.

The Serpent and the Rainbow contains several striking nightmare visuals: a zombie bride, burning boat, walls closing down to coffin size, hands dragging Pullman into the ground. Admittedly, some parts go over-the-top, such as one individual yanking his own head off, and the villain starts acting in the climax more like a Freddy-like bogeyman than an authoritarian official. However, these contrast nicely with the "real" events, which are more low-key and less fantastical: someone coughing up a scorpion, the powder being blown in Pullman's face (after spending the whole movie building up this drug's effects, this scene is a great set piece), and waking up to find a dead body next to you. We also get the run of totalitarian enforcement methods : interrogation, torture, dungeons, secret police, intimidation.

What Craven succeeds at doing is combining the threat of the corrupt state with the terror of the unknown. It's not enough this secret police will arrest and torture you; they'll steal your soul. The first victim we see is a school teacher named Cristophe (Conrad Roberts), whom we're told spoke of freedom but otherwise lived a quiet life. After zombification, he's a symbol of fear, a warning to anyone who might speak out. That threat is coupled with Pullman getting in over his head. He's an arrogant, cynical white man who doesn't realize the danger he's in and just keeps getting in deeper and deeper until he's literally buried alive.

This hearkens back to the old Hollywood Voodoo zombie movies, such as White Zombie. In that, Bela Lugosi kept an army of zombies as slaves on his Caribbean island, a reflection of European exploitation of the local populations of the Western Hemisphere. In Serpent, it's American exploitation: corporate greed sees a chance for a new product it can market all over the world, ignoring the thousands of years of tradition and belief it's intruding upon. In this postcolonial age, the world's superpowers can no longer enslave the Third World, but they can leave the countries in ruins for dictators to assume control of and then make money of that arrangement.

Much of the movie was shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and incorporated actual footage of Voodoo ceremonies, including eating ashes and chewing glass, and at times, it feels like we're watching a documentary. We see a wedding, pilgrimage, and candlelit vigil that paint a more complete picture of Voodoo than we normally in movies. Craven's movies often work on multiple layers, and that's the case in The Serpent and the Rainbow, which proves to be one of his deepest works. Not only does it work in mind-bending, rubber-reality horror, it adds a backdrop of political oppression and descent into the unknown. The idea of a corrupt government turning its own citizens into zombies is not only frightening, it's eerily plausible.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Woodsman

The title comes from Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def) about one hour into the movie. He tells convicted pedophile Walter (Kevin Bacon) about the woodsman character from Little Red Hood who cuts the girl out of the wolf's belly completely unharmed. Then, he tells him about a seven-year-old girl who was raped and mutilated by a felon he placed on death row. Even twenty-year veterans broke down in tears when they found the body. There are no woodsmen in the real world, he says. "I don't why they let freaks like you on the streets," he tells him. "We just have to catch you again."

That exchange embodies the central conflict The Woodsman (2004), a moving, difficult, and challenging film directed by Nicole Kassell and produced by Lee Daniels. After spending twelve years in prison for molesting young girls, Walter has been paroled into a society that is hostile toward him. Even with a job in a lumberyard and a new girlfriend (Kyra Sedgwick), Walter struggles to re-adapt and fight his demons. Although he wants to heal, Walter becomes increasingly isolated and afraid he will return to his past deeds.

I really don't know what I can say about the movie except it never feels exploitative, cheap, or manipulative. It doesn't condone Walter's crimes nor does approve of his behavior, but instead, it examines and understands him. What he did was wrong, and he must live with that for the rest of his life, but Walter is not painted as a monster or a caricature. He wants to heal but struggles every day as his self confidence erodes. When others learn the truth of his past, they understandably are horrified and angered, and many want nothing to do with him.

The movie provides several unsettling sequences when it appears Walter is slipping back into his old ways. It's nerve-wracking to see him following a girl through the wall or approach a girl (in a red coat no less) alone in a park because you're scared for the potential victims and hoping Walter can resist his impulses. There's no dark alleys, violence, or creepy music, but these scenes are effective.

Kevin Bacon gives one of the best performances of his career playing a dark character. One review stated it could have destroyed his career, but his willingness provides a complicated character: tormented, guilt ridden, shamed, angry at himself, angry at society, tempted, resentful, lonely. This performance required courage. Sedgwick is also good as the tough, no-bull woman who loves this man but is disturbed by history. Mos Def is surprisingly solid in a dramatic part; I'm used to seeing him a wise-cracking sidekick in action fare such as The Italian Job remake, but he's serious here. David Alan Grier, Eve, Benjamin Bratt, and Michael Shannon also do well in supporting roles as they various people Walter interacts with.

If there are no woodsmen to save the day and restore order, then you could say there are no single-minded wolves either. Walter is a pedophile who did something monstrous and unforgivable, but he himself is not a monster. Every day, he struggles to fit in with the world, atone for his past, and improve himself. That is the conflict at the heart of the movie, and while it is difficult subject matter, the film is intelligent, honest, and thoughtful.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tetro

Tetro (2009) is unique because it's one movie I went into having next to no knowledge of what to expect. With a given movie, I usually read several reviews and plot descriptions before deciding whether to invest my time, but I watched Tetro because it is only the second movie this millennium directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the genius behind the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (he also made Godfather III and Jack, so I did have reservations).

Except for a few flashbacks, Tetro is filmed in black-and-white, and I can't imagine any other format. There are a lot of shadows cast on the walls and over the actors. Some shots are completely black except for a small sliver of face or faces. A heavy melancholy hangs around these characters, and much of the story involves family legacies and histories and living in the shadow of a more accomplished father.

Living in Buenos Aires, failed writer Tetro (Vincent Gallo) has cut himself off from his family and past, mainly his famous composer father, and he is angered when his much younger half-brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) shows up at the door in the middle of the night to stay for a few days, although Tetro's lover Miranda (Maribel Verdu) is pleased she can finally learn what he refuses to discuss. Bennie has always hero-worshiped Tetro and dreamed of becoming a writer too, and he is crushed to find Tetro a wreck. He always kept the letter Tetro left him promising to return for him. In the apartment, Bennie finds a hidden manuscript of Tetro's writing and begins to understand Tetro's guilt and resentment toward their family.

I really can't say much more. There's not much of a plot so much as its character revelation and interaction. You could say nothing happens, and you can say everything happens. Feelings are hurt, secrets divulged, lives reassessed, and the past resurrected. It can be melodramatic at times, especially when Coppola includes theatrical performances and operatic dances, and while those can be distracting at times, they're beautifully photographed. We learn more about the characters as the film progresses, and they never fail to compel. All the actors are all quite good.

Coppola does lose way in the last twenty minutes as more characters are brought in, events become hectic and confused, a festival and play occur, and a bombshell of a secret is dropped. I won't spoil it, but instead of blowing my mind, it raised questions as to how it worked. And as I said before, the singing and dancing material can distract at times; I much preferred the quieter character moments when the scope and locations were limited. But none of that detracts from the excellence of the first 100 minutes.

While it's no Godfather, Tetro proves Coppola still has it after all these years.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Freaked

Most stupid comedies are stupid because the filmmakers are too lazy to mine for laughs beyond the obvious, but Freaked (1993) is one of the few stupid comedies I can think of that's stupid by design. How else can you explain the presence of Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, Bobcat Goldthwait as a sock puppet, giant Rastafarian eyeballs with machine guns, a subtitled Shakespeare performance for the "culturally illiterate," and other assorted weirdness?

I suppose I just provided the litmus test for whether you'll find this movie hysterical (as I did) or vulgar and stupid.

Freaked could be subtitled "Look what happened to Bill from Bill and Ted." Not only does Alex Winter star, he co-directed (with Tom Stern) and co-wrote (with Stern and Tim Burns). What began as a low-budget horror film set to star the band the Butthole Surfers somehow evolved during production into a $15 million comedy with some of Hollywood's best special effects makeup artists at the time creating an array of mutants and weirdos.

Winter plays Ricky Coogin, a vain and spoiled former child star who has just agreed to be a spokesperson for the Everything Except Shoes (EES) corporation's toxic fertilizer Zygrot-24. Coogin flies with his sexist buddy Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) to South America to promote the product, and along the way, he ditches a troll of a fan, Stuey Gluck (Alex Zuckerman), and gets the hots for environmental protester Julie (Megan Ward). Soon, Ricky, Ernie, and Julie wind up on the property of Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid), a redneck mad scientist who exhibits a freak show in the jungle. Using Zygrot-24, he mutates the three: Julie and Ernie into Siamese twins and Rick into a half-gremlin. With fellow freaks Ortiz the Dawg Boy, the Human Worm, Sockhead, and more, Rick and his friends must figure out a way to escape Skuggs.

Okay, the plot is thin, and the movie is barely eighty minutes. What story there is mostly exists for Winter and Stern to take pot shots at anyone and everyone: Hollywood, corporate bigwigs, environmentalists, children, talk shows, game shows, rednecks, feminists, chauvinists, scientists, airlines, South America, Mr. T, the French, Bob Villa, the Weekly World News, and that's all I can think of. Stern and Winter maintain an aggressive, in-your-face streak through the entire film, and no one is safe from their gaze.

One of the joys of Freaked is watching how far these guys can take a joke. Right when you think you've reached the punchline, something new happens to escalate the scene. Developments come out of nowhere, and before you know it, the movie has moved on, throwing ten more jokes your way. What separates this from such fare as Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans is the fast and furious pace. So much happens in a short time, the bad jokes aren't allowed the opportunity to fester. Compare that to a lame SNL skit which drags on and repeats itself.

Stern and Winter also poke fun at cinematic conventions. Every so-called dramatic moment is accompanied by an over-the-top zoom in and close up with the camera. After locking the main trio in his lab, Skuggs gives an evil laugh only for it to be revealed he's reading the "Family Circus" in the newspaper comics. And I won't say anything about the flashbacks of the freaks explaining how they were mutated except I can't verbalize it. It's something that can only be visual. It's so stupid, you're thinking "They're not going to...yes, they are."

I better stop before I reveal all the jokes. Freaked isn't what I would call a good movie, but it's wildly inventive and unafraid. It's vulgar, stupid, over-the-top, and unrelenting. It's not the kind of movie to watch alone. It must be watched with a group of friends. There are so many jokes flying everywhere, it's impossible to catch them all. Some parts fall flat, but man, what an effort.

(And yes, I included this picture on the left to prove Mr. T indeed wears a dress.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Looking back on a lot of Hollywood Westerns, it's very obvious how artificial and staged they are. Everything feels a little too neat, a little too clean, a little too clear cut. That's not to say there haven't been some fine movies from that genre, but too many boil down to good guys in white hats in a showdown with bad guys in black hats. Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) not only sidesteps the common cliches and stereotypes that plagued so many Westerns, it's one of the few to feel like you've actually been transported to this period of time. It's not just cowboys and shootouts.

John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler who arrives in the Pacific Northwest town of Presbyterian Church at the beginning of the twentieth century, and after a winning big in a game of cards, he sets out to build a saloon and brothel. His efforts attract the attention of Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an experienced madame and prostitute. She proposes to McCabe a partnership; he provides the capital, and she runs the business. After all, he know nothing about managing women or even a business. Soon, the business is thriving, but McCabe's refusal to sell the property to a mining company interested in developing the land brings about dire consequences.

Most Westerns are set in a wide-open prairie or desert, but Presbyterian Church rests in snow-covered mountains where it is always cold and wet. If Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns can be described as hot and gritty (think of the flies landing on Eli Wallach's face in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), then McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be described as cold and grimy. Steam engines plow through piles of snow, and the sun is rarely seen. This dreary location augments the slow downward spiral of McCabe, the perennial loner who says he moved out west to get away from partners, and his doomed relationship with Mrs. Miller.

Mrs. Miller is clearly the smarter and more business savvy of the two while McCabe is a fool and blowhard. Her plan involves bringing top-class women from San Francisco and making the place fancy and respectable. His idea is to give the women nicknames: "2-for-1 Lilly" and "Almighty Alma." Even though they have different business philosophies and levels of intelligence, there exists an attraction between the two, and although they get involved, he still has to pay her top dollar for the service ($5). But once he refuses the mining company offer, she knows he's a doomed man, and she can't get closer to him. When the pivotal confrontation occurs, she's not by his side but in a Chinese opium den on the other side of town.

McCabe's refusal leads the company to bring in Butler (Hugh Millais), a brutish gunfighter who kills men that don't sell out. The final cat-and-mouse between McCabe and Butler's gang through the empty town with snow blanketing the ground is at once haunting, beautiful, and tense. I also can't discuss the movie without mentioning the music of Leonard Cohen, whose songs appear throughout the soundtrack and perfectly compliment the loneliness and ruggedness of the Pacific Northwest.

I did have some issues. Like in MASH, Altman uses overlapping dialogue and doesn't bother with the traditional methods of introducing characters and establishing their roles, but instead, he dives right into their personalities. So it can be confusing through the first viewing trying to remember everyone, but that can resolved with repeated viewings. The same cannot be said of some nighttime exteriors, which are so under lit, it's almost impossible to discern what's happening or even who's on screen. I only hope that was a problem with my DVD or TV and not the movie itself.

Those looking for a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western should be warned. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not a traditional cowboy movie but rather one built on total immersion into the historical lives of these people. While there are two shootouts, they are not action scenes; they are laments. Out of all the Westerns I've seen, this one feels the most real.