Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Eating the Dinosaur

I saw on YouTube this interview with director Terry Gilliam from around the time his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas had come out. When asked if he had been familiar with the book before getting involved with the making of the movie, Gilliam said yes and his reaction had been something along the lines "Wow! Finally someone is saying what I'm feeling!" I had a very similar reaction to reading Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur (2009), although I highly doubt I'll be able to turn it into a movie in twenty-some odd years.

Eating the Dinosaur is a collection of essays covering a variety of modern topics, mostly through the filter of pop culture and entertainment. Through examples about ABBA, Mad Men, the NFL, Rear Window, Nirvana, Pepsi, Garth Brooks, AC/DC, Ralph Sampson, Weezer, time travel, and more, Klosterman examines what it means to experience life in today's age of hyper-soaked, hyper-speed media and ironic detachment. While there's no overarching narrative connecting the essays, I wouldn't call it stream-of-conscious; I detect careful, point-by-point analysis and consideration on Klosterman's part.

The way Klosterman weaves all these different entertainment icons into his essays is most impressive. Just by examining, for a example, a band, its reputation, its output, its legacy, and everything that falls within its sphere of influence so to speak, Klosterman finds or reveals rather profound ways of looking at life or at least people choose to view it.

I'm trying to remember how I first heard of this book. A while back, I found a piece of paper in a bag of mine with the title written on it (in my handwriting), and when I went to Borders just before it shut down, I found this on a special markdown price. Now that I've read the book, I believe it must have been in a journalism class in which we might have discussed the first chapter. Klosterman opens the book asking why people answer questions and agree to be interviewed. As a reporter myself, I responded this section greatly; it's what I do for a living: ask questions. Why do people answer questions from a stranger about themselves? To have their stories told; it's the only way people are granted access to another's mind.

Eating the Dinosaur is humorous but not with its deeper, more thoughtful to it. If anyone were to ask me, I'd say this book is the most accurate and entertaining exploration of the collective American psyche today. It's meant to be read and thought about.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Off the Rails

Rudy Sarzo is certainly one of heavy metal's most prolific bassists, and he's got an interesting story. Born in Cuba, he and his family fled when he was a child after Castro took power, starting life anew in Miami, including Americanizing his name in school. After seeing the Beatles on television, he was bitten by the Rock N Roll bug, and after playing in a lounge act in New Jersey with his brother and clubs in Florida, he left for L.A. a, sleeping on borrowed floor space and eventually finding a spot with the early Quiet Riot. Eventually, he played with such acts as Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Blue Oyster Cult, Whitesnake, and Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force. This is a musician who has paid his dues.

Off the Rails: Aboard the Crazy Train in the Blizzard of Ozz (2008) is Sarzo's account of his time touring with Ozzy's band from March 1981 to September 1982 in support of Ozzy's first solo records: Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. The book covers everything from Sarzo's first phone call from Ozzy's manager Sharon Arden (later Sharon Osbourne), his friendship with guitarist Randy Rhoads (who recommended Sarzo), the hectic touring schedule, anecdotes with other rockers such as Motörhead, Ozzy's rampant drug and alcohol abuse, the tragic death of Rhoads and others in a plane crash to Sarzo calling Sharon to inform her of his decision to quit to rejoin Quiet Riot. In between, Sarzo recounts some personal history, including how he met his wife Rebecca and his spiritual convictions.

Given Sarzo's own personal story, he makes the curious decision to be a supporting character in his own narration. Sarzo gives his account of the out-of-control circus act that was the tour and insight into both Ozzy and Rhoads. Ozzy seemingly has the reputation as a demonic, blood-drinking corrupter of the innocent, the godfather of heavy metal, and the goofy,confused burnout of reality television; what Sarzo does is give us the man behind all that. We get stories about Ozzy's pranks and antics in hotels (never leave your shoes out if he's in town), his battles with depression and addiction, the genuine anguish he felt over Rhoads' death, the fact he's a hypochondriac, his sometimes violent relationship with Sharon, and more. Sarzo has respect and admiration for Sharon, but he knows she's not someone to cross.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Sarzo's memoirs is the humanization of Rhoads, whose senseless death enhanced his reputation to degree. Very little footage of him, in concert or in interviews, exists, and though he was only around in the music industry for a few years, his influence and music remain strong to do this day. Sarzo shows the quiet, kind music teacher Rhoads was, his commitment to his craft by seeking out classical guitar lessons, his girlfriend and mother, and the crazy adventures he gets into. Rhoads is the quintessential guitar god, and here, we go beyond that image. We also learn of some tension that occurred between Ozzy and Rhoads over the recording Black Sabbath songs for a live album. Rhoads thought the band had enough material without having to use songs from Ozzy's former band, and after he finally agreed to it, he announced he would leave the band after one more studio album and tour. The recording never happened, however.

Of course, one can't discuss Randy Rhoads without his discussing his death. Sarzo opens the book with a scene in which Rhoads encourages him to join what would be the doomed flight. He returns to that scene toward the end of the book, giving a chilling description of the incident itself and the aftermath. In a sad passage, Sarzo, looking for a quiet place, goes into a church that is empty except for one other person near the front. Only when that person begins crying out and weeping does Sarzo realize it's Ozzy. Sarzo asserts the pilot, the tour's bus driver, deliberately tried to crash the plane into the bus to kill his wife, who was with them on tour, but Sarzo believes Rhoads diverted the plane enough to save everyone else. Also claimed in the crash was Rachel Youngblood, the band's hairdresser, and we learn more about her in the book than anywhere else.

There's more to the book than the inside scoop on Ozzy and Rhoads. For music fans, Sarzo describes the demanding logistics that go into a heavy metal tour: costumes, sets, rehearsals, travel, acoustics, and set up. It never gets too technical; it's always interesting. Sarzo also got into his fair amount of hijinks. Once, after passing out naked on the floor of the tour bus, he finds out the next morning what he thought he had dreamed - sitting naked among a group of women and the band - actually happened. In Germany, the band goes to a club where the beautiful, topless women are revealed at the show's climax to be men. Sarzo also refers to critics' reviews of the different shows, many of which refer to him as Bob Daisley, the bass player he replaced.

Off the Rails is probably the best first-person account from a rock star I've ever read. It's insightful, poignant, funny, descriptive, and focused. It's a valuable account about one of music's biggest stars, one of its saddest losses, and everything in between.

Monday, December 26, 2011

L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997) is the story of three Los Angles cops. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a technical adviser for the TV cop show "Badge of Honor" and has a nice shared-information arrangement with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the publisher of "Hush-Hush," a tabloid magazine. They exchange information and money about drug busts that Vincennes oversees and Hudgens has exclusive coverage of. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a gruff, violent officer who beats down suspects, particularly those who harm women. He does whatever it takes. Then there's Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), an honest cop out to exceed the legacy of his father, an inspector cut down in the line of duty. Exley is by-the-books but not above politicking for advancement and testifying against other officers after an incident known as "Bloody Christmas," in which officers brutalized handcuffed suspects, wound up as front page news.

All three officers gradually get pulled into an investigation after a series of seemingly disconnected events and circumstances: the slaughter of a diner full of people including White's ex-partner whom Exley got fired, the arrests of three black youths suspected of the crime, a high-society pimp (David Strathairn) whose prostitutes undergo plastic surgery to look like Hollywood celebrities, a prostitute (Kim Basinger in an Oscar-winning role) White falls in love with, blackmailed politicians, the sordid history of the LAPD and its captain (James Cromwell) and drug dealing. All this is against the back drop of a high-profile crime boss's arrest and the ensuing power vacuum.

Image is everything. You cannot believe everything you see or read in a newspaper. That is the world in which L.A. Confidential is set. The film opens with narration from Hudgens who describes Los Angeles the way the public sees it: peaceful, with plentiful jobs and cheap land, the place to raise a family, and where dreams come true. "That's what they tell you, anyway," Hudgens sneers.

Los Angeles, in the film, is shady, a den of opportunistic criminals, corrupt cops, shameless politicians and journalists, drug smugglers, pornographers, abusive husbands, and more. The police have a huge PR effort about being new, improved, and modern, but they are presented as either corrupt, violent, scheming, or ineffective. When one of their own commits a crime, instead of serving the public, the officers close ranks and protect their own. The media, as represented by Hudgens, is not independent nor interested in finding the truth, serving the public good, or minimizing harm; it cares more juicy scandals, destroying lives and careers, and is in bed with the very institutions it's supposed to be the watchdog of. Even the prostitutes are fake. That's not a Hollywood starlet; it's a woman who underwent extensive surgery to look like one. "A whore cut up to look like Lana Turner is still a whore," Exley says at point, not realizing he actually is speaking to Lana Turner. The line between what's real and what's fake is constantly blurred.

The great joy of L.A. Confidential is watching how it's complicated and multi-layered narrative unfolds and intertwines. It's one of those you can enjoy watching again and again to see how all the pieces fit. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, the early events hardly seem connected at first, but only as the plot unfolds do you realize how all the plot threads are pulled together. There are a number of twists and surprises. Director Curtis Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland (adapting a James Ellroy novel) keep things moving and the audience guessing. More importantly, they know how to build the plot on their characters and how they act. Finding out how the characters will respond to the latest developments becomes more interesting than the developments themselves. Greatly helping is a first-rate cast from top to bottom.

On all fronts, L.A. Confidential is a winner. The script is strong, the performances stellar, and the direction suspenseful and exciting. The story is complicated, but my recommendation is simple: see it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Killer's Kiss

As director Stanley Kubrick's second feature-length film, Killer's Kiss (1955) is interesting for fans of the filmmaker who want to see his raw talent and to compare how it would later flourish and evolve. Beyond that, there's little to recommend about this straightforward and rather flat example of film noir. Even at 67 minutes in length, the film drags and feels padded.

Prizefighter Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is clobbered in a fight and planning to move out of the city when he saves his neighbor Gloria (Irene Kane) as she's attacked by her lover and boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera). Gloria is a private dancer, and Vincent is very possessive and unhinged when she tries to leave him. Davey falls in love with Gloria, and the two are about to leave when Vincent's goons murder Davey's manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett), and Davey is the prime suspect.

Kubrick was always keen on dehumanization, whether it be the cynical generals of Paths of Glory throwing away the lives of their men, the brutality of boot camp in Full Metal Jacket, or the desensitized dystopia of A Clockwork Orange creating amoral punks, and you can see early hints of that theme here. Davey is a prize fighter, an intense and physical occupation; his worth is measured by how violent he can be in the ring, and his weakness, his glass jaw, keeps him from being able to take the punishment the job requires. Gloria, a private dancer, could be called a prostitute (the film is vague on this point. I'm not sure if this is Kubrick's intent or pressure from the ratings board). She is a commodity, rented out by her boss to other men to "dance" with.

Unfortunately, dehumanization feels less like a theme of Kubrick's here than it does a failure to create compelling characters. The three central characters - Davey, Gloria, and Vincent - are not interesting and are barely drawn. The movie is lacking someone, anyone, to really invest in. The lovebirds are bland while Vincent is a weak, uninteresting villain. Kurbrick's next several works would contain a number of standout characters backed by some excellent actors, but there's not much here. Sterling Hayden's ringleader in The Killing is the type of edge this movie is missing.

The plot too feels disappointingly straightforward, especially coming from Kubrick. As typical of the filmmaker's early work, it is short and economical in style, but there's a difference between a taut narrative and a barely sketched scenario. Killer's Kiss feels like the latter. It sets up a situation and plays it out with no twists, surprises, or much exploration or elaboration. For example, we never learn much about Vincent's criminal operations, how big they are, or if he's a part of any other syndicate. He just uses two guys to go after Gloria and Davey and comes off as disappointingly small-time to be threatening.

The film is not even 70 minutes long, but it has scenes that go nowhere and has unnecessary narration from Davey. The boxing match is impressive from a filmmaking standpoint: intense, visceral, and claustrophobic, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the plot. When Gloria goes on a long-winded explanation of her family background, it's accompanied by footage of a ballet dancer that just goes on and on.

I don't mean to beat up on the film, but with someone like Kubrick directing, I expect something better, even if it is an earlier work. The movie shows traces of the style he would later fully develop, but Killer's Kiss just spins its wheels. For a low-budget, early work, it is impressive, but I've been spoiled by Kubrick's later masterpieces.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

The question for any executioner must be how do they look into the eyes of someone whose life they're about to take and not have it affect you in some way. Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall), over the course of his career, gazed into the eyes of hundreds of doomed souls and managed it by keeping a professional distance.

"When I walk through that door, I leave Albert Pierrepoint behind," he says. He tries to keep his work separate from the rest of his life. The business of hanging criminals for the British government is a job, a duty to be done, a task that requires professionalism. "We don't hurt them. Instantly," he says, describing how the executions are conducted.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005) chronicles the life and career of Albert Pierrepoint and how, despite his best efforts, they intersect.

Pierrepoint is widely regarded to have been Britain's most prolific executioner. According to the film (but with conflicting numbers elsewhere), he personally executed 608 people from 1933 until he resigned over a pay dispute in 1955. The son of another executioner, Pierrepiont took pride in his work, not so much the death but his skill in making them quick and relatively painless. Humane and efficient.

Outside his government role, he works as a grocery deliveryman and is happily married and devoted to Annie (Juliet Stevenson). After World War II, he is personally recruited by Field Marshall Montgomery to execute convicted Nazi war criminals. Returning home, people discover who he is and hail him an avenging angel. As the years go on, national sentiment sours on capital punishment, however, and Pierrepoint finds himself more uncomfortable with his job.

Many films that oppose the death use the wrongfully convicted angle. How do we know an innocent man or woman was not put to death? In Pierrepoint, the guilt of the convicted is never really questioned, and Albert says he's not interested in what their crimes were, even when hanging Nazis. Once they're dead, they've paid the price, wiped the slate clean, and deserve a little dignity. The government has given him task to perform, and he's happy to oblige and be the best.

Timothy Spall, a character actor best known for playing slimy, subservient villains in the likes of Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd, absolutely nails the role. He plays Pierrepoint as a quiet, competent man finding himself overwhelmed by the attention his job getsr. In a private jail room, he can do a job and not think about its implications. He focuses on how much rope he'll need. He's proud of being regarded as the best. But once people know who he is, the condemned beg for mercy using his name, mothers of prisoners cry at his feet in the street for their sons' lives, and opponents of capital punishment call him a murderer.

Stevenson is also really good as his wife Annie. Pierrepoint does not want to tell her what he does for a living, but when he does, she already knew. She just wanted to hear it from him. The most emotional moment in the movie occurs toward the end when he breaks down, clutches at her legs, and begs her to tell him he's a good man.

For a movie about executions, it is remarkably restrained. Most deaths are implied with careful framing and quick cut. The impact is illustrated by the faces of Pierrepoint and the other witnesses, those trying to keep their composure and the others showing shock and disgust. The film has a cold and detached look that contrasts nicely with characters' emotional states.

Pierrepoint is curious because it's a death penalty movie that's not really focused on the larger right-or-wrong issue of it (although based on the final text, I'm convinced it's opposed). Instead, it concentrates on the man at the center of it, how he does his job, and how it impacts his life. It's a compelling character study.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Patriot (2000)

Two reported bits of information about The Patriot (2000), a Revolutionary War movie starring Mel Gibson, caught my attention. First, the filmmakers originally considered developing the project as a biopic about Francis Marion, a guerrilla leader in South Carolina who operated against the British in way that earned him the nickname the "Swamp Fox." However, the filmmakers elected to go with a fictional protagonist loosely inspired by him because of the more unsavory aspects of Marion (a slave owner, was part of a brutal campaign against the Cherokee, etc.). Second, Harrison Ford reportedly turned down the movie because he felt the script had reduced the American Revolution to a single man's revenge. That should tell you everything you need to know about The Patriot.

Though exquisitely produced with some solid action and battle scenes as well stunning period costumes and sets, The Patriot is an empty shell. Instead of exploring the dynamics of the Revolution and the fascinating people involved, director Roland Emmerich is content to transplant action movie cliches to the 18th century and pile on the bloodshed. There are some admittedly amusing, though anachronistic, crowd-pleasing moments and laughs along the way, but the movie feels grim. As a result, the movie feels overlong and disjointed.

In 1776, Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a widowed South Carolina farmer with seven children. Revolution is in the air, and though Martin believes in American independence, he is haunted by his experience in the French and Indian War and will not fight. Meanwhile, his idealistic son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army. The war eventually comes to South Carolina, and the Martin family is endangered. After their loved ones are hurt by British soldiers, Martin and Gabriel organize the state militia, applying hit-and-run tactics to harass the enemy and sap their will to fight. Martin earns the nickname "The Ghost" for the ability of he and his men to disappear into the swamps. Opposing them is British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) and Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a nasty cavalry officer who murdered one of Martin's sons.

The best phrase I heard used to describe The Patriot is "button-pushing nonsense." That it's historically inaccurate is a given (what else could we expect from the director of Stargate, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012), but the conflict is simplistically drawn. Martin and the other patriots are such obvious good guys and the British such obvious bad guys, it turns the entire affair into a caricature.

I watched this with a group of friends. Every time there was a scene of the British plotting, we would all raise a glass or can, and one of us would toast, "Gentlemen, to evil." Every cliche about the British being snooty, power-hungry imperialists is exploited. Meanwhile, the patriots are all honest, freedom-loving, down-to-earth types who know what it means to work. Martin is such a pacifist, that he's only pushed to fight after his home is burned down and son shot. The British up the ante by killing children (off-screen) and burning down churches filled with people. Atrocities occurred in the war; I'm not disputing that, but I dispute that it was all committed by the British because they were embarrassed by "farmers with pitchforks." It's laughable and can't be taken seriously, but in the context I alluded to above, it can be outrageously entertaining.

One aspect that is not whitewashed is the deaths. Death in combat, particularly in this time, is a brutal, painful, and terrifying affair. Ever wonder why Stormtroopers wear helmets? Because if we saw how scared and hurt they were as they were killed, we might not be inclined to cheer when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo blast them. Here, we see the young faces of soldiers on both sides as they are wounded and mutilated. It's not for the squeamish. As a result, while the action is exciting in its own right, it's not the type of thing you cheer as we would in a more traditional revenge picture. This drains the fun from the action.

Overall, The Patriot is a disappointment. It's a simple-minded revenge movie with Braveheart levels of gore set in colonial America, and the Revolutionary War remains a disappointingly untapped source material for film. The real story of the conflict and the people on both sides is much more complicated and interesting than this movie ever hoped to achieve.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dead Again

Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but when reincarnation is at play, can it be helped? Directed by star Kenneth Branagh, Dead Again (1991) is the story of true love reuniting decades after the death of the lovers and questioning whether the tragedy that doomed them will befall the current incarnation.

L.A. detective Mike Church (Branagh) takes on the case of an amnesic woman (Emma Thompson), who is plagued by nightmares of a Hollywood romance that ended in murder. In the late 40s, German composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) was executed for the murder of his pianist wife Margaret (Thompson). Somehow, the amnesic, who Mike begins calling Grace, is connected to the notorious, and before long, the detective and his client are romantically involved. They visit a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi), a disgraced psychiatrist (Robin Williams), and a reporter friend of Mike's (Wayne Knight) to piece the answers together because Grace might be in danger. Apparently, Mike and Grace are the reincarnations of Roman and Margaret.

Reincarnation is described as a literal spiritual rebirth; the soul is transferred from its body upon death or sometime afterward into another vessel. In that sense, it is only fitting Branagh invokes the spirits of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, among others, for this really old-fashioned detective and romance story. Half the film consists of flashbacks back to the tragic marriage of Roman and Margaret, and these segments are filmed like a Hollywood film noir straight out of the 1940s. Branagh uses deep shadows, skewed camera angles, troubled psyches, shady characters, and similar techniques to suggest a dark, mysterious world. To tell his story about the past coming to reek havoc in the present, Branagh uses a filmaking style of the past.

Branagh also filter the proceedings through a coy sense of humor. The character the detective encounters are not the usual array of disturbed psychos and low-lifes (though, to a degree, they are). The supporting cast is more shifty than dirty. The romance between Mike and Grace could almost play out in a romantic comedy in another set of circumstances, and there is one scene in which our heroic detective hilariously gets his ass handed to him. In the 90s, the traditional trappings of film noir are given a modern, ironic makeover.

Unfortunately, Branagh incorporates the styles of Welles and Hitchckock, but he never really turns the screws or develops much tension the way they did. While the plot has plenty of twists, it's never edge-of your-seat nor darkly psychological. Part of the problem is Branagh's direction. The suspense isn't there; Branagh relies on hyperbole and histrionics to make his point: over-used slow motion, spinning cameras, preposterously posed camera setups, etc. Some subtlety would have been appreciated. The climax in particular comes off as more laughable than thrilling because it is so over-the-top, it approaches camp.

While I was entertained throughout Dead Again and fascinated by the twists the plot took, ultimately I never felt absorbed by it. Instead of a tightly-wound thriller, the film comes off as an overblown melodrama, fun but ultimately shallow. Still for fans of mysteries and romance, it's worth at least one watch.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Big Lebowski

I wonder if there's any point in attempting to review The Big Lebowski (1998). From Joel and Ethan Coen, the film was the brothers' follow-up to their hugely acclaimed Fargo, but it merely came and went through theaters, not gathering much attention. In the 13 years since, it has caught on huge as a cult flick for its quirky characters and bizarre situations. And bowling.

Needless to say, The Big Lebowski is one of those movies endlessly quoted and revived by its fans. Either you're already absorbed by its charm and weirdness, or you've long ago dismissed it. My analysis probably won't sway anyone either way, but it's my blog, so I'm going to write about it.

On the eve of Operation: Desert Storm, as described by our narrator (Sam Elliot), Jeffery "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is likely the laziest man in L.A., a hippie content to smoke pot, drink White Russians, and bowl with friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a Vietnam vet and Polish Catholic Jew, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a meek imbecile who never gets a chance to utter more than a few words. The Dude shares the namesake of another Lebowski, a rich businessman (David Huddleston), and when a couple of thugs for a porno kingpin mistake the Dude for the Big Lebowski, they pee on his rug before realizing their error. Dude seeks retribution for his rug ("It really tied the room together, man."), and soon, he's drawn into a kidnapping scheme involving the millionaire, his trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid), his Bohemian artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), and an assorted collection of weirdos and creeps ranging from a trio of German nihilists (including Peter Stormare and Flea) to a Latino pederast named Jesus (John Turturro).

The best way to describe The Big Lebowski is a cross between a film noir spoof and a screwball comedy as filtered through the sensibilities of the Coens. The Dude is essentially a detective (albeit passive, often quite useless) who pieces together the mystery of what's going on and encounters shady businessmen, crooked cops, underworld crime bosses, and femme fatales. And like a film noir, the plot of The Big Lebowski is quite convoluted and full of twists: kidnappings, ransom, mistaken identity, etc. But whereas most film noirs work to tie everything together at the end with a big revelation, The Big Lebowski's big joke is that ultimately nothing comes together. None of the plot elements have anything to do with each other.

Of course, turning the plot into a big tease isn't enough to make the movie funny. The Coens achieve this by packing the film with an assortment of off-the-wall characters that can only exist in one of their movies, finding the perfect actors to portray them, and placing them in one crazy situation after another. Whether it's when the rug is soiled, the Dude being tortured by the nihilists with a ferret, or Walter attempting to intimidate a kid by smashing up his car, there's never any shortage of entertaining antics.

Then there are hallucinations the Dude experiences when knocked on the head. It what can only be described as surreal, a musical number (playing Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped") occurs in which the Dude encounters Maude as a Valkyre and Saddam Hussein as a bowling alley clerk and is sent rolling through a cosmic bowling lane. Whoa.

Helping immensely is how distinct all the players are. This is a film to savor for its dialogue and mannerisms more than its story. The Dude is so mellow and laid-back, he's easily overwhelmed. Walter is crazed, still obsessed with Vietnam, likely to pull a gun on a fellow bowler for cheating ("This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules." I guess that's the only difference between the two), and always dragging the Dude into deeper trouble with his ideas. Everything between these two is golden; you wouldn't expect a pacifist burnout and an easily-enraged solder to be friendly, much less bowling buddies.

But at its heart, The Big Lebowski is about the reconciliation of the Flower Power generation with the Vietnam veterans due to the death of American innocence. Through a crazy series of escapades and misadventures, the hippy as presented by the Dude and the soldier as represented by Walter find themselves at last able to let go of the past and move on, at the cost of their innocent naivety as represented by Donny. They never appreciate having him until he's gone. (Whenever anyone asks what The Big Lebowski is about, this is what you should tell them.)

Who am I kidding? The Big Lebowski is great entertainment and a perfect cult film. With bizarre characters in strange encounters as only the Coen brothers can deliver, it's hilarious, and that should be enough for people. I find something new to appreciate in it each time I watch it. The Dude abides.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rogues Gallery Roundup

I've spent much of the past three weeks playing on X-Box 360 Batman: Arkham City, and it's occurred to me: is there any hero, super or otherwise, who has a better cast of villains than Batman? Of comic book protagonists, I think only Spider-Man comes close. Superman has Lex Luthor, a personal favorite of mine, but it's hard to invest much tension when the hero has near-invincibility (or as my friend Charley worded it, "Oh no, how is God going to get out of this jam?").

Batman, because he's human, because he's vulnerable, and because the world he lives in is so dark, has a host of great adversaries. What makes them so compelling, I believe, is how they reflect a twisted psychological aspect of Batman, making us appreciate them on their own terms while bettering our understanding of our hero and what makes him tick. Plus, because the villains themselves are a diverse and eclectic bunch, Batman must fight them in a variety of ways, whether hand-to-hand combat, detective work, science, entrapment, or other means.

Joker is the perfect arch-nemesis, a psychotic prankster and perfect opposite to Batman; Batman is serious, a believer in order and justice while Joker is a clown who believes chaos and destruction. His schemes usually involve challenging Batman's moral code and beliefs. Two-Face is another great villain, a tragic figure who once believed good triumphs over evil but now places his faith in the hands of chance (as decided by a flip of a coin); contrarily, Batman - is he Batman or Bruce Wayne, a hero or vigilante, crime-fighter or do his actions escalate crime - believes his actions can make a difference. Mr. Freeze, like Bruce Wayne suffered tragedy, but instead of marshaling his talents to protect others, he was pulled toward vengeance and insanity, his emotions frozen dead inside him. Batman, by virtue of his emotions - his refusal to take a life, his belief in justice, the loss he feels for his parents - elevate him to hero instead of simplifying him a vigilante. I could go on, but the point is Batman's villains - the Riddler, Catwoman, Bane, the Penguin, Ra's Al Ghul, Clayface, etc. - work in their own ways.

The cinematic treatment of Batman and his rogues gallery has been all over the map, some excellent, others not so good. Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson made for very good Jokers with different interpretations. Danny Devito, somewhat overshadowed by the grotesque makeup, made for a sympathetic and nasty Penguin. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, the less said the better.

Director Christopher Nolan is currently concluding his Batman trilogy, which began with 2005's Batman Begins, continued with 2008's The Dark Knight, and will finish with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. The villains have included Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul, Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, Ledger as the Joker, and Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. I liked all four but agree when people say Ledger was the standout with a truly disturbing and warped portrayal. The series will end with Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. I'm optimistic about Hardy (his breakout role in Bronson shows he can play a muscleman prisoner), but I'm cautious about Hatheway (never much of a fan), but overall, I'm excited.

Although Nolan and Batman star Christian Bale said the upcoming film would be their last in the series, we can be certain this won't be the end of the Caped Crusader on the big screen. There's so much potential, and what I'd like to do is offer my own list of the five villains I'd like to see in a Batman movie. What I tried to do pick some of the lesser known characters, the ones we haven't seen on film yet. Joker is great, but as I said, there's so much more to tap into.

1. Black Mask aka Roman Sionis: A sadistic crime boss with a black mask (carved from his father's coffin) burned into his face, Black Mask is obsessed with Bruce Wayne and Batman. Black Mask grew up the son of wealthy industrialists (whose company he inherited after their mysterious deaths in a fire) and resented the social, metaphorical masks they wore in high society to charm people they secretly despised. He bankrupted the family company until it was bought out by Bruce Wayne, whom Black Mask came to hate. While apt with a handgun and hand-to-hand fighting, he's really good at torture and intimidation.
Chances of being in a film: Considering the strong anti-Wall Street sentiment in the country today, high.

2. Killer Croc aka Waylon Jones: An alligator wrestler-turned-criminal, Killer Croc is a massive, incredibly strong brute with a skin condition that resembles the scales of a crocodile, and he has the ability to hold his breath for a long time underwater. He started out as mob enforcer. As time goes on, he becomes more and more animal-like, living in the sewers, sniffing out his enemies, and eating some of them.
Chances of being in a film: Given that doing this character right would endanger any film's PG13 rating and the series is currently more grounded in realism, low.

3. Dr. Hugo Strange: I'll admit it, playing Arkham City has made a fan of Strange. As depicted in the game, he is a ruthless, cunning, Machiavellian manipulator and one of the few villains to discover Batman's secret identity. An insane psychologist who develops a serum that usurps human will, Strange is one of Batman's oldest foes. He's a classic doctor who is crazier than his patients.
Chances of being in a film: He's one of the main villains in one of the biggest video games of recent years, but this type of character has been done elsewhere outside of the Batman franchise, medium.

4. Mr. Freeze aka Victor Fries: I know he was used in Batman and Robin, but let's forget about that abomination. Mr. Freeze is hard to pull off effectively, but when done right, he's one of the most involving characters in comics. A cryogenic scientist who freezes his terminally wife to find a cure, he is mutated by an accident that renders him unable survive outside of subzero temperatures. Driven insane by the transformation and the apparent loss of his wife Nora, he bases his crimes on cold against those he believes responsible. He has a certain degree of Shakespearean tragedy, and Batman feels a certain degree of pity toward him.
Chances of being in a film: The backlash of Arnold's portrayal and the difficulty pulling him off are too much, low.

5. Clayface aka Basil Karlo: There have been a number of Clayfaces over the years, but I prefer Karlo, a horror film actor driven mad when one of his classics is remade with another actor. He has the power to shape shift into any person, but in his standard form, he is a giant, oozing monster. His first appearance was in 1940, predating the horror movie remake craze by 60-some years. He can be the subtle, hidden foe or the rampaging monster.
Chances of being in a film: Again, the concept has been done elsewhere and is not particularly realistic, but it is very versatile, medium.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Platoon

A long time ago, Charlie Sheen was once considered a promising young actor with serious potential. After all, his first starring roles were two of Oliver Stone's most highly acclaimed films, Platoon and Wall Street. Watching Platoon, it's amazing to consider how clean-cut he once was compared to the tabloid creature he's become, but it's probably more impressive to see just how well the movie has held up.

Released in 1986, Platoon was Stone's first masterpiece, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and director and being nominated for a host of others (including best supporting actor for Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). More significantly, it entered American culture as the definitive depiction of ground combat in Vietnam. While there have been a number of films before and since this film about the Vietnam War (many great in their own right), Platoon is widely regarded as the first to show the war on the ground level, at the nitty-gritty, mud-soaked viewpoint. Stone, not one to shy away from political statements and polemic arguments, refrains from making doing so here, content to show us what it was like. The result is one of the greatest films ever made.

In 1968, Private Chris Taylor (Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to serve a tour duty. A middle-class college drop-out who enlisted, he's out out of place with the various members of his unit, most of them working-class poor who were drafted. Life in Vietnam is brutal and miserable, whether in combat or marching through the jungle. After a while, Chris finds himself caught between two sergeants: Barnes (Berenger), a scarred psychotic with no compassion, and Elias (Dafoe), who's trying to hold on to his humanity. After an incident in a village, the platoon becomes divided between the two men and begins to fall apart.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously liked depicting the "worm's eye view" in his articles. Had he survived that war to see Platoon, Pyle might have recognized this approach by Stone. War is no adventure. The marches are long and exhausting, the loads heavy and painful, fire ants crawl on your neck, leaves and brush cut as you walk by, water contains malaria, and there never seems to be any end or goal in mind. Just walk around until the enemy is found.

The combat scenes, while not as gory as Saving Private Ryan and other later war films, are brutal, violent, intense, and chaotic. Instead of showing the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, Stone reveals them in shadows and half-seen glimpses. There's no front line or reserve. Death can come from anywhere. We're reminded of this when one man goes missing and is later found tied up with his throat cut. Meanwhile, booby traps pick their numbers off further. Instead of a band of brothers unified by a common cause, the men of Chris's platoon are scared, angry, drugged-out, confused, and/or divided amongst themselves.

Acting-wise, a lot of other familiar faces turn up in small roles: John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Keith David, Johnny Depp, and Forest Whitaker. There's no weak link. While Sheen is good as the rookie gradually absorbed by the insanity around him, it is Berenger and Dafoe who dominate the screen. Berenger is terrifying, a cold-blooded killer who will do whatever it takes. Dafoe, in a quasi-spiritual role, seeks to protect decency and survive.

Chris is initially drawn to Barnes' straightforward, no-time-for-bull attitude but is eventually converted over to Elias' dignity. In narration, Chris describes himself as being "born of those fathers" who fought for the possession of his soul. Curiously, Stone would transcribe a similar conflict to the corporate business world of Wall Street with the character of Bud Fox (also played by Sheen) torn between the values of his working-class, union father and the riches and excesses of the slick tycoon Gordon Gecko.

Stone himself was a Vietnam vet who dropped out of college to enlist, and this is without a doubt his most personal film. He has no agenda other than to illustrate how he remembers the war. It's also, I feel, his greatest achievement.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Good Burger

The main problem with Good Burger (1997), based off the sketch from the Nickelodeon series All That, isn't the thinness of the story, the cheapness of its production values, or the hypocrisy of a corporate entity such as Nickelodeon to glorify the virtues of a small-town burger joint while vilifying a national chain. No, the biggest problem is its main character, Ed (Kel Mitchell).

Between his fake dreadlocks, grating voice, and idiotic behavior, Ed is one of the most un-endearing, painfully unfunny "wacky" characters I've ever seen in a movie. Everything he does or says is painfully telegraphed to the most moronic of punchlines and slapstick. By the end, I was begging for a movie of more substance and maturity, like the latest Rob Schneider vehicle.

Everything involving Ed is painfully unfunny or horribly contrived. What conclusion would you draw about someone whose idea to fix a milkshake machine is to climb into the milk and ice cream only for someone to tell him it wasn't turned on? Or that he showers with clothes on? Or the first thing he does after being told not to tell anyone the ingredients of his secret, best-selling sauce is begin to tell the ingredients of his secret, best-selling sauce?After all the trouble he causes and the damage that's resulted, Ed is never fired. Ed may be well-meaning, but he's so inept and clumsy, there's no justification why anyone would put up him, let alone his boss. Ed's antics drive customers away, and yet he's the only one at Good Burger apparently that can work the front counter.

Sorry for the rant. On with the plot. Ed is employed by Good Burger, a local burger chain now threatened by the corporate chain Mondo Burger, which opened up across the street and is offering bigger burgers. Meanwhile, Dexter (Kenan Thompson, another All That alumnus and current SNL cast member) has taken a job at Good Burger to pay for the damage of a car crash involving his Blaxploitation teacher, Mr. Wheat (Sinbad!), not realizing Ed caused the accident. Good Burger looks finished, but a new secret sauce developed by Ed catches on.

Even if the rest of the movie was charming, funny, or endearing, Ed would still be a yawning black hole sucking the enjoyment out of anything remotely entertaining, but the rest of the movie is a write-off regardless. There's nothing here that really constitutes a joke. It's all weird, stupid behavior for the most undiscriminating of children to giggle at (and I should know, I saw this in theaters when I was 9 for a birthday party).

There are few things worthy of a smile or chuckle. Kenan Thompson isn't bad playing the straight man to Ed (although why he never strangles him, I'll never know). Sinbad's 70s' behavior and wardrobe is way out of place, but he's amusing on occasion. And the always reliable Abe Vigoda is good as Otis, an elderly Good Burger employee, although I think they missed an opportunity by not implying he's his same character from The Godfather now in hiding from the Corleone family.

I know some people will say this is for kids and that I shouldn't be so hard on it. I say, there's better children's entertainment out there, even from Nickelodeon. Give children some credit. At least Spongebob can competently cook a Krabby patty.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Masters of Horror: The Fair Haired Child

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 9
The Fair Haired Child
Director: William Malone
Notable Films: House on Haunted Hill, FeardotCom, Parasomnia
Director Trademarks Present: Foreboding Atmosphere, Influence of German Expressionism
Plot Summary: Tara (Lindsay Pulshiper), a teenage outcast at school, is kidnapped by Judith (Lori Petty) and Anton (William Samples), a couple mourning the death of their son many years ago. The pair lock her in the basement of their country mansion, along with a mute boy named Johnny (Jessee Haddock). Soon, Tara finds carvings on the walls warning her to "Get Out Before It Wakes Up" and "Beware the Fair Haired Child," and it becomes apparent Judith and Anton selected her to be the final sacrifice in an arcane ritual that will resurrect their son.

It might be dubious to label William Malone a Master of Horror given his track record, but it's hard to deny he crafted one of the better episodes of the first season. While the plot is a little hokey, Malone makes up for it with a creepy, foreboding Gothic atmosphere and a rather unique and effective monster while simultaneously paying tribute to the forefathers of the genre. If nothing else, it's certainly one of the best-looking episodes.

Horrors roots can be traced back to the Silent Era, with such black-and-white masterpieces as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Those filmmakers were free to play in a less realistic. German Expressionism is a visual representation of a character's inner emotional state, and these early classics played that up with deep, dark shadows, slanted camera angles, and production design not entirely reflective of reality to suggest a terrifying , chaotic world. That influence is felt in Fair Haired Child.Malone utilizes a number of stark, black-and-white flashbacks to depcit how Judith and Anton lost their son as well as how they formed a pact with the supernatural being that would restore him to life, at a price. These sequences have the atmosphere of a nightmare, a place in which logic has no place. I really liked the shot of Anton, wearing a birthday hat like a dunce cap, as he appeared to almost stand on water as he passively stood by as his son drowned, unable to swim to his rescue. While they are the "villains" of the piece, the probing of their background, guilt, and desperation generates a fair amount of sympathy.

The narrative unfolds fairly slowly, accumulating dread along the way. The carved messages on the wall really go a long way toward building anticipation for the monster, as do the collection of corpses Tara discovers. When we see the titular creature in motion, it moves in a distorted way that resembles stop-motion animation. Combined with the deep shadows and grungy basement, it's an unsettling effect. Watching it, you do feel like you're trapped down there with Tara.

As I alluded to earlier, the plot is a bit silly (One wonders how easy demonic bargains are given the film's resolution), but story is almost secondary to this type of film. It's about experiencing a dark atmosphere, feeling dread, and finding yourself facing death in the face, unable to get away. Very effective stuff.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 8
Cigarette Burns
Director: John Carpenter
Notable Films: Halloween, The Thing, The Fog
Director Trademarks Present: Apocalyptic, A Medium that Drives People Crazy, Film-Noir Atmosphere, Paranoia, Nihilistic
Plot Summary: Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by the mysterious Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track a print of "La Fin Absolue Du Monde," a movie said to have been screened only once before driving its audience homicidal. Sweetman accepts the job knowing it can save his ailing theater, in debt to his former future father-in-law Walter (Gary Hetherington). Not helping matters is Kirby is a recovered heroin addict, having hooked his girlfriend (Zara Taylor) before her suicide. He begins a global journey, encountering a host of strange and dangerous people who all warn him away and discovering as he gets closer the film really does possess some kind of power.

French auteur Jean- Luc Godard famously said, "Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie." One a character in Cigarette Burns, an aspiring filmmaker who laments the artificiality of Hollywood, has a morbid take on this motto during the making of his snuff film, noting that in one uninterrupted take, the only cut was to his victim. Another character, inspired by "La Fin Absolue De Monde" to make his own movie, literally puts his guts into his work. the reels pulling out his intestines. Film is magic, the movie tells us, but in the right hands, a weapon.

Cigarette Burns is essentially a cinematic retake on Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness, an apocalyptic film about a book that drove people insane. Here, the emphasis is placed on Sweetman's detective work rather than on fantastical, reality-bending powers and creatures from another universe. The result, I think, is something more personal and focused than Mouth of Madness.

What are cigarette burns? Cigarette burns are the little circles that appear in the corner of a film frame to alert a projectionist it's time to change reels. Generally, they are placed at the end of a scene or right after a key emotional moment. Timpson (Christopher Gauthier), one of Kirby's employees, has a habit of removing the cigarette burns from old film prints because they alert the viewers something is about to happen. Without them, Timpson says, it's anarchy because you won't know anything's coming.

Carpenter's episode plays out like a film-noir. We get the dark shadows, the criminal underworld and other assorted weirdos, and an overall sense of nihilism. Our protagonist heads toward his doom as he learns more in a world gone bad. As Sweetman gets closer to La Fin Absolue De Monde, he begins having visions of circles that resemble cigarette burns. Whenever he sees one, something bad happens, and we the audience get a sinking feeling in our stomach.

The film works by accumulating tension and dread at each stop along Sweetman's investigation. Everyone he talks to reveals how they were marked by the film and gives him some new information. For example, a film critic (Chis Britton) who reviewed La Fin after it's only reported screening now lives in a secluded cabin and has spent 30 years writing a new review, saying he failed to warn the world. Later, Sweetman meets the widow (Gwynyth Walsh) of Hans Backovic, the enigmatic filmmaker responsible for the film, and she tells Sweetman how the director's own work destroyed him and almost claimed her. Everything about the episode is ominous.

It probably goes without saying that once La Fine Absolue Da Monde plays in all its glory by episode's end, it's something of a letdown. After all, this is a work we're told may have been produced by Satan and was intended to destroy its audience; could anything live up to that kind of hype? Carpenter does his best to tease and glimpse, but it's much more effective when he portrays how the characters respond to the film.

Acting-wise, Reedus is adequate as Sweetman. No one else is around long enough to make much of an impression except Kier who excels in the creepy foreigner role. He's mysterious, subtly threatening, and quite funny, particularly with how treats the "star" of La Fin Absolue De Monde, a willowy being he keeps chained in his mansion. Kier's reactions toward the film really sell its effect.

Cigarette Burns is a classic return to form for Carpenter. It's bloody, nihilistic, foreboding, and done with a certain degree of class and sophistication. Definitely the standout episode of the season.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Masters of Horror: Deer Woman

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 7
Deer Woman
Director: John Landis
Notable Films: An American Werewolf in London, Animal House, The Blues Brothers
Director Trademarks Present: Comedy-Horror, Modern Characters Confronting Historical Legends, Civilized vs. Nature, Seductive Supernatural Being, Tongue-in-Cheek, In-jokes
Plot Summary: Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) is a burned-out, cynical cop when he is dispatched with Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith) to investigate reports of a mutilated body. Soon other corpses turn up, and they all share two similarities: they died in a state of arousal, according to coroner Dana (Sonja Bennett), and witnesses reported seeing them with a mysterious woman (Cinthia Moura). Eventually, Faraday and Reed stumble on the legend of the Deer Woman, an American Indian creature that takes the form of a beautiful woman, seduces men, and tramples them to death with her deer legs.

John Landis' horror credentials are more or less tied entirely to his 1981 picture An American Werewolf, an entertaining blend of scares and laughs featuring stellar creature effects by special effects makeup wizard Rick Baker. Other than that, his vampire film Innocent Blood (also known as A French Vampire in America) failed to replicate the same success as Werewolf while his other contributions are limited to his debut film Schlock, a low-budget monster piece with a man in a gorilla suit, and his involvement with The Twilight Zone movie, which is overshadowed by off-screen tragedies. The fact is when people think John Landis, they think John Belushi yelling "Toga!," Jake and Elwood Blues on a Mission from God, and Eddie Murphy in his prime.

Still, it would be wrong to say he's incapable of working in the horror genre. Horror and comedy operate on the same underlying principles: buildup and timing. You get the audience invested in what's happening and then spring the joke or shock on them, and their natural reaction is either a laugh or a scream. And both can contain their fair share of gross-out moments.

With all that said, it's safe to say Deer Woman is Landis on familiar territory: a silly monster movie played straight. Landis described Werewolf as movie in which modern character unexpectedly confront supernatural folklore and finding themselves completely unprepared for it. The same M.O. is Deer Woman, but instead of American college students facing a beast on the moors, you have a cynical detective investigating an American Indian myth.

The episode, co-written by Landis and his son Max Landis, plays out as a police procedural with Faraday, essentially the straight man of the story, accumulating evidence depicting something that cannot possible be the explanation. At one point, Faraday complains the case would be easier to consider objectively if it wasn't so stupid. Later, in the movie's comic highlight, he ponders three different scenarios of how the first victim might have been killed, each progressively more ridiculous.

The titular Deer Woman has no background or obvious vendetta for doing what she does. Why she feels the need to seduce and murder men is never explained, but is there any exposition that would suffice? As the manager of Indian Casino tells our heroes, "It's a woman with deer legs. Motive really isn't an issue here." If anything, she's just letting men be men. She never speaks and only smiles vacuously at them. Only when they're not looking does she allow a flash of malevolence show.

Benben is quite good. As the disgraced cop assigned to "weird cases," he's not the typical aggressive cop but more of a bitter wise ass. It's a different take on this police archetype. I particularly like his response to a mugger who says he doesn't look like a cop.

If you're looking for scares, check out other episodes of the series. I wouldn't rank it as one of my favorite episodes, but it is consistently funny and entertaining.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Masters of Horror: Homecoming

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 6
Homecoming
Director: Joe Dante
Notable Films: The Howling, Gremlins, PiranhaDirector Trademarks Present: Stars Robert Picardo, subversive streak, dark comedy, in-jokes, media and political satire
Plot Summary: While on a cable TV news program, David Murch (Jon Tenney), a political adviser and spin doctor for a U.S. president running for re-election in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war, tells the mother of a soldier killed in action that if he could have one wish, he would wish for her son to come back to tell everyone who important the cause he died for was. Before David knows its, dead soldiers are coming back to life all over the country and marching in the streets, but these zombies are not out to eat human flesh; they want to vote out the administration that sent them to die.

Most Masters of Horror used the freedom the show offered to push the envelope in terms of violence and gore. Joe Dante, however, used the opportunity to make a blunt, polemic political statement against the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. There are many words appropriate to describe Homecoming, but subtle is not one of them.

War is hell, but the ugly truth of it - dead soldiers, maimed veterans, countless lives destroyed - is often shielded from public consumption. The movie makes a point of reminding viewers of the former military policy forbidding caskets of servicemen from being photographed. Covering up reality is a theme. The central characters cause a great deal of pain, but they either don't realize it, ignore it, or enjoy it. But truth will not be denied. The rotting visage of a slain soldier, front and center on national TV or ambling down Main Street USA, cannot be cast aside. It must be confronted.

Although the tone of Homecoming is mostly darkly comic and satirical, Dante works in a number of striking images, perhaps none more unsettling than the scene in which the dead first rise. A military hanger is filled with caskets over which American flags drape while a giant flag oversees everything. The shot is slanted; the morality of the world is out of balance. When the zombies rise, the flags fall by the wayside, revealing the lurking horror obscured by blind patriotism.

The satire stems both from how Dante sends up prominent conservatives and explores the concept of the political and media spin for something as outrageous as the dead coming back to life to vote. Bush is never mentioned by name, nor is any prominent conservative figure circa 2005. The president of the United States is not even a present character (although we hear him speak with a Texas drawl). Instead of Ann Coulter, we get Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a "constitutional scholar" and dominatrix who resorts to name-calling on political talk shows and acknowledges what she peddles is bullshit. Karl Rove is Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo); he doesn't let a thing like zombies upset a re-election campaign. Jerry Falwell is Clayton Poole (J.W. Carroll), who calls the returning soldiers blessings by God until he learns they're against the war. Then, they're demons from the bowels of hell. These are not three-dimensional portrayals. These are nasty, cynical, hypocritical, power-hungry liars who use the media to spin the news and shape public opinion.

The story plays out like a Tales from the Crypt morality tale, with the wicked getting their just desserts in a dark sense of cosmic justice. David, the only prominent character with a conscious it seems, wishes for the dead to express how they feel about the cause. Rand, angered by the public sympathy the zombies generate, laments if only they could kill someone, the government would have an excuse to round them up. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

Homecoming generated a fair degree of attention when it premiered. It certainly was a risk for Dante to make an episode guaranteed to alienate and frustrate a sizable portion of the audience. Some criticized the episode for being an obvious political statement instead of trying to scare the audience as a genre film while others praised it as a bold enterprise. I think, as time goes on, as the obvious political connotations fade, it will be remembered favorably. As long as there have been politicians and media, they have exploited the country's fallen warriors. Now that is a lingering sense of horror.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Masters of Horror: Chocolate

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 5
Chocolate
Director: Mick Garris
Notable Films: The Stand, Sleepwalkers, Desperation
Director Trademarks Present: Stars Henry Thomas and Matt Frewer, Stephen King reference, loneliness, literary, psychics
Plot Summary: Jamie (Henry Thomas) is a lonely, recently-divorced young man who works for a company synthesizing artificial flavors. One night, he wakes up somehow tasting chocolate, even though it's been while since he's eaten any. Other strange sensations follow: hearing soft piano music and pouring wine at a loud rock concert, seeing things that aren't there while driving, and experiencing rough sex with a muscular Asian man. Eventually, it becomes clear Jamie is somehow in tune with the senses of a woman, Catherine (Lucie Laurier), feeling, hearing, seeing, and tasting what she does on occasion. Things turn bloody when Jamie feels her murder her lover. Jamie, in love in a way no one else ever has been, becomes determined to find and help her.

Reading engages the senses. When a writer does his or her job right, you can taste the food, envision the sites, smell the odors, and hear the sounds of everything described. Because reading involves imagination on the part of the reader, your mind fills in the blanks, and you can experience vicariously the world the author depicts.

And therein lies the challenge for a project such as Chocolate: how does a director depict the sensation of taste on film? A movie engages vision and hearing, for sure, but when the other senses are crucial to the story, it's imperative to get those across in a way that doesn't resort to having the character espouse them. Unfortunately, Chocolate doesn't succeed on this front. Instead feeling immersed in the situation, I felt disengaged, more curious than blown away.

Adapting his own short story, Garris also doesn't really mine the story's potential for dark psycho-sexual subtext. Think about it: Jamie discovers what it feels like to be vaginally penetrated. What else could he have felt if the story explored the idea more? Jamie is essentially the ultimate voyeur, privy not only to the object of his desire's home and life but her body. The material might have been more suited for a director such as Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill, Carrie) to engage and really get somewhere profoundly shocking or disturbing rather than a murder by a scorned lover and a resolution involving fisticuffs and a gun. That feels so tame compared to where the narrative could have gone.

On the plus side, Henry Thomas makes for a sympathetic, honest lead, and his buddy Wally (Matt Frewer, i.e. the dad from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids not played by Rick Moranis) is fun as a middle-aged, part-time rocker. Although his psychic connection is never explained, Jamie suggests because his life is so empty and Catherine's life is so full, somehow he became receptive. Garris does a fine job depicting this dichotomy. Jamie's apartment is a blank, white, sterile place while Catherine's is lush, filled with paintings and drawings, and packed with comfortable, expensive furniture. The mise en scene has several nice touches like that.

Overall, this episode doesn't seem to fit the series. It's not particularly horrific or macabre. Rather, it plays out more like a tragic, supernatural romance but not really succeeding. A nice try but ultimately Chocolate comes off as too vanilla.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Masters of Horror: Jenifer

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 4
Jenifer
Director: Dario Argento
Notable Films: Suspiria, Inferno, Opera
Director Trademarks Present: Obsession, the beauty of horror, shocking gore,
Plot Summary: Cop Frank Spivey (Steven Weber, who wrote the teleplay) shoots a deranged homeless man before he can kill a girl (Carrie Ann Fleming). Before dying, the man utters one word: Jenifer, the name of the girl. Although her body is desirable, Jenifer has a horribly deformed face, can't speak, and it's uncertain if she understands anything. Frank becomes obsessed with her, bringing her into his home, much to the dismay of his family. Soon, Frank's whole life is unraveling as Jenifer uses her body to control Frank and satiate her hunger for flesh.

Jenifer the character's problems are her ugly mug causes the world to treat her with scorn and she ultimately destroys all the men in her life. Jenifer the film's problems are its utter predictability, inability to craft believable characters, and absence of director Dario Argento's bravura sense of style. During my first go-around of Masters of Horror, this was my least favorite episode of the series, and after watching it again, it still is.

The biggest detriment to Jenifer is that once the setup is complete, the resolution is more or less a foregone conclusion. Instead of building an inevitable sense of dread, the film plods to the inevitable. Rather than tightening the screws, Argento throws in freaky sex scenes and shocking images: a disemboweled cat, Jenifer's drooling mouth, and the mutilated bodies of her victims. With all the atrocities piled on, the episode is akin to a freak show; there's no emotional connection, and you're just watching gross things happen.

Frank's family and co-workers don't factor much at all; for him to lose all that, there needed to be a deep connection between, but they're just kind of there and then gone. For that matter, Frank himself is not much a character. We're never sure why he sacrifices everything for Jenifer. It's implied Jenifer has cast some sort of spell on Frank, but that's never really explored.

Aspects of Jenifer herself work better, but she too is inconsistent. She's curiously child-like, more like a wounded animal than a vicious monster. Argento, in the past, has orchestrated death scenes that while viciously graphic and bloody were quite beautiful. That dichotomy of revulsion and beauty is represented in Jenifer. Except for Frank, every other character treats her with scorn or disgust, perhaps suggesting people create monsters. But there are just too many unanswered questions about her: where does she come from, is she human, is she a misguided innocent with grotesque hungers or a manipulative succubus, and why does she eat flesh?

Compared to his past work, Argento's direction is rather pedestrian. His work often felt like filmed nightmares. Not much made sense, but the images were so other-worldly and bizarre, you were drawn in. Except for a scene where Frank drinks in a bar and walks outside with the camera angle is tilted off-balance, Jenifer lacks his usual stylistic sensibility.

Before Masters of Horror, I had never seen a film directed by Argento. Since then, I've seen a number of them, many of them quite good. Personally, I'll stick with those in place of Jenifer. There are a lot of shocking, disgusting, and delirious moments but not enough to carry the film.