Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Stuff

Film, perhaps more than any other art form, is collaborative, and the history of cinema is packed with some of the most memorable, lucrative, and challenging of creative partnerships: Bergman and von Sydow, Herzog and Kinski, Kurosawa and Mifune, Cohen and Moriarty. Okay, maybe that last pairing is not held in as high of esteem as the others, but for genre fans, the teaming of writer-director Larry Cohen and actor Michael Moriarty resulted in its fair share of quirky, low-budget pieces, most notably in Q the Winged Serpent in 1982 and their episode of Masters of Horror, "Pick Me Up."

The Stuff was the second movie birthed from this pairing, following in the footsteps of Q. If you found ancient Aztec gods making a nest in the Chrysler building silly, wait until you get a taste of this one: killer dessert. Once again, Cohen packs in his trademark dark humor, social commentary, and quirky characterizations into a b-grade movie monster, and once again, he is ably supported by another fine performance from the inimitable Moriarty.

Former FBI agent David "Mo" Rutherford (Moriarty) is hired by ice cream executives to investigate a new, top-selling dessert sensation known as the Stuff that has customers seemingly addicted. "Enough is never enough" as the ads declare. Along the way, Mo romances Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the advertising specialist who came up with the Stuff's marketing campaign, and teams up with "Chocolate Chip" Charlie (Garrett Morris), whose company was bought out from under him. They soon discover the Stuff is actually alive and taking over the minds and bodies of those who eat it, and it wants to spread.

This is a very silly, schlocky movie; I mean come on, killer dessert? It doesn't sound nearly as threatening as say a masked slasher, an alien from outer space, or even a flying lizard. The effects are low-budget and not particularly convincing. Even after just watching the movie, I'm still unsure about the nature of the Stuff itself: clearly it's addictive and alive, but we never learn much more about it like where it came from. Cohen's editing and staging are often a bit haphazard; certain shots and even plot developments seem to be missing from the final cut. By the third act, Cohen brings in a right-wing militia led by Paul Sorvino out of nowhere to attack the Stuff's factory and resolve everything.

But remember that scene in Apocalypse Now in which Chef asks the soldiers on the helicopter why they were sitting on their helmets, and they tell him it's so they "don't get (their) balls blown off?" He laughs, and then after thinking about it for a bit, he takes his helmet off and promptly puts it between his legs. That's the reaction I had watching The Stuff. Sure the idea of killer ice cream is transparently silly, but the notion of a corporation selling a product they know to be dangerous and addictive is certainly one no one has any trouble believing. Would the Stuff really be that much worse than cigarettes or Happy Meals?

Cohen takes shots at rampant consumerism and marketing, sprinkling in a number of glitzy, cheesy commercials for the Stuff throughout the movie (featuring the likes of Abe Vigoda and the "Where's the beef?" lady). Supermarkets become stocked with the Stuff, shops of it open up next door to McDonald's and Burger King, and families replace everything in their refrigerators with it. And why not? It's great tasting, low in calories, and all natural. The Stuff is just the latest pop culture food craze.

Moriarty is great. In Q, he played a nervous low-life with a taste of power for the first time in his life. Here, he's a deadpan good-ole boy, acting like the fool to conceal a sharp mind. "Nobody's as dumb as I look," he says. Later, when another character throws up in his car after eating shaving cream to make it look like he was eating the Stuff, Mo consoles him by saying, "Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while." Nothing fazes this guy.

There are also a number of nicely paranoid elements of the movie. It's only too believable that the FDA would approve for sale a product whose effects and ingredients they don't know. There's also a subplot reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars involving a young boy (Scott Bloom), who knows the danger of the Stuff but whose family becomes addicted to it and pressures him to "be a member of the family again." And in the probably the most believable bit, after the threat of the Stuff is exposed and Mo confronts the company's owner, the owner has the audacity to announce the next line of products: the Taste, now with only 12 percent Stuff, just enough to keep people coming back for more. Now, that's scary.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cop Land

My college screenwriting professor once used Rocky as an example of how to write a likeable protagonist and illustrate his/her goals and what he/she does to accomplish them. After the lesson, he said the only way to make Rocky better would have been for Sylvester Stallone to have died in a tragic car accident after making it, so he could have been remembered as the next Orson Welles instead of a roided-up meathead fighting robots from Russia (my professor admitted he stopped following the Rocky series once they had Rocky win the re-match with Apollo). 

Stallone spent a better part of the 80s and 90s appearing in a lot standard action fair and blockbuster franchises, but it was Cop Land (1997) that saw him successfully return to more serious, dramatic acting. Instead of a toned and chiseled Rambo, Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small New Jersey town just across the river from New York City. Like Rocky Balboa, Freddy is an underdog; he always wanted to be a big-city cop, but an accident in his youth left him deaf in one ear. Now middle-aged and big around the waist, he can only stare longingly across the river and hero-worship the New York police officers who have made their home in his town.

Things get dicey after the nephew of a well-connected New York, Ray (Harvey Keitel), shoots a pair of black youths on a bridge and then seemingly jumps to his death into the river. Another officer (Robert Patrick) attempts to plant a gun on the dead youths, but he's seen by one of the paramedics doing so. An Internal Affairs officer, Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro), arrives to investigate the affair, and he wants Freddy to assist him, but Ray is the one who helped Freddy get a job in law enforcement.

That is the plot at its most fundamental level. There's also the woman (Annabella Sciorra) that Freddy loves. She is the person he saved from drowning all those years ago in the incident that cost him his hearing, but she's married to another New York cop (Peter Berg), and that cop is in turn having an affair with Ray's wife (Cathy Moriarty). Another cop's (Ray Liotta) house mysteriously burns down, killing his girlfriend in the process, and he seems to have a cocaine problem. There's also some important background relating to both the mafia and the New York police union. 

Cop Land's central problem is how it tries to tie everything together in under two hours, and as result, some of these plot threads feel shortchanged. It's a lot to keep track of, and some of the details get jumbled at times. Tilden disappointingly only has a few big scenes while Moriarty's character, who has this interesting ambiguity about what she might know and how she puts up with her husband, has very little screen time. Janeane Garofolo shows up as sheriff's deputy, professional, by the books, and is put off when Freddy allows Ray and a cohort to get away with speeding, but at the end, when he resolves to seriously investigate, out of the blue she announces she wants a transfer and "doesn't want any part of this." This also leads to the movie's great miscalculation in how it resolves everything. At the end, the standard action movie shootout takes place, all the right people are dead or arrested, and TV news narration ties up everything in a neat little bow. For a movie with so much intrigue and complexity leading up to the climax, it's a disappointingly straightforward ending.

What works for the movie are its performances. Stallone, for most of the movie, swallows his action-hero pride and effectively plays this downtrodden, naive wannabe who means well but isn't as bright or as skilled as he would like to be. The arc of this character - his gradual realization of the corruption right from him and his longing for Sciorra's character - make up the heart of the movie, but the best performance belongs to Keitel. Affectionately known as "Uncle Ray," he plays a great two-faced character, seemingly benevolent but hiding anger and calculation; if he likes you, he'll calmly explain why you have him all wrong. and you'll believe him. If you get on his bad side or no longer suit his purposes, he'll give you a severe tongue lashing and have you silenced. Also very good are De Niro and Liotta playing characters whose agendas and loyalties you're not entirely sure of.

Cop Land either needs to be longer to flesh out the ancillary characters or it needs to be shorter to keep focus squarely on Freddy and Ray. I would go with longer. There's so much complexity and intrigue, and the characters are so interesting, I wanted more of them. It's not all it could have been, but through the strength of its performances, Cop Land a solid recommendation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dark City

Dark City (1998), directed by Alex Proyas (of The Crow and Knowing fame), was a rare treat for me. By the time I watch a given movie, I've usually been exposed to all sorts of trailers, commercials, clips, and reviews for it, but that was not the case for Dark City. I don't remember how, but I managed to hear how good the movie was without knowing a single thing about it except it was sci-fi and presumably set in a dark city. What a joy it was to discover this movie, to not know where it was going, and to genuinely be surprised by the plot developments and wowed by impressive special effects. Be warned, it might best for anyone who has not seen it to do so first before reading this post because I am going to discuss spoilers (I was also lucky to see the director's cut. The theatrical version opens with unnecessary narration that spells out everything).

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a hotel bath tub with no memory of who he is, a strange syringe on the floor, and a dead woman in the next room. A call from a nervous man claiming to be a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) warns him to get out of there, which he does, just as a menacing group of tall, pale men arrive on the scene. A detective (William Hurt) believes Murdoch to be the serial killer butchering prostitutes in their nameless city, although Murdoch's wife Emma, a singer (Jennifer Connelly), refuses to believe the man she loves is a murderer. Meanwhile, beneath the city, its true leaders plot to stop Murdoch before he can interfere with their plans.

On the surface, Dark City appears to be a traditional film noir. Everyone drives classic automobiles, the men wear fedoras and trench coats, the architecture and clothing seem lifted directly from the 1940s, and the characters constantly drink and smoke so the air feels saturated with vice. Proyas films the movie so that everything feels just a little distorted and off-kilter. The world of film noir is just a little darker, a little shadier, and it should be; one character points he can't remember the last time he saw the sun.

That little fact, along with other things, should alert viewers that things aren't all what they seem. The group targeting Murdoch, the Strangers as they come to be known as, aren't human. Tall, thin, pale, bald, they use the bodies of human dead and possess psychic abilities that enable them to manipulate time, space, and matter. They have collected human specimens, stolen their memories, and use them to experiment and study what it means to have a soul.

The question of what it means to be human has driven many a science fiction parable, including Metropolis and Blade Runner, movies that Dark City has been clearly inspired by visually and thematically. What is it that makes us human? Dark City offers a number of answers: our free will, our ability to love, and the collective and individual experiences that make up our memories. The Strangers, who share a group mindset, look, and thought, mix and match memories with different people to see how they behave, and it's no surprise the one man who proves to be a threat to them is the one who consciously and subconsciously is able to assert his own will and refuse the role assigned to him.

The special effects are top-notch. Doors appear in walls, entire buildings are grown and shifted in place, and a number of characters fly. Unlike The Matrix, which came out a year later, Dark City has very few action scenes and shootouts, but it generates vast, unforgettable, and dark imagery: the subterranean chamber of the Strangers, the sight of the entire city "shut down" as the Strangers do their work transporting memories, the vast, imposing cityscape that dominates the screen, and what the characters eventually discover lies beyond the walls of the city.

One of the recurring images of Dark City is the spiral.The dead victims has them carved on their bodies, and another police detective obsessively draws them after learning the truth about the city. Spirals have often been used in movies to denote insanity and paranoia among those who feel trapped; similarly, the path of a spiral remains fixed, so that no matter how many turns one makes, he or she always ends up at the same point. The Strangers, in their quest to understand humans, try to chart their destinies, not knowing that it humanity's ability to choose, to jump off the predetermined path, that makes it unique.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Killshot

Writer Elmore Leonard has written a large number of books and screenplays, but he's probably best known for such works as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which was turned into the Tarantino movie Jackie Brown. I've heard many great things about Leonard over the years and was always curious to check his stuff out. One day, at a library book sale, I found Killshot (1989), Leonard's novel about a married couple who go into hiding to escape a pair of crooks, and decided to take the plunge.

Killshot, at its core, is about two couples. The first is comprised of Armand "Blackbird" Degas, a professional and calm Mafia hitman, and Richie Nix, a tough-talking low-life convict who dreams of robbing a bank in every state. They meet when Richie tries to steal Armand's car, but Armand quickly seizes the upper hand, and Richie, impressed by the older man's experience and skill, tells he's "just the guy he's looking for." Richie has a scheme to extort money from a real estate business, and Armand, who knows a good score when sees one, joins in.

That leads to our second couple: Wayne and Carmen Colson. Wayne is a blue-collar iron worker while Carmen is a real estate agent working for the same company Armand and Richie target. She convinces Wayne to come to the office to interview for a job there, and while he's sitting at the boss's desk and wearing a suit, the criminals show up and mistake Wayne for the boss. They try to push him into paying up, but Wayne, with some quick thinking and the help of a sleever bar, fights the pair off and even throws Richie through a second story window. As a result, the Colsons become a target; Richie wants revenge for the humiliation while Armand, having just completed an assignment, knows witnesses who can identify him need to be eliminated.

Less than 300 pages long, Killshot is a brisk read, and the plot is rather simple. The premise hints it could be a chase story, focusing on action as the bad guys chase the main characters and try to kill him, but Leonard is not interested in action as much as he is in the characters. The focus of the novel is not who wants to kill who and how they're going to do it but rather how these people are going to behave. Much of the book is devoted to exchanges among the respective couples as they try to figure ways out of their situations.

The relationship between Armand and Richie is one of the grizzled, old veteran and the cocky, young upstart. Armand is the thinker; he betrays little emotion and carefully considers all his actions, and he frequently gets frustrated and angry at Richie for his recklessness. Richie is prone to shoot first and not even think about questions. He's a boastful loudmouth and transparently dangerous. Armand is more in control, but Richie gives no thought to consequences. One of the interesting conceits of the novel is toying the line about which of the two men is more dangerous. Richie is so unpredictable that you never know what he's going to do, but Armand does everything with a purpose and knows how to position himself. It's the veteran with nothing to prove and the rookie with everything to prove.

As for the Colsons, Wayne and Carmen are happily married. They have a grown son in the navy, and their lifestyle is comfortable. We learn early on that Carmen's mother didn't approve of the marriage, she too knowing what it's like being married to an ironworker. But, as the story progresses, tension emerges between the two. Wayne antagonizes the police and other law enforcement officials assigned to their case while Carmen continually warns him not to mistreat the people who are there to protect them.  He also has a habit of dismissing or marginalizing her concerns, whether it's about being found by Armand and Richie, helping her mother, or the overly-friend U.S. marshal who tries putting the moves on her. While she fears for their lives, he enjoys the work he finds in St. Louis when they relocate. Whatever's wrong, in his mind, he'll take care of it. It's expected of this type of story that Wayne will emerge as the hero of the piece: a gruff, straightforward, handsome man who makes an honest living. In fact, he wipes the floor with the killers in their confrontation. But it is Carman, when she winds up in trouble, who must take action and use her wits to get out of a deadly spot. But will she be able to take the shot when brute force is called?

Curiously, both pairs also have something of an interloper between the relationships. Richie and Armand hide out at the home of Donna's, Richie's older, Elvis-obsesses girlfriend and a former corrections officer. Eventually, she starts making eyes at Armand and tells him she's afraid of Richie. Meanwhile, Carmen is harassed by Ferris Britton, a US marshal who doesn't mind letting himself into their safe house while Wayne is away. His aggressiveness drives Carmen to return to mother's place, not knowing the killers are waiting, thus setting up the climax.

Leonard doesn't pile on the action, but when violence does occur, it's a sudden, nasty, and unexpected outburst. For example,when Richie trails Wayne to convenience store to take him out, he robs the place and shoots the teenaged clerk just for the heck of it. There aren't any prolonged shootouts, standoffs, or sieges to pump things up. The characters who hold guns hold power, and at any second, it can all be over with one deadly shot.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Vampire's Kiss

Oh, Nicolas Cage. Where would we be without you? Well, there would be fewer bad movies out there, but would that make the world a better place? The unintentional laughs induced from his remake of The Wicker Man alone prove Cage has done some good, even if not in the way he intended.

The general wisdom of Nicolas Cage seems to be after starring in a number of good-to-great movies (Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas) and Hollywood action blockbusters (The Rock, Con Air), he became less picky about his projects, churning embarrassing and over-the-top performances in the likes of Ghost Rider, the aforementioned Wicker Man, Knowing, and Season of the Witch. Looking back on Vampire's Kiss (1988), it's apparent this development in Cage's career is not a surprise.

Vampire's Kiss seemingly tries to be the Hollywood yuppie's answer to Martin, a low-budget thriller from Night of the Living Dead director George Romero. Like Martin, Vampire's Kiss concerns itself with a man who may or may not be a vampire. In this case, that would be Peter Loew (Cage), a publishing executive who becomes convinced of his vampirism after a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals) bites him on the neck during a one-night stand, and ultimately this destroys his life. Like Martin, there is ambiguity about whether he really is a vampire or whether it's some kind of psycho-sexual neurosis. Even the endings of the two movies are the same in that being a human or a vampire wouldn't have changed what happens.

Martin was an effective and atmospheric character study and could be read on multiple thematic levels: economic class struggle, Old-World hysteria, superstition versus reason, adolescent angst, family oppression, religious hypocrisy, loneliness, addiction, illusion versus reality. Vampire's Kiss had potential to reach similar subtext. I see dramatic, satirical and horror potential in the premise of a high-powered New York yuppie who spends his days berating his staff and his nights seducing women becoming convinced he's vampire. Instead, it's a very silly, haphazard, and clumsy comedy.

I call Vampire's Kiss a comedy because I don't know of any other category to label it as. It's not scary. It's not thrilling, exciting, or dramatic, but by "virtue" of its star, the film becomes quite silly. This is by far the most baffling performance I've ever seen of Nicolas Cage. First of all, he talks with this weird, obviously fake accent. Imagine a Saturday Night Live skit that called for a deliberately bad Shakespearean dialect, and you get the idea. Cage is constantly mugging for the camera, furrowing his eyebrows, bugging his eyes out, jumping onto desks, chasing after people, and screaming randomly. This might have been effective if the movie built to it - i.e. present him as reasonably normal and gradually make him more manic as the narrative progresses - but he's like this even before being bitten. Watching a disturbed person murder and rape people (as Loew does) because he thinks he's a vampire could be chilling, but after being convinced he's one of the undead, Loew buys a set of plastic fangs and runs around the streets crying out "I'm a vampire! I'm a vampire!" It'd be sad if it wasn't so funny.  

So the movie fails as a dark satire of yuppies and as a serious thriller, but it's also rather uncomfortable at times. Peter is especially cruel to one of his secretaries, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), who he threatens on numerous occasions for failing to find an important contract in the company files. Watching  what Alva goes through is like watching another, more serious movie. She's really upset, threatened by, and afraid of her boss. He more or less terrorizes and tortures to where she fears for her life but feels pressured about losing a much-needed job, and it culminates to where he assaults her. Watching Nicolas overact is hysterical, but watching this poor women being tormented is just awful.

Maybe with a different actor, someone who could convincingly portray a "master of the universe" type who loses it (James Spader, maybe), Vampire's Kiss might have worked as a chilling, disturbing, and insightful descent into insanity. But that would mean giving up the real-life insanity and bizarro acting of Nicholas Cage,and isn't that why we go to the movies in the first place? To watch someone who is uncomfortably funny?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mean Creek

Discussing Mean Creek (2004) is a bit of a challenge for me. It came highly recommended from another movie buff who emphasized that I avoid reading any plot summaries. Seeing the movie myself, I can agree that trying to summarize the film or give someone else an idea of what it's about would necessitate divulging certain developments that occur fairly far into the running time. The best I can do is say I will try not spoil anything, but if anything, Mean Creek is more about its characters and their behavior than the intricacies of its plot, so maybe I'm more worried about it than I should be.

Mean Creek could be described as a cross between Stand by Me and Deliverance. One day, Sam (Rory Culkin) gets beat up by middle school bully George (Josh Peck). Sam turns to his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) to help get back at George, and they enlist Rocky's friends Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) in a scheme to lure George on a rafting trip in the woods where they can humiliate him. Along for ride but initially not privy to the group's ulterior plan is Millie (Carly Schroeder), Sam's girlfriend. The plan eventually sets in motion, but then, things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Growing up, at best, can be a time of discovery, learning, and innocence, but as we all know, it can also be a time of cruelty, shame, and resentment. Too often, children and teenagers can act as wrong as adults, but unlike adults who should know better, kids can be unknowingly horrible to each other or at the very least oblivious to the hurt they cause. The best we can hope for is they be good most of the time and eventually grow out of the bad behavior.  Bullying is currently a hot topic in the news these days, but as the movie, shows it's not always a black-and-white scenario.

Mean Creek is a movie in which all the characters are both victims and perpetrators of mean acts. George certainly fits the category of bully. The film opens with him beating up Sam for touching his camera, bruising up his face pretty badly. He's big, loud, obnoxious, and self-centered, and we're told how he has been held back in school and hurt others apart from Sam. But then we also see at times he's like an overgrown puppy eager to please. Invited along on what he's told is Sam's birthday celebration, he brings him a gift and seems to be trying to get along. His father is apparently not in the picture (we only meet his mother), and we also learn he has some sort of learning disability (I believe it's dyslexia, but it's never stated explicitly). Nothing really excuses his behavior, but he is drawn more complexly than one would expect, and I certainly felt sorry for him. Even if things hadn't gotten wrong, the planned revenge against him would have crossed the line.

That complexity extends to the other characters, and it becomes apparent he's not the only bully figure. Marty, who is always knocking Clyde for having two gay dads, is only along for the trip as an excuse to humiliate someone he considers lesser than him. When the group decides to call off the prank, he's the only who refuses and in fact forces them to a point of no return. He drinks and smokes and always seem angry, but he too is a victim of bullying; his older brother is especially mean to him, and he's especially sensitive to talk about his father, who committed suicide. He and his brother live in a squalid trailer, and school is a less attractive option than shooting empty liquor bottles.

Even the ostensibly "good" characters have a nasty streak to them. Millie, when she learns the group's plan, is appalled and pressures to Sam to call it off, which he does. But when Marty tries to force the prank through, it is Millie who relents first when George continues to act abrasive and vulgar. Unlike George, who it could be argued doesn't know better, Millie clearly understands the cruelty she partakes in, and it's a chilling moment when she tells Marty to continue with a game of Truth or Dare to initiate the plan. It's one thing to defend the well-meaning, slow-witted fat kid who's a little rough around the edges, but when he tries peeking up your skirt with his camera, tells dirty jokes, and acts like a pig, suddenly a little payback doesn't seem so bad.

I said the movie reminded me of Deliverance (characters discovery shocking truths about themselves whilst on a rural river trip) and Stand by Me (kids in the woods making life discoveries), but in retrospect, it also draws a little from Lord of the Flies in presenting a world in which children and teenagers act without adult supervision. There is not one significant adult character in Mean Creek, and there is no effective authority stopping any of these kids from bad behavior. No teacher or principal intervenes on George's bullying, the loss of a father has surely scarred Marty to the point he takes it out on others, and no parent is ever shown keeping tabs on their kids or monitoring their activity. Without some sort of moral guidance, these teens learn the hard way about actions and consequences.

Written and directed by first-time director Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek is not a thriller but a powerful and haunting drama. The performances by all the young actors (who actually look the age of the characters they portray) work extremely well, and Estes does an excellent job of capturing both these kids day-to-day lives at home and school as well as their fateful trip on the river and its fallout. It's really effective.