Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino returns to the Old West with his latest film, The Hateful Eight (2015). Unlike Django Unchained, a sprawling revenge epic, The Hateful Eight harkens back to Reservoir Dogs. It's a potboiler about a small group of rather nasty characters who are confined to an isolated location where they grow suspicious of each other, leading to outbursts of graphic violence and dark ironies. I wasn't surprised to learn there are plans to turn this into a play.

The Hateful Eight asks who can we be sure of. Well, we can be reasonably sure of John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter bringing in the notorious outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming to be hung. But what about Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter who brings in his targets dead? Or Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Confederate renegade who claims he's the new sheriff of Red Rock?

When a blizzard hits, these travelers hunker down at Minnie's Haberdashery, only Minnie's not there. There is a Mexican who says his name is Bob (Demian Bichir), and he says Minnie's left him in charge. There's also the actual hangman of Red Rock (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a silent cowboy (Michael Madsen), and Ruth's driver (James Parks). They all state their reasons for why they've come this way, but it becomes apparent soon enough that almost no one is what they seem.

The isolated, wintry setting, along with the presence of Russell and the music of Ennio Morricone, brings to mind another movie: The Thing. In that film, a shapeshifting alien monster infiltrated an Antarctic outpost, creating a climate of paranoia and suspicion in which the men (no women) turned on each other.

While it's a different genre, it's the same M.O. for The Hateful Eight. This is less like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and more like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. We're confined to a single, claustrophobic location, and we wait for the killer to emerge, and it could be any of them. Ruth suspects one of these men might be there to help Daisy escape, so he confiscates guns, barks orders, and doesn't trust anyone. Meanwhile, Daisy sits patiently, like a bomb ready to go off but we don't know when.

The movie's title is appropriate. Pretty much everyone in the main cast is an unrepentant scumbag. Ruth, the nominal hero, regularly hits Daisy when she mouths off. When we first see her, she has a black eye, and her face becomes increasingly battered, but she remains defiant to the end. Warren, the other designated protagonist, reveals an encounter he had with the general's son, and assuming it's true, which we can't be sure of, it's arguably the most depraved and sadistic act made by any of the characters. Everyone is defined by their relationship to violence, whether in the past or in the cabin.

The movie's more than three hours long (it's a long time before we even get to Minnie's), but it doesn't drag, even though the action is limited to mostly unexpected bursts rather than prolonged shootouts or chases. Tarantino loads the film with his colorful, profane dialogue for his more than capable cast, and it's the dialogue that drives the tension; as these characters reveal their histories and explain what they're up to, we can't be certain if they're telling the truth. The snowy, mountainous location is authentically chilling and isolated.  When violence erupts, it is bloody, graphic, sometimes funny, and sometimes horrifying.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lemmy and Bowie

Two of my favorite musicians died of cancer in recent weeks. Lemmy Kilmister, singer and bassist for the heavy metal band Motorhead, died on Dec. 28, and David Bowie died on January 10.

As sad as I was to hear the news, I wasn't surprised to learn of Lemmy's death. Following the band the last couple of years, I knew his health was not good, a number of shows had been cancelled or postponed, and he had been fitted with a pacemaker and could be seen walking with a cane when not on stage. The only surprise was to learn the cause of death was cancer, which he had only been diagnosed with a few days before he died. Still, I was impressed he lived to be 70 despite a hard-living lifestyle.

I was shocked when I heard about Bowie, who was 69. Apparently, he'd been sick for some time but kept it private, continuing to work on what would be his last album Blackstar, which was released on his birthday, just two days before he died.

I got into Motorhead because of pro-wrestling. The song "The Game" was the entrance theme of Triple H, and later, as I got more into heavy metal, I bought several Motorhead albums, including Ace of Spades, Bomber, Overkill, and Motorizer. I think I'd always been somewhat familiar with who Bowie was as an icon, and I knew him from his roles in movies like Labyrinth, but it wasn't until college I got Ziggy Stardust and immediately fell in love with it. It's still one of my favorite albums, and it was only a few weeks before his passing that I got Diamond Dogs and Space Oddity.

Two English musicians, two icons, two men who had been around in some fashion since the late 1960s, and two whose notorious histories with drugs are well documented. Motorhead is credited with influencing countless heavy metal bands that followed in their wake, including Metallica and other thrash metal groups. Bowie, meanwhile, produced albums for a number of other musicians such as Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople.

I'm hard pressed to find two more diametrically opposed individuals as Lemmy and Bowie. Lemmy was very much a gruff, masculine frontman who didn't so much sing as growl. He wore mutton chops, his face was dotted by two massive warts, he drank Jack and Coke on stage, and the number of women he reportedly had sex with totaled thousands. His musical style never really changed either. He played loud, fast, heavy rock n roll through and through. Sure, there was the occasional acoustic ballad, but for the most part, he existed at the crossroads of heavy metal and punk while always insisting he played rock n roll. His music was straightforward and unpretentious, three chords and a cloud of dust.

By contrast, Bowie was a much more androgynous figure, his sexuality equally inclusive to men and women. He wore form-fitting outfits and outlandish costumes that made him look like a creature from another planet. The number of different personas and guises he wore, depending on what album, style, or time in his career, was legendary. Musically, he was very influential to the development of glam, but he experimented with many different genres and styles: rock, pop, cabaret, electronic, funk, art, and more. Yet, he never felt like was chasing a trend or trying to cash in on what was popular at the moment. He was unafraid to experiment and evolve, and his albums, which were very theatrical and often told elaborate stories, were transcendent.

What am I getting at? Two very different men, one a bedrock, the other a chameleon, were never afraid to be themselves, whether that meant staying close to their roots or growing and discovering new things about themselves and the world. Lemmy wouldn't change who he was for anyone, and Bowie wouldn't let anyone else define him.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walk Home Alone at Night (2014), written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, is an unconventional vampire movie for today. It's filmed in black and white, set in an Iranian ghost town known as Bad City (although it was produced in California), and the characters speak Persian. More importantly, it treats its vampire seriously.

The vampire is not a dapper aristocrat or a carnivorous monster but a young, unnamed woman in a striped shirt and black veil. Known only as the Girl, she (Sheila Vand) is a quiet, lonely creature in a quiet, lonely city. When she's not drinking blood, she's dancing to music in her apartment. One night, she meets Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man burdened by his drug-addled father (Marshall Manesh), and that initiates a low-key, almost unspoken romance.

The movie does not contain many of the elements one would expect from a vampire movie. The Girl doesn't turn into a bat, there's no Van Helsing equivalent trying to hunt her down, and we don't see the Girl having to deal with sunlight or anything like that. Nor is it especially violent or gory. Sure, She kills a few of people, biting out their throats with fangs, but the movie doesn't linger on that in explicit detail. It's a harsh world, and she does what she must to survive. Much creepier is when she tells someone she will watch him for the rest of his life to make sure he's a good boy.

Amirpour draws on a number of different genres and styles. The music and desert location are reminiscent of a Spaghetti Western, the business with the drug dealer and prostitute would fit well in a crime drama, and the romance between the Girl and Arash, where long silences are punctuated by significant glances and subtle physical gestures, could have been something out of a Jim Jarmusch movie.

There are also elements of comedy, although they're presented in a more straight-laced manner than anything resembling goofy slapstick. Think of a stalking scene from any other vampire movie. Normally, we'd follow the intended victim as he or she walks through a dark alleyway, no signs of the monster until it leaps out of the shadows with supernatural quickness. Here, the Girl is shown following her targets at a distance from behind. She's not gliding, flying, or doing anything magical; just the sight of her following people at a brisk walk is enough to generate a laugh. And don't get me started on what happens once she gets her hands on a skateboard.

The movie also has some fun contrasting the stereotypical image of vampires with the real thing. Arash and The Girl meet while he's walking home from a costume party, tripping on ecstasy and dressed as Dracula. She, rather patiently all things considered, takes him back to her place to recuperate, and her apartment is covered with posters of the likes of Michael Jackson and the BeeGees.

Thematically, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is about how two lonely people find each other in a quiet, desolate place, and one of those people just happens to be a vampire. There's not a whole of action or even dialogue. It's a most peculiar film, not the kind that would play well with mainstream audiences, but then again, it shouldn't.

The Revenant

Boiled down to its essence, The Revenant (2015) is a story about survival and revenge. It's overlong and slightly pretentious in parts, but overall, it is a raw, physical look at a man, broken and left for dead at the edge of the world, who through sheer force of will forces his way through the hostile wilderness to return to civilization and find the man responsible. It won't be pretty and it won't be clean.

Leonard DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker with a fur-trapping expedition in the uncharted parts of North Dakota and Montana in the 1820s. After the party is ambushed by an Indian war party, Glass and the other survivors, led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), retreat back to friendly territory, but when Glass is mauled by a bear and nearly killed, Glass's son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the inexperienced Bridger (Will Poulter), and the salty John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) volunteer to stay behind with Glass, to give him a proper burial when he succumbs to his wounds. But Fitzgerald gets impatient, kills Hawk, and leaves Glass to die.

The Revenant revels in the physical details: the snow, the ice, the rushing river, the wind, the mud, the grime, and the blood. This is not a romanticized look at the untamed American wilderness; this is a hostile, indifferent world filled with creatures and people who would just as soon kill and eat you as they would leave you lying on the ground. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to take a hot bath after watching it, especially once Glass escapes hostile natives by sliding into freezing water and letting the flow of the river take him to safety. Rarely has wet clothing on film looked so miserable to wear. In a desperate moment later on, as a blizzard falls, Glass disembowels a dead horse and slides inside its carcass, naked, to stay warm.

The bear attack (which I think was done with a CGI bear, the effect is mostly good) is a harrowing, desperate fight for survival and not at all portrayed like a fun action scene. This creature dwarfs Glass and manhandles him as if he were a small child. Throughout the scene, the bear is on top of him, with only its snout or claws clearly visible, and as result, we feel like we're pinned under its massive frame along with Glass. His surviving the bear, which was protecting its cubs, is more a result of luck and his awareness of where he is on the ground than it is his fighting skills.

The aftermath is arguably more intense. We see gruesome closeups of Glass' wounds, on his back and his throat, and this being the 1820s, we know he doesn't have the advantages of painkillers or antiseptic as Henry and the others treat him, stitching up his cuts and gashes with him still awake. These wounds become nastily infected, and it's rare for a movie to show its hero so vulnerable and physically weakened. How many times have we seen Arnold or Stallone brush off gunshot wounds like they were nothing? Here, Glass can't even sit up after the bear mauls him, and it's only a gradual and slow road to recovery before he can even walk.

The Revenant is one of the best movies I've seen that depicts the harshness of nature and its elements. Watching the movie, you will feel cold, wet, and exhausted along with Glass and the others. I could have done without all the visions and flashbacks to Glass with his dead wife and the Indian village; these are a little too arty for such a gritty movie, but without them, the movie would be extremely grim and depressing.

Throne of Blood

Strange I would criticize the most recent adaptation of MacBeth for the stripping away a lot of Shakespeare's language, and yet here I am praising Akira Kurosawa's version, which completely jettisons it.

The difference, I think, so I don't appear contradictory, is one of vision. What the Michael Fassenbender version replaced the language with was muddled and unsatisfactory. Kurosawa, by transplanting the story and characters to feudal Japan, frees himself to tell a visually eerie and enchanting adaptation while remaining true to Shakespeare's themes and ideas.

One could make an almost perfect point-by-point comparison between the plot of MacBeth and Throne of Blood (1957). A warlord is told by prophecy he will rise to power, and at the urging of his manipulative wife, he murders his lord and usurps the throne. In power, he grows paranoid and increasingly more violent, resulting in a revolt against his rule.

The warlord in this case is Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune. He is a proud, noble warrior, and in his rise to power, he only grows more boastful and arrogant. He struts around, chest out, head held high, eyes wide and mad by the end, and there is a delicious, almost darkly funny satisfaction in watching his vanity and pride literally punctured by dozens and dozens of arrows as his own men turn against him. Even before he murders his lord, he stomps around, wavering between his loyalty and his ambition, while his wife Asaji (Isuzi Yamada) sits coyly, unwavering, unmoving, as she speaks bluntly to the evil truth that lies within his heart.

Kurosawa bring a strong visual element that reinforces the narrative. Spider Web Forest, the purgatory-like wilderness where Washizu receives his prophecy, lives up to its name as a maze of tangled and dead tree branches, rain, and mist. When he and Miki (Akira Kuba), the movie's Banquo, encounter the evil spirit, it sits at a weaving wheel. As this ghostly old woman weaves, singing softly and surrounded by piles of human bones, the effect not only reinforces the notion she is a spider luring these mortals like flies to her web, but the weaving wheel has a hypnotic effect.

Later, when both Washizu and Mike are honored, Kurosawa employs matching imagery and editing to reinforce the notion these two are on equal footing. When the two sit outside the castle, they are equally tall beneath the castle. So when Asaji tells Washizu he can't trust Miki, we see why he grows paranoid about his loyal friend.

Near the end, when Washizu returns to the Evil Spirit to learn if he will be victorious in the final battle, the spirit appears in different guises, and Kurosawa uses masterful editing, sharply cutting between shots to place this spirit all around Washizu, showing how completely at its mercy he is and how powerful it can be. And when the trees of Spider Web Forest rise up and march on the castle, it is probably the best visualization of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane in any filmed adaptation.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Twilight Zone: Number 12 Looks Just Like You

The great irony about modern society's standards of beauty is that with all the advances in plastic surgery and the overwhelming media representations of who is considered "hot," more and more so-called beautiful people are interchangeable. How many pretty, blonde pop singers can you tell apart, and how many CW actors can be described as blandly handsome and pale?

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" takes the idea of beauty and turns it into a totalitarian regime of conformity. This is a future envisioned in which everyone undergoes surgery so they can look like one of a select few physically attractive models. Ugliness is eliminated, and with physical attractiveness comes conformity. Anyone who wants to be themselves must have something wrong with them.

That is Marilyn's (Collin Wilcox) problem. She sees no problem with her unaltered appearance, even though friends, family, and doctors pressure her to undergo "The Transformation." She argues for the dignity of individuality, saying if everyone is beautiful, than no one is. Ultimately, she is forced through the procedure, becoming a happy, brainwashed beauty.

The episode is a strong presentation of the idea of beauty standards and conformity taken to a frightening extreme, and it's disturbingly plausible. Today, the concept is arguably closer to home and worse off. This episode was made before eating disorders, body shaming, and miracle diets really saturated modern culture.

Unfortunately, while it is a cool look at a different kind of sci fi dystopia, dramatically, "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" is inert and predictable, hitting all the beats we expect and holding no surprises. Marilyn defies society, undergoes the treatment, and accepts it. The end. It's a fine episode, but it's more of an intellectual exercise, presenting an argument we have no trouble agreeing with, when what it needs is a punch to the gut, or more accurately, a slap to the face.

The Twilight Zone. Once Upon a Time

"Once Upon a Time" is one of the sillier episodes of The Twilight Zone as well it should be: it stars Buster Keaton. Keaton was getting up there in age when this was filmed, and while he no longer has the same dexterity and physical skills to jump from trains and dangle off ladders, he still had talent for physical comedy.

More time travel. Keaton plays a janitor in the 1890s who journeys to 1960 with an inventor's helmet and meets a scientist (Stanley Adams), an expert on the late 19th century who wants to go back to that period. Once they get the helmet fixed by a repairmen, the pair travel to Keaton's original time.

Yeah, we get the usual lessons about belonging to one's own time. Keaton learns to appreciate his own decade while Adams discovers the past isn't all it's cracked up to be, but it's played for laughs and not something we should be taking too seriously. We get the expected the chases and hi-jinks we've seen from Keaton's heyday, and it's fun to see him up to his old tricks.

What is really cool is while the 1960s scenes are filmed with contemporary techniques, the 1890 sequences are filmed as a silent movie, complete with sped-up, jerky motion and inter-titles. Sound is critical to the effectiveness of the story. When it opens, silent, we see Keaton walk down the street, visibly annoyed by all the commotion we can't hear. When he ends up in 1960, the real noise, traffic, and bustle of the city overwhelm him.

Richard Matheson wrote this one, and it's a sly, silly, and charming effort, a nice tribute to one of cinema's great clowns.

The Twilight Zone: The Trouble With Templeton

"The Trouble With Templeton" is the third Twilight Zone episode in a row I've discussed in which the main character travels through time and learns an important life lesson. Instead of a pioneer or WWI flying ace, the protagonist is an aging actor who learns he can't live in the past. In that sense, the episode more closely resembles thematically "Walking Distance."

Booth Templeton (Brian Aherne) is the Broadway actor. After a bad start to his day, including being chewed out by the new director of his play and acknowledging he can't remember ever loving his current wife, who flirts openly by the pool, Templeton finds himself back in the year 1927. He goes to a speakeasy and finds his first, beloved wife Laura (Pippa Scott), who died seven years after they married.

"The Trouble With Templeton" is probably better than I give it credit, but after watching all these time travel episodes, I'm feeling a bit burned out. Theres only so many times I can watch a character visit the past or journey into the future and learn something important about himself before I find it tiresome."The Trouble With Templeton" is well acted, and I liked the looks of both the theater and the speakeasy, but the main narrative doesn't offer much new.

In an interesting change from the nostalgic look at the past, Laura treats Templeton with scorn when he professes his love and tries to get her to come with him, and he storms out of the speakeasy. Something is wrong because this behavior is unbecoming of her, but Templeton finds a script called "What To Do When Booth Comes Back." It's Laura's script, and Templeton realizes she was playing a part to convince him to not dwell on the past anymore, to get him to live for the present.

It's a nice presentation of a recurring theme, using the actor's medium to pass a message to him (Even if you're like me and wondering who wrote that script). Life is a play, and we can determine what role we're going to play.

The Twilight Zone: A Hundred Yards Over the Rim

We tend to think of those who came before us as trailblazers and pioneers. However, most of these people weren't thinking about their place in history; they were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. But how nice would it be if they could be reminded how important they'd be to shaping the future?

Cliff Robertson is Christian Horn, the leader of a wagon train traveling through the Southwest Desert to California in 1847. They're lost, hungry, thirsty, and many in the group, including Horn's son, are sick. Horn decides to scout ahead, crossing over a high, sandy hill, but when he crosses over, he finds himself in the year 1961 on a modern highway.

If nothing else, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" demonstrates how drastically the country has changed. When Horn's party passes through the desert, it is a desolate, hostile, and barren landscape, and director Buzz Kulik (working off a Rod Serling teleplay) accentuates the harsh vastness of the desert. These tiny group of people looks so small and helpless against the indifference of nature.

When he gets to 1961, Horn finds roads, cafes, electrical power lines, and automobiles. Technology and innovation have enabled people to tame the desert or at least live in it comfortably. More importantly, Christian learns his son is destined to grow up and become a doctor who helps many people. With this knowledge, Horn returns to his own time, with a bottle of medicine, to lead his people on.

Robertson is terrific, running the gamut from despair and desperation to rugged determination, strength, and leadership. He's also funny when he encounters modern technology he doesn't understand, but it's not played as goofy, just a logical bafflement to things he's never seen before and has no concept of. Additionally, filming on location, in the desert and on real highways, gives the episode a strong sense of place.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Twilight Zone: The Last Flight

Time travel stories often deal in paradoxes, and "The Last Flight," written by Richard Matheson, constructs its entire conflict around one and makes it a story about redemption. It's a neat, clever episode about how some people are destined to be heroes.

Kenneth Haigh plays Lt. Decker, a British pilot in World War I who somehow lands at an American Air Force base in France 42 years into the future. The American officials don't believe him; how could they? But a visiting RAF general, who served in the same unit Decker claims to be in, should be able to clear things up.

How the time travel occurs - flying through a mysterious cloud - is not the important issue. What is important is what Decker does with the knowledge he acquires from his journey to the future. It turns out, the reason he got lost and ended up flying into the cloud is because he fled a dogfight, leaving a comrade surrounded by the enemy. But Decker learns that the RAF general is the same wingman he left to die, and he somehow got away, and if that general is to show up now, someone must save him.

The fantasy elements of the episode are downplayed, and there aren't any elaborate special effects sequences. The time travel element in this story is more of a puzzle than an adventure: the right object revealed at the right time ties it all together, demonstrating the veracity of a seemingly impossible claim and proving Decker, in the end, made the right choice.

The Twilight Zone: Probe 7, Over and Out

"Probe 7, Over and Out" feels less like a self-contained short story and more like the first act of a feature-length movie. Once the situation is introduced and the characters are established, it ends, and I wanted more.

Rod Serling wrote and Ted Post directed this tale about Col. Cook (Richard Basehart), an astronaut who becomes stranded on another planet, and because Earth is embroiled in war, he has no hope of being rescued. 

If you're expecting an early version of The Martian, in which a stranded astronaut uses science to survive an uninhabitable world, you're in for a disappointment. The world Cooks ends up on is conveniently Earth-like, breathable atmosphere, gravity that doesn't flatten him into a pancake, and vegetation that hints food is available. There are early suggestions there might be a hostile creature to contend, but the resolution to the episode reveals that's not the case.

The episode concludes after Cook receives his last transmission informing him Earth is doomed and after he learns the mysterious creature is actually a woman. This Adam and Eve (which are actually the first names of the characters) then go off to begin humanity all over again, hopefully having learned from the mistakes of Earth.

Again, this is a nice idea, but it feels like the story hasn't even gotten underway. I'd like to see more about struggles of surviving on an uncivilized world and more interaction between Cook and Eve as they learn to communicate and love each other. Where's she from? How'd she get there? What is it really like to be the last Earthling in the universe? What's there is good if obvious Biblical allegory, but I wanted it to keep going.