Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room

Patrick Stewart's two most famous characters are Professor X and Captain Picard. In many of his roles, he projects an intelligent and restrained sense of authority. He is a father figure to those he leads, someone you trust is going to base his decisions on what's right and what's best for the people he commands. Those are nice traits in a leader, but what if he's the bad guy?

One of the many inspired touches taken by Green Room (2015), written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is how it plays off that persona audiences have come to associate with Stewart. Yes, he's playing the villain, Darcy, the leader of a backwoods group of white supremacists, and he orders them to commit several heinous acts (one young follower agrees to be stabbed and another agrees to take the blame for it, so the police will be thrown off the original crime), but this is still largely the same Patrick Stewart we know and recognize, and that's what makes his actions and decisions all the more horrific.

I'm going to do my best to avoid revealing too many plot details. Green Room works very well because so much that occurs is unpredictable, and the shocking moments are shocking not because they're loud noises that make you jump but because they are that violent, gory, unexpected, and out-of-nowhere. Like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, many developments occur without the traditional movie buildup and foreshadowing. They aren't random so much as they are the strict, logical result of the situation.

The plot concerns a young punk rock band (among them Anton Yelchin) who, after losing out on a gig, get re-booked at the aforementioned compound overseen by Darcy. They perform their setlist and are about to leave when they see something they shouldn't have seen, resulting a pressure cooker in the titular room. At a times trapped in a hostage situation, a siege, and a Mexican standoff, the band tries to figure a way out, along with Amber (Imogen Poots), who they're not sure they can trust.

From a thematic standpoint, Green Room is not particularly deep, apart from the punk rockers discovering they're not as hardcore as they set themselves up to be; there are some really nasty, evil people separate from the musicians who siphon gas to refill their tour van and play in coffee shops. The ideology of white supremacists, what drives a person to join a hate group, is not really explored apart from one line by Amber.

The strength of the film is its tension and physicality. It goes back to the bomb under the table rule described by Hitchcock, waiting for the violence to erupt as the discomfort and tension accumulates. Much of the film is devoted to both sets of characters talking among themselves as they try to determine a strategy and figure out what they need to do to come out on top and alive.

When the violence explodes, it is nasty, brutal, graphic, and sadistic. These characters go through the ringer, and it's not pretty. The blood and gore is played straight and realistic, and it hurts like Hell. When these people fight, attacking each other with box cutters and what not, they get hurt, and it's not clean or easy. Many watching the film will do so through with their hands over their eyes at the worst parts. Rarely has a gun shot been presented on film in so sudden, final, and destructive of a manner. There are closeups of ugly wounds, but mostly, the film shows just enough for the audience to create mental pictures that convey just how awful it would be to die that way.

Is this a fun movie? Not really. It's not campy or jokey, and the violence is not exciting or glamorized but desperate, bleak and painful. As an example of crafting suspense and shocks, it's a superior thriller, strongly directed and acted.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Maniac Cop

Wow. What a cast. Maniac Cop (1988) assembles quite the collection of 80s B-Movie actors: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Robert Z'Dar, Richard Roundtree, William Smith. Hell, just having Campbell and Z'Dar is something to be proud of; it's a titanic battle of the chins.

Written by Larry Cohen and directed by William Lustic, Maniac Cop is a late-to-the-party slasher with a neat conceptual hook: the killer is a uniformed police officer going after people in New York City. The movie demonstrates this with a nifty opening scene that instantly has you paying attention. A woman walking home runs away from muggers and spots a cop. She runs to him for help. He responds by breaking her neck.

Maniac Cop is exploitation fare through and through, but Cohen and Lustig are much too inventive and clever to settle for low-grade schlock. As with a number of their other movies, the two imbue the film with sharp wit, dark humor, and potent socio-political subtext that's still relevant today. On its most fundamental level, this is a slasher movie: a psycho killer going around cutting people up after a horrible event in the past physically and mentally scarred him, but Cohen and Lustig give us more than that.

By making the killer a cop, the film adds an element of paranoia and conspiracy. If someone dressed as a police officer was killing people, how would you be able to tell if an officer is on the up-and-up or the killer? Would you still want to call 911? Detective McRae (Atkins, naturally) says people trust cops, they obey the uniform. If an officer tells you to step out of your vehicle or walk down a dark alley, or do anything that might leave you vulnerable, you're supposed to obey. To protect and serve, right?

Of course, having a killer in the ranks is bad PR for the police force, so the commissioner (Roundtree) and chief (Smith) railroad an innocent sap, Officer Jack Forest (Campbell), after his wife is murdered by the maniac. Clean it up quickly, sweep the whole matter under the rug; we can't have the department looking bad, even if it only means the killer will lay low for a while before striking again. In a post-Tamir Rice, post-Freddie Gray world, the issue of police and public trust is arguably an even hotter topic than it was when the movie was made.

As dark and as violent as the movie is, Maniac Cop has a sly if morbid sense of humor. One early victim is handcuffed and smothered face first into wet cement. The next day, police and city workers have to use to jackhammers to carve him out. The movie also has fun faking the viewer out, leading you on before subverting expectations, particularly with the fate of one character.

When we learn the history of the maniac cop, we discover the truth is much worse. Matt Cordell (Z'Dar) was a tough super cop who took down all sorts of criminal scum, but city politicians and police officials threw him into Sing Sing, supposedly for abusing suspects, where he was attacked and seemingly murdered (the attack occurs in the shower, with a completely nude Z'Dar fighting off three thugs with shivs. Done entirely in slow motion and in the shadows, it's a brutal sequence). Thought dead, he survived somehow, disfigured, and now he's back on the streets, taking revenge against the city he once swore to protect after the corrupt system tried to destroy him. Even though he's a monster, he's also tragic, deserving of some sympathy.

Lustig keeps Cordell to the shadows and long shots. Until the end, we don't get a good, clear look at his face. Instead, we mostly see his gloved hands as they extract a blade or grab a throat. He's so intimidatingly big and imposing, he towers over everyone else in the cast and physically manhandles them with ease. The fact he has no dialogue only makes him more menacing. This is one cop you aren't going to talk out of giving you a ticket.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a shy, quiet young man meets a free-spirited, brash young woman, and the two hit it off despite their disparate personalities. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) plays out like this for its first 16 minutes. The man is Joel (Jim Carrey) and the woman is Clementine (Kate Winslet). On a spur of the moment decision, for no real reason, Joel takes a train out of town. He feels adrift, directionless, without purpose. Then, he meets Clementine, and everything is shaping up for the better.

But already, there are a few details that set things slightly askew. Joel has a journal with some pages torn out. He doesn't remember ripping the pages out, and he finds it odd that he apparently hasn't made an entry in two years. When he speaks to Clementine, she has the strange feeling they've met before. Most puzzlingly, when Joel is parked outside Clementine's place, waiting for her to get something, he's accosted by another young man (Elijah Wood) who asks him what's wrong and what he's doing there.

The true nature of what's going on is revealed soon enough. Joel and Clementine were in a relationship for two years. When they broke up after a fight, Clementine went to a company that erased all traces of Joel from her memory, and soon after, Joel also went through the procedure. Much of the movie takes places inside Joel's memories as they get wiped away while the memory doctor Howard (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Wood), and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) have their own subplots in the waking world that address many of the ethical questions I had about such a service.

The title of the movie comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard," and it's quoted by Mary. To think what a joy it must be to be able to not have to carry around all those hurtful memories and negative feelings. To be free of all that lingering pain, shame, and regret. Ignorance is bliss. That's what Lacuna, Inc. is offering in the film: to wipe away all those bad moments from your brain.

Yet, as Joel discovers during the procedure (which occurs while he sleeps), eliminating Clementine from his mind not only means getting ridding of the bad parts, it means losing all the happy moments, those memories he cherished. She was such an integral part of his life that to cut her out is to cut out everything she was a part of, leaving a huge gap, an emptiness. Being able to wipe your memory superficially sounds like a neat idea, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind demonstrates it is ultimately a sad, unfulfilling venture.

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michael Gondry, the film is by disorienting. The story is not told chronologically but jumps around, often moving in reverse order of Joel's memories as they get erased. His memories are all over the map from quiet, sedate, and meditative to freaky, nightmarish, and humiliating.

As the memories get wiped, people vanish and buildings crumple like something out of a fantasy tale. When Joel finds himself in the Lacuna offices, wanting to call the procedure off, he encounters employees who now have faceless, monstrous visages; Carrey is surrounded by shadowy corridors with a spotlight seemingly lighting his face, and the effect reminded me of the desperate, documentary style of The Blair Witch Project. Later, Joel is in a childhood memory, hiding under a kitchen table and later bathing in a sink, and the environment dwarfs him; the effect is comically surreal, like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie. Other moments, like the scenes on the beach as the snow, are beautiful.

Ultimately, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes down to the power of emotion over intellect. You can erase memories from your mind, but that won't remove love from your heart. As the viewer is torn from memories to dreams to reality, the emotional center of the film - Joel and Clementine's relationship - keeps us anchored without getting too overwhelmed. This is not a wacky, goofy comedy, and Carrey pulls off the serious, sad role with aplomb while Winslet turns in a great performance as the unconventional free spirit.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

What a name for a movie: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). It's less of a title and more of a command, a blunt order that draws the audience into the depravity and anger that ensues. I'm not sure the movie entirely lives up to that title, but it certainly hooked me in.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia sets itself up like the usual revenge western. A wealthy Mexican crime boss known only as El Jefe puts out a bounty for the man who seduced and impregnated his daughter, but then, we're given the first twist: this isn't the Old West. Even though El Jefe's compound is surrounded by desert, horses, and gunslingers dressed like cowboys, this is a contemporary movie.

When El Jefe demands the head of Alfredo Garcia, a man he was grooming to be his successor, the hitmen drive out in modern cars and motorcycles as if in a demolition derby. Later, Mexican cantinas are seen with Coca Cola advertisements, and one character is reading a Time magazine announcing Richard Nixon's impending impeachment.

In The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah suggested the nature of the Old West was dying. The old codes of honor, professionalism, and loyalty were being violently phased out by a rapidly encroaching modern world.  In Straw Dogs, he showed a decent, civilized man being pushed toward savage barbarism after repeated insults to his manhood. Here, Peckinpah seems to be illustrating just how violent the modern world still is and just how uncivilized it really remains.

The main character is Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-on-his-luck piano player/manager in a Mexican bar and former U.S. Army officer who gets hired by a pair of hitmen to track Garcia. Bennie learns from his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), a former lover of Garcia, that his target is already dead, killed in a case of drunk driving. Bennie figures it'll be easy money to drive to Garcia's grave and collect the head, using his payment to marry Elita and start a new life, but of course, nothing is that simple.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia takes a long time to get to the meat of its story. When Bennie and Elita head out to the town where Garcia is buried, the movie takes the form of a road trip. They drive along, have a picnic, make talk about their future, etc. Honestly, I didn't care too much for this section. It felt old hat and slow. There's a scene where they are threatened by a pair of bikers (including Kris Kristofferson) to liven things up, but overall, not much happens.

The movie kicks into high gear once we get to the out-of-the-way town and its dusty cemetery. Some unexpected developments occur, a few other head hunters get involved in the action, and it leads to what is essentially an extended chase as Bennie gets, loses, retrieves, and carries the head in his car as he tries to return to safely. It's a very perverse and at times blackly funny sequence as Bennie has to deal with the smell and flies (stuffing a bunch of ice into the sack with the head). Bennie starts talking to the head as if Garcia were still alive, and the effect is both insane and sad. Not knowing about El Jeffe or his daughter, Bennie becomes obsessed with learning why this head is worth such a heavy price because he himself pays a heavy one retrieving it.

Peckinpah displays his trademark showoff style. When people get shot and killed, it's in elongated slow motion, so we can watch the agony of their bodies. The style is very physical: dirt, sweat, flies, dust, heat, and grime, and the story crosses elements of the Western and the contemporary crime drama for ironic effect. Ultimately, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a delirious, intense ride, once it gets going.