Sunday, October 7, 2012

We're Gonna Need a Fourth Wall: My Favourite Film Volume 20

Ok, we're going to take a diversion in the present so that we can find some truth buried in the past. Post-modernism and all its bastards (Irony, metatext, pastiche, etc.) have taken over. It's impossible to view anything through just one lens. A film is viewed through its influences before its judged on its own terms, nothing is in a vacuum. Anyone who's hung around these old hallways knows that I'm a lunatic about history and context, especially where the integrity of an idea is concerned, but I'm also aware that we often jeopardize a text by putting history between ourselves and it. We risk losing sight of what's meant to be achieved and what we assume about it based on its place in history and the end of a bloodline. Is it always fair to judge a kid by his parent's achievements? Now, this all sounds like I'm gearing up to use this as a defense of one of ten trillion little shark attack movies made in the wake of Jaws, but that's not strictly true. Trying to defend Bait based on its heritage in the Shark movie would be a grave mistake - no way does it hold up against the best of those, or really even have much on the worst of them, at least on the surface. Bait couldn't be much simpler or slighter and is pretty silly, but there's something in there that saves it from the rubbish heap. And it starts with the name Russell Mulcahy under the writer and producer credits.

Bait 3D
by Kimble Randall

Six months ago a lifeguard named Rory was killed by a great white shark. He was killed filling in for his friend Josh, still hungover from his bachelor party. Josh was engaged to Rory's sister Tina, but Rory's gruesome death put a damper on that. Josh has been living in self-imposed social exile ever since. Hearing news of a big storm headed toward the little Australian town he lives in, Josh heads to his local supermarket, a sort of Sam's club thing at least a storey underground, to stock up on supplies. He shows up just in time for a few errant plot threads to meet. Jaimie, rebellious daughter of a local cop, is caught shoplifting while canoodling with her store employee boyfriend Ryan. Her dad just happens to be the first on the scene in response to the manager calling the police. Meanwhile two thugs try to hold the place up, one as a favor to the other; the rowdier of the two hoods clearly has something on his partner. Josh walks in as their robbery is interrupted by the concerned father/cop and spies Tina and her new boyfriend, back in town after spending a few months overseas. Got all that? Ok, good. Now add to that the tsunami trapping everyone inside, causing an explosion that seals the entrance and the parking garage off from the outside world and killing everyone but the relevant characters (plus a pretty bystander in her 30s, an older man and a horribly shallow younger couple and their annoying little dog). Oh, and the storm brought with it two great white sharks, one for the people stuck in the garage, and one for the people in the store.

Bait's plot is intriguing because of all the killer shark films since Jaws, I can't think of one that deals with its aquatic menace with so little flair - the human characters are trapped in a small space with sharks and they need to escape. Doesn't get much more basic than that. The sharks aren't super powered or even unusually aggressive (these being movie sharks they do a lot of jumping). They behave like real sharks, for the most part. The people they hunt are far more problematic. The leads are fine enough, though no one really ever seems all that frightened by the prospect of being eaten by a shark. The side characters run the gamut from sleepwalking to caricature. The worse of the two criminals is hammy to the utmost, the store manager appears to be speaking his lines phonetically, and the shallow couple in the parking garage occasionally beggar belief. Two things give me pause: the first is when Rory the lifegaurd is killed, it's via a needless, dumb 3D-enabled CGI shark jumping at the camera, eating the boy who seems to explode when it happens. That's by far the silliest moment in the film. What makes me question its existence, and indeed what led me to question everything I'd just seen is in the end credits.

Most horror movies end with metal songs, it's just par for the course since Dario Argento discovered power metal in the late-80s. Metal and Horror just go together. So when some fuzzy drop-tune power chords started up over the end credits I wasn't shocked. But it wasn't metal at all. It was a fairly low-key rock cover of "Mack The Knife", sung almost inaudibly by the director of the movie. Suddenly the whole film changed. One invokes Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Vile at one's peril. As a playwright, Brecht famously smashed the fourth wall and purposely made his audiences aware that they were watching theatre. This is old news. Habitual listeners to Mark Kermode's podcast will have heard him backpedal on his stance on 3D when Hugo came out - he cited it as a Brechtian alienation device and not just a gimmick as it most definitely was in the case of My Bloody Valentine or Avatar. it possible that this mostly forgettable shark movie made for almost no money was trying to have it both ways? Was the gimmick the point? And not just "here's some shit thrown at your face cause it's 3D." I mean did these guys make a 3D film because they wanted to make audiences aware of the fact that they were watching a movie in the 21st century with all the artifice that entails, and then did they throw a bunch of shit at your face? What a strange ambition for a horror film almost no one will actually see in the 3D they shot it in. There's a reason I don't have a problem believing that either: Russell Mulcahy. He was the film's producer and was going to direct it until his duties directing MTV's Teen Wolf reboot monopolized his time. Mulcahy was the reason I wanted to watch this film. When I thought he was directing, this became the film I wanted to see more than anything else in production. He'd tangoed with giant predators once before in his debut feature Razorback, one of my favourite films of all time, on which more in a moment. Even though his stamp is far less evident, its clear his fingerprints are all over Bait. There's the location - the store and garage are designed and lit to take advantage of 3D's light loss - I watched it in 2D (I had no choice) and almost felt like it'd be more frightening 30% darker. Randall may or may not have much of a way with actors (the Brecht conundrum), but he's a decent composer of shots and a few images are absolutely breathtaking. When they first discover the shark in the store, he cavalierly, languidly swims between the two aisles that the stranded shoppers are stuck atop. It's terrifying simply because it looks like a real shark and may well have been. It's so rare that the animals in movies get to be themselves and show off how terrifying they are when not on the hunt. A wolf is scary no matter what posture it assumes. So seeing a shark swim as if indifferent to the people who are afraid of it is fantastically effective. It isn't hiding, it isn't showing off its teeth or size, it's just there. Similarly, in the garage, the shallow couple are trapped in their BMW and can only talk to Ryan by sticking their head out of the sunroof. First of all, that's a great, frightening idea. Secondly, Randall here scores the best shot of the film as we see the shape of the shark illuminated underwater by the car's dim headlights. Its positively chilling, even more so than when the shark starts attacking their windows a few minutes later. Later when the shoppers realize that a frayed wire will electrocute them if the rising water reaches its sparking end, they realize they have to shut off the store's power, which means swimming to the manager's office. Their solution is to put Tina's boyfriend in a suit made of metal wiring, weighted down by paint cans. On its face it looks positively ludicrous and I start humming "Alabama Song" just thinking about it. But it also...kinda makes sense. And it leads to the film's first actually effecting scene. Randall also scores points by not bludgeoning us with the resonance, either. There's a fatalistic attitude towards its outcome; the story dictates that it must happen, yet its no less tragic for its necessity. If anything it adds to it. Slyly, quietly, Randall and Mulcahy are playing with convention. When Josh gets a big action hero moment at the end of the film, it feels and looks stupid, but I can't help feeling like that's the point. It's a shark film as directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the early 60s.

Casting gorgeous Xavier Samuel as Josh also feels a bit like a stunt (Fassbinder would have approved) - the boy had just starred in a Twilight film after all (David Slade calls him Excalibur). Rounding out the cast are two alumni from the offensively terrible Tomorrow When The World Began, Australia's answer to both Twilight and Red Dawn. Phoebe Tonkin is, shockingly, actually very likable in Bait, and I had a hard time believing she was the same girl whose annoying voice-over runs throughout Tomorrow. Lincoln Lewis doesn't exactly stretch himself, but neither Randall nor Stuart Beattie ask much of him. And anyway Randall probably asked him to go broad because the whole thing is clearly supposed to remind you that you're watching a movie. I'm choosing to take it as a good sign that I don't know whether that works or not. At the end of the day, I liked Bait, warts and all, because of its minimal stylistic victories and the fact that I wanted Samuel's hero to do the right thing and save everyone. And I know part of my acceptance of the film, which I imagine won't win many other people with its limited charms, is because I want Russell Mulcahy back. He hadn't touched a real horror film since he first tried his hand at feature filmmaking in 84. And that friends is what I really want to talk to you about. Why do I think that Bait is smarter than it appears? Because Razorback is one of the smartest horror films of the VHS era. For years it was only available in that delightful analog format; a Warner Brothers DVD has I believe recently gone out of print, putting it in limbo once again. I read about it in an encyclopedia of horror films that also introduced me to the likes of Basketcase and The Hills Have Eyes back when I was no older than 9 or 10. A horror film about a giant warthog? "Put it in my brain!" I said. So I found it at the now defunct Hollywood Video a minute or two from my house and watched it with two likeminded friends. Though I was so overwhelmed by its peculiarities that I didn't notice how strange the film was (at 10 I admit to not having quite as keen an insight into film technique as I enjoy today) outside of the obvious, Razorback stayed with me. We quoted it endlessly to each other until the end of sixth grade when our going to separate high schools intervened. For my father's birthday six years ago I bought a VHS copy on Ebay before it made it to DVD. When my VCR died, I found a rip online that I watch from time to time just because any seven seconds of the film is so full of vitality and verve that it's like a shot of cinematic espresso. Razorback may not frighten everyone, but it is completely unique.

by Russell Mulcahy

Beth Winters is a newly pregnant investigative journalist sent to the town of Gamulla, Australia to look into illegal hunting and the resultant meat industry. The locals are understandably tight-lipped. Not only is she a fiercely independent American woman (one of three female characters that I remember seeing in the entire film), she's an interloper out to expose some of the locals as immoral crooks. Benny and Dicko Baker, two of the most loathsome yahoos ever portrayed on screen (good luck getting the sound of their laughter out of your head. They're like two different kinds of rusty hinge!), work for Petpak, a processing plant, and take a particular interest in her activity. Beth wants nothing to do with the two hillbillies, except possibly to catch them with their pants down, for which she'll pay a price. For now though she's more intrigued by Jake Cullen, a grizzled old man who hunts boar for fun. "Something about blasting the shit out of a razorback brightens my whole day" he offers in explanation for his hunting habits. Beth makes the mistake of going out to Petpak with her camera to steal images of the gruesome goings on and is followed back to civilization by Benny and Dicko in their gigantic truck (somewhere Max Rockatansky's mechanic is calling his lawyer). They run her off the road and drag her out of her car. If her body were ever found, the authorities would have a hard time proving the two men molested her. Before Dicko can get his pants off, something far worse than two horny yokels shows up.

A few weeks later, Beth's husband Carl shows up in Gamulla looking for clues as to his pregnant wife's disappearance. He finds Jake Cullen, who spends more time talking about razorbacks than anything else - his young grandson was killed by one and he took the blame in the community even if there wasn't enough evidence for a conviction. Jake suspects that the Volkswagon Eurovan-sized warthog that killed his grandson and permanently crippled him is responsible for Beth Winters' death as well but he doesn't come out and say it in front of poor Carl, who is understandably going to be put off by that theory while in the throes of loss that Cullen himself knows so much about. Winters suspects foul play on four legs, alright, but is convinced they belong to Benny and Dicko. He goes to meet them and pretends to be a canadian looking for work. They take him right in and show him their hospitality (like the denizens of The Yabba before them). In the middle of the night they wake him to go kangaroo hunting - this doesn't go well. When Dicko shoots one of the poor creatures but doesn't kill it (suffering makes the meat better, don't you know?), Carl pukes everywhere, steals one of their knives and goes to finish the poor thing himself. The brothers don't fancy bringing a greenhorn out on their hunt, so they leave him with a blanket and go off to finish by themselves, promising to come back in five or six hours. That's all well and good until the freezing night starts to nip at the American's heels and then a bunch of angry sounding warthogs show up. He climbs the first thing he finds, a creaky old windmill, and belts himself to it to keep himself up there as he tries to sleep.

When Winters wakes up, he's so terrified and in such poor shape that he won't leave the lake the windmill falls in once he learns the pigs can't swim. When hunger and thirst kick in and the hogs wander off, he sets off on at least a day-long (if not longer) trek to get to Sarah Cameron's house. She's a local wildlife expert, tracking, studying and caring for just about every creature in Gamulla. Screenwriter Everett De Roche thankfully gives her none of the hallmarks of this kind of character - she isn't even as intense as Matt Hooper. She's independent and mannered and happens to be good friends with Jake Cullen (she was riding shotgun when he encountered Beth Winters). She's also played by the impossibly cute and much missed Arkie Whiteley at the absolute pinnacle of her adorability, so, yeah, I'd head to her house too if I was stranded in her neck of the woods. She nurses him back to health while Cullen goes off in search of the sight of Carl's encounter with the hostile pigs. Cullen finds the big bad motherfucker, alright, but runs out of bullets before he can kill him - he does, however, manage to get one of Sarah's tracking darts in him. He also finds Beth's wedding ring. Thus the two men make decisions: that night, with his signal locked, Cullen goes out once again, this time to kill the beast once and for all. Carl for his part decides to go home to the states and try rebuilding his life. Benny and Dicko have other plans. They overhear that Jake has evidence about the fate of Beth Winters and think he's likely to turn them in for their involvement. So they find him and further hobble him in the middle of the night. Jake sends his dog out for help, but they kill the poor thing when they see it on the road. So when the razorback shows up for a proper showdown, it goes decidedly less well for Jake than he'd hoped all these years. This leaves only Sarah and Carl in any shape to do anything about the two murderous meatpackers and the giant boar they now know beyond a shadow of a doubt is lurking nearby.

 It's clear from the first seconds of Razorback that this is a superior film - something wilder, more angular and stylish than nearly anyone in the genre game was attempting. Interrupting the first few credits is the image and sound of a windmill working at impossible intensity. The image is a familiar one - no one would be shocked to learn of Mulcahy's pedigree shooting music videos. Indeed he sort of coined the form when he shot the piece for "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the Bugles. The windmill's sound is huge; deliberately overpowering. Then we see the outback, we know that's where we are because of the kangaroo in the foreground - we're less sure about the red skies that corrupt the rest of the frame. Not even the Road Warrior himself rode under skies this gorgeously oppressive. Then we pan behind the figure of Bill Kerr's soon-to-be-disgruntled hunter. The orange sky and the motion of the camera strongly suggest Apocalypse Now - the synth score does too. Moments later Kerr puts his grandson to bed and starts hearing the sounds. Grunting, squealing, but the music tells us there's menace in these otherwise innocuous sounds. He steps outside and the thing that drew his attention, the boar, breaks through his paremeter fence then tusks the man's leg, destroys his house and carries off his baby grandson into the night. The boar is obviously an effect, footage of a proper animal shot in perspective mixed with an unmoving prop shuttled through the set on wheels. This is deliberate. When they gave Steven Spielberg a shark that didn't work, he hid it. When they gave the same thing to Mulcahy, the young punk made its fakeness an asset, sending it hurtling through his set at top speeds. It's not real, clearly, but that doesn't stop it from destroying a house and eating a baby. The lighting and sound design sell it even as we're more than aware that it shouldn't work. Kerr's reaction helps in no small part. When he discovers his lost charge, he wanders into the yard and falls to his knees screaming in agony to the heavens when the titles eat the rest of the frame. Whatever else is true of the film, I can bet that you've never seen anything quite like this. This is the monster movie to end all monster movies.

The editing is relentless, somewhere between Eisenstein, Dawn of the Dead's apartment seige and Richard Lester. The compositions and camera movements reference seemingly every monster/horror film that had come before it, not to mention most major australian productions; Mulcahy's entre into the world of big budget filmmaking was by all means a hopeless assignment, so he takes down the likes of The Race For the Yankee Zephyr, Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Gallipoli Wake In Fright, Patrick, The Last Wave, The Survivor, Walkabout, Stone, The Cars That Ate Paris and Long Weekend while he was at it. It's an upstart move, saying in essence "You loved all this shit, so, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to endure this movie." He also anticipated The Coca-Cola Kid, but I'd believe that was a coincidence if anyone told me otherwise. If the powers that be wanted him to play in the mud like Brian Trenchard-Smith and Rod Hardy, then he was going to outdo everyone in the game All the visual cues you recognize from those movies? That's Mulcahy saying "Yes, everything you've ever been told about this fucking country is 100% true. Animals roam freely in our houses, homeless natives hang out nearby, we drink constantly, murder those we don't care for, hunt kangaroos, tell off-color jokes, drive Road Warrior trucks and those who can't afford them ride camels." As if that weren't enough, he was also going to take the various styles shown in the likes of Next of Kin, Patrick and Picnic at Hanging Rock and outdo them all! No shot would be wasted, no lighting set-up half-assed, no sound cue unaltered. He was going to out-stylize Richard Franklin, Peter Weir, Colin Eggleston and George Miller in one go. And at the risk of deifying a man who has yet to live up to the promise of his debut, I say he more than achieves this feat. He may never have put all his energy to good use again but then how could anyone hope to recreate the success of a film like this? It shouldn't work (and as evidenced by Highlander, it wouldn't under any other circumstances), as he appears to try literally every flourish and trick that he was ever taught, but it absolutely does. Frankly any gimmicky approach you tried but straight-forward could only elevate the material (is there a sillier premise for a horror film, even in Australia where no premise was too outlandish, than a giant pig eating people?) so when Mulcahy decides that every single object would have a big-ass light source illuminating it, that every single scene would contain something completely unreal and/or nightmarish, that every single character would be a stereotype that he was deconstructing as rapidly as he was building, he was making a judgment call - love or hate the film but you would never forget it once you saw it. Just look at his version of New York that we glimpse for seven seconds; it's the same city that Jonathan Demme would capture in Something Wild two years later: Outsized and silly. Who in their right mind would choose to show a black man with a ghetto blaster on a street corner rife with old-fashioned taxis instead of just the goddamn Empire state building? It's the most recognizable landmark in the world and it certainly would have been in keeping with his purposely-tourist's eye view of the outback - kangaroos, aborigines, drinking. But he was after caricature. And though much of the film is stereotypical in microcosm, he frames and presents them so that you aren't ever sure what you've just seen. "Was that a guy with a ghetto blaster? Was that a car hanging from a baobab tree?" His goal is to both toe the line of Australia as a hellhole as propagated by most accounts of the place in pop culture (not to mention shoe-horning wombats, pigs, camels and other animals into as many shots as possible) and then make it seem far, far worse. This film was his ticket out of the outback and he's never gone back (except, hilariously enough, to remake the nearly perfect, but geographically/culturally inaccurate On The Beach for TV with Armand Assante taking over for Gregory Peck). He's also never made a film that works since.

Mulcahy is exclusively the reason the movie works as well as it does. Obviously the edit helps him greatly, but without his compositions, his bug-eyed imagery and the way he handles the creature, the film would simply not work. Despite being, like Ted Kotcheff before him, an expat, scriptwriter Everett De Roche was the Outback's answer to Dardano Sacchetti and had written a handful of the country's most beloved grindhouse films; there was almost nothing he didn't try at some point. Watching Mark Hartley's fantastic documentary Not Quite Hollywood! you could get the impression that unless Peter Weir was in town, De Roche was in some way responsible for any given Aussie horror film. That's not true, but I will say it's a damn good thing he got directors as game and skilled as Richard Franklin and Mulcahy because his insane ideas would have destroyed less capable and fearless hands. I'm not even sure that George Miller, no slouch, but with no distinct visual style from film to film, would have survived a De Roche genre exercise. In the B-picture game Franklin was Mulcahy's only serious stylistic competition until he made Psycho II and discovered his wacky sense of humour which put him in closer proximity to Philippe Mora and Trenchard-Smith. Watch Link sometime to see why he never quite made it to the big leagues. But between Patrick and Road Games you can see a fantastic talent stealing bits of Hitchcock to craft taught, unnerving thrillers from laughable De Roche premises. Arch Nicholson, Mulcahy's second unit director, comes a close second with Fortress and Dark Age proving almost as grim and stunning as Razorback. Nicholson died shortly after completing Dark Age so we'll never know if he would prove capable of sustaining his vision. In that time and in the studio system everyone seemed to be clamouring to be part of, chances are slim. Mulcahy sure couldn't. But for one film he was king of the fucking world. Even if no one knew it. 

Understandably what producers seized on was his ability to capture mood and so a stream of truly horrible action films like the first two Highlander movies, The Shadow, Silent Trigger, Blue Ice, Ricochet, The Real McCoy, The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior and as we've already seen, Resident Evil: Extinction, a film which utilized almost none of his strengths, were in his future whenever he wasn't collecting money directing music videos and TV. Rarely has a director with such a thorough understanding of cinematic convention, not to mention technique, squandered his gifts quite so splendidly. Not until Greg Mclean would Australia see a talent as cunning and ferocious arrive sui generis to reinvent the possible in the midst of an over-saturated generic landscape whose well had run completely dry. Mclean's Wolf Creek had just as much as style and beauty as Razorback, despite being twice as bleak. His follow-up, Rogue, is the Eaten Alive to Wolf Creek's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it still gives me far more hope for Mclean's future than if he'd made Highlander (for instance I'm worried about Andrew Traucki, who last I heard was planning a thing about spaceship racing that I hope someone convinced him to table). Rogue and Wolf Creek are just as knowing as Razorback and between them capture the earlier film's sensibility, but even Mclean doesn't have the Godardian sense of deconstruction and anarchy that Mulcahy favored. Razorback is a film completely alone in its use of popular style and convention; a horror film about horror films.

The images and individual sequences are first-rate, unmatchable. The film's centrepiece is also its high-point: Carl's trek through the desert. The attack on petpak during the finale has been compared in the past to Alien, and I'd add Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood and Black Lace and Blade Runner to that and it certainly is both thrilling and mesmerizing. But the desert trek is Mulcahy painting with his camera. Every new tableau Carl wanders into is distinct from the last, some looking like the hyberborian wastes of Conan the Barbarian (by either John Milius or Frank Frazetta), others like Salvador Dali. In one he wanders under a blaring red sun and just to his right is a crack in the earth that looks like the edge of a film strip. The peculiar fuzziness these shots acquire in VHS format makes them seem even stranger, like they were spliced in by accident. Their progression only makes them even more post-modern and strange: Winters passes a dead horse arranged like a scarecrow then walks for most of a day, then suddenly he's back at the horse. As he crafts shoes out of scraps of his clothing, the horse breaks out of the ground to attack him. When he runs away, it's back where we first saw it, except now its nodding and laughing at him like a jack-in-the-box. The film's best scare and one of its most indelible images is clear evidence that Razorback is about the genre as much as anything. After waking from his walkabout in Sarah Cameron's guest bed, he sees her sitting on the edge of the bed. He gingerly lifts one hand to tap her shoulder and when she turns around, her face is replaced with that of an angry looking pig, squealing maniacally. We've all seen this scare before. How many times did Freddie Kruger or some other bogeyman or demon hide behind something ordinary. This is Razorback's version of the bathroom mirror scare or of Jason Voorhees/Carrie White's dream sequence coups de grâce. Again, it shouldn't work: is anyone frightened on paper of a warthog? Well first of all it's some kind of grotesque halloween mask, exaggerated and covered in hair. Second of all, it's so sudden that it could have been anything and worked. Then you have a moment where you realize you were frightened by a pig. This is his game. He will get you afraid or repulsed by his monster if its the last thing he does. Killing Beth Winters the way he does is pretty genius. Suddenly there's the whole fucking thing staring at her just outside her car window. Then it yanks the door off and begins eating her feet. Like the rest of the film, it'd be preposterous if it weren't so horrifying. Oh, and that line about blasting the shit out of a Razorback that Jake Cullen gives Beth Winters? That's this film's "We're gonna need a bigger boat."

Now the plot mechanics, I suppose, can only be attributed to De Roche and the source novel he drew from (which...who the christ thought this would make a good book?). But I'm going to give credit to Mulcahy for playing up the dynamics he does so well. Thanks to Jake Cullen's stoic single-minded pursuit of the beast, and Carl Winters' pregnant wife backstory, Razorback is both a pastiche/homage to Jaws, the film that started the mother nature's revenge film cycle once more and made it personal rather than epidemic, The White Buffalo, the most peculiar of Dino De Laurentiis' Moby Dick/Jaws riffs, and Orca, the Dino's Jaws rip-off that gave its antagonist not just a backstory but human emotions as well. Now the pig in Razorback's only real breaks from reality are its existence, its laying low between attacks and its only ever killing plot-specific characters; No Alex Kintner is sacrificed to this monster. He's not greedy. He just wants to set forth the chain of events that will lead to his demise. Fatalistic in a way that not even de Laurentiis' tragic orca whale managed. He doesn't have emotions and Mulcahy frames him like a phantom, almost like Michael Myers. The moments where we glimpse him in profile on the horizon are fucking priceless. His existence is never less than galling, but it's never played for laughs. If any other actor but Bill Kerr dropped to his knees and screamed to the heavens (three separate times, no fucking less), as action heroes always seem to, it wouldn't work, but Mulcahy knows that it will. Every convention is in play and delivered with a straight face - you accept it in literally every other situation, so why not a giant warthog? After all far more care went into this monster than anything in Frogs or Day of the Animals.  This is fourth wall breaking of the highest order; so good that its seamless. And the pace makes it impossible to stop and ask questions. Everyone on screen buys it, and so, too, do you, by the end.

So when Bait 3D opens with a cartoony looking shark jumping out of the ocean to eat someone, could it possibly be writer/producer Russell Mulcahy literally jumping the shark? That's the story I'm going with. As in Razorback, there are moments of real terror nestled in the stealth commentary about the decline of the genre. It's not as compelling as Razorback because you can only get it that right once. Perhaps the reason he's never done a horror film as well is because he said everything he needed to. After you've dissected the genre, what can you do but try to put it back together?

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Meaning of Life

I'm at a crossroads. I watch film after film and want to share my thoughts about them, but a few things stop me. First of all, who has the time? I gobble the damn things up like a hungry, hungry hippo and don't ever want to stop to reflect. I simply consume. I'm greedy and the only thing I give back are films of my own, which no one sees as I have no way of getting them to people and ensuring the work of my cast and crew are fully appreciated. Also, I'm broke as shit. I have a job and all of my money goes to pay debt. And furthermore if I ever hope to make a living making films, is it responsible or nice of me to sit here and bitch about the work of hard-working professionals who are making a living doing the thing I love. Wouldn't do to piss on those who've made a life for themselves and who are already under so much scrutiny, especially if they're heroes of mine. And so friends I swallow review after review. Not because I don't love you and want to keep writing for you, my loyal and beloved audience, but because I'm a worrywort and a bit of a fraidycat. But occasionally something happens and it shakes me from paralysis, partly because it seems to know everything about me. Its creator seems to spend all day worrying about death just like I do. And so how can I resist? Especially when the man and his films have bookended my life so far, directly and otherwise. If you guessed Prometheus, perhaps you too know me a little better than you think. As you'll recall, longtime readers, consciousness begins at Aliens, James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Suddenly, there I was, a little human with a brain that would ever return to two things: death and film. For me, they are constants. The only certain things in life. And so I've spent my life watching, rewatching, examining, dreaming about, and writing about the films in the Alien universe. How fitting then, that on my 23rd Birthday, Ridley should give me this gift; another Alien film that is and isn't that. What it is friends, apart from appalling coincidence/synchronicity from Scott to myself, is a reminder that though we are confronted by many horrifying questions, we should never stop asking even more, demanding more from the universe. Sure, we get horrible films all year, but we don't have to. We don't have to pay money to see whatever thing Michael Bay has backed (ok, so I'm not done shit-talking. But what are the odds I'll ever meet the man. I'm sure he has people who are paid to keep pricks like me away from his fantastically adorned, two-car garage, six bedroom ego) we can instead pay money to see a film that asks far more questions than it answers. On this, the day I was put on earth, in the year we've been told will be our last, I couldn't ask for more...or could I? I will say that it's mighty fitting that a film about the nature of existence seemed designed to help me examine my own. After all, I'd felt like I'd been waiting my whole life to see this film, just as Ridley'd evidently been waiting that same amount of time to make it.

by Ridley Scott 

On a planet we're meant to recognize, but not too well, a docile looking white humanoid alien infects himself with some form of poison and his remains are scattered into a waterfall. What are we witnessing? The end of life or the beginning? Meanwhile in a time and place we're meant to recognize, Scotland in 2089 (I do wish Ridley would have learnt his lesson from Blade Runner about picking years as settings), two archeologist/sociologists discover the final piece of a puzzle they've been assembling for sometime. A cave painting that happens to look enough like six or seven other cave paintings from impossibly distinct and far away cultures. They reason that this is proof that some other life form landed here, taught our many cultures and then vanished. Or, perhaps they did more? Perhaps they created us; living gods. Evidently they aren't the only ones with peaked curiousity, as Peter Weyland, a billionaire in rapid decay and none-too happy about it, has bankrolled a trip to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. The cave paintings depict a constellation that they've finally located and near it, a moon capable of supporting life. When our heroes wake up ready to land, the wide-eyed wonder of the now long dead Weyland has been replaced with the cold, watchful skepticism of mission director Meredith Vickers, the woman with direct ties to the money that put them here. They can go looking for their supposed creators, but they may not do anything that puts the giant, costly ship at risk, which includes talking to them or bringing them on board. 

Their optimism isn't damped. Elizabeth Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway have been on this course for years, several of them spent frozen in space, and just because some humourless executive tells them to play it safe doesn't mean they're going to. And besides, her pet android David seems to be programmed specifically to poke around ever deeper into the mysteries that present themselves, so why shouldn't they? They land and begin investigating one of three oddly shaped mounds. David's been programmed to not waste a second's time wondering at the vast expanses of tunneling they find beneath the giant structure and has soon activated a primitive video playback which illustrates what happened to the architects of the thing. Something went terribly awry and they tried to make a quick getaway. So quick was their retreat that one of them had his head cut off by a door before he made it to their own version of cryogenic sleep. Shaw takes his decapitated head back to the ship to investigate. David takes his own souvenir in the form of a capsule of strange black liquid. See the door that closed on the poor alien's head also hermetically sealed him in, and now that it's exposed to the air again and all its toxic properties and heat, the liquid has started to bubble and melt, releasing...things...

Shaw attempts to shock the nerve endings of the head, but only succeeds in blowing it up after too much stimulation. David has a little more luck, if you could call it that. He isolates a drop of the strange liquid and then gives some of it to a despondent Holloway in a glass of rum. Holloway was very much hoping to carry on a conversation with his creator, but there's no evidence that any of them are still alive. Or so he thinks. The following day when they return to the pyramid, as they've taken to calling it, to retrieve two lost members of their party who were stranded by a toxic storm the day before, David discovers that one of them's still frozen and could be revived. So why doesn't he tell Holloway right away? That's just one of many secrets these people have all been keeping from each other. More pressing is that David's experiment in Holloway's body has worked; so much so that the man becomes terminally ill in a hurry with some horrid infection. Worse still, he and Shaw had sex just after it finished incubating. Things get ugly fast. In the process of trying to learn what created her and why, Shaw becomes an unknowing creator of life, or at any rate, she unleashes lifeforms that were otherwise arrested or unborn.

Let's start with the obvious. The filmmaking is top notch, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are fucking amazing, the cinematography and editing are fantastic, the effects are largely great and I appreciate the nods to other films though I could lived without them. This isn't Alien. Nothing is. Alien is a perfect film and Scott knows this as well as I do. He isn't trying to outdo himself, he's here to answer some questions, put others to bed for good, and ask quite a few more. In the middle category, he and his two hired screenwriters have pulled the ground from beneath Alien: Resurrection, Alien Vs. Predator and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem. There are plot elements from all three films, weirdly enough, which I view as the resignation of a father bailing his blacksheep son out of jail. I gave you life, goddamnit and I can't abandon you now. And so in is the billionaire bankrolling one last trip into the unknown and the sense that capitalists with death phobias are the cause of our interstellar problems. Also in are some pretty icky biological equations a la Resurrection. What I like about the ostensible lip service he pays here is that he's also saying "Yes, that all happened, but here it is in a much neater package so you needn't have your faith in my film raped by pretenders to the throne." So in essence, anything you would have gotten out of films 4-6 is here, so skip them and tell your friends and children to go straight here. Of course the script suffers for their inclusion but I respect the urge to clean up the mess made in his wake. Also causing the film to suffer, too many disposable characters (a tradition of the Alien sequels, I'm afraid, though you used to know and care about them), breakneck pacing (Alien was as splendid as it was languid), too much dialogue, a Phantom Menace-style slickening of production design even if it makes sense in context, and a fairly boring morality governing the action, even if the heart of the film escapes this. And though the film is a prequel to Alienthat too seems almost beside the point. Scott started the wheels turning with that concept, and then realized he hadn't asked questions of his audience in a very long time. Kingdom of Heaven gets at a lot of these issues, though they're hidden rather better under a very impressive, handsome and engaging historical epic. Scott's relationship to theology is one of the more adult in contemporary art; he gets that we made it up, but also understands why we did it. What he seeks to do is go deeper than it's possible for humans to go right now from our limited vantage point. This is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, an epic that seeks to sniff out the genesis of evolution and our relationship to technology.

Ridley Scott's done something uncommonly brilliant and meta-textual here. He can't have been the only one who had questions left at the end of Alien. So in delving into the questions that would have led to the creation of his earlier film, he also answers those same questions about life. Both are as important to him. Like William Friedkin or Francis Ford Coppola, Scott was an artist who managed to produce great, shocking and sometimes even perfect work within the confines of the studio system. What are widely considered their best films (The Exorcist, The Godfather, Alien) were made for massive consumption with overbearing producers and yet there they are. They had a stunning amount of control, but were still under the watchful eyes of the cautious and the greedy, and still made art that will hold up until the end of time so far as I can tell. So perhaps in trying to figure out what made him produce the best work of his life, Ridley returned to it as a vessel to ask a series of questions about how he's even here in the first place. And that's the meat of Prometheus. The aliens who may or may not have created us (they share our DNA, just as Gods are always drawn/painted/portrayed to resemble us) did so for a reason? Then why did they make us mortal? Why did they abandon us to a life absent of their voice and guidance? He also expands on the existentialist crisis that awaits all children when they discover that the universe is infinite, but that our sun will one day burn out. We're told as kids not to think about it as we'll be long dead by then. Well...what if we didn't have to be? If we could walk up to our "gods," our creators, and ask them to simply explain why we die, and perhaps get them to turn off the clock of fate that we each have wound up inside us, then we could simply hop galaxies until we found one with a better sun, right? I imagine in the sequel to Prometheus, he'll get around to asking whether eternal life's all it's cracked up to be. Let me say that I love that this is a movie about curiousity. How often do you see a fucking epic on this scale and realize that it's about using all the resources in the world to just keep looking for answers.

 Worth noting is that Scott asks these questions because he doesn't know. So obviously the film has no answers. Which makes up for it being boilerplate at points and conventionally structured. A fascinating idea is stepped over in almost every scene, sometimes literally as when we open the decades-closed chamber containing the dark liquid and our headless demi-god and discover in the soil, maggots! How'd they get there? A product of this moon brought to Earth by accident? Something the aliens invented and bring with them wherever they go? Or simply a species that would evolve on any body in any solar system. The question the movie is concerned with that gets the plot in gear is what happened before Shaw and her team got there? Because the holograms and all evidence suggests that they came to some realization and then immediately tried to high-tail back to earth to kill all of us and, perhaps, start over. Did they figure out that they made us mortal? Or prone to violence and hate? Did they mistakenly make women child-bearers instead of men, which upset our hormones and made men more violent and less caring by nature? The beautiful thing? We may never learn it of our alien creators. We'll certainly never learn how much of our DNA was a mistake. It's a small comfort to know that despite the many songs and poems that state the contrary, we couldn't be anyone other than who we are. Existence isn't so random that you may well have been born a tree or whatever the goddamn. You are you, reading these words, simply because you were generated inside your parents. You have them hardwired into you. Which, to me, is a sublime idea. We are the only sure things about existence. You couldn't have been any other way, so for fuck's sakes own it! Of course some of us will always wonder/wander. Hence that splendid android. He has no biological father, just a programmer who states openly that he doesn't believe David has a soul. The robot in turns confesses he wouldn't mind killing his parents, as he goes searching for role models in the form of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (a film I also have a huge affection and attachment to). A much more fitting comparison than it initially seems; he too was sent to do a rather difficult and thanklessly complicated job for a benevolent father figure. Stripped of most of our existential crises by virtue of not having an expiration date, David is free to wonder with us once his father has stopped giving him orders and proven that there's no escaping death, so we might as well understand it and everything else, while we're at it. Like a broken jack-in-the-box, he may seem as though he's outlived his usefulness, but not so long as he can help open doors to more answers. I think he too understands that without a sense of purpose, there'd be no reason to exist, so he adopts one because it makes his existence as vital as if he'd been programmed to do a specific job. In other words, he's more human than he seems.

Life is short but astonishing. Ten years and 13 days before I was born, Alien made it to theatres where my dad saw it, setting off a chain of events that has led to this day in my life. Scott returned to the film that defined my life - whether I'd have made films without him is open to debate, but I'm more than willing to concede that between my parents and Ridley Scott lies my purpose, and I owe them equally for the direction my life has taken. Nary a conversation between my dad and I doesn't somehow touch on the man and his films. We love talking about Alien. It's one of his favourite films, one of my favourite films, and Scott's work and influence besides been a constant in my life since I first snapped into realization of my surroundings and eventually what life exactly was. A lot of my life's been spent just trying to wrap my head around the idea of dying, and what that means for my life. And on my 23rd birthday I sit down next to my dad in a movie theatre to watch Ridley Scott question existence using as his vessel a directionless, undying robot who shares my first name and loves film. Much like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg did eleven years earlier when they named their robot the same thing, made him my age and then sent him down a rabbithole of existential discovery. Further coincidental madness: my eldest sister Elena was born in 1986, the same year that Aliens was released. My younger sister Rachel was born in 1992, the same year Alien³ hit screens. I don't believe in a creator, but I do believe in film. I don't think Scott, Kubrick or anyone else made movies because they knew I'd be watching - they make films because they have to, because they hope that I, anyone, will watch. As do I, because of them. Humans are the only species with the capacity to make art to further our understanding of the universe. Even if we like to belive that, as David himself says, big things have small beginnings, we have no guarantee that we'll amount to anything. There is no Why to existence, but sometimes it's very comforting to look at a movie screen and know that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Alone Together

Jean Renoir once said that the only real way to gauge the talent of a crop of filmmakers is to have everyone make the same movie. Unless everyone makes a western, how will you know whether their strengths transcend their obsessions? I like to think we've come to see that the eye-roll that used to greet Westerns and horror films critically is not only unfair, it's unproductive. The odd direct-to-dvd cheapie is going to piss on the buffet, sure, but let's look at the year 2007. Think about the few mainstream westerns that were given runs in a proper movie house; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men (if you will). At the risk of losing my academic edge, those films fucking rule. Granted, I'm sure they sure weren't pitched like Anthony Mann would have pitched The Naked Spur to studio heads, but they're grammar is all Mann, Ford, Huston and Boetticher. Actually that's not entirely true. There's also a shit load of McCabe & Mrs Miller, Robert Altman's gorgeous, opiate ode to the west. In Altman's filmography McCabe was sandwiched between a war film, a countercultural whiff, a trippy horror film, an old fashioned showbiz movie warped into a docudrama, a dystopian sci-fi lark and a dustbowl crime dramedy. Without genre films what the fuck would Robert Altman have done in the 70s? Without the genre film just what the fuck is the Golden Age of Hollywood? In fact, where the fuck does the establishment get off using Genre to describe anything other than gripping drama or films about jesus? Sorry, my point is that if you want to know what a director is capable of, if you want their style distilled to its essence, put them in charge of a western or a sci-fi film. This year Nic Winding Refn, Kelly Reicherdt, Takashi Miike, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Rupert Wyatt, Jon Favreau, Craig Gillespie and Gore Verbinski saddled themselves with the conventions of films outside of their usual mindblowing personal projects and all acquitted themselves admirably, if not actively making their previous work pale in comparison. But the person I'm here to talk about once again is Lars Von Trier. In the last two years Lars has released movies that, if you squinted, were genre exercises, but were really just Lars Von Trier films. Any director worth his salt makes a film that you could recognize a mile off as the work of its creator. Swanberg and Refn come out best on that score of those listed above but Von Trier has them beat hands down. From the first second we clap eyes on Kirsten Dunst conducting electricity through her fingers in slow motion, we know which demigod has created the universe we're now locked inside. Granted it took Dogville, Manderlay, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark for us to know that, but the genre film is too important because as we'll see, it may be the only place the artist can still thrive.

by Lars Von Trier

We meet Justine on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Everyone tells her it should be the happiest day of her life. She keeps acknowledging that it should be the happiest day of her life. Yet every second she can give over to it is spent running away from the things meant to make her happy. She's just been married to charmingly simple Michael and her sister Claire and her husband John have thrown them a wedding that out-does Michael Cimino's most resplendent ceremonies in its lavishness and John is not about to let her forget how much fucking money he spent on this wedding, as if reminding her how much effort went into it makes it seem like any better an idea in Justine's mind. For despite everyone's best efforts, it's Justine's depression, not John's money, Claire, their horrible parents, her boss nor her husband, that is running the show. After every imaginable escape attempt, her husband finally takes the hint and leaves. Justine stays at John and Claire's enormous estate for as long as they'll have her but even that doesn't last long. Her depression is her only company in the week following her wedding so finally Claire sends a car to her house to pick her up. Justine might not be fit to get out of bed, but Claire's going to make sure that she's in bed near people who care about her. And just as Claire makes it her mission to cheer Justine out of her crippling depression for what must be the hundredth time, John starts worrying about Claire. The thing that has Claire having kittens is that a small planet has been spotted. Not just by astrophysicists either. Justine saw the damn thing on her wedding night and it's just gotten bigger since then. Claire has spent a little too much time on the internet and thinks that "Melancholia" is going to crash into the earth and kill everything on it. John, being the kind of know-it-all his wardrobe and wealth betrays, is something of an amateur astronomer and he concurs with the most reasoned argument that it's just on a fly-by course and will do nothing more than temporarily encroach on the atmosphere and impede everyone's breathing for a few minutes. That may be, but John's certainty betrays not only his insufferable behavior. After all, only so much of it is for Claire's benefit. He too needs convincing that Melancholia isn't going to kill all life on earth and the more he talks the more he sounds like he's trying to fool himself. In fact the only person who remains unflappable in the face of the greatest uncertainty in man's history is Justine. She seems certain that not only are they doomed, it's not even that big a deal. So who's right?

On its face Melancholia is one of the clumsiest metaphors in the history of film. A planet called Melancholy threatens to kill everyone on earth. Well...fucking duh. As someone with what I've always considered at least depressed tendencies (never diagnosed, never serious enough to consider diagnoses, won't pretend for a second it's as serious as those who have it, please forgive my attempts at empathy here) and who's had seriously depressed friends (To put it another way I've never been as hopeless as Justine, but I've certainly been Claire, spending whole days thinking of something to cheer someone up who won't crack, nor will they share their problem), I understand the urge to make a movie with this big and loud a message propping it up. It takes nothing so much as hearing someone argue about the wrong thing to have me thinking exclusively of how cruel and pointless life seems. All Von Trier (who has very publicly shared his depression) is doing is removing any and all associations and getting to the heart of the problem. There's death hanging literally in the sky. You can try to run from it, as Claire literally tries to, but what have you accomplished? Justine's insight into what is starting to plague her sister and her family is what keeps her grounded. This may be new for Claire, but this is just getting out of bed for Justine. Now here's the thing. I completely understand why Von Trier abandons subtlety here. He's a middle-aged man with probably very few friends and the world doesn't find his brand of humour all that funny. I, however, do. Not only do I understand him, I've made a film about death with at least as little subtlety as Melancholia, except without the metaphor. That film, Tron Wayne Gacy, is entirely about someone who thinks about death so much that it effects people he barely knows. This character is me, like Justine (and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist before her) is Von Trier. So, yeah, on paper, he made a film that could hardly be any more screamingly obvious, but in practice he made one of the few films that accurately depicts depression, and one of the most beautifully rendered cinematic love letters of the last decade.
The reason I didn't notice how clumsy Melancholia is (except when John says the planet's name for the first time) is because Lars Von Trier's style is winning at the best of times and here, in a movie where characters are not actively out to destroy each other, it becomes as engrossing as a down bed with silk sheets. The opening montage of apocalyptic tableau bests even those corresponding shots in Antichrist. The wedding is filmed so beautifully (and I can't express enough how much I love the setting and Von Trier establishes its boundaries) that it took me quite some time to recognize how miserable the lead is. Of course, that's not just the cinematography. It turns out that beneath an eminently, distractingly likable exterior, Kirsten Dunst is one of the finest actresses of the day. She commands the first half of the film with such ease, her actions slowly unfurling a complex and fragile personality. It definitely made me wish she was in the second half of the film as much more than the devil on Claire's shoulder. Watching her with Michael (fabulously underplayed by Alexander Skarsgård, whose father Stellan, plays Justine's overbearing boss) in the film's first proper scene is heartbreaking. You believe these two are in love. No, that's not right. You believe that he's in love, you slowly realize that she wants to be in love, but that someone as vanilla as Michael is never going to be enough to stop her from being herself. All he needs is that perfect midwestern accent to convey how fall short of the mark he falls. Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt play the overwhelming parents. They didn't need a single line of dialogue; their presence is shorthand. Hurt is a scatterbrained hellraiser, Rampling an ice-cold bitch. They needn't have said anything and we would know why Justine's suffering from depression. Gainsbourg is believable, as always, and likable as the supposedly normal one trying to keep everyone together while her sister simply does what's going to keep her sane from moment to moment. The other revelation is Kiefer Sutherland giving a fucking dynamite performance as the arrogant John. It's the part he was born to play. I'm glad that even when the other brilliant players went home after the wedding, he hung around. A word about the wedding. It takes up a little less than half of the film and is a showcase for Kirsten Dunst more than it is anything else. But what it is secondly is a Zentropa family reunion and as such I felt like I was invited in to something truly special, drinking wine with the only people who Lars Von Trier thinks of as family. Skarsgård, Hurt, Udo Kier (the funniest part of this occasionally funny film), Gainsbourg are all veterans of Zentropa productions and Brady Corbet and Jesper Christensen have proved their euro-arthouse cruelty credentials quite sufficiently to fit right in. The only surprise is that Kirsten Dunst leaves absolutely everyone in the dust. She's breath-taking, for one thing, and her child-like frustration and unpredictability makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her.

With as big a driving force as a planet maybe falling to earth, Von Trier doesn't even need to hammer home his big themes or human misery as cruelly as is his wont. No one hits anyone, no one raises their voice for more than a few seconds, no one is incapable of feeling. In fact I'd say these are the most human characters we've seen in one of the Danish auteur's films since...well, maybe ever. And as he's not too busy making sure everyone goes into histrionics or remembering imaginary boundaries, he lets the film student in his soul dress the set. Scott Tobias likened the film to Solaris, which by an interesting coincidence I watched not a day before seeing Melancholia, and that's certainly a possible reference point, what with its planet-as-legend-to-the-grieving-process motif. Dunst steps into Natalya Bondarchuk's adorable/sinister innocence for the first half of the film and Gainsbourg's frantically losing her footing resembles Donatas Bonionis dealing with his wife's appearances aboard the ship. But that doesn't quite cover it. If Antichrist was his tribute to Tarkovsky, I'd wager what that means is Stalker and The Mirror with a hint of Nostalghia. There is the same studied grace of every person in the frame that came to characterize Andrei Tarkovsky's films (from Andrei Rublev on, his actors looked like they were cut from some ancient tree, crafted by the director himself) present throughout. Kirsten Dunst in her wedding dress is Von Trier's most active and personal creation. It's what people will be putting in their films to signify his influence years from now. Just as thanks to Andrei Rublev, the presence of a horse will always be shorthand for Tarkovsky, and perfectly sculpted hedges in the floodlights signifies Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad, if the eventually claustrophobic party at a mansion didn't do it for you (or if you thought he was merely nodding in the direction of his one-time Dogme partner Thomas Vinterberg's best film to date The Celebration). And though Solaris is too obvious to ignore but the set-up comes right out of The Sacrifice, perhaps tellingly the Russian master's final film. In that movie Erland Josephson tries to thwart nuclear war by bedding a poor neighbor. Justine tries to cure her wandering displeasure the same way. The world maybe ending on an endless green landscape bonds the two films tightly, even if ultimately Von Trier emerges the better filmmaker in this case. Why? Genre.

A few weeks ago I saw a film called Another Earth whose sci-fi trappings were really just a springboard for an unconvincing romance and an exploration of grief that I'd seen before and better. The problem is that the makers of that film evidently thought they were making something greater and more important than sci-fi and spend so little time on the ramifications of a plot device not at all dissimilar from Melancholia. In that film the planet is identical to earth and not an ominous, lifeless wake-up call. The films work to opposite purposes. Another Earth uses its planet as a cure for one man's depression with the promise of hope and possibility. Melancholia's planet is meant to remind us that we're entirely the fuck alone in the universe and that we have to acknowledge horrible things to really be able to face the idea of death. Tellingly, Another Earth spends so little of its run time on its titular plot device and comes across as achingly inessential despite its best efforts to be bigger than the two cloying romantics it centers on. It has important things to say about love and forgiveness. Melancholia has one thing to say and like Solaris, you can never escape it. Just as you're trapped aboard a spaceship for all but the opening 45 minutes of the film, Von Trier's opening montage ensures you never forget about his planet. Just because it's set on earth doesn't make it any less of sci-fi film than Solaris or Moon or Sunshine, even if it's a heady, unscientific sci-fi. Like those films, it takes one motif (the sun, the moon, another planet) to explore the human condition, the idea being we have to go there, to the farthest reaches of the universe, to be truly alone with ourselves and our problems. Von Trier figures there's no reason to leave and gets in the same punches with an even heftier emotional weight than the other movies. The reason Solaris is a better film than The Sacrifice (and the better known of the two) is because it hides its message in the fantastical, something cinema is made for. The Sacrifice is a big important movie about big important issues and for goodness sakes can you believe this cold war!? It's not relevant today, but by setting Solaris in the future and generalizing his crises, he made a lasting and beloved classic, at least among freaks like me. Sci-fi lent Tarkovsky a cushion for his ideas, just as it does for Von Trier.
I should come clean and admit that I've seen everything he's ever done. Von Trier is the White Stripes of the film world; they made some of the most incredible rock music of all time, but none of their albums work from start to finish. Jack White's uncanny ability with a guitar mimics the miracles Von Trier pulls with his digital imagery (the chapter markers in Breaking the Waves, the tableau of his latest work, the sheer audacity of the way he filmed Dogville and Manderlay - though I'd only call the latter of them really pretty) and, you know, I'll go ahead and stop this comparison right here. This fucking thing is long and convoluted enough as it is. Suffice it to say The White Stripes broke up before they released their Melancholia. Anyway, Von Trier is an artist whose explorations are never less than fascinating. But the issue is that I can only stomach his genre exercises enough to watch them twice. Anyone who watches Dancer in the Dark for fun should probably find out who Lars is seeing about his depression and schedule an appointment. I was always kind of amazed that some of his movies were given DVD releases. Who the shit can sit through Breaking The Waves or The Idiots twice? I don't regret seeing any of his movies, but I never want to see some of them again. I've never been tempted to find Dogville again. Like Michael Haneke's best known works, the ideas work well enough that I don't need a second visit. Give me Time of the Wolf over The Piano Teacher anyday (speaking of Tarkovskian...). But even though his films were hitherto like arthouse bootcamp, to me, that just makes Melancholia that much more special. His work and I have been flirting since we discovered each other and it took getting to know each other, a courtship that spanned at first only seeing youthful zeal and incredibly appealing aesthetics (Europa, The Element Of Crime, The Kingdom). This gave way to an untenable Marxist hardening, the equivalent of watching them date other people and mirror that person's personality to the point that you wonder if you'll ever get together (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots). But they broke it off eventually, and it was hard (Dancer), but personal growth showed me what I saw in them to begin with (Dogville, Manderlay). Then they played coy (Five Obstructions, Boss Of It All) but with the blanket of the horror genre, it finally seemed like it was time to give this thing a shot. She was certainly sending signals. And now, Lars Von Trier's films and I are on the same page. Not only could I see watching Melancholia again, I can't fucking wait to own it so I can watch it in perpetuity alongside Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Let The Right One In, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Inception. It may have taken our whole lives, but it was worth the wait.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Profondo Argento - L'Apertura

It took almost two years but Giallo finally saw a tiny theatrical release in England. It was the filmmaker's fault, they didn't pay Adrian Brody, for one, and as the man plays two roles and is basically the reason it got made, I for one don't have much sympathy for the moneymen. It got trashed, critically, of course. There was no way it wouldn't. It's not very good and suffers from the same things that have plagued Argento since he stopped making movies about witches. He's insisted on making, or at least releasing, every film in English. This means either terrible dubbing or directing in a language he doesn't know all that well. He may know what makes audiences squirm but lately he's been doing it unintentionally. Now I can't say I disagree with popular opinion, that he's past his prime, but where I do take exception is that they don't see that his prime ended directly after Inferno. Argento's worst movies, to my eye, are the movies were made in the 80s. I like Phenomenon well enough but he wasn't the man to direct it. Demons is vile and nonsensical. Opera is incredibly misguided and must be the only movie set in an opera house that has a score composed entirely of shitty 80s hair metal. How anyone puts up with it is beyond me. And Tenebrae is so screamingly, indefensibly awful it must surely be called his greatest failure. So while I absolutely agree that Giallo and really anything he made in the last decade isn't quite up to snuff, it's time to correct any misgivings about what that used to mean. Argento didn't rise to near legendary status without at least partially deserving it right? On this day, which coincidentally is also the very day that shooting has wrapped on his newest film, Dracula 3D, let's start from the very beginning and figure out how high he set so high the bar that his critics now use to beat him. Let's get back to basics.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage
By Dario Argento
While walking home one day, journalist Sam Dalmas witnesses an attempted murder. The police show up and question him endlessly but all he can tell them is what little he's certain of. He saw a man in a black leather coat and hat stab a woman in white on a staircase, then the man fled the scene. The cop in charge of the investigation, Inspector Morosini, keeps his passport all the same as Sam's the only witness and they have no other leads. This bothers him, as I'm sure you can imagine, as he doesn't think he can be of any more use, but on his way back from the station the killer shows up again and tries to cut his head off with a big-ass knife. So maybe he knows more than he thinks. After a few days of being pumped for information and continually reliving the murder in his head, Sam decides he's going to try his hand at solving the crime. He figures out that the girl was one in a long line of shopgirls who've been killed in Rome over the last few weeks. Monica Ranieri, the woman he saved, was only exceptional in that she survived. The killings resume a few days later and Sam increases the intensity of his investigation with his girlfriend Julia serving as his aid. Sam interviews a whole host of subjects, each stranger than the next, and the attempts on his life continue all the while. A man tries gunning him down in the street but gets away. Interviews with a pimp, a shop owner and an artist all bring him closer to the truth, but will it be too late?

The most remarkable thing about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is how unremarkable it seems today. The plot is totally by the numbers, especially if you've seen as many serial killer films as I have. It's slightly more effective than most gialli and/or Italian policiers of the day and certainly easier to sit through, but next to The French Connection or Frenzy, it looks naive. Ok, maybe that's not fair. Maybe hip or modern is the right word. It's a product of its time, and I don't mean just because of its being stilted or politically incorrect - only rarely does it fall into either trap. It's far more vigorous and youthful than either film, but it's combination of antique editing gambits, jazzy score and comic interludes prevents it from being anywhere near as terrifying as its most terrifying elements. Every single person that Tony Musante's character interviews is played for comic relief, which wouldn't be an issue if Argento had a better sense of humour. Although there are a few things here that still make me laugh. When picking perverts out of a line-up at the police station, a man in drag steps out, only to be recalled by Morosini. “How many times do I have to tell you Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” To which the disgruntled queen replies: "Well I should hope so!” Never not funny. But the one thing you don't ever feel is the kind of oppressive mean spirit you get from most Italian horror movies. The comedy might be heavy handed but the rest of the movie is comparably light. It's fleet enough that it escapes the same class of brute that the Italian film industry was producing at the time. In fact there are moments where you could mistake its intelligent staging for an American film. The one thing you almost wouldn't mistake it for is the work of its director.
Having watched everyone of his movies (admittedly in the wrong order) I was ready for full-on rape and gore and screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth and to tell you the truth I was sort of dreading watching it. But this was Dario before he'd had his heart broken. The Dario Argento I like is the one who started as Italy's golden boy and turned into a real artist when he tired of what the genre could offer him. He'd worked as a critic and scenarist in the industry for many years until he finally got his big break. His dad was something of a mogul at the time and so when Dario stepped up to bat he had the keys to the kingdom. Working the camera was Vittorio Storaro, future DP of Apocalypse Now among other things. The score was written by none other than Ennio Morricone, to whom Argento had the audacity to suggest avant garde music as an influence. It obviously worked because the music's minimalist percussion is gripping and ahead of its time. The young turk had all the resources he could ever need and did things his way. The result is everything you'd expect from a cinephile with a particular affinity for Edgar Wallace and Hitchcock. The filmmaking is energetic and fun. The use of the POV cam is so in-your-face it's almost percussive; North Americans wouldn't use it in this way for another few years. He took the principle from Peeping Tom and the MO from Mario Bava and shot it like he imagined Alfred Hitchcock would have, but this is definitely its own beast. There are splendidly executed tracking shots. There's the famous scene where Argento put a camera on a bungee cord to simulate a victim falling to his death. The action moved so quickly that the focus puller was often too slow. Chances were being taken. The Italian film industry is so paint-by-numbers that you're lucky to find anything as exciting or demented as the best of Sergio Martino or Joe D'Amato, and they all followed Dario's lead. For a few years anyway, he wasn't making films like an Italian. Tony Musante makes for a much more likable hero than we usually get, someone not tainted by some ancient crime or other. His relationship to Suzy Kendall's character is also breezy and believable; a breath of fresh air, to be sure. The editing is straight out of Hitchcock; he even replicates the shower scene in a closet and makes it even more ghastly. Reggie Nalder even shows up, essentially reprising his role from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The scene where Sam is trapped between two glass doors for the murder and its aftermath is truly wonderful. After a certain period, no one in Italy would give over this much time to someone simply being anxious and powerless. Unless a knife is being brandished the camera doesn't care. Here Argento lets Musante's helplessness sink in and lets us feel the seconds tick by as the woman bleeds and the killer gets away. It's exactly the sort of thing the master of suspense would have done in his heyday. The shot is also beautifully composed; like the rest of the movie it's far prettier than most of his peers ever cared to try for.

Dario was a crucial figure because like Mario Bava he was the filmmaker that the rest of the world saw and associated with Italy. Unlike Bava, he seemed to understand that he was part of film history. The referential quality of his images and editing put him in the same company as Corman's brats, but unlike Coppola or Scorsese he started out with total control. Look at the chase scene with Reggie Nalder. He shot it in such a way that conventional editing was impossible, so we are meant to draw conclusions. Its interesting to look at and he gave his audience far more credit than most directors, or rather understood that film required suspension of disbelief. It's better than real, or at least more fun. The police line-up, for instance, looks more like a movie screening for executives than an actual police headquarters. Mario Bava was the first director in Italy to make full use of the redness of blood and the mechanics of filmmaking to such an unreal degree, but he was far more interested in set dressing and gore. Dario would adopt this approach later but at first what he cared about was craft. How to edit together a stalking scene cleverly rather than deliver the most gruesome death scene. In fact all of the deaths in Crystal Plumage are either cheats or off screen, something I didn't pick up on the first time I saw it, a testament to their effectiveness. The pace and tension are also maintained with a preternatural sureness. It is a detective story, not actually too dissimilar from the sort of thing Graham Greene used to write (Argento is not nearly so curtly eloquent, but that’s not the point), the largest difference being that we see things from the killer’s perspective. Which itself was not a new development but its intensity was second only to Bava and would become the norm for serial killer films, albeit indirectly.

All this is one way of saying that Bird isn't the best movie you'll ever see but it's absolutely worth watching and absolutely better than most of the American slasher films that would steal from it indirectly in the decades that followed. Argento's enthusiasm is infectious and carries the film through its few weak spots. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage contains all the elements of the gialli - black gloved killer, knives a plenty, wrongfully accused man, characters solving the murders along with the audience, last-minute bait-and-switch - but they're all a canvas for his homages and sly rule-breaking. He was essentially trying to fuse every kind of cinema that Italy was known for and influenced it in turn. Lord knows how many gialli came out in the years following its box office success with some animal in the name. I'm hesitant to call his technique new - though if I had to guess, I'd say it was at least novel - because he wouldn't truly come into his own until Suspiria, but Argento's methods were at least new to Italy. He took something shop-worn and slapped a beautifully lavish coat of red paint on it. I'm glad the world responded as well as it did because he had a few more brilliant little movies in him, even if the giallo would eventually be his undoing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

ReMarathon 2011, Part 3, And Soon The Nightmare Ends

And now for the final installment! And this's personal!

Children of the Corn
by Donald P. Borchers
Well here's your problem, you hired children! You needed actors! If I was to count the ways in which this made-for-tv remake of an already terrible movie that last I checked was still producing execrable sequels fucked the dog, I'd need about a hundred more fingers. I mean fucking wow! The child actors are across the board horrible, each of them giving performances that might charitably be called performances. It's kind of astonishing to think that not a single one of these kids was worth a damn with the camera rolling, but here you have it. That'd be alright if the film had a solid anchor in its two leads but David Anders and Kandyse McClure manage to be even more horrid than the children. Sweet Christ, does this film shit the bed on the bad acting front. After a sermon that counts as the high point of the kid who plays Isaac's time in this movie, we meet the shrieking, horrible, no-fucking-way-are-these-dickbags-married, protagonists. Vicki and Burt are their names and they're headed christ knows where, literally screaming at each other the whole time. They hit a kid, stop in the town of Gatlin, get attacked by the cult, and are killed, but not fast enough for me. These two give shameful performances, but McClure really takes the cake. Right after Burt hits the kid, she takes the reins and doesn't relent. "It's Maaaan Slaughter!!!! Don't you wanna come and see? So you can tell all your NRA buddies what you bagged in Nebraska!" She delivers this horrible dialogue in a new kind of cadence that humans haven't gotten around to using yet. She's hysterically awful from start to finish and I'd say the movie was worth seeing just for her histrionic lunacy, but frankly it gets old after the first twenty minutes. A minute with Vicki Stanton is funny, two is hysterical, three makes you want to kill yourself. And from there it just gets worse. Truly, nothing goes right with this film and to top it off, Anders says "Why don't you put that in your god and smoke it?" To children. Who have probably never even heard the original saying before. Wow, wow, wow!

The Stepfather
by Nelson McCormick
McCormick and Cardone at least stuck much closer to the outline of the original film, a great Reagan-era family values parable, but you have to ask why when they maintain nothing of that film's underlying motifs or importance. Subtext is verboten here, it's all about the murder, but even that takes its sweet ass time getting here. If the remake money ever dries up, these two would be at home making Lifetime originals. The murders in this film are too tame because McCormick doesn't have the balls so really it's all very whitebread and boring and you wonder why you're here. In order to draw the teenage boy set they hired Amber Heard, who's something of a fixture here these days. Mark Kermode hypothesized that McCormick stuck her in her underwear everytime the film was starting to lag. That woman's vagina gets more screentime than Penn Badgley. I'd like to ask a practical question: are these movies funded in part by record companies? Badgely's hero puts on headphones and they play songs that all sound the same, but I'm sure are from different bands. Why? There's no way this kid listens to this shit, so is someone paying to have these bands played? As for the movie, just fuckin' skip it, it ain't worth your time. Jon Tenney's the best thing about it and he's got ten minutes of screentime.

A Nightmare on Elm Street
by Samuel Bayer
Ah, well it was bound to happen I guess. And wouldn't you know that they fucked it up in one of the dumbest possible ways. Samuel Bayer, the guy who directed videos for "Stand" by Poison and Sheryl Crow's "My Favorite Mistake," a ghastly resume indeed, at least has an eye for visuals that escapes Dave Meyers, but this still winds up being one of the most rancorous of the Michael Bay remakes. Turning The Hitcher into a commercial slightly better than having your balls cut off was bad enough, but remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street and making it about molestation would be like remaking Dr. Strangelove and playing it as gripping drama. But that's exactly what Bayer and writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer did. I hope some day they remake fuckin' Hostel and make it even dumber just so this generation gets what its like to have your movie raped quite so bad as this. To his credit the movie is lit very well, but Bayer also manages to make Freddie Krueger seem more silly than anything else, and he keeps fucking with the dream rules. And as much as I like Rooney Mara (she got out of bad horror movie land but quick after this. Look for her, appropriately enough, in the remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), there is no performance here that makes this worth watching. Jackie Earle Haley embarasses himself as the villain and the screenwriters fuck up his motivation in one of the most egregious ways imaginable. They go right for the whole pedophile aspect, making that his sole motivator. The problem is this: he sexualizes the girls he kills, Mara especially. Can anyone tell me what pedophiles find attractive again? Oh right, children! Yeah, that's right. He wouldn't like these kids anymore. And worse still, you know without a shadow of a doubt that he did it, erasing all of the subtext from Craven's film. And as if that weren't enough, there's nothing dreamlike about the dreams. Craven's film is remembered as having revolutionized the way dreams are conveyed in film and his techniques are still being copied today. Bayer seems content to steal, except in one instance, and everything he steals that was practical and revolutionary in 1984, is cold, digital and stupid here. Bayer perversely changes nothing about the real world and the dream world in the vane hope of catching the audience off guard, but in doing so he negates what the fuck he's doing. Dreams don't look or feel real (if only he'd waited to see Inception!) but the ones Bayer cooks up are supposed to look real and confuse you because the characters don't know they're dreaming half the time. In other words, this movie gets less than zero right and its creators should be made barren at first light.

And Soon The Darkness
by Marcos Efron
Well, at least they're remaking something relatively obscure. And managed another extraordinary feat: they made a horror movie of almost total predictability and safety. I can think of no one aspect to recommend it. It's bland and ordinary and one of the only mysteries in recent memory where the only suspects are actually the guys who did it. It might be them, you think it's them, it's them. The usually splendid Karl Urban is a non-entity. Odette Yustman and Amber Heard lead the cast. Odette Yustman's most unique feature is that she's better looking than Megan Fox. And Amber Heard; I've seen her in five or six movies, three of them recently and I don't think I could pick her out of a line-up if the other people were old chinese men. She exudes nothing but a willingness to appear in horror films. There's less than nothing to see here, not a shock or a scare to be found and has a future as one of those movies you rent thinking it'll be gory fun and then it isn't and your party sucks as a result. The only thing that got my attention about this movie was that it was produced by Anchor Bay, the one-time champions of schlocky home video. I was wondering how they were getting along these days and then realized they put Children of the Corn and our next film, I Spit On Your Grave on DVD. And then I stopped caring.

I Spit On Your Grave
by Stephen R. Monroe
The original movie had a hard enough time escaping controversy in '78 without a fuckwit like Stephen Monroe ignoring the subtext and making it a backwoods Saw clone with an emphasis on sex, if the poster wasn't a big enough clue. Using sex to sell a movie about rape earns you a one-way-ticket to hell in my book. Hobos should pee on you. Muggers should be given your address. I have no time for someone who'd turn in a second-rate piece of shit like this and name it after one of the most widely misunderstood/infamous films of all time, a movie that earned its reputation thanks to continued hand wringing over something people still won't talk about. It's happening today. Look at Lucky McKee's The Woman. That movie went out of its way to stare a very uncomfortable subject in the mouth because it had an incredibly specific point to make about the nature of white masculinity and people flipped the fuck out. Monroe's shitstain of a remake is in borrowed spotlight and has nothing to say. If they'd called this movie anything else, Always Lock Your Door or She Waits In The Woods, something generic like that, no one would have bothered with it because it turns rape into a supposedly compelling argument to turn into the Jigsaw Killer for a weekend. But Sarah Butler's performance is barely there (it's certainly nothing like it needed to be to acquit this movie of its crimes. Camille Keaton's performance alone answers any and all questions of mysogyny as far as I'm concerned) and Monroe never misses an opportunity to get her naked, which negates any argument he may have had in the first place. It's all boundlessly stupid and even more so considering that Steven R. Monroe makes shitty made-for-syfy movies like Ice Twisters and Ogre and the second he was done with this deeply unpleasant assignment, he went right back to making Mongolian Death Worm. Andrew Howard gives a good performance, but it's not worth sifting through shit to get to it. Before I go ahead and write this off and encourage you to do the same, I want to draw your attention to this bit of trivia from the IMDB:
According to director Steven R. Monroe, the studio submitted an uncut version of the film to the MPAA to see if by chance they would get an R rating. The MPAA came back and said "look, you've got an NC-17 movie, but we don't recommend that you cut it down because we feel like it's really impactful." Yeah...I bet they said that.

Mother's Day
by Darren Lynn Bousman
I admit that I was interested in seeing this, though not without reservation. It was Darren Bousman's first feature outside the Saw franchise, excepting his misbegotten musical Repo! The Genetic Opera, which he'd made once before as a short. So this was his first movie with a clean slate. I was willing to look past the Saw films because I really wanted to see if he had something to say. James Wan, left to his own devices, has less-than-nothing to say. After laughing my way through Insidious, I though perhaps Bousman had a better chance at my respect. Bousman's talent remains in question, though Mother's Day proves he's a perfectly decent director when he wants to be. If I compare this to The Woman again, just as it's the last thing I saw, I can say that though I thought that film smarter and more cunning, I have to admit that Bousman has a tighter grasp on mechanics. His screenwriting, on the other hand, needs work. The problem with Mother's Day is that it's made of punishing vignettes that pit people against each other in an impossible situation, which if you'll recall is what he spent the last ten years doing making Saw sequels. Call it SawBurbia but all that it means is that he didn't remake Mother's Day so much as The House on the Edge of the Park. A woman and her insane sons crash a housewarming party after a botched bank robbery (think Reservoir Dogs, actually, no, think Last House on the Beach) under the impression that the house is theirs and that their mother is there waiting for them. It was, at least up until a few months ago when it was foreclosed upon and the newlywed Sohapis won it in an auction. There's just one problem. Ike and his brothers have been sending money to this house because they thought their mother still lived there. If the Sohapis and their guests want to leave alive they have to fork over the money, keep gutshot brother Johnny alive, not make trigger happy Addley mad and most of all not upset their crazy fucking mother.

Fitting that we should end our marathon remake fest with this one as it features cast members from My Bloody Valentine, Sorority Row and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In this movie's corner is tight if not particularly discerning direction from Darren Bousman and characteristically strong work from Jaime King, Shawn Ashmore and Briana Evigan, who I rooted for the whole film. You survive Sorority Row, you earn my respect. That she's very cute helps too, but I digress. On the other hand none of the set-pieces that make up the film's second and third act haven't been done before and better; people beat each other to a pulp though they keep getting back up past the point of that being reasonable and I really can't shake the feeling that this was a bunch of Saw ideas recycled into another screenplay, just as Bousman's Saw 2 was once something else entirely that was retrofitted into the series. And beyond that the film's thesis is tired and without the green-and-grey scale or the amped up theatricality of the murders, I can kinda see why its producers shelved it so long (it wrapped in 2009 and has seen very few screens, legally that is, since then): it's a joyless slog. It doesn't matter how likable everyone is because you know pretty much from the beginning that no one's survival is guaranteed; it doesn't help that people are killed in that annoying "thought you were the villain" way that horror directors are so fond of. So why watch nice people get killed? Well, that's a question that you have to ask yourself before watching most horror remakes because 14 times out of 20, that's what you'll be watching. I'm not opposed to remaking a movie if you do it well and have a reason. Eli Roth talks a big fucking game about being able to do justice to Tobe Hooper's Funhouse. Guess what? Tobe Hooper did justice to Tobe Hooper's Funhouse. It needs Eli Roth remaking it like the human body needs heroin. I say unless you prove you can make your own movie, something Eli and the rest of this crew have proven rather sad at lately, you shouldn't be allowed to remake someone else's. Until then, do some research, find these movies and appreciate why they were optioned in the first place: they're worth watching....well, maybe not Children of the Corn. We'll just have to see if everyone learns their lesson in another ten years.