Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, November 28, 2013

For the whole drunk family: GRABBERS

Ah laddies and lassies faire, are ye home this Thanksgiving? Will the family be looking to you to pick a film from the Netflix once all football and food is done and the wee ones and pious old folks safe in bed, and only the serious drinkers left coherent (read "serious" in that beautiful accent Claire Florani uses in those "All Hail the Drinkin' Man" commercials for Johnny Walker Black, the only reason to watch TV anymore - my praise here)?

Well, of course Netflix'sh got you covered.


GRABBERS 

(2012) Dir Jon Wright
***1/3

It's an Irish horror-monster-comedy hybrid that's part of the lineage of solid drinking films from the more remote and storm-swept parts of the UK, like LOCAL HERO, TIGHT LITTLE ISLAND, I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, and MAN OF ARAN. Drunker family members might scoff during the first bits, but hush them and soon they'll be noting how gorgeous the emerald scenery and the leads most attractive. Ere long they'll be singing "Jug of Punch" and recalling aloud John Wayne in THE QUIET MAN and Gene Kelly in BRIGADOON with a merrye twinke in their eye. 

And there's a great hook: to avoid being eaten all the residents of this tight little island must drink, a lot. 
Dig that caption!
H.R. Giger-esque (but not too much) industrio-tentacledness
There's an adorable little lady ball-busting cop (Ruth Bradley), similar to how Holly Hunter used to be, pre-PIANO, but cuter even, and it's rewarding watching her character get drunk for the first time, like a little two-fisted Gallic faerie, falling for the drunken officer who decides to stay relatively sober just this once, even though it means having to stall the first kiss with this newly forged firebrand. Bradley makes the most of the chance to cut loose and is a wet-eyed mussy haired miracle in a big jeep stakeout, which is also craftily lit to make every rain drop in the deluge glisten with pregnant menace and/or romance. There's some taking time to capture lovely sunsets and the stark treeless beauty of the coastline, a few too many green and azure filters, overdoing it just a dram like we're watching the film through green sunglasses, but the whole third act is over one long night, filters gone, so 'tis no burden. And like all my favorite films, it ends at dawn.



AGE GROUPS: Unlike most monster films, the American ones for example, there's no guns on the island, it's Europe, after all, so when monsters come they have to improvise with various devices of a non-gunpowder-related nature. Violence is mostly of the squishing and severed head variety, nothing the hip kids haven't seen in frog-cutting class; there's nothing sexual or overly traumatic, and even old grandma can respect how, even under monster duress and whiskey inhibition lowering, the romance stays chastely Fordian. By the same token, fans of the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost films (such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD) shall know it by the same approximate seriocomic fan's eye view attention to squeam-and-squish minutiae. In sum, if your family's been known to have a wee dram, slither in. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

SUSPIRIA for Men... ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)


Lately when I meditate all that happens is my unconscious/anima rummages through forbidden memory drawers, exposing afresh long-buried shames as far back as ninth grade gym class. I'm all cool about it, of course--"oh thank you ma'am, for saving these precious memories"--and I believe once I accept them she's going to just toss 'em out. But I doubt she will, 'cuz my unconscious is a bitch, yo. Still, nothing like the one pulling Julian (Ryan Gosling) apart in Nicolas Winding Refn's career-sabotaging follow-up to his career-making DRIVE, ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

Yeah, but She doesn't, Blanche!

The tale of an Oedipus complex writ large by white people across the dirty expanses of Bangkok, it's almost more of a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch in an Argento hotel bar horror film than a standard Asian action-revenge thriller.

Then again, everything is a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch in an Argento hotel bar horror film for Sweden's dark lord of the Seijun Suzuki-esque macho melt-down post-modernist gangster genre, Nicolas Winding Refn, and GOD is his special love letter to those Angelica film snobs who saw his earlier films DRIVE and VALHALLA RISING and said "very good, Sven, but maybe slow it down a bit. Maybe don't have a protagonist who's such a chatterbox." There has to be one such film snob... somewhere. Maybe it's even me, for I'm keenly aware (since I'm Swedish) that to stand out from the legions of 'corrupt but honorable cop vs. redeemable but doomed Oedipussy' Asian vengeance-athons loitering sullenly along the blighted "Dark Foreign Revenge Thriller" avenues of Netflix, Refn has to import his own brand of ice and snow onto the eternally wet floors of le Bangkok Dangereuse. We Swedes know that Thai swordsman cops can out swing us, so we have to out-stare them and, more importantly, be willing to die without blinking.

No, please, don't get up
Critics haven't been kind to ONLY GOD FORGIVES, though some have been maybe too kind and maybe they shouldn't be. It practically begs for a beat-down, craves it like William Devane's masochistic ex-POW in ROLLING THUNDER. It promises to not even fight back, just proffer its hands for good severing (or garbage disposal grind). But for a film with such ornate and original visual style it sure is shy about saying anything or making a move, unless it's to judge misogynist ex-pats for slapping frightened little Bangkok sex workers. There's some bizarre sinthom going with hands, and the fear of losing them, as in if I stick my hand into this stripper's inner gates of paradise, will I ever get it back, or just pull out a stump? In a land of bare knuckle boxing and grim black dragon wallpaper, Gosling's hand bravely goes where only Jessica Harper doesn't fear to tread.

From Top: Suspiria / Only God Forgives
And there's this thing with brother Billy who is so mad about Bangkok dads pimping their daughters he kills one, or something, and some weird karaoke-singing cop lets the dad kill Billy, then cuts off the guy's hand right to punish him for that right when Julian (Ryan Gosling, apparently now the Michael Fassbender to Refn's Steve McQueen) is getting his hands tied in a lap dance, and imagining his hand cut off by the same cop. Dude, it's all connected. So the next week (or hour- there's no sense of time on the Bangkok streets) brings in on her sky chariot the brassy Clytemnestra of a devouring Mother with a typically Lady McBeth-ish streak of not thinking her dark deeds through to the end (brilliantly essayed by Kristen Scott Thomas), who has an incestuous love-hate bond with Julian, and who we learn eventually-- if our TV is on loud enough and there's no traffic outside our window to mask their fetid whispers---once ordered her boy to beat his father to death with his bare hands. And he did. You know how hands are...


But all that stuff is minor. It reminds me of my own small short films in a way, because there's no time for a plot so it all has to be delivered on the sly in expository fragments. No one leaves or arrives, they just appear in one of the many dark red-lit Chinese serpent dragon wallpapered rooms like clients at the bordello of the unconscious. When the mom lets down her hair she has a silk dress that both blends and stands out against the wallpaper. It's presumably a rose on the front but looks more like a bullet hole showing the place Julian burst out of (and where we will rather grotesquely return in the final act). She demands to know why her son hasn't killed the guy who killed his brother, when he mentions the dead son killed a sixteen year old girl she snaps "well I'm sure he had his reasons."

This old broad is a real pisser.


The film's been compared to the westerns of Sergio Leone, but in Leone all those long stares were connected to hands hovering over holsters. Clint Eastwood and his confederates didn't look at their gun or even aim it, or even blink, just stared then WHAM, one or more guys died. Hitchcock had that line about how the only difference between comedy and suspense at breakfast is that only we know a bomb's under the table in the latter, but in Leone everyone knows everyone else has a bomb under the table, and that gives their every move meaning; they don't take their eyes off each other even as they pour the coffee, with one hand, super..... slowly. For GOD, Refn takes the coffee away, the table, the eyes, even. If it's not suspense at least it's the first violent masculine deconstruction to feminize the macho staring contest, and dissociate vengeance from the minds of tortured heroes. Now instead of being about facing death it's about Sleeping Beauty, with Gosling spending the whole movie in a glass case, waiting for God's samurai sword to cleave him free of both that outer shell, and the inner too, so the nothing trapped within him can rise rise rise.


There's a great piece comparing the film with Lynch's FIRE WALK WITH ME over on Very Aware, with a Refn interview, wherein he says: the original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God."


Note the austere white Great Wall image behind him, a more logocentric version of Julian's twisted dark red wallpaper, setting off a contrast that's about far more than good vs. evil, or right vs. wrong

Hey, I know about that! That's why I love Ahab so much, and all my college poetry was about it, like my classic "The Bug that Would Swat God" - but in my case it was drunken bravado and feeling inspired by Gregory Peck's twisted oratory (see here, shipmates). Here it's less about wanting to fight God and more about doing it just to get your awful mother off your back.

And then there's the "villain," the cop in the white collar doesn't just kill people without a show of torture, hand slicing offery, etc. And for all his swift brutal gestures, our homicidal momma's boy Julian is not much of a fighter. The mom, and our own action film expectations, lead us to believe that once he's given the signal, Julian is going to be as lethal as Clint Eastwood in the climax of UNFORGIVEN. He's going to be like Popeye given the 101 proof spinach. But instead he gets beaten down... by a middle-aged balding Thai cop! That's like Sly Stallone losing a fight to Burgess Meredith, and Refn knows we'll feel that way and Julian's losing seems somehow on purpose, to piss off his mom, and us by extension, to subvert our expectations. Of course Ahab is going to lose in his battle with the white whale. That's kind of the whole point, that knowing this, on some deep level of the unconscious, he still goes for it anyway--such crazy fighting spirit is what the East is all about! And inner demon battling, trying to drink you're way sober, etc.

The only time we can control our destiny is when we deliberately pick a fight with something we know will destroy us. Freud's death drive meets its ultimate expression in the banzai death charge, the harpooner lashed to Moby Dick, me if I ever relapsed on booze, or just a little kid playing in the surf, fighting the relentless tide by jumping up at incoming waves and--'smACK'-ing them with his styrofoam boogie board, praying for a giant wave to come along yet knowing full well it would only crush him and then drag him along the sand and seashells... back inland.


It seems absurd that mom should be so eager for vengeance that she'd go up against a supernatural cop like this, but without her around to shake things up everyone would still be sitting where we left them, motionless, like a flock of ventriloquist dummies after their owners have all gone to bed. Refn's out to do more with his dolly than deliver a mere Asian revenge thriller; he's gone way past the 1967 Seijun Suzuki deconstruction like BRANDED TO KILL (above; below) and exposed the hideous mom-hating apron string hacker inner child of Ryan Gosling's new Action Figure persona.


It helps to learn that Refn shot in chronological order and kind of winged it for large stretches, with Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas both having lots of input and collaboration in their characters' outcomes, and genius DP Larry Smith (who worked with Refn on BRONSON) seems to have been given free reign with the surreal gels. There's a feeling that comes across when submitting to that kind of spontaneity, Godardesque perhaps, but more open-ended, in the moment, from second to second, but the drawback is it seldom builds to any satisfying catharsis or ending. It's like that stare of the Leone gunfighter with his hand over his gun has widened and lasts the entire film, and then no gun is drawn. And there are no hands left to pull a trigger. The first credit at the end is to announce the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is pretty steep company. The man is a God himself, a shaman first class, and tellingly has much armless and/or handless characters, especially in SANTA SANGRE.


from top: Only God Forgives, Santa Sangre
All we know is Julian was pretty twisted before all this revenge got started but he quickly loses it thereafter, while watching his stripper cry jeweled tears behind the strings of a crystal bird house corner he hears some laughter at the other end of the club. They could be laughing at anything but Julian thinks they're laughing at him. Next thing you know he's smashing a glass in one of their faces and dragging him around by his upper palette. Dude, that's paranoid!

From top: Buffalo 66, OGF, B66 OGF ,The Fighter, OGF, B66, The Fighter
So paranoid in fact it reminds me of two other movies about bruised masculinity: BUFFALO 66, THE FIGHTER, and Refn's best movie so far, VALHALLA RISING (very similar ending).  Gosling's cobra stillness isn't as strange as it was in DRIVE, since everyone else is on the same slow down drug (that stuff they sell in DREDD, maybe), since everyone suffers from it, a Sergio Leone-like slow-mo Xanax meltdown ensues. The great music by Cliff Martinez even becomes Angelo Badalamenti at times (the music from TWIN PEAKS was supposedly what Refn cut the film to), linking it as a kind of sequel to THE FIGHTER if Mickey Ward and his ma set up shop at a fight club down in Thailand, and she left to do various deals, but she still flies in like an avenging angel when son Dicky the crackhead is killed. Meanwhile there's some BUFFALO 66 meets THE WRESTLER nonsense as Julian's favorite crying stripper, who gives the drowsiest lap dances in history, is supposed to wear a dress and meet the foulmouthed Madea of a mom. Interesting too that the dead son is named Billy, and had a huge, enormous cock (according to the mom). If Gallo had played him, oooh synchro-gorgeousity made flesh.

from top: B66, OGF, OGF, B66
And it's clear Billy and Julian both have some seriously warped misogyny going on with women as a result of their mom and--as in BUFFALO 66's strip club run--father figures they've killed or are determined to kill in one way or another. The Billy in both films skulks around the periphery of slow motion druggy sex dens, forever denied the presumed pleasures of full psychic abandon. Both have way too many mother issues to permit anything approaching even a feint at that sort of enjoyment. They can only take it out on women who seem weaker and more submissive somehow, to vicariously relive their primal scene in an attempt to rewritezzzzzz --eh? I nodded off.... or did I? Did I miss anything?

No --they're all still just staring.

Simply Perfect.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wronger than the Storm: SHARKNADO, THE REEF


November. If it persists, talk to do your doctor.

If the 12 month cycle was Dr. Moreau's lost soul island, November would be the house of pain: "there's no twilight in the tropics," Moreau says, "darkness falls like a curtain." The hushed chill of dying leaves rustle around in the corners of streets like packs of shuffling Bed-Stuy crackheads; you absorb their shoulder-ache withdrawal and the cold of their torn feet as you pass them. The New York marathon ends on a cold Sunday evening; as your wobbly friends in their reflecting mylar disposable ponchos shine against the foggy grey afternoon, your pride in them is a little flicker of warmth in your freezing jitters. Going out to a bar to celebrate, sitting at a long table of celebrants with pitchers of beer and drams of Wild Turkey, none of which you can have as you're on the wagon, but you know that one shot and all that ache and misery would melt into an amber glow. Daylight savings has already begun; now it gets dark before you have a chance to emotionally prepare. Suddenly the couch is extra cozy and every fibre of your being says "Let's not go out tonight. Or this weekend. Or ever." With each missed party, another nail in the social coffin. But are you trembling? No. Why?

SHARKNADO.

Apparently it was all the rage in "Twitterverse" but I saw it later, on Netflix. After work. Alone. I'm not going to pretend I was in on its "trending." But I will confess I needed it. Didn't want no boring bits or glum nonsense the night I first saw it under lots of Brooklyn stress of the type no runner's high can allay, only feeling warm and dry while watching Los Angeles get flooded with CGI sharks, in what feels almost like real time, snapping-up spoiled Beverly Hills brats and swimming along the freeway or raining from the sky with a rare-for-Syfy propulsive energy.


What else do you need to say? November. The bitterest, crushingest month demands a city fall in totem if its to spare us its crushing measure. We watch LA drown in sharks the way barleycorn huskers watch their effigies burn and family obligations rise like a prematurely buried Usher to wrest even the highest of kites back down to the beige carpets of a vacuumed earth. The darkness creeps up towards the end of lunch and by the walk home we're snared in the trawling net of cold autumnal night. Relationships crumble, jobs melt away, the windows are shuttered, the air conditioner taken hurriedly from the window... like a burglar. (imagine Henry Fonda in LADY EVE saying that last line -- like a burrrr-gler).

The point is, SHARKNADO comes along, and a Ferris wheel rolls into the side of a four story international style apartment building like it's no big deal. Charlton Heston might drag that Ferris wheel roll out to three hours, but this film rushes along past it like an incoming wave that never recedes. Sharks in the bar, sharks in the traffic jam; "It's like old faithful!" and "We're gonna need faith to get through that." A douchebag boyfriend of the sulky daughter says: "Even if it is the storm of the century, Beverly Hill's rescue services are second to none!" And then he looks out the window, sees a shark in the swimming pool and then a wave crashes through and his head gets bit off. And there was much rejoicing. If you ever played the game as kids where you had to be halfway up the stairs to avoid getting eaten by a carpet shark then yes! Yes! YES! Meanwhile, the leader of the survivors, Finn, is a typical bleeding heart L.A.-er who has to stop to help everyone, even school buses that look empty as you pass. "This is your problem, Finn!" and we kind of agree, but then Boom! There's scared kids in there!

More points for trying. What a man that Finn, what a tool. The real rooting interest is in his barmaid who wants to be more but he's standoffish: the loyal hardscrabble Nova (Cassie Scerbo) who spends the bulk of the movie toting a shotgun and being like "Sharks.... why did it have to be sharks?" and later has her own 'Quint on the USS Indianapolis' yarn of how she got that sexy thigh scar. Sharks fly in the wind but there are no other fish nor even a shred of seaweed, and best of all, this apocalypse of sharkiness seems to follow these guys alone -- other cars continue to drive by, ignorant that the Hollywood sign is down to " Hol  o d". The bloody water gets a menstrual blood reference. And the biggest disaster of all, cell phone reception is gone. Oh, LA. Would it be half as funny anywhere else? The best aspect is this "half end of the world" weirdness -- car rental agencies are still in business, cops are cordoning off areas of downtown for no particular reason. There's no reason to panic unless you've been attacked, but meanwhile half a block down they're still waiting in line at the liquor store.


There's been a ton of similar bad films from the Syfy-Asylum complex, most third wave Corman generation ripoffs of Italian ripoffs of JAWS' rip-offs, which in turn reach back through cocktopus tentacles into the era of the 50s bug movie. Most of them suck. SHARKNADO doesn't. It's like it overheard every excited kid hanging out on the beach in 1974-78, every kid wistfully imagining sharks attacking them even on the beach, or the highway, or flying out of the sky. 'NADO took notes like these kids were holy prophets. And let Tara Reid stand as a lesson against growing up under too much sun and peroxide. Yea.

 Face it, we all love Shark Week, for the name alone, those hard K's are so badass. It's like a running joke, "but I can't go to your parents... that's Shark Week!" or Tracy Morgan saying: "Live every week like it's Shark Week" on 30 ROCK. It's not just that sharks are badass killers, it's that all these decades later and we're still afraid of the water. We can project our darkest unconscious fears right into the murky dark, right there as we lounge around under the beach sun. We all know the hard truth, even kids: the ocean takes it all. Soaks it all up it does, like a combination stress pillow and life jacket around your albatross neck, November.




Netlfix told me to watch THE REEF next, so I did. Hmmm not as fun. Maybe it's something in their accents and cheery disposition but it's hard to distance oneself from an Aussie in distress as easily as it is to laugh at the loss of Los Angeles. The money shots in THE REEF are not the attacks so much as the sight of great whites slowly materializing out of the crystal blue below the surface. Like a distant rider in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, they circle and you can't tell if they see you or not, their dead eyes betray no sudden interest. They just orbit lazily, then Bam! But there's only so many times you can do that and have the same groovy effect. After awhile all you have is a lot of anxiety even if you're glad to be relatively dry.

The other problem is the sheer stupidity of the outdoorsman boat dude. Why, if you're sailing in a really remote area especially, wouldn't you have some kind of radio or distress signal? Or goddamned lifejackets!  Australia is crawling with sharks, so wouldn't you have shark repellent? Mainly... life vests!! Why if you are all in the water and completely vulnerable would you swim towards the friend of yours being eaten? What are you going to do to help? You're just going to spread more blood in the water.

I doubt even SHARKNADO would argue that THE REEF (2010) is a better film, quality-wise. But aside from the stark blue scenery, it's a wee bit of a bummer, with wayyyyy too much acting. Do we see shark movies to get bummed out? No, SHARKNADO understands this. Your actors need to be either good enough to understand that too much screaming and hyperventilating in irrational panic can bum us out, or be bad enough you make it post-modern goofy fun because you do those same things. The Aussies have a great advantage when it comes to monster movies: their country is lousy with great white sharks and giant crocodiles, and god knows what nameless evils lurk in the Outback, but they should never forget what we want out of a monster movie, laffs. There's a baller Aussie croc film called ROGUE (2007) with the new queen of B-movie monsterdom, Rhada Mitchell, for example, that works a similar territory and is better for being so much hipper to our needs. And it's based on a true story, too. THE REEF is just blue water and screaming, but SHARKNADO is deliverance from the cold dark depths and up into the sweet, sweet shallows.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beyond the Bruges Horizon: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS


I meant to see Seven Psychopaths (2012) and then saw it, some of it, then I forgot I saw it, re-Netflixed it, and only remembered I'd seen it halfway halfway through, so it was already pointless to stop a second time. I know what that says about me (nothing good) but what does that say about its writer-director, the "Irish Tarantino," Martin McDonagh? His play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was bloody funny. I saw it on Broadway totally by chance via a relative of my last AA sponsee who was in the cast. It was a great thing to see free. McDonagh's first big film In Bruges was also refreshingly dark and hilarious, and didn't even need a point, aside from that McDonagh loves that Stephen Frears movie, The Hit (who doesn't?). But Psychopaths, McDonagh's tale of a drunk Irish writer (Colin Farrell, modeling himself no doubt after McDonagh) who has come to Hollywood as Barton Fink once did, high on Hollywood's reverence for playwrights, is worse than some Vancouver-shot made-for-Cinemax After Dark crime sex thriller which at least would have the integrity of sucking. This has too many established cult stars for that. They make it worth not turning off within 20 minutes, which is the best option. But who can turn off a film with Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson? At least you got to slog halfway through, or keep it on while you get back to your book.

As an alcoholic writer though, I might be prejudiced to hate any film about a well-to-do dissolute drunk ex-pat who who somehow thinks coming up with the name Seven Psychopaths and then expecting his friends to write the rest for him while he lives the semi-high life with hot girlfriend and is daily ushered on adventures by a crazy motherfucker Boondock Saint of a broheim muse, played by the ever-jiving Sam Rockwell (the role played by John Goodman in Fink). Dude, even for self-reflexive blocked writer movies, doing the whole blocked and/or hack writer thing with the low life muse getting you into jams that slowly become the movie you're writing is really played out, and was even in Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation (2002), which at least had the good sense to blow up the bridge behind itself as far as writing about how hard it is to write scripts, and the decency to actually have a source text not about itself (The Orchid Thief by Susan Lean). I don't mean that as a compliment, because instead of dry heaving the day away kneeling on his bathroom floor like a real writer would (ala William Faulkner in Barton Fink), Nic Cage's character thinks it's enough to writhe in self-conscious torment, never getting the severe solipsistic narcissism at the core of such emotions (he should be drinking!) and Farrell's character thinks its enough to feign both narcissism and torment while smoking and drinking only as much as the producers will allow. Struggling screenwriters around the world, some of whom might even be talented, would blah blah...

Hey, I'm guilty too. I've always thought about one day writing a feature length script, and am sure it would be a smash hit, and I plan to write it one day, maybe, don't rush me, goddamn it... Meanwhile, I know a screenwriter who wrote lots of them, makes a decent amount of money, and lost some of it to me at poker, and none of his films made it past 'turnaround' then, starting around 1997, a script was picked up, Boom! Soon he was scouting locations and letting us know he had Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon on board, and then he was on set and working hard etc., only having the whole thing dump right to video at the last minute, after sinking years and years of his life into it, it didn't even make a tiny 'plop' of a splash. And it was called Elvis Has Left the Building, the "other" Elvis impersonator crime spree movie besides 2000 Miles to Graceland. He came away from it relatively rich anyway, but good lord, my sensitive soul would have shattered.

And even now nothing gets me more pissed than hearing a screenwriter on easy street trying to pass his writer's block off as entertainment via sly post-modern mirror effect, and writing his characters into saying how it's a kick-ass idea.

So.. Colin Farrell... he's got the title... so great. Why wouldn't it be great? He was so good in In Bruges he would seem a no-brainer as McDonagh's drunk Irish screenwriter stand-in. He's got it all: a bitchy American girlfriend (the perennially indignant Abbie Cornish from Limitless), his two-bit charismatic hustler buddy (Rockwell) leading him into scrapes, and... what else... oh yeah, a pen. Y'know... ferwritin'.  Everything's set for brilliance, and I refuse to believe that the man who gave us one of the most climactic cat entrances in the history of the legitimate theater could crank out something so pleased with its half-baked 'stale-even-when-Guy-Ritchie-was-first-ripping-off-Tarantino' po-mo laddishness.  It may have helped if we'd seen in the film some of Farrel's character's earlier work (as in Adaptation when we see Charlie on the set of Malkovich). How great it would have been had we seen him in Belgium giving script notes? Then Farrell could have the crazy projection of his own unconscious ego and it wouldn't seem so unearned. I mean it would serve a point, an escape valve because he's got to kiss so much executive ass to keep every expletive. All writers have them, counterbalancing their schtick, for Woody Allen it's Bogey (as in Play it Again Sam), it's John Goodman in Barton Fink, the brother in Adaptation, the bunny rabbit in Donnie Darko. Instead Rockwell's more like the rabbit in Harvey, or John Goodman in Red State. Sure there's Christopher Walken as a dognapper but man he's gotten old, and he has a dying black wife who may or may not be a younger black wife of Tom Waits in flashback, both of whom have been unfairly perhaps left off all the Seven Psychopath posters and publicity tours. If that didn't sting, to be in a movie about vengeance and being maligned by society and be in turn spurned by even that very movie, left off all the advertising for the crime of being.... what? B-list?


Farrell is not convincing as either a drunk or a writer and he's certainly not one of the Seven of the title. He's too kinetic and cocky, terminally sane. He has no shakes, no quivers, he is just barely hungover and even at the height of his abusive cups he never slurs a syllable. Imagine if he did, or if his Irish accent got more pronounced, blacker, more violent as he drank, something to go with his sudden outbursts? Imagine if he had brought some real intensity to the role, given us a reason for him to be Irish, been acting a Wellesian uber-serious Macbeth in a room full of vapid scenesters. Instead his drunknenness seems a facile pose, the kind of drunk character no true drunk would ever write. Waits and Walken and a little bit of Harrelson are the only gravitas to be found.

You know what was funny In Bruges!? Everything was funny in In Bruges! 

Amanda Warren, vengeance shall be thine!
I'm no social activist, usually, but it's also quite galling in this day and age that a black woman plays a key psychopath role here and deserves to be one of the seven alleged psychos (above), yet is not mentioned or seen: Psychopath #1 Olga Kurylenko has little more than a cameo and is just a gold digging Russian model. Psycho #5 'the passive-aggressive girlfriend" is a bit of a bitch but as she's dating an abusive Irish hack it's quite understandable --not a psychopath either, just dumb with her choices, and terribly written,  a compendium of ball-busting career girl naggishness. But the biggest psychopath is the self-defeating racist PR people who thought that a black character shouldn't be visible on the posters, but rather 'hidden' deep in the basements of the film's memory. Has Pam Grier's massive 'fro been for naught? Coffey could kick the asses of everyone in this film, but why bother if she has to sit in back of the table read?

Meanwhile the script tries so hard to play like Elmore Leonard that it sounds desperate. The writers McDonagh apes here are always smart enough to keep a few genuine rough edges on a film about rough edges; they know that you always put the cool black lady up front. Quentin did that and Jackie Brown is a classic. Does McDonagh really not know how sick we are of the whole quipping hitman lad thing? Trends die much more slowly outside the US, I realize. I personally lost interest in Brit "Lad" movies before and after Snatch, which was great don't get me wrong, and that old guy in the thick glasses made for the most terrifying gangster villain since Peter Brandt in The Song Remains the Same. And I love Get Carter and The Hit. But did McDonagh even see them?



Martin McDonagh is a good looking lad with a Sting-esque jaw and crystal blue eyes. I haven't given up on him. He should have played the Farrell character and left the directing to someone else who might have hipped him to the fact that unironic post-modern self-reflexivity has become banal. It's not McDonagh's fault, coming up as he has in the very very different world of theater, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which rocked a similar tack, only with the psychopath having a cat instead of a little dog. But that had a genuinely dangerous girl psychopath with some actual dialogue, and a lot more blood and guts. If we bear this past triumph in mind, the desperation of Farrell's character is understandable. When operating fart away from the Irish minutiae he know, McDonagh falls back like a panicked bronco, flaring up in all directions in the off chance Hollywood will just at some point rise to its feet, cry bravo, and grant him a green card.


Theater has always been self-reflexive, much more so than most other idioms. Half the early Hollywood pre-code sound films were loosely based on the back stage experiences of Broadway playwrights and wits, lured west by big money. Movies based on plays based on movies (ChicagoPhantom) are ingrained in the celluloid conscience as suitable for framing and all are about razzle dazzle and the great White Way in one way or the other, to name only a few (older ones, of course, more so: A Chorus Line, Twentieth Century, All About Eve). Gotta dance Gotta dance God... ta...   dannnse.. But what works in the theater doesn't play in action movies all a-stud with stars playing halfway ass up into Entourage-ville.


All that said, I really loved In Bruges (above) but even that would have been impossible outside of its setting (a film shoot); what worked there was a horror and fascination with the beery surrealism of Belgium and the way what we consider enchanting and old school is just icky in the eyes of Brits; and all they can agree on is that Yank tourists need a good thrashing and that if you have any cocaine they will go home with you and stay until it's gone and then help you find more. And the filmmakers-within-the-film shooting a scene with baller little person extras and fog machines make for plenty of coke ops. It was original, clever, but not at all full of itself. But now, alas, every self-effacing moment in our drunk screenwriter's odyssey carries a coded message of self-aggrandizement that sticks in the craw almost to Shyamalanian toxicity.

I usually don't bother with negative reviews. Life is too short and I'm too marginal to afford alienating anyone, but if I don't say something this time, I'll probably forget I saw SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and watch it again in a few years. And that I cannot allow. So forgive me, Woody Harrelson, as I forgive those directors who trespass on your unique comedic brilliance like drunken burglars.

Next time, a speaking role!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Streaming Bullets: STREET FIGHTER, THE EXPENDABLES 2, MARWENCOL, DOGS OF WAR, BATTLE OF BRITAIN


Halloween is over. The gloom of depressing November descends. If it warms up and is a beautiful fall day like today, don't trust it, private! It's a trap! That fall foliage is the color of death, those leaf piles hide ninjas in autumnal-colored shinobi shōzoku! 

Stay inside, instead, with Netflix streaming. You will learn things. Did you know pink lipstick is never out of style in combat? (see Walken, driving above). War and action films are an essential ingredient in any red-eyed, white-pallored, blue-balled American male, and Netflix has enough to make any armchair general's saber rattle in its sheath. I recently spent some time with a few, picked both by me and a few choice allies. Private, hit the lights... 

The Expendables 2
Starring: Everyone
2012
****
It's typical of the series' self-effacing humor that this group calls themselves Expendables. very A-list action star (and even B-list) of the last 30 years shows up, riffing on their Hollywood personas with a wry chuckle and (probably) working for scale + percentage. As with the first there's a refreshing lack of cliche or complications: no incompetence, betrayal, sudden death of best friends, tedious, tenuous familial connection (no wives bemoaning that their husbands are never home), no moral confusion over running over innocent bystanders or any of the other crap that makes real life war and most war movies such a drag. When you send these guys in, you're not looking for prisoners or honored border treaties, you're expecting massive enemy body counts and first-rate dudes-in-a-pack humor. They'll deliver. The spirit of Howard Hawks all but lights Sly's stogie! 


Most A-list stars here show up only for a few big scenes, but Stallone carries it all on his back like a champ. He's pushing 70 but is in great shape, has a wondrous sense of self-deprecating humor. Does a man good to see his masterful ease with a smoke in the dark of deserted restaurant the night before a big attack, or to hear his tectonic plate of a body ripple with a single seismographic chuckle at zingers about his age. The camaraderie he generates around him rings as true as Rio Bravo and one feels, as a man, reborn in it. We don't have to worry about anyone getting the jump on him more than once, for he is the man. We can relax and dig the carnage. We're here because we're tired of blind realism and liberal sermons. At the tail end in age and politics of the demographic these films are made for, I can tell you I want cathartic explosions and killing, not suspense or 'bad faith' guilt. There's no need for our films to heed laws of averages or national diplomacy. They just go blasting in, blasting out, and do it all their own way, in their own plane, on their own time, with their own weapons, even their own lighters - everything is cool and black, including their badass plane. Their whole life aesthetic seems to exist in the empty space between a Jack Daniels bottle (the old kind), a pack of Marlboro reds, and a Zippo while shooting pool in your friend's basement. And if that's not ideal for an action movie I don't know what is. See it while your significant other is asleep, so you can blast it through headphones, the expensive kind with heavy bass, so you can feel each boom, bang, and breath of tough guy bonding, because that kind of Hawksian men-in-a-group lived-in overlapping dialogue dynamic is all but extinct. 

Dogs of War 
Starring: Christopher Walken, JoBeth Williams
1980
 ***
Like a prelude to The Expendables, these Christopher Walken-led mercenaries like to decimate their opponent with superior firepower after much superior strategizing. Though in Dogs there's also lots of planning, running, loading, and aiming, while The Expendables skips the whole recon mission, jail and torture and release, the stealthy journey forth in boats that have to pass through customs with all the weapons hidden in oil drums, etc. But if you want to know the minutiae involved with overthrowing an evil African dictator and installing a western corporate interest-friendly African dictator this is your better bet.

Best of all, if you love the Deer Hunter but are dubious over Walken's character's survival on the Russian roulette circuit (which, as I've written, was frustratingly unrealistic, both historically and via the law of averages), you can imagine Walken's mercenary career as a much more logical and realistic alternative way to express a PSTD-related death wish. And when, after a whole movie worth of build-up, he busts out that crazy repeating grenade launcher and practically destroys the whole compound singlehandedly, it's pretty damned cathartic. Walken is magnificent, even when he turns noble. 


Also, his NYC life is well-etched in that uniquely 70s 'when the city was still dangerous' modality, so that's another plus, since when isn't it worth it watching Walken hustle around the mean streets in a black coat with the collar up? Why hasn't he ever made a movie with Scorsese? It seems like he must have. JoBeth Williams is the girl he makes idle plans to get away from it all with, and she doesn't believe him anymore, but tosses him a hotel room lay anyhow. And he teaches a wayward local black kid to work for his living. What... eva. Time to pack up the gear and go. I remember this film as one of the very first VHS rentals my dad ever brought home, back when renting movies still had a sexy bizarro magic. Though I was best friends with a Soldier of Fortune-reading nutcase (see: Rage of Huberty), and loved war comics, I didn't like Dogs at the time --too much plot, not enough jumping out of exploding watchtowers in slow motion. But now I need a slow lead up to really feel the cathartic unleashing.

Street Fighter
Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, Kylie Minogue
1994
***1/2
Twice the action of Hot Shots Part Deux, twice the laughs of Saving Private Ryan, say what you want about this film, like BOMB (Maltin), ** (imb), or 13% (rottentomatoes), my girl and I think Streetfighter is delightful romp for a lazy Saturday when you can't summon the will to vacuum or go out in the rain. If you haven't seen it you might confuse it with all those first person shooter films like Doom, where everyone's trapped in a locked-down maze of drippy subterranean tunnels, and breaking bones, but it's pretty sunny and merry, with a dry sense of welcome wit and divine costumes (dig the powder blue on the coded UN guys). It's got that international style, the Jackie Chan film aesthetic, but is also populated with crazy steroidal villains and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue as Van Damme's right hand woman ass-kicker; Raul Julia laughing maniacally, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip" while worrying about the size of his future city's food court and showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, demolishing the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy. In addition to ransoming a bin full of hostages, Cool Raul is making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress. But the fortress also is full of high places and chain pulleys to swing down from in ripped derring do. Great lines ("you got... paid?"), hilarious bits (Bison punching a video monitor when it shows a boy frolicking with a dog), and wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches (like the super dope bed chamber of Bison, its wall portraits ranging in style from Napoleon to John Wayne Gacy) top off the blood(less) sundae.


In some ways it reminds me of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China only not quite as good. What is? It's at at least 75%. How many other action films never even make it to half that number. And like Big Trouble, critics were confused by its deadpan tone and only after seeing it a few times on Saturday afternoons did we figure it out (we'd forgotten, you see, that the 1980 Flash Gordon was in on its own deadpan joke). While we wait for that happy era of re-evaluation, countless dumber, worser action films escape the critical hostility lauded on poor Street Fighter. Why? Is it a global conspiracy? Every evil critic in the world, my right hand woman and I challenge you to mortal combat! Vivat gloria stupiditatem! It was Raul Julia's last theatrical film, dedicated to him with the words vaya con dios. And you still deny its godhood? Though admittedly not as funny as Arnold's, if you can't chuckle at Van Damme's ridiculous American flag tattoo and inflectionless accent ("The main foah-arce will come from the noah-oarth") then sorry, but you must go back to "da chambuh."

Marwencol
Documentary about Mark Hogencamp
2010
*****
Not only is this a fascinating psychological examination, but it says volumes about the opiate-like effect of imagining combat--explosions, the threat of immanent death, desire, and most of all, camaraderie--on even the average male psyche, mine included. See, I love WW2 because it was the last time our liberty really was at stake, for real. And we won by working together like our collective and personal life depended on it, Russkies and Yanks included. Rather than lording it over the poker table (with our nuclear flush) we were almost out of chips, so the game mattered more, and so our victory was, and remains, the last time we as a nation rejoiced unanimously, red and blue states one mass out in the streets, in a spontaneous outpouring of joy and relief. I used WW2 as a mantra myself, during my squirrelly 'tween phase in the slasher-filled early 80s. Just thinking about Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury, or The Unknown Soldier or the tank corps. in All-Out War kept me calm. Seeing a film on TV like Battle of the Bulge or Force 10 from Navarone could keep me less spooked as I tried to sleep in the dead quiet of the suburbs.

Mark Hogencamp shares this weird warm fondness for a time and place he wasn't at. Given a weird brain damage after a near-fatal beating thrown by a random cabal of douches, he's found an outlet for his madness in creating Marwencol, a fictional Belgian town occupied by both allied and Nazi forces at various times, overrun with sexy spies and good time taverns, and Hogencamp gets such a naturalized feel from his action figures, getting the right amount of dried mud on the jeep tires, etc., that it's truly astounding. He's an inspiration for all outsider artists.... just forget any notion you'll ever be discovered and lose yourself completely in your awesome art, and let it keep you sane. Follow your craziest dreams, even if they lead you over a magical cliff back to WW2 or at least a New York art gallery.

------
Battle of Britain
Starring: Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Laurence Olivier,
Susannah York, everyone else
 1969
**
This film shuffles around an all-star Brit cast and a lovingly restored bundle of German Heinkels, Stukas and Messerschmidts tangling with the Brits' beloved Spitfires, which were light enough to bounce like rubber balls on the landing fields but had great speed and maneuverability, including absurdly strong climbing rates thanks to the Rolls Royce Merlin Engines. We see Spitfires polishing off Heinkels by the dozen, occasionally getting nicked by a turret gunner or fighter escort, bailing out over the Thames, or whatever.


The thing is, has England ever really had so much clear weather, ever? There's no more than a handful of clouds in the whole film, and no anti-aircraft guns are ever seen and only two barrage balloons show up. Across the channel, Goering rants and raves and struts while an army of about three German soldaten in a raft stand around waiting to invade.

Still, this was the age before CGI and while the explosions as planes are shot out of the sky are clearly superimposed, it's because the planes are all real, restored war artifacts, and one gets a surprisingly clear idea of how it all worked and how massive dogfights really do resemble a swarm of hornets. Though it's odd that after a few months of preparation the Germans bomb British airfields that are still a) undefended, not even with an alarm, b) totally free of anti-aircraft guns, c) even the sound of approaching bombers or the sounds of bombs dropping don't seem to rouse the crew; they shuffle around in search of an unbroken tea cup while the hangers burn, perhaps lacking a clear direction cue from the overly-engaged director, Guy Hamilton.


Of the woman in the cast, Susannah York fares well as a high ranking air traffic officer who continually denies her pesky husband's insistence she transfer out to safer Scotland. Good for her! And what's up with her mod hair cut? No time to find out! Here comes the Heinkels for another round of battle, so similar to the ones that came before they might be just reusing whole sequences.

And after enough dogfight scenes and ground support chatter have been contrasted, Goering calls it off, takes a train back to Berlin from the Pais de Calais, and the film ends.

We win!

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