Archive for May 2010

Heartless

May 30, 2010

In 1990, Philip Ridley made me a fan for life with his Lynchian yet utterly unique The Reflecting Skin. Five years later, he confirmed my admiration with the almost-unseen The Passion of Darkly Noon. Now, after years of writing plays and children’s books, Ridley is back behind the camera for his third film, Heartless. Welcome back, sir; what took you so long?

Heartless is immediately recognizable as a Ridley film, yet also an immediately obvious step away from his previous two efforts, which were twisted tales of Americana shot through with sexual perversity. This one’s set in the slums of London, and it’s much more overtly a horror film than its hard-to-classify predecessors. Demons in hoodies are running rampant in the night, incinerating victims with Molotov cocktails. Jamie (Jim Sturgess), a photographer, lives nearby and starts to notice the strange goings-on. His face is marred by a heart-shaped birthmark, and he slinks from place to place, also in a hoodie, snapping photos and feeling like a demon himself, or at least an outcast.

Once again using a wide, wide frame, Ridley finds beauty in the squalor and clutter of working-class London. The presence of the Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike Sturgess moping about in a black hoodie will remind some of Donnie Darko, and indeed Richard Kelly could be considered the American Philip Ridley in some ways. After a particularly traumatic run-in with the demons, Jamie is led to an abandoned building where his dad (Timothy Spall) grew up; inside is a cute little Indian girl named Belle (Nikita Mistry), who acts as an assistant to the malefic Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who may or may not be Old Scratch himself. Papa B wants to unleash chaos on the world to make people doubt the existence of God; he offers Jamie a deal: do some anti-God graffiti and lose that birthmark. Of course, “graffiti” turns out to mean something far gorier.

Heartless gives us such images as Jamie peeling off layers of charred skin to reveal his new, unblemished self (shades of Pink Floyd: The Wall) and a greaser-hairdo rent boy wrapped head to toe in cling wrap. Jamie also falls in love with delivery girl Tia (Clémence Poésy), and those scenes verge on dull. But Sturgess, as he also did in Across the Universe, sells his wide-eyed adoration beautifully, and we fear for what might shatter Jamie’s idyll. There seem to be a lot of meanings floating around in the narrative that may need multiple viewings to unpack; there’s a whiff of Jack the Ripper, suggesting that old murderous Jack might once have found himself in the same predicament Jamie does. The mysterious Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) comes knocking, using a dowsing stick to lead him to the tool Jamie will need to write his “graffiti.” Jamie didn’t sign on for this. It doesn’t matter. Chaos reigns.

The movie, as I write this, is currently available in a few British theaters and on British PlayStation 3 as an on-demand item as well as DVD and Blu-ray (no word on when we Yanks will have the pleasure). The day-and-date release will probably ensure Ridley a far wider audience than have seen both his previous films combined. As a narrative, Heartless is less aggressively odd than The Reflecting Skin or Darkly Noon, and as such is possibly a good jumping-on point for Ridley newcomers; we long-time fans might be a little disheartened by the relative lack of such unaccountable visuals as a giant flaming shoe floating down a river or a fetus found in a jar in a barn. But any Ridley is welcome Ridley, and I imagine he’s a different artist and person now than he was twenty or fifteen years ago — aren’t we all?

The movie packs genuine scares, and keeps us connected to its twisty events with Sturgess’ powerfully empathetic performance as a put-upon young man in way over his head. As a Ridley film, its sharp straightforwardness may take a little getting used to if you’ve thrilled to his other work. As a horror film, it’s decidedly more original and idiosyncratic than the stuff we horror fans usually make do with. When you can, give it a shot — and make the effort to find good letterboxed prints of the earlier Ridley, too.

Now It’s Dark: RIP Dennis Hopper

May 30, 2010

Actor, director, drug addict, madman, art collector, comeback kid at the age of 50, Oscar nominee, Bush supporter turned Obama supporter (Sarah Palin was the deal-breaker for him), Hollywood Walk of Fame recipient two months before his death: Dennis Lee Hopper wore a lot of hats in his turbulent, turbo-charged lifetime.

Some remember him for his co-starring work opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant — the ‘50s. Some remember him for his iconic Easy Rider — the ‘60s. Some remember him for his jittery photographer in Apocalypse Now — the ‘70s. Some remember him for his polar-opposite comeback roles in Blue Velvet and/or Hoosiers — the ‘80s. Some remember him for his villain roles in Speed and Waterworld — the ‘90s. Some may even remember his twilight work in Land of the Dead, An American Carol, or the Crash TV series. That’s six decades, man. Not bad for someone who by all rights should’ve been dead in the early ‘80s, when he was snorting three grams of cocaine a day.

Hopper cleaned up in ‘83 and roared back into prominence three years later with four legendary performances, all in the same year: the kindly drunk Shooter in Hoosiers, the delapidated, one-legged Feck in River’s Edge, the furiously vengeful Lefty Enright (“I’m the lord of the harvest!”) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 … and, of course, the seething profile of obsessive evil Frank Booth in David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet. If you watch all of these films back-to-back, Hopper’s performances shake out as his confession, his acknowledgment that he was in the wilderness but now he was back, that once he was blind but now he could see. This scene in Blue Velvet takes fetishism to diseased places it had seldom been before in American movies:

He was also a pretty good director. Out of the Blue (1980) was a stark portrait of bottom-dog existence, Colors (1988) a conscientious attempt to make sense of the Crips-Bloods war, Backtrack (1990) an underrated, quirky outlaw romance. He was not as great a director as he was an actor, but, with the possible exception of his last effort, 1994’s Chasers (which nevertheless found room for appearances by Crispin Glover, Seymour Cassel and Gary Busey — must’ve been an interesting set), Hopper always seemed to be groping for some kind of truth in the films he helmed, even if, as in the widely dismissed The Last Movie (1971), his reach exceeded his grasp.

Hopper kept busy right up to the end; his final decade seemed to be filled with documentaries, for which he either narrated or served as an interview subject, the reasoning probably being that the man had a lot of good stories. Perhaps his last truly great performance was in True Romance (1993), wherein he delivered the infamous history lesson on Sicilians to provoke mob boss Christopher Walken into killing him before he was forced to give up the location of his son. The scene is such a ready-made classic it can be viewed and enjoyed by itself outside the movie.

Among Hopper’s lesser-known work, I can recommend the criminally underseen Paris Trout (1991), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The American Friend (1977), The Indian Runner (1991), and Red Rock West (1992). His final film, due to be released September 17, will be the computer-animated Alpha and Omega. Time will tell whether it’s a fitting swan song for Hopper, but then he usually performed as though every movie were the last movie.

Why Rick Veitch Is the Great Living American Comics Artist

May 29, 2010

My first exposure to Rick Veitch, I believe, was the first chapter of Abraxas and the Earthman in Epic Illustrated. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like his work on Swamp Thing, and I stopped buying his The One after three issues.

I was a teenager, you see. I wasn’t ready for Rick Veitch yet.

Fast-forward to me at 39: I’ve just finished (belatedly) the three trade-paperback collections of Veitch’s Rare Bit Fiends, his dream-journal in the form of comics. This is after having read Veitch’s Can’t Get No and given the full The One another day in court.

At this point, I just want to fill a shelf with Veitch stuff, including Abraxas, my maiden voyage with him that turned me off. I wish I could say I “got” Veitch immediately, instead of having to wait until my late thirties to discover that, during the intervening years when I wasn’t looking, he became a master. (Actually, he always was; he didn’t change in that regard — my perception of him did, as did my readiness for what he was doing.)

The thing I dig most about Rick Veitch is that the dude doesn’t rest on any laurels. Shit, I doubt he knows where his laurels are. Almost alone among his contemporaries, he keeps growing and experimenting and pushing against the boundaries of what comics are “supposed” to do. Can’t Get No, which is at least as formally daring and emotionally challenging as David Mazzuchelli’s accomplished but somewhat overrated Asterios Polyp, blew my hair back. If The Comics Reporter is correct, Veitch just turned 59 on May 7. That means he was in his mid-fifties when Can’t Get No was published four years ago. No spring chicken, this man, but unlike a lot of comics creators who came to prominence in the ’80s and have become self-parodies or just plain stuck in a style or a genre, Veitch goes at the drawing board like a kid full of ideas who doesn’t know he’s breaking all the rules.

But Veitch knows all the rules. He’s a lifelong comics fan, and that comes out amusingly in his dream collections, which tend to be star-studded with cameos by fellow creators or comics idols. He knows all the rules, so he can break them. I’ve grown to love his style, which I think is part of what initially put me off. I don’t think Veitch could draw anything “pretty” if his life depended on it. Way back when Veitch drew the notorious childbirth issue of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, I think it was Heidi MacDonald in The Comics Journal who characterized Veitch’s art as having “an innate … creepiness that is hard to match.” It’s true; a lot of his drawing is creepy. But I don’t know that that’s a bad thing; you could say the same about Robert Crumb.

What I like about the dream books and Can’t Get No and the more experimental stuff is that they’re so pure. You’re getting whatever’s in Veitch’s head, and it isn’t prettied-up. And when he’s working on his own stuff, you can feel how much Veitch loves cartooning. It seems to be in his blood and bones. There’s a childlike (not childish) glee to it. Artists like Veitch (or Crumb, or Los Bros Hernandez) make me feel that there’s no other way they would even want to express themselves. Give him an Avatar budget and tell him he can make any film he wants, and I have a feeling he’d rather do it as a comic.

So, because he has been fucking with comics fanboys (like the teenage me) for something like thirty years now, and because he hasn’t been dining off of Swamp Thing¹ or doing sequels to The One or Brat Pack for years, and because he can do something like the dream books and somehow make them more spectacular and action-packed and funny and scary than any mainstream superhero comic, I hereby name Rick Veitch the great living American comics artist.

¹ When DC balked at his plan to have Swamp Thing meet Jesus Christ in 1989 — when the expensive Batman movie was about to come out and DC could ill afford any bad press (as it turned out, the flick dominated the box office and most likely would have no matter what Veitch was doing in Swamp Thing) — Veitch told DC to fuck themselves and left the book and the company until 2006, when he did Can’t Get No and Army@Love for DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Great Scenes: Casino

May 26, 2010

Despite a lot of competition, Casino may well be the most viciously violent film in Martin Scorsese’s portfolio. It’s not wall-to-wall brutality; that wouldn’t really be possible, with a running time of two minutes shy of three hours. But when the moments of bloodshed come, they make one hell of an impression.

The scene below comes during the film’s final stretch. Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) has spent the movie terrorizing anyone who tries to horn in on the Vegas empire he’s built with his back-home friend Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro). Nicky also spends the movie pissing off the bosses back home, who start to question whether having such a mercurial psycho as muscle is really worth it. We hear a lot during Casino about the holes in the desert, and eventually Nicky and his brother Dominic end up in one together.

There’s a lot to be said about these few minutes out of the total 178. First is something I’d forgotten: Nicky the chatterbox’s narration continues right up until Frankie (Frank Vincent, finally getting back at Pesci after his former song-and-dance partner beat the shit out of him in Raging Bull and GoodFellas) rearranges Nicky’s spine with an aluminum baseball bat. “They don’t give a fuck about AAAAAH!!!” With that, both the narration and the soundtrack music (“House of the Rising Sun”) cut off, the better for us to hear the animalistic sounds of grunting and cursing and the uniquely revolting impact of hard aluminum against meat and bone. There’s no redeeming poetry in the form of, say, Donovan’s “Atlantis” or the piano coda of “Layla.” It’s just a bunch of goombahs grimly ending some other goombahs in the hot sun and dirt. What always gets me: the shot of Frankie swinging two bats into Dominic as the poor bastard is dragged away.

I would imagine Scorsese had to cut the scene to secure an R rating. There are a few edits that call attention to themselves. One gets the impression that Nicky’s beating was far longer originally. Then again, Scorsese may have felt that seeing Dominic beaten made the point (not to mention that Nicky is forced to watch his brother bludgeoned to near-death), and seeing the same thing happen at length to Nicky would’ve been redundant. Regardless, when Frankie takes his first grand-slam swing at Nicky’s skull, there’s an almost subliminal flash of the scalp gashing open. (It reminds me of the lightning-fast inserts in GoodFellas of Billy Batts’ head getting stomped and the ice-pick sliding out of the back of Morrie’s neck.) Whether it was Scorsese’s decision or (indirectly) the MPAA’s, what we don’t see makes what we do see all the more wrenching.

After all that, we’re told, via Ace’s morose narration, that Nicky and his brother were buried “while they were still breathing.” Man, that’s harsh. But before you weep too much for Nicky (although feel free to feel sorry for his brother, who I’m guessing didn’t have it coming nearly as much), remember that this is the same guy who perforated some mook’s throat with a pen (the guy’s pathetic mewling afterward really puts the ghastly icing on the cake), hit a shitkicker in the head with a phone, abused Don Rickles with another phone, and popped a guy’s eye out of his fuckin’ head in a vise. The crazy prick made his own shit sandwich, and now he’s gotta take a bite.

MacGruber

May 23, 2010

What’s the point of spoofing a genre that pretty much spoofs itself? My guess is that a lot of people in Hollywood grew up on the overwrought, macho action flicks of the ‘80s and have been yearning to recreate them. But that kind of film doesn’t really fly any more; these days the big budgets go to fantasy films or superhero films. If, say, Lethal Weapon were to be made today, it would have to be as an overt comedy, preferably one that can sell in the urban markets. The lily-white MacGruber, which is sinking without a trace at the box office, may be the proof.

MacGruber (Will Forte) started life as the clownish hero of brief Saturday Night Live sketches. Forte, John Solomon, and director Jorma Taccone have worked up a feature-length narrative for MacGruber, but they don’t seem to have solved the problem of why. An action farce like this, structured as a clothesline of skewered clichés, can work if it’s powered by deep disdain for the source or deep appreciation of it. MacGruber has neither. It seems to have been made because it could be made. Even Hot Fuzz, which underwhelmed me, was clearly a tribute to the junk it was satirizing. MacGruber is just a tribute to itself and the creative bankruptcy by which Universal forked over $10 million to make it.

None of this would be important if the film were funny. But MacGruber isn’t a character — he’s an assemblage of other characters’ backstories (rogue reputation, dead wife, called out of peaceful retirement for One Last Mission), albeit one with Michael Bay’s mullet and a devotion to Blaupunkt. Will Forte plays MacGruber on a sketch level, and he can’t sustain it for even the short running time. Kristen Wiig, who reprises her role as MacGruber’s hot assistant, isn’t used here particularly well other than her body language in a coffee-shop sequence. The presence of Val Kilmer as the villain, Dieter von Cunth (oh, that’s hilarious), promises more wildness than we get.

Why wasn’t MacGruber set in the ‘80s? That’s the decade it seems to worship, and there’s a portrait of Reagan on the office wall of MacGruber’s old colonel buddy (Powers Boothe), but there are also cell phones and other modern signifiers. The photography dukes it out between neon and black-on-orange; there’s a seriously ugly-looking scene set during the villain’s poker game, in what’s lighted to look like a pinkish grotto. Aesthetically, the movie is a crime; comedically it resorts to knee-slappers like celery up the butt (not once but twice). It’s further proof, as if any were needed, of SNL producer Lorne Michaels’ contempt for the audience.

And for gays. Near the beginning, MacGruber goes around assembling his dream team of tough guys he’s worked with in the past. He gets to one, a beefy mechanic (played by the wrestler The Big Show) who locks lips with another guy. MacGruber vehemently crosses the big sissy’s name off his list — easy homophobic joke. I hoped, though, that it might pay off later if MacGruber desperately needed a mechanic at some point and was chagrined when he remembered he dismissed a good one just for being gay — that’d be an easy point against homophobia. But he never ends up needing a mechanic, so it’s just a homophobic joke after all. Pretty weird for a movie whose hero constantly offers to suck various people’s dicks in order to get himself out of one mess or another. Overcompensating much, guys?

Great Scene: The Rules of Attraction

May 12, 2010

There’s a lot of fun and games in Roger Avary’s 2002 The Rules of Attraction. One scene, though, is deadly grim and serious. In the film, a lonely girl (Theresa Wayman) has been sending messages of love to callous anti-hero Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), who thinks the mash notes are from Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon). Eventually, the girl gives up on Sean and on life. She runs a bath, lights some candles, and lays out three rings and a razor blade.

Watch the clip (unfortunately, YouTube has disabled embedding). I’ve never sat and watched a woman’s face as her existence bleeds out of her, but I imagine this is what it would look like. Theresa Wayman, who has only been in three movies since (apparently she’s also in an L.A. band called Warpaint), is heartbreaking and persuasive here without speaking a word. You can read a shocking last-minute regret on her face after she’s made that irrevocable up-the-street cut: “Oh no, this doesn’t feel good, let me take it back, please…” I suppose the music choice (Harry Nilsson’s overwrought “Without You”) could be taken as ironic and a little too on-the-nose, but it gathers a haunting force, especially when the audio distorts and the camera tilts to imply the girl’s dissipating consciousness.

People wreck themselves and others throughout the movie, having sex without much thought to the consequences. Here, we see the consequences¹, and it’s both ugly and in a way beautiful — yet, because of the pain in Wayman’s face, we don’t feel that suicide is being glamorized. It’s a sad, meaningless, lonely way to go, and it makes us wish someone had stepped in to snuggle this girl and make her happy before it was too late.

¹Obviously I don’t mean that the consequence of sex is suicide. I mean the callous pairing-off and disregard for other people’s feelings. Sean is chasing Lauren and is too self-centered to notice the girl who’s pining for him. We hardly notice her either, and Avary gives us a somewhat accusatory montage of all Wayman’s earlier appearances in the movie that we didn’t really register.

Lesson Learned

May 10, 2010

Tonight I held the fifth of six Movie Nights at the library devoted to concert films. I have seen the attendance gradually dwindle. Tonight’s offering, Jonathan Demme’s 1997 Storefront Hitchcock, drew two people. One left half an hour in. The other, a dear old-timer who’s attended all my Movie Nights, politely said at about the hour mark, “You can shut it off if you want to.” Robyn Hitchcock’s Syd Barrett-esque flights of whimsy just weren’t ringing his bell. I couldn’t get mad. Hitchcock isn’t for everyone.

The concert-film theme started out fine. Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Monterey Pop, The Last Waltz all drew healthy crowds. Folks in their fifties or sixties, digging on the nostalgia. Stop Making Sense was a turning point: three people showed up, only one (the aforementioned old-timer) was left by the end. I don’t even want to guess how many people won’t show up for the next and final concert film, Urgh! A Music War.

For me, the lesson is clear. If people aren’t into the music already, they’re not likely to take a chance on a concert film. Only the die-hards, the ones like my stalwart old-timer, will go take a look-see. Casual viewers aren’t going to want to sit through 79 minutes of some wacky British songwriter they’ve never heard of (Robyn Hitchcock).

The next Movie Night series will focus on film noir, and I expect better turn-outs for those movies. The best turn-outs I’ve had so far have been for comedies and horror films, although the last horror film in that series, Let the Right One In, lured only two people. Generally, older films do better, pull in the demographic that isn’t doing much of anything on Monday night. That’s why the seats were full for Jazz on a Summer’s Day and almost empty tonight.


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