Code Name: Dynastud

Posted October 22, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, one of the year's best, satire

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 4.50.29 PM “My penis was a lethal weapon,” narrates the titular hero of Code Name: Dynastud, “and I had a license to thrill.” This is the sort of freewheeling dialogue you can expect from this movie and from many of Richard Griffin’s movies in general. Griffin is the Rhode Island bad boy responsible for making serious films (Long Night in a Dead City, Flesh for the Inferno) and queer-positive farces (last year’s Strapped for Danger and definitely this movie). Sometimes the sharpest response to a repressive situation is laughter, and in Dynastud Griffin gays it up bigly in the face of a regime that just announced they’re looking to redefine transgender out of existence, and whose vice-president gladly speaks at the anti-LGBT hate gathering Values Voter Summit.

Griffin’s comedic grab-bag approach, with nods to everything from James Bond opening-credits sequences to Dune to Moby Dick, probably won’t win over any more bigots than a more sober-sided Oscar-season appeal to tolerance would, but it’s a lot more fun. (Some may recall that Strapped for Danger was supposed to be Griffin’s swan song; fortunately for us, he changed his mind.) Griffin’s story here (cowritten with frequent giggling collaborators Duncan Pflaster and Lenny Schwarz) involves a scrawny farm-raised lad who receives superpowers and becomes Dynastud (Anthony Gaudette), both blessed with fabulous good looks and cursed with the tendency to make his sexual partners’ heads explode when he achieves orgasm. Dynastud’s new partner in crimefighting — the Robin to his Batman, if you will — is Bart (Derek Laurendeau), a bespectacled dude punished for the crime of being gay in 2024 by being married off to the avidly horny daughter of the senator being groomed as the next president.

Despite the intentional clownishness (the bad dubbing in tribute to Enter the Ninja) and the continued thirst for vibrant colors (courtesy of cinematographer John Mosetich), Griffin’s radicalism here makes Bruce LaBruce’s callow outrages look like a kid’s armpit farts. Code Name: Dynastud imagines an America left incredibly worse post-Trump — this may come to be recognized as the first post-America film. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic work, with the emphasis on “cheerfully.” The performers come to party, with the most vivid fun-makers being Bruce Church as the gun-toting, hateful senator and Candace Sampson as his randy spawn. I’m always happy to see Aaron Andrade barge into a Griffin shindig, and here he busts in as a MAGA agent and puts on a hilariously lofty accent. He cracked me up every time.

It’s probably no accident that Griffin is hijacking traditionally macho genres (and movies by typically macho studios like Cannon) to tell lasciviously gay stories. By the same token, gay lust and affection are about the only things that don’t come in for ridicule here; by rewriting/rewiring hetero fantasies, Griffin is showing the hetero audience what their unquestioned hetero entertainment looks like to everyone else. I sometimes wonder what Griffin’s wilder films will look like in thirty years (assuming anyone will be around to watch them) — whether their method of flipping the script will be viewed as something that was sadly necessary in the dark ages of 2018. There may be a future in which films like Code Name: Dynastud will be seen not as gay parodies but as parodies. Part of Griffin believes in that future and works towards it. And part of him laughs in rage at the present. There’s the soul of an artist in these schlock homages Griffin does, with all their jokes about schlongs and jizz.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Posted October 14, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's best, romero

notld Fifty years ago this past October 1, George A. Romero invented what we know today as the modern zombie — not the previous voodoo kind, but a reanimated, cannibalistic corpse. Throughout Night of the Living Dead, though, the word “zombie” is never spoken. The mysterious aggressors are referred to as “ghouls” or, at one point, “flesh eaters.” Romero also laid down the first rule of zombie stories: The danger lies just as much with your fellow human survivors as with the zombies. This dictum has served zombie cinema well in the subsequent half-century, from Romero’s own five sequels to The Walking Dead.

In Romero’s later zombie films, especially 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he used the genre as a Trojan horse for social satire and commentary. Here, though, any commentary is more or less incidental. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones), is African-American, because Jones was the best actor for the part — Romero never intended to be subversive, even when Ben is slapping hysterical white woman Barbra (Judith O’Dea) or beating up jerkwad white man Harry (Karl Hardman). Nobody really seems to take notice of Ben’s race; he’s simply a smart, resourceful man who has the better survival instincts. (The depiction of Barbra as a useless, frightened girl is another story; in the 1990 remake, written by Romero, Barbra is far braver and tougher, and is played by stuntwoman Patricia Tallman.)

The movie remains unsettling after all these years because of its bleak simplicity. Everything is distilled down to these people’s struggles to survive in a remote house Ben, Barbra, Harry, Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sickly daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who has been bitten by a zombie, and a young couple who seem to be there as an afterthought. It’s the ultimate Z-budget bottle-episode movie, and it has a chiaroscuro ghastliness the more expensive color sequels lack, as engaging as they often are. The seething black-and-white grain of the images makes the horrors seem caught almost on the fly; sometimes the action is artfully composed, sometimes the camera eye seems dead, as if we were watching through zombievision.

The most gruesome moments, when the zombies have a midnight snack on two of the more expendable characters, have a casual nightmarishness backed by a doomy electronic pulse on the soundtrack. The 28-year-old Romero, already a veteran of local TV commercials (and short films for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!), threw a lot of stuff at the wall, and fortunately most of it stuck. The mood is dark and near despair, but there’s a spirit of play in the filmmaking, a spark of on-the-cheap expertise. Romero’s first Dead trilogy (rounded out by 1985’s Day of the Dead) were all claustrophobic, isolated affairs, but his second trilogy (2005’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and particularly 2009’s Survival of the Dead, Romero’s swan song) got out into the air and the world a bit more.

Here, though, we have a haunted house haunted from within by distrust and hostility, and threatened from without by ghouls that can’t be reasoned with or appealed to. Once a dead person becomes a zombie, that’s it, there’s nothing personal, they’re going to eat you whether you’re a stranger or their relative. Social norms become meaningless. Some of them come in suits, some naked. All are bodies interrupted en route from life to dirt or flame, and become the Nightmare Life-in-Death, the neither-nor, death devouring life. Romero wasn’t thinking about any of this, though; he was just riffing on I Am Legend. Subtext gathers around this stark, pure story; analyses leech onto it; but in the end it is a classical horror film that seems to exist above what we say about it.

Suspiria (1977)

Posted October 8, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, one of the year's best

suspiria A little over an hour into the classic fever dream Suspiria, a killer comes after a frightened young woman we’ve grown to like, intending to dull his straight razor on her. She locks herself in a room, and the razor slides through the door opening and jiggles the latch. Jiggle, jiggle, for quite some time, as she stares at the blade with dread. We can see that the killer could easily flip the latch up with the razor, but that wouldn’t serve the purpose of the scene, which is twofold. The plot-centered purpose is simply to scare the woman into fleeing through a window into another room, where an even uglier surprise is in store. The second purpose is purely aesthetic — the film’s cowriter and director, Dario Argento, loves to draw out the suspense for its own cruel sake. We stare as if hypnotized as the woman backs away, backs away, at a crawl, futilely. Whether she moves fast or slow, death is still coming for her, as another character says in a different context later on.

Suspiria, whose modern remake arrives in American theaters next month, is probably Argento’s masterpiece. The first in his Three Mothers trilogy — followed by 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears — it seems to encompass everything he holds dear: art, music, architecture, elaborate death sequences. It’s a death ballet, really, with various crescendos that function as nightmare logic. I mean, when we’re talking about a drizzle of maggots falling on unsuspecting young women, the movie can try to explain it away as the headmistress (Joan Bennett) does, but Suspiria is no left-brain experience. I see, for instance, that I’ve made it some 300 words into this piece without mentioning that the movie takes place at a ballet academy, and that the star, the mildly agreeable Jessica Harper, is the school’s new American student Suzy Bannion. Thinking back on Suspiria yields sense memories, electronic haunted-house sounds, stylish and outré brutality. It’s possible to forget Harper is even in it, but it’s not possible to forget the opening salvo of operatic violence, perhaps the only gory slasher kill that also wreaks collateral damage.

Argento throws in maybe two quick scenes of dance practice, but ballet isn’t really what he’s interested in. He sets the movie in a ballet academy because it has dozens of comely young actresses to terrorize (and is run by older women who may or may not be witches). It’s simplistic to call Argento a misogynist based on the baroque ways women are killed in his work. I believe him when he says he’s trying to show how horrible violence against women is (despite his disconcerting habit of “playing” the killer’s hands in his movies). I also think the murder scenes, the spikes in the heartbeat, can’t help being beautiful and exciting. The extremely loud and almost cartoonishly ominous score by Goblin (Dawn of the Dead) and the hyper-rich, Disney-inspired color scheme by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli turn the violence into myth, fairy-tale, illustrations in some fiendish old leatherbound book of stories.

Argento is an artist and his art, like Hitchcock and Peckinpah, is the shock of sudden death, the blood and guts of mortality. Suspiria runs on spooky virtuosity that both confounds sense and forges its own internal sense. There’s a room at the academy that’s filled with barbed wire for some reason — sure, why not. I imagine Suspiria is also not the kind of movie that plays well with snarky modern audiences; there are just too many weird infelicities you have to agree to overlook, like the usual uncanny-valley Italian dubbing — the worst example being Udo Kier, dubbed in the U.S. release with an American accent, even though Kier is a German actor in a film set in Germany. The apocalyptic finale makes about as much sense as anything else; it feels right, though. The movie plays best when it comes off like a little kid telling a scary story, skipping around, giving you over-the-top gross-outs. It’s less convincing in scenes where Harper goes around like a detective trying to get to the bottom of the strangeness. She won’t, because the strangeness of Suspiria is bottomless.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted September 30, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, fantasy, prequel, science fiction, star war

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

Mandy

Posted September 23, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, fantasy, film noir, horror, one of the year's best

Mandy-1-Nicolas-cage-1200x520 Roger Ebert’s most enduring maxim, perhaps, is this: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Jesus fuckin’ Christ, is Mandy ever not about what it’s about. It is full-metal, full-throttle how it is about it. The story is one we’ve seen a million times — a lone man avenges his lost love. But what director-cowriter Panos Cosmatos does with it makes all the difference. The movie is not of this earth; almost every frame of it could be painted on the side of a van, or appear on a death-metal band’s double live album cover. The story is tragic and pauses to take proper measure of what has been lost and what might be lost, but more than once I still cackled at the demonic-purple Heavy Metal aesthetic, presided over by Nicolas Cage with his Dwight-Frye-meets-Timothy-Carey efflorescence dialed up past 11.

Cage is Red, a lumberjack who lives in a secluded house (that seems to be made largely out of windows) with his love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, creating a complexly vulnerable character in her pittance of screen time). Mandy catches the eye of diabolical cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who sends his band of eye-rolling numbfuck sadists to kidnap her. Mandy displeases Jeremiah, and is extinguished in front of Red’s tormented eyes. After a while, he goes after the “crazy evil.” On the face of it, this seems like a fine example of what female comics fans snarkily refer to as “fridging” — killing a woman to kick the male lead into vicious, self-righteous, vengeful action. But again, it’s about how it’s about it, and the very retro style (the movie is set in 1983, when Reagan is on the radio and women can unironically wear Mötley Crüe baseball shirts) seems to comment on how dusty the trope is. For instance, Mandy is no conventional fridged prettyface but a literally and figuratively scarred woman who we often see reading for pleasure. You might laugh and say showing a woman (or anyone) reading for pleasure in a pop entertainment isn’t so uncommon as to merit comment. You’d be mistaken.

Cosmatos, son of the late schlock director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo, among others), uses the basic plot to throw in anything he finds cool and/or interesting. Mandy is such a specific woman you just know she’s based on someone Cosmatos values in real life. Red, on the other hand, is a standard-issue stoic hero that Cage riffs on in his customary manic-expressionist manner. I do have to say, however, that Mandy is deliberate bordering on poky for at least its first hour. Scenes and shots go on far longer than necessary — to establish a mood, though, not to convey information. The prolonged shots, wedded to the trippy colors and aggressive soundtrack, start to come across as hypnotic. We are steering into a point of no return, past which — courtesy of a bathroom meltdown that will stand among many others in Cage’s greatest-hits reel — the movie becomes dark and grimy, faster-paced, a rock opera about revenge.

I mention Mandy’s slow first half because, first, I want to acknowledge that my patience was tested and yours might be too, and second, to emphasize that once the film turns on a dime into a pop apocalypse that might have been illustrated by Richard Corben at his most feral, the first half comes to seem like an oasis whose relative calm we failed, like Red and Mandy, to appreciate at the time. (Although on repeat viewings, going into it knowing its initial tempo, we might occupy the film’s open spaces more willingly.) Mandy becomes about grief and its deranging aspects; the movie’s garish, psychotronic vibe is a combustible and original filter through which to view loss and guilt. The growing legion of folks who love Mandy are responding to something deeper in it than its badass violence, Cage camp, or retro-irony. It sinks its emotional hooks into us while we’re not looking, while we’re distracted by the beauty and art of this hellscape and its mythic denizens, the surrealism of a TV commercial featuring “Cheddar Goblin” (the fans have already sung Cheddar Goblin’s fervent praises; next comes the Funko Pop Cheddar Goblin, no doubt), the phallic hilarity of an opponent wielding the longest chainsaw you’ve ever seen. This midnight movie, this spiritual bastard child of a thousand drive-in flicks, ultimately takes its place in the halls of art. It’s purple and inflamed, like a fireworks show or an abscess.

Fahrenheit 11/9

Posted September 16, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

fahrenheit119Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sloppy but affecting essay about American crisis. Like all of his movies, it’s not only about what it seems to be about — Bowling for Columbine, for instance, wasn’t only about guns, Sicko wasn’t only about the health-care system, and God knows Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t only about Donald Trump. In fact, I’d guess there are fewer minutes of Trump footage in the movie than there are of, say, the furiously eloquent Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, or the fresh, charismatic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the fiery West Virginia State Senator Robert Ojeda. This is no accident — Moore is saying that these are the kinds of people we’d better listen to. They may be left but they’re nowhere near establishment Democrat.

Perhaps understandably — after his 2016 concert film Michael Moore in Trumpland whiffed in its attempt to shake America’s 100 million non-voters out of their indifference — Moore isn’t feeling very comedic these days. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the least funny movie he has ever made, and I’ve seen Canadian Bacon. The mood here is sickened and uncomprehending — “How the fuck did we get here?” Moore asks at the top of the film. He still makes his jokes, pulls his stunts (like one involving a truck full of poisoned Flint, Michigan water), but ultimately the goal seems to be to give us the creeps. (A weird montage of Trump acting skeevy towards his daughter goes on a little longer than it needs to.) At times the movie gets rather doomy and macabre, reflecting the current American mood.

Sometimes the film seems like Moore’s debate with Trump; he answers “Make America great again” with “When was America ever great?” It’s great for some people, for sure. Maybe not so great for people of color, or women, or its original people, or the otherwise marginalized. A historian in the film corrects Moore’s “200 years of democracy” — two hundred years of democracy for white males, sure. How about zero years of democracy? Rule by the people? We’re still not quite there yet. But Moore isn’t all that interested in being inflammatory this time, which is why I don’t think Fahrenheit 11/9 will make the splash that his peak-popularity films did — Bowling, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. Moore seems to know this, and to know he and documentaries are on the way out. They can’t change the world any more; a tweet or a Facebook post can.

After an opening act that points scorn at the big orange target, Moore spends what feels like a quarter or maybe even a third of the film on the water crisis in Flint. He talks to whistle-blowers, families, doctors; not coincidentally, many are people of color, and Moore characterizes the poisoning of Flint’s water as “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.” Then he goes to West Virginia, where he visits with teachers who are going on strike. Then he sits down with some Parkland kids, including David Hogg. It seems like the first hour of Fahrenheit 11/9 is darkness, and the second half is light, represented by the growing number of young political hopefuls, agitators, and kids sick of growing up in a post-Columbine reality of shooter drills in their schools. These kids, Moore suggests, can save us and rescue America’s true destiny as a “leftist nation.”

So the movie feels like a loose anthology on the theme of American decline and, perhaps, rise, if enough people want it. I’m a Moore booster but thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a bit too much of a glib slam-dunk on George W. Bush. It felt like agitprop after the wounded, searching quality of Bowling for Columbine. But Fahrenheit 11/9 is something else, something deeper and thornier and oddly personal. It’s as if Moore made the movie in order to convince himself and the like-minded not to eat a gun. Moore rejects bromidic words like “hope” (and boy, does Obama come in for a withering pan of his drinking-Flint-water stunt), but he likes words like action and revolution and together. He wants to see this divided, hemorrhaging country united. But he doesn’t know how to do it, and he wonders if a new generation might. By the end, Trump almost seems beside the point. The country that produced him is the bigger fish to fry.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted September 9, 2018 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

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