Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Posted September 18, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, cult, drama, horror, one of the year's best

henry-portrait-of-a-serial-killerHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a creepy, city-after-dark overtone, an existential chill. It carries a true grindhouse whiff while staking its claim as art. There’s a deep tension between content and context here; the movie shows you hyperbolically grotesque things, but often at a remove, with the camera tracking in or out. The tracking happens during the opening credits, when we see various (usually female) corpses left in the wake of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker). Whether we’re pulling back to take in the entire scene of the crime or pushing in for a better look at a woman’s ruined face, we’re led to look at the carnage as a series of tableaux, as works of art out of time, suspended forever in death and by death.

After making one documentary, director/co-writer John McNaughton made his feature debut with Henry — and directed nothing remotely like it in the three decades since. Despite a few genre pieces here and there (The Borrower is goofy fun), McNaughton has never worn the label of “horror director” well. Henry has more in common with Cassavetes than with Herschell Gordon Lewis, though the movie’s purest demographic exists in a Venn diagram of fans of both directors. The movie is cold and bleak, shot in the bowels of Chicago at night or on sunless days, usually in godforsaken alleys or among dead-looking roadside flora, the kind of places where corpses can be hidden, sometimes maybe found, almost never cared about.

The motor of the minimalist plot involves Henry’s roommate and “friend” Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ visiting sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Tracy grows sweet on Henry, who doesn’t know quite what to do with her feelings. Otis has a thing for Becky, but also puts his hand on the thigh of a guy he’s dealing weed to. Henry is a moral blank, but Otis is a true monster, sexually twisted, possibly by his tightly lidded homosexuality, possibly by his abusive father (who raped Becky throughout her childhood). When this pair invade a well-to-do family’s home, even Henry, recording the whole atrocity on a camcorder, is appalled by what Otis does. It’s as though proximity to Henry has unchained Otis’ demons, and the demons make him giddy. Rooker has since, of course, gone on to many different types of roles, but Towles, I think, here bravely nuked any chance he would have of playing anything other than a slimeball (he died last year).

We need the existence of Otis in order to be able to relate to Henry at all; Henry’s a killer, too, but an affectless one who never seems to enjoy it. He’s gentlemanly towards Becky, and disgusted by Otis’ incestuous/necrophiliac kinks, and that makes him the closest thing to a moral center the film offers — yes, he’s a moral blank, but he’s not actively, gigglingly evil like Otis. Towles manages to make Otis more than a caricature of redneck rabies, and Rooker smolders implosively, hardly moving his lips as he pulls out painful bits of (contradictory) memories about his mother as though prying shards of glass out of his skin. I submit that the scene in which Becky and Henry sit around the table trading familial sex-horror stories is the entire movie in microcosm — everything proceeds from this grim and grimy reality of mothers and fathers who scar their children sexually. Henry’s murders involve the soul more than the body. That’s what makes the movie more drama than horror.

Dr. Strangelove

Posted September 11, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, comedy, kubrick, one of the year's best, satire, tspdt

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

Hell or High Water

Posted September 4, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, overrated, thriller

Hell_or_High_Water_Large.jpgAt the end of a long, hot summer of movies for (essentially) children, there’s a tendency for critics to overrate a film that at least pretends to be for adults. The latest example is the crime drama Hell or High Water, which has just opened wide after a few weeks in limited release. The movie certainly isn’t bad; it offers some pleasures and actually has relevant things on its mind, yet wears the relevance lightly. It’s hard, though, to escape the feeling that we’ve heard this story and met these characters before. The conflicts are deftly played, decently written. There’s a terrific moment when a character makes a crucial shot and then seems torn between laughter and tears. There’s little flab but also little poetry, little reason this had to be a movie instead of, say, a novel or a radio play — it’s a bit cinematically null.

The relevance comes in with the motive for two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), to rob a string of Texas banks. They’re raising money to pay off the mortgage for the ranch that belonged to their late mother. The twist is that they’re hitting branches of the same bank that holds the mortgage — they’re robbing Peter to pay Peter. On their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s set to retire in three weeks. Marcus has an amiably insulting relationship with his Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) — he says ironically bigoted things to Alberto we know he doesn’t really mean, and Alberto razzes Marcus about his impending obsolescence.

The brothers are mostly harmless, though Toby is capable of quick, decisive violence and Tanner has done time for killing their abusive father. For a while, they go from bank to bank without hurting anyone much. Then things go bad in a hurry, and the movie loses what garrulous Texan sprawl it had. There are a couple of funny scenes involving waitresses — flirtatious Katy Mixon, no-nonsense Margaret Bowman — which also, alas, points up that except for Marcus’ replacement toward the end and Toby’s ex-wife, waitresses and bank tellers are about all the women we see in this masculine world of guns, casinos and beer.

Fargo is missed in more ways than one, not only because Marge Gunderson is a more original hero than Marcus, but because Hell or High Water feels like an amalgam of Coen brothers films — Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, even True Grit with Bridges doing his gruff unintelligible shtick again — without the Coens’ sense of wit or play. Director David Mackenzie never does anything discordant but never does anything genuinely surprising, either. The comfort and pleasure many may derive from the film might issue from its very been-there-done-that quality. It is very much “a movie like they used to make in the ’70s,” only they used to make them with a bit more idiosyncrasy, a little more art.

The movie seems to want points for telling a small story about regular people, except that these are the kind of regular people one meets only in movies: the desperate but noble bank robber, his half-crazy brother, the soon-retiring good ol’ boy after them. These men could come across as archetypes rather than clichés, but they don’t. Chris Pine and especially Ben Foster try to make something dangerous yet relatable out of the brothers, and there’s a nifty bit of quietly combative dialogue at the end that would probably go down better if it didn’t seem so pleased with itself for drawing from the same well as Heat, American Gangster and many other movies in which adversaries sit and take each other’s measure. Hell or High Water is so busy taking inspiration from earlier movies that it forgets we’ve seen them too.

Chimes at Midnight

Posted August 28, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best, shakespeare

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Orson Welles was just 49 when he started filming Chimes at Midnight in 1964, but he looked 70 — the age he was when he died, in 1985. Partly that’s due to make-up, and partly it’s because he always seemed older than he was. The movie, one of Welles’ finest works and a personal favorite of his, has been difficult to find outside of dodgy bootlegs until it was restored recently, and this week it appears on shiny new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions. It’s essential viewing for fans of Welles and of Shakespeare, whose great comic-tragic buffoon Falstaff is at the film’s center, played by Welles as though he knew he might never again get such a juicy opportunity.

As director, Welles contended with a puny budget, which resulted in some infamous issues with dubbing. The words and the images aren’t always in sync; sometimes the characters, played by stand-ins, face away from the camera to hide the fact that Welles didn’t have a particular actor that day. None of this matters, though, because what comes through is Welles’ passion — and, of course, his genius, which presents here as creative workarounds. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is as radiant an example of film-love as any of Welles’ other train sets. Somehow, the movie gods smiled down on Welles’ efforts, and what could have been an embarrassing boondoggle takes its place as a classic.

Falstaff was close to Welles’ heart. At its core, Chimes at Midnight tells the story of an old scoundrel who loves a young man — Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), destined to become King Henry V — as though he were Falstaff’s son. The young man must eventually reject Falstaff and the juvenile antics he represents, in order to earn the gravitas that being the king demands. That Falstaff understands this doesn’t make the rejection any easier, and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in Welles’ career as an actor or as a director than when the former Hal rejects Falstaff and Falstaff’s expression speaks of both pride and despair. The entire dark, stylized movie leads up to that moment, which in its original context as a two-part play about the passing of power from Henry IV (John Gielgud) to his son might come off more as a sad footnote about a supporting character.

The movie is famous for its ahead-of-its-time depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, filmed in chaotic fragments that nonetheless cohere into a vision of the horrific nonsense of war. Pauline Kael pointed out that the sequence was the only one in the film in which Welles could use editing as an artist rather than as a magician trying to misdirect us from budget problems. It’s ferocious and saddening without an ounce of schmaltz, leading up to the duel between Hal and the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). The movie gives the impression that this is either the first life Hal has taken or the first one that means something to him, and it sets the stage for his maturing and his rejection of his surrogate father. Thus does war destroy anything decent in its path.

Welles said that the movie was less a study of the passing of Falstaff than of the passing of a way of thinking about England. Chimes at Midnight, whose very title resounds with awareness of mortality, is stylistically a bleak and cold vision, with steam often visible on the actors’ breath in the frigid air. At one point, John Gielgud’s ailing Henry IV exhales steam through his nose disdainfully, like a dragon in repose. In opposition to this is the warmth of Falstaff, who in this telling is only incidentally a clown, waddling into battle in his armor and then hiding behind bushes. Falstaff’s “cowardly” response to war seems the only sane reaction to it, and his subsequent attempt to take credit for killing Hotspur reads as a way for him not to gain glory but to forestall the reality that Hal is no longer the Hal he knew. It’s a great, sad, exhilarating, stinging accomplishment.

War Dogs

Posted August 21, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, comedy, drama, Uncategorized

ARMS AND THE DUDESThe wrong guy narrates War Dogs, a wannabe-wild comedy-drama about two guys who do well by doing bad — buying weapons and selling them to the U.S. military. The guy we’re interested in is Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bullshit artist who has started his own gunrunning company. Efraim surfs into the movie on a wave of bad-boy stubble, hair gel, and Beastie Boys beats; he wants to be a Jewish Scarface, and Jonah Hill plays him as an irrepressible sleazeball smitten with the lifestyle. Unfortunately, our putative hero is Efraim’s old yeshiva buddy David Parkouz (Miles Teller), whose mopey, bewildered voice tells the tale on the soundtrack.

The way the movie tells it, Efraim offers David a 30% partnership in his company because David is financially desperate: his girlfriend Iz (Ana da Armas) is pregnant, and he can’t support a family on what he makes as a Miami Beach massage therapist. Soon enough, anti-war David is helping Efraim close gun deals with officers, while poor, deluded Iz thinks David is selling high-thread-count bedsheets to the Army. Iz is a thankless role in a mostly very male movie; she and the baby are there solely to explain why David leaps at the chance to make big bucks. Damn it, men wouldn’t have to profit off of death if you chicks didn’t keep popping out sprogs!

War Dogs is pretty much as jejune as that last sentence indicates, despite the efforts of its director, Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), to follow in the farce-to-true-life-dramedy footsteps of, say, Adam McKay (The Big Short). Phillips’ idea of making a roughhouse testosterone morality tale is to pile on the anachronistic needle-drops (the budget for the soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, must’ve been enormous) and ape Scorsese by way of David O. Russell — so War Dogs is faux Scorsese twice removed.

Miles Teller is a fine enough actor (my respect for his craft goes back to Rabbit Hole), but he’s no Ray Liotta, nor is David anywhere near Henry Hill. David never does get any illicit charge out of what he does. He’s in it only for the money, whereas Efraim is an appetitive Id who wants to be an American bad-ass. As antically funny as Jonah Hill is in the role, his coruscating work in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street dwarfs this; he simply doesn’t have the script (or the director) to let his freak flag fly, nor does he have any drop-dead-funny lines to touch Wolf’s “Smoke some crack with me, bro” or the one that never fails to make me lose it, “I’m never eating at Benihana again, I don’t care whose birthday it is.” In the end, Efraim is a tired dark mirror on David, who doesn’t have the personality to make us care whether he gains the world or loses his soul.

Of the movies to walk down the mean streets of war profiteering (including William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War), the most resonant one, to me, was the John Cusack-meets-Naomi-Klein satire War Inc., which saw war as a ludicrous but horrid mash-up of empty pop culture and opportunistic scorpions. I wish more people would go back and look at that film. War Dogs isn’t nearly as radical. It has no point of view about the war (Iraq/Afghanistan) or about gunrunning. In what amounts to an extended cameo, Bradley Cooper turns up in a few scenes as a glowering, stubbled rock star of a gunrunner whose presence on a terrorist watchlist has reduced him to being a middle man. Cooper’s suave professionalism is welcome. It shows one committed path the movie could have taken, one in which the stakes were larger than whether a friendship-by-convenience will survive the rigors of scamming armies the world over.

Batman: The Killing Joke

Posted July 30, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, animation, comic-book

killing_joke-640x356There’s a whole lot to unpack in Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated effort shown in theaters for two nights before its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Based on a lionized 1988 comics story written by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bolland, the movie supposedly asks, as the comic did, why some people respond to trauma by going mad while others get stronger. Moore’s story did this by setting up the classic antagonists Batman and the Joker as two men deformed by grief in their own ways. One man became a hero, determined to make sure no one else was murdered in an alley like his parents were. The other man became a supervillain, an anarch cackling at the cold cruelty of the universe. Dark as Batman is, he’s essentially an optimist — he believes his holy war on crime matters — while the Joker is a nihilist.

Whatever depth survives into the movie comes from Moore’s script — a script he himself disavowed years ago, uncomfortable with its grimness and with the way it handled Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, the crimefighting daughter of Batman’s tacit colleague on the Gotham police force, Commissioner Gordon. The Joker disables Barbara with a bullet to her spine, then kidnaps her father and torments him with photos of her naked and in anguish. Why? To prove that anyone is only “one bad day” away from being a basket case like the Joker, who on top of being disfigured also lost his wife and unborn child in a random accident.

The Killing Joke comic is rather short, so the movie pads things out by devoting its first full half hour to Batgirl. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello invents a smooth gangster who calls himself Paris Franz, who’s obsessed with Batgirl. When she isn’t trying to catch Franz, Batgirl is mooning after Batman and, eventually, having sex with him on a rooftop under the watchful eye of a gargoyle. Aside from being pointless, this extended prologue makes the story about Batgirl, a focus and emphasis it was never designed to bear. Yes, Moore later regretted what he’d done to Batgirl (with DC Comics’ enthusiastic editorial indulgence, creepily enough), and the way his story uses her as a way to test her dad’s mettle is unfortunate at best. But expanding her role before the story proper begins doesn’t add any weight to her suffering; it just turns the story into The Sorrows of Young Barbara, first sexualized by Franz, then rebuffed by Batman, and finally brutalized by the Joker.

It’s good, though, that a post-credits scene sets Barbara up as Oracle, a wheelchair-bound but brilliant and powerful hero who fought crime via computers for years after her injury. And there’s little quibbling to be made about the vocal talent here — Killing Joke reunites Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong, who respectively voiced Batman, the Joker, and Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures. There are some Easter eggs for longtime Batfans, such as a monitor in the Batcave showing various iterations of the Joker over the decades, nodding to Nicholson and Ledger. If you don’t expect this Killing Joke to pack the wallop it did when you first read it 28 years ago, it’s smoothly rendered. Once it gets to Moore’s story, it’s slavishly faithful, which means it eagerly reproduces every element that has struck readers as problematic for the last few decades (including its continuing insistence on referring to the dark ride Commissioner Gordon takes as a “ghost train”). Still, as with the animated adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, if all you ever wanted was to see the iconic Batman story in motion, here it is.

One other thing: Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R (for “bloody images and disturbing content”). It’s not the first DC superhero film to be so classified: the “ultimate edition” of Batman v Superman released on Blu-ray a couple weeks back earned an R for increased violence. This sort of thing — age-restricted versions of superheroes that began as kids’ entertainment — is what Alan Moore came to disdain, though his own work popularized the trend towards grim and gritty. More off-putting than the violence here — which, aside from a bloody head shot here and there, isn’t much worse than in the PG-13 Dark Knight Returns — is a moment when a gangster refers to the Caped Crusader and Batgirl as “Batman and his bitch” (an addition by Azzarello, not Moore). Not to sound paternalistic, but I think young girls who like Batman (and Batgirl) and might want to see this movie can probably wait a few years before hearing that particular insult. They’ll be hearing it soon enough and often enough. They don’t need to hear it in a movie about a man — or a woman — who dresses as a bat and fights crime.

Cell

Posted July 3, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, horror, one of the year's worst

cellWatching his friend George Romero make his zombie films, Stephen King may have thought it looked like such fun that he decided to write his own, in the form of his 2006 novel Cell. Ten years later, it is now a legit zombie film, co-scripted by King himself, though it hasn’t turned out to be much fun. King’s premise is that a cell-phone frequency has turned people using the devices into marauding killers. They’re not quite zombies, not as we’ve come to define them; they’re more like the rage-filled berserkers in Romero’s The Crazies, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, or Garth Ennis’ comic book Crossed. In short, they don’t eat flesh, but they do enjoy making more of themselves.

The first reel or so of Cell packs a spiraling, whoa-man-what-the-hell-was-that punch in the gut. We meet comic-book writer/artist Clay (John Cusack) at a Boston airport, with everyone glued to their cell phones. Fairly rapidly, and with no explanation or preparation, the situation goes pear-shaped. People start frothing at the mouth and attacking anyone they look at; Clay barely escapes to the subway, where he meets operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to beat feet out of the city in search of his little boy and his estranged wife. Now, nobody in Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead needed a sappy motivation like I Gotta Find My Kid; it was sufficient that they merely wanted to stay alive, and they were wrought well enough that we agreed that they should.

Cusack and Jackson also co-starred in 1408, an earlier King adaptation; the consensus is that 1408 is the better film, though I hardly see how it could be worse. Cell swipes every po-faced survivalist horror template — much walking around, picking up other survivors (including Isabelle Fuhrman as a teenager who had to kill her own cell-afflicted mom), searching houses, finding guns aplenty, none of which is locked up. Many of the attack sequences, ineptly staged by director Tod Williams, are hyper-edited into frenetic image salad. Our heroes keep meeting weirdoes like Stacy Keach as a headmaster who delivers a nice juicy infodump and Anthony Reynolds as an ice cream van driver delirious from sleeplessness who keeps something quite different from ice cream in his vehicle.

King loves his mysterious Manson-esque avatars of evil, here giving us an off-brand Randall Flagg in a red hoodie who seems to be the leader of the “phoners.” This Walkin’ Dude appears in everyone’s nightmares and seems to have manifested in Clay’s graphic novel. Do I have to read the book to find out why? The movie is little help. Cell doesn’t hide much under the hood, no commentary on how everyone’s umbilically attached to their phones (not even any on-the-nose satirical snarks like the ones in Dawn of the Dead about the mall being an important place to the zombies). It’s just another cut-‘em-if-they-stand, shoot-‘em-if-they-run splatter movie with a techie twist, and not even a cautionary twist.

Keach’s headmaster hypothesizes that the “phoners” are the next evolutionary step, the sort of dumb-ass thing you expect eggheads in this kind of movie to opine. We never do get a decent explanation for why this is happening now, what started it, and what the “phoners” and their leader want aside from milling around in flock-like circles. Cell is empty and meaningless, though it’s gloomy and slow-moving enough to feign some philosophical weight. Jackson files one of his quieter performances, while poor Cusack is stuck in a role with almost no humor or charm. As I write this, Cusack has just turned fifty. Once a quick and forceful kickboxer, he seems to have slowed down quite a bit — there’s a shot of him running that made me worry about his lumbar region. I want to see him in movies for years to come — just not in movies like Cell.