Archive for February 1993

El Mariachi

February 26, 1993

A lot of slackers submit to medical research to earn quick cash. The difference with Robert Rodriguez is that he used the money ($7,000, all told) to make a movie. Acting as his own cinematographer, editor, and special-effects artist, Rodriguez intended this unpretentious action flick to be his calling card in the Mexican video market; the movie, however, attracted the attention of Columbia, which footed the bill for post-production — so the movie we ended up seeing wasn’t strictly a $7,000 film — and gave it an art-house release. Some of the film is monotonous, but it’s so completely what it is — a shoot-’em-up done with throwaway energy — that you’d have to be fun-impaired not to enjoy it. Carlos Gallardo is El Mariachi, who’s mistaken for a murderous escaped criminal (Reinol Martinez) carrying a guitar case loaded with guns. He falls in love with beautiful bartender Consuelo Gomez and spends the movie running from ruthless mobster Peter Arquandt. Rodriguez isn’t much interested in transforming the genre, much less transcending it — he’s happy enough just working in it. Add the strangely lulling guitar ballads on the soundtrack and you have the sort of comfortable action-comedy that Hollywood, with its big stars and inflated budgets, long ago forgot how to make.

Army of Darkness

February 19, 1993

If you ever want to get a funny debate going among movie-loving friends, ask them what they think of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987). Some will immediately laugh and gush, “Great movie.” Others will say, “Stupidest movie ever made.” Still others will say both in the same breath. The debate, I suspect, will begin anew with Raimi’s Army of Darkness (which Universal refused to release under its proper title, Evil Dead 3: Medieval Dead). This, too, is the sort of film that inspires a response like “Jesus, that was dumb, and I loved every minute of it.” Army of Darkness is stupid in the fearless, half-admirable way that the best Ren & Stimpy episodes are stupid; it keeps topping itself just when you think it can’t. Actually, “stupid” isn’t the right word here — a better label might be “campy,” and very intentionally so; Raimi’s Evil Dead films are essentially gutbucket comedies, and this one’s no exception. This extended guitar riff of a movie blows the doors off any fantasy-adventure I’ve seen in years.

Raimi, known mostly to readers of Fangoria for directing the first two Evil Deads before stumbling onto mainstream success with Darkman, hasn’t outgrown his devotion to monster movies, superheroes, and the Three Stooges — the three pop phenomena that guys gravitate to but most women find inane. (Army of Darkness is not the ideal date movie.) Raimi is a playfully inventive director — his movies are big, junky toy boxes — and his affection for senseless, sophomoric trash is infectious. He turns violence and gore into slapstick, yet he isn’t cruel; his affection extends to his characters, even the slobbering zombies. Especially the slobbering zombies.

Army of Darkness picks up at the exact instant that Evil Dead 2 left off, but if you missed the first two installments (though obviously I recommend them), the new movie stands pretty well on its own. Raimi re-introduces us to Ash (Bruce Campbell), the college student who found the ancient Book of the Dead out in a cabin in the woods and unleashed the forces of hell, one of which possessed his girlfriend. (Amusing trivia: Bridget Fonda plays the girlfriend in the new footage.) After much mayhem and blood-spritzing, Ash somehow created a vortex that spirited him to Medieval England, along with his crappy ’73 Delta-88 Oldsmobile. Armed with a shotgun and a chainsaw (the latter of which is attached to the stump of his right hand), Ash now finds himself fighting the “Deadites” and questing for the Book of the Dead, his only ticket home.

Raimi, who wrote the script with his brother Ivan, approaches this scenario as if someone had given him a deep pail of Magic Markers and told him to draw the ultimate comic book. The setting is Frank Frazetta by way of Monty Python, the action strictly Three Stooges Meet Jason and the Argonauts (lots of eye-boinking). Like Brian De Palma, Raimi borrows from a lot of sources but mooshes the stolen elements into an inspired style all his own. As usual, he shows you things you don’t see every day: a shot of an arrow in flight, filmed from the arrow’s point of view (Raimi loves that shtick — he’s done the POV-of-flying-object in almost all his movies); a sequence in which Ash’s face is pulled like Silly Putty. Raimi doesn’t have a thing on his mind except to give you a raucous good time, and he does. In a period when you can almost see the director’s dour face hovering over the camera, worrying about being taken seriously, it’s a goddamn relief to have someone like Raimi who cackles gleefully from the first shot.

It’s been six years since Evil Dead 2, and even longer (13 years) since Raimi and Campbell finished shooting the original Evil Dead, so Campbell has lost his frat-boy look (his Ash still acts like one, though). But age has given him an edge: After the crap he went through in Evil Dead 2, nothing shocks or impresses him any more. When a crowd of grateful people hail him, he muscles through them: “Yeah, yeah … Right … Get the fuck outta my face.” Wiry and demented, Ash slams his way through the most chaotic and absurd situations (such as when he breaks a mirror and his own tiny reflections emerge from the shards of glass and attack him) as if he were dealing with nothing more unusual than a loud kegger. Campbell, a gifted physical comedian with a deadpan knack for cheesy B-movie dialogue, fits into Raimi’s fantasies as snugly as Robert De Niro fits into Martin Scorsese’s urban dramas. Buddies since high school, these two deserve each other, and deserve to grow old together on film.

Darkman was Raimi’s crossover hit because it satisfied the audience’s need for a comic-book movie with style and a kidding sense of itself; unlike Batman and Dick Tracy, it came out of nowhere, with no particular pretensions. If Army of Darkness becomes another hit¹, that’s because it has everything connoisseurs of great junk look for: zombies in armor, swordplay, gunplay, slapstick, a damsel in distress, a truly loopy hero, jaw-dropping visuals (literally, in one case), and enough slaphappiness for ten movies. Army of Darkness is epic fun. If all Sam Raimi wants to do is make cinematic comic books, I won’t mind as long as they’re as energetic and screwy as this one.

¹ The movie, of course, was not a hit. After gathering dust on the shelf since 1991, it was released in a February 1993 death slot, considerably cut (from 96 minutes to 81) and with a watered-down, studio-mandated ending. Most critics dismissed it, and it went away fast. For years, fans had to settle for bootlegs of the Japanese laserdisc to see the film as Raimi intended it. Nowadays, though, both versions are readily available on DVD. It’s generally agreed that Raimi’s original (much darker) ending is by far the better of the two.

Man Bites Dog

February 2, 1993

For years now I’ve held up Man Bites Dog as the media satire to beat, if only because it was there first. Not that it was the first media-evil movie ever — for that, you’d have to go back at least as far as Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole — but it scooped Serial Mom, Natural Born Killers, To Die For: the endless spate of 1990s films whose directors suddenly noticed that methods of mass communication were inherently corrupt and corruptive. Even The Blair Witch Project owes a debt to Man Bites Dog‘s grainy mockumentary shaky-cam style. Like it or not — and you’d be excused for not liking it — this Belgian award-winner has probably influenced every subsequent media take-off from the sublime (Series 7) to the ridiculous (Ed TV).

In the fine tradition of all hungry moviemakers scrabbling for film stock, the terrible trio Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde set out to make the cheapest movie possible. Intended as a calling card, Man Bites Dog would spoof documentaries by taking a fictitious serial killer, the crudely affable Ben (Poelvoorde), as its subject. André Bonzel has said that he and his cohorts (including co-writer Vincent Tavier, who appears in the film as one of the ill-fated sound guys) didn’t want the movie to be taken as any statement on violence; the violence was incidental. The real subject is the essentially false collaborative act of filming “real life,” and at what point collaboration becomes collusion.

Man Bites Dog may not be “about” violence, but it contains enough of the stuff to rouse any jaded viewer of horror or exploitation films. Filmed in grungy black-and-white, the carnage exists at an aesthetic distance — the blood spurts out in oily jets. Yet what’s disturbing about the mayhem is not so much its explicit presentation — actually, a lot of it takes place off camera or out of frame, probably to save money on gore effects — as the tone surrounding the murders. It’s all rather disaffected and matter-of-fact, with the camera jostling to keep up and sometimes even revealing a victim’s hiding place with its harsh spotlight. And the movie takes its emotional cue from its own nonjudgmental camera stare.

Ben is a universal and instantly recognizable type, if you take away the homicide. Poelvoorde plays him with a kind of detestable charisma: Ben looks so fulfilled nattering on to the camera about architecture or whatever else pops into his head, you can’t find it in your heart to resent his company. The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane suggested that if a Hollywood studio were so foolhardy as to attempt a remake (thus far, none has), the perfect American star for Ben would be James Woods, but that’s a bit too on-the-nose. For the full subversive effect, you’d have to go with Tom Hanks or — my personal pick — John Cusack, as long as you didn’t soften Ben or take out his racist musings (at one point, Ben insists on inspecting the corpse of a black victim to see if what they say about black men is true).

The film’s proper title is C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which can be translated as “Coming Soon to a House Near You,” a puckish twist on movie ads (though the title in the film itself is subtitled “It Happened in Your Neighborhood,” which sounds way off¹). Whoever decided to rename it Man Bites Dog for English-speaking audiences deserves a good cigar, because it evokes the film’s rude exploration of audience complicity as well as its studied tabloid flavor. Taking the Heisenberg Principle to the nth degree, Ben is always acutely aware of the camera eye and often kills accordingly. The crew — Belvaux and Bonzel playing less compassionate versions of themselves, plus a variety of sound men (Ben goes through as many sound guys as Spinal Tap went through drummers) — gets pulled deeper into Ben’s exploits, aiding and abetting him.

When an armed victim shoots the first sound man and a grief-maddened Remy kicks the gunman’s corpse, Ben holds him back, not wanting him to start down the path of violence. (It may only be that Ben needs Remy where he is, as a chronicler of Ben’s actions; he doesn’t need competition.) Yet a line has been crossed, and Remy crosses another when he holds down a little boy’s flailing legs so that Ben can suffocate him; finally, Ben and the crew, drunk and rowdy, show up at the house of a naked, copulating couple, and what follows is harsh enough to get itself deleted from the early American prints of the film (it was later reinstated, though is missing from “unrated” edited versions on VHS). The scene manages to outdo the gang-rape in A Clockwork Orange, which was also hideous to watch but at least did not feature festive sparklers. The aftermath is just about the last word in morning-after disgust.

The standard line among those unimpressed by Man Bites Dog is that “it isn’t that well-made,” which makes you wonder how so many critics could miss the point so completely. Its very amateurishness gives it a sharper edge (did these same critics turn their noses up at the overrated Blair Witch for the same reason?); though you’re never quite convinced you’re watching an actual documentary, you’re not really supposed to be. (The most realistic passages of the film belong to Ben’s mother and grandparents, played by Poelvoorde’s actual mother and grandparents, who reportedly had no idea they were appearing in a violent mockumentary; they were told that a film crew was creating a “day in the life” study of Poelvoorde.) By the time Ben and his crew run into a rival serial killer and his camera crew, the movie becomes a mirror watching a mirror, beyond all concerns of “reality.”

A subplot involving Italian thugs out for revenge on Ben is there only to bring the proceedings to a conclusive and abrupt halt; it also allows for some of the darkest humor when Ben’s loved ones start turning up with large objects lodged in their asses. The camera registers this affront to Ben as dispassionately as it recorded Ben’s own affronts to other human beings no less loved by family. This part of the film is almost never commented on, and effectively makes Man Bites Dog more than the merciless dreg-fest it’s often painted as. We’re prompted to pity Ben (and his deceased loved one) the first time, but we laugh the second time because of Ben’s choice of words in describing it, and why not? We laughed before when he was killing.

Don’t trust reviewers who came late to Man Bites Dog on DVD after having seen all the later media satires that say so little so loudly. This is an original, a stark and (sorry) biting work far more complex, both stylistically and thematically, than first meets the eye. As Ben himself says, he is cinema, or at least an aspect of it: conscienceless, devouring, repugnant yet riveting. So is the movie.

¹Actually, according to Google Translate it shakes out as “It Happened Near You.” I still like my translation better.

Falling Down

February 1, 1993

Like most movies designed to be debated on the op-ed page, Falling Down doesn’t live up to its negative hype. It’s been called dangerous and borderline racist, a charge it narrowly deflects by showing one good Hispanic cop for every Hispanic punk, and so on. It has also been called a powerful black comedy, but considering the true classics of black comedy we’ve produced (Dr. Strangelove being the pinnacle), it’s an embarrassing assessment — an indication of how far movies have sunk. Falling Down, despite some scenes of humor and poignance, is a mess — a crude, cathartic rant that both condemns and exploits modern paranoia. Director Joel Schumacher (Flatliners) has made a Joe for the ’90s, which will seem as overblown and rabble-rousing 20 years from now as Joe seems today.

Michael Douglas, by now an ace at acting out our less acceptable fantasies (Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct), keeps the movie going all by himself. As Bill Foster, a bitter, laid-off defense worker whom the cops nickname D-FENS after his license plate, Douglas wears a brittle brush-cut that makes him look like a No. 2 pencil without the eraser; he also sports glasses whose chunky black frames seem to be squeezing the brains out of his head. For the first reel or so, we’re locked inside his anger. When D-FENS sits trapped in a Los Angeles traffic jam, hounded by a buzzing fly and sweating in misery, we feel his prickly frustration; when he abandons his car, it’s a sweet release. Douglas, who has always seemed the least relaxed of actors, plays this wordless scene as a pantomime of gut tension.

Once D-FENS goes on the warpath, Falling Down becomes shrill and incoherent. D-FENS plans to go home to his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and celebrate his little daughter’s birthday. But everyone in L.A. — a Korean store-owner who won’t give him change for a phone call; two Hispanics who pull knives on him — stands in his way. Threatened, he lashes out. Is he nuts, or just mad as hell? He keeps insisting on his right as an American to be left alone, but he seems to be looking for convenient targets for his rage. You’d have to get that impression from Douglas’ performance, because the script (credited to Ebbe Roe Smith) presents D-FENS as a generally decent guy, prone to temper, who blows off a little steam at people who deserve it. We’re meant, I think, to cheer him on even as we recoil. The movie is a cartoon Taxi Driver — only assholes feel the brunt of the psycho’s fury.

In a subplot, a cool-headed desk-jockey cop named Prendergast (Robert Duvall) rides out his last day before an early retirement and finds himself pulled into the vortex of D-FENS’ activities. This half of the film is awful, despite an honorable and detailed turn by Duvall. As Prendergast gets deeper into the case, his shrewish, neurotic wife (Tuesday Weld) keeps shrieking at him over the phone. The script provides a plausible reason for her sad craziness (their daughter died at age two), but Schumacher treats her cruelly. Are we meant to sympathize with her, or with Prendergast for putting up with the crazy bitch? Between her and D-FENS, the film seems to say that the best way to handle a mentally ill loved one is to chuckle indulgently or turn your back.

Meanwhile, back on the streets, D-FENS raises the stakes. Toying with a bazooka, he blows up a truck. Offended by a man who wants to use a pay phone, he takes a machine gun and shoots the hell out of that goddamn phone. (That’s telling him.) The only person he kills outright is a Nazi surplus-store owner (Frederic Forrest), whose every syllable is a harangue against — you guessed it — blacks, gays, and Jews. “You and me are the same,” he leers to D-FENS, who looks disgusted. Overwritten and overacted, the character comes along at just the right time to establish that there are bad neo-fascists, who gloat over cans that once held the gas that killed the Jews, and then there are good neo-fascists, who do funny, intelligent things like busting up Korean-owned stores. Falling Down plays it every which way.

Douglas, however, keeps his integrity. In a scene that will no doubt be included in some future Michael Douglas montage on television, Douglas strides into a fast-food joint and orders breakfast. When told that breakfast isn’t served after 11:30 (it’s 11:34), Douglas puts on a spectacular show of venomous sarcasm and menace; it’s like Jack Nicholson’s famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, only with firearms. Later, when Prendergast interrupts D-FENS’ reunion with his family and D-FENS discovers he can’t go home again, we feel a hard stab of compassion when he croaks, “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?” The minute D-FENS abandons his car, Douglas seems to abandon the script, with all its cynical murk, and forge ahead to create a character far more deeply imagined than the movie surrounding him.