Archive for July 2019

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

July 28, 2019

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will be described by some as his best and some as his worst, and both camps will have valid points. They may even both be right. All art is self-indulgent to some extent, but Tarantino really treats himself this time. It’s an elegiac film, a salute to a dead era in its death throes, and it’s a bit more melancholy than you might expect from this puckish filmmaker. It deals with real-world events freely and perhaps with even more abandon than did Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The movie, like most of Tarantino’s others, is drunk on movies — the famous Wilhelm scream is heard before the film is more than a minute old. Yet a powerful mood gathers in its prolonged takes and protracted scenes, an atmosphere of hope and despair co-existing in an America about as bitterly divided as the current one. Ultimately, OUATIH shakes out as an epic tone poem about dreams fed by violence and envy and credulity.

The sun-dappled yet decaying milieu of 1969 Hollywood — a year that saw the rivalry of two very different cowboys, John Wayne in the PG-rated True Grit and Jon Voight in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy — is lovingly realized by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Partly, OUATIH is a buddy movie about on-his-uppers TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stuntman friend (and future director) Hal Needham; if Rick’s career arc is to copy Reynolds’, he might end up making one comeback after another that eventually dribbles to indifference, from which Rick might emerge again, and so on. But all that is outside the movie’s scope; Rick is still in his Navajo Joe phase, and hasn’t yet had his Deliverance or his Smokey and the Bandit. These men, who love each other, talk late into the night and watch Rick on TV together; this bromance, anchored by DiCaprio’s portrait of insecurity and Pitt’s more relaxed self-assurance, enables some of the gentlest drama Tarantino has attempted and possibly ever will again.

The story of these two has-beens parallels that of an up-and-comer, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who in our world was butchered, along with four others, by disciples of Charles Manson in the house she shared with the then-absent Roman Polanski. I don’t think Polanski even gets any (audible) lines, and Tate doesn’t get much more to say. She doesn’t really interest Tarantino as anything more than an example of movie-love and innocence imperiled. Never a feminist, though really only a masculinist on aesthetic grounds, Tarantino plays rough-house games with reality and with our expectations. He plays with our dread in ways that will bother some morally, and not entirely wrongly, either. What is he going to make us look at? In the end, he gets his bloodbath, and one can’t help noticing that the brutality against female characters is focused on, lingered on, more conspicuously than that of male characters.

Add the (ambiguous) fate of a nagging harpy in a flashback and you say, Does Tarantino hate women? Maybe not, but in a tone poem tone is everything. In scene after scene, Brad Pitt tools along in his powder-blue 1960 Karmann Ghia, down what one has no choice but to call a “painstakingly recreated” Hollywood Boulevard, the wind catching his radiant head of hair. The feel of these scenes is different from the ones where Tate is driving around town, finally pausing to watch herself in a theater playing The Wrecking Crew. I don’t think Tarantino is malicious towards women, just oblivious to their inner lives. He only has eyes for Rick and Cliff, and all the legends or near-legends he fills the margins with, and all the details and obsessively correct set design. We don’t have so many filmmakers working at this level of craft and physical verisimilitude — and who have the budget to do so, from anyone but Amazon or Netflix — that we can afford to throw Tarantino under the bus.

OUATIH may or may not spark debates about whether Tarantino is a good person (my take: he is exactly what he has always been; take that to mean whatever you want it to), but one thing beyond debate is that he’s a master. The film woolgathers and gives us scenes that seem extraneous, like establishing at length how well-trained Cliff’s dog is, but turn out not to be — and then it tightens the screws. The last half hour or so is a bravura symphony of dread and tension and release, and it simply wouldn’t be as effective were it not preceded by two hours of anecdotes punctuated by every fetish Tarantino has. It’s the donut you get after the sermon Tarantino preaches from the pulpit of his Church of Cinema. But the sermon, digressive and compassionate towards the outmoded male feeling his loss of big-dick energy, shows Tarantino at a different pitch from the revisionist pulpster who made Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. As in Jackie Brown — which has gradually been gaining favor as many viewers’ best-ranked Tarantino film — our most visible movie geek uses movie geekdom to tell a story about human defeats and disappointments. The fact is that OUATIH may be Tarantino’s most problematic film, but it’s also full of wonderful moments that wouldn’t otherwise or elsewhere be possible.

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The Reflecting Skin

July 21, 2019

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

Pet Sematary (2019)

July 14, 2019

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

Nightmare Cinema

July 7, 2019

Nightmare-cinema-The-thing-in-the-woods Only about three percent of you will be with me on this, but the uneven horror anthology Nightmare Cinema made me sad. Why? It’s the first movie that director Joe Dante has made since 1976 in which busy character actor Dick Miller does not appear — Miller passed on earlier this year at age 90. Belinda Balaski, another Dante semi-regular, does turn up here, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, Dante is one of five directors who provide the movies-within-the-movie shown in a mysterious theater presided over by “The Projectionist” (Mickey Rourke).

We lead with “The Thing in the Woods” (by writer/director Alejandro Brugues), which starts off as a slasher yarn and gradually flips the script; what seems as though it’s going to be yet another case of an incel gone psycho breaks from that path amusingly. It’s fun, though possibly only fun for horror junkies, who may not mind that this segment — setting the tone for the other four — is surprisingly gory and graphic for a movie with the once-restrictive R rating. There are many slasher flicks from the ‘80s that would have loved the latitude given to this film’s mutilations and exploding heads and flying body parts.

Dante’s “Mirari” is next up, about a young woman (Zarah Mahler) who agrees to plastic surgery to remove her facial scars before her wedding to a rich dude. Dante keeps the shocks and suspense popping, and Richard Christian Matheson’s script has a certain malevolent wit, but something’s missing — maybe an explanation of why the story ends up where it does. The segment seems like more of a paranoid riff than anything else. It, too, is fun, though. Again, I missed the avuncular presence of the great Dick Miller, unless he’s in a photo somewhere I didn’t spot.

And that’s about it for Creepshow-esque fun. Story number three, named “Mashit” (ma-sheet) after its central demon, is kind of awful. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train), it takes place inside a religious boarding school whose young students soon become hosts to abomination. Other than a ludicrous desktop tryst between the (otherwise heroic) priest and nun in charge of the school, the segment takes itself brutally seriously, with rather chintzy music that made me think this was supposed to be a tribute to the demonic cinema of Lamberto Bava. It’s certainly colorful enough, but if I want bright hues, demons, sacrilege, and fun, I’ll go to Richard Griffin.

We proceed to the black-and-white “This Way to Egress,” directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night) from a script by him and Lawrence Connolly based on Connolly’s short story. It’s not fun, but it’s effective, with a top-drawer performance by Elizabeth Reaser as a mother who may be going insane. Cinematographer Jo Willems does sharp, detailed work, and I admired the craft of the piece without ultimately finding it very satisfying; as with most of the other tales here, its ending is something of a fizzle.

Last and least interesting is “Dead,” helmed by Mick Garris, that terminally uninspired journeyman who hitched his wagon to Stephen King 27 years ago and has coasted since. Garris has always been more of a fan and arranger of projects anyway — Nightmare Cinema is more or less his baby, and he produced the Masters of Horror series back in the mid-oughts. This story, like the one before it, is buoyed by a strong lead performance, by  Faly Rakotohavana as a boy who nearly dies and finds himself able to see the spirits of the recently dead in the hospital where he’s recuperating. Its debt to The Sixth Sense aside, it’s predictable especially when the psycho who put the kid in the hospital comes looking for him. Annabeth Gish scores some creepy moments as the boy’s mom.

The problem with the stories in most horror anthologies is that they can’t all be gems — not on the level of Creepshow or even Trick ‘R Treat, and certainly not Dead of Night. However much we want Nightmare Cinema to be a rollicking slice of throwback horror, it only lands sporadic punches. It was a pleasure to see Dante working again (he’s kept his hand in on TV since his last feature, Burying the Ex, five years ago), and there are enjoyable bits throughout, but by and large this is the sort of mildly entertaining thing that’s best for a slow, rainy Sunday. And the unifying figure of The Projectionist is so sketchily drawn (and wearily enacted by a bored Rourke), I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Nightmare Cinema 2.