Archive for the ‘cult’ category

Everything Everywhere All at Once

July 10, 2022

everything-everywhere-all-at-once-review_4aj3

Befitting the wild-ass movie itself, I’m of multiple minds about Everything Everywhere All at Once, which speaks fluent jibber-jabber about alternate universes and “verse-jumping.” It’s about a hundred different things — nihilism, choices, motherhood, the bone-cracking clarity of martial arts — and so comes dangerously close to being about nothing. It’s ambitious as all get-out, and always has a sight gag or a fight scene to perk things up when the goings get too cerebral. It’s restless, relentless entertainment, which would be fine at an hour and a half, but EEAAO rambles and verse-jumps its way to two hours and thirteen minutes, less six minutes of end credits, and sometimes it seems a bit much, a bit aggressive and draining. 

And then, as if on cue, something happens like Jamie Lee Curtis playing a version of “Claire de Lune” on her piano with her toes, because her fingers are hot dogs, and one’s mood lifts again. Maybe a movie so tirelessly determined to show us things we haven’t seen before can’t escape being cluttered and shambolic occasionally, or even often; EEAAO reminded me of Terry Gilliam, but his better films, which have a better balance between honking nonsense and visionary bravado, so that one feeds into the other. I’m also tickled pink that the movie is one of the year’s great unexpected success stories, a genuine sleeper word-of-mouth hit with, wonder of wonders, Michelle Yeoh her own fabulous self front and center. 

Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, who runs a laundromat with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The laundromat is in trouble with the IRS, which, in the person of auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Curtis), wonders why Evelyn has declared so many things as business write-offs. The IRS stuff seems unnecessary except as a part of glum, stressful reality we become desperate to escape (a further link to Gilliam). And we do, when an alternate-universe version of Waymond visits Evelyn to tell her that a mad version of their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) threatens the existence of the multiverse. I’m not going to explain how, or why; that’s the movie’s job. Evelyn suddenly knows martial arts, or she has hot dogs for hands, or she’s a rock talking with a rock version of her daughter in a universe where life didn’t happen.

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka Daniels (Swiss Army Man), EEAAO isn’t all cold, clever pizzazz; some of it is legitimately moving, and gets at the specific pains of an Asian-American family in a more lateral and artistic way than it might have with a more conventional narrative. Pain and disappointment are passed down the generations; a giant, fearsome Everything Bagel becomes a symbol of anything life-annihilating or self-denying that consumes us from within. Some of this sounds heady, and then the movie pulls out the rug and gives us a sequence with various verse-jumpers each doing their own required weird thing in order to launch into the next universe. Interesting storage spaces are discovered for trophies. Googly eyes stand in for levity in the midst of the grim assembly line of life.

But. As I said before, a movie that can mean everything can also mean nothing, a paradox exemplified in-story, by Alpha Joy (called Jobu Tupaki) and her Everything Bagel. The movie suggests that the notion of everything — the uncountable number of universes and realities — can spook us into the numb but comforting embrace of nothingness, or nihilism. Thus EEAAO incorporates and comments on its own internal gremlins. As more people watch it, it’s going to be fun to read everyone’s interpretations of it — perhaps more fun than actually watching it. Again, it can get exhausting, and not just narratively; the amount of effort it must have taken to stitch this thing together gives me a headache just thinking about it. I admire it much more readily than I love or even like it. But the fact that movies like this can still be made — and prosper — proves to me that the eulogy for cinema can wait another few years. 

Crimes of the Future

July 4, 2022

crimes of the future

“Careful, don’t spill,” whispers Viggo Mortensen to Léa Seydoux in one of the more outrageous moments of intimacy in Crimes of the Future. Marking a return to feature filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus for writer-director David Cronenberg, the movie could serve as a natural companion to a good number of his other films, especially Crash, which had a similar hushed, deadpan humor. In Cronenberg, people are driven restless by the war between their minds and their bodies — the Cartesian split, as he likes to call it. Here, climate change is making bodies into numb cocoons for unprecedented mutant organs. Long live the new flesh, indeed.

Mortensen and Seydoux are Saul Tenser and his artistic accomplice Caprice. Saul’s body has been developing new organs, which Caprice extracts and tattoos, as part of their performance art for a small but avid crowd. Cronenberg may be saying this or that about his own life as a subversive artist, but Crimes has more levels than that, some of which are accessible to those not Cronenberg and some of which are not. The movie, which is full of menacing machines with scalpels as well as mutilated flesh inside and out, can be taken as a Cronenberg art installation. Here and in many of Cronenberg’s other films, people transform, their flesh rebels alarmingly, and they view it as a beautiful evolution — they can either see it that way or go insane — while others recoil in horror. (Think of Jeff Goldblum excitedly rattling off theories while slowly disintegrating in The Fly as Geena Davis kept going “What is wrong with you?”) 

As usual with Cronenberg, his eroticism is less about the friction of bodies than the pulling off of societal restraints. “I’m not very good at the old sex,” says Saul to a creepy functionary (Kristen Stewart) smitten with him and his art. It’s this same woman, Timlin, who delivers the movie’s defining line: “Surgery is the new sex.” Those who have too literal a response to that premise — like actual car-crash survivors who had a beef with Crash — may tire of Cronenberg’s metaphorical game-playing. Cronenberg’s particular thematic emphases do make it tough for some to jump past what’s being shown and click into what’s being said.

Oddly, for all the carving and fondling of body parts, Crimes is sometimes, like Timlin, too enamored of its own ideas. The decade or two that Cronenberg spent away from the body-as-fallible-meat subgenre that he practically invented resulted in some interesting push-pull between Cronenberg and whosever story he was adapting. We took pleasure in his running stories about gangsters or psychiatrists through his filter. Crimes takes him back to the old gory days, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a summing-up, a greatest-hits album. Hey, some of those hits are pretty damn great, and they play well again here. But the pleasure of Cronenberg in the past few years lay in his making magic with material you wouldn’t expect him to forge in his own image. This material is as snugly fitted to him as that weird eating chair is supposed to be to Saul, but like the chair it occasionally moves clumsily and spills things. It gets talky and plotty when we’d like to hang out and dig the world-building. 

Still, if you’ve seen a lot of movies like this lately, I want to know which theater you’ve been going to. As much as this is patented Cronenberg Cinema, he’s also having a terrific time making it, and it often shows. Cronenberg loses himself in the sets in Greece; everything looks badly used, no vision of a shiny future but one full of numbness and grime. Even apartments look like some mad doctor’s castle laboratory. Using a strictured voice, Mortensen emotes largely with his eyes or with throat-clearing, and Seydoux, with her mischievous diastematic smile, makes a great partner in futuristic crime for him. Stewart, liberated in this nightmare world, creates a compelling woman out of little but nervous tics. Cronenberg is an actors’ director, as was obvious as far back as The Brood (1979), and by creating an artsy-bloody backdrop for them to play in front of, he gets performances and moments no one else can. Crimes might strike some of us fans as been-there-done-that, but what’s wrong with being there and doing that again? 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

June 26, 2022

unbearable

Some of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is likable and emotionally rich enough to be worth watching, but it’s depressing how it declines from being a good Nicolas Cage movie to being a bad Nicolas Cage movie — after fighting off the bad movie for about its first three-quarters. Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself, the over-the-top “Nick Cage,” an actor still beloved despite having toiled, out of financial necessity, in direct-to-video cash-grabs for over a decade. Unbearable Weight sets him up as a man serious about his craft, whose time as a Hollywood must-hire may have come and gone. 

For any of us who feel great affection for Cage as a person and great respect for him as an artist, the premise — he’s so desperate for cash he’ll appear at a rich guy’s birthday party — is just saddening. But then Nick gets to his destination and meets the birthday boy, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), and when they’re together the movie can get away from its dumb-ass plot. That plot has two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, both poorly used) recruiting Nick to keep an eye on Javi, who they believe is the head of a lethal drug cartel. The plot also involves the kidnapping of not one but two teenage girls, and we’re shown their tearful fear in what’s supposed to be a quirky comedy. 

But when Cage and Pascal are just hanging out, the movie is gold. Pascal radiates kindness and warmth; his Javi is just the sort of superfan Nick and his battered ego need. Halfway across the planet, in a well-appointed mansion, Nick’s work genuinely moved this weird, soft guy who may or may not be a druglord. I recognize that if movie studios made their products according to my wishes, they’d have all gone bankrupt long ago. But I cannot express how dispiriting Unbearable Weight gets when it drops the Nick/Javi bromance and lurches into action-comedy mode. By the time the excessively boring car chase rolled around, I had more or less emotionally checked out. It had become apparent that what I valued in the movie wasn’t what its makers — director Tom Gormican and his co-writer Kevin Etten — valued.

And so we get a scene with Nick in disguise as some ancient drug dealer, in make-up that makes him look like Al Pacino playing a latter-day Frank Serpico. We get shootouts and Mexican standoffs. We shrug as the CIA agents are completely thrown away without a backward glance. We may not be very impressed by the meta aspects of the script, all of which have been done more cleverly elsewhere, including in the Cage-starring Adaptation, whose ending did what Unbearable Weight does but with the intent of showing how pat and empty that expected Hollywood “climax” had become. I don’t think we’re meant to take away anything comparable from this movie, though. Or maybe we were, before the presence of Cage and Pascal softened its edges. When you have guys with the warm rapport they share, you don’t want them to be in a cold satire about how the dream factory they believe in so devoutly is a corrupt sweatshop dictated by money. You just want to see more of them. I wouldn’t mind if this were the first of several Cage/Pascal team-ups.

I don’t know whether the very ending is just soggy or a comment on soggy endings, but either way it doesn’t leave us with much. It’s hard to say where Unbearable Weight will fit into Cage’s general portfolio, though it’s sad that it couldn’t do what it tries so hard to do, which is to put Cage back in the sort of wham-bam box-office hit he used to have. What a Hollywood ending that would have been — the great actor comes in from the cold and gets the standing ovation (just as he does in the movie). Instead, it barely cracked the top five its opening weekend, and hemorrhaged money soon after. Maybe Cage’s Con Air and Face/Off days are behind him, but these days his work in smaller things like Joe or Mandy or even Pig (I didn’t care for it but can respect it as the kind of blues riff Cage gravitates to) is where you’ll find the Cage worth loving. We find him only intermittently here. 

@Zola

September 19, 2021

zola

Not everything needs to be a movie. That’s not to say that the legendary 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King doesn’t seem like — and play in our minds like, when we’re reading it — a movie-god-given piece of natural cinema material. It has everything: sex, violence, and, as Zola says in the first tweet, a story “full of suspense.” Zola’s common-sensical voice is loud and clear; it carries us through, and we can hear it in our heads, with its heartbeat-monitor spikes of disbelief and outrage. What I’m getting at is that Zola’s thread is almost a perfect little movie in itself. Imagining the story’s excesses, we collaborate, make it funnier to ourselves.

It gives me no pleasure to opine that @Zola, the movie director Janicza Bravo and her cowriter Jeremy O. Harris have made from Zola’s story, feels somewhat redundant. The actual film before us can’t compete with the mind-movie we made when reading the thread. (Maybe a viewer is better off going into the film cold.) I really didn’t want it to be this way. I was rooting for @Zola to be a disreputable but electrifying bonbon of sin and hyperbole, something along the lines of Spring Breakers or The Rules of Attraction in its mash-up of art and exploitation. And Bravo, who has a strong eye for trance-out color and movement, at first seems the ideal filmmaker for this tale. 

Part of the thread’s appeal, I think, is that its narrator (Taylour Paige) is Black and her companion, a sex worker here named Stefani (Riley Keough), is white. Stefani is also a hot mess who drags Zola into a hard-bass netherworld of guns and lust. Zola is essentially an observer on the side as Stefani, her pimp X (Colman Domingo), and her hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) make everything ridiculously worse. We hear some of Zola’s tweets as narration, though they may lack the tartness and surreal listen-to-this-shit humor they had in our heads. Taylour Paige is fine as Zola but somewhat inexpressive, ceding the movie to Riley Keough’s dumpster-fire Stefani, who talks like a dumb white chick’s idea of how Black women talk, gleaned from tabloid talk shows.

Neither woman seems to learn much from their experiences, though, and the movie arrives at a stop without having really arrived at an end — or a point. @Zola appears to advise viewers not to trust crazy white women, who are too padded by privilege to feel the sharp edges of the danger they get themselves in. (It’s the whiny, insecure Derrek, also white, who makes the worst mistake and almost gets everyone killed.) The film doesn’t put much stock in Black men, either. We’re aware we’re getting a subjective account (and Bravo puts the movie on pause to let Stefani control the narrative briefly), the purpose of which is to show the wisdom and resilience of a Black woman. No problem there, except that it tends to keep Zola at a remove. In this chaotic, candy-colored universe of sin and stupidity, Zola is the one keeping her head while all around her lose theirs. She’s watching and relaying the story; she’s seldom truly in it. 

Everyone else on screen is flawed, hilariously (Nicholas Braun kept getting unanticipated laughs out of me) or frighteningly (Colman Domingo’s stealth-African X loses his fake American accent when he’s angry). Zola isn’t. She has no quirks, no likes or dislikes, and when you get right down to it she exists in her own plot to save the infantile white people from the savage, street-smart Black men, who will get money out of your carcass any way they can, whether pimping it or murdering it. Can a movie written and directed by Black people be prejudiced against Black people? Not consciously, maybe. And I don’t doubt that Bravo and Harris must have responded to the wild tall-tale aspect of @Zola; I don’t presume classist bad faith on their parts — again, not conscious. Bravo is eminently worth watching as a director; the movie at its pure-cinema finest is like a neon mandala. But, man, does this film give off some discordant vibes. 

The Amusement Park

June 1, 2021

gorDPIVg

The prospect of a “lost film” from George A. Romero (1940-2017), director of Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, may sound as compelling to you as it did to me. A word of warning, though: don’t let anyone overhype it for you. The Amusement Park, completed in 1973 but unseen until recently (it will have its streaming debut on Shudder next week), is a downer of an allegory about discrimination against the elderly. Romero, at loose ends at the time, was hired by the Lutheran Society to make the film, which they promptly rejected after getting a load of what Romero did with the concept. There are no zombies or cannibalism, though, just a stroll through a strange amusement park filled with indignities for those deemed too old — or too poor — to deserve respect.

Romero was many things, but a subtle satirist was never one of them. Some of the messagey dialogue in some of his Dead films verges on crude. In The Amusement Park, we follow a man in his seventies (played by Lincoln Maazel, who later appeared as the nosferatu-obsessed old cousin in Romero’s 1976 cult vampire movie Martin) as he wanders around the park and encounters various affronts to his humanity. These range from getting beaten up by a trio of bikers to being disregarded by a little girl he was reading a story to; we get the sense that the girl’s indifference hurts him more. The man is also ignored by doctors and priests (who close up their “sanctuary” to him as soon as he approaches). All of these anecdotes feel a bit like checklist items; Romero seems somewhat locked into the Lutherans’ assignment, toning himself down for their approval (which he didn’t get anyway).

Still, this curiosity should be seen by fans who tend to prefer Romero’s non-zombie films, like Martin or Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch) or Knightriders. Its cinematography (by Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie in the first reel of Night of the Living Dead) and typically razor-sharp editing (by Romero himself) make The Amusement Park a pure-cinema snack; it’s the content itself (written by Wally Cook) that flirts with redundancy at times. The milieu and the theme of being neglected — not seen or acknowledged — echo Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a cult z-budget item that predated Romero’s NOTLD by six years. Did Romero, thirty-three at the time and visible in the film as an irate bumper-car driver, care all that much about ageism, or was he just doing the best he could with the gig he got? Either way, we feel for Maazel’s character, who starts out as a white-suited dandy and ends up soiled and bloodied; he either experiences or witnesses every example of disrespect in the film. Life as an elderly person — and, let’s not forget, an elderly person of color, or an elderly disabled person, or an elderly woman — is painted here as a steady stream of insults and gatekeeping slights. A good deal of the doors that shut here in the faces of those who aren’t young, white, male, able-bodied, and/or rich persist just as thick and soundly locked today.

Which brings me back to my advice not to let your expectations get out of hand. Sometimes early work drifts off into the ether for a reason. Who, having finally screened Stanley Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire, would argue with Kubrick that it isn’t, as he said, juvenilia? And good luck sitting through Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells — his debut prior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — unless you’re a die-hard completist. The Amusement Park displays Romero’s flair for cloaking social comment in nightmarish clothes. It’s of considerable interest to anyone who cares about his work. But to call it Romero’s “most terrifying film,” as his widow Suzanne Desrocher has — an assessment prominent in the film’s publicity — is to set it up for disappointment. Terrifying, no. Disturbing — and fascinating — yes. 

Tenet

January 24, 2021

ChristopherNolan-TenetMovie-2020

There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

The Wolf House

September 27, 2020

wolf_still7-1024x576It helps to bring some basic knowledge of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad into the strenuously experimental animated feature The Wolf House, though that’s not really necessary to decipher what’s going on — to the extent that you can decipher it. The history of the Nazi-founded Chilean colony functions more or less as backdrop, or in visual hints here and there, such as some lines on a wall that momentarily become a swastika before resolving into a window frame. The Wolf House appears to unfold in one unbroken take, whatever that means here, because of course there were thousands of takes — the movie is primarily stop-motion animation, with various other media paying visits. Its herky-jerky, unstable style seems to represent what life in a repressive, abusive colony might feel like. The very celluloid is breaking down, decaying, burning itself. The technique is truly apocalyptic, while the narration is hushed, mesmeric.

Directed by Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León, making their feature debut after several shorts, The Wolf House observes Maria, who has escaped from the colony and has sought refuge in a remote house in the woods. There she finds two pigs, who become two children known as Pedro and Ana. The three humans/humanoids melt, come apart, reassemble, while the house — really just one room — keeps changing around them. The movie’s conceit is that it’s a propaganda film made by the colony’s leader to prevent further escapes. Therefore we’re getting moral instruction from an immoral system. Film being what it is, though, we are drawn into the happenings, even if we can’t always read them. We forget we’re seeing propaganda and just respond to the vibe of dread and revolt. The wolf waits always outside. We are trapped in the changing house along with the changing people. Only we stay the same.

The style will not be for everyone. The twisted, spackled physiques recall something out of a painting by David Lynch, who has said he strives to create art that people want to bite. There’s a bit of Lynch’s 1966 sculpture/animation loop Six Men Getting Sick in there, too. And the flickering, dreamlike horrors of the inconstant flesh reminded me of the aggressively grotesque Sloaches Fun House segment Animalistic Times (1995). There’s probably a bunch of stuff in there — Francis Bacon, etc. Of course, some of the style is simply what happens when you do stop-motion but leave in all the telltale stuff animators usually painstakingly avoid. It’s intentionally rough-hewn, like the accidental folk art it purports to be. I imagine some viewers, though, won’t need context or prior history in order to get lost in the whirl and seethe of this chaotic universe, where things living and unliving perpetually destroy and remake themselves.

Others may feel the tug of time passing; even at just 73 minutes, The Wolf House feels a bit overextended and, at some points, exhausting. If you don’t have to take in the whole thing in one gulp, it will likely play better parceled out across a couple days. It could also be the old trap of strongly pictorial short-film directors not adjusting the pace for feature length. There’s only so much visual dazzlement I can manage in one sitting before my eyes glaze over and I become numb to the fireworks. (Subsequent viewings help, because you know what to expect.) Something like The Wolf House earns high marks just on the strength of its restless images — sometimes the movie seems dissatisfied with itself, always in motion, always shape-shifting. But a little of that can go an awfully long way.

Some of it gives the impression of being something ungovernably weird that you catch out of the corner of your eye on late-night TV — Adult Swim more or less hung its shingle on that aesthetic. In this case, though, it’s not stoner-weird but the fractured, nonsensical perceptions of a prisoner — more Painted Bird than Harvey Birdman. It leaves us unsettled, as though we’d looked into a random passerby’s darker emotions and seen something we weren’t supposed to see. I can’t really fault The Wolf House for giving us exactly the insecure, not-always-pleasant experience it means to give us. It took five years to make, and has been kicking around film festivals since 2018, so … it was begun when life was far less dark, released when things were darker, and now comes to American home video in the darkest moment many of us have lived through. And maybe some viewers might eschew a film that so effectively reflects our inner world today, and others may find catharsis in it. Whatever it is, it’s not remotely easy.

The Return of the Living Dead

August 24, 2020

rotld

It doesn’t feel right, somehow, for a punk, gory, young and snarky thing like The Return of the Living Dead to be 35 years old. But here we are (it was released August 16, 1985). Though writer-director Dan O’Bannon was a busy screenwriter in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Alien, Total Recall) and directed one other film (1991’s The Resurrected), Return feels like a one-off, almost the Never Mind the Bollocks of ‘80s horror — fast, furious, and farcical. It’s a mammoth amount of fun, with a sharp trashy punk/new wave soundtrack and a trio of perfect performances by middle-aged actors in the midst of posturing, attitudinizing youth. It’s the three older guys, I think, who make Return not just great crappy fun but just plain great.

To give you an example of the level of acting craft: there’s a scene between Clu Gulager, as the owner of a warehouse, and Don Calfa, who runs the mortuary across the way, and I would put it up against any scene anywhere. Gulager wants to use Calfa’s crematorium. Why? Well, because he has several garbage bags full of writhing undead human body parts, and he needs to incinerate them. Calfa takes one look at the bags and says, what the hell? Gulager says, “…Rabid weasels.” The exchange gets weirder and weirder, and Gulager and Calfa effortlessly find the hilarious reality in it, and I’m serious, acting gets no finer than this. And this in what’s designed to be a throwaway zombie flick for bored ‘80s teens. Which it also is, but brilliantly.

Return was O’Bannon’s firecracker rewrite of a script by Night of the Living Dead’s Russell Streiner and John Russo, who’d envisioned it as a serious sequel to that George Romero classic. O’Bannon made it more of a riff; Night is referenced but not named, as a movie that was loosely based on events in Return’s universe. Tanks of toxic guck sit in the basement of Gulager’s warehouse, operated by James Karen, the third middle-aged guy, who accidentally punctures one of the tanks when showing the ropes to new hire Thom Matthews. Karen, one of the great That Guy character actors, expertly sets the film’s irreverent tone. He’s every older guy who showed you around on your summer job, coming off as a know-it-all but actually just as dumb as anyone. Truly punk, Return of the Living Dead has little respect for humans as a self-preserving species.

The body parts go up in flames; the smoke commingles with gathering storm clouds, and re-animating rain falls on the nearby cemetery. A small group of punks hang out there, waiting for their friend Matthews. The burning rain falls on them too, and soon re-awakened corpses are chasing them all over, craving their brains. Punks in 1985? Well, the movie is set in Kentucky; maybe they’re Kentucky punks who took a while to get the memo. (The post-punk delight Repo Man had opened a year and a half earlier, and yet the two movies seem a natural double feature.) Strangely, the girls (Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Beverly Randolph) come across more vividly than do the young guys, who all seem temperamentally interchangeable except maybe Suicide (Mark Venturini), who gets a tombstone-grandstanding speech (“Nobody understands me, you know that?”) that links him with the whiny crime-doing punks in Repo Man.

I have affection and respect for all of George Romero’s zombie films, but Return of the Living Dead occupies a particularly fond piece of my heart. It’s edited (by Robert Gordon, beautifully) for comedic timing, not horror, and mostly acted that way, too. By the time we get to Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry), who authorizes the ultimate solution in a Lynch-like deadpan over the phone (“I see. And what did you do then? … And what did they do?”), we can add Bob Newhart to the list of influences on this sarcastic, winking apocalyptic cartoon that proves the utility of paramedics once and for all. 1985 was a great year for party movies. Return of the Living Dead goes that one better, asking you if you wanna party, and then giving it to you. It is, after all, party time.

Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II

July 19, 2020

undercover vice 1At a moment when protesters are being taken away in unmarked vans by feds in camo, it’s a goofy relief to see cops doing nothing more terrible than posing as gay porn actors in Undercover Vice: Strapped for Danger Part II (premiering on Facebook July 31). In the world of Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Before the Night Is Over), sex levels everything; sex makes everyone ridiculous but also hot. Griffin’s latest is no different. Don’t be thrown by the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: although it shares one character, Piñata Debris, played by drag queen Ninny Nothin, it’s more a spiritual than literal sequel to Griffin’s 2017 Strapped for Danger. So Undercover Vice can be watched and enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, though I recommend both.

I’m not even sure if Piñata is the same character (in the first film she was a hostess at a strip club, here she directs gay porn) — more like the same fact of life, the genderfluid constant catering to ticklish and giggly impulses. Ninny Nothin (aka Johnny Sederquist) embodies either/or, neither/nor, the Venn diagram of male/female/gay/straight. Drag queens aren’t just camp denigrations of women any more (if they ever were, or at least if done disrespectfully). Griffin loves women, though — he wants to show them being happy and funny and ludicrous. So the movie isn’t entirely taken over by sweaty testosterone; Griffin brings in ringers like Sarah Reed, Samantha Acampora, and Victoria Paradis and encourages them to go huge.

Reed’s and Acampora’s big sex scenes are completely about what makes a woman hum — forget the males who happen to be physically facilitating it. (Fantasizing aloud, and loudly, Acampora’s character — a cop’s soon-to-be-fiancée — essentially gives us an imaginary sex scene overlaying the one we’re watching, which links this film with one of the few films to pull this off successfully, David Cronenberg’s Crash.) Undercover Vice, written (like Strapped for Danger) by Duncan Pflaster, concerns two detectives — sorta straight but bicurious Andy (Sean Brown) and damn straight Kevin (Chris Fisher) — who are ordered by their chief (the splenetic Paradis) to go undercover as gay-porn actors to infiltrate a blackmail organization. Griffin enjoys playing in the very small sandbox of this sub-subgenre of cops going undercover gay, which in the past has yielded such disparate efforts as Cruising (1980), Partners (1982), and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). Ultimately those movies failed or hardly tried to do what Griffin does, which is to use the trope to show straight folks how it feels to have to play-act as another sexuality to survive.

But Griffin isn’t here to lecture us (not in a movie with that title); as usual with his comedies, he just wants to throw a party and invite everyone — and he will have dancing, dammit, even if it means a random Bollywood what-the-hell-was-that scene. (It’s like that joke about Christians fearing that sex leads to dancing.) We get to know the “criminal” porn actors (Alec Farquharson, Ricky Irizarry, Anthony Rainville), who all have their own quirks and kindnesses. The bad guys, if anyone, are the police chief and her two hee-hawing minions, who think the detectives being forced to be gay for pay is the funniest thing in world history. Griffin and Pflaster also know that stories about cops going undercover — being actors — allow for some nice character shading. Does the cop come to feel bad about busting his new companions? If so, why? If not, why not? These stories can get to the very heart of identity and its discontents, and we ruminate upon that, and then a naked ass gets spanked. That’s the Griffin touch.

Peeping Tom

May 3, 2020

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.