Archive for the ‘underrated’ category

Coming 2 America

March 5, 2021

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Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.

Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

December 13, 2020

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The movie formerly known as The Godfather Part III (1990) has always been substantially different from its two classic predecessors. Unlike them, it is informed by the deepest pain; it asks what you do after your child dies. And it has no answer, then and now, under its new title The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. As has been his wont the last few years, director Francis Ford Coppola has tinkered with the film, moving some scenes and trimming others; it’s shorter but doesn’t feel shorter — the pacing is still a bit stiff, the dialogue often stilted. Ironically, the subtitle is not literal; Coppola fades to black on the ruined face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), sparing us his unintentionally comical literal downfall. What we see now is more like the death of Michael’s light, his soul.

I kind of miss the sad way the movie used to start — leaves blowing around the old, desolate Corleone compound. We now kick off with Michael pursuing a deal with the head of the Vatican bank, which gets us onto the narrative on-ramp faster and makes what follows — a ceremony in which Michael is awarded a papal bauble — seem like more of a sly quid-pro-quo event. Michael wants to buy respectability for himself and his family; he wants to leave a clean legacy for his children, especially his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). It was fashionable in 1990 to bash Sofia, the director’s daughter and untrained as an actress, for ruining her father’s movie. But to me she comes across as authentic, unguarded, and finally poignant. Sofia later made great strides as a director herself, but there’s no shame in what she does here.

Coppola has left two major sequences alone, to these eyes — Michael’s halting confession to a cardinal who will be the next Pope, and the climax crosscutting between various murders with Cavalleria Rusticana as its voluptuous backdrop. In the latter, Coppola drops his guilt and grief and revels in the sheer play of being a filmmaker. Vengeance, rage, sorrow, broken faith — Coppola brings it all together. The movie-movieness of it all can seem a bit much, but the Godfather films were always opera, never life. To my knowledge, Coppola never ordered his own brother killed, but he did (and still does) contend with the accidental death, in 1986, of his son Gian-Carlo. This Godfather is more personal and vulnerable than the first two; it feels like an open wound, and I’d prefer not to rub salt in it. Godfather, Coda is not perfect by any means, and doesn’t share the cool intelligence of I and II, but it’s time to stop punishing it. It is its own movie. Cosmetically it resembles the first two, but its core is jagged and despairing. 

Even Michael seems like a completely different man than the frigid, calculating chessmaster of the other films. Pacino gives him more warmth; age and illness (Michael has diabetes) have made Michael more fragile, more nakedly lunging towards the acceptance and love of his family — his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), his loyal sister Connie (Talia Shire, putting some dark steel into her line readings; “Maybe they should fear you,” Michael tells Connie in one of the film’s funnier exchanges). The unstated horror of the third film is that everyone seems to know how Fredo died and is more or less all right with it — even Connie keeps up the pretense that Fredo drowned so that Michael can pretend Connie doesn’t know. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business. But Godfather, Coda is strictly personal. It’s about how you live with being a monster — a monster whose very existence imperils the innocence that manages to flower around you.

Coppola hasn’t fixed some of the stuff that still makes me cringe. Joe Mantegna has been terrific elsewhere, but as media darling Joey Zasa, a crude gangster who styles himself a dapper don, he’s pretty awful (to be fair, he gets handed the worst lines: “If anyone would say such a thing, they would not be a friend. They would be a dog”). The ease with which Zasa goes out of the film proves he adds little to it; Michael’s real adversary is elsewhere. Coppola has taken out some of Michael’s coffinside mourning for his father’s old friend Don Tommasino, whose presence in the first two films never struck me as large enough to justify stopping the film to note his passing. (In Godfather I he let Michael stay with his uncle in Sicily; in II he helped Vito get revenge on an ancient enemy.) Originally Michael wondered aloud why people loved Tommasino but fear Michael; now he just promises to be good, and we lose some of the spidery, dread-filled score that accompanied most of his monologue. 

Kay points out that, now that Michael is fixated on redemption, he’s more dangerous than ever — more desperate. He leaves the family in the hands of his illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), a hothead who, from what we see, doesn’t have the screen time to develop into a plausible new Don Corleone. Some critics took that as a flaw, but I suspect it’s intentional. Michael is so hung up on retiring from ordering hits on people that he’ll hand everything off to a violent mook. Garcia has flash and presence to burn, but as Vincent is supposed to mature, Garcia is left with less to work with. It’s not his movie, anyway, and it never becomes his movie. Godfather, Coda stays with Michael’s emptiness, which he attempts to fill with family and religion, apparently unaware he has irrevocably blasphemed against both. This third movie doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t have guessed from the end of Part II, but as a coda, now, it emphasizes that Michael was damned the minute he came out of that restaurant bathroom with the stashed gun. 

Doctor Sleep

February 2, 2020

doctor sleep Few, I imagine, will be surprised by the news that Doctor Sleep — based on Stephen King’s novel, a sequel to his The Shining — packs a heftier emotional punch than does Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is the better movie; very few films can touch Kubrick’s The Shining. It does mean that the new film’s source material grapples with very human concerns — enduring childhood trauma, addiction, predators, the cycle of abuse, the fear of death. (Kubrick’s The Shining was imperiously disinterested in King’s own themes, chiefly alcoholic demons literalized as vicious spirits; like most Kubrick films, it had a broader target in mind, the hubris of mankind’s delusion of control.)

Still, Doctor Sleep is less a horror movie than a supernatural drama — only intermittently frightening, but engaging and saddening. It feels like the deep dull pain of a slowly forming bruise. The story’s protagonist, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), still has the telepathic gifts he had as a boy in The Shining; in his forties now, he is a recovering alcoholic, having turned to drink to blunt his visions (as his father Jack also may have). King’s narrative has three prongs. The second deals with an itinerant band of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who feed off the “steam” exuded by dying people who, like Danny, have “the shine.” The third follows a teenage girl, Abra (Kayliegh Curran), who may have more intense powers even than Danny, and whose steam is coveted hungrily by the on-their-uppers Knot monsters, headed by a demon known as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Abra contacts Danny for help, and we’re off.

I haven’t seen them all, but Doctor Sleep may be the most morose Stephen King adaptation since The Dead Zone. That’s not a criticism; the film’s writer-director Mike Flanagan pauses from time to time to take the full measure of death and pain. A ghastly sequence has to do with the Knot’s sacrifice of a little boy; Flanagan stages it as an atrocity that we need to see to understand the stakes, not as a gory tickle for Saturday-night horror fans. It’s not especially graphic, but we feel the boy’s pain and terror. This, I have to say, is not an effect Kubrick attempted (or was interested in). And a horror director with a healthy respect for human frailty and a cold revulsion for dealers of pain is not to be sneezed at. I have questions about a morally cowardly choice Danny makes near the beginning, in his pre-sober days, which after one ghostly visit is never referenced again; perhaps Flanagan’s longer cut, reportedly clocking in at three hours, acknowledges it more deeply. Otherwise, what Flanagan does here is decent in the ethical sense, and a fine tribute to both King’s and Kubrick’s The Shining. (King’s Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, I remember enjoying, but have forgotten most of its specifics. It cuts more mustard as a redemption narrative for an alcoholic; King wrote the sequel after many years sober, while he penned The Shining as very much an active alcoholic.)

I’ll be curious to see that longer cut; I appreciated Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep for its solidity, its commitment to the raw emotions of the situation. McGregor more or less can’t help conveying virtue even when his character wallows in the dregs — whether the worst toilet in Scotland or George Lucas dialogue — and he gives us a Danny who squares with the Danny we know from the Shining book and movie, fearful but taking peril full in the face anyway. The real hero, though, is Abra, whom Curran imbues with a certain equipoise that comes from serious abilities. In contrast, we’re catching Rose the Hat and her pack at a low ebb, from a shortage of “steam,” and Ferguson shows us hints of the lioness Rose once was and how her desperation and weakness have made her, if anything, more dangerous than ever. In part, Doctor Sleep is a meditation on power and those enhanced or burned out by it. I respect it and feel warmly towards it. Like The Shawshank Redemption, it’s somber and oblivious to hot-shot cleverness, and it deserves a home cult like Shawshank’s.

Wallflower

October 6, 2019

wallflower1-jumbo This past weekend, a film opened. You may have heard about it. Controversial in some quarters, it tries to enter the head of a man headed for a breakdown. His life is miserable; he wants to connect with women but doesn’t know how. He tries to fit into a community that will accept him, but it doesn’t work. Eventually his implosive anguish — we may as well say his toxic masculinity — expresses itself in explosive violence. Some commentators have said the movie sides too much with this man; others see it differently, as a depiction not glorification of anomic savagery.

Joker? No, Wallflower, a much smaller independent film based on a real-life tragedy. In 2006, a 28-year-old loner named Kyle Aaron Huff spent some of an evening at a rave in Seattle, then at an after-party. The next morning, he returned to the site of the after-party with a shotgun and a handgun; by the time he was done, seven people were dead, including Huff, by his own hand. Five years in the making, and funded on Kickstarter, Wallflower was cowritten and directed by Jagger Gravning, who’d known two of the victims and who wanted to divine meaning in the entrails of the massacre. Who was Kyle Aaron Huff (unnamed in the film, and played by David Call), and what drove him to his actions? Gravning offers some clues, and shows a few revelers trying to reach out to the killer, but sometimes fellowship isn’t enough. What would have been?

The glowering loner has his small arsenal in his truck, and at one point he acts as though he means to take his guns into the party at its peak, when the sun is still down. But he seems to think better of it — temporarily. Maybe he wants someone to change his mind, to touch something in his soul; maybe he wants to fall in love. He knows he won’t, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, we meet various players at the after-party: Link (Connor Marx), an affable anarch whose house it is; Strobe Rainbow (Atsuko Okatsuka), a lesbian cartoonist going through an acrimonious breakup. Strobe and the killer actually have a couple of things in common, but they may be too alike in the wrong ways. She seems to sense his bad vibes, and seeks to repel him from her group.

In this way do former outcasts ostracize current ones. It’s not Strobe’s fault, of course, nor does the movie come close to suggesting it is. But these are all people who — the film implies — escaped a small-town life where they were considered strange, and found a community of the likeminded strange in the rave scene of Seattle. The killer himself is originally from Whitefish, Montana, where he has a history of small dust-ups, including shooting up a moose statue. He came to Seattle, he says, because it was “close by.” He wanted to run away from home, but not too far. (The actual Huff moved there with his identical twin brother; the movie doesn’t mention a brother.) David Call does quietly pained work as the killer seems to pass an internal point of no return. Symbolically castrated and ejected from the group, he walks sadly to his truck.

Gravning has some definite chops as a director. Whether out of financial necessity or out of respect for the dead, he doesn’t show much of the carnage as it’s happening; we get a few aftermath glimpses. The style of the filmmaking is subdued and mildly doomy even during the bouncy rave sequences, when the killer is never far from the camera’s gaze, leaning against a wall staring in morose incomprehension at the ravers. A couple of the stoned conversations are as dreary as they are in real life, but mostly Wallflower walks a fine, unsteady line between keeping the narrative engaging and somehow making the story “entertaining” (exploitative). The narrative itself is splintered, nonlinear, reflecting the killer’s own cluttered headspace. By the end, attention is also paid to the continuing PTSD and coping of the survivors, and I found myself indifferent to how true to the letter of the real story the movie was. It feels true enough. Many, many fewer people will see Wallflower than saw Joker in its opening weekend, alas.

The Dead Don’t Die

September 15, 2019

Brody-DeadDontDie “The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.

Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.

The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA  — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)

Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.

Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.

The Abyss

August 4, 2019

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.

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.

London Fields

May 27, 2019

london fields The beleaguered London Fields was filmed so long ago (2013!) that its lead actress, Amber Heard, was still involved with Johnny Depp. This explains why Depp turns up in a few scenes uncredited as Chick Purchase, a scar-faced darts champion. Based on a 1989 novel by eternal literary bad boy Martin Amis, London Fields ran afoul of some of its producers, who by many accounts took the film away from director Mathew Cullen and rendered it less artsy (or, if you like, less artful). The resulting recut staggered into a few theaters in 2018 and died the death of a thousand critical cuts. It’s available on physical and streaming media, if you want it.

But now the director’s cut has been making the rounds among critics, and while I haven’t seen the producers’ cut to compare, I can say the restored version works as a brooding mood piece, haunted by Oppenheimer and looming nuclear catastrophe, structured as a trippy whodunit, or more like a “who’s gonna do it.” In this form, London Fields might take its place alongside other cult Chandler-bogarting-that-joint crime whatsits like The Big Lebowski, Brick, Inherent Vice, and Under the Silver Lake. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Samson Young, a blocked novelist trading flats with a British writer. He encounters Nicola Six (Heard), a psychic who has predicted her own murder; she just doesn’t know who’s gonna do it. Nicola might be meant to represent all of us in the post-Hiroshima world, who know, or at least darkly suspect, that collectively we will be murdered — we just don’t know who’s gonna push the button.

Like other shady ensemble pieces circling a corpse, the movie dots the landscape with saps, sleazes and sluts. The sleaziest, sappiest slut is Keith Talent, a scruffy driver and would-be darts king. Jim Sturgess plays Keith on about the same cartoonish “OI, ROIGHT THEN” level as the scrofulous roomies on The Young Ones. He lurches into every scene, shoves his face into someone else’s face, and screws his expression into an open-mouthed sneer. At first I found Sturgess hard to look at — he seemed to be giving the worst performance in a movie that also includes Cara Delevingne and Amber Heard — but the idiotic Keith gains layers of pathos. The performance came together for me when Keith showed up to a big darts championship (where he hopes to whip Chick Purchase’s ass in front of everyone) and discovered it would be filmed in a cavernous, empty studio, with audience roars to be added later. Sturgess’ rendering of Keith’s disappointment helps link the darts stuff with the rest of the movie’s stuff: In this film violet, nobody gets what he or she wants.

Thornton’s morose writer narrates as the miscast Heard flits from one bed to another, trying to manipulate her own murder. Suicide? Not really; she knows it’s going to happen, she just wants some control over how and whom. An English non-entity (Theo James) drifts into the picture, repping all the googly-eyed “nice guys” in noir history who eventually learn how nice they aren’t. If I had to guess, I’d say Amis, and then Cullen, use the mechanics of a thriller to muse on a future of mass incineration. (The actual London Fields had the crap bombed out of it in the Blitz.) Who cares about one murdered woman — a “murderee” — in a reality where we could all be murderees? “Charging a man with murder in this place,” observed Martin Sheen about Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, “was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” And as Robert Aldrich’s bebop-atomic Kiss Me Deadly knew, nuclear holocaust is about the last word in noir.

Amis played with metafiction and the concept of unreliable narrators. That’s hard to convey on film, so Cullen leans on apocalyptic stock footage and hopes for the best. (There’s reportedly no stock footage in the producers’ edit, which must really make that version seem pointless.) I responded to the jagged and despairing mood, and there’s a nifty though too-brief bit with Jim Sturgess dancing to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” in the rain near a dumpster. It’s a cynical, grimy rewrite of “Singin’ in the Rain,” of course, but Sturgess and Cullen make it vivid and almost transcendent. Too bad about Amber Heard, whose appeal continues to elude me, but London Fields as its director intended it is a noble attempt, ravishingly shot by Guillermo Navarro and dotted with ironically sprightly needle-drops (mostly absent from the producers’ cut). By all accounts, the version that’s out there right now is a botch, a massacre; I hope you get to see Cullen’s version, which while no masterpiece at least seems to have larger things on its mind and a nice control of jittery yet resigned mood — a mood that may have seemed prescient in 2013 and today feels like looking in the mirror.

Death Wish (2018)

June 3, 2018

deathwishThirty years ago, Bruce Willis had to prove to the world that the Motown-crooning jokester from Moonlighting could anchor an action movie — Die Hard, of course. These days, Willis has the opposite problem: he now has to prove he can do things other than action, and his career in the last decade or so has been depressingly long on worthless straight-to-video shoot-‘em-ups. Which brings us to Death Wish, a surprisingly fine and effective reboot of material first published by novelist Brian Garfield in 1972 and filmed, with Charles Bronson, by director Michael Winner in 1974. Playing Paul Kersey, now a Chicago surgeon whose wife (Elisabeth Shue) is killed and daughter (Camila Morrone) rendered comatose by home-invading burglars¹, Willis indeed proves that Willis the actor — intermittently on view in movies like Looper and Moonrise Kingdom — is still with us.

This Death Wish was directed by Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies and The Green Inferno have given him a rep as a gorehound bro he doesn’t really deserve. I always think there’s more going on under the hood of his exploitation-throwback movies than many critics give him credit for, and in this film he works conscientiously; during a montage of Kersey learning how to use the gun he’s stumbled upon, we also see gory clips of what bullets do to flesh and what must be done to close the wounds. The Death Wish series headlined by Bronson got nastier and eventually more outlandish, to the point where its excesses are beloved by fans of bad grindhouse (“They killed The Giggler, man!” yells a punk in Death Wish 3). Roth takes the material back to basics, giving us a vigilante who at first can’t even fire a gun without hurting himself.

Just because Roth takes a responsible, pro-family stance here, and stages some of the violence to bring out the clumsy desperation of non-supermen trying to shoot each other in close quarters, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deliver some cathartic bloodshed. Some of the killings are abrupt, others are worthy of vintage Fangoria, and one punk goes out with his face twisted in a comic-horrible rictus of agony. The blood splatters out like crimson branches, pools under spasmodic bodies; brains leap out of a skull that’s just been flattened by a car. In general, Roth successfully walks the hair-thin line between drama that takes respectful measure of the effects of violence and good old all-American exploitation.

Radio jocks all over the city take sides on Kersey the “Grim Reaper” and invite their listeners to do likewise. Dateless neckbeards in basements post YouTube tutorials on how to clean guns or wipe out data on a laptop. Kersey himself, in one of the script’s wittier throwaways, becomes an internet meme. (Joe Carnahan is solely credited with the screenplay, which had an uncredited once-over by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.) The punks, as always, are carefully ethnically mixed, and there are actors of color in doctor and cop roles — though I presume we’re not yet ready for a black Paul Kersey. (In the ‘70s, we were, and blaxploitation flicks obliged us.) Eli Roth may not be making a rabid reactionary potboiler, but he’s also not making a movie that’s going to challenge mainstream expectations, or grapple with the complex, heartbreaking causes of urban violence.

Willis lets himself smile and shed tears, as if grateful for the company of real actors. His Kersey is smart but vulnerable, haunted by the memory of his brutal father, chagrined by his ne’er-do-well brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who keeps turning up asking for loans. D’Onofrio may be the best thing in the movie, making the brother self-justifying but decent, alluding to some crime (probably minor) he has on his record. Death Wish stays slick but gets a little tired and predictable as it heads for the finish line. Still, Roth maintains a sharp control, giving us, near the climax, a quiet slow camera track towards Kersey’s house that in its undemonstrative ominousness recalls (and ranks with) vintage John Carpenter. Someday Roth will apply his horror-movie instincts to material that can make them sing, and he will make a classic. As it is, Death Wish is far better-wrought than it could have been, or deserved to be.

¹Many will be relieved that, unlike in the original Death Wish and its vicious first sequel, there are no rapes we have to watch or even hear about.