Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Raw Meat (C.H.U.L. double feature with 2005's "Creep"!)

Raw Meat aka Death Line(1972)
Dir. Gary Sherman
Starring Donald Pleasance, David Ladd, also Christopher Lee has one scene

                           This poster is entirely accurate except for all the things on it.

RAW MEAT is the second part of my C.H.U.L. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Lads) double feature about Mutant Cannibals in the London Underground tunnel system. The first one, 2005’s CREEP, was competent but not particularly interesting and I can’t say I had particularly high hopes for this one other than the reliable pleasure of watching Donald Pleasance solve things.

Turns out I was wrong, though, this is a pretty good –if decidedly strange—entry into this subgenre. It’s a unique and surprisingly assured horror/thriller thing which takes an interesting idea and goes nowhere you’d expect with it.

Here’s the skinny: some sleazy rich prick with a bowler is carousing the strip clubs of the region and heads down into the subway to pick up/sexually assault a prostitute. Something goes wrong, though, and two college kids leaving the station find his unconscious body on the subway stairs. The boyfriend, a sardonic New York native played by noted Alan Ladd son David Ladd, thinks this is no big deal (“We step over these guys in New York!” He says, exasperated by his bleeding-heart girlfriend’s desire to get involved) but his cute British gal talks him into returning with the authorities. Thing is, though, when they get back the body’s gone.

When the sleazeball doesn’t show up the next day, it gets reported to Inspector Calhoun, a marvelous asshole gleefully portrayed by Pleasance. English is a second language to Calhoun; his native tongue is sarcasm, which in his mouth blooms into a breathless dance of impishly cutting poetry. He’s a working class schlub who gets no respect and affords none to anyone else, dragging the kids into his office and rather indelicately badgering them (for a crime we know they’re completely innocent of). Turns out old bowler was a big-shot wealthy MI5 guy, and suddenly people at the station start remembering, oh yeah, haven’t a bunch of people gone missing down there? Calhoun suspects it’s a government cover-up for some sort of shady secret agent business, but of course we know better. When a minor character offhandedly tells a story about a bunch of workers trapped in a closed station in the 1800s, and speculates that perhaps some of them could have survived by eating the flesh of their departed colleagues… well, we know where this is going.

The odd thing is, it doesn’t go anywhere for a long time. We follow the two college kids as they go about their life and wonder what the fuck that was all about (the gal inexplicably expresses her interest in purchasing a book on Poltergeists, which is an odd enough detail in itself but particularly odd since director Gary Sherman would one day go on to helm the pretty-good POLTERGEIST III), and meanwhile Calhoun is trying to investigate bowler-guy’s murder by following his connections to the seedier side of British High Society (which of course we know will be a dead end). At the dead man’s house, he encounters Christopher Lee as a fellow MI5er who may be the only man who can give Calhoun a run for his money in the withering caustic assholery department. Lee warns Calhoun off the case, tells him to drop it and not get involved where he doesn’t belong. In any other movie, this and the poltergeist thing would be red herrings, intended to throw you off the trail. But here, we’ve already seen the killer, we know where he lives and why he’s doing what he’s doing. Why is this stuff in here?

                                         He has no idea why he's here either.

So for the whole middle of the movie, we get three parallel threads: the college kids being a couple, Calhoun struggling to investigate something we know is wrong, and then the killer himself, whom we get to know rather intimately.

Seems that Mr. Raw Meat is the last survivor of generations of workers trapped in the abandoned underground station, where they have gradually succumbed to a lifestyle of nonverbal cannibalism. His wife, the last of his companions, has just died of a deforming disease which also afflicts him. Turns out he grabbed that bowler asshole in a futile effort to try and cure his wife with a little fresh blood. This whole scenario is revealed in the film’s masterstroke, a stunning, confidently patient long tracking shot which gradually explores the cannibal’s gristly meat storage room, and then the whole environment inside the abandoned station, past literal catacombs of previous generations of CHUCs, a collapsed tunnel with human skeletons buried in the rubble, down the long, creepy tunnels, and up to the crack in the sky where our killer has learned to venture into the outside world for fresh meat.

The shot easily lasts for an uninterrupted five minutes, and is completely silent save for the echoing drips of water which cast a fiendish anxiety over the proceedings. It’s a masterful bit of cinema which eloquently visually communicates to us everything we need to know about the scenario. The film doesn’t gets that good again, but most films never get that good, so who are we to complain?

The odd thing about this whole setup is that the murderous cannibal comes across quite sympathetically. We first meet him in his inarticulate emotional agony over the loss of his wife, and it’s hard not to empathize with him as the last lonely survivor of a tragedy which somehow dragged on nearly 200 years. It’s pretty easy to understand what he’s doing and why he doesn’t know any better.

Anyway, eventually all three story strands meet up in a predictable but rather classily constructed way. It builds some nice tension but also makes good use of the pathos its build for its antagonist. Nothing too stunning, admittedly, but a nicely orchestrated conclusion which gets a lot of mileage from the long setup (and especially the audience’s intimate knowledge of the layout of the cannibal’s lair).

And that's about all I would have thought about it, had I not happened to linger for a brief moment over the Netflix plot description (frequently my nemesis, as you may recall) which concludes with this sentence:

"a cult classic notable for its allegorical depth, atmospheric intensity -- and stomach-turning gore."

Allegorical depth? What the fuck are they.... oooohhhhh . . . dear god, they're right. I would never have thought about it, but the concept of these forgotten laborers trapped underground eating their own to eke by and drawing any attention from the authorities only when they affect some rich guy with connections has a lot to do with the class politics which are lurking just below the surface of the film.

If you remember your history or have watched the excellent Sex Pistols Doc THE FILTH AND THE FURY, you'll recall that England was an economic basket case during the 70s, a wasteland of prospectless malaise and cultural tensions. There's a reason Calhoun is such an asshole to everyone -- he, like most of his working class ilk, is just looking out for himself and trying to maintain a little dignity in the face of life's constant barrage of demeaning reminders of how bad off he is. Seen in this light, the otherwise inexplicable Christopher Lee scene is actually key to understanding what's going on here. The rich are part of a separate world, as distinct from Pleasance and the college kids as their own world is from our CHUC antagonist. No matter what he does, he'll never be part of that world (Lee smugly even refuses to let him investigate, happier to have it go unsolved than to have this cretin explore the separate life of the upper class). He can imitate them, even imagine himself to be a powerful man in his own little kingdom, but they're living in a world beyond his understanding and experience which he can only parrot -- the same way Mr. CHUC meaninglessly parrots a distorted version of the station platform instructions (his creepy phonetic rendering of “Mind the Doors!”).

There may be something, too, to the fact that Ladd’s character is an American not as sensitive to class distinctions as his British counterparts. He hardly even notices the fallen man at the beginning, but his girlfriend does. Not because they don’t have drunks in England, but –and this is my read of the subtext, mind you -- because this guy is obviously a social better who seems so horribly out of place passed out in a subway that it upsets her enormously. So while Calhoun is chasing his tail following all the wrong leads, only the American can actually cut through the bullshit, figure out what the fuck is going on and save the day. The detective, the cannibal, and the American are all figures who are venturing out of their usual environment and entering areas they can’t possibly fully understand – but the American lacks the baggage of hundreds of years of British class history (nicely symbolized by the cannibal’s 200-year exile from the surface) and as such is the only one who knows better than to get involved.

I should note that I was surprised by the quality of this picture, but I wouldn’t have been had I recognized the name of director Gary Sherman. RAW MEAT was apparently called the “Most Significant Debut of the Year” by the British Film Institute. His next film, nearly a decade later (1981), was the superb and equally unusual DEAD & BURIED. Looks like I’ll have to take a look at the rest of his filmography.

Creep (C.H.U.C. double feature with 1972's Raw Meat!)

Creep (2005)
Dir. Christopher Smith
Starring Franka Portente, Sean Harris, Vas Blackwood

This is the first in my two-film series about London Underground Mutant Cannibals, which I have affectionately dubbed C.H.U.C.s (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Chaps). This is a modern take on the classic subject of mutated cannibals who live in the London subway (“Underground”) tunnels, and was directed by Christopher Smith, who’s BLACK DEATH you may remember I recently enjoyed due to its interesting structure and concepts, despite its somewhat uneven execution.

CREEP is, I think, a better made film, but not well made enough to really justify the fact that it’s pretty generic in every regard. It’s your standard trapped-with-a-serial-killer scenario, this time set in the London Undergound which doesn’t seem nearly as creepy as the filmmakers seem to think it is. They have to fall all over themselves to think of reasons someone can’t simply get out (cell phones don’t work, door is locked, security guard refuses to help, pay phone doesn’t work, other guy only helps once it’s too late to do anything) but it still seems like an imminently survivable situation.

Here’s the story: Franka Portente (RUN LOLA RUN) is a German-accented Londoner who falls asleep inside a subway station and wakes up to find the place has closed (nobody checks the platform before they lock the door and leave for the night, apparently). But she’s far from alone; her rapey would-be paramour is down there too, as are two drug-addled homeless kids, a security guard, a stray sewer worker, and of course our titular creep. So it’s a regular after-hours party down there of potential victims, most of whom are dispatched in short order in fairly mundane ways (the Creep, despite appearing to just be a kind of skinny humanoid imbred, possesses super strength and --before we first lay eyes on him-- likes to do things like climb along the ceiling or underneath the subway cars and grab people, which I call bullshit on because once we see him it becomes unclear how he accomplished this feat).  

Portente does a nice job of seeming like an unusually resourceful, logical victim for this kind of scenario, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings aside from being basically competent. Which could be said for the whole film: pretty competent, but doesn’t add much. I just couldn’t get past the fact that every single scare in this film has been done somewhere else much better and frequently more imaginatively. It’s standard in almost every way, never really embarrassing itself but never giving itself much reason to stand out either. The film is more interested in jump scares and gore than it is in building atmosphere or paranoia, so it’s a bit more damning than you might assume that it doesn’t have much to add to the basic genre structure.   

There is one thing which is pretty cool, though, and that’s the implied backstory to our Creep (Sean Harris, looking like Gollum crossed with Mer-Man). As our heroes penetrate the abandoned catacombs beneath the city, they come across a secret, abandoned abortion clinic which houses evidence that seems to suggest that the Creep (who we find out is named Craig) was born there along with many other creepy deformed cannibal children. That raises a number of disturbing possibilities; was Craig’s deformity a result of an abortion gone wrong? Was the doctor secretly keeping babies he was supposed to be aborting for some kind of twisted experiments, or, even creepier, to sort of half-raise as his own family?

Things get even creepier when Craig drags a victim down there and straps her into the ol’ abortion chair. He proceeds to clumsily mimic the actions of a doctor, strapping on filthy bloodstained scrubs, mimicking washing his hands (with no running water), sighing theatrically. He’s watched this being done many, many times, but it’s a perverse parody of actual medicine, just as Craig is a perverse parody of a human. Creepy. Then he grabs a rusty saw and the film gets back to trying to shock you with gore. Meh.

Overall, not a bad effort but not really a good enough one to recommend it very strongly either. If subways creep you out, this might be your thing, otherwise there’s just not a whole lot of interest here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Dir. Mel Gibson
Starring Jim Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Rosalinda Celentano

So OK, I’m a little late on jumping into the controversy about this one. Like a good liberal, when this first came out I acted all offended about the perceived ant-Semitism, but of course the truth was that this film is sort of scary to me. The very idea of this film is scary to us secular humanists; it’s bizarre and alien and hostile to our most basic sensibilities. We don’t like it admit it, but the hordes of true believers who buried this film in cash and wept and spoke in tongues and reaffirmed their faith to this little motion picture scare the bejeesus out of us. We don’t understand them and they can’t be reasoned with, and when they get fired up they can drastically alter the course of this country. Hollywood has no shortage of films filled with paranoia about Christian fanaticism, and that probably reflects my demographic pretty well. These unironically stone-serious religious films for a specifically religious audience are widely regarded by my people as weird outliers for a somewhat disturbed fringe demographic, probably the same way normal people look at stuff like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. So yeah, when the film came out I was intrigued but – I’m man enough to admit it— sort of scared of it, sort of disturbed by the way it was received and not quite interested enough in the content to overcome those hurdles and go out and watch it.

But then in 2006, APOCALYPTO came out and became one of my absolute favorite films of that year and reminded me that whatever else Mel Gibson is, he’s one of the best working directors out there. And guess what, everyone acted like that film was a Klan rally too, a ludicrous charge by any stretch of the imagination. If you think APOCALYPTO is racist enough to write strongly-worded scolding essays about, you better be burning every copy of BREAKFAST WITH TIFFANY you can lay your hands on, man.

Basically, the critics were reviewing the man, not the movie. I suppose I can understand that logic; I think its ultimately very difficult to create a work of real art without a particular vision, more or less necessitating we involve the artist in our consideration of the art. And it seems pretty well beyond debate that Gibson is a fairly intolerant fanatical nutter, which sort of makes you look at his work with that framework in mind. But come on, people, you gotta actually look at the work, too. Just because a racist made a movie doesn’t automatically make that movie racist. Yeah, it seems like Gibson is none too fond of the Jews, but portraying the high priests who pretty well form a lynch mob to kill Jesus a bit negatively seems fairly reasonable in the context of the story. Accusing the film of anti-Semitism or racism is an easy way to get out of really examining why it makes you uncomfortable. And besides, a great film is a great film. Insidious as BIRTH OF A NATION is, I don’t hear anyone dismissing its artistic merits simply because it’s a blatantly toxic, hateful sickening display of racist paranoia. OK, so Gibson isn’t exactly reinventing cinema the way Griffith did with that one, but he’s indisputably a master of the art form and his consummately crafted classic style is rare enough to seem almost experimental these days.

As the 581 preceding words indicate, then, this movie comes with a lot of baggage. But I was in it to watch one of my favorite directors do his thing, and was genuinely ready to be won over by it. Unfortunately it turns out that lost in the culture war rhetoric is the fact that the movie itself is easily Gibson’s weakest. Amusingly enough, though, I’m not sure its Gibson’s fault. For the greatest story ever told, I think this is about as well as you can tell it and it’s just not that great a story.  

Here’s the problem: this film has a lot of similar issues to another movie which I only liked when I wanted to love it recently: PIRANAH 3-D. It’s well-made, but the parts don’t add up to much. It’s well-acted, but none of the characters really does anything. It gets the tone right but never builds to anything. It has interesting events but not any real narrative. And it’s really fucking violent, with some great imaginative touches, but eventually fails to get much emotional mileage from that violence. Which is a problem in both cases, because violence is really the star of the show.

Seriously, I doubt I’m the only critic to notice this, but THE PASSION is basically a horror movie. It’s sort of a parade of the grotesque, in a dirty and dangerous world packed with demons and brutal sadistic senseless violence. And at the center of it is the guy you’re supposed to know is the best person who ever lived, intentionally taking the worst of what the world can throw at him. He’s doing it out of love, trying to absolve his fellow man of their suffering.

Or at least, that’s what Gibson says about it. Problem is, the film doesn’t really tell you much about Jesus, who he is, or what he’s doing. You gotta bring all that with you for the film to have any context at all. For a film from a guy who supposedly loves Jesus, we don’t really get to know him much in this thing. He’s on-screen a lot, but mostly all-but comatose-- first because he’s petulantly refusing to answer his captors, and later because he’s basically incapacitated by torture. We get tiny, tiny flashbacks of him before this point in his life, but most last less than a minute and don’t really tell us much about him, his philosophy, his personality, or his character arc. Caviezel does a fine job in the presumably easy role of making Jesus seem like a nice guy; in better times, his warm smile and open expressiveness do a lot to endear him to us (despite his inexplicable dark Jedi yellow eyes, like that evil kid in A CHRISTMAS STORY). But ultimately he’s kind of a cipher.

The biggest problem, really, is that Jesus is basically the main character, but he doesn’t really do anything. He’s an incredibly passive character. Now, I think the point is that Jesus is not actually passive, that he’s basically actively accepting his fate even though it’s hard, like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance deal. Gandhi hated the term passive resistance because of course there’s nothing passive about it, it’s actively engaging in a nonviolent way. But Gibson doesn’t quite make Jesus active enough to pull that possibility off. The film breaks him down so much he’s pretty much helpless by minute 20, and spends the rest of the film simply enduring. The film opens with him having doubts, struggling to believe in himself enough to do what he knows he has to do. He makes the decision there to go for it, but that’s the last decision he seems to make throughout the film. His wordless refusal to save himself, even given a few chances to do so, don’t read as advancement in his character arc so much as glum resignation that he’s finished no matter what he does. So it just feels like stuff is happening to him.

Likewise, the few side characters don’t really develop in any interesting way. Peter starts off with a badass slow-mo action scene (?!) but quickly disappears after he gets his one scene of triple-denial. How does this affect this guy who was so certain of his faith that he lops off a guy’s ear and still tries to get into Jesus’ trial? We’ll never know, I guess it wasn’t important, and it doesn’t seem to mean much to Jesus, either. John (heavily hinted to be Jesus’ brother) is in almost every scene but I don’t think says a single word. Mary Jesus’ mother watches and cries, but the most she ever does is walk up to him one time and give him a hug. Mary Magdalene is basically a sidekick to the already inert older Mary, although she’s much more interesting to watch since she’s played by Monica Bellucci. Judas is clearly torn up about what he’s done but the film isn’t at all interested in what his motivations were, and seems only interested in giving him a suitably horrible death (it succeeds – the shot with his feet dangling in front of the desiccated donkey carcass is truly disturbing and admirably poetic). Even the film’s most interesting and charismatic character, Satan, does a pretty piss poor job of causing Jesus any trouble –(s)he (ooh, scary androgyny! Too bad David Bowie was too old to play this one) spends the whole movie watching impassively from the sidelines. The only character who really has any meaningful narrative conflict is poor Pontius Pilate (inexplicably the subject of great sympathy and compassion in the film) -- and his conflict is resolved by him deciding to do nothing! The only two characters that are really given anything to do are the two stations-of-the-cross cameos from Simon de Cyrene and Seraphia as two completely uninvolved bystanders who take a moment out of their apparently busy days to give Jesus a little assistance on his way to his death. Jesus is so out of it that Simon’s gradual turn from not wanting to get involved to basically carrying Jesus and his cross himself is arguably the most character development that happens in the whole movie. So of course as soon as they arrive Simon just walks away and is never referenced again.

I guess my point is that Gibson fairly faithfully follows the story told in the gospel, beat for beat. But it’s not all that interesting a story. Gibson leaves out most of the things which would give it emotional weight and instead focuses on the brutality, which in point of fact the actual bible doesn’t really emphasize. I fear that Gibson is probably so invested in the character and his mission already that he doesn’t understand that he needs to communicate those points in his actual film. The film is just a checklist of events which happen to Jesus at that particular point, and he’s counting on you to fill in the gaps with the lovey compassion stuff while he supplies the cruelty.

Jesus fucking CHRIST! How many red pens did they go through drawing this?
And as a committed atheist, it just doesn’t work. Like most atheists, I’m extremely familiar with the Bible and hence knew every beat pretty thoroughly already. Gibson crafts compelling, sometimes beautiful scenes but offers very little in terms of enriching these events with details which might give them weight and meaning beyond a literal rendition of the text. If you know the text, you know the film already and it adds only a few colorful details to make it worth experiencing visually. The film is at its best when it throws in weird creepy details like the WTF Satan-and-scary-baby or the dead donkey at Judas’s death scene – that’s a take only someone as crazy as Gibson would see in the Bible and I like it because it gives the film a little more unique vision and reason to exist than most of its paint-by-numbers runtime. Gibson also taunts us with a few nicely done human moments in flashback (the scene where Jesus builds [invents?] the modern table is probably the best, as it capitalizes on Caviezel’s gentle, charming good humor) but these scenes are frustratingly brief and too few to amount to much more than the slightest of suggestions. Weirdly, Gibson actually seems to impose too little of himself into the thing and it ends up feeling surprisingly timid about offering its own vision, with the exception of its overwhelming focus on suffering. The brutality of the thing does make it Gibson’s own, but just isn’t all that interesting when it so blatantly upstages any kind of context. Jesus is getting beat up from almost minute one, and its ability to shock kind of plateaus at the excellent scourging scene and fades to a sort of dull monotonous drone by the end (which doesn’t help itself by being almost entirely slow motion). Ok dude we get it, sucks to be Jesus, is that really why you dragged us here and made all this fuss?  

This would have all worked much better had Gibson realized that Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t mean much if we don’t get what’s at stake. Christians know already and they’re thinking about it all the time --and I know what they think-- but you gotta have it in the film for the thing to work. I love a good story, I don’t have to actually believe it to get hooked, but you gotta give me a narrative. I mean, I don’t believe that if the baby dies in WILLOW we’re really fucked in real life, so I’m not turned off by the Christian mythology either. But Gibson never really offers you his take on why Jesus’s death is important. What would it mean for mankind if Jesus punked out and escaped? What exactly does Satan fear if Jesus succeeds? Can we at least see Jesus doing his prophet thing a little bit, so even if we don’t have a good sense of the big picture we can at least feel bad that the world is losing this one nice dude? Instead of doing this, Gibson treats Jesus the same way Tarantino treats Hitler – as cinematic shorthand. Of course you’re against whatever Hitler’s doing, he’s fucking Hitler. Of course you’re on Jesus’s side, he’s fucking Jesus. Sadly, for people who aren’t really into Jesus the way Gibson is, this failure to establish him as a character with a clear goal kind of undermines the story’s potential power.

And ultimately, Jesus was more interesting than the bullied victim Gibson makes him here. One of my absolute favorite films of all time is JESUS CHIRST SUPERSTAR, which covers roughly the same time period as Gibson’s film (it starts just a few days earlier) but manages to find great richness and complexity in its characters, deftly examine the political and cultural landscape, find a clear and satisfying narrative, and mine more pathos from less violence. And it’s a gorddam musical which still finds time for a pink fringe jumpsuit. For all its earnestness and claims to historical accuracy* THE PASSION is simply a much shallower, less involving film. And also less funky, which of course hurts any film. Might have saved itself if they’d kept in the pink fringe.

Anyway, the thing banked some serious loaf and fish money for Gibson, which maybe it didn’t exactly deserve, but that’s OK. Even though this one is hobbled a bit by Gibson’s reverence for the source material and inability to see beyond his own perspective, it’s still a gorgeous and bold and crazy production that no one else on Earth right now would have made or even imagined. He may not be a great human being, but he’s a great director with an absolutely unique kind of insanity that consistently translates into fascinating films. He’s been working a little more steadily than usual lately as an actor-- which is fine because he’s a great actor too-- but I would rather he spend his autumnal years pulling a Coppola and making passion projects that only he really understands, like his long gestating PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION big budget conspiracy thriller (just kidding. I hope.) Judging from this one, the guy has a truly great horror movie in him somewhere. Whatever he chooses to do, there’s more personality and class and transfixing bugnuts crazy in a single scene of his than in most of the studio films that came out this summer. Come on Mel, spend some of that PASSION money and let’s find out what else you’ve got on your mind!

*Priest: Well you should definitely see the Passion. It's a very important movie.
Huey: Couldn't see it, white Jesus.
Priest: Excuse me?
Huey: Come on man, it’s supposed to be all historically accurate, and they STILL have a white man playing Jesus? That's some old bullshit.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Cobra (1986)
Dir. George P Cosmatos
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Brian Thompson

A cute little ante up on the already ludicrous DIRTY HARRY films, this one takes the lone wolf action cop things to levels which could generously be described as parody. Stallone plays officer Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, the kind of guy who wears aviators inside. He’s the kind of guy who’s gonna find a way to have an explosion involved while stopping some punks from robbing a grocery store. Everyone on the force already knows not to even call him in on anything unless they’re prepared for a special effects show. He drives a muscle car. He owns his own machine guns. It’s pretty righteous.

Most things about this movie do not work very well, and it goes without saying that anything remotely interesting in the script or concept is laughably underdeveloped. The villain is Brian Thompson (the more cultured out there will remember his cartoonishly chiseled face as the Alien Bounty Hunter from The X-Files) who everyone knows is the nefarious serial killer the Night Stalker. What only Cobra suspects for no reason is that there isn’t just a single Night Stalker, he’s actually the head of a secret society of serial killers, who target poor defenseless model Bridgitte Nielsen as their next victim and will stop at nothing to kill her. Cobra’s superiors correctly point out that his theory makes no sense and has no evidence at all to support it, but they recognize that he’s pretty much the awesomest guy ever and agree that the poor defenseless model needs some security. Obviously that means Cobra is gonna get assigned to protect her, take her out to the countryside and have ten kinds of sex with her, possibly have to fight off hordes of armed maniacs on motorcycles, who knows, could be anything, you gotta be prepared for whatever in this line of work. This is all a modestly interesting idea but the script does absolutely nothing with it, barely even bothering to address why in God’s name these Night Stalker people are doing this, much less explaining it in any kind of satisfactory or intriguing way. Likewise, plot strands about Cobra’s difficulties with Internal Affairs and his romance with Nielsen are so perfunctory that they might as well just have had an intern hold the cue cards up right to the camera.

But the one thing that really matters in a movie like this ends up working just fine, and that’s Stallone’s enjoyable deadpan hyper-macho killing/sex machine. Believe it or not, apparently Stallone wrote this one as BEVERLY HILLS COP but left that project because he wanted to make a more serious action movie. Looking back, this is probably funnier. But the movie is so self-assured about how badass it is that you end up buying into it and ultimately it’s the most ludicrous parts which work the best. The script may waste its concept, characters, and themes, but at least it wastes no opportunities for big action set pieces. The finale finds Cobra combating dozens upon dozens of gun-toting generic thugs in a hotel, then a lemon grove, and finally in a steel plant. It’s pretty fun, and suitably oversized if a little generic. But weirdly, the one thing not oversized is the runtime -- the thing ends up feeling too short. At 87 minutes, there’s only time for three big action sequences and no time for anything to feel like its escalating. Still, if you’re a youngster trying to figure out what the deal is with all these larger-than-life lone-wolf cops which only appear in comedies now, this is a pretty good example of how close to parody the genre already was by 1986.

There are better George P. Cosmatos Golan/Globus productions (if you have to ask, you’re not ready to know the answer) but this is a fine mid-level one which at least won’t waste much of your time doing anything other than exploding. I think Officer Cobretti would appreciate that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tree of Life

Tree of Life (2011)
Dir. Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, plus a few shots of Sean Penn looking out the window or walking barefoot on a metaphysical beach.

For his fifth total feature-length film in a career marked by the glacial pace of just over one film per decade, Terrence Malick apparently decided to just go for it and make his FEMME FATALE. If we are really lucky, every director with a distinct style will get at least one chance in their career to go whole-hog wild and indulge every one of their fetishes, quirks, themes, and tricks and create something really crazy that most people won’t like but is endlessly fascinating to cinemaphiles. For De Palma, this was FEMME FATALE. For Gilliam, IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS. For Seagal, ON DEADLY GROUND. “Normal” people don’t generally like these films very much because they’re so weird and crazy and hilariously tone-deaf. But they’re such pure distillations of a particular vision that I can’t help but be fascinated by them, and I’m always up for another swing for the fences.

With TREE OF LIFE, Malick has completed his long, slow drift away from narrative (or at least the pretense thereof) into a distinctively Malickian hazy dream of suggestion, atmosphere, and symbolism. Its ambition is practically dripping off the screen, and its sense of importance barely leaves room for an audience in the theater. Malick is not just asking the big questions, he’s shouting them like a Tourettes patient at a Tea Party rally. What is man’s place with God, the universe, and everything? Can we accept the authority of a God who allows suffering and misery? How bout pain and memory and family, what’s up with that stuff? OK, so those aren’t exactly new questions, but Malick asks them rather more overtly than most (sometimes just having creepy whispered voiced just outright ask them) which is where I got hooked. I mean, this thing begins at the dawn of time, takes us through the various geologic epochs (including my personal favorite Devonian period) and has fucking dinosaurs in it for God’s sake. How many pretentious art house films have not one but three sequences with different dinosaurs? Not enough, that’s how many. Terrance Malick is trying to address that ratio, but he’s only one man. Eric Rohmer, check yourself.

                                        Still better than JURASSIC PARK 3.

So I was excited about that. What I was less jazzed about is the family drama at the center of this thing. You know me, man, I’m always up to watch some trippy experimental jazz with stock footage of volcanoes and some gyrating light patterns, but you’re gonna have a tough time getting me in the theater with the promise of a tightly woven family drama about the complicated feelings between a boy and his father and zzzzzzzzzz. I was worried this was gonna be a bait and switch, where Malick lures me in with the promise of mid-grade CG dinosaurs but then spends most of the time droning on about people’s feelings.

Well, as the movie roles, I was relieved to see my initial fears were unfounded. There’s a little context-free nonlinear family stuff, and then it’s straight back to the beginning of time for you. You get to see God, (he’s actually a little unimpressive, looking like a meeker version of the screensaver drug trip from ENTER THE VOID) the creation of the universe, the formation of the planet, a plesiosaur (actually scientists now doubt that their necks would have been sufficiently muscled to hold their head up like this out of water, so that must be a metaphor or something) and I think some weird fish or something. No giant sloths, though, that apparently wasn’t important for the story.

So it’s all fun and trippy, and then we get to Sean Penn as an old version of Jack, the boy played as a youth by the awesomely named Hunter McCracken in the film’s primary narrative. Old Jack is a fancy pants architect, which gives Malick cause to luxuriate in the abstract grandeur or some big spacious modern buildings. Say what you will about Malick, (to yourself. In the meantime, listen to what I say about him) you can’t deny his ability to find amazing shots on everyday things, here turning the glass ceiling of a building into a stunning abstraction which probably symbolizes something like God or Death or Memory or something like that. Then we get Old Jack looking sadly out a window and flashing back on his childhood where his dad is Brad Pitt and his mom is Jessica Chastain.

This is the part I was worried about; I wasn’t sure how the mundanity of a childhood in Waco Texas in the 50s was really going to live up to all the big picture stuff. But a funny thing happens here. The longer you watch the family, the clearer it becomes that this is heart of the film, the classic work of genius. This is literally, with no hyperbole, the best depiction of youth I’ve ever seen put to film. McCracken is beyond fantastic as a normal kid entering the choppy waters of adolescence while his dad starts to gradually fall apart, taking the family with him. It’s a genuinely stunning document of a child’s focus, wisely depicting the child’s here-and-now reality where a caught frog has as much wondrous significance as a burning house but also noticing the budding sense of larger forces afoot as young Jack begins to question his dad and see the cracks in his larger-than-life authority.  

It’s not just a depiction of youth, though; it’s a depiction of memory. It’s entirely possible this is a highly subjective depiction of events, but it has a staggering emotional resonance and emotional truth to it. No film I’ve ever seen better captures the shards of intense memory which linger in our mind – a chance encounter with an old face, a stolen glimpse of a guy getting arrested, the image of a sunbeam playing over a mother’s hands. This isn’t metaphor or symbolism or a way to ask The Big Questions – it’s important because it informs our memory, our sense of self. Yes, we remember the big events, but the fragments of the everyday end up weighing just as heavily on our memory and our perception of who we are and where we’ve come from. Images, smells, words – tiny but potent icons which represent a past which is mostly elusive.

Pitt is excellent as the complex father, a sensitive and sometimes warm man who is gradually being crushed by his inability to meet the standards he thinks society is setting for him and slowly turning into a bitter bully. He wonderfully conveys the father’s deepening frustration and isolation but lets us see the good person he could have been, too, which makes his escalating brutality all the more frightening and painful. His disintegration turns the family abode into a bunker under siege from within, a chaotic nightmare of uncertain tension which might erupt at any point. Chastain brings a sense of gentle serenity to the mother, but her character is oddly underdeveloped considering the richness of her husband’s characterization. Old Jack seems to remember her as a saintly Madonna, offering perpetual comfort and forgiveness even as she is powerless to meaningfully stand up to her husband. We never see her get mad, or snap at a kid, or find herself tempted to be unfaithful, or do anything other than be selfless and stable. This might be interpreted as merely a son’s idealized memory of his mother, but it’s so markedly shallower and less interesting than Jack’s memories of his father that it stands out as disappointing and maybe even a tad stereotypical.

Even so, Malick’s camerawork (mostly hand-held in this section) marvelously captures the atmosphere and the deep, mysterious magic of childhood experience. McCracken feels so real and so vital, and his relationship with his father is so fraught with an almost painfully believable tension, that the whole thing feels as deeply moving and honest as anything I’ve ever watched. Even when Malick starts to get arty again and puts in needless shots of mom wandering through misty woods with cornball whispered voiceovers like “Father! Mother!—forever you wrestle inside me,” the whole thing simply feels too grounded to really derail.

Unfortunately, Malick doesn’t know when to stop. He had me sitting transfixed, through one of the most moving and sensitive portrayals of childhood and family dynamics ever created, and with only the barest wisp of narrative. It’s so good my filmgoing companion actually found it very hard to watch – too painfully honest, too close to the real thing. Too close to a lot of the real heartbreaks and cruelties which lurk below the surface in, I suspect, most of our memories. Malick sold me a ticket based on dinosaurs and managed to seduce me into loving –loving-- a nonlinear, free-floating family drama. But that wasn’t enough for him; it didn’t seem big enough, important enough to address all those Big Questions about God the Universe and Whatnot. So rather than ending it on a note of profound honesty and quiet, unassuming power… he had to do his version of the 2001 A SPACE ODYESSEY ending.

So suddenly we’re back with Sean Penn, and he has to cross through this wooden doorway on the beach and go up in a big glass elevator into memory or heaven and confront his parents and brothers and they walk barefoot on the beach and we go back to the universal scale and see God again. And you know what, after watching something as rich and legitimate as the family drama which anchors the film, it all seems very trite and needless. Somehow those Big Questions about man’s place in the universe and God’s right to rule us seem kind of pompous and silly compared to a kid watching his family fall apart. Without meaning to, I think Malick reminds us that for all our high-minded philosophy, our deepest experiences come from life itself, not from shouting questions into the cosmos and waiting for an answer. True, those questions are not entirely distinct from our daily lives either, but they may actually be better answered through the surprising gentleness of a father’s hand on his son’s shoulder than through walking barefoot on a metaphysical beach.

 No no, it's a metaphor! He's not really walking in the desert! It means something else so that means its automatically deep. If you don't think so it's because you don't "get" it.

I don’t fault Malick’s ambition, nor do I begrudge him his more esoteric examinations of the universe. He opens with a quotation from the book of Job, as God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" In the movie’s context, that becomes a question about Man’s place in the universe, and God’s place in the life of man. But maybe Malick ought to look a little closer at the original context of that quote. It’s what God says to Job after wrecking his life in a completely arbitrary and cruel fashion. Finally, after never losing faith while everything he loved was taken from him, Job’s composure cracks and he asks God what the fuck his deal is, and God answers with that line. It’s not a metaphysical question; it’s a rather stinging rebuke to anyone who might question God’s intent. It’s advice to not ask questions which you couldn’t possibly understand the answers to. If that’s the case, what’s left to us?

Maybe to find our meaning a little closer to home. To find those little shards of portent memory, and to build a lifetime with them. To live deeply in this haunted, strange, painful but beautiful world. Malick may be more interested in questioning it, but his camera and his actors remind us just how potent it is to live it.