Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Dir. Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, and also oh yeah I almost forgot Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and one other familiar face which will make you smile and is not Owen Wilson.

So what we got us here is the new one from Wes Anderson, that scion of emotionally stunted hyper-intellectual wealthy white people and their precocious kids. Anderson is a  frustrating figure for me, because despite his obviously enormous talent for cinematic language (everything from camera framing to narrative construction to music), he often cripples the experience with his obsessive desire to shoehorn in his particular fetishes for children’s plays, bathrobes, tents, pajamas, board games, irritating people, etc. Not that I fault the guy for having a recognizable --even iconic-- style; my problem is that once you get past the quirky trappings and arch performances, you often find that there’s not really much else there. Anderson is so busy swaddling his characters in quirks and quips that he forgets to fill in the inside. Consequently, watching his films can be a somewhat hollow experience.

    On the other hand, I have to admit that I like about as many of his films as I dislike. BOTTLE ROCKET still feels like a typical 90’s indie crime film, but it works on that level. When RUSHMORE came out, though, it blew me away. I thought Schwartzman’s character was brilliant and that Anderson got something really unique out of Bill Murray (at the time, his last three films had been THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, SPACE JAM, and WILD THINGS). It was a unique and gorgeous film for its time, and seemed to herald a genuinely new voice. ROYAL TENENBAUMS was the first time I thought Anderson was getting a little cloyingly precious, but at least it does stay consistently entertaining (mostly due to Gene Hackman’s hilarious performance). LIFE AQUATIC was the first film where it seemed like people were turning sour on Anderson’s predictable bag of tricks, but actually it ended up being my favorite of his films due to its uniquely tight focus on one character (Murray’s Steve Zissou) and its lightly surreal touches. I thought I might be finally getting this Wes Anderson thing. But then came DARJEELING LIMITED and FANTASTIC MR. FOX, two films which I absolutely loathed. Not since M. Night Shyamalan went off the deep end has another artist I somewhat respect made such smarmy, self-satisfied pap and acted as if he was saying something deep. So, needless to say, I approached MOONRISE KINGDOM with extreme trepidation. The posters and ads didn’t exactly help. With its story-book font, precocious children, long list of big celebrity names, and self-consciously cutesy title, this one looked like it had every possibility of being sandpaper to my brain.

It's shit like this, Anderson.

But, I’m relieved to tell you it’s not all that bad. At least, it’s nowhere near as unbearable as DARJEELING or FOX, and probably better than BOTTLE ROCKET and even TENENBAUMS. It’s not that Anderson’s usual weaknesses are not in effect; they are. But by centering the thing on children, he adds a slightly different dimension that makes it work -to my mind- a little better. 

See, Anderson’s adults have always been children. That’s the entire thrust of literally all his films. They’re all emotionally stunted, petty, directionless arrested development cases who don’t understand themselves and don’t seem to be able to synch up their fantasies with the real world. All well and good, but 5 live-action films in its become rather painfully apparent that his characters, like his cinematography, are composed mostly of broad, primary colors. The subtlety is all superficial; their issues are one-dimensional and their reactions are cartoonishly broad. There’s not a lot of psychological richness there, just a quirky portrayal of basic childish petulance and hurt feelings. Honestly, it had been wearing a little thin, and the uniqueness the characters had as his style cemented with RUSHMORE wore off considerably as they appeared again and again to go through the same motions.

The genius of MOONRISE KINGDOM -intentional or not- is that even though the lead characters are exactly like that, they’re not childish adults but actual children. So it makes sense that they’re petulant, chaotic, uncertain, and pumped up with deeply felt but broadly defined emotion. In fact, rather than seeming buffoonish caricatures, they actually feel much more real than your typical Anderson protagonists. The adults in his movies (this one included) have failed to figure themselves out, and are caught in a constant doldrums of old injuries and stagnant intellectualism. But the kids are going through all this stuff for the first time, and they’re actually learning and growing. In fact, our heroes Sam and Suzy are probably the most proactive protagonists in Anderson’s entire live-action canon.* That makes them much more tolerable to spend time with, and also more emotionally resonant since we get to take in the richness of childhood experience through an actual child this time, rather than ironically through a bored, unfulfilled adult.

Forget all those big names on the posters, this movie belongs entirely to Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a couple of pre-teen misfits who run away from their respective depressing lives on an East Coast island in 1965 to hike around the woods together. They don’t even get their names on the trailer, but they act circles around the adults here, giving guileless, complex performances which never seem trite or cutesy, even when Anderson’s writing threatens to drift in that direction. Remember those matching sweatsuit-garbed accessories to Ben Stiller’s character in TENENBAUMS? These are not those kids. These are actual characters, not props (there are a bunch of kids who do act as cutesy, lifeless props, but mercifully they stay mostly out of the limelight). Instead, Anderson gives a surprisingly earnest, unflinching look into the pain and wonder of early adolescence. These are kids struggling with a world of adult problems -- Sam is an orphan with anger issues, and Suzy is striking back against the loveless, regimented world of her lawyer-stereotype parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray)-- but Anderson wisely (maybe even perceptively) lets their pain simmer in the background and focuses more on their moment-by-moment experience of this strange, complex, and beautiful world.

Believe it or not, these two will fucking win your heart.

Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE last year gave about the best portrayal of a young man’s subjective experience of the world that I had ever seen, and compared to that Anderson still seems like frothy kitch. But I think he does capture something real in his rich evocation of the the stunning natural beauty that the kids make their new home. His photography is by turns his most realistic (shooting on location, handheld, with natural light) and his most poetic (turning the natural world into a redolent feast for the imagination) but always reflective of his keen eye for using atmosphere to conjure time and place. Real childhood is often much more mundane, much less intense, much less adorable, but you can’t deny Anderson’s ability to evoke, here, the most magical moments of being a young explorer in a endlessly fascinating world. At least through the lense of nostalgia, it feel emotionally true.

The adults, sadly, don’t work nearly as well. Despite the big names, they’re mostly playing thinly written caricatures who, truth be told, seem kind of unnaturally forced into a film which truly belongs to the kids. Although Sam and Suzy are the only children who really get much development, the other kids at least seem like complete constructions of fantasy children. The adults, on the other hand, are simply ill-defined and --much more damningly-- not particularly entertaining. Anderson’s working with a remarkable fantasy cast here, but mostly uses them as props and plot devices, which would be fine except that there’s tons of them and the film keeps coming back to them as if their drama is important or meaningful. Anderson is wise to contrast the youngsters’ chaotic momentum with the adults’ resigned stagnation, but they’re so sparsely sketched that treating them as central characters seems more like paying heed to his talented cast than to the requires of the story. Bruce Willis’ police officer character is a lonely man, and so he lives on a boat, because he’s isolated, that’s why his house is a boat, because it’s a metaphor. That’s the level of development we’re talking about here. And yet, for some reason he shows up in the climactic moment of the film and for no reason makes a major decision which saves the day. To say that this redemption is unearned is beside the point -- it simply unwarranted. It’s like if Chewbacca showed up at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI and dueled Darth Vader while Luke sat around and watched. It’s a resolution to a narrative arc which simply is not anywhere else in the film.

Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, and Frances McDormand's eyes, and yet it's the thing that they're all looking at that's actually interesting. Who'd have thunk it possible?

Not that any of the cast is bad, obviously. Jesus Christ, it’s Willis, McDormand, Murray, Norton, etc, etc. I’m not sure they could be bad, even as an act of patriotic defiance against the tyranny of cutesy indie filmmaking darlings. It’s just that they’re given almost nothing relevant to do. Including, it must be said, be very funny. Most everyone is actually dialing it back here, and giving fairly restrained performances. Which again, would be fine except that it means they’re stuck with little to do except stand around and not be very entertaining. You can't save underwritten with underplayed, so the ones who succeed best are the ones who go for Anderson’s usual broad, quirky misfit template. Norton reprises his slightly-naive-nice-guy schtick from DEATH TO SMOOCHY with excellent success, even though he’s playing the most useless adult of all (Sam’s “Khaki Scout” troupe leader, who first discovers Sam’s disappearance and subsequently stands around for the rest of the movie doing the exact same thing as Bruce Willis). Jason Schwartzman has a small but highly entertaining role as a seedy Khaki scout on the inside who is not above selling Khaki gear for $72 in nickels. Oh, and Bob Balaban (who you remember as the director of the hallucinogenic childhood cannibal classic PARENTS) does a nice job of wearing one of those red beanie hats that Anderson likes so much and talking to the camera**. But poor Murray, Willis, McDormand, etc, are stuck in limbo, going through the motions without much of interest to add. It might not be so noticeable if they weren't Willis, Murray, etc, etc. But they are, and they can't help but stick out a little as unnecessary for this kind of role. The movie might actually work better with a bunch of low-key character actors in there -- at the very least, it would seem less like Anderson is trying to cram a bunch of big name stars into a story which doesn't really have much room for them.

Still, the bits with the adults only feel so unnecessary in contrast with the remarkable vitality of the children’s journey. Anderson explores, with uncharacteristic boldness, their burgeoning independence, understanding, and even sexuality. Exploring children’s sense of themselves as sexual beings is a dangerous thing to do in this puritanical society, but Anderson walks the line with subtle grace, imbuing Sam and Suzy with an autonomy to articulate their as-yet-unfocused desires in a way which neither mocks them nor presents them as falsely mature. Which is the genius of his whole approach, really. There’s a genuine warmth to the way he presents them as alternately ridiculous and surprisingly prescient. The kids reward him with really fucking stunning acting. When fantasy bookworm Suzy confesses to Sam that she wishes she were an orphan (“Most of my heroes are,” she says) Sam delivers a nicely composed Anderson-y line (which I won’t spoil) -- but its his face that really says it, simultaneously conveying a great depth of pain and a child’s understanding of how to express that pain.  

The film’s climax deflates a little bit because it switches to the adults’ (less interesting) perspective at a critical moment, but it must be said that the genuine power of the kids’ performances and the genuine power of their experience is strong enough to let the film easily coast to victory as Anderson’s most gripping and dramatic. It doesn’t entirely lose that saccharine fairy-tale quality which smells vaguely like detached irony, but I have to hand it to the guy for building some real momentum and tension and then trusting that to hold our interest without a bunch of indie trappings. It doesn’t entirely work (mostly due to the fact that it foolishly places the crux of the drama in the hands of those boring grown-ups) but by now you’re invested in the young protagonists enough that you’re genuinely concerned for them. Anderson sets the big climax in a spartan East Coast church during a raging hurricane. When the power goes out and you can just make out the kids hiding in the rafters wearing animal costumes (long story) you’re reminded of what a classic Stephen King setup this is. For once, Anderson cowboys the fuck up and treats this as a serious dramatic situation with setpieces, lightning flashes, the whole deal. It nicely suits the more primal, intense emotional experience of Sam and Suzy, who find that for once everyone else is on the same wavelength of extreme human drama that they are.

Where does Anderson go from here? I’m not sure. Of all his films, this one feels the most like the work of someone trying to tell a story through character, instead of someone trying to build a film around a bunch of artificial quirks. His ability to use cinema to evoke a variety of emotional states demonstrates more clearly than ever what a consummately skilled technical artist he is, but even now he can stumble over his myopic focus on telling similar stories about the same kind of (generally grating) people. Still, there’s a resolute genuineness about his portrayal of these characters; even when they’re ridiculous, he cares about them and never discounts or disrespects their real hurt, desire, and wonder, nor does he back away from allowing the audience to emotionally connect with them. Caring about things is the best antidote to that detached indie-hipster lazy irony which permeates his worst films. If he can care this much about little Sam and Suzy, I think he may be ready to trust his audience to care about things which have a little more weight to them. I’m not sure if he’s imaginative enough to write them or not, but for the first time in a long while, I’m excited to see what Wes Anderson does next.   

PS: Anderson recently did one of those Rotton Tomatoes "5 favorite film" columns, and his picks are very interesting. More than anything, its interesting that he picks things which don't necessarily reflect the cutesy sensibilities of his own films. I'm sure he appreciates Kubrick's deliberate production and camera placement, but for Wes Anderson to pick A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as one of his favs seems almost shocking, given its tone and content. I hope this is indicative that his interests are more varied than people generally give him credit for, and that as his career goes on he'll attempt some things which have a bit of a different feel to them.

*I don’t quite count FANTASTIC MR. FOX because it is fundamentally based on another artist’s vision. Yes, it’s a insipid debasement of everything that makes Roald Dalh great, but as much as Anderson tries to turn the whole thing into an irritating quirkfest of armchair psychology, he can’t entirely weed out Dahl’s impish feistiness.   

**This is 1965, so given his propensity for talking to the camera I’m going to assume we’re meant to assume this character is the father of either Wayne or Garth, I’m not sure which one would work better. I’m thinking he got tired of that stupid hat, so he moved the family to Aurora Illinois and let the next generation take over narrating duties.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Vigilante aka Street Gang (1983)
Dir. William Lustig
Starring Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Joe Spinelli

It works as a movie advertisement and a Ronald Reagan campaign poster!

    VIGILANTE is a particularly mean, nasty sonofabitch of a film in the DEATH WISH mold, where an average guy has to take revenge upon the no good rotten punks who run rampant in this city. What makes it more interesting to us than your average DEATH WISH ripoff is that it was directed by reliable sleazeball and former porno director William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP 1-3*) and stars badass extraordinaire Fred Williamson and stoic hardass extraordinaire Robert Forster. So you pretty much know right away that even though this film isn’t gonna reinvent the genre of anything, it’ll pack a little more punch than your average vigilante joint.

    And pack a punch it does. Everything in the DEATH WISH playbook is punched up to an inflated version of its already ridiculous levels, from the violence to the chases to the sadism of the criminals to its sociological implications. The original DEATH WISH hoodlum gang included Jeff Goldblum, so in order to top that level of villainousness Lustig and co. have to create no-goodnicks that are literally a cornucopia of anxieties for middle class America in the 80s. They’re a gang of militant, interracial, co-ed, free-loving, anarchist druggie communist hippie psycho killers. So Charles Manson, Gloria Steinem, and the Black Panthers all put together, with a smattering of those violent street punks which exist in 80s action movies but nowhere else in history. I’m not sure if it’s established that they’re atheists, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Oh my God, Archie Bunker was right!
One day, Robert Forster’s wife comes across this gang harassing an elderly gas station attendant by dousing him in his own gas, and yells at them about it. For the crime of interfering with random street harassment, they follow her back to her house where they sadistically beat her and probably rape her (though the movie is uncharacteristically discreet on this last point). So far so good, but come on, you can’t really get too mad at them just for beating up a guy’s wife; after all, this is basically her fault for getting all judgy about an innocent plot to torch an old man at his place of business. Come on VIGILANTE, that’s all you got? Hell, his worrisomely adorable little blond son even got away and hid upstairs!

Only, he didn’t really hide all that well.

So one of the punks walks upstairs and sees the son’s head silhouetted behind the shower curtain where he’s hiding. So shit, now they’re gonna kidnap his son? Nope. The guy fucking shotguns the kid’s head right out the fucking window.

All right, you’ve got my attention.

But it gets even crueler, see? Because Robert Forster is a law-abiding, minding-his-own business type of guy, and even when approached by Fred Williamson to join his friendly neighborhood vengeance posse he politely declines and chooses to trust in our system of democratic law and justice. So the cops catch the leader of the gang, haul him into court, and... his sleazy lawyer (Joe Spinelli, giving Sean Penn in CARLITO’S WAY a run for his money) gets the judge to cut him a deal for time served. The guy assaulted a housewife and was complicit in blowing the head off an adorable blonde child, and he walks. Forster doesn’t take this news well, attacks the judge, and finds that now he is going to jail for assault while his son’s killer walks free. Obviously he’s almost gonna be raped in prison, and then when he gets out he finds that his wife is so traumatized she doesn’t want anything more to do with him. So, when life gives you lemons, you turn to Fred Williamson and enlist the help of his revenge posse to make, I guess, some revengeanade. Which is coincidentally exactly what happens here.     

If Harry Dean Stanton had told this guy to avenge his death, RED DAWN would have been like 20 minutes long.

    One thing I appreciate, though, is that unlike DEATH WISH’s Paul Kersey, our protagonist here is a blue-collar, working-class schlub, as are the other vigilantes. Yeah, the depiction of the punks panders pretty obscenely to Reagan-era fears of minorities and countercultures, but at least we’re not asked to side with some rich white guy who regains his manhood by blowing away a bunch of black teenagers in the ghetto. Forester’s character Eddie Marino works at an auto-repair shop, enjoys drinks at a blue-collar dive, doesn’t want anything to do with politics and just wants to be left alone. Where the DEATH WISH sequels explicitly plays into 1980’s right wing fears about sociological collapse, Marino isn’t interested in politics and just wants revenge against the particular guys who ruined his life. They don’t hide behind a facade of trying to make the world a safer place or anything. Fred Williamson and his group may have their own opinions about the ineffectiveness of the justice system, but even when his family gets torn apart Marino doesn’t care about their goals, he just wants their help.

    The movie is also surprisingly clear about just how ruined his life is. DEATH WISH and its ancillary movies are very much about a wimpy liberal regaining his manhood by becoming a gun-toting avenger of white people who get mugged by poor (“urban”) people. Yeah, Kersey’s family gets hurt, but its a catalyst for him becoming a righteous badass, and we’re ultimately glad he makes the transformation. VIGILANTE depicts Marino as a guy who died inside the moment he found out his son was killed, and is now just a rage-fueled walking corpse, existing only to revenge himself against the people who wronged him. It’s not very fun, and it’s clearly not a good direction for him to go, personally. Even the other vigilantes seem kinda freaked out by his grim, dead-eyed focus on vengeance.   

    So on one hand, it avoids the uncomfortable sadistic qualities of violent fantasies like DEATH WISH and KICK-ASS, but on the other hand it’s not very... you know, fun to watch. Lustig seems to be going for more of a 70s crime thriller vibe than a Fred Williamson exploitation vehicle, but the content sits a little uneasily with that milieu. The look of the film is respectably gritty, but there are just a few too many genre excesses to really work as realism. It’s ridiculous enough that it would never work as a bleak drama about a broken man turning to violence, but also problematically honest about the fact that revenge isn’t going to solve any of Marino’s problems. So even though he does get some revenge, it’s not exactly emotionally satisfying. The movie successfully gets our blood lust going, and then bums us out by giving us something closer to truth than fantasy, but still not close enough to truth to have anything really intelligent to say about life. That said, the vengeance is at least handled stylishly, with a few great chases (including a car chase obviously modeled on THE FRENCH CONNECTION) and some memorable setpieces. 

    Overall, it has the pleasing aroma of a genre film with a little extra effort and thought, but in this case the rewards are somewhat minor. In fact, the most memorable part of the film is the pre-credit introduction, a genuinely propulsive and well-edited sequence where Fred Williamson lays out his philosophy as an army of grim-faced concerned citizens makes prodigious use of a firing range. Williamson can always be counted on for a good badass turn, and even though he mostly stays out of the spotlight here, he probably best conveys the best that VIGILANTE has to offer with his pleasing blend of outsized machismo and real-world grit. Like the movie, he’s a straightforward, mean, and efficient sonofabitch. But he’s a lot more fun to watch.

*The guy made 9 total non-porno film, and four of those have the word “Maniac” in the title. Which in my opinion deserves some sort of special congressional medal of valor.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Raven

The Raven (2012)
Dir. James McTiegue
Starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, and apparently M. Emmet Walsh is in there somewhere too.

    I wish I could say THE RAVEN is a piece of shit. If it were, it might almost be interesting. As it is, it’s just a giant tease, a clever idea with some inspired elements which doesn’t even seem to care enough to be memorably awful. It just sits there, treading water, occasionally glancing at its watch until its 111 minutes are up and it can get off stage.

And that’s a damn shame, because you and I both know there’s a fucking awesome movie to be made out of this concept. Edgar Allan Poe --maybe the most romantically tortured of all the great masters of the English language-- is a character who has little been explored on the big screen, and due to the miserable details of his life and the brilliantly dark nature of his work all but screams for a story which plumbs the depths of his misery and reveals what goes on in the mind of a man who had endured so much and imagined so richly -- and so darkly. His work is both literal enough to cull concrete meaning from and ambiguous enough that we could imagine all kinds of likely scenarios as to what inspired him and what it meant, particularly given that biographical detail on Poe is notoriously sparse and clouded with misinformation, rumor, speculation, and legends. And you can add in the genuinely mysterious and colorful details of his death (found incoherent in the streets of Baltimore, wearing mysterious clothing and rambling about an unknown person named “Reynolds” before succumbing to an unexplained death) which generate a special layer of lugubrious nebulousness to a man who was already a darkly compelling riddle. His life alone is interesting enough to justify a whole trilogy of films, but if you’re gonna throw a serial killer mystery into it I’m not gonna complain. It might be gilding the lily, but you can’t deny that it could work -- It fits perfectly into Poe’s literary output, and could work as a nifty foil to externalize Poe’s own inner darkness. 

Seriously, how is a movie with a poster this badass not amazing?

But for reasons unknown, director James McTiegue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare chose to make a movie with Poe in it that is not actually about Poe, and is instead about a bunch of half-baked serial killer cliches vaguely based on some inconsequential details of Poe’s writing*. It lends credence to the idea that there’s really just one mad libs-style serial killer script floating around Hollywood, and from time to time people just pick it up and fill in the nouns and verbs. Honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that, PUMKINHEAD 2-style, some producer acquired the rights to make a movie about Poe and just had some jerk write his name into a pre-existing script so they could make it before the rights expired. Perfunctory doesn’t even begin to describe it; sleepwalking comes somewhat closer.

Literally nothing interesting in the premise is properly explored, and most isn’t even touched on. Instead, the name of the game is Edgar Allen Poe: action hero. Poe’s young, blonde, feisty, rich, articulate fiance gets kidnapped by one of those tiresome serial killer who want to play a cat and mouse game with our hero, and Edgar rides horses, fires guns, blows things up, knocks down walls, punches through doors, and chases suspects across shaky rafters to get her back. Shit, it might as well be a 19th-century adaptation of Donkey Kong. 

Stark Raven Mad.

 And the damndest shame of it is, there are some frustrating promising elements here. Cusack is an inspired choice for Poe, easily evoking his slightly doughy, childlike face and deeply tired eyes. He’s not so great with the half-assed olde-tyme dialogue, but he’s definitely working hard, courageously taking a few of Poe’s freakouts to epic mega-acting levels in a vain attempt to distract you into thinking you care.The production design is gorgeous, really impressively conjuring a believable and expansive world for the characters to inhabit. It’s immaculately lit, amiably scored, and features a decent cast. Brendan Gleeson seems glumly resigned to the fact that he has nothing at all to do in this story except be the one other recognizable cast member so you’ll suspect it was him, but hey, he’ll never be bad in his life. And Luke Evans, who has done an impressive 13 movies in the past 2 years without me noticing him in any of them, really stands out as Detective Exposition. Seriously, he’s at least as pointless and maybe more pointless than the rest of the characters in the cast, but he really puts his all into the role and consequently you perk up slightly whenever he comes around. Combine all that with a few nice lamp-lit scenes of corpses, a dusting of historical trivia, and a couple clever deaths and this one should have been impossible to bungle.

  And yet they do. They focus on all the wrong things, emphasize all the stupidest aspects of the script, and piss away all the obvious strengths they have working for them. It’s a mystery where the clues are meaningless and arbitrary. A police procedural without any credible detective work. A horror film without any scares. An action film without any action. And the only intriguing thing in the whole mess -- Poe himself -- barely factors in. Director McTeigue can’t seem to get it through his head that this is not a kinetic chase film -- it’s a moody, period horror piece. So every once in a while, out of the blue, there will be some ridiculous jarring stylistic flourish, like Poe suddenly dodging a gunshot in bullet time or the killer leaping off a building and slicing someone up with a knife like a ninja. Making these things self-consciously stylish doesn’t make them more exciting, it just serves to illustrate how painfully pedestrian they are, while at the same time immediately and catastrophically expunging any amount of atmosphere the film’s superb production design has torturously managed to work up. If the film has a spiritual parallel in shittiness, it’s got to be Tim Burton’s heartbreaking SLEEPY HOLLOW, another gorgeous production which seems for all the world to mistakenly believe that what we want from our eerie, nightmarish horror films is small-scale action scenes, explosions, and cheeky one-liners. At least RAVEN has the decency to be consistently dismal.

Wait guys, major brainstorm happening here. What if, instead of "Quoth the Raven: Nevermore," we change it to: "Quoth the Raven: Fuck you and Die!"

    Ultimately, what the film forgets is that Poe, for all his clever mystery plots, was about much more than set pieces. The poem version of the The Raven is one of the most truly horrifying works of art ever not because it’s gruesome or bloody or filled with monsters and sadistic killers -- but because it plumbs the depths of our imagination and respects that what we find there is infinitely more horrifying than a lot of CG blood. It’s about despair, loss, and the arbitrary cruelty of a world which would give you the capability to love so powerfully, only to twist those feelings into wrenching, neverending pain. It was Poe’s understanding of the abyss within mankind that made his works classic, not his clever murderous gimmicks.

That necessary fact is completely lost on the filmmakers here, who fail to understand something even as simple and cinematic as The Pit and The Pendulum. Yes, we see that setup recreated here, but here’s the problem: The pendulum drops about four inches every swing, so we see the guy screaming, see the thing cut into him, and in about 30 seconds of screen time he’s sliced in half in a admittedly somewhat satisfying display of CG gore.** The entire point of the story was the sadism of waiting, waiting, waiting as your death gets slowly, inexorably nearer. But McTiegue and company clamber in like excited teenagers about to get laid for the first time and predictably fail to see that the point is not to cut to the finale, but rather to savor the character of the experience. It’s the microwave-dinner approach to horror filmmaking: superficially similar to the real thing, and and lot quicker. It stands to reason that the film’s one truly chilling bit is Cusack giving a really excellent reading of the last verse of the titular poem. Even without the rest of the poem’s context, Poe’s words and Cusack’s desolate reading provoke and unsettle us more than some cheeseball murder plot ever could.  

Still the best Poe adaptation I know of.

*Just how inconsequential? The first clue the police find that the work is related to Poe is that a seemingly locked room actually has a spring release on a window. Which is a worthwhile detail in the original Murders in the Rue Morgue only because the culprit is actually an ape, capable of getting out the window onto the roof (spoiler: that’s not the case here, because that would actually be interesting). That’s it, that’s the only connection. Another tenuous link? One of the guys the killer murders is just a random sailor, killed in an unimaginative way, who happened to be sailing on a ship called the Fortunado (the name of the victim in A Cask of Amontillado). Seriously, that’s the only connection. You call those taunting clues? Put down the Cliff’s Notes and read a real book, you lazy philistine. What a pathetic excuse for a murderous psycho.

**By the way, the guy who gets sliced up is Rufus Griswold, who in real life published an unflattering and patently untrue biography of Poe in an effort to slander him after he died. His biography colored peoples’ perceptions of Poe for years afterwords, but unexpectedly in the end actually had the effect of helping cement Poe as a pop art fixture due to its sensational description of his (mostly fictional) debauchment. Now, Poe is revered as a literary genius and Griswold is mentioned only as body count in a third-rate serial killer flick. Now that’s a poetic twist worthy of Poe himself.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings

Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994)
Dir. Jeff Burr
Starring Andrew Robinson, Pumpkinhead, and Soleil Moon Frye of all fool people.

    Democracy is a flawed system of government. It can be schizophrenic, unresponsive, vulnerable to domination both by mob rule or by a small but powerful elite. Winston Churchill once said of Democracy, “...Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But it must be said, when the citizens rise up and make their needs heard, when they speak loudly and with one unified, undeniable voice, we are reminded that the power truly rests with the people. And by 1994, the people had spoken. It had been too long since they had seen their friend, Pumpkinhead. A massive grassroots organization sprang up, rallies were organized, petitions were circulated. 40 dedicated Pumpkinhead fans chained themselves to the lobby of the Motion Picture Organization of America. Then-president Bill Clinton found himself deluged through the mail with hundreds of pumpkins with his face carved on them along with vaguely threatening messages about what the result might be if Pumpkinhead was allowed to stay dead. America couldn't leave dead enough alone.

Finally, in early October 1994, President Clinton gathered his top aides and called a press conference in the Rose Garden. Surrounded by world leaders and cultural luminaries, with tears streaming down his face, Clinton addressed the nation with the news that our prayers had been answered, there would be a Pumpkinhead sequel. The Star Spangled Banner was played. Battle-hardened Generals wept like children, unashamed. Plans were quickly drawn up to carve Lance Henriksen’s face into the ancient rock of Mount Rushmore. Americans, as one, rushed into the streets and culminated the news with a night of celebration unequaled in this country’s --and perhaps the world’s -- long history. At dawn, they finally collapsed into bed (many, nay, most of them now pregnant after a wild night of frantic, hip-bruising orgiastic sex) secure in the knowledge that he would be back. The world seemed new again. As they drifted off into contented slumber, the last thing that passed through their minds was a date. October 19th. P-day. The next morning would see the run rise high in the sky, proud and fierce, over the dawning of a new golden age.

Or possibly some schmuck just bought the rights to the monster and had to make a movie out of it within 3 months before they expired. Which is actually I think slightly closer to what happened.

So OK, this was kind of a mercenary job. But I was still sort of excited to see it, and all because of one man: Jeff Burr. Sure, he spent most of his career directing terrible and deeply unnecessary sequels, including but not limited to STEPFATHER II, LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, PUPPETMASTER 4 and 5, THE WEREWOLF REBORN! and, I can’t believe I’m writing this, a horror film called THE TELLING which stars the ladies from the perversely popular dear-god-this-really-is-the-end-of-Western-civilization E! original series The Girls Next Door.

But, he also made one film which really surprised both me and Vincent Price with its high quality, the anthology film FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. It was his first film, and it boasted a bunch of really top-notch performances, complemented by a rich Southern Gothic atmosphere and some imaginatively disturbing horror concepts. So honestly, it seemed like PUMPKINHEAD might be a good fit for the guy, with it’s timeless, folksy backwoods folklore and evocative Appalachian background. I liked all that stuff about the Stan Winston original, and thought a director who had a gift for exactly that kind of thing and less fixation on big rubbery special effects had a chance to make a really great sequel.

Pumpkinhead spends a surprising amount of his time walking through doorways.

Turns out, though, that this one is exactly as shitty as you might expect, and, predictably, for the exact reasons you’d probably expect. As Burr describes in this detailed and career-spanning interview, producer Brad Krevoy (producer of such varied material as DUMB AND DUMBER, PUMPKINHEAD 4, and ULEE’S GOLD) had randomly ended up with the keys to the Pumpkinhead kingdom, and needed to put them to use before they expired. Burr was brought on at the last minute to adapt a regular non-pumpkin-related horror script into a Pumpkinhead film, and the results is, in his own estimation, his worst film.

The opening sequence is actually pretty good. A bunch of 50’s greaseball preppies drive out into the woods and torture this deformed kid to death. John Gatkins (who you remember in the role of “Dishwasher” from FRED 2: NIGHT OF THE LIVING FRED) does a great job as the preppies’ leader, vicious and a little unhinged but obviously in control. But it doesn’t take long to see that this Pumpkin is rotten. Because it’s not long before we move to the present day and quickly come upon the PUMPKINHEAD series’ achilles heel: annoying college kids.

OK, so these college kids are actually high school kids even though they’re obviously pushing 30, but whatever, it’s a podunk redneck town (though not the same podunk redneck town as the first one -- this one is less Hill People and more Rednecks). The town just got a new Sheriff (Andrew Robinson, who at least looks awake if not exactly making a huge effort) and his infuriating daughter has already fallen in with a bad crowd of teenagers which is for some reason composed of 30-something LA sitcom actors who look more like guest stars from Saved By the Bell than rebellious redneck hoodlums. An odd artistic choice, I know, but maybe it’s a metaphor or something. One of them, incidentally, is Punky Brewster, and for some reason she’s a proud and outspoken Wiccan which one would think would go over poorly in this insular backwoods community. But then again most people in town seem to be well-to-do, highly educated multiethnic LA actors, so I guess that’s probably my own prejudice coming through. Sure, these guys are all for slicing up deformed forest children, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cool with neighbors of all colors and creeds.

But, they should have been focusing more on their deformed-kid-killing problem first, as it turns out. Because just as killing an innocent black artist/heir to shoe fortune gets you a Candyman, so too does killing an innocent deformed forest child get you a Pumpkinhead. And again, a Pumpkinhead is hardly something to celebrate. I’m pretty sure it’s the same suite as before, and looks just as uninspired. But even though he looks the same, there’s a twist here -- its not the same Pumpkinhead! A more accurate title for this movie might be SON OF PUMPKINHEAD, because it turns out the deformed kid was actually the illegitimate spawn of the original Pumpkinhead and a random anonymous mortal woman (I’m thinking a lot of moonshine was involved that night). Through a convoluted process which involves the teens mistakenly burning the old witch’s house down and then for absolutely no reason digging up an unmarked grave, pouring magic blood on it, and reading random spells over it, the deformed forest kid comes back to life and turns into Pumpkinhead and heads out to get some god damn revenge on A) the preppies who killed him in the first place and B) the high school hoodlums who burned down the old Lady’s house and brought him back to life.

So it does have one advantage over the original, which is that we very much want to see these particular groups killed off. But in doing so it loses the central tragedy which made the original almost work, which is that to get Pumpkinhead to do your dirty work you have to give up your soul. This Pumpkinhead is working for himself, so there’s no moral ambiguity here. And while I’m always game to watch a big rubber monster eat a bunch of rednecks and/or 30 year old highschoolers, I just can’t get too into this Pumpkinhead fellah. He looks silly*, he moves slow, and he doesn’t really kill all that good. He doesn’t have a signature weapon or anything and he’s just a big slow-moving puppet, so all he can really do is burst through doors while rave lights flash around him and then awkwardly whack the individual in question with those big goofy hands of his. Who has nightmares about getting slapped to death by a demon? Pretty middle-of-the-road monstering, in my opinion. Even Mansquito knows to throw in a few gimmicks here and there!

           Now with Karate Chop action! Dude looks like fucking Guyver:


So Pumpkinhead is kinda a wash, and his backstory is now both more convoluted and less interesting. But of course the real loss here is the lack of Lance Henriksen. Horror staple Andrew Robinson (HELLRAISER, Scorpio from DIRTY HARRY) is a perfectly fine actor, but he mostly seems to serve as exposition and barely gets personally involved. I guess we're supposed to care about his daughter (generic blonde Ami Dolenz), but the first thing we see her do is lie to her father, followed by burning an old woman to death and covering it up, so I hope you'll forgive me for kinda siding with the Pumpkin Man on this one. So Robinson's a cold fish, his daughter and her friends are actively irritating, and without the strong central presence Henriksen brought to the original, the whole thing feels manufactured, plastic, and disposable. Robinson is supposed to be a big-city cop who has returned to his hometown for some peace of mind, but the town itself is vaguely described and never seems legitimately isolated or backwards. Everyone is clean and well-groomed, wearing the latest (1994) fashions, and even Bill Clinton’s brother Roger is the town’s jheri-curl mulleted mayor (seriously). There seem to be a couple of farmers living on the edges of town, but it never for a second conjures that time-stands-still vibe that the original PUMPKINHEAD actually got pretty right. It’s a shame, because as a director Burr is definitely capable of better than this. To his credit, he throws in a couple of pretty shots here and there, but mostly the whole thing looks like it was shot in a few weeks (it was) and scripted, as Burr says, by people with “no real affection or affinity for the genre. It was really quite frankly not a good script, but it had to be shot by a certain date to retain the rights. Again, all the wrong reasons to make a movie.”

Reading the interview, it gets a little depressing to see how this poor guy, so full of good ideas, could never really get a break. Stranded in B-movie horror land, it usually seems like he was the only person actually interested in making a real movie. But that’s still no excuse for a sub-par PUMPKINHEAD sequel, so as penance he followed it up with arguably the best Scarecrow film ever, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. That one gets right most of the things PUMKI2HEAD gets wrong, with significantly improved atmosphere, a nice legitimately rural feel, and an emphasis on genuine scares rather than monster effects. I still believe there’s a germ of genuinely good idea in this whole Pumpkinhead** thing, but to realize its full potential for the next sequel it’s gonna take people with both the steely artistic dedication and the resources to do something truly right.

Next week: Enter the SyFy channel.  


Lance Henriksen:                                       NO
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:             WORST EVER
Satisfying Kills:                                           ONE
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect 
They Could Get For This:                           ANDREW ROBINSON
Pumpkinhead Smacks People 
With His Big Stupid Hands:                        CONSTANTLY
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:               BARELY
At All Watchable:                                        NOPE

*Actually I just realized he looks like that stupid Alien Hybrid at the end of ALIEN: RESURRECTION, so perhaps I was predisposed to be unimpressed and mildly irritated at the poor guy. Compare: 

**This marks the 24th occurrence of the word "Pumpkinhead" in this review.