Friday, July 20, 2012

The People Vs. George Lucas

The People Vs. George Lucas (2010)
Dir. Alexandre O. Philippe
Starring George Lucas, Nerds upon nerds, the guy who did that shot-for-shot remake of INDIANA JONES, Neil fucking Gaiman whaaaat? A couple of guys who worked on “South Park” for some reason, Gary Kurtz, and did I mention nerds?

    Yes, it’s come to this. A documentary entirely devoted to the subject of 30-to-40-year old men (almost exclusively men) talking exclusively about their personal reaction to George Lucas’s artistic output of the past 15 years or so. You might as well call it INTERNET: THE MOVIE. But believe it or not, it somehow avoids the obvious trap of becoming the world’s most visually documented bitch-fest, and approaches a subject which is always lingering on the outskirts of this topic like a Star Wars fan at a frat party: the relationship between the artist, the art, and the people who consume that art. I know, right? Fucking Lucas.

    OK, I can’t lie. Nearly everyone interviewed in this documentary is a fanboy, and as such it’s impossible to get around a certain amount of bitching and/or nauseating nostalgia. But in this case, it’s actually in service of an interesting point: STAR WARS, for whatever reason, got to people in a way basically no other movie ever has. It got to them in such a way that they internalized it, made it part of their identity, made it part of their artistic lives and creative drives. Nobody seems to know quite why. But it got to them, and it became part of them, in ways which range from the subtle to the obsessive. And one thing they have in common is their fixation goes beyond watching the six STAR WARS films -- they’re driven to create their own films, their own art, their own costumes, their own weird rituals. They don’t merely consume; they actively interact with the films and the Star Wars mythology that has built up around them.

    But here’s the thing: George Lucas doesn’t necessarily like that. For whatever reason, he’s very clear that it’s his universe, his decisions. He has the final say in what is or is not canon. Having been burnt by studio interference in making THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI, he became as fixated as his fans are on making sure he had complete creative control, that he was the lone artistic voice which would define his saga. STAR WARS, as he sees it, is his baby, his burden. He’s got to be true to his own artistic voice and make it his way.

    And I think we can all pretty well agree that he fucked it up.

Oh, the Jedi are gonna feel this one.

    Nah, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m just getting sucked into the mindset of these ninnies in the film. I actually like the prequels. But still, it should be evident to even the most casual observer that the prequels have some major, fundamental problems. As great as many parts are, there are other parts which would be embarrassing in a Sy-Fy channel original movie. The scene in EPISODE I where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about Midicholorians may well be the single worst constructed scene I’ve ever seen in a motion picture, on literally every imaginable artistic level. It’s a spectacular, catastrophic, gut-churning nightmarish failure of writing, acting, directing, set design, photography, editing, music, and probably catering and craft services too. I mean to say, it’s bad, the nerds are not wrong.

    But you know, I think the actual quality of the film itself isn’t the problem. If Lucas had just churned out his version of JOHN CARTER, I think most normal people would agree that it was a perfectly fine movie. But I bet most of these nerds would still be mad.

    THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS postulates that the real problem is that Lucas is a modern artist in an increasingly postmodern world. He imagines himself as a filmmaker making pieces of art for people (kids, he says, not entirely convincingly) to watch and enjoy. But these fans don’t see it that way. They see themselves as part of a perpetual exchange between the creator of a world and the people who want to play in it, reshape it, make themselves as much a part of it as it is part of them. That Lucas seems to reject this exchange between creator and viewer is taken as a very personal, galling slight. Lucas simply thinks he’s an artist, and it’s not only his prerogative but his artistic duty to be guided by his own unique vision. But the fans see it as more of a communal sandbox, something owned by everyone who loves it, which should by all right have room for them all create and shape as they see fit. That they’re being ignored and in some ways undermined by the creator of all this is a deeply personal attack coming from something they strongly associate with some deep, primal emotions. And it makes some of them fucking crazy.

    Now it’s easy to sit here and make fun of these bearded middle aged men, some of them sporting grey-flecked hair, sitting in front of shelves full of STAR WARS toys and seriously discussing the question of whether or not George Lucas raped their childhoods. For example, I’m doing it right now. But the film legitimately poses the question of how much any one artist can really be in complete control, in an artistic world which is now firmly rooted in a constant exchange between the parties that create the art and those that experience it. In fact, it suggests, the distinction between creator and viewer is itself beginning to blur.  How else do we account for the literally hundreds of pieces of fan art depicted in the movie, ranging from crude reenactments to elaborate animated sequences to a cornucopia of other media. Whatever it is that motivates them to create, they all seem to agree that Lucas has deliberately minimized their ownership in something they thought they all shared. As much as they try to contribute to the phenomena which has so profoundly impacted their lives, Lucas just seems to simply grip the reigns tighter, occasionally seeming to be deliberately adversarial with his own fans. The irony of a Hollywood outsider making a film about defeating a tyrannical dictator and then becoming one himself is most assuredly not lost on these folks, and --it must be said-- not lost on Lucas either, who so often has seemed deeply uncomfortable with his transformation from nerdy auteur to CEO of a multimedia empire.  

If LOVE EXPOSURE is any indication, this guy is probably the most well-adjusted person on this Japanese subway.

    The documentary might be stronger if it probed a little deeper into who these fans are and how they ended up this way. I mean, I love STAR WARS myself. It connected with me from my earliest childhood; I had the toys, I watched the Prequels at midnight, just like these guys. But somehow I never ended up feeling like Lucas was sadistically trying to take away things which were important to me. Did these guys just internalize it more than I did, or what? Why this particular demographic? Will fans of the future be just as invested, or is it something that could only happen to a generation of young boys in 1977? In fact, there’s a telling bit near the end where they interview young STAR WARS fans who don’t differentiate between the prequels and original trilogy, like Jar-Jar Binks, and seem to completely be vibing on Lucas’ much-derided vision, to the visible chagrin of the old guard. What does this mean about them?

The movie isn’t interested in probing that topic*, and it’s kind of a shame because after awhile their criticism starts to seem a little superficial without the kind of context you’d need to understand where they’re coming from emotionally, and why this is such an incredibly charged issue for them. Still, its commentary on the social phenomenon of STAR WARS fandom and its implications to the ever-evolving messy world of postmodern artistic exchange is worth suffering through a little fanboy babble. And --crucially-- the whole film is brisk, energetic, and sometimes howlingly funny, giving these doofuses room to occasionally laugh at themselves while still taking the issue seriously. In other words director Phillipe has pulled off something close to miraculous: making fanboy culture not only interesting, but entertaining. That’s tantamount to alchemy, probably achieved with some form of witchcraft, and ought be worth a couple of dozen Nobel Prizes if there’s any justice in the world. Which obviously there’s not. Fucking Lucas.

*Although it does go on a few interesting tangents to Europe, South America, and Asia to find other fans who are no less obsessed, but who articulate their obsession through different sets of cultural artifacts.

The Dark Knight Rises

First blush: Probably the most consistent of the series, solving the fractured plot issues of the first two films. Beautifully constructed and acted, thoroughly engrossing. But issues of muddled subtext persist, which remains a problem for films that take themselves so seriously. Not a triumph or a disaster, but a gripping experience with many individual sections of greatness but also some undeniable flaws, mostly having to do with the underlying silliness of the whole conceit. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Thor (2011)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
Written Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stenz, Don Payne
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson

I don’t know if this one really deserves a full 3,000 word review like SAVAGES got, but I gotta say it impressed me enough that I thought it was worth telling the world. Directed by Shakespearean actor and one-time Hogwarts Defense-Against-The-Dark-Arts instructor Kenneth Branagh, this one continues the current run of Marvel adaptations which seem to have finally found their footing somewhere between the glowering grimness of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN films and the Saturday-morning cartoon frothiness of the FANTASTIC FOUR. For that, you gotta give some credit to Jon Favreau, who with his flawed but great IRON MAN movie managed to rediscover the art of entertaining through drama and character instead of spectacle.

And of course, once you realize how well that works you can’t believe you never noticed it before. Comic books are actually not at all the action-packed spectacle machines that movie producers first took them for. They’re mostly soap operas with more outlandish characters inhabiting an ever-widening, ever more densely layered universe of absurdity. Their charm is in the characters themselves, and the appealing good nature they bring to story arcs that are absurd on their face. Tone, it turns out, is key to capturing that amiable earnestness that makes comic books the prevailing mythology of our time. And THOR continues the trend of finding the right tone to make that mythology appealing and engrossing.
    Which is particularly necessary in this case, because of course Thor is more than just a part of the vast Marvel Comics mythology, he’s actually a character from a real mythology. Having  --in my younger wilder days-- studied Norse mythology at some length, its fun to see it run through the prism of a comic adaptation, a movie adaptation of that adaptation, and then a movie production of that adaptation, and still come out more or less intact. THOR fiddles with the details here and there, but honestly it probably keeps more of the original tale and characters intact than, say, BEOWULF did a few years back. It’s completely ludicrous, of course, but there’s a pleasing flavor of ludicrous that comes from the hundreds of years that these stories were honed into their most efficient mythological forms.* The fundamental relationship between Odin, Thor, and Loki, and their relationship with the other realms of their mythology, works on a level beyond anything a Hollywood script writer** could really dream up -- it works on a mythological level. People believed this shit, it was their religion. And it strikes an emotional chord because it’s laboriously built out of story elements which instantly get a psychological reaction out of you. Ask Joseph Campbell about it. Or George Lucas prior to 1999. 

And it was the best white rap video ever

    Anyway, Branagh gives the mythology a big budget Hollywood treatment, but keeps the mystical silliness in there without any cheap postmodern pot-shots. In Valhalla, everyone treats their problems with frost giants as though they’re in King Lear. Which makes it all the more fun when Thor ends up stuck in Midgard (that’s the human realm, kids) and somewhat out of touch with the locals. So it goes from its big CG fantasy battles at the start to being a 150 million dollar fish-out-of-water comedy, as Thor befuddles the likes of Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and agent Coulson.

    Again, it’s silly, but it works because Branagh gets the change of tone right and keeps his actors working perfectly with the material. Whoever this kid Chris Hemsworth is, he’s beyond perfect for the role -- not only is he physically imposing, but he perfectly transitions Thor’s broad, epic personality traits between the worlds in a way which feels complete, consistent, and entertaining. The worlds of the film, like in mythology, are very different places where the rules and tone change dramatically. But Hemsworth, like Thor himself, connects them beautifully. He’s a god for the people.

    Nothing particularly dramatic ends up happening, and the stakes stay pretty small throughout. But that doesn’t stop Branagh from making each sequence as entertaining as possible. When it’s dramatic, it’s gonna be high drama. When it’s comedy, it’s gonna be broad comedy. When it’s action, it’s gonna be ridiculous spectacle (except the hand-to-hand fights, which are disappointingly shot in that post-action shakeycam style). It’s as silly as you could imagine, but Branagh trusts his cast and the fundamentals of the story to keep our attention, and it ends up paying off beautifully.

    Most of the cast works beautifully, particularly Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who’s so excellent as Loki that you can’t help but sort of root for him. One thing that does not work is Natalie Portman, who after turning in a magnificent performance in BLACK SWAN returns to her day job of being really embarrassing in movies like this. She’s playing a scientist who may well give those PROMETHEUS jokers a run for their money at being the worst scientist ever. She sees a mysterious cloud formation, and later sees a blurry picture of a dark slightly human-looking shape in that cloud, and immediately decides the only logical course of action is to find the guy who obviously fell out of the sky and ask him what all that was about. Which is not very good science if my grade school education was at all accurate. She then spends the rest of the movie giggling like a schoolgirl every time Thor appears, and at the end I guess they fell in love at some point. You almost believe it because of Hemsworth’s charm, but it’s one of the few points where the idiotic writing feels like bad writing instead of comic book writing.

Blatant false advertising.

Still, its appealing comic book sensibilities win out in the end. It’s a movie which understands that comics are the new mythology of our age precisely because they’re broad and preposterous. We don’t need to see gritty, R-rated reimaginings set in the real world. We did that in the comics when postmodernism hit in the 90’s, and we did it in cinema with the deluge of deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo which followed WATCHMEN and Chris Nolan’s self-consciously grown up BATMAN films. OK dude, we get it, Batman is a psychologically rich concept. But you know what, it’s still psychologically rich if we have fun with it. You don’t have to be so stodgy and literal about everything for us to get the stuff that makes it good. THOR gets that. It doesn’t care if you think it’s edgy and cool. It just wants you to think it’s fun. And it has the goods to deliver on that desire. Thanks, pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe islands.   

*Unless you believe, like the guys from ANCIENT ALIENS or the writers of this movie, that Norse mythology actually represents accurate historical accounts of early alien encounters which humans, which as the authoritative-sounding narrator of that program assures us is entirely possible and supported by many unnamed experts.  

**in this case, the two artists behind AGENT CODY BANKS and one of the two guys it took to write the episode of the Simpsons where Krusty finds out he has a daughter.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Savages (2012)
Dir. Oliver Motherfucking Stone
Written: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone
Starring John “Tim Riggins” Carter, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Damian Bichir

I have really mixed feelings about SAVAGES. On one hand, there are some serious issues with the film that aren’t easily dismissed. On the other hand, though, you gotta like that it’s easily the most Oliver Stone film since U-TURN in 1997. That’s not to say the best Oliver Stone film since then -- that honor would have to go to W in 2008. But anyone could have made that film; OK, only Stone would have, but it’s still the work of the meeker, kinder, more respectable filmmaker that Stone seemed to want us to think he’d become since the late 90s. That one was from the director that gave us the weepy, reverential human drama of WORLD TRADE CENTER. This one’s from the director that cut off Tommy Lee Jones’s head and stuck it on a makeshift spear. It’s not a film that Stone made, it’s one that only he could make. Yes folks, it happened: ol’ Ollie got his sleaze back. And I think we can all agree the world is a better/worse place for it.
    Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for responsible, thoughtful, and enlightening films about the beauty and pain of the human experience. But for now, we’ll leave that for other filmmakers, because when it comes to making debased, debauched, depraved little slices of cinematic savagery, nobody delivers like Stone does. After watching so many horror films directed by nerdy fanboys who spend so much effort and mental energy trying to think of ways to shock you, it’s fun to watch Stone breezily blow by them, barely even taking notice of the spectacularly perverted horror show he’s turned the world into. He’s not especially trying to shock you. He’s just a shocking guy.

    This isn’t quite the nightmarish fever dream that something like NATURAL BORN KILLERS is, but I gotta say, it’s a film which generally lives up to its name. Tim Riggins, for instance, is introduced first by his cheerfully bouncing ass, and then by the skinny legs of the blonde he’s nut-deep on top of. But the film itself is introduced by Benicio Del Toro, wearing a skull mask, chainsawing apart a group of bloody Mexicans* on the floor of a dirty basement. Your move, Tony Montana and Oliver Stone from 1983. This shit is so routine for Del Toro that he doesn’t even save it for a dramatic moment, he just throws it in as a friendly hello, like a business card. He sends the video of their decapitated heads and crucified bodies (which must have taken some effort to attach the to the concrete walls without the aid of a Predator) to our boy John Carter along with a smiley face and a text message. 

     After the sex, (“I have orgasms, he has WARgasms!” Blake Lively hilarious narrates in the blissfully retarded way she talks over the whole film as if it’s a DVD commentary track composed of refrigerator poetry) Riggins disinterestedly browses the video while Lively’s “O” character looks over his shoulder and ask with a kind of bored curiosity, “Afghanistan?” “No.” he answers. “Mexico.”** And she wanders away. Nobody seems too upset about the horrific death of half a dozen men, because fuck it, they’re Mexican. Whatcha gonna do, be sad about it even though you’re a rich white kid living on the beach and having enormously fulfilling hot sex ten times a day while high off your mind? Fuckin’ savage.

I'm sure the many, many Mexicans who die during this movie will have some peace in the next life, knowing they died so these two rich white boys could fuck this spray-tanned blonde bimbo.

The story (taken from co-writer Don Winslow’s novel of the same name) is that two airheaded hardbodies (Tim Riggins and KICK-ASS’s Aaron Johnson) and their vacant blonde mutual fuckbuddy (Blake Lively) make it good by selling some top-quality home-grown cannabis (or “wacky tobacky” as I believe the kids call it these days). They’re approached by the vicious Baja drug cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her henchmen (Benicio Del Toro, Damian Bichir) with an “offer” to “partner with their methods.” It’s a good deal, but they rightly don’t trust the cartel and try to bail. Things go badly, and before long the skinny white girl is locked up in a hidden cell in Mexico with Benicio, and the boys have to go all crazy white boy violent to get her back.

    The moral of the story is, you never fucking come between rich white kids and easy pussy. John Carter, as beefcake ex-SEAL Chon, is an  emotionally stunted killing machine, so he’s pretty much revving to kill some motherfuckers before they’ve even heard their offer. Johnson is Ben, supposedly the peaceful stoner guy (“Ben’s the Buddhist, Chon’s the BADDIST!” as O poetically narrates) is said to not want violence, but quickly gets on board with the whole ‘kill em all philosophy espoused by his friend once blondie is gone. That we’re supposed to root for these doofuses is the movie’s greatest trick, because Stone is smart enough to not make them especially likeable or intelligent. We’re primed to hate the ruthless cartel thugs, and we’re primed to root for the pretty Americans, and so we do. But of course, there’s not really any significant moral difference between the two groups. Pushed in the slightest, and our boys respond with vicious murder utterly indistinguishable from the adversaries South of the Border*** (Which by the way is also the name of that documentary Stone made about how Hugo Chavez is awesome, I really gotta take a look at that). Stone isn’t making a message movie, but there’s an underlying genius to the way he makes all parties utterly despicable but also troublesomely relatable. Everyone’s capable of unbelievable savagery and stupidity, but they’re also unmistakably human. There are no one-dimensional monsters in here, even though they do indisputably monsterous things which seem completely at odds with their relatable human moments.

    O, for instance, is playing the damsel in distress here, kidnapped by dangerous thugs and held prisoner in a scary, tiny cell. So we feel for her on some level -- she didn’t deserve this. But we also see how totally callous she is towards the suffering of others from the very beginning of the film when she responds to the beheading video with a yawn. Now that she herself is suffering, she’s not so much afraid as indignant. She demands to talk to the person in charge. She’s a rich white girl, how dare they treat her like this?  When Hayek as Cartel chief Elena does talk to her, it’s with a interesting mix of sympathy and contempt. On one hand, she herself has a vacant, rich young daughter who has no sense of perspective at all. On the other hand, Elena has spent her whole life watching her family get murdered around her, so she knows what real problems look like and can hardly comprehend how insulated O’s world of muscular rich beach boys and absentee parents is. They’re both flawed but real human beings, and the thing that ties them together in this world is their mutual predilection towards savagery when it comes down to the line. 

Least amount of brains at a fancy dinner table since HANNIBAL.
 Savagery, as the movie helpfully defines it aloud (“Webster defines Savage as...”), is a regression to a primitive state. We think of it as synonymous with violence, but of course that’s not really the whole story. Stone’s version of savages are savage in their violence, but also in all their emotions and actions -- they’re not debased so much as primal. O has not a single thought in her pretty head throughout the movie except wanting to make her life as pleasurable and simple as possible. Elena, more than anything, wants the love and the safety of her children. The boys just want their easy pussy back. No one here has a philosophical motive beyond their immediate pleasure, and even though it seems at first like Ben (with his doctrine of nonviolence) is going to maybe elevate things a little, the movie quickly shows us that he drops that stuff when it becomes inconvenient. In fact, I think the film sort of likes him more once he does. It’s kind of disturbing, but I think Stone finds something sort of endearing about stripping people of their delusions of civilization and exposing them as simple and primal. Folks like Wes Craven and Sam Peckinpah are always associated with this sort of exposure of man’s savage nature, but they were both also repulsed by it in a way which Stone doesn’t seem to be. Maybe after his long journey down the conspiracy rabbit hole, the simplicity of shooting someone for a quick buck is actually kind of comforting to him.

    It is a political film, in a way, when you think about it like that. Without any explicit commentary ( a rarity as long as O’s babbling on), Stone makes sure we know that this film is very, very much of our time. Chon is back from Afghanistan. The cartels talk about IEDs and US soldiers. The corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta (playing Kevin Nealon for some reason)  compares the cartel to Wal-Mart moving in on smaller businesses. All the communication we see is via skype, email, or text. I’m kinda surprised that Stone doesn’t show up standing against a blank wall holding today’s newspaper at some point. Why all this emphasis on making a movie as up-to-the-minute current as possible, which obviously will not age well as we move into other eras? Because this movie is Stone’s explanation for why now IS the way it is. After dismantling the 70s in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, the 80s in WALL STREET, and the 90s in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Stone has finally offered us his parable for the new millenium. And it’s scared, uncertain morons trying desperately to cling on to their collapsing luxury lifestyle at any cost. When we look at these massacres in Afghanistan or Mexico and wonder what kind of person could do such a thing, Stone answers us very firmly: you. You and your friends and family. You could do it, and if things started to get bad, you would do it. You’re only civilized as long as it’s comfortable. Civilization isn’t a fraud, exactly, just a luxury in a world where luxury has an expiration date which is approaching much faster than anyone cares to admit.

This Strongbad movie isn't as faithful  to the original as I thought it would be.

            Of course, none of this would be of much interest if there movie itself was shit. Fortunately, Stone directs with a vigor and intensity that very well suits the story’s bold strokes. Back are the shifting film stocks, the overt juxtapositions, the kinetic editing, the bossy score. It’s all the same shit that mainstream directors do now to cover up the fact that their movies are bland and boring, so you’d be forgiven for being skeptical. But Stone invented this shit. It’s not there to cover anything up, it’s just the way he is. So even though it’s the same bag of tricks, it simply works better than you’ve seen in a long time. It’s not as aggressive as something like JFK or NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but you’ll never go for more than a few minutes without remembering who’s behind that camera. Hell, the only thing he somehow manages to resist is his trademark mystical Indian guide, which is especially hard to believe since part of the movie takes place on an Indian reservation the cartel is using as a means to skirt US Federal law.

So Stone’s in excellent form, and he’s backed up by his fine cast. Benicio, of course, is awesome. He seems to have taken a look at Javier Bardem’s turn in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and decided to one-up every aspect of that performance, with more violence, hammier scenery chewing, worse hair, and even worse hair. But it’s all in good fun. The surprise here is Salma Hayek, taking a big risk by playing a villain but an even bigger risk by playing the mother of a teenager. Hayek’s Elena character is easily the most interesting character in the film, (although Del Toro gets to have more fun) pulling off the complexities of being utterly ruthless and still maintaining some hints of matronly vulnerability. Whereas Del Toro goes big, she succeeds in small moments, in slight facial expressions, in the way she poses herself around others and the way she relaxes when she’s alone. If you ever wondered if Hayek was more than just an obscenely pretty face, well, here’s your answer. She even gets to use some Spanish! The Latino cast far outpaces the Americans, but they do fine too. Everybody seems to be trying hard and they all register as convincing, if not exactly deep, performances.

All that said, the movie has some issues. For one, O’s narrating, despite occasionally delivering some hilariously boneheaded howlers, is also completely relentless and mostly of the most tiresomely literal character imaginable. Stone is smart enough to know to show us rather than tell us, so why all the scenes of O explaining exactly what we’re watching happen in front of us? For that matter, why is she narrating at all? This is not exactly a complicated story, guys. And ironically, when things do start to get a bit complicated between the various factions and characters, she shuts the fuck up. I wonder if maybe she just doesn’t understand the plot of the story’s she’s telling herself and doesn’t want to look stupid.

Oro Del Toro

Another major problem is that the story’s basic dramatic hinge doesn’t end up feeling as cohesive as it needs to be. The heart of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chon, Ben, and O, and their mutual love of each other and willingness to fight to stay together. But you know, as much as making them a little on the vacant side is good for the film’s themes, it makes it hard to read their relationship as very important or care much what comes of it. Moreover, their scenes together feel underdeveloped and superficial, finding the characters quipping at each other rather than genuinely relating. So while you may be interested in their story, you’re never really pulling for them like the story seems to think you should be. This is particularly problematic during the (SPOILER) egregious happy ending which seems to think you’re gonna be thrilled that the rich white kids got what they wanted.

All that is less than ideal, obviously, but maybe the most problematic shortcoming here is that although Ollie is ingratiating himself to us through the resplendent application of filmatic sleaze... I dunno, dude I just didn’t get that offended. The movie is full of sex and violence, but if it’s going for shock, it probably should have gone further. It’s weird, because to a normal filmgoing audience this movie probably makes TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE look like a particularly tame episode of Mr. Rogers. I mean, it's heroes are polyamorous sexed-up drug dealers. You got heads chopped off, heads blown off, heads shot out (a lot of head damage, now that I think about it) people burned alive, people tortured to death, rape, whipping, rampant drug use, a two-guys-one girl drugged-up threesome, and at one point I swear to fucking god there’s a whole scene where a guy talks to our boys with his fucking eyeball hanging out his head, like the Miss Piggy muppet from DARK CRYSTAL. The DEA is revealed to be corrupt, our nice-guy drug dealers are corrupted by violence, obviously the cartel lives up to their reputation, and even the Native Americans are revealed to be in on it. Not a lot of churchgoing young Republicans in here. But while it’s true that the movie is a very bad role model, it never quite becomes as ridiculously over-the-line as it probably needs to be to coast on its bad reputation. I’m glad Stone got his sleaze workin’ again after all these years, but to keep up with today’s cutting edge depravity he’s gonna have to get a little more creative and excessive than he does here. This is just a violent, irresponsible movie, not a genuinely fucking evil movie. It’s a little more Han Solo than Patrick Bateman. So something of a disappointment there.

Still, this thing is ultimately a net gain for society at large, the human soul, the artistic community, etc. It’s Stone trying to entertain you as hard as he can, with the most entertaining tools he knows of (sex, violence, drugs, film stocks, Benicio Del Toro) in his usual way, which is to try to go as far as he reasonably can, and then go a few steps further. I could be better, but it’s a unique and in some stupid way kinda thoughtful film which reflects the stupidity of our time with distorted but strangely honest lens. That, and Tim Riggin’s ass. Ladies, don’t ever say ol’ Ollie Stone never did nothin for ya.

*Since they are in Mexico, I’m going to refer to these characters as Mexican, although of course it’s entirely possible that they’re individuals of Latino heritage who come from a myriad of different countries.

**There’s no one in the video who could be feasibly construed to be Afghani, so I’m left to assume she thought they were a group of Latinos who had gotten lost on their way to Laguna Beach and ended up in Afghanistan.

***Although they do draw the line at killing white people. In one of the film’s (surprisingly) few squirm-inducing racially tone-deaf moments, they brutally murder a woman’s Mexican bodyguard, but politely tie up her white boyfriend.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Seven-Ups

The Seven-Ups (1973)
Dir. Philip D’Antoni
Written: Albert Ruben, Alexander Jacobs
Starring Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Larry Haines, Richard Lynch, and Joe Spinelli

"They take the third degree of step further," says the tagline. Which i guess means car chases?

THE SEVEN-UPS is another one of those gritty crime films they had in the 70s, made by a lot of the same folks who did THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but without Gene Hackman or William Friedkin or the same writer. It has some of the same elements (over-the-line cops, grimy New York locales, fantastic high-speed chase, Roy Scheider) but not quite the artistry to reach the lofty standard set by its predecessor, which is probably why it’s less-remembered today.

It’s sort of a shame, though, because honestly it’s pretty great in its own right. Scheider plays the head of a police division that targets major criminals (whose conviction will bring a sentence of seven years and up, hence the name) using controversial methods like going undercover and having high-speed chases*. He gets his intel from his childhood friend (Tony Lo Bianco,THE FRENCH CONNECTION, GOD TOLD ME TO KILL) who never quite made it out of the hood. Everything seems to be working fine for the Seven-Ups until major Jewish mobsters begin to get kidnapped and ransomed back by a mysterious duo (Richard Lynch, also GOD TOLD ME TO KILL and stuntman Bill Hickman, who also coordinated the film’s action). Investigating these mysterious inter-underworld crimes leads to a convoluted series of complications, car chases, shootouts, etc.

Let me get that for you.

The movie’s biggest weakness is its lax first half, which is one agonizingly long setup of the various characters and parties that will eventually come together and form a plot.  Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a movie that takes its time to introduce the characters before getting to the action (in fact, I encourage it) but way too much time is spent on boring details that don’t turn out to be important anyway, such as the inner working of the Jewish mafia guys, the office politics at the police station, and the setup to the vaguely related stakeout that gets the Seven-Ups involved in the first place. It just takes what should be a stark, elegantly simple story and clutters it up with characters and plots that don’t pay off. And even with all this time spent, there’s almost no real character development for Scheider or his colleagues.

Fortunately, at about the halfway point, everything finally comes together and the plot takes off like Scheider’s 1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe. It dispenses with all the unimportant baggage from the first half and becomes the sleek revenge flick it ought to have been from the beginning. And that’s where the film’s big revered car chase scene comes in. Pursuing two suspects, Scheider recklessly drives across what seems like most of New York and New Jersey. Although Director D’Antoni (producer on BULLIT and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with this being his sole directorial credit) was clearly hoping to top his previous work in those films, the action itself may be slightly less overwhelming here in terms of pure stunt work and setpieces. But if there’s nothing as holy-shit viscerally stunning as Hackman’s famous sprint under the subway in FRENCH CONNECTION or Bullit’s car bouncing along San Franciso’s hills, this chase may be my favorite of all of them due to it’s awesome build and the fine work of editor Jerry Greenberg. It starts out a little pedestrian, and seems to be nearing its end several times only to suddenly escalate further. Lynch and Hickman make a great villainous pair, and the added emotional charge helps ratchet up the tension as they make one narrow escape after another, just barely slipping through their pursuers’ fingers.

Epic car chars are the #1 cause of sidewalk fruit businesses failing.

The film is (rightly) famous mostly for that chase, but it has a few other fine sequences as well. There’s a money exchange in a car wash which again benefits from Greenberg’s fine editing and emerges as a tense, ingenious use of a clever gimmick. There’s a nicely morally ambiguous sequence where Joe Spinelli (scumbag lawyer in VIGILANTE, scumbag thug in EUREKA and this) demonstrates his unwillingness to cooperate with the cops even under threat of torture. And the relationship between Scheider and Lo Bianco is an interesting one, relying on Lo Bianco’s nuanced and sympathetic characterization juxtaposed with Scheider’s hard-nosed relentlessness. The film ends on a scene between these two which is emotionally complex and intense in a very different way than most of the rest of the film.

Both IMDB and wikipedia claim that the film is a spin-off of FRENCH CONNECTION (with Scheider’s Russo character “renamed” Buddy Manucci in this one, whatever that means) and it’s easy to see the link between the two films, but I actually like that this one has some subtle differences. Even though the Seven-Ups supposedly only go after high-value targets (like Fernando Rey’s character from FRENCH CONNECTION) they’re not exactly seeking international crime lords**. More like local small-scale crime bosses who have nice houses but are not exactly threatening the foundations of our society. And the guys who end up causing them the most trouble are just a pair of lowlife hoods who are actually preying on the same demographic the Seven-Ups are supposed to be targeting.

So in a way, there’s a more human street-level vibe here. New York is a big place, but this film seems to take place mostly in neighborhoods and communities where everyone knows each other -- Scheider and Lo Bianco’s shared childhood illustrates that fact especially succinctly, but we also see Scheider walking around his old haunts and being greeted warmly by literally everyone he meets. Everyone’s part of the same big, dysfunctional family. The stakes are smaller her, but they feel more intimate, more personal. D’Antoni’s use of thoroughly lived-in real New York locations helps anchor the characters in a real human landscape where they seem thoroughly organic and at home. D’Antoni might not have quite the ferocity of William Freidkin, but he’s crafted something here which has its own unique merits. Plus a really fucking boss car chase.

*obviously, the over-the-line cop trope has evolved somewhat since then. Scheider’s use of “unconventional methods” seem altogether quaint by today’s standards.

**One way this movie is unusual is that it’s sold so heavily on the “Seven-ups” gimmick of a group of detectives going after major criminals with dirty methods -- and none of those elements is really a significant part of the final film. They’re all in there, but more as background details than significant story points. We hear about the squad and what it does, but mostly it’s just Scheider in the film, and he’s mostly just trying to get revenge against these two particular guys. I guess he does use some dirty methods like threatening an old man in his own bed, but its pretty tame by modern standards and not an especially big part of the plot anyway.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pumpkinhead 4: Blood Feud

Pumpkinhead 4: Blood Fued (2007)
Dir. Michael Hurst
Wr. Michael Hurst
Starring Pumpkinhead, Lance Henriksen, etc.

So here we are at the last installment of the PUMPKINHEAD franchise to date, and my, what a ride it’s been. From the surprising respectability of the original to the predictable shittiness of PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS to the surprising shittiness and respectability of PUMPKINHEAD 3: ASHES TO ASHES, it’s been an emotional roller coaster for that pruney demonic extractor of vengeance via the medium of whacking people with big monster hands that we’ve come to know as Pumpkinhead. He’s lost Lance Henriksen and regained him; gone from Stan-Winston-designed puppet to sub-Sega Saturn quality CGI to his current man-in-suit getup; gone from theatrical film to DTV to Sci-fi-channel special; had an identical son who starred in part 2; gone through no less than three old ladies who play the mountain witch, and in the process burned through untold dozens of generic white TV actors.* So many memories. So many vengeances.

    In my last PUMPKINHEAD review, I noted its reliance on CGI which I said at the time “would look embarrassing on an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” Well, someone in the production must have thought the same thing, because to direct a sequel they actually got the one guy who might have a more relevant opinion on that matter than I do: Michael Hurst, who played Kevin Sorbo’s sidekick Iolaus** on that show. Iolaus smartly eschews Part 3’s CGI overreaching, relying instead on the same redesigned man-in-suit Pumpkinhead that I kind of liked last time around (turns out the change was necessary because the original Pumpkinhead had rotted away in storage, so pour one on the curb for the OG Pumpkinman.) He also brings a mildly clever new dynamic to insert our man Pumpkin into, that of the titular blood feud. After the unexpectedly watchable Part 3, I had high hopes that this one (which wikipedia claims, “is considered to be the best of the three sequels and it was more well received”***) would finally deliver on the promise thats been fleetingly on display in the others. I was ready to bask in that old Pumpkinhead charm.

Pumpkinhead, upon finding out he'd been cast in this movie.

    Unfortunately for Pumpkinheadophiles, (after 3 reviews, I’ve yet to come up with a suitable nickname for the big lunk. Pumpky? P-Head? Gourd-o?) what Iolaus doesn’t bring to the table is any amount of subtlety or artistry. He does have kind of a good central idea, however, which, in true Pumpkinhead fashion has one nicely ironic twist. The setup is this: somewhere in the black mountains hills of some undefined east-coast mountain range lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon (here given the unlikely name of Ricky McCoy). One day he and his woman were run off by another guy, who hit young Ricky in the eye (Ricky didn’t like that, nor did he like the fact that they go on to attempt to rape his younger sister) so he says, “I’m gonna git that boy.” So one day he walked out of town to book himself a room at the local witch’s room. Subsequently, Ricky did come equipped with a gun (in this case, a Pumpkinhead) to tear off the legs, etc, of his rivals. His rival it seemed, had broken his dreams, by stealing the girl of his fancy (as discussed previously). She had no nicknames, and everyone knew her as Jodie Hatfield. No mention of Gideon’s bible, though. Maybe in the deleted scenes.

So yeah, feuding families named McCoy and Hatfield. That’s the level of artistry we’re talking about here. I’m surprised they’re not named Romeo and Juliet. And I’ll be honest, I stretched the lyrics of that song a little to fit the plot. Actually Ricky’s rivals are not romantic rivals, but members of a rival family of which Jodie is also a part. The two families have bin’ blood feudin’ and a’ fightin’ since their grandparents had a falling out over the ownership of an automobile. But this whole thing quickly escalates from innocent drunken brawls into demonic vengeance when a couple of Hatfield brothers, irate that a McCoy is schtupping their sister, beat him up and accidentally murder his little sister in an otherwise harmless attempt to brutally rape her. So, against the advice of ghostly Lance Henriksen, Ricky summons Pumpkinhead to kill off the entire Hatfield family (except his girlfriend. Why he thinks she’s gonna be OK with this turn of events is a matter left unexplored). And the local sheriff (porn-tastically name “Dallas Pope”) --himself a survivor of an earlier unrelated Pumpkinhead incident-- knows that the only way to stop the slaughter is to kill Ricky.

The one advantage this film has over its predecessors is that the slaughter itself is somewhat more enjoyable. Iolaus knows that he’s not gonna be able to recapture the atmospheric timelessness of the original, nor the creepy spartan sleaze of part 3, but he does have one trick up his sleeve which has up til now been curiously absent from the Pumpkinhead bag of tricks: gore. Yes, in part 2 he rips that annoying kid’s spine out, and he graphically impales not one but two people in part 3. But gore has never really been a staple of the series. Iolaus hasn’t got the chops or the interest in cultivating any kind of real psychological horror, but he at least commits to giving us some suitably fun bloody deaths. The special effects are not the best, but if you’re looking for gimmicky kills this is probably the best the series has to offer. Particularly memorable is a group of the Hatfields who runs afoul of a series of bear traps. It’s not exactly subtle, but there’s a certain skill required in setting people up as assholes and then dispatching them in satisfying ways. As artless as the movie generally is, it may be the best at executing this simple dynamic.

Pumpkinhead does not respect your personal space.

It’s less capable of executing its one interesting twist, though. The twist is that halfway through the film (once all the most hateable Hatfields have been killed off) the two families actually reconcile, and suddenly killing them all seems a bit unnecessary. So the McCoys and Ricky’s gal are left in the unenviable position of having deciding whether or not they’re going to help kill off their boy to save the family they have so much negative history with. Cool idea, but the execution is just too sloppy to really take it anywhere interesting. Mostly it just results in a bunch of not-so-great actors sitting around a table stating the obvious over and over. But finally Pumpkinhead comes back and indiscriminately kills everyone, so it’s all good. It’s sort of an interesting extension of the general Pumpkinhead theme of vengeance, though, so I’ll give it credit for the idea, even if it doesn’t really go anywhere interesting.

    Anyway, there’s not a lot of real tension or horror here. I still like the man-in-suit Pumpkinhead design pretty well, and he’s way more effective at killing yokels here than he’s been in the past, so he almost works as a credible physical threat even if he’s still this big slow lumbering lunk (actually, at the beginning we get to see a CGI version of him swinging through the trees like a monkey while chasing that old nemesis of hill people, punk kids on dirt bikes. So add that to the Pumpkinhead mythos.) Not really the stuff of nightmares, but as a indestructible dinosaur who roars a lot and sometimes bites people, it gets the job done. This would be a reasonably acceptable hook for a Sci-Fi Channel original movie called PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD that you might halfway watch some painfully hungover Saturday afternoon**** when you were too lazy to change the channel. But for us lovers of the fine arts, you’re gonna have to throw us a little Lance Henriksen to make it worth our time to write up full reviews of your shit. Fortunately Iolaus is smart enough to realize this, and gives old Ed Harley a little more screen time and a slightly different perspective than last time.

Portrait of a man thinking seriously about firing his agent.

In part 3, Harley was a helpful but somewhat antagonistic figure, dressed all in black and possessing a kind of wicked black humor in keeping with that film’s tone. Here, he’s back in his white shirt and jeans from the original Pumpkinhead, and sporting a more sympathetic demeanor. He has literally nothing to do but provide unneeded exposition, but of course sells it with such class you quickly forget about everyone else and just listen to him. There’s a line where he mentions his dead son from part 1, and I swear to you he’s so good that I honestly felt a stirring of real human emotion. In the middle of this movie. It’s not quite as fun as his devilish turn in part 3, but he also gets a little more screen time here and it goes without saying that the only time the movie has even a hint of actual drama, it’s due to his hard work. He really seems to care about what happens to these inbred hicks, and even though you, a real human being watching this movie, could never share his interest --let alone concern-- you can at least sort of care in the sense that you want think to turn out ok for him.

I can’t lie, though, without Henricksen this would be pretty much unwatchable crap even by my standards. There’s a completely unacceptable ratio of yokels jawin’ about gingham and suchlike to scenes of Pumpkinhead killing them. It’s a nice concession to throw us some gore, but it’s not nearly imaginative or frequent enough to make it worth your time. I like a couple of the things Iolaus is trying to do, but he’s nowhere close to pulling it off. There’s absolutely nothing convincingly tragic, atmospheric, or scary about this iteration of the Pumpkinhead legend, and old Gourd-o just isn’t interesting enough on his own to sustain a creature feature that normal humans could watch and enjoy. And let me reiterate: this is the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s up against the likes of SHARKTOPUS and DINOCROC and CROCODILE 2: DEATH ROLL (which at least has the decency to star Martin Kove). Not exactly THE GODFATHER, but at least an honest, decent retardedly gimmicky concept. Pumpkinhead can’t compete against that. If this series is going any further (and obviously, it should), it’s gonna have to look inside itself and ask which is more horrifying: corrosive, toxic hatred in timeless hill country, or a big rubbery dinosaur that slaps people? Even with all its silly baggage, Pumpkinhead is conceptually interesting enough that it could legitmately have something to say about our cultural history of violent revenge against those who have “wronged” us -- all in the name of justice. Plus, there are still stars of HELLRAISER who haven’t yet tangled with the Pumpkinman. Those are two excellent reasons to try harder next time. Like Pumpkinhead himself (herself?) this series never seems to stay dead for long.


Lance Henricksen:                                                                    YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:                                            YES
Satisfying Kills:                                                                          YES
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect They Could Get For This:     NONE
Pumpkinhead Smacks People With His Big Stupid Hands:      YES
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:                                              YEP
At All Watchable:                                                                       NOPE

*In fact, there’s reason to believe Pumpkinhead has gone through a gender change as well. Recall that Pumpkinhead regrows from the shrivelled corpse of the person who last raised him (this is confirmed in both the original and PUMPKINHEAD 3, and sort of confirmed in the possibly-not-canon BLOOD WINGS, which has the son of Pumpkinhead working for himself). And of course, we remember clearly that the last survivor of PUMPKINHEAD 3 was that brunette chick who was explicitly the one buried in Pumpkinhead island at the end. So although we don’t actually see Pumpkinhead’s resurrection this time around, we’re left to assume that he’s got a feminine side here, which probably explains his (her) much, much higher body count.

** So says wikipedia. IMBD claims they’re different people, but honestly that’s too good a story not to believe. He did direct a bunch of episodes of that show, so it’s not entirely ridiculous to imagine.

***Possibly more reason to take their claim that it was directed by Iolaus with a grain of salt

****Or while recording your debut album, which is where I first encountered it.