Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Track 29

Track 29 (1988)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Written by Dennis Potter
Starring Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd

Well, huh. Longtime readers will remember our longstanding love affair with director Nicolas Roeg from THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, EUREKA, PERFORMANCE, and the many, many references I have made over the years to DON’T LOOK NOW. Obviously, this is not an artists for all tastes, or even most tastes. Recall that in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH there is a scene where two unknown men in business suits show up at a nondescript apartment door, put on sparkly gold helmets, and then throw a bodybuilding gay man out of a 50th story window. Obviously, not everyone is gonna find that kind of arty nuttyness as delightful as I do, so I forgive the world for pretty much forgetting that Roeg existed post-1975, and simultaneously applaud Roeg for continuing to make movies consistently for the next three decades in obvious total defiance of the fact that there was absolutely no chance of anyone being around to appreciate them. Good hustle all around. But I’m sorry to say that 1988 may be my limit. That’s right, ladies and gents, with TRACK 29 Roeg has finally made a film which is too bizarre and obtuse even for me.

Now, as we’ve discussed before, Netflix is the father of all lies, so I knew I should be skeptical of the superficial simplicity of the plot as described by those notoriously imaginative netflix blurb writers. “In this psychological drama, a bored wife's curiosity about the son she long ago gave up for adoption coincides with the man's sudden appearance. Their meeting triggers more bizarre events as well as enmity between the woman's husband and offspring. Sound suspiciously simple, but actually it’s not entirely bullshit, only the last sentence is explicitly and demonstrably false. Not too bad by Netflix’s standards. But what that description doesn’t quite get at is just how fucking bizarre this strange dark (comedy?) is, through and through. Yes, that stuff happens, but it’s much, much weirder than you imagine.

Nothin' phallic about that.

See, it’s not just that Gary Oldman’s “Martin” character claims to be Theresa Russell’s long-lost son. He’s also possibly a ghost, or a figment of her imagination, or something. We first see him appear quite literally out of thin air, and although he sometimes interacts with other characters it’s clear he’s not quite as tangible as the description makes him seem. Fair enough, that’s part and parcel for a Roeg film, I don’t expect to be able to figure out what’s really going on. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how fucking crazy a performance everyone in the film gives. Martin doesn’t just want to reconnect with his long-lost birth mother, he wants to re-live his childhood with her, and he does that by reverting to his five-year old self, whining, pouting, shouting, and throwing foot-stamping tantrums in between slyly manipulative guilt-tripping and weird, uncomfortable sexual intimations.

Gotta give Oldman credit for going for it, this is an absolutely unhinged, fearless performance. But, uh, I’m not sure exactly what the “it” he was going for was. He’s waaaaay too creepy to be endearing or humorous, but too laughable to be exactly threatening, and too nebulous to be relatable. It seems like the strange exaggerated childlike behavior both he and Russell’s “Linda” character exhibit must have been intended as comic, but I don’t know? There definitely aren’t any real jokes in there, and there’s a disturbing undercurrent of rape and psychological trauma which pretty much guarantees we’re not gonna feel OK laughing at these characters. But if we’re not supposed to laugh, how the hell are we supposed to feel?

Who knew Sid Vicious had so many Mommy issues?

Roeg has never been much interested in character development, and I think that hurts him here a little more than any of his other films I’ve seen. I get the feeling the script (adapted by Dennis Potter from his own awesomely named play Schmeodipus) was probably (maybe?) originally kind of a psychological drama about this lady Linda dealing with the painful repercussions of being raped, and then kind of emotionally raped again by having the resulting child taken away against her will. But Russell’s performance is all over the place, its too hard to get a fix on what she’s even like normally for us to really understand what’s motivating the behavior we’re watching. At first she seems like the mature one, a stifled housewife running out of patience with her arrested-development husband (Christopher Lloyd, BACK TO THE FUTURE III) and his fixation with model trains. But then out of the blue she starts flipping out and having this childish meltdown that ends with “I’ll just die if I don’t have a baby!” and he starts to look like the sane one (she was married to Roeg at the time, not sure if that had anything to do with the movie's perspective). Also she has braces and is attempting some kind of Southern lisp, so, uh.** Hubby’s obviously an asshole, but it’s not hard to see why he’s a little tired of her if she’s pulling this shit on a regular basis. (Plus he’s right, those model trains are pretty fuckin' fly. I bet some production designer had the happiest job of their career.) Neither one of them is especially endearing or relatable, and both have glaring social and mental problems which seem completely inexplicable. It feels like we’re not supposed to be particularly sympathetic to either of these people, but the movie is too vague about their problems for us to really find much satisfaction in condemning them, either. So I just don’t know what we’re supposed to take from all this, much less what it all means. And truth be told, I don’t think Roeg really cares exactly what’s really happening here, he’s more interested in just going along for the ride as the nutcases bring out the crazy in each other.

I think we've all been here.

Unfortunately, the ride the nutcases take him on is only sporadically one which really avails itself to his talents. I think it’s hugely problematic that this one was adapted from a stage play, because the result is that the main action gets trapped in a mundane 80’s living room talking a bunch of nonsense for way too long, and Roeg doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to indulge his superpower of expressionistic montage. He’s the best there is at conveying intense emotions when he can get symbolic and crank up the visuals, but there’s not much to be done with these two people weirdly baby-talking each other on some suburban couch. He has better luck with Lloyd’s side story, which ends up involving a gathering of miniature train fanatics who perform “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” with a fervor which borders on a frenzied evangelical revival. But what the fuck that has to do with anything in the main plot I surely do not know. Obviously I guess it must mean something, since it’s the origin of the movie’s aggressively generic title (what, was this a sequel to MOVIE 43?). I’m assuming it’s a symbol or something, but I guess maybe they just couldn’t get the rights to “SCHMOEDIPUS” and stuck TRACK 29 in there as a filler and only at the last minute after the posters had already been struck realized they’d forgotten to go back and think up a real title and then just ran with it. But I don’t know, that could have been it, too. I’m not a mindreader for fuck’s sake.

Fundamentally, the problem here is that the film never seems to coalesce around a consistent tone or style, instead it swings wildly from one idea to another, sometimes negating previous choices and never quite building to anything. It’s a psychedelic headtrip that only really turns trippy a handful of times, and is also a psychological drama with characters who are incomprehensible cyphers, and also a comedy with no punchlines. Makes it a little frustrating, obviously. Still, there’s something there, amid the alternating outlandishness and tedium. Not exactly a good movie, but something. An odd unease permeates the whole thing, a subtle intimation of dread which anchors the absurdity and gives it a kind of diffuse focus. We may not be 100% sure what’s happening, but we know it’s not gonna end well. That sharpens the film’s otherwise lackadaisical meanderings and forces you to engage with it more earnestly, try to parse out some meaning and identify what the threat is and where it’s coming from. Even when the film starts meandering, it's too visceral and erratic to entirely lose your attention, and on the occasions when its firing on all cylinders -for example, the surreal but harrowing rape flashback at a carnival- its potency is undeniable. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience, but I gotta admit it’s a unique one, and moreover a unique one with fitful bursts of real power. Not Roeg’s strongest work, but it’s still a reminder that even in the later years of his career he was an enormously gifted filmmaker, with plenty of ability yet to frustrate, baffle, and mesmerize.

By the way, that handsome gentleman on the poster in the background produced the movie and scored it. Not his most memorable work, but you gotta respect that he went out of his way to help these weird movies.

I’ll close with the words Roger Ebert used to close his own review of the film in 1988, as nothing that I could possibly write could come close to this sort of perfection:

“Look at it this way: Most of the time we go to the movies hoping to be amused, and often we are disappointed. “Track 29” does not offer amusement, but it promises confusion, frustration, weirdness and the bizarre. You probably won’t like it. But it won’t disappoint you.”

*If that even happened; there is definitely dialogue that suggests that perhaps it didn’t and Linda is just a fucking nutcase who has made up an elaborate fantasy for herself. But if that’s the case, who the fuck even knows what’s going on here.

** Speaking of Russell’s ill-advised accent, part of the problem here may be that this whole thing is somewhat lost in translation; it was written as an English story by an Englishman, and its essential British-ness makes an uneasy bedfellow with the Wilmington, North Carolina setting. Particularly since I have a feeling that neither English Roeg and Potter nor Californian Russell has an overwhelmingly strong understanding of Southern Culture. The movie seems to delight in goofy Southern stereotypes, but they’re all of the blandest, most generic variety. I don’t think anyone who actually lived in the South would ever mock it in this particular way, so it feels both clumsy and tone-deaf. Lloyd doesn’t even both with an accent and Oldman says he grew up in England, so I don’t know what the point of transplanting the story to the US was.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Frozen Ground

The Frozen Ground (2013)
Dir. and written by Scott Walker (no, not that Scott Walker. No, not that one either.)
Starring Nicholas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, Radha Mitchell, 50 Cent

Oh, poor John Cusack. He wants to make a good crime film so badly. I mean, let’s look, he’s done THE ICE HARVEST (2005), THE CONTRACT (2006), WAR INC (2008), THE FACTORY (2011), THE RAVEN (2012), this one in 2013, GRAND PIANO (also 2013), THE BAG MAN (2014), the hilariously named DRIVE HARD (2014), and THE PRINCE (2014). That's almost one attempt per year every year since 2005, and what does he have to show for it? A couple interesting failures, a lot of dismal failures, and two decent movies (ICE HARVEST and GRAND PIANO almost a decade apart). I’m not sure what it is about the poor guy, he always seems to be trying so hard (at least as hard as his driving, I bet), but for whatever reason he can’t seem to star in a decent crime film to save his life. I bet he and Gabriel Byrne hang out and commiserate. And they’ll have to drink to this one too, because alas, despite the promising cast this one has to be filed solidly in the “dismal failure” pile.

It brings me no joy to say that, because I’m always rooting for these things to be good. I’m exactly the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of debacle. But Jesus, John, you gotta give me something to work with. By which I mean, you gotta start picking a few projects that give you something to work with. Just like THE FACTORY, this one isn’t outright incompetent enough to be amusing, it’s just dour and dull, focusing on every single one of the least interesting aspects of the story and barely even remembering that it’s supposed to be a serial killer flick most of the time. Instead it’s kind of an unfocused Alaskan misery-porn about one of the killer’s ex-victims and the standard-issue over-the-line detective trying to solve the case.

Now you’d think casting Nicholas Cage as an over-the-line detective would automatically be great. But seriously, is there really any more greatness to be wrung out of this particular lemon, even if you squeeze as hard as Cage can? Obviously, there is no cliche in the book older than the over-the-line detective, and just to make certain we’re never less than 100% aware of that fact, they must have made sure to literally check off a list of all possible cliches. He’s an over-the-line detective, check. His bosses are mad at him, check. He’s two weeks away from retirement, check. He has a bitchy wife (poor Radha Mitchell) who doesn’t understand why he’s so awesome and constantly complains that he works too hard for justice and why can’t he just spend more time at home and not worry so much about catching this serial killing rapist, check. He makes a big bulletin board with photos of victims and thread connecting them, check. He has a troubled past and a tragically killed family member’s photograph in his wallet, check. Despite his gruff ways, he has to protect a wayward child who eventually wins him over, check. He’s paired with a mismatched wacky ethnic partner (George Lopez) who drives him crazy but the two eventually bond and solve a mystery, check. OK maybe not that last one, but I guarantee they considered it.

Movie detectives spend a lot of time doing this.

Nic Cage is still Nic Cage, so it’s always fun to watch him, but he’s pretty dialed back here. My memory of this movie is already fading fast, but IIRC he never punches a woman while wearing a bear costume, for example, which is really something that could have spiced this up a bit. I think that should be his signature thing from now on, like Arnold’s “I’ll be back.” Alas, no such luck here. He gives a perfectly fine performance, unfortunately the script simply doesn’t give him any opportunities to do anything interesting whatsoever. I mean, like Cusack’s extraneous detective character in THE FACTORY, all Cage does here is piece together things the audience already knows, and the process by which he pieces it together is so dishearteningly rote that there’s just no narrative arc at all. In fact, he correctly figures out who the villain is within the first 15 minutes, and the rest of the movie is mostly him talking to various tangentially related characters trying to find a little more physical evidence to use against the guy, and in the end (SPOILER) it turns out that A) he doesn’t really find anything incriminating and B) it doesn’t matter anyway (SPOILER).

Police procedurals are actually a pretty tough thing to get right, I think. Seems like it should be a great way to structure a gripping story, right? There’s a built-in mystery, a clear objective, an obvious protagonist and villain and a lot at stake. But actual investigations aren’t really clear-cut stories. They’re messy, they involve a lot of dead ends, false starts, and more than anything else, they involve a lot of meticulous, mostly unhelpful detail work. You can show that in a movie, but unless you’re a real master it’s just not all that cinematic. There’s a lot of reading involved, which is always death for a movie. It’s the kind of thing that can be interesting with the right details but man, you’re really gonna have to come up with some good details. And FROZEN GROUND unambiguously does not. How does he figure out who the culprit is? Someone tells him, right at the start. There’s not much cat-and-mouse here, not a lot of discovery. It’s pretty obvious what’s going on, so the only thing the movie has left to show us is how Detective John Frozen* figures out what the killer (Cusack as Det. Billy Ground**) is up to. Except that he never really learns anything relevant anyway, and we already know because we’ve been watching it happen since frame one. Come on Det. Frozen, catch up with us here, we’ve moved on. I mean, what’s the fun in watching someone else try to put together a puzzle you’ve already solved?

Deleted scene from COFFEE AND CIGARETTES.

I suppose they might have been able to milk some tension out of the agonizing process of sifting through mundane clues even though we already know the outcome, if there was some kind of ticking-timebomb scenario. Balance the tension of slow progress against the compelling need for immediate action. But as it is, just like THE FACTORY this one inexplicably avoids making it a race against time. If there’s not enough evidence to arrest the killer today, tomorrow will be fine, too. Someday in the vague future he’ll probably kill again, unless he doesn’t, but we know that as of right now he doesn’t seem to have any particular concrete plans to harm anyone. So there’s no particular reason to rush on this. Maybe Cage’s whiny wife has a point about working too hard.

That just leaves the whole thing totally narratively slack. There’s no mystery, no immediate peril and no particular interpersonal drama, so a curious lack of urgency pervades the whole thing. This seems like the least interesting part of a story which is otherwise pretty crazy, right? I mean, without any of that stuff, what exactly are we even watching here? The only answer the movie can come up with is that we’re watching one of the killer’s former victims (who he raped but failed to murder) sort of drift around, look for a job, talk about her fucked up family, smoke meth, strip, and hang out with a bunch of junkies and pimps. What is this, a sequel to BAD LIEUTENANT? I guess maybe there could have been a way to squeeze some human drama out of this situation, with this poor teenage girl who’s been fucked over so badly by life given a chance to help Det. Frozen catch one of the many guys who has treated her poorly throughout her short life. But first of all, she doesn’t really have much to contribute to the investigation, secondly, she doesn’t really do anything but kind of drift around listlessly getting into one depressing but mundane shitty situation after another, and third… well, I’ll try to be delicate here but there’s really no nice way of saying this… she’s played by Vanessa Hudgens.

I’m sure Hudgy Bear means well, and she sure tries hard here, crying, swearing, smoking, stripping, etc. But man, if there is an actress who could convincingly play this emotionally damaged, chain-smoking meth-addled teenage runaway hooker from the wrong side of the tracks, Hudgy ain’t her. I’m sorry, but putting some Green Day mascara on a HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL star does not translate to “dark and edgy” as well as the filmmakers here appear to believe it does. There’s exactly zero that rings true about this performance, which obviously isn’t really assisted by the cheeseball tough girl dialogue, either. If writer/director Scott Walker has spent any time with teenage hookers recently, he obviously hasn’t been listening very carefully to how they (or any actual humans) talk. He does, however, feel it necessary to indulge in an extremely uncomfortable leering striptease scene, so you’ve got a real sexy music video of this drugged up teenage runaway rape victim to look forward to. Classy move, FROZEN GROUND.

Writer Scott Walker struggled for weeks with the script, it just wasn't working. Then suddenly, a thought occurred. "Of Course!" he shouted, leaping from his chair. "Strip scene! How could I be so blind!?"

The movie does seem to draw the line at showing this prostitute, you know, work as a prostitute, so it seems a little weird that she’s hanging around her pimp so much. Fortunately, that would be FROZEN GROUND producer/video game character 50 “Curtis Jackson” Cent, so all is not lost. Mr. Cent rewards your attention by intriguingly portraying what may be the wussiest pimp ever committed to celluloid; he dresses pretty fly, and has Superfly’s slicked-back straightened hair, but he’s just a total weiner who’s constantly getting pushed around by everyone. It’s actually kind of a good, natural performance, and he seems a lot more like a real person than most of the main characters, believably pathetic for a small-town loser. But it’s also a totally uncharismatic and therefore uninteresting role and since he’s the producer he also gets a meandering and totally unnecessary expository subplot, so no net gain there, either.

You may think that's a pretty pimpin' coat, but remember, it's Alaska. Everyone has one. Purely practical.

If there is any reason at all to watch this (and there isn’t really) it’s gotta be Cusack himself, finally actually cast as the killer as I specifically requested in my FACTORY review. Looks like I was right, he’s a natural at this, playing a low-key but scary killer with a terrific internal intensity. He’s totally believable as a monster with a normal guy’s face; he seems off-putting and a little creepy, but not so much that you’d suspect him of his real hobby. See, turns out our man Billy Ground is a hunter, and his prey is the most dangerous game of all: scared, abused hookers who he flies out to the wilderness in his private plane so he can have them limp like 20 feet into the woods and then shoot them. What an asshole. Total Dick Cheney move, there. If that sounds like a ridiculous, perhaps even insipid, gimmick for a serial killer movie... guess what: that’s actually a genuine true part of this questionable true story. This fucking world, amiright?

So that’s pretty shocking, but in a movie this full of artifice it seems so completely outrageous as to inspire some unintentional humor. The movie, apparently realizing this, seems to include it almost apologetically, playing it way, way down and acting as if it’s not that big a deal. Unfortunately it’s the only interesting, unique thing that happens in the whole runtime, and as such is pretty much the only reason to make this movie in the first place. So they probably ought to have just gone ahead and made it into a crazy setpiece, at least got something entertaining out of it. What’s that you say, it would be sleazy and despicable to turn the real-life torture and death of these poor women into crazy, over-the-top fun for our amusement? I agree, but come on bud, that’s the whole point of making these true-life crime thrillers in the first place. I mean, the only reason this story is even remotely worth telling is that we’re morbidly interested in the mentality of serial killers. If you think that’s macabre or reprehensibly glorifying the killer, well, you might not be wrong about that, but how about you don’t make a serial killer movie, then? What, if we act all depressing and grim, it makes it OK to crank out a movie about this lowlife murderer filled with big hollywood stars? If it’s dull enough, we can pretend this isn’t a naked attempt at a cash grab using real-life headlines like a superhero franchise property?

Yes, he rapes and murders women for sport, but his pro-second Amendment attitude towards open carry still makes him an attractive candidate for the Alaska Tea Party. Look, politics is all about compromise.

Fie on that, I say. I’ll accept sleaze in exchange for entertainment. What I can’t really accept is dull, grim anti-narratives which still exploit people’s suffering but self-consciously try not to entertain you to make up for it. There’s certainly a way to make a good true-life crime thriller, ie ZODIAC or my personal favorite, CITIZEN X. But basically, they’d have to either be a lot more interesting or a lot more crazy than this one. And it’s a shame, because at the very end, finally, finally, when Cage and Cusack actually meet, things start to heat up a little, people start spiraling towards mega-acting, things start to look up for the movie… and then it just abruptly ends with a goofy duex ex machina so cliched you almost can’t believe it. Seriously, when it happened I kept waiting for a twist or something, thinking there’s no way they’d actually go for something so lazy and they were just trying to trick us into thinking things were resolved. But nope. At least THE FACTORY had a suitably laughable twist; this one just sort of stumbles to a halt, right as it was starting to get good. Shame, that.

So alas, at the end of the day THE FROZEN GROUND is an absolutely disposable paint-by-numbers with a much better cast than it deserves but absolutely nothing to offer in terms of a story or even any parts which are particularly memorable or unique or compelling or interesting, or anything you would ever watch and then remember at a point later in linear time. The movie’s discomfort with exploiting the real murders or glorifying the killer ensures that instead, it sulkily avoids anything interesting about its premise and resolutely refuses to be entertaining or involving. So all we’re left with is its unremitting grimness, which, absent anything else to sustain our interest, merely leaves it a superficial drag. Well, I’m not gonna let the same thing happen to me. If I’m ever horrifically murdered by some unstable psycho*** and 50 Cent wants to produce a movie about it, tell him to go whole hog, EVIL DEAD over-the-top on it. If I’m going to be remembered for the tragic circumstances of my death, I’ll be damned if I’ll let them be a bunch of wet blankets about it. Give me some splatter! Some crazy fish eye lenses! A weird surreal trip into the killer’s subconscious. Maybe a psychic detective or two. Oooh, and John Cusack as the killer, no wait! Cusack as both the killer and the victim! And Nicholas Cage as his imaginary accomplice, who eggs him into it like that Dog played by John Turturro in SUMMER OF SAM! OR, even better, Cage as the voice of his beloved hamster “Rex,” who plays on his insecurities, emotionally manipulates him into killing (Tracy Morgan as the voice of the wacky comic relief hamster). Yeah, I like that. Hell, it would almost be worth getting offed by some greasy muttering psycho if I was sure my death would inspire that kind of greatness.

Just leave Hudgy Bear out of it, OK? Nobody deserves that.

I think we learned who the real monster is here. That's right: Peer Pressure.

*OK, OK, it’s actually “Jack Halcombe,” go ahead, spoil my fun. Halcombe is based on real-life detective Glenn Flothe, surely a nice man who solved the real-life case but unfortunately had a name which doesn’t sound like what Hollywood detectives are named, so fuck him.

** OK OK, not really, but how great would that have been? Had Stallone made this movie in the 80’s, he’d at least have tried, you know that in your heart. Actually the name is Robert Hansen, apparently no relation to the equally notorious FBI double agent Russian spy Robert Hanssen. But seriously parents, let’s not name kids that anymore, OK?

*** From wikipedia: ”In 1977, he was imprisoned for theft of a chainsaw, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium to control his mood swings. He was never officially ordered to take the medication, however” [emphasis mine]. I’m no trained psychologist, but that sounds red flag-ish.