Wednesday, October 26, 2011

To fuse and refuse: The Fly at 25

Seth Brundle, the tragic genius at the core of The Fly (1986), is motivated to crack the secrets of teleportation not only because such innovation will challenge established concepts of time and space, but also because he suffers from motion sickness—teleportation means never having to set foot in a propelled vehicle again. This bit of character eccentricity is one of the many ingenious details that have allowed The Fly to endure these last 25 years, not only as what may be the defining synthesis of every major theme in David Cronenberg’s filmography, but as the modern big-budget genre film that synthesized an intelligent query into the most vital and troubling issues faced by contemporary philosophers, scientists and policy-makers with an absolutely primal and inspired display of body horror theatrics. There is no other movie at once so smart and so disgusting. Indeed, The Fly features what remains the most astonishing vomit scene—wait, make that scenes—in cinema history. (A word of warning to the uninitiated: do not watch this movie while eating yogurt.)

Rooted in the 1957 short story by George Langelaan and, of course, the Vincent Price film of the same title (1958), The Fly is several things: a chamber love triangle between Brundle, a journalist (Geena Davis) trying to file and article for a magazine named Particle, and her editor (John Getz); a science fiction about a man who accidentally gets into a machine with an insect and pays the abysmal consequences; and a shock-meditation on aging, death, and what it means to be human. “Am I dying?” Brundle wonders after his successful self-teleportation with insect co-pilot begins to exact its gooey toll on his flesh. (“His” flesh? Or something else? Teleportation obliterates form in order to recreate it elsewhere.) This being a Cronenberg film, whatever existential terror or grief Brundle feels en route to becoming Brundle-fly is eclipsed by unquenchable fascination. Other versions of Langelaan’s ‘Fly’ had its protagonist lose his ability to speak relatively early in the story; Cronenberg insisted that his Brundle keep his tongue nimble as long as possible—he wanted Brundle to articulate what was happening to him until the very end, at which point a single, unbearably sad gesture is all that’s needed for the experiment to reach its dire conclusion.

Much credit has to be given to Goldblum, whose toothy, lanky charisma, dry humour and quiet showmanship rendered him one of Cronenberg’s perfect alter egos: a smart man of action; a geek with sex appeal; a guy who can endow the word "cheeseburger" with seductive magic. And Davis, Goldblum’s girlfriend at the time, is every bit his match, both intrigued and repulsed, in-love and loving and fiercely self-protective: her alarmed response to the possibility that she’s pregnant with Son of Brundle-fly is deeply affecting. Its fantastic narrative being awkwardly yet necessarily compressed, The Fly is not without its little flaws—a bit of boilerplate dialogue here, some garish lighting there; way too much showy pathos from Getz’s emasculated ex—but the immense power of its unnerving ideas, the complex dynamics of its tautly told story, and the nuanced performances of its two leads earn its status as some very peculiar sort of masterpiece.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Are we not men?: Listening for answers in Island of Lost Souls and Kuroneko

From its opening apparition of a derelict ship emerging from a fog to its magnificent climactic images of beast-men rising up to exact revenge on their self-proclaimed creator, Island of Lost Souls (1932), photographed by Karl Struss—who won the first Oscar for his enduringly haunting work on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1929)—is a feast of spectacle that veers between the seductive and the grotesque. Beautifully wrought visions of land, sea and laboratory intermingle with close-ups of fire-lit faces and feline hands both delicate and claw-like, desperate to feel the warmth of a very confused castaway whose sexual desire is unknowingly drawing him closer to bestiality.

But the image that lingers with me most after watching the film, late on a chilly October night, is modest in comparison: that of a single, very hairy, pointed ear. What makes this image so memorable for me is that not only is it the first sign that something terribly strange is transpiring—a foreshadowing elegantly echoed more than 50 years later in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986)—but it is also a sort of mute instruction for all of us watching: listen. Among the shrewder choices made by director Erle C. Kenton and/or his collaborators in post-production was that of using Arthur Johnston and Sigmund Krumgold’s musical score, wonderful as it is, very sparingly. The film’s celebrated atmospherics are perfected by the absence of music to soften the agonized cries of those titular souls subjected to ongoing torture in the bluntly dubbed “House of Pain.” Those cries help make Island of Lost Souls a genuinely horrific horror movie. It was those cries I kept hearing as I tried to fall asleep.

The story, for those who don’t know, comes from H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, adapted here by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young. It follows the ship-wrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) as he’s rescued and then abandoned by a drunken sea captain on an island without a name, where mad scientist Moreau (the gloriously go-for-broke Charles Laughton) has been vivisecting his way through the animal kingdom in search of the genes that he believes urges all animals to ascend to the traits of man. Moreau lives surrounded by mutants—one played by Bela Lugosi—mostly very hairy humanoids who wear pants and rally round campfires nightly to chant out the dictates of their patriarchal, neo-colonialist master. But there is also one Lota (Kathleen Burke), the “Panther Woman,” whom Moreau, presumably unable to mate with her himself, hopes to pimp out and toss into his muddying gene pool with Parker.

It’s unlikely Island of Lost Souls would have been made just a couple of years later when the Production Code was more strictly enforced, though the film’s explicit exploration of evolutionary mayhem and trans-species lust still managed to get it banned in the UK for 25 years. These days torture has somehow been domesticated as screen “entertainment,” but Moreau’s distinctive shadow still looms over the imagination. Wells’ Moreau had to move his experiments off the grid and away from prying eyes; today he’d more likely be enjoying a brilliant career in bio-mechanics, a visionary helping to shape our post-human future. The real horror has, it seems, already started to come true.

Criterion’s exceptionally well-compiled release features their freakiest menu since Videodrome (1983); interviews with the guys from Devo, who incorporated Island into the band’s conceptual framework and helped immortalize the line, “Are we not men?”; an interview with David J. Skal regarding Wells in Hollywood; yet another excellent, bouncy, info-crammed audio commentary from Golden Age horror historian Gregory Mank; and, perhaps most fascinating, an interview with Richard Stanley, co-scenarist and original director of the infamous 1996 Island adaptation with Marlon Brando.

Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), which Criterion released last week, is set during the Sengoku period, a time of seemingly endless war. The film begins with a horde of starved samurai entering a very modest abode inhabited by two women, the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and wife (Kei Sato) of a young man (Kichiemon Nakamura) who was conscripted into the army of a local warlord. The samurai consume all available food, rape the women and set their home on fire before disappearing into the grove from which they emerged.

The brutality of this sequence—not unlike many sequences in Island of Lost Souls—is intensified greatly by what is absent from the soundtrack. There is no dialogue whatsoever for the first ten minutes of Kuroneko, but the glances exchanged by the women and the invaders prompt you to steel yourself, and the image, manifesting only moments later, of the women’s bodies as they lay in the ashes of what was once their home—their cadavers soon approached by some rather curious cats—is both chilling and possessive of a spectral beauty that will return throughout the course of this elegant, unsettling ghost story riddled with vicious revenge and perverse reversals.

Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) scared the bejesus out of me when I saw Criterion’s release of it some years back, and Kuroneko wields a similar primal power, much of it deriving from carefully crafted details: a house that seems like a theatre of mist designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the kimono who’s outer diaphanous layer resembles the wings of a fly; the peculiar use of slow-motion or the breath that hangs in the frigid air. The script was founded on a Japanese folktale, yet it holds extra resonance due to Shindo’s class-conscious subtext. The film’s influence can be found everywhere in more recent Japanese horror films, though it received a negligent release in North America in its day. Metro Cinema screened it back in August and Criterion’s deluxe treatment should secure it the much wider audience it deserves. See it when it’s dark out. But listen carefully, too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Guard: a wee winner from the other McDonagh

“I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb,” says FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to Galway Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), “or really motherfucking smart.” Perhaps a little too on the nose, this line, but it’s handled exceedingly well, coming at the tail of a fuss-free, beautifully written and realized little scene somewhere in the first third of writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. Just two cops from very different backgrounds nestled in a car, at night, traversing the lonesome and weatherbeaten Irish countryside and sussing each other out. Well, okay, it’s really only Everett that does any detectible sussing, since Boyle never seems to be working too hard at anything.

On the surface, the corpulent, middle-aged Boyle seems the epitome of cynicism, laziness and corruption. (An opening scene I’ll refrain from spoiling wastes no time in establishing Boyle’s ethical negligence.) He is also a regular fountain of racist slurs, delivering one after another in airtight deadpan directly to his new-in-town African-American colleague from their very first exchange on. He tells tall tales, solicits prostitutes and is not adverse to appropriating evidence. Yet he seems to be be listening carefully to things, and is often one step ahead of everyone else. Which is to say that Boyle is a bit like Colombo meets the Bad Lieutenant. He goes out of his way to make it easy to underestimate him, but maintains a most peculiar, and perhaps uniquely Gaelic, sense of personal integrity.

McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed the beloved black comedy In Bruges, which also featured Gleeson prominently. The Guard is looser and has less overt thematic gravity than In Bruges, and, initially at least, seems to ascribe to an ever more aggressively audacious brand of humour—a punk little brother of a movie from the punk little brother of an established playwright and filmmaker. But I like The Guard better. Perhaps it surprised me more. Perhaps it gave itself more room to make discoveries about its all-too-easily dismissable antihero. It’s intricate murder mystery/international drug trafficking plot gives it a nice anchor, but this crime-based framework—which supplies the terrific British character actor Mark Strong with another great little role as an absurdly philosophical bad guy—is essentially a beard for a highly irreverent character study.

The Guard also has its perfectly selected unlikely buddy leads going for it. Gleeson was born to embody precisely this kind of shrugged-off complexity, and Cheadle brings so much more texture and alertness to his role than most actors would deem necessary. He understands that he’s at once the audience’s surrogate, intermittently offended and genuinely uncertain as to what to make of Gleeson, and a unique character with his own understated backstory and reasons for being where he is, doing the things he’s doing. Why after all these years Cheadle isn’t a full-on American movie star I’ll never understand.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Things fall apart: The cinema of Henri-George Clouzot at TIFF Bell Lightbox

It’s commonplace to describe Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) as one of cinema’s great pessimists, so brimming with rot, despair and entropy are his films—but what makes Clouzot’s pessimism great? Perhaps it’s a matter of conviction. Some within the Nouvelle Vague characterized his films as sterile and immaculate, efficient, without life or discovery, but such accusations sound an awful lot like mistaking classical rigour for lack of engagement or inspiration. His films functioned as well-oiled machines precisely because they described the inescapable machinery of fatalism; inevitability was crucial to their moral theses. But within their strategies lies a mine field of erotic curiosities, odd detail and dark playfulness—the inevitable can’t seem inevitable while it’s unfolding; only in retrospect. Thus second and third and fourth viewings of Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955)—of which you can read much more hereretain their peculiar suspense. Clouzot’s camera fully attends to the latter film’s unlucky co-heroine (played by the director’s unlucky wife, who would perish from the same ailment as her character); its deep interest is as unmistakable as it is useless. Her fate is sealed.

Clouzot’s films literally made his actors ill; he drugged them to sleep or plunged them into miniature lakes of crude oil, creating his cinema’s single-most summarizing image and giving each of his leads a case of conjunctivitis. Machinery broke down during production and sets collapsed. The resonant doom of his best films seems to have wreaked a certain havoc on its participants in some Faustian exchange for its gloomy power. Hopefully no such bad luck with befall those of you with the good luck to see Clouzot’s films during TIFF Cinematheque’s The Wages of Fear: The Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot, which runs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox until November 29, 2011. The retrospective includes all his Clouzot’s films save Retour à la Vie (1949), as well as Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009)
of which you can read more about here. Run, do not walk, to catch these films—just take care to look both ways before you cross the street.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gunnin' down a dream

Machine Gun Preacher attempts to tell the story of how real-life Pennsylvania hillbilly bad-ass Sam Childers got out of jail, became disgruntled by his former-stripper wife’s religious conversion—“bitch found Jesus,” as Sam puts it—and hit rick bottom. He bullied his family, hung out in bars where sleeves are frowned upon, robbed and assaulted some dealers, ingested buckets of drugs and alcohol, and stabbed a hitchhiker multiple times before tossing him out of his car. Then Sam himself finds Jesus, gets sober, turns suspiciously nice, gets into roofing, and builds his own church where folks listen to shitty music and Sam’s improvised sermons. Sam also goes to Uganda and Sudan, where he builds an orphanage in the middle of a war zone and occasionally takes up arms and wreaks bloody vengeance upon the Lord’s Resistance Army. He spends a fair amount of the film’s last third or so desperately trying to raise funds back home to buy a new truck for the orphanage, and I’m thinking, Dude, you could probably get some decent cash for a couple of those RPGs...

Not that that was the first such question I found myself asking while watching Machine Gun Preacher. The film, written by Jason Keller and directed by Marc Forster, who isn’t especially good with crafting spatially coherent action sequences—or, for that matter, spatially coherent garden parties—strains to impose a through-line on Childers’ larger-than-life endeavours but builds neither a strong narrative arc nor a persuasive study in unlikely redemption and radical altruism. Though presumably well-intentioned, the filmmakers—I refer not only to Keller and Forster but also executive producer/star Gerard Butler—seem stumped by the very questions that Childers’ thorny biography demands reckoned with, questions, for example, about the mightily messianic hubris involved in trying to clean up someone else’s civil war. Instead, the film offers a precariously sentimentalized depiction of child soldiers, a very thin portrait of what must be a near-impossible marriage, and eight varieties of bluster from Butler, including shaking, eye-bulging, and sweating. Childers is without a doubt one hell of a character. Probably too much of a character for this kind of plodding Hollywood treatment.

Monday, October 10, 2011

When you're this big, they call you Mister (with a little persuasion, anyway)

It’s the middle of the night in the middle-1960s, and a handsome black stranger materializes in some backwater on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line right around the time a wealthy white industrialist is murdered. The scene seems set for a drama in which the undereducated but quietly noble negro escapes being chewed up in the wheels of injustice with the help of, say, a crusading white lawyer charged with the task of convincing the townsfolk to look past their racist presumptions. But In the Heat of the Night (1967), based on the first of John Ball’s Virgil Tibbs novels, does something much more interesting: it makes the black stranger a well-paid, nattily dressed homicide detective from Philly whose innocence is swiftly established and who winds up cracking the case the local crackers couldn’t. It was an ingenious reversal of expectations, with Mister Tibbs elegantly embodied by Sidney Poitier, probably the only actor who could have pulled it off. The film is screening at Edmonton's Metro Cinema this weekend, following Poitier’s Thursday night speaking engagement at the Jube.

It is no slight to say that In the Heat of the Night—one of Canadian director Norman Jewison’s earliest feature credits and still among his best—plays out like a very good cop show elevated by sociological innovation. (That’s why the film was eventually made into a cop show.) The murder mystery is something of a MacGuffin, making room for richer themes of tolerance, respect, professionalism, alpha-male competitiveness and the painfully protracted spread of the Civil Rights Movement. We keep watching not so much to find out whodunnit as to see how the unflappable Tibbs will finally find his way out of Sparta, Mississippi and make something like peace with its ornery, lonesome police chief Bill Gillespie. Gillespie’s played by Rod Steiger, who chews gum as a way to hold off from chewing up all the scenery—mastication keeps Steiger from shouting all the time, though this too becomes overly indicative and irritating in its way. Steiger won an Oscar for this part, despite the fact that Poitier’s cool approach—not to mention that of Warren Oates as a bumbling patrolman—seems to offer such a seductive, more intriguing alternative to Steiger’s bullishness in nearly every scene.

Historical significance and varying performance styles aside, I think that much of what keeps In the Heat of the Night fresh and worthy of repeat visits has to do with the many wonderful details that pepper the film: the plastic Jesus on Oates’ dashboard; the Dr. Pepper sliding between a young woman’s ample breasts as she lingers naked by her kitchen window; the masking tape repairs on an old vinyl-upholstered chair; or the positioning of the corpse discovered on a Sparta side street. The dead man lays on the ground like he was in middle of trying out a new dance—let’s call it the doggie paddle. There’s also sensitive editing from future director Hal Ashby, inventive shooting from Haskell Wexler, scoring from Quincy Jones, and a title tune sung by Ray Charles, an especially inspired choice to ease us into the picture. If Charles couldn’t get Americans of every colour to root for a black hero, no one could.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Ides of March: All primary colours; no shades to be found

Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, which was loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean, The Ides of March concerns a young press secretary’s education in the sort of compromise, corruption and throat-cutting that the weary sages tell us is essential to getting ahead in politics. But Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) has it both ways—he’s simultaneously idealistic and shrewd—so when push comes to shove his fangs push their way out of his baby gums and he proves to be the all-too apt pupil of his immediate superior (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the opposition’s poacher (Paul Giamatti), the manipulative journalist (Marisa Tomei) he thought was his pal and, of course, the charismatic candidate he works for, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (director and co-scripter George Clooney), who mostly stays in the film’s margins until its final act, until then entering the foreground only for a highly conspicuous, strategically placed scene of intimacy between he and his true-blue wife.

Much of the pleasure to be had in The Ides of March emerges from the initial buzz of the promise of victory emanating from Morris’ camp, of which Meyers is the behind-the-scenes star. A couple of beautifully realized scenes find Meyers flirting with a smart, lovely intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Clooney has assembled a magnificent cast and, with the help of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he crafts some superb flights of ping-pong dialogue in carefully composed close-ups. For much of the first half, there’s a slightly exposition-heavy quality to the dialogue that feels weirdly stagey yet gradually makes sense as you start to glean just how much of what we’re hearing and seeing is illusory or fundamentally full of shit. And herein lies the film’s weakness: it is precisely as cynical as you’d expect a movie about US politics from Clooney and his regular producer/collaborator Grant Heslov to be, while lacking in any specific or especially poignant revelations. Everything is tweaked to play neatly into the narrative schema, including an unexpected death that constitutes the limpest sort of plot twist (the reason it’s unexpected is because there’s no good reason to expect it). Clooney is a fine directorial talent, but the material—occasionally clever but never wise—is finally more shallow than it clearly wants to be. Still, worth checking out if you’re curious.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Terri: You're a big boy now

Terri’s eponymous hero is a rotund teen living in some warm, semi-rural place with only an uncle who tends to wander around in a medicinal fog for a guardian. With his wavy locks and formidable neck, Terri cuts something of a Wildean profile, but whatever air of sophistication such qualities might generate is undercut by his calm refusal to engage in social or academic life. He wears Crocs and socks and old school pajamas everywhere—less out of resignation, he claims, than for sheer comfort. He’s exiled from the school gymnasium for declining to participate. He observes other teens going about their activities with the same anthropological distance and wonder he brings to his new habit of murdering mice so as to witness the feeding habits of local birds of prey. He’s also regularly late or absent for class, a casual transgression that inadvertently becomes a route out of his troublesome solitude, because cutting class means going to the principal’s office, and Terri’s principal, Mr. Fitzgerald, takes a special interest in Terri.

Fitzgerald is a middle-aged married man, but both his stagey manner of asserting authority and his calculated attempts to “reach out”—by aiding and abetting Terri’s class cutting through regular appointments; by offering snacks and high-fives and peppering their consultations with an earnestly intoned “Dude...”—render him less a teacher or father figure than an overgrown peer or passive-aggressively needy big brother. Fitzgerald is played by John C. Reilly, and if you start watching Terri and find yourself feeling unsure whether or not it’s supposed to be a comedy, Reilly doesn’t seem to have any such doubts. He’s understatedly goofy, unflatteringly lit and very funny, as well as oddly sweet and lived-in. Reilly is often cast in the supporting bit as that guy that the central character slowly becomes friends with. It’s because it’s hard not to want to become friends with John C. Reilly.

Terri is played by Jacob Wysocki, a young actor with obvious talent but, equally important in a character study such as this, he simply has a marvelously expressive face and body that, however outsized, conveys inner depths even when doing almost nothing. Walking through the woods in his PJs, Wysocki’s Terri could almost be walking through a dream, and there are moments where director Azazel Jacobs’ keen eye for low-key, ordinary strangeness pleasingly heightens that feeling. But as it goes along it becomes clear that Terri, scripted by Patrick Dewitt from a story by Dewitt and Jacobs, is firmly grounded in reality, its depiction of idiotic bullying, misguided cries for help, exploratory sadism, peculiar alliances between unlikely friends, horny fumblings in home economics, and nights spent in the shed getting wasted on stolen whiskey and uncle’s meds and making awkward attempts as sexual posturing all resonate deeply with my experience of high school at least. This is a film that’s attuned to the pains of alienation without wallowing in despair—yet neither does it offer bullshit uplift. It merely suggests that, if we stay alert, there is almost always some chance for each and every one of us to connect.