Monday, October 29, 2012

Why can't monsters get along with other monsters?

The headline is from the chorus of Silver Jews' sublime 1998 rock-out ditty 'Send in the Clouds.' And here's another quote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The words will forever belong to Hamlet, but I rather like the fact that they’re spoken (uncredited!) by some omniscient voice of god over the image of the Earth, or some Play-do facsimile thereof, as it spins at what seems like a precarious gallop, right at the top of King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962). For while the country in immediate danger of giant monster apocalypse in this, the third installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise, is Japan, once again, the film’s canvas has become decidedly global. At least that’s how it seems in the American version (the only version I've seen), in which nearly all Japanese characters sport Western clothes and hairdos and speak English. Many of them sound like Alan Arkin.

Though still credited to Ishirō Honda, the director of the original Godzilla (1954), the US version not only overdubbed everyone's voices but deleted scenes from Honda’s cut and added several new ones, many of which feature an American broadcaster filling us in on exposition—cutting away to a lovely painting of a satellite every time he speaks to another broadcaster in another country—before becoming something of a sports commentator once the rediscovered Kong and the resurrected Godzilla—who fronts some bravura Hulk Hogan flexes—go at it. As with the original Godzilla, which functioned as an eerily explicit metaphor for our proximity to atomic holocaust, the story is rooted in unease with the proliferation of looming disasters: the balls get rolling following an earthquake, unregistered radiation, and early signs of global warming. But the initial underlying seriousness quickly falls away in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which makes lame use of an Abbott and Costello-like duo and ultimately make little sense at all, plot-wise. We gradually come to realize that we’re watching the sci-fi equivalent of a monster truck rally.

Even in colour, Godzilla still looks pretty fierce, but the rebooted Kong has nothing on the presence, pathos and flickers of intelligence found in Merian C. Cooper’s original King Kong (1933). We’re told that Kong has a much bigger brain than Godzilla, but he sure looks dumb, perhaps because he has a habit of getting wasted on some rare hallucinogenic juice, tripping on trance music and passing out. (Like some party guests I know.) But honestly, nobody seems too bright in this: the Japanese can’t even say Hokkaido properly. Still, it’s an awful lot of fun. And if you wanted to watch it with your kids, rest assured that not nearly as many civilians get crushed to death and screaming bloody fucking murder in this one. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blood brother

It’s probably most useful to think of Blaxploitation not so much as a genre unto itself but rather as a prism through which the filmmakers can repurpose existing genres. Case in point: Blacula (1972), American International Pictures’ low-budget, shamelessly pandering, Afro-centric spin on Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel and its countless cinematic incarnations. Opening with a scene, set in 1780, in which Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), ruler of an unidentified African country, pays a visit to Count Dracula’s Transylvanian castle in search of an ally in his campaign to end the slave trade. Dracula’s hardly inclined to start caring about slaves—after all, the guy routinely feeds on the blood of others and turns them into undead creatures who do his bidding—and opts instead to appropriate Mamuwalde’s extremely attractive wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee), turn the prince into a vampire and imprison him in a coffin. Mamuwalde’s torment subsides only 192 years later, when an interracial (!) gay couple travels from “the Village” to Romania to shop for high-end antiques. They bring the coffin back to the US and soon enough Mamuwalde wakes up, busts out and starts sucking blood. Seemingly nonplussed by the vestiges of two centuries worth of civilization and technological advancement, Mamuwalde wanders some version of Los Angeles, I think it’s meant to be, and eventually meets Tina (also McGee), whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Luva. Mamuwalde seduces Tina, but the interracial crime fighting duo of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) and Lt. Jack Peters (Ladies and gentlemen, Officer of the Order of Canada, Gordon Pinset) are getting wise to the prince’s neck-chomping ways and threaten to thwart Mamuwalde’s union with his soul mate all over again.

According to the film’s production history, the whole slavery-infused prologue was an afterthought, prompted by Marshall’s demands that his character seem more dignified. Indeed, little else in Blacula seems to possess much in way of overt or in any case coherent political commentary, even on the level of what might be deemed sheer Black Power propaganda. And the film certainly doesn’t shy away from using its crudely stereotyped gay characters for cheap laughs; Pinsent’s best/worst line, upon learning of the disappearance of the corpse of Mamuwalde’s first victim: “Who the hell would want a dead faggot?” Being an AIP exploitation film, the production values are, ahem, not high. There are continuity errors so flagrant as to seem avant-garde, and the entire film is bizarrely over-lit considering the fact that it’s central character is, you know, a vampire.

But there are reasons to see Blacula beyond the ironic chuckles or time-capsule value: a terrific opening title sequence; a pleasingly counterintuitive (given the genre) R&B score from Gene Page; an amusing, goofily cocksure supporting character named Skillet (Jitu Cumbuka) who swaggers into a couple of scenes with no apparent purpose other than to make Mamuwalde exit; a surprisingly solid band that plays at the nightclub where Mamuwalde hangs with his new pals; and, most especially, the outfits. Seriously. Pretty much everything McGee wears is a knockout, especially Luva’s African royalty garb or this sexy little getup Tina tops off with this kind of a cappuccino knit skullcap. Not everyone in Blacula seems as thoughtfully dressed, but clearly McGee wasn’t about to be caught dead—or undead—in anything less than a memorable, well-tailored fashion statement.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Crazy in love

After helming a pair of lengthy, ambitious ensemble dramas—the beloved Boogie Nights (1997) and the more divisive Magnolia (1999)—Paul Thomas Anderson, already a seasoned director in his early 30s, reclaimed the long-neglected romantic comedy for filmgoers who actually value things like invention, audacity and risk—traits common to the genre in its 1940s heyday—with Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The gamble paid-off among critics and cinephiles at least, winning Anderson Best Director at Cannes and winning Adam Sandler the grudging admiration of viewers who couldn’t stand most of his other movies. (A similar trick was pulled off with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004], an even more inventive, more resonant film about love and its unnerving proximity to mental illness, in which Jim Carrey gave a rare emotionally textured performance—which is to say he wasn’t totally unbearable for anyone over the age of eight.) Sadly, the film failed to recoup its hefty $25-million dollar budget, but then Anderson’s models seem more aligned to silent comedies, certain MGM musicals or A Perfect Couple (1979), Robert Altman’s woefully underrated stab at the genre, than to contemporary box office-behemoth schmaltz like, say, You’ve Got Mail (1998). 

Sandler’s Barry Egan has seven emasculating sisters, a small business wholesaling novelty toilet supplies, and one painfully blue, not very flattering suit, which he wears through the entirety of Punch-Drunk Love and which must smell really, really bad by the end, given that Barry travels from California to Hawaii and Utah and generally gets nervous and runs around a lot. Barry also obsesses over special retail offers, suffers devastating levels of depression and/or anxiety, exhibits violent tendencies and is socially awkward in the extreme—in several regards, Barry’s not so different from Freddie Quell, the protagonist of Anderson’s far more somber The Master (2012). If Anderson’s highly focused, minimally cut, deliberately jarring direction didn’t encourage us to laugh or marvel at Barry’s unbridled distress, we’d be really worried about the guy. But Punch-Drunk Love is true to the rom-com’s promise of unlikely redemption, sending Barry an angel in the form of Emily Watson, an attractive, patient, quietly peculiar woman who not only fancies Barry but seems to fancy him precisely because he’s a fucking maniac—there’s a memorable scene that finds the lovers exchanging whispered sweet nothings that describe grotesque violence, a scene that may have inspired a similar motif in Take This Waltz (2011). Given the nature of her more recent work, it’s great to see Watson in a role that allows her to be sexy and mysterious. Unfortunately, I think the film’s one significant flaw may be her character’s lack of development. I get that Anderson wanted to make Punch-Drunk Love as fleet as possible, and to keep Barry firmly at the centre, but I believe that Barry’s pathos would have been only strengthened by a deeper sense of what sort of woman could so easily fall in love with him.

Anyway, Punch-Drunk Love is a very special, and very, very funny, genuinely nutty film. It also features a wonderful supporting turn from one of my favourite contemporary character actors, Luis Guzmán. Now it only somebody would make him the lead in a romantic comedy! 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shake, rattle and roll against the dying of the light

It’s 2002, and somewhere in Mud Creek, East Texas, in a backwoods nursing home called Shady Rest, a place of long, echoing, ominous corridors and giggly kleptomaniacs, Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) wakes up, and the first thing he sees is an old man violently expiring in the bed next to his. Now Elvis needs a walker to get anywhere and big-ass glasses to see anything. There have been two presidential campaigns since he last had a hard-on, and a tumour has erupted on the end of his penis. He has intoxicating flashbacks of performing under a hail of projectile panties. But is this the real Elvis? The Shady staff seem to think his name is Sebastian Haff (which sounds an awful lot like “Half”). Elvis claims to have swapped places with the real Haff, an Elvis impersonator, at some point in the 1970s, when he was tired of fame and melancholic about his failing marriage. Now admittedly, his story sounds a little fishy—until our Elvis meets another Shady Rest resident, an elderly black man (the late Osssie Davis) who says he’s John F. Kennedy. In this world, fishiness is a matter of degrees. 

And Elvis and JFK aren’t the only people in Bubba Ho-Tep who are supposed to be dead; there’s also a reincarnated Egyptian mummy, with whom our elderly and infirm duo will eventually do battle in a wonderfully anti-climactic climax. I say anticlimactic simply because this comedy with horror trappings only seems like it’s some sort of cheeky, po-mo monster mash-up showdown. The genius of screenwriter/director Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s eponymous novella lies in its use of pop-culture, the absurd and the fantastical to craft a relentlessly inventive fable that could finally be about anyone suffering the anxieties of getting old: the loneliness, the invisibility, the mounting physical ailments, the disintegration of your credibility, the erosion of all your past glories, the depletion of your sex life, and the fear of having your soul slowly sucked out of you, leaving only a tired, wrinkled shell of a human being behind. 

Campbell, beloved star of the Evil Dead films and Army of Darkness, has stated that the script for Bubba Ho-Tep was the weirdest things he’d ever read—and that’s saying something. Indeed, one of the pleasures of experiencing this film, which became an almost instant cult classic upon its debut ten years ago, is simply reeling from the accumulation of batshit plot interjections. In this way Bubba Ho-Tep shares something with the Coen Brothers at their most free-form, ie: The Big Lebowski. Of course, Coscarelli, whose credits include The Beastmaster and the Phantasm series, doesn’t exude anything like the Coens’ high standard of craftsmanship, but I don’t think Bubba would be as charismatic if he did. This film is singularly shaggy and silly in the most inspired sense of the word. It’s a story about facing death with dignity, trying to maintain one’s integrity in the face of time’s potentially humiliating effects, and it’s about good old-fashioned showmanship. Whether our Elvis is the real thing or a fake, he’s convincing in all the important ways. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Drag Me to Home Movies

Sinister opens with the image, rendered in faux-Super 8, of four hooded figures hung from a tree in what has just become the Osborne family’s backyard. True crime author Ellison Osborne (Ethan Hawke) is the only one who knows that his family is moving into a crime scene, but for him it’s just business; it’s been ten years since his last bestseller and Ellison figures rooting himself right in the very place where some truly evil shit went down, a large house tucked away in a wood, with no apparent neighbours anywhere in the vicinity, is the surest way to spin literary gold.

But before you can say “Overlook Hotel” the place is already giving off bad vibes: there are exotic pest control issues and things going bump, very loudly, in the night; Ellison’s son is sleepwalking, sleep-contorting and sleep-screaming, while Ellison’s daughter’s painting creepy things on the walls; and there’s a stash of home movies in the attic that each depict some sort of creatively staged mass murder, with hints of occult activity in the margins. Gradually these movies yield more and more glimpses of some shadowy, dark-haired figure in black and white makeup, always lurking in the background—it’s like “Where’s Waldo?” for Goths. And it’s with the emergence of this figure, who comes to be known as Mr. Boogie, that we come to understand that no matter how effectively photographed, nicely paced and well-cast Sinister is, it’s eventually going to get really, really dumb.

The script is from C. Robert Cargill, the direction by Scott Derrickson, who previously brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I felt somewhat warm toward, and that remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I don’t think anybody felt anything toward. When you take away all the Mr. Boogie and the demon kiddies and supernatural hokum, the essential story of Sinister isn’t too bad, but the lack of ambiguity and corny special effect bits drain it of all credibility and real suspense, and all the time spent building Ellison’s potent character—he’s at once a loving father and a mercilessly ambitious and frustrated author—ends up being for nothing since the destiny of he and his family has little to do with any character flaws and everything to do with cheap, ultimately nonsensical twists.