Sunday, August 07, 2016

BLOOD SIMPLE, SWEET CHARLOTTE, SUICIDE SQUAD AND OTHER SCATTERED SHOTS AND SHORT ENDS



I’ve been back from my Oregon vacation for a couple of weeks now, and though the getaway was a good and necessary one, I’m still in the process of mentally unpacking from a week and a half of relaxing and thinking mostly only about things I wanted to think about. (I also discovered a blackberry cider brewed in the region, the source of a specific sort of relaxation that I’m still finding myself pining for.) It hasn’t helped that our time off and immediate time back coincided with the bombast and general insanity of the Republic National Convention, followed immediately by the disarray and sense of restored hope that bookended the Democrats’ week-long party. The extremity of emotions engendered by those two events, coupled with a profoundly unsettling worry over the base level of our current political discourse and where it may lead this country, hasn’t led to a lot of restful sleep either. 

So, yeah, I’m feeling discombobulated, and that isn’t a very good place from which to try and put words together so that they, you know, make sense. What I’ve got this week amounts to a series of brief thoughts and links to other places where more coherent and comprehensive writing is available, scattered shots and short ends about movies, of course, and about life. Don’t expect any unifying theme here this week. It’s all bits and pieces, flotsam and jetsam, the dust bunnies hiding in the corner waiting to get swept up.

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I first saw Blood Simple during its theatrical run in 1984, and at the time it seemed like a classic case of overhyping. I thought the movie was okay, a cleverly constructed, nasty little thriller that was perhaps just a little too self-conscious for its own good. But it’s never been a favorite. In fact, I’ve always been happy to think that maybe  the most amusing thing to arise from the existence of the Coen Brothers’ calling-card first feature was the introduction to the re-release version by the gloriously pompous “Mortimer Young” of “Forever Films,” and the subsequent audio commentary by faux audio commentary by faux film expert “Kenneth Loring” released on the 2001 DVD edition that continually takes the piss out of the boys’ cocksure confidence as filmmakers, as well as the level of obviousness and self-absorption of the average commentary track. As sustained one-joke premises go, it’s, well, sustained, and dryly funny, more so the more of these sort of point-out-the-obvious audio commentary tracks you’ve personally endured.

But then I saw the movie again last week. After 32 years of getting to know the Coen Brothers’ films, and after having watched a generation of Quentin Tarantino-fed movie brats endlessly Xerox his sort of self-conscious movie-osity until you can see through each successively faded copy as not only pastiche but commentary on pastiche, the Coens come out looking like classicists. I liked Blood Simple a lot more this time around, not only for the leisurely stretch of time it takes to get its dirty little job done, but also for the awareness it betrays of its sources that never slips into braggadocio—the Coens’ cool detachment wears surprisingly well.


The movie still feels underwritten in the character department, especially the two adulterous and romantically doomed leads, and though Frances McDormand (who we now know would soon come into a measure of glory under the Coen auspices as well as elsewhere) comes out looking as good as possible, the same can’t be said of John Getz, whose blank, nondescript presence just does not generate the sort of desperate empathy which came so effortlessly to actors like Fred MacMurray or John Garfield when they found themselves tangled in similarly unforgiving webs of deceit and murderous intent. Fortunately, the movie’s ace in the hole is M. Emmet Walsh as the beyond-sleazy, undoubtedly aromatic  Loren Visser, a private investigator of dubious morality who moves with the urgency and determination of a banana slug—in his rumpled, sweaty, two-or-three-weeks-past-desperate-need-of-dry-cleaning jacket he looks like one too. Walsh provides the juice that seems beyond Getz and McDormand—his performance has electricity and unseemly energy even if his character doesn’t. Walsh has been hired by McDormand’s husband, a bar owner played by Dan Hedaya who emits his own peculiar scent of moral rot, and when presented with the evidence of his wife’s dalliance with an employee, Hedaya reminds Walsh of the ancient Greek tradition of cutting off the head of the messenger who brings bad news. Without missing a beat or breaking his indifferent stare back at his employer, Walsh croaks with an unsettling smile, “Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.”

The Coens have a lot of fun in Blood Simple—that famous tracking shot down the length of a bar, with Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera hopping blithely over a patron slumped drunkenly in its path, has been duly noted by the film’s many enthusiasts, but there’s also the unexpected thwack of a newspaper delivery late in the film which puts the perfect disorienting exclamation point on the lovers’ dwindling sense of stability. Their visual style seemed assured, and only slightly ostentatious, from the beginning, gaining full bloom in their follow-up, Raising Arizona. But it’s the confidence with which they guide the entire movie, that measured pace in communion with the noir ghosts they’re conjuring, and the slimy brilliance of Walsh’s work—the first great performance in a Coen Brothers career which now seems littered with them—that raises Blood Simple far above the level of the occasionally inspired stunt I took it for in 1985.

(A spiffy new 4K digital restoration of Blood Simple is touring the country in theaters now in anticipation the release of that same restoration in a beautiful package from the Criterion Collection which hits the streets on September 20.)

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About three years ago New Beverly Cinema employee Julia Marchese set out to document the history and the then-current glory of this Los Angeles landmark, the last traditional repertory cinema left from the revival heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In between the completion of the film and its release into the world, the New Beverly went through some tumultuous changes, including Marchese’s parting ways with the theater. As a result, her movie, called Out of Print, which functions both as a tribute to the New Beverly, it’s original ownership, and as a call for support of the 35mm film technology which, ironically, played a part in the unexpected ownership change wrought on the theater, feels even more like an epitaph for an era than it might have before. Out of Print is the very definition of a labor of love, and it’s a bitter irony that more people will probably see it on their iPads than projected in the format to which it pays homage. But see it anyway for the sense of community it documents that lives on, as does the New Beverly, even though some of the faces and the circumstances may have changed. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the talking, gesticulating heads featured in the film, alongside New Bev regulars like directors Joe Dante, Rian Johnson, Stuart Gordon and a whole lot more.)

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‘Tis the season for the revealing of the Muriel Awards Hall of Fame inductees, class of 2016. As a Muriels voter, I’ve been participating in the induction of great films into this collection since we began the MHoF in 2013, and a mighty hall has been assembled so far. (Click here for a full list of 2013-2015 inductees with links to essays for each individual film.) The films announced for inclusion so far for this year are, no surprise, a stellar bunch as well. They include Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950)  and Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman’s The General (1925).

Keep checking the Muriels Hall of Fame blog, Our Science is Too Tight, for more updates as the inductees keep rolling in.

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And speaking of The General, one of the things I did while I was Oregon was bike the Row River Trail, which starts in Cottage Grove, where the parade scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House was staged, and winds up through the woods along the edge of Dorena Lake and beyond, approximately 30 miles from start of trail to its end and back. It’s a beautiful ride, converted to a path dedicated to biking, hiking, running and even horseback riding from an old, long-out-of-use railway… which just happens to be the one on which Keaton shot The General. We stopped by the hotel where Keaton and his crew stayed, which is decorated with a mural and a plaque commemorating his visit, and had breakfast at Buster’s, the hotel’s café, where Keaton memorabilia as well as posters from other films shot in the area grace the walls. The pre-trail railway can also be seen in films like Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North Pole (1975) and Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation Stand by Me (1983), and as we rode the trail there were a couple of spots where I snapped out of my reverie of riding through nature, jarred by recognition into a feeling as if I’d suddenly been transported directly into film history.

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Stand by Me is a major reference point for Stranger Things, the hit summer series on Netflix about a group of young kids, apparently Xeroxed directly from every ‘80s movie you’ve ever seen, who discover an eerie parallel world, populated by monsters and observed by the requisite cold, calculating men in suits—hazmat and black-coat-and-tie variety—when one of their own suddenly disappears and is presumed dead. Stranger Things seems to reference every ‘80s movie you can think of—E.T., Poltergeist, Stand by Me, WarGames, Revenge of the Nerds, any number of the films of John Carpenter, even Risky Business and All the Right Moves, for Christ’s sake—and if you’re of an age to find the burgeoning appeal to ‘80s nostalgia invigorating you’ll probably enjoy it. I found the series watchable, but I also found its insistent touching of all the expected bases suffocating at times. And I really could have done without the near-comatose father of the featured ingénue, whose performance is somnambulantly over (or should it be under) the top, and so evocative of the favored perspective of the films of the day which made sure we knew that all the kids were sharp and their parents hopelessly dull, all stacked evidence not exactly being to the contrary.

Eighties “icons” Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine are also on hand, in case we didn’t already get the joke, and between Ryder’s unmodulated mania and Modine’s stiff, not-at-all-scary sleepwalking, the comic value of said joke runs dry pretty quickly. With all its nudge-nudge references, including an odd score that cross-pollinates the droning musical style of Carpenter’s efforts as a composer with that of a sort-of bargain basement Tangerine Dream, I felt like Stranger Things might have actually been made in the ‘80s, a complaint that could be taken as a compliment in some quarters, I suppose.


But here’s a real compliment: the best thing about Stranger Things is the utterly compelling face of fledgling actress Millie Bobby Brown, who holds (steals) the screen effortlessly as Eleven, the telekinetic 11-year-old escapee from a mysterious compound where all manner of weird, invasive experimentation seems to be afoot, who befriends our young heroes and who may hold the key to finding their missing friend. Brown is magnetic, and she delivers the sort of quiet, understated, suggestive performance which seems decades beyond her immediate elders in sheer sophistication. While Ryder and Modine and everyone else are mired in the ‘80s, Brown seems well equipped for the 21st century.

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Who needs air conditioning? I didn’t find it difficult at all to keep cool yesterday while baking in the routine heat of another Los Angeles summer. The shivers induced by John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) did the trick just fine. Carpenter’s picture was ignored by an E.T.-infatuated America during the summer of 1982, and it didn’t do too well by critics either—I recall Carrie Rickey panning it in the Village Voice.  But I loved it upon first watch and it’s been really satisfying to track this movie’s stature as it has grown over the past 34 years. It’s a clean, brutally terrifying movie, easily Carpenter’s best. And the director creates a true collaboration here with Rob Bottin, whose makeup effects work achieves a fusion level of surrealistic horror that contrasts with, and is amplified by, the stark, unforgiving environments of Antarctica and Carpenter’s clean, shadow-pocked Panavision frames.

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Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1966) doesn’t quite have the juice of the director’s previous hag horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (which may have been provided at least in part by the leads' disdain for each other). But it does have Olivia De Havilland pouring on the honey (“Charlotte, dear, you must get your rest”) and then (SPOILER ALERT) getting convincingly steely and mean, a side she didn’t get to show on film as often as she may have liked. And it has Bette Davis, again essaying a creature damaged by past horrors—she’s believed to have chopped her lover into pieces after an unceremonious rejection. But this time around it’s Davis in a considerably more minor key. If Davis’s Charlotte is not as instantly memorable as her tear through Aldrich’s 1962 film as former child star Baby Jane Hudson, it’s at least a more tenderly observed performance from the get-go, this despite her entering the film by trying to shoot construction foreman George Kennedy when he attempts to bulldoze the crumbling mansion of her damaged youth. Early on, a sympathetic British journalist who documented Charlotte’s tumultuous London exile in the wake of the ghastly crime admits his fascination and claims to know well everything that was written about her at the time. “You’re my favorite living mystery,” he tells her, to which she responds, with something like playful hopefulness, “Have you ever solved me?” It’s one of my favorite moments in this actress’s long and storied career, and it helps keep us engaged as the movie goes about the measured, occasionally elegant business of doing just that.

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What is it about the sound of someone in a movie furiously typing, especially if they’re supposed to be decrypting some mysterious malware network, that I find so maddeningly annoying? It seems to usually be a signifier of some sort of technological acuity or dexterity you’re—or, more specifically, I’m—presumed to be too ignorant to comprehend. (Whole movies built around people furiously typing in the cool blue glow of their monitors are absolutely designed to make me emphatically misplace my shit.) For me this furious typing has become the new chewing gum or eating while talking. It’s usually some smart-ass wearing a bowling shirt or a well-worn Rage Against the Machine tee doing it too. And if he/she’s chewing gum and typing at the same time, all the while spewing out impressive-sounding gobbledygook meant to take the place of actual character delineation that’s supposed to sound cool and wired and ironically detached and smarter than anyone else could possibly be, well, it makes me want to shut down whatever it is I’m watching and head straight to any pre-1960 movie where the apex of technology is a phone that has to be cranked in order to get in touch with Bertha the operator so she can patch the call in to the police station for ya, sweetie, so just hang on a second, will ya, thank you. Where are my headache pills? Maybe Bertha knows.

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If it weren’t for Margot Robbie, and probably more importantly Viola Davis, Suicide Squad would be a forgettable wash, and it’s already pretty close to one as it is. The new would-be blockbuster is just one more war picture masquerading as a superhero romp, and though it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer face-plant, this may be what passes for lighthearted fare in DC’s already much-maligned foray into the enterprise of cinematic universe-building. The movie starts off well and gets your hopes up for a good time as writer-director David Ayer, constantly looking over his shoulder at Deadpool, introduces, and then reintroduces, and introduces again his cadre of villainous ne’er-do-wells who will, over the course of fighting a witchy woman with a predilection for gyrating in the glow of a big swirling light orb hovering over fictional Midland City, prove to be honorable after all. But then the movie settles into its generic pattern of fetishized gun battles, gooey decapitation of a generic army of monsters, and would-be witty exchanges between the Squad, and it practically curdles on screen before your very eyes. There is a nifty, nonsensical break in the action near the end as our heroes stop off at a local (abandoned) bar for a drink before plunging into the final skirmish, a break that is much more entertaining than the movie’s general plan of action. Bilge Ebiri notes the scene as well in in his review for the Village Voice, as close to a thumbs-up as the movie has gotten amidst a sea of pans, and like Bilge I’m glad it’s there. But the scene is only a break, a breather, hardly a redemption.


Thank goodness, then, for Davis, the government operative who hatches the ridiculous Suicide Squad idea—she’s mean and tough as nails driven into nails, and you can’t take your eyes off of her. And that goes double for Robbie’s Harley Quinn, whose fun-loving, off-the-charts and, yes, lascivious physical presence harbors a screwball queen’s spirit, all the while indicating that there is something human (however deranged) in the DC Universe after all. The movie is certainly no great shakes, and it’s not a patch on the Captain America movies, or Deadpool, whose anarchic spirit it so covets but hasn’t the nerve to genuinely pursue. But I’d watch Suicide Squad again in a second before ever subjecting myself to another go at Zack Snyder’s bombastic Superman duds.

And as far as the cranky basement-dwellers who are petitioning, however facetiously, to have Rotten Tomatoes shut down over the plethora of bad reviews Suicide Squad is gathering—as if the aggregate site is responsible for the content of the reviews they collect—I can only say, please find another pointless game to play. I have a lot fewer problems with comic book movies themselves than the hostile mob mentality that erupts every time somebody dares to criticize them. (This ain't the Republic National Convention... is it?) It continues to impress/astonish/depress me, the degree to which these movies apparently must be given good reviews in order to appease a fan base for whom good or bad reviews, to say nothing of film criticism, ultimately matter not a damn.

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Speaking of the conventions, with each passing week offering new and uncharted weirdness on the would-be presidential playing field, I wish ever more that Robert Altman was around to observe and chronicle what is going on. Nashville accurately presaged the emergence of populist national politics which would flower first in Ross Perot’s candidacy and then erupt over the political landscape like a pungent fungus with Donald Trump’s. And there has been no other movie or series better than his Tanner ’88, created in collaboration with Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, to surgically analyze the primary process. What would Altman have made of Trump, and Pence, and Hillary, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Khizr Kahn, to say nothing of Scott Baio? The madness of this particular season might have been enough to bring a fanciful realist like Altman into a full-on Fellini turn, a return to the surrealist circus imagery that punctuated Brewster McCloud. 

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Jeez. I rented up this DVD of The Lobster on Tuesday, and I returned it Saturday morning without watching even a minute of it. It could be that I don’t want to see this movie all that much. Maybe I’ll pick it up again next week…

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