Saturday, May 18, 2019


Here’s what happens when the need to see takes over and I start pulling DVDs off the shelf with only my dark heart as a guide…

The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, all clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in the creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes. 

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

Electra Glide in Blue (1973) has the trappings of an action movie, but the crime investigation at the center of its plot feels more like a Macguffin, a concession to genre that more effectively plays as a diversion leading toward the movie’s ambient incertitude. Its real subject is the tug of war internalized within John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), a Vietnam veteran who returns to life as a motorcycle cop and is (like we are) seduced by the cold sheen imagery and laconic bravado surrounding his post-war profession. Wintergreen is torn between sympathy for the freedom of outlaw bikers and structure and discipline of police work, and Blake’s well-modulated performance—gritty, funny, sympathetic, but hardly pleading—suits the humor and the toughened mettle of a man who may not be big enough (or paranoid enough) for the job.

The visions coaxed to life by Conrad Hall justify Wintergreen’s shifting self-regard— the celebrated director of photography conjures motorcycles cruising through air, warped by heat and compressed by long lenses-- images which have energy and forward thrust, but which are also powered by the ethereal beauty of strange, misplaced beasts in motion. Hall teases out the iconography of motorcycle-powered justice toward a much more ambiguous, unsettling end, intimating a very uneasy ride just ahead.

But director James William Guercio’s movie (his one and only, shot between gigs as producer of the music group Chicago, and featuring some of the band members in minor roles) finds just as much potency in immobility. It’s there in the looming monuments of the country through which those Arizona highways snake and wind. It’s there in the moments of repose when Wintergreen and his partner Zipper Davis (Billy Green Bush) are parked by the side of the asphalt, thinking and talking about everything and nothing. (Hall finds poetry in close Panavision glimpses of the hard gravel and sagebrush along the edges of the highway —you can almost smell the desert dust and feel the heat radiating off the pavement, warping the relentless sunshine.) And it’s there in the movie’s horrifying final image, in which a cop is installed on the road like one of those monuments looming behind him, perhaps as yet another reminder of a bloody American past and the many fallen, aggressors and victims who couldn’t reconcile themselves to a country bent on tearing itself apart. Electra Glide in Blue refashions the countercultural martyrdom of Easy Rider into a blunt blow toward an entire nation profoundly divided, the darkest fate reserved for those who see both sides yet end up in the middle of the road.

Maniac Cop 2 (1990; William Lustig) is mostly disposable junk—it has that signature blue steel sheen once fetishized by John Carpenter and James Cameron and a script that, to my tin ears and eyes at least, makes close to no sense. But even though it was partially shot in Los Angeles, it also makes good use of its nighttime New York City locations. It’s like a time capsule glimpse back to a city that no longer exists, at least not in precisely the same way, and it has a pleasurably scuzzy 42nd Street vibe. How could it not with Robert Davi’s gruff detective skulking around alleyways, investigating the apparent reappearance of the titular imposing figure of menace? (Davi is so tough, he smokes in hospitals!) 
Fortunately, there’s also Claudia Christian as Davi’s antagonist, a sympathetic cop psychologist who comes to believe the wild stories about a wronged, killed and resurrected cop who’s out there taking out innocents and baddies alike; Bruce Campbell reprising his role as the lead investigator from the first movie (he doesn’t last quite so long this time); Michael Lerner picking up a (small) check as the corrupt police commissioner; Clarence Williams III finding one good note and playing it into the sunset as a loony death row inmate; and Leo Rossi hamming it up as a bushy-haired serial killer who befriends Cordell, the Maniac Cop, essayed as always (there was a third one, you know) by B-movie stalwart Robert Z’Dar, he of the hulking frame and XXL lantern jaw. Z’Dar sports the worst scary makeup job of all time, but at least he-- or, more accurately, his stuntman-- gets in some top-notch asbestos suit time when he gets set on fire near the end of the picture. 

(Asbestos suit stunts are among my favorites, yet another harkening back to a more "innocent" age of filmmaking where if you wanted to show a guy on fire, you couldn’t decorate him with pixels, you had to really set him on fire… and all that protective outerwear still makes a giant like Z’Dar’s Cordell look like going up in flames somehow caused him to instantly gain about 75 pounds.)

Christian-- or, more accurately, her stuntwoman— also gets a rousing action set piece about half an hour in when the Maniac Cop handcuffs her to a steering wheel and sets the car in high-speed motion down a crowded boulevard. It’s easily the highlight of the movie, especially if you don’t stop to think about who’s keeping the car hurtling forward with their foot on the gas. (Answer: no one.) After that it’s pretty much downhill (the movie, not the car—that would’ve explained things) straight toward the rote gory shoot-‘em-up, stab-‘em-up, set’-em-on-fire conclusion, which is topped, as many thought-disabled genre pictures have been since Carrie White and Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees rose from the dead, by the usual jolt that screams "Sequel!" 

Maniac Cop 2 isn’t even close to good, but it’s the most well-paced and acted of the movies in the Cordell saga made so far, and its violence, though ridiculous and once considered on the extreme side, now seems almost period quaint. (Rumors that Nicholas Winding Refn was set to direct a Maniac Cop prequel seem to have dissipated, maybe because the grue-minded auteur never figured out a way to one-up the original’s enthusiastic scuzz factor.) You could chuck a dismembered limb or flame-charred skull in any direction and hit a far better movie, but as brainless, gory action-horror hybrids go you could also hit far worse (like Maniac Cop 3, for example). For all its clunky echoes of The Terminator and scores of other superior low-budget action thrillers, Maniac Cop 2 does manage to leave some grimy stains and a not entirely unpleasant aftertaste of its own. It's the B-movie equivalent of a bong shot of Ripple guzzled near a Dumpster behind a strip bar, which at times, by the adjusted standards of the grindhouse anyway, gets within shouting distance of mean, dirty, stupid fun.

A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.

In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds. 

The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.


Sunday, May 05, 2019


(The following post comes to you plot- and spoiler-free.) 
Haters gonna hate, and yeah, some folks will take, and have taken, their devotion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ridiculous lengths, in the same way that just about every pop culture phenomenon since Beatlemania has inspired people to do. But the likelihood is, if you’ve ever felt any kind of investment, however intermittent or intense, in the movies that comprise the Marvel movie franchise since the release of Iron Man in 2008, you’ll probably find Avengers: Endgame at the very least satisfying, and at the very most just about everything you could hope for from a grand, emotional summing-up such as this. It’s a movie that, for all of its bowing to spectacle and the interactivity of its universe, puts the characters that have come to populate that universe first and foremost, and it takes its sweet time honoring each and every one of them in a dramatically complete way. 
A:E bestows upon the concept of fan service-- just a fancy 21st-century polish on the notion of giving the customer what they want, as far as I can tell-- a good name for once, and the tears and goodwill it inspires are well and truly earned. (That’s as close to a spoiler you’re going to get here, so fret no further.) Over the course of the movie’s three hours and one minute, you will see just about everyone who’s ever appeared in one of those 21 Marvel movies in a heroic capacity before this epic has had its way with you. Yet for a movie that practically redefines the notion of an overstuffed narrative it’s never lumbering or graceless, and it’s the furthest thing from bloated— these 181 minutes felt like half the time spent watching any random mutt from the DC kennel or, dare I say it, the comparatively desultory Captain Marvel, or even the comparatively logy and scattershot prequel, Avengers: Infinity War
And for all the good stuff going on inside of it, there’s room in the movie for a genuine surprise or two. No more than a half hour in I found myself astonished to discover that, though I suspected the general trajectory of what had to happen, I was pleased to also discover that I had no idea how the movie planned to go about achieving it, which allowed me to relax into the experience of seeing A:E like no Marvel movie had ever allowed. This final chapter caps a grand story in the style of and with the emotional depth of a real movie, with an intelligent construction and storytelling savvy that lifts it to the top of the MCU, where a real peak should be. It even leaves room amidst the chaos for introspection and encouragement, both for the characters who must contemplate their own destinies as well as that of the universe, and for the audience, who will return to the real world when the lights go up faced with more than one of their own Thanos stand-ins, on a personal and a global level, to deal with. 

It may be that I’ll find Avengers: Endgame to be the turning point in my interest in further Marvel epics, though if the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home continues the lighthearted vibe generated by Spider-Man: Homecoming from two summers ago, I’ll gladly follow this new iteration of Peter Parker wherever he chooses to slings his webs. And the same goes for a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie under James Gunn’s restored tutelage-- I doubt I could ever deny myself another dose of Dave Bautista’s Drax, and I needed more of him than what A:E ultimately provided. But that’s what’s magnificent about Avengers: Endgame-- it has the finality of a truly satisfying epic that leaves you wanting more, while also leaving you with the understanding that more is not necessary.
To paraphrase my friend Christopher Atwell upon seeing the film last weekend, Avengers: Endgame should not be the occasion to bemoan the weariness of the film industry under the unwieldy burden of what might turn out to be this generation’s ultimate blockbuster. Instead, it marks the moment to celebrate the completion of a huge interlaced story very well-told, surely one not without its flaws and down-swings over 21 movies, but also one brought to a brilliant conclusion designed to captivate all but the most miserly and disinterested. Let me return to the well and steal the sentiment of yet another eloquent friend, a dear college professor of mine who once said of the conclusion of Nashville that if you can see the end of that movie without shedding a tear, you’re a better man than me. Regarding Avengers: Endgame I can only say, bring a box of tissues, Gunga Din.

I’m not sure why it took me, of all people, to discover a documentary by the name of Sad Hill Unearthed (2017) on Netflix, but now that I have I must pass along my heartiest recommendation, especially if the films of Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in particular, mean anything to you at all. The movie begins with a title card: “In July 1966 the Spanish army raised a huge graveyard in Burgos. That cemetery had over 5,000 graves… and no one buried in them.” Dissolve to a shot of the Mirandilla Valley in Burgos, Spain, in 2015, nearly 50 years later, and an overgrown, but strangely beautiful patch of land, long given up to the ravaging care of nature. 
It is, of course, the site of the famous cemetery showdown that concludes The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in which Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and Eli Wallach’s Tuco converge in pursuit of treasure buried in an inconveniently unmarked grave. The location itself held such sway over a disparate group of the film’s fans, mostly residing in Burgos and surrounding villages throughout Spain and Western Europe, that in 2015 they took it upon themselves to restore the fictional graveyard to the original hardscrabble glory it enjoyed in the film. That’s the story Sad Hill Unearthed tells, and in addition to making you want to watch The Good, The Bad and the Ugly immediately after finishing the documentary, seeing this account of what it took to bring the land back into recognizable shape made me initially shake my head at the depth of their obsession, and then of course ultimately submit to it, in the process understanding an expression of the love for the film that is at once similar and also far more tangible than my own, one that literally gives back to the film’s fans and to the land where their obsession took shape. 

Once the restoration has been completed, there’s a screening of the film in the graveyard for those who worked so hard to realize this cockeyed and wonderful dream, and seeing Clint Eastwood looming over the location once again (in more ways than one, as it turns out) will fill the heart of anyone who might wish, as I did, that I could have been there, either then or perhaps someday down the line. This movie, a valentine to Leone’s achievement and to the people for whom it has become more than a movie-- perhaps the movie-- joyfully redefines fan service.