Friday, September 23, 2016

Celebrate Bisexuality Day Special - THE RUBBER GUN (1977)

I normally don't participate in unofficial holidays, such as National Kite Day or National Hot Dog Day or National Prank The General Populace To Celebrate Your Bizarre Fetish As An Unofficial Holiday Day.  It's not that I hate fun or holidays, it's just that I never know about these things until the day is half over and there are so many of them that even if I wanted to keep up with them it'd be just a tinge less than impossible.  That being said, earlier today I opened up Facebook and in my Trending feed was a notice for Celebrate Bisexuality Day, an unofficial holiday that I'd not only missed until half the day was over but had also never heard of before.  And you know what?  It's high time for a bit of biwareness.  And it's also high time for me to get that one last foot out of the closet.

My good friends and close family already know that I'm bisexual but I almost never bring it up in conversation and haven't bothered to come out to colleagues and other acquaintances.  My usual tack is that my sexual orientation is almost never relevant to the kinds of discussions and situations I find myself in during the day, and it's the kind of information that I don't like having to talk about without a good reason; I simply have no reason to talk about it.  It's part of my general social and political attitude towards how I feel sexual orientation should be treated, which is as a harmless cosmetic attribute of daily life that has little effect on others and doesn't affect how people go about their business.  I'm not a particularly political person to begin with, considering myself someone that focuses on ethics rather than machinations and posturing, and when I came out I realized that I was suddenly forced to have an opinion on a political issue at a time where I would much rather be left alone.  The thing about "coming out" is that you don't just come out once, you make a decision whether or not to come out to every new person you meet for the rest of your life.  Anybody in the Queer* populace who's had the unfortunate experience of being asked point blank if they're gay, as I have been, knows what I'm talking about, and it takes a great deal of patience not to just snap back, "I dunno - are you?!" and walk out of the room.  It's just a rude question 99% of the time, kind of like asking someone if they use toilet paper or how frequently they masturbate.  It infuriates me that sexual orientation is a political issue at all, and in an ideal world people wouldn't have to take sides and make stands based on a flimsy connection with who you sleep with and who you vote for.

And then there's that "taking sides" thing, another reason I don't talk about my sexuality much.  Few things make me feel like I've been unjustly nudged out of the room like the notion of having to pick sides of either being straight or gay.  I "pass" for straight almost all the time, not because I'm trying to appear that way but because I simply grew into my personality and didn't change it very much when I came out - if anything I just became happier and more self-confident.  I'm sure quite a few people I interact with very frequently would be a bit shocked if I gave them the scoop, and a good number of them would suspect, vocally or secretly, that I'm faking it and am either straight and just want attention or gay and playing it safe.  The public perception of bisexuality, while definitely improved vastly over the decades, still clings to some creaky misconceptions.  Female bisexuality is largely treated as a novelty, something to titillate straight men more than a real aspect of the women themselves, or a phase that they'll get over once they meet Mr. Right.  At the other end of the spectrum male bisexuality is treated as the aforementioned ruse, or, in the case of media depictions, a perversity that hides sociopathy or malice.  

This latter version of male bisexuality got me to thinking back on all the Queer characters I'd seen in fiction and take a hard look at them in search of that elusive character, a bisexual who's not closeted and is a positive presence in the story.  This is much harder to find than you might think, especially with how many positive, assured gay characters we've seen in recent years.  The times are definitely a-changing, so much so that Archie comics, one of the most resiliently old-school child-oriented comics around, introduced an openly gay male character a few years ago, Kevin Keller, and not only was the response in some circles overwhelmingly adoring some of his comics sold out (I'd also argue that he has no personality outside of his orientation, but whatevs).  On the TV series Mr. Robot, the boss of Elliot, the main character, is gay, and as the series progresses he ends up being the only completely kind, decent character in the show.  Heck, ParaNorman's side characters include a gay guy who's orientation is only revealed in a throwaway line at the end of the movie, a first for a mainstream family flick.  Meanwhile, female bisexuals in movies and TV are almost never treated with more depth than with that dark-eyed waif on House who has a long-term romance with her irritating male hunk colleague but'll do a belly button shot off a stripper if she think it'll boost ratings.  There's a lot of inconsequential female bisexuality in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland but its inclusion is pointless and kind of distracting, only adding to the vast pit of shrieking hell that is that film's innumerable problems.  Lena Dunham's semi-autobiographical Hannah Horvath in Girls has a handful of sexual moments with other women throughout the series but it adds little to her character except to reflect her scatterbrained lust for social adventurousness and flighty immaturity that the show depicts as part of her whole generation's emotional deficiencies.  As for male bisexuality there's...well, there's Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but his attraction to men serves mainly to add yet another sword of Damacles over his head rather than add anything substantial to his character and serves more as a refection of his lust for power and control than anything else.  A case could be made for the protagonists of Brokeback Mountain, both of whom maintain marriages with women during their decades-long affair, but the environment they're in is so repressive that they're obliged to bend over backwards to maintain a facade of normalcy and Jake Gyllenhaal's character is only shown having any real interest in men.  An interesting case can be seen in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a kidnapping three-hander wherein two men kidnap the daughter of a rich man for ransom, only for one of them to reveal himself as her former lover and tells her he'll keep her from getting hurt and plans on splitting the money with her.  However, it's later revealed that he and the other kidnapper are lovers themselves, and the layers of deception and twisted alliances grow heavier and heavier as the movie progresses.  It was a really interesting use of the format and the movie did a good job of painting the first kidnapper as truly torn between his past love and current one.  It's also a use of bisexuality as a symbolic anchor for the themes of the story, and while it was done very well in the film the men are still the villains of the piece and the situation eventually blows up in everyone's faces.  An odd example is the 1990's computer game Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, wherein an office drone at a secretive company tries to solve a series of gruesome murders in his workplace while at the same time sleeping with a female coworker and sheepishly growing attracted to a gay male colleague.  In the finale (SPOILERS) it's revealed that the Big Secret of the company has to do with alien experimentation and that the protagonist is actually an alien/human hybrid borne out of an accident.  His sexuality adds up to little more than a reflection of his split identity, and while he gets to have a pair of wild, fetishy sex scenes with women he gets little more than an attempted kiss with his male crush, only to see said crush get killed seconds later.  I suppose you could point to 1982's Making Love, once a very controversial film, where Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson's marriage is threatened by Ontkean having an affair with Harry Hamlin, but this late-blooming sexuality thing is the entire plot of the film and therefore assumes the role of the "villain".

After much thought (which leaves out butt-tons of material that could have better examples than the ones I'm about to give) I could only think of one instance apiece in film where a male or female protagonist is bisexual, they are unquestionably a positive influence in the story, and their sexuality isn't the entire plot or brought up more for symbolic purposes than as a legitimate character trait.  For women the example is a bit shaky as the film is of that most dreaded early '90's genre, the erotic thiller.  The goofy DTV mystery Desire featured Kate Hodge of She-Wolf of London and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III investigating murders that relate to the perfume business, and (SPOILERS) the villain is revealed at the end to be a woman Hodge was sleeping with back in the day.  At no point will I try to tell you that this is a good movie (or that I've seen much more than a clipshow version of it), especially considering that one of the film's red herrings is a man who hits on Hodge (successfully, I might add) by claiming his nose is so good he can smell whether or not she's wearing underwear.  One could easily say that the bisexual angle was tossed in to rile up male viewers, but the strength of Kate Hodge's character and the substantial enough plot keep the film from being just a porn with no sex scenes, so I can give it a begrudging gold star for Bisexual Effort.  For men, however, I can finally talk about a funky little flick that has been on my talk-about-yes-sir list for a while now: The Rubber Gun.

Canadian cinema is all too often left in the conversational dust in American cinephilia, and that's a shame as the country is just as capable of producing quality directors as anywhere else.  David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors and is one of the most respected voices in modern horror filmmaking, and Atom Egoyan got a lot of critical appraisal in the US before scoring a bonafide hit with The Sweet Hereafter, one of my favorite movies ever.  Right now one of the most exciting directors working in Hollywood is the Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, who produced a string of acclaimed French-language films before making Prisoners and Sicario, both among the best movies of their respective years, and Arrival looks like it'll be just as wonderful from the trailers.  A more flash-in-the-pan director is Allan Moyle, whose sophomore effort, Times Square, is a touching and subversive teen flick where a high school girl is spirited away by a brash runaway and goes on an adventure of punk rock, rule-breaking and self-discovery in a pre-Giuliani'ed Times Square.  He would later go on to direct the Christian Slater DJ movie Pump Up the Volume, but today we're talking about his first film, released in 1977 to exclusively Canadian praise and being nominated for two Genie awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars.  It's total obscurity in the U.S. is accounted for by it never having hit video, back then or now, and so its reputation is based on what bootleggers and people who like watching movies on YouTube feel about it, which is thankfully positive.

At a Montreal bookstore Allan (Moyle) meets Steve (Stephen Lack), a young artist, and the two of them hit it off, with Steve inviting Allan to meet the other people who live at his apartment in a loose kind of commune/drug den.  Allan happens to be a university student going for a sociology degree, and decides to join Steve's circle of friends while secretly recording his experiences for a paper based on testing to see if a drug community can have a positive effect on its members in the right circumstances.  Things are mostly loose and relaxed in the "family", where Steve and the others share drugs and sleep with each other freely, including between Steve and Pierre (Pierre Robert), a prostitute and heroin addict.  Allan keeps a certain distance, staying off the hard drugs and refraining from intercourse, but things get tricky when Pierre proposes to rob drugs from a locker at a train station in a bid to gain control of the group, whatever that might entail.

Running a scant 75 minutes in the cut I saw, The Rubber Gun is a casual, poignant view into the lives of society's most harmless deviants.  It's the kind of independent film that could have only been made as a truly independent movie in the 1970's - the camerawork is loosy goosy, the dialogue is mostly improvised and the whole thing looks like it was shot in a weekend.  While that can spell doom for other films this one uses its tension-laden setup and brief runtime to its advantage, keeping the story tight while allowing the actors to lay it all out.  The mood is encapsulated by the performance of Stephen Lack as Steve, at once hip and affectionate, too cool for the room but never ignoring the needs and feelings of his friends.  Fans of exploding heads may recall Lack as the frustratingly wooden, terribly miscast protagonist of Scanners, and no amount of viewings can make Lack's awkwardness easier to look at.  The truth of the matter is that Lack was never really an actor - he's a painter and sculptor who slid into acting a handful of times, and in The Rubber Gun his presence works because he's allowed to just be himself.  It also helps that he co-wrote the script with Moyle, and because he was clearly working with friends - the music consists of quirky cabaret/bar rock songs by Lewis Furey, an underground Canadian musician who commissioned Lack to make the cover of his first album in '76.  The other actors also come across as non-actors but this kind of movie doesn't necessarily require Shakespearean emoting, just sincerity and a minimal number of flubs.

While the movie is certainly worth viewing in its own right, its take on sexuality is remarkable and remarkably ahead of its time.  Both Steve and Pierre are indisputably bisexual and are totally comfortable talking about their sexual experiences together with the rest of the "family" and Allan, and at one point Steve offers to sleep with Allan, an offer Allan would clearly like to take him up on but can't because of his need for distance in his duplicitous study.  While Allan's sexuality is left ambiguous it's never questioned or really brought up, and Allan never feels the need to pry into Steve or Pierre's orientation.  It's just part of life in their little community and has little effect on the story, and the film could have easily been rewritten to make everyone straight without changing the plot at all.  And the thing of it is, the film makes life in the commune look pretty appealing and ethically reasonable, even though the furniture is junky, nobody has any money and, well, heroin.  Steve remains a positive presence in the film even after the fit hits the shan, and there's no comeuppance or punishment for his sexuality or choice to live on the fringe, and the viewer is left with a weird admiration for what the "family" was doing.

Because of the film's miniscule impact I can't say it's had any influence on depictions of Queerness in the movies, but it does stand as a good example of having multiple main characters who aren't straight and go about the plot as if it doesn't matter, which it doesn't.  In the coming years I'm sure we'll see more solid bisexual characters on screens big and small but American culture still has a way to go wrapping its head around bisexuality and how it's OK to not "pick a side" or make a political statement with a small part of your identity.  Reviewing The Rubber Gun is a small reminder for me, at least, that not only is it totally OK for me to be bi but that I probably could use to have a bit less fear talking about my orientation, even if just to put as normal and reasonable a face on it as I can.  I'm bi and I'm fine, and it's a fine day to say it.

Here's the full movie


*I use the term "queer" as a blanket term for the LGBTQ community, not at all derisively but because it was the academic blanket term in the 90's and no more convenient term has come about since then.  Also, just because I'm saying "queer" that doesn't mean that I'll be totally cool with you calling me queer, bub.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Short Order - John Korty's Lumage

Late last September one of the home video world's most direly outstanding debts was finally repaid, and it came in the form of a print-on-demand DVD from Warner Bros.  Longtime readers may recall that one of my favorite movies ever, specifically my favorite animated film after Fantasia and The Incredibles, is Twice Upon A Time, an utterly delightful and hilarious fantasy with characters like Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, Synonamess Botch and Rod Rescueman.  A fleet jaunt through the garden of spoofly whimsy, the George Lucas-executive-produced joint is the only feature-length animation by Korty Films under the leadership of John Korty, animator and TV-movie director, and its singular presence in the film world is partially due to a bungled release by its distributor, The Ladd Company, outputters of Blade Runner.  Ladd chose to give it a limited theatrical run in order to give what might be the company's great winter passion to The Right Stuff and the decision ultimately wasn't enough to keep the company from sinking into bankruptcy, and further appearances of the film on TV and home video were complicated by infighting between Korty and producer Bill Couturié.  The Warner Bros. Archive Collection release is the only legit video version since the early 90's and features two different audio tracks as a compromise to both Korty and Couturié's preferred cuts, and the cult animation gods smiled down from their seat on top of Mount Animalympus.  The film's rescuing is important not only for making a kickass kartoon available once again but also because it helps preserve Lumage, an animation technique invented by Korty and used in Twice Upon a Time for its one and only shot at feature-length glory.

"It's alright, I'm wearing rubber underwear!"

How Lumage actually works might not be apparent from the clips in the trailer (a good thing, as one isn't supposed to think about how a film is animated but rather be sucked into its world) but here's the skinny: the characters are first sketched out, then translucent plastic is cut up to form them, and the pieces are moved around on a light table, the kind used for drafting.  The positions are shot frame by frame and viola.  If this sounds time consuming rest assured that it's far more time consuming than you think, as every frame of action has to be sketched and then cut out and then filmed, making the work potentially twice as life-consuming as traditional animation.  There's a reason not many stop-motion movies are made these days (and why they're so dang expensive) and understandably Lumage never really caught on outside of Korty Films.  The real shame in losing the art isn't just that it's cutout animation, a rarely-used technique these days (seen here in John Weldon's The Lump, filmed in "Recyclomation"), but that the addition of backlighting makes the technique not only especially rare but uncommonly beautiful - remember how astonishing it was to see intense, real-life glowing in moments of The Secret of Nimh, such as Mrs. Frisby's convo with the Great Owl?  The use of light here allows the liquid textures of the plastic figures radiate and come alive in a way that paper and pen could never accomplish.  Korty and co. exploit this throughout the film by using every opportunity to change the textural makeup on the characters, such as Ralph's fur, giving them a magical, almost volatile presence.  You might be wondering how a feature-length film using such a difficult and new animation technique got greenlit, and the answer is not only simple but a fine trip in the wayback machine - Korty had used it many times before, all under the great umbrella of 70's children's television.

In the 70s and 80s Korty Films produced dozens of short bits for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, both Children's Television Workshop shows and, at least for the latter, the standard for young children's programming.  One of the big draws of Sesame Street was teaching simple concepts, such as numbers and letters, in creative and fun ways, and the quality and variety of artists they got to make these bits kept both Sesame Street and The Electric Company head and shoulders above anything similar before it, and it's the reason that Sesame Street managed to stay on the air and on top for so long that some of the kids who saw the early seasons had grandchildren who watched the show.  Korty's shorts were among the best pieces of animation to appear on the two shows, not only for their educational value but also their wit and attention to detail, such as the above bit "Q is for Quiet" wherein the letters of the word "quiet" jabber and argue.

What strikes me the most about Korty's Sesame Street work is his care and respect in depicting people, such as with "Angry Annie" here.  Think about how much work it took to cut out and shape her hair and then animate all the tiny movements as she pulls it, shakes her head around and reacts to its presence on the tip of her nose.  The most difficult task in any animated film is making the characters believable and Korty makes up for the flat appearance of Lumage with tons of detail drawn from a sharp eye as to how people think and act upon those thoughts in subconscious ways.  Also apparent is how the voice actors are allowed to flesh out their performances through ad lib and inconsistency, giving their characters a fine naturalism that Korty worked off of to great effect.  The cast of Twice Upon a Time was made up of improv comedians such as Lorenzo Music and Marshall Efron, and different cuts of the film had different dialogue, the main thing keeping the film from a proper video release for so long.  For an early example of how those guys worked with Korty, here's James Cranna, the voice of Scuzzbopper, in a Sesame Street bit:

Sesame Street was a notable change from earlier children's programming in two major ways - it's setting was decidedly urban rather than the rural or fantastic worlds before it and its cast was racially integrated, a point of contention with conservative viewers, especially in the deep South.  While praising someone for conforming to Sesame Street's values might not seem necessary it is notable that Korty's previous work was actually well-suited to the show's humanistic, pro-friendship values and concern for urban living.  Consider one of his earliest works, the anti-nuke docu-short "The Language of Faces", produced by the Peace Education Program of the American Friends Service Committe, a Quaker-run peace activist organization:

That haunting would-be omen might seem a bit much now with its Criswell-esque narration and experimental percussion music but it's far from the scariest of the nuke scare flicks, with Fail-Safe and The War Game taking all cakes known and unknown.  It doesn't take a film scholar to point out how the nightmare bombs and Big Red One doomsday button from Twice Upon a Time have more than a passing resemblance to the world's most ominous stockpile, and the horrifying realities of nuclear warfare and our need to come together as a world alliance are obvious enough truths to be self-evident to preschoolers, though Korty never got that particular message on the air.  One Electric Company short about pollution is a good substitute, though:

The most extensive work Korty did for these shows was the running Sesame Street bit "Thelma Thumb", no examples of which (in English, anyways) I was able to find, which is a shame as it featured both James Cranna and Judith Kahan, the voice of the Fairy Godmother from Twice.  There are plenty more individual shorts, though, and if anything can be said for the content on Sesame Street and The Electric Company it's that it's simple enough for small children to understand, so I don't see any reason why I shouldn't just let them all hang out.

You can get lots more info on Korty at his personal website, a nice piece of design at the very least, and hopefully more exposure of his talents will help more Sesame Street and Electric Company shorts resurface.  Lumage's serious difficulties as an art form have logically kept it from spreading its wings farther than the Korty kamp but we cna help honor its vital contribution to American animation by recirculating Korty's bits, as commenting on current political issues with shorts like "Pollution Solution" is what Facebook was made for.  To close out, here's one of Korty's most charming and humanistic shorts, a kind reminder of the how human potential can be seen only one step (or foot) at a time.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

My Cinematic Yearbook - Betrayed (1988)

Be it for misplaced self-importance, misguided metaphysical probing or just jadedness, I've made an effort to consume the art that was released in my birthyear, 1988.  Sometimes that can lead to tears but fortunately there were a lot of great movies released that year, such as Akira, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun, Rain Man, Dead Ringers and one of my all-time favorite movies, the blogworthy Paperhouse.  '88 also featured a number of great flicks that have fallen by the wayside or were undervalued upon their release and by dang that's what home video was invented to fix, so every now and then I'll review a Crazy 88 that needs another peep, and there's a timeliness in reviewing the first one of these, Betrayed.  Actually, it's not a fortunate timeliness, as not only do I have to talk about racism but I have to talk about Trump.  

Of the many, many gaffs Donald Trump has made so far in his presidential race, taking time to carefully avoid discrediting a former KKK Grand Wizard on the air while whipping out blanket condemnations of Mexicans is pretty memorable, doubly memorable as it forces us to remember that the KKK and other White Supremacy groups are still alive and kickin'.  Hollywood has long hated groups like this, with the KKK appearing in plenty of movies like The Blues Brothers and Mississippi Burning, but less colorful terrorist groups like the Aryan Brotherhood have appeared a bit less frequently though are equally hated.  I think that infrequency is due to the AB appearing less like a cult or old-fashioned men's club than the KKK, more human, easier to see someone joining.  Groups like that don't immediately declare their political leanings but rather insinuate new members in by initially appearing as a group of friends with similar backgrounds, and the fact that they're close enough to "normal" people to pass makes them slightly more problematic targets as a whole for writers.  It's this fine line that Betrayed walks with total assurance, making it one of the most emotionally brutal political dramas of it's time.

In response to the assassination of Midwestern shock jock Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini), the FBI sends agent Cathy Weaver (Debra Winger) undercover as a combine driver to investigate a prime suspect, farmer Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), Vietnam vet and single father.  Cathy's search for evidence is initially unfruitful, not helped by her decision to feign romantic interest in Gary, but Gary decides to take her "hunting" one night and she sees the truth - Gary and his friends are militant White Supremacists and their "hunting" trips are training sessions where they set a captured black man loose in order to shoot him down.  Cathy, distraught over how her duty to her cover kept her from saving the man, wants to bail on the mission but her bosses, among them her former lover Michael Carnes (John Heard) press her to go further in order to connect Gary to the assassination.  Things only get deeper, and more difficult to control or rectify, from there.

This formula is tried-'n'-true Hollywood logline, certainly understandable as the script was written by Joe "Showgirls" Eszterhas, a fact that surprised me after I found out, but the subject matter and execution are deeply disturbing, just as it should be.  I don't care how jaded you are, seeing little kids being taught to shoot rifles at racist cutouts in the middle of a White Supremacist training camp is upsetting on a trillion levels, not to mention when Gary's Kindergarten-aged daughter says "We're the good guys.  One day we're gonna kill all the dirty niggers and the Jews and everything's gonna be neat."  The mark of good acting in these kinds of films is if the actors can say horrifying lines like not only without flinching but with such banality as if they say it each Sunday to their town's pastor.  Winger and Berenger both pull off their not-so-dual roles expertly, Berenger's performance being especially important as he comes across both as a determined killer and a decently charming guy and good father, a concept that is impossible to fathom for most people, the film's FBI included.  Winger exudes a lot of internal strength and integrity throughout, something that makes her gradual emotional destruction hurt even more, and the excellent supporting cast, including Ted Levine, John Mahoney and David Clennon, play their tunes with timing and style.  Unlike much of Joe Eszterhas's work Betrayed has an overabundance of subtle characterization, quiet moments and raw truth, aspects that have aged considerably well in the nearly 30 years since the film's release.  The director, Costa-Gavras, might be familiar to those with an eye on international cinema as he directed the smash-hit political thriller Z as well as the smack-in-the-face gripping The Confession, and this film shows him staying true to his roots inside a Hollywood framework.  His eye is expansive and swift, the camera neither lagging behind the action or distracting with flash, and features some exceptional magic-hour photography in the Great Plains.  His patience and knack for building momentum on simple moments result in some lovely small moments, such as a scene early in the film where Cathy watches Gary chew out some other farmers.  It's the first time Gary shows his true, clear-eyed hostility and the shot is Cathy's perspective, focusing on the back of Gary's head - a no-no in traditional filmmaking but a fine detail here.  The only thing that doesn't hold up anymore is the music, synth-'n'-country-heavy and too often weakening the impact (a problem not shared by the near-contemporaneous synth score to Mississippi Burning), as well as some usual plot dubiousness that comes with any undercover operative story, but the class production more than makes up for it.  Why did the slow dissolve cut go out of style again?  For that matter, why doesn't anybody remember that the '80's had just as many great dramas as comedies and horror films?

Betrayed didn't get the best reviews when it came out, nor the most viewers, and Costa-Gavras's Hollywood career would flame out a few years later with the colossal flop that was Mad City.  It didn't really turn around on video, either, and the slew of underwhelming promotional art show that its distributor, MGM, has never had a clue as to how to market it.  I can understand why some people wouldn't like it simply for the idea that the protagonist finds herself unable to completely side against such repugnant antagonists, but that impossible situation is part of what makes great drama and it's a heart-wrenching way to confront how even the most philosophically repulsive people are still people.  We need more films that show sympathetic people who've painted themselves into philosophically and emotionally impossible corners, not only in spite of the fact that these movies aren't exactly crowd-pleasers but precisely because of their difficult provocation of thought.  Berenger went on the record years later and admitted that it's his favorite movie, a move that might come across as hideously self-important as he starred in the thing but rung true to me, especially as he defended the film by saying "It was exactly what it was meant to be."  Like it or not, you can't deny that Betrayed thrusts the viewer into the heart of the ugliest side of American identity as intelligently and empathetically as anyone could expect, and I for one appreciate the effort.


Monday, January 18, 2016

In the Eye of the Robot War - AUTOMATONS (2006)

I don't think anybody is going to take me to task if I declare this January one of the worst months in a long time for losing major figures in film.  The very first day we lost legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, a longtime collaborator of Robert Altman and Michael Cimino, and then in quick succession we were hit with the big news of David Bowie and Alan Rickman dying, both 69 and dead from cancers that were kept secret, and the death of yet another beloved British actor, Brian Bedford, the voice of Disney's Robin Hood.  What was lost in all that shuffle was the passing of 89-year-old Lawrence Rory Guy, better known by his stage name Angus Scrimm.  Much like fellow Brit William Henry Pratt, Scrimm was a tall, imposing character actor who didn't get their break until well into middle age, in Pratt's case under the stage name Boris Karloff.  Scrimm's first role was in L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson's first film, the Roger Corman-produced Sweet Kill (1972, aka The Arousers) when he was in his mid-40's, but his best-remembered role came in '79 in Don Coscarelli's classic Phantasm as the Tall Man.  His character was the owner of a funeral home and was at the center of mysterious and evil doings, including being able to carry a full coffin by himself and unleashing a strange weapon on people - a silver ball that flew into people's faces and drilled a hole into their skull, draining their blood.  Scrimm's 6'4'' stature, grim face and doomy voice made for a heck of a horror villain on their own, much less one at the heart of an intergalactic human trafficking plot:

While Scrimm never found mainstream success, aside from a recurring side character on Alias, he was beloved by Horror fans and filmmakers and popped up in various franchises such as the Subspecies and Wishmaster series as well as the rest of the Phantasm movies.  He kept going well into his 80's, appearing in Glenn McQuaid's Burke and Hare-based comedy I Sell the Dead and Coscarelli's John Dies at the End, and eventually we'll see his final performance in the upcoming Phantasm: Ravager, a movie a lot of people have been waiting a heck of a long time for and hopefully a fitting end to Scrimm's career.  In the meantime now's as good a time as any for us to explore the lesser-known entries in his filmography, and my choice is a quirky independent post-apocalyptic film from 2006 called Automatons, a film as inherently interesting as the story of its inception.

It's director, James Felix McKenney, conceived the film due to a funny childhood misunderstanding.  When he was a little kid he was watching TV with an uncle and an old Sci-Fi movie was on featuring robots.  His uncle said it was like a lot of other movies, so McKenney thought for years that there was a genre of films with robots and monsters fighting each other, like cowboys and Indians, and was disappointed to find out that no such genre existed.  I'm pretty disappointed too having read that story, but McKenney went one step further and made a movie in that imaginary genre.  Despite being made in 2006 McKenney designed robots and special effects to match cheap '50's Sci-Fi flicks, using dinky, poorly detailed models in shoddy miniature sets, shot the film in black & white and confined most of the action to a single room equipped with TV screens.  The aesthetic was called "Robo-monstervision" and the film, produced by indie Horror icon Larry Fessenden, who co-starred in I Sell the Dead and helps out dozens of little Horror flicks, such as The House of the Devil, through his company Glass Eye Pix (and makes a cameo near the end), is akin to if Guy Maddin helmed a Terminator movie, an endearing slice of pessimism from the end of humanity as we know it.

In a lonely bunker, a Girl (Christine Spencer) keeps on guard, waiting for her inevitable plunge into the Robot War.  Her info comes from battlefield footage as well as video messages from a Scientist (Angus Scrimm) who foresaw the coming of the war but was powerless to stop it.  The Girl has harnessed some robots to help in her survival but has no tangible human companionship, leaving herself a sole force for good in a senseless, seemingly lost war.  The war itself is not between robots and humans but rather the last dregs of humanity itself, merely using robots as tools in their own demise, and the leader of the "enemy" taunts her through her TV screens.  As the body count rises outside the Girl finds herself among the last humans alive, and the choices she makes once the enemy reaches her door will determine the last day of what is left of humanity.

From the bleak, strobing opening credits to the total doom of the ending, Automatons is a brief, somber dreamscape of what might have happened if the world ended after being overtaken by Flash Gordon.  The film's most valuable attribute, the one that keeps it from total disposability, is its seriousness, an oddly noble goal when combined with the absurdity of its gimmick.  The retro-'50's conceit could have been overwhelmingly tedious, as a number of snarky indie movies have been in the past (*COUGH* Lost Skeleton of Cadavra *COUGH*) but McKenney manages to keep things sober and minimalistic, at times even static.  For example, the opening shot is a long take of a radar display showing a dot far from the center of the screen.  The next is a series of shots of a robot slowly retrieving an object and walking.  Then the radar screen shows up again with the dot closer to the center, and finally we see the robot reach a door.  This is done with simple, repetitive sounds, making the effect nearly hypnotic, showing a patience and sense of atmosphere sorely lacking from films like this, even more remarkable considering how cramped everything feels.  Everything, even landscape shots, is shot in closeup, and the grainy fullscreen footage only adds to the effect.  The low, stifled resolution was partially to replicate McKenney's experiences watching snow-covered bootlegs of old Doctor Who episodes on cruddy VHS tapes.  The robots themselves are as charmingly lame as they come, mostly cardboard trashcans with duct tube arms and legs and maybe a few rivets around the edges, though a couple of rolling plastic whatsits show up now and again.  

This combination of desolate B&W footage, droning industrial noise and static pacing is highly reminiscent of Eraserhead, though the closest parallel to Lynch to be had is his one-minute-long short Premonitions Following an Evil Deed, shot on an old Edison camera for the international anthology project Lumière and Company.  Another big comparison point is Shock! Shock! Shock! (1987), the absolute best '50's schlock nostalgia flick and a film I've wanted to talk about for a long time.  Shot on grainy, smeary Super 8 on the streets of Brooklyn, Shock! Shock! Shock! makes a mad, No Wave dash through hilarious spoofs on superheroes, gangsters, claymation, ancient Mayans, slasher movies and postpunk music, seeing far too little exposure by going straight to video under Rhino's home video label (the guys behind releasing MST3K on DVD before Shout! Factory took over their library).  On the other hand, Shock! Shock! Shock! didn't have Angus Scrimm, here a welcome balm to the grinding despair of the rest of the film, showing him as as intelligent and articulate as British actors get.  Shame all the dialogue is dubbed in post, though I gather that was part of the feel - it does newbie actor Christine Spencer no favors.  Neither do the absurdist kill scenes, complete with piss takes and chopped-off limbs, in the climax.  The whole thing feels a little long, too, though at 83 minutes you're not really losing much time.  These are minor quibbles, though, and the lo-fi existentialism of Automatons has a self-evident greatness that makes it more than worth your time, even in the face of our own extinction, voluntary or not.  And, as always, R.I.P. Angus Scrimm - let's raise a glass and hope you were able to carry your own coffin to the funeral.


Friday, October 30, 2015

The Blair Witch Offspring, part 2 - ALTERED (2006)

Part 2 of this year's reviews of The Blair Witch Offspring focuses on the first movie that Eduardo Sanchez made after the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project.  Much like our previous offspring Lovely Molly, Altered showed at some festivals before getting picked up by a major distributor who plopped it out on DVD with little fanfare (as was the case with every other Blair Witch Offspring).  While Blair Witch and Molly both relied on slowly unveiling mysterious supernatural presences, Altered rips the guts out of that concept and tells its buddies to get on their hunting gear.  Strap on some goggles, this is going to be messy.

In the wilds of Deep, South South, three good ol' boys, Cody (Not John Hawkes), Duke (Not Danny McBride), and Otis (Not Real-Life Steelworker From The Deer Hunter), are hunting unusual game.  Sporting modified weapons they go after something not quite animal but certainly not human, finally capturing it and bringing it to the fortified doorstep of Wyatt (Not I Ran Out Of Actors).  All of them are connected by this thing, connected by the alien race it comes from, connected by a history of abduction and death.  Wyatt has a particular connection to the alien, as his encounter was more drawn out than the others and left him with an organic, psychic communication device in his intestines, and despite having ripped it out years ago he still senses the presence of the aliens.  Nobody quite knows what to do with the wounded alien, and the E.T.-cidal wishes of Cody, whose brother was killed by the aliens long ago, aren't helping things.  Neither is the fact that the alien was able to hypnotize Wyatt's wife into nearly letting it go.  Or the local sheriff (the older police captain from The Cell) showing up investigating a "hostage situation".  Neither is the fact that Cody has gotten infected by an alien disease/parasite that starts eating away at his skin.

I was a bit worried about this flick before I first saw it, mostly because it was before I'd seen Lovely Molly and the only trailer I'd seen for it didn't show a single frame of real footage, leading me to believe that its distributors, Rogue Pictures, thought they had a stinker on their hands.  I was delighted to find that not only is the film really good but it wasn't at all a found footage movie, showing that Eduardo Sánchez was able to make the leap to real cameras and proper shot framing and narrative structure with aplomb.  The script here is credited entirely to Jamie Nash and it does a great job of showing the real weight these men have on their shoulders because of their experiences, as well as the terror of an enemy snooping on their planet to see if humans should be left alive.  While this is another movie filled with crass hillbillies arguing with each other the acting and dialogue is good enough that they come across as very real people with decades of comradery between them.  The effects are great, both the aliens and the copious amounts of gore (the aliens have a penchant for ripping out people's small intestines in order to attach the tracking devices).  Particularly impressive is what happens to Cody, as his affliction gradually eats away his flesh during the movie and his appearance during the climax is both impressive and haunting.  I'll admit that the alien design isn't anything I haven't seen before but it's very well executed for such a low-budget flick.  There's a lot of great cinematography on display, most notably the entrancingly clear night sky crammed with stars, an effect people only get to see when far away from society but in the context of story means that the characters are anything but alone.  If you've got a hankering for alien-based horror and a strong stomach hunt down Altered for a wild-'n'-vicious ride.  You weren't planning on keeping your small intestines, were you?

(See, if I'd seen this trailer first I might have seen this flick sooner, Rogue.)


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Blair Witch Offspring, part 1 - LOVELY MOLLY (2011)

Anybody who's been subjected to my gaping maw flapping on about horror movies knows that I'm a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project, so much so that I bought a CD pitched as an alternative soundtrack to the film (which notably has no music) for a review without hesitation.  While luck might have played a significant role in the film's success I still think it's one of the best horror films of the last 20 years and it's still one of all-time favorites after more than a dozen viewings.  It's also a good example of a great film with two directors at the helm, first-timers Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, who each went on to have successful solo careers in low-budget genre cinema.  I've been trying to track down and watch all the movies each director separately made after Blair Witch in the hopes that they're worthwhile and the two I've seen, both directed by Sánchez, are very good and quite different from each other, and I'm reviewing both of them in the days preceding Halloween.  One is a puzzle and the other a battle, so let's start with the puzzle, 2011's Lovely Molly.

No production logo, no "Some Guy Presents", nothing - the film begins with a smash cut to home video footage of Molly (Gretchen Lodge) tearfully pleading to whoever might be watching about "it"'s actions, and then puts a knife to her throat.  She can't go through with it, but that's just for now.  The film flashes back to Molly's recent wedding, and then to Molly's new life in her family's large, old home with her husband Tim (Johnny Lewis).  Late one night their security alarm goes off and they find their front door opened, but nobody is found by the police.  Molly starts exploring the house with her camcorder, making her way into an old shack and prying some floorboards up to see what's underneath.  She finds a strange insignia or crest, showing two horse heads attached to a sword, and her private humming is met by unknown voices.  It's not the only secret the house holds, as Molly can't bear to stay in certain rooms, especially those with pictures and knickknacks of her troubled, recently deceased parents.  Molly's unease about her new living situation isn't helped by an unknown person rattling her back door so hard it makes a deafening noise, nor do her husband's frequent work-related absences and her crudbomb job as a mall custodian.  The disturbances escalate, sending Molly looking into closet to find walking nightmares and filming inside her neighbors' houses late at night, and Tim returns to find her naked and freezing cold, staring at nothing, saying "he's alive."  Molly's malaise turns physical as her skin takes on a clammy, dull color, she relapses into old drug habits, and someone has been following her, someone that sings to her and has hooves...someone she thought she'd never, ever see again.

If Lovely Molly is good at anything it's good at drawing the viewer into an increasing atmosphere of horrific recurrence - a return of old demons, personal and mythical, physical and habitual.  The script, cowritten by Sanchez and screenwriter Jamie Nash (who debuted with the insane Christmas-themed horror comedy Two Front Teeth in 2006), deepen the thematic well of the story by using deftly intertwining narrative devices, most fascinatingly Molly's drug dependence and her need to collect evidence and confessions on video.  Pretty much everybody's favorite scene from Blair Witch is the "confession" by Heather near the film's ending, her face mostly off camera and brimming with tears.  Lovely Molly isn't a found footage film at all but Sanchez understood the power of characters in a horror setting who feel a need to immortalize a moment or perceived truth on film, as well as the need to be filmed themselves.  What's brilliant about the camcorder footage in this film is that Molly is filming explicitly to prove what she thinks is going on to the world, but half of the footage is maddeningly inconclusive and the other half shows her in states where she's not really herself.  Her relapse to addiction and increasingly erratic behavior only feed into the unreliability of her own actions to exonerate herself and expose the true nature of whatever is threatening her, and while in another film this might come across as hackneyed the elliptical, almost dizzying pace keeps the interplay fresh and the incidents unnerving and unexpected.  Gretchen Lodge is another key to the film's success - even though this is her first film her performance is unhinged and deeply frightening.  Another strength of Blair Witch ported to the film is the use of small incidents and running symbols to spiderweb the supernatural into existence.  Everything about the Blair Witch was discovered in fragments and anecdotes, and the otherworldly being at the heart of Lovely Molly is revealed with such patience as to make its presence as evocative and ultimately overwhelming as possible.  The film also manages to make a case for handheld camerawork as a platform for visual beauty, capturing dust in beams of light and creating booming interplay with contrasting focuses.  And certainly not least is the piercing, behind-the-eardrum musical score by post-rock legends Tortoise, as well as the use of extremely high pitches that slip into your brain like metal slivers.

While I'm more than happy to sing Lovely Molly's praises I seem to be in a minority of people who really liked it, as it's sitting at a meager 5.3 stars on IMDB, though I'll admit that it does have small flaws, such as spotty acting and a collection of varyingly informative moments that might be too cryptic and unconventional for some viewers.  Even I'll admit that there were tidbits I don't get after watching the movie a second time for this review, but I feel that the unexplained and unexplainable have a surer place in horror than in any other genre and it'd be nice to get a bunch of fellow Molly viewers in a restaurant booth together so we can hash out theories over big plates of hash browns.  At the very least the film convinced me that the filmmakers knew exactly what was going on even if I didn't know, something all films like this must have before filming starts if they want to have any cohesion.  If you want something filled with creeping, mysterious dread this Halloween, pop in Lovely Molly by itself or as part 1 of a double feature with the similarly-themed and sorely underrated American remake of Silent House.  Or double feature it with our next foray into Eduardo Sánchez's nightmares...


Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Sewer Rocking the Boat - THE GHOULS (2003)

If you're like me you're a big fan of the Gyllenhaals (and pine for more movies with both Jake and Maggie, preferably playing siblings a la Donnie Darko) and shrieked with delight, as well as fear, at Jake's amazingly creepy turn as the petty-thief-turned-TV-news-stringer Louis Bloom in last year's brilliant Nightcrawler.  Arguably 2014's best mainstream film after Birdman, Nightcrawler did an unbelievable job introducing the world to the horrific possibilities of gathering lurid footage for local news outlets...or so the producers thought.  That's not a knock on Nightcrawler's quality, just a note that it wasn't the first movie to look at L.A. news stringers in a less than flattering light.  A much smaller film, The Ghouls, snuck out on video a decade earlier after modest festival circulation and never became well-known enough to be forgotten.  I would've never seen it if not for a handy positive review by Fred Adelman over at his indispensable genre film review site Critical Condition.  With only a few days left before Halloween I felt it a welcome obligation to get the reviews back up and running to spotlight a few horror flicks that needed more recognition, and The Ghouls is a sucker-punch way to get into the spirit.  While Nightcrawler drew its viewers into its creeps gradually and got a lot of unsettling material with great restraint, The Ghouls leaps right for the jugular and then sells it to the 6 A.M. block for easy ratings.

Eric Hayes (Timothy Muskatell) scratches out a living filming grisly crimes and their aftermaths for sale to local news outlets, and less than two minutes into the movie is found filming a man stab his naked girlfriend to death while their baby cries in the corner.  Almost everybody he knows despises him, including the producers he sells his tapes to and possibly even his girlfriend Sue (Tina Birchfield).  One night while stumbling to his car after a good boozing he sees a woman being dragged into an alley, and he runs to her with his camera expecting a juicy mugging or rape.  What he sees instead is a bunch of dirty, barely human beings eating her alive, and not only does he barely make it out unscathed but he had the misfortune of forgetting to put a tape into his camera.  Desperate to get evidence of urban cannibals on film, he promises big results to one of his news clients and decides to follow any lead he can to find his perps.  The only thing is, the only people willing to talk about them are scared to death and lead him into the sewers, and not even the news is ready for what he might find...

Shot on grainy digital video and drowning in unpalatable subject matter and visuals, The Ghouls is one of the bleakest and grimiest films I've ever seen about the dark side of media.  Eric Hayes is about as anti as a hero gets, more than willing to let people get attacked and even killed for a chance at profitable footage and lashing out at people who criticize him for it.  What's so fascinating is how the film makes you sympathize with him despite his obvious flaws, his curiosity and willingness to plunge into darkness to find out the truth about L.A.'s seediest underbelly making him compellingly human against a decidedly inhuman threat.  Let's be clear here - this film could easily be pitched as Nightcrawlers meets C.H.U.D. and in no way is that a bad thing, as it manages to synthesize the better themes of both films and carve out its own identity in the process.  You might be thinking that a 2003 movie shot on digital video, and exclusively at night, might be unpleasant to look at, but thankfully writer-director Chad Ferrin, has a fine eye for shot composition and remembered to bring some good lighting.  A lot of movies shot on video can't help but look like the director secretly shot his friends goofing off using a hidden camera in his glasses, but Ferrin manages to shoot The Ghouls so professionally that it's easy to forget you're watching a medium that wouldn't start looking really good for years.  Ferrin, a Troma graduate, managed to write a script that's both intelligent and engaging but also allows for the production to be as cheap and minimal as possible, as all its characters live and work in hovels and the actors probably wore their own clothes while shooting.  What he saved on sets and costumes he made up for in good gore effects and a good casting director, as with a film this cheap everybody needs to be pitch perfect right away and there's not a whiffed performance in the house.  Especially notable is Timothy Muskatell as Eric, an actor whose most mainstream role has been a supporting role in  Deadgirl yet he brings a real intelligence and heart to a role that desperately needs its empathetic qualities proven rather than just shown.  There's also an eerie-yet-minimal free-jazz-meets-tomandandy to heighten the caustic danger of the story, with most of the film letting the droning din of a nocturnal urban landscape immerse us in dread.  And then there's that soul-crushing last line.  I mean, damn.

With its graphic violence and depressing story, The Ghouls might look like a hard sell - don't let it be.  The smart script, solid direction, excellent acting and good pacing all make The Ghouls way more enjoyable than you might be expecting, crafting a minor horror classic out of limited means and stark realism.  Is it better than Nightcrawler?  No, but what recent movie is?  Is it better than C.H.U.D.I?  Well, I don't know, but C.H.U.D. wasn't exactly perfect, either (but was still way better than C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud).  You've got a little more time in your Halloween viewing block, don't you?  Here, I'll sweeten the deal - its distributor threw it up on YouTube in full for free.  How's that for grabbing your attention?