Thursday, January 12, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... HARD BOILED

Only now does it occur to me... that John Woo is not merely a master of action, but a master of "character exposition." Within the first twenty-eight seconds of HARD BOILED, we learn everything we need to know about Chow Yun-Fat's "Inspector Tequila."

First, we learn that his favorite beverage is the "Tequila Slam," which is apparently a real thing. That would be "well tequila" (the kind that only occasionally comes in a glass bottle),

and seltzer water

covered with a paper napkin and slammed against the bar––a maneuver that is perhaps intended to showcase the performative "badass fizz" aspect but as a result spills nearly half the drink; it is satisfying perhaps to Inspector Tequila in the moment, but something of an inconvenience for a neat-freak bartender.

Amazingly, this is a fitting analogy for Inspector Tequila's fearlessly stylish-yet-sloppy methods of policework. (Though it is less elegant than the "Travis Bickle calmly stares at his own alka-seltzer while quietly boiling on the inside" scene in TAXI DRIVER, this is from the director who first brought us JCVD punching a snake, so let's cut him some slack.)

Anyway, Inspector Tequila knocks back the drink,
sets it down, and slides––in one fluid movement––back to a stool on a stage,

where he proceeds to play a mean jazz clarinet. John Woo seems to say, "Inspector Tequila is a rough-and-tumble individual, but he has a soft side––as velvety smooth as a clarinet playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' at an Elks Lodge in Missoula, Montana for a crowd of slow-dancing geriatrics."
But this ain't no Elks Lodge in Missoula––these are the mean streets of Hong Kong, circa 1992, as could only imagined by John Woo's slo-mo bullet-ballet-addled brain!

Let's move ahead three minutes in time. See those two guys, Inspector Tequila?

The ones with the bird cages?

If you, as an audience member, at first glance, don't make the assessment that yes, those bird cages are probably filled with guns, then you, my friend, are watching the wrong movie.
Inspector Tequila is an astute observer of the human animal, unlike yourself.

All of this is essentially a set-up for over two hours of two-fisted acrobatic gunplay and incredible non-union stuntwork,
all in Woo's distinctive "Peckinpah-meets-Shaw-Brothers-meets-screwy-Jean-Pierre-Melville" style, which went on to birth THE MATRIX, Robert Rodriguez, and any number of contemporary action films and directors.

I love HARD BOILED. I love typing the words "Inspector Tequila." And perhaps most of all, I love this nearly three minute long shot that involves so many moving parts, actors, stuntmen, and explosions, that it defies reason:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... BAD CHANNELS

Only now does it occur to me... how on earth had I never heard of BAD CHANNELS? Try this on for size: it's a Full Moon Picture (which means its a step down from a New World Picture, and probably a step up from a Troma Picture) about an asteroid-headed alien DJ who commandeers a small town Earthling radio station, 
wresting control away from a prankster DJ (kind of a lighter version Bogosian in TALK RADIO)
The DJ in question (pictured left) is played by Abel Ferrara crony Paul Hipp.

and sending out sci-fi transmissions of songs by Fair Game, DMT, and Sykotik Sinfoney, which target specific young local ladies and make them believe that they're starring in their own music video
whereupon they are miniaturized and beamed away by the alien DJ and transported to little glass jars for his safekeeping.
The intrepid reporter trying to piece together the whole mess is played by MTV VJ Martha Quinn:
 
and incidental music throughout is scored by... legendary post-modern hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult (!). While the extraterrestrial goofiness and arena-rock satire certainly play to BOC's fascinations, it must be mentioned that the film does not fit into their Imaginos Mythos (for those not acquainted, the Cult have an overarching Lovecraftian mythos in their lyrics about aliens and conspiracies and world history that was most exhaustively illustrated in their 1988 rock opera IMAGINOS).

The best parts of this film are the "music video" sequences, in which mundane scenes at a bar, a high school gym, and a hospital are transformed into pop/rock/grunge insanity. Fair Game appears at a country western bar, dancing on the bar with the panache of a poor man's Alice Cooper:
DMT takes over a school assembly with a knock-off of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that is all you could hope for from a Full Moon Picture:
and Sykotik Sinfoney goes on to steal the show with their rap/metal/Oingo Boingo sound, skull makeup, cow udders, and rockin' nuns, which is probably the best unexpected musical number in a hospital since BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO:
The finale channels LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, as when the alien is unmasked, he bears a significant resemblance to Audrey II:
It even ends with the promise of a crossover with DOLLMAN!  Essentially, this is 88 minutes of harmless Full Moon fun––no more, no less––but I'm glad it exists.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Film Review: BATMAN RETURNS (1992, Tim Burton)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 126 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin."
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Sam Hamm (BATMAN '89, Joe Dante's HOMECOMING) and Daniel Waters (HEATHERS, DEMOLITION MAN).  Starring Michael Keaton (BEETLEJUICE, MR. MOM), Danny DeVito (TWINS, TAXI, ROMANCING THE STONE), Michelle Pfeiffer (DANGEROUS MINDS, SCARFACE), Christopher Walken (MCBAIN, THE DEER HUNTER), Michael Murphy (TANNER '88, NASHVILLE), Michael Gough (TROG, SLEEPY HOLLOW), Pat Hingle (SUDDEN IMPACT, NORMA RAE), Vincent Schiavelli (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, AMADEUS), Jan Hooks (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE), Doug Jones (PAN'S LABYRINTH, "The Gentleman" on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), Paul Reubens (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER THE MOVIE), Sean Whalen (THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, LOST), Diane Salinger (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, GHOST WORLD).  Music by Danny Elfman (THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, BEETLEJUICE). Production Design by Bo Welch (MEN IN BLACK, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS). Art Direction by Tom Duffield (ED WOOD, BEETLEJUICE) and Rick Heinrichs (THE BIG LEBOWSKI, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII). Special Penguin Makeup and Effects Production by Stan Winston (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, PREDATOR, A.I.).
Best One-liner:"You gotta admit I played this stinkin' city like a harp from hell!"

A whirlwind, three-ring circus of Neo-Gothic exuberance and German Expressionistic mayhem, Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS is, for my money, the finest of all the BATMAN films and a last great gasp of Classic Hollywood artistry lurking in the shape of a playfully subversive superhero movie (set at Christmastime). It's a movie so delightfully insane and packed to the gills with chaotic performances and sheer spectacle that afterward you might even overlook specific details that would be unforgettable in a different film, like Vincent Schiavelli commandeering a life-sized toy choo-choo train of kidnapping and child murder:

or a mangy poodle wielding a grenade:

or a circus strongman beating the devil out of a Salvation Army Santa Claus with a Rosebud sled:

And all of this in what is ostensibly a children's movie, lavishly marketed by mainstream tastemakers, tied in with McDonald's Happy Meals, and available at every mall in America––one could argue that Burton pulled off the artistic coup of the decade. In this vein, and in the vein of my beloved minutiae, allow me to extrapolate on my 10 favorite things about the film.  (There are a few spoilers, but I think I can safely assume that you've already seen BATMAN RETURNS.)

#10. Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) and Simone (Diane Salinger) as the Penguin's disaffected martini-swilling parents in an expressionistic prologue seemingly designed to "out-Edward Gorey" Edward Gorey.

It's an apparent dark coda to their near-romance in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE ("Au revoir, Pee Wee!").

#9. The aforementioned Vincent Schiavelli as an organ grinder with a Gatling gun inside his music box.


This is the sort of thing I mean when I say "playfully subversive." This is a summer tentpole studio action movie, for God's sake, and we've got sad-eyed character actors gunning down well-wishers at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony!

#8. Evil clown bikers wearing oversized bobble-head skulls with googly eyes, chipped teeth, and hypno-wheels painted across their domes.

This is simply one of many details in a startling sequence of what amounts to "clown terrorism," but is truly an embarrassment of circus-horror riches.

#7. And in light of this carnivalistic assault, it becomes apparent that Batman has outfitted the Batmobile with a specific countermeasure for upending fire-juggling stilt walkers––namely these Schweet Stilt-Knockin' Paddle Wings.




I'm glad he finally got the chance to use those. Speaking of Batman––

#6. No Batman. Ostensibly the film is about him and his "return." And yet the title character appears in only 3 of the film's first 44 minutes. You might as well take Keaton's face off of the poster and replace him with Christopher Walken.

This is actually the story of three psychologically unbalanced characters and their increasingly manic quest for image control: Christopher Walken's Max Shreck (named for the silent film legend), Danny DeVito's Oswald Cobblepot, and Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. Batman is but an ancillary character.

#5. Did I mention that the film takes place within Shreck's kleptocratic urban dystopia, ruled over by ubiquitous, leering depictions of an evil Felix the Cat?

This logo represents the Shreck Corporation, the true ruler of Gotham (who uses the Mayor, played by Altman standby Michael Murphy, as a prop until it is no longer politically expedient)
 
and its branding leaks into Gotham's real estate, energy, and commerce––it even governs how Gothamites tell time.

Shreck's image control is based in silencing his critics, and in a few notable cases he murders them, from his business partner down to his secretary. He positions himself as a political kingmaker, appropriating from Nixon and Boss Tweed
 
and his quest for power has a nice (electrical) arc that sees him becoming the literal embodiment of "power" while still retaining his shock of white hair.
 This scene always felt very "Large Marge" to me.

#4. Said kingmaking is of DeVito's Cobblepot, who explicitly wants to know "who I am"
 
and tracks down his birth parents (in a graveyard), blackmails major corporations, brandishes severed hands, poses for photo ops, runs for mayor, proposes Biblical plagues, and evokes Werner Krauss' Dr. Caligari (from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI)
while making remarks like "You flush it, I flaunt it!" which could just as easily be a quote from his character on IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA. It's a hurly-burly "riches to rags, rags to riches, riches back to rags story," and while you can take the boy out of the sewer, it becomes more difficult to take the sewer out of the boy, which is beautifully illustrated in the following scene––

#3. Whereupon a preening political operatives Jan Hooks and Steve Witting prepare DeVito for his poll-tested makeover
and DeVito's Penguin responds in a Joe Pesci-style outburst of violence by biting Witting's nose, which proceeds to gush blood.
(This scene was especially memorable to my childhood self, who had never seen such an unexpected eruption of Pesci-style violence onscreen.)

#2. In his final persona, that of a fat man-baby in dirty drawers (soon to be spewing actual, black bile), he addresses an assembly of penguins who are wearing little missiles like backpacks.
 
Burton evokes George Patton's penchant for chest-thumping belligerence in a rather inspired bit of subversion. It's as if this entire film was constructed for the purpose of undermining popular myths, whether municipal, political, corporate, militaristic, or sexual––which leads me to the créme de la créme, or at least the cat who got the cream––


#1. Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. She's unceremoniously shoved to her death (by Schreck, her boss) and reborn as "Catwoman," who has eight more lives to redefine herself and emerge from the shadow of Shreck's corporate branding.

She does this while wearing barely enough PVC to cover Michelle Pfeiffer, which has been vacuum sealed and held together by autopsy stitching. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's her initial transition that is the most remarkable, as she destroys the markers of her CATHY-style, stereotypical single woman's existence in an amazingly deranged sequence that sees her annihilating the very concept of corporate girlhood, even using traditional instruments of homemaking to fuel the destruction. She feeds her stuffed animals to the garbage disposal,


smashes mirrors and Hummel figurines with a frying pan,

makes like a punk Nora Helmer and spray-paints her doll's house black

and adjusts her polite and demure "HELLO THERE" neon sign (which is already cool enough to be in a Jarmusch movie)

into the more appropriate "HELL HERE." She then proceeds to slink around in her new S&M costume in a fabulous tableau of yowling, mewling, and posing.

Her subsequent lives see a number of interesting adjustments, from department store bomber to agent provocateur to day-job slacker. She tries "socialite" on for size during a sequence where she dates some rich guy (I think his name was Bruce Wayne?). One of her lives is even spent as Paul Kersey. It's short-lived, but this is straight out of DEATH WISH––a proto-Tommy Wiseau is taking liberties with a holiday shopper in an alleyway when he encounters Catwoman's particular brand of vigilante justice:



The ol' Tic-Tac-Toe.

Though I have to say my favorite Catwoman-related moment might be when she concludes a scene in the Penguin's bedroom (charged with a weirdo, nearly pre-pubescent sexual fascination on the Penguin's part) by saying "Maybe I'll just give myself a bath right here."


and proceeds to lick her costume while the Penguin lolls around, aroused and confused, in the background.

––Sean Gill