Monday, March 28, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... BUSINESS IS BUSINESS

Only now does it occur to me... that Paul Verhoeven invented a "SUSPIRIA fetish" six years before SUSPIRIA came out!  

Allow me to explain that barely coherent idea in further detail: BUSINESS IS BUSINESS is Verhoeven's 1971 feature-length debut, a film about the life and times of an Amsterdam prostitute.  Like most of his Dutch output, it's well made, thematically daring, and features crisp cinematography by Jan de Bont (who went on to direct SPEED, SPEED 2, and TWISTER).  It's very "slice of life" in its construction, and we follow our heroine as she encounters a number of bizarre fetishists, from "cluck like a chicken man" to "loves to do housework in a baby bonnet guy," and so on.  However, the fetishist who is the subject of this post prefers to cower beneath the bedcovers while bathed in green and red light 
 
as our heroine, dressed in a rubber witch mask, menaces him accordingly.
Between the lighting and content, the whole thing easily looks like it could be an outtake from SUSPIRIA (or its sequel, INFERNO, which actually uses rubber masks of this caliber).  Therefore, I think I'm within my rights to call it "a preemptive SUSPIRIA fetish."


Being as SUSPIRIA had not yet been released, however, it's more likely Verhoeven's inspirations were either the films of Mario Bava or the color sequences from Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Film Review: DEAD MAN (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 121 minutes.
Tag-line: "No one can survive becoming a legend."
Notable Cast or Crew: Johnny Depp (CRY-BABY, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), Gary Farmer (ADAPATION, GHOST DOG), Crispin Glover (BACK TO THE FUTURE, WILD AT HEART), Lance Henriksen (NEAR DARK, ALIENS, PUMPKINHEAD), Michael Wincott (THE CROW, ROMEO IS BLEEDING), Eugene Byrd (SLEEPERS, THE SUBSTITUTE 2: SCHOOL'S OUT), John Hurt (ALIEN, I CLAUDIUS), Robert Mitchum (CAPE FEAR, OUT OF THE PAST), Iggy Pop (TANK GIRL, ROCK AND RULE), Gabriel Byrne (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, MILLER'S CROSSING), Jared Harris (NATURAL BORN KILLERS, THE WARD), Billy Bob Thornton (ARMAGEDDON, TOMBSTONE), Mili Avital (STARGATE, THE END OF VIOLENCE), Alfred Molina (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SPECIES).  Music by Neil Young.  Cinematography by Robby Müller (REPO MAN, DANCER IN THE DARK, BODY ROCK, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., and PARIS, TEXAS).
Best One-liner: "That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood."

Welcome to DEAD MAN, the metaphysically brutal 90s art-acid-Western you didn't know you needed, and quite possibly the enduring masterpiece of indie auteur Jim Jarmusch.
 
You could call it 'the ERASERHEAD of Westerns,' or perhaps 'Franz Kafka-by-way-of John Ford,' or maybe 'an Ansel Adams horror movie.'  It shuns Western nostalgia and renounces Hollywood aesthetics. It's tangibly authentic and usually frightening.  A collage of dirty, vintage Americana set to squealing Neil Young soundscapes.  A movie of dark textures, of grease and grit and gristle, of cesspools and ink wells and open wounds, of smoke and gears and timber and bone.






It goes without saying that cinematographer Robby Müller (REPO MAN, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., BARFLY; PARIS, TEXAS) really outdoes himself here.  And for reference, let me remind you that the Academy Award for cinematography that year went to John Toll, for BRAVEHEART.

Our story follows the accountant William "no, not that William Blake" Blake (Johnny Depp) as he journeys from Cleveland to a job out west in the company town of Machine.
 
In a twist that would feel at home in THE TRIAL or THE CASTLE, there is no job––only an endless stream of bureaucratic contempt, paranoid behavior, and existential menace.

Said stream is initiated by an aggressively weird and soot-covered Crispin Glover:

continued by a surly, greasy John Hurt:

and brought to a crescendo by a latter-career Robert Mitchum who, naturally, continues to not give a damn.

My only question is: who got to keep that painting after the shoot wrapped? I'm only asking, cause there happens to be a Mitchum-painting-sized empty space on my living room wall.

Quite obviously, to anyone with even a vague conception of my interests, I think this is magnificent––and we're only about twenty minutes in.

After Blake is forced by circumstance to become a murderer (of Gabriel Byrne, no less!),

he goes on the lam

with a man named Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American who came of age after being kidnapped by a "savage circus" traveling show.
 
 Gary Farmer, pictured here doing a Slash impersonation.

The film at this point develops into an episodic, memento mori-style picaresque; an extended meditation on death and dying.  Jim Jarmusch thrives on textural juxtapositions and combinations of actors with different flavors (see also:  MYSTERY TRAIN, NIGHT ON EARTH, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES), and DEAD MAN treats us to several of these bizarre tableaux.  For instance, in one scene, Iggy Pop (wearing a LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE dress),

a molest-y Billy Bob Thornton,

and Jared (son of Richard) Harris share a campfire with Johnny Depp, in turns petting him and being generally terrifying.


Perhaps my favorite element of this scene is that Iggy Pop makes no attempt to conceal his conspicuous Detroit accent.

Elsewhere, we have Hurt, Mitchum, Michael Wincott (THE CROW, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), Eugene Byrd (SLEEPERS, THE SUBSTITUTE 2), and Lance Henriksen sharing the screen together,


an event that is clearly historic (and possibly on par with this Bill Murray/Robert Mitchum/John Glover shared scene).

I must give special mention to Lance Henriksen, whose résumé already boasts an entire rogue's gallery of frighteningly committed psychos.

He evolves into the film's major antagonist, death-angel of inevitability, a bounty-hunting cannibal of unimaginable cruelty who "fucked his parents," according to the gossip mill.

Perhaps needless to say, Henriksen is scary-good.  He has the look of a boogeyman who wandered beyond the confines of a cursed daguerreotype, and he fully embodies the role.  I'm reminded of the stories of from behind the scenes of NEAR DARK, when the method-acting Henriksen wandered the Southwest for real and picked up hitchhikers, all while in character as a Civil War-era, serial-killing vampire. Yikes! I really hope they had an SFX guy on set for the cannibal scenes...

Lance enjoys some takeout.

Perhaps betraying his Henriksen fandom, Jarmusch inserts a scene where a character says "God damn your soul to the fires of hell!" to which another replies, "He already has," which is a direct line from PUMPKINHEAD.

In connection with Henriksen, I also must make special mention of the film's unique visceral aspects. This isn't quite a gorefest, though there are some exceptionally vivid moments of violence that I remembered with terrible clarity.  That's especially surprising since this was only my second viewing, and my first must have been in 1996 or 1997, shortly after DEAD MAN hit the VHS rental shelves.
 
There is a brutal, dangerous beauty at play here, and the experience lays somewhere between "suffering from fever dreams" and "perusing a haunted taxidermy shop."  Depp, whom I've essentially neglected to mention thus far, brings it all together with a lyrical detachment worthy of his poetic namesake.  Five stars.


P.S.––Note the in-joke of two Johnny Depp-hunting marshals named "Lee" and "Marvin,"
 
a nod to Jarmusch's intense Lee Marvin fandom and notorious secret society, "The Sons of Lee Marvin."



–Sean Gill

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sean Gill's "Till the Cows Come Home" in Pembroke Magazine

I have a new short story (you might even say it was of the "melancholy horror" persuasion) called "Till the Cows Come Home," and it may be found in the 2016 issue of Pembroke Magazine (#48), a literary journal published at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  It is available for purchase in print here.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... HOUSE PARTY

Only now does it occur to me... that HOUSE PARTY and the films of David Lynch are so oddly (and intrinsically) intertwined.

Allow me to explain:  HOUSE PARTY begins with a slow, tracking shot approaching the titular house, mid-party; the camera occasionally shudders (in a way most often used in horror films––and do note that it's shot by EVIL DEAD II's cinematographer, Peter Deming) before resuming its approach.  Once inside, we cross a landscape of dancing bodies, but the frame rate is slowed and an ominous mist envelopes the figures.  Despite the trappings, it doesn't quite feel fun––it's cheerful but mostly sinister, like the dancing in the opening scene of MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
 
HOUSE PARTY.

 
MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
 
The camera shifts its gaze toward the ceiling, and in a literal depiction of "raisin' the roof," the roof breaks loose of its moorings and floats away among the cosmos.
 
The entire sequence is quite impressionistic and oddly foreboding––and it also really reminded me (in flavor and practice) of the opening scene of ERASERHEAD, a paean to dark and portentous cosmic textures:
And so with this general feeling, I embarked on the HOUSE PARTY experience.  Imagine my surprise and vindication when "Kid" (Christopher Reid)––strolling BLUE VELVET-y suburban streets at night––is stopped by some local cops who refer to him as.... "Eraserhead."
 
This freeze frame would only be more 'Lynchian' if that flashlight was also flickering.  And if BOB were crouching in the background.

 
Jack Nance wishes he could attend your HOUSE PARTY, but he can't afford a babysitter.

And indeed Lynch took notice––in 1992 he went on to hire cinematographer Peter Deming to shoot the second episode of his bizarro and short-lived sitcom ON THE AIR, and they've worked together a total of seven times since (HOTEL ROOM, LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, INLAND EMPIRE, DURAN DURAN: UNSTAGED, and the new episodes of TWIN PEAKS).  Therefore, we could choose to see the opening scene of HOUSE PARTY as essentially a trial run for MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and in retrospect we can even find an analog for the opening tracking shot  in the frightening approach across the pavement toward the Club Silencio:
Who knew that Kid N' Play would have such a profound impact on what I consider to be the finest film of 2001 and possibly this 21st Century?  (Naturally, I mean HOUSE PARTY 4: DOWN TO THE LAST MINUTE.)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Film Review: THE PROTECTOR (1985, James Glickenhaus)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jackie Chan (RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER), Danny Aiello (THE STUFF, DO THE RIGHT THING), Roy Chiao (BLOODSPORT, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM), John Spencer (THE ROCK, THE WEST WING), Mike Starr (GOODFELLAS, ED WOOD), Moon Lee (MR. VAMPIRE, FIGHTING MADAM, FIGHTING MADAM 2).  Cinematography by Mark Irwin (VIDEODROME, SCANNERS).
Tag-line:  "Now, New York has a new weapon––a cop with his own way of fighting crime!"
Best one-liner:  "I never go anywhere in southeast Asia without an Uzi!"

In a familiar, darkened alleyway:
"Whaddya got for me today?"
-"Jackie Chan."
"Brilliant––he's one of my all-time favorite action stars, what with his gleeful comic timing, death-defying stunts, and penchant for Cannon Films-style wacky-action!"
-"What would you call that?  'Wacktion?'"
"Oh, stop.  So which one is it?  RUMBLE IN THE BRONX?  THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER? WHO AM I?"
-"THE PROTECTOR."
"THE PROTECTOR?!  You've never reviewed a Jackie Chan movie before, and you're starting with this one?"
-"This ain't my first Jackie-rodeo.  I can start wherever I want.  Though the truth is, I'm starting here because something like RUMBLE IN THE BRONX fills me with so much joy that I find myself unable to do something so pedestrian as taking notes for a review."
"But THE PROTECTOR?!  Jackie disavowed this film––the Americans didn't know what to do with him, despite the fact it's a Golden Harvest co-production.  It's filled with toothless action, devoid of humor, and clearly choreographed by frightened insurance adjusters.  It's like they checked Jackie's charm at the door and stuck him in the middle of a straight-to-video Chuck Norris vehicle."
-"I take offense to that."
"But you'll admit that this is a little more 'HERO AND THE TERROR' than 'SUPERCOP,' will you not?"
-"So it's not his best work.  So what?  There's plenty to enjoy here, and on a number of levels.  For starters, it's from director James Glickenhaus, a sleazy-NYC scion who brought us MCBAIN and THE EXTERMINATOR, and who is thus indirectly responsible for EXTERMINATOR 2, one of Cannon Films' greatest achievements."
"Go on..."
-"It depicts a New York hellscape, like out of DEATH WISH 3 or CYBORG, gangs with gaudy skull earrings and leather jackets with oversized shoulderpads roaming around a burned-out urban husk, populated only by man-sized rats and trash can fires.  They take out truckin' buddy semi-trailers like bandits going after covered wagons. "

"I can appreciate that."
-"Then we have Jackie Chan and his partner."

"Who's his partner?"
-"It really doesn't matter, because in his very first scene he shows off a stuffed animal he bought for his kid.  This small, sympathetic touch clearly telegraphs that he's not long for this world.  Saying it was his last week before retirement would have worked just as well, too."
"As far as buddy cop flicks go, that is an indisputable truth."
-"Indeed.  And as I predicted, he is fated to die before even nine minutes of movie have elapsed.  Gunned down by a gang of dudes with machine guns who accidentally rob a dive bar at 10:00 A.M. instead of the grocery store from COBRA, which they clearly intended."

"What a tragic scene."
-"Don't worry--Jackie puts it right, blasting the bad dudes with a handgun and only occasionally using flourishes of physicality and martial art.


The last guy escapes, but Jackie aims a speedboat at his speedboat and blows him up real good, all the while making his escape with a very conveniently timed helicopter rope."



"Is that the Statue of Liberty, under renovation?"
-"Hell yes it is.  That's the kind of moxie this movie's got.  Glickenhaus loves his New York, warts and all.  Where another filmmaker might have chosen not to show the scaffolding to preserve the aesthetic fairy tale, Glickenhaus revels in it.  He probably shows it to us five or six times."
"Nice."
-"And curiously, the caliber of cinematography is much higher than you'd expect for this sort of film.  I soon discovered it was vividly photographed by Cronenberg's own Mark Irwin!"

"That man sure knows how to do a glassy, glossy cityscape."
 -"Indeed he does.  So with the plot officially underway, THE PROTECTOR makes sure it hits every buddy cop trope, down the line.  Jackie's stick-up-his-ass boss disciplines him with the old "that's no excuse for blowing up half the goddamn harbor" and threatens to have his "badge and gun on my desk!"

We've all been there.

which is followed up by a slow clap scene whereupon his colleagues dramatically submit their approval of his maverick, hot-doggin', action-luvin' ways.




This is one of the best-ever 'contagious slow-clap' scenes in cinema, right up there with ROCKY IV.  The dead-eyed stare from the cop who starts it is well worth the price of admission.

Soon thereafter, there's a fashion show (prefiguring DEATH WISH 5),

Not quite ALL THAT JAZZ.

and Jackie is paired with Danny Aiello, and pretty much the remainder of the film takes place in Hong Kong––"
"Hold on one gosh-gadoodlin' minute.  Did you say Danny Aiello?"
-"Yes."

"You mean to tell me that there exists an 80s buddy cop movie with Jackie Chan and Danny Aiello."
-"Correct."
"Talk about burying the lede!  What the hell are you doing?"
-"Come on.  Let me do this at my own pace."
"So what does this turn into, a fish-out-of-water story, with Aiello at sea in Hong Kong?"

-"No, and they were clearly resisting that idea.  They say he 'spent a lot of time there during Vietnam.'  You can tell he knows the city very well because they have him say things like 'I never go anywhere in southeast Asia without an Uzi!'"
"Oh."
-"Yeah.  Once we get to Hong Kong, the proceedings slow down a little bit.  I think Glickenhaus is a bit out of his element. Eventually, there's an assassin wearing Marianne Faithfull's outfit from GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE, some head butts, some homoerotic splashing,


an action scene at a massage parlor/brothel, and a guy who attacks Jackie Chan with a handheld buzzsaw."

"Is that buzzsaw spraying neon-colored liquids?"
-"They're in a paint factory or something.  I don't know.  So later, Roy Chiao––the 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' of BLOODSPORT and the gangster at the Club Obi Wan in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM shows up to portray the villain of the piece."
"I see what you did there, and I'm not particularly impressed."

-"Anyway, Chiao doesn't have a whole lot to do beyond 'look menacing.'  Eventually, Danny Aiello––and not Jackie Chan, like the movie poster promises––wields that Duke Nukem style hand cannon and makes some stuff explode.

Jackie Chan drops a load of bricks on a helicopter and that's about it.  The stunts never take center stage and Jackie is never is allowed to do anything too endearing.  The whole thing is kinda not as good as it should be."
"That's what I figured.  Next time I'm picking the movie."
-"Yeah, yeah.  Three stars."

––Sean Gill