Thursday, September 30, 2010

Film Review: CRASH (1996, David Cronenberg)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: James Spader (TUFF TURF, WOLF), Elias Koteas (EXOTICA, SHUTTER ISLAND), Holly Hunter (RAISING ARIZONA, THE PIANO), Deborah Cara Unger (THE GAME, THIRTEEN), Rosanna Arquette (AFTER HOURS, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), Peter MacNeill (BODY PARTS, SIMON BIRCH). Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard (EMPIRE OF THE SUN). Music by Howard Shore (AFTER HOURS, VIDEODROME, THE LORD OF THE RINGS). Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (DEAD RINGERS, NAKED LUNCH, MARS ATTACKS!).
Tag-lines: " Love in the dying moments of the twentieth century."
Best one-liner: " They bury the dead so quickly. They should leave them lying around for months."

The next chapter in David Cronenberg's continuing treatise on the cruel metamorphosis of human flesh, CRASH is a bold, virile film that's as hilarious as it is existentially terrifying.

The car itself is a conceptual hotbed of primordial fears and visceral desires: the stifling, claustrophobic space; constrictive belts and cold metal clasps; exhilarating accelerations and jolting stops– it's even the site of many a Baby Boomers' first sexual fumblings... and, oh yeah– the ever-present threat of death and shattered glass and crumpled metal and blood and fluid and bodies penetrated, torn, and ripped by the thundering collision of jagged steel and spongy tissue. We are surrounded by machines: they are part of us, and there is no escape. So we adapt, we integrate, we re-form ourselves like the maladjusted flesh sculptors we are. Howard Shore's dark, entrancing score sends metallic echoes and screeching guitar reverberations up from the pit of our deepest fears– it's as relentless and hypnotic as a highway cloverleaf. It taps into some primal fascination we don't quite have the vocabulary for– from watching bacteria mingle under a slide to pornography to, say, KOYAANISQATSI. Cronenberg’s actors are BEYOND committed. And therein lies the humor– we laugh, not because it’s 'funny,' but because these people are FOR REAL: the way Holly Hunter awkwardly scrabbles around for the remote after the crash test VHS they're watching unexpectedly pauses, the sincerely ecstatic way that Spader and Hunter heartlily applaud a high-impact 'performance,'

or this shot of a young, fanny-packin', ripped-jeans-wearin' crew member wheeling a camera away to reveal...

...smarmy, disaffected Spader.

Rosanna Arquette becomes a work of modern, sexualized art worthy of Giger, framed by chrome braces, gaping scars, and fishnets,

and her bizarre, mortifying interaction with an awkward, high-end car salesman is 100% worth the price of admission:

Deborah Kara Unger is deeply damaged and possesses a fascinating, serpentine detachment:

but, like in EXOTICA, it's Elias Koteas' natural, volatile charisma that becomes the film's centerpiece- his narration and reenactment of the James Dean crash is the kind of triumph that most actors spend an entire lifetime in search of.

I mean, look at him!

Nobody sucks face quite like Elias Koteas.

A great date movie, and best seen at the theater so you can really savor that car ride home. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Film Review: HANGOVER SQUARE (1945, John Brahm)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 77 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Laird Cregar (I WAKE UP SCREAMING, THE LODGER, Satan in HEAVEN CAN WAIT), Alan Napier (MY FAIR LADY, MARNIE, Alfred from the 60's BATMAN series), Linda Darnell (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS), George Sanders (ALL ABOUT EVE, REBECCA), Glenn Langan (DRAGONWYCK, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN). Music by Bernard Herrmann. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (THE APARTMENT, LAURA, Pilot episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Cassavetes' A CHILD IS WAITING). Written by Barré Lyndon (THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS) and based on the novel by Patrick Hamilton (writer of the plays from which ROPE and GASLIGHT are both adapted).
Best one-liner: "'All for you. There's not a thing I wouldn't or that I couldn't do.' You wrote that for me, George. But you've never really tried to find out, have you!?"

Welcome to Hangover Square. Population: YOU.

"All my life I've had black little moods..."

And so we enter a shadowy, off-kilter world of wet cobblestone and encroaching fog, shining gaslights and miserable lunatics, raging bonfires and downtrodden masses, discordant tones and eerie echoes- it's all here in HANGOVER SQUARE. Often referred to as a film noir, I have to disagree: HANGOVER SQUARE is expressionistic horror at its finest– every canted angle, inharmonious sound, and bulging eyeball taking you closer and closer to the very edge of sanity. Your head spins with the stupor of a blackout, your breathing becomes labored from the stifling claustrophobia, your hands grow clammy with perspiration, your ears ring from the pandemonium in the streets!

I'd prefer not to give too much away with this review, so I'll limit my spoilers only to what's apparent from the film's very start. As the composer George Harvey Bone, the inimitable Laird Cregar is a man cut in two: any screeching, cacophonous noise divides his personae- and often sends him into a murderous frenzy of which the 'sane Bone' has no recollection.

Sometimes accompanied by proto-Argento POV killings!

To say that the ex-bouncer Cregar delivers an 'intense fucking performance' would be something of an understatement. He takes things so far– to such levels of commitment– that by the end of the film, you feel like collapsing. Graced with a sinister, velvet-tongued voice (shockingly similar to Vincent Price's- and more on him in a minute!) and the ability to convey sympathy, depravity, pitiability, and malevolence with ease...and generally all at once(!), Cregar was one of Hollywood's greatest up-and-coming character actors in 1944.

Generally confined to roles of villainy (I was still rooting for him), Cregar pined to play a romantic lead. A crash-diet lost him one-hundred pounds, but he succumbed to a heart attack shortly after filming on HANGOVER SQUARE was completed. He was thirty-one. At his mother's request, he was eulogized by close friend Vincent Price, who many have theorized (due to their similar vocal intonations and comparable roles in which they were cast at Twentieth Century Fox) went on to experience a career that surely would have resembled Cregar's, had he lived.

But back to the film– it's brilliant. It's the CITIZEN KANE of 1940's Hollywood horror flicks, and I say that not as an obnoxious prig, but as someone actually making the comparison–

beautiful, lavish, intricate sets; innovative, immersive, and roaming camera work from Joseph LaShelle; striking, tragic, intimate imagery; and another mind-blowing score from Bernard Herrmann. Acknowledged by Stephen Sondheim as his inspiration for SWEENEY TODD (and Sondheim borrowed certain elements of the plot as well), Herrmann's score- particularly the "Concerto Macabre" which becomes the centerpiece of the film– is in turns sweepingly majestic and horrifically unsettling. It's certainly a contender for being his greatest score, and I say that even having recently listened to his scores for CITIZEN KANE, VERTIGO, TAXI DRIVER, FAHRENHEIT 451, PSYCHO, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Because his work in HANGOVER SQUARE is actually meant to be the work of our unhinged composer-hero, I think Herrmann was able to delve deeply into the mind of the character, as well– and he emerges with some of the finest music ever composed for film.

Before I gush to the point of embarassment, here are a few more things worth watching for–

•Netta (Linda Darnell), a sleazy turn-of-the-century Rita Hayworth-type who loves a good gravy train, makes her first appearance doing a call-and-response number to a phalanx of sweaty drunks in a bar so crowded, it's gotta be in violation of some sort of fire code.

Later, she's headlining a show called "I'm A Bad Little Girlie."

•A Thuggee-knotted strangling device makes an appearance. I'm not too proud to admit that I'll always associate the Thuggee immediately with INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

•Laird Cregar's character orders up some Benedictine at one point- I heartily approve. Whatever zany nutballs out there require the idea of drinking game in order to watch HANGOVER SQUARE...take note. I pity you, but take note.

•Alan Napier. You probably know him as Alfred the Butler from the 60's BATMAN series, and here, he's just as classy, if not more so.

In the end, it's a work of tortured genius about a tortured genius, and it's a clear influence on everything from Ken Russell's 'composeramas' to Guy Maddin's THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. I hate to hand out too many five star ratings, but HANGOVER SQUARE- you earned it. R.I.P., Laird.

-Sean Gill

Monday, September 27, 2010

Television Review: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (2005, John Putch)

Stars: 1.5 of 5.
Running Time: 174 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Adam Baldwin (FULL METAL JACKET, D.C. CAB), Bryan Brown (COCKTAIL, F/X), Peter Weller (NAKED LUNCH, ROBOCOP), Alex Kingston (CROUPIER, Dr. Corday on ER), C. Thomas Howell (THE HITCHER, RED DAWN, SOUL MAN), Nathalie Boltt (DISTRICT 9, DOOMSDAY), Peter Dobson (THE FRIGHTENERS, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN). Directed by John Putch (THE BOY WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS), screenplay by Bryce Zabel (MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION).
Best one-liner: "How do you celebrate saving nine people when thousands have died?"

How did it come to this? How did it come to watching a Hallmark original movie with a running time of nearly three hours on a Saturday night which I had not previously reserved for such self-flagellation? Well, I'll give you a reason: Rutger Hauer. You want another one? You got it: Peter Weller. Thirsty for more? Hang onto your hats: Steve Guttenberg. Bryan Brown. C. Thomas Howell. That's right- this movie is a late-career pit stop for the luminaries who helped bring us BLADE RUNNER. ROBOCOP. COCKTAIL. THREE MEN AND A BABY. SOUL MAN. It's a reunion for the two leads of THE HITCHER, an excuse to show us how much the Gute's been working out, and an opportunity for Bryan Brown to down a couple Singapore Slings and get paid for it (except there's no Hippy-hippy Shake or Tom Cruise wing-manning this time around).

A remake of the 1972 disaster classic (starring Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters, among others) which chronicled the overturning of a doomed ocean liner and the attempts of the survivors to escape, Hallmark's 2005 POSEIDON ADVENTURE does not disappoint. Oh wait- yes, it does. Despite the staggering talent lined up before the camera, the film manages only to be an awkward shitstorm of bad CGI, unbearable bit players, cumbersome writing, intolerable pacing, and bungled set-pieces which only serve to remind the viewer of the superiority of the original, a film held together by that incredible human glue called Ernest Borgnine.

Such a film as this does not deserve a coherent review, so I shall offer some semi-articulate stream-of-consciousness ramblings that we can pretend are well-organized speaking points. After all, I just pretended that Hallmark's POSEIDON ADVENTURE was a real movie, so if we all just go through the motions, perhaps we can salvage some of C. Thomas Howell's dignity.

A few observations on Hallmark's POSEIDON ADVENTURE:

1. The POSEIDON itself. Now, I'm not even going to get into how, in this version, it's terrorists and not a tidal wave that flips the infamous ship, but let's give some thought to a cruise ship that's all CGI, all the time. Not just when it's sinking or flipping over or exploding... all the time.

Note CGI moon.


Was stock footage of a cruise ship that hard to find? Or even shooting new footage of an actual cruise ship? I'm having a rough time coming to grips with the fact that it's apparently easier to book Rutger Hauer than it is to find stock footage of a cruise ship. Although it gives renewed hope to my dream that Rutger Hauer will one day host a screening of BLIND FURY in my apartment.

2. Adam Baldwin. He played 'Animal Mother' in FULL METAL JACKET with a twisted joie de vivre that was so memorable, I would go as far as to say that the name "Animal Mother" is more recognizable than "Adam 'no, not one of those Baldwins' Baldwin."

Playing some sort of anti-terrorist agent, he wanders around the ship scowling with intensity, mumbling about "terroristic activities in this hemisphere," and growling lines like "Everything's safe till it isn't!" He- like most everyone else in the film- is giving it his best shot, but without trying toooo hard. I'm imagining a conversation between Baldwin and maybe a gaffer dude at the craft services table...

Baldwin: "You know... I worked with Kubrick."
Gaffer: "Oh yeh?"
Baldwin: "He took me aside once, and said, 'Adam...the art of film acting is in–"
Gaffer: "Could you please not double-dip your celery?"
Baldwin: "Sorry, didn't realize that Ranch was communal."
Gaffer: "Do you think you could get me Alec's autograph?"
Baldwin: "..."

3. There may be no Borgnine this time around, but there is an annoying kid with a video camera.

How is that a trade-off? Why you gotta do that, Hallmark POSEIDON ADVENTURE? Haven't we suffered enough already? Everybody hates that device in a movie when somebody whips out a video camera and then we see 'Video POV' - generally just the •REC logo slapped on the image, which doesn't actually look like any real camcorder's viewfinder anyway. Also, everybody hates annoying kids. So the combination of the two is certainly volatile. You played with fire, Hallmark POSEIDON ADVENTURE. You played with fire, and you got burned. (More on that later.) Even a good movie could have been ruined by this.

4. The ill-conceived "Sea Pass" sequence, whereupon the major players are introduced by their snazzy Photoshopped Poseidon I.D.s... further comment.

5. 'Gute the sex bomb.

Maybe my memory's a little fuzzy, but I don't remember in POLICE ACADEMY or in THREE MEN AND A BABY or even in THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY the Gute getting naked more often than Keitel. I think it's a recent development. And I shall not judge: I mean, the dude has been working out a lot, apparently. So he gets a quasi-erotic massage from a lady who's not his harpy wife,

which leads to the two of them in flagrante delicto when the POSEIDON flips. He puts some clothes on to escape, and lo and behold, a sleeve immediately tears, revealing Gute bicep action.

It goes past the point of 'the director had a crush on the Gute' to 'it was probably in the Gute's contract.' And so the Gute joins the ranks of Keitel and Dafoe, which for some reason has me pondering how different ANTICHRIST would have turned out had it starred the Gute. More on him and his massagin' floozy in a bit.

6. C. Thomas Howell.

Looking pretty gaunt but still holding up well, I thought I'd be happy to see C. Thomas. E.T. THE OUTSIDERS. RED DAWN. THE HITCHER. SOUL MAN. TANK. The man made the most of the 80's. But something about his presence here depressed me. He does a fine job with his paper-thin character, but I think the disheartening element is how happy he is. He's exuding genuine peppiness. Vim and vigor. He is damned excited to be on set. No one else, not even the twenty-somethings getting their first "break" by appearing in this film are that excited. This is a Hallmark production. C. Thomas, you've appeared in enough quality pictures in your lifetime, that even if you're not at the top of the A-list these days, you should kind of be phoning it in for a Hallmark movie. Rutger Hauer is mailing it in, for godssakes (more on that later).

7. But how great is it to have Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell chowing down at the same table for the first time since that diner in THE HITCHER.

According to the DVD bonus interviews, Howell said that "it was great to reconnect with Rutger." He also says "Hallmark stories are from the heart." I say he was still probably as scared shitless of Rutger as he was the first time around. Anyway, on a semi-related note, I'm pretty sure that this makes me the first person to actually indulge in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE's bonus features.

8. Rutger, Rutger, Rutger.

I see you. I see you recoiling in horror at this movie. You know you're in the Gene Hackman role, and you know he played the part with a selfless ferocity that was downright electric. I know you know that you could pull it off, too. I also know that you know that you're in a Hallmark movie. And you know that I know that you're in a Hallmark movie. And we both know that you're phoning it in, and we both know that there's nothing else you can do. Fade into the background and hope people mistake you for the wallpaper. Live to act another day. In something like HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. You are the true survivalist, Rutger. I salute you.

9. Peter Weller. Donning Grandma glasses and a captain's uniform, he plays his brief role with a soft-spoken old-Hollywood-style charm which sort of recalls, say, Fred Astaire?

He's solid enough, and doesn't wear out his welcome. But even if he were terrible, I don't think I could ever say anything bad about Peter Weller.

10. Bryan Brown, playing a Simon Cowell-esque celebrity.

You could say, "I bet it was easy for him to play the part, because he is a celebrity." But then I would ask you, "When was the last time I made a 'Rollie' Tyler reference and somebody knew what the hell I was talking about?" Regardless, Bryan Brown's always a lot of fun to watch, and I though I don't actually think he was wasted for the duration, I'd still prefer to think so. His character's got a young French wifey (Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots) who presents two problems for us:

#1. Her fake French accent is horrible, and #2. We have to listen to her overproduced, intolerable singing voice. I 'get' that it's a nod to "The Morning After" (the Oscar-winning song from the original POSEIDON), but that don't make it hurt any less.

11. Alex Kingston. I'm a big Kingston fan because of her role as Dr. Corday on ER, where she embodied that elusive combination of classy charm and smart-ass smarm.

Here, she's required to furrow her brow, look at a radar screen, and mutter shoddy faux-sincere dialogue. I hope she bought herself something nice with her paycheck.


In goes the terrorist! Boo! Hiss!

Then, in a semi-shocking series of extremely judgmental events- in goes the massagin' floozy!

That'll teach ya, ya chippy! Mess around with a married man and you can taste the flames of the CGI inferno! Thank you, Hallmark. If you had let her live, the very values systems which guide our lives may have been tarnished.

I can't write any more about this. And because I can't quite focus on driving my points home, I'm afraid that it may leave you with the impression that Hallmark's POSEIDON ADVENTURE is not quite as bad as it actually is. It is bad. It is very bad. And it is three hours long. Hold that in your heart, and go forth.

-Sean Gill