Saturday, January 28, 2017

R.I.P., John Hurt

It saddens me to report that John Hurt, character acting legend and he of the velvet voice of I, CLAUDIUS; ALIEN, WATERSHIP DOWN, THE ELEPHANT MAN, and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, has passed on. I've described his performances as "perhaps the finest narration of all time," "beleaguered and badass," "eccentric and dripping with pathos," "the best Caligula," "surly and greasy," "hypnotically affable," "a standard-bearer for sheer, in-the-moment craft," "gently terrifying," and "mysteriously comforting." The landscape of cinema will never quite be the same.

A selection of my John Hurt movie reviews:

DEAD MAN (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
HEAVEN'S GATE (1980, Michael Cimino) 
THE HIT (Stephen Frears, 1984)
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009, Jim Jarmusch)
THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983, Sam Peckinpah)
WATERSHIP DOWN (1978, Martin Rosen)
WILD BILL (1995, Walter Hill)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... THE PRESIDIO

Only now does it occur to me...  that THE PRESIDIO is kind of a watered-down San Francisco buddy-cop/corrupt military investigation flick that is chiefly concerned with Meg Ryan/Mark Harmon fireside romance:

the hilarious daddy/daughter relationship between Meg Ryan and her red-blooded, football-and-Coors-loving American Army Colonel father, Sean Connery (!), who just happens to have a Scottish accent:
Daddy, you can't tell me not to date Mark Harmon

Yesh, I can...I've sheen SCHUMMER SCHOOL

and somehow portraying Mark Harmon as a Jean-Pierre Melville-style blasé badass.

Lookin' schnazzy in that High School letter jacket, bub

None of this is working in the least. The film's high-water mark is surely an all-too-brief sequence where a local meathead

decides to pick on Sean Connery at a seafood pub, which begins a (raw)bar-room brawl, ending with said meathead getting a faceful o' oysters!

Unused Connery one-liners: "I've got othah schellfish to fry!","Thish wohrld ish definitely not your oyschter, boy!"

After highlighting THE PRESIDIO's only praiseworthy moment, I must also point out its greatest crime: the complete and utter misuse of the brilliant character actress Jeanette "Vasquez from ALIENS" Goldstein,

who––though she is playing an MP and not a Space Marine––

certainly could have been given the opportunity for either character development or badassery, but in fact is given neither, 

shot dead a mere six minutes into the movie. I expected better from you, THE PRESIDIO. At least there's always THE ROCK when I need to scratch that "Sean Connery-in-San Francisco" itch.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... THE TIN DRUM

Only now does it occur to me... that Günther Grass, who was once a brainwashed, teenage SS member, was capable of growth and wisdom and change, and after the war went on to pen the 1959 novel THE TIN DRUM, which is one of the ugliest and most complex and most potent indictments of fascism ever written, an achievement which, among others, won him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1979, the director Volker Schlöndorff adapted the first two-thirds of the novel in his Palm d'or-winning film of the same name, and it illustrates many shocking and indelible symbols of the national schizophrenia induced by fascist identities––from a mother's suicide-by-binge-eating-raw-fish to a Nazi father choking on his own party pin.

One of the film's most powerful scenes is a symbolic testament to disrupting totalitarianism. Our protagonist Oskar (a boy whose own stunted growth seems to mirror his nation's) infiltrates a Nazi rally with his beloved tin drum. He takes up position beneath the grandstand, and, as the Nazi orchestra heralds the arrival of party officials,

Oskar literally plays to the beat of his own drum

confounding and throwing off their fascist lockstep,

and inspiring flourishes of individuality among the players.

Oskar's childlike persistence leads the entire orchestra to abandon its martial pageantry and to begin playing Strauss' "Blue Danube,"

which leads the majority of those assembled to forget about the hateful pomp and circumstance and to simply break ranks, dancing along to the waltz.

This infuriates the Nazi leadership, who actually make up the smallest percentage of the rally––
(with the majority being confused and under-educated citizens looking for simple solutions and a source of community)
––which reveals that the Nazis' control over the situation is entirely conditional on the illusion of control.

Adding well-deserved insult to injury, it begins to rain,

and the Nazis flee like drowned rats

leaving behind 
very little.

While the sequence traffics in a similar kind of wish fulfillment as when our heroes squash an Illinois Neo-Nazi rally in THE BLUES BROTHERS, it still persists as a wonderful symbol: the power of a free-thinking individual against the would-be forces of authoritarianism. As a book like ORDINARY MEN shows, the transformation of "working dad" into "Nazi murderer" is not natural––it relies upon an intricate system of peer pressures and the illusion of control. Anything, however minor, the individual can do to combat the normalization of totalitarian conventions is useful in stemming fascist tides, and this scene is a vivid illustration.

Now, to another, less important, but emblematic point. I uploaded this particular scene to YouTube in a clip called "The Tin Drum: Disrupting Totalitarianism." I rely upon standards of Fair Use to analyze film clips on this blog––occasionally, the copyright holder takes exception, and the clip is taken down. Usually, they monetize it and the studio makes a small amount of ad revenue off the clips. Neither was the case in this instance––instead, I received a strike against my account for promoting "hate speech" and am currently on a form of probation. Naturally, I appealed the strike, assuming that images of Nazi flags had alerted an automated system, and that an individual had not actually viewed the clip. In my appeal, I explained not only the film's established pedigree (it is widely considered an important anti-fascist tract, and its association with the Nobel Prize and the Palm d'or certainly back that assertion) but also the purpose of the clip, which vividly illustrates the power of the individual against oppressive power structures. I received a reply this morning, informing me that my probation and their original ruling still stand, not on "copyright," but on "Community Guidelines" standards. I don't know what is more troubling: that they would censor a clip without judging the content (films ranging in importance from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to THE SORROW AND THE PITY contain swastika imagery), or that they did judge the content and simply disagreed with the anti-authoritarian message. In any event, I'll sit out my probation; there are far more important issues to get worked up about.  [Even more interesting is that a somewhat longer version of the clip seems to already exist on YouTube (you can easily find it, I imagine, but I won't link to it in the hopes that they, too, will not accused of hate speech).]

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.