Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MIKE'S MURDER

There are many ways for a movie to haunt us. Fewer ways, perhaps, for a movie to haunt itself.

Mike's Murder, a mid-80s work by James Bridges, finds itself thus haunted. It's a rarely-screened semi-obscurity, not often discussed even in passionate conversations about the neo-noirs of the 80s. The thing is weirdly paced, tracking L.A. banker Betty (Debra Winger) into a drearily sunlit L.A. underground in search of more information about her murdered lover. But I had a clue that this thing would probably not rush toward its destination, having read that the movie has been tinkered with by its studio. Bridges, it seemed, had intended the movie to flow in reverse chronological order, only to have the studio insist on the movie's scenes being recut into a more conventional forward chronology.

Was I better off not knowing about this? It certainly was distracting trying to imagine the scenes unfolding in Bridges intended order, trying to reverse engineer a flow from each scene to the one before. And even though one understands that this is a foolish mission at best something about this other movie, this mirror movie, helps Mike's Murder linger even longer than it would have.

As is, though, the movie does land as a moody if unusually sedate noir romance. Mike remains present even after his mysterious death, with photographs taking on a ghostly life of their own. Betty herself is often framed in mirrors as she proceeds on her quest, enhancing a feeling of crossing over into a dreamy, not-quite-real liminal zone. Her search takes her into many unusual milieu, from the decadent but earthy home of a gay music producer (Paul Winfield, award-worthy) to a conceptual art party that throws Betty from one screen to another.

But haunted it remains. By the movie it was intended to be, so that the opening scene of the movie seems palpably overlaid with its devastating final cut. By the music of Joe Jackson, which survives solely on radios playing throughout Betty's L.A. By the evening's co-hit, Laura, Otto Preminger's noir romance about a detective similarly haunted by the murder victim he's investigating. (Both movies abound with queer characters, though the two other men lusting after Laura are coded as gay - closeted heterosexuals? What about Laura brings these men out of themselves?) And like any good haunted site it continually folds in on itself, leaving one unable to unsee it, turning over its various versions in one's head for hours after. Fascinated. Obsessed. In a word, haunted.

Friday, December 11, 2015

THUNDERCRACK!

One is tempted to believe that director Curt McDowell demanded no rewrites from screenwriter/performer George Kuchar for this black-and-white, nearly three-hour art/porn psychodrama. This is not a complaint: THUNDERCRACK! may be the most uninhibited movie your proprietor has ever seen, and its ultra-low-budget, super-staged histrionics are so forthright that it feels like an emanation directly from the id of its makers.

James Whale's The Old Dark House is a clear, direct inspiration for this movie, and hovers over it like a sleazy uncle at Thanksgiving. Like that movie, a raging thunderstorm strands a disparate set of travelers at Prairie Blossom, a remote and creepy house. Also like that movie, yet even moreso, the storm seems the result of heavy psychic vibes emanating from the disturbed inhabitants of the house, in this case the wildly unhinged Mrs. Gert Hammond (a fearless Marion Eaton). The audience is voyeur to a number of unsimulated sex acts, and eventually we feel as swept away by the deranged undercurrents as any of the characters.

But for all of the movie's campy theatrics and melodramatically overblown dialogue, there's an undeniable artistry at work within it, with the characters' emotional states rendered powerfully through off-kilter but intense closeups. And the commitment to the juicy excesses of Kuchar's dialogue is heroic across the board. And Mark Ellinger's piano-driven score plays at just the right distance, adding with gentle irony yet another level to the lunacy on hand (even the slide whistle deployed during one memorable erotic moment is perfectly placed.)

Thundercrack! isn't a movie I'm sure I need to see again, but damn right it's a movie I'll never forget.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

CRIMSON PEAK

This house opened six years ago, I am helpfully reminded, and how lovely it is to commemorate that milestone with the opening of horror's newest and loveliest house. The latest from fantasist Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is a fine thing, indeed, an old school gothic romance that puts its feet right.


As respectful as I am of del Toro's extensive knowledge of horror history and his enthusiasm for same, it's rare that one of his movies truly resonates with me; I was peculiarly unmoved by Pacific Rim, his extended and explosive love letter to the kaiju cinema we both loved. And yet a romantic ghost story, set inside a brooding manse that becomes a powerful character in its own right, is right within my wheelhouse. If its story - that of a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) whisked away by a handsome suitor (Tom Hiddleston) to a sinister mansion bearing the scars of his family history - is familiar, it hits that story's beats artfully and emotionally. del Toro knows we know this story, how to engage us with what we know, how to get us too look at it with fresh eyes, and finally when to inject a subtle twist that quietly but powerfully upends our expectations.

One appreciates that del Toro's strong visual sense never results in a cluttered frame, and that when he does indulge in jump scares and blood they juice the intensity without overwhelming his audience. It's funny to think that by exploring classic horror built on such solid mythology that del Toro has crafted a TRUE alternative horror. In a field where jittery found footage has become the norm (playfully tweaked by del Toro here as Wasikowska finds clues among discovered audio cylinders), a return to the roots feels like a true resurrection. And at a time when Universal is franchising its storied monsters along the Marvel Avengers model, del Toro finds life in an old sinister house, and makes "Universal horror" truly mean something again.

(Bonus: getting to see this movie on film at Frank Lee's old survivor, Clement Street's 4Star Theatre in San Francisco, on opening night with dear friends.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

STRETCH

This blogger's old enough to remember when a movie going straight-to-video was a ghetto proposition. One would have hoped that such conceptions would have loosened up in recent years, with more and more movies being made and more and more movies being seen for the first time inside homes, rather than theatres. And yet it feels like there's a deeper divide than ever between A-list Hollywood Fare and / Everything Else. With hundreds of movies accessible with the click of a remote, more and more off-Hollywood movies are being consumed like snacks. But sometimes if you give a direct-to-NF movie a little attention, you realize that you're seeing a movie that may have been a little too weird for straight release. And though you imagine being blown away by it at a theatrical screening, there's a weird gratitude that at least you're getting to see it, even as it takes yet another oddball turn that few features would even dare. And if you see its final flourish coming, there's still love and art in the way it lands that leave you glad you gave it your time and eyes.


Truth be told, I was already expecting at least an opus-level experience from Stretch, the latest from writer-director Joe Carnahan. I've long been a fan of Carnahan's work, recognizing a compelling amount of heart behind his movies' macho bluster, thrilling that he's as adept at grounding his stories in our current political reality as he is at building highly stylized worlds and choreographing mayhem - it's that sense of reality that makes his work so strong. And though the fast-and-loose Stretch abandons the political inquiries of Smokin' Aces and The A-Team (gone, too, is much of the emotional poetry of The Grey), it finds Carnahan applying his momentum to a straight up B-movie noir, giving us a neon-lit, increasingly dangerous and complex night that may just annihilate its put-upon title character, a failed actor turned limo driver who sees his current assignment - shepherding a deranged billionaire from one sleazy port of call to the next - as a quick fix for a gambling debt that's suddenly become due.

Patrick Wilson is one of America's finest undersung, though steadily employed, actors, and the commitment and grace he's brought to everyman characters under the direction of James Wan and Todd Field is very much in evidence here. He's utterly believable as an otherwise ordinary guy forced to increasingly desperate and deranged ends to just get his life together, and he's as solid delivering both Stretch's growing capacity for improvisation in the face of danger and his understated reactions to the insanity blossoming around him. Even his voice-over narration transcends its use as a device, as it gets derailed by Stretch's genuine surprise at the explosions of chaos within his story. Though Wilson feels like he's in every single frame of the movie, Carnahan populates the space around him with a colorful rogues gallery, all vividly realized, from a couple of actors playing jacked-the-fuck-up caricatures of themselves to Jessica Alba's gentle and sharp limo dispatcher to the spectacular turn by Chris Pine as Karos, revisiting his Tremor brother from Smokin' Aces by way of Howard Hughes. (Ed Helms seals the movie's simpatico link with the Hangover series as Karl, a deceased driver who appears as a ghostly vision to Stretch in moments of extremis.) The whole thing is held together with gorgeous photography by Yasu Tinida, who both captures the vivid sleaze of Carnahan's cartoon noir L.A. and turns in as vivid a portfolio as any actor could wish of Wilson's various moods, dreams, nightmares.


Minor a work though it is, Stretch is no less enjoyable for it. Its presence online suggests that there's life in the ol' B-movie yet, and its style and fearlessness remind us that the B-movie's where those in the know go to see cinema really cut loose. If it and other creative, out-there movies like it are deemed too weird or risky for theatrical release, at least we get to see them in one format or another. If we can get past our notion of a straight-to-video ghetto and see these available-on-demand movies with fresh eyes (open mind, open heart, per Mr. Luk), all manner of wonderful experiences may await us. Your ride awaits.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

MAGIC MIKE XXL

It's delirious, infectious fun, even for viewers without a predilection for gorgeous men. Magic Mike XXL offers all of the action and drama one could possibly want from a summer blockbuster sequel, and continues what one hopes will be an ongoing franchise, even as it gets the gang back together for a final blowout appearance at a Myrtle Beach convention. It's less mired in character drama than its predecessor, giving itself up to greater spectacle, a more fantastic perspective on its dance sequences, and an engaging sense of forward motion.


Hot damn, Magic Mike XXL is first and foremost a quest. I marveled in my seat when I realized that the makeup of the typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure party could be flawlessly mapped onto Mike and his fellow male entertainers: Ken (Matt Bomer)'s status as a level 3 Reiki healer clearly marks him as the party's cleric, but there's a rogue, a fighter, a bard, and a wizard as well. (In one of the movie's sweetest sequences, a character tries some new moves on an unsmiling convenience store cashier, leveling up before our very eyes.) It's not facile to suggest that it's a summer action movie with dance sequences instead of explosions, though the franchise sequel it most resembles is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 13; like that movie it gives itself over to its fantasy elements so uninhibitedly that parts of it feel beamed in from another planet. (Though Gregory Jacobs takes the directorial reins for MMXXL, original director Soderbergh's fingerprints as cinematographer and editor are all over the movie, from a hilarious perspective of a car wreck from the passenger's seat to a gorgeous traveling shot of the Myrtle Beach surf, the tide line beautifully bisecting the frame.)

Hollywood's summer spectacle has been largely overtaken by sequels that present mounting, ever-graver threats to the world, only surmountable by increasingly cookie-cutter action heroes. By comparison, Magic Mike XXL's action men are refreshingly down to earth (which makes their choreographed, non-CGI moves all the more affecting), and yet the movie feels as explosive and action-packed as any other movie Hollywood's put out. The world doesn't hang in the balance, but the movie finds all the dramatic heft it needs in our heroes' simply stated quest: to restore a woman's smile. And watching them pull it off is an absolute thrill.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916)

I realized I'd seen this story before. William Gillette's famed stage play, in which the author pretty much defined the dramatic role of Arthur Conan Doyle's super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, had been revived numerous times since its initial turn of the century run. A scene in which a cigar smoking Holmes eludes some thugs in the dark finally clicked with me: the play had been revived on Broadway, featuring Frank Langella in the title role, and I'd seen it telecast on HBO, back in the early-to-mid 80s when the channel would screen stage plays.

But the 1916 film of the play, in which Gillette and much of the company reprised their stage roles, was lost until last year. The Cinematheque Francaise had found the 1920 French serialization of the film (all footage present, but split into four chapters for weekly screenings). Allied with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, LCF has restored this version of the film, which had its North American premiere tonight.

It is very much a movie of its time. Many of the Silent Film Festival's offerings (especially those from later in the silent era) do manage to feel timeless both in the emotions they evoke and the still novel ways in which they're made. But Sherlock Holmes is very much a mid-teens silent, shot largely with wide shots on stage sets, punctuated by the occasional close-up or camera movement.


But as stagy as it often feels (and Gillette and company were speaking their original dialogue from the play, little of which made it onto the intertitles), it retains a mythic heft that's hard to ignore. Holmes was very much the role of Gillette's career, and much of how we've envisioned the character through the years can be traced back to his interpretation. His Holmes is a little younger than we're used to, not much older than Cumberbatch, and though Gillette doesn't have the advantage of his and Doyle's mellifluous dialogue the tactility of Holmes' intelligence is very much evident on screen.

Over the movie's four acts and two hours is grows from a search for some missing letters into an all-out gang war, its sides spearheaded by Holmes and Moriarty. When young Billy the Page disguises himself as a street urchin for the final chapter we've clearly deep in Feuillade territory; though the French producers were chasing a waning Holmesmania and playing to the local thirst for serials, the movie almost feels made for that structure, and feels of a piece with Les Vampires or Judex.

The movie's very much the William Gillette show, and yet the lively supporting cast all get to make an impression. Edward Fielding's Watson, though not part of a duo act as would become familiar, is a spin on the character that we haven't quite seen elsewhere. A little older than Holmes, neither a Nigel Bruce buffoon nor the itchy but competent soldier played by Jude Law and Martin Freeman. Watson here is a sly but supportive friend. Watching Gillette and Fielding side by side you know damn well you're looking at Holmes and Watson, maybe even at THE Holmes and Watson. Even if the movie (gorgeously restored, and beautifully accompanied at tonight's screening by the Donald Sosin Ensemble) doesn't quite register the way a Holmes story should, its characters sure as hell do. The resurrection of this movie is what film restoration is all about: letting us see the pioneers of cinema back on screen where they belong, restoring their souls to their proper grandeur. These characters resonate, and breathe. Gillette moves. Holmes lives.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

SEVENTH SON

I mean god dammit, you try to go into each movie with open mind, open heart. You recall the universal scorn received by undeserving movies that obscured their virtues: the solid, old school fantasy adventure JOHN CARTER (OF MARS); the far-from-perfect but surprisingly smart and movingly revisionist THE LONE RANGER; hell, even an effervescent, fun, and sexy piece of pop cinema like DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION. And so you go into something like Sergei Bodrov's SEVENTH SON, which disappeared quickly after a widely-lambasted theatrical run, expectations low but (previous examples in mind) hoping for at least a modest diversion.


All the elements are there: actors who've done good work elsewhere (including reuniting LEBOWSKIites Jeff Bridges and Juliette Lewis), a decent-enough story (from a YA fantasy novel by Joseph Delaney), an actual plot that expands a bit on the usual Chosen One tropes common to this kind of story, attractive effects and decently-conceived environments and creatures. But it all just seems to unfold uninvolvingly before your eyes, never taking hold of anything inside you, just existing lifelessly on screen before you. Everyone commits, but nothing catches fire. The three movies cited above, though they vary in quality, all possess something soulful that involves us, but that involvement is never felt in SEVENTH SON. Was it a language barrier (with Bodrov making his English language debut)? Was it tinkered with by unseen hands in the two years (TWO YEARS) between its completion and its release?

Even in as productized a landscape as contemporary Hollywood it is rare that a movie appears with no clear reason for its existence. Routine story elements can be viewed with fresh eyes and mined for small original tweaks (or at least invested with genuine emotion), but no one involved seems to have asked how to make this modest little fantasy something different, or special. (Indeed, it regurgitates some of the genre's more tiresome aspects, from its villainess turning to evil after being rejected by a lover to a group of villains cast with most of the movie's non-male, non-white actors.) There is no excuse for SEVENTH SON to be as lifeless as it is, and it's frustrating that the talented people assembled to make it couldn't (or wouldn't) elevate it to the level of even a modest pleasure. No one looking at the movie during its making could have thought that they had a complete movie on their hands - why should the audience feel any different?