Sunday, March 01, 2015

MARCH: MICHAEL KEATON APPRECIATION


I grew up on Michael Keaton. The man's movies ushered me through much of my adolescence. Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, Beetlejuice. I didn't know what a pimp was until Billy Blazejowski deconstructed the word "prostitute" for me. I didn't know how many rungs were in a 12-step meeting until Daryl Poynter told me "I got this chip." I didn't want to let go of my own wooby until stay-at-home dad Jack Butler gave me the courage to do so. As for my teenage years, need I state the obvious? Michael Keaton is and will always be the only caped crusader worth my time (sorry, Batfleck).

Which is why his still bewildering loss in the Best Actor category at the Oscars last Sunday hurt more than the usual numbskull Oscar upsets. I realize I should not be surprised. Rocky beat Taxi Driver. Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas. And, most egregious of all, The English Patient winning in same year that Fargo existed? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a deep, dark history of boneheaded awards bestowals. But this one felt especially personal. Pittsburgh's favorite son beaten by a young Brit Twit in a tearjerker disease flick? That in itself isn't surprising-- the Academy loves to heap the statuettes on performances in those types of films (yes, I'm sure it's a very good, very "admirable" biopic, and I'm sure said Brit Twit does a fine job). But for Birdman to sweep nearly every other category and the man who the entire film is built around, whose own career trajectory provides its meta plotline, to lose? As one particular undead bio-exorcist (or morgue attendant "love-broker") might say: "It just don't add up, Chuck."

No, it certainly does not. The only reason I watched the horrible three-hour plus telecast this year was to see a Keaton acceptance speech. And what do I get in return? The world's most anger-inducing five second Vine. Well, in protest of this completely misguided Oscar flub/snub, I'm pushing aside this month's originally planned thespian theme (sorry, Alan Arkin...you'll have to wait until April or June) and devoting the month of March to the man born "Michael Douglas" who first earned his street creds on Mister Roger's Neighborhood. Most of these movies I've already seen, some of them many times. One or two I might have missed. Either way, I probably won't have much to say...I'll let Keaton's performances speak for themselves. Hell, maybe I'll make each post in the form of a Vine. Anyone know how to make a Vine? Perhaps I'll consult the services of Multiplicity's Doug #4 for this monumental task...

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984) - Lars Von Trier


Lars Von Trier's first feature (also the first of the "Europa Trilogy") is a dystopian police procedural with style to burn, and I'm thinking maybe he could've burned some of the script along with it. The story of a cop undergoing hypnosis in Cairo to remember a case about a murderer he mind-tracked in Germany based on a method he learned from his mentor (got that?), the movie relies HEAVILY on voiceover to the point where I wondered if Von Trier even needed to shoot with sync sound. At times, it almost plays like a noirish old-time radio play, "The Shadow" as written by Phillip K. Dick then lensed by Andrei Tarkovsky's evil twin.

It also relies heavily on SEPIA TONE, as if the movie (or the viewer) were a bug trapped in amber. Given that whole film takes place under hypnosis (ala Europa years later), the approach mostly works, especially when paired with Von Trier's long, leisurely and ominous pans and trackings through walls, floorboards, even bed mattresses. It got to the point where I wondered if the Coens watched a pirated copy of this the same year they did Blood Simple.

I'll admit, like the first time I saw Europa (then titled Zentropa) in the theatre, Von Trier's artfully catatonic style alternately intrigued me and made me a little sleepy. This might have something to do with the fact that I watched it late in the evening or that the copy I had wasn't up to snuff (recorded off the IFC channel some time in the early aughts). Hard to say: there's a preponderance of details in the plot and looking at that much orange-yellow for that long, I might still nod off mid-afternoon. Apparently, there's a lovely streaming copy on Hulu Plus I overlooked so, who knows, maybe in a few months or years I'll give it another try. After all, any decent first film by a great director deserves a second chance, right?

In the meantime, here's a pic of the old trickster himself when he was just a young bald punk (his character name, "Schmuck of Ages"). I may have snoozed a bit, but at least I caught the cameo.

THE DUELLISTS (1977) - Ridley Scott


Ridley Scott's The Duellists is, without a doubt, the most handsomely mounted first feature I've seen all month. But is this movie about perpetually dueling Frenchmen the best one? Between this and Targets, let's call it a draw.

Bogdanovich's scrappy sniper thriller had that Roger Corman run-and-gun bootstraps kinda charm. You could tell he was doing a lot with very little...basically, leftover footage from a Boris Karloff movie and a handful of production days. Scott, on the other hand, has everything a director could hope for his first time out. A-List '70s actors (Keitel, Carradine), a pro cinematographer, gorgeous French countryside locations, the best sets and costumes money could by. "Lush" is a word that easily comes to mind. Also, "silver spoon." Though The Duellists is pretty fantastic, it's hard to give it the top spot after taking those advantages into account. It's definitely better than Kubrick's first flick (who woulda thunk?), but to take one look at the lighting and framing in the shot below is also to know that it's wholly indebted to the same man's tenth (Barry Lyndon).


But why quibble over winners in this month of first efforts? Oh yes, because this is a film about duels. Scott definitely came to this filmed fencing match fully prepared and, visually speaking, fully formed. You can tell that he'd been working in commercials for years prior, and it's not hard to see the leap from this his next two classic films, Alien and Blade Runner, despite the vastly different genres. While not quite as exciting or groundbreaking as those films, The Duellists is a visual feast. The source material is solid (a Joseph Conrad short story). My only two quibbles come in casting and tone. I'm sorry, but western stalwart Keith Carradine is a little tough to buy as a Frenchman. And Brooklyn born Keitel? Yeah, he doesn't even try to shirk the accent. It's not as off-putting as his Judas in Last Temptation (he who betrays Christ and, also, sounds like a Canarsie butcher), but it still had me chuckling here and there when I probably should not have been.

Which brings me to my other tiny beef with The Duellists...all of Scott's movies, in fact. As a director, the man is mostly humorless. Like his pregnant purple or favored orange skylines, he could use some lightening up now and then. The number of times Carradine and Keitel's characters "just so happen" to coincidentally cross paths on the battlefield and across large swaths of time eventually reaches a degree that is inherently comical, yet Scott's tone is all poker face. I'm pretty sure Conrad's story wasn't a laugh-a-minute either, but that doesn't mean Scott's film of same can't give us the occasional blackly comic wink and nod. I'm guessing the other director he was aping in every shot would have found a way to do so. But then comedy's never been Ridley's bag. Just watch Matchstick Men, and you'll see what I mean. Actually, don't watch that...just watch the scene end dinner table in Hannibal again where a drugged Ray Liotta sups on pieces of his own brain. I guess Ridley can do the funny but only when there's something horrific on the other half of his plate.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

SEIZURE (1974) - Oliver Stone


I mentioned something about "great directors" at the beginning of the month, yes? Or, at least, "favorite" directors and their first films. For me, the jury's still out on whether Oliver Stone is a great director. The jury might still be recessed on whether he's one of my faves. I know the man's work was important to me in high school, but his output in the last decade has been spotty (World Trade Center, W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Savages, whichever of the four or five director's cuts of Alexander you choose). Platoon and the first Wall Street are inarguably classics of their time, but I wonder how well the rest hold up today. It's been quite a while since I've put Born on the Fourth of July into a DVD player. And would I ever want to suffer through the hummingbird editing rhythms of Any Given Sunday again...on any day whatsoever?

Stone's first film Seizure doesn't do much to solve this conundrum. It's not a good film by any means, but it's also a first effort. Stone was only 28 and not long back from Vietnam, so you give him the benefit of the doubt -- maybe, he was still shell-shocked. For the same screenwriter who would go on to write Midnight Express and Scarface shortly afterwards, the scripting is curiously lax and non-compelling (Is it all a dream? A dream within a dream? And, if so, who within who cares?). For a horror movie, there are virtually no scares, few creepy moments. In that regard, it makes Stone's The Hand seven years later look like a masterwork.

The plot revolves around a horror writer with night terror problems visited by an odd trio during his country estate getaway -- a dwarf (Tattoo from Fantasy Island), a witchy woman (the Happy Hooker from The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood) and a mute, black strongman (never seen this guy before). "Strange" things begin to happen, none of them all that strange. Murders take place, none of them all that gruesome. The writer's usual houseguests are generally more interesting than the oddball circus-folk. There's Troy Donahue (what's he doing in this?), the always reliable cult staple Mary Woronov (of course she's in this) and then this guy in the speedo with the sun block below.

Joseph Sirola? Huh? Never heard of him. A long-time TV actor who is hands down (palms up?) the best thing Seizure's got going, even better than Hervé. If Stone were to remake Nixon with this guy in the lead, perhaps I'd give it a second spin. Better yet, how about Joe Sirola as Old (Faked His Death) Jim Morrison?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TARGETS (1968) - Peter Bogdanovich


There's a very mediocre movie about a sniper doing very good business at the box office right now. For some unfathomable reason, this same by-the-numbers biopic has also managed to stir up a bunch of internet fuss. I'm guessing it has more to do with the celebrity mouthpieces who either lambasted (Michael Moore, Seth Rogen) or celebrated (pretty much every Republican) the film's portrayal of military snipers more than the actual film content itself which, as mentioned, is relatively tame. But for a truly unsettling film about a sniper, where celebrities and crosshairs also happen to align, you might be better served to rewind 47 years and watch Peter Bogdanovich's small first film, which could easily share the same title as the aforementioned blockbuster.

Targets merges the trajectories of an ex-Vietnam vet turned milquetoast insurance agent turned freeway sniper with that of an aging Hollywood monster movie star (Boris Karloff as "Byron Orlok") who's about to bow out of the business with his final film. You wouldn't think these plotlines would blend as easily as they do. One half plays like a homespun Taxi Driver, the other like Birdman without all the gliding camera hijinks. But somehow it all works and works quite effectively. This film exploits juxtaposition and intertextuality up the wazoo.

For much of the film, Tim O'Kelly's sniper is a cheery-faced cipher, sort of Wally Cleaver with a high powered rifle. He snacks on Baby Ruths and trades small talk casually as he's buying obscene amounts of ammo from the local gun store. When he later cracks, kills his wife and mother and takes to the water tower above the freeway to start picking off motorists randomly, the guy first packs himself a brown bag lunch. Charles Whitman's UT guard tower shooter was an obvious inspiration. But watching O'Kelly pick off drivers one by one with little emotion, you're queasily reminded of the D.C. Sniper. Later, when he takes to a drive-in and starts taking down moviegoers from a hole cut within the screen, you can't help but think of the Aurora shootings. Sadly, watching Targets from a modern day vantage, there's no shortage of wack-jobs on which this film could be based.

The Karloff parts are pretty good, too. Though I've never been a huge Bogdanovich fan (apart from The Last Picture Show) and generally find him to be a nauseating sycophant who's made a career of sucking up to great directors (Welles, Ford, etc.), I have to admit he knows what he's doing here. Like Dementia 13, Targets was another cut-rate Roger Corman production done on the fly and mostly because of contractual obligations. Karloff owed Corman a couple of hours work and Corman had some footage from The Terror (starring a young Jack Nicholson and Karloff) lying around. Bogdanovich was basically tasked with making a film from these disparate elements, a tiny budget and most likely too little time. As much as I cringe to see him acting the part of film director onscreen, he gets the job done for real. And he didn't need an ounce of Bradley Cooper star-power to do so.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MURDER A LA MOD (1968) - Brian De Palma


Watching many great directors' freshman efforts, the films they made either to get a foot in the industry door or hoist a camera for the first time, you're usually diving for pearls in a swamp, searching for glimmers of brilliance in movies you otherwise wouldn't see, holding out for early hints of the styles and themes that later made them great. Often, it's a fool's errand. It's simply too early in their career, their artistic development to find much to grab onto. You really have to reach for comparisons or know the backstory of the shoot. Analyzing the film later (or, often, over-analyzing it), you end up positioning it uneasily into their oeuvre, like jamming a big flat square peg into a teeny-tiny, very circular sprocket hole.

Well, I'm ecstatic to report that such is not the case with Murder A La Mod. For better or worse, young Brian De Palma made a "De Palma Film" right out of the gate. All the man's later themes and obsessions are here in big, bold, low-budget black and white relief. Murder is practically a dress rehearsal for the entirety of his career. Or an "undress rehearsal." We are talking De Palma after all.

There's the rampant voyeurism, super-sleazy film industry types, films within a film within film, events/murders replayed in time from different perspectives, things never being quite what they seem or even how they were initially filmed. There are the patented Hitchcock homages and straight-up rips. There may be no raining pig blood ala Carrie, but there's certainly a lot of stage ketchup and collapsible ice picks.

Of course, Murder isn't nearly as polished as any De Palma flick mid-career. There was one scene involving a camera POV tracking a woman getting into the shower that I know, JUST KNOW he would have used a silky smooth Steadicam for...had it yet to be invented. Watching this early work, it further confirms my suspicions that De Palma has been making minor variations on the same film for nearly the last 50 years. All directors do that, but De Palma seems to gleefully self-cannibalize more than most. His lascivious lenses may have changed and upgraded, but the man's fundamental perversities have damn sure stayed the same.

DEMENTIA 13 (1968) - Francis Ford Coppola


Horror has never been Francis Ford Coppola's best genre. There are some nice touches in his '90s version of Dracula, but those generally involved extravagant costume design or his use of early cinema in-camera special effects. Sure, the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now contain their harrowing moments, but few legitimate jump-scares. Jack is probably the closest Coppola came to a true fright-fest but for reasons other than intention or technique. 

Dementia 13 is his first fully-credited film and definitely fits the horror movie bill (or bottom half of the double bill). There's a killer run amok in a Scottish castle. There is occasional blood spilled here and there (i.e., chocolate syrup). It is produced by Roger Corman, king of chiller quickies. So, yes, it's a tried and true genre film. Is it a good horror film? Not really. I didn't even need to hear the Robert Osborne pre-film intro on my Turner Classic Movies copy to know it was little more than Corman cash-in attempt to mimic Psycho (i.e., don't get too attached to the lead female beyond the first half hour). But then I'd already heard the story about Coppola getting the job only because Corman had some leftover film stock and because the young director promised to pull it off in an insanely truncated amount of time. So I was in no way expecting Citizen Kane. Shit, I wasn't even expecting Tetro.

I may have been expecting a little more "Coppola," however. But other than nice mood setting scene on a row boat in the beginning and few brief underwater scenes later on, that certain operatic quality simply is not there. Perhaps given more shooting time, more film stock and maybe a better script, Francis could have dug in, explored his possibilities. For a first effort, it's not terrible. But other the FFC beginner's stamp and the self-serious line readings of the inimitable Patrick Magee (below), it's hard to go too crazy for Dementia 13.

Friday, February 06, 2015

THE DELINQUENTS (1957) - Robert Altman


Never did I imagine I'd see a Bob Altman film that begins with a somber disclaimer about the scourges of teenage delinquency. Or end with an narrated appeal to for viewers to "seek the support of their community elders or church group" in curtailing this "cancer of our time." Yes, this is the same man who brought us M*A*S*H and numerous booze and weed addled films to follow. One must ask how the same director of The Delinquents could later become the helmsman of California Split or Brewster McCloud.

It's called a paycheck or, more than that, a chance to shoot a feature film. And, for a very early Altman effort, The Delinquents is not half bad. Tom Laughlin (of later Billy Jack fame) plays a nice-guy high schooler who's bummed when his girlfriend's parents restrict him from seeing her (they're getting "too serious"). So he reluctantly starts hanging out with a band of local rapscallions, the leader of which promises to pose as her new boyfriend then give her rides to meet up with Laughlin for chaste yet clandestine necking and petting sessions at the local park.

But these hooligans really have other nefarious things in mind, as hooligans so often do. They get too fresh with Laughlin's girl then later get him blind drunk in a pretty hilarious scene where Young Billy Jack is force-fed endless tumblers of whiskey before stumbling away from a gas station assault scene in a manner suggesting not that of a morbidly drunken man so much as a regular man being marionetted around by a very drunk puppeteer.

There are a few scant Altmanesque touches to be found. The film begins in a jazz club, and there's a pretty vivacious party scene later where the young director manages to handily orchestrate a crowded frame. The dialogue isn't overlapping per se, but it's a busy mix in spots. The fight/knifing scenes are pretty clumsy, but then again no one's ever mistaken Altman for Yuen Woo-ping.

Altman claims to have written the script for this in 5 to 7 days. That sounds about right. He'd been directing industrials mostly before this so he knew his way around a Bolex. The direction is not exactly impressive but definitely drive-in competent. For an early cheapie about teenage malfeasance, that's probably the best you can expect.

FEAR AND DESIRE (1953) - Stanley Kubrick


Seeing Stanley Kubrick's first feature, Fear and Desire, for the first time, a feature which he scraped together on a $10,000 budget at age 24 and later tried to bury all prints of due to embarrassment, makes me feel better about some of my only wanting 16mm efforts around the same age. To watch it is to realize that the master definitely did not spring from the cinematic womb (or, at least, the offices of Look Magazine) in anything resembling a fully formed state. Few of his perfectionist directorial hallmarks are present; it's not even photographed in an especially compelling manner. The self-important screenplay written by an old high school chum is pretty terrible, full of clunky, cliched "war and the soul of man" voiceover narration and dialogue more wooden than the San Gabriel forest in which he filmed. Fellow director Paul Mazursky as one of the crash-landed soldiers who goes "cuckoo" is even worse. It's hard to believe this is the same genius who gave us other "horrors of war" classic like Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. Hell, it's hard to believe it's the same guy who gave us his next quickie feature, Killer's Kiss.

Obviously, Fear and Desire was a learn-on-the-job effort, and it's easy to see why an obsessive like Kubrick would want to forget it existed. There's an OK scene with a friendly Doberman in the woods, one where a captive lady (above) drinks water from Mazursky's palm, but that's about it. I could go on, but why not let the master excoriate himself? Just listen to his own thoughts on Fear and Desire in this pre-film five minute clip. Old Stanley had a cold, unrelenting vision about everything else, and he definitely pulls no punches in dressing down this, the least favorite of his own films.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

FEBRUARY FIRSTS


It's February First, and for this frozen-over, foreshortened month I will be focusing on first films by favored directors (and attempting to adequately abridge my overabundance of alliteration).

By "first" films, I mean a director's first feature-length film (i.e., no shorts), those works generally running longer than 60 minutes. Expect nascent efforts by some of cinema's all-time greats, some projects done for love, some for money and some just to get their career kickstarted (but, you know, before there was such a thing as Kickstarter). For better or worse, these are the features that put these fellas on the map.

As these films surely were for them, hopefully this will be a learning experience for me, a chance to sample some of my favorite directors' styles in their infantile state, before they had an "oeuvre," a filmography or an honorary adjective in their name (e.g., Kubrickian, Altmanesque). What will be learned? Who knows. Who will these directors be? Only the groundhog could possibly guess.