May 10, 2021

RUNAWAY TRAIN (1986)

Well, here it is: Cannon Films’ lone, extremely rare, legitimately good film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adorer of the Cannon legacy and much of their output, but I know when to call a duck a duck. Original one-sheets for Death Wish 3 and Invasion U.S.A. will be thrown into the crematorium with me when I finally check out of this place, but I could never with a straight face say that either of them are “good.” Runaway Train is, even if “a Golan-Globus production” just happens to precede it. With a script originated/inspired by Seven Samurai’s Akira Kurosawa, two powerful performances from its leading men (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts), and a great deal of thematic weight attached to what otherwise would be viewed as a high-concept and broad action/thriller, Runaway Train strived to be more than just a piece of shallow entertainment, achieving nominations for three Academy Awards, as well as for the Palme d’Or for director Andrei Konchalovskiy.

To modern audiences, Runaway Train will feel like a case of been there/done that, even though it was one of the first to do what it did. (1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes that honor). Though 2010’s Unstoppable, starring Denzel and directed by Scott, claims to be based on a true story, the similarities between the two films can’t be denied — right down to the threat of the train derailing at a nearby chemical plant, threatening to spread toxic waste radiation across a circumference of alarming square mileage. Both even maintain the old and somewhat broken down man (Voight, Washington) caught up in the conflict with a young, somewhat cocky punk (Roberts, Pine) forced to work together, lest they become train goo. But where Unstoppable's leading men eventually become partners and equals, each walking away from the conflict with a mutual respect, that ain’t the case in Runaway Train. Because, again, it wants to be more than just a slice of escapism. It wants to be more than audiences wondering, “How will they stop that train??” (I’ll also throw out that Denzel and Scott additionally collaborated on the Taking of Pelham remake — these guys love trains!)

On the most basic thematic level, the runaway train on which Oscar “Manny” Manhem (Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Roberts) find themselves doubles as their fate. Former inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison, the freshly escaped cons with freedom in their eyes may have eluded their captors, but they have not eluded their fates. The choices they’ve made in life set their course into action — whether behind the walls of Stonehaven, or within the cars of their runaway train, their fates are inescapable, and it’s there they’ll have no choice but to confront the men they are and the lives they chose to lead.

Good performances in film aren’t rare; excellent performances are; but when an actor disappears, chameleon-like, into a role, all while leaving the audience unsettled and intimidated, that hardly ever happens. Look at Daniel Day-Lewis did it in Gangs of New York, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting (hey, trains!), but before all of them, Voight did it with Runaway Train. Oscar Manheim is a son of a bitch. He’s such a son of a bitch that Stonehaven’s warden ordered him permanently welded into his prison cell for three straight years. He’s such a son of a bitch that this same warden tries to off him via another prisoner saddled with a shiv. And Voight sinks his brown and metal teeth into the role with a dedication and fierceness seldom seen, nearly unrecognizable with his droopy eye and southern-fried fu manchu.

And then there’s Eric Roberts in an early effort which sees him in a rare role where he plays a good guy, albeit a prison escapee. He’s mouthy, energetic, and somewhat frantic — like a wild pup getting a taste of freedom after being kenneled for too long: manic and unrestrained, wanting to go everywhere and sniff everything. With only three months of time left yet to serve, his last-second decision to accompany Manny on his prison escape says a lot about the kind of person he is. He’s impulsive and brash, but also kind of a romantic, which to audiences translates as an innocent.

Unfortunately where Runaway Train loses momentum is with the inclusion of the character played by Rebecca De Mornay, who according to the credits plays “Sara,” even though I’d swear her name is never spoken aloud. It’s less that her performance comes off weak (even though it does), especially when sharing scenes with Voight and Roberts, and it’s not just that she’s saddled with the worst dialogue the film has to offer (“There’s a miracle coming, I feel it in my heart!”), but her character ultimately proves pretty useless. The name “Sara” notwithstanding, she’s actually an on-screen representation of the audience. Her job is to either provide exposition for whomever in the theater seats might be running a little behind, or to echo the thoughts that audience members are likely having. She’s there to whisper into their ears so they know how they should be feeling about the dynamic between the characters. And in a kind of ham-fisted way, her presence — that of “innocence” — is supposed to manufacture conflict for those personnel in the train station (Kenneth McMillan; The Thing’s T.K. Carter) with whether or not they should be trying very hard to make sure the train doesn’t derail. Had her character been wiped entirely from the story, leaving just the two cons behind on the train to face each other’s personalities, all while the train personnel grappled with whether or not the lives of two prisoners (i.e., bad guys) are worth it, both the duality of nature and the additional complication of the choice of crashing or saving the train would have felt more intimate and suspenseful: let the men die and avoid catastrophe, or take the risk and save their lives, even if they are “bad” men.

That aside, Runaway Train is still an excellent ride, anchored by excellent performances, wonderfully hectic and documentary-like cinematography by Alan Hume, and, somehow, direction by Konchalovsky that comes off both assured and chaotic. John P. Ryan, who played an array of bastards both villainous and heroic during his period as a stable actor for Cannon Films, turns in a sinister supporting performance as Warden Ranken, offering an additional threat on top of the one the cons are trapped within, and which is hurtling 90 miles an hour toward doom.

Cannon Films may not have made many “good” films during their tenure, but they’ve made at least one that was certainly excellent. For all the Wildey Magnum bullets that Paul Kersey fires into punks, or rocket launchers that Matt Hunter aims at Russian commie terrorists, none of them pack the punch of Voight’s performance, Konchalovsky’s direction, or an out-of-control Runaway Train.

May 7, 2021

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

A Michael Bay film about the Benghazi attack and subsequent death of Ambassador Chris Stevens sounds like one of those things that shouldn't work. In a satirical skit about the dumbing down of America, a character would joke about wanting to go see Michael Bay's new film, "9/11: The Movie," in which a CGI American flag destroys every evil terrorist from sea to shining sea. And while that's perhaps a bit unfair, it's also kind of not, because this is the reputation Michael Bay has created for himself, all while working for the same Hollywood system that's entirely open to taking a real-world tragedy and turning it into profitable exploitation. We've had Twin Tower films, Osama Bin Laden assassination films, hijacked 9/11 plane films, and with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, we have the Benghazi film – the worst terrorist attack the United States has suffered since September 11, 2001. And the mere idea of Michael Bay announcing such a film was the stuff of cynical eye-rolls and immediate dismissals.

In Hollywood, there’s an understanding that directors with prestige are, and generally should be, the ones to bring such real-life tragedies to life; i.e., Steven Spielberg with Schinder’s List or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. Though whether or not such true-life horrors becoming fodder for movie theaters is a tasteless move is constantly up for debate, but if they’re going to be made, it’s best they’re helmed by people with a history for quality output and adept at presenting real human drama.

Using his money-printing Transformers series as clout, Michael Bay – the director of five films (so far) about robots turning into other robots and fighting evil robots from outer space (all while destroying Chicago) – elbowed his way to the front of the line to helm 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Though it does contain the same kind of violent, operatic destruction for which Michael Bay has been known since his directorial debut, it also contains something a bit unexpected and absolutely welcome: a bit of restraint from the director of Bad Boys 2, as well as a bit of maturity.

Make no mistake – though screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Strain) was the one to adapt the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Soldiers, the script still manages to fall victim to the usual Michael Bay-isms. Though based on very real men, characterization falls by the wayside. Played by lesser known actors (which works to the film's benefit), each soldier is given a modicum of background and some personality quirks to differentiate who everyone is, but except for lead soldier (as presented by the film) Jack Silva, played by The Office's John Krasinski, the men's identities are tough to distinguish. 'Boon' (also The Office's David Denman) reads books. 'Tanto' (Pablo Schreiber) cracks jokes. 'Rone' (James Badge Dale) seems to really like war. These could very well be close to the real men, but their translation to the screen filters out much of their needed characterization. Bay, to his credit, does manage to include a handful of scenes in which the men either talk about or communicate via Skype with their wives and children (one of these instances, taking place at a fast good drive-through, is actually one of the best and most human moments Bay has ever directed), but once shit hits the fan and everyone is covered in soot, it's legitimately confusing at times to see through the black faces and heavy beards and figure out just who is who at any moment.

And again, being that this is a Michael Bay film, scenes striving toward drama can border on the overwrought, overly patriotic, and emotionally manipulative. Silva hasn't been at the annex for five minutes before he's sitting alone on his bed and thinking about his family in flashback form. We can fault a somewhat clunky script (which sports no less than six sarcastic uses of the word "fun") containing some truly heinous dialogue, as well as an odd amount of jokes that never seem to gel with the very serious conflict in which the soldiers soon find themselves engaged. (I wasn't there so I can only speculate, but if the real soldiers made at least half these jokes during the actual firefights, then I am speechless.)

Still, the shortcomings of the script are counteracted by Bay's extravagant yet restrained – and at times, downright graceful – direction. His quick-cutting style is severely dialed down, replaced by gorgeous sweeping exterior shots of the conflict as it's unfolding. He also resurrects his “bomb POV” shot from 2001’s recklessly stupid Pearl Harbor, in which the camera tracks with a bomb released by its aircraft and follows it down, watching it whirl through the air until landing near its intended target. It’s less Bay cribbing from himself and more his acknowledgment that whether here or abroad, war has to begin and end somewhere – and that includes conflicts we understand, like World War II, or those still mired in questions and controversy, much like our unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cinematography by Dion Beebee eschews Bay's normal living painting style in favor of ground-zero witnessing, relying on scurrying handheld cameras to put the audience directly in the middle of the fight. It's been done before, of course, but not by Bay, and seeing him employ its use forces you to examine him as not just a director, but a filmmaker.

Did you see what I just said?? 

It's a shame that 13 Hours didn't do well financially at the box office, as not only was this a film that more people needed to see, but it just seems like one more nail in the coffin for directors leaving their comfort zone to make something "important" before heading back to their franchises and brand names that print money while killing brain cells. Better than your typical Michael Bay fare, but not in the same league as other relevant modern films The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, or United 93, 13 Hours presents a refreshingly Michael Bay-lite take on a very true story. As to be expected, the action scenes are phenomenal (while thankfully managing to skirt political agenda), a somewhat clunky script and uneven tone are what holds back 13 Hours from the kind of prestige its colleagues have gone on to earn. Removing the mindset that this was a true and horrific thing which really took place and examining it only as a piece of entertainment, 13 Hours makes for a thrilling, visceral, and unrelenting experience and perhaps even one of the best action films of the 2010s.

May 5, 2021

APT PUPIL (1999)


Stephen King has seen more adaptations of his written body of work than any other writer living or dead, except maybe for Bram Stoker, whose novel, Dracula, has been adapted for a literal, accurate, and confirmed figure of ninety bajillion times. As such, among these King adaptations, some are classic, some are decent, and some are best forgotten. His 1982 four-novella collection, Different Seasons, contained the original stories that would later be adapted into Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and then Apt Pupil. The fourth story, The Breathing Method, is in the works under the direction of Sinister’s Scott Derrickson, so the Different Seasons adaptation game is looking like a clean sweep. Not bad for one book. (The jealous author in me weeps bitterly.)

Until Derrickson’s adaptation sees release, Apt Pupil remains the dark horse adaptation of the book. Having been released to mixed-to-positive reviews back in 1999 (and mired in controversies/production difficulties), and directed by a post-Usual Suspects Bryan Singer (the X-Men series, Valkyrie), Apt Pupil has always remained just under the radar in the King world. Headlined by Brad Renfro (The Client), who died at the age of 25 in 2008, and whose death was overshadowed by the passing of Heath Ledger one week later, Apt Pupil presents a young, well-to-do high school student and all-around sociopath Todd Bowden, who deduces that an elderly member of his community, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is a former Nazi living in hiding under an alias. Bowden, fascinated with Nazi atrocities (or perhaps just atrocity in general), first blackmails Denker before cautiously befriending him, wanting nothing more than to hear all of Denker’s vile holocaust stories. And Denker, at first backed into a corner, slowly begins to spin the arrangement to his advantage, until the two get to a point where both are manipulating each other. As such, only one will likely walk away.

As can be expected by a King work, Apt Pupil is very dark – not in terms of gory visuals, but more its tone and its subject matter. There’s no blacker stain in the world than the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War 2; even without the grainy black and white photographs of stacked bodies and emaciated figures, the mere discussion of it is still upsetting enough that Apt Pupil presents as a somber and by-design upsetting experience. Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce don’t back away from the darkness of the story’s subject matter, although it does update certain aspects, such as its much more explosive finale (to be expected in 1999’s immediate post-Columbine era).

Ian McKellen is chilling in his role as the runaway Nazi, whose villainous turn almost laughs in the face of his more well-known, and by comparison, lovable, take on the X-Men series’ Magneto (ironically, a survivor of the holocaust). But in a way, it’s Renfro as Bowden who walks away as the film’s bigger sociopath, and that’s because he wears the façade of a sixteen-year-old kid in a varsity jacket and has a pretty girlfriend on his arm, who society would dictate has the perfect life, and hence, is no one to worry about. Renfro finds a way through all that and presents an angry, confused, and severely psychotic kid for whom more teachers would write a letter of recommendation than recommend him for psychological counseling. (Sadly, Renfro battled with drug addiction throughout his 20’s, nearly obtaining the lead in Freddy vs. Jason before a bizarre incident in which he stole a yacht cost him the role.)

On the triple tier Stephen King adaptation scale, Apt Pupil rests comfortably in the upper-middle ranks. The lead performances and Singer’s direction are top notch, while the screenplay can sometimes meander, with its neutered ending sacrificing much of the impact of King’s original story. Still, it’s certainly one of the better King adaptations, with immense talent on both sides of the camera. Sadly, it’s also more relevant in the modern climate than it’s ever been before.

May 3, 2021

SYNCHRONICITY (2015)

There is one thing that all time travel movies have in common, and that’s this: none of them actually make sense. That’s the paradox of the time travel film: though each goes out of its way to carefully explain the rules and possible ramifications of time travel, at the end of the day, none of them make sense. Putting aside that time travel, in reality, doesn’t actually exist, and therefore can’t be held up to any existing rigorous scientific criteria, each one featuring an individual traveling back or ahead in time in order to fix a conflict or know the unknowable is, honestly, just making shit up as it goes. It’s examining what is necessary to its own plot, making sure it’s arguably sensible in narrative form, and jettisoning the rest. And honestly, that’s fine. Even the most historically accurate film leans on fiction. Biopics fudge a detail now and then. Dinosaurs have been brought back to life, people. WITH FROG DNA. It’s fine. If those films are allowed to play with reality, the time travel film is certainly allowed the same consideration. But it’s when the time traveling and its ramifications get lost in its own plot that it can get a little frustrating.

From a technical standpoint alone, Synchronicity is beautifully made. Heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, right down to the incredible synth-based score by Ben Lovett, but also containing bouts of TRON, Dark City, and other titles of the cyberpunk era, no one can say that Synchronicity isn’t audacious as hell. Certainly the first cyberpunk time-travel film-noir romance of its kind, Synchronicity has been brought to life with a very assured and very confident hand by writer/director Jacob Gentry (The Signal—2007, not 2014). From the opening sequence alone, the audience is immediately transported into a time and environment in which they have had zero previous experience. In the same way Blade Runner opens in a very foreign cityscape, replete with merging cultures and disturbing amounts of futuristic gadgetry, Synchronicity, too, plummets the audience directly into the thick of an unusual and dangerous experiment. Who are these three men? What are they doing? Is this sanctioned or have they gone rogue? What’s with this awesome music?

Chad McNight as Jim Beale does admirable work as a man obsessed—first with his potentially world-changing experiments, but later on with the mysterious and beautiful Abby, who enters into his life seemingly at random until that randomness is called into question. He spends much of the film frantic, backed into a corner, and doubting everything—this mostly works for him, but sometimes it doesn’t. Brianne Davis, however, as the noir-required femme fatale, doesn’t quite grasp what she’s supposed to be doing. Her performance as the untrustworthy siren of Jim’s growing infatuation is largely inconsistent; her abilities to emote simply through facial expressions certainly helps in establishing the mystery of her character, but this is too easily counteracted during most of her dialogue scenes, where her hesitance with the role is all too palpable. AJ Bowen, Canada’s version of a young Vincent D’Onofrio, does expectedly fine work as Jim’s co-experimenter, Chuck, who finds himself swept up in Jim’s increasingly complicated life (lives?) as he struggles to save his friend.

Plus this thing’s got Michael Ironside!  He can make your head explode just by WILLING it! I’m not even talking about Scanners, but in REAL LIFE.

Synchronicity stumbles the most (but not doing any permanent damage) in its handling of the actual time travel aspect—considering this is being sold as a time travel film, that understandably sounds alarming. Synchronicity throws a lot at its audience, expecting them to grasp as many breadcrumbs as it can as the film barrels through its narrative. Once one timeline becomes two, which is which, who is who, and wtf all become lodged in your brain, making for a daring but frustrating experience.

Despite these flaws, there is something impressive and impulsively thought provoking about Synchronicity that to outright dismiss the film because of these flaws would be an utter crime. There’s a vagueness, perhaps purposely so, to many of the film’s aspects—like Klaus Meisner’s mysterious company, the future time period in which it’s taking place, the location of the city where it all unfolds—leaving a wake of haze wafting over everything like it’s a dream. The more scientifically minded viewer is going to want to break down the plot’s events to determine who is who at that time, what has changed in this scene being depicted for a second time, what possible implications are to come, but I’m not so sure Synchronicity was designed for that.  Like so many other genre films, time travel or not, the crux of the story is based on Jim and Abby’s growing relationship. Does she love him? Can she be trusted? Will Jim wise the fuck up? Around this dynamic the rest of the film has been wrapped, and whether or not the timeline of events and the science of time traveling makes sense becomes window dressing.

It’s simple, really: if you become engaged by Jim and Abby’s plight, then Synchronicity will prove a rewarding experience. If you’re here for the time travel, then you might find yourself checking your watch.

Taking a page from the book of Blade Runner (and it's five million versions), Synchronicity is impressive to look at. As is demanded by all future-set science-fiction films, the landscape of Synchronicity is cold, sterile, institutional, and impeccably clean. The film leans on blue hues and bright whites because of this, but while also adhering to the dark and shadow of classic film noir. And yeah man, I love this music. The synth-based score by Ben Lovett lovingly skips back in time to the golden age of Carpenter and Vangelis, driving Synchronicity forward, perhaps even atoning for its storytelling flaws in the same way that Daft Punk's masterpiece of a score for TRON: Legacy aids in propelling it from mediocrity to an incredible visual and audio experience.

Synchronicity gets a cautious but still enthusiastic recommendation, if for nothing more than its ambitiousness. How its story will grab you is tough to predict. It's a wonderful technical experience, providing beautiful visuals and an equally beautiful if slightly melancholy musical score. For those longing for more San Angeles ambience, look no further: it's easy to believe that while Deckard is hunting down replicants in the rainy night, just a few blocks over, the events of Synchronicity are unfolding in not just one but two separate timelines. And like Blade Runner, perhaps it will take some time before Synchronicity's story can be truly appreciated.

May 1, 2021

TEASER: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) ON NETWORK TELEVISION

 

I've been playing around with video editing during lockdown and this is my newest harebrained idea. 

File under fan edit - an opening to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) as it may have looked if it premiered on network television in the late '70s or early '80s, similar to NBC's premiere of Halloween and CBS's airing of The Exorcist. I'm planning on creating the entire broadcast using a VHS rip of the movie and "original" commercials and TV spots - kinda like a standard definition grindhouse experience.

One question remains, however: if I embark on assembling an entire broadcast, do I make it as genuine looking as I can by...gasp...editing it for content? Silencing the profanity and, more egregious...cutting out the gore effects? Could I really do that to something as majestically splatter-filled as Dawn of the Dead?

Questions like these plague my very existence.

Apr 30, 2021

BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2006)

Rightfully so, 1996’s Scream gets a lot of credit for being the first post-’80s slasher craze to acknowledge sub-genres tropes, stereotypes, and mythologies that had spent a decade+ accumulating and solidifying. That it managed to do all this while also being a solid slasher that could stand on its own feet was a magical feat achieved by director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Ten years later would come the release of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a film festival darling that took horror audiences by storm. Following in the same footsteps, Behind the Mask was another loving ode to the slasher films of yesteryear, but this time being more on the nose than its hip ‘90s predecessor. Where Scream would occasionally say the name “Freddy” or have Halloween playing on a television in the background during a party, Behind the Mask would actually join all of those film franchises together in one universe while also existing within it, and it does so by looping in another horror element that would postdate Scream by three years: the faux-documentary gimmick as reinvigorated by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

Shot to look like a documentary, Behind the Mask examines its subject, Leslie Vernon, a serial killer in training who strives to be as well known and infamous as his inspirations Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, “Mike and Chucky.” If Christopher Guest had applied his mockumentary forte to the slasher genre, it would look a lot like Behind the Mask. It’s a parody, a satire, an ode, a dark comedy, a light comedy (sort of), and an old school slasher flick all in one. Its from this nutso combination where it derives most of its strength, but which also leaves it feeling somewhat at odds with its nature during the final act.

Right off the bat, it’s obviously a slasher fan’s dream to see the different worlds of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Child’s Play (and more, I’m sure) existing in the same landscape. The very streets on which Nightmare and Halloween were shot appear in cameos (along with a very brief appearance from Kane Hodder, aka Jason in several Friday the 13th sequels, as the newest and creepiest resident of beleaguered Nancy Thompson’s former home). Robert Englund plays a small part very much in the Dr. Loomis mold of Halloween (whose character name, Doc Halloran, is a direct nod to The Shining) with Poltergeist's Zelda Rubinstein also appearing in a pint-sized role as a pint-sized librarian. 

As you can see, writer David J. Stieve and co-writer/director Scott Glosserman are wearing their inspirations and it results in an often clever and often amusing horror/comedy that is proudly affiliating itself with an era and specific franchises birthed during that era that had previously been written off as silly and dismissible. Scream clearly adores Halloween but merely mentions other infamous titles matter-of-factly; Behind the Mask embraces every bloody installment of every bloody franchise with equal aplomb without passing judgment on those titles not as critically well regarded as others. (Of course, I would never take away Craven’s desire to include a line in Scream about the first Nightmare being good and scary “but the rest sucked.”)

Behind the Mask loses a little steam during the final act as it drops the documentary approach and switches to a straight narrative, losing much of the quirky humor that derived from said approach. Don’t get me wrong, the film remains smart, as the film’s remaining victims look to the rules established by the slasher genre to figure out how they can survive the night, but without the more amusing humor, it then feels like Behind the Mask is taking the events it had spent most of its time sending up just a little too seriously. It’s obvious this was by design, cemented by one scene in which one of our supporting characters meets his bloody end at Leslie’s hands, but who tries to reason with him by telling him over and over, “Come on man, it’s me,” as if suggesting their prior friendship should be enough to neutralize Leslie’s murderous wants and goals. Well, it’s not, and it’s actually a really conflicting scene, because up to this point, Leslie had been a fun, well-mannered, and even lovable character whose goals of which the audience was very much aware, but whom they all liked, anyway. With him now being a dedicated mass murder, the change in his character is as abrupt as the change in tone. Again, this was intended and not some kind of accident, but upon my first viewing of Behind the Mask fifteen years ago, I felt conflicted about it, and I still feel conflicted today. And if there’s one thing a slasher shouldn’t be, it’s conflicting.

Despite that, Behind the Mask is an easy recommendation, a solid addition to the slasher sub-genre, and a love letter to the genre as a whole. Fun cameos, respectable performances, and some decent (but restrained) gore gags only add to its enjoyment. Glosserman has been talking up a sequel for years, and like all of Leslie’s murderous and masked colleagues, hopefully he can transcend from one-hit wonder and cross over into successful franchise territory.

Apr 28, 2021

THE RETRIEVAL (2013)

It's 1864, and a young boy named Will (Ashton Sanders) works with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), on behalf of a group of bounty hunters, in locating runaway slaves and reporting their whereabouts so that they may be returned to their slaveholders. Will and Marcus, in order to do this, earn the trust of their targets and divert them to an agreed-upon place so the slaves may be taken captive and returned. What makes Will and Marcus so easy to trust is that they themselves are former slaves, operating under the guise of also being on the run. By the time their targets realize they have been had, they are already back in chains. On one particular assignment, the pair are tasked with locating a freed slave named Nate (Tishuan Scott) in order to return him, but after locating him, Will soon finds himself gravitating toward this perfect stranger, coming to first confide in and then depend on him in a way that the fatherless boy had never experienced. During their perilous time in the wilderness, Nate saves the boy's life, and then later, Will saves his, elevating their bond to staggering new heights. Soon Will's task comes into conflict with how he feels toward Nate and he finds that he must face a very difficult choice.

In an interview with journalist Matt Fagerholm for RogerEbert.com, actor Tishuan Scott (who plays Nate) expressed a "dislike of history" in his youth, citing that African-American culture had been too easily summarized merely by the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. In his eyes, exactly one hundred years between 1863's Emancipation Proclamation and 1963's civil rights movements was missing from the history books relating to the African-American experience. It has only become recent that tales of the African-American struggle, from the brutally honest with Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave to the satiric and exploitative with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained to HBO's recent Lovecraftian/Jim Crow mash-up Lovecraft Country, are finally being told. Released within the shadow of 12 Years a Slave lies the little seen film The Retrieval, a story told not just from the African-American experience, but one that sidesteps more obvious approaches in favor of offering an extremely unique and uplifting story. It's also highly superior to those two prominent titles.

Though The Retrieval is not based on any specific event, the film is still firmly entrenched in a very real history. The characters of Will and Nate may have never met, bonded, and parted under extremely emotional circumstances, but the idea of former slaves being forced to root out their fellow man (and being paid to do so) sadly sounds like the kind of additionally awful thing that would be occurring within an already awful and very turbulent period in history. Nearly unfolding in real time, The Retrieval offers up suspense from the very first minute that Will and Marcus cross paths with Nate. Those bounty hunters for hire know exactly what they have been tasked to do, as does the audience, who also knows that this is something they have already done, and are willing to do again. As Will and Nate begin to grow closer, the former yearning for a father he never knew and the latter mourning for his deceased child, the bond that forms between them is as equally heartfelt and satisfying as it is heartbreaking, because the audience knows there new friendship can only end in one of two ways: either Will and Marcus risk their lives in letting Nate remain free, or Nate will end up back in shackles following their many shared campfires in which their greatest fears and regrets were shared and a mutual understanding and respect was forged.

An intimate story propelled by only a handful of performances, it's easy to see why Scott's performance as Nate has been as celebrated and awarded as it was. Same goes for Sanders as the young Will; at no point do either of their performances come off as disingenuous or self-aware. Noted horror/cult actor Bill Oberst Jr., who plays a minor role as Burrell, one of the bounty hunters, also offers strong work. The easy way out would have been to present Burrell as obviously vicious - the archetypal evil white man - but instead Burrell comes across as sympathetic, and even caring where Will is concerned, but this calm demeanor is not to be trusted. He is on assignment just as Will and Marcus are on assignment, and his ideology isn't the thing that's driving him. Ultimately what he has been tasked to do, and what he has tasked Will and Marcus to do, is evil, but to him there's no evil in it. In his mind, he believes what he's doing is just, and the money he is being paid serves as affirmation.

The Retrieval is an uplifting story set during an ugly time, and to echo Scott's thoughts, the world, and this country especially, needs to immerse itself in the history that it has gotten too used to denying, because however ugly and humiliating that history may be, it also contains a plethora of untold stories that need to be told - not just to confront this history, but to gleam from it any saving graces in which the human spirit was not just preserved, but flourished, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Considering this is filmmaker Chris Eska's second film, and shot solely in exteriors using available light, the film is consistently confidently captured – one that deviates between night and day, lit only by campfires, torches, and the southern sun. Whether by design or by happy accident, background shots looked to have their colors muted, so much that at times the sky looks like a faded photograph. Same goes for fields of wheat and dead grass, which alternate from amber brown to stark white. All of the film takes place in the great outdoors, and in the midst of war, so rippling rivers, pelting rain, blowing wind, and the distant cannon fire trickle out through. The pretty musical score by composer Matthew Wiedemann and Yellow 6 alternates between commanding the screen's use of natural landscapes and lying under the surface to complement the more emotional actions and exchanges.

Critics and audiences spent most of 2014 being enamored by 12 Years a Slave - and rightfully so - but one wonders if that were maybe at the expense of The Retrieval, a film that was sadly little seen outside of film festivals. Though both films are set in the same places and during the same times, their stories are told in vastly different ways. 12 Years a Slave is an extremely powerful piece of filmmaking, but it doesn't share the uniqueness of the story to which The Retrieval can lay claim. Far less brutal and far more hopeful, The Retrieval is a celebration of the human spirit and one's own belief in the bigger picture. Flesh expires; hope does not. 

Apr 26, 2021

LEATHERFACE (2017)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has the oddest trajectory of all the long-running horror franchises. Even during its initial four-movie run from the '70s to the '90s, the sequels' designs were already a little dodgy. During the same era, other slasher franchises like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street had begun following very plain episodic paths: their original movies established their stories and concepts, and all subsequent sequels continued those stories in a mostly fluid manner while recycling actors, characters, or both. Each Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, however, seemed like a mini reset. None of the final girls ever made return appearances, and even members of the Sawyer family killed in previous entries seemed to return for a later sequel or were replaced by very similar characters without explanation. For instance, is "The Hitchhiker" from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, played by Ewin Neal, supposed to be the same character as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Chop Top, played by Bill Moseley? Because I'm pretty sure that Big Mama tractor trailer made him into mincemeat during the original's finale...unless that was lazily explained by the plate in Chop Top's skull. If we put that aside, who the hell are all the brand new family members in 1990's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and why do they have their own invalid, comatose grandpa, too? And once those characters are wasted, who the frig are everyone in 1994's accidentally hilarious Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who also have their own invalid, comatose grandpa? I guess one could make the (silly) argument that this particular borough of Texas was inundated with cannibalistic families, but how is it that every single family has, along with their own desiccated grandpa, their own Leatherface as well? Does he just bounce from family to family like some kind of murderous Oliver Twist? 

Even if we put aside all of those complicated mythos and reexamine the series strictly by the various experiences offered by its entries, everything is still all over the place. The first was a landmark horror classic that presented some of the most frenzied and chaotic psychological terror ever levied at a mainstream audience; the second, a Cannon Films-produced black comedy (which I detest); the third, basically a remake of the original, only not as good; and the fourth, an utterly insane direct sequel to the original which starred a pre-fame and totally bonkers Matthew McConaughey and a typically mousy Renee Zellweger; Leatherface was a crossdresser and the murderous Sawyer family had apparently been installed by a shadowy underground operation for the purposes of studying “real horror.” It makes absolutely no sense, all the characters are eccentric as hell (even the teenage victims), and McConaughey’s murderous Vilmer has a remote control for his robotic leg brace. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it’s a blast. Then came the remake, which was good; the prequel to the remake, which was bad; and Texas Chainsaw 3D, which was a direct sequel to the original (not the remake), somehow included Bill Moseley again, and solidified its place as the worst entry up to that point. Confused yet? 

French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury burst onto the American horror scene when Dimension Films acquired their home-invasion shocker Inside (À l’intérieur) for distribution. Since then, Dimension owners the Weinsteins (run!) tried to get the duo involved with several of their other horror properties, such as the long-mooted Hellraiser remake and an early iteration of Halloween 2 before Rob Zombie returned to create something slightly better than his remake while still making something pretty terrible. For whatever reason, the duo couldn’t find their footing with either project, but evidently their sloppy seconds (or thirds) known as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series was there to pick up the pieces — hence, we have the succinctly titled Leatherface, which borrows its moniker from the first-round Part 3, and which explores Leatherface's past as...a teenager. 

Sigh

A common complaint worth repeating: not everything, or everyone, needs an origin story. Bates Motel, while an entertaining series, spends fifty episodes saying “Norman is crazy.” We know. (And Psycho IV: The Beginning had already done that, and far better,) The Nightmare on Elm Street remake tried to muddy Freddy’s origins by suggesting, maybe, he was framed. (He wasn’t.) And Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween finally answered the burning question we’ve all had about The Shape for 40 years: just WHERE did Michael get his jumpsuit? (A shitting Ken Foree.) What filmmakers and studios fail to realize is that mystique is perfectly fine. We don’t need everything spelled out. Oftentimes, it’s scarier if we don’t know. Though most moviegoers, horror fans or not, would be quick to point out that franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th have more than enough entries already, their popularity never really waned even when their box office receipts began to shrink. Mainstream audiences may have had enough, but horror fans kept that candle burning, consuming each series on home video sequel by sequel. Those franchises have also been around for so long that one sequel after another was no longer enriching the overall mythos, which is why the remakes started, and then the prequels after that, and then the ret-conning sequels that only followed certain original films. This is why Leatherface is the second prequel in the series, coming after 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Saying "what if?" regarding certain horror franchises is all well and good, but the more entries made that shit the bed, the more complicated those franchises become. This sequel counts but this one doesn't, and these never happened and who could possibly keep up? If whoever owns the rights to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series vies for a third prequel, they better call it Leatherbaby so I know where it belongs in the franchise's timeline. (But in all seriousness, maybe a filmmaker can finally step up and make the definitive biopic on serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired not only Leatherface but also Norman BatesHannibal Lecter, and Buffalo Bill — how’s that for an origin story?)

The weirdest part of this history-exploring concept is that their filmmakers constantly cite their desire to make the audience "sympathize" with their respective series' boogeymen — with masked maniacs, pedophile dream stalkers, and murderous cannibals.

Open question to these filmmakers: why do you want this from us? IT’S WEIRD. 

Leatherface juggles numerous unlikely inspirations — Of Mice and MenMystic RiverBadlands — while marrying it to one of the biggest horror franchises in cinema history, and with so much of this going on, it can’t help but make the film feel so different, and by result make the character of Leatherface feel so different, that it’s out of sorts with the rest of the series. The worst entries before this one at least felt like a proper Texas Chainsaw Massacre entry — even the ridiculous McConaughey one, Leatherface's crossdressing propensity notwithstanding.

Leatherface’s biggest fumble is its purposeful design to obscure just which teenaged psycho in the large collection of escaped teenaged psychos is the titular chainsaw-wielder we all know and love. This whole Ten Little Indians-ish, “which troubled youth is Leatherface?” angle is, frankly, stupid, and the film so obviously points to one character in particular as being the infamous cannibal that there's no way your brain would ever allow that to be the case, so when a twist occurs and points to an entirely different character being the titular madman, the viewer looks blankly at the television and says, “No shit.” And once this twist occurs, and you spend the rest of the movie knowing this character is Leatherface, it absolutely robs him of any fear he would go on to inspire in the original. Somehow, he goes from a teen who can think and reason and even empathize to a mute, human-face-wearing mongoloid who communicates by shrieking and wagging his tongue around like a pervert. 

I mean, Leatherface just sucks. 

It’s also incredibly violent. And I can see you rolling your eyes and pushing up your glasses to say, “Well, what did you expect?” and in response I push up my own glasses and nerdily remind you that the original film spilled very little blood, contained very little violence, and, despite its title, contained only one chainsaw murder — the violence of which was left off-screen (so shut it.) 

Leatherface is not cut from the same cloth. It’s very bloody, very violent, and very depraved. If characters being slowly chainsawed apart digit by digit or a psycho girl licking the gooey face of a rotting corpse while having doggie-style trailer sex is your idea of a good time, then have at it, you weirdo. Though, technically, Leatherface is a prequel to the '74 original, it falls more in line with the Platinum Dunes era, thanks to its violent content and admittedly pleasing visual palette, and which were set during the 1970s, anyway. From the get, Leatherface's execution shares very little in common with the stylistic approach and aesthetics of the actual film that inspired it, which was much more of a disturbing, moody cautionary tale and less the maniacal splatterfest the ignorant dismiss it as being. With everything tinged in gold and sepia, some of Leatherface's shot composition is genuinely beautiful at times (that’s where the Badlands influence comes in — Terrence Malick would be so proud), but beauty only gets you so far in any genre, and where the beauty leaves off, the violence and nastiness and goo take over. And speaking of, I hope you like goo! Because you'll get more than your fill here. In Leatherface, sedimentary goo even makes noise

There are only two bright spots throughout this catastrophe, which are its competent leads. Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) does strong work as the Sawyer family matriarch, and any project is better for having her. Same said for Stephen Dorff, whose sheriff character easily presents as a man possessed and operating on his own, unlawful agenda. It’s a wonder either of them appear in, essentially, part eight of a long-running slasher franchise, especially one that landed with such a quiet thud. (This was the first Chainsaw in 24 years that didn’t get a wide theatrical release.) 

Had Leatherface been called anything else — Cannibal Run, for instance (I hope you're proud because I just made that up on the spot) — it would offer a reasonable amount of nonsense escapism. It’s well made enough in the gonzo sense, it’s attractively photographed, and the bloodiness and gags will definitely entertain the gorehounds. But most importantly, it wouldn’t be weighed down by those pesky terms “legacy” and “classic” and “iconic,” because as the official backstory of ‘Leatherface’ Sawyer, it feels rote, unwelcome, and just plain wrong.

Apr 23, 2021

MIRACLE MILE (1988)

Hollywood is in love with portraying a world either on the brink of extinction or already long dead. And these types of films have only gotten bigger in scale since the advent of CGI. Now it isn't just meticulously constructed models being burned with a flamethrower or drowned in frothy ocean water. It's entire cities, or countries, or planets. Streets melt or collapse into sink holes; skyscrapers disintegrate into piles of twisted metal; bridges belly-flop into the oceans below. Spoiler alert: as the technology has improved to realistically destroy civilization itself, the magic of how a world of make-believe was brought to life has decreased, skewing these weakening apocalyptic stories to such a degree that darkened-theater demands of, "How did they do that?" have since been answered by, "Computers, idiot." The rapidly improving visual effects industry may be bringing the impossible to life, but it's doing so at the expense of why film exists in the first place: human connection.

During the 1980s, this apocalyptic fascination somewhat took a backseat to John Hughes and the many action and horror franchises that were running rampant and attracting most theatergoers' attention. Except for Max Rockatansky, no film characters were keen on watching social order fall around them before wandering around a desolate desert landscape. Everyone just wanted to do cocaine and wear pink sunglasses and listen to Wang Chung. This is one of the things that makes Miracle Mile so notable, although it's not the only thing. What makes Miracle Mile a film worth remembering over thirty years after its theater debut is how much of it still feels so relevant, and how at-ground-zero it puts the audience at the conception of nuclear destruction. One of Miracle Mile's greatest strengths is that once Harry (Anthony Edwards, Pet Sematary Two) answers that damned ringing payphone and learns nuclear warheads will strike Los Angeles in fifty minutes, the remainder of the film plays out in painstaking real time. It's at the very diner where Harry was supposed to meet Julie (Mare Winningham) for their date where he relays the news of his revelation to the other diner patrons. Most of them are quick to wave off his claims until one of them, well-connected and fully well knowing this was a possibility, gets on her mobile phone to confirm Harry's claims. Once she does, the film's collection of tremendous supporting characters all begin working together to exact the quickest evacuation of Los Angeles they can muster: who will gather the food, who will navigate, and for the love of everything, does anyone know a helicopter pilot?

It's watching Los Angeles' very slow, but also very rapid, descent into chaos that enables Miracle Mile to pack such a punch. And during its 1988 release date, the Cold War was still very much in the forefront of American minds. It seemed like nuclear warfare was a dangerous possibility nearly consistently, and many people were fearful that the bombs could drop at any time. But it's also watching Harry hopping over cars, fleeing gunmen, ducking from explosions, and depending on people he's never met to not only find a way out of the city, but somehow also locate Julie, a perfect stranger with whom he's in love, in the middle of all that madness.

Getting back to an earlier point, and being that this was 1989, Miracle Mile’s bird's-eye view of destruction is brought to life all through the use of practical and in-camera effects, depending very scarcely on opticals. CGI at its height has brought entire characters to life, be it Gollum or Caesar or King Kong, and after a while, though its creations and its potential to create can be deeply affecting, it's also doused some of the fear that filmmakers were once intent on establishing. Nowadays, to set a character on fire, the actor puts on a green body suit and pretends to run from a flock of bees, but back then, filmmakers really just set stunt people on fire, and in spite of how impressive that CGI fire may look, our brains are always going to filter what's real and what's not. Because of that, their respective potential impacts are never going to be on an even scale. But this is just one example of numerous that Miracle Mile presents so well. As the bombs approach toward film's end and the city begins billowing in non-CGI radiation heat, you feel that heat against your skin. When the helicopter crash lands in the ocean and the cab begins filling with real and black water, your own breath feels stifled. This is Miracle Mile’s power.

What Miracle Mile lives and dies by is its cast, which just might be one of the best ensembles ever assembled for a film, even if they may not command A-list status - today or back then. Anthony Edwards, at first glance, seems like an odd choice for a leading man, and his somewhat unconvincing voice-over that opens the film isn't doing him any favors, but once Miracle Mile settles back and finds its groove, you begin to realize that the beauty of casting folks like Edwards or Mare Winningham in the lead roles is because they never achieved the bigger-than-life baggage that some of their colleagues did. Edwards's plain and everyday looks helped to sell his character as simply that: a fledgling musician but nothing more - no one big, no one prominent. He felt real.

The beauty of watching Miracle Mile for the first time, especially if you're a film buff who for one reason or another has never had the pleasure, is that every single supporting character is played by a recognizable face. In a flip-side of Anthony Edwards's everyday looks and stature, it's in watching an immense collection of actors and actresses playing these small roles in which they find themselves dealing with the end of the world, and all the emotional and irrational thoughts that come with it, that really help to sell the outlandish (but not really!) premise Miracle Mile is selling. To list them all here would be exhausting, but rest assured each face that pops up will trigger instant recognition. (This thing even has Denise Crosby! Pet Sematary reunion!)

Miracle Mile manages to combine several different genres - thriller, romance, sci-fi, even irreverent comedy - to paint a look at the last fifty minutes of life in a way that's both completely outlandish and entirely believable. From the wall-faced, blonde-mulleted, bodybuilding rescue pilot (Brian Thompson) who won't leave his girlfriend behind, to the police-car-stealing bystander who needs to rescue his sister, to Julie's in-love-but-out-of-touch grandparents, Miracle Mile pulls off a magnificent feat: in the midst of city-wide carnage, burning cars, exploding buildings, and oncoming nuclear war, it puts love at the forefront. Even as the helicopter whirs to life in front of him, Harry opts to instead turn right around and head back into the madness for the woman he barely knows, but whom he already somehow knows he loves. That's something not even CGI can bring to life.

And I haven’t even mentioned the tremendous score by Tangerine Dream. The film's intimate opening has the couple-to-be wandering Los Angeles streets and slowly getting to know each other, complemented by that ethereal score, but soon, madness descends upon the city, bringing to life chaos and disorder with it. Cars honk and crunch metal, flames crackle and whip, errant bullets ricochet off sewer pipes and walls. And the score by Tangerine Dream, which is not only one of their best (next to Sorcerer), begins hammering like Miracle Mile’s heartbeat, becoming a steady tick of the clock quickly running out of minutes.

On those lists that circulate tantamount to "One Hundred Films to See Before You Die," Miracle Mile should be on there. It’s proven to be one of the biggest cinematic surprises of my life; if you give it a chance, it just may be the same for you, too.

Apr 21, 2021

PSYCHO IV:THE BEGINNING (1990)

At one point during Psycho IV: The Beginning, a young Norman Bates is doing what he does best in the darkness of the night, lit only by the red taillights of a nearby car. Its director, Mick Garris, once mused that scene's lighting scheme inspired Martin Scorsese for his opening scene of Goodfellas where our mafioso heroes reveal the bloodied body of Billy Bats in the trunk of their car. (It's tempting to laugh at the idea of Martin Scorsese looking to Mick Garris, the director of Sleepwalkers, for inspiration, but Scorsese has seen more films than you, me, your dad, and the guy behind you combined, so it's totally possible.) The reason I bring this up is because we now live in a post-Bates Motel world, A&E's smash television hit that ran for five seasons, introduced the character of Norman Bates to a new generation, and which purported to take inspiration only from the original Psycho...but which has certainly lifted more than a few things from its first official prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning.

Unless you are a hardcore horror fan, people are often surprised to learn that there was more than one Psycho (not even including its terrible remake.) "I had no idea they made sequels to that!" they often exclaim. Take that, add in the fact that Psycho IV: The Beginning never played in any American theaters, intended as being just a Showtime original movie, and I guess it's easy to understand why it's the least heard-of entry in the series.

When dealing with sequels, it's always tempting to talk about which entry is the best, as there are numerous criteria to consider. Which honors the original the best? Which is the most entertaining, the most insane, the most violent? For similar horror series, like Halloween or Friday the 13th, these are acceptable debates in which to engage, being that though they all tried new things, they were all largely the same in construct. But with the Psycho series, each sequel strived to be incredibly different from the first, and from the sequels that came before. The very undervalued Psycho II played with the audience's preconceived notions of who Norman Bates was, not allowing them to trust their own eyes, as they were convinced the unseen knife-wielder could only be their titular madman. Psycho III, directed by star Anthony Perkins, goes full gonzo, ramping up the blackly comedic elements of the original while guiding it into a sleazy, dark, and somewhat uncomfortable direction. Psycho IV, written by original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano (without input from original novelist Robert Bloch), brushes aside all the accumulated baggage of its previous sequels and opts to focus on the core of what made Psycho so interesting – the psychosis of its "leading man." (Garris confirmed his intent to ignore the sequels, but an in-film reference to the motel being closed down after the last murders "a few years ago" seems to fly in the face of that. If by "a few" you mean "thirty," well, okay.)

Norman Bates, now somewhat unrealistically living free and married to a staff member of the hospital where he'd been committed, is calling into a radio show (remember those?) to put in his two cents on the subject of matricide: the killing of a mother by her child. Using the name Ed (as in Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who inspired the character of Norman Bates, along with scores of other fictional cinematic killers), Norman delves back into his never-discussed childhood, finally fleshing out his mother, Norma, beyond just a stuffed corpse in a rocking chair. After thirty years, the audience gets a taste of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse he suffered at her hands until the iced tea/strychnine cocktail he eventually served her.

The cast – in the past and in the present – do a fine job of sliding into Bates family history. Henry Thomas (The Haunting of Hill House) is remarkable as a young Norman Bates, unafraid to tackle some taboo topics and frankly a handful of uncomfortable scenes to film (popping a B while rolling around on top of your "mother" certainly qualifies). In terms of younger iterations, his take is far better than Freddie Highmore's somewhat irritating, mush-mouthed version from A&E. Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas) as Mama Bates offers the strongest performance, with a character even more complicated than Norman. While the son is the fucked-up progeny of his mother, it's the creator of his psychosis who must come off even more unhinged. Hussey's take on the character has to be so many things: loving and happy, but sad and resentful; sexual, but puritanical. She's manic depressive, bi-polar, and emotionally manipulative, all at once. (Again, somewhere, Vera Farmiga was taking notes.) CCH Pounder (Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight), an actress as awesome as her name, does typically great work as a radio show host slowly transitioning from skeptical and slightly amused to invested and even personally responsible for the bloody path Norman is threatening to cut. And of course, there's Anthony Perkins stepping back into his most famous role. Much of his limited screen time is relegated to him hugging a phone to his face and providing segues into the past, but the amount of emotion he's capable of conveying is highly effective.

Much of Psycho IV is very well made – it's certainly the best film in director Garris' career – and it's really only during the final act where it falters, intent on giving present-day Norman some knifery to do (or consider doing). The idea of him struggling with whether or not to kill his wife – and by proxy, his unborn child – in an attempt to avoid passing off his madness to someone else comes off just slightly obligatory (not to mention certainly put a damper on the marriage); the same emotional catharsis could have been had in Norman's burning down of his family home while confronting the ghosts of his past, leaving a doubt in the audience's mind he might make it out of the inferno alive, without resorting to cheap and unnecessary slasher film territory to bring it all home.

Exploring the backgrounds of our favorite cinematic killers has become more and more prominent in recent years, with the remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and coming soon, another Friday the 13th, robbing from their respective boogeymen their sense of mystique, and thus, their potency. The same cannot be said of Psycho IV, as nothing within it was fabricated beyond what was already spoken of or alluded to in the original film. 

While Psycho IV might not be the best of the sequels, it certainly treats the original film with the most reverence, unafraid to embrace the more icky subjects that the sequels opted to avoid. It was a worthy send-off for the character of Norman Bates, who, despite all the women-stabbing, has proven consistently to be the most sympathetic movie maniac of them all, with Psycho IV making him even more so. Though one could argue that the groundwork for exploring Norman Bates' backstory was laid during the original film in its final moments, Psycho IV: The Beginning is as respectful to that as it can be without coming off as exploitative of the Hitchcock classic. 

Apr 19, 2021

LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995)

Have you ever noticed that nearly every film about making a film is rife with drama, turbulent emotions, and absurdity? That there is no shortage of bad news, insurmountable odds, pain, and suffering? Ever wonder why that is? Filmmakers love to make films, and that's obvious, or else they wouldn't do it, but that doesn't mean that they enjoy every stage of the process - like butting heads with producers, raising money, catering to every ego on set, dealing with drug/alcohol/other vice addictions. The director only wants to make a film, and sometimes it seems the things standing in the way of that are the very resources he has chosen in order to make that film happen.

Living in Oblivion, if you have any respect for the actual filmmaking process, is something you simply have to see - if only once. An exorcism of sorts for writer/director Tom DiCillo, whose debut effort, the Brad Pitt-starring Johnny Suede, it would seem provided him with all the fodder and inspiration needed to examine the art of the film and the collaboration it requires before tearing it all apart with hilarious results. As presented, and according to DiCillo, filmmaking is a balancing act. It's massaging actors' egos, it's contending with faulty equipment, it's butting heads with DPs, it's dealing with ball-busting assistant directors, and it's keeping the fucking boom mic out of the shot. This and so many other things.

For this deconstruction, DiCillo has brought with him a remarkable cast of knowns, lesser knowns, and unknowns, each absolutely thrilled to be satirizing the very industry in which they work. Although Steve Buscemi takes on the role of the beleaguered director, there is no one special performance worth calling out over any others, because everyone does tremendous and hilarious work. But if there had to be one, Phantasm II's James Le Gros walks away with most laughs per capita of screen time, as his passive aggressive pretty boy Chas Paolomino is an absolute delight to watch; his love him/hate him presence sees him suggesting alternate camera shots, blocking, and dialogue, which garner some of the biggest belly laughs of the film. (His insistence on laying down on the bed in a too-casual, slightly effeminate way, but never managing to appear fully in the shot, is a personal favorite.) It's also nice to see Dermot Mulroney in a beefier role than audiences are used to, as he's an undervalued performer who deserves to be doing more of The Grey and less Insidious: Chapter 3. And yes, even Peter Dinklage! Can you believe he was an actor before Game of Thrones? Weird, right? 

What makes Living in Oblivion so entertaining to watch is its uncanny ability to send up the medium while doing it with equal parts hate and love, and resulting in a film that's just damn good, whether you get all the film-related jokes or not. Tom DiCillo is an extremely underrated filmmaker, and he has a firm grasp of the material and his script. Living in Oblivion serves two purposes: it both makes you wonder how someone of DiCillo's talent could've ever had such trouble on set, and then offers an answer to that question with a charming, acerbic, hilarious, and at times heartbreaking response. 

DiCillo has recalled reacting to notices about Living in Oblivion that stated the film could only be truly appreciate by other filmmakers, which he is quick to deny. While perhaps it's possible that other filmmakers could appreciate Living in Oblivion the most, it does have one thing at its core that every facet of the audience can relate to, and that's the utter hell it can be in trying to accomplish a goal while you have nearly every possible hurdle popping up to squash that accomplishment - to the degree you start to wonder if you're cursed. Living in Oblivion just happens to be about making a film, but there's nothing about it that will leave you feeling left in the dark.