Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Aussies gone Wild is Redundant: WYRMWOOD,THE ROVER


Horror festival favorite knockabout labor of love Aussie debut of brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD (2014) kicks off already at risk of becoming a bit too WALKING DEAD meets ballsy-wallsy Aussie dingo-aitcha-baby macho, with so much wobbly-booted whiplash camera movement, slow-mo splatter, mud flecks, grime streaks, diesel oil drips and blood splatter (both dried and fresh) coating every makeshift black spray-painted football pad surface that pretty soon a little spot of cleanliness would go a long way, even if just for contrast. At times, with nary a wowser to bounce shit offa there's a bit too-much macabre laddie deadpan humor, but it all eventually locks into place and once the momentum hits, you're in, thrice-buckled to the boosted ute, mate.

The main focal character point getting off the ground is Barrie (Jay Gallagher) who loses wife and child to the outbreak of disease madness early on, in a great extended fleeing in the middle of the night sequence (you don't have to get bit to get the Roache-Turner plague but it helps). Barrie and his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) who's busy in her art studio in the wilds of wherever, spend most of the movie trying to find each other, a bit like the Gish sisters in ORPHANS OF THE STORM, but with one of them garnering something genuinely new in the by-now overdone zombie genre. That thing is a psychic link sister Brooke gets to the infected due to inhuman medical experiments performed on her by a creepy dude in a yellow rain slicker hazmat suit, like HOSTEL meets Virginia Leith's head in THE THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE bonding with the unseen monster in the closet -- one of my favorite monster movie alliances. "I am only a head, and you are whatever we are, but together we're strong!!" Meanwhile there's so much grime and grit that it makes THE PROPOSITION seem like THX 1138. If you get that analogy, very ace of ya, mate. But still the torturous chod of slimy dancing scientist chaining Brooke up in back of his weird portable HOSTEL-esque truck, all rapey-vibed but then just sucking brains out of her neighbors in chains like that bug in STARSHIP TROOPERS. Still chod, though, mate. Just inconveniencing her would have been enough justification for his rending as far as I'm concerned, 'cuz Brooke rocks. You can read tomes of savagery switchpoint courage in her heavily blackened thousand yard ESP stare, and her big Zoë Bell-on-a-Dodge Challenger moment is one of the highlights of the junk cinema year. Not nearly enough aggro bingles, boosted cars smashing through the center of caravans in slow motion, or servo fireballs to warrant the ROAD WARRIOR comparison. But that's okay. Just walk away. What a puny plan. You see what you get when you miss with the Orphans? Wrong movie. Just walk away... losers! Losers wait! 

So we're left with, then is real, more NIGHT OF THE COMET or old AIP-Corman budgeting tricks, i.e. you imply the zombie attacks from other films are taking place at the same time your own movie is going on. You borrow our collective cinema memory. But I ain't whingin'. I'd rather WYRM be AIP-COMET honest than simply packed with the CGI macro-calamity and hence part of our post-Syfy channel era. Plus the whole doing experiments with the brains and blood of the immune in relation to the zombies having a cool jet black humor superhero side effect of the damned and Brooke's torturously slow race against time trying to telepathically control tied up zombies into patiently cutting their way out of straps, is all genuinely new to the genre, commenting perhaps on the nature of video games (and perhaps their macabre future, as in GAMER) rather than just trying duplicate them, i.e. to duplicate movies based on games that were trying to duplicate movies in the first place, like RESIDENT EVIL, movies which themselves were copies of earlier movies, and down the rabbit hole until we're back at square one, the terror of children worrying their dad will turn into a monster again once he spends half his paycheck at the local tavern, like a Jekyll/Hyde fundamental human split we all still carry like an archaic memory of the days before we learned how to start fires.



And then, just when it was getting so badass, it's over. Needing perhaps more crowdfunding to continue on into sequels. Well they should get it, as this WYRM may digest the same sources as all the other Romero-zombie rules (the head shot thing, after all, wasn't part of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which came out the same time as DAY OF THE, and had zombies talk and be obsessed with eating "braaainnnns"), it does generate some interesting mutations and manages to do quite a lot with actually very little, thanks to all that grime, solid acting and Michael Lira's droning junkyard 'Stravinsky meets the Cramps at a John Zorn concert' score. I kept hoping for a didgeridoo in there, all low and alien and mean and maybe processed through flanger. It didn't come, but I still liked WYRMWOOD. Give it a squizz when yakka's got you stonkered and you need to rip a rollie and coldie. Shout's Blu-ray has an insightful-Turner commentary, deleted scenes, and an array of helpful bis--crowdfunding trailers, pitch meetings, that should be a great little crash course in using social media to get your scrappy little horror-action movie off the ground. But more importantly, the Blu-ray has the movie, and a full bore kickass stereo mix all but screaming for max volume and/or kickass headphones when the rest of the household is at peace. No didgeridoo, though.

And the movie itself... ah yes, what is it the Aussies say about a nice buzz and low expectations? Nothing - because it's such a natural state for them they don't know any other way. And that is just one reason why we still love them, despite everything... and by 'everything' I do mean Yahoo Serious.










THE ROVER
(2014) Dir David Michôd
**

Ozploitation films set in the endless miles of Australia's interior, the harsh, alien, truly strange Outback, has--beginning in American minds with MAD MAX and CROCODILE DUNDEE and cumulating in the torturous WOLF CREEK but with ON THE BEACH never far from our minds, apocalypse wise. It's left many of us in the States declaring we do want to visit Australia, just not go farther away than a few miles from the coast (and then not too deep in the ocean, cuzza shahks). To judge by films, in the Outback the apocalypse seems to be eternally happening. Inhospitable and strange, the Outback sucks in whole swaths of 19th century schoolgirls, and kangaroos and wobbly-doos (all the Australian wildlife has great weird names reflecting perhaps some hybrid of English and Aborigine in the distant past) run wild, and there's insufficient petrol reserves or manpower to police the whole damn wasteland area. THE ROVER is set in some future where military patrols try to keep the peace, but the best they can do is lumber along down the endless highways in the direction of the criminals, driving through the parking lots of any motels along the way, occasionally shooting someone or getting shot.

But t's a chance for Robert Pattinson to stretch his limber chops as a contorted half-starved young snot who for some reason rocks a Southern (as in the USA) accent and hooks up with a John Lurie-esquely taciturn rogue (Guy Peace) who has such a homicidal fixation on his car that you just know some little Iowa State Quarterly-esque twist is coming. The deeply seedy impoverished look suffers from being too earnest and downbeat and what's worse, the way--as in MAX--this collapsing civilization works by some seriously inconsistent rules. A dwarf arms dealer is dumb enough to take a lone wild-eyed customer to a secluded room, hand him a gun and ammo and then tell him he can't afford to buy it, like he was just dropped down into the Outback from frickin' Dumbville. Another man wisely works behind thick walls with automat-style sliding doors for items bought, but when they need gas, he sells them a five gallon jug, which should be about enough to get them just smack dab in the middle of nowhere before they run out. How these guys ever keep these vehicles going over these vast distances seems a little vague. Out here in the perimeter there are no hospitals or AAA. A person could die by hitting his head on a rock after diving in a lake, and only Toni Collette would ever know (as in JAPANESE STORY).


Pattinson, hair cut lice inspection short, is one weird little freak and this role. His whole body taught and lean and crouched like his hamstrings were all shortened by a sadistic Gepetto, a runt of a litter born hunched up to deflect kicks, his big T-shirt barely fitting over his lanky, underfed trunk. But to me his role here is one more link in the chain that will one day show modern naysayers that he, like his TWILIGHT co-star Kristen Stewart, one of the more underrated actors of his or any generation. Not that this makes it any more pleasant of an experience, becoming instead as glum as THE ROAD but with a worse smell. You know that moldy smell some old cars get, like a tent left too long rolled up in the basement? That dirty, moldy smell? Well, the whole movie smells that way. It's the most malodorous film I've seen since the recent Blu-ray of CONVOY, which also had that vaguely sulphuric tang of hot asphalt and dust, diesel gas exhaust hanging breezeless alongside moldy naugahyde and motor oil. If that's what good literature does, prithee to what end? There was never a doubt why the MAD MAX movies existed--for drive-in thrills! But whither our ROVER? For a few weird twists that would seem interesting only to someone who's been in a grad school fiction workshop so long they're afraid of admitting their own un-PC urge to shoot people and guzzle amber fluids. Better there be a red-tinted desert shotgun ancient cinema flooded with sand odyssey like in John Stanley's DUST DEVIL (set in South Africa, but the vibe's the same) 'cuz it at least has a hot chick, tantric voodoo sex, and some metaphysical weirdness underneath the sand and blood surface.


But one thing Australia did right, mate, was old Croc Dundee, the Jack Burton of the Outback, and if you go to the land down under where women grow and men thunder, and they ask about me, how's old Erich the Rah-Shmerick doin' or what's Erich into these days, you tell 'em he's hunky doro and preaching the Crocodile Dundee (also Burt Reynolds) non-duality approach to self-defense in the face of evil, a philosophy that might have spared Billy Jack, Sgt. York, The Quiet Man, and all those other game-as-Ned Kelly but pacifist dubbos a lot of soul-searching. Croc teaches that even going lemony berko on some shickered yobbo can go fair dinkum... by which I mean, the man beyond duality does everything with love, even a knockabout blue with a big smoke bounce. Just avoid wallies... in any language. For not even wildmen can withstand their withering mundanity, reducing even the grimiest philosophy to a T-shirt platitude and crossing guard coloring book tie-in. If you doubt, just ask the Men without Hats to make you a vegemite sandwich, and take cover.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya: SHARKNADO 3, CHOPPING MALL


I was shocked watching SHARKNADO 3, which premiered with much Shark Week-esque hooplah on Syfy last week, when one of the "live tweets" mentioned "the theme park worker," and not the Universal Orlando Theme Park worker, which is really doing your promotional tie-in guy wrong. Meanwhile a commercial commemorates one of the recently eaten Secret Service guys, saluting him for being free at last from his wearisome cellular contract. Hey, that's clever, taking a chummy cue from Shark Week's many tie-ins over on Discovery, a fine example of synergy and vertical integration offset by the ultra-dated cliche'd black expression "Oh hell No" white people are now so crazy about. Can using words like "clutch," and "baller" be far behind, yo? "The new ill sausage and baller bacon butter triple hog dare ya from Applebees - baller. Simply baller." or "Patron Blue Tequila - Clutch... simply clutch."


From the latest Corman offshoot company joint Asylum, wherein they realized they had a great high concept so decided to spend a little more money and do it better than the usual wretchedness, SHARKNADO the First delivered the same kitschy but rock solid vehicles with which Corman had been powering drive-ins across the country all through the 70s and late night cable all through the 80s, and VHS rentals all through the 90s, and brought it even to Syfy, for whom it marks a new self-aware camp crap golden age where if you don't mind crappy CGI and all the breasts staying in their bikinis, it's a feast indeed. And sometimes, I'll confess I don't mind. It's like BAYWATCH for monster movie lovers to fall asleep to on a lazy Sunday. You know, instead of going to church or playing Nintendo.

Nor do I take umbrage with clever ad men tying in on this shark wrangle, because the tie-ins become closer and closer to the actual movie until the two are tangled as two fishing lines hooked into the same two-headed shark's mouths. The result makes for quite a spectacle, wherein your own psyche is a direct participant, like watching America eat itself always is, even as it eats you from the toes up, until all that's left is your finger on the remote hand. We see it all over the net, and on NBC's Saturday Night Live, which does Amex commercials in the same manner as their satiric commercial sketches, making the two impossible to separate. In other words, vertical integration is no mere Jack Donaughey 30 ROCK joke. Check out this Clickhole ad's deadpan mix of satire and straight forward advertising... where does one end and the other begin? Exactly - that difference is long gone. 

That's why the second SHARKNADO was so painful: it had become fully self-aware and was just camping it up, shitshow-style, featuring a string of bloated once-familiar faces hoping to up their Twitter numbers up as they're eaten near NYC landmarks and Fin's hero complex looking dangerously close to terrorism (See Micro-Manager Munchausen). This third go-round though, despite the douche-chilled "Oh HELL No!" tag, makes it back to something like the first film, which worked so well because it wasn't just the tornado that was interesting, but the incoming tidal surge that flooded the drainage sewers and left the water line climbing up into the Hollywood Hills. The tornado didn't even come along until the final act. It was much better that way, the onrushing flood and coastal environment, the way  the whole first 2/3 was one long inward motion from the first bites out in the water, to the bar, the hurricane coming ever closer, the surge of water right as Fin's closing up, the fleeing inland to the car, and then up to the Hills to try and rescue the family. The tornado didn't come along until after all of that, and instead we had sharks in swimming pools and sliding down the highway strips. No one but me remembers that. Time marches on, and the flood was probably harder to animate digitally than just having airborne sharks. And this tie-in bonanza is once-in-a-lifetime. I'm sure none of the subsequent airings will have those same ads, and it's a damn shame. 


But hey, Bo Derek is great, she's eternal like "She Who Must Be Obeyed" as Tara Reid's mom, both of them dragging now designated sharknado expert Fin to Orlando instead of into the thick of the tornado or helping the president prepare for the oncoming tide of inexplicable sharks. Reid's quite pregnant, their oldest son has "deployed" so isn't around and their cute daughter Claudia (Aubrey Peebles) is played by a different actress with dark hair (Ryan Newman), a subject of much small talk. Now Fin and his family are public figures, America's designated sharknado solvers, with the Oval Office quick pass. Fin doesn't like that Cassie Scerbo as Nova spent the sequel off on her own, going all storm chaser Mad Maxine in an armored shark investigation camper with radar, arsenal, and contingency plan (Frankie Muniz is her lovelorn tech guy --you always got to have a little tech guy in your crew, usually named Mouse or Jesse). Once again, she steals the show giving a great raspy voice Jersey girl realness even to her manic obsessive psychospeak and when she says that when she crawled out of the shark in the climax of the first film "it's never been the same." Scerbo, you are the heart and sou of these films and never let them tell you different! You're love for Fin, who only had eyes for his family, was the great unusual propellor that drove the first film's boat. Not having it around in the second made it fairly trite --is there anything more unseemly than some Cali broheim lecturing us on what it means to be New Yorkers as he runs hither and yon chasing his family around like a confused maniac terrorist-tourist hybrid? You weren't there, so the only interesting aspect left was Tara Reid having her hand bit off and replaced with a bionic arm. A part I do not remember.


I don't even mind that Fin's still got the obsessive hero complex, because it fits as part of a subtextual army recruitment ad, and even further-around-the-curve NRA promotion. When gun nuts take the law into their own hands to save their neighborhoods from flying sharks, we all benefit, but especially the psycho likes of Michelle Bachman and Ann Coulter, both of whom make cameos. And of course NASCAR and military build-up...UFC fighter Josh Barnett blasts sharks for the military--now more than ever. In the ads, Race Car Driver #3 uses being eaten by a shark to escape his cellular contract. Cosmetics in real killer colors; the incessant car insurance barrage "I guess they don't like you driving around on three wheels." And the smug girl chiding her husband with her good driving record cash back; the new Jeep Cherokee; and the M. Night movie about creepy grandparents; Pepsi; and local ads for: the Honda Summer Clearance Event; Broadway superstars of Magic "The Illusionists" and The Book of Mormon. Promos for Syfy's own latest hop-on, "Lavalantula"  which will hopefully involve leaping from the couch to the stairs and floating around on the mattress; an miniseries CHILDHOOD'S END, about an alien invasion that brings happiness and peace but what's the downside? What are these peacenik aliens really up to? "I would rather the world go down in flames under our control than live in prosperity and peace under their's!" we hear someone shout. Spoken like a true Republican! "Messing with Sasquatch" promotes rude near-bullying taunts of Bigfoots in the name of jerky; turkey and guacamole (flavored substance) from Subway; Captain Obvious at Hotels.com ("They won't judge your life choices"); some guy with an unbearably pandering sensitive voiceover, the kind so common now, where they talk to you like you're five years-old and just skinned your knee:"All you need to see is the next 200 feet, that's how life unfolds - and you'll get there. (1) Fuck that. The badass anti-smoking ad equates a cigarette with a vicious science class monster with smoking, and that's so clutch. Anything that kills you makes you cool first. If Bogie's life taught as anything it's that real men don't do longevity.  

Subtextual pro-NRA ultra Neoconservative Army recruitment tool or no, watching Tara Reid give birth while falling through the earth's atmosphere inside a giant flaming shark, Fin cutting a whole in the shark so a parachute can get through as they plummet safely down to Earth, us seeing Fin from inside the shark through the holes burning up its thick hide as it falls down through? Priceless. Even Tara Reid's skin looks much better. And Nova, welcome home. I just hope they wise up and give you your own Jersey girl vs. sky shark series, because you're that old animal flesh creeping back, a thumb in the eye of the CGI Moreau!



CHOPPING MALL (1986) on the other hand, came to me free of all commercials, liens and tie-ins, animal, vegetable, CGI, or bullshit, and seeing it (for the first time) last week after the NAD 3 was very satisfying. Why had I waited almost 30 years? The poster alone (at left) kept me away back in 1986, when I was a young punk trying to smoke my way through college. It looked like a cheap slasher film, which by 1986 was one desiccated formula, and it seemed gratuitously gruesome and a downer to boot. I remember seeing the VHS box and imagining some bloated, mentally challenged mall cashier with a metal hand chopping up and eating the long pig. My imagination was wrong. I found out last week that it's a Julie Corman produced joint about security robots run amok the same night three young furniture store clerks and their dates, plus another couple, meet at the furniture store for a night of passion and drinking. Sex as a teen in the 80s wasn't something you could easily do with parents home, so you needed to get creative. It's Wynorski's directorial debut and he'd go on to much worse things but here he's always better than he needs to be. I haven't seen any of his SHARKNADO-esque Syfy monster pics PIRHANACONDA (2012) but here at least he gives it his all, and gives the film real inexorable fun momentum that's an in-joke strewn treat for fans: Peckinpah's gun store delivers the Romero mall arsenal; the nerd shows his blind date ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS while the non-virgin couples get it on in other areas of the furniture store; there's also a Dr. Carrington and a whole slab of dialogue verbatim from the original THING ("it's gonna be real mad when it gets to me"); one character tries to dispel robot attention by saying "klaatu barada nikto;" Corman company movie posters adorn the pizza shop walls; Mary Woronov and Paul Blartel roll their eyes during the robot debut ceremony (with plenty of ROBOCOP allusions); and Corman regular Dick Miller is a cranky custodian. Man, you had me at Peckinpah's. 

Best of all, all the teens may be generally horny, but are also resourceful, relatively likable, and brave. They eschew the seven stages of grief (as seen in THE MIST) which pretentious writers and actors so often mistake for realism or importance, and go right to the savagery switchpoint. Even the designated strapping jock type Mike (John Terlesky) has a certain amount of good-natured charisma, and the blind date's a crack shot (Kelli Maroney, who was in the excellent NIGHT OF THE COMET--which I did see in the theater) and the sexy older girl an ace mechanic (Karrie Emerson). Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with cans of gas and protect each other. Sultry Barbara Crampton (YOU'RE NEXT) makes it almost to the end, and isn't afraid to toss a pipe bomb. Best of all the robots are badass, real remote controlled little maniacs on tank treads, with Gort laser eyes and Robocop-style platitudes, lasers shooting out of their eyes (not in the original design) put there along with their evil intentions by a freak alien signal lightning (?) ala GOG--which Wynorski credits for the robot concept in the extras. And in the end these crazy robots are what make the movie truly a classic. They're fully automated remote controlled robots rather than just CGI or guys in cheap robot suits, and it really makes a difference. Plus, malls are a great place to set horror movies, I can only imagine seeing it at a theater inside the mall where it was filmed and then walking out and BAM, being right there... that would be meta, bro.


To tie in SHARKNADO, Wynorski's currently working on something called SHARKANSAS WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE.  Dominique Swain and Traci Lords will star. I will certainly watch it, maybe... probably not. But I'll watch CHOPPING MALL, aka KILLBOTS again. For it is a TERMINATOR rip that cares, that does it's own thing and branches out to riff on other films rather than resorting to tawdriness, and I have nothing against rip-offs, because film is a living evolving myth, and when one myth strikes a cord, when it reverberates out into a huge imagination-firing, inspiring hit, every hack and B-movie auteur starts thinking about how they would do it slightly different. The cat is out of the bag. JAWS launched a whole genre, then ALIEN, then ROAD WARRIOR and then TERMINATOR. CHOPPING MALL gets the latter while evoking the DAWN OF THE DEAD suburbanite amok consumerist fantasy of running amok in the mall, getting whatever you want, without paying.... so clutch.

Just as the recent masterpiece IT FOLLOWS did, CHOPPING MALL knows that great horror begins at home, not in some perfect suburban small town but in the real normal middle class suburbs, the grocery store, and at the mall, and in our TV sets, anywhere we go to feel safe, or sated, or comforted should be used against us. And America has always been and will always be slightly paranoid. It's only natural that whatever we make in our own image would try to kill us. For while nature is a monster, forever killing and eating smaller versions of itself, we're forever fighting back our natural urges. Aside from swatting a fly or two we need never kill things, let alone our own food; we never need fear the dark as long as our electricity bill is paid, or go hungry for one can always get food stamps. People, old and diseased, who could never kill or procure their own food have it brought to them on wheels. 

But we feel the ghosts of all our prey haunting us in the dark--the guilt of all the pain our lives inflict, below and above us, within and without us--hammering at the walls of our easy first world consumer-oriented life. Meanwhile our own animal DNA has our brain hardwired for hardship, it releases that special dopamine reward for killing your own meat through some savage effort, or living through the night, of starting and maintaining a fire, or vanquishing one's foe in combat. Without those kind of basic challenges, the ones the movies provide us only by proxy, those dopamine chemicals gradually tone way down. We get just a handful with a good movie that taps those instincts,  but as for real life dopamine-flood primal caveman victories, what's left? Sex, procreation, maybe kickboxing... in other words, mere scraps compared to the staggering endorphin rush we get when you kill a sabre-toothed tiger with nothing but a sharpened rock.



Goofy but sufficiently deadpan horror movies like SHOPPING MALL and SHARKNADO tap into this need for the kill, but in the process expose the utter ridiculousness of this need in our consumerist fantasia society. When we have everything we need, we have to create our own artificial calamities, and every step of the way through them, the advertising dogs our heels. And so it comes that even the tools of consumerism have their demons, the shark eating you is financially obligated to remind you about the new Applebee's shrimp platter, and the security robot trying to kill you is only trying to protect that ultimate consumerism signifier, the mall. And if the vertical integration continues as it has, soon, even horror movies won't feel safe in the night, as product placement lurks waiting to devour even the most amorphous fears before they can reach us. Until then, airborne sharks and amok robots are our wicker man, our straw dog, our effigy burning at the stake. If we can cathartically tap all those repressed terrors, cathartically exercise them in a bloody shark chainsaw inside-out space ride bonfire, then--for a little while anyway--we're free from the fear that consumes us.

But we all know effigies only buy us some time. They only postpone and distract the reaper of souls coming for thee, like appetizers or the opening band. Sooner or later it will be our turn to take the stage and be devoured in fangs of flame, and all that will be left will be a pool of blood.. and guts... glory... Ram. Lease the new Ram truck today - you pay nothing before 90 days; once you're dead you automatically owe nothing. Offer void in Ohio.



NOTES:
1. My voiceover career stalled out when clients stopped wanting the deep Tom Waits rasp and moving towards that touchy feely "high" voiced food co-op nonsmoking smug sensitivity in my voice so I may be prejudiced, but fuck that namby-pamby shit.
2. I literally watched that movie last week, and at his age had the same shy boy trouble busting first moves, some say I still do. I'd show them weird old movies til they'd either get tired and leave or throw themselves at me. But that was before... the meds. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Metatextual Exorcist's Assistant: MAPS TO THE STARS, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA


Film as a medium isn't old enough that it has a set response as to how to handle the 'problem' of aging A-list actresses. But two 2014 films both recently released on DVD have shown the 'old' way can be made 'new' again through post-modern tweaks. The sexy young bitches of the 80s-90s have found work playing middle-aged actresses fighting to stay young and relevant, the way hot bitches of the 20s-40s did in the 50s-70s, by playing faded stars who go insane from being cooped up in their cobwebbed minds and mansions while the pictures (and cars) get small. Going 'Norma Desmond' allows for a kind of ageist exorcism which then makes the actress playing the actress seem balanced by contrast. So Billy Wilder makes Gloria Swanson seem cool and Robert Aldrich makes Bette Davis seem fearless. Skulking around their eerie mansions, eerie theremins granting their every mirror-ward hiss Grand-Guignol foreboding, the aging actress playing the aging actress is freed from her own Gerascophobe (by Chanel)-scented strait-jacket (starring Joan Crawford).

Now that we're all feminists, so the kind of lurid madness that made Baby Jane and Norma Desmond so indelible won't play-- it has to be a sensitive portrait of Alzheimer's, for senior Academy members to lionize. Independent filmmakers circle the wagons around the A-list as they crest through middle and later age, the way they do older men (notice older men and younger women are so often recipients of Best Supporting Actress, so seldom the other way around?).  And though those Sony hacks reminded us even major starlets are making less money than their less famous male counterparts, there are great directors who love women and love self-reflexive dissertation, love the madness of their business, and no how much Oscar voters love hearing about how their business is to make our collective dreams. And the actress might even executive produce knowing the strategic value a small name-auteur indie about actresses can have, for Oscar ups your price and focuses your obit. But feminism, so you have to be brave, The Sunset Boulevard model has passed through now to the likes of the world's best post-affect auteurs, like David Cronenberg and Olivier Assayas. For them, in this of all years, the post-modern self-reflexive spirit of Billy Wilder and Robert Aldrich endures. It need only be taken one meta-level further to resonate in our new century's junk TV-addicted consciousness and not offend. So here are Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche playing Gloria Swansons playing Norma Desmonds instead of just Norma Desmonds still trying to play Salome.

THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Dir Olivia Assayas (2014)
***

Olivier Assayas is to the post-modern lesbian corporate thriller what Jean Pierre-Melville was the French New Wave in the early 60s, a vanguard figurehead whose ability to bring post-modern ambiguity to urban thriller cool opened the door between art and genre for anyone with a Gauloises and a DP to slink through. Scenes of Asia Argento walking through a vast bustling Hong Kong mall-flea market--each booth/stall a vast tapestry of electronics, contrasting languages and music all whirling together one after the other--in Boarding Gate is perhaps the most ear-boggling use of post-modern affect in all cinema, but then... what? Then nothing. Assayas' biggest weakness has always been his befuddlement in the face of narrative structure and satisfactory catharsis. The best he can do is weird unsatisfying twists into abstraction, the worst is to just end with no closure. 

Though there's no lady corporate assassins, Clouds of Sils Maria covers similar existential bases, with a trio of strong female leads ranging along the All about Eve axis, playing versions of themselves and each other as they play characters studying to be themselves and each other with the same weird mix of back-stabbing and compassion with which younger executive assistants are shepherded by an older employers into the abyss of self-awareness and ambition, and almost accidentally summing up and illustrating the artist's great instinct for self-sabotage, his fascination with watching his or her life burn up in the car fire of doomed love. This time it comes from discussion of Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Stewart), about Maria's character in the play within the film, her nihilistic interpretation vs. Val's vision of it a rationalization of using a false image of youth based on one's own rose-tinted memories to shield the character's own stunted maturation, of embracing a different social role as one wave in the "seas of gray hair." For Maria is an aging European icon who's been talked into playing the older woman having an affair with a hot young heartbreaker-- a role she herself became a star via 20 years earlier. Kristen Stewart steals the show though, as Val, who handles her job with startling cool, knowing just how to rile or soothe or otherwise push Maria's buttons while juggling deals and cars and hotel rooms and interviews and meetings with photographers without ever seeming to break her cool detached stride or get mad at her cell phone. Chloë Grace Moretz is the rising star playing the younger part in the play; Valentine takes Maria to see the latest superhero movie which Moretz stars in, and Maria's mocking laughter (Val's a fan) gradually comes between them.

In other words, it's Bette Davis' The Star meets Petra Von Kant rehearsing a lesbian version of The Blue Angel at the Alpine lodge home of the play's recently deceased writer. It's these rehearsal scenes that carry the film. Stewart and Binoche connect with such quiet force that we understand immediately why Stewart won the César and the dialogue of the play within the film resembles their characters' own relationship and perhaps Stewart's real-life relationship with Alicia Cargile (left) so much it's (intentionally) impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, except that the line-running they do feels real, while their sudden lurches into directly discussing their own relationship--Valentine complaining as Maria laughs at her impressions of the play's subtext--seems faked. and if Val and Maria themselves have any sexual history or present we never know. As the Binoche-Stewart personae (see what I did there?) merges into itself along with the two characters they're rehearsing via the actress and personal assistant they're playing... there's a sudden mystical shift that... well.. it doesn't work because the whole first 4/5 of the film has been this show business European fly-on-the-wall vérité so to suddenly move into a Freudian ego dissolution parable seems false, as if Assayas didn't trust the relationship to be good enough on its own - he had to keep adding layers until the whole thing deflates like an overdone soufflé. In other words, once again Assayas takes something that's working great, going somewhere new, and derails it with one too many affectations, the same way Irma Vep came to a standstill of pin-scratched Maggie outline celluloid, or that disturbing and strange demonlover denouement, or that so-what escalator in Boarding Gate.


I was really vibing to Stewart and Binoche's chemistry so felt genuinely saddened by the sudden flight into a kind of Peter Weir-ish fourth act mystical disappearance. The big comparison critics have been making of course is L'Aventura, but in that they at least talked about the disappearance, it obsessed them for awhile, until they forgot about it, and we didn't much miss her anyway, since it was Monica Vitti we were collectively falling in love with. Here it's reversed, like Vitti just left without a note toward the end and we spent the rest of the damn movie with the smarmy and insecure Sandro (Gabriele Farzetti).  Some critics hypothesize Val kind of morphs into Chloë Grace Moretz, playing the tabloid-branded scarlet letter marriage-wrecker of years ago (see: Kristen Stewart in the Snow with Poison), but in the end, fancy critics can discuss the use of art cinema 'modernity' vs. vérité realism all they want --it just plum doesn't work... for me at least. In interviews Assayas says he wanted to give the audience something to think about, but frankly, he didn't. We'd rather follow Kristen into the clouds than be dragged along with Juliette Binoche into the dungeons of bourgeois theater. After all, Binoche ain't winning no César. Neither is Assayas, for the French are wary of auteurs who sabotage their own work, just so everyone knows it's their's and not some gamin upstart's, or in other words, the very same self-sabotage these aging out-of-touch actresses feel when their dependency on the young and hip PA can no longer be ignored. 

If I'm being unfair, so be it. Most of the film is great, the scenery is staggering, the mountains a clue to the European intellectual heart, where German loftiness, Nordic depression, and French intellectual aesthetics sizzle together and align like constellations. Instead of the lofty cloud atlas stuff, I was imagining what if Bergman were directing, that he might go full-on post-modern and we'd maybe get an interview with Alice Cargile in between takes of the film within the play about a pair of women in a play. That might have worked, but whatever - the Melville of post-affect cinema transcends such things as satisfying destinations. The trip is where he works his magic. Once arrived, he's all out of rabbits.


MAPS TO THE STARS
(2014) Dir. David Cronenberg
***1/2

One can't imagine either actual Hollywood or the Sils Maria bourgeois European intellectual community, i.e. Assayas, making a film like Maps to the Stars. A lurid, slow-burn haunted Hollywood saga of pyromaniac schizophrenics, ghosts, and egomaniacal stars and life coaches, it could only come from a Canadian indie auteur who doesn't need pretentious vanishings to craft a fiune Brechtian dissertation on aging actresses being intimidated by the younger generation. The similarities between the two films are striking: a behind and in front of the camera mirroring; passive aggressive sabotage by the older insecure actress against her personal assistant, and the merging of personae; the Twilight connection: Stewart in Sils, Pattinson (in a Cronenberg limo again) for Maps. Considering Stewart co-starred with Maps star Julianne Moore in Still Alice the same year (top), it's like an eerie reflection across continents, genres, and post-modern layers. But one is ballsy, the other just has a picture of balls on its cell phone.



In both Sils and Maps there's the idea of being subsumed by another's ego, of being a young female employee trying to have a life while working for a solipsistic middle-aged actress dealing with the dwindling roles / loss of youth by bullying their younger assistants. In Sils the assistant leaves without giving two weeks notice or even looking back; in the other... I can't spoil it, but it's far more satisfying. She leaves too, but we know just where she's going. There's a sense of unyielding fatalism, of the inexorable pull of madness so in sync with Los Angeles, of knowing exactly where under the Grauman's Chinese pavement beats the hideous Babylonian heart, and the most surgeon-like way to drill for it.

Written by sordid show biz underbelly chronicler (and Castaneda mystic) Bruce Wagner (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), this is jet black satire of the type that knows every inch of what it's chronicling, and can match the darkness stab for stab. Everything connects: just as Melanie Daniels brought the bird attacks to Bodega Bay, young Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) triggers an outbreak of specters upon her arrival in Hollywood. Her estranged brother, bratty child star Benji (Evan Bird), is haunted by a dying girl he does a Make a Wish Foundation visit to right before she dies; her employer, fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is haunted by her crazy mom Clarice, who set their house on fire when Havana was a child, maybe. A new bio is being made and Havana is  fighting to play her, even while claiming she was molested and abused by her. Ingeniously, the ghost of Clarice is played by luminous hottie Sara Gordon (above, in the bath), just the right kind of weird mind melter that shows a real subversive instinct, the kind Assayas ultimately lacks, afraid, perhaps, of alienating the bourgeois fan base he won with Summer Hours. 

It's all in the genes.



In comes Agatha as Havana's personal assistant, with the kind of naive prepossession that does well in Hollywood, with a recommendation from Carrie Fisher but a dad (John Cusack) who hates her for setting fire to their house as a child and feeding Benji an overdose of pills. Now she's on meds and doing her ninth step, so is back to make amends, which Cusack, who's made a fortune as a platitude-spouting gestalt masseur, with demons of his own, barely accepts before retreating into a haze of rabid hostility.


Ultimately that's the difference that makes the Cronenberg film's big shocker climax so effective and the Assayas' conclusion so unsatisfying. Cronenberg has the courage of bizarro convictions. The macabre final act of Stars is there in the fabric of the entire structure from the beginning. We just don't expect it because it's so bravely macabre because for awhile Cronenberg made us forget we were watching a Cronenberg film and not some piece of Hollywood self-regard and near-whimsy about how all we need is a bus ticket and a dream. Stars has courage to go deep into the abyss, while Sils has only a vague eye out towards Lars Von Trier's receding pilot light. Even the ghost appearances aren't trite or cliche. Although they're presumed to be just psychic projection, it's a movie first, so we understand that being actors anyway they're conditioned to let their imagination get the better of them, to confuse their script with their life in ways only we were confused by in Sils Maria, to mess themselves up in the name of a good performance and the understanding that--above all--they're still in an "actual" film as well as a film about film. In Sils, Binoche is Marlene Dietrich remaking The Blue Angel as a butch Emil Jannings, realizing everyone's watching the new Marlene with the strong man, and don't even her her crowing. But in Maps, the better option is finally presented. Rather than retire to the class room to sulk yourself to death, burn the fucker to the ground! Clarice and Agatha, by the power of Chuck D and Flava Flav, Je vous déclare le feu!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Summer of Streaming II: Post-Giallo Nightmare Logic la Netflix




Dream or Nightmare logic: a lazy way for European directors to run amok with free association non sequiturs and not have to worry about coherence, or a daring approach to the post-60s crashed jet set void de la Freud delving, based on the symbolist and surrealist movements of the early 20th century?

A: Yes
B: Magenta.
C: Hollyhocks
D. Mrs. Claypool
E. I'll fucking cut you, man.
F. Eight of the above

2. European art cinema can be very boring and opaque if you're careful. But if you're not--if you're, say, dosed or delirious or bored into falling into a trance--its abstraction makes perfect 'sense.' Falling half-asleep while watching Rollin or Jess Franco's earlier work, for example, is a truly psychedelic experience, and very hard to avoid in most situations. Would you agree?

A. No
B. Sax player shredding a picture of Lina Romay and dropping pieces in a ditch by the Autobahn.
C. Sax player shredding a picture of Maria Rohm and throwing pieces into the Bosphorus.

3. There are five easy ways to understand Italian drive-in dream logic, all based on the Carnival of Souls principle:

a.) DEATH: The protagonist is already dead and/or stuck in an endless reincarnation loop stuck in the amber of hell/heaven time.
b.) AMNESIA: They have amnesia but don't even know it - they try to hide it, the way you don't want to admit you don't remember someone who comes up and knows your name. The result of lots of drinking in the swinging 60s-70s.
c.)  DREAM: Dreaming while awake, caught in a web of true myth, where waking consciousness and unconsciousness have lined up perfectly, like two overhead transparencies.
d.) ACID: They're tripping their faces off (LSD was the party drug du jour).
e.) INSANITY - They're remembering or recounting from a psych ward.
f.) All of the above, for in a way they are all the same. 

Which of these ways is the real one?
A. d
B. Remember that in Europe the language barriers are more immediate and the past is older, than in America. In Europe, a 70s B-movie can take place in a real castle, or a condemned art nouveau mansion cheaper than building a single Hollywood set, so a modern French model in a turn-of-the-century vampire gown running loose amidst the Gothic spires is not only cheap to film, it has so much post-modern frisson it creates a truly 'all times all the time' dream logic loop all into itself. And if the lips don't match the voices, even if there are subtitles, that's okay - a poetic monologue voice over (using words wrote long enough ago the poet falls into the public domain) wraps it all up with a patina that just screeches with elegant subtlety. 

Beyond the Black Rainbow (top: The Strange Color of your Body's Tears; Berberian Sound Studio)

For this festival we're talking of a return to the art of those pre-slasher death-poetic times, for eccentric visionaries in Europe--Franco, Rollin, Fulci, Argento-- knew they could go nuts with their zoom lenses and post-modern refraction, with their anti-fascist subtexts and surreal castle-running as long as they delivered lashings of sex and ultra-violence their profit-minded producers demanded. Even Antonioni had to stuff orgies into Red Desert, La Notte, Blow-up and Zabriskie Point; Bardot had to have a nude scene in Les Mepris to justify the expenses of color and Cinemascope...

It was a different time, before the derelict fringe theaters at the edge of America closed. And kids watched tapes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead until they were numb to all but Hostel, Devil's Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek. Compared to that madness, the razor slash black glove murders of what Mondo Macabro calls 'eurosleaze' seem almost quaint.

You and the Night

And so we come to this post-modern age we live in, the last pre-pornographic gasp of mainstream cinema when returning to forgotten old styles and genres is not only fun and rewarding (hence It Follows and Duke of Burgundy, the two best films of the year, though neither seems to be from it) it's easier than it was even back then when the films were released. Many of these old films were washed out pan and scanned blurs on TV but are now restored by to HD by loving labels. And so new films spring up paying homage to the post-modern psychedelic wellspring of experimentalism created by early Argento, late Antonioni, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Brian de Palma, Michel Soavi and the music of Ennio Morricone, Goblin, and Bruno Nicolai.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

And atop the crest of the post-modern alienation resurgence lurks 'the Darionioni Nuovo' the New post-Dario Argento-Antonioni wave-- Peter Strickland, Helen Cattet and Bruno Forlanzi, Sebastian Silva, Nicolas Winding Refn, Panos Cosmatos, and the post-Carpenter/Morricone music of Sinoa Caves, M83, Tom Raybould, Cliff Martinez, and Rich Vreeland. It's a new setting sun. the two alienation-cum-Freud dissociation style used together to indicate all that is best about red desert crimson rivers of pain and ecstasy, of post-modern disaffect that uses our expectations of a coherent linear narrative against us with the result being, in the right conditions, the most exalted of transcendental weird epiphanies. These young filmmakers use their audience's presumed familiarity with film history, with fairy tales, with Italian horror, with the 70s and sex, with the French New Wave and Betty Blue,  L'Aventura and Easy Rider, as a kind of metaphysical third heat paint brush. The result is what art cinema should always be striving for, an erasure of the line where narrative classical cinema ends and avant-garde experimentalism begins. Madness coheres like a boil atop modern alienation's callouses, and our our own vivid imagination becomes a finger pointing at how innate and irremovable is our compulsion to craft a frame, an order, a meaning, a reason, a psychosocial iconography onto even the most elusive and elliptical of texts. It's only when the symbols are there but we can't connect a single one that we're finally free. So line these up in your list, see them all in order, all at once--obey.... obey... and let go of that tightening noose around your mind called language.

See also:
STAGEFRIGHT: AQUARIUS 
Bad Acid 80: Italian Horror Drive-In Dream Logic


1. PASSION
(2012) Dir Brian De Palma
***

De Palma's Italian modernizing of the Hitchcock homage has kicked back in for the 21st century, crafting old school returns to form like Femme Fatale and this loose remake of the French film Love Crimes and cousin of Soderbergh's Side Effects, which as Alan Scherstuhl notes "ground that other girl with the dragon tattoo through something like the same pharmaceutical Hitchcockisms."  Not unlike Fatale, Passion met with critical hostility from a knee-jerk press to busy sneering at the unrealistic excess and clueless misogyny to notice the sexy genius at work, picking up where Hitchcock left off in proving suspense can be crafted by using only cinema, with almost no reference to the real, except its intertextual relation to other films. If the film came out in 1973, those same critics would be worshipping it today, since Pauline Kael would be around like a protective lioness for edgy imperfect films so anathema to boring 'white elephant' Oscarbait. But here on Netflix, Passion finds its true home, for the giallo genre of which De Palma was an American cousin (see: Two Hearts Stab as One: De Palma's and Argento's Reptile Dysfunction) was nothing if not savvy about the obsessive alienation caused by the endless proliferation of image, foreseeing the frozen terror of having too many options, of choice now implicating viewers in ways the old three-channel system could not. As an heir to the work Argento cannot continue with (good god he sucks now), De Palma's films work best when situated in the frame of its marquee neighbors. Here the boardroom lesbian betrayals and seductions, the split screen with the ballet, all add up to a curious and sometimes titillating exercise in pure bravura style, but so fucking what? Pretend it's a futuristic thriller coming out in 1978 and that it's not a movie at all, it's a lesbian fantasy Catherine Zeta Jones ishaving while in jail in the unwritten Side Effects sequel. So be like the Zeta one and enjoy. Frickin McAdams is the hottest thing ever, man, and brings so much duplicitous brio to her role she's like her old Mean Girl self grown up for the long con.




 2. KISS OF THE DAMNED
 (2014) Dir Xan Cassavetes
***
Bearded screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) meets alluring but stand-offish Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) but they can only hook up if he becomes a vampire, cuz she gonna bite him. Love finds a way and five Twilight films are condensed to the opening act of a low budget but artsy and vivid retro-esque vamp tale from the daughter of John Cassavetes. Backed up with a sultry Steven Hufsteter score (with just enough vintage Morricone twang), the delicately low-key romantic chemistry of La Baume and Ventimiglio really sinks in for us, intoxicates our sense, so when Djuna's wild child sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up in need of a place to recover after laying waste to her last party town residence, we recoil in frustration like we're Gene Tierney cockblocked by apple-cheeked cherubs in Leave Her to Heaven. It's not set in the past or anything but Cassavetes is clearly paying some homage to the sexy vampire films of swinging 60s-70s Europe, and she hooks us into loving them with her by filling us with the giddy high that comes from being welcomed into the in-crowd, and being cool enough that of course you fit right in. 




3. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
(2012) Dir Peter Strickland 
***1/2

While we wait for his wildly acclaimed Duke of Burgundy to come to Blu-ray, the Argento stylistic anti-misogyny, Bergmanesque post-modern meltdowns and Lynchian "no hay banda"-ism of Strickland's memorable debut Berberian Sound Studio add up to a deeply unsettling visually (and most importantly aurally) seductive post-structuralist fantasia wherein a reserved Brit sound mixer (Toby Jones) is hired for some reason to work on a horror film in 70s Rome. We never actually see the film they're working on, which just adds to the unsettling frisson. No visual violence can really match our sickening imagination, aptly mirrored in the sickening dead-inside feeling overtaking Jones as he rattles the chains, crunches heads of lettuce, drenches it all in echo (from the fractions of script and scenes the film seems one part Argento's Suspiria, one part Soavi's The Church, and one part Fulci's City of the Living Dead). Strickland trusts his expert blocking and cagey actors and actresses in and around the studio's tight places, and though the rudeness of some of the macho Italian filmmakers got on my nerves, it's supposed to, indicating the corrupt, decadent fucked-up misogyny of Italy runs thick as blood under the giallo surface. A layered masterpiece of enigmatic self-reflexive horror, Berberian Sound Studio is like five different Italian horror DVDs--the films and making of documentary  extras--all swirled together into a making-of fantasia that puts broader self-reflexive stuff like Shadow of the Vampire or A Blade in the Dark to shame, and instead approaches the greatness of Irma Vep, StageFright, and The Stunt Man.

4. STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS
(2013) Dir. Helen Cattet y Bruno Forlanzi
***1/2

Hélène Cattet et Bruno Forlani, cinema's first and only mixed gender / race / nationality directing couple have been setting my head on fire ever since their 2009 feature debut AMER. I was so blown away by their unique mix of modernist experimental and post-modern 70s Italian horror narrative that I even coined a term to describe them the Darionini Nuovo. Argento may not have made a decent film since the mid 90s, but this pair has taken his blazing primary color iconography farther than brother Salvatore would have e'er allowed. (I'd also argue Argento really needed Asia's mom, Daria Nicoldi to help him write and get the feminine fairy tale point of view, because without it he just seems perversely misanthropic.) Granted Forlani/ Cattet's unique looping style will no doubt prove alienating after about twenty minutes to people who don't know Suspiria, Red Desert, L'Eclisse and Bird with Crystal Plumage like the black of their gloves, and who don't swoon at gorgeous ironwork maze of art nouveau architecture and thrill to Jungian psychosexual mythic color-coded resonance, all slashed out before them like a blood bouquet against obsidian skies. Then again, even those of us who know their Argento and Antonioni, and swoon over the ironwork maze of art nouveau architecture and Jungian psychosexual mythic color-coded resonance, even we might need a break halfway through. Don't worry, the joy of streaming is you can just stop and pick up later where you left off. Or start over. There's no difference. Maybe try playing ten minutes of it in between all these other films, like a connecting story to a horror anthology. Or whatever! Run away back to your linear narratives como un po'vigliacco.... animale!


5. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
2010 Dir. Panos Cosmatos
***1/2

Michael Rogers is a batshit crazy psychiatrist named Barry Nyle, who keeps scanner-style mutant girl Elena (Eva Bourne) under sedation in a futuristic Rothko-cum-Kubrick orange or red or yellow room, and tries to analyze her through her a thick protective glass, while jotting down 'notes' and slow-as-molasses-style going even more insane. He also has special super tall robot-like guards called sentinauts and a weird white triangle device that can deliver sound vibrational (presumed) shockwaves to knock Elena to the ground and (presumably) jam her brainwaves if she tries to explode any heads or walk out the door. As the crazy score by Sinoia Caves heats and throbs and pitch modulates around the bizarre retrofuturistic dome which includes the office/drug den of a terminally ill junky, the Buckminster Fuller-ish founder of their geodesic complex. In a flashback to 1966 we see this guy taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists all around the world, including Canada); his trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 and judging by the third eye drawn on his forehead and his patience with letting his face melt and dissolve, we figure he must be ready to transform... but into what. But then he's reborn in an oil slick, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latching onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? Does he kill her by ripping her throat out with his teeth, or is that an ejaculation? Is she coasting on an orgasm, or is the light going out of her eyes? Or is he remembering his birth? Dude, I've been beyond the black rainbow too and I didn't end up killing anyone, so what's this guy's deal? We know Cosmatos's deal at any rate: a glacial melding of Canadian retrofuturistic 70s horror (Scanners, Blue Sunshine) impossible to categorize masterpiece so far ahead of its time it's past hasn't even happened yet. The imagery and the music is the thing... is Cosmatos our new Kubrick? Give him a real script and find out! 


6. ROOM 237
(2014) Dir Rodney Ascher
****
Now we come to the dividing line between present and past, literally, moving from post-modern giallo to TV movie giallo and bizarro refractability. With Ascher's fascinating documentary we understand the impossibility of a text ever meaning anything, regardless of the author's intention. So freed of all understanding, we enter the realm of madness and all is illuminated, and terrifying: first because paranoid psychosis is very contagious so as we hear these crazy theories about what every little detail means we begin to get scared by this movie all over again, for now we realize the insanity that appears when we lose all contact with the outside world. Artists try to work with it, theorists riff on it, and the writer drowns in it. Forget about being reduced to a simple icon, the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual 'meaning' vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective. Good riddance! (more)



7. LISA AND THE DEVIL
(1974) Dir. Mario Bava

***
Elke Sommer's on holiday but when her tourist bus stops in a quaint Spanish villa she reacts strangely at the sight of an old fresco with a demon that looks like Telly Savalas amongst assorted grisly Middle Age wonders. When she sees the lollipop-sucking cigarette-voiced hipster himself buying a mannequin in an antique store, she's thrown into what the Aboriginals call 'dreamtime' and Carlos Castaneda calls 'nonordinary reality' and what Bava might call 'Hell.' Obsessed by a little musical carousel of macabre figures chronicling the endless cycle of life after life, she begins to wake into that special nightmare where you turn around and suddenly your parents and everyone you know is gone and you're all alone and lost in an empty narrow streeted maze. She winds up tangling with the malignant director of Freiburg Dance Academy and Harry Lime's suicidally loyal girlfriend, Alida Vialli who tries to cockblock her Satanic-looking son, Alessio Orano, who has been so.... lonely. Sommer looks just like his dead wife and when he later corpses her by his dead wife's sleeping skeleton it's so creepy on so many levels you just have to laugh. Was that vile phrase 'corpsing' born in this film? Mario, you make Poe seem balanced.

Telly, watching his puppets go round and round
Anyway, it's all cool as this is all just a tape we played long ago; Savalas' mannequins come to life as Sommer's past lovers or whomever is needed and a killer knocks them back. Funeral marches are held on the spot as the latest body's wheeled around on serving carts; one lavish room seems devoted to the perennial funeral going on, for whomever's handy, until . The architecture and gaudy silver and glass of this old villa begins to weigh on the mind like countless centuries. I could have used some more of Bava's purple gel spots. The interior is almost over-lit in places, but every frame is so jammed with things to see, you're glad to see them (now that it's in HD) until you get that sick sad feeling like you've spent too much time indoors amongst dusty banalities... on a sunny afternoon in the country with mother. Always with mother.

Then, there's the 70s clothing, always a hit or miss affair with Bava, depending on your affection for the giant pointed collar out over smoking jacket lapel look. I still rock that look to this day but even I wouldn't get away with the size of the collar over Orano's jacket (at left). He rocks it though. But then there's the sickening key lime green of Elke Sommer's raincoat and shoes, a look that she fortunately changes out of at the villa, and when it's back on at the end we finally get why she was wearing it in the beginning; because every color must match, pre-destined like a dream. And her horrible make-up makes is now so she looks like a mannequin in profile. The film is full of things like that, so never doubt the maestro, baby! Trust the mighty Bava acolyte Tim Lucas' assurance this is a masterpiece. Let him guide you through the rapids and you too will be convinced. I would be if the score was real Ennio instead of Carla Savaina swank, but it's serviceable, with an interesting giallo-esque music box-sort of motif which Savalas plays in a tape recorder under the endless parade of birth to death and back again figures that lull Eckland into a hypnotic trance as she flashes back into a past life, or a future one. The cumulative result isn't exactly powerful but it is amusing in its DC comics House of Mystery sort of way, and Savalas has fun until the end. You just might want to go hunt down an episode of Kojak or too after this. I was too young for that show, but sure dig him in his hipster Blofeldt in On her Majesty's Secret Service, saying things like "You love chiggens" to his hypnotized harem (1).

Selected Shorts:
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER
(1975) "The Trevi Collection" (ep.14)
Kolchak on the other hand, I knew and loved. And it was even on early enough I could stay up to watch it. And in this episode we're reminded there's no cheaper yet creepier effect than casting and dressing humans to look like particular mannequins, then interchanging them with the actual mannequin in the background of shots, alternating mannequin and posed human in alternating shots until you go insane. Bava used this trick in Lisa and the Devil albeit more overtly. Like Tourist Trap Kolchak keeps it ambiguous. And this witchy episode is one of everyone's favorites from the era. Right up there with the lizard monster in the tunnels, the headless biker, and the ghostly Native American shaman. Dig man... canceled after one season... 'cuz he was getting too close to the truth!

"Danielle"Starring Jennifer Lawrence
Saturday Night Live - Season 38, Episode 11 Time: 43.52-47 - 47:08

The movies this four minute spot parodies are all-too familiar for anyone who remembers pay cable in the 80s. They clearly know their stuff and Lawrence as always is perfectly game to go along, brilliantly capturing the flat but sonorous voice dubbing --clipping sentences together.... tofitthelips as they move... and the crushing banality of it all -- hahaha, look kids I'm a bufoon... it's priceless and worth the finding, for it captures perfectly the icky sensation of watching Europeans try to act like Americans on vacation, and pretend orgy mongering is natural even in the swinging 60s-70s--if you want to stick on this bent - check out Danger 5 if you haven't already. Shaken...and garnished with lemon peel.





8. THE IRON ROSE
"La Rose de Fer" (1972) Dir Jean Rollin
***
The French love their poets the way we love rock stars; for the French the songwriter-producer is famous and often the lover or husband of the chanteuse. This is normal, not something for Entertainment Weekly to passively sneer at. In other words, they love writers as well as performers, and understand that the actors aren't just making this stuff up on the spot. Most of all, though, they love French poets like the Brittany's own Tristan Corbière, one the crowning jewels of the Symbolist 'dead before 30' dozen, with a yen for eternity. I'm not sure which part of Françoise Pascal's final monologue/ voiceover during her nude cross-bearing on Rollin's favorite beach reverie, is from him but I do value that it's hard to tell and that aside from an ominously black train parked in the middle of nowhere and an opening wedding ceremony (at which both characters seem to clearly not belong --as if already ghosts) the film takes place over one trip to the graveyard where a pleasant and banal Rohmer-esque date turns into a nightmare and then a surreal mournful cry for death, for the loving embrace of la mortalité, finalité et l'éternité. 

Every student filmmaker knows that old cemeteries are the best places to shoot films cheap (superstition keeps most people away; and the stones add artsy death drive heft), and a cast of just two actors walking through it even easier -- you don't even need a script, just shoot your actors frolicking or running or freaking out and figure out what the reasons are later via voiceover), but that's part of Rollin's charm. There's a naturally morbid air to Euro-sex anyway, and if Pascal's deranged and demure performance and the plethora of human bones all over the place (Paris has sewers of them). And is there any image more quietly under-the-skin creepy than this image above left? Non.

A purist might wonder how either this or the last film is truly post-retro, rather than pure terror but again - this is eternity we're talking about. And anyway, it's short, so you might not even have time to wonder where the hell it's going. Just now he boy and girl are dressed in bold primary colors mainly so we can see them in the fading light. There's no glaring spots or anything making Jean-Jacques Renon's photography all the richer for being so dark without going murky, so much more lyrical and poetic--especially when the sun comes up and all the the conqueror worm's snacktime looms. Poe would dig it, too. It's like more Poe-esque in its obsession with death of love through poetry than a little eyed joe or damned if I know. I chose this over the once-thriving Rollin collection on Netflix (now worn down to just a sprinkling, most of which aren't even set in a distant fairy tale past. Iron Rose is decidedly outside of time and space --a few cars passing and the lovers' modern dress instead of horses aside. Even the wedding could really be from any decade..


9. YOU AND THE NIGHT
"Les rencontres d'après minuit" (2013) Dir Yann Gonzalez
***
You'll either like it or think it's too jejune, or maybe both, but certainly you won't think it's sexy because it's too French for that --rather, its loving. If Radley Metzger and Jean Cocteau collaborated on an off-off Broadway production at some SoHo gallery, this might be it. The French sounding Mme Jannings notes "This is a movie that cannot be seen with the eyes of evasion. It is a movie that needs to be watch it with the eyes of the soul as well as the physical eyes, without prejudgments, and without taboos." Oui, mademoiselle, it may have that pleased-with-itself breastfed-until-21 European air that most Americans get beaten out of by third grade but it has a warm heart, and if you wish to understand Cocteau, which is to understand France, there you see? And I've written copy for a Paris web site, so I know what is to love a French person, and this film is just like that. It is better at what it's trying to do than Greg Araki (whose White Bird in a Blizzard almost made this list), and better--to my mind anyway--than anything by Wong Kar Wai. Rather it has something of that Apollonian Kenneth Anger-via-Max Reinhardt magic ritual-fairy dustings and that alone makes up for any false step. Exploring certain 'lover' stereotypes, "The slut, the star, the stud, the cross-dressing maid" etc. Night is filled with pretty actors (as with Cocteau, the boys beautiful, the girls handsome), Argento-bold colors, elegant tableaux compositions, a great M83 score and a nicely ravaged cameo by the ever-feral Beatrice Dalle as a whip-wielding commissar. If it adds up to a nice bunch of parts rather than a movie, well, what of it? Love leaves a hole for every one it fills. 

And even more importantly, thanks to this curated orgie de fête, it doesn't need to stand alone, not anymore, and this film is all about that standing together, that the most sexed are often the most alone, for if you are young and gorgeous, sex is easy, bonding is hard. When that kind of love happens, even if it's as a group rather than a person, you have to drop everything and run with it even to the grave, especially if you're a debauched French poet. In America we feel empty after sex so get married to prove we're not sluts or we call the other person a slut on social media. We're either guilty or vindictive but it's never sex's problem--smart lovers know that this feeling of post-orgasm melancholy will pass. They don't need to get up and run out the door. In You and the Night they are all very sexual already and are French (is that redundant?). It is not so much an obsession for them, to paraphrase Dietrich, so much as a fact. If they want, they can skip the sex and go home feeling like they've bonded as a unit spending a magical night --their resemblance to a theater company or a 12 step group providing a chance for a lot of monologues set to flashback dream theater tableaux (seeing a film of 'the star's obsessive sexual love for her beautiful son is a decadent meta-highlight) followed by a feeling of warm togetherness that we in the audience may or may not feel part of, depending on our mood and attention span and the year on our AA chip. But it is not whiplash edited, morose, uncouth, violent, or abusive (Dalle's commissar aside). It's a safe space, and flights of Cocteau-esque fancy can only flourish in such spaces.

And of course, what there is, sexually, is talk: the words, the imagination, which the French believe (and Americans do not) is much more seductive than the image. Rather than doing lines off each other's bellies and swilling wine like a pack of HBO original rutters before going home alone to take a hot bath and cry their mascara down into the bubbles (as we have all so often done, we lost revelers of the night) each stereotype confesses, and talks to each other, and they're too busy being poetic, and engaging in group astral travel to beaches and theaters to get all "My name's Buck and I'm here to--" style randy. And thus, it gives us hearts slowly opening, igniting a forgiving hope for jet set languors everywhere -- always, as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness might say, always another beautiful young person in need of money and a place to crash. We shall be young forever.

10. THE CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS
(1984) Dir William A. Graham (TVM)
**1/2

You'll need something nice and bland after those weird films so here's a different kind of pre-pre-post-giallo, the prime time major network-watered down drive-in' lurid hot girls endangered by the viewer's own twisted obsession. As Lt. Stoner (great name!), Tom Skerritt does his usual low-key thing on the hunt for a serial killer of 'calendar girls' - an approximation of Playboy playmates, mixed up with the fashion world in ways that, like the 70s in general, refuse to become clear. Sharon Stone is one of the models, though she seems to have some other job in an office, and all sort of televised events involving swimsuits, fire, aerobics, and track meets Lest we forget about Personal Best) provide perfect opportunities for stake-outs, security lapses, car chases, and binoculars. There is a peripheral cast of lurking suspects, a score that at times passes Deep Red-era Goblin in the night, and Robert Morse (Bert Cooper from Mad Men) as a deranged emcee in terrible blonde toupee. This Eyes of Laura Mars see Deep Red and Blow-Up meta-refraction exercise dilutes drive-in sleaze potency to a manageable level, imitating imitators of Hitchcock's R-rated 70s heirs as if a plastic butcher knife and Norman wig, from Telco Toys! 

Calendar Girl Murders
And it signifies the end of the era as TV from the mid-80s was letting go of 70s vibes more slowly than some, so even though all the fashion shoots are full of horrifying spandex and tacky post-no wave punk-lite make-up, things are still 'open' in that medallion over turtleneck kind of way. Tom Skerritt brings his usual low key ensemble brilliance to his every scene, making us realize it's him, not Sigourney Weaver, who really makes the first Alien crew interaction so low-key and believable, which explains why that kind of chill cigarette ambient naturalism is lacking in subsequent sequels. Don't expect widescreen, or a consistent tone, though, for like all TV movies it's completely aware of its job having to start over after every commercial break. In other words, a time when people talked and played cards during commercials, went to the bathroom, made popcorn, called a friend.

 That's what the age of cable and Tivo has dne to us, there's no longer a need for any of that clownery. We have grown progressively inseparable from the image until we're so far in the screen we're lucky if we can even get a kiss from James Woods. But hey, it's this kind of meta-retro media collapse, this death knell of the TV movie, needs. The only way it could be better would be if they kept the VHS streaks. Instead it does one better.

Basic Instinct
 Of course, I'm a fan of any detective named "Dan Stoner" but Sharon Stone as the alpha female is pretty wow, just calling him Stoner all the time, "Hey Stoner!" --hilarious. And Stone treats this major role like the creme de la creme, like it's her big chance, which I guess it was. Righteous! So with the 'jiggle factor' delivered even as it critiques the morality of its delivery system... in true Italian Catholic twist the knife for mother guilty sickening thrills; with the victims all traceable and crimes discoverable via fashion photographs, and TV recordings, and Skerritt's cop regularly using people as bait to flush out the killer but then fucking it up so they all die, and with the recent Lifetime Movie A Deadly Adoption, made by the Funny or Die people and starring Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell proving one can take a whole straight-faced actual drama--with no jokes or even winks--and frame it as a piece of deadpan absurdist art, and with Stone answering the door with wet hair in a white terrycloth rob to talk to the cop who suspects her but is too turned on to care (left), it's a great piece of found post-modern art, and Basic Instinct was itself a post-modern twister (i..e all the 'real' murders were in Stone's book as was her romance with that film's Stoner, Mike Douglas) and it makes a nice infinite loop of reflections with the first movie in the schedule which is a very loose remake of a French film Love Crime; and here this is a very loose prequel to Verhoeven's film; and Verhoeven and De Palma were the last two directors I was covering for Muze before they pulled the plug on that project due to the dot.com crash. Coincidence?

And here's a real twist, Skerritt's still married with kids, i.e. not showing up late for joint custody hearings! He's tempted, mightily. Who wouldn't be? Seduced by one's son's pin-up crush? It's right on so many levels. And in true 70s form, cops and killers hug it out at the end and there's a great 'wrap-up' scene back at the station, where Michael C. Guinn as Stoner's chief magically lifts the entire film right out the path of an approaching Martin Balsam denouement and into a gritty-but-funny 70s cop show Barney Miller meets Fassbinder fade.  It may be derived from and may derive, but it's itself. It exists, trapped in time, and Netflix reminds us of that every day.


Coda: 

Basic Instinct is also on streaming and Sharon Stone tears it up. Douglas is a matter of taste but god bless him for not being afraid to show dat ass as well as the less attractive side of being a cop whose not as adorable and macho as he thinks he is, but is used to bullying women around and getting away with it, even 'fucking' his therapist... He'd make a fine solstice offering in Neil LaBute's The Wicker Man! - and with that ice pick handy at the end of the film, he still might make the cut.

Fin

NOTES:
1. it's cinema history that Lisa bombed and producer Alfredo Leone tried to recoup his losses by jumping on the Exorcist bandwagon and shooting a few reels of Exorcist ripoff footage with Elke Sommer coming back to play possessed and a priest doubting his faith while they flash back to the events that led up zzz. Re-released as House of Exorcism, Leone recouped his losses! Hurrah. And naysayers hate it, but I can't blame Leone for not wanting to go broke so Bava can make art that won't be appreciated for at least 30 years. Plus, I think Exorcism is hilarious and there's some added footage not used in Bava's film that makes it an interesting addendum... I think. And since it is also on Netflix streaming here so I'd recommend playing them both at the same time kind of like playing Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon together, if you get my drift. Here's what you do: put Exorcism on your laptop or phone with the volume low but audible and Lisa on the main screen. Set the laptop/phone down somewhere it's just obtrusive enough, like on the coffee table and let the overlap, duplications, and occasional switches to added footage of Elke being possessed make it all seem like a concurrent sixth dimensional reality: Lisa and the Devil is like one long dream some young woman afraid of sex and mannequins might have after an Ugetsu -Wild Strawberries double feature, but stretched to a film length with no 'waking' in the normal sense. But with House on at the same time, Elke occasionally wakes up in an Exorcist 'second level' Inception style dream reality, and then the exorcist himself wakes up to being forced to walk in Father Karras's and I don't know how many others' shoes... back to that accursed villa, just like the end of Exorcist II. (NOTE: Right as I was finishing this post, House of Exorcism disappeared on Netflix.... coincidence? 


FURTHER NETFLIX RECS: