Saturday, April 18, 2015

It Doesn't Think

About, I'd say, a quarter of the way into It Follows, the new movie from writer-director David Robert Mitchell which has so far positioned itself to comfortably be one of the maybe two serious horror films, by which I mean it's not at least 75% intended as a joke and has earned a flood of acclaim, that we are permitted to have each year, as I say, about a quarter of the way into this thing our young heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) has just had sex with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh seems like a good guy, he doesn't force her into anything, and though lately he's been acting a little bit funny, the sex was Jay's idea, and so therefore etc. But then afterwards, in the car where the deed was accomplished, Hugh suddenly leaps on her and knocks her out with chloroform. When she awakes, she's tied to a chair in what appears to be an abandoned parking garage. Hugh is there, and he tells her that, listen, I just had sex with you so that I could pass on to you this condition under which I have been burdened wherein the sufferer is followed by a supernatural creature until either A) it catches and kills the pursued, or B) the pursued has sex with someone else, thereby passing, sexually transmitted disease-style, the otherworldly danger to another. Although it should also be noted, Hugh goes on to say, that those who achieve this dissemination aren't entirely off the hook because should the disseminated-to be killed by this creature before they're able to keep the chain going, the thing will then go back to pursuing he who had recently shed himself of this misfortune, i.e., in this case, Hugh. Furthermore, Hugh tells Jay, this deadly being can and will appear as just about any person it chooses, be it a stranger or even one of Jay's loved ones -- whatever it takes, Hugh insists its motive is, that will let it get close to you, that is, Jay. Finally, it moves very slowly, so you can buy yourself some time by driving places, and, again, having sex with someone will shift the responsibility elsewhere, and if everyone keeps giving the next person along this same head's up, everything should be fine. With that done, and with the supernatural creature in the form of a nude woman appearing to helpfully prove Hugh's not making all this up, he drives Jay home where her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) are on the porch waiting for her. David Robert Mitchell (the director, if you'll recall) films the drop-off by showing Hugh's car pull up to the curb as it would be seen by Kelly and the others. The car stops and Hugh gets out. We don't see Jay. He goes to the rear driver's side door and opens it. He's helping, or pulling, someone out, and he says "Don't let it touch you." Then he gets in the car and drives away, revealing, as the car moves off, Jay, clad only in her underwear, laying, folded up and somehow damaged in the street.

Say what you will about that premise, and I'll admit that as far as good ideas go it does seem a bit hinky to me, it doesn't strike me as unworkable. Before continuing I should also acknowledge that in the world of criticism it's considered either not kosher or not cricket to approach negative criticism with the goal of explaining how things should have been done. At least I think you're not supposed to do that, but maybe I'm mixing it up with something else you're not supposed to do.  But anyway, so listen: what about if David Robert Mitchell had cut all of Hugh's explanation, had cut even the sex scene, such as it currently exists, and simply left in some indication that either Jay or Hugh was going put the moves on the other, and then we cut to the car pulling up, the strange helping of Jay from the car, Hugh's now enigmatic "Don't let it touch you" (which in the film is not enigmatic at all), the car pulling away, and Jay's crumpled body. Had that been done, the audience would now share the point of view of the characters the camera, in this scene, wants us to share, that is Kelly, Yara, and Paul, none of whom heard any of Hugh's "Look, this thing follows sex-havers" speech. Allowing for the fact that yes, a malevolent supernatural creature doing anything for any reason is not comforting, as all of this pertains to films and storytelling, isn't it more effective to show the weird things happening before you explain why they're happening (if you even think it's advisable to explain them at all) than to say, in essence "A bunch of weird things are about to happen and here's what they are" before showing them? My argument is that yes, that first thing is more effective.

But It Follows is not remotely concerned with strangeness or atmosphere or even in sticking to the tiresome rules of the concept that it spent so much time tiresomely laying out. Once that concept has been locked down, the film is structured about how you'd expect: her friends rally around her to try and figure out a way to beat this thing while the possibility of taking Hugh's advice and passing this terrible fate along looms in Jay's mind, her two candidates being Paul, who's in love with her, and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a classmate who's pretty quick off the stick when faced with supernatural terrors. So now the following should begin, although this thing doesn't so much follow as it does "walk into rooms" or "walk towards your staring face." In any case, remember that Hugh said this thing would take the form of anything that would help it get close to Jay, and so among the first forms it takes is that of a topless woman with smashed out front teeth who is in the middle of pissing herself. Oh, what a crafty plan, because that's Jay's favorite. It makes me uneasy how well this creature understands Jay. If this was a one-off mistake by the creature, like it thought "Oops I thought she liked bloody pissing ladies," that would be one thing, but with possibly one exception there is no reason to believe that Jay would ever let her guard down for any of the forms it takes, and indeed she never does. On top of this, that one exception is completely bungled because not only is the audience only told later why Jay might have been vulnerable to this form, she is not vulnerable to this form. The only reaction an audience member could be expected to have when confronted with information given in this order and accompanied by so little consequence is to think "Oh. Well, it didn't work anyway, so no big whoop."

For those who think it's necessary that a horror film have a subject, the subject of It Follows is obviously sex (it's certainly not following, I can tell you that much). And I don't agree with those detractors who accuse It Follows of Puritanism because sex can lead to all sorts of negative consequences, some of them terrifyingly negative; it's no use warning against them on one hand and pretending they don't exist on the other. So as a metaphor for these things, and more specifically the fear in people they engender, the idea behind the film is fine, but it's little more than that. Beyond it, the film doesn't seem to have a clear thought in its head, about anything. It gestures in a lot of different directions as if David Robert Mitchell understands that he can't go a whole movie without acknowledging certain things, like parents (the characters, by the way, seem to mostly be college students, or anyway of college age, who live at home). Often in the film, Jay can be heard telling her sister "Don't tell Mom." Though she's present as a character, or rather as an ambulatory sentience shaped like actress Debbie Williams, "telling Mom" in the context of this film would probably have the same effect as telling Santa would. Similarly, "going to college" in this case means precisely the same thing as "not going to college," and going to the hospital because you've been shot in the leg by your friend brings down as much heat from the police as having not been shot by anyone at all. Nothing in the film leads to any consequences that Mitchell might have to think through and factor in except sex, so I don't know, maybe the anti-Puritanicals have a point here, but in any event that premise, the sex monster business, is the one thing that Mitchell seems to have expended any effort on at all, but if he'd put enough thought into it, or the right kind of effort, he'd have ended up telling us far less about it.

The ultimate example of the thoughtlessness that simply oozes out of It Follows is the climax, the big showdown scene, which involves a plan developed by one of our heroes which nobody involved, including the audience and David Robert Mitchell, should have any reason to believe will work, but that's okay because what seems to have been the plan, this other plan (not to spoil anything, but this other plan is essentially "What if we shoot it?" which happens to be further complicated by the fact that actually the plan is "What if we shoot it again?"), all of which seems to end one way, but which the characters have apparently decided, despite having been given no evidence whatsoever to support this, ended in a different way. And listen, ambiguity is one thing, but being dumb is also one thing, and from the moment Paul says to Jay "Do you trust me?", It Follows becomes hopelessly dumb; when you consider what came before, that this bit is notably stupid is, well, notable.

There are exactly two moments in It Follows that I thought showed some promise. They're very small moments, but I like small moments. Anyway, the first one is near the beginning. Jay is in her family's above-ground pool in the backyard, and there's a bug on her wrist. Mitchell shows her look at it and then lower her arm into the water, effectively, and intentionally, drowning the insect while using less energy than it would take to open a can of soda. I wondered what this might signify (hint: nothing). The other moment is when Hugh takes Jay to the movies and they're playing a game I won't describe but which involves imagining things about the people in the theater with them. Hugh says to Jay "Are you thinking about her?" Jay asks who and Hugh says "The woman in the yellow dress." Jay doesn't know what he's talking about, she sees no such person. Hugh immediately becomes anxious and asks that they leave the theater. I wondered "Does the supernatural threat in this film appear as a woman in a yellow dress? That's interesting...I wonder what kind of eerie visuals David Robert Mitchell has planned for this." He had zero of them planned, and you might imagine that the truth of his actual idea, that the creature can appear as anything, would at best open up certain possibilities, again, visually speaking, but, again, no. If anything it froze his brain. Nothing goes anywhere or means anything or has an impact or looks or sounds or is interesting. I've seen a lot of horror movies that I liked a good deal less than many people seemed to, but rarely have I been as baffled by the discrepancy between a film's reception and the film I actually saw as I am by my experience with It Follows. And as if all that isn't bad enough, there's a scene late in the film where a character is eating a sandwich, it appears to be tuna salad, a soft, noiseless sandwich, but the chewing sounds looped in would seem to indicate a lot of lettuce, raw onion -- thick, noisy things. What I'm saying is, the foley work does not at all line up with the sandwich I was looking at. I mean for Pete's sake. Who's minding the store here?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Close the Door When I Go

The reputation of British filmmaker Carol Reed, whose career spanned the mid-1930s to the early 70s, seems now to live under two shadows that he cast himself: the one he cast as the director of 1949's The Third Man, one of the handful of unimpeachable masterpieces in English-language cinema, a film of that rare type that is both humbling to watch and deeply, accessibly enjoyable (I am prepared to push my praise of it further than this and would probably meet little resistance if I did, The Third Man being The Third Man and everything, but you know how people can be), and the shadow he cast as the director of 1968's Oliver!, the boisterous Oliver Twist musical which wears its Broadway sensibility either proudly or shamelessly, and which committed what some regard as the unpardonable sin of winning the Oscars that 2001: A Space Odyssey was denied. It's a film that I don't recall thinking was actually bad, but maybe it is. Anyway, once these things take root, they often do so permanently.

There is, of course, more to Reed's career, but at least in the US not a ton of it is readily available. The Third Man was his twenty-second feature and remains his best-known by far, and finding most of what preceded it is not exactly a breeze. The Third Man was in fact the third of three Reed masterpieces in a row, following The Fallen Idol from 1948 (a Graham Greene adaptation, as is The Third Man), and Odd Man Out from 1947. The Third Man and The Fallen Idol were both at one time released on DVD and/or Blu-ray by Criterion, but both have since gone out of print (their release of Reed's Night Train to Munich remains in print). Undaunted, Criterion has just now released Odd Man Out, an adaptation not of Graham Greene but the coincidentally named F. L. Green, to DVD and Blu-ray. Hopefully this one hangs around a while.

In his new introduction to F. L. Green's novel, first published in 1945 and which has serendipitously just been reissued by Valancourt Books (I'm afraid I haven't had time to read it yet), Irish crime writer Adrian McKinty briefly charts the influence of the tradition of American crime fiction on Odd Man Out and British fiction in general, an influence, he points out, that is hardly surprising when you consider the number of American troops present during and after the war, and what they might favor in the way of reading material. So it naturally follows that Carol Reed's film version, the script for which was co-written by Green with R. C. Sherriff, would draw upon the still more-or-less new tradition of film noir that is, when you get right down to it, practically unavoidable when telling these sorts of stories. Anyway, speaking of this style, see above, to begin with, and then see below:

And what kind of story is this exactly? Well, actually first, look at this:

From The Third Man, obviously, but notice that how much mileage Reed was able to squeeze of of this sort of framing: a woman who's made up her mind in the middle, a despairing man on the left, the two of them flanked by some kind of orderly, symmetrical structure or landscape. Despite the second shot, most of both films take place at night, though Odd Man Out is even more of the night, if you get me, than The Third Man. In Odd Man Out, James Mason plays Johnny, the leader of something called The Organization, a kind of ideological gang of criminals based in Northern Ireland. So the IRA, in other words, though the politics of any of this, or rather the specific politics, are consciously not dealt with. Because what happens is, Johnny and his gang have planned to rob a local mill, the proceeds from which will fund their cause. But Johnny, who has recently escaped from prison and is, outside of this heist, lying low, reveals to his right-hand man (Robert Beatty) that he's begun to have doubts about using violence to further their goals. In general, there is a dispassion, almost a disorientation, about Johnny as he and his men head out to pull the job, and in the course of it not only is he wounded, but he shoots and kills a mill employee who tries to stop him. Cowardice and indecision lead the men he came with, who include Cyril Cusack and Dan O'Herlihy, to leave Johnny behind. Badly hurt and verging on delirious, Johnny escapes to a row of air-raid shelter where he hides until dark. All around him, the city knows he's on the loose, they know who he is, they know what The Organization is about, and they know he's killed a man.

This sets up the rest of Odd Man Out, which it would be difficult to say is not noir, but it no longer exists as any kind of heist film you've seen before. More than a heist film, or even more than noir, Odd Man Out soon becomes a picaresque: Johnny travels through the city, trying to make it back to his home, his hideout, and to the woman who loves him (Kathleen Ryan), along the way he meets a series of people, some who don't know who he is, but many who do, and they now must decide what course of action would best satisfy their conscience, if that kind of satisfaction even occurs, or appeals, to them. This means that apart from Johnny, the central characters in a major encounter, involving two women who tend to Johnny's wound and the husband of one of them who insists the right thing to do is call the police, are gone from the film once Johnny parts company with them. And so it goes, first in the air-raid shelter, where a young couple retreats for privacy and romance until the young woman nervously, touchingly says "I don't want to"; to the British soldier who believes Johnny is drunk; to the driver of the hansom cab who doesn't even know Johnny's his passenger; to the bizarre, motley trio of fringe-dwellers that include a jittery small-time thief (F. J. McCormick) and an amoral, alcoholic painter (Robert Newton, leaving it all on the table as usual). To most of these people, those who know who he is, Johnny will ask "Did I kill that man?" He only learns the answer to that when he overhears people talking about him in another room.

A crawl of text that opens the film tells the audience that the film isn't about the politics of Northern Ireland, but rather it's about what happens to ordinary citizens when they find themselves face to face with those politics. Shockingly, this doesn't turn out to be a dodge: it really isn't about the centuries-long question of Irish independence, or the changes Michael Collins brought about, or the mess that followed his assassination, or the growing reliance on terrorism by the IRA. None of that is brought up directly, at least, but what is at question is the morality of the situation. After Johnny is wounded, James Mason doesn't have a lot of lines in the film, yet the most pointed question asked by the film is asked only by him, though he doesn't speak the words; instead, the meaning of them become stronger as his strength drains away. The question is this: beyond a certain point, can a man's dreams survive his own aggressive attempts to bring them to life? If some of the citizens Johnny encounters show a yellow streak, and you could easily argue that a bunch of them do, that's because their city has been reduced to collection of fears and suspicions where any moral choice you make could end up ruining your life. Johnny's Organization contributed to that. We know Johnny has become conscious of this because nobody he meets cares as much about the man he killed as he does. And not even Johnny could tell you why that man had to die.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Best of Luck

When Roy Scheider died in 2008, a bunch of us cinephiles or whatever got to reminiscing, as you do, and I said to my friend Greg Ferrara, formerly of Cinema Styles, currently of TCM, that in my view Scheider was a better actor than Dustin Hoffman (I assume one or the other of us had brought up Marathon Man), who had by that point been canonized several times over while Scheider was regarded by most as little more than a highly dependable actor who everybody liked. No small achievement as far as building a reputation goes, I'll grant you, but pretty small beans when set beside his performances in films like All That Jazz, Sorcerer, Jaws, and on and on. Anyway, Greg responded by saying something along the lines of "The fact that I had to stop and think about that tells me you're onto something." So you see, I was right all along. I bring this up because since he died, my belief that Scheider was one of the greats has only strengthened, as has my frustration that outside of the films already mentioned he didn't have a career filled with the kinds of roles that would place him where he truly belonged. By and large, Scheider made the kind of films which would ensure that he'd be thought of as dependable and beloved, and not much more.

But even so. In my opinion, the Dustin Hoffmans of the world would have done well to mix in more of the type of film that Scheider built a career from. There's something about being able to plug into the small films as well as the big ones, the formulaic and the innovative, that allows for Scheider's brand of breezy, virtuosic, and varied naturalism. He could move from the existential horror of Sorcerer to what I guess you could all the existential joy of All That Jazz without changing himself fundamentally, without accents or makeup, but if that's not range then what is? He played a lot of cops, too, but even within that you have seen-everything tough guys he played in The Seven-Ups and The French Connection, the brave, good-hearted, but in-over-his head police chief in Jaws, as well as, and here we come to the point, the "weary modern cop," which is a certain type, pretty much always a middle-aged guy because part of being wearily modern is seeing everything you felt a connection with fade away. Scheider plays this type in Night Game, a thriller from 1989 written by Spencer Eastman and directed by Peter Masterson. Almost completely forgotten (the cover of the VHS I used to see, but never rent, at Blockbuster way back when recently came back to me in a rush) it was recently revived via a release to Blu-ray by Olive Films, and I gotta say, it's good to have it around.

Scheider plays Mike Seaver, an ex-minor league baseball player and current Houston homicide detective who, when we meet him, is still rebounding professionally from something that happened to him on the job in Dallas. He's also just proposed to Roxy (Karen Young), his much younger girlfriend. A life of regret that is further weighed down by having seen too much on the job (much of this is to be inferred from Scheider's performance and from casting Scheider in the first place) is threatening to brighten up, in other words, except there's a serial killer on the loose. He kills blonde women, at night, and the timing, placement, and pattern of the murders, it's eventually believed, point to a connection to the Astrodome. It's to the film's credit that Seaver doesn't jump unreasonably to this conclusion, which just happens to be true; on the other hand, this film is called Night Game.

If this sounds like a dull, run-of-the-mill '80s cop thriller, well, to some degree it is. The murders, as staged by Masterson, sort of go through the motions of being suspenseful -- a woman sees someone following her, she runs, she trips or whatever, etc. The only time I cringed in sympathy or suspense during one of these scenes was when one of the victims, shoeless so that she might run better, is shown about to step on a nail. Masterson, best known then as now for The Trip to Bountiful, for which Geraldine Page won an Oscar, and the Gene Hackman/Terri Gar romantic comedy Full Moon in Blue Water, which, okay, maybe it's not well known but my brother liked it (it also receives an incongruous post-modern wink in Night Game) clearly doesn't care about that stuff. He also doesn't care that the audience is going to clue in very early that the blonde-haired Roxy fits the victim profile and so she's probably better look over her shoulder. It's not that Masterson doesn't use this -- he does, twice. But the time he puts more effort into the time it doesn't pay off than the time it finally does.

No, what Masterson cares about, and what Scheider makes possible, is all the small stuff. The "character bits" I guess they're called. The subplot about Seaver's relationship to Roxy and her mother won't stun you with its blinding newness, but these are real people whose lives move along even as the bodies pile up, because those are the day-to-day facts. Which is to say that Masterson is "saying" this, or anything else, but the little moments of life are what clearly matter to him, and which Scheider brings off without an ounce of ostentation. He just falls into it. He looks like a guy who's been doing everything that he's ever done for a very long time, but this tiredness is offset by Scheider's physical leanness and overall air of competence which, if you're on the wrong side of him, made him seem dangerous (this is why he's so effective in Marathon Man). Scheider is one of the few actors who could look just as at home clutched in a mortal struggle with a psychopath as dozing in a recliner, a half-empty can of beer nearby. Again, if that's not range...

Night Game also benefits from being set in Houston, rather than New York or Los Angeles, and from a cast that, in addition to Scheider and Young, includes Richard Bradford, Lane Smith, and Paul Gleason. Those last two combined to probably play more assholes than any other two actors during the 1980s, but actors get as much work as they did because they're good and because they're pros, as they show here. The police station, as a result of the casting and the setting, has a real idiosyncratic life to it, not one that is self-consciously quirky, but one that has built up by the real people within it. In this regard, it's a shame that Masterson was hemmed in by what either he or the studio regarded as the constraints of the genre (the myth that everyone believes in) because there's a terrific cop drama buried in here. What we get instead is a solid cop thriller that draws its strength from Scheider. And who better to leach from than a guy who couldn't fake it if you paid him?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A True April's Tale

I am going to be the next Super Man in the next Super Man movie! This is news I just got today and it is TRUE. I am NOT lying. Benm Adflemk is OUT an I am IN! It is my dream come true to play SUPER Man! The movie as you all know is called SUPER MAN: A DREAMS OF JUSTICE and it will star me as Super Man (see picture of me in my costume copyright Universal Sony):

me as Super Man
and my cat Shirley as Ultron the Robot Fiend (see picture of Shirley with special effect eyes courtesy of copyright Universal Sony):

Ultorn the Robot Feind
It is so excited to be a Movie Star. I am a Million Air now and I am going to fly to the finest countries and eat the most delicouis Chicken Meat they have. Fried chicken, other kind of chicken, it doesnt matter to me. I jus want 2 eat it all. And now I can becase I am Superm An, Moive Star of the Ages this Summer in SURPE MAN: JASMINE DAWN. See you at the movei theateers guys! POW! ZIP! BOO!

APRIL'S FOOL YOU STUPID IDIOTS! I am not a super mant! I am sitting hear in a robe! APRIL!