Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Six-String Samurai (1998)

Today, I would like to go the (more than usually) circuitous route to my introduction by lauding the work of writer Norman Partridge.  His writing is often compared with that of Joe R. Lansdale, and there are similarities to be found between the two, but Partridge’s work is a little leaner, meaner, and maybe even a little more ensconced in the realm of drive-in/exploitation fare (both authors excel at the Southern-fried, homespun, matter-of-fact aesthetic popular in such television series as Justified and the like, just to give you some idea).  I first came across Partridge in the pages of Cemetery Dance magazine with a story titled Bucket of Blood, a simple tale of two buddies, one bad decision, and the titular slot machine.  Since then, I’ve sought out everything I could from the man.  His stories can be as stripped down and straight ahead as ’59 Frankenstein, as emotionally gut-punching as The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, or as ethereally abstruse (but no less satisfying) as Incarnadine, yet there is a beating, bleeding heart at the core of every word the man types.  His novel Slippin’ Into Darkness is one of the best haunting (notice, I didn’t say “ghost”) stories I’ve ever read.  It eats at me that the man isn’t more well-known or recognized than he is, and I’ve been known to yammer on about his work to anyone who will listen (and even to those who won’t; maybe moreso).  

In 2000, Partridge wrote The Crow: Wicked Prayer, and it has all the elements that he typically brings to the table.  That said, it is, in my opinion, the least of his works (and, all things considered, that’s still pretty impressive), possibly from being constrained by the franchise owners or by some editorial mandate (this is the way it plays out in my mind, at any rate).  The novel was adapted to film in 2005, and though I can’t recall having seen it, my recollection is it is considered by many to be the least of that series.  The film was directed by Lance Mungia, whose feature directorial debut was, of course, Six-String Samurai.  What does one have to do with the other?  I have no idea.  The point of this prolix prologue (and believe me, I can bloviate further) is this: go read some Norman Partridge.  You won’t be disappointed (I mean, as long as you don’t start with the Crow book; you can check that out after you’ve experienced a fuller flavor of the man’s rich bibliography).

In 1957, the Russkies dropped The Big One on America and took over.  Las Vegas has been redubbed Lost Vegas (personally, I like referring to it as Lost Wages, but that’s just me), and Elvis has ruled there as King for years.  But now the King is dead, and Lost Vegas needs some new royalty.  Rockers from all over (including the embodiment of Death itself [Stephane Gauger]) begin to converge on the city and duel it out along the way with weapons both bladed and stringed.  Eponymous Ronin Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) knows he’s meant to be the new King, and, together with The Kid (Justin McGuire), he slouches towards the proverbial Bethlehem, his hour come round at last (apologies to Yeats).

So, let’s tackle the obvious.  Six-String Samurai considers the Samurai genre of film from a unique, fresh perspective, though it retains the swordplay rather than relying strictly on its musical wakizashi to settle violent disputes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the usage of instruments in the film is little more than a stylistic flourish, since so negligible is the focus on it.  One would expect Buddy (referring, I do believe, to Buddy Holly) to meet up with various other rockers of the 50s and defeat them with his superior musical skills.  Yet, the only representative foe he encounters is a young Richie Valens stand-in (Pedro Pano), and even he is brought low by Buddy’s sword, not his guitar.  Other enemies include gangs like The Pin Pals (a bowling league gang), The Red Elvises (an actual band who also provide the film’s soundtrack), and a group of post-apocalyptic Cavemen who catapult gumballs (yes, really) and LPs at our protagonists during a chase scene so slow it makes the steamroller scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery look like Bullitt.  

That the film doesn’t feature musicians as antagonists more than it does is a testament to its disjointedness in the sense that it wants to be multi-generic to the point of collapse.  So, for as much as Six-String Samurai owes a debt to films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (The Kid is given a line to cross over which he will have to put away his childish things in order to walk Buddy’s path), it owes an equal (or even greater) amount to the Western and the Spaghetti Western genres (particularly those starring Clint Eastwood, whom Falcon appears to be channeling), the Post-Apocalyptic genre (leaning more toward the Italian end of the spectrum for its more outré facets, though there’s also a heavy influence from The Warriors in the character of the narrating DJ and the various, colorful cliques), and even The Wizard of Oz and the filmography of Terry Gilliam.  

The notion of legacies is heavy in the film, as well.  First and foremost is the fact that Elvis (that wellspring from which so much rock ‘n roll sprang [and, yes, I get that Elvis had his share of influences going back decades further]) needs to be replaced as King.  His legacy is the music that guys like Buddy live by and the civilization that it supported.  As might be expected, The Kid then molds himself in the image of Buddy, preparing to inherit his mantle when the time comes (most tellingly displayed in the scene where The Kid mimics Buddy’s Tai Chi routine), to carry on the legacy handed down from Elvis to Buddy and so on.  The Kid doesn’t speak when he initially meets Buddy, yelling to get attention, creating a reverberating echo whenever he does it, indicative of the future power of The Kid’s voice (and the idea that the student often surpasses the master’s level, given time). The central conflict between Death and Buddy is about the legacy of rock being attacked by the malevolence of heavy metal (Death looks a lot like Slash from Guns ‘N Roses), which I found a bit odd, because I would have thought that the antithesis of Rock would have likely been something more along the lines of Techno or Disco or Polka, but Metal makes for more interesting visual characteristics (this is, of course, arguable).    

Thrown into this cinematic casserole is a simultaneous love for and satire of Fifties American society.  For as much time is spent reveling in the pop culture of that time (discussing whether a 1957 Chevy or a Plymouth is the better car, why a 1957 hollow body guitar is the way to go, the film’s setup itself, et cetera), we get things like the Cleavers (get it?), a nuclear (get it?) family that’s as apple pie and suburban as they come on the surface but who harbor some dark intentions underneath (go ahead and guess what their secret is; I’ll wait).  The Cleavers are so arch, so self-consciously a send up of the superficial attitudes of Fifties pop culture, they draw far too much attention to themselves, smacking the viewer over the head with “The Point” rather than simply stating it.  This is reinforced by the visual aesthetic of the film, which employs extreme wide angle lenses, high and low angle compositions, and handheld shots that zoom in on knowingly gauche faces pointedly gurning all over the place.

With that in mind, the film is distinctly good-looking much of the time, making fantastic use of both the locations and Kristian Bernier’s cinematographic skills.  My problem is that it becomes schizophrenic, slamming from studied composition to music video mugging in the space of less than a heartbeat.  I can understand why this approach was taken: the POV of a world gone off-kilter, emphasizing the outlandish characters who have risen up from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust but are still frozen in time.  And I think I could have forgiven this if the film’s tone wasn’t just as muddled.  Buddy and The Kid play (almost) straight men to the wacky antics of the world around them, though occasionally they ape it up, too.  Worse, in my opinion, is Death and his henchmen (why they didn’t have four of them like the Horsemen is beyond me), who look marvelously diabolical.  Nevertheless, they pass comments in ways meant to be funny but fall flat instead, reducing the characters as effective heavies.  To wit: Death admonishes a gang for not killing Buddy and stops mid-sentence to admire their flashy shoes.  Later, one of the henchmen states, “The boy makes him very uncool,” in reference to Buddy and The Kid’s relationship.  While things like this are specific and intentional for the film’s approach, it comes off a bit too “try hard” for my taste (I suppose you could view it through the prism of films like A Hard Day’s Night or Head, but I feel the narrative is much too linear for that).  I’ll gladly sing the praises of Six-String Samurai from both a visual and an ambition perspective.  But the tone just doesn’t work for me on this one.

MVT:  I’m going to have to give it to the visual style of the film.

Make or Break:  The film’s opening/title sequence is truly some great filmmaking and a nice introduction to the story and its main characters, equally evoking so many samurai duels in tall grass and homesteaders gunned down in cold blood while giving us its own spin on these tropes.

Score: 6.5/10   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Run Time: 107 minutes

Today's movie has murder,  a complex web of lies,  a relentless investigator, a deadly and illicit affair, and tainted love.  Who knew that life insurance was so entertaining.

 The movie and the book by the same name take their content from the real life murder and insurance fraud committed by Ruth Snyder . The too long: didn't click version of the crime is Ruth Snyder married a man, Albert Snyder, who was in love more with his dead fiancee than his wife. Ruth meets Judd Gray, a corset salesmen, Ruth's lover, and co-conspirator in murder. With the aid of an unethical insurance salesmen, who later went to jail for forgery, Ruth was able to sign her husband up for life insurance with double indemnity. Then Ruth and Judd chloroformed and strangled Ruth's husband, staged a home break in, and then claimed the life insurance. However the police solve the crime and Ruth and Judd are found guilty and sentenced to death.

The movie adaptation takes the corset salesman and the insurance agent and makes them one character in Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). A successful insurance salesman who starts the movie by racing through late night Los Angles streets to get to work. Not because he's that loyal to the company but because he want to leave a dictaphone recording to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Pacific All Risk Insurance's fraud investigator, pointing out all the mistakes in his fraud investigation while he still able.

Towards the end of May Walter paid a visit to Mr. Dietrichson about a car policy that was about to expire. Mr. Dietrichson was not at home but his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) was home and she's interested in letting Walter behave like a smitten fool. In fact, she interested enough to invite him back the next day so Walter can meet her husband and resolve her husband's policy issues. The next day, Walter returns the next day to find that Mr. Dietrichson wasn't able to be there but Phyllis would be more than interested to be the object of Walter's obsession. This turns into an affair and leads Walter to consider turning his knowledge of insurance into a way to find wealth and love.

Walter's plan goes off with only a few problems. He gets Mr. Dietrichson to sign for life insurance without his knowledge, sets up how Mr. Dietrichson will die, and creates alibis for himself and Phyllis. Everything comes together the night Mr. Dietrichson goes to his university reunion. Walter and Phyllis enact Walter's plan, kill Mr. Dietrichson, and then wait for the life insurance to pay out. However chance, a few variables Walter missed, and Barton Keyes smelling insurance fraud, Walter's plan and life starts fraying at the seems.

This movie is a great starting point for anyone interested in cinema and literature. Movie wise this is a great example of the noir genre as well as a well constructed film. On the literature side, this was written by Raymond Chandler. Author of the Philip Marlowe novels and a major influence in the American hard boiled detective genre. Over all go watch this movie, they really don't make them like this anymore.

MVT: Being a fanboy of damn near anything noir, I found myself chain smoking, drinking cheap whiskey from the bottle, and enjoying every minute of it.

Make or Break: Fred MacMurray portrayal of Walter Neff leaves me torn between having a beer with the guy or punching the asshole in the face and then buying him a beer afterwards.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Grotesque (1988)

I bought (or maybe received as a present; I can’t recall) Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up book when I was a wee lad (probably the third edition; the one with the full color photos of the two kids on the cover), and it was amazing.  Let’s never mind that Smith was one of the most innovative and important figures in movie makeup.  His book was eye-opening in the level of detail put into each makeup, even the simple ones (and this, for a monster kid who ate up anything to do with special effects, was like crack).  I once used this manual to do a split-skull-face makeup on one of my siblings years later (and I have to pat myself on the back a bit here, because it turned out pretty damned well).  

Less well known, but just as transformative for me, was 1976’s Make-Up Monsters by Marcia Lynn Cox, a book I believe I ordered through my grade school’s book program (you know, the ones where you’d get a flyer, want every book in it, be able to afford maybe one [and always be astounded at how the inevitable Garfield book listed was the most expensive thing there], and then wait what felt like an eternity just to see if it was worth the money; probably from the good folks at Troll).  While not as technically advanced as the Smith tome, Cox’s book was just as valuable for what it showed you could accomplish on a meager budget.  It told you how to do a mummy makeup with paper towels and corn syrup (a far cry from Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking work on The Mummy but still effective enough), a werewolf makeup with lamb’s wool and eyeliner (again, not Pierce level), and even a “dripping face” (much more relevant to this week’s film) with dried beans (or popcorn) and cotton balls.  Even though I don’t think I attempted a single makeup in it (supplies cost money), I must have gone through that book a thousand times, studying the process and creativity at work.  Along with magazines like Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland, books like this one fueled my desire to be a special effects makeup artist (a fire that was extinguished quickly after leaving high school, but that’s another story).  It makes me wonder if Joe Tornatore had the same book as a kid, because the transformational makeup in his Grotesque (created by John Naulin) has the same sort of uninspired-by-the-real-world, homemade quality that made Cox’s book so special to me.  Sadly, it doesn’t help Tornatore’s film any that the makeup here is weak, in my opinion, from a design standpoint if not from an execution one.

Kathy (Donna Wilkes, the original Angel) and Lisa (Linda Blair) head on up to Lisa’s family’s house out in the middle of nowhere.  Meanwhile, a maniacal gang of punks, led by Scratch (Brad Wilson), are also headed that way because they heard that Lisa’s dad, Orville Kruger (Guy Stockwell), a special effects artist, has a secret stash of either money or dope up there (hint: it’s neither).  Tab Hunter shows up later as Lisa’s Uncle Rod.

The one thing that Grotesque deals with more than anything else is the idea of monsters.  Orville is an effects man who creates monsters on celluloid for a living.  At home, he dabbles in creating more of them.  He gets a kick out of scaring people with his creations (and, I’m sure, he equally loves being scared by them) to the extent that he shoots home movies of himself “attacking” his wife while in costume (she swings a knife at him in horror; jocularity!).  Orville’s producers love his work so much that they offer him a bonus for his accomplishments (going out on a limb here, I don’t think any movie producer would ever do this, like, ever).  Similarly, the character of Patrick (Robert Apisa) appears physically as a monster, though his disposition is, we’re told, mild-mannered.  It’s implied that Orville draws inspiration for his work from Patrick, and in this way, Orville is forming mainstream acceptance for a person who would never be accepted in regular society (“Society won’t accept ugliness,” we’re told later in the film).  Contradictorily, Patrick is kept in a secret room in Orville’s house, hiding his monstrosity like something to be ashamed of, but this is more to play to genre tropes than anything else.  

Naturally, the true monsters of the film are not the ones who look like monsters.  The punks are evil through and through.  They slaughtered the last family they tried to rob, and they have no problem doing the same to the Krugers, if need be (indeed, they really want to).  But while the punks look more “human” than Patrick, they attempt to make monsters of themselves physically by dressing in a way anathema to popular culture (and it was always the punk ethos to be set apart as “other” from the rest of the world; the perfect visual shorthand for filmic villainy), their hair spiked, their clothes stylishly tattered and/or greasy, their faces caked in garish makeup.  They are, in essence, attempting to be what Patrick was born as, although with the punks, it’s more to match their outsides with their insides.

The film also concerns itself with the creation of reality in artifice.  As the film opens, we see an old, dark house in a thunderstorm.  An old woman monologues about something for a while and is then bitten by a large monster in a hooded robe.  It’s all just the latest horror film on which Orville worked, but we’re led to believe that we’re kicking off the story proper.  From the outset, the reality we’re presented with onscreen is debunked as false.  Later, Orville will opine to Kathy, “What’s reality, and what is illusion?”  He follows this by singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat (“Life is but a dream”).  To Orville, film and fantasy are means to create reality, to channel a new one into existence.  Likewise, Uncle Rod is a plastic surgeon, a person who molds the perception of reality for a living (in effect, a makeup effects artist working in flesh rather than latex, a point which will be brought up much later in the film).  Even the punks get caught up in this existential crisis to some degree (“Everyone else is phony, but we are real”).  All of this culminates in a tribute ending that is equal parts touching, silly, and incongruous yet sums up precisely where Tornatore and company are coming from (complete with a freeze frame and the celluloid burning out).

Despite the love clearly coming from the filmmakers, Grotesque simply doesn’t work, and that’s a bit of a shame because I admire the risks it takes with its storytelling.  It isn’t afraid to get rid of characters we don’t expect to die, it isn’t afraid to introduce major characters midway through its runtime, and it isn’t afraid to allow the story to branch off in a completely unexpected direction in its second half.  These subversions would normally be valued by a jaded audience (red: me).  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t truly commit to either its Horror or Revenge aspects as anything other than cool window dressing on a film that doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the window.  So, I respect the film.  I just didn’t particularly enjoy it.

MVT:  I love the meta facets of the film, but then, I always love the meta facets in films.

Make or Break: I was astounded when the film did a U-turn at the halfway mark, and not astounded in a necessarily good way (though, as stated, I did find it intriguing).

Score: 5/10