Monday 16 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #3

I've posted a couple of reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, both part of my Make It a Double series in which the stars pick two movies from their careers for me to review. These two were picked by the late Gunnar Hansen.

Gimme Skelter (2007), a character study of a small New Mexico town masquerading as a horror movie, because it revolves around the arrival of a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of Charlie Manson, complete with five followers. Eager to get noticed, he plans to take the population of Banion's Cross down from 67 to zero.

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy (2007), a mockumentary in the This is Spinal Tap style, in which an interviewer follows Harry Penderecki as he attempts to make his new movie, Brutal Massacre, against all the odds, capturing all two months of the three week shoot. It has a killer cast and a clever script, full of little details that make this funnier the more we know about the movie industry.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Director: S Craig Zahler
Stars: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins
It’s good to see the weird west apparently thriving in the indie world. I’ve just finished Ghostwalkers, a glorious ride of a novel by Jonathan Maberry that’s based on a video game. Now here’s an indie feature with a real budget that allows for many recognisable faces.

It begins with David Arquette cutting a man’s throat while he sleeps. He and Sid Haig take down a whole camp site, searching for something, but, with horses fast approaching, they attempt an escape into the hills, only to get caught up in some sort of burial ground skull art installation. ‘It ain’t no concern for a civilised man,’ says Haig, scratching his nuts with the barrel of his gun. He’s taken down quickly but Arquette manages to stumble away, eventually making it into the town of Bright Hope, where he unwittingly sparks all the events to follow.

What we see is done with style and it’s done with some substance. It looks great, it sounds great and it pays a lot of attention to character development. There are quite a few cast members with something notable to do here and the opportunity to shine while doing so; most of them take that opportunity with both hands. Best of all, for what is partly a brutal horror movie, there’s a wry humour that pervades the script and keeps us interested in a whole bunch of different people.

The catches are that it’s a slow burn that gets slower until the final showdown and it carries a great inevitability to it that means few surprises are forthcoming. I have no concerns with slowness when that’s called for, such as the glacial pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, but this could have sped up a little and shed a few scenes without the desert’s sense of vast emptiness being lost to the tone of the piece. The inevitability is more understandable, as this is a Heart of Darkness-type journey as much as it ever is a destination, summed up well by a single line late in the movie.

Kurt Russell is the biggest name. He plays Sheriff Franklin Hunt of Bright Hope, not a stupid man but one who perhaps has too much confidence in his abilities. When Arquette vanishes from the town’s jail, apparently kidnapped along with Sabrina O’Dwyer, the lady doctor treating his wounds, and Hunt’s young deputy, Nick, leaving only her doctor’s bag and an arrow stuck in a wall, it’s the sheriff who leads the party to rescue them.

Going along for the ride are Arthur O’Dwyer, the lady doctor’s cowboy husband who’s supposed to be in bed resting his own wounds; Chicory, the town’s other deputy; and John Brooder, a mysterious but very well dressed man with an apparent talent for killing Indians. Given that Chicory is far from a young man and O’Dwyer’s leg is bad enough that he has trouble walking, we don’t need to wait for the bewildering end credits song to tell us that ‘four doomed men ride out’.

Each of these actors are names too, though I have to admit that I didn’t recognise most of them. Brooder is Matthew Fox, best known as Jack Shephard in Lost, O’Dwyer is Patrick Wilson, Nite Owl from Watchmen, and Chicory is character actor Richard Jenkins; just look at his long list of credits to see how many times you’ve seen him without necessarily knowing it. We’ve already met Arquette and Haig. The sheriff’s wife is Kathryn Morris, Lilli from Cold Case. The mayor’s wife is Sean Young and there’s also Michael Paré as a local gentleman of importance. S Craig Zahler, who wrote and directed, clearly knew who to talk to when putting his cast together.

Perhaps most impressive out of all of them, though, is Lili Simmons who plays Samantha O’Dwyer as a very different sort of damsel in distress. She’s only made a couple of movies but she has done a lot of TV work, where she’s best known for a show called Banshee. Maybe, now that I’ve heard of it, I should seek it out to see how she does with the much more expansive screen time that a TV show provides. She doesn’t get anywhere near a lot here.

The story of Bone Tomahawk is pretty simple and is frankly given away by the one sentence IMDb has for plot description: ‘Four men set out in the Wild West to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.’ It’s not really cowboys and indians, where the cowboys have lost their horses and the indians are troglodytes in the Valley of the Starving Men. It’s more like the cannibal horror movies where the first world protagonists gradually come to realise just how far they are from home, not just physically but culturally too, that ‘You’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy’ feeling. This is the wild west rather than the unexplored jungles of South America, so these caves are only a three day ride, but that’s a lot further on foot with a crutch and unimaginably further in mind.

I enjoyed the film, but more for its detail than its sweep. I admired the character building, which is too often prioritised far below the action, but felt that the balance had shifted a little too far the other way. The dialogue is superb, both in its writing and its delivery, but there are points that could easily have been trimmed. The stunning brutality of some scenes highlights how this is very much an indie feature, but the stars on show, the use of a decent budget and the obvious quality of many technical aspects often make us forget that. That last sentence translates to a strong recommendation, however flawed the film is.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Zhang Jingchu, Tom Hollander, Jens Hultén and Alec Baldwin
We begin with comedy in Belarus. Marvel’s Hawkeye talks to Shaun of the Dead and Marsellus Wallace about a package. It’s on a plane and the plane needs to not take off. Fortunately Ethan Hunt is ready to leap onto that plane and rescue that package at incredible risk to himself. It’s telling that when we see Tom Cruise nowadays, we have no problem thinking of him as his Mission: Impossible character, while we’re not really ready to do that with any of these other very recognisable faces. This is his fifth Mission: Impossible movie, but he’s kept them spaced out, the first one dating as far back as 1996.

‘I’ve heard stories,’ says the record store girl, who gives him an LP to listen to in a booth. ‘They can’t all be true.’ Unfortunately the recording turns out not to be from the Impossible Mission Force but from the Syndicate, whom Ethan Hunt has been trying to prove exists for a year.

Back in the US, Jeremy Renner battles Alec Baldwin. Renner is William Brandt, fighting for the IMF’s survival in front of a senate committee. Baldwin is Alan Hunley, the director of the CIA, fighting to take over its operation. The latter wins and the IMF is history.

Cruise is Ethan Hunt, of course, whose job is now to take on the Syndicate solo. This experience proves that they exist, but he has very little to go on, just a former, supposedly dead, agent called Janik Vinter, better known as the Bone Doctor.

Baldwin pledges to have him in a day. Six months later, our story really begins, with Hunt setting up a wall of details for the inevitable CIA squad to find, details that show that he really hasn’t been inactive.

Pegg is Benji Dunn, Hunt’s tech genius, now playing Halo at the CIA and lying on his weekly polygraph. Hunt brings him back in by sending him tickets to Turandot at the Vienna Opera.

This is strong stuff. We’re in a classic setting, with a European head of state in attendance, the Austrian Chancellor. There’s a killer, of course, a big, tough killer with cool tech and a cool gun. There’s another shooter too, a stylish lady in yellow. And... well, let’s just say that things aren’t quite as simple as they might seem because this is intrigue as much as it is action.

Rebecca Ferguson is Ilsa Faust, part of that intrigue, and hers is a name I wasn’t familiar with, even though I’d seen her in Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules. She’s a Swedish actress who does good work here, with solid acting chops, impressive agility and a Charlotte Rampling meets Maggie Gyllenhaal look. Clearly she’s the key to the puzzle. She’s also the means by which the picture sets up all the usual impossibilities for Hunt and Dunn to find a way to achieve, beginning with an impressive underground and underwater datacenter in Casablanca that’s right out of science fiction and complete lunacy. It’s hilarious how impressively air gapped networks are set to allow USB keys to plug right in.

That leaves Ving Rhames for the good guys. He’s Luther Stickell, who resigned rather than shift from the IMF to the CIA along with Brandt and Dunn. Once we find out about Ilsa Faust and what she’s up to, Brandt brings Stickell back into the picture to find the other two and figure out what’s going on, without the CIA finding out in the process.

Of course, we’re set up from moment one to believe that Baldwin is clearly a major player in the Syndicate, if not the head of it. However, that’s too obvious and the last piece of the puzzle is Solomon Lane, a former British intelligence agent played by Sean Harris. This is a long way from his role as Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, in the underrated 24 Hour Party People, though sadly I’d guess most people know him nowadays from Prometheus. This reminds me that I really need to get round to watching Creep.

There’s a lot of good here, but there’s some Hollywood excess, of course. The Casablanca chase scenes are truly spectacular, for instance, but it’s a ridiculously empty city and the stuntwork has none of the impact of Mad Max: Fury Road because we don’t believe that almost any of it is real. It doesn’t help that, as ever, Tom Cruise appears to be entirely immune to bruises. And that’s just Casablanca. After that, as the web of intrigue starts to unravel, things get shouty as if secret agents all do their training on The Jerry Springer Show. And so it goes.

I enjoyed this mostly for the writing, because it ponders interestingly on ethics in espionage and weaves a complex web with move and countermove, and for the quality character acting in a surprisingly small supporting cast. Rebecca Ferguson impressed me most and Sean Harris was very interesting, especially vocally. Simon McBurney fills a brief supporting role with impressive gravitas. The franchise regulars are less impressive but they do everything they need to, even Ving Rhames who seems to act without acting. As for Tom Cruise, he ought to be getting too old for this shit but he’s actually getting more interesting. I liked this, in many ways, more than I remember liking the first few films in the franchise.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Paul Williams and William Finley
One of the Top 100 lists that I’ve enjoyed the most is the Top 100 Cult Films list put out by the long defunct website, but I haven’t quite seen all the films on it or rated them all since 2004 when I started tracking that sort of thing. I have seen Phantom of the Paradise, but it’s been so long that I’m not sure that I even knew who Rod Serling was when I first heard him give the opening narration.

That was my first surprise revisiting the film and the outrageous behaviour of the backing singers of the Juicy Fruits during their opening number was the second. Swan seems to approve and he’s the producer who matters, so much so that we’re first introduced to his white gloved hands and his monotone voice rather than his face. He’s about to open the Paradise, a grand auditorium to his greatness. He, through his enforcer, Arnold Philbin, is also about to steal the music of Winslow Leach to open it. Leach is the singer/songwriter playing piano after the Juicy Fruits and he has a whole cantata written around the legend of Faust, hardly a accidental choice of subject matter given the circumstances.

Leach unwisely lets Philbin take it on the promise that Swan will produce his first album, but a month later he’s heard nothing and they won’t even let him through the door of Death Records to talk to them. When he breaks in, he discovers girls rehearsing his music for audition, without his name on it. Of course, he’s promptly thrown out again, but this time also framed for a serious drug offence and sent to a Swan-funded medical experimentation laboratory at Sing Sing. It’s only when he hears on the radio that Swan is opening the Paradise with the Juicy Fruits doing Faust that he goes mad, escapes and breaks back into Death Records to sabotage it with dynamite.

The catch is that he gets stuck in a record press and horribly disfigured. Last seen diving into the East River, the world believes him drowned but, as the title suggests, he survives and finds his way into the Paradise where he starts a campaign of destruction because hey, this was always going to be the old Phantom of the Opera story updated into a 1970s rock opera framework. Just check out the wild sets, outrageous costumes and camp sensibilities. There are also claustrophobic angles, overlaid frames and split screen, not to mention an early use of handheld camera.

What follows isn’t just Phantom of the Opera, it’s also Faust, because Swan isn’t just a debauched 70s music producer, he’s clearly playing Satan, as is made quite obvious in the key contract signing scene. Well, sort of. The Picture of Dorian Gray comes into play before too long as well. Brian De Palma took from a variety of the best.

Faust kicks in when Swan’s eagle eyes notice Winslow after only one explosion. He quickly tracks him down and talks him into a partnership, where he’ll rewrite the cantata for Phoenix, the girl he wants to sing his work now that his voice has been taken from him. Of course, he doesn’t get what he wants because then we wouldn’t get a movie and Swan is just too wicked a part for Paul Williams to play it that easily. Of course, Swan is always going to go back on every promise he makes just because he can.

This is something of a trip to watch outside the mid-seventies. It’s overdone throughout, even though it takes itself as seriously as rock opera always did. This is a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, though a year after that debuted on stage. It’s a year before Bohemian Rhapsody and the recording of Bat Out of Hell, which wasn’t released until 1977. It plays with prog rock, glam rock, shock rock and all the excess of the decade. The opening night even presages a certain iconic scene in Carrie, made by the same director, Brian De Palma, only two years later.

It hasn’t aged as well as it could have done. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still playing forty years on across the globe, Bohemian Rhapsody is as great as ever and I can still sing along to Bat Out of Hell, but the music here is much more weighed down by its time. I can appreciate what De Palma (and his DP Larry Pizer) did, because the variety of technique is impossible to ignore and it’s consistently strong throughout, with some stunning dolly shots and a gorgeous dive into psychedelic bloody chaos for the finale. I’m less impressed by the music of Paul Williams though. On screen he’s a glorious creature, the quintessential corrupt seventies music impresario, as tied to the iconic character of the Devil. He sings well too, providing the singing voice for William Finley, who rages outrageously otherwise as Leach. It’s just that the songs are mostly forgettable. They’re also repeated rather a lot.

There are few people on screen to compete with Finley and Williams. Gerrit Graham is utterly outrageous as Beef, a sort of flamboyantly gay Gary Glitter type glam singer. He’s awful but in exactly the way he’s supposed to be, so he’s doing a great job. Jessica Harper is decent as Phoenix but not so much that she warrants the attention lavished upon her by Leach and Swan both. She was far more memorable in Dario Argento’s Suspiria three years later, also on the Top 100 list, as was Inserts, which was released in between them in 1974. Other than those, there’s only really George Memmoli as Philbin, who’s good at his job but hardly a scenestealer.

Really, Phantom of the Paradise is a relic, a product of its time, a fascinating artifact. I’m very happy that I got to see this again after what must surely be three decades, but I doubt I’ll come back to it any time soon and I’m certainly not going to be humming the music tomorrow at work.

This was film #78 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

1 comment:

Gini Koch said...

I loved Mission Impossible -- all the excess is literally what I think we all expect these days from spy movies, and I think the MI movies have taken over Bond as the best fun spy action movies around.

We just watched Phantom of the Paradise, too -- me for the first time in ages, the hubs for the first time ever. We also watched Shock Treatment -- our Halloween double feature. The one thing that really struck me based on watching those two movies back-to-back is that Paradise is EXACTLY the movie DePalma wanted to make and Shock Treatment is NOT the movie originally planned. Both movies presciently predict just what people will do for fame, however. Rocky Horror they are not, but they're still interesting.