Monday 11 January 2016

Monday Night Roundup #10

I haven't posted any reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, because I've been working on my Star Wars Runthrough here at Apocalypse Later Now!

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched over the last couple of weeks that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and William Hurt

I’ve seen Dark City before, but not for many years and my memories of it were hazy. A new viewing was as refreshing for this as for The Crow, the previous film Alex Proyas directed. Both are innovative pictures with moods that resonate. Having just seen the trailer for Gods of Egypt, his new film, I really can’t say the same. I may skip over that entirely and wait for The Unfortunate Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which is in pre-production. That’s apparently a full adaptation of the unusual Robert A Heinlein novel, which served as an influence on Dark City.

Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in a dark city, but it’s an odd one. An alien race known as the Strangers can alter physical reality using will alone, which they call tuning. However, they’re dying and have abandoned their own world in a quest for a cure to their mortality. They stay out of the way while we humans wander about and live our lives, but they’re there underneath it all tuning away in experimentation.

Dr Daniel P Schreber, who is not a Stranger, helps them conduct their experiments. He’s a very noirish Kiefer Sutherland, with a serious breathing problem, a limp and a pair of round glasses, like a stereotypical Gestapo stooge. He has trouble getting a whole sentence out at once, something that has put off some viewers but which plays well for me as a unique and memorable approach.

Everything else is very noirish too. It’s dark, it’s shadowy and it’s claustrophobic. It seems like we’re in the 1940s, full of worn suits, smoky jazz and lived in faces. And it all stops at midnight: the cars, the trains, the people, everything except Dr Schreber and a man named John Murdoch, played by a coarse but effective Rufus Sewell, whose eyes are wide for most of the film.

The latter wakes up in the bath with blood on his forehead. His suitcase carries the initials KH, which aren’t his, and a postcard marked, ‘Greetings from Shell Beach’. There’s a corpse in the room, of a young lady. And, as he reacts to all of this mystery, Schreber rings him up to tell him that he’s lost his memory, that people are coming for him and that he must leave now. Oh yeah, that’s a good way to start a film noir!

It’s also a good way to start a science fiction movie. Those people are tall, bald and freaky, very white but dressed in black and notably similar in appearance. To add to the freakiness, as if it were needed, one of them clicks like an insect and another is a young boy. It’s no surprise to find that Proyas based this on a recurring nightmare. These are Strangers, of course, and the rest of them are living beneath the city, looking like nothing more than a Cenobite choir. If The Crow cemented Proyas a place in dark cinematic history, Dark City underlined it. It’s even more dark but less stylistically so, more of a film than a comic book.

The noir touches keep on coming. Officially, the trauma of discovering that his wife had an affair sparked Murdoch’s amnesia, but it doesn’t ring true. And, while he doesn’t stop when midnight strikes and the city changes, other characters who do are struggling with memory too. The corpse in the room with Murdoch is the latest victim of a serial killer targetting hookers, so the cops have him as their primary suspect. However, the man in charge, Insp Frank Bumstead, doesn’t buy it at all and his predecessor, Det Eddie Walenski, has apparently gone insane, scrawling spirals on the walls, the floor and the ceiling and trying to remember his past.

The cast is amazing, Sewell and Sutherland only the beginning. Murdoch’s wife is Jennifer Connelly. Those cops are William Hurt and Colin Friels respectively. The three key Strangers, intriguingly named Mr Hand, Mr Book and Mr Wall are Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and Bruce Spence. Talk about cult credentials: that’s key players in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brazil and The Road Warrior thrown together as a trio! While these actors get varied amounts of screen time and thus provide varied impact to the film, they’re all as excellent as their backgrounds would suggest.

As we ought to expect from the director of The Crow, there’s a huge amount of mood here. Setting the film entirely at night was a great choice, for a number of reasons. Beyond its importance to the story, it allows for a lot of play with shadows and provides a great disorientation factor. ‘When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?’ is a gloriously resonant line. The sets are an industrial nightmare where the steam rises and the smog pools. The claustrophobia grows during the tunings as the city changes. It’s a freaky experience for Murdoch, who watches it happen, but it’s freaky for us too and must have influenced the city visuals in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The effects work at the end of the film is especially gorgeous.

What stands out to a fresh viewing is how thoughtful the script is, not just because it’s well thought out but because it’s literally full of thought. The real question isn’t about how the tunings affect Murdoch or us but how they affect the people who don’t know that they even happen. The Buddha said, ‘With our thoughts we make the world,’ and that resonated with me throughout Dark City. The Strangers are looking for the human soul by trying to understand how our memories work, but Proyas is asking, ‘Are we more than the mere sum of our memories?’ The way he does so echoes Philip K Dick; this isn’t one of his stories but it easily could have been, as the layering of reality reminded me of Time Out of Joint and We Can Remember It for You, Wholesale.

There must have been something in the air in 1998 because this feels reminiscent of a couple of other films that were actually released shortly afterwards, making this the first. There’s a lot of The Matrix here, for instance, except that came a year later, so it would be truer to say there’s a lot of Dark City in The Matrix. In fact, Proyas ought to have got a credit on that film, given that it could be easily described as Dark City in The Crow’s clothes. There are lesser but still valid comparisons to The Truman Show too, which was released four months after this.

Of course, a clever scriptwriter could spin the confluence of all these films asking their questions about reality around the same time into a new story about what reality might mean. I could be a less palatable Truman Burbank. We could all be living in the Matrix. Or we could be reinvented each night at midnight and forget about it. When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Director: Nick Castle
Stars: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart and Robert Preston

Here’s one that I didn’t catch back in the day, which is surprising for a major sci-fi movie from the early eighties. This is when my parents were taking me to see these things in the cinema. It’s very much a product of its time; like Tron, with which it bears some similarities, it couldn’t be mistaken as coming from any other time, even though both films used state of the art graphics work that pushed the envelope forward. The music sounds like a remix of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The visuals could have been lifted from any sci-fi movie from that decade. The opening credits remind of Superman.

When they’re over, we find ourselves in a similarly quintessential eighties town, like a cross between those of Tremors and The Goonies. This one is Starlite Starbrite, a trailer park nestled amongst gorgeous scenery, a friendly place where everyone knows everyone else but our hero, Alex, really wants to leave. His attempts are blocked at every turn, because he’s like Val and Earl from Tremors in one high school movie body, so he finds his escape in the Starfighter arcade game that isn’t sitting on the back porch of Chang’s Market but might as well be. It doesn’t hurt that he’s really good at it.

And, as you can imagine from the title, it has further meaning. When Alex pops in his coin and it tells him, ‘You have been recruited by the Star League to fight against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada,’ he just thinks it’s part of the game, but it’s more than that. When the neighbourhood shows up en masse to watch him break the Starfighter record, it isn’t just that they need something better to do or that this deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball, it’s a hint at what’s to come.

First to come is a strange man called Centauri, who drives up in a wildly futuristic car. He invented the game, he says. He’s looking for the man who broke the record. He talks in the third person. He leaves his ‘assistant’, Beta, behind when he drives off with Alex. At over 300 mph. On mountain roads. It’s no shock when he starts flying. Or when he takes off his face to polish his eyes. Before you know it, he’s talking in an alien language to land on the alien planet of Rylos. Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada are real. The Star League is real. They need Alex to fight for them in real life as well as he did in the videogame version.

The graphics we see are pretty damn cool for a 1984 movie but they’re pretty basic texture maps today. Anyone with the right software could whip this stuff up on their home PC in half an hour, even if the studio needed to render them on a Cray X-MP back then. Wikipedia says that this, along with Tron, was one of the first films to use CGI to represent actual objects instead of just digital graphics and I can believe that. It all feels like the best thing ever for the time but nothing of any note today. We’re going to need more than the graphics for Centauri to sell us on this trip.

Of course, we know where the story is going to go, but it doesn’t quite play ball and takes us on a few side trips that are as annoying as they are welcome. From one angle, I’m happy that the film didn’t just do what I expected, bringing us back to Earth in alternating scenes to see what Beta, a robot clone of Alex, is screwing up for him with his little brother and his girlfriend. From another, that’s really not what I want to see. I want to see Alex as the Last Starfighter, saving Rylos and the Star League from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.

And while we do see that, because duh, it’s almost like an afterthought and that whole story is woefully underdeveloped and massively clichéd. We’re given yet another scene where spaceships chase through an asteroid field. We’re given idiotic consistency errors like Alex’s gunstar running low on power and forcing him to use the special weapon, the Death Blossom, which expends even more power than the normal weapons would if they had any. We’re given unrealistic battle scenes with routine crap from the choreography to the numbers to the weapons to the physics. Logic is broken entirely, right up until the very last scene which makes no sense whatsoever from any standpoint except the feelgood one.
If this sounds like I hated the movie, that’s not true. I just wanted it to be something a lot more than it was, but there was good here to be found. Those graphics are, like, so yesterday, man, but my nostalgia kick liked them anyway. The basic concept is a lot of fun and plays into the wish fulfilment fantasies of most boys of the era. And there a number of actors who shine.

Lance Guest, who plays Alex, is pretty decent, if nothing spectacular. He does his job in a sort of mildly whiny Mark Hamill style, which is, frankly, what we all expect, having seen scores of eighties sci-fi movies with their interchangeable lead actors. It’s those who support him who shine brightest. Robert Preston is great in a Darren McGavin sort of role as Centauri. He’s an outsider even out there, the sort of conman that journalists were in thirties movies, with a wardrobe to match. Dan O’Herlihy is even better as Grig, the alien who flies the gunstar that he shoots from. He has a dry humour matched only by his very cool mask.

So I enjoyed this but with that part of my brain that kicks in whenever things get too juvenile and my adult brain switches off. It’s fun, but it’s definitely a movie for kids. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d have seen it when I was eight. Unfortunately, when it was released in 1984, I was thirteen and too old for the magic to work properly even then. At that age I’d have seen through most of the same things that I saw through today.

Black Snake Moan

Director: Craig Brewer
Stars: Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci
I've had the 27x40 poster above on the right on my office wall for a few years now but I'd never got round to watching the actual movie. As soon as I did, I found that it's one of the more unrepresentative posters I've ever seen. While what it depicts is certainly in the movie, it captures the opposite message to what it should. No wonder the film wasn't as well received as it should have been! It sold to the wrong audience.

The audience who wants to see a movie in which Samuel L Jackson enslaves Christina Ricci would surely have been confused from the very get go, with Son House defining the blues in an old interview. It comes around, he tells us, when two people are in love and one of them cheats on the other. Then again, this audience probably wouldn't recognise the film's title as a song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. This audience probably won't even have heard of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
After that, we're quickly introduced to the key players.

Two of them are in love, or at least in lust. As they writhe around, we might just recognise Ricci with the blonde hair and Justin Timberlake with the tattoo. He's Ronnie and he's being deployed to the National Guard. She's Rae and she's white trash, with little more on when she says goodbye to Ronnie than when she was in bed with him.

Another two of them used to be in love. That's Samuel L Jackson walking into a café to talk to his wife. He's Lazarus, she's Rose and they're a marriage that's over. 'I got living to do!' she tells him. Just in case he didn't get the message, she adds, 'I don't love you no more,' and leaves him for his brother Deke.

Rae and Laz clearly have impulses.

Rae can't get enough of the men and, as soon as Ronnie is gone, she's ringing up Tehronne, a big black drug dealer, to get some on the side. There's a party soon after and she takes whatever pills will make her forget, then lets some guy do her right there in the field in front of her friends. She's really not picky.

Laz responds to his wife with anger but he's a Bible-fearing man. He settles for driving through a rose garden with his tractor. When Deke comes to see him in a bar to make peace, he threatens him with a broken bottle, goes home to get drunk and throw his wife's stuff out of the house. Then he settles down to play his guitar. The blues, of course.

It's when Ronnie's friend, Gill, tries to take Rae home from the party that the two sides of the film connect. He gets upset with her, hits her a few times and, when she's utterly unresponsive, he kicks her out of his truck and leaves her in the dirt. He's a real prize.

She's still there, passed out in a halter top and panties, when Laz walks outside in the morning and sees her. He takes her in, thinking that she's just beaten up, but when she steals a kiss and writhes around on the floor, he clearly thinks that she's possessed.

Now, this isn't a horror movie and, the poster notwithstanding, it's no exploitation flick either. This is a tough Mississippi drama and we're soon let in on what those chains are for. First we get to watch Christina Ricci act, something that I now realise that I haven't done too often.

I saw her at the beginning of her career and watched the Addams Family movies enough to recognise her anywhere, but I was surprised to find that I've only seen her in a half dozen movies. Clearly that's an oversight I should rectify, because she's very good here indeed, hallucinating, raging and rebelling, then turning on the charm to get what she wants. Clearly there's a lot of torment in her, which is why she wakes up from her drug-induced stupor after two full days to find herself chained to Laz's cast iron radiator. 'God seen fit to put you in my path,' he tells her, 'and I aim to cure you.'

There's a lot of opportunity here for Ricci and she lives up to it, but there's just as much for Jackson and he lives up to it too. The two of them might be an unlikely screen pairing but their scenes are dynamic and riveting. It's especially great to see him in something of real substance, given how many Hollywood blockbusters he's in nowadays. With the Marvel movies, Star Wars prequels, Jurassic Park and the rest, it can't surprise that his films have made more money than those of any other actor in history.

His character here is faced with a couple of challenges, which he combines. Seeking out the one name he gets out of her, he's quickly let in on what's wrong with Rae. 'Girl got a sickness,’ Tehronne tells him. She has to get some or she’ll go crazy. That’s why she’s not picky. So he hauls out the chain and aims to cure her, both as something that needs to be done and, though he surely doesn't realise it, as a way to cure himself of the blues his errant wife has left him with. She's his salvation.

The weak link in all this is Justin Timberlake, who has problems of his own, enough of what the Guard calls 'severe anxiety' to get him sent home after only a week. What he finds, of course, is an empty house and he has to search to track down his girl. What happens then is as predictable as we might expect but then takes a side road that we probably won't. Timberlake looks and sounds like a naïve little kid, which actually works well for the character he's playing, but hardly gives him a chance of dominating scenes with Gill, played by Michael Raymond-James, so memorable as Rene Lanier in True Blood, let alone Ricci, Jackson or, God forbid, both.

Other actors are much stronger in support. John Cothrun plays the Reverend R L, the name a tribute to bluesman R L Burnside, to whom the film is dedicated and whose grandson plays the drums for Lazarus when his blues picking makes it to a stage. Cothrun gets some great scenes, some tough like a brief showdown with Jackson (not many could get away with saying such things to a Jackson character) and some utterly surreal (such as when Laz lets him in on what's going on in the house). Kim Richards is also strong as Rae's mother, in a role about as far from the little girl in the Witch Mountain movies as could be comfortably found. S Epatha Merkerson provides an easy grace in one of the least focused love interest subplots I've ever seen.

And, of course, the real story begins when Rae's chains come off, because everyone has to find their own salvation here, that path merely being a little less lonely in this film than usual because people can be alone together.

Some of this plays obviously into Jackson's screen persona, from the showdown with the Reverend R L to the profanity laced version of Stackolee that feels like it was written for him. It's surely no accident that it's told in the first person rather than the usual third. I'm sure that writer/director Craig Brewer thought that it would add to the gritty tough feel of the film, but I think it distracts a little because at points we're watching Samuel L Jackson rather than Lazarus.

Another problem is the timeframe. I don't have a problem in what happens at all, as unlikely as it is, but I do have a problem with how quickly it actually happens. It could easily have taken a lot longer and I think it should have done so to maintain its credibility. Fortunately we're never really told how long it takes until the end, so unless we're following how quickly Rae's bruises heal, we won't notice.

Pretty much everything else helps the film, which is very strong on many fronts. The acting is magnificent, with the caveat of Timberlake, whose problems are inherent in his character rather than his talent. The visuals are evocative, even if we're watching Tennessee rather than Mississippi. The sound aids the visuals wonderfully, as we can easily close our eyes and soak in the locations without even seeing them.

And then there's the blues, which pervades the film far beyond Laz being a bluesman. Perhaps the most powerful scene combines a raging storm, his slide guitar and two recognisable but underrated actors as characters with serious problems to burn out of themselves. It isn't the only powerful scene, but I'd argue that it's the best because it's exactly what the movies are for: the point where sound, visuals and humanity merge to create something memorable.

The film as a whole can’t maintain the power of that scene but it does give it a heck of a shot. This is a gem of a drama that refuses to do what we expect, makes us both uncomfortable and satisfied and which deserves an audience that will appreciate it for what it is rather than be confused by what it isn't. It's time for a new poster, I think.

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