Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps sports a marvellous performance by a suavely aging movie star playing a tycoon who’s both avuncular yet subtly seedy and corrupt. That performance is by Eli Wallach, who, at age 95, walks off with this film under his arm in his small but eye-catching role as Julie Steinhardt, senior partner in business to the film’s chief villain Bretton James  whose unique battle cry is one of whistling like a bird whenever he’s sealed an irrevocable deal, be it assassinating business partners and rivals, or signing on with new ones. Oh yes, and Michael Douglas returns to his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko. I don’t really mean disrespect to Douglas, who essays the role with authority and a supple, if not exactly subtle, mix of the Machiavellian, the grasping, and the emotionally wearied. But how his performance impacted upon me is far more bound up in how well the film and its screenplay work, in spite of the fact that Douglas grasps the character with an intuitive sympathy well beyond what the filmmakers can wield. Oliver Stone returns here both to the laurels of past movie hits and the integral storytelling of his ‘80s work, as opposed to his grandiose, sprawling pseudo-experimental ‘90s and early ‘00s films, in offering another melodrama that also offers a panorama of financial culture in 2008. As Gekko once embodied the rampant spirit of greed in Stone’s 1987 original, here he’s something more of an anti-hero, both attempting to leverage a comeback by any means necessary, but also a figure of astuteness who both predicts the Global Financial Crisis and knows how to make great wads of money during its darkest days.

Reviving a figure like Gekko for such a purpose is both apt and also incidentally places him in the company of the predators, terminators, Hannibal Lecter and Indiana Jones, except he’s a franchise figure from a more “serious” type of moviemaking. The fact that Douglas’s young co-star Shia LaBeouf comes straight off Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exacerbates the likeness. It’s not, however, a bad idea, at least in theory, and the desire to see how time has changed Gekko, or if it’s changed him at all, is initially the film’s biggest attraction. Bravely, however, Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff keep Gekko off-screen for the film’s first act, except for a brief opening scene when he’s being released from prison. Warning bells about what will follow are rung when Stone cues a cute laugh at the huge size of the ‘80s-model mobile phone he took to jail with him, except that subsequent revelations about when he actually went to prison, in the ‘90s, reveal this as a cheap and anachronistic joke. Nonetheless, the film’s first third is surprisingly engaging as it lays out the stakes of a more contemporary drama. Gekko’s grown daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan, in full winsome waif mode) now runs a left-leaning journalism website, and is shacked up with young stockbroker Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake has an idealistic interest in green technology, and is working to secure funding for a fusion reactor development, but he actually works for Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), an investment banker who finds his company under assault from rumours of toxic debt and hollowed assets. Jake and Louis have a strong, practically familial relationship, Louis having helped get Jake through college and taken him under his wing since meeting him as a teenaged caddy. Zabel is driven to the wall in an excruciating sweetheart bailout by Bretton James (Josh Brolin, returning to work with Stone after doing right by him in W.), and realises the whole deal was somehow concocted by James as revenge for a long-ago clash. Zabel, after selling out to James for a humiliating share price, throws himself in front of a train.

“No-one else in these markets had the balls to commit suicide, it’s an honorable thing to do,” Gekko pronounces, when he meets Jake, in assessment of Zabel’s fate. Jake comes to listen to Gekko give a lecture at his old alma mater, Gekko having reinvented himself as a writer and guru predicting inevitable meltdown. But Gekko is still angling for a way to get back on top, humiliated by financial titans who don’t recognise him and harbouring his own grudge against James, whose testimony sent him to prison for a much longer stretch than his finagling in the original film would have earned him. Jake is intrigued by Gekko both as a potential new father figure and as a willing partner in vengeance on James. He agrees to help Gekko get back in touch with Winnie, who bears deep emotional scars from her father’s imprisonment and venal behaviour, which she blames for her mother’s suicide and her junkie brother’s death. There is a stake behind Gordon’s interest in reuniting with Winnie, as well as an emotional imperative: she controls, unbeknownst to Jake, a $100 million fund in a Swiss bank which her father set up in her name before his jail time. Conniving ensues.

Whilst Stone resists the overt fragmentation of narrative and vision essayed in his most ambitious films, his familiar ability to set multiple story strands and explore a milieu on both a micro and macrocosmic level is still on display, through montages, cunning reproductions of real-life events, and visual aids that range from the witty (superimposed trading graphs that skip and trace the skylines of cities) to the hammy (recurring metaphors like falling dominoes and drifting bubbles). This helps get Money Never Sleeps off to a rocketing start. The new subtitle is a paraphrase, for Gekko describes money as “a bitch that never sleeps”, which is rather punchier but understandably not friendly to movie marketing. Stone’s auteurist fondness for stories that pit good and bad mentors at odds in guiding his naïve heroes is reconfigured into the trinity of Zabel, James, and Gekko between them as a newly ambiguous figure, evoking Al Pacino’s similarly haggard but still determined coach in Any Given Sunday (1999). James, played by Brolin with the beautiful cool and lazily cocked eyes of a lion who’s just eaten but is eyeing his next meal, keeps a draft version of Goya’s “Saturn Eating His Son” in his study. He challenges Jake not only to take a job with him when he learns of a scam Jake pulled to get some payback on James, but also to a motorbike duel which evokes, just faintly, the chariot battle of Boyd and Plummer in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). And empires are shaking, if not all falling, as James has to talk the Federal Reserve honcho (Jason Clarke) into the colossal bailout with the words – yes – “We’re too big to fail.” A cameo by Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, the hero of the first film, has a sly quality in letting him appear as, well, Charlie Sheen, and performs an amusing rewrite of the priorities of the progenitor: whilst Gordon has remained hungry and interesting, Fox, having become rich rebuilding his father’s airline, has grown into a plump, smarmy playboy in a bubble of hedonism and “philanthropy”. This is actually the film's most original touch, presenting the main protagonist of the earlier drama as having grown less than the villain.

But Stone’s familiar weaknesses dog him as well. The screenplay, which in the first third of the film sets a number of elements in play with care, runs out of ideas with stunning rapidity, and the basic flatness and contrived quality of the characters and story becomes increasingly obvious. The key to Stone’s breakthrough with his early films like Platoon (1986), Wall Street itself, and JFK (1991), was his learning to reduce complex processes and crises to emblematic conflicts and dramatis personae that could be grasped by just about anyone. But this reductive sensibility has consistently sabotaged him and his attempts to be taken seriously as America’s foremost cinema intellectual. Even that illustrative capacity seems to have failed him here, for in spite of Brolin’s fine playing and the traits mentioned above, Bretton James never even momentarily gains the sort of self-animating life Gekko retains. Signifiers of power and evil collect about James, rather than him seeming to attract them. His comeuppance is rushed and flimsy on both the plot and dramatic levels, hinging on a particularly high-speed version of the old “write the story, win the war” crusading journalist motif. Jake gets over his uncertainty whether or not to zap James and risk his own Wall Street future sees him hand all of the details about shady deals, which he and Gekko have uncovered without even a decent investigative montage, over to Winnie to publish on her site. The complexity of both collecting such information and disseminating it with effect to result in a tycoon’s downfall is dismissed as mere business for some other movie.

Where it needed the unpredictable ingenuity of Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) for reviving and exploring an iconic character’s redemption, Money Never Sleeps becomes increasingly flat and predictable as it proceeds, even having the gall to pass off the fact Gekko is manipulating Jake and angling to get hold of the money as a momentous twist worthy of flashbacks to telling moments, a la The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. What the hell else would Gordon Gekko be doing other than fucking someone over? That's like trying to pass off Godzilla stomping on Tokyo as a surprise ending. The attempt to marry the main drama to the financial crisis is oddly ineffectual, in large part because the fates of both Gekko and James are divorced from the crisis itself: James weathers the storm after conveniently being presented as the one who argues for saving big banking by the government, and Gekko’s canny enough to know how to beat it entirely. A subplot involving Jake’s efforts to prop up his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) real estate chicanery which falls prey to the credit crunch is more to the point, but Sarandon’s diva overacting and the cheap convenience in how this strand is introduced and played out nullifies its relevance. Virtually nothing that happens in the final third is believable, and this taint is all too clearly observable in the young heroes. Jake, with his mixture of gullibility and ethical-investor cool, is committed to a scheme that is way over the top as far as movie dreamer projects go, and his stunning idiocy in handing over $100 million to a convicted felon and then getting huffy when he doesn’t do exactly what he said he would defies belief. Likewise, Winnie, with her righteousness, planning to casually give away said millions to charity, and treating her father like a leper to avenge her dead brother, is, in spite of Mulligan’s admirable playing of deep emotional trauma and I-learned-the-hard-way wisdom, still never feels like anything but a screenwriter’s convenient embodiment of everything noble and victimised. Winnie and Jake’s bust-up merely reminded me of how irritated I am by scenes in modern movies where weak-willed guys prostrate themselves before pitilessly judgmental women, which play out by rote.

Given that the original Wall Street gave itself away as a cheesy morality play masquerading as an intense contemporary drama, especially in the finale’s glimpse of Fox climbing the stairway to grace via the judicial system, it’s no surprise the sequel should follow in its footsteps. But the sententious thematic roll-out of Money Never Sleeps never comes close to the original’s earned zeitgeist impact, coming a distant second even to a film as glib as The Social Network in that regard. The later twists and turns of the story are execrably handled. Gekko’s resurgence as a kingpin thanks to the pilfered money, jamming huge stogies in his mouth and leaning back with satisfied gall, is bad enough, and that’s before we have Jake shaming him with womb shots of his unborn grandson. What a tawdry place for a film with such collaborators to end up, especially after the fine scene when Winnie and Gordon partly reconcile, both revealing their pain with an actorly concision that surprisingly resists bathos, the duo each retaining some nobility in their separate, equal agony. The notion that just like the shark he acts like, Gordon needs to keep moving or be suffocated by shame and grief is mooted, but then sidestepped. The whole film has a tone common to so much of Stone’s recent output, as if the project had not been brought far enough along in the pre-production and what was finally assembled on screen is a misbegotten, pared-down version of the original intention. The final, intolerably sloppy reconciliation scenes merely underline the complete failure of imagination and inspiration.

Farley Granger 1925-2011

Elizabeth Taylor 1932–2011

Michael Gough 1916-2011

Monday, 28 March 2011

Contraband (1940)

Some quick comments on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Contraband, for Fandor. I shall restrict my comments here to: watch the film, it's really good.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Zombie (1979)

aka Zombi 2; Zombie Flesh Eaters

Even the title of Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci’s most famous, and infamous, film is subject to the vagaries of '70s European exploitation cinema trends. It was released as Zombi 2 in Italy, but wasn’t a sequel: producers wanted audiences there to think it was a follow-up to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which had been titled Zombi in that country. Zombi 2 was known elsewhere as just plain Zombie, or Zombie Flesh Eaters. Romero’s comic-horror masterpiece had made oceans of cash and for a short time it might have seemed as if everyone would try to imitate it, but Halloween and Friday the 13th saw the slasher format become an easier, preferred model for the '80s. In any event, Zombie was begun as a project before Romero's film, and thus only incidentally a knock-off. It fits in less with Romero's satiric vision than with the late ‘70s Italian horror produced by the likes of Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato and others, which had completely thrown away the elegance and artistry of the decade’s earlier giallo craze, replaced by a raw, unrefined kind of in-your-face violence which tried to sate a hunger in the horror underground for more and more extreme thrills. An ultimate end-point had been promised by Michael and Roberta Findlay’s infamous Snuff (1976), of actual real-life slaughter on camera. That end-point has never actually been reached, at least not yet, but Zombie stood up with the likes of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a film which actually got its director put on trial for the suspected murder of cast members, as the ne plus ultra of the era's gore fetish.

The impact of this film has softened quite a bit with age: horror cinema’s fondness for the gruesome has almost accidentally outstripped this sort of old-school offal-and-latex style of shock. The unabashed directness of the copious gore and soft-core nudity doesn’t so much disappoint today as seem merely like a more extreme version of the familiar. Zombie’s set-pieces are nonetheless justly famous in their absurd bravura, from the fight between a shark and a zombie, to a subsequent cinematic highlight which demands being described in excitedly adolescent terms: “You know, man, she gets the bit of wood right in her eye, dude!” The atmosphere is still indelible, seedy, intense, and laden with excellent cadaverous effects. Lucio Fulci’s name is still a potent one these days, or perhaps even more potent, for the contemporary search for obscure genre masters has gained him some dedicated fans and many haters. His cinema here is all about spare, direct force, from the opening shot of a pistol muzzle turned on the camera a la The Great Train Robbery, to the final, inadvertently amusing shot of zombies stumbling across the Brooklyn Bridge. Romero’s satire and character depth are nowhere to be found, and the film’s vague subtext about First World collapse, thanks to transmitted evils from the Third World, is barely coherent and only incidentally explored. Nonetheless, there’s an engaging imagistic parallel between the start of Zombie, which also suggests the drifting ship of Nosferatu (1922), and Michael Wadleigh’s explicitly political Wolfen (1981) in placing primal dread directly on the doorstep of western capitalism’s Mecca, lower Manhattan, as a seemingly unmanned yacht floats into New York Harbour.

When two harbour patrol cops board the vessel, one of them has his throat torn out by a rotund, apparently rotting but still mobile man who lurks in a cabin. The other cop shoots the assailant, who falls overboard into the East River, and the boat is brought in. The dead cop is checked over by medical examiners, whilst the daughter of the boat’s owner, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia’s sister) is called to the docks by police. There’s no sign of her father or the rest of the boat’s crew on board. A journalist, Peter West (Ian McCollough), the English nephew of the new owner of a New York newspaper, sneaks on board the boat at night, as does Anne, in search of the ship’s hidden log, which might give a clue of what happened to the missing hands and their master. After a goofy bit in which they pretend to be lovers looking for a place to screw, to fool a guarding cop who catches them on the boat, they decide to team up and travel to the Antilles, where Anne’s father often visited. There, they team up with an adventuring young couple, Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), who agree to help them find the island of Matou, mentioned in the retrieved log but not marked on charts. Meanwhile, on Matou itself, Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) is ignoring the abusive pleadings of his wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) to give up his fanatical dedication and abandon the island. Menard is trying to understand and develop a cure for the plague of zombiedom that’s beset the island’s inhabitants. He was friends with Anne’s father and had to shoot him when he became infected with the strain, just as he has to do with all his patients.

Zombie’s actual plot is minimal, and the script barely concerned with the niceties of setting up either thematic complexity or storytelling breadth of scope. The main priority is to create a little vision of hell enfolding some perfectly average people. Vital pieces of information are quickly relayed through flashbacks and scant lines of dialogue. To a certain extent this lean, no-nonsense quality of the film is an asset, because if Elisa Briganti’s script tried to offer those things they would probably have proved dull and caricatured. Even before Anne, Peter, Brian and Susan reach Matou, they encounter a zombie, in a truly bizarre sequence in which Susan, deciding to take time out for some diving, is stalked by a shark and then by one of the undead, which, having finished up in the ocean, is calmly strutting on the sea floor seeking prey. The shark and zombie finish up brawling, zombie tearing off a chunk of the shark’s underbelly and eating it, shark finally claiming one of the zombie’s arms. It’s clearly a nod to Jaws (1975), another film Italian genre filmmakers were temporarily obsessed with cashing in on, and yet it’s also a surprisingly potent vision of mutual predatory behaviour, accomplished with eye-popping risk to life and limb on the actors’ parts, and an inspired riff on the idea of the zombie as a creature beholden to no limits of the natural world.

Speaking of eye-popping, that’s what happens a couple of scenes later when a lurking zombie attacks Paola in her bathroom, smashing through a door and grabbing her hair, and pulling her with relentless slowness out through the partition, but not before a jagged piece of slatting jams itself directly in her iris. Such a scene is the stuff of raw phobia, extremely well-done in terms of make-up and staging. Fulci telegraphs the scene earlier, when he zooms in slowly on Karlatos's vivid green eyes, after she's threatened to tell everyone back in the big world about what she's seen her husband up to. If thine eye offend thee, indeed. Later, the always-lurking correlation of sex and death reaches a particularly pathological apogee when, having crashed their jeep and being trapped in the middle of zombie-infested Matou, the four heroes take refuge in an overgrown Conquistador cemetery. When Peter kisses Anne in a moment’s grace from cares, gnarled, rotten hands of corpses reach out of the earth and grasp at the couple. Susan, whose carefree nature-child fondness for scuba diving whilst bare-breasted has already come close to peril, now has her throat torn out by one of the revived Conquistadors. The imagery is rancid in its simple strength, both visually, the corpses dangling maggots and worms, flesh hanging loose on the bone even as they lurch away to devour the living, and thematically, as the buried remnants of white conquest of the Americas heave themselves out of the earth at the behest of the tom-tom beating natives, and set out to join an insidious horde that will eat the modern nations from the inside out.

On this level of sheer anarchic fantasy, Zombie has a purified force that is all the more engaging because of the deadly seriousness Fulci takes it with. Practically no humour, other than the inherently absurdist, incidental kind in watching a shark battle a zombie, is allowed to despoil the film’s sense of purpose. It’s a long way, for instance, from the laugh-yourself-sick style of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (1992). With Cronenberg’s new flesh still a little in the future, we’re here to watch the old flesh be torn to shreds, it seems Fulci is saying, so let’s get down to it. Fulci’s suspense sequences are basic; almost as soon as they begin, moments like Paola’s stalking and killing rush to the money shots and are then done with. The clear yet cheerless, anti-beautifying, muddily coloured cinematography by Sergio Salvati, and Fulci’s calm, unaffected, fluidly edited style, emphasises the brutally direct narrative and the gritty, unromantic age it perceives the late ‘70s as. The music, by Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tuzzi, has that kind of spacey, rhythmically creepy edge common to a lot of synthesiser scores from the era. Like Michael Ritchie’s The Island from the following year, and James Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning (1982), the film might described as a member of a small genre of “island paradise horror” where adventures in the sunny Caribbean get real grim real quick, and the settled order of the tourist-friendly world is shattered.

And yet the whole thing could have been far better if fleshed out more, so to speak, and achieved minor classic status, rather than the diverting spectacle of atrocity it remains. Fulci goes through the paces of reproducing Romero's cynical figurations, like loved ones returning to assault their living fellows, and noting the inability of people to adapt to changing realities quickly enough, but they're really throwaway gags in Fulci's hands. Stronger writing and a deeper exploration of the way Menard’s scientific meddling has exacerbated the problem would have helped. A less stereotyped, more detailed employment of the voodoo angle also would also have helped Zombie escape a common fault of a lot of the Italian-produced horror films of the '70s and '80s: attempting to make a progressive critique of western patronisation and exploitation of other populaces, instead it’s really the same old “it’s the voodoo” jazz, exacerbated by brief appearances by black characters mumbling fearfully about juju men. The natives who seem to be causing the zombie outbreak are only suggested by the constant tremor of their drums deep in Matou’s forest, rendered as alien and threatening merely, therefore, for being non-European. The filmmaking wavers, mostly achieving a quite admirably solid, corporeally palpable sense of danger and place, at its best in the early scenes coolly observing the progress of the abandoned boat, its rigging yawing in the wind, litter on the deck rolling about, with a deceptive calm worthy of that John Carpenter wielded in The Fog (1980). But the film is also riddled with sloppy points of continuity, most notably towards the end when the heroes throw a half-dozen Molotov cocktails, and Fulci cuts each time to the same shot of the incendiary landing and exploding. Fulci's work isn't of the type one can accuse of artistry, except for the most functional kind.

Still, the sequences in which the heroes fortify themselves within Menard’s clinic, located in a mission church, and succumb with surprising speed to the infected coming from outside and already within, are admirable in their sheer relentlessness and bloody enthusiasm. The newly-dead join the enemy before anyone has time to think about them. Neglecting to shoot the zombies in the head, no matter how many times they’re shot elsewhere, sees them spring up again as deadly as ever. The whole project gains the sort of driving force and punchy attitude that would soon come to typify the blockbuster, all incident, little set-up. Zombie heads are shattered and blown off, undead flesh is burned and gnarled, strips of skin and muscles are torn off the hapless and the slow. The finale, which finds our heroes turning on the radio having escaped Matou only to learn the plague has gained a foothold in New York, certainly encompasses that almost revelling sense of the apocalypse so common in the horror and sci-fi films of its era. But one can’t help but note that the famous anecdote of the extra who played one of the zombies in this film went to have a drink in CBGB’s and wasn’t at all out of place amongst the freaky punks is rather wittier and more telling than the movie’s ironies.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Machete (2010)

Robert Rodriguez can, when he wants to, make excellent, funny, tongue-in-cheek action-adventure films. More often than not, however, he slaps together random ideas, images, and inspirations, and passes them off as movies, and he could just be, in his way, the laziest real talent in Hollywood. Machete, of course, grew out of one of the fake trailers that were part of the glorious film maudit Grindhouse (2007), appended to the start of the DVD release for Rodriguez’s half of that experiment, Planet Terror. If Planet Terror was Rodriguez at his best, overflowing with colourful absurdity and stylistically precise pastiche, Machete is him at nearly his worst, a sloppy, enervated, barely competent piece of piffle that disgraces the trash movie tradition it seeks to both eulogise and satirise. It’s not so much bad as remarkably uninspired, except in flashes of goofy, cartoonish gore and violence, for which Rodriguez retains a flare. The film’s crimes, however, are all too immediately obvious in the casting, commencing with saddling Danny Trejo as a ready-made icon of brute heroism with the most superfluous dialogue and shallow characterisation and none of the compensating dignity and sense of quiet suffering of the Charles Bronson variety of hero he's based on. Machete is a Federale who, at the outset, makes a suicide mission with his reluctant partner, to save a supposedly kidnapped woman, but this proves to be a trap set up by Machete’s former fellow officer, now drug kingpin, Torrez (Steven Seagal). Torrez kills Machete’s wife and daughter, and leaves him to be incinerated in a blazing bordello.

Machete survives and lives as a wandering day labourer across the border in the US, where he’s chosen at random by Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), a strict anti-immigration politcian who’s secretly in murderous league with paramilitary border lord Von (Don Johnson). Machete, of course, would like to walk away, but Booth threatens him severely enough to make him go through with the killing. But Machete is double-crossed, as Booth is really McLaughlin’s gubernatorial aide/kingmaker, and the plan was his stunt to ensure the Senator’s re-election. They’re all, ironically, in league with Torrez, and the forces of good, represented by Machete, foxy police officer Sartana (Jessica Alba), and an illegal immigrant underground led by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), mass together to fight this axis of big-end-of-town evil. Machete, recovering from a bullet wound and trying to keep clear of the cops, gets involved with both Luz and Sartana, as well as spending some quality pool time with Booth’s junkie and wannabe model daughter April (Lindsay Lohan) and her horny mother June (Alicia Marek). He also asks his brother, Padre Cortez (Cheech Marin) for help, and finds he’s already amassed a huge amount of evidence on Booth’s machinations, because he’s Booth’s confessor.

One of the rules of cheapjack ‘60s and ‘70s filmmaking was that if the trailer is good, the quality of the film is almost incidental. Rodriguez set himself a task here to make a film that quite literally lived up to the trailer. He fails spectacularly. One of the curiosities of this peculiar exercise was how poorly he interpolates many of the trailer's "excerpts": the only humour value left in them is the recognition factor. It would be easy to defend Machete’s lack of any kind of concision, tautness, or narrative decency on its being a satire, but that’s a cheap defence, compared to, say, the excellence of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2006). Scenes lurch by without any sense of direction, and the characters don't so much interact as graze against each other. On top of the screenplay, which seems initially to be lampooning cheesy fare but proves at last to actually be cheesy fare, Machete is so amateurish in the editing and staging of its fight scenes and so flat in its plotting and dialogue that any justification quickly melts away and it merely becomes a slightly inflated direct-to-video film. Machete completely lacks the sort of nuts-and-bolts workmanship necessary to make classic, genuine grindhouse fare work, never mind the kind of disciplined, keenly observant detail and inventive, careful structuring to create a good comedy. In fact, Machete’s posturing contempt for what it pretends to honour is finally galling and dispiriting.

Machete is occasionally sparked by moments of antic humour that do save it from being a complete waste of time, particularly in some of Machete’s methods of dispatching bad guys. The early gags of the fate of Machete’s partner, pledging his aide to the end only to die almost immediately, and his contending with the stark naked femme fatale (Mayra Leal) who keeps a cell phone up her vagina, are promising. When it’s mentioned in a hospital staff conversation that a human intestine reaches 60 feet in length, you know that soon enough that unravelling will be put to good use. Some jokes, like Marin’s priest offering Machete gigantic joints, and a brief glimpse of the website of Tom Savini’s assassin character, with his phone number, “1-800-HITMAN” flashing on screen, are pretty obvious, but get a laugh. Towards the end, Rodriguez milks the humour value of an army of Mexican rev-heads going to war, their jumping muscle cars followed up by a guy pushing an ice cream cart. Rodriguez’s non-subtextual subtext here, cheering on the barrio in taking on a coalition of white Anglo power and corrupt Latino overlords, is both guileless and yet imbued with a certain self-satirising zest. Some kudos, too, for the film’s very last joke, promising sequels with imaginative titles: stay tuned for Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.

But as a movie, as opposed to a string of gags that probably sounded hilarious when improvised by the boys with one of those huge joints after a cast barbecue on the Planet Terror set, Machete is sloppy and skit-like. Potentially clever and dazzling motifs, like having De Niro’s scumbag senator hoist by his own immigrant-shooting petard, and Lohan dressing up as a killer nun to gain revenge, are employed with such a lack of simple care and concision in both set-up and pay-off, that the cumulative feeling is more one of embarrassment than delight, as if Rodriguez attempted to film a Hollywood dress-up party. Michelle Rodriguez’s appearance towards the end, surviving a maiming to be reborn as a super femme warrior, is a paltry repetition of Rose McGowan’s Planet Terror evolution. The cast, packed with potential and peppered with actors like Trejo, Johnson, Fahey, Seagal, and even Lohan, who have long needed substantial parts and who could have gone to town in a well-conceived action comedy, is wasted, laboriously fumbling with scant material.

Trejo, such a towering, forceful, gnarled presence in so many films, is actually completely wasted in his lead role, armed with a bare handful of mumbled lines. The film can’t deliver on the promised dirty-minded good time: sex scenes go to fade outs, and even Machete’s pool romp with April and June proves to have a silly motivation. Johnson and De Niro, and even Michelle Rodriguez and Alba, who banter with far more chemistry with each other than either can offer in scenes with Trejo, seem all dressed up with no real place to go. Fahey comes out of it best, pitching Booth on just the right level of slightly stylised ham that he emerges as an authentic B-movie villain. The faults would have been forgivable if the film was at all good on the basic level of action, but even there it's often disturbingly half-hearted, sporting a final battle that Rodriguez uses chiefly to have one hero after another tramp past the camera and fire off a gun, hoping the audience will cheer their absurdity, rather than offering any actual prize or ground to be gained, and dramatic stakes are tossed pathetically away. A nadir is reached with the pathetic final tussle between Trejo and Seagal: when Seagal decides he can’t be bothered fighting anymore and performs a coup-de-grace on himself, twisting the machete jammed in his gut around until he drops dead, he presents a fairly good metaphor for the film itself.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?, 1972)

aka The Case of the Bloody Iris

An entertaining, if unexceptional, entry in the early giallo genre stakes, this thriller unites three ubiquitous figures of Italian genre cinema: leading lady Edwige Fenech, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and director Giuliano Carnemeo. Carnemeo’s effective direction, essayed under his regular pseudonym of Anthony Ascott, and the photography by Stelvio Massi, provide the crisply defined yet perfervid colouring and carefully expostulated style vital to the giallo cinema. What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? plunders the Bava-Argento playbook with impunity. The story revolves around a series of murders of young women in a luxury high-rise apartment block. Carnemeo’s visual emphasis on the modernist structure’s towering interior spaces and central stairwell, around which much of the subsequent action takes place, clearly takes its cues from moments in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). The creeping murderer’s guise of black coat, hat, stocking-clad face, and gloved hands, comes straight from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1963). But Strange Drops of Blood is a worthy example of the realm beyond that storied pair of directors, and has its own claim to significant impact: the opening killing of a young prostitute in an elevator clearly prefigures a similar scene in De Palma’s twisted tribute to giallo, Dressed to Kill (1980), and the title was surely paraphrased for Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009).

Gastaldi’s script is both the source of many of the film’s problems and many of its inventive and enjoyable quirks. The haphazard narrative progress suggests Gastaldi had a checklist of racy things he wanted to put into a movie. Free-love cult? Check. Lurking lesbian out to seduce the heroine? Check. Disfigured pervert? Check. Topless models? Check. Karate-kicking black chick? Check. The diffusing effect on the tone and momentum of such material is pervasive and depletes tension, but also helps make the film rich and peculiar. The first victim (Evi Farinelli) is discovered dead in the apartment building’s elevator, inspiring a strangely insipid reaction from the three residents to discover her body: retired violin-playing Professor Isaacs (George Rigaud), aging widow Mrs Moss (Maria Tedeschi), and Mizar Harrington (Carla Brait), an amazonian model and nightclub performer. Mizar quickly excuses herself from the crime scene in order to make it to an audition, and is later glimpsed at her nightclub job, where she offers sex to any man who can beat her in a wrestling match, not that any can do it. Amongst the audience is Andrea Barto (George Hilton), an architect and manager for the apartment building who’s been convinced by flaky advertising photographer Arthur (Oreste Lionello) to use Mizar in an advertising campaign. But Mizar is soon murdered too, tied up and drowned in her bathtub. Barto has also befriended two more of Arthur’s models, Jennifer Lansbury (Fenech) and Marilyn Ricci (Paola Quattrini), and he arranges for them to move into Mizar’s now-empty apartment. But this, of course, also puts them in the killer’s hunting ground.

Soon there are enough red herrings to start a fishery. Jennifer lives in fear of her ex-husband Adam (Ben Carra), founder of said free-love cult. Cue Jennifer’s flashback memories of being initiated, ooh la la. Adam’s increasingly crazed and aggressive stalking sees him leaving crushed flowers on the ground in places she frequents. Mrs Moss is secreting her hideously burned son in her apartment. The Professor’s daughter Sheila (Annabella Incontrera) enjoys any opportunity to paw pretty Jennifer, and once wrote a love letter to Mizar. Barto’s motives come repeatedly under question even as he romances a swiftly smitten Jennifer. Police Commissioner Enci (Giampiero Albertini) takes time out from enlarging his stamp collection to investigate, paying half-hearted attention to Jennifer’s increasingly distraught accounts of intruders in her bedroom. Like many giallo films, especially Argento’s early works and in particular Deep Red (1975), Strange Drops of Blood is provocative in investigating the ripple effect of the sexual revolution on a culture riddled by repression neurosis and disparate moral evolution, with the killers desperately trying to corral female sexuality that taunts them without the promise of release. Here the specific motive of the killer is cleverly entwined with this half-conscious authorial impetus, as the hooker, the amazon, the liberated models, and the lesbian are all targeted by the psycho. Even the leader of the polyamorous orgy cult is actually insanely jealous of the wife who left him in a relentlessly conservative impulse, whilst the theme is more humorously represented by Enci, who wistfully longs for an “Islamic” version of paradise with palm trees and plentiful houris.

Carnemeo’s film is relatively playful and not particularly gory, in comparison to the likes of Lucio Fulci, and even some of Bava’s later works like Bay of Blood (1971). The emphasis in Strange Drops of Blood is more on character interactions and semi-comedic flourishes than gore, and the film’s chief problem is that it doesn’t take itself quite seriously enough. Sequences involving Marilyn, whether pretending to be dead in her bath to play a joke on Jennifer and Barto, or just releasing her motor-mouthed verbal faux-pas, push the film towards silliness. Likewise, Gastaldi lets his characters do a few too many stupid things for the sake of his storyline’s convenience, wandering into darkened junkyards and boiler rooms in momentary ignorance of the fact there’s a killer stalking them. Not to mention his heroines moving into the building in the first place. Fortunately, there’s a wryer comedic vein in the efforts of Enci’s flailing assistant Redi (Franco Agostini) to keep up with the heroes, bored in waiting out a long session of Barto and Jennifer’s sexual gymnastics, and munching on a sandwich whilst a killing is committed a few feet away. Gastaldi, to his credit, also fleshes the film out with many colourful, engaging character touches, from Arthur, who swings from gabbling excitedly about the advertising potency of a pretty girl to grumbling cynically over social decadence, to Mizar provoking the would-be he-men in her audience, drawing one out only to kick his ass with balletic aplomb.

The seemingly random characterisation of Sheila as a lesbian as a homophobic bluff proves to be cleverly connected to the main plot, for the murderer is actually her father, punishing the loose young women who have come in close contact with her and “corrupting” her. This revelation comes after Sheila’s already been horribly scalded by his releasing a steam jet at her, burning away her pretty, polluted skin. There’s an interesting rhyme here with the state of Mrs Moss’s son, and the very end of the film, which sees the narrative circle back to where it started, with a lush young woman phoning Sheila and arranging to meet her at her apartment, calls into question at least some of what we’ve seen, and of what will know happen, for now Sheila is in presumably the same state as the son. The notion of parents desperately trying to control/hide their aberrant children is then interestingly employed and described as the root of mass murder. Such elements keep the film buoyant in spite of the patchy pacing and faults.

Still, a giallo film without a director who relishes staging murders and utilising the painterly expanse of the widescreen is not a giallo film. Displays of Carnemeo’s abilities in this regard are scattered but impressive, particularly in the murder scenes and the Vertigo-esque finale, as Carnemeo blends haute couture violence and high theatre. Dashes of inspiration drop here and there like the petals of Adam’s flowers, as in the moment when Jennifer is attacked by the killer as she’s removing her thin sweater, her face and the killer’s both masked and partly defined through material. Or in the moment Barto and Jennifer making love are reflected in the glass over a cubist painting, as neat a metaphor for the giallo genre’s schematics as any. The film’s best moment is Marilyn’s murder: stabbed in the belly whilst standing on the street and, unable to scream, she stumbles mutely towards Barto and falls into his arms. His powerful, paralysing blood phobia, already established when Jennifer cut her thumb in an earlier scene, prevents him from calling out as well, leaving him clutching the dying woman, covered in gore, and immediately presumed by everyone around him to be the killer. This plot touch recurs again in the very conclusion as Barto battles the bad guy, blood again momentarily paralysing him, and Carnemeo creatively employs a series of lightning flashbacks to the source of the phobia, being Barto having been trapped in a crashed car with his father’s blood dripping on his face. More such intelligent filmmaking and some tightening of the script might have made this a superior psycho-thriller. As it is, it’s worth checking out if you’re seeking greener pastures in the genre, and cult actress Fenech is absurdly beautiful here, at the very least: no-one who came to see her would have been asking for their money back.