Year-End Movie Catchup Edition

So. we’re coming up on New Years, and I have, surprisingly not been watching movies constantly. My wife’s had some health issues that have required my hovering helplessly over her while she tries to shoo me away, so let’s just say I haven’t really been in the mood lately.

That hasn’t really stopped me, just slowed me down somewhat. Once I realized the only thing keeping me glued to The List was me, I calmed down considerably. I’m probably going to miss the self-imposed year’s end deadline by one movie, and if that causes the world to end, well, I’ll be giving the Mayans hell in Xibalba. “One movie? Really?

This also hasn’t stopped me from devising next year’s list. I’ll post that after New Year’s. I’m looking forward to it.

So what did I manage to accomplish?

936full-major-dundee-posterMajor Dundee is a problematic movie, apparently as much to make as it is to watch. This was supposed to be Sam Peckinpah’s first big-budget movie, but new studio management cut his budget and his production time, so it’s likely a minor miracle that Peckinpah didn’t leave bullet holes in office walls. He and star Charlton Heston clashed mightily (though Heston at least once interceded on the director’s behalf) and the movie was eventually taken away and recut from two and a half hours down to a more manageable two. What I saw was a restored 136 minute version.

Heston is the title character, a Union soldier chafing under his assignment to run a prisoner of war compound. The possibility of more action is offered by the rampage of a murderous renegade, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his band of Apaches. The only problem is, to form a regiment large enough to pursue and engage the enemy, he has to recruit a number of his Confederate prisoners, who are led by an old friend, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). He also has a number of outsiders and general sketchy types, such as Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong as a two-fisted clergyman with a hate on for the Injun who decimated his flock. Not to mention James Coburn as a one-armed scout. And a number of black Union soldiers who want to prove they’re just as good as the white soldiers.

This is a hell of a setup for an action movie, a ragtag bunch who’d just as soon shoot each other as the enemy. You already know that there’s going to be some internal skirmishes, some respect is going to be garnered, some unlikely friendships are going to be formed.

MAJOR_DUNDEEWell, forget all this, this is a revisionist Western, and we have no time for it. In fact, Peckinpah made a damned good start on the revisionist western with his first feature, Ride The Wild Country, and there had certainly been others,  but Dundee is Peckinpah’s put-up-or-shut-up to the others. He had been shopping around a movie about George Custer, but decided Dundee hit the same points his Custer project intended to, and accepted the job. Our mob follows Charriba through Texas and into Mexico, and after a nighttime engagement that goes poorly, Dundee and troops head into a nearby village, where they engage instead the occupying French army, gaining the admiration of the much put-upon village but garnering a new formidable enemy.

Once they decide to head to this village, Charriba is going to vanish from the proceedings for the next hour or more. The conflict becomes more between Dundee and Tyreen, especially when Senta Berger crops up as a German woman helping the unfortunates in the village. Dundee gets wounded while dallying with her, is smuggled into another village for treatment, falls into an alcoholic fugue until Tyreen and men sweep back in to extract him, and then we are – finally! – back into the movie we started.

major_dundee03No wonder this was cut. The first 45 minutes and the last 15 serve up a fairly coherent story. The other hour and fifteen serves to give us a pencil sketch of the rest of Peckinpah’s movie career – echoes of the far superior The Wild Bunch abound –  but prove to be a slog, especially Dundee’s Lost Weekend segment. It is to Heston’s credit that Dundee is a pretty unsympathetic character, especially for a title character, and plays him as such – which probably gave the studio suits more than a little stomach acid on top of the other ulcers the movie was giving them.

For me, the best part of the movie is watching what would become Peckinpah’s stock company – Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, and especially Warren Oates – as backup singers in the troop, and wishing they had been given more screen time. Which would also have been ruthlessly cut out, anyway.

badlieutenantherzogProblematic in another way is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is a spiritual (at least) follow-up to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 movie starring Harvey Keitel. This one stars Nicolas Cage. I do like Cage a lot – he plays crazy and obsessed like few actors, but he needs a good director for guidance, or the result is simply bad cinema. But if there is one director who knows how to handle crazy, it’s Werner Herzog, and Bad Lieutenant is one of Cage’s better outings as an actor in some years.

Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who saves a prisoner from a flooding cell just after Hurricane Katrina, injuring his back in the process. Prescribed vicodin for the pain, McDonagh is, six months later, a high-functioning junkie, but the high-functioning part is starting to get dubious. When his contact at the Evidence Room cuts him off, McDonagh starts looking desperately for other drug sources, even as he gets deeper into a drug-related multiple homicide investigation. Finally he screws up big time and he finds himself allied with the man he was hunting down: drug lord Big Fate (Xzibit) after which things get even worse.

The central question of “Did Bad Lieutenant even need a sequel?” is one that’s never really answered. There’s a general try to match the earlier movie’s visceral punch, but it never quite succeeds. Even with hallucinations of iguanas and Eva Mendes as Cage’s hooker girlfriend, it generally looks and feels like an HBO drama gone slightly off the rails. Worth seeing, but not life or game-changing.

Layout 1 (Page 1)Continuing my twisted anti-hero run was Drive, which everyone was exclaiming about earlier this year. Ryan Gosling earns his movie star stripes as Driver, a mechanic who works Hollywood auto stunts when he can, and moonlights as wheelman for crimes when he can’t. Driver is a prodigy on wheels, amply proven in a tense getaway sequence at the very beginning of the movie. More or less by accident, he meets his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son. They hit it off, Driver finds himself falling in love with her… and then her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison.

Standard owes some shady types protection money from when he was inside, and they want him to pull a pawn shop robbery to clear his debt. When Irene and her son are threatened, Driver offers to be the wheelman for the job. But there is a deeper double cross going on, and Driver finds himself in possession of a million dollars and two dead associates. The path from there gets tangled, but it all comes down to two minor-league gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, and Driver goes on the offensive to save the woman he loves.

drive-movie-1Drive is an impressive-looking movie, with an often beautiful synthesis between image and sound, and a beautifully modern soundtrack; this is the best Michael Mann movie that wasn’t made by Michael Mann. Though I find myself more than willing to credit Driver’s ability behind the wheel, I find myself wondering just how the hell he became savvy enough to take out three professional hit men. Then again (shrug), it’s an action movie, sort of. When has that ever stopped me enjoying one? Ron Perlman is good as usual, but the real revelation is Albert Brooks, playing a fairly normal businessman capable of turning into a vicious thug at a moment’s notice. He’s very good at the quiet menace thing, and he was up for several best supporting acting awards, although not the all-important Academy Award.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has a nice filmography behind him, and is apparently now developing the movie version of The Equalizer. I loved that show, and Drive proves him a very good fit for the material.

sucker-punch-2Speaking of material – and I used the word flawed a little earlier – I finally watched Sucker Punch before the year was out, and found why I was able to buy the two-disc Blu-ray edition for three bucks and change.

I don’t know where to start, so I’m not going to. Ugly, muddled story in an ugly, muddled world. The “Fantasy Realms” stuff was gorgeous, and makes me wonder why Zack Snyder didn’t just make a live-action anime if that was the intention. What I found myself sitting through was Zack Snyder first attempting to make a Baz Luhrmann movie, then deciding that Tarsem Singh fella had some good ideas, too. This is one destined for the SwapaDVD pile, and they likely already have a dozen or so on file.

Also, Carla Gugino, honey. What gypsy did you piss off that you keep being in movies like this? Do I need to call someone?

300px-JohnnyfirecloudpostThough I’ve a couple of others, Johnny Firecloud is the last movie I’m going to jam into this post, as it fits the twisted anti-hero motif that seems to have spontaneously generated itself. This is on a Something Weird double feature disc with Bummer!, another David F. Friedman-produced flick, and it actually proved itself to have some surprises in store.

The first surprise was the 20th Century Fox logo at the start. The second was that the movie was shot in Panavision. This was not the grimy revenge flick I had been led to expect by the trailer and exploitation movie books. This was intended to be released to hardtops, not drive-ins.

This is Friedman’s most expensive movie, to be sure. Apparently he put aside his usual animosity toward investors and actually put together a SAG shoot, with a commensurate uptick in quality, both in production value and talent.

firecloud14The title character, Johnny Firecloud (Victor Mohica) is an American Indian who returns from Vietnam to find his home town more than ever under the thumb of rancher Colby (Ralph Meeker), and things worse than ever on the reservation. Colby has it in for Johnny, mainly because he got the rancher’s daughter pregnant before shipping out (though this is something Johnny doesn’t know).  The town Sheriff, played by David Canary, is the unwilling tool by which Johnny is hassled, until things rather come to a head when Johnny’s grandfather is lynched, and the Indian schoolmarm gang-raped by Colby’s goon squad. Then Johnny, who once sneered at his grandfather’s “traditions” goes on the warpath and offs the good squad in bloody traditional ways, like scalping, tomahawks to the head, being buried up to the neck and left for the buzzards, you know. The usual.

Firecloud tries to take the high road when it can. It takes nearly an hour to get to the warpath segment, an hour of racism, character work, and a general tour of Asshole Town. The trailer, of course, concentrates on the bloody revenge aspect, but as i said – that’s all in the last half-hour. The reason why Sheriff Jessie bends the knee to Colby is rather startling for ’75 – turns out that while he was in the Army, Jessie was raped and then dishonorably discharged as a homosexual! Colby’s daughter, played by Christina Hart, also gets some more dimension as the story progresses. Hell, the movie’s end – which ends on an unfinished note, though the pieces are in place for Colby’s final comeuppance – even takes the high road.

johnfirecloud2cd017xwRalph Meeker was really a good actor who got stuck playing rotten bad guys because he was so good at it. He wanted to play the Sheriff, to get a sympathetic role for the first time since, probably, Paths of Glory, but nope. You got the villain role, man. David Canary usually gets singled out as the one thing that almost salvages Johnny Firecloud, and that is the truth. Canary has five daytime Emmys for his work on All My Children, and they ain’t just for show. His turn as the tormented Jessie is about as three-dimensional as anybody gets in this movie, and the cinema’s loss was definitely TV’s gain.

sacheenI guess we can’t go without mentioning the movie’s stunt casting, and that’s Sacheen Littlefeather as the doomed schoolmarm, Nenya. Littlefeather is most famous as the woman who appeared for Marlon Brando at the ’72 Oscars to turn down the Best Actor Award for Godfather and deliver a short manifesto on the mistreatment on Indians. (No matter your politics, you have to admit that took guts on the lady’s behalf. I still remember the boos from the audience.) Of course, at this cynical remove, we can also reflect that her birth name was Maria Cruz, and she was only half-Indian – but then, that’s probably more than Frank DeKova, who played the grandfather, Chief White Eagle. Hell, even the star, Victor Mohica, was really Puerto Rican.

Johnny Firecloud comes that close to being a good movie, but it didn’t make a choice. It tried to be Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall – and that’s a concept that gets a movie made, but to what end? The cast of characters of a decent morality play is there, but  the execution of the revenge portion seems rushed, and when Jessie’s deputy mentions all they have to do is stake out Johnny’s dwindling list of victims, he speaks for the audience.

Then again, you’re listening to someone who expected a gritty, nasty little revenge flick and got – well, Billy Jack crossed with Walking Tall. And I actually didn’t like either of those, anyway.

So there we are. Lookie there, it’s New Year’s Eve and I only have one movie left to watch. See you on the other side, where I’ll blither about that.

Happy New Year!

Hunting Halloween, Part 1

While things moved around and clicked and cackled over the last week or so, I would find myself with some time, but not a lot of time, or if it was a lot of time, it was at the waning end of a long day, So what to do with that time? Watch movies, but not have time to write about them. That’s the cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain and growing into a giant all-devouring globe of hungry ice that is my life.

I’m staring down the barrel of beginning of a new writing project in the next week or so – in fact, the first step of that was what rolled over my Sunday. So pretty soon, my time for staring at a blank piece of virtual paper is going to be spent in the service of another master. Sorry. But this one will be paying me money.

So I better write about that growing list while I still can.

First there was the run-up to Halloween.

In any book or article about Hong Kong movies in general, or Asian horror movies in particular, you’re going to run into Black Magic (1975) a lot. This was an attempt to catch the wave of Western horror that was sweeping the markets in the wake of The Exorcist, a movie that moved HK cinema beyond ghost stories and into the land of the extreme. Black Magic kicks off a cinematic trend that would eventually lead to outrageous stuff like Centipede Horror and Seeding of a Ghost. As I started exploring Asian cinema in the early 90s, I had to take what I could get, so Seeding was one of my first experiences; it’s no wonder that Black Magic seems tame by comparison.

It starts strongly enough, with our Black Magician slicing off pieces of a corpse (handily stored in his hut) and burning them in a ritual to send a death spell at a philandering husband and his lover. Our White Magician shows up at the murder scene, immediately deduces who did this horrible thing, and starts a spell that sends horrible things back at Black Magician, who manages to escape while his hut collapses and burns.

Well, enough of that, though. In the big city, a youthful Ti Lung plays an architect who is being stalked by an incredibly horny (but rich) widow played by Lily Li. Ti wants nothing to do with her though, planning to marry his sweetheart. When a spurned gigolo (played by Lo Lieh, no less) hires the Black Magician to put a love spell on Lilly so he can get his hands on her money, Black accurately sizes up the Gigolo’s character and only applies a one-night spell. Lilly forces the Gigolo to tell her about the Black Magician, and visits him to place the Architect under her spell for a year. The love spell is applied on his wedding day, and Ti leaves his bride at the reception.

When the spurned bride and Ti’s friends try to find out what the hell is going on, Lilly pays the Black Magician to put the Death Hoodoo on the bride; Her landing in the hospital, her body riddled with parasitic worms leads an old retainer to remember the White Magician of his youth. White cures her by ramming a bamboo straw in her back so the worms crawl out (ew), and the battle for Ti Lung begins in earnest.

The trappings of the various spells are intriguing: pieces of corpses, human breast milk, centipedes (White has the best line when Ti Lung is recovering from his first bout of bewitchment: “Feed him these centipedes in the morning. He’ll come to his senses for a while.”). The structure is a bit repetitive, though, with Ti under the spell, then rescued, then put under the spell again, to pad out the running time. The climactic battle between the Black and White Magicians is supposed to wow you, of course, with Black pulling out all sorts of skull mirrors and a rotting head that shoots green laser beams, but all it really does is convince you that William Girdler saw it while working out the ending for The Manitou all cartoon ray blasts and lightning. As the first of its kind, it commands some respect, but make sure you see it before any of its weirder and grosser and more insane progeny.

Next up was Ravenous (1999) yet another movie on my list of Stuff I Hadn’t Seen But It Was High Time I Did. In its heyday, it had lots of Internet buzz, many of my friends positively love it, I’ve had this copy forever. So. Time to watch it.

Ravenous is a deuced odd movie.

Disturbed Mexican-American War veteran Boyd (Guy Pearce) is exiled to Fort Spencer, a remote, ramshackle frontier outpost populated by damaged individuals. He arrives just in time for a horror story from a bedraggled refugee  (Robert Carlyle) whose wagon train, trapped in winter storms, turned to cannibalism. The commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) states, rightly enough, “This is what we’re here for,” and leads most of the fort – five men – to investigate. Things go rather downhill for everyone from there, and half the fun of Ravenous is watching these berserk circumstances develop.

I had a general idea of the subject matter and how the story would develop (and as two of the characters at the Fort are Native Americans, you just know the Wendigo legend is going to pop up); but what I wasn’t prepared for was how it developed. The Wendigo legend states that whenever a man turns to eating the flesh of another man, this is all he ever wants, forever. Another thread of cannibal legend – that by eating another person, you gain their strength and vitality – is also laden all through the movie, and presented as absolutely true – characters are saved from mortal wounds by the rapid healing engendered by a diet of long pig. That kind of caught me unawares.

It was like watching that episode of Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos that presents voodoo black magic, including voodoo dolls and zombies, to be absolutely real, which is not the sort of thing you expect in a children’s cartoon. That sort of disconnect.

(Where else can you find a discussion about cannibalism, Chuck Norris, and cartoons? The Internet, ladies and gentlemen!)

It is amazing Ravenous exists at all, given the oddness of the story, and its troubled history. The original director was sacked two weeks into production and replaced by Antonia Bird, largely a TV director, who rises to the challenge magnificently. I daresay having a woman at the helm helped to punch up the black comedy quotient quite a bit, because this is truly what this is: jet black comedy wrapped in a horror movie masquerading as a Western. I can’t say I love it as much as my friends, but it is a unique movie, well worth seeing.

Saturday morning belonged to Drive Angry (2011), another movie that had gotten good buzz. As I recall, I bought this Blu-Ray at a Black Friday sale last year for $5.00.

And finally, here is a movie I can be enthusiastic about.

Nicolas Cage plays the appropriately named John Milton, a hardass felon who breaks out of Hell because the Satanic cult who murdered his daughter is now planning to sacrifice his infant granddaughter during the next full moon. Milton teams up with Piper (Amber Heard). a similarly hardass ex-waitress who’s not afraid to throw a punch or shoot a gun. Besides the apparently limitless number of murderous cult members standing in his way, there’s also the small matter of a demon named The Accountant (William Fichtner, who is having a grand time) sent to bring Milton back to Hell. Fortunately, Milton also stole an arcane weapon called The Godkiller…

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie like this deliver on all its promises. Action-packed, dripping with sardonic humor, gory, loud, profane. Why in the hell this movie was not a bigger hit is beyond me, but then I also have to admit that my tastes are somewhat more rarefied than that of the rest of the movie-going public. The fact that its smart enough to give Tom Atkins an extended cameo only enhances it in my eyes.

If I have two cavils about Drive Angry, it’s these: the movie seems to owe a debt to author Richard Kadrey’s punk-occult-neo-noir Sandman Slim novels; and the sex-during-a-gun-fight scene was done in one of my other favorite stupid over-the-top action movies, Shoot ‘Em Up. Then, Hollywood has always rather been like Ravenous, anyway: constantly eating its dead. So why I should be surprised to find DNA from other movies is a measure of my naiveté, I suppose.

Anyway, yeah, I dug Drive Angry. Much better Ghost Rider movie than either of the flicks bearing that name.

I haven’t even hit Halloween yet, and we’re already over 1500 words. We’ll leave on a high note, and pick this up later.