Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Book of Eli (2010, Albert & Allen Hughes)

The Book of Eli feels like a genre movie from times before legally grown adults started taking movies based on action figures seriously. There is also nothing remotely original in the screenplay by Gary Whitta, former editor of PC Gamer, perfectly all right in this case. The one original element I saw which hadn't yet been used in any sci-fi or post-apocalypse action movie - probably more than a few dime store novels, but not movies - is a terrific pot to cook the warmed over Mad Max cliches in: the last Bible on Earth. If you knew this already, you probably had to make an effort.

Warner Brothers, the American distributors of The Road Warrior way back when, utterly missed their chance to exploit this angle and differentiate their product as more than a mere throwback to the post-apocalypse adventure subgenre long gone out of style since Kevin Costner directed Waterworld and The Postman back to back. However, Warner's recent Terminator: Salvation is nothing if not a desert-bound post-apocalypse actioner, and this is a hell of a better movie which could have done better with the right promotion.

Were they afraid to try selling a Christian Mad Max? The boring posters indicate a certain reluctance, with the only theological taglines being the non-denominational "Religion is Power" and the Obamarbitrary "Believe in Hope." Of course, the fine art of the tagline has been dead as long as the poster. I didn't see the trailer until after the movie and that gave even less indication of the thematic content than those taglines. Hollywood's godless hedonists don't have the gumption to stand behind a pro-religious film which they themselves released, for fear of being unhip. Could they have possibly had a better business omen than the fact the most profitable religious pic of all time was made by Mad Mel himself? Ironically the first Mad Max had a perfect tagline to reuse: Pray he's out there...somewhere.

"Denzel Washington Beyond Thunderdome" was my first derisive prejudgement and probably a few other people's as well. Amazingly, Eli would probably have been a more fitting close to the Mad Max trilogy in the 80s than the campy, kid-safe Beyond Thunderdome - closer in bleak tone to Road Warrior while recycling Thunderdome's basic Western story structure that so suits the post-apocalypse: lone antihero in lawless times passes through a tough town, impresses the cunning local despot who runs things and makes his enemy by refusing to work for him. Out of intuition or practice or both, Gary Oldman plays a far more fearsome villain than Tina Turner (without having to sing over the end credits) and the desolate barter town he presides over is a lot more convincing than Thunderdome's elaborately production designed jungle gym. Both films also eschew any car action until the final act. At least that's not missing the point in Eli, which instead opts to borrow a scene from Six-String Samurai and then steal the ending of Fahrenheit 451

If Mel Gibson had found religion in a less anti-Semitic way and had the clout to incorporate that into his films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome could have been The Book of Eli. The post-apocalypse subgenre lends itself very well to religious themes especially where the mythic lone warriors who tend to star in them are involved. What better way to explain their miraculous luck in the ruins of civilization than to insinuate divine protection? The hand of god also serves as an unexpectedly satisfactory explanation for Denzel Washington's rote kung-fu badassery; the usual superhuman hand-to-hand combat skills which action movies have made cliche since The Matrix and audiences have come to expect in any setting, even outside magical virtual reality fantasy worlds.

For the editor of a magazine which has to cover first person shooters, Gary Whitta has more judicious sense of pacing when it comes to action sequences than probably any other working screenwriter today. Their limited number displays a reassuring confidence in the strength of his own story and affords real gravity to the consequences of who lives and dies in each setpiece. The Hughes Brothers shoot each fist fight, gun fight and car crash as simply as possible, letting the stunts and squibs speak for themselves - another breath of old fashioned air is the lack of fast editing or CGI where practical stunts will do - which is everywhere. As far as I could tell, everything that blew up was actually blown up. Will George Miller be able to say the same for the eventual Mad Max 4?

Lest the religious overtones make this popcorn movie sound like a proselytizing Chick Tract, rest assured this movie won't change anyone's mind about anything. Only hardcore atheists will find Denzel Washington's rendition of the Lord's Prayer to be worth walking out of the theater over. Whitta is probably not a serious Christian. If he were, Gary Oldman wouldn't be out to claim the last Bible on Earth, he'd be trying to destroy it. Whitta isn't even theologically curious enough to explore the idea of how moral edicts would be created in a world that's never heard of religion. He just wanted a unique spin for a good Mad Max knockoff and by golly, the Hughes Brothers made it. Judging by the interviews for the film, Denzel Washington is the only committed Christian involved: Albert and Allen take the same measures as Warner Brothers to distance themselves from any religious message while Denzel can't wait for everyone to find Jesus. 

No amount of faith from anyone was going to remove some of the really dumb touches. There's a few awkward lines of comic relief and a really idiotic scene where Denzel finds a working iPod in the radioactive rubble. The ending goes on exactly too long enough to set up Denzel's sidekick Mila Kunis for a sequel. In spite of these minor irritants, The Book of Eli is a worthy time waster for any starving fan of genre flicks without mainstream backing - if only because it had a little god talk sprinkled on. Enjoy what will probably be the last guilt-free post-apocalypse adventure of modern times before we finally have to take nuclear proliferation seriously.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me (1981, J. Lee Thompson)

As civilization crumbles in slow motion before our very eyes, people become ruder at the movies. There's no getting around that. Especially bad are girls who think that a night out with their man grants them impunity, like he'll throw his hipster fedora Oddjob-style and decapitate anyone who tells her to quiet down. Even the great New Beverly Cinema is not immune. Weeks after they'd put up a sign in the box office prohibiting glass bottle beer, bad people are still breaking the rules and the bottles. This wasn't a problem before but the selfish don't know from privilege. One of the MCs has even taken to warning people not be dicks since some of these movies are funny enough on their own. I must not be the only one who's sent a pissed off email to them lately. If the Beverly's not safe to enjoy trash respectfully, no place is.

The reason I rant here is that Happy Birthday To Me was pretty decent when I saw it on a Saturday midnight show in spite of a lot of drunken ironists but because of them, I might be giving the film more credit than it deserves. My attempt at unironic enjoyment was motivated by the same reason every drunk joker in the audience showed up to impress their friends that Saturday night: it's a slasher movie named after a calendar appointment.

Produced in Canada under the Canadian Film Development Corporation, that too short-lived for movie lovers when the socialists sponsored genre movies instead of indigenous fishing community documentaries, Happy Birthday is a confluence of unlikely low and high art workmen both local and outsourced. Surely none of the prejudiced hecklers at the screening would have guessed that J. Lee Thompson had also directed the original Cape Fear. His suspense scenes are well paced and occasionally jarring. A couple nighttime scenes in a graveyard and one daytime bell tower murder sequence evoke the best old fashioned thriller sensibilities. The gore quotient is also genteel. Despite the tagline's promise of six of the most bizarre murders we've ever seen, they're tastefully suggested rather than displayed and spaced out miles apart from each other. That poster image is probably more explicit than anything in the actual film.

The whitebread prep school where the teen meat attend adds another unexpected layer of class, they're so basically well behaved that this could have been an Agatha Christie story. No one gets naked - these might be the first kids in slasher movie history to get offed for not fornicating enough. The only wild and crazy behavior comes at the start, when the gang jumps their car over a rising bridge like The Dukes of Montreal, and wouldn't you know it, this sole act of irresponsibility factors heavily into the story's final twists and revelation of the killer.

The ludicrous ending is by far the best part of the movie, and takes almost a whole half hour to finish thanks to the generous (for a slasher) length of 110 minutes. After all the amiable suspense and unspectacular deaths of a few fresh faced boring young Canadians, a twist regarding the killer's identity starts up and just continues spiraling like a corkscrew. Then someone's mask gets ripped off, like on Scooby-Doo, no kidding. With no less than four writers, one uncredited and none being J. Lee Thompson, Happy Birthday has perhaps the most overwritten and convoluted ending to any body count movie ever. The sole story credit belongs to John C. W. Saxton, co-writer of the xploitation classics Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Class of 1984. The other two credited writers came from an ABC mystery movie of the week, while uncredited touchup came from the hand of John Beaird - writer of that most reappraised CFDC slasher of late, My Bloody Valentine.

Despite the solid direction, getting the rewards of the concluding insanity is dull going. At 110 minutes there should have been a lot more than six bizarre murders, and the bland young victims don't even die interestingly. Somewhere under the clutter there's a solid flick, but only genre connoisseurs will be able to take away in their memory the film they wanted. Happily, the killer does sing "Happy Birthday To Me" at the end, and on that level it's a success. Snickering hipsters who can't even get past the title should kindly take their seven bucks over to the Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood, where that won't even get them in the door.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Twin Sitters (1994, John Paragon)

John Paragon was great in his reprisal performance of Jambi the Genie in the recently concluded revival of The Pee-Wee Herman Show in Los Angeles. I'm not sure how he was introduced to Peter and David Paul, alias The Barbarian Brothers. Incredibly he directed them two years prior in another twinsploitation film, the action-comedy Double Trouble, so something must have clicked. Even if they were discovered by Joel Schumacher in D.C. Cab five years earlier, Jambi had enough faith in them as comedians to write the screenplay and Yoram Globus, one half of the legendary trash factory Cannon Films, had enough faith in the Paul twins' video box art appeal to put up the money. This unlikely combination works well for the movie in the sense that every PG-13 kids movie is trying to be just a little dangerous. Hence some icky Pee-Wee type running gags (circa Groundlings era) involving the bratty baby-sat kids faking their suicides, and some scattered eruptions of gratuitous slow-motion Golan-Globus gunfire and explosions.

Paragon has an impressive comedy pedigree and a terrible sense of story structure, the bratty twins whom the Barbarians twinsit don't even show up for almost a half hour. This might have been Globus way of saving money on child actor shooting days, in which case it's not really Paragon's fault. Still, he could have found a better way to introduce the plot than cutting between the Barbarians getting fired from their jobs as waiters, having dinner with their parents, unsuccessfully applying for a restaurant bank loan - and a seemingly unrelated movie involving Jared Martin as a corrupt businessman attempting to come clean to the Feds and being threatened by his evil boss George Lazenby, the Conan O'Brien of James Bond movies. The two threads don't meet until 15 minutes in when by chance the Barbarians are able to save Martin's life from slow-motion assassins, and even then you've got just as much time to wait before the story becomes the Mr Nanny knockoff it's supposed to be.

The supporting cast isn't bad considering they all have to be extremely broad. They're professionals, people you've seen a million times without knowing them like David Wells as the FBI agent working with Martin and Barry Dennen as the snooty butler conspiring with Lazenby. TV's Rena Sofer is the love interest. Yes, for both of them. Even the great Paul Bartel shows up at the beginning, playing his ten millionth snob. Wells has a kind of likable subtle broadness to him, unlike Valentina Vargas as the slutty maid (more PG-13 Cannon fodder) and "Mother Love" as mammy Penny - who also played a sassy black cook in, guess what, Mr Nanny. They're all better than the Barbarians, whose constant scripted jokes about how dumb they are fall twice as flat without reaction shots from anyone, which happens about half the time. They also tend to deliver every single line exactly the same way, Italian hand gestures with a side of muscle beach yo-dude 'tude. Both of them.

A comedy for kids about two freakishly muscular twins should have a lot more physical comedy than this does. There's a few good cartoony gags like when one crushes a basketball in his bare hands, and once they start twin sitting there's some amusing manhandling of Barry Dennen. Tragically there's only one scene where they get to kick some bad guy ass, which is awesome. The problem with comedies starring guys like the Barbarians or Hulk Hogan is that they don't want to just kick ass in a funny way, they want to show their comedic and dramatic ranges which don't exist. The funniest thing about either of them is usually their loud clothing, at least onscreen.

Behind the scenes, the Paul twins wrote and perform some hilariously cheesy power chord crunching rap/rock songs which comprise the soundtrack: At War With The Weights, Shut Up, Watcha Lookin At, I Ride My Harley, Brothers Forever (a ballad) and The Babysitters. Though it's possible these songs are only as long as they're heard during the movie, only the last of these is available in full during the end credits and unfortunately there was no official tie-in soundtrack release. They're far funnier than the stock zany music cues lumped onto the film which make it even less funny. The end credits also reveal the film's totally uninspired original title, The Babysitters, hence the song. The chorus is actually We want the bad bad bad bad babysitters tonight! and Bad Babysitters would've been better but of course Twin Sitters is perfect.

The final fifteen minutes or so achieves an excitement the rest of the film lacks, thanks to the surprise appearance of two more sets of action twins to help rescue the nephews from an oil tanker which, again thanks to Yoram Globus, explodes spectacularly. The action isn't bad either, thanks to a long list of Cannon stuntmen. There's even an impressive moment when the Barbarians grab onto a rising helicopter. Those looking for a laughably ridiculous kids movie could probably find a better one where the stars aren't in on their own unfunny joke. Besides them, Paragon did too many things competently for the rest to be unintentionally funny. This would be a good movie for small children who are really dumb but basically good at heart and want to grow up to be bodybuilders, like the twins themselves.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin)

Political persecution had not yet driven Charlie Chaplin back to England in 1947, yet he was clearly an already bitter, bitter man. Monsieur Verdoux has a premise which has been explored in films ranging from horror to comedy over the years, that of the "Bluebeard" - the 17th century French folktale of a nobleman who marries and murders for money. Given that Chaplin's screenplay mentions Bluebeard by name, it's bizarre that he supposedly paid Orson Welles a million dollars for the idea and gave him an original story credit. Welles had starred in a film just the year before which placed a Nazi war criminal into the formula, and Hitchcock made Shadow Of A Doubt just three years earlier - surely Chaplin had at least heard of them? Did he just want to give Welles some helpful extra recognition during that rocky Hollywood period, empathizing as he went through a rocky period of his own?

Verdoux was the first talkie Chaplin made after The Great Dictator seven years earlier and while I'm not surprised a film without Hitler isn't as funny, I'm amazed that a film which doesn't satirize Hitler's rise to power could actually be more cynical. The potential for black comedy in the story of a male black widow is fertile, as the lighter moments in the amazing horror-thriller The Stepfather would demonstrate decades later. Being aware of Chaplin's demonization for political gain by American anticommunists at the time of this film's making I was eagerly anticipating a satirical skewering of some sort. The only real objects of derision to be found in the story is a nouveau riche floozy whom Chaplin is waiting for the right moment to dispatch while in the meantime he can barely conceal his contempt. Martha Raye plays the part so hilariously it's a shame that she appears so late in the episodic layout of the story.

In the preceding chapters, Chaplin is like a stern parent making us eat every last piece of cabbage before desert: showing us how Verdoux's machinations elude the police, the procedures of the unexpectedly dignified investigator (why not make him like J. Edgar Hoover? Or humorous in any way?) and a lengthy sequence involving the testing of a new untraceable poison on a beautiful young tramp girl whom Verdoux decides to spare after she professes her faith in the basic goodness of humanity. Such sequences between Chaplin and his ingenues have been his trademark since City Lights and this one is very well done. Unfortunately the first half of the film which the scene demarcates is sporadically amusing at best and seemingly deliberately so. When Chaplin repeats the same fast money-counting bit more than once it's like he's mocking the audience's desire for some different gags in this ostensible comedy, black or not. Chaplin manages to make Verdoux himself sort of odd without actually being amusing, the way the Little Tramp's little movements could be funny in themselves. The one dramatic subplot established in the interminable first half which actually would have been worth following up on - the existence of Verdoux's pre-Bluebeard wife and child whom he rarely sees - is dropped as soon as it's introduced.

The film ends with a speech from Verdoux that's the anthithesis of the one which caps The Great Dictator: that idealistic and queasily naïve call to "fight for a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness" at the same time science and progress were being used to melt children into soap. At the end of the film Chaplin pithily paraphrases Stalin's famous line about how one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic, just before he is lead to the gallows. I've heard people throw this line at me in the heat of political debate like some great moral profundity, not the nihilistic self-justification of history's biggest mass murder, and the unsettling thing about Chaplin's quotation is his probable lack of irony in the wake of World War II (which makes a cameo appearance.) If he didn't want HUAC to come after him as they did, maybe he shouldn't have given such a half-sympathetic shout-out. Monsieur Verdoux is little more than a free form exercise in world weariness from a former champion of life's beauty. While some of Chaplin's comedic artistry remains, only total curmudgeons will be entertained from start to finish.