Sunday, November 02, 2008

American Movie, Chris Smith, 1999
, Todd Solondz, 2001

“The common sensibility of these filmmakers is that they invite the audience to share their feelings of superiority to the people they put on screen. And too often, the largely white, urban, liberal, educated audience these filmmakers attract have been happy to join in, looking down their collective noses at the hicks and rubes and bourgeoisie trapped on the screen like specimens under glass.”—

I can’t help but feel that this quote (and the rest of the longer review from which it was extracted) drastically misses the point of the films it condemns: the works of Chris Smith, Todd Solondz, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and so on. These are all directors whose movies I happen to enjoy (I count Morris as one of my favorite filmmakers of all time), so does that mean that I’m among the guilty—that is, the nose-thumbing, smugly laughing urban white liberal audience?

Here’s my take on Chris Smith’s American Movie: it’s an inspiring portrayal of a unique character’s intense and dogged quest to make a film. Despite his lack of means, Mark Borchardt is determined to fulfill his dream, and while the resulting short film, Coven, isn’t exactly a masterpiece, he accomplishes his goal. (There are some great shots in Coven, by the way, and I don’t think it’s too farfetched to speculate that if he were to make a movie using a better script, he might have ended up with something really remarkable. So he’s not a great writer—that’s only one part of making movies.) Sure, the documentary is peopled with some strange and inimitable characters, and some of the things they say are very funny, whether or not it’s deliberate. Much of the humor stems from Borchardt’s extreme earnestness (and come on, wouldn’t anyone who had been present on the day one actor’s head was smashed through the “prop” kitchen cabinet, barring said actor himself, have thought the scene unfolding before them was completely hilarious?). But these quirks are endearing, only making me like the characters even more—sure, I laughed throughout the movie, but not patronizingly (really!). Responses such as the Salon review seem kind of knee-jerk—the viewer is so afraid of offending someone that they fail to see the film for what it is.

I’m sure there are some who do laugh at these characters unsympathetically. But is that the fault of the filmmaker? Some, Todd Solondz among them, seem to think that intention is only one factor, that once the film has an audience, that audience’s reactions are as much a part of the film as what’s onscreen. I, however, must disagree—the stunted response of some brainless douchebag has nothing to do with the greater work of art. It’s just one opinion, one response among many.

Solondz’s Storytelling tackles this issue of culpability, of mocking one’s subjects for comedic purposes. It seems to be as much of a reaction to American Movie* as it is to criticisms of his own films. “I’m not looking down on them, I love them!” Toby Oxman proclaims a little too defensively (ahem) when someone challenges his intentions in tackling his current project, a documentary about a suburban New Jersey family. In one scene, Scooby, the disaffected, aimless teen of the family, walks into an early screening of the documentary and is horrified to find the audience cracking up as he’s interviewed. But the difference between this and something like American Movie (or Vernon, Florida, or Roger and Me) is that not only is the audience laughing much harder than would realistically happen (especially since the scene they’re watching isn’t all that funny, which I suppose could have been intentionally exaggerated within Scooby’s mind), but that unlike Mark Borchardt, Scooby isn’t endearing—he’s just annoying. (And come on, why doesn’t he just grow a pair? I can’t stand all this sensitivity!) For me, the appeal of the aforementioned documentaries is the sheer joy of catching a glimpse into lives that I know nothing of, that I would never see unless someone like Chris Smith or Errol Morris aimed their camera at it. It’s thrilling just knowing that there are people like this in the world—and you know what? Some of them are really fucking funny.

*As if to drive the point home a little more, Storytelling co-stars Mike Schank, the real-life stoner friend of Mark Borchardt who appears in American Movie.

Monday, October 13, 2008

All right, all right. I'm a slacker. I haven't been keeping this thing up, and I want to get back on track. In my attempt to play catch-up, here are brief reactions to some of the movies I saw this past summer, as succinctly as possible. (More to come soon—I hope.)

Rocket Science, Jeffrey Blitz, 2007

I think I’ve moved on from the quirky Wes Anderson style of comedy, which this movie about a kid with a severe stuttering problem who tries out for the debate team really strives to emulate. Eh.

Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. The cinematography was gorgeous, the suspense high, and the subject is innovatively handled (I love that the zodiac killer was portrayed by multiple actors to match the varied physical descriptions given by eyewitnesses and surviving victims). My one (very minor) qualm is that Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t appear to age a day throughout the course of the film. I mean, come on. Not a gray hair on him.

Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock, 1972

One of Hitchcock’s last films, and perhaps one of his most disturbing. This tale of a serial killer known as the “necktie murderer” (i.e. strangler) terrorizing London is chilling, suspenseful, and yet still retains a touch of the black humor Hitchcock employed in his later films.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Ridley Scott, 1982

With its atmospheric bleakness and eerie, post-apocalyptic ambiance, Blade Runner remains one of my longstanding favorite films, but I have no idea what is different about this version. I had been expecting some extra scenes, but didn’t notice anything that sets it apart from the 1992 director’s cut.

The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, 2008

Not that I’m the most diehard Batman fan, but I’ll agree that this is the best one to date. I could take or leave Christian Bale as Batman but Heath Ledger’s Joker is far superior to Jack Nicholson’s. He’s fittingly darker, more disturbed, and more unkempt, with his smeared makeup and stringy, sickly green hair, deftly portraying his character’s madness.

The Wendell Baker Story, Andrew and Luke Wilson, 2005

What a piece of shit. Sorry, Luke Wilson.

What We Do Is Secret, Rodger Grossman, 2007

This biopic of the Germs’ Darby Crash is more or less an adaptation of Lexicon Devil (though not actually intended as such), which is a bit troubling since that book features various contradictory statements. This is very much the nature of oral histories, so they really must be taken with a grain of salt, not interpreted as gospel truth (and it also seems to indicate that the person writing this screenplay didn’t know very much about the subject if he had to copy it almost entirely from a book—and I don’t care if Michelle Baer shares a “writing credit”). Even if the film were factually correct (and it isn’t, as some key figures are glaringly absent), it fails to capture the feeling, the essence of punk, and certainly does nothing to develop Crash's character and delve into his psyche (other than the alleged "five-year plan" at the heart of the film, which I can't help but feel is total bullshit, or at least grossly exaggerated).

The Bad News Bears, Michael Ritchie, 1976

A “family film” like this could never be created today (the sorry excuse for a remake of this movie is proof). This scrappy gang of kids swears, the coach drinks too much, and it doesn’t close on some clichéd happy note—perfection.

Wait Until Dark, Terence Young, 1967
Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman whose husband unwittingly comes into possession of a doll containing a bag of heroin. In an attempt to get it back, three thugs stage a ridiculously elaborate plot in which they play a police officer, her husband’s old buddy, and so on, moving in and out of her senselessly unlocked apartment. Hepburn’s character is infuriatingly helpless, even though she’s meant to be a strong character who’s become increasingly independent despite her going blind, and she continues to make all the wrong moves—for the love of God, why doesn’t just lock her front door? Oh yeah, because then the movie would be over.

What’s New Pussycat, Clive Donner and Richard Talmadge, 1967

Woody Allen’s first cinematic writing credit is a perfect example of the type of comedy that seems to have been so popular in the 60s but feels very dated now—zany, madcap, silly, etc, are all words that come to mind. I much prefer Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther over this one, but it's not all bad.

The Simpsons Movie, David Silverman, 2007

As one might expect, this feels like an especially lengthy version of a not especially great episode of the show. Seems a bit pointless, other than to make some money.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Okay, I'm about four months late for the 40 year anniversary of the student revolts of May 1968, but now seems as good a time as any to discuss these cinematic interpretations of a time in history that feels not too far off from our own.

Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel, 2005
The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

Philippe Garrel has made nearly thirty films since 1964, yet he is virtually unknown in the U.S. (at least when compared to contemporaries such as Godard, Chabrol, etc.) According to the Village Voice, when Garrel showed his movies in New York in 1970, Jonas Mekas called them “very sad cries from the past, one almost pities them”—yet Garrel persevered, and in 2005 made his first Lincoln Center appearance in thirty three years with Regular Lovers, a film that one can only assume must be an extremely personal and true-to-life portrayal of Paris in May 1968, as well as its aftermath. The film stars Garrel’s son Louis as a self-described poet named François who passively dodges the draft and talks of revolution with his friends (though when he takes to the barricades he refuses to launch a Molotov cocktail at the police).

The movie opens with extended scenes depicting the famous 1968 uprisings, then switches to the private lives of the protesters as they create art, smoke hash, and hang out. The film is more about the characters than about the political goings-on—there’s no real explanation as to the background of the revolt, no social commentary on the events taking place. The heart of the film is the love story (or lack thereof) between François and a sculptor named Lilie. With little action and a barely existent plot, the film’s chief merit is its style. The black and white cinematography, the gorgeous lighting, and authentic set design mirror the look and feel of a late 60s film to a T (unwitting viewers might mistake it for a lost work of the Nouvelle Vagueparadoxically, many of the scenes feel oddly contemporary, perhaps a result of our continued obsession with the past, manifested in current 60s-inspired clothing and music).

Garrel is a veteran of that era; he participated in the aforementioned revolt, he was romantically involved with one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico for ten years until her death, he lived the life of these characters. Thus, I don’t doubt that this is an accurate representation—but surprisingly, it’s just not that interesting. I suppose this must be intentional, to refrain from making some kind of explosive love story or grandiose action movie, in favor of something more muted and understated. I just found it hard to retain interest.

It is said that Garrel made Regular Lovers as a reaction to The Dreamers, another film about the May 1968 protests from a veteran director whose work dates back to the early 60s—Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris fame—because he thought it hadn’t succeeded in portraying the time period. In The Dreamers, a young American studying in Paris strikes up a friendship with a French sister and brother (also played by Louis Garrel), whose strange, creepily close relationship is reminiscent of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. When their parents go on an extended holiday, they invite their American friend to stay with them, free to let their inner fantasies and extreme, almost freakish isolation take over.

The Dreamers is more of a tribute to the films of the 60s. Its characters are devout cinephiles, and the story is peppered throughout with clips from such films as Band of Outsiders, Breathless, Freaks, and more, as the characters try to live inside of their favorite films, mirroring these beloved scenes in their own lives. The cinema is what brings them together in the first place—they meet at the start of the film while protesting the closing of the famed Cinémathèque Française.

The revolution might have completely passed them by if they hadn’t essentially been forced into participating by a brick crashing through their window. Otherwise they probably would have been content to drink wine, fuck, and watch movies. Instead, their isolation is shattered, both literally and figuratively—it seems they can no longer ignore the outside world. And yet they seem to be pretending, feigning this sudden interest in the revolts because it’s hip to do so—their hearts are more in the protest of the beginning of the film.

The Dreamers has a stronger narrative than Regular Lovers, but is perhaps less authentic, more of a period piece than an attempt at embodying the style of an older film. Perhaps the best representation of this era is yet to come, comprising an amalgamation of Garrel’s style and Bertolucci’s storytelling. Or, more likely, these events just may not easily lend themselves to dramatic interpretation—one of those moments in time that cannot truly be described with any combination of words and pictures, as something intangible will always be lost in translation.

La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard, 1967

This film represents a transitional period for Godard, as he moved away from the style of his earlier work toward more dialectical and political films. Here, a group of French students discuss Maoism and plot a revolution from their apartment, planning terrorist attacks of which they have not begun to consider the consequences. The students seem not to represent Godard’s point of view so much as his observations of young radical students at the time—more of a reading of the burgeoning youth culture than of the political situation. The film seems to be a kind of fond critique of the characters; they’re extremely naïve, proselytizing from the bourgeois comforts of their university education that their parents probably paid for. (This same assessment is present to some extent in the two aforementioned films.) Godard acknowledges that they’re misguided, but at least well-meaning: “their arguments were a mess…they were a bit like children.” Their plans are criticized by a knowledgeable journalist (perhaps a stand-in for Godard, or at least the voice of reason), who explains to them that they’re “not prepared...the lessons you draw are very’re heading towards a dead end.”

The characters are shown being interviewed, with cameras and microphones in view, lending the film a documentary feel, as well as emphasizing its subtitle: “a film in the making.” It boasts great cinematography, with striking images and bold colors—in particular, lots of red (hence the Maoists). Much like Godard’s other films of this period, each section of the film is preceded by a title card typed out in bold, capital letters.

One of my favorite moments comes in the form of this satirical pop song sung by Claude Channes:

Vietnam burns and me I spurn Mao Mao
Johnson giggles and me I wiggle Mao Mao
Napalm runs and me I gun Mao Mao
Cities die and me I cry Mao Mao
Whores cry and me I sigh Mao Mao

The rice is mad and me a cad
It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move
lmperialism lays down the law
Revolution is not a party
The A-bomb is a paper tiger
The masses are the real heroes

The Yanks kill and me I read Mao Mao

The jester is king and me I sing Mao Mao
The bombs go off and me I scoff Mao Mao
Girls run and me I follow Mao Mao
The Russians eat and me I dance Mao Mao
I denounce and I renounce Mao Mao

It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Alain Tanner, 1976

This Swiss film takes a look at the aftermath of the 60s, as former revolutionaries contemplate what they’ve become. The film’s eight central characters, all somehow affected by or associated with the events of May 1968, are linked in various ways (not to mention that their names all start with the letter “M”)—Mathieu is employed by Marcel and Marguerite, their neighbor Marco has a crush on Marie after meeting her in the grocery store, and so on. Each has taken a different path since those heady days of protest, from that of a disillusioned gambler and former journalist, to a history teacher, to a blue collar worker (i.e. shit shoveler), to organic vegetable farmers, to an anarchic grocery store clerk who steals from her employer to benefit others, etc.

Each of them tries to remain political in their own way, whether tilling the soil, teaching young people about politics, or stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Mathieu in particular is somewhat of a visionary—he tries to teach the children himself instead of letting them go to school, and later, while looking at the film’s characters standing in front of a wall, he envisions a mural depicting those people in those exact positions, Max with his arms outstretched; we see at the end that the mural has been created.

Towards the end, Mathieu rides his bicycle and sings a song about the film’s characters: “Marguerite the witch / Marco the philosopher / Marie the thief / Marcel the hermit / Mathilde my love / Max the former prophet / Madeleine the fool / I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.” The last line in particular seems to refer to him as a kind of shepherd, looking out for his friends when they might not be.

The film holds up fairly well over time, so it seems odd that it’s so hard to come by. One doesn’t have to know much about the events of May 1968 to understand it. The film could be applied to the present time, in its depiction of a group of people struggling to come to terms with the fact that they’re growing up, while applying their youthful ideals to reality. The world has seemingly changed around them, some of them evolving with it, and some not—through its final scene in which the young Jonah of the film’s title begins writing on the aforementioned mural with a piece of chalk, the message is ultimately one of hope in the future, though not exactly of earth-shattering optimism.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New(ish) movies watched lately.

Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings, 2007

This somewhat whimsical and warmly nostalgic portrait of England in the 1980s centers around Will, a timid little wisp of a kid whose family belongs to some kind of strict and oddly cultish religion that doesn’t allow television—not even educational films, as we see when Will has to sit in the hall while his class watches a video—or any form of entertainment, for that matter.

While banished to the television-free hallway, Will meets Lee Carter, the school fuck-up whom everyone seems to hate, and despite the odds, they hit it off in their own weird way. Lee makes bootleg videos for his older brother whom he idolizes, but who treats Lee like shit (but since their mom is more or less nonexistent, “he’s all I’ve got!”, as Lee mawkishly cries). Lee shows a bootleg copy of First Blood to Will—I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through 14 or 15 years of life without ever seeing a minute of celluloid, and then to plunge right into a Sylvester Stallone action film. Will already possesses an intense creative impulse, stealing away to a shed in his backyard to make crazy, feverishly charged cartoonish drawings in his Bible (the only materials he has to work with), which he often imagines coming to life, moving around via wiggling, animated lines. But Rambo pushes him over the edge—the movie sets Will free, empowering him with a newfound strength, releasing his own barbaric yawp. With tinges of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Will and Lee start working on a movie, which requires some significant rule breaking and parental defiance on Will’s part in order to get away, as he’s not supposed to be cavorting with sinners. Their movie was initially supposed to be a remake of First Blood, but then Will has an idea for his own movie—called, as one might guess, Son of Rambo.

Meanwhile, a group of French foreign exchange students have arrived. On the whole much hipper than the bland and mild English, one of them, named Didier, is kind of a new wave Michael Jackson worshipper. Possessing a bit more world-weariness than the rest of them—he even has a pencil-thin mustache—Didier develops a following of schlubby English kids who mimic his hairstyle and look, while the girls swoon over him and line up to kiss him. As always seems to be the case with anything that’s somewhat clandestine and cool, they eventually discover the Son of Rambo project and try to glom onto it. While Will is excited about collaborating with others, thinking the more the merrier, not to mention relishing his sudden popularity, Lee does not react well to the additional participants. He knows they’ll only ruin it, steal it out from under them and turn it into something else, changing its dynamic irrevocably.

The film has a tone of hyperbolic slapstick, with a touch of the maudlin (for instance, when Lee proclaims to Will, “this has been my best day ever!”—heartwarmingly nauseating). Overall it was cute, fun, and entertaining, but nothing momentous, certainly nothing I’ll ever really feel the need to see again.

Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine, 2007

Harmony Korine’s third feature film entails a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator while he's entertaining a group of senior citizens. (“Live forever! Don’t die!” he chants, inviting each half of the room to join in chorus.) “Marilyn” invites “Michael” back to her commune in Scotland, a refuge for a motley group of celebrity impersonators that includes Charlie Chaplin (Marilyn’s husband), Shirley Temple (their daughter), the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, a surly Abraham Lincoln (“I’m Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. They’re currently at work building a theater in hopes of attracting new visitors and showcasing their talents for the world (somewhat unexpected, considering their self-imposed isolation).

There’s also a second plotline involving a priest, played by Werner Herzog,* who is training a group of nuns to fly by jumping from an airplane. As much as we might somehow expect them to, the storylines never come together, remaining wholly unrelated to one another. Despite these scenes’ perceived irrelevance to the main narrative, the image of a woman falling through the sky, her habit billowing around her, is arresting and bizarrely poignant. And did I mention that Werner Herzog is involved?

Mister Lonely is much more accessible and less disturbing than Korine’s previous films—one could chalk it up to maturation, or perhaps just his cleaning up and getting into a healthier state of mind—yet it still retains the strangeness of his earlier work. Moreover, it is not without elements of tragedy and melancholic overtones—a dark tale disguised as sweet and sentimental.

The film’s highlights are its striking, weirdly beautiful images—for instance, the falling nun, or the memorable opening scene in which our Michael Jackson look-alike rides a tiny bike around a track, a stuffed monkey with angel wings hanging off to the side by a wire, almost appearing to fly. This moment is inexplicably funny, moving in an intangible way. As Korine explains in an April 2008 New York Times article, “The story always comes from pictures I want to see,” which seems to account for the slight disjointedness, almost a random succession of stunningly oddball moments—the art lies in the unexpected manner in which such moments are placed into the film.

Despite its striking imagery and relatively straightforward plot—for this director, at least—the film seems flawed, almost a little bit boring, and I think I prefer the grotesquerie of his earlier works. Gummo has its own moments of beauty, though in a much darker and more perverted sense. Perhaps a happy medium of the two would be ideal—in the aforementioned interview, Korine states that “I think the next one will be more provocative,” so perhaps I’ll get my wish.

*Herzog was cast in Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, and as then, he still can’t act. But I’m such a fan of Herzog’s own films that this doesn’t really bother me. I can forgive him this one shortcoming—which might be the case with Korine as well.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

La Jetée, Chris Marker, 1966
Twelve Monkeys
, Terry Gilliam, 1995

Chris Marker’s “photo-roman”* is comprised of a series of gorgeously framed images, each one a museum-quality photograph, shot in that grainy black and white that I love so much. With the exception of one scene, in which a woman opens her eyes, the story is entirely told through still images accompanied with voiceover narration—yet they nonetheless suggest the impression of movement.

Humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “The victors,” as they are called, have established some kind of underground penal colony, and have begun conducting time travel experiments using the prisoners as guinea pigs, in hopes of gaining information about the source of the catastrophe, and ultimately to change the course of history. One man in particular is chosen for his strong mental image of the peacetime world—he has been haunted by a childhood memory, in which he witnessed a man die—the logic being that “if [he] were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps [he] would be able to live in it.”

This short yet accomplished film—and, as far as I can tell, one of the director’s most accessible, not to mention thrilling—focuses on issues of time and memory, involving a classic time paradox. It has been called the greatest science fiction film ever made—whether or not this is the case, it is definitely the most elegant, beautifully shot, and philosophically complex one that I have seen.

Inspired by and partially based on La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys expands upon the former, fleshing it out into a full-length feature with conventional movement and sound. Gilliam’s film adds various elements to the plot, such as the cataclysmic event being a plague rather than a nuclear bomb, the main character’s ending up in the wrong year and being incarcerated in a mental institution (naturally, everyone assumes he’s crazy when he explains that he’s come from the future), and of course the “Army of the Twelve Monkeys,” a militant animal rights group assumed to be the source of the deadly virus.

As in La Jetée, this film involves multiple time paradoxes. James Cole, the aforementioned man from the future, accidentally travels back to a World War I battlefield; in 1996 he can be seen in photographs of that battle. Cole is shown pictures of graffiti spraypainted on a wall days before the epidemic began; it turns out that the graffiti exists because of him. Then of course there is the film’s central paradox, which I won’t go into so as not to spoil it.

These paradoxes present some mind-bending questions about the nature of time. The film seems to imply that time cannot be changed, that all events are predetermined, that there was never a 1997 when James had not traveled there from the future, just as he had always been involved in that World War I battle. (In La Jetée the narrator avers that “there was no way to escape Time.”) Thus, these attempts at gaining information about the virus in hopes of thwarting it are futile; James was always part of that chain of events, and he will always fail.

Despite all of their similarities, these are two very different films. While I ultimately prefer the stark and graceful beauty of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys is not without merit. It retains a nice apocalyptic feel, and while the plot additions certainly change the story, they don’t detract from it. I don’t even mind that Bruce Willis is in the movie, although it should be noted that Terry Gilliam reportedly gave him a list of “Bruce Willis acting clichés” that were not to be used in that performance—good advice, Terry.

*This translates to “photo-novel,” which could really refer to any film, as they are all comprised of thousands of still images—this one just annunciates that aspect more pronouncedly.

Friday, July 04, 2008

After watching the terrifying masterpiece that is Black Christmas, I was inspired to check out a few more horror films from the long list I've been compiling. I have to say, Black Christmas still wins.

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
, Bob Clark, 1972
Bob Clark’s first film isn’t quite up to par with Black Christmas, but we’ll call it a practice round. A pretentious theater director wearing some ridiculous striped pants drags a troupe of actors to an island that serves as a burial ground for criminals, where he digs up a body and performs a ritual to raise the dead that doesn’t seem to work. While it was most likely intended as a joke—he’s hired someone to pop up out of one of the graves—the director seems disappointed and takes it out on the actors, going to great lengths to debase them. Of course, it turns out that while the ritual doesn’t take effect immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t take effect eventually.

Martin, George Romero, 1977
This psychological horror movie about a teenager who may or may not be a vampire is somewhat of a departure for George Romero. Unlike his cinematic predecessors, Martin does his bloodletting with syringes and razor blades rather than fangs, which seems to imply that he’s just a bit of a weirdo. His uncle, however, is resolutely convinced, calling him “Nosferatu” and harping on the alleged family curse. While the truth is left somewhat ambiguous I’d lean more towards his being human—disturbed, but human. The industrial suburbs of Pittsburgh are put to good use, serving as a fittingly desolate backdrop to this strange and captivating story.

The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven, 1972
Inspired by (or maybe just based on the same source material as) Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, two girls go to a rock concert—except before they even make it inside they try to score some grass off of a guy who brings them back to his apartment, where they’re kidnapped by a gang of sadistic escaped convicts who tie them up and put them in the trunk of their car.

The film’s most harrowing moment arrives when the car breaks down and Mari emerges from the trunk to realize that she’s parked in front of her own house and there’s nothing she can do about it. Feet from the solace of her loving parents, she’s instead dragged into the woods to face degradation and her ultimate demise.

After raping and murdering the girls, the killers clean themselves up and unwittingly knock on the door of Mari’s parents’ house to ask for a place to sleep. The parents quickly figure out what’s going on and exact their revenge; these scenes, which entail a chainsaw and a blow job that ends in castration, are somehow anticlimactic and disappointing—this can be said of the whole movie, I think. I suppose I could have just hyped it up too much in my mind, but I was not impressed.

The tone wavers between sadistic and incongruously slapsticky, due in part to the soundtrack’s almost upbeat hillbilly music. There’s also the ridiculous subplot involving a couple of bumbling, donut-munching cops that could have been out of something like Super Troopers. They see the killers’ car but think nothing of it, realizing their mistake when they hear a radio dispatch describing the abandoned vehicle. They attempt to head back but run out of gas on the way, unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike with a group of teenagers who extend their middle fingers at the pigs, and a grossly stereotypical toothless black lady driving a truck full of chickens. I’ve read that the contrast between the film’s soundtrack and its disturbing imagery is intentional—which is certainly interesting, but I nonetheless found the result to be rather ineffective.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, 1951
Not exactly a horror film but I’m including it in here anyway. This space age classic is a little bit high-minded in its messages about mass hysteria and man’s inability to cohabit peacefully with other nations. And I must say, I found it a little weird that the important announcement that this moralizing alien traveled all the way to Earth to communicate is that if humans don’t shape up and dispose of their nuclear weapons, his planet will bomb the shit out of them.

Regardless, I enjoyed the vintage sci-fi imagery, replete with flying saucers, massive killer robots, and a silver-clad spaceman wearing what amounts to a goldfish bowl over his head, and was rather amused to discover the origin of the phrase “klaatu barata nikto.”

The House by the Cemetery, Lucio Fulci, 1981
This is the first movie directed by Lucio Fulci that I’ve seen, and I found it to be pretty unimpressive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he hasn’t done better—I’m not totally dissuaded from seeking out other films in his oeuvre. (I hear there’s a pretty good one involving a killer who quacks like a duck.)

It has a particularly memorable opening scene, wherein two people sneak into a vacant house to have sex but somehow get separated. Thinking that he’s playing a trick on her, the girl goes to look for her beau and is stabbed in the back of the head, the knife coming out the other side through her open mouth. However, it kind of goes downhill from there.

Dr. Norman Boyle and his family move into a quaint New England house so that he can continue with a research assignment that one of his colleagues was working on (the colleague having just committed suicide). Immediately, the family notices some weird goings-on, and tries unsuccessfully to move to another house.

One of the high points is a creepy little girl (who I guess is really a ghost?) who used to live in the house and makes a habit of visiting Boyle’s son, who might be one of the most annoying children in cinematic history. The girl continually conveys a message of warning, but it’s wasted on the kid, whose parents of course dismiss his silly antics.

So apparently this perverted doctor, whose name is a pretty good amalgamation of two other famous doctors, once lived in the house (I guess he was the father of the creepy little ghost girl?) and was known for performing controversial experiments on his patients. As it turns out, he’s still there in the basement, kept alive by consuming fresh human blood. Although he’s not really living in the strictest sense of the word—when Dr. Boyle tries to kill him, a clump of maggoty innards resembling a nasty-ass sausage link oozes out of his side.

This movie had the potential for greatness—creepy ghost children are always a nice touch—but the film would have benefited from some more careful plotting. While unexplained phenomena can definitely be a good thing in horror films, in this case I’d say it errs on the side of too much vagueness.

Blacula, William Crain, 1972
In this melding of horror and blaxploitation, an 18th-century African prince meets with Count Dracula, who turns him into a vampire and seals him off in a coffin, where he remains for centuries until two gay interior decorators buy the castle’s contents, unwittingly shipping him to 1970s Los Angeles. When they open the coffin, which they had been thinking would be a pretty fierce guest bed, they unleash a vampire whose intense thirst for blood has not been satiated for about 300 years.

Blacula, as it turns out, can be pretty sexy when he’s not in vampire mode, and despite his odd getup (i.e. a flowing black cape), he manages to seduce a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his wife. Her sister’s boyfriend, however, is the cop investigating some of the odd murders that have been happening, complete with missing bodies—a.k.a. victims who are turned into vampires and thus wake up and disappear from their own funerals. It’s not exactly scary, but pretty entertaining and campy—I couldn’t help but let out a few utterances of “Let the cartoons begin!”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris, 2008

The latest installment in Errol Morris’ ceaseless quest for the truth investigates the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos, delving deeper into the story than others might have dared—or even thought—to tread. One of the most severe condemnations of the photographs in question is not simply the torment that the inmates are being subjected to, but the fact that their captors are smiling and giving the cameraman the thumbs-up. But Sabrina Harman, one of the women featured in these photographs, claims that she was trying to document the atrocities being practiced in the prison, fearing no one would believe her if she did not provide some physical evidence. As for the cheery demeanor, she states that she simply didn’t know what else to do with her hands, that she automatically did what you’re supposed to do when being photographed: smile and say cheese.

This seems to me an oversimplified and implausible assertion, especially after noting that in a letter to her wife, Sabrina writes that “The dead guy didn’t bother me, even took a picture with him doing the thumbs-up. But that’s when I realized it wasn’t funny anymore, that this guy had blood in his nose.”—which would imply that she had at one point thought it was funny. In his New York Times blog Zoom, Morris concurs that he’s dubious as to her claim—naturally, he seeks the expertise of Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and expert on facial expressions. Upon studying a photograph of Harman leaning over a mangled-looking corpse while grinning for the camera, Ekman upholds that hers is not a true smile of enjoyment, but rather a social smile, the kind of fake grin everyone puts on for the camera. (Apparently this is evident in the movement in the skin right above the eyelid.) Of course, most people, upon casual glance, cannot easily tell the difference between the true enjoyment smile and the fake posed smile, and identify the person in this photograph as a sadistic brute gleefully inflicting torture upon her prisoners, as opposed to a moral crusader trying to reveal the crimes of the military to the world.

This is the sort of intriguing observation brought to light by the consultation of a specialist that I wish had not only been explored in the film, but pushed even further—why do people feel so strangely compelled to smile simply because they’re in front of a camera, even if there’s really nothing to smile about? This could have made for a fascinating examination of the nature of photography, as well as significantly aiding in the viewer’s understanding of these notorious images—I for one came away from the film feeling unsatisfied, still not really comprehending why the photos were taken (yes, to document evidence, but why the bizarre poses?). Perhaps this also lies in the fact that Charles Graner, the person whom everyone claims was responsible for orchestrating the photo shoots (he reportedly distributed prints like collectible trading cards), is incarcerated in a military prison and the army would not allow Morris to interview him.

There has been much debate regarding the film’s use of re-enactments. This is certainly not a new practice for Morris, but I’m unsure I can find a clear purpose in the highly stylized imagery seen in the film—impressionistic shots bathed in gorgeous yellow light, beads of water slowly falling from a shower, settling dust that almost seems to sparkle, an extreme close-up of a bushy eyebrow being shaved. These images strike me as too visually stunning for the subject matter within them—not that they’re necessarily meant to mimic reality. In his blog, Morris explains that his “re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper—something that better captures what really happened...[The re-enactments] are not asking us to suspend our disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for our entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us—to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world.” But what is being conveyed in these particular re-enactments? In Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line, for instance, he focuses on a milkshake dropped at a crime scene in order to question the official report of what transpired that evening. What is Standard Operating Procedure’s falling milkshake? What striking image is depicted in such a way as to question our previous understanding of what happened? I can’t come up with one.

Nor can I say that the film gets too much closer to the reality of what took place, at least not definitively. The commentators suggest, either outright or more implicitly, that those who were actually guilty were never charged, that all of the blame fell upon the low level officers whose ill-advised actions brought about severe embarrassment for not only the military but the whole country. The accused claim they were just following orders, that they were supposed to be preparing the prisoners for interrogation, lowering their morale in order to make them more susceptible to the line of questioning they would soon be subjected to. Officers like Charles Graner only prepared them for the real torture they would undergo at the hands of their interrogators—in other words, the idiots who took pictures were used as scapegoats in order to avoid revealing the crimes of those more powerful than them. As Harman describes it, she was charged with tampering evidence that the military had already tampered with before her.

The title does signify a rather surprising revelation that comes near the film’s conclusion: after analyzing the thousands of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, Special Agent Brent Pack of the military’s Criminal Investigations Division labels many of them, as one would expect, “criminal acts”—but still more are actually considered to be Standard Operating Procedure. According to Pack, it is unacceptable to sexually molest people by forcing them to masturbate publicly, but it is okay to humiliate them by chaining them to a bedpost and placing ladies’ underwear over their heads. Incredibly, one of the most iconic photographs of the group, of a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his outspread arms, is considered run-of-the-mill activity. Pack goes on to say that he doesn’t expect civilians to understand such things, but I’m nonetheless going to contend that there’s nothing to understand—these acts were, plain and simply, inhumane.

In many ways, this story verges upon the pith of Morris’ work—distinguishing the truth from what is simply perceived to be the truth. As he writes in his blog, “Photographic evidence—like all evidence—needs to be seen in context. It needs to be evaluated. If seeing itself is belief-laden, then there is no seeing independent of believing, and the “truism” has to be reversed. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.” I only wish he had employed more investigative work revolving around this idea, in the vein of his close scrutiny of a pair of Roger Fenton photographs taken during the Crimean War, the process of which was documented in his blog. But while Standard Operating Procedure isn’t my favorite of Morris’ films—in fact, it’s probably my least favorite—it’s certainly not without merit.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's been awhile. In my defense, I'd been holding off because I'd jotted down what I recall were some great notes on Hated, a documentary about G.G. Allin, but I'd since misplaced them and was determined to locate them before making my next posting. Unfortunately I think they're gone forever, so I'll just have to watch it again.

Movies watched, April 29 to May 4, 2008
(The gap between April 12, the latest date covered in my last post, and April 29 was mainly comprised of watching Twin Peaks, which I plan to write about once I've finished the series, not to mention the feature film, Fire Walk With Me.)

Black Christmas, Bob Clark, 1974

Nearly ten years before Bob Clark directed one of the most beloved—or at least most frequently watched—Christmas films of our time, A Christmas Story, he made another holiday film, one that’s not likely to be included in the usual seasonal TV programming.

One of the original slasher films (perhaps the original), and definitely the scariest film I’ve seen in recent memory, Black Christmas opens with a sorority holiday party, an ostensibly harmless event—until we realize we’re watching the girls through the front window, from the viewpoint of a stranger who is stalking their every move. In a camera technique utilized a few years later in the opening of Halloween, we then climb a trellis on the side of the house and into an unlocked attic window that no one ever thinks to check—even after the house’s residents are picked off one by one.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the horror: for one, the viewer knows very little about the killer. He reveals his name (“it’s me, Billy”), and he often refers to someone named Agnes. And that’s it—we never even see his face. One can imagine a Halloween-like scenario, wherein the escaped mental patient returns to his childhood home seeking his long lost sister (and, while he explicitly states that John Carpenter did not steal his idea, Clark claims that he'd envisioned a sequel to this movie—it was even to be called Halloween—that did exactly that).

Sound is also a significant aspect. The girls have been receiving frequent disturbing phone calls from Billy (perhaps the first instance of the whole “the calls are coming from inside the house!” urban legend—it precedes When a Stranger Calls by five years), in which he speaks in a variety of different voices, from a whimpering child, to a crying girl, to a reprimanding figure of authority. The distinctly separate voices are unnerving, especially when you realize it’s one person making all of them. One can attempt to piece together the events being ranted about: the little girl screams, “No, don’t Billy!”, the young boy moans about “the baby,” and the shrill, screeching adult shrieks “What your mother and I must know is, where did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnes, Billy?” From this we can surmise that as a child, Billy’s younger sister Agnes died while left in his care, either by accident or through some malicious act—why he’s returned, and what’s led to his extreme psychopathy, is another story, one we’ll never know*. Other auditory and visual factors include the subtly creepy soundtrack of strummed piano strings, and frequent use of ominous camera angles, often looking downstairs at the girls, as if from a voyeuristic viewpoint.

But perhaps what’s truly terrifying is the way that it challenges the viewer’s sense of security. One’s home is the place where one usually feels most comfortable, safe, and protected—but this film makes you question that, makes you wonder if your basement windows are actually locked, if there isn’t someone lurking down there in some dark corner, waiting for the right moment to come upstairs and stab you in the chest with your own glass unicorn figurine.

*A remake from a few years ago attempts to, like Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween does with Michael Myers, expand upon the characters of Billy and Agnes. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read some detailed plot descriptions and it sounds ridiculous. As in the case of Halloween, the moral of the story is that less is more.

Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah, 1971

In this rather dark exploration of what happens when people are pushed to their limits, American mathematician David Sumner and his attractive British wife Amy move into a farm house in the English countryside. They experience some immediate hostility from the handymen who are working on the house, one of whom, Charlie, knows Amy from her younger days. They seem to have a bit of a history, which he reminds her of somewhat aggressively (“you were begging for it”)—she brushes him off, but perhaps not as repulsedly as one might expect.

It quickly becomes evident that David is far more interested in his work than in his wife. Before having sex he stops to check that the alarm clock is set, to ensure that he won’t oversleep and cut into his work. Another time Amy wanders into his office in a playful mood, and he sharply asks her to leave him alone with his equations. Their marital issues are heightened as they continue to face the harassment of their neighbors. When they find their missing cat strung up in a closet, Amy wants her husband to question the handymen, but he chickens out, which makes her even more furious.

One day the repairmen ask David to go hunting with them, which he seems to interpret as a feigned gesture of reconciliation—I have to say, I wouldn’t trust the guys who likely murdered my pet cat to take me out into the woods with guns—and, of course, this isn’t quite the case. Charlie shows up at the house, and Amy inexplicably invites him inside, insisting that he stay even when he offers to leave. When he comes onto her, she tries to fight him off, unsuccessfully. One gets the feeling that despite her motions of protest, she’s really enjoying it, that she only wants him to stop because she’s married and knows she’s not supposed to be enjoying it. But then Norman, another one of the repairmen, comes in and sodomizes her, which she certainly does not enjoy, particularly because this person she has albeit complicated feelings for has just allowed—perhaps arranged for—her to be violated. Oddly, her husband doesn’t notice any marks on her, which seems odd, and perhaps kind of unbelievable, but I suppose it’s consistent with the lack of concern for her that he’s displayed so far.

The mounting tensions ignite towards the end of the film, when the townspeople try to hunt down a mentally slow man who accidentally killed a young woman, a la Lenny from Of Mice and Men. David rescues the man and tries to shelter him inside his house, which, considering their feelings toward him, only serves to provoke the rage of the townspeople, who have become a lynch mob by this time. They start smashing windows, pounding on doors, trying to breach the Sumners’ home. David responds in kind, rather unexpectedly, as until this point he’s been kind of a pushover—which illustrates that everyone has a breaking point. His home is being invaded, and he is prepared to defend it to the death, his primal instincts emerging from his usually mild demeanor.

Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese, 1972

For his first Hollywood film, Martin Scorsese was given $600,000 by legendary schlock producer Roger Corman and told to make an exploitation movie, no doubt to cash in on the success of the Oscar-nominated Bonnie and Clyde of a few years earlier. Loosely based on the autobiography of Bertha Thompson, who robbed the railways with her lover and his gang during the Great Depression, it certainly retains many hallmarks of the exploitation genre—plenty of sex and violence, as well as some offbeat humor—but manages to go beyond it as well. Picture a low-budget B-movie filtered through Scorsese’s albeit nascent directorial vision.

In Jim Sangster’s Scorsese, the director says that “I attempted to show the characters as people acting like children, playing with violence until they start getting killed—then they’re stuck in a real game, a life and death game.” This is effectively communicated—for instance, in Bertha’s childlike grin as she busts into a room full of rich people and announces, falteringly over a giddy laugh, “This is a stick-up!”, as she piles the women’s jewels and tiaras on like a little girl playing dress-up, and likewise in Bill’s pronouncements that “I’m not cut out for this” as things start to go amiss.

The film isn’t without its flaws, but one can detect many of the elements that Scorsese would develop and expand upon in later films. In the end, I’d have to agree with John Cassavetes, who, after seeing Boxcar Bertha, reportedly told Scorsese “You just spent a year of your life making shit!,” urging him to make a more personal film—he then went on to make Mean Streets, possibly one of his best.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Movies watched, March 23-April 12, 2008

Snow Angels, David Gordon Green, 2008

Snow Angels’ journey from book to film is rather interesting. David Gordon Green had initially written the script in 2003 for another director; the project was scrapped, then revisited several years later, this time with Green directing as well. The book, though I haven’t read it, is narrated by the teenage protagonist Arthur Parkinson, but as a grown man looking back on a rather painful time in his life—as his parents were divorcing, which also coincided with an incident involving his former babysitter. It’s one of those novels where the first-person narrator is omniscient, commenting on scenes and conversations he couldn’t have been privy to. In order to translate the story to the screen, the structure is altered so that it occurs in the present, from the perspectives of both Arthur and the aforementioned babysitter, Annie. Arthur and Annie are brought together in their current lives by working together at a Chinese restaurant, which might seem somewhat arbitrary as a plot device, but it doesn’t feel that way, especially considering that they eventually become linked in another, more unfortunate sense as well. (For more on the adaptation process, see Bookforum’s article, available here.

The film is framed by a rather uncoordinated marching band practice on a snowy field. The coach’s corny reprimanding speech is interrupted by the sounds of two gunshots in the distance—we are then presented with the series of events that culminated in said gunshots. In addition to the marching band, it also starts with several brief scenes depicting wintry small town life—picking up the newspaper, pumping gas, and so on. These scenes are echoed later in the film, and while they’re the same, shot-for-shot, they somehow feel different. They don’t have that same innocence, or neutrality, but are marked with what has happened, possessing a kind of weariness, an impression of trudging along through one’s routine even in the midst of tragedy.

Annie has recently separated from her emotionally unstable husband, Glenn. A recovering alcoholic who thinks he’s found God, Glenn is extremely attached to Annie, seemingly unable to function without her (they’ve been together since high school). He tried to kill himself when she left him, and though he claims he’s better now, his behavior is nonetheless erratic. Annie, on the other hand, seems much more together, at least on the surface—one can’t imagine why she’s still in this crappy little town—but her flaws are gradually revealed.

Annie and Glenn have joint custody of their four-year-old daughter, Tara, which forces them together on a weekly basis. Towards the beginning of the film, Glenn forgets to bring the stuffed rabbit he’d bought for Tara; he mutters “you forgot the rabbit” at various points throughout the film, this seemingly innocuous string of words transforming into a symbol for all of his failures and shortcomings. Every time he utters the phrase, it generates an almost tangible feeling of anguish; one can’t help cringing.

While we do get a bit of emotional relief in the scenes depicting Arthur’s and Lila’s burgeoning romance, the film mainly fluctuates between merely everyday depressing to soul-numbingly bleak, its conclusion rendering the viewer more or less speechless. It’s devastating to watch, its effects on my frame of mind lingering for hours after the credits rolled. This movie ruined a beautiful, sunny afternoon, although I don’t regret seeing it at all—I might recommend, however, that one watch it at night, so as not to carry its feelings of despair with them for too long before sleeping it off.

Snow Angels bears the same level of emotional intensity as David Gordon Green’s previous films—so it’ll be interesting to see his next movie, Pineapple Express, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad fame. I’m definitely curious to find out how the stoner comedy hit of the summer will look when filtered through Green’s directorial lens.

Halloween, Rob Zombie, 2007

The problem with most remakes of already great films is that they bring nothing new to the plate, serving no purpose other than to make money, and perhaps to introduce a new generation to an unknown classic. Thus, I had actually been looking forward to this movie as, working from John Carpenter’s advice to Rob Zombie that he “make it his own”, it contains original material delving deeper into Michael Myers’ past and psychology, exploring the root of his psychopathy, what drives him to kill—not so much a remake as a reimagining.

Unfortunately, what Zombie comes up with is boring and unoriginal. In this new scenario, the whole Myers household is screwed up. Michael’s mother is a stripper, his sister Judith is a slutty dresser (perhaps a stripper in the making), and his mother’s boyfriend is just kind of gross—he makes a pass at Judith at the breakfast table, and otherwise seems to be a worthless sponge on the Myers’ already meager funds. In addition to his stereotypically bad home life, Michael is picked on by school bullies—thus he snaps and kills the bullies, and his family, and anyone else who does or says anything mean to him.

That Michael’s upbringing was troubled seems the clichéd way of thinking, as if he were a Columbine case taken to the extreme. The film would have been much creepier if his family was seemingly normal and wholesome, that his violent tendencies were unexplainable, at least in a clearcut manner. Also, I’m pretty sure that not everyone whose mom is a stripper becomes a violent psychopath.

Zombie also attempts to develop the origin behind Michael’s face mask. Here, Michael becomes generally obsessed with masks while in the mental hospital, fashioning hundreds of them out of papier mache and newspaper, kind of like a bizarre version of a therapeutic arts and crafts project. He says he doesn’t want to show his face because it’s ugly—which, like the bad home life, seems like a clichéd, oversimplified explanation. I wish there weren’t so much analysis behind his wearing of masks—he finds one, he puts it on. End of story. Debra Hill, co-writer and producer of the original film, explains that the “idea was to make him almost humorless, faceless—this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not.” The idea stemmed not from an attempt at character-development but at creating a creepy, unsettling visual element, of which there is a paucity here. The way to make a film truly terrifying lies in the craft of filmmaking itself—use of sound, setting, visuals, and camera angles and movements. Then there’s the fact that making Michael seem more human ruins the mystery behind the character—part of the horror is that we don’t understand him, or how he came to be this way, and perhaps we shouldn’t. Basically, this was a very misguided, though possibly well-meaning, effort.

Coffy, Jack Hill, 1973
Foxy Brown, Jack Hill, 1974

Coffy is a sexy black nurse who seeks vengeance when her younger sister becomes involved with drugs and is sold contaminated heroin. Foxy Brown is a sexy black woman who seeks vengeance when her government agent boyfriend is shot down by gangsters.

There’s a good reason why the plots of these two films are so similar: Foxy Brown was initially intended as a sequel to Coffy (titled Burn, Coffy, Burn!), but at the last minute the studio decided that they didn’t want it to be a sequel after all. The character’s name was changed, and the script no longer revealed where she worked, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same character, if not the same movie—at the very least, the same basic premise.

Both Coffy and Foxy find themselves immersed in the seedy criminal underworld, taking out drug dealers and pimps, mobsters and crooked cops. It seems that in the realms of these films, there’s no such thing as an honest politician (except for Foxy’s dead boyfriend)—everyone is making deals with the mob, taking bribes, and turning a blind eye to drug trafficking and prostitution.

Coffy/Foxy is a resourceful and quick-witted lady, willing to use her body to lure criminals in and trick them into letting their guard down. In Coffy, she pretends to come onto one of the cops who are holding her hostage. Just as they’re about to do the deed, she grabs a bobby pin hidden in her afro—in a previous scene, she’d found it on the ground in the shack she was locked inside, sharpening it on a piece of stone—and stabs the cop in the neck in order to escape. And in Foxy Brown, she goes undercover as a high-class call girl in order to get to those responsible for her boyfriend’s death.

Despite her violent tendencies (and hey, she’s driven to these actions by the brutality of the world around her), she’s an appealing character, sticking up for the little guy, and sticking it to the crooks and thugs who plague our society. As Foxy says, vigilante justice is “as American as apple pie.”

While for the most part serving as pure entertainment, the films also touch on themes of racial and social injustice. For instance, Link’s lament over the plight of the black man: “I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football hero, and too ugly to be elected mayor...I just get so full of ambition. Now you tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition.” His character isn’t really all that sympathetic though, as in addition to directing his ambition toward dealing coke, he turns in his own sister, who just happens to be our heroine, Foxy Brown. Luckily, Foxy is not a force to be reckoned with—as Link says, “that’s my sister, baby, and she’s a whole lotta woman.”

Charley Varrick, Don Siegel, 1973

Charley Varrick opens with a bank robbery committed by masked men, some of whom don’t make it out alive. When the robbers, led by Charley Varrick—played by Walter Matthau, who on the surface seems an odd choice for the role, but it works beautifully—check out their loot, they find that they’ve made off with a lot more money than they’d expected to, a good sign that they’ve inadvertently knocked off a mafia-run bank. And if you have something of theirs, the mob doesn’t stop looking for you until you’re dead.

The remainder of the film addresses the process of dealing with this debacle. Varrick wants to play it safe and wait a few years before they even touch the money; his rather unwise partner, the weaselly Harman Sullivan, is itching to spend it, and insists that he’s not afraid of a bunch of gangsters. Throughout the film, up until the climax—which involves a memorable chase scene between a car and a cropduster plane—we’re convinced that Charley’s made a terrible mistake, that he’s been too trusting and fallen prey to some dishonest people—even more dishonest than he is—but in the end, his casual gum-chewing demeanor prevails. And one begins to wonder, to question whether the information we’ve been given can be believed—did Charley survive by the skin of his teeth, or was it all carefully planned to happen exactly as it did?