February 12, 2012

Escape From New York

John Carpenter's trash-art action yarn Escape From New York (1981) has two things going for it: Kurt Russell's bad-ass performance as Snake Plissken, and a gritty, pulpy atmosphere that transcends its paper-thin storyline. The film is set in the near future, where Manhattan Island has been transformed into the country's lone maximum security prison. (Presumably there was low interest in preserving the Big Apple's iconic cultural monuments and history.) When the President's plane goes down inside the premises, the government makes a deal with a war criminal, Snake Plissken, to rescue the President in exchange for his freedom.

This was Carpenter's fifth feature film, coming off the phenomenal success of Halloween (1978) and the moderate success of The Fog (1980), but more closely related to his cult thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Both Escape and Assault have a certain neo-Western apathy for cinematic niceties, an attitude Carpenter seems to apply to all his movies. He's in love with those 1950s Westerns by Howard Hawks and he seems to have embedded into his movies a sort of synthetic sense of Los Angeles cool, even when the setting isn't L.A.

The problem with Escape From New York is that it never builds enough momentum to sustain its intriguing but problematic story. The idea feels like something contrived by a 12-year-old kid. It has wonderful cinematic possibilities, but Carpenter seems to have written this in a hurry, or perhaps when he decided to make this movie (he had written the screenplay years earlier) he didn't revise it. There are kinks in the plot, most embarrassingly the incredulous prospect of getting all the law-abiding Manhattanites to give up their jobs and their homes and their lives and leave the city to the underworld of criminals that inherit it in this movie.

The film itself looks like a comic book, and it's this dark, guttery, gloomy, nightmare-metropolis  production design that really makes Escape From New York a fun diversion, despite its shortcomings. You can tell the film's money pool wasn't too deep, and in a way, the shoestring budget works for it. It's a throwback to the  B movies that probably made Carpenter want to make movies when he was a kid.

The film was shot by Dean Cundey, who did the cinematography for several Carpenter films, and produced by long-time Carpenter collaborator Debra Hill. It moves along without much sense, but you find ways to enjoy yourself anyway.

The cast of stock characters, poorly fleshed out (such a shame, considering the collection of talent assembled), includes Adrienne Barbeau (whose wonderful comic abilities are barely used), Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, and Charles Cyphers.

February 05, 2012

The Artist

The Artist (2011) is about a Hollywood star's rise during the silent era of film and consequently his fallout during the transition to talkies. Jean Dujardin plays the actor, George Valentin (the last name recalls the real-life silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino). George refuses to believe that talkies are anything but a fad, and is eventually upstaged by a charming young woman whose first taste of celebrity occurs when she bumps into George at a press conference and they indulge in a spontaneous photo shoot. Her face is splashed across the newspapers with her lips firmly pressed against George's face, and pretty soon she's doing bit parts in pictures, then rising in status and eventually becoming Hollywood's latest girl-next-door.

What seemed at first like it was merely a gimmick to make the film stand out during Oscar season--this is a silent movie, you know--actually made The Artist endearing. George is followed around by his adorable dog Jack, a terrier, and their companionship is absolutely vital to this movie's likableness. Jack becomes a character all his own, something that rarely works out in movies.

I was puzzled by the use of Bernard Herrmann's famous score from Vertigo near the end of the movie. Thematically, it worked (that may be Herrmann's best score), but it didn't exactly make sense to use it. After all, The Artist takes place from about 1928 to 1932, and Vertigo was released in 1958. Couldn't they have composed something themselves? It's such a recognizable piece that its anachronism is pretty obvious to anyone who knows a little about movies.

The humor is what really resonates in The Artist, and the dramatic scenes are moving without being heavy. There's always an undercurrent of humor that in effect relieves those dramatic scenes of their maudlin tendencies. Instead of feeling corny or weepy, The Artist feels like fun--it's richly entertaining. But don't be fooled into thinking this is somehow original. It's really just Singin' in the Rain with a little Citizen Kane thrown in for good measure.

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. With Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, the up-and-coming actress who unintentionally steals George's thunder. She's gorgeous, unassuming, and smart; also with John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and Malcolm McDowell.

Foul Play

For most of my childhood, Foul Play (1978) was my favorite comedy (or at the very least, tied with Nine to Five--which, incidentally, was directed by the same man, Colin Higgins). It's about a shy but sexy librarian (Goldie Hawn) who becomes mixed up in a murder plot involving an odd assortment of criminals who are planning to assassinate the pope when he visits San Francisco. The movie is basically a remake of Charade, where Audrey Hepburn plays the chic widow pursued by a trio of cads in Paris and a mysterious stranger, played by Cary Grant. It evens mimics Charade in at least one scene where Goldie is running from one of her attackers. The camera zooms in on her legs and her black high heels as she runs for her life.

Goldie Hawn seems to have access to a neverending current of charm, and she's consistently engaging in almost every movie I've seen her in. While Foul Play may be one of the fluffier entries into her career, it's nonetheless a fun movie, provided you don't put too much thought into it. The comedy is best when Goldie is resourceful but wide-eyed, and her co-star, Chevy Chase, doesn't have to fake Cary Grant-ish charm. Chevy's strength is in his bumbling inability to be serious, and as long as he doesn't have to be a legitimate romantic lead, you can enjoy his being ostensibly paired off with Hawn. He plays a cop who Goldie meets at a party, and then becomes involved with her after responding to her frantic call to the police during an attack by a creepy thug (Don Calfa).

Several comic set pieces are utterly contrived. A scene with Billy Barty is a complete waste, manufactured by the confusion of the head criminal's nickname, "The Dwarf." There's a whole sequence involving Dudley Moore that doesn't fit into the movie at all. Moore is funny regardless, playing a kinky swinger who gets the wrong idea when Goldie asks him to take her home. She's running from a killer, but somehow convinces Moore that she's looking for a one-night-stand.

Hawn's character seems anachronistic to San Francisco. She's apparently the first modern American woman to be de-liberated by a divorce: it's turned her into a mousy loner who has shut herself off to the prospect of romance. It's hard to accept, because Goldie Hawn exudes an effulgent likableness that is anything but shy or unappealing.

And San Francisco isn't exactly portrayed in a good light: it's shown as a city of psychos and sex perverts. Another movie from 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, turns the Bay city into a haven for an alien invasion where humans are being harvested. Granted, this was the city of the Zodiac killer, so perhaps there was good reason to paint it as a locus of dangerous activity. In the process, however, the filmmakers lose a lot of the capital they could have gotten out of their setting. The city's cultural opulence is dulled, with the exception of a sequence in a retrospective movie house and the denouement, which occurs during a performance of The Mikado (both sequences turn their settings into places of destruction). It's as if art itself is merely a breeding ground for violent criminal behavior. Or maybe it exacerbates the behavior.

The whole assassination plot is a bit half-cocked, but you don't go to this kind of movie for brilliant storytelling. The sequence where Goldie and Chevy race across San Francisco, wrecking several cars in the process, is a clunky way to liven things up. Burgess Meredith offers liveliness of a natural kind. He plays Hawn's landlord, a kindly retired anthropologist with a Black Belt in Karate that comes in handy during a scuffle with the radiantly evil-looking Rachel Roberts.

With Eugene Roche, Brian Dennehy, and Marilyn Sokol. 

February 02, 2012

Dressed to Kill

Brian De Palma's most lascivious thriller (with the possible exception of Body Double), Dressed to Kill (1980) shamelessly explores the transgressive nature of human sexuality and the propaganda side of horror movies that depict sex as a death wish. One woman's spontaneous tryst gets her slashed to death in an elevator by a platinum blonde murderess, and a high-class prostitute witnesses the slaying, positioning herself as both prime suspect and prospective victim.

De Palma structures the film like a bad dream, pulling the viewer into a voyeuristic session of gender-bending cheap thrills. But the whole thing's an intentional tease: the murderess with her cheap wig and black trenchcoat and shiny razor is a comical fright figure impersonating a truly terrifying menace, and the victim is punished twofold for having an unexpected affair with a stranger she meets in a museum: she finds out he has a venereal disease (too late), and then meets her death minutes later.

De Palma turns the slasher film into an erotic comic melodrama. He borrows from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (particularly the idea of killing off the star early in the movie). De Palma had already ventured into the Hitchcock canon with Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976). Dressed to Kill is his most sustained shocker. It's like the Id of Psycho's Ego, because Psycho, for all its chilling power, holds back in a lot of ways that Dressed to Kill doesn't.

It would be too easy to dismiss De Palma's work entirely as ripping off Hitchcock, because De Palma always explores a different side. He uses similar conventions of plot and theme as Hitchcock but there's always a sort of cinematic irony underneath what he's doing, as though the joke is that he's turning Hitchcock inside out.

The Pino Donaggio score is appropriately grandiose--it's the symphony of a grand love scene, full of highs and lows and subtle ironies and dramatic swellings that punctuate the set pieces, turning them into sudsy, sensationalistic camp. You'll either revel in its majestic hyperbole or feel indifferent to it all.

With Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, and Dennis Franz.

February 01, 2012


First-rate. It exists in some kind of alternate universe that's a mishmash of now and the 80s. Drive (2011) has a lusciously compelling pull to it--a sort of poetically violent dream set against Los Angeles, which never ceases to be a place of intrigue on the screen. Ryan Gosling plays a stunt man who makes money on the side as a getaway driver. He gets involved with his neighbor and then, when her husband is released from prison, agrees to help him get some mobsters off his back by knocking off a pawn shop. Things go awry.

What struck me most about Drive was its dreamlike quality. It envelopes you under a lulling canopy of cinematic comfort--fast-paced car chase, romantic suggestion, a subdued tension between the main character and everyone else, as though he doesn't really belong--and this almost soothing layer yields to dappled rays of violent energy riveting throughout. Gosling's character--he's known only as The Driver-- seems completely dulled over by the things he's done and seen, and yet he has heart. He's not in it for the money, but out of an almost antiquated sense of heroism. He's trying to protect a woman and her young son from heartless thugs. But he brutalizes himself in the process of trying to protect Innocence.

Drive has sparse dialogue. This is refreshing in a world where most movies have nothing to say and confirm this with an incessant barrage of mindless chatter. In Drive, the actors are forced to convey much with few words. Facial expressions, deliberate pauses that turn into drawn-out silences, all become far more telling, and more fascinating, than what could be accomplished by lots of talk. What's said has greater weight because there's less fluff to the dialogue. It's economical.

And the music (by Angelo Badalamenti)--it's deliciously synthesized. This is where Drive feels like it came out of the 80s. But the music isn't corny or over-the-top. It acts like an incubating sheen over the film--and over the audience--imbibing you, massaging you into this movie's unusual balance of calm and chaos.

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. With Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Issac, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman.