Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ten Statements About....THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

This film takes place in a time when people were scared
of vampires!
"This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone. So when you have finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability...and then try to tell yourself whenever you may be it couldn't happen here."

1) With the casting of Darren McGavin in this role, we witness the perfect fusion of character and actor. Even though the role was not written with him in mind, Carl Kolchak seems tailor made for McGavin's hardboiled sensibilities, resulting in a reporter who seems to harken back to an earlier time, a man who believes in breaking past the truth....resulting in him knowing the secrets of the universe and, Cassandra-like, being shunned for it.

2) And it's fortunate McGavin--whose prior claim to fame was playing Mike Hammer on television--fit the role so well, because so much of Richard Matheson's excellent script is structured like a hardboiled crime film in its pacing, its language and its visual look. And because the first act of the film plays like a straight detective story about a serial killer stalking Las Vegas, the ultimate revelation about who and what Janos Skozeny is becomes all the more shocking.

3) You know, Gail is pretty much a thankless task assayed by a mediocre actress in Carol Lynley...but it has to be admitted that she has a real chemistry with McGavin, and gives us a very rare aspect of the character we don't get in either the sequel or the television series that resulted from this film's success. Seeing her interact with Carl softens him slightly and grounds him as a human being--thus giving those moments where he's desperate and scared have more impact.

4) Another thing that makes this film so unique is the way director John Llewellyn Moxey goes with a cinema verite style. The way the scenes play out in the first twenty minutes of the film seems so naturalistic....and yet there are these weird, strange elements in these very same scenes. It's another reason why the film feels real to us, making the surreal elements feel all the more shocking when they emerge.
Down these mean Las Vegas Streets one of the greatest
characters in televsion history drives.....

5) ...and another thing that helps create the veracity of this film? We don't see Barry Atwater's Janos Skorzeny until over twenty minutes of the movie's seventy-five minutes running time, and don't see him clearly until thirty minutes. That's an eternity when you take into account this was designed to run with commercial breaks. It makes us almost accept that this might be a legitimate crime thriller about a killer he thinks he's a vampire...until we see Atwater's shadowy over-the-shoulder form strangling a german shepherd while its owner looks on frozen in fear.

6) One of the genius touches of Matheson's script is something that becomes a hallmark of the character--namely, the little character sketch of each victim we get before she makes her disappearance. It further re-enforces the film noir atmosphere of the movie and gives us a degree of sympathy for what amounts to cannon fodder. And given each mini-essay is being recited in McGavin's wonderfully world-weary and cynical voice...well, it works.
7) You know, even though the film has that wonderful score by Robert Cobert that's this combination of jazz and electronic howls and screams, I love how so much of the movie happens quietly. There are long stretches where the only sound is the dialogue and ambient background noise. Moxey trust the script so much he allows it to stand out unsweetened by music--something that would never happen in the modern day.
Anyone wh knows their film noir knows this triumph
will end up leaving a bitter taste in Kolchak's mouth...

8) This film also benefits one hundred percent from being shot recognizably on location in Las Vegas. The shots of Kolchak driving down the Strip, or of these people wandering through the casinos once more add to the reality of the story and makes it feel realer than other comtemporary horror films.

9) As much as I love McGavin's portrayal of Kolchak, I suspect I wouldn't love it so much if he wasn't paired up with Simon Oakland's Vincenzo. It's not just that McGavin and Oakland's chemistry is palatable, or that they both play up to and subvert the cliche of their's that the tension between them makes the ultimate resolution of their relationship as reporter and editor all the more impactful. Oakland's entire role plays up to that single line...'You're a Hell of a reporter,' and when we hear that line, delivered in that way, we know what's about to happen is Not Going To Be Good.

10) ...which brings us to the ending, and I love how dark it is. Kolchak saves the city, and is thanked with the threat of prison, his story being suppressed, being forcibly separated from his fiance' and run out of town. This is absolutely in keeping with the film noir world view that Curtis, Moxey and Matheson has maintained since the first moment of the story. And it leads to the exquisite last moment, where Kolchak makes a decision about what to do with what he knows, which is at turns funny and appropriate. of my favorite television films, a film noir crime story with a strong supernatural element that has at its core one of the greatest television characters in history. Essential viewing.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ten Statements About....DARK CITY (1998)

Sometimes psychiatric methods take really, reall weird turns...
"These do bring back memories. This one is still warm. What is it? The recollections of a great lover? A catalog of conquests? We will soon find out. You wouldn't appreciate that, would you, Mr. Whatever-your-name is? Not the sort of conquest you would ever understand. Let's see, a touch of unhappy childhood, a dash of teenage rebellion, and last but not least, a tragic death in the family."

1) This is, without a doubt, Alex Proyas' crowning achievement. Forget the goth twittering of The Crow and the work-for-hire stuff he's been trapped in ever since this one crapped out at the box office--this is a truly visionary piece of work that at times is a detective thriller, at times a film noir, at times a horror film, at times a science fiction film and in the end, one of the coolest super-hero films of all time! And that all these disparate elements slide around together seamlessly, not interfering with each other in telling this one single story is astounding.

2) And you know what's really amazing? This is a film where the lack of backstory is woven into the film proper, yet you get a real sense of every character's life out of the context of the movie itself. Part of this is sharp screenwriting by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David Goyer, but part of this is just the smart acting choices by Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly and others. The performances are so insightful, so intelligent that I believe that, for example, Hurt's Inspector Bumstead had this long career in the police force. Hell, I would cheerfully watch a syndicated television show of Bumstead's adventures.

3) I am fascinated at how Proyas plants these little prescient echoes of future plot developments in earlier scenes, like how the simple act of Sewell's John Murdock placing a dying fish in a bathtub foreshadows where he is going to go to seek sanctuary later on, or the maze in Dr. Schieber's office gives us a visual warning as to one of the film's biggest reveals.

This train may lead you around in circles...that'll lead you
to something you might not want to see....
4) And while we're on the subject of the good Dr....Keifer Sutherland is amazing in this film. While the initial impression is that Sutherland is playing at being Peter Lorre, you realize as you go deeper into the film how Dr. Schrieber's affectations indicate something much more nuanced and, ultimately, much more tragic.

5) No film of this sort can work without a memorable villain, and Richard O'Brien's Mister Hand is more than worthy of the task. O'Brien's physicality just sets the hackles of the back of the neck, and the true irony is how he's even more unsettling the more human he becomes. It's he, and not Ian Richardson's leader, that becomes the Stranger's standard bearer.

Okay, so that little kid who hangs out with Mr. Hand is just as creepy....even more so when we finally hear his one line of dialogue.

6) Make no bones about it--while there are strong suspense and action elements throughout this film, the science fictional elements are not only vital but integral to this plot. There is no way for the film to work without the presence of the Strangers and their experiment. And that gives the film an extra level of flavor to it.

7) ...and the film provides us with a couple of things we never saw before in 1999. Not only that, those things we never saw before are major plot points that move the story forward. The impact of these moments are made all the more impactful by seeing them through Murdock and, later on, Bumstead's eyes--since we emphasize with these characters, their wonder and shock are transferred to us.

I know she looks half-asleep...but trust me, it makes sense.
8) I appreciate how the characters around Murdock seem to gain more awareness the more information Murdock gets. Hurt, Connelly and the others seem positively asleep in the first act, only for them to become more vivid once the layers of the mystery is revealed...

9) ...and while we're on the subject of Jennifer Connelly's Emma, I love the fact that the fate that happens to her at the top of the third act is not a complication, but a way to give Murdock something he truly wants when he achieves his full potential and provides a wonderful coda to the film as a whole.

10) And thankfully, the CGI here is used not in making crazy creatures (the Strangers' true nature are used very sparingly), but in creating the effects of the 'tuning'--which in turn opens up Proyas' creativity, resulting in some innovative fight and chase scenes that take advantage of the mutable nature of the titular Dark City. I know some people might grouse about some similarities to Inception...but Proyas was here first. of the most brilliant science fiction films of all time, a personal favorite, and must-viewing for anyone who wants to see how you can successfully infuse the genre with elements from other styles without obscuring it. Well acted, well written and contains something I promise you'll never have anticipated seeing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ten Statements About....TAKEN 2 (2012)

For God's sake, he punched wolves in the face; what
chance do you think some Albanians stand?
"If I kill you, your other sons will come and seek revenge?"
"They will..."
"And I will kill them too."
1) First off, I'm really relieved that what the trailers hinted at--namely, that Maggie Grace's Kim was going to transform into a hot, flip-floped, bikini'd, braided version of Brian as she rescues her father and mother--didn't happen. Kim does help Brian escape, and becomes the driver in a pretty harrowing car chase in the middle of the second act, but she's still just a girl unfamiliar with the kind of life her father led....and mercifully she's written out for the film's third act.

2) I like the fact that the film chooses as its setting Istanbul, another very beautiful city like Paris, but one that's much more exotic and strange, giving us a greater sense of being adrift in enemy territory. I can almost seeing Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen cranking out new scripts where Brian and Kim find themselves in a new picturesque city defending themselves against a new threat for up and coming directors to shoot. But then...

3) There is a definitive whiff of Besson and Kamen being very self-conscious about this now being a franchise. There are a number of decisions made in this film--from the rather abrupt writing out of Lenore's husband so they can rekindle her romance with Brian to the way a potential extension of this storyline is brought up in the climax--that seem to have been made so that Taken 3, Taken 4 and beyond are already set up. Those decisions stick out as weirdly inorganic and not pertinent to the story.

4) And what would a sequel be without the Unnecessary Cameo By A Beloved Character From The First Film...except that there are several moments where Leland Orsier's Sam could be used logically. Hell, he's referenced several times during the proceeding before his all-too-brief second appearance, and any one of those references could have brought forth a cameo.
Ladies and gentleman, the real reason Maggie Grace is
Lic Besson's muse...

5) It's fairly clever that the story is inverted not only in the obvious way (it's Brian and Lenore who are taken, not Kim), but in the motivations of the characters--Rade Serbedzija's Murad points out that he is operating out of grief over the death of his son just as Brian operated out of love of his daughter in the first film. It gives the movie a strange dark mirror aspect, and results in a fairly nuanced final confrontation.

6) Famke Janssen--who, incidentally, still looks mad hot--is a lot more lively in this film, although I question the decision to reposition her so violently at the beginning of the flick. That being said, there's some really uncomfortable stuff with her being tortured that really stands out like a sore thumb. There's one scene in particular that director Oliver Megaton seems to dwell on far too much, as if he's expecting us to get some dark, shameful joy at what's happening to her.

Yes. That's his name. Oliver. Megaton.

7) I am so relieved that Luke Grimes' Jamie is introduced as Kim's boyfriend and....nothing. He seems to be a little sleazy in his first scene, but he proves to be just a good guy who likes Kim. I can think of a dozen other writers who, in similar movies, would have made Jamie into a real asshat or, even worse, related to Murad's crew. That Besson and Karmen make him part of Kim's healing process and not a contributor to her further trauma is commendable. That being said...
It may be a new city...but this old wolf still hunts.

8) I think we could have spent a few more minutes addressing what Besson and Karmen seem to want us to treat as a major plot thread, namely Kim's shellshock over what happened in the last film. It's referred to a number of times in the first act, and the scene in the foot chase she's involved in where Kim is cornered and at first seems to be ready to show some defiance, only for her to collapse and beg for her life rings true to her nature...but the rest of the film she appears to act as if nothing happened. Hell, there's a couple of scenes that contrast what's going on with her parents and her bubbleheaded Skyping with Jamie. I don't know if this is due to Grace's deficiency as an actor or a conscious choice by the writers, but I think we needed more for her character arc to work.

9) There's one really inventive sequence that shows what Megaton is capable of--the sequence involving Brian trying to construct a map in his mind through counting out seconds and noticing incongruous sounds. It's done primarily through Brian POV, with his hooded eyes being intercut with hazy images of what he hears. This shows that Megaton might have a real career, and not the shaky-cam fight scene bullcrap that obfuscates the action in some stretches.

10) I understand ultimately why they had Brian hide that little mini-cell in his sock--the film would stop dead if he didn't do it--except that there's no reason for him to be sliding it in his sock. His assignment is over, he has no way of knowing the Albanians are coming for him, and he's about to go on a family outing with his ex-wife and child. It rings weird for him to do this, even with Brian's micromanagement of his life already established. It's a jarring moment in an otherwise logical script. it as good as the first film? Not exactly. Is is good? Yes. Yes it is.

I went to the Kip's Bay for this one (AMC still has a deep discount matinee for films before noon, although the price has gone up to $7)....and it was the first time since that legendary showing of Machete where I had problems with the show; we were treated to about fifteen minutes of nothing between the end of the Firstlook and the trailers. And the trailers--eight of them--was a real mishmash of stuff, including the first one for A Good Day To Die Hard that leaves me with a really, really bad feeling about this; the trailer for Skyfall that gives me a really, really good feeling about this; Identity Thief, which reminded me why I hate the average comedy these days; Broken City, a confused looking thriller that might be worthwhile if only to see Russell Crowe cosplaying as Rudy Guiliani; and the Rob Cohen directed, Tyler Perry starring Alex Cross which...doesn't look as bad as the TV spots have been leading me to think it'll be, although I feel it'll rise and fall on how adequate Perry is going to be.