This Filthy World
In jest, John Waters has been given many pets names from the industry, the most amusing of which are “The Duke of Dirt” “The Baron of Bad Taste,” “The Sultan of Sleaze,” and my personal favorite, “The Anal Ambassador.” However, after viewing his interviews and TV appearances over the years and this stand-up tour, you understand how wonderfully silly and semi-appropriate these titles are. But, in all seriousness, John Waters might just be one of the most open-minded, witty, and modest social commentators of our time. This is in no way exclusive to his films, which are near-subversive in their moral assault towards the mainstream. With his appearances, lectures, and stand-up, audiences are given a touching, crude and hilarious back-story to Waters and his inspirations. One which can be revolting and, despite his pet names, quite literate.
Vincent Peranio, a production designer with whom Waters works regularly, designed the stage for the event, which was held at the Harry DeJour Playhouse in New York with an audience of college students. The set consisted of a giant catholic confessional, a tree, and overflowing metal garbage cans. The backdrop provided an appropriate reflection of the director's anarchic motivations as a boy to defy the Catholic church and do everything the nuns in his school forbade him. The trash cans speak for themselves and the tree...well, the students present should have had something hopeful and refreshing to look at.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It turns out that the granddaddy of torture-porn and Slasher-poitation, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, isn’t as exploitive or graphic as its reputation would make you think. It’s actually just some good old fashioned psychological horror, much closer to the economically controlled thrills of Hitchcock than the splatter flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The film is kinda-sorta based on the misdeeds of serial killer Ed Gain (also an inspiration behind the book Psycho), but perhaps more of a direct result of the graphic violence from the Vietnam War seen nightly on television news. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have a set-up that now seems overly familiar, but where it goes was wholly original and how it gets there is utterly horrifying. Shot in a docudrama style, its ultra realistic feel makes it seem even more real; it’s like The Battle Of Algiers meets The Hills Have Eyes.
The ultra low budget flick opens with a somber voice-over narration (read by John Larroquette) announcing that the film is all true (and also giving the impression that it’s deeply important). Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her group of groovy twenty-something friends in their mystery-machine like van are on their way to visit her rural grandfather’s house. Stupidly they pick up a straight razor wielding loony (Edwin Neal) who should have been the first warning that this is one part of Texas you might be advised to stay out of. Eventually they each make their way to a creepy old farmhouse nearby where they are killed off, except for Sally; as the last survivor she’s in for a long night of terror.
The Up Series
Imagine what it would be like to have a visual journal of your life from childhood to middle-age. Would you find the footage painful or nostalgic? Now imagine that this footage is aired on a yearly program in your nation and later available for purchase across the world. Many of us cannot begin to fathom what that would be like, even with the rise in reality television, but for a small group of Brits, it's been a reality for decades.
In 1964, directors Paul Almond and Michael Apted started a program for BBC called Seven Up!. The project was part of the World in Action series. Apted, along with Gordan McDougall, chose 14 children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, many offering extremes within the range. The motto of the project is “give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” based on a quotation from Ignatius Loyola. Given the harshness of the U.K. class system, those involved predicted that the children featured would more or less follow paths that could be expected of them, based on their background. The children range from illegitimate orphans to the extremely pampered, and in order to expose them to children from different class groups, they threw them together in a field trip and studied their behavior through contrast. Following this trip were in-depth interviews with each child and their close peers. This longitudinal study is then repeated every 7 years. The programs are as follows: Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, and a rumored 56 Up is to be aired in 2012.
Night Catches Us
The low-budget period piece, Night Catches Us, is a rare kind of film these days - a complex, quiet, adult drama. More rare it’s about black people, and though it’s intense, the intensity comes from the characters' personal torment, not on-screen violence. In a perfect world Night Catches Us would catapult its first time feature director, Tanya Hamilton, as a major new relevant voice in film, but unfortunately there are no robots or superheroes in this story. The two lead performances by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington reaffirm their standing as two of the most reliable actors of their generation.
What happened to the “Movement” and how does that generation of black revolutionaries learn to live in a world after the revolution has fizzled out? The film slowly opens up and unfolds. It’s 1976, after years of being in exile as a snitch, ex-Black Panther Marcus Washington (Mackie) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood to confront his past. The word on the street was that he got his best friend killed by the cops, which makes him an enemy to the folks in the hood, except that friend’s ex-wife Patricia Wilson (Washington). Also once a radical, she’s now a respectable lawyer raising a daughter as a single mother. She and Marcus seem to have something between them. Is that why her husband was killed? Or are they both just haunted by the death of a man and the loss of a way of life? What's left to fight for or stand for? These are two people lost in the past desperate to find a future. Though they do come together, there are too many ghosts between them to let them really fall in love, which in an Ibsen-like twist is what creates their bond.
Though there’s already been about a dozen since and dozens more to come, Kick-Ass could be considered the final word on the superhero movie; it neatly puts an end to the myth and redefines the genre perfectly. Based on a comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class), Kick-Ass is vivaciously violent and proudly R-rated. It plays as both an action movie and a send-up of the clichés of superheroes and vigilantes flicks. But this is no Hero At Large (a lame John Ritter would-be superhero flick from 1980), though it's humorous and ultra creative, by the end its grim tone moves it closer to the V For Vendetta or even Watchmen heaviness territory.
The film follows three separate New York kid storylines which eventually come together in a most surprising way. Teenage comic-book geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), out of loneliness and an urge to make something of himself, dons a superhero costume, names himself Kick-Ass and sets out to fight crime. His first attempt to take on street punks puts him in the hospital, the good news, though, is he comes out with some actual kinda super-powers; severe nerve damage gives him the capacity to endure extreme pain. His next go at taking on petty criminals is captured on camera and makes the antics of Kick-Ass an Internet sensation.
The most compelling story line is that of an eleven-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her ex-cop father (Nicolas Cage). He has trained her to be a killing machine in both martial arts and weaponry. Using the names Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, their goal is revenge against the mobster Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) whose criminal empire got Big Daddy kicked off the police force. Now he is a man utterly obsessed, and they wreak havoc on Frank’s criminal enterprises, killing his crew slowly. They even rescue Kick-Ass from a jam, creating a minor alliance with him and a common enemy in Frank.
Meanwhile, Frank’s misfit teenage son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, famous for playing McLovin in Superbad) eager to gain his father’s respect and entrance into the family business, convinces his dad that he can lure in the vigilantes with his own superhero persona. He becomes Red Mist and does manage to befriend Kick-Ass, which leads to the gangsters capturing Big-Daddy and then an all out spectacular battle with Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl taking on Red Mist, Frank and his entire criminal team.
Most controversial, like a mini version of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, little Chloe Grace Moretz is a killing machine who kills gleefully (at one point the theme to the Banana Splits plays while she goes on a rampage). She also has a foul mouth (raunchy-mouthed kids have come a long way since The Bad News Bears); strangely some critics were more outraged by her naughty language than her actions.
In an era when superhero flicks seem to be dominating both film and culture, Kick-Ass has the nerve to show the effects that pain and violence can have of the psyches of the heroes. Dave often rues the pain he has caused and the aftermath of his work. Nicolas Cage, in his more rare under control acting mode, brings a lot of sympathy to his on-paper unlikable role, a guy who has taken his daughter’s childhood from her. His outcome is eventually tragic, but the film is so exciting that the audience never has time to be mired in too much sadness. Though Kick-Ass is truly a live action comic book, it has the heart and emotional sophistication of a great novel.
Trick 'r Treat
WARNING: Review contains spoilers.
Trick 'r Treat might just be the greatest Halloween horror film to date. Not only do most of the horror films that people choose to scare themselves with around the holiday not even circulate around the event, but those that do, such as the films that make up the Halloween franchise, fail to approach the mysticism of Halloween itself. Don't get me wrong, many of them are awesome movies, but they use Halloween as a crutch instead of integrating it into the plot.
Friday the 13th:The Final Chapter
Franchise films are a bittersweet realm. They stay fairly safe when they reach the prequels and sequels, but everything past that tends to get a little sloppy. The reasons are usually quite simple: either there were too many hands in the cookie jar in production, a bad team working on the film (director, casting, etc.) or, the plot just gets exhausted to the point of being tasteless and dull.
The Friday the 13th franchise is perhaps one of the most successful overall, coming in second to A Nightmare on Elm St. Up until the fifth or sixth film, you can pretty much find something amusing within each story. When you think about it, there are several films you can make about an impenetrable boogeyman who attacks oversexed (or in the case of this film, undersexed) teenagers who camp on his turf.
During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).Continue Reading
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.
The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.
Anatomy of a Murder
Director Otto Preminger seemed to look for controversial subjects all through his career but with his two hour and forty minute courtroom masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder, he might’ve gone farther than 1959 audiences could handle. The film is about a lawyer defending a man who’s accused of killing a guy who possibly raped his wife. If that wasn’t lurid enough for audiences, they especially got all angsty over a word that was repeated in the trial, that horrific word…. “panties” (you know, women’s underwear). For anyone who can get past such a lewd word, Anatomy of a Murder is very dense in detail, almost an epic in just exploring the small details of a legal case. And it’s still one of the best lawyer flicks ever.
The film is loaded with talent on both sides of the camera including a famous title sequence by Saul Bass (Psycho) and a catchy score by Duke Ellington (strange since the film takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—not exactly a “jazzy” part of the country. Also, Duke appears in a cameo as well.) Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker wrote the book based on a real life case; the script was shrewdly adapted by Wendell Mayes (The Poseidon Adventure, Death Wish). It’s also shot in cool black & white by the dependable cinematographer Sam Leavitt (A Star Is Born, Exodus, Major Dundee) and it was edited by another pro, Louis R. Loeffler (Laura, The Long Hot Summer). And of course director/producer, the Hungarian-born Preminger himself, was one of the big guns of his era, with a directing career going back to the Noir period (Laura, Whirlpool). Anatomy of a Murder was easily his best film but everything he did, no matter the overall quality, was always interesting.