Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes Craven 1939 - 2015

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET could have been the only movie Wes Craven ever made and it would have been enough. Age, the numerous sequels and imitators, Freddy Krueger’s transformation into a pop culture icon have done nothing to diminish how original and legitimately terrifying the first movie was. From the opening moments, as we watch Krueger assembling his signature glove, we feel like we’re trapped. We’re in that boiler room with him, curled up in a corner, and he’s about to use that thing on us. It never lets up from there, dragging us into this dark fantasy about parents’ sins coming back around on their children in the worst way. Before he was reshaped into a wisecracking cartoon character, Krueger was the boogeyman through and through. When he corners his first victim in the original movie and she begs God for help, there are no wisecracks, no gimmicks. He just brandishes that damn glove at her and with a gleefully sadistic smile on his face, snarls “THIS is God!” For years afterward, late at night, as I’m lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, my subconscious would love to occasionally poke me with that moment. It’s only fitting.

Funny thing is, I didn’t get around to seeing to seeing the first NIGHTMARE until I was in college, renting it from Video Warehouse, one of those mom and pop places that don’t exist anymore. Y’know, where you could walk in with ten dollars and walk out with a big stack of VHS cassettes and still have enough left over to go grab a burger and a soda. My first NIGHTMARE movie was the third one, THE DREAM WARRIORS, which one of my sisters rented back when I was a sprout. Craven didn’t direct that one but he was involved as a producer and wrote the story, hoping to right the ship after New Line Cinema rushed out a cheap sequel, the amazingly inept FREDDY’S REVENGE. Even before that, though, little Bill Smiley knew who the hell Freddy Krueger was. If you did any growing up in the mid-to-late 80’s, you couldn’t escape him. He was at the theater, he was on TV, magazines, comics, he was showing up in commercials. To me and other like kids me, the man with hat and glove and certain hockey-mask wearing hulk were our Dracula and the Wolf Man. Our Godzilla and King Kong. They were the guys in those movies that your parents and the Helen Lovejoys of the world didn’t want you to see, which just made you more determined to get your hands on them. ALIEN may have been my first horror movie but it was the NIGHTMARE series that made me sit up and take notice of the genre.

 Had NIGHTMARE been it, that would have been enough and Craven’s death yesterday from cancer would have hit fans of horror films every bit as hard. Thing is, Craven did more than give the world Freddy Krueger. I don’t know if I could unequivocally say that he had the most impact on the horror genre when compared to his contemporaries. That would have to be settled via a fight with John Carpenter while George Romero referees, but nobody did it in the way that Craven did. Most directors would give their good teeth to make a movie that had an impact on popular culture that something like HALLOWEEN or THE EXORCIST did. With LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, NIGHTMARE, and SCREAM, Craven did that three times across as many decades. Dig deeper than that and you’ll see how ahead of his time his output could be. The only NIGHTMARE sequel he directed, THE NEW NIGHTMARE, was doing meta-fictional horror years before every Inky, Blinky, and Clyde in the film industry was having their characters go “Wow, this totally like a horror movie!” THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS had an African-American kid and a young girl as its heroes back when that was something that didn’t happen. Heck, Craven was pretty big on giving memorable roles to women in his movies. Apologies to HALLOWEEN’S Laurie Strode, NIGHTMARE’S Nancy Thompson is the Ur Final Girl of slasher movies as far as I’m concerned, an ancestor of characters like Buffy Summers. Not surprising that the best NIGHTMARE movies not only have Craven’s heavy involvement but have Heather Langenkamp in the cast, too. (We at Psychoplasmics are all LANGENKAMP UBER ALLES up in here.)

Significant thing about this is that Craven managed to do it without really being the best of directors. Even his strongest works can be crude and messy in places. He certainly wasn’t a Carpenter-level craftsman or an extravagant stylist like Dario Argento. But remember the motto of this blog, “bad” or “not good” (there’s a difference!) doesn’t translate to not interesting or worth talking about and Craven was definitely an interesting director. He wasn’t the type of filmmaker that threw out a high concept and left things at that but drew heavily from his own experiences and ideas that he felt strongly about. When you have someone like that behind the camera, it doesn’t matter what the result is, something about it will stick with you. When you get a director like that material that they can get a good handle on? Look out. Need an example? Check his first two movies. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination but it has these moments that you can’t shake off no matter how hard you try. It’s an exploitation version of Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, for crying out loud! What did he follow it up with? THE HILL HAVE EYES and you can take my word on it that that is a horror movie that will kick your butt all over the room. It’s also fashionable to kick the SCREAM franchise around but you won’t see me do it. Rather than the notion that “anybody could have directed Kevin Williamson’s script” I believe in the complete reverse: only Craven could have gotten as fun of a movie out of that screenplay. I mean, Good God, have you seen the other stuff Williamson has written? And even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the series, I’d still come to its defense because it’s central to some of my favorite movie going memories. One was seeing the original on a free movie night at my future alma mater, Louisiana Tech, and I can’t tell you what a phenomenal experience, how much it adds, sitting in an auditorium full of people who are shrieking like little kids or laughing or applauding at all the moments the movie wants them too. I saw SCREAM 2 in theaters with my Dad. My Dad doesn’t like modern horror movies and especially doesn’t like slashers, but when we came out of the theater, he was telling me how much he enjoyed it and even said that there were parts that had him on the edge of his seat as bad as anything by Hitchcock. Considering my Dad regularly declares they haven’t made a good movie since insert Clint Eastwood title here, that’s saying a lot. Even SCREAM 4 had its moments.

Not only did I respect the movies he made but I respected the man. You listened to one of his commentary tracks or watched or read an interview he gave, you didn’t get the deviant that I’m sure the self-appointed moral guardians pictured. Instead, what you saw was a very well-spoken, thoughtful, and intelligent man. He looks like one of those fatherly teachers that inspires his students to greatness in a TV movie. You were always going to hear something worthwhile when you listened to the man, whether it was talking about his sheltered religious upbringing or working with Robert Englund or his understanding of horror itself. That was the other great thing about Craven. He got it. He knew that horror stories aren’t the cause of the world’s great evils, but that they’re the latest in one of the oldest tradtions, going back to the old myths and campire tales. They don’t create them but they arm us with what we need to confront them.

How much better off would the horror genre be if we had a dozen directors like him? Unfortunately, we only had the one, and now he has passed. With his passing, something big for me and lot of other people has come to an end.

Rest in peace, sir.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Defense of Utter Garbage and Other Thoughts

PSYCHOPLASMICS could have been a podcast. If, y’know, had I the time, equipment, money or even the slightest idea at all of how to begin making one of those.  Or maybe even a YouTube channel, except we run into the same problems, and between you and me, folks, I don’t think YouTube needs yet another goof on there rattling on about movies and how great he thinks DARK SOULS is. I know a couple of guys who do that already and I don’t really want to be barging in on their turf, anyway. Still, it had to exist in some form. It was an itch that needed to be scratched and saying “no” to it was not an option. So, I looked into setting up something on blogspot, was pleased to discover that I was already signed up as part of my g-mail account, and then a little miffed to find that I had been beaten to the name THE CATHODE RAY MISSION. Fortunately, David Cronenberg movies have plenty of other weird, catchy sounding names and terminology to swipe.

Well, that covers the “how” this blog came about but maybe you’re curious about the “why?” Most likely not, but this is my little corner of the internet, so I’m going to tell you anyway. Simple: I was checking twitter one day a few weeks ago and ran across some friends talking about a certain Stallone movie, you know the one, and this prompted me to dig out my copy, snagged years ago out of a discount bin. When it was over I was amazed and pretty baffled by what I watched. I mentioned in my first post that COBRA never takes itself less than one hundred percent seriously and I think that grim straight-faced tone is major reason why I don’t remember that movie being nearly that batshit insane the last time I watched it. I went and made some comments about this on twitter, but it turns out that wasn’t enough. I found that I had more that I wanted to say and it wouldn’t leave me alone. So, couple weeks ago, while I was helping my sister out with watching her kid during the day, I swiped her laptop and started hammering on that COBRA review. It took about three or four attempts before I could get it to where I deemed it acceptable and I stayed up so late finish it up and polish it a couple of nights that the amount of sleep could be considered a glorified nap but it was worth it, I think. Could’ve been better, sure; it always can. I think it’s a little long and scattershot; the result of me trying to work in every single comment I could think of and rewriting big chunks of it right up to the morning I posted it. Still, I think it a makes fun little read. More importantly to me, people responded to it. They thought it was a fun little read. They liked the observations I made and they enjoyed talking with me about it. That is a kick, right there. That’s what makes all the time and effort I put into that worthwhile and that’s why I’m going to keep on doing it. Because when I’m struggling with writing something and I think that I don’t know what I’m doing and wasting my time, I have something I can point at and tell myself, “Calm down, you panicky git. People like this. Write more for them.”

And yes, this is all due to COBRA. Not JAWS, which is my favorite movie of all time. Or something by Peckinpah, who is my favorite director. Or anything by Kurosawa, Kubrick, Bergman, Melville, Leone, Coppola, Kobayashi, or Scorsese. The movie that made me want to take up writing about movies for the first time in years; to actually give serious consideration to seeing if I could make something out of my writing, was a friggin’ Stallone shoot-‘em-up from the producers that gave us THE AMERICAN NINJA series, a stack of Chuck Norris movies, and competing films about the lambada.

 Really, though, what’s so wrong with that?  Why not COBRA? (Why *not* Zoidberg?) There's this mindset, probably been around as long as we’ve had the arts and entertainment but has become more visible to me with the advent of stuff like YouTube or sites like or Buzzfeed or social media in general. Two of them, really, though they’re connected. One is the whole idea that movies are some kind of math problem. That if you point out all the mistakes, the goofs, all the plot holes, how this would not work in real life etc. etc. and do it as loudly and with much snark and profanity as possible, you’ve “solved” the movie. What “solving” it gets you I can’t tell. That you can notice a mistake? Show what a smartass you can be? Nothing wrong with that, I guess. There are probably places you can put that to better use. This is everywhere, too. “Honest” movie trailers, “Everything Wrong With…” videos, “How It Should Have Ended,” 248 PLOT HOLES YOU MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED BECAUSE YOU WERE ACTUALLY ENJOYING THE MOVIE, on and on and on. Like they’re all hoping to be the one who discovers the next “You know that if Indiana Jones wasn’t in RAIDERS it would have ended the same way?” Then there’s this whole idea of liking things “ironically.” That it’s okay to like this dumb movie but you have to do it at a remove. That you’re not really enjoying this stupid thing, you’re enjoying saying “Look at how stupid this is! Isn’t this stupid?” This is why we have three SHARKNADO movies. Three of them. Contemplate that on the Tree of Woe.

(Note: "This Guy Will Not Shut Up About CONAN / THE TERMINATOR / ROBOCOP" was also a possible title for this blog. Reviewing them here would likely be superfluous because of how often I'll refer back to them.)

To quote one Crow T. Robot, these approaches need to get a stepladder so they can jump off my butt. Both of them come from the same source, which I think is the absolute worst thing to happen to discussion of any form of art: this smug need to prove how much smarter you are than what you constantly consume. I hate that so much for one simple reason: it’s all about detachment. It’s all about unwillingness to come at something at its level and see what it was aiming for, how it fits together and how it ticks. Why would you do that? It adds nothing to the experience. You don't win a prize by doing this.
Let me tell you why I watch movies. I don't throw on The DOLLARS trilogy because they’re full of realistic gun battles and a historically accurate depiction of Civil War-era America. For me, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is that close up on The Man With No Name’s face. Seeing his hat brim come up and that look in his eyes and knowing he’s done joking about those goons apologizing to his mule and things are about to set off. Or in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, when Tuco’s lies to save face over his disastrous reunion with his brother and Blondie, knowing he’s lying, smiles and hands him a cigar. It's that feeling you get in JAWS when you hear Chief Brody yell in victory when he finally blows up ole Bruce. (God, if winning by the skin of your teeth has a sound…) It’s Robocop turning to the OCP President and telling him that his name is Murphy. Monument Valley in all its glory in a John Ford western. When the music really kicks in during the truck chase in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. They're about how striking this person or this place or this camera motion looks. They’re about the ghost of a smile on a face, the light of greed in a person's eyes, a touch between two people, colors, sounds, rhythms…and yeah, sometimes, it’s simply “that blowed up real good.”  You cannot boil this down to some formula because what is exchanged between the screen and the audience is unique for each individual. Somebody can see something truly beautiful and life affirming in a cheap MAD MAX knock-off out of Italy as much as someone else can in an “important” movie from an “important” filmmaker. There is no distance between the two.
Which brings us back to COBRA. COBRA is trash. It’s a bad movie. Here’s the thing, though, whether or not something is “bad” does not determine whether or not it’s entertaining or interesting. It does not mean that there is nothing worth saying about it. People who are a lot smarter than me and have written more about art than I probably ever will have emphasized that and y’ know what? I’ve seen it proven time and time again. It’s going to be the unspoken mantra of this blog. I’ll take it one step further. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t engage with a trashy movie, I don’t believe you’ll be able to with a legitimately great one. Need proof? Scroll back a couple entries. DIRTY HARRY is a good movie. COBRA takes all the wrong lessons from it to a ridiculous extreme. By talking about what the latter does in handling the same subject matter helps underline how the former handled it more than if I was talking about it alone. Had I not spent all that time working my brain to piece together what appeals to me about COBRA and all its lurid, fascist nonsense, I either could not articulate why I loved THE APARTMENT so much or I would have had a much harder time doing it.  You know what’s something I’m considering writing about for this blog? M.D. GEIST. Have you people seen M.D. GEIST? There’s a reason it’s called “The second worst anime ever made.” And yet you can look at M.D. GEIST and use it talk about the anime industry at the time it was made or parse out what was going on with the American anime fandom that made that it successful enough to get a sequel produced for the Americans despite it being unappealingly awful in everyway. You can say something about Albert Pyun movies, for crying out loud, even if it’s only “how can this guy keep screwing up what should be at least watchable via the bizarre concept alone?” To discuss any form of art and make no effort to understand the hows and whys of it is insulting and lazy and I will not contribute to that.

So this is what you are going to get with PSYCHOPLASMICS. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blockbuster or this obscure, bizarre curio that no one else has ever heard of, if it gets its hooks in me, I’m going to write about it. NINJA III: THE DOMINATION has as much pull around here as THE WILD BUNCH or Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS. Know what? I may end up not writing only about movies here. You may see a video game wind up on here, or a novel, or a Hellboy comic or some crazy manga or a grocery list if clicks with me. Sometimes I won’t even talk about the whole movie or I could be talking about an entire category of movies that appeals to me. Already one of each is kicking around in my head. In the near future there’s going to be a post about why I love the opening to the Tommy Lee Jones movie BLACK MOON RISING so much and another about knock-offs of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO. I hope. Remember the words of Al Swearengen, that announcing your plans is a good way to make God laugh, and let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Furthermore, you are going to get a lot of writing about “me” here. I’m not the most social guy in the world. I’m quiet and difficult to get close to (unless you’re a dog) and internalize a lot of things. I’m constantly worrying that this makes me come off as more off-putting than I really am and talking about it is a struggle. But I’m finding that with writing about something that I love, the movies, makes it easier to put these things into words. I’ll admit, I was terrified wondering what reaction you all might have to some of the stuff I wrote in that post about THE APARTMENT. That I was letting you see me bleed too much, that I was being maudlin and embarrassing myself. Turns out that my fears were unfounded. There was no reaction and people still liked what I wrote. But the important thing is, I was able to talk about things that have been nesting in my gut for years in a space with people I trust and now that’s out of there. If that’s what it takes, I’ll be maudlin and embarrass myself if I have to. (But not too often.) Even if my writing just stays this thing I do for fun and never opens up a way to a more professional gig, I’m already convinced that this will be good for me in the long run. Fingers crossed, though. I think I might actually have a knack for it and would love to see how I’d do with a good editor around to keep me in line. God forbid, I might even post something original here. (That’s not going to happen any time soon, you can breathe a sigh of relief.)

One more thing before I go and that’s to give credit to where credit is due. To my crew from the old Stomp Tokyo B-Movie Message Board and associates, PSYCHOPLASMICS would not exist at all without you. Those boards were where I got the first taste of people being interested in what I have to say about anything and as the years have gone on, you’ve affected me even more. Not just the writing that some of you have done, though that is a big factor, but knowing you and being friends with you have influenced and helped me in ways that I can’t list, not only with talking about movies but with life. At the very least, if it weren’t for you guys I wouldn’t have even considered in a million years seeing a lot of films that I love to death now. So, Gavin, Zack, Travis, Tim, Other Tim, Dave, Other Dave, Chad, Other Chad, (I’ll let ya’ll fight over who is who) Mike, Jessica and Scott, Sean, Lisa, Freeman, Amelia, Bryan, and so many others I could name…you are my audience and this whole project is for you guys as much as it is for me. Hope that it’s around for a long time. For the rest of you, welcome aboard and please click on my friends’ links up there in the corner, which you can now see because I changed the template and got rid of that damn pop-up sidebar. Give ‘em a read. <Subotai>It’s the good stuff.</Subotai>

Oh, and I’m coming to B-Fest someday. Count on it. Don’t know how, don’t know when, but you knuckleheads aren’t going to be able to hide from me forever. I’ll crate myself up and get myself shipped to Chicago if I have to. I’ll hitch a ride on the wing and scare the crap out of William Shatner if that’s what it takes.

Ok, one more thing. That whole deal about how RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would have ended the same way if you took Indy out of the story? Shut up. Enough of that nonsense. Try to actually imagine a version of RAIDERS that doesn’t have Indiana Jones in it. That’s a version where Marion gets killed, there’s no Sallah, no Captain Katanga, probably no Nazi accidentally Sieg-Hiel-ing a monkey, certainly wouldn’t have the greatest action sequences put on film. It’d be nothing but us hanging out with Nazis and this French jerk who then die horribly. All pointing out that proves is that there could be a take on RAIDERS that nobody would want to watch. Stop it.

A Little Something Extra:
”Automatic System Habit” by Garbage, because some days we need to hear Shirley Manson going on about how she wants to be “your dirty little secret.” We call those days every day.

Friday, August 21, 2015


Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurry, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walsten
Running Time: 125 minutes
Tagline:Movie-wise, there has never been anything like it - laugh-wise, love-wise, or otherwise-wise!”

I had plans to do at least two different things for my second post here at PSYCHOPLASMICS. One was a review of Paul Verhoeven’s medieval sword and scoundrel film FLESH + BLOOD. The other started as a little tangent from an earlier version of my COBRA review that ended up getting up cut out but I liked the idea of it enough to want to expand it into a post that would serve as something of a mission statement, both from this blog and for me personally. But those had to be put aside for the time being for a couple of reasons. One was that trying to decide which to do next was giving me trouble getting either of them started. The other was that I finally got around to seeing, on a friend’s recommendation, Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy THE APARTMENT. As only the most interesting movies can, (I was going to say “the best movies” but, y’know…COBRA.)  it moved right into my headspace and refused to leave until I said something about it.  Now, this isn’t the first movie I’ve seen by Wilder; I caught SOME LIKE IT HOT years back (that’s due for a rewatch) and recently had the good fortune to see his two incredibly influential noirs, SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, within a short span of time. (Sure, your movie is good, but is it “every single second Edward G. Robinson is on screen in INDEMNITY” good?) Credit where it is due to those other films, THE APARTMENT is easily my favorite of the Wilder movies I’ve seen and I have no doubts of it becoming one of my favorite movies period. 

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a little guy in the big city, New York in this case. He’s a clerk at Consolidated Life, one of the biggest insurance firms in the city. Outside of his job, he doesn’t seem to have much of a life that we can see. A frozen chicken dinner and trying to find something to watch on TV appears to how his nights usually go. “I lived like Robinson Crusoe. Shipwrecked in a city of eight million people” is how he describes himself at one point. So, it’s not that big of surprise to us that advancing his career takes such priority…which brings us to this problem with his apartment. How it exactly came to be is only hinted at but Baxter’s apartment has become the location of choice when his bosses want to steal away for a little time with their mistresses and don’t want to run risk of word of their dalliances getting back to their wives. Getting thrown out of his apartment at all hours plays hell with his sleeping schedule and health; the women constantly coming and going and sounds of partying night after night have also resulted in his next door neighbors thinking that Baxter is some kind of hedonistic letch; but, letting his bosses take advantage of him like this may be the only way Baxter can get the promotion he wants without spending years in the coal mines, so to speak. You can imagine his disappointment when a chance to get that promotion finally comes and its not a reward for all his hard work but because his personnel manager Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) wants to make use of his apartment, too. Baxter goes ahead and gives him a spare key though, because, well, his job is all he’s got.

The one bright spot in Baxter life is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the woman who operates the elevator that Baxter takes every day. Baxter is pretty clearly smitten with her (God, who wouldn’t be? MacLaine was not only a serious cutie back then but that haircut...) and the two seem to truly enjoy each other’s company. So, it’s something of a revoltin’ development, to quote Ben Grimm, when it turns out that Miss Kubelik is Sheldrake’s latest fling. It’s clear to Fran that Sheldrake is exactly the kind of arrogant narcissist who will string a woman along with promises of divorcing his wife and running off to some romantic future but will not follow through; not out love for his wife, mind you, just that a divorce would be so damned inconvenient. Fran still holds a torch for the man and it’s causing her no small amount of emotional distress. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, after Sheldrake’s secretary drunkenly informs Fran that she’s not the first thing on the side Sheldrake’s had, and following an argument with Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment.  (The moment when he hands Fran a hundred dollar bill and tells her to get herself something nice for Christmas in lieu of actually getting her a gift was so cluelessly cruel it had me yelling at the dad from MY THREE SONS for what a monumental ass he was being.) Fed up and heartbroken, Fran takes this as the last straw and decides to end it all by downing a bottle of sleeping pills. It’s fortunate for her that Baxter comes home a few minutes later, himself three sheets to the wind over learning of Sheldrake and Fran’s relationship, and discovers Fran unconscious in his bedroom. He’s lucky enough to live right next door to a doctor (Jack Kruschen) and the two of them are able to pump Fran’s stomach and keep her conscious long enough to get her out of danger.

It looks like Fran will recover but she’s in no condition to go anywhere. Sheldrake, who wants to keep his name as far away from his mistress’s suicide attempt as possible, isn’t going to be any help. While Fran has a family, a sister and brother-in-law, Baxter is too scared of what might happen to contact them, so it looks like he’s stuck with caring for the convalescing woman for the next 48 hours. Funny thing, though, that turns out to be the best thing that could happen to the two of them… 

Story goes that the idea for THE APARTMENT came to Billly Wilder when he was watching the David Lean film A BRIEF ENCOUNTER. In that movie, there was scene where a friend of the main characters, a couple having an affair, allowed them to use his apartment for one of their trysts. Wilder apparently found this character, who appeared only briefly, far more compelling than the leads. Who exactly would do something like that? How would they react to coming home afterwards? (Like most artists who show a knack for picking apart American culture, Wilder was an outsider looking from within; a German immigrant who fled the Nazis and came to the U.S. to make films.) Learning of a number of real life incidents that involved more or less the same situation around Hollywood inspired Wilder further. However, at the time the restrictions set in place by the Hays Code meant that getting a comedy-drama based around infidelity produced was highly unlikely. Thankfully, by the time the late 50’s rolled in, the Code was becoming a thing of the past, thereby freeing Wilder to make the film he wanted. 

In his words, THE APARTMENT was a story about the “emancipation of two people” who are victims of corporate callousness and for the emancipation part of the story to work at all, you needed to see just what it was they need to be emancipated from. Needless to say, being cogs in the machine isn’t doing Baxter and Fran’s well-being any favors. She’s an emotional wreck over a man who couldn’t be bothered to buy her a Christmas present and he’s a schmuck who lets his bosses, who could most charitably be described as a bunch of shallow, smug pricks, walk all over him. It’s only after they’ve been knocked down to their lowest point that they find something else worth grasping on to. This brings me to one of the things that stuck out at me as I was looking into the history of the film; while a financial success and later an Academy award winner, THE APARTMENT got a mixed reaction from critics. Many found the film’s subject matter objectionable and furthermore couldn’t reconcile with the way that the film mixed pathos and slapstick humor. Pauline Kael rather infamously called the film “a dirty fairy tale.” Amusingly, I actually like that phrase a lot. I think it describes THE APARTMENT beautifully. We’ll ignore that she meant it as a condemnation.

Well, the audiences disagreed, and time has proven them incorrect but I still feel compelled to kick a little more dirt at the dissenters. Seriously guys, you couldn’t have been more wrong. Had THE APARTMENT been this fun, frothy little comedy with charming dialogue and performances and never bothered to go to the dark places that it does, I probably would’ve enjoyed it but it wouldn't have had much of a lasting effect. It’s Fran’s suicide attempt and the events that follow that make this movie such a compelling piece of film. THE APARTMENT is willing to go to some pretty dark places but remains completely humane while doing so, never once losing its warmth and empathy towards its two lead characters. No scene in the movie best exemplifies this than the one where Baxter makes light of his own botched suicide to cheer up Fran. (One line in particular speaks volumes: “I couldn’t bend my knee for close to a year, but I got over the girl in three weeks.”) It certainly helps that Wilder cast the two roles so perfectly.  For a good chunk of the film’s running time, Baxter doesn’t display much in the way of redeeming qualities but we like him anyway, simply because Jack Lemmon is so dang likeable. His performance is  both low key and incredibly physical, giving us everything ranging from his comical reactions to having to shuffle around his bosses scheduled stopovers to a quietly  played moment when he learns just what Fran’s relationship with Sheldrake is. He’s so good here that it’s no surprise that he was Wilder’s choice for the role from moment one. Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe was going to play Fran. Now I don’t know if that was true but if it was well, I can’t see her working in the role, can you? Having Fran be this breathy voiced blonde bombshell would have taken something away from the character while MacLaine easily brings the right mix of sharp wit and extreme vulnerability it needed. It’s no surprise then this was her breakout role. Or that I started crushing on Fran so easily. I mean, come on: cute, funny with a lot of flair, but masking an emotional turmoil that’s on-par with an F5 tornado? That’s my kind of woman.

It may come as a shock to you, but beneath this grand façade of overpowering machismo is the heart of a romantic fool. I don’t think there’s a more “it me” line of dialogue in cinema than Holly Mason in THE THIRD MAN drunkenly stating “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m just a hack writer…who falls in love with girls.” I’m not ashamed to admit it, I love a good love story; poor old Holly watching the woman he loves walk right by him at Harry Lime’s funeral; Rick sacrificing his own happiness for Ilsa; Kyle Reese crossing time for Sarah Conner; Valeria telling Conan The Barbarian “Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.” (Now, you can argue with me that isn’t the most romantic line of dialogue ever written but I must warn you if you do: knives will come out and shall not return to their sheaths until they have drawn blood.) For the longest time, though, I didn’t really have much interest in romantic movies by themselves. Clueless that I was, I figured it was a genre that was Not For Me; the home of stories about generic pretty people wandering if their love will survive this trip to Paris or workaholics whose lives are changed by a quirky free spirit who’s dying of one of those diseases that makes them look more saintly and beautiful. Well, I can’t stand “quirky,” I have a face for radio, and my bank account is such an abyss I’d be lucky to afford a trip to Paris. Texas. Paris, Texas. I was proven wrong, however, when I finally decided to fill in one of the big gaps in my movie watching experience and check out some of the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. I don’t know if I can do the man’s career justice so I’ll keep things simple: CHUNGKING EXPRESS was fantastic and FALLEN ANGELS was pretty okay but felt too much like CKE 2.0, but both of those films are overshadowed in my mind by his 2000 release, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. (I still need to get off my butt and see 2046.)

I can’t call this movie anything but beautiful. It’s also an achingly sad one. I think all the best romances need a bit of sadness to them, don’t you? Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, it tells the story of two neighbors in mid-20th century Hong Kong who are doing everything they can to deny the bond forming between them as they drift away from their spouses. (Who, unbeknownst to them, are cheating on them with each other.) There’s nothing of the nonsense I mentioned or say like “It’s totally okay that character X is cheating because their spouse / partner is a dick and in the way of Twu Wuv!” (OH HOW WE HATES THAT, PRECIOUS!) It’s simply about two people who want to feel that connection again, finding it over little things like eating cheap noodles together or writing a kung fu serial. That right there, ladies and gentlemen, is something I can relate to. I was hooked then and wanted more. Ironically, another one I would enjoy was BREEZY, directed by Clint Eastwood, which does feature a lonely workaholic whose hum drum life is brightened by the entrance into by a quirky free spirit. Granted, she’s not dying in that. Maybe that’s it?

Watching THE APARTMENT helped coalesce something in my head about why I’ve suddenly turned around on romances. Obviously, a big part of it is just “You’re watching good movies, duh” but that not the only thing. You see, I need movies like this. Love is great, they tell me, except when it isn’t, and if you wouldn’t mind me getting all personal for a bit, I can say that my experiences with it have been more the latter than the former. Relationships that fizzled before they even started; someone you thought was going to be something major, only for them to up and leave you one day, no explanation given. A one sided attraction that lead you to do and say things you still regret a decade and change later, and cost you friends. Even worse, they don’t even hate you for it, you’re just a joke to them now. Finding yourself in that same situation again, hoping that you’re older, wiser, at least more aware enough to keep history from repeating. Terrified that you’re not. It’s not right, is it, that the same people who make us feel admiration, affection, attraction towards them also by equal turns make you feel angry and confused; resigned to idea that it’s always going to be this way; so frustrated you want to punch a wall, just so your scraped knuckles will give you something else to think about. It’s not fair to them either. They aren’t doing this to you; it’s all that nonsense that refuses to turn loose of your brain and heart that’s at fault here. Believe me, folks, when a despondent Fran asks “Why do people have to love people, anyway?” or “I wonder how long it takes to get someone you’re stuck on out of your system. Do they make a pump for that?” Baxter isn’t the only one nodding his head and going “I know what you mean.” (I’m wishing for a switch that I could just turn on and off myself.) It’s a joke in our culture but I can understand why watching these movies make people want to sob into a bucket of ice cream. They can grab a hold of some thoroughly ugly emotions, things you don’t want to look at and force you to do it. Just takes a line of dialogue, a look on someone’s face, a note on the soundtrack and something you want so desperately to stay in place gives way and aw crap; here comes the waterworks and the snot and that noise that sounds more like something a small dog would make.

It hurts. God, it hurts. It feels like you broke something. But y’know what? Sometimes you need to do that so that an earlier injury can heal properly. That’s why I’ll keep seeking out these movies. They’re catharsis; therapy. If I hadn’t watched THE APARTMENT, I don’t know if I’d ever have been able to write that last stretch, because bloody hell, it wasn’t easy. It’s a movie that tells you that, despite how bad things look now, things can turn out OK and you can end up becoming a better person for it. I’d say that’s a message worth enduring a little heartache over, wouldn’t you?

“Shut up and deal.”

A Little Something Extra:

That’s a heavy note to end things on, isn’t it? What say I leave you with something that gets your blood going? Among the positive things I’ll have to say about the year of our lord 2015 will be discovering the existence of Australian musician Brody Dalle. I wish I had learned about her and her band The Distillers back in college, because I get the feeling they would been Very Important to Young William. Certainly would have been better than all that terrible nu-metal I listened to. (Yes, Virginia, I owned a Slipknot album.) Here’s one of my favorite tracks from her band Spinnerette. Give it a listen, get up and move.

C’mon babe, I never needed you so bad,
You were born under a full moon,
But baby, I’m the only one howlin’.

Monday, August 17, 2015

COBRA (1986)

Director: George P. Cosmatos
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone (Based on the novel “Fair Game” by Paula Gosling.)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Brian Thompson, Andrew Robinson.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Tagline: “The Strong Arm of the Law.”  

If COBRA was a different sort of movie, that the Scorpio Killer from DIRTY HARRY (Andrew Robinson) shows up as the we-do-things-by-the-book police captain would have been intentional. It was because of Harry Callahan’s refusal to do things in accordance with the rules, remember, that botched his arrest and lead to Scorpio walking free despite all the damning evidence against him. We get the impression that Robinson certainly understands this and, knowing what an utterly cockamamie movie he's in, chews the scenery accordingly. Everyone else involved in the making of COBRA, however, seems to have lacked that level of self-awareness. 

“Cobra” would be one Officer Marion Cobretti, (Sylvester Stallone) the pride of the L.A.P.D.’s “Zombie Squad,” where he seems to be an elite unit unto himself, a last resort type called in when diplomacy fails and a liberal application of high velocity lead is needed to resolve things. If there are any other members of the “Zombie Squad” outside of Cobretti and his partner Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), we never meet them. Cobretti we’re introduced to with the film’s opening, a gritty voice over that rattles off a string of violent crime statistics before he draws his .45 and fires directly into the screen. I’d say that’s a statement of intent. 

Though his superiors don’t approve of his hardline approach to crime, as is the habit of movie police captains, Cobra is given the go ahead to “do what he does best” in pursuit of the Night Slasher, a vicious serial killer responsible for 16 deaths that the regular police force have had no luck in catching. There’s a reason for that, though. The Night Slasher (Brian Thompson) isn’t just some psychopath operating by himself but the leader of an organized cult whose members have infiltrated the police department. Cobra realizes that they’re dealing with an army of killers but can’t get any of the higher ups to believe him. This refusal to buy into the multiple killers angle will continue after Cobretti comes under attack by groups of assailants several times. 
The big break in the case comes when model Ingrid Knudsen (Brigette Nielsen) unknowingly witnesses the Night Slasher’s latest murder. (Note to all would-be serial killers reading this, if somebody drives by your murder scene, it’s not a good idea to just stand out in the middle of the street so they can get a good look at your sweaty, wild-eyed face and drive off.) Now the Night Slasher’s next target, Ingrid is placed under Cobretti’s protection and he’ll do what he can to get her out of harm’s way.  No prize for you if you conclude that will involve a lot of stalking, car chases, explosions, and gun fire.

COBRA isn’t particularly subtle about the way it tries to update DIRTY HARRY for the muscles-and-machine-guns crowd, going beyond simply sharing the “hard-as-nails cop versus nameless psychopath” scenario. Even back in high school when I first caught it on TBS, I picked up on how laughably blatant the similarities were. When his superiors remind Cobretti that he’s a “cop who gets the jobs nobody wants,” you can’t help but hear echoes of Harry Callahan angrily muttering “...every dirty job that comes along.” Facing off with a psychopath that’s taken a supermarket hostage, he tells the creep in question to “go ahead...” before emptying a clip into the guy. By that point, co-opting two of the major supporting actors from DIRTY HARRY is just overdoing it. I’ve mentioned Robinson already but Reni Santoni was also in the previous movie and plays what amounts to the same character here. He even suffers a similar fate, getting badly injured during a major gun battle. I had to check more than once just to make sure that the two characters didn’t share a name.

Whenever I watch DIRTY HARRY these days, I’m always struck by how different it is from the popular image we have of it. Never do I get the sense that it’s as in favor of the ‘kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out’ approach like its reputation would suggest. At its core, it’s about one angry man’s frustrations as he runs up against the limitations of the system he swore to uphold. The violence is treated as shocking and brutal rather than thrilling and when Callahan finally corners Scorpio and blows a hole through him, it’s not played as triumphant but with an air of disgust for things having gone this far. You don’t leave a mark on pop culture the way DIRTY HARRY did, however, without inspiring other filmmakers to create their own dollar store knock-offs of the original. And since the majority of filmmakers out there aren’t as smart as Don Siegel or screenwriter John Milius, the imitators would take all the wrong lessons from it. Different Clint Eastwood movie, but Sergio Leone’s “How many sons-of-bitches do you think I’ve spawned?” about the spaghetti westerns that followed A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS comes to mind. 

COBRA does more than just ignore DIRTY HARRY’s moral murkiness to avoid forcing any ambiguity and consequence onto its violence; it grimly embraces a fascistic viewpoint that Travis Bickle would be nodding in approval at. As far as Cobretti is concerned, criminals are all inhuman garbage unworthy of life and society would be better off if we could bypass the (useless and corrupt) justice system and just execute them in the street. “You’re the disease, I’m the cure” is a catch-phrase, tagline, and mission statement all in one. The lengths that he goes to dispatch the various criminal scum he runs across...”with extreme prejudice” seems like too light a phrase to describe it. Shoot them. Stab them. Stab them and then shoot them. Run them over. Set them on fire. Drop them off shooting them. Blow them up. Blow them up some more. Pistol whip them, impale them on a hook and then dump them screaming into a furnace. It’s wholly appropriate, then, that for its climax COBRA transforms into a miniature slasher movie with Cobretti stepping in for Jason Voorhees. 

We’ve got an action film where the nominal hero of the piece is just shy of being as much of a remorseless killbot as the T-800, so it begs the question, what are the villains like? They’re called the New Order, though never referred to as such in the movie, and we never really get a clear idea as to what their goal is. The Night Slasher gives some big speech about being hunters out to cull the weak from a sick society but if you want anything more than that, you’re out of luck. See, when COBRA came out in theaters, it was set to go up against TOP GUN at the box office and the producers were worried that it would get crushed by the Tony Scott / Tom Cruise juggernaut. In order to squeeze in a few more screenings at the Cineplex, a good half hour was cut from the movie, and any backstory for the New Order went with it. The film was further trimmed down to avoid an X rating for violence. What we’re left with is little more than a legion of cannon fodder that are here only to get mowed down by Cobretti.

Whatever information that got excised would have been useful because just what exactly the deal with these clowns is the most confusing thing about COBRA. Throughout the movie we see the New Order members gathered in a run down building taking part in a ritualistic ceremony where they clang together their weapons while standing before a larger version of the same skull sigil that every member is tattooed with. What this does this symbol mean and what’s the point of this ceremony? We never find out. Even more puzzling is the exact make up of the New Order. This has got to be one of the most diverse gangs of murdering psychos you’ll see in a movie, including doctors, construction workers, businessmen, police officers, crossing all manner of social and ethnic lines. What exactly brought them together? Just crazy, I guess. And why do they hold the Night Slasher in such reverence? When Brian Thompson tried to get Stallone to explain what the motivation of the character was, all Stallone told him that there’s “nothing to him, he’s just evil.” But “just evil” isn’t good enough for the Night Slasher to make sense at all for the role he’s given. He has to be more than just a savage brute. Having a nameless villain with vaguely defined motivation and history works dandy when he’s operating alone, like the Scorpio Killer, but if you’re going to sells us on your big bad being an uber-Charles Manson figurehead, you’re going need him to do more than sweat a lot and wave a big nasty knife around. In fact, a friend of mine was so unconvinced that the Night Slasher was the real villain when she saw this movie for the 1st time she kept waiting for the eventual reveal that Andrew Robinson’s obstructive police captain was the New Order’s true leader. I can’t blame her, either, since his utter disdain for Cobretti goes so far beyond the standard horn-locking you expect you’d think it was setting him up as a red herring at the very least. Nope, he’s just here to act smug and then get punched out by Cobretti in front of a dozen or so witnesses. Besides, having the renegade cop’s captain turn out to be the leader of a gang of murderers would have been ripping off DIRTY HARRY’s sequel, MAGNUM FORCE, and that would just be getting ahead of ourselves. 

It’s fitting that COBRA was released in 1986 for two reasons. One, this was the same year that Cannon Films, the same studio that produced COBRA, would release the third DEATH WISH movie. Two, the following year would see the release of Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP. (Warping 7-year old Bill Smiley’s brain in all the right ways. But let’s save for the (near) future, shall we?) That couldn’t have been timed better. That’s because when you look at the former two movies, you’d be hard pressed to find any other films that took the tropes and mentality of vigilante crime films to such extremes without crossing over into out-and-out parody. Obviously, the only place to go from here was to do an over-the-top send up and that crazy Dutchman delivered. Come to think of it, 1987 also saw the release of PREDATOR, and I could go on about how that riffs on this kind of movie as well. Probably will, too.

How much distance is there between Marion Cobretti and Alex Murphy, really? One’s a soulless machine programmed to shoot criminals in the face and spit out one-liners and the other’s a victim of corporate greed that gets turned into one. The big cyborg certainly displays more genuine humanity. Cobretti isn’t so much a character as he is every tough cop cliché distilled down to an ambulatory scowl and bullet delivery system. When in any situation that doesn’t call for murdering everyone in sight, there’s something downright alien about the way he acts. If his face flipped open to reveal he’s a tiny little extraterrestrial driving a human-like robot, I wouldn’t be that surprised. Who cuts up cold pizza with scissors or keeps their gun supplies in his freezer? Or the scene where he tries to flirt with Ingrid by handing her a giant prop hamburger and making nonsensical jokes about how she uses too much ketchup? Speaking of Stallone and Brigette, you’d think two people who were married at the time would have some chemistry but you’ll see more romantic sparks fly when Cobretti is assembling his machine pistol.  

I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort if, instead of writing anything, I just posted a clip or an animated gif of the moment when Cobretti guns down somebody and then sticks his pistol in his waistband, the engraving on the grip now positioned to make it look like there’s a huge snake coming out of his pants. That’s this movie in a nutshell. There is no denying that COBRA is one seriously bad movie. It’s incoherent, sadistic, and tries way too hard in all the wrong ways to prove to you that it’s the coolest thing ever. But I’m going to let you people in on something: I love every stupid minute of this dumb, dumb movie. For people like me who are devotees of trashy 80’s cinema and action films, COBRA is an embarrassment of riches. If the following year would bring the first tremors in a shift towards popular action movies taking cues more from Shane Black and John McClane than John Rambo, this is one heck of a note to go out on. Cobretti can’t just be a supercop, he has to be THE supercop, dressed all in black, mirror shades practically stapled to his face, chewing on a matchstick the whole time, wiping out whole armies single-handedly while wielding the coolest weapons and driving the coolest car. (A 1950 Mercury that actually belonged to Sylvester Stallone, the lucky bastard.) This is a man who gets referred to as “The Cobra” in casual conversation! And hey, why settle for simple product placement when you can have you your hero pause in the middle of a hostage situation to crack open a Coors and take a drink? (Coors! The beer of choice for Cops on the Edge nationwide!) Or have him live in an apartment that has a gi-normous neon Pepsi sign right on his balcony? The real mind-boggler here though is a lingering shot on a Toy ‘R’ Us commercial. I want to know who at Toy ‘R’ Us looked at this movie, a hard-R action film about a renegade cop going completely apeshit on a murder cult, and said “Yes, this is what we need to advertise our chain of children’s toy stores.” Then there’s the moment where COBRA stops everything to turn into a music video featuring Brigette Nielsen in some of the most violenty 80’s clothes and wigs you can image, posing with prop robots! You can watch that bit here.

Sometimes a movie can get by on sheer excess alone. Despite the critical drubbing it received on release, COBRA has maintained a fairly sizeable cult following since. You might be surprised to learn that cult includes someone like Nicholas Winding Refn, the director of everyone’s favorite arthouse anti-hero movie DRIVE, and he even cites COBRA as a major influence. Comparing the two movies with this in mind, it’s actually not that surprising. They share quite a bit, from its story of a matchstick chewing stoic versus the Los Angeles underworld to the visuals it uses to depict the seedier side of the City of Angels. A good bit of COBRA’s skuzzy charm comes from how it looks, everything drenched in harsh lighting and neon reds, disorienting camera angles and Peckinpah-esque intercutting smattered throughout. You’d have to turn to William Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. to find another screen version of this city that’s as stylishly sleazy. Add in the horror movie tone it often times takes and COBRA feels almost like an Italian giallo that someone inserted a bunch of car chases and shoot outs into. (Amusingly, we must note that it’s the hero with the black gloves.) Dario Argento’s COMMANDO, ya’ll.

Speaking of Arnold Schwarzenegger…the other most iconic action star of the 1980’s would have to be discussed here. COBRA is often mentioned alongside COMMANDO as both movies are pretty representative of the Reagan-era action movie form but they’re somewhat different beasts. COMMANDO was clearly made with an understanding of the movie that it is: a live action cartoon starring an invincible superhero. Heck, Jeph Loeb, the original scriptwriter, went on to make his name in superhero comics. COBRA, conversely, no matter how ludicrous or comical it gets, always behaves as if it’s nothing less than one hundred percent serious business. Ironic for a movie that started out as a discarded script treatment for BEVERLY HILLS COP. (I’d go into that but Crom, this review is long enough already.) But COMMANDO isn’t the Schwarzenegger movie I want to talk about here. You see, when Stallone rewrote his BEVERLY HILLS COP script into COBRA’s screenplay, he credited a number of the story elements to a novel by Paula Gosling titled “A Running Duck,” which would be published again as “Fair Game.” I don’t really believe that “Fair Game” was what Stallone was working from when he wrote COBRA because a look at “Fair Game’s” plot synopsis reveals very little in the way of similarities beyond the most basic. On the commentary track, George P. Cosmatos straight out admits that Stallone threw out everything from the book. (Another choice quote: “This movie did not win an Oscar.” No kidding.)  I think Stallone just credited Gosling to avoid getting hit with any kind of litigation. Huh, that sounds familiar. 

So what was really on Stallone’s mind? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t pick up on this until I chanced on watching these two movies within a couple days of each other. It didn’t dawn on me before, I think, because in my mind COBRA was “that DIRTY HARRY rip-off.” Shall I stop keeping you in suspense? Like DIRTY HARRY, it had a huge influence on subsequent action films. It, along with CONAN THE BARBARIAN, was one of Schwarzenegger’s star making roles. It, like COBRA, dealt with a woman being protected by a man from a single-minded killer that’s terrorizing Los Angeles. You might even say this killer can’t be bargained or reasoned with. It took a while to finally click but oh boy, when I did realize just how much COBRA is a stealth remake of THE TERMINATOR in DIRTY HARRY drag, I couldn’t stop cracking up about it. Hey, come to think of it, Brian Thompson was in that movie too! This gets considerably more obvious when COBRA gets out of the city and into its last act, in which a romantic interlude at a roadside motel segues into a motorcycle / truck chase before a final showdown in an industrial complex where the machinery is put to use in dispatching the villain for good. Good grief, COBRA’s poster is practically a player two color swap of the iconic one-sheet for James Cameron’s movie! If the Night Slasher emerged from the furnace Cobretti feeds him into at the end, his burning flesh sloughing away to expose a robotic endoskeleton…it would make as much sense as anything else.

I mean, come on now!

A Little Something Extra:
“Night Force” by synthcore group Power Glove, which features sound and dialogue samples from COBRA. The perfect soundtrack for whenever you feel like cruising through the city’s neon-lit underbelly at 3 a.m.