Friday, March 9, 2018

Point Blank


“The current cycle of crime films is a vicarious way to participate in the crime wave without committing a crime. That feeling is latent within each of us. Everybody wants to get even with somebody.” – Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin was a World War II veteran that utilized acting as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. For him, it was a cathartic experience and this was particularly true with Point Blank (1967), a stylish crime film that bridged the gap between classic film noir and neo-noir. This adaptation of the 1962 Donald E. Westlake novel The Hunter also marked a close collaboration between Marvin and then-up-and-coming British filmmaker John Boorman, realizing that this film was a personal passion project for an actor whom used his clout within Hollywood to push this very experimental effort through the system.

The film begins jarringly with Walker (Marvin) shot and left for dead in Alcatraz Island, wondering how he got there. The rest of the film is an audacious collection of fragmented memories from the past mixed with the present as he exacts revenge on his partner-in-crime, Mal Reese (John Vernon) – and his duplicitous wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) – whom set him up. This is summed up beautifully in a visual metaphor early on of Walker viewed through a screen door that is initially out of focus, only to become clear. It’s all done in a way that suggests an extremely subjective view of what happened – that of Walker – as evident in odd, out of context scenes like a crowded party where Mal physically tackles and hysterically begs Walker to pull the ill-fated heist job.

Logically, how could Walker, shot twice at point blank range, survive the blood loss and swim back to civilization – a feat that was rarely achieved by perfectly healthy inmates? Logic dictates that he died on Alcatraz and the scenes set in the present only exist in his mind just before death. Point Blank isn’t necessarily concerned with logic but with inner workings of a dying man. To that end, we get a haunting image of Walker wounded, wandering the empty spaces of Alcatraz.

This is the only the beginning of the many bold, stylistic choices Boorman makes. There’s the establishing shot of Walker purposefully striding down a corridor, the sound of his footsteps continuing to play over a montage of his Lynne waking up, getting dressed and going about her day until he comes bursting through their front door, gun in hand, ready to kill Mal. It’s a New Wave aesthetic married to Marvin’s no-nonsense persona with exciting results.

As the film progresses, more of Walker’s backstory is fleshed out as he plays back in his mind. His friendship with Mal, courting Lynne and how they fell in love. This is all conveyed in a radical editing scheme that plays around with time. One moment, Walker is shoot up he and his wife’s empty bed. The next moment, he wakes up and Lynne is on the bed, dead from an overdose. Then, he wakes up again and the bed has been stripped, the body gone with only a white cat remaining. How long has he been asleep? How much time has passed? Boorman captures the unusual nature of time passing in one’s mind, It jumps around and isn’t always linear.

In a stylistic nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Walker goes looking for Mal in a nightclub, rife with psychedelic imagery, and an energetic rhythm and blues band playing in the background. Like, in Blowup with the Yardbirds, it is an audio-visual assault on the senses as we get close-ups of the singer, a patron enthusiastically enjoying the music, and Walker bathed in phantasmagoric lights. Even the fights are chaotic as he is attacked by two thugs in the nightclub. It is a knockdown, drag out fight complete with dirty shots done to put a man down and keep him down. By the end, Walker is a disheveled, triumphant mess.

For a film obsessed with death it isn’t relentlessly grim. There are amusing set pieces: Walker interrogates a car salesman with knowledge of Mal’s whereabouts by taking out one of his cars – and wrecking it while he’s in it – all the while one of his dealership’s commercials plays on the radio. This is an amusing, cheeky bit of humor that lightens things up briefly.

At the time, the presence of the Organization eschewed the traditional, family-based organized crime often depicted as the Mafia in many crime films for a corporate mentality. In Point Blank, there is no longer one figurehead controlling everything, rather a faceless collection of people – and Walker works his way up the corporate criminal ladder to get his money. Their solution to dealing with him? Pay him off. The amount he wants is chump change in the large scheme of things. For him – it is a matter of principal carried to an extreme. The Organization can’t understand why he only wants $93,000. What does he really want? For him it is personal; for them it is just another business transaction. His fight is man against system. For all of their so-called sophistication and fancy digs, they are still simple crooks obsessed with money.

John Vernon plays Mal with perfect, icy, reptilian charm. He’s an arrogant crook now that he’s advanced up the ladder in the Organization, only out for himself. Vernon oozes smug superiority, also used effectively in later films like Animal House (1978).

Angie Dickinson plays Walker’s beautiful sister-in-law Chris who helps him in his revenge mission. The actress has an excellent scene where, upset at her life needlessly put in danger, finally explodes on Walker, battering him with a barrage of slaps and punches, which he just stands there and takes until she finally runs out of energy. Dickinson gives everything she has in this scene and plays well off of Marvin’s remorseless crook.

Lee Marvin certainly has the steely-determination-of-a-man-bent-on-revenge look down cold – no one has done it better. There’s more to it, however, as he delivers a minimalist performance with a complexity in how he conveys so much through a look or through body language. There is the haunted, defeated look on Walker’s face after surviving being shot and left for dead by Mal, or his body language that conveys the same vibe. He’s a physically and emotionally wounded man, adrift in life. He is also able to convey the notion that there is more going on behind his eyes, that he is always thinking and planning what to do next. There are also significant stretches in scenes where Marvin says nothing, allowing the other actor to say everything. He’s a gracious performer and one with an economic style. There are no wasted looks or lines of dialogue in Point Blank – everything he says or does means something.

After the commercial failure of big budget movies like Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Hollywood studios began entertaining the idea of cashing in on the popularity of modestly budgeted “art house” films from Europe. Hollywood producers started looking in London as there was a notion that younger European directors knew how to appeal to an audience. Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler saw British director John Boorman’s first film Catch Us If You Can (1965), and set up a meeting between him and Lee Marvin while the actor was making The Dirty Dozen (1967), and pitched him the idea for Point Blank. The actor was interested. The two men stayed in contact, working out the details, including setting up a meeting between them, several film producers, the head of MGM, and Hollywood agent Meyer Mishkin. At the time, Marvin had enough clout in the industry to have final say over crew and cast selection, which he surprisingly gave to the director. Boorman remembered, “Making my first picture in Hollywood, I was fortunate enough to have the gift of freedom. And he backed me all the way with a belief and loyalty that was inspiring.” This was quite a leap of faith on the actor’s part as this was only the director’s second film and first one for a Hollywood studio starring a movie star.

David and Rafe Newhouse faithfully adapted the Donald Westlake novel but Boorman and Marvin found their screenplay to be mediocre and cliché-ridden, although liked the idea of the protagonist’s pointless quest for revenge. Boorman felt that Walker “had been emotionally and physically wounded to a point where he was no longer human [and] that this made him frightening, but also pure.” Marvin agreed and told Boorman that he’d only make the film if they tossed the script out the window and started over. The actor had a limited time of availability and to save time, had the screenwriting, production design, and casting occur simultaneously.

Boorman hired BBC colleague Arthur Jacobs to rewrite the script. In four weeks, he wrote it and then rewrote it completely. He and Boorman wanted to do “…something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea.” Jacobs wrote a second version that was an amalgamation of phone conversations and letters between the two men. With each subsequent draft they cut out dialogue – the final draft was a lean 92 pages long.

Jacobs went to San Francisco for the first two weeks of shooting and wrote a completely new beginning and ending. At the end of the day, Boorman would consult with Marvin and found his responses were “always allusive, oblique. He leapt from metaphor to metaphor, and when he was drinking, the leaps got wider.” Marvin’s drinking was legendary and Boorman observed, “I would follow him as far as I could, and there was always wisdom there, deep dark thought that touched on our enterprise – but beyond a certain level of vodka, he sailed out on his own into deeper waters where no mortal could follow.”

During filming, Marvin managed to confine his drinking to weekends, starting in on Friday afternoons as he finished his last shot of the week. That being said, the actor knew when to use it for his own advantage. He looked out for Boorman during filming. One night, the director couldn’t figure out what the shot should be for one of the Alcatraz scenes. Sensing he was in trouble, Marvin faked a drunken outburst, which gave Boorman time to figure things out. “I went over and told Lee I was ready. He made an immediate and total recovery and we made the scene and the day.”

According to co-star Angie Dickinson, Boorman and Marvin “were constantly working on the script,” and found the production, “constantly challenging.” The director found his lead actor, “endlessly inventive, constantly devising ways to externalize what we wanted to express.” Despite being given complete creative control, the director was still worried that the studio would try to recut Point Blank and shot as little footage as possible so that it couldn’t be dramatically changed. He even stopped filming in the middle of a line of dialogue where he knew there would be a cut so there would be no other choice in post-production.

Several of the film’s scenes were drawn from Marvin’s own life, like Lynne’s suicide mirrored his live-in girlfriend Michele Triola’s suicide attempt. The scene where Mal tackles a drunken Walker and begs him to a pull heist job was based on an incident in a Malibu bar where a drunken Marvin was approached by a friend who demanded he loan him money. Looking back at the film years later, Marvin acknowledged how personal it was: “That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that while making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.” Boorman saw Marvin as a man wracked with guilt:

“The young Marvin, wounded and wounding, brave and fearful, was always with him. The guilt at surviving the ambush that wiped out his platoon hung to him all his days. He was fascinated by war and violence, yet the revulsion he felt for it was intense, physical, unendurable.”

After assembling a rough cut of the film, Boorman was advised to show it to Margaret Booth, head of the studio’s editing department and a legend that had started in the silent era as well as Louis B. Mayer’s editor of choice. She had a notorious reputation for re-editing films she felt weren’t good enough, but after screening Point Blank only offered a few minor suggestions. The film was then shown to chief executives who did not understand it and called for reshoots. Booth defended the film defiantly and it was released without any further edits.

Point Blank is one of the most fascinating cinematic laments of a crook’s troubled past ever put on film. It is full of visual echoes, with gestures that occur in the present, mirroring a past event, like the way Walker opens a curtain in a room or makes love to Chris like he did with her sister. These are echoes that exist in his mind. The film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note: does Walker get the money? Is he still alive? Did any of this really happen? The last we see of him is disappearing into the shadows of Alcatraz, which begs the question, did he ever leave?


SOURCES

Boorman, John. Adventures of Suburban Boy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.

Epstein, Dwayne. Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Schaffner Press, Inc. 2013.

Farber, Stephen. “The Writer II: An Interview with Alexander Jacobs.” Film Quarterly. Winter 1968-1969.

Hoyle, Brian. The Cinema of John Boorman. Scarecrow Press. 2012.

“Playboy Interview: Lee Marvin.” Playboy. January 1969.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mindhunter

Why is popular culture so fascinated with serial killers? There are all kinds of reality television shows and their fictional counterparts dedicated to examining their perverse methodology. What compels these murderers to kill several people in all kinds of horrible ways? There are as many reasons why as there are serial killers as each one has their own unique motivation. Our fascination comes from the morbid speculation that one’s next-door neighbor may have a bunch of severed heads in their fridge. It’s rubbernecker syndrome – an interest in the gruesome details of the murders. It is also the relief in the knowledge that you’re still alive and safe and not the murder victim, that in some way you’ve cheated death.

In 1995, David Fincher directed Seven, one of the best films about serial killers. With the commercial and critical success of that film, he was careful not to get pigeonholed in the genre and didn’t return to it until Zodiac (2007), which was a very different take indeed. His fascination with serial killers continues with Mindhunter, a show created by Joe Penhall, based on the true crime book of the same name by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, that he is executive producing and directed four episodes for Netflix.

Set in 1977, the show focuses on the FBI’s nascent Behavioral Science Unit with two agents – Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – fighting against internal resistance – their superior (Cotter Smith) thinks they’re wasting the Bureau’s time – and external ignorance – local law enforcement doesn’t understand what they’re doing. We meet Ford working as a hostage negotiator as he unsuccessfully tries to defuse a situation involving a man armed with a shotgun and holding a woman hostage.

After failing to calm the man down, which results in his death, Ford is ordered by his superior to continue teaching his hostage negotiator course at Quantico. It is here that we get the first inklings that Ford is different. He’d rather settle a hostage situation peacefully than through excessive force by reasoning with the criminal and the way to do this is figuring out what motivates them…but how?

After his latest class, Ford overhears a lecture in a nearby classroom. The instructor is talking about David Berkowitz (a.k.a. The Son of Sam) and offers up this observation: “You could say that the guy is crazy or that he’s pretending that he’s crazy but if we’re looking for a motive we can understand we suddenly find there is none. It’s a void. It’s a black hole.” He points out that in Hoover’s heyday, criminals like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were easy to figure out because they did what they did for personal gain.

Someone like Berkowitz is completely different. “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?” the instructor says. It is this line that hits Ford like a thunderbolt and serves as an epiphany. He and the instructor have a fascinating discussion that is really the show’s thesis: if the world no longer makes sense, then neither does crime. They both agree that they don’t know what to do about it, which Ford wonders, “But we’re supposed to, right?” to which the instructor replies, “Sure. But here’s the troubling thing – no one’s even asking the questions.” This is just one of many well-written, masterfully acted conversations depicted over the course of the ten episodes of Mindhunter. This scene also sets the tone: this is going to be a character-driven show that eschews traditional cop show heroics in favor of dialogue-heavy explorations into what motivates serial killers.

The first half of episode one focuses not just on Ford’s professional life but his personal one as he meets a witty, attractive woman named Debbie (Hannah Gross) at a rock concert that is just as smart as he is if not more so, much to his surprise. Their initial meet-cute turns into a first date where she takes him back to her place and gets him to take a bong hit in an effort to loosen him up. They even go see Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which he is so impressed with that he shows it to his class. Debbie isn’t afraid to call Ford on his bullshit and is willing to challenge his beliefs, which makes for an entertaining give and take between them in their scenes together. There’s a sexy and smart frisson between these two characters that is a lot of fun to watch. After sex one night, she playfully chastises his naïveté about sex, calling him a monk, chiding him, “How can you figure out the criminal mind if you can’t even figure out your girlfriend?” Good point.

Jonathan Groff plays an atypical FBI agent. He’s youthful and sensitive – hardly the Melvin Purvis type. He’s also very smart but lacks the street smarts to excel in the field as evident in the bungled hostage negotiation that kicks off the show. He needs more time in the field with an experienced veteran showing him the ropes. His boss arranges a meeting with Tench and the elder agent instantly reads the younger one. He asks Ford to tag along with him on the road, teaching FBI techniques to local law enforcement all over the country.

Initially, it appears that Fincher is treading on familiar turf with the Ford-Tench duo – the idealistic young agent butting heads with the older, more experienced agent. What Ford lacks in experience, he makes up for with intelligence and soon his enthusiasm for profiling serial killers is contagious enough to convince Tench and then their boss to interview them. Ford isn’t the brash, impulsive person that Mills was in Seven and Tench isn’t ready to give up on humanity like Somerset was in that earlier film.

Their first teaching gig does not go well. Ford gets too cerebral, his college training confuses most of the cops while Tench tries to keep things simple. Ford ends up pissing off a veteran detective who then asks them for advice on a grisly local murder case. They offer several theories but nothing concrete for the clearly frustrated detective, which only upsets him even more. And so it goes. Not every case can be solved but it is unusual for one of the protagonists to admit it so honestly. The episode ends with nothing resolved and tangible tension between Ford and Tench.

Setting Mindhunter in the late 1970s is an interesting choice. As Fincher has pointed out in interviews, it was the end of the J. Edgar Hoover era with the last vestiges of the stereotypical FBI agent idealized by Melvin Purvis and represented by Ford and Tench’s boss being replaced by people like Ford. Tench represents a bridge between the two eras. He still adheres to old school practices but is receptive to Ford’s new way of thinking and Holt McCallany does an excellent job of showing how his character deals with these contrasting schools of thought – the old vs. the new. Initially, Tench doesn’t reveal much about himself but over the course of the show he’s given moments, like a quiet scene in a bar with Ford in the fourth episode, where he reveals a very personal detail about his home life that is wonderfully conveyed by the actor who displays an impressive amount of vulnerability. A few minutes later, we are shown a glimpse of his home life in a heartbreakingly understated scene.

In order to understand the criminal mind better it makes sense that one should talk to criminals. Ford wants to interview Charles Manson but he’s unreachable – ever for the FBI – and so at one of their teaching gigs a cop says they should talk to Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) a.k.a. the Co-Ed Killer, a man that decapitated 16 teenage girls and had sex with the corpses. He’s a dream interview – he loves to talk about himself. Fincher films Ford walking through the prison, down the halls among the inmates with the sounds of them leering and yelling at him. The look on his face is one of palpable unease.

The meeting with Kemper is a brilliant sequence that begins on a comical note as the killer insists Ford has an egg salad sandwich as if he were entertaining him in his living room. The serial killer initially comes off as an affable man. He’s eloquent and honest (“People who hunt other people for a vocation all we want to talk about is what it’s like.”) and is able to become unsettlingly threatening on a dime. Kemper recounts his normal childhood and how it ran parallel to another, more depraved life. He fascinates Ford, while Tench is convinced that he’s manipulating his partner, telling him what he wants to hear. On the second visit, Ford is a little too chummy with Kemper in an amusing bit where they actually banter back and forth. They delve into the man’s past and what motivated him, which he tells in a chilling monologue. Cameron Britton does an excellent job playing Kemper. He moves little, letting his eyes convey his feelings. Kemper is someone that plays things close to the vest, reading Ford and then telling a story of how he killed his mother in a creepy, matter-of-fact monotone.

Not surprisingly, the most compelling parts of Mindhunter are the interviews with the killers. As Fincher has said, these scenes are like little one act plays as these guys tell their stories. The show wisely doesn’t resort to flashbacks, which would be the obvious thing to do, and instead lets the actors playing these killers flex their acting chops, holding our attention with their ability to tell their characters’ depraved stories and make it compelling.

Meeting Kemper convinces Tench that there is value in talking to serial killers in order to understand what motivates them and he decides to stick up for Ford when their boss chews them out for interviewing the murderer without telling him. They’re threatened with suspension and it is this confrontation that bonds Ford and Tench. By the end of the second episode they’ve finally gelled as a team. They are finally on the same page.

As Mindhunter continues, Ford and Tench begin to diverge on how the work they do affects them. The latter is increasingly repulsed by the repellent nature of the killers they talk to, while the former finds himself getting deeper into the mindset of these men, running the risk of becoming like them, treading the same line that Will Graham does in Manhunter (1986). Mindhunter shows how these cases take their toll on the men that investigate them, most significantly, Tench who doesn’t tell his wife anything about his work and this causes noticeable tension between them. This is explored in a scene where she confronts him about it. As their work continues, Ford becomes more analytical and detached while Tench is more empathetic, especially when they interact with the killers and the local cops.


Are serial killers born or are they formed? This is a question that Ford and Tench wrestle with over the course of the ten episodes. It is why they are interviewing these men in the first place. Mindhunter does a superb job balancing the procedural aspects of Ford and Tench’s work with the impact it has on their personal lives in a way that gradually makes them rich and compelling characters over time. This is thoughtful, absorbing procedural that takes the time to delve not just into the work that these men do but their personal lives as well in a deeper way that Fincher was trying to do in Zodiac but was constrained by the limitations of feature filmmaking. The medium of television has allowed him to go as deep as he wants and this results in some of his best work.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049



When Blade Runner was released in 1982, it was savaged by critics and failed to make back its budget. Over the years, however, its reputation grew, as did its influence. The look of the film’s dark, dystopian futureworld could be seen in films (The Matrix) and video games (Deus Ex) as well as the Cyberpunk movement thereafter (author William Gibson famously left a screening midway through for fear it would influence his novel Neuromancer). Despite its influence, no one was really clamoring for a sequel – certainly not the studio nor the filmmakers who ended the film on a deliciously ambiguous note that didn’t really need to be explained.

“This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.” – Bryant

It is 2017 and here we are with Blade Runner 2049, a sequel co-written by returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Harrison Ford reprising his role as the titular character. However, Ridley Scott chose not to return to direct (too busy driving the Alien franchise into the ground), handing over directing duties to Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve (Arrival). Does this new film have anything of interest to say or does it fall into the same trap that doomed Tron: Legacy (2010) – all style with little substance?

Thirty years have passed since the first film and the world has only gotten worse. The Tyrell Corporation is no more – bankrupt and bought out by wealthy industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has created a new generation of replicants that are much more subservient. Blade runners still exist but now with the sole purpose of finding and “retiring” older generation replicants – a sly commentary on the generation gap that exists between older models being made redundant by the newer ones.

We meet Detective K (Ryan Gosling) doing his job – hunting down a Nexus 8 replicant (Dave Bautista). At the crime scene, the detective finds the remains of a Nexus 7 replicant that was pregnant and had a child – an impossibility! He’s ordered to erase all knowledge of it – but of course he doesn’t. K investigates the identity of the mysterious replicant – this leads him to a startling reveal that links this new film with the original. Intrigued, he digs deeper and uncovers the dead replicant’s link to retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Ford), who he seeks out.

Unfortunately, Wallace learns of this and orders his right-hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – a ruthless new generation replicant – to find the child so that he can study it and figure out what Tyrell was able to achieve that has eluded him. He’s the film’s morally sordid puppet master with grand designs for the future – a warped reality where he is revered as a deity.

K is himself a replicant, which presents intriguing, fascinating implications that the film touches upon throughout, like how he is resented by his fellow (human) cops as well as his neighbors; old prejudices don’t go away over time. Ryan Gosling is first-rate as a replicant used to doing what he’s told and learning, or rather feeling compelled to disobey by what he discovers about the Nexus 7 replicant. The actor maintains an emotionless façade of a machine that knows what’s expected of him and does it without question, but over the course of the film he undergoes a journey of self-discovery, delivering an inquisitive, thoughtful performance.

K’s girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is a hologram, which seems rather fitting for a replicant. Their relationship is a fascinating one that is explored throughout the film. For example, the greatest gift he can give her is an upgrade that allows her to actually feel the rain outside – a basic sensation that we take for granted.

Blade Runner 2049 explores the notion of illusion vs. reality. Joi is a hologram that longs to experience reality. Later on, K questions his memories – are they implants or are they real? What constitutes real memories and how do we know they are authentic?

Los Angeles hasn’t gotten any better. If anything it’s worse – denser in population and the weather is more extreme, alternating between oppressive rain and snow. This new film maintains the original’s lived-in look and incredible attention to detail. In sharp contrast is Las Vegas, which resembles a mausoleum of a bygone era – an irradiated ghost town, frozen in time. In fact, the film is populated by holograms with “ghosts” from the present – Joi – and ones from the past – Elvis and Sinatra’s holograms, ghosts of spirits long gone.

Like Blade Runner, BR2049 features richly textured cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins, which is a marvel to behold. His past collaborations with Villeneuve (Sicario) have been excellent and this new one goes above and beyond by creating a fully immersive experience with evocative sights and sounds of a decaying world. Take Wallace’s inner sanctum: an astounding example of set direction – courtesy of Dennis Gassner – a tranquil, water-themed room that has to be seen to be believed. They take the world that Ridley Scott and company created in Blade Runner, build and expand on it, making it their own while it still feels like this is the same universe.

I like that Villeneuve lets the story breathe, taking his time with deliberate pacing for certain scenes. He lets us soak in the mood and atmosphere while also having the characters talk to each other for extended periods of time, much like in the original film. He also spends time developing Gosling’s K so that over the running time it feels like we’ve been on a journey with him. This is such a rarity for a big budget genre film, but at this point in his career Villeneuve has earned it.


Blade Runner 2049 is a rare contemporary science fiction film that is actually about something, instead of using CGI to gloss over a weak script. The film delves deeper into the notion of replicants used as slave labor, from Wallace creating his own army of replicant slaves, to the underground army that wants to be free. This was touched on to some degree in Blade Runner but is explored in more detail here.

“It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” – Gaff

Villeneuve hasn’t merely made a film that is slavishly faithful to the original. He certainly pays tribute to it with a few visual nods but for the most part takes the film off in a new direction that is very much its own thing, just as Blade Runner was back in 1982. This may antagonize purists or those looking for easy answers but the original film was never about providing a safe resolution to everything and while Blade Runner 2049 has an emotionally satisfying conclusion, it doesn’t do that either. Kudos to Ridley Scott for convincing the powers that be to bankroll a very expensive art film. Much like the original, it has been underappreciated by mainstream movie-going audiences. It will, however, be studied and written about for years to come.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Night School

The late 1970s and for much of the 1980s saw the rise of the slasher horror movie. Capitalizing on the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), every studio in Hollywood and beyond wanted in on the action and began cranking out countless imitations – some good (My Bloody Valentine) and many bad ones. Lost among this glut of movies was the little-seen Night School (1981), a modest slasher featuring the big screen debut of a young actress by the name of Rachel Ward and a clever twist on the Final Girl template back when it was still novel.

The opening credits play over an atmospheric montage of the Boston streets at night. College coeds are being decapitated by a mysterious killer dressed all in black, donning a motorcycle helmet and armed with a kukri knife. The first one sets the tone as a teacher’s aide is trapped on a spinning playground carousel until she literally loses her head.

Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) and his partner Taj (Joseph R. Sicari) are police detectives investigating the murders. They have little to go on: no motive, no suspects and no witnesses. There’s a refreshing no-nonsense methodical investigation technique courtesy of the Harvard University-educated Judd who is determined to the catch the killer.

His investigation leads to a girls’ college where the carousel victim attended night school, in particular, an anthropology class taught by Professor Millett (Drew Snyder). Judd meets him and his beautiful research assistant Eleanor Adjai (Ward), an exchange student and his lover. Night School keeps us guessing as to the killer’s identity. Is it the creepy bus boy obsessed with Eleanor at the local restaurant? Is it Millett, the charismatic teacher that has affairs with some of his students and whose latest conquest is Eleanor? They even partake in a kinky primitive ritual in the shower together. He also doesn’t seem particularly upset that his students are getting murdered.

Leonard Mann is excellent as the intelligent detective. It doesn’t take him long to connect the dots and the actor does a fantastic job of portraying someone who is always thinking and figuring things out. He also plays well off of Joseph R. Sicari, Judd’s partner, who doesn’t take the job serious and what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for with street smarts.

For what was her first feature film, Rachel Ward is wonderful as an emotionally fragile woman with a dark secret. The actress cuts an enigmatic presence throughout the movie, obfuscating Eleanor’s true motives. Is she merely a helpless victim at the mercy of men obsessed with her, interested in only one thing, or is there something else going on? Right from her first appearance on-screen it’s obvious that the camera loves Ward, showcasing her stunning natural beauty.

Frequent David Cronenberg collaborator Mark Irwin utilizes a soft focus look that was popular in the early ‘80s. His excellent cinematography gives Night School some class and helps it avoid looking like just another generic slasher movie. He gives the murder sequences a Giallo feel and the detective work scenes a police procedural vibe.

After the success of Halloween, stage director turned film producer Ruth Avergon and her partner and husband Larry Babb shopped ideas for their own version of Carpenter’s film around to various distributors. Babb came up with “the idea of a guy running around Boston decapitating people,” according to Avergon. She did some research into the headhunters of Papua New Guinea and married it with her husband’s idea, turning it into a screenplay. They managed to raise the $1.2 million through private investors. Lorimar acquired the movie in a negative pickup deal with Paramount Pictures releasing it domestically.

The director of Alice Sweet Alice (1976) Alfred Sole was originally hired but left early on over “major creative differences.” The original lead actress – D.D. Winters (a.k.a. Vanity), his lead on Tanya’s Island (1980) – left with him and Rachel Ward was cast in her place. Avergon discovered her at a New York City casting call despite the fact that she didn’t resembling what was originally envisioned for the character.

Sole was replaced by veteran British director Kenneth Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) who, along with cinematographer Mark Irwin, gave the movie a stylish look. They also did a fair amount of location scouting ahead of time in order to achieve what Avergon wanted: “to juxtapose this elegant, gorgeous Old World look with this horrible thing that was going on.”

Night School is a fascinating study in gender politics under the guise of a slasher movie. The gender of the killer colors the motivation for the murders in a way that wasn’t seen in a lot of movies at that time. The method of killing that the murderer employs – steeped in primitive practices and rituals – is also novel and separates it from many of its contemporaries. Night School deserves to be rediscovered and recognized as being a cut above many other movies of its ilk.


SOURCES

“Interview: Cinematographer Mark Irwin on Filming Night School (1981).” Man is the Warmest Place to Hide. April 14, 2013.


Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. McFarland and Company. 2002.

Friday, October 6, 2017

My Bloody Valentine

In 1971, the Canadian Film Development Corporation received $10 million to aid in creating a feature film industry in Canada that would garner recognition internationally. In addition, in 1974, new tax shelter laws increased the Capitol Cost Allowance for money used in the production of movies from 30% to 100%. This resulted in an impressive output of product as all kinds of filmmakers capitalized on this opportunity. It is estimated that from the early 1970s through the 1980s, 345 films were made in Canada.

Horror movies were among some of the most popular ones to come out of this boom, specifically the slasher subgenre with Bob Clark’s landmark effort Black Christmas (1974). This led to many others, most notably Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), and My Bloody Valentine (1981). The latter was particularly memorable for being set during Valentine’s Day and having several minutes of footage featuring gore and violence cut by the MPAA to avoid an X rating.

The movie gets right to it as two miners go off on their own deep within the mine. One – a woman – partially undresses and seduces the other who keeps his gear on. It’s a slow seduction scene that is heavily eroticized until the miner impales his lover on the end of his pickaxe, piercing her breast.

It is two days before Valentine’s Day and the hardworking people of the small mining town Valentine Bluffs are getting ready for the big dance – the first one in 20 years. The cast of largely unknown actors are instantly believable as hardworking, hard-playing blue-collar folks, complete with varying degrees of thick Canadian accent.

However, Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and police chief Jake Newby (Don Francks) get an anonymous box of chocolates that contains a human heart and a warning: “From the heart comes a warning filled with bloody good cheer / Remember what happened as the 14th draws near.” Even the bartender at the local watering hole warns of the town being cursed and recounts a tale of an accident in the mine that occurred 20 years ago during the Valentine’s Day Dance and that killed four men and drove one insane – Harry Warden. He killed the two supervisors and stalks the town every February 14 in case someone is foolish enough to have another dance. The story is part town history and part local legend.

Pretty soon, people start dying and it looks like ol’ Harry is back in town, or is someone else imitating him? Of course, the sheriff doesn’t want to call for extra help for fear it will create a panic and even covers up the cause of death of the launderette owner in one of the dumbest moves since the Mayor of Amity kept the beach open in Jaws (1975).

Director George Mihalka inserts memorable touches of local color, like the three friends that cook their food on top of a warm car engine. He also shows the tension that exists among the locals, like T.J. (Paul Kelman), who went off to the West Coast to make it on his own only to come back and find his girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier) going out with his best friend Axel (Neil Affleck). It is these mini-soap operas that flesh out the characters and the relationships between them so that they aren’t just anonymous victims to be picked off by the killer. Some of them even act suspicious, raising questions about whether one of them is the killer or not.

The cast is populated by a few future notable Canadian thespians, like Cynthia Dale (Street Legal), Keith Knight (Meatballs), and Alf Humphreys (First Blood) who all enjoyed diverse and prolific character acting careers. Veteran actor Don Francks (Finian’s Rainbow) was the biggest name in the cast at the time, giving the movie some legitimacy in the plumb role of the sheriff that tries to cover up the truth. The younger actors do a good job of playing a believable tight group of friends. It’s the way they play off each other with a familiarity that comes from friends that have known each other all their lives.

I like that Mihalka shows the locals working in the mine, which gives My Bloody Valentine an authenticity that grounds it while all these gory murders occur. The no frills direction also keeps things grounded as the filmmakers never forget to keep the focus on the characters and the story. While most ‘80s slashers look cheap, this one is well-directed and shot by Rodney Gibbons, setting an ominous mood at the right times and during the other times depicting a slice-of-life look at a small mining town.

Inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), My Bloody Valentine occasionally employs point-of-view murders. It also features some rather creative kills, like the owner of the local launderette stuffed in one of the dryers, her skin scorched. Another victim is drowned in a pot of boiling hot dog water. Mihalka uses the dark, dank mine for maximum effect during the tense climax. The claustrophobic setting only enhances the terror as he employs jump scares and fake outs as Harry stalks the group of friends in the mine.

Director George Mihalka had a two-picture deal with producer John Dunning and when the first one – a comedy – stalled because one of the screenwriters had health problems, the second one went first instead. He was given an outline for a story called The Secret written by Stephen Miller and was told that Paramount Pictures was interested but only if it could be ready for a February 14 release. It was late July and there was no screenplay.

Dunning brought in Los Angeles writer John Beaird who started working on a first draft while the line producer and production designer scouted locations in Nova Scotia. The only place they could get coal mines was on Cape Breton Island. They knew that a few were being decommissioned and ended up in North Sydney with the Princess Mine that was about to be converted into a museum. They met with mine experts who pointed out things to them that they used in the movie to give it authenticity.

Filming began in mid-September 1980 and was a challenge not only because of time constraints but shooting in the mine was dangerous with the possibility of methane gas buildup. No lighting fixtures could be more than 25 watts because of the danger of sparking. The production used lime dust to prevent sparking but it would get in people’s lungs and eyes. In addition, at that time of year it also got quite cold down in the mine. Principal photography was finished at the end of October/early November.

The producers sent a cut of My Bloody Valentine to the MPAA who told them that it would get an X rating unless they cut out some of the gore and violence. The popularity of bloody slasher movies like Friday the 13th (1980) and the murder of John Lennon caused a significant backlash against movie violence and Mihalka believes that his movie was punished as a result. The MPAA still wasn’t satisfied and the movie underwent several more edits with approximately nine minutes of footage removed, some of which was reinstated on the 2009 DVD and some lost forever.

As a kid I can remember the movie’s iconic poster and its notorious reputation as a particularly violent horror movie. The added footage of gore and violence in the 2009 DVD certainly enhances this reputation. My Bloody Valentine still holds up as one of the better slasher movies from the ‘80s with its novel setting and the Valentine’s Day festivities. It was later remade into a lackluster movie that was released in 2009 replacing the realistic-looking cast with one populated by attractive young stars and starlets while also diluting the original’s political commentary.

Mihalka has jokingly referred to My Bloody Valentine as The Deer Hunter (1978) of horror films and he’s not entirely wrong as his movie deals with some of the same issues – blue collar protagonists in a small town where the main industry is drying up – only instead of having harrowing scenes of Russian Roulette, he employs a series of graphic deaths that begin with the wrong end of a pickaxe. This gives My Bloody Valentine a little more depth than your typical slasher movie and is one of the reasons it remains highly regarded among fans of the genre.


SOURCES

Burrell, James. “Heartstopper! Harry Warden’s Reign of Terror Continues.” Rue Morgue. January/February 2009.

“Canuxploitation: The Primer.” Canuxploitation!

“Interview: George Mihalka.” Canuxploitation! May 9, 2009.


“My Bloody Memories: An Interview with Director George Mihalka.” Terror Trap. January 2005.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983) is one of the Shaw Brothers’ darkest movies – both on and off-screen – marred by real-life tragedy when one its stars died during filming. It is also one of their best with some truly spectacularly choreographed action sequences.

Betrayed by General Yang’s right-hand man, General Pun Mei (Lam Hak-ming), whose army of Mongols ambush him and his seven sons at Golden Beach, killing them all except for Yeung Dak (Gordon Liu) and Yeung Chiu (Alexander Fu) – the fifth and sixth sons respectively. The battle itself is an astounding master class of choreography as the seven brothers armed with spears take on insurmountable odds. The fighting is fast and furious as the brothers are systematically picked off in particularly bloody and vicious fashion until only two remain.

Chiu returns home severely traumatized by what happened and Alexander Fu does an excellent job showing how his character has been driven mad, lashing out at his own family, trying to kill his mother until she is able to calm him down.

Assumed dead and declared a deserter and a traitor, Dak takes refuge in a monastery in Mount Wutai, patiently biding his time until he can exact revenge. The Mongols pursue him to a hunter’s dwelling where the man lets Dak escape while he takes on the marauders with a trident in an impressively staged action sequence.

Gordon Liu delivers a particularly impassioned performance as evident in the scene where Dak demands and then begs to become a Buddhist monk, conveying the hurt and desperation of a man with nothing left to lose. The actor gives everything he’s got in this powerful, even moving scene.

What’s interesting about The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and what distinguishes it from other Shaw Brothers kung fu movies is that it spends a significant amount of time showing how the death of their siblings affects the fifth and sixth sons. It isn’t something that is dealt with in passing but shapes and defines what these characters do for the rest of the movie.

Everything builds to the climactic showdown between Dak and Pun Mei in an inn where his sister is being held captive. His initial assault sees the monk utilizing a cartful of bamboo poles as projectiles to defeat his foes, which is an extraordinary sight to behold. It is merely a warm-up for the showdown in the inn. At one point, Dak frees his sister in the middle of the battle and straps her to his back all the while fighting his opponents. When Dak’s fellow monks show up, then the real fireworks begin. The martial arts on display in this sequence are among the finest ever seen in a Shaw Brothers movie.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter started filming in 1981. During principal photography Alexander Fu suffered a serious injury, breaking both his legs and having a head injury. Production stopped. He recovered well enough that filming was able to resume, but on July 7, 1983 he was in a car accident with his brother and died in a nearby hospital from his injuries. After much contemplation, it was decided that filming would continue but with significant script changes. Originally, Chiu was supposed to go to the Buddhist temple and become a monk. This was changed so that Dak went instead.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is considered one of the darker, bloodier movies in the Shaw Brothers canon but it is also an excellent study on loyalty while exploring the effects of physical and psychological trauma. Most importantly, it has some truly fierce and fantastic fight scenes that must’ve been a real challenge to choreograph. All of this would be meaningless if the movie wasn’t anchored by the performances of Alexander Fu and Gordon Liu as the two surviving brothers who deal with the aftermath in their own unique ways. Their performances are what makes The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter such a compelling movie.


SOURCES


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Hatfield, J.J. “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter aka Invincible Pole Fighter Review.” City on Fire. March 1, 2011.