Kate Beckinsale roars back into action with Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that, like many follow ups, isn’t as structured or fresh as the first but still manages to be every inch as stylish, baroque and gorgeous looking as the other few in the series I’ve seen (I am making my way through a Blu Ray box set of all five films in their extended cut glory). The action takes up right where it left off; outcast warrior Selene (Beckinsale) has killed vamp elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) and ran off into the night with her halfbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) with monstrous final boss Marcus in hot pursuit. This provides one of the entire franchise’s most jaw dropping, visually dynamic action sequences as they careen down Vancouver’s Sea To Sky highway against a muted overcast sky in a big rig semi truck. Now Marcus (Tony Curran under a metric ton of makeup) is one of those snazzy Spawn-esque vamps who can fly and has extra razor sharp limbs and cool bodily accessories to help him fight, so basically he’s flying alongside them at a crazy speed attacking the truck while Selene empties clip after clip into his face from her semiautomatics before ploughing right into the Britannia Mine tunnels, it’s just an exhilarating, incredibly well shot action sequence and the highlight of the film. Also I’m a bit tired of American studios filming here and then trying to pass off my beautiful home province as some place in the states or wherever so from now on I’m just going to refer to any film shot in Vancouver as being set here as well. Anyways, this is a solid entry that benefits from Marcus as a formidable, physically ruthless villain and continues the ongoing trend of seasoned British stage actors cast as vampire elders, Derek Jacobi stepping in here for a mostly absent Bill Nighy. Not my favourite of the series that I’ve seen so far, but a solid entry with memorable set pieces including a snowy medieval prologue that sets the tone for Rise Of The Lycans, an impressive climax set atop a ruined mountain castle complete with hovering helicopters and that Sea To Sky truck chase is just one for the ages.
Many werewolf films take place in the woods, mountains or various other rugged and elemental vistas that are inherently threatening and suit the mythos. But what about the urban jungle? How many werewolf films can you think of that place their action in a big city? Wolfen is one that does this and as such stands out in the genre for being a moody, eerie inner city horror about a gruff, unfriendly NYC police detective (Albert Finney) chasing down mysterious murderous hoodlums who he soon realizes are some kind of lycanthropic shapeshifters straight out of a Native legend. This leads him on a hushed yet bloody and quite atmospheric hunt through some of New York’s shadiest areas, made all the more spooky by the presence of these ferocious and quite stealthy cryptid hybrids. He’s helped and hindered by many in one eclectic cast that includes Diane Venora, James Tolkan, Rino Thunder, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines as a slick streetwise colleague, a very drunk and very brief Tom Waits and Tom Noonan as an ill fated ‘expert.’ This isn’t a very loud, snazzy or schlocky horror flick and in fact if memory serves it’s more of a mood piece type thing than any sort of thriller or shocker. Finney is sombre, muted, hard to read and even vaguely menacing, while the cast around him are sly, eccentric and always seem like they know more than they’re letting on. The werewolf attacks are hazy, dreamlike and terrifying in an otherworldly sort of way while still retaining enough gore and gristle, the special effects for the creatures themselves wonderful and the use of real wolves (or dogs, perhaps) adds to the earthen, folky aura that collides fascinatingly with this urban aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this (a rewatch is no doubt imminent) and I can’t recall everything except that it’s one strikingly distinctive, unique and very immersive big city horror cop flick amalgamation that is well worth checking out.
I think that seeing Daniel Baldwin yank vampires out of a boarded up hideout into the sunlight with a steel cable pulley winch mounted to his truck to get torched to death is one of the most satisfying scenarios in John Carpenter’s Vampires, and maybe the vampire genre overall. This is an amazingly fun, super imaginative, down n’ dirty vampire western in the tradition of stuff like From Dusk Till Dawn where the vamps are fearsome beasts, those who hunt and kill them are profane, volatile outsiders and the overall tone is the opposite of what you’d call subtle, an aesthetic I love. James Woods is Jack Crow, a vampire slaying guru who works as freelance mercenary for the Vatican along with his second in command Montoya (Baldwin) and a host of other badasses who all hilariously get killed off in the opening scenes of the film as nasty vamp kingpin Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) raids their motel party and leaves everyone dead save for Jack, Montoya and ill fated hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who has been bit and shares a handy psychic link with Valek but is also a time bomb now that she’ll turn soon. It’s basically the big opening shootout and then a series of dusty, bloody extended chase sequences across the southwest with Jack and Montoya shouting at each other, Katrina looking progressively more sinister and Valek flying around like a literal bat out of hell trying to bite them, and I loved spending time with these characters. The Vatican’s cantankerous top dog (Maximillian Schell) dispatches a twitchy rookie priest (Tim Guinee) to assist Jack but he mostly gets in the way and serves as cannon fodder for his offbeat sense of humour and strikingly unchecked rage issues. Carpenter’s score is a departure from his synthy super sonic work and has this twangy, grinding western vibe that I really liked as well. The film is loud, gory and pretty hectic but it somehow also manages to feel laid back and easygoing, with Lee stealing the show, Woods doing his blustery asshole shtick to a tee and Baldwin being pretty badass for a Baldwin that isn’t, ya know, Alec. Good times.
The screen is black and the opening credits begin. The first thing we hear is a dirge called Clementine’s Loop, composed by Jon Brion. The mood it pitches is stark and foreboding. The audience is immediately keyed in to the notion that the next 102 minutes will probably not be a reflection of the life-affirming highlights of the characters’ lives.
When the image comes up, we’re outside a Denny’s. Well, a reconverted Denny’s. The world of Hard Eight is one of unshakable reputations; it can say Jack’s Coffee Shop on the sign but it’s still a Denny’s that has been broken down, sold off, and is quietly functioning in its new skin. Walking towards this cafe is Sydney, a shadowy, yet direct man who, seemingly at random, offers to buy a poor stranded soul named John a cup of coffee.
It seems appropriate to note that, once upon a time, Peter Yates directed Robert Mitchum in a film called the Friends of Eddie Coyle which was not too dissimilar from Hard Eight. Set in the less-cinematic parts of Boston, that film chronicled the lives of the lowest-level functionaries in the organized crime business; bottom feeders who would feed on each other if need be. And in that film, everyone spoke with a clarity that ensured that whoever was listening understood what was said and what was not being said.
Hard Eight is very much like this world. In the earlier film, Robert Mitchum got to put the fear of God into a hot shot gunrunner by explaining why you never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. In Hard Eight, Sydney helpfully reminds John never to ignore a man’s courtesy. In both scenes, the veteran looks dog-tired and slow but you never once doubt his wisdom and respect the commanding way he delivers it.
In Hard Eight, Sydney is played by Philip Baker Hall and John is played by John C. Reilly. During the course of the opening scene, we will learn just enough about each character to want to tag along with them; Sydney is a well-dressed, professional gambler and John is a sweetly dim loser who only wants to win enough money in Vegas to pay for his mom’s funeral. Fifteen minutes into the film, we’re hanging on Sydney’s every word and John’s receptiveness to them. By the time sad-eyed cocktail waitress-cum-prostitute Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow) and reptilian casino security manager Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) are added to the mix, we slowly begin to see the ingredients of disaster come together and, like John, we look to Sydney for his guidance and trust his every movement. For there’s no doubt he’s seen disaster before.
What’s most astonishing about the debut film of Paul Thomas Anderson is how subdued it is, Made by a young man of 26, Anderson refuses to fall into the trap that 99% of nascent filmmakers do which dictates that one must be as flashy as possible by jamming in as many cinematic references and tricks that they can. In his first time out as a filmmaker, Anderson shows a real maturity in his restraint and his ability to approach material correctly and there is an amazing wisdom in the dialogue.
The film’s setting is interesting, too. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, Hard Eight takes place in the unglamorous world of daytime nightlife. Garish hotel rooms, eerily desolate roads, and the sparse, Wednesday afternoon crowd in dumpy Reno casinos are all writ large on cinematographer Robert Elswit’s wide canvas. And John Brion’s Hammond B3-laced score injects the right amount of lounge-lizard sleaze into the atmosphere. The characters and plot, a potent blend of a Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and an Elmore Leonard novel, mix with its harsh, cinematic world in such a way that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke on every frame of film.
To achieve this, a film has to be extraordinarily observant and meticulous in its details. Take, for instance, a scene in which Clementine, who has to leave town with John in a hurry, gives Sydney instructions for feeding her cats and how to unlock her apartment door with a key ring that is ridiculously overloaded with keys and trinkets. It’s not played for laughs and it doesn’t even call attention to itself. It’s simply a detail that serves as a reminder that Anderson knows characters like Clementine; someone who sadly, and in the name of basic survival, gives so much of herself away that overloading her keychain with goofy charms and ephemera seems like one of the few remaining frontiers of self-expression and individuality.
As well-realized its world and well-written its dialogue, Hard Eight is, above all, an actor’s film. Philip Baker Hall, an actor who before Hard Eight was mostly known as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Secret Honor, got one of the biggest gifts from the gods with a role for the ages. Stoic and precise, Hall gets the immense actor’s pleasure of both being able to express himself with his stoney face and the right to spit hot-fire lines of dialogue like “You know the first thing they should have taught you you in hooker school? You get the money up front.” It’s a performance of masterful skill, immense control, and sheer perfection. I’ll fight the man, woman, or child that disagrees.
John C. Reilly can never get enough credit and is one of the finest character actors working today. In Hard Eight, he turns in one of his greatest performances as a truly pitiful lug who needs a hug and an emotional anchor. While Hall is tasked with the heavy lifting during the scenes of severe gravity, Reilly gets a few astonishing moments of emotional counterbalance, most especially during a telephone conversation in a key scene in the film’s third act. Also bringing the lumber is Gwenyth Paltrow who summons up the depressing cheapness that runs through her character while also making her vulnerable and human. It helps that her character is the hooker with a heart of despair and loneliness, not gold and half of the time her smeared lipstick makes her look like a clown that escaped a black velvet painting.
Fourth-billed Samuel L. Jackson brings fire to the film as the charismatic yet crudely loathsome security manager who knows everything that goes on in, and out, of the casino. With his wide grin, his maroon leather jacket, and his driving gloves, Jimmy is a study in someone who wouldn’t know class if he fell into it, yet is supremely lethal and projects a menace that, once he’s introduced, hangs like a pall over every remaining second of the film.
Hard Eight was marketed to capitalize on the then-red hot Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino vibe; an explosive, rapid-fire of witty banter, cool Vegas shenanigans, and gritty gangster action. To give the film more of that post-Rat Pack fetish vibe that washed all over indie cinema in the mid to late 90’s, the trailer assigned face-card titles to the characters (Gwenyth Paltrow is the Queen!). That the film had none of the aforementioned elements probably surprised the few that were able to overcome the distributor’s shameful mismanagement and were able to see it. For some, the surprise was likely a let down. Regardless of quality, there was, once upon a time, an audience that ate up every single post-Pulp Fiction-ish film indiscriminately. But, like a bunch of overstimulated, hyperactive toddlers, this crowd would write a film off as boring if it didn’t have that level of cinematic masturbation as a Tarantino picture (hence the lopsided, legacy love for absolute worthless garbage like The Boondock Saints). And while Boogie Nights and, especially, Magnolia are awash in dazzling visual arabesques Hard Eight, doesn’t traffic in them. Despite the use of a quick pan here or there and one tremendous tracking shot of Sydney moving like a shark across the casino floor, the film’s dynamism comes solely and bravely in its silences and what it doesn’t say. The electricity it emits is a slow burning charge that feels confident.
But, finally, Tarantino fashioned the mood of Pulp Fiction after those deliciously chosen pop tunes with which he festoons his soundtracks. Anderson fashioned Hard Eight after a Tom Waits song; it’s a true broken boulevard of heartache and misery where, after an evening of carnage, one can merely adjust their coat sleeve to cover up the bloodstains and move about their day unmolested.
The first person we see is Sidney Westerfield, a grinning, amiable tavern owner in “Mongaup Valley, New York State.” He is a man who has seen no small amount of years, so much so that he’s still calling movie theaters “the moving pictures.” The look on his face is both awed and grateful. His tone sets the table. “The kids were wonderful,” he says, almost wistfully. “Nobody can complain about the kids.” He also promises that whoever does see the film that has documented this phenomenon “will really see something.”
It’s a little hard to fathom Woodstock in this day and age. In a time where everything from casual meetups to nationwide protests can be organized over a social media app on a phone, the thought of half a million kids caravanning from all over the lower 48 just to descend on the otherwise unremarkable town of Bethel, New York for a music and arts festival is kind of mind-blowing. Almost more astonishing than that was that so many of them just went on blind faith that they would somehow be able to get into the festival without tickets. And there were so many of these that, within hours, the fences were torn down and anyone who wanted in, got in.
But I suppose the only thing in any of that that’s unfathomable is that it occurred in a time of AM radio, three network channels, and, usually, two editions of the daily newspaper. If my WiFi is down for an hour, I feel like I’m Henry David Throreau. But somehow these folks came from all over for a festival that was more or less pitched to residents of New York only.
Woodstock, the documentary film that was released in theaters in 1970, is the grand spectacle from the ground floor; a sunkissed narrative of a small nation-state of fired up young people who were doing their best to change the system for the good with peace, love, and music. And, indeed, director Michael Wadleigh (Wolfen) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (and, to some degree, co-director and co-editor Martin Scorsese) assemble the film as a beautiful ode to the power of communal spirit which netted an Oscar for Best Documentary and earned Schoonmaker her first Oscar nomination (a competitive technical Oscar nomination for a documentary is a RARE bird). From the opening montage of the unspoiled farm of Max Yasgur as the advance team arrives and begins to assemble to stage to the final moments of a very much changed landscape that has been worn down to its muddy foundation, Woodstock is an ode to lightning in a bottle; a monumental bacchanal that, despite the anniversaries and spin-off/knock-off festivals that actually eclipsed it in terms of attendance (the Watkins Glen Festival with the Grateful Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers drew a bigger crowd), remains its very own special chapter in American history.
The film more or less follows the three days of the festival, doing a masterful job of mixing the musical performances with the captured moments with festival goers and the citizens of Bethel. The practical concerns of the people who actually live there and are then forced to live through what turned into a disaster area butt up against the encroaching hippies who seem to wander in and out of the frame like the living dead in Romero’s rural Pennsylvania. But this is in the service of being even-handed. Woodstock, the film (and, by extension, its soundtrack), needed to be a hit to help offset the losses from the actual show and these folks weren’t going to make a bucket of money bumming people out by showing a three hour movie about a bunch of pissed off townies and farmers and their economic hardships during the Woodstock festival. No, Woodstock had to be first and foremost a concert film because, after all, that’s what was at the backbone of the festival in the first place.
And as for the performances in Woodstock, they’re mostly all pretty terrific. Standout moments belong to Richie Havens having the unenviable task of opening the whole affair and setting the tone with the electrifying “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom;” a pregnant Joan Baez bringing the vocal lumber to “Joe Hill” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the middle of a very cold night; Crosby, Stills and Nash pulling off a flawless “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes;” Joe Cocker overcoming his backing singers who seem to be lost in the sauce of a different key during a powerful, career making cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends;” Sly and the Family Stone mostly setting the stage on metaphoric fire with a version of “I Wanna Take You Higher” that will get you pregnant; and Santana’s rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” which contains a jaw-dropping and borderline ridiculously sublime drum solo by Michael Shrieve, then just barely 20 years old and the second youngest performer at the whole festival that will get you even pregnant-er.
And not completely undersold is the darker side of Woodstock. As mentioned before, it touches on the community unrest and the conflicts between the conservative mentality with the more progressive and lax townsfolk. And the film famously includes the inconvenient rainstorm which created a disgusting swamp of mud which, occurring on day three, was probably the last straw for some. There are folks on bad trips, people emotionally overwhelmed by the situation on the ground, and then Sha Na Na shows up for some fucking reason.
And a film as sprawling as Woodstock is going to be bound to be as famous for what DIDN’T make it as it is for what did. The end of Abbe Hoffman’s street cred was famously delivered by Pete Townshend when the former climbed up on stage to go on a typical rant about John Sinclair and the latter knocked him off of the stage. That’s not included. Credence Clearwater Revival, the first band contracted to play, drew such a lousy play time (12:30 a.m on Sunday following a set by the Grateful Dead that was capped with a fifty minute rendition of the Pigpen-fronted “Turn on Your Lovelight”) that John Fogerty disallowed the band’s appearance in the film or on the subsequent soundtrack citing a substandard performance. And touched upon but not really explored is just what a financial disaster all of it was. If organizers Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang’s “Far Outs” and “Outta Sights” were currency, then they might have broken even. But as they stand around with dopey grins on their face as their capitalistic venture gives way to socialism when the fences come down with a quickness and the paid festival becomes a free one, Lang and Kornfeld’s eyes look glazed over and in a certain kind of shock that belie their supposed antiestablishmentarianism.
Even more perfumed in nostalgia is the longer director’s cut which was released in 1994 to coincide with the festival’s 25th anniversary as it incorporates sets from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. In a lot of ways, these are mostly backwards glancing as the presence of Janis, who would die within two years of her performance, seems necessary if only to remember that, yes, Woodstock had an edge of loss that was felt a year after the film came out in the theaters. As joyous as the Canned Heat set is (most especially when a fan bounds onto the stage and bums a cigarette from singer Bob Hite), it lacks the dazzle of Schoonmaker’s split-screens and multi-angled coverage feeling more like raw footage thrown into the pool for a bigger party. And the longer cut also adds back to Jimi Hendrix’s performance, elongating the electrifying but incredibly sad end of the festival, forcing the viewer to perhaps reconsider the film’s denouement in the shadow of Altamont which, in 1970, didn’t mean the same thing to the Boomers as it did in 1994.
But, honestly, it’s probably best to remember Woodstock as a golden memory and not as the realistic, muddy sump hole that left starving hippies gnawing out the last bit of watermelon as if they had been banished to a weird kind of hell on earth. No. The kind of grim reckoning that was upon America was but weeks away on the other side of the country when The Rolling Stones would get over their skis. On the contrary, Woodstock drives most scenes to an upbeat ending and presses the point by focusing on the goodness of everyone (the Port-O-San Man is a national treasure). And it’s in this spirit that, before snapping back to the pristine Yasgur farm to begin a recap montage over which the closing credits will roll, the last moment we see in Woodstock is an aerial view of the festival at its most swollen; a massive and unthinkable dream come true. It actually happened and you’ll always have the memories. It’s a beautiful snapshot of the determination and boundless energy of the young.
Regardless of the sociological ramifications of the Woodstock generation and the kind of cynical thought process that naturally occur when one luxuriates into middle age, my mind still likes to think about Woodstock in terms of the open-faced, plaid-clad girl who pops up to talk about being asked to tell a stranger about his wild eyes. Her revelation that she has to get her sister back home in time for court seems like quite a task but her follow-up that reveals that her sister got lost somewhere in the crowd during Richie Havens makes one’s eyes widen. After all, this is now a sea of people and Richie Havens was the first performer. How in the world will this even realistically happen? Will the communal spirit that drove all of these people to Woodstock in the first place be the thing that will draw these two siblings back together through the thick of the throng? Perhaps that’s the most fitting thing that can be said about the prevailing spirit of Woodstock. Regardless of its inherent naïveté, somehow, someway you kind of figure that she’s going to find her sister and, as John Sebastian said, “everything is gonna be all right.”
I think it’s safe to say there’s an over saturation of killer/haunted doll movies these days, I mean just ask Chucky, who has a lot of competition in this era as the top dog. It’s refreshing then to find an entry like The Boy, which on the surface appears to be another chomp at the evil doll bit but, without revealing too much, has more going on than one might think and although it doesn’t quite keep the viewer genuinely guessing or break the mould of predictability, certainly has more than a few moments of genuine suspense and chills. Lauren Cohan plays an American nanny hired by a plummy old British couple to watch their young son Brahms while they go on holidays. These two are apparently senile old goats though because Brahms turns out to be an especially creepy little porcelain doll who they literally treat like a human child, and expect their recently hired nanny to as well. Her amusement quickly sours into terror and paranoia when she’s left alone with Brahms and… weird shit starts to happen. Her only human contact is with the house handyman (Rupert Evans) and eventually her abusive maniac ex boyfriend (Ben Robson) who has followed her across the pond. I really can’t say much but you may end up guessing pretty quick what’s really happening in the house, and then again you may not because the answer, although evidently logical, isn’t exactly presented super obviously. The film has enough scares, atmosphere and suspense to be worth a solid viewing, but it’s not too original or noteworthy. The big reveal in the third act is done really well though and is the most effectively skin crawling moment in the film. Also, I gotta say that Cohan is a strikingly terrific actress with natural charisma, beauty and presence, I love seeing her in lead roles and I honestly hope she gets to give that tiresome Walking Dead crap the slip soon so she can focus on some more film roles.
A 90’s werewolf flick starring Tom Cody from Streets Of Fire, written by the guy who penned The Hitcher and set in the Pacific Northwest.. gotta be a winner, right? Well.. kinda. There are aspects I did enjoy about Eric Red’s Bad Moon and some things I thought were a little weaker. Michael Paré plays a dude who gets bitten by a werewolf in the South American jungle and winds up back home in Vancouver where his affliction puts his sister (Mariel Hemingway) her son (Dennis The Menace) and their German shepherd Thor in great danger. In this version of the werewolf lore it doesn’t have to be a full moon for him to transform, it just happens every night, which causes maximum destruction and carnage in the neighbourhood. So what I liked about this film: obviously I’m a push for that Vancouver scenery and the film is gorgeous, the two main settings being a beautiful character home that Hemingway’s lawyer salary has snagged and a breathtaking lakeside locale where Paré parks his airstream. The film is actually mostly from the perspective of the dog, who is the only one to really figure out that there’s a monster around, POV shots and pacing are used to present him as the protagonist and I really enjoyed that choice. What didn’t work for me: the wolf itself looks cheap a scraggly, not aesthetically pleasing or impressive enough for me. The human characters/acting are not so great either.. Paré is a great presence in anything and does ok but his character goes through a bizarre an unexplained personality change (beyond just being a werewolf lol) midway through the film while Hemingway and the kid are just awkward, stilted and I just didn’t buy that these people were siblings/uncle etc. The dog is great though! He should have his own spinoff film where he goes into business as a werewolf hunter. I wanted to love this based on all the elements involved but it kinda just was an okayish one bordering on a meh.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the flute-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely gave a shit. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.
Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.
I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.
And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.
It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).
The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but the film wants to make sure that it’s though not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are fucking, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are fucking. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.
So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick he was.
There are many ways to symbolically impart real world events in film, and sometimes when the events are particularly grim it helps to bathe your message in a healthy dose of artistic abstraction, as not to overwhelm your audience in grisly details or bring the mood down with a stifling sense of literacy. Joaquín Cociña/Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House is based upon (in spirit) the true life tale of a horrible former Nazi who started a nightmarish, controlling doomsday cult who abused hundreds of children in the Chilean mountains sometime after WWII. After one young girl is punished for allowing pigs to escape, she runs away from the commune herself and it’s this basic framework that allows a terminally surreal stop-motion Dreamscape to play across the screen. There is no actual story to the events onscreen and one would have to either read up on the film or come across a review like this to even fully grasp the theme and backstory. There’s a quick and deliberately ominous infomercial for the commune right at the start of the film but even that is untethered of context and quickly segues into a consistently unearthly theatre of the bizarre. This isn’t succinct, structured stop motion animation in the way someone like Tim Burton would create, this is something so wild, so artistically expressive I can almost not even put it into words, but my review is accompanied by a PhotoGrid mood-board as always, so feast your eyes. The tactility and sculpted bazaar of mâché, clay and many other materials creates a swirling, never placid, always metamorphosing subconscious ballet of scintillating, melting, dissolving image and sound that is truly, singularly unlike any other medium I’ve ever seen. The film reportedly took five years to make, and honestly I would have guessed double that with how complex and elemental the design is. One has to watch it at least that many times to fully absorb everything on display as we see figurines constantly disintegrating mid-scene, transforming into inanimate objects, suddenly becoming ectoplasmic vapour that creeps across the walls of the detailed dioramas they inhabit in forms of movement that are anything but of this world. Because of how non-traditional the experience is, the viewer must use mood sensors and subconscious intuition to intake the film’s essence, and abandon all hope of a clearly discernible plot. A scene where the animated figurine of three German children sing a haunting lullaby together was the emotional core and the closest the filmmakers get to outright exposition, it’s a heartbreaking image when contrasted against the Wikipedia knowledge about the cult in real life, which was a horrible and senseless event that could have been avoided. This is an art installation come to life, not a narrative story, and inside the circus of paint, colour and dynamism we can sense the undertones of menace and tragedy if we’re tuned into the film’s far out frequency. Highly recommended for creative types who enjoy films that not only function outside the box of what’s considered normal and palatable, but barely seem like they’re from this dimension at all. A wonderful experience, streaming on Shudder for anyone interested.