Saturday, August 29, 2009

#68: Nomads (John McTiernan, 1986)

Nomads is the second film in a row I've watched for this site that I find difficult to write about. I don't know where to begin, simply because this film is so damn strange and talking about it a little reveals too much about it as a whole. I'm going to give it a try, though. I think I'll start with the filmmaker.
John McTiernan is primarily known as a capable director of sharp and stylish big-budget action movies. His three biggest hits are the three films that followed Nomads: the action/horror/sci-fi blockbuster Predator (which features former bodybuilder/future governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, former professional wrestler/future governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and future unsuccessful Libertarian candidate for governor of Kentucky/ex-porn star Sonny Landham, not to mention Carl Weathers, who has yet to run for governor), the action/action/action blockbuster Die Hard, and the action/Cold War/submarine/espionage blockbuster The Hunt for Red October. He also made the underrated flop action/comedy/post-modern blockbuster parody Last Action Hero and the probably not underrated flop remake of Rollerball, as well as Medicine Man, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The 13th Warrior, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and something called Basic I have no memory of starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. So, McTiernan is a mainstream filmmaker, but he's a mainstream filmmaker who mostly knows how to make quality entertainment in the classic Hollywood style as opposed to the Michael Bay school of disconnected, incoherent, sloppy narrative, editing, framing of shots, and direction of action, and complete ignorance of spatial relationships.

My experience with several of McTiernan's previous films did not prepare me for his directorial debut and sole screenwriting credit, Nomads. As I said above, this movie is strange. Incredibly strange. And, despite its overwhelmingly negative reviews and unsuccessful theatrical run, I think it's a scary, atmospheric, well made, enjoyable, unusual, ambitious, and slightly ridiculous movie. There is one major flaw that almost sinks the movie, however, and may ruin the film for someone else, depending on his/her tolerance for bad accents. Pierce Brosnan's French accent is so poor and so initially distracting that I had a hard time entering into the world of the film for about ten minutes. Then, I decided to just go with it, and my experience improved substantially. So, just go with it. If you can't, you're going to have a tough time, but you'll miss out on the pleasurable aspects of the movie.
I'll attempt to set up the story, though the film's experimental, dream-like narrative is just this side of linear and hard to summarize in a straight-forward way. Lesley-Anne Down is a doctor in Los Angeles working a 32-hour shift. Late in her shift, a bloodied, hopped-up, mad Frenchman, played by Pierce Brosnan, arrives in ER. He attacks her, whispers some French in her ear, then promptly dies. Yes, the main character dies, but I'm not spoiling anything for you because it happens in the first couple of minutes of the movie. The hospital thinks Brosnan was a crazy street person on PCP, but the autopsy reveals he had no drugs in his system, and they also discover that he was a famous French anthropologist who had just moved to Los Angeles with his wife one week ago to teach at a university. He studied nomadic tribes all over the world, and, according to a closeup on the cassettes on top of his stereo, was a huge fan of the solo work of Quincy Jones and the saxophone stylings of David Sanborn. Down gets some stitches in her ear after the attack and goes back to work, but she soon starts experiencing vivid hallucinations or visions of the final week of Brosnan's life, and the film cuts back and forth between her retracings of Brosnan's steps and flashbacks to Brosnan's final week.

Shortly after moving into their new L.A. home, Brosnan and his wife are menaced by a group of creepy street thugs, including Mary Woronov, Adam Ant, and Josie "Johnny Are You Queer" Cotton. These thugs are a little bit silly but also a whole lot of unsettling and creepy, particularly the always awesome Mary Woronov, who is scary as hell here and has a tremendous screen presence even though she barely says a word. Brosnan, instead of calling the police or finding a new place to live, starts following and photographing the thugs. He soon discovers that these street punks are nomads, too. They're always moving, with no fixed location of their own. Down in the present, and Brosnan in flashback, find out, to their horror and the detriment of their sanity, that these urban nomads are actually Inuit evil spirits who can take a human form. They are attracted to sites where violent death and destruction occurred, and they damage the lives of those who come into contact with them. I probably said too much already, so I won't spoil anything else.
I really enjoyed this movie. It deserves a better reputation, once you get past Pierce "Baguette" Brosnan's movie French.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

#67: The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999)

This is a hard film to write about. For one thing, it's not a good film. For another, it's not a bad film. It's not a mediocre film, either. It's strange. It's got some wonderfully filmed and orchestrated set pieces and some curiously flat and aimless moments as well, but the tone and pacing remain consistent, never upset by the movie's strengths or weaknesses. The dialogue is full of leaden cliches that no people except movie characters ever say, including "We have much in common, you and I," but the film is also light on exposition and generally nicely and wittily underplayed, except for a Frank Langella freakout near one of the 10 or 12 climaxes (this film has more presumably final scenes than the third Lord of the Rings movie). The Ninth Gate is slowly paced and long, though it never gets boring. It never really goes anywhere, either, though. It's narratively unsatisfying, yet always pleasant and watchable. The film is seriously flawed, but its flaws exist peacefully alongside its strengths, creating an odd but cohesive supernatural thriller that is disappointing as a Polanski film, entertaining as a minor yet relaxed and understatedly comic genre film, and a lot more interesting than your usual Hollywood production.

Polanski is an interesting guy with an impressive filmography and a wild and often tragic life. Growing up Jewish in Poland during World War II, he was forced into the Krakow ghetto, along with his parents. His father was placed in an Austrian concentration camp and managed to survive the war, but his mother was taken to Auschwitz and murdered. Polanski himself escaped the ghetto at the age of 10 and roamed the Polish countryside for the remainder of the war, sleeping in barns and receiving shelter from Catholic families. He attended film school in Poland during the Communist regime and made his early short films and feature film debut there, but quickly moved to France. He's been an international director ever since, making films in many different countries. His years in the United States produced some of his greatest films and more personal turmoil and tragedy. In August 1969, while Polanski was in London, Polanski's wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were murdered by the Manson Family. (The 40th anniversary of the killings was last week.) In 1974, Polanski photographed a 13-year-old model for French Vogue at Jack Nicholson's house. After plying the girl with champagne and quaaludes, he either coerced her into sex or forced himself on her, depending on which of the many versions you believe. Everyone, including Polanski, admits he did a very fucked-up thing. Polanski skipped the country after spending 42 days in a psychiatric facility. He settled in France, where the government refuses to extradite Polanski. He hasn't been back to the United States or England since then. The model, Samantha Geimer, has forgiven Polanski and thinks he should be allowed back in the U.S. She says she believes he's sorry for what he's done and has paid for his crime.

Inextricably connected to his messy, tragic, and somewhat creepy personal life are his often amazing films. He's made a lot of great movies: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and Tess, as well as a lot of less-than-great but still pretty good films like Macbeth, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Death and the Maiden. I still need to catch up with his other highly regarded films like Cul-de-Sac, Che?, The Tenant, Frantic, Bitter Moon, and the movie that got him his first Oscar for directing, The Pianist.
The Ninth Gate doesn't belong in that pantheon. It's easy to say while watching it, "This is the guy who made Chinatown?" A critical and commercial flop during its theatrical run 10 years ago, though not a disaster on par with Polanski's biggest flop, Pirates (1986), which cost $40 million and made less than $2 million, nearly bankrupting the studio, The Ninth Gate is minor Polanski. However, as I said earlier, this movie is always watchable and very, very strange. Johnny Depp stars as a rare book dealer/book finder in New York City (the New York scenes were filmed in a studio since Polanski can't come back to the U.S., but they look convincing). He's unscrupulous, willing to lie about a book's value to get it on the cheap and sell it for more, but he's good at finding rarities. Frank Langella is a rare book collector, professor, and multi-millionaire of independent means who possesses an enormous collection of extremely rare books in which the devil is the protagonist. He owns one of three surviving copies of a book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, whose author was burned at the stake during the Inquisition. This book was purportedly coauthored by Lucifer himself. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Langella suspects the other two surviving copies, one in Lisbon and one in Paris, are forgeries. He entrusts Depp with his rare book and asks him to find the other two books and compare the texts for any discrepancies. Of course, things are a lot more complicated than that, and Depp soon finds himself embroiled in a Satanic web of Luciferian conspiracies of Beelzebubbian proportions that involves a lot of professors, Satanists, rare book dealers, rare book collectors, menacing thugs, Lena Olin, and a possible guardian angel/possible demon played by Polanski's real-life wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. This is all silly stuff, plot-wise, but Polanski's virtuosic yet non-show-offy filmmaking, relaxed pace, and light comedic touch make for a compelling, watchable film that's never boring if you aren't expecting big narrative payoffs, gore, or a bunch of monsters. (There is a ridiculous sex scene, however, that plays like Ken Russell parodying himself.) I liked it, even if it didn't seem to go anywhere, and even though I was puzzled by its existence.

Three asides -- #1: I was irritated by the prominent billing of character actor Allen Garfield, who I love watching. I kept waiting for him to show up, and he never did. After doing a little Internet research, I discovered he had a bit part in a scene outside an elevator early in the film, and I didn't recognize him because he'd gone bald, except for a gray patch on the sides, and possibly suffered a stroke, because one side of his face was paralyzed. I was much more irritated by my failure to locate Garfield than I should have been because I just watched his compelling performance in Wim Wenders' excellent The State of Things the day before.
#2: For a bunch of characters who handle rare books, the people in this film were incredibly careless with them. They drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes and cigars over the books, they manhandled the spines and smoothed down the pages, they smooshed them over copy machines, they flipped through the pages like they were random issues of Swank. My archivist wife was going crazy.
#3: For someone as supposedly intelligent as Langella's character, why is his combination for the security system of his collection of expensive, rare books about Satan "666"? Smooth move, devil boy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

#66: Night of the Creeps (Fred Dekker, 1986)

Following the excellent Night of the Comet comes another fantastic 1980s horror/sci-fi/comedy hybrid with the words "Night of the" in the title. I saw Night of the Creeps on the great Denver station KWGN as a kid and loved it (KWGN was also home to the mildly disturbing Blinky the Clown), and I was pleased to love it even more as a grown-ass man. Unfortunately, Night of the Creeps is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD in this country. Fortunately, a DVD is finally coming out in October.
This movie has it all. Aliens, ax murderers, zombies, space slugs, cryogenics, "Stryper Rules" written on a bathroom wall, a girl who looks like Sarah Silverman, a frat dick who calls himself the Bradster. Fred Dekker's directorial debut is an affectionate and funny homage to youthful obsessions (comic books, 1950s sci-fi movies, George Romero's zombie trilogy, slasher flicks, cop movies, college social life), and the film visually resembles all these obsessions and includes characters and institutions named after David Cronenberg, Roger Corman, Sam Raimi, James Cameron, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter. There are little nods to all these filmmakers, as well as a cameo from Roger Corman/Joe Dante regular Dick Miller.

The film opens with a bunch of pig-like naked aliens and their tiny naked butts running around a spaceship, shooting at each other. The aliens' dialogue is subtitled in both English and the hieroglyphic-like alien language. An experiment in a sealed tube is in dispute, and it ends up being launched out of the ship toward Earth. It lands in a wooded area near a highway in an unnamed college town in 1959 (this 1950s sequence is in black and white with the rest of the film in color), and a couple at a teen make-out spot see it fall toward Earth. They drive off to check out the space junk and encounter something weird. Meanwhile, there's an escaped ax murderer on the loose as well, just to make things even crazier.

Fast forward to the 80s. It's Pledge Week, and the frats and sororities are partying it up. Our nerdy heroes, roommates Chris and J.C., are bemoaning their lack of female companionship. Chris fixates on the Sarah Silverman lookalike, Cynthia, but is too shy to talk to her. J.C. decides to make it his mission to get Chris and Cynthia together, so that Chris can escape his malaise and the good times can begin. Cynthia belongs to a sorority, so Chris and J.C. pledge to the Beta house in hopes of increasing Chris' chances. Unfortunately, the Beta house is full of hilarious frat dicks, led by the Bradster, who calls everybody "bro," "dude," "babe," "dork," or "chucklehead." (An aside: It's been interesting to see the evolution of frat dicks throughout the ages, both cinematically and actually. They've gone from looking like Tony Dow in the 50s and 60s to a young Donny Osmond in the 70s to James Spader in the 1980s to Fred Durst for the last 20 years. It's time for a new look, frat dudes. And the seashell-necklace pot-dealer look doesn't count.) The Bradster and his smarmy, smirking frat brothers send Chris and J.C. out on a massive frat prank, though they have no intention of pledging our heroes. Without revealing too much, this attempted prank sets into motion some crazy zombie and space slug insanity that ties together our space alien and 1950s elements with the rest of the movie.
Needless to say, the fall formal is going to be interrupted by zombie frat boys, exploding heads, topless sorority girls, flame throwers, shotguns, drunk driving mishaps, zombie cats, and zombie dogs, and lots of silly catchphrases. I love this shit.

The whole cast is likable and effective, but character actor Tom Atkins appears to be having the best time as hard-ass detective Ray Cameron. When he answers the phone, he doesn't say "hello." He says, "Thrill me." He's seen it all, and he's too old for this shit. He provides an excellent reading of the film's tag line: "The good news is, your dates are here. The bad news is, they're dead." I'm so glad movies like this exist.
Writer/director Fred Dekker has had a sporadic but interesting career. Besides Night of the Creeps, he wrote and directed kick-ass children's movie The Monster Squad (featuring the immortal line, "Wolfman's got nards!") and Robocop 3. He also wrote several episodes of HBO's Tales from the Crypt series and was a producer and writer on Star Trek: Enterprise. Dekker and his cast and crew reunited in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in June. Here's what they look like now. Rent this in October. You won't be disappointed. Unless you're a jerk.