Saturday, February 23, 2013

#151: May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

Since its modest theatrical release in 2002, Lucky McKee's first feature, May, has slowly and quietly built a fervent cult following that grew organically, in contrast to so many modern "cult" films that get that reputation bestowed on them almost immediately as a marketing-driven promotional gimmick rather than the word-of-mouth chain required for an actual cult. Writer/director McKee came to filmmaking in the same organic way. Born in a small California town to a poor family, McKee had little access to media as a child due to his family's dire economic circumstances. Given a hand-me-down camcorder by a relative at the age of ten, he fell in love with moviemaking after filming his sister's birthday party. Two years later, he and his classmates remade A Nightmare on Elm Street with McKee directing. I'd like to see that. This kind of backstory makes me want to like May a lot more than I do, but unfortunately I found the film lacking. I don't hate the film, and I see some promise in McKee (though I haven't seen any of his subsequent films yet), but I had too many problems with May to recommend it. In short, my feelings toward the film can be summed up by Moe Szyslak: "I'm a well-wisher, in that I don't wish you any specific harm."
May, says McKee, was his attempt to create a unique tone and feel by combining three very different inspirations: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert DeNiro's portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and the songs of Nirvana. That sounds like a ridiculous undertaking, but in his own naive way, McKee sort of achieves a small-scale version of this goal. Faint mealymouthed praise, I know, but I don't hate the film. May has a teenage understanding of life and is not as serious as it thinks it is, but at least that teenage sensibility is awkwardly precocious and occasionally endearing. You can see some shy, brooding outcast obsessing over the book, film, and band that inspired May, scribbling the outline of this film in the back of a college-ruled notebook in the waning minutes of an Algebra II class.
May is about a young woman named (duh) May (Angela Bettis), who was born with a severely lazy eye and a selfish, monstrous mother. Other than these drawbacks, May seemed like a fairly centered person with a supportive father figure, but once we flash forward to the present, May's backstory is never brought up again, so we don't know how she turned into an immature, cripplingly shy, mentally unbalanced woman who thinks she can converse with the super creepy doll in a glass case given to her by her mother as a childhood birthday present. This is unfortunate, and the film either needed to expand this backstory or cut it entirely. This prologue sacrifices both mystery and coherent character development, giving us enough backstory to prevent us from creating our own but not enough to make us understand what happened to May. When she's not talking to her creepy doll, May works at an animal hospital with the fat guy who had the nude wrestling match with Borat (Ken Davitian) and a lesbian party girl Polly (Anna Faris), who has a crush on May. May is benignly stalking a crush of her own, Adam (Jeremy Sisto), a mechanic and amateur horror filmmaker. May is fond of both Adam and Polly, but she particularly loves his hands and her neck. If you're familiar with an obscure cultural reference I'm about to make, Frankenstein, you may know what happens later. May is incredibly lonely and hungry for connection, but when she is rejected, bad things happen to her head.

The actors, particularly Bettis, do a great job elevating some poorly written material. May could have been a perfect storm of mannered tics and quirks, but Bettis really convinces you she's a real person, despite some inconsistent character traits and all the freaking mannerisms she has to pull off. Faris is funny in a completely ridiculous part full of lipstick lesbian stereotypes and self-consciously "quirky" dialogue like "Maybe we can hang out, eat some melons" and "Shut up, hooker." Sisto's hair is a little too summer 1987 Tiger Beat, but he also pulls off a naturalistic performance. Gregg Araki regular and Donnie Darko rabbit James Duval gets a raw deal with his cameo. Dressed like an extra from Repo Man or the punk rock episode of Quincy, he has to utter such gems of the screenwriting craft as "Want to come with me and get some Jujubes?" and "Do you have some ice cubes I can rub on my nipples?" It's unclear whether this ridiculous dialogue is meant to be funny or not. Weird for the sake of weird is annoying, but if this is meant to be casual realism, McKee may be an accidental genius.

 McKee as a director is fairly indistinct, at least at this early juncture in his career. The framing of shots is pretty standard network television-style boilerplate, but he's aided by some good cinematography that rises above the limited budget. His writing has a lot of room to improve, especially the scenes involving Bettis volunteering at a school for blind children. The last of these scenes is so atrociously conceived that it seriously damages the film. Bettis is good enough to keep the viewer, or at least me, emotionally invested in her character, but she has to behave in a lot of illogical, inconsistent ways in the film's final third. This film has plenty of avid fans and detractors. While I can't dismiss it entirely, I am mostly in the latter camp. Too bad. I really wanted to like it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

#150: The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964)

In the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Jack Nicholson says of Corman's body of work, "By mistake, he accidentally made a good picture every once in a while." In the filmography of Corman, the man who gave early breaks to actors and directors like Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, David Carradine, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Sylvester Stallone, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Curtis Hanson, Bill Paxton, William Shatner, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Monte Hellman, Paul Bartel, Robert Towne, Jack Hill, George Armitage, and (don't blame him for this one) Ron Howard, The Masque of the Red Death is one of those quality accidents. Nicholson's comment was a good-natured joke with a grain of truth. Corman, as director and/or producer, has made hundreds of low-budget films and is still going strong in his eighties. A lot of those films are cheap, entertaining schlock, but plenty of others overcome their limitations and hold up as good films, no qualifications necessary. When Corman had a personal attachment to his material, he was a very good director capable of strikingly memorable images, and he's done great work as a character actor in cameo roles for Wim Wenders, Coppola, Demme, Dante, and Bartel.
The Masque of the Red Death comes near the end of a long string of loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Corman directed in the early 1960s, which make up some of his strongest work. Working with a larger than usual budget, Corman still managed to make the film on the cheap by shooting in Britain (which at the time had fewer taxes than American film shoots), receiving a subsidy from the British government for using local crews, and using sets left over from the big-budget Peter O'Toole/Richard Burton film Becket. Corman shot the film in rich Path├ęcolor and was aided by the considerable skills of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who would go on to become a great director in his own right) and longtime collaborator Daniel Haller on production design. And, of course, a fine lead performance from Vincent Price as Prince Prospero.
Corman takes the plot of Poe's short story -- a wealthy, decadent prince avoids a deadly plague sweeping through the countryside by holing up in his castle with several decadent underlings and having a masked ball -- and spices things up by making the prince a sadistic Satan worshiper and adding in a subplot taken from another Poe story, "Hop-Frog." Price seems to be having a great time as Prospero and nails the film's precariously balanced combination of Baroque camp and genuine menace. Too much of either the former or the latter would have seriously damaged the movie, but Price innately understands how to occupy both sides of the seesaw.
The film begins with a woman wandering through a cemetery at night. A red-cloaked figure sitting in front of a nearby tree hands the woman a white rose he turns red with a few drops of blood and commands her to take the rose to the village. At this same time, Prince Prospero arrives by coach in the village, nearly trampling a toddler sitting in his path, to invite the townspeople to his annual masked ball. He is not too popular with the locals, though they are deathly afraid of him, and two men make their displeasure known. Prospero demands the execution of the men, and a woman breaks free of the crowd to beg Prospero to forgive them. The woman, Francesca (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's then-girlfriend and the sister of Peter & Gordon's Peter Asher), has urgent reason to beg the prince. One of the men is her boyfriend, the other is her father. Prospero finds her attractive and tells her he will spare one of the men as long as she chooses which one will die, to the delight of his even more sadistic underling Alfredo (A Clockwork Orange's Patrick Magee). The festivities are rudely interrupted by a screaming woman. She turns out to be the woman from the beginning of the film, and she is dying from the "red death," a contagious plague. Prospero rescinds his invitation to the ball, asks if Francesca and the two men had contact with the sick woman, takes all three prisoner when he finds out they haven't, and quickly returns to his castle for masked balls, sadistic mind games, sadistic acts of violence, Satan worship, and plague avoidance.
What follows is a highly enjoyable, beautifully photographed comedic horror film with a tone that is just camp enough to be clever and not so campy that it's cynically superior to its material. At 89 minutes, the film's pacing is brisk and doesn't drag the way some low budget horror films have a tendency to do in their second halves. I've already spent enough time praising Vincent Price, but the entire cast is also strong. The fluid camera moves through the set gracefully, capturing Roeg's striking use of color and light and Haller's wonderfully over-the-top sets and clothes. Poe obsessives may be annoyed at the liberties taken with the source material, but everyone else should have a great time. Corman himself said Masque was one of the three best films he made (the other two are The Intruder and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). If for no other reason, watch it because a small child plays an adult character with her voice overdubbed by an adult woman. Crazy, man.