Sunday, August 23, 2015

Yes Men follow up, plus Zombies, Cowboys, Danny Trejo, Chuck Norris, and... Commando? WTF?

So Andy of the Yes Men was walking up the aisle at the Rio (see previous post), and I happened to be right behind him. I'd already asked him my "public consumption" question during the Q&A (about how they kept a straight face during their pranks; Andy, gay, immediately began teasing me - "does this face look straight to you?" then eventually explained about suspension of disbelief in reverse - how the boredom and lack of interest of the audiences he pranks are kind of infectious to him, make it far easier for him not to crack up, to treat his presentations like they're the dryest things imaginable). Anyhow, there he was, and there I was, and for a second, no one else was flocking around him, so I got to ask him a private question that had been niggling - how the Yes Men know Bob Ostertag, who has some honorary affiliation with them, as I recall. I like Ostertag a lot from my days of enthusiasm with noise music, and even saw him live, doing the Between Science and Garbage performance with Quebec animator Pierre Hebert. Andy seemed surprised or impressed that I knew him at all ("how do you know Bob Ostertag," he asked in reply), and explained that Ostertag and he are really old friends... which is more or less what Ostertag told me awhile back via email, if memory serves, but it was nice to scratch the itch. It is interesting that Andy comes out of the closet explicity in the new film; his doing so doesn't fully pay off, so you kind of expect it to be something he's doing for future purposes, like it's an area they plan to explore further, which can only enrich the Yes Men "series"... I may try to talk to him about it someday...

Anyhow, it's been a weekend of movies: a ridiculous amount of cinema has been consumed, since I've been on a visit with my 84 year old, speech-impared Mom, and there's not a lot else we can easily do (we did take a nice walk this morning, mind you). Since Thursday, the films we have seen:

The Last Castle (2001): a rather old-fashioned prison movie with Robert Redford (as a respected military man who goes to jail), James Gandolfini (as the di rigueur sadistic warden), and a really well-used Mark Ruffalo (as the prison bookie and general hustler involved with both the principals; he kind of steals the show, by virtue of having the most morally complex character and playing him perfectly). A thoroughly average and not very surprising film, but well-made and enjoyable. Dad would have liked it (he was both ex-military and a retired jailguard), but I doubt he ever saw it.
Bad Ass (2012): also thoroughly average, and not entirely well-crafted, but a very fun film to watch with Mom no less, starring Danny Trejo as a senior citizen getting revenge for a friend's death. Some nice images of the non-white side of LA, a surprisingly tender and complex performance from Trejo (who usually is just asked to grimace, glower, and be violent; he actually has a scene where he's required to cry in this film!), Also some nice work from Charles S. Dutton, a character actor I'm partial to, as the main bad guy (gangland henchman to corrupt politico Ron Perlman). It was fun to see Patrick Fabian, who carried The Last Exorcism, in a different role, as a cop, but he's almost a token white, is given nothing much at all to do in this film. Bizarrely, tho' I haven't heard of Bad Ass before, I discover that there are two sequels... I don't think I'll seek them out, but I was entertained.

Speaking of Danny Trejo, his presence on the box art for the 2012 Syfy channel Walking Dead knockoff Rise of the Zombies (AKA Dead Walking) is definitely misleading, since he only has a small role (though he does get to turn into a zombie, which is about the only thing he does in this film that he hasn't done in a dozen others, unless you count his somewhat zombie-looking vampire in From Dusk til Dawn. Don't get me wrong, I like Trejo - a bit less since he's suddenly started appearing in every low budget action film out there, but no matter. The problem is, really, that he doesn't usually get asked to extend his range very far, and his brief zombie scene aside, this film is no exception).  The real stars are Mariel Hemingway and Ethan Suplee, that guy with the permanently tense forehead who pulls off the trick of looking to be intensely stupid and in deep concentration at the same time, all the time. You've most recently seen him on the screen as one of DiCaprio's stable of loyal brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street, probably. He's not as good in this. There's some inventive gore - never saw a father (Levar Burton) cut a chunk of his own flesh out of his arm to feed it to his zombie daughter, never seen an infant stomped to death when it suddenly goes zombie - but it really is just a Walking Dead knockoff. Not a bad one, but they could have seemed a bit more original without the young Asian man, who obviously is meant to suggest the character of Glen, or, say, the prison setting of the film's first third. The only thing the film does that isn't in The Walking Dead, in fact, is make use of helicopters, but gee, what other zombie films have we seen those in...?
As far as zombies go, Mom and I also took on the Shout Factory remaster of the Romero classic Day of the Dead, on Blu. Nevermind that it's kind of an essential film in the history of the modern zombie film, with early/ major involvement from Greg Nicotero, who these days occasionally directs The Walking Dead (and does gore for it): this film has probably provided me, over the years, with more pleasure than any single other movie, believe it or not. I've seen it at least twenty times, listened to the commentary, showed it to friends, and have owned it in five different versions (censored Canadian VHS, uncensored US and Japanese VHSes, Anchor Bay DVD and now this). I've had the poster on the walls of a few apartments, too, so that "Bub" and "home" are kind of synonymous. I even use bits of it in class now and then, when discussing censorship with my students. As familiar as I am with the movie, in this enhanced hi-def version - even on Mon's decidely NOT hi-def TV - there were nuances to facial features and other details that I'd never seen before, that surprised and impressed me and made the film that much richer. But that's only half the story, sadly, because in preparing it for Blu Ray, the film has been made almost too bright at times, enhanced to the point of damaging it slightly, making certain moments look quite fake. For example, makeup you could never tell was makeup in any previous presentation I've seen - like the dark hollows under the eyes of the male "lab zombie" that Logan chains up and admonishes to think, shutting the lights on him - looks OBVIOUSLY and DISTRACTINGLY like thick greasy facepaint. Of course, you know that it IS just that - but it shouldn't LOOK like it, and it never has before now.

Still, great fun, even though I last saw it just a few months ago (making my girl watch it as part of her birthday gift to me!). The actor who plays Bub, Howard Sherman - AKA Sherman Howard - brings the greatest emotional range to a zombie role I've ever seen, and always manages to fill me with glee in his big scenes - saying hello to Aunt Alicia, practicing his gunmanship, answering the phone, shaving, and emoting when he finds his mentor killed... Here he is listening to the Ode to Joy...
I pushed my luck with Mom for one other zombie film this weekend: the first Resident Evil. I here confess that I am among the people who enjoy this film. Mom is not, it turns out. As I have nothing much to say about it - besides mentioning that I enjoy its almost surreal, dreamlike quality - I direct people to read this essay for more. My only anecdote here involves a recent ESL error of some delightfulness, where a student of mine, writing on the film, meant to say "the heroine is very cool," and wrote instead, "heroin is very cool." Seldom does one get errors that delightful in student papers. It made me very happy.

Not everything Mom and I caught this weekend was on video, mind you. We also looked at a TCM screening of Fritz Lang's goofy, charming 1952 western melodrama Rancho Notorious - subject of a perfect double bill with Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar last week at the Cinematheque, and playing one more time on Sunday (today, that is, for most of those reading this) in a 35 mm print. I mean, Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer and Jack Elam in one movie? Melodramatic cowboy songs that serve as a chorus, propelling the narrative, linking themes? A scene where Dietrich - never mind singing, which she also does - rides a cowboy quite literally as part of a barroom "horse race"? The film is a must-see. I hadn't seen it since my pre-teen years, where I caught it a couple of times on TV and rather fell in love with it. My fondness for Billy Joel aside, I had pretty good taste when I was a little kid, though I'm kind of surprised that this film in particular would have resonated with me back then.
Speaking of westerns, Mom and I didn't quite finish the 1983 actioner Lone Wolf McQuade tonight, one of three films you can snag on a "best of Chuck Norris"-type Blu set at Vancouver HMVs for a mere $10. But so much about that film has exceeded my expectations, took me totally by surprise that I'm prepared to praise it as it stands. I had no idea, for one thing, that it is very much an homage to spaghetti westerns, right down to a soundtrack actually composed by an Italian (Francesco De Masi). I don't know anything at all about director Steve Carver, though I believe one of his other films, Bulletproof, has a small following. This film lacks the cynical wit of the best spaghettis but it still works, and there are other nice dues-paying casting decisions (like having Peckinpah vets RG Armstrong and LQ Jones in roles; & speaking of metatextual film nods, there's also an Eastwood Hospital at one point in the film). David Carradine is the main bad guy, and William Sanderson is a weaselly lowlife who rats on him; Nicaraguan-born Barbara Carrera, who I know best as the Leopard-girl of whatever she is from the 1970's Island of Dr. Moreau, is sexy and strong as the female lead and love interest. It's not a great film, maybe, but is so much better than I ever would have imagined that I'm entirely impessed, and wondering what else of Steve Carver's I should see. (I have seen nothing else he's done, to my knowledge). And are the other Chuck Norris films on the set equally as good? I'm going to have to do a major re-evaluation of him, if so; I had always thought, having barely seen any of his films, that he was a bit of a joke, but he sure isn't here!
There's more we watched this weekend - like the very well-made, well-cast year 2000 ransom negotiation thriller Proof of Life, which involves a Gilroy - Tony, of Michael Clayton, not Dan, of Nightcrawler. After those two films I keep my eyes open for Gilroys. We also got through about 40 minutes of Iron Man, which I've come around to liking, having thought it deeply trivial when I first caught it theatrically (my willingness to embrace politically questionable crap in the name of entertainment is at an all time high these years, possibly as a survival strategy in the current media-scape). Mom couldn't follow it, so we switched movies. But it's late, I'm tired, and I'm running out of things to say... and I have one more film that I have to get to...
In some ways, to my utter surprise, the high point of the weekend thus far was the director's cut of Mark L. Lester's 1985 film Commando, which I think just edged out Total Recall and End of Days as my favourite Schwarzenegger movie. (Apologies to the Terminator franchise, but it's not even in the running). I had last seen it at age 17, when it came out on VHS, and remembered about it only that Schwarzenegger carries a tree in one of the first scenes, though I do recall that my buddies and I enjoyed it back in the day. That doesn't always mean much, unfortunately: a lot of these 80's hits, looked at now, don't hold up very well, and Schwarzenegger in particular can be nearly incomprehensible as a one-time fan favourite; he can't act, he has no emotional range, and he's frequently miscast (as with Total Recall, where he's absurdly supposed to be playing some sort of everyman). Plus there's all those stupid self-conscious catch phrases ("I'll be back" and such), which were presumably meant at the time to identify and solidify his fan base, reward them for being in the know and gratify/ satisfy them - like they were someone's idea of a formula that made an Arnold movie a hit, such that they HAD to be included in every film. They seem kind of embarrassing now, almost insulting to the audience's intelligence, like forcing Bruce Willis to say yippee-kai-yay in every fucking Die Hard movie ever made. But say what I may, Arnold is perfectly used here, and the film more than any other I can imagine makes it possible to understand why anyone loved his movies ever. Nothing feels forced; the story suits the actor; and there isn't a scene that doesn't work. A lot of that is down to Mark Lester, who has always been an able exploitation filmmaker, and has made other favourites of mine, like Class of 1984. But there's also a great supporting cast, including Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Vernon "Wez" Wells, Bill Duke, and best of all, David Patrick Kelly (of The Warriors and another favourite of mine, Dreamscape), who almost steals the show before he's dropped by our hero off a cliff. The corny Schwarzenegger jokes don't seem like they've been hammered into the film under duress, so they have a chance to actually work ("where's Sully?"/ "I let him go").  The director's cut adds a bit of gore and a couple of character lines. It doesn't radically change the film, but hey, that's just as well. I never would have imagined that I'd enjoy one of Arnold's films so much, but I cannot tell a lie on this one, folks...

Anyhow, it's been a movie-intensive weekend, and there will be more tomorrow. They may go unremarked upon, however. Peace.

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