Saturday, July 30, 2011

Out of Gas, Grass and Years

"Maybe we can cope with this by maintaining our sense of values"
- Ray Milland as Harry Baldwin in Panic in the Year Zero!

If there's one thing I've learned watching post-apocalyptic movies, it's that men are kind of dicks after a cataclysmic event. Not only that, but they always seem to reach for the nearest weapon faster than you can say 'gun-toting whacko'. OK, make that two things I've learned. My most recent education in male P/A buffoonery came courtesy of three films - The C.S. Drury just recently released, Empty, the 1962 Ray Milland film, Panic in the Year Zero! and the 1970 Cornel Wilde opus, No Blade of Grass. All three films feature male leads who feel the need to regress to Neanderthal-ism to survive the apocalypse while simultaneously casting things like honor, dignity and civilized behavior into the wind. Which could be the reason why these movies are so entertaining.

In Empty, Ashley C Williams (formerly a segment of The Human Centipede) plays Piper, a young, upper-class woman who goes on a camping trip with her somewhat less than upper-class boyfriend, Dell (Jon Carlo). While roughing it, Dell ruminates on how it wouldn't be so bad living in the wilderness which of course insures trouble of the ironic sort. Sure enough, upon returning to civilization, Dell and Piper discover that another gas crisis has struck, only this time, there's no reserves or rationing like in the 70's. It's all gone, America just doesn't have a drop of fuel left in its collective tank. From a conversation with her family in England, Piper discovers that our more eco-minded European friends are rumored to have a little gas left, but it's being strictly rationed and it looks like the US won't see any car-juice for a while. Not having enough gas to drive all the way home, Piper and Dell argue about what to do next, with Piper electing to move on to her father's vacant summer place, which is not too far off, but with Dell loathe to accept help from her dad and opting instead to take an over-priced room at a local bed and breakfast.

It appears early on that Dell suffers from a lack of a little something called 'self-esteem'. He doesn't want to stay at Piper's dad's, because he believes that her father doesn't think him good enough for Piper despite her assurances to the contrary. In fact, Dell is kind of a dick, and becomes an even bigger one as the crisis they find themselves in worsens. As the situation decays, Dell turns more and more into a caveman - a needy caveman who wants to be reassured about what a great guy he is. On the flip side, Piper seems to be handling things better despite being initially freaked out. Whereas Dell is in a continual state of pout and overreaction, Piper deals more pragmatically with their situation including getting advice from her dad which of course further pisses off the ever devolving Dell. The surprise ending seems quite logical given the events leading up to it, although I know some will cry foul or just hate it as a cheap storytelling trick.

Critically speaking, Empty is a good idea but with somewhat average execution. The shot on video look to the movie hurts it badly in places although Drury attempts to make up for this with some nice outdoor shots. The story was made a little implausible by the brief length of time it took for events to unfold, but that's a minor quibble. The acting is solid by Ashley Williams who reminds me a lot of Mia Kirshner, but Jon Carlo's character came off as seriously whiny and I was hoping he would magically change into Liev Schreiber at some point. I know he was supposed to be a douche, but there wasn't a lot of subtlety involved with his performance and it became grating at times. There was a nice, low-key score by Patrick Mottaz and Dylan Randall that added ambiance without ever getting melodramatic. The direction was simple and straight-forward with a lot of hand held and fixed shots which was fine for the small, mostly two-character story being told. The movie was more of a character study about Dell anyway than a comment on diminishing resources or the collapse of society or even the ensuing paranoia. As such it works and is interesting to a degree, but it seems kind of a modest goal to build a movie around.

score 6/10

I have a theory that if you never go camping, the apocalypse can't happen. In Panic in the Year Zero! the Baldwin family leaves their well-appointed, southern California, suburban home to go fishing, and no sooner make it into the hills, when WHAM! Los Angeles gets nuked. This movie and Empty aren't the only examples of this phenomena either. When Peter Graves and his kids from Where Have All the People Gone? come back from camping, they can use a Dust Buster to vacuum up what's left of humanity. But should you choose to ignore my theory and go camping anyway, be sure to take a backpack full of paranoia (and guns, lots of guns) for when the world inevitably ends.

Ray Milland, who also directed, stars in Panic in the Year Zero! as Harry Baldwin, an average middle class father with a wife (Jean Hagen), teenage son (Frankie Avalon) and teenage daughter (Mary Mitchel). One fine morning they decide to go camping (thus causing the apocalypse) around the hills of LA. Once in the hills they notice a flash of light in the rear-view that Harry initially believes is lightening. When he stops to check that the windows are closed on the trailer he's pulling, he sees the mushroom cloud over the LA basin. After starting back toward Los Angeles (!), Harry decides to turn around and head back to their original campsite. However, they have a need for extra supplies and some other things first, but only a limited amount of cash. Hmm, how will they solve that problem?

Ray Milland noooooo! Don't be a dick and rob the innocent hardware shop owner at gunpoint because you ran out of cash! Oh well, too late. And it's only the first in a string of felonies including arson, murder and other mayhem that Harry Baldwin will commit by the end of the movie. What's even more amazing is that he's the good guy in the film. But unlike Dell from Empty who is acting like a dick as compensation for his inadequacies, we understand Baldwin is doing all this bad stuff to help his family. It's a weird early 60's message which is to trust in authority (in this case paternal authority) as they are doing these unpleasant things for your benefit. Screw morality and civilization, papa needs to get shit done. The end of the film really drives the 'authority is good' home as well. But despite the pro-authoritarian subtext and some unintentionally campy dialogue, e.g. at one point when referring to the nuclear attack that's just taken place, the daughter whines, "This whole thing is a bore, such a drag!" - the movie is actually quite enjoyable and fast paced with plenty of action and suspense. Although Milland, as director, had very little to work with budget-wise, he made the most of it and the movie is also helped immeasurably by the jazzy Les Baxter score.  The music would seem very out of place considering the subject matter, but is an integral component in the movie and really gets the fingers popping. The B & W cinematography from work-horse Gilbert Warrenton is also quite good and I particularly liked the opening shot of the car radio. The acting was just average with Milland carrying the majority of the burden and chewing it up in full cranky mode (doesn't this guy ever smile?). Avalon did not do any damage in a role that was fortunately limited, and the other characters were serviceable but there were no real standouts.
On the downside, sometimes the low budget seams showed, such as in the use of stock footage and tight shots of supposed outdoor locations that were obviously shot in a studio. Also, the female characters don't get developed a great deal and were basically delicate baggage to be hauled around. I found it telling that Avalon's teen character kept referring to his mom and sister as "the women". Also, when Hagen's wife character raised objections to morally questionable behavior, she got growled at by grumpy Milland. I found this an interesting contrast to Empty, where the female character would go off and do something productive like gather firewood or fish when her man began acting possessive or douche-y. The female characters, in general, are the moral conscience of all three of these films and yet they all get ignored or stifled (note to self - listen to women during an apocalypse).
Of the three films I (re)watched, Panic in the Year Zero! is easily the most entertaining and the most well-crafted. For post-apocalyptic fans, it's an essential, for others, an entertaining, if paranoid, ride.

Score 7.5/10

I have very mixed feelings about No Blade of Grass. On the one hand, I can smell the pretentious, preachy, early 70's stank all over it. From the nauseatingly cloying, acoustic title song, to the echo-y, cringe-inducing, Cornel Wilde voiceover, to the numerous shots of billowing factory smokestacks and polluted rivers, this movie reeks of patchouli hippies singing Kumbaya in a forest meadow. On the other hand, the actual story of an upper class family fleeing London during the chaos brought on by a world-wide grain virus and the attendant apocalyptic rumors is pretty darn fun. Nigel Davenport plays the cool-as-the-other-side-of-the pillow, eye-patched father in this one and just like Milland...

...yep, he turns into a murdering dick as well. Much like in Panic in the Year Zero!, the mayhem starts when the lead characters are acquiring guns. Morals are again thoughtlessly abandoned as the family bulldozes through anyone who gets in their way to their woodland sanctuary. No Blade of Grass is a much more brutal, cold blooded film than the other two which is not necessarily a bad thing on the entertainment level. It is a bit more believable in terms of character interaction as well in that Davenport's John Custance makes a deal with the devil by enlisting the aid of a young tough named Pirrie (played wonderfully by Anthony May) who provides the muscle and firearms skills for the group. Pirrie understands the need for a savvy, quick thinking leader in Custance who in turn understands the need for Pirrie's fast instincts and ruthless violent streak. The relationship between the two is a far more interesting aspect to the film than all the pollution hugga-mugga and really creates some nice tension along the way. There is a voice of reason, again coming from a female, in this instance, Custance's wife Ann (played by Jean Wallace) who questions the morality of just killing everyone willy-nilly. Happily, she's ignored and it's back to the mayhem.

As a post-apocalyptic thrill ride, No Blade of Grass works well and delivers the action and suspense even better than Panic in the Year Zero! There's even a couple of big shoot-outs toward the end. On the thematic level, however, the film is incredibly heavy-handed. Cornel Wilde both directed and produced which likely meant he had no one to step in and tell him to stop the madness. The cut-in pollution and starving kid scenes are particularly appalling and distracting, as are the foreshadowing scenes which are shown in blinking red no less. All this stuff should have been left on the cutting room floor because it really detracts from an otherwise decently made action thriller. Where I thought Empty should have addressed the fuel shortage a bit more,  No Blade of Grass goes wildly round the bin thematically to the detriment of the story and its pacing especially in the early going. The music is late 60's psychedelic at its worst and most generic but somehow doesn't annoy as much as the cut-ins. However, even with these major flaws, the film still manages to hold one's attention. It's not quite as smoothly or as fast-paced as PitYZ! but it still moves along especially when the family starts to flee the city. If you can make it past the first 15 minutes of the film's preachiness, it's a trip worth taking.

Score 6.5/10

I found it interesting that the two earlier films made in '62 and '70 had a distinct 'us or them' and 'trust no one' mentality. Whereas in 2011's Empty the characters were extending a cautious hand, and at least to a degree, attempting to help each other. Not that it always worked out for everyone in the film, but I did find Empty to be the most believable of the three films even though it wasn't as entertaining or well made as the other two. Empty also benefited from being timely. The nuclear bomb threat of PitYZ! is not what it once was, and neither is the pollution shown in NBoG (although the movie was wildly ahead of its time in discussing global warming!). Both films have an anachronistic, slightly moldy taint to them as a result. Nevertheless, the three films together did make for a pretty entertaining and interesting cinematic end of the world hat trick.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me

Pop quiz! But don't worry, just two questions and they're both multiple choice...

1. Craig Brewer's best film -
  a) was remastered in 2010, but has yet to be released
  b) was screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival
  c) contains some awesome music
  d) all of the above

2. Craig Brewer's best film is entitled:




  d) none of the above

If you answered 'd' to both questions, congratulations, you scored 100%. Bonus points were also awarded for actually knowing the name of Brewer's best film, which is 2000's The Poor & Hungry.

Extra special bonus points and a hug from me for anyone who knows if and when the remastered version of The Poor & Hungry will be released on DVD. I'm hoping it will be in October in conjunction with the release of Footloose which I'm dreading (and please, dear God, do not put TP&H as an extra on the Footloose Special Edition Blu-ray - it needs it's own release, ok?).
Don't get me wrong, I love Hustle and Flow as well as Black Snake Moan. Even if they're not perfect films, they are definitely unique in that Brewer really knows good music and how to weave it into a story properly. That said, the 2011 Footloose trailer looks like an ill-conceived, 80's pop and lock, hybrid abortion with abominable acting and a cringe-inducing story (the original was just as teeth-grindingly bad - it's nostalgia and Kenny Loggins which make the movie seem so much better than it is). If anyone could make a new incarnation of it work though, I think it could be Brewer. It may be the only smart, non-mercenary, hiring decision the producers of the new film made, but he's a good choice for a music-filled film. While I'm talking about it, why, oh why, did the writers update the already-anachronistic-in-the-80's story? Why not set the remake in the 50's, when it would be a much more believable and timely story?
On the other end of the movie-making spectrum from the new and unproved Footloose, however, is Brewer's sublime The Poor & Hungry. The film is a low-budget classic with great performances by unknown actors (that can emote circles around psuedo-celebrities like the act-rocious Julianne Hough), who portray gritty urban characters in a poignant story set in Memphis with the town's music supplying the atmosphere.

Synopsis - Three poor people in Memphis try to find a little happiness.

Eli Foote is a shy, reticent, pony-tailed and bearded, big, but slightly tubby guy, who works in a strip bar and "could go the rest of his life without seeing another bouncing titty."  In addition, Eli works in a Memphis chop shop as a part time car thief/auto dismantler. At the outset, Eli realizes he doesn't have the stomach to do the actual thieving, but reluctantly agrees to act as lookout while others snatch the cars. Eli's female pal, Harper, is a low level street hustler of questionable sexuality who is constantly coming up with ever more desperate ways to make money. One of the things that really work well in the film is the relationship between Eli and Harper with Eli being like a quiet, put-upon, but gentle bear, and Harper a rabid, chattering squirrel with Attention Deficit Disorder.

The third major character in the story, Amanda, is a young cello player who lives with her infirm father. While helping steal her car, Eli spies Amanda playing her instrument and subsequently finds a tape she's previously made in the stolen car's cassette deck. He receives an epiphany from listening to the music which is basically that life doesn't have to suck.
All three characters of Eli, Harper and Amanda are on the last rung of life's quiet desperation ladder and are looking for a way out of their unhappiness. For each, the other holds the key. Harper wants Eli to help her with a car scam, Eli wants to be with Amanda and Amanda wants to chase away her loneliness with Eli and Harper. They are all modest, pitiable characters that you don't as much root for as hope nothing bad happens to. As the story progresses, there appears a glimmer of hope for just a little bit of happiness for each of them. At the same time, the story feels like an impending tragedy is looming. Brewer does a great job of storytelling and I particularly liked the way he edited the film which really elevates it's shot on digital look and gives it a more cinematic feel. The pacing is surprisingly quick given Brewer takes his time in telling the story and developing the characters. I never felt the film's 118 minute runtime as I was thoroughly engrossed with even the tiniest details of the character's lives. At one point, I was transfixed as Eli built a model car late at night. In the remastered version, apparently Brewer has trimmed around ten minutes from the movie. That's fine, but probably unnecessary, as I've watched this film several times and have never grown restless.
The acting is very good, particularly the three leads played by Eric Tate, Lindsey Roberts and Lake Latimer. Brewer uses long, lingering takes, and I never caught the actors becoming aware or impatient. Tate, in particular, was great at holding on during the prolonged period at the end of some of the takes. Roberts is the obvious standout as the loopy, chatterbox Harper, but it was Tate I couldn't take my eyes off of. He has the authentic look of a lower working class guy that you might meet up with in a slightly grungy bar. The difference is, though he looks somewhat menacing, he actually spends most of the story in some kind of fear or anxiety.
I usually can't stand shot-on-digital or video taped movies as the directors just seem to point and shoot with no thought of camera movement (other than the shaky-cam shots), lighting or imaginative editing. It's clear Brewer took all these things into account and put a tremendous effort into the film. There were long periods where I would completely lose awareness of the cheap filming process employed as I was so engrossed with the characters, story and cool atmosphere that Brewer must have spent painstakingly hours to achieve.
To my knowledge the movie has yet to have a widespread release on any format. I taped it off of IFC about ten years ago so it may show up on that channel occasionally. It's well worth tracking down in any event. It will be an interesting comparison to make - Brewer's first film The Poor & Hungry vs his latest effort, The Rich and Entitled, oops, I mean, Footloose - This is Our Time.

Score 8.5/10

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Aluminum Autumn

Years grow shorter, not longer,
the more you've been on your own.
Feelin's for movin' grow stronger,
so you wonder why you ever go home,

-Jimmy Buffett
Wonder Why We Ever Go Home

Two distinct, but geographically proximate, cultures have witnessed their way of life fade out and nearly die in the latter half of the twentieth century. The causes of the decay for both cultures were many and varied - greed, destitution, indifference, government interference,  but most especially, "the pickup truck debt...which is a sickness...worse than alcohol and dope." In the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe, and again in the 1989 film Pow Wow Highway, two sets of disparate people living in Montana romanticize, deride and ultimately pine for their fading cultures.

A euphemistic term for cowboy paradise, most of the characters in Rancho Deluxe attempt to achieve their modern-day version of the American West's dream by playing at their forbarers roles. Whether it's cattle barons John and Cora Brown, ranch hands Burt and Curt or proto-slacker, cattle rustlers Jack and Cecil, everyone is looking for their version of horseshoe heaven by diving headlong into a fading culture with predictable, but humorous results. The movie somehow reminded me of radio talk-show host Don Imus who sports a full duster, chaps, cowboy hat and boots while working in a modern day sound studio, and who never realizes just how silly he looks in his costume. Like Imus, most of the characters in Rancho Deluxe are not real cowboys or even indigenous to the west, and the movie derives much of its humor from this irony. Cattle ranchers John and Cora Brown, who appear to own the lion's share of property around Bozeman, Montana, are actually transplanted beauty parlor owners from Schenectady. Seemingly salty, hired hands Curt and Burt are also not real cow-pokes either, Curt being a former TV hot-comb model and Burt being in appliance repair. Rustlers Jack and Cecil, however, seem fully conscious of the ironies of their life and the collision of the modern era into old west culture. Even though they're aware that they're only playing at cowboys and indians, in their own way, they enmesh themselves in the culture and simultaneously fight boredom by rustling cattle, finding lost Appaloosa  barrel racers with their erst-while girlfriends, shooting up their girlfriends father's Lincoln Continental (and its horseshoe hood ornament) with a Sharp's buffalo rifle, and just outright refusing to grow up in general.

Patti D'Arbanville and Bob Dog

When Jack and Cecil shoot and chainsaw up a cow from John and Cora's B-Bar/Lazy-T spread, the Brown's see it as a chance to alleviate some of their own boredom that's been built up from living their western lifestyle. To this end, they hire "barely mobile" stock detective Henry Beige who brings his beautiful, seemingly innocent, niece along for the ride. Burt and Curt immediately fall for the niece much to the chagrin of Cora who is longing for some "gothic ranch house action."

The story is pretty straightforward with a few minor twists and the theme has been touched on before and since the movie was released. What sets the film apart is the sharp dialogue and characters written by Thomas McGuane, and the terrific cast of character actors. There's a ton of great dialogue that manages to be conversational, humorous and still pointed. Cecil's dad, played by Joe Spinell gives a classic speech about "pickup truck debt" which rings quite true for anyone living in the west. There's also a hilarious exchange between John Brown (the great and immediately recognizable Clifton James) and a clerk concerning where the "nearest negro in Montana" is located. Slim Pickens, who plays the rickety stock detective, is really on his game in the movie whether he's recounting his whacky dream where he's atop a pyramid with a "Phay-roh while below all the slaves is a-bowin' and a-scrapin'," or when sniping at Clifton James' character. These two legends are worth the price of admission alone, but when Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright and Joe Spinell are added to the mix, the film becomes a must-see for lovers of great character actors.

I've unintentionally seen almost all of director Frank Perry's eclectic list of films which include movies as diverse as David and Lisa, The Swimmer and Mommie Dearest. Although his direction isn't usually imaginative or super stylish, the characters in the films are often engaging and he usually gets excellent performances from the typically top-shelf actors who are cast in his movies. Even Perry's lesser known works such as Ladybug, Ladybug, Last Summer and Man on a Swing are interesting character studies with solid performances. Being a character based film, Rancho Deluxe, seems a very good fit for Perry and he even manages to shoehorn in a few stylish shots as when Jeff Bridges and HDS exchange dialogue in the reflection of a Pong screen. 

The downside to Perry's direction is he failed to take full advantage of the Montana scenery. Without a doubt, there are a few nice outdoor shots, but between the less than stellar cinematography and the actor-centric camera angles there were a lot of missed opportunities to really show off the incredible landscape of the area. Also, either the print, or the film stock itself was extremely grainy which further diminished the look of the movie. The pace of the film is intentionally slow and meandering, much like real life in Montana or my home state of Wyoming. Boredom is almost a way of life in the modern west and the film, quite rightly, doesn't attempt to portray it otherwise.
 The soundtrack of the film was done by McGuane's brother-in-law, Jimmy Buffett, well before he became one of the most successful concert performers of all time. Three of the songs, including the title track, Wonder Why We Ever Go Home and Livingston Saturday Night are still among his best work which is saying something given Buffett's voluminous output. His easy-going, to poignant, to rollicking styles fit in with the tone of the film quite well even if the lyrics are very much on the nose. In an interesting side note, Buffett himself appears in the film with a bar band which features Warren Oates on harmonica.
Rancho Deluxe is the kind of movie that leaves me chuckling with delight after one viewing, but kind of sad after another as I contemplate the demise of even the modern-day western culture presented in the film. But I never tire of the colorful, but amiable characters, beautiful landscapes and laid back music, even though I know I'll kind of miss them afterwards.

Score 7.5/10

"Look at these people traipsing around on a basketball court. You'd think a few lousy beads and some feathers was a culture or something."
-Buddy Red Bow

While Rancho Deluxe is funny, quirky and laid-back, Pow Wow Highway is humorous, but earnest, and somewhat more serious about its cultural message. Maybe it's because the characters aren't playing at being western denizens, they actual are natives of the west and intricately tied to it. The two main characters Philbert and Buddy belong to the North American Cheyenne tribe and reside on a reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. Philbert is physically large, but appears a little mentally slow, or at the very least, absent-minded and quite naive. He's a dreamer who, for the most part, just wants to learn and tell stories about the tribe. His life-long friend Buddy Red Bow is hot-tempered, cynical and militantly active in tribal affairs. At the outset of the story, Buddy has crashed a tribal meeting with a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative who is trying to convince the tribe to sell natural resources located on the reservation. In order to get Buddy out of the picture, the government trumps up some charges against his sister who lives in Santa Fe with her two young daughters. Buddy enlists Philbert and his "war pony" - a barely running, decrepit Buick Wildcat that Phibert literally traded for with the stuff in his pockets. Together, they head south but not before getting sidetracked along the way by Philbert's spiritual quest.

The film is, in large part, a road picture with Philbert and Buddy re-discovering their roots. The humor in it is mostly derived from the relationship between the sweet, day-dreaming Philbert and the passionate, but too serious Buddy. Philbert is played with just the right amount of distractedness by Gary Farmer. His large size, but gentle demeanor make him instantly likable. Buddy is played by handsome latino soap star A Martinez who really sells the hot-headed character well but still manages to remain sympathetic.

The film delivers its message without getting too preachy although the white characters are just a little cartoonish and one dimensional. The ending is a bit far-fetched, but very satisfying nonetheless. The film was shot on location in Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico and director Jonathan Whacks takes advantage of the landscapes' beauty. One shot in particular of Philbert's Buick traveling down a highway in mid-blizzard is particularly haunting and cool. I was really happy the filmmakers actually shot in the three different states instead of using Canada as a stand-in as each place has a distinctive look of its own. The soundtrack of the film is made up of original western-style music from Barry Goldberg along with previously recorded music by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rachel Sweet and Robbie Robertson. I'm completely biased being a huge fan of Robertson's, but I wish he could have scored the entire film as the two songs of his that were used were easily the best and most relevant to the movie. The film is almost the same length as Rancho Deluxe, but is much faster paced, despite or because of the detours it takes which are always interesting and further develop the plot, characters or theme.
Score 7.5/10