Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Descent

Ivorismo Rating*****

The Descent is a killer of a thriller. It's a unique, intelligent, savagely entertaining and bloody movie. Its writer/director, Neil Marshall and his cinematographer sidekick, Sam McCurdy, have created an intense, frightening underground world in the darkness. This British horror-thriller recalls other grueling, contemporary adrenaline-pumpers like Alexander Aja's brilliant High Tension, the original Alien, Saw and Wrong Turn, yet there's also a deft touch of empathy to help us feel something for the characters before the butchery begins. Shooting in a cave, beyond offering the eye the dark subtleties of the gray scale, really helps connect the viewer to the utter horror these innocents step into. It's that good. Yes, it's a scary movie with sharp teeth, but there's more to the story than just blood and entrails.

The Descent refers to a cave-diving expedition undertaken by six women into the bowels of the earth, yet there's also a parallel plummet into a deep abyss. A nightmare of primal chaos.

Plotwise, in a prologue, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) and Beth (Alex Reid) go white water rafting in Scotland. There are hints at a shared tension, but nothing specific until Sarah's husband, Paul, and daughter, Jessica, pick her up and, in the midst of a bland conversation, get in a road accident on their way back to the hotel. Paul and Jessica are killed, but Sarah survives.

One year later, Juno, Sarah, Beth, Sam (Manna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a rustic Appalachian cabin in North Carolina. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new friend, arrives and the green-eyed monster of jealousy rears its ugly head as we get a vague hint at the vague dynamics of a number of unspecified relationships. They proceed to get very drunk and pledge to "Love each day."

The next morning they go caving. Having not been climbing for long, the group goes into shock when Sarah is almost killed as a cave collapses behind them. After much argument, Juno admits that she has deliberately taken them into an unknown cave instead of the well mapped-out cave system they had carefully planned for. Juno, with her massive yet clearly insecure ego locked into a notion of discovering a brand-new cave system that can be named after her narcissistic self, clearly disavows the unctuous rhetoric she mouths about plurality and the love of sisterhood. Additionally, Juno has manipulated the only other climbers who already know about their expedition into thinking they are climbing elsewhere, so there can be no rescue. Trapped, with no way out, the group then discover an ancient cave painting and leftover equipment from a previous climber.

When Holly falls and breaks her leg, they are forced to carry her along.  Then, as a claustrophobic, angry Sarah wanders off, otherwise absorbed it takes a while before she sees a pale, humanoid creature drinking at a pool. As a shocked Sarah reacts in panic it scampers off into the darkness. In the melée that follows Holly's throat is cut and Juno defends her from the crawlers. Amidst the chaos and confusion, as matters take on a sort of battlefield reality, Juno accidentally stabs Beth. From then on, everything descends into savagery and a plot I refuse to give away.

This may all sound sort of trite. It's all been done before, you might say, but the essence of the movie is in its total physicality. Often shot from close-up in the utter darkness, each character's body is pushed, pulled, beaten, battered, and stretched to a violent breaking point. Smothering tight canals and cavernous potholes, sometimes illuminated by the light from pink flares, make it seem like a voyage through the rings of hell. Strained beyond the limits of their muscles and bones, these 'fit' women are confronted by the limits of their bodies, friendships, and belief systems.

A quick word about these humanoid creatures the women encounter in the caves. They are, as described by the film's director Neil Marshall, cavemen who've evolved after living underground for thousands of years. They've lost their eyesight, but own acute climbing, hearing and sensatory powers to be able to function in a pitch-black world. By creating a family of ruthless, blind carnivores to go to war with his female athletes, Marshall enriches what otherwise would have been simply a woman-in-danger monster movie.

Happily The Descent doesn't waste much time on the usual Hollywood-style obligatory schematic elements. We learn enough about these characters from their reaction to their predicament. Indeed, the dark, claustrophobic world under the surface is a character unto itself. The film's writer-director Neil Marshall has taken his excellent Dog Soldiers--the story of a platoon of British weekend warrior territorials  out on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands when they accidentally/on purpose stumble into a group of night hunter werewolves--and simply stepped it up a notch. Marshall and McCurdy love darkness. These caves have a terrifying emptiness, a vacuum full of both imagined and real dangers.

This film is a definite must-see. Buy a big box of popcorn, people. Keep your jaws busy!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Greenland: For Jim Craig on the Day of His Funeral

The oven was ticking.
It could have been a bomb.
You were eating with gusto.
Testing the Thanksgiving turkey
so we wouldn’t get poisoned.
Dinner made you noble.
We were watching college football on your dinky thirteen-incher.
A Kia commercial got me babbling
about my dad’s exploits.
Dead Chinese.
The wounds which occasionally suppurated out of his back,
like tears for his dead mates. And you said:
How N onward got slaughtered at Pork Chop.
Snow melted, wound your clock,
Letting you chug-a-lug your living.
You sliced a hunk of meat, dipped it into gravy.
A to M were slaughtered.
Diamonds glittered out of your eyes and teeth.
You smiled.
The oven clock rang in agreement;
Sweet buttered yams ready.
Like one of those perky girls, waiting to be examined in Kevin’s darkroom.
Her plentiful thighs, fat, sassy.
Then you were crying. Memory.
The dice of the alphabet.

—Ivor Irwin

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Getaway

Ivorismo Rating****

Sam Peckinpah knew how to tell a story. He really knew how to entertain, not just with plentiful dollops of action and violence, but also how to impress film critics because he had wonderful insights into the human condition and the way society and bureaucracies work. At his best, Peckinpah's films worked equally at both a visceral and cerebral level. Movies like Ride the High Country(1962), Major Dundee(1965), The Wild Bunch(1968), The Ballad of Cable Hogue(1970), Straw Dogs(1971), Junior Bonner(1972), Cross of Iron(1977) and even the shrill, high-strung, eccentric Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), are a guilty pleasure for some, but masterpieces of film making craft to me. Forever forced to compromise by the Hollywood oligarchs who ran the old school system, Peckinpah made three total dogs in The Killer Elite(1975), The Osterman Weekend(1982) and the hugely successful at th box-office Convoy(1978), all executed in a coke and booze-filled stupor. Nobody had his work messed with by studio hacks more than Sad Sam. Indeed, anyone who knows their Hollywood lore, surely wonders if the the crazed depressive auteur played by Richard Mulligan in Blake Edwards' black comedy masterpiece S.O.B.(1981), isn't actually based on Peckinpah. Excuse me if you think I'm exaggerating or overstating my case, but I urge anyone who is truly curious as to how misunderstood and underrated his work really was  to compare the hacked-up studio version of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid(1973) to the more recently released Director's Cut which has over 95 minutes-worth of extra footage added to the film. The movie now makes complete narrative sense, versus the original release in which the 'plot' made no sense whatsoever.

Based on a novel by Jim Thompson and adapted for the screen by Walter Hill, The Getaway(1972) stars Steve McQueen and Al McGraw, Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers, along with some of Peckinpah's stable of character actor favorites, Ben Johnson, Jack Dodson, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens. If you're of a certain age, Mr. Man's Man, Steve McQueen--He of the rawboned, wiry frame, piercing blue eyes and the closed-mouth-uttering-few-words persona, was the penultimate in cool machismo. Brave, quiet and strong, once he became a star, he was very picky about the work he did in The Magnificent Seven(1960), The Great Escape(1963), The Cincinnati Kid(1965), The Thomas Crown Affair(1968), and Bullitt(1968).

Peckinpah and McQueen had been friends for years. Tightly knit already as young actors in New York City and Hollywood, McQueen benefitted when Peckinpah became head writer and sometimes the director of his first T.V. show as a lead Wanted Dead or Alive. Having helped Peckinpah get the job as director of The Cincinatti Kid, McQueen had threatened to quit the film when the ever ultra-sensitive Peckinpah was fired a month into shooting after arguing with the producers over the script. It wasn't quite a man love affair up there with John Ford and John Wayne, but McQueen and Peckinpah understood each other well.

Costarring with McQueen was the incredibly beautiful Ali McGraw. A big star at that moment in time because Love Story had been a huge box-office hit, MacGraw became instantly enamored with sexy boy McQueen, abandoning her movie producer husband, Robert Evans, and giving up the chance to star in two other fine films from 1974, Chinatown and The Great Gatsby. Gossip-mongering aside, I only mention this because, clearly, there was a lot of tension on the set, sexual and otherwise, and it shows in the movie

The film begins at a Texas prison, the focus clearly on one inmate in particular, the zen-calm Carter 'Doc' McCoy (McQueen), who's serving his fourth year of a ten-year stretch for bank robbery. Denied parole, Doc cuts a deal with a corrupt, politically powerful local Sheriff Jack Banyon (Johnson), who conveniently happens to be a member of the prison parole board. The deal involves McCoy pulling a one-shot bank job for Banyon.

Sprung and reunited with his wife, Carol(McGraw), McCoy's meticulous planning goes well and nets the robbers a large amount of cash. Unfortunately, a couple of the robbery crew were hand-picked by Banyon and the double-cross is in. McCoy is savvy enough to have pre-prepared for any betrayal, however. Still, even the ultra-cautious, competent McCoy is shocked to find out that a part of the devil's bargain he hadn't counted on was Banyon sleeping with his wife. Betrayal leads to betrayal, but love still conquers all. McCoy and Carol, after surviving a couple of assassination attempts, go on the run, headed for the Mexican border in El Paso with the money, all the while avoiding capture by the authorities. At the same time, with McCoy's face plastered all over the news, they are chased by Banyon's trigger-happy gang of sociopathic thugs.

What takes the film beyond the usual clichéd kind of heist movie are the peripheral adventures the McCoys' have as a result of being on the run. First there's a brilliant Hitchcockian tension set in motion when Carol is relieved of her bag full of money at a railway station by a bait-and-switch con man who runs away with the case, getting away on the first train he can find. Followed by McQueen, he is quietly hunted down on the packed train and then, just as he opens the case and finds the robbery booty, gets knocked unconscious. It's a brilliant bit of business. Peckinpah at his very best.

At the same time, the most evil robbery crew member Rudy(Al Lettieri), who has been shot by McQueen in an earlier post-robbery attempt to steal the heist money, keeps checking into the fast-running action every now and again. He escapes McQueen and hides out at a doctor's house, proceeding to practice a kind of bully-and-kiss Stockholm syndrome seduction of the physician's venal, horny wife (Sally Struthers). It's pretty kinky stuff as the wounded Rudy is attended to by the frightened doctor and then proceeds to have sex with his wife in front of him. Can this be little Gloria from All in the Family?Again, as with Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, the underrated Peckinpah was brilliant at pulling stunning performances out of underutilized studio and television hacks.

Later, after avoiding numerous traps and ambushes, Doc and Carol hide in a dumpster just as--conveniently or maybe not--a monster garbage truck empties them into its mechanical maw and carries their crushed bodies for miles to a giant trash heap. After the truck leaves they emerge from a pile in the dump like maggots pushing up for air out of a rotted fruit. This is yet another visually brilliant bit of Peckinpah business, a perfect amalgam of storytelling choreographed by Peckinpah's direction, Hill's deft script and the marvelous eye of cinematographer Lucian Ballard which help raise the stake of the film's narrative way beyond the usual mundane crime caper.

Over the years, many of the critics have questioned MacGraw's acting abilities, but the truth is that--as with Jack Nicholson--sharing the screen with McQueen is a thankless task for any actor of either gender. There are not many women in his movies who hold their own next to the sphinx-like macho star, save perhaps Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair and Suzanne Pleshette in Nevada Smith. The lone chick on the set of a hard-drinking, dope-smoking boys' club, McGraw does rather well. Her little girl's voice may grate on the nerves, especially when she's the young Jewish Princess in Goodbye Columbus (1969), but, by the time she starred as the aging Jewish princess in Just Tell Me What You Want (1979), she had learned her craft and was able to hold her own in a town full of McQueen wannabes. Ten years in Los Angeles, hunh?

McGraw is fine in The Getaway. The contrast between the beautiful Choate/Wellesley educated Jewess actor/model and her macho, pot-headed, dour American-Scot of a costar, state-raised in Kansas orphanages, dyslexic and lacking in all but the most rudimentary education, is a massive one. Yet it works very clearly on screen. There really are sparks between them. It's a very uncomfortable moment for a modern audience when, after finding out that she's been unfaithful to him with Sheriff Banyon, he slaps her around a bit, but the truth is it works. It's a moment of passion and needs to be viewed in the context of the time it was made, rather than ill-judged in an out of context way as a piece of bad P.C.

The critic Roger Ebert describes Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway as "a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy." But I think that's why I like it. Peckinpah's movies are ultimately all about the same damned thing. Peckinpah's heroes have a clear set of values, morals and ideals. They always go to war with a corrupted universe and rarely, if ever, win. In that sense, the movie dares to veer away from Peckinpah's usual trope of the good guy dying in slow motion after a series of betrayals. In this one, the good guy, albeit a recidivist criminal, gets away with the stolen money and the girl. Good entertaining stuff.

And, last, but not least: Be sure to avoid the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger remake at all costs!!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mean Streets

Ivorismo Rating *****

When I first saw Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets exactly 36 years ago, I was blown into smithereens. Like my first serious piece of ass and eating at Galatoire’s (in a shirt and tie, by God!), there are some singularly pristine experiences we’re all doomed to never repeat. Having grown up an ocean away in Manchester, England, the experiences portrayed had very little in common with my own; yet, somehow, I knew these people just as if they came from my own manor. This movie--made as an independent, the deal put together by two young entrepreneur producers, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne--proclaimed the flowering of a tiny motor-mouthed whirlwind of a writer-director, Martin Scorsese, and the collaborative collective acting genius of Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel.

Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese’s third movie. A stripped-down, muscular low-budget feature produced on a shoestring budget and shot in New York City’s Little Italy, Scorsese’s brilliant film takes on the mythic Godfather-style storytelling elements of the neighborhood, strips them bare and attacks them relentlessly--albeit with a deft sense of humor-- ultimately leaving them lying ravaged, bloody and naked in the gutter. Yet it’s not so much that the film attacks the romantic notions that surround mobsters and the mafia, grateful patriotic immigrants or the redundancy of the Roman Catholic church, it’s more about feel. Scorsese, forever a master of distilled characterization, plays Mean Streets like a cool jazzy riff. Bobbing and weaving, zigging and zagging as if to the beat of busy busy drummer pounding bass drum, cymbals, snare and tom-tom all at the same time. There’s very little gratuitous chitchat. People barely talk; they exist within their environment as superstition, gesture and body language rule.

The film’s story concerns Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who always talks the talk about being able to do the right thing. Charlie is fanatically methodical about his job as a numbers runner and collector for his good looking mafioso uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). Yet, as much as he loves hustling for his uncle, Charlie is a devout Catholic who repeatedly experiences profound spiritual longings. As such, Charlie insistence that he is his brother's keeper helps determines his ultimate tragic destiny. The sad loser Charlie feels responsible for is his cousin Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a crude, willfully ignorant loose cannon of a Sicilian street punk.

Johnny Boy is the last person anyone would want to be voluntarily involved with. A degenerate gambler in hock to a number of sleazy loan-sharks, Johnny Boy is the dope-addled energetic heart of the film. For Charlie, who dreams of escaping the criminal life and opening his own restaurant, Johnny Boy is both a burden and a source of comic relief. Often completely goofy--Mean Streets offers much humor, both verbal and slapstick to go with its constantly impending sense of doom--forever urging Charlie to stand next to him in the fire, Johnny’s sociopathic dealings make him seem more like a bipolar insult comic than the gangster wannabe he insists he wants to be. Witness the hilarious extemporaneous bit the ensemble pull off at the tavern as they riff on ‘What’s a mook!' There’s nothing like watching DeNiro do a goofy little street dance to Lamont Dozier’s ‘Going To A Go-Go’ as he puts a lit M-80 in a mailbox. Unfortunately, Johnny-Boy isn’t simply a cute, droll hothead with a rebellious spirit. Just as you’re thinking the kid might turn out to be fundamentally deep-down okay, he makes sure to gossip about Charlie having an affair with their epileptic cousin, the tall, sexy Teresa (Amy Robinson). The single last thing Charlie needs to happen is for Uncle Giovanni to find out that he’s in love with an epileptic girl who’s carrying their blood.

Teresa, who is just as much in love with Charlie as he is with her, is the only major female character in the film. She alone is able to see beyond the choking, destructive confines of the Little Italy gangster life and relentlessly nags at Charlie, trying to cajole him into moving out with her to live elsewhere.

Constantly in conflict with himself, Charlie, despite showing a clear theological intellectual bent, fiercely embraces the traditional He may have had a better education than Teresa--quoting William Blake and all--but he's also much more naïve. Deeply enraptured by this archaic notion of old-fashioned tradition, as if all the old goombas from the island really do have access to some brilliant secret of life and really are closer to God, Charlie loves to touch fire and act like some dazed mystic.

Beautifully shot in muted grainy color by Kent Wakeford, Mean Streets takes place much of the time in a dimly lit bar run by Charlie's pal Tony (David Proval). The film’s heady mix of male bonding and savage violence anticipates much of what virgin viewers later felt was brand-spanking-new in Good Fellas--including a number of dizzying tracking shots. The film also owns a wonderful soundtrack including scenes which seem choreographed to fit pop tunes such as ‘Rubber Biscuit,’ ‘Pledging My Love,’ the aforementioned ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ and ‘Mala Femmena,’ rather than the other way round.

Cast-wise, Richard Romanus is a stunning mixture of street charm, savvy and caveman savagery as the oldest, toughest member of the group. David Carradine, the star of Scorsese's second feature, Boxcar Bertha, and his brother Robert impress in one particularly gritty scene. Even Scorsese's mother, Catherine, puts in a cameo appearance as she does in most of her son's earlier films. Scorsese himself does a cameo as a hit man in the back seat of Romanus' car at the film's bloody climax. Even this early in their careers, Keitel and DeNiro show themselves to be performers of tremendous energy, skill, wit, imagination and energy.

See it for the first time or see it again! It’s my personal all-time favorite.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Short Distance from the Pennines

Night dissolves into sorghum dawn.
Soggy Manchester sunrise.
Yahweh’s finger tight against the rent jugular.
A trickle by the mountains. The rest
sucked into cumulostratus.
Gray candy-floss pulchritude over Alderley Edge.
And I, just out of the Twisted Wheel,
amphetamines and Mandies tingling under my skin,
blink as rain dive bombs my eyelashes.

—Ivor Irwin