Thursday, October 02, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Pretty Poison (1968)

In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde immediately proved a counter-culture sensation by portraying its stylishly-dressed youth heroes as violent, hip, sexy and absolutely righteous. The protagonists’ mantra of “we rob banks” was deemed heroic in the Great Depression of the film’s setting, and a statement of Robin Hood-styled virtues to boot.  

In 1968, Noel Black’s film noir Pretty Poison, however, turned Bonnie and Clyde’s romanticism about crime and violence on its head.

Indeed, such flights of romantic fantasy about crime and violence are explicitly critiqued in the Black film, the story of a young man and immovable object, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) who lives in a day-dream world until that day-dream runs smack into an irresistible force: “all American” high school student, Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). 

Sue Ann is, as we eventually discover, a stone-cold sociopath, and Dennis learns the hard way what his caring parole officer Azenauer (John Randolph) has been attempting to tell him all along about life:

You’re going outside into a very real, very tough world. It has no place for fantasies.”

Pretty Poison concerns Dennis’s persistent inability to step out of his fantasy land, and then dramatically permits him a final, memorable moment of grace regarding it. In an instant of clarity, Dennis offers a staggeringly insightful coda about people like his femme-fatale lover, and the world that nurtures them.

Additionally, Pretty Poison muses on what kind of society could give rise to a person like Sue Ann, and through association with all-American symbols -- like the aforementioned high school marching band  (waving an American flag, no less) -- suggests a spiritual sickness sprouting like a weed inside our borders.

Unremittingly dark and at times extremely suspenseful, Pretty Poison wonders, essentially, what happens when Bonnie and Clyde get together but aren’t exactly on the same page regarding their violent exploits. 

One of them, Pretty Poison informs us, is going to take the fall. Hard.

“Would you like me if I weren’t a CIA agent?”

Young Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is released from incarceration, and is told by his kindly parole officer, Azenauer (Randolph) that a job at Lowell Lumber and Supply has been arranged for him. Pitt moves into a trailer at Bronson’s Garage, and begins working at the job.

Bored of the mundane and highly-repetitive work, the fantasy-prone boy begins to confabulate stories about being a secret agent on top secret assignment.  When Dennis is drawn to a beautiful high school girl, Sue Ann Stepenek (Weld), he pulls her into his fantastic stories too. Together, they plot to sabotage the Lumber and Supply building, which Dennis insists will be used to contaminate the town’s drinking water.

But on the night of the raid, Sue Ann wantonly commits murder and steals a loaded gun. More and more uncomfortable with her behavior, Dennis feels “the pressures closing in.”  Eventually, Sue Ann arranges for Dennis to be a patsy in the murder of her mother (Garland), promising him that they will flee to Mexico together once the deed is done.

Dennis is arrested for the crime of murder, after turning himself in at a phone booth, and sent to jail.  Meanwhile, Sue Ann -- reveling in her freedom and power -- meets another man whom she can use for her own sinister purposes.

“You know, when grown-ups do it, it’s kind of dirty.”

Dennis Pitt did a very bad thing in his youth. He started a fire that killed someone he loved, his aunt. And yet Dennis weeps when he speaks of his crime, and seems truthful when he claims that he never knew his aunt was at home during the arson attempt. He never meant to hurt anybody. Perhaps because he is unable to reckon fully with how his actions caused the death of another human being, Dennis dwells in a perpetual fantasy world. It is a safer place, he seems to understand.

I’ve been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation,” Dennis tells Azenauer at one point. “I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket.”  The comment is a joke, of course, but it reveals the truth about Dennis. He can’t remain tethered in a dull, mundane world where his talents, he believes, are wasted.  

Other worlds, other fantasies, seem to beckon him.

When Azenauer gets him a job in a lumber yard, Dennis blows it. He causes an accident on the assembly line because he is day-dreaming while doing his work. In particular, he is day-dreaming of Sue Anne, remembering her performance in the marching band.

These scenes are especially important in terms of visual presentation. Dennis’s job in the mill requires him to gaze through an over-sized square scope that enlarges the bottles passing before his eyes, thus making inspection easy. 

Yet the scope looks completely distorted, and therefore functions as a symbol of Dennis’s distorted perspective or vision.  Like the scope which enlarges some items at the expense of others, Dennis’s vision doesn’t reveal the world as it is, but in a tricky, untrue way.

Similarly, Denis first gets close to Sue Ann after watching a parade involving her marching band by pretending to be a secret agent. He asks her to hold onto something important -- a bottle of that red liquid from the mill (mercury?) -- because he is allegedly under surveillance. Sue Ann is tantalized by this game and does as Dennis asks. Their first date afterwards, importantly is in a movie theater: a place of fantasies come true.

Little-by-little, Sue Ann appears to be drawn into Dennis’s web of fantastic lies involving his life as a secret agent, and his plan to raid the paper mill factory before the drinking water can be contaminated.

Yet a close watching of the film reveals another truth.

From the very beginning, Sue Ann wants to be rid of her bossy, controlling mother (Beverly Garland), and no matter the flight of fancy that Dennis engages in, he is used by Sue Ann to make that plan become a reality.

Sue Ann pulls the trigger, but Dennis is her patsy, the man with a criminal record who goes to jail for the crime she commits. Thus Pretty Poison pulls a nifty little dramatic trick on the viewer.  We believe, for the longest time, that Dennis is deceiving Sue Ann about who he is, and what he is really doing with her. In fact, it is Sue Ann who is the great deceiver, leading Dennis down a road which will see him charged for murder and jailed. Sue Ann puts the thought in Dennis’s head of fleeing to Mexico, and before long, Dennis is mindlessly dreaming of a Mexican beach, as we see in several brief cuts.

It is clear that Sue Ann wishes to be free, and that she uses Dennis for that purpose, to procure her freedom.  It is also clear that though she knows she wants her mother dead, Sue Ann isn’t certain, even, that her mother’s death will make her truly happy.  “I feel empty,” she notes at one important juncture, and it seems like an important admission. Sue Ann may not be able to feel empathy, or any emotions for others. She may only feel that emptiness, and so resorts to violence to alleviate it. She looks like a normal person, but is something else, a truth revealed by compositions in which Sue Ann appears upside down in the frame.

Twice in the film, Sue Ann shows real enthusiasm and excitement during the act of murder. First she bludgeons and then drowns a guard at the lumber mill. In this scene, she mounts the dying man (who is face down in the water) and rides him in a perverse mockery of the sexual act. In the second case, she shoots her mother at point blank range, and even that isn’t enough to sate her desire.  She fires again and again, over and over, as if trying to recapture the thrill of murder repeatedly. To put it indelicately, the only thing that seems to get Sue off is killing.

So where Dennis – perpetually playing at being a secret agent -- notes in mock-heroic dialogue that “emotions can be fatal in times like this,” Sue Ann seems, in reality, unable to express emotions except in the prosecution of murder or other violent acts.

Importantly, Pretty Poison also suggests, albeit obliquely, that Sue Ann has done something like this before.

On the dresser in her bedroom is a photograph of a mysterious soldier. Dennis looks at the photo and asks who it is. Sue Ann lies and claims she doesn’t remember. It seems entirely likely that this mystery man was the last victim who fell for her charms (and is now conspicuously absent). This seems especially likely given that after Dennis goes to jail she picks up with another mark, planning to lead him into trouble as well.

Contrarily, the photo could be of Sue Ann’s absent father (as a young man), who she reports died in Korea.  Perhaps she lied to Dennis, and she had him killed, just as she plans to have her mother killer.
Either way, the photograph exposes Sue Ann, which is why she refuses to explain it in any detail.

Dennis realizes too late what Sue Ann is, but refuses to testify against her because, in his experience, people “pay attention” only those things they notice themselves. This means that society at large will have to determine what Sue Ann really is. Dennis, oddly enough, seems to feel safe in jail, away from the “pretty poison” he encountered in the outside world. He is reflecting on his own lesson in a way when he makes this important remark. He didn’t believe Azenauer that the world is cruel and tough place, with no room for fantasy.  Now, after his experience with Sue Ann, he believes it.

What remains so shocking about Pretty Poison is the way that Sue Ann’s pathology slowly comes to the surface. She is a beautiful, blonde, All-American high school girl, ensconced in the marching band, and curious about life, and what the future holds. Scratch the surface a little, however, and one detects that seething appetite for violence, and her slick, seductive way of operating. She uses her youth, her appearance and her very sex to cow those around her.

Eventually someone will notice, right?

Pretty Poison is a smart, stunningly-performed film noir because it suggests that some people -- not unlike Dennis -- are drawn to romantic visions of rebellion and forbidden love; very much like the imagery featured in the (great) Bonnie and Clyde.

But by the same token, Pretty Poison suggests that such fairy tales have little practical use in reality, and those who believe them will be “poisoned”, in a sense, by their expectations that such stories represent how the real world really works. They can offer only a distorted lens.

So if Bonnie and Clyde, an icon of the counter-culture youth of the day, raises important questions about violence, crime and love, Pretty Poison voices a somber, frightening answer.

Movie Trailer: Pretty Poison (1969)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

At Flashbak: You Should Be Dancin’: The Five Movie Musicals that Killed Disco at the Box Office

In 1977, John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever took the box office and pop culture by storm.

Based on the New York article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the movie depicted the story of blue-collar Brooklyn-native Tony Manero (John Travolta), “the king” -- or perhaps God -- of disco. Audiences thrilled to Manero’s attempt with his dance partner (Karen Lynn Gorney) to win a dance contest at the local disco, a victory that made Manero set his eyes beyond the lights of Brooklyn, on something bigger.

Scored wall-to-wall with Bee-Gees tunes like “Stayin’ Alive,” Saturday Night Fever was an authentic phenomenon that made Travolta a movie star and sold more than twenty-million copies of the film’s soundtrack.

As one might expect, the success of Saturday Night Fever also meant that Hollywood was soon attempting to cash in on a new trend. Before long, a whole cycle of disco movies was in the offing. Unfortunately, most of the ensuing efforts proved dreadful, and the disco fad died a brutal death at the box office.

Here then, for your consideration, are five of the movie musicals that hammered the final nails in disco’s coffin. These movie musicals-- all of 1978 -1983 vintage -- remain to this day among the most bizarre, garish, and lurid films ever produced.

Return of the Jedi (1983) Presto Magix

Model Kit of the Week: Return of the Jedi (MPC)

Lunch Box of the Week: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Board Game of the Week: Return of the Jedi - Battle at Sarlacc's Pit Game (Parker Bros; 1983)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Supernova (2000)

Supernova (2000) is just the kind of genre film that -- I readily admit -- I’m inclined to enjoy. It involves a doomed space mission skirting the edge of the cosmic map. Specifically, Supernova recounts the most dangerous journey of the Medical Rescue Vehicle Nightingale as -- in response to an emergency signal -- it “jumps” to a rogue moon where a mining outpost, Titan-37, once operated.

Unfortunately, the Nightingale’s crew learns, post-jump, that the wandering satellite is now desperately close to a blue giant star, one destined to go supernova in less-than-a-day.

And that’s just the beginning of the action.The film also involves an alien artifact -- a ninth dimensional bomb, -- and a super-strong psychopath, Troy (Peter Facinelli) determined to keep ownership of the WMD.

Buttressed by some solid year 2000 visual special effects, Supernova also features a promising cast, including James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Robert Forster. 

And yet despite such virtues, this science-fiction film never quite comes together as powerfully as one might hope it would.

The action and death scenes are largely run-of-the-mill affairs, less kinetic and less effective than similar scenes you will find in pictures of this vintage and type, like Event Horizon (1997) or Pitch Black (2000), for example.

Behind-the-scenes turmoil on Supernova is the stuff of legend, with director Walter Hill opting to be credited by the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” When MGM refused to approve the budget necessary for special effects, Hill left the production, allegedly, and Jack Sholder was brought on to complete the film.  Then, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to save the film in the editing process.

Not good.

Given a history like that, Supernova is actually a bit more coherent than one might expect. Legendary box office “bomb” or no, the film boasts a few facets that even today hold the interest.

The first is the deliberate aping of the Dead Calm (1989) narrative, which was writer William Malone’s intent. 

The second quality of value is the film’s steadfast refusal to clear up the ambiguity of the final act, and the fate that may befall Earth.

Third and finally, Supernova provides an interesting contrast in “percentages,” in a subplot that suggests the greatest treasure in the universe may not be ninth-dimensional matter, but rather the human capability to connect with his fellow man or woman, right down to the genetic level.

“I like deep space…People tend to respect your privacy.”
In a few centuries, the rescue ship Nightingale receives an emergency distress signal from Titan-37, an abandoned mining operation on a rogue moon. 
New to the ship is the co-pilot, Vanzant (Spader), an ex-junkie who has earned the dislike of the ship’s doctor, Evers (Bassett), in part because of her personal past with a violent junkie named Karl Nelson.
After a dangerous jump, the ship’s captain, Marley (Forster) is mutilated in his bio-protection chamber, and asks to be killed.  And the sender of the distress call turns out to be the son of Karl Nelson, Troy (Facinelli).  
While the ship’s crew tends to repairs from the dimensional jump, and prepares to escape a nearby blue giant’s supernova, the crew also learns that Troy has in his possession an unstable alien artifact…

“That whole place is like a ghost ship.”

The most notable aspect of Supernova’s story, perhaps, is its dedicated repetition of the plot-points of Philip Noyce’s sea-based thriller, Dead Calm. In that film, as you may recall, a couple played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go to sea following the death of their child, only to help out the last survivor of a ruined vessel, played by Billy Zane. Zane’s character turns out to be a dangerous psychopath, and he strands Neill’s character on his useless old boat while he terrorizes Kidman’s character on the family yacht.

In Supernova, we also get the passenger from the ruined “other” location, in this case a moon-based mining operation. The film also finds Spader’s lead character, Vanzant marooned there, and fighting his way to get back to his ship, much as Neill did in the earlier picture. Facinelli, like Zane, is a physically-fit, twitchy psychotic who, before his reign of terror ends, has his way with a female shipmate. Outer space, obviously, substitutes for the terrestrial high seas.

Supernova has its problems to be sure, but the idea behind it, of bringing Dead Calm into the future, is not one of them. You may recognize the Dead Calm flourishes and consider them derivative -- because they are -- but Supernova is also original enough to introduce some new elements to the formula. In this case, it’s the presence of the ultimate WMD, the alien artifact that elevates the film’s ending. The movie’s denouement, which eschews our desire for closure, also leaves audiences to ponder what might could happen in the brave new world following the finale.

There’s also a present -- if irregularly enunciated -- through-line here about the human race, or more accurately, human nature. Once rescued by the crew of the Nightingale, the evil Troy/Karl tries to bring them around to his cause. He promises them each five percent of the wealth he plans to acquire from the alien artifact. He prizes monetary wealth, and is surprised that there are no takers, save for Yerzy. 

At film’s end, uniquely, Vanzant and Dr. Evers are forced to share a biological containment unit so as to survive the space jump away from the super nova. In the process, they each swap 2.5 % of their DNA with the other.  Add those figures up, and you have 5% percent, Troy’s proposed figure for recompense. 

The notion here may be, simply, that one “treasure” may be more worthwhile or more valuable than other. Troy promises material wealth to the crew, but at the risk of everything, at the risk of the universe itself.  By contrast, the biological transfer renders Evers pregnant, ostensibly with Vanzant’s child.

Who needs the magic of unstable, 9th dimensional matter, when human matter can, likewise, “replenish” life, and in a way that is safe?

Finally, Supernova ends with a terrifying thought. The shock-wave from the supernova will detonate the 9th dimensional bomb, and the ensuing shock-wave will spread out, to all corners of the universe. It will strike Earth in fifty one years, we are told.  When it strikes, it will either destroy the planet, or change the very nature of human life. 

Supernova gives us no idea which outcome is more likely, or what that change could be. But I’ve got to give the movie credit for setting up an apocalypse that it never intends to depict, and asking viewers to consider the possibilities. 

Would the shock-wave render all men and women physically powerful, but mentally unhinged, like Troy?  Or would it usher in the very “leap in evolution” that the mad Troy foresees? There are many ways that the movie could have ended. Troy could have been killed. The ship could have escaped. There could have been a final sting in the tail/tale. Instead, Supernova leaves audiences to ponder the idea that a “wave” is coming for mankind, and that it is something he can’t avoid.  The future will be…different.

When one couples this idea of some force changing man’s physical nature with the moment early in the film in which Captain Marley (Robert Forster) discusses “violent animation” of the 20th century (meaning Tom and Jerry), and calling it a “catharsis” that can, under some circumstances, unleash “human malevolence,” the film’s theme starts to become clearer. 

Tom and Jerry live in a world in which there are no physical limits or restraints.They bash, bruise and bludgeon each other with that power, and do almost nothing else. If the shock wave unshackles man from his biological restraints, will he find a better use for that power than the animated cat and mouse, his artistic creations, do?

A further connection to the film’s leitmotif comes in characterization of the ship’s computer, Sweetie.  The ship’s navigator, Benjamin (Wilson Cruz) attempts to over-write her programming when under duress, when threatened with death by Troy.He attempts to unshackle her, however, so she can kill.  Again, there’s the notion here that without “programming” (or biological) restraints, the universe tends to violence.  Man creates Tom and Jerry and Sweetie the Computer, and directs them both towards such that violence.  What chance is there he won’t act violently if transformed into a superman?

Supernova falters, largely, in that most of the crew deaths seem to happen all at once, and without tremendous or even modest distinction. Two crew members, one after the other, get ejected into space without protection, and die there. Similarly, the battle scenes on Titan and aboard the Nightingale seem claustrophobic and messy, but not in an intentional or good way. The scuffles are virtually incoherent, and so some sense of suspense is sacrificed.

There are gaps in the storytelling too. Danika Lund is shown to be in an intense (and apparently rewarding…) romantic relationship with Yerzy. So much so that they are hoping to be approved as parents when they return home. They want to have a child together.  But after seeing Troy naked (and with an apparently sizable erection), Danika makes love to him. She does not seem to be under duress when she does so.  She is not executing a strategy (as Nicole Kidman’s character was, once more, in a similar scene in Dead Calm). Instead, we have no understanding of why -- besides carnal lust -- she would sacrifice everything to be with this (admittedly hot…) guy for the right fifteen minutes. 

I’m not arguing that people don’t make impulsive decisions about sex all the time, only that we don’t have a lot of insight into Danika’s character, and her decisions. Does she feel trapped by Yerzy? Does she really not want children? Is this her way of avoiding those responsibilities?  It would be nice to have just a bit more clarity in terms of character motivations. If we knew Danika’s reasons, we might be able to fit them into the film’s larger puzzle or leitmotif.  Sex, like violence, might be deemed the result of our biological programming, and this aspect could have been explored in the context of the rest of the film’s themes.

It’s pretty clear that Supernova overcame incredible odds just to get to theaters, and given the tumult of its production, it’s a little amazing that the film succeeds to the degree it does. The silver-blue palette that suffuses the film gives it a sense of visual consistency, and from time to time, the script really gets close to expressing a meaningful thought about mankind, and what kind of creature he is, or might become, given a giant leap forward.

It’s no Sunshine (2007), Pitch Black, or Event Horizon, but Supernova occasionally shines very brightly. You can either enjoy the flashes of ingenuity on their own terms, or curse the general darkness of the enterprise.

Movie Trailer: Supernova (2000)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Guest Post: The Calling (2014)

“No One Should Bother Answering The Calling

By Jonas Schwartz

There’s a marvelous Monty Python sketch where Eric Idle brings in the leaders of Communism -- Lenin, Marx, Guevera and Tse-tung -- and instead of forging a round-table of ideas to bounce around, he asks them inanely insipid trivia questions about football teams and Eurovision winners. The banal thriller The Calling reminds me of that skit, dragging such talent as Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Ellen Burstyn along with the venerable Donald Sutherland for an uninspired thriller that would have sufficed on Lifetime TV starring Heather Locklear, Marion Ross and Abe Vigoda (BTW, I would TOTALLY watch THAT Lifetime movie).

Nothing ever happens in the small Canada town of Fort Dundas, except for snow, drinking, and a little infidelity. Detective Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) finds an elderly neighbor dead, her face in a silent scream. The next town over another murder victim has a similar distorted face. Nine bodies fit the M.O., making it obvious to Hazel that she’s stumbled upon a serial killer. When photos of the nine victims are arranged in an order, they reveal a major clue towards the killer’s motives. Can Hazel stop the crimes from continuing and is the killer actually an angel of mercy?

The Calling tries terribly hard to be absorbing. The origins of the crime are novel and are rooted in religious mysticism, but more clichés pile up than dead bodies. The alcoholic but plucky detective, whose bosses (wrong-headed authority) undermine at every turn, puts her life and the life of her partners in jeopardy in desperation to solve the crime. Organized religion, corrupt and misguided, is at the core of the evil. Add in the dotting mother, the green junior detective who ignores protocol and the protagonist’s haunted past and you have the Mad Libs of scripts, just fill in the names, locations and maladies and film what transpires.

Novice director Jason Stone shoots a script by newcomer Scott Abramovitch that is photographed by episodic sitcom TV cinematographer David Robert Jones, which may be why everything feels generic, like a student film, professionally done but with no nuance. The camera angles, the lighting, the scope of the mis-en-scene have Television flatness.

Is Sarandon good as the lost, struggling for redemption, Hazel? She’s Susan Sarandon for goodness sakes. She won an Oscar nomination for John Grisham’s ridiculous thriller The Client!!?! Of course, she’s good. Her eyes widen when she discovers the secret of the positioned face expressions; she displays a hunger for both the truth and a drink at all times; she drinks like someone tolerant to the ether, able to be a functioning but erratic drunk. Regrettably, all her character development is wasted energy when the story doesn’t entrance the audience.

Burstyn is good as always playing Hazel’s mom but she’s auxiliary to the plot. Sutherland has two scenes and he has little in which to sink his teeth. Christopher Heyerdahl (True Blood) succeeds most as the killer (his identity is never a secret from the beginning). Ominous and creepily pious, Heyerdahl makes us empathize for his quest particularly because his passion seems so earnest. As Hazel’s partners, Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows and The 70’s Show’s Topher Grace give bland, almost somnambulistic, performances.

The shame is that had Stone cast B actors, the expectations would have been realistic and one may have cut the movie some slack. But when you bring such illustrious talent, you want them encased in gold not gold-plating. The Calling will not satisfy thriller fans, Sarandon fans or even fans of the Canadian landscape. Now if only they’d start working on the Locklear version.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.