And Now, a Moment About Movies…

In this section we devote space and time to friends of the store who have chimed in with some of their own reviews of various films.

Here’s local writer and all-round swell guy, Axel Matfin’s take on Highlander…

Highlander-1-News

Highlander-1986

Directed by: Russell Mulcahy (Highlander II: The Quickening, The Shadow, Scorpion King II: Rise of a Warrior)

Written by: Gregory Widen (Backdraft, The Prophecy)

Starring: Christopher Lambert (Mortal Kombat), Sean Connery, Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption)

It only takes about fifteen seconds into the runtime of Highlander to be reminded why this film about immortals battling each other for supremacy of a universal power called the quickening stole the hearts and minds of a generation of film goers, those Queen songs man. Highlander is the kind of movie that many of us have seen either in snippets one afternoon when it was on tv or on purpose for the implicit ironic humour that can be mined from such a self serious piece of silliness.

In case you don’t know the story: Connor Mcleod (Christopher Lambert) is a Scottish highlander living in 1536 set to go do battle against some non-descript evil horde led by Kurgan (Clancy Brown) who makes short work of Mcleod three seconds into the battle. Mcleod of course does not die, because he’s a prince of the universe, and eventually another immortal, a fellow Scotsman who goes inexplicably by the name Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramierez (Sean Connery) arrives packing a katana ready to explain to Mcleod all about the life of an immortal. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but we catch up with a jean, sneaker and trench coat wearing Mcleod living as an art dealer in the ripe cinematic New York City of 1986.

Highlander, goofy good time 80’s metal plot aside, is a very well shot movie that makes impressive use of the lighting techniques available at the time. The film was shot on location in Scotland and NYC and it shows. The highlands in the 1536 segments look stunning, while likewise the NYC segments have that wonderful grit and dirt of 80’s NY paired with that perpetually wet look that films of this era did so well. The sword fighting might look dated by todays standards but there’s no doubt that Highlander went for the throat in it’s time as decapitation is integral to the plot. It rewards the purest standards of fun adventure fare. I’d dare you to think of a film about immortals that has endured in the cultural consciousness as long as Highlander….but THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE!

 

Heist image

Heist
Written & Directed by: David Mamet
Starring: Gene Hackman, Danny Devito, Delroy Lindo,
Rebecca Pidgeon, Sam Rockwell & Ricky Jay.

Long before David Mamet ever started working on the script for the film Heist he had already laid pen to paper on over ten seminal films of the past thirty years. The Verdict, starring Paul Newman and Directed by Sidney Lumet. The Untouchables, Directed by Brian De Palma. His Pulitzer Prize Winning play Glengarry Glen Ross received a film treatment at the hands of working Director, now 50 Shades director, James Foley and was aided by one of the best ensemble casts of all time in: Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin presenting one of the most memorable theatrical speeches of all time. As a writer, Mamet, is known for his cutting dialogue and economical engagement of plot in service of his larger motives and messages and in his 2001 film Heist, Mamet, is at the height of his craft. The film, it’s scripting, cinematography and performances are as pure and functional as gun-metal. The triggers and mechanics of this piece serve a singular purpose, which is the advancement of the bullet-like characters, propelled by their in-laid ideological trajectories.

It’s simple: Joe (Hackman) is a professional thief who runs a crew made up of Bobby (Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay) and his much younger wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife IRL). During a jewel store robbery Joe’s face is picked up security camera’s and he’s forced to finally admit that it’s time to move south and retire. This does not sit well with Joe’s fence Mickey (Devito) who decides to coerce Joe and Co. into one last job in order to get their cut of not only the heist to come, but the jewels they’d stolen earlier. To keep an eye on Joe, Mickey assigns his nephew, the green thief but streetwise hustler, Jimmy Silk, (Rockwell). Their plan? To steal a lot of Swiss gold out of an airplane. What happens? A lot of twists and turns.

In choosing his title, Mamet, was clear about the absolute nature of what this film would be. It is exactly what a person might expect from a film with such a plain stated title, however it is in this obvious representation of itself that it becomes more than just a movie about a large scale theft, it is a masterclass in the conventions of the genre itself. Heist is a film that is filled with scenes where the relevant information is given no obvious exposition, until much later. Perhaps lesser films of such simplicity would give zoom-in close-up treatment to moments of clear development but Mamet choose to run his con like that of a professional, in broad daylight. To be able to witness the manipulations of environment and scenario in retrospect is one thing, to be able to see the hustle and the con as it unfolds is another. I watched the first half of this movie twice, and in the second viewing the manipulations of Joe’s plan become more visible. That scene where Joe is talking on the phone as Jimmy Silk enters the room, was Joe really talking to anyone? Or was he just saying things out loud to give Jimmy the impression of something happening? Once one minor con is revealed, the rest of the engagements become suspect. As a singular viewing perhaps these moments would be lost in the background but it is this lack of exposition and the understatement of such classical, but none the less dynamic, plot mechanics that is the dependable flavour of the film. It might be a plate of spaghetti, but it is a very very well made plate of spaghetti.

With the plot effortlessly gliding down the barrel of the gun, the characters in this feature are given ample verbal ammunition to use at a high rate as they move through every scene. It’s not until the movie was over that I’m able to remember back on some of the incredible lines of dialogue that are used to almost throwaway effect.

“So is he gonna be cool?”

“My motherfucker is so cool, when sheep go to sleep they count him.”

Or

“Nobody lives forever”

“Frank Sinatra tried.”

Had this film been released even five years earlier, the conversational fireworks would have been allowed more room to explode, but 2001 was a rubicon for film.

In 2001 Harry Potter 1, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Fast and the Furious premiered arguably launching us into the modern franchise driven special effect films that fill studio slates today. Heist is the opposite of such films. It is the clean and simple small film driven by the heavyweight performances and the right angle turns in the script. It’s principle action sequence involves a small building on the edge of a airport blowing up and the rather mundane real world highjacking of a grounded airplane with the intention of stealing a realistic amount of physical gold. I would argue that the dialogue in Heist is it’s special effect, the actors true stuntmen of verbal highwire acts. The visual effects present in Heist are those of a past time of filmmaking, when the tension of the scenario, the execution of the actors and the rousing appeal of action just beyond the reach of basic reality was what could drive a cinematic escape.

Much in the same way that 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that must be read rather than simple viewed. Heist is a film that requires the engagement and discerning eye of audience members, ‘lest they get lost from the con, and become as ignorant as the film’s many marks.

 

In this week’s instalment, Axel takes a look at The Bodyguard! Yes, you read that right, The Bodyguard!

The bodyguard image

The Bodyguard (1992)
Directed by: Mick Jackson (Volcano, L.A. Story)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston.
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat)

The premise of The Bodyguard is very simple: Frank Farmer (Costner), former secret service agent with Presidential protection credentials, is hired by the management of singer/actress Rachel Marron (Houston) to oversee her security detail after a series of increasingly serious threats against her life. Rachel’s Diva attitude brushes against Frank’s regimental discipline and sparks fly. Yet they soon find themselves at odds between Rachel’s desire for acclaim and Frank’s job of bodyguarding, even as her potential killer lurks closer and closer. The film does a very effective job of taking this plot and bringing it to a logical and fanciful conclusions. With Kevin Costner at the peak of his career (1 year after Prince of Thieves and JFK and 3 years before Waterworld) along with Houston’s five #1 hit singles and #1 best selling soundtrack of all time, made The Bodyguard iconic. That the script was written by one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed screenwriters, almost twenty years earlier, seems almost secondary.

The script for The Bodyguard was written by Lawrence Kasdan in the 1970’s as a vehicle for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. Costner met Kasdan while working on the film Silverado (1985), which Kasdan wrote and directed, and learned about the existence of The Bodyguard. Seven years later Costner, along with Kasdan, co-produce The Bodyguard, which goes on to be one of the highest grossing films of 1992. Once one learns of the potential film involving McQueen and Ross it’s hard to shake the potential of that film from one’s mind while viewing the actual product. The star power of Costner and Houston no doubt affected the abilities of workman director Mick Jackson, which is why this quality film rattles in moments of thematic depth and finds itself slipping into the shallows of the now defunct 90’s star driven film making. That many of Kasdan’s stylistic elements rise to the surface through the glitzy veneer of the film is a testament to the writing and the eternal quality of a story like this, yet it still leaves a person wondering how much better this film could have been had it been made in 1978, before McQueen’s declining health and the cosmetizing of the hollywood film industry and the media that went along with it.

In 1961 Akira Kurosawa released the seminal and often imitated Yojimbo, which translates as bodyguard. Kasdan no doubt had this in mind while writing his film for the titular reference even appears in the film, when Frank takes Rachel on a date to the very film. Later in the film, after a carnal affair, Rachel attempts to get under the skin of Frank by coming on to a bodyguard colleague of his, even going so far as to state ‘two samurai?’. This degree of thematic syphoning allows for the essential melodrama of the piece to survive but it is a moment like this that would have played so much better with diva qualities of the streetwise Ross rather than the aloof Houston. Likewise, despite Costner’s best attempts to become McQueen, even stating that he got the McQueen haircut for the shooting of the film, knowing that McQueen’s burnt smouldering charm could have been the centrepiece rather than Costner’s all-american image gives the imagination incentive to wander. Even the nature of gritty fame and it’s potential dangers in the ‘70’s would have been far more riveting than that of the soft lighting in 90’s. There are moments of danger or melodrama that, viewed through the sanitized lens of ‘90’s filmmaking, are laughable – such as Rachel’s nonchalant reaction to a tragic event or a rural excursion back to Frank’s dad’s winter cabin. Many of the more crucial moments in the film make sense in a less connected world, but by the Access Hollywood times of the 90’s the potential for escape from the press and exposure minimizes the ability to find a deeper intimacy. It should also be noted that Frank’s character feels guilt for being absent from the assassination attempt on Regan, but in terms of audience appeal this pales in comparison to his potential failing to protect Kennedy. The film’s ending is pure hollywood sentimentalism that I’d wager would have finished on a more somber note had the picture come out in the era of the American auteur.

All of that being said, The Bodyguard is a film that we just wouldn’t see today, which is too bad because it’s better than it’s cliches suggest. A thriller/romance driven by the world’s premier actor paired with the diva of the time, with next to no visual effects. Imagine Leo DiCaprio and Beyonce making a movie like this. This film is made with such competent filmmaking skills that I think modern directors would be hard pressed to match the simple virtuosity of the giant gala sequences and on the move moments present in this film. The decor and lavish qualities of Rachel’s world never descend into a level of parody, and despite the very closed nature of the scenes in the film there is a broad diversity of imagery and locales. At the film’s climax, The Oscars, the team that made this film went so far as to cast an extensive group of supporting actors to play fictitious actors, something that seems unthinkable in today’s cameo cross reference driven movie star universe. On top of this, it cost $25 million to make and pulled in $121 million, which in 1992 was more than good enough to be considered a success.

There’s a scene in The Bodyguard where Frank sits down opposite his father and continue to play a game of chess that they have been playing slowly over the past few years. The rest of the cast sit around, looking on goofily with anticipation as each player analyzes and assesses the board. That’s how I felt watching this movie, absorbed, game play out in front of me, wondering what it’s going to do and how it’s going to break. The Bodyguard’s rewards come in the form of nostalgia, for it’s wonderful music, and cinematic appreciation for a film that finally got made, which should have been made nearly thirty years earlier. The rules of the game, the board, the pieces, they’re all arranged exactly as they should be, it’s only the players who may be different. It’s worth it to give this another play.

The second feature our friend, Axel Matfin, is excited to tell you about is the classic, Barfly! Here’s his take to all his friends…

Barfly Image

Barfly (1987)
Directed by Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female, Murder by Numbers)
Written by: Charles Bukowski
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway

Henry Chinaski is a slob a drunk and ne’er do well who spends most of his time in dives soaking up as much alcohol as possible and making a nuanced nuisance of himself to the patrons and bar staff, before returning to a shitty apartment to scribble down poetic truths and insight that he is only able to capture once he’s three sheets to the wind. He lives an unapologetic, even gleeful, existence, as a first rate piece of shit in a world of fantastical destitution. Henry Chinaski is of course the alter ego of twentieth century American poet laureate and notorious dirtbag, Charles Bukowski. In this film, Bukowski’s character is played with drooling lecherous aplomb by the then rising star, Mickey Rourke. This is one of Rourke’s finest roles. He grounds the character with the physicality of a slouching wet-faced slob, generating a charming aura around him while delivering the crafty soliloquy for which Bukowski is known. It would seem that Chinaski has potential in both his writing and character, if only he could just get his shit together. But that’s the thing, he doesn’t want to get it together. He see’s the beautiful fleeting futility in life, and his faith in the harrowing awful world is salvaged in a bottle and he likes it that way.

The film takes Chinaski from a back alley bar bout of fisticuffs with a bartender who represents all the fake shallowness Henry hates, to an extensive drunk and ongoing affair with kept woman and fellow inebriate Wanda (the professionally understated Faye Dunaway), and eventually to the swanky and enticing estate of Tully (Alice Krige), a publisher who believes in the power of Henry’s work. Wanda’s alcoholism is her master and in this she inevitably disappoints Henry, who after a fleeting moment of human grief, is engaged once more in his convictions about the inherent fallibility of humanity. Tully reels Henry in with beauty, a considerable amount of drinking money and the promise of a peaceful place to write, which gives Henry reason to pause before his disdain for such niceties resurges and he sneers at the very thought of peaceful writing. Despite his experiences with both Wanda and Tully there is a resolution in Chinaski to adhere to his slovenly ways and self interest, for that is where he finds truth.

The film is grounded in the dirty neon haze and sparse grunge of American bars and brought life by the kind of jangling classic blues rock that one would assume is always playing in such shit-holes. This sparse and simple production design gives the actors more empty space to fill, and with this size of performance they usher in a heightened reality. This heightened reality is a direct proponent of how one of the film’s most important factors is portrayed, the factor being alcohol. Barfly is a film that is drenched in booze. Beers. Whiskey and water. Straight scotch. You name it they’re gonna drink it, and drink it fast and have some more. Although the film presents the world of serious alcoholics it, much like Bukowski, revels in it. Despite the rampant abuse of alcohol there was no point in the film where it really feels like this is getting out of hand. It’s a passionate embrace of the slow burn of true ongoing drunkenness. The drunks in this film love being drunk, and they’re not stopping. This type of characterization is not typical for the presentation of substance abuse on screen in that it doesn’t try to make any points about whether being an alcoholic is good or bad, but it does magnify the human failings or traits that accompany the affliction. Director, Barbet Schroeder, understands that the fascination with Bukowski comes from his entrenched life in and glorious expression of these scummy locales. He exists in a place that most normal people would not choose to experience for themselves, though the experience of it is fascinating to them. The collection of barflies in this film all have their own colour and tenor that fills out the rest of that aforementioned empty space. Barbet’s composed naturalism of the scenes results in every minor character exploding off the screen fully realized and clearly defined.

It would be easy to have just pulled a bunch of quotes to describe this feature, but it would do a disservice to the viewer to reveal these sardonic nuggets of shit covered gold outside the film which is an original screenplay and not adapted from a singular piece of Bukowski work. The script was written by Bukowski himself, commissioned through Schroeder by the French film board in the early eighties, and the experience of making the film he would later turn into a novel entitled Hollywood. The film itself languished in a long production and almost didn’t see the screens as the production Cannon Films was on it’s way to bankruptcy. In the end, Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in, aiding in the final leg of the film’s release, for which he received a presented by credit at the start of the movie. The film was released at the 1987 Cannes film festival where it’s director, Barbet Schroeder, received the Palme d’Or. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Bukowski, Barfly is a quality condensing of the tone and breadth of his oeuvre and for anyone who is familiar I would say it’s the best cinematic representation of the man’s work.

Drink up.

This week’s feature is a totally fucked up piece of craziness titled Singapore Sling. Here is local author, Axel Matfin’s, take on it.

Singapore Sling

Singapore Sling (1990)
Written & Directed by: Nikos Nikolaidis
Starring: Meredyth Herold, Panos Thanassoulis, Michele Valley

A black and white wetness fills the screen as two women dressed in goggles, royal robes and scant negligee dig in a muddy pit. The technical proficiency of the lighting and composition presented are akin to that of golden age cinema, the carefully arranged shadows framing the interior of the shots. Dense rainwater washes down the women’s faces and they exclaim with ecstasy with each shovel full of thick dirt they remove from the hole. A voiceover begins in florid Italian with english subtitles that highlight the design and misdirection of the dialogue.

…I was the sort of guy, broke, homeless and without friends who always chases after lost causes with female names that lead nowhere. Mine was called Laura, and I met her many years ago. My world was a sick and pitiful one, where trouble from a girl like that had to happen. It’s been three years since I lost her and every time I smell jasmine on a passing girl, I think of her and start looking for trouble again. And so I got to where I am now. Only where I am now is a little strange because towards the back of the garden and around an open hole, two women are doing things which should have stirred me once, but with a bullet in one’s shoulder, one can’t do much.”

The monologue continues as the man, wearing a trench-coat, hauls himself into the back seat of a car which is featured from many angles. The women reveal a body which they drag into the pit, knocking away the soon to be departed’s still hand, grasping for life, as they refill the hole.

Thus begins the sado-satirical exploitation patriarchal indictment that is Singapore Sling. This film is for neither the sensitive of stomach or mind. It may as well be called Trigger Warning, to wit in an opening scene of exposition the character Daughter speaks, in english, to the audience explaining that she lives with her Mommy and was raped and then sexually trained by her father, who killed and buried their servants, and now that her father is dead she performs the those same carnal duties on Mommy who is a transsexual. She goes on to explain that she and Mommy had kidnapped, raped and disemboweled a woman named Laura, years earlier, and now use the memory of that event to fuel a routine sadistic sex act where Daughter is forced to give Mommy non-consenting oral sex followed by sodomy. That which I have summarized above is only the first twenty minutes of the film.

Singapore Sling has a lot to say about the poisonous infection of a damaged patriarchy, sexual dominance, insanity, the inversion of classical narrative arcs, sadism, delusion, psychosis and torture. It speaks to all those things through the abstractions of visual perversity that drives the film. There is no solid footing of literalism in this story, should you prove sturdy enough to watch all of it, it will require your engagement to decipher any meaning from it’s wretch inducing frames. It has no easy interpretation. It is a purposefully disturbing collage of scenes and imagery which come together to form a fascinating larger picture, less grotesque and more intriguing than the sum of it’s troubling scenes but still filled with their dead weight. You’re gonna want a drink when it’s all over.

As wave after wave of noxious imagery came at me I took solace in the contrast of the film’s visual style and genre trope with that of the content itself. The story is presented as a golden age exploitation detective thriller where a man searching for his lost lover is taken captive and held prisoner by two sex crazed lunatics, like the cover of an old pulp novel. But Singapore Sling presents the absolute least enjoyable or palatable version of that story. Instead of the presumed titillating macho fiction fantasy of being taken captive by two nymphos, the story is embalmed by a madness that is carried through the veins of the film by the heartbeat of decadent visual stylings. Despite the constant exploration of foul imagery, from multiple bewilderingly cartoonish depictions of non consensual sex, to electroshock therapy, the disemboweling of a body whilst it’s heart still beats and a dinner scene that makes the monkey brains in Temple of Doom look like preschool, I was hypnotized by the quality of the filmmaking in the composition of the shots, set decoration, editing and sound design. The female characters often break the fourth wall, addressing the audience as if they know they are there, sometimes translating key phrases into Italian, English and French. These departures from standard narrative draw you into and almost normalize the lunacy. Once immersed completely in the viscous stew of content the perversion becomes temporarily normalized in, allowing for a visually lyrical journey through the bile of madness and co-dependent destruction.

There are only three true characters in the film Mommy, Daughter and the man, who becomes known as Singapore Sling. Mommy is the dominant personality in the film but she is only able to replicate the acts of dominances as portrayed in the patriarchy, as represented by the absent father character. Mother is only as powerful as those she can control. Daughter is a submissive but headstrong waif, damaged beyond repair by first the abuse and conditioning of her father and then the systemic need to repeat this process of abuse as it’s the only thing that gives her any self value. She has a intimate addict’s connection to her lust and physical satisfaction. Daughter hates the control that Mother has over her but this subjugation is only way she knows to feel pleasure, until Singapore Sling is taken captive and she arouses him, has sex with him and then pukes on his face. Singapore Sling is an injured figure of typical lone wolf male virtues but through the film his sanity crumbles while his body fails him. He is made a sexual plaything, a drone, a receptacle, shamed and debased man leaving him with no recourse but to seek revenge and prepare for death. Although the cast of this film did not go on to have extensively successful careers it should be noted that the woman who played Daughter, Meredyth Herold, should never be forgotten for her brave, honest and completely terrifying performance.

Singapore Sling is an extensively disturbing film on purpose. It takes many things which we would normally identify with pleasure even comfort and perverts them with a coat of mud, viscera and bodily fluids. The classical quality of the filmic visual design evokes films of a simpler era, when men were men and women might be vixens or sexpots. Instead of some comforting trashy fare the film is constantly baffling in it’s repulsion, going so far as to induce nervous laughter. The notion of a sex driven fantasy mystery romp surely has a place in culture, but this film with its inky blackness perverts any desire for supple flesh, revealing us to all just be pieces of meat. The film’s score is a noir style piano set pulled from the 1944 detective film Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, which sets the expectation for the story we’re accustomed to receiving, yet the inversion of that crowd pleasing tone betrays our expectation. There is a scene in which the camera follows an erotic course across a woman’s body as she caresses herself, a scene which is charged with a tasteful level of sexuality until it’s revealed that she’s pleasuring herself with a kiwi. The obtuse strange fruit throws off the standard eroticism, especially when the furry orb is inserted into an anus, mashed to bits and spread across the woman’s body. It is this essence of utilizing an aesthetic, the classic film or the erotic thriller, but spitting in it’s face with debasing acts that provides as much of the shock as the acts themselves. The film’s constant but subtle acknowledgement at it’s own perversity, through the characters knowing looks at the camera, allows for the thinnest levity in the acts of wanton violence and sexual degradation on screen. The film insults and tortures the unsuspecting while winking at those who are literate in film with it’s knowing disrespect of tropes and stock thematics. Madness and disgusting spectacle overcome romantic typicality.

While I cannot overstate that this is NOT a film for those weak of stomach or easily disturbed, I would recommend this film to serious cinephiles, filmmakers and those who are looking for a truly bizarre experience. It’s wealth of unique visuals and cinematic qualities are ripe for the picking and this unique approach to scandalizing the audience appeals to the lustful and torturous identities of our greater demons.

Definitely NOT a date movie.

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