Monday, March 5, 2018

Link Break

Taking a break from the endless cataloging of movies I watched last year to talk briefly about a few articles that caught my eye recently.

First up is Rob Hart talking about the differences between Brian Garfield's source novel and the 1974 Michael Winner film, Death Wish that turned into a long-running-ever-running-away-from-its-origins series starring Charles Bronson as a vigilante at Criminal Element. It's an article he wrote in a while back, but it's surfaced again because of the Joe Carnahan-penned Eli Roth remake starring Bruce Willis.

The new take on the old stuff looks... not great. Looks like another Grindhouse fake trailer accidentally turned into a feature length run time ala Machete, but early reviews don't hint at anything as clever or fun as the Robert Rodriguez/Danny Trejo films have turned out to be (I'm even looking forward to Machete Kills Again in Space).

In fact this Diabolique piece claiming to name 17 Vigilante Films That Are Way Better Than Eli Roth's Bullshit 'Death Wish' Remake - an apparent lay-up piece offering the opportunity to highlight some other worthy work. The piece lists the 1974 version as well as parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 to take up a little space and perhaps stretch credulity (I mean, is this new one really gonna be less entertaining than the latter Death Wish installments? I never got through part 3 so I'm not willing to take the author's word for it), but where the piece loses me permanently is including a pair of excellent flicks - David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Jonathan Kaplan's Truck Turner - that I can't wrap my head around being called vigilante fare. Then the inclusion of Boondock Saints just kinda clinches it (it's better than something?)

So, I'm not a fan of a lot of Roth's pictures, but every one I've seen had at least a scene or two that stood out and made it memorable - Keanu Reeves buried up to his neck and pleading (just emoting the shit out it more than I've ever seen Reeves even try to) in Knock, Knock, some of the gore shit in Green Inferno was pretty great, I laughed at several bits in the uneven Cabin Fever and I really dug the Hostel movies (first is a lot better than the second, but I thought the second had an interesting angle on the premise it didn't entirely squander). So that guy's making an uber violent vigilante movie? I don't really care what the name is, I'm going to check it out sometime even if the trailer doesn't do much for me. Add Carnahan's name as the screenwriter and it's double-duh I'll check it out eventually.

And speaking of wrongness in online lists: this one from Electric Lit ranking Elmore Leonard adaptations manages not to even mention 52 Pickup, Cat Chaser or Life of Crime in favor of talking about The Big Bounce and Be Cool? Um, nah.

Next can we talk about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Yeah, it's one of my favorite flicks of the year, but I'm glad it didn't win Best picture at the Academy Awards last night. That's just a mantle I don't think it wants to wear. It's too prickly to embrace being that broadly embraced. Even having it nominated for best picture coats it in and all its glorious contradictions and the difficult relationships it insists on establishing between its audience and its characters in a sterile "generally accepted" bubble that doesn't serve its legacy. Lemme be clear - I think it's of a quality far beyond previous and recent "difficult persons" prestige picture Oscar darlings like As Good as it Gets, American Beauty, Crash... - but I think a best picture win would've potentially sterilized its legacy when it's closer in spirit to super punchy pulpy fare like... Killer Joe.

I've seen a lot of folks I respect making it clear that they did not like it. They hated it in fact. Which is a cool place to start a conversation and a couple of them have made me reconsider my instant embrace of it - they haven't made me change my mind, but they've made me think about what I responded to and what I could have missed.

Then there's stuff like this McSweeney's piece I've seen some folks sharing which pretty much exemplifies missing the point of the movie in an almost willfully obtuse way. I'm fine if you didn't like it - I'm fine if it pissed you off and you have no desire to subject yourself to the ugly bits of humanity paraded across the screen, but somewhere this idea that the movie is trying to be a redemption story has really got folks off-base in their approach to the film.

It's not a redemption story. And there are no heroes in it. Not even Frances McDormand's character. She's a bitter piece of human flotsam who takes center stage in this picture the way she takes center stage in any situation she's in. Through her attitude and actions she's maybe even more of a hindrance to her own stated goals than anybody else - solving the crime isn't the point of the film and neither is it 'look at the heroic measures taken by this grieving mother' - the point is that even this bitter bit of humanity and even the dumb, mean, racist cop and even the abusive, cheating ex-husband are more than single-dimensional. Are any of them excused because we can identify a bit of humanity in them?Of course not. We're just left a little uncomfortable because we can see in them something of ourselves.

Second - it's not supposed to be realistic. It's not really America or the South. It's a foreigner's impressionistic portrait of us and it's kinda fascinating. Martin McDonagh's been saying the same types of things for three pictures now and they're adding up to a picture of the U.S. and of U.S. global culture as this big, fat, mean-spirited fascist, racist, sexist, thing that delivers horrors when it tries to do good and also produces real beauty completely unconsciously.

Kent Gowran has said several times that the wrong McDonagh brother's movie got the love last year - that John Michael McDonagh's War On Everyone was the superior offering. I'm not willing to second the claim, but I really did love War On Everyone. Both films made my top 10 of the year and in retrospect they look like the siblings each trying to make the others' movie - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels closer to JMM's Calvary, while War On Everyone is perhaps closest to MM's In Bruges. All six feature films by the siblings deal with outrageous and sympathetically complex characters and caricatures who do and say inflammatory, self-destructive, un-apologetically violent and self-serving, anti-social things at every beat and who, in turn, say and do the occasional admirable thing or have a surprisingly humane reaction that catches the audience off-guard.

Back to the realism problem though - yes, natural consequences go right out the window in favor of unexpected and grand (usually rash and violent) actions and words to be committed and or spoken for maximum entertainment value. As film maker both brothers seek to first never bore a viewer. If you don't laugh, maybe you'll cry. If you aren't excited maybe you'll be angry. These are the best movies not Best Pictures.

Also read Danny Gardner's first piece Now May We Talk About Quentin? at Do Some Damage about Quentin Tarantino and race and misogyny. If you've ever spoken with Danny you'll not be surprised to learn he doesn't hold back. He rips hard into Tarantino and another one of my favorite artists, James Ellroy, in this piece. Again - hasn't changed my enjoyment and appreciation of the art, but his piece is anything but dull and a good conversation starter. Give it a look.

Finally, I watched John Farrow's Where Danger Lives and felt like I'd seen it before, but nope. Turns out it's just ridiculously similar in plot to Charles Willeford's book Wild Wives. The film is from 1950 and the original publication date of the book is 1956. A super quick google search led me to an article about the literary influences upon Donald Westlake's The Hunter - apparently some have suggested a book called The Desperado by Clifton Adams was an inspiration for the first Parker book, but this article claims not. The article does claim that Willeford more or less adapted it for himself as Hombre From Sonora and then says that Willeford did that kind of thing a lot

"... Willeford pretty directly copied Adams’ story, as he was sometimes known to do (if you have the time, compare his Wild Wives with the Robert Mitchum vehicle, Where Danger Lives, with a story by Leo Rosten). Do I know of a more original writer than Willeford? Not hardly. Did that mean he was above taking a story he liked and doing his own thing with it? I’m not sure any professional writer is above that. Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t above that."

Give the piece a read. It's called The Genealogy of a Hunter at a blog called The Westlake Review (which is worth a look if you haven't been there). Good stuff.

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