Friday, May 31, 2019

Heroes of Eros

Latest episode of Do Some Damage has me thinking about the erotic thriller, a genre whose heyday attracted big stars and budgets and were mainstream fare for about fifteen years in the 80s and 90s. Lean years have followed with most of the offerings being relegated to straight to cable/video/streaming markets featuring stars who went supernova years ago and whose light is still arriving from the past or hungry unknowns who rarely rise out of their soft light and saxophone origins.

The first pick is Jane Campion's 2003 offering In the Cut. At the time Campion was a high-arthouse heroine known for international indie gems like An Angel at My Table, Sweetie and her breakthrough multiple Oscar nominated The Piano. It apparently raised the wrong eyebrows to see her slumming in sexy mystery thrillers, but in retrospect it was a move as inevitable as it appeared unlikely at the time. Campion is a film maker faithful to her obsessions which sex, sexuality and femininity are certainly among, and it is always illuminating and challenging to watch her engage with masculinity as an intrigued outsider the way her male counterparts have their curiosity tickled by feminine mystique since the beginning of art.

Despite Campion's bonafides in 2003 In the Cut was mostly known as the movie Meg Ryan gets naked in. Ryan had done darker, less adorable fare before (even been nude in Oliver Stone's The Doors, dangerous{?} in Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton's remake of D.O.A. and holy shit I love, and love her in, Steve Kloves' Flesh & Bone - check that one out fer fuck's sake), but she was America's irrevocably wholesome sweetheart, cute as shit, but entering her unfuckable forties and ready to do demonstrate that she could and would do something (anything) else. Finally your blushingest boner's patience would be rewarded with the trashy sex thriller you'd been fantasizing about since When Harry Met Sally.

Only... what the hell is this?

This was not your dad's erotic thriller. This was soft-lit, but... dark. Like literally I can't quite see what's going on sometimes dark. But more than that; psychologically murky, erotically confounding and just downbeat and mournful. I can not get off to this.

Sixteen years later I am getting off to this.

In the Cut, while never hated or outright dismissed, has steadily risen in my own estimation (yeah, I didn't really get it when it first came out) and taken a prominent seat at the table among Campion's other films as well as the genre's best offerings and I would suspect it's easier to see its not-out-of-placed-ness after two Top of the Lake mini-series further demonstrated her crime and thriller chops whilst cleaving steadfast to feminist themes and frank examinations of sexual politics and power. I love Campion and I really like and continue to be intrigued by In the Cut (also starring Mark Ruffalo, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Jason Leigh - find it to rent or purchase on streaming services).

I was eager to see it again (I watch it every few years) after finally reading the source novel Susanna Moore's 1995 stunner of the same name. Reading the book it was easy to see Campion and Ryan's attraction to the material, though there was no way they were ever going to get studio funding for an entirely faithful adaptation, I'd like to think maybe someday there's an alternate ending cut blessed by the film makers that we'll get a chance to see.

My second pick for the episode doesn't flip any of the genre's tropes, but instead blazes through them like a freight train and blows them up to impossibly pulpy, brilliant heights.

It is Peter Medak's 1993 rollercoaster to hell Romeo is Bleeding (now on Prime).

Gary Oldman plays a man on his own side of everything; as a badge in business with the mob and as a lover indulging every appetite and whim. The trio of women he chases are Annabella Sciorra his wife, Juliette Lewis his sex toy and Lena Olin his dangerous obsession. All three ladies are terrific (Lewis especially just breaks my heart - she and Jennifer Jason Leigh man... hell Melanie Griffith too - they do that not-very-smart, vulnerable, eager to please character injected with humanity and sometimes real ferocity so amazingly well they deserve their own category of film performance award), but it's Olin's femme fatale, a contract killer who gets off sexually at least as much from killing rooms full of gangsters and cops as she does from actually fucking Oldman, but maybe not as much as she does from fucking with his head, and when she's mutilated, she only gets sexier/deadlier.

It's easy to see why people are content to dismiss Romeo is Bleeding, and I'm not here to tell you it's not trashy, but it is exquisite trash. Sumptuously shot and full of committed performances from a great cast peppered with amazing faces too: Roy Scheider, Michael Wincott, James Cromwell, Will Patton, Dennis Farina, Tony Sirico, Ron Perlman and Stephen Tobolowsky all pop up in small roles. Straight forwardly crooked and underhandely over the top, it's so much fun to watch Oldman see how close he can get to the flame before he's infernally fucked. No spoiler to say he's fucked. He starts fucked and he gets fucked and he's the willing architect of his own fucking. Fuck me, it's a favorite.

Erotic thrillers were generally on my mind as I'd recently rewatched Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct and The Fourth Man which make for a great double bill if you're interested. Both are about men (the genre's perpetual danger-penis Michael Douglas and Jeroen Krabbé) drawn to women they fear want to murder them for sport (Sharon Stone and Renée Soutendijk), both are about writers who exploit the human experiences of others for their art (Stone and Krabbé) and both explore that familiar noir territory of sexual thrills from flirting with death. They're fun on their own, they're fun in juxtaposition, go for it.

Funny too that the day after I recorded the episode with Steve Weddle, David Nemeth's Unlawful Acts blog steered me toward this article (The Erotic Thriller's Little Death) at Longreads by Soraya Roberts on the state of the erotic thriller on the occasion of Netflix's new excursion What/If. The show don't sound promising, but the piece is a good read and says better some of the things on my mind recently.

On my mind probably since I wrote the profile on one of the genre's prolific perpetually low-brow outliers Andy Sidaris: King of Hardboiled Softcore for Daily Grindhouse earlier this year.And I expect to see more good pieces on erotic thrillers popping up in the Thirst Trap issue of Bright Wall Dark Room coming soon.

Hell they had one a month or so ago in their 1994-themed issue. Year of the Buffalo Girl  (covering the erotic thrillers of that year: Disclosure, Color of Night and The Last Seduction) is a hell of a good read from Travis Woods who covers so fucking many of my favorite films (usually at BWDR, but elsewhere as well) that I really don't need to write about movies myself ever again. (For serious: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, You Were Never Really Here, Mandy, Inherent Vice, Miami Blues and William Friedkin's Sorcerer in the latest issue - go read that fucking guy).

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Subtitles Van-Dammit

On the Do Some Damage podcast I tell Steve Weddle to go read some subtitled French movies and it doesn't go over very well. Maybe that's just my perception, but listen to the groan in Steve's tone when I say it - subtitled movies, Steve. Not even the name Jean-Claude Van Damme makes my fair-haired pal come around.

Which... I kinda get. I was not a big JCVD fan (nor Arnold, Stallone or Seagal who were the top names in action movies) when I was a teenager. In decades since I've come to appreciate their bodies of work, but Van Damme is the one whose current output most engages me. Ever since Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-dramady JCVD arrived just over a decade back and John Hyams re-aligned the Universal Soldier franchise and... shit, Jean-Claude himself was giving something new in his performances - he wears his age and damage the way he used to wear his youth and perfection and I dig it.

Anyhow, I'm recommending you track down 2018's The Bouncer (aka Lukas) in which he plays the titular character, a guy too old to have a daughter that young and probably too old to be doing the work he's doing (night club bouncer). But he doesn't have much of a choice and the edge he gets from that fact makes him an attractive asset for the criminal who owns the latest club he's found employment at. The action in this one ain't slick, it's bruising. Nobody does the splits and our hero is anything but indestructible. Good shit.

Not surprising that it's strong because it's from writer/director Julien Leclercq whose (Netflix original) film The Crew was one of my favorites of last year. A no-frills heist thriller that you should the fuck check out before you cancel Netflix in protest of its rising cost. It's great.

The third is another Netflix original called Burn Out (writer/director: Yann Gozlan) about a motorcycle racer about to turn pro who puts his skills to use as a drug-runner in order to pay off a friend's mortal debt. The riding footage is sharp and feels dangerous without feeling too heightened - it feels tethered to a familiar reality and the climactic trip through a riot is schweet.

Other recent French language films I dug, but didn't talk about:

The World is Yours

Racer & the Jailbird

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Pod Peephole

I made another appearance on One Heat Minute with Blake Howard. This time episode 144 where Al Pacino tries to thwart Natalie Portman's suicide attempt in his bathtub. My own kids are her character's age and it's a rough scene to watch. In the episode we talk about the implications about Vincent's relationship with her mother Justine (Diane Venora - who makes an appearance in the minute's last seconds) as well as clues as to exactly how desperate Lauren (last name; Gustafson - another tidbit learned in this minute) really is/has been for Vincent's attention/validation.

Among those implications - Lauren's artery cuts are precise and done 'right' to get the job done. No hesitation scratches, no perpendicular to the wrist cuts. In the world of 1995, before the internet was what it is now, how would a kid that age learn how to do this to herself? Implied: from hanging around Vincent who deals with that kind of ugly every day and who insists on not dragging it home and into his marriage. Fail.

Also, I don't really suggest that it was Lauren's intent, but it is the result of her suicide attempt that Vincent and Justine have their most honest connected moment in the hospital (next minute) that ends with Vincent promising he's here for her and not going anywhere - a promise he immediately breaks when his beeper goes off and he "dances" out of there (a moment I suggest could/should be scored with the tuba/mandolin piece best known as the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm). Fail.

To further drive home the point of Vincent's failure, I point out the artwork that adorns the walls of Justine's ex-husband's, dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit house including an empty men's suit (a magnet or some probably cheap, kitchy thing) in the kitchen and a wall-sized painting of a man with blank features filling out clothing and leaning on a desk that is behind Xander Berkeley's Ralph after Vincent discovers Justine's been demeaning herself with him just to get closure. Between Lauren's never-there father and Vincent's constant disappearing act, that house is haunted by the ghosts of absent men.

If Waingro (Kevin Gage) is Neil's biggest enemy - the guy he prides himself on not being and secretly fears that he really is underneath, then Lauren's father/Justine's ex-husband is Vincent's Waingro. Vincent talks so much shit about him - "Does this guy have any idea what he's doing to her?" "Is this guy ever gonna show up, or will he leave her hanging like last time?" - but his actions, in the end, are no different than that asshole's. He's never there for them. He makes promises just to break them.
Exactly how pathetic is Vincent as a husband? One point I don't think I got to bring up: the big date-night scene that ends with Vincent getting called away to the murder scene of the young prostitute Waingro killed, the one where Vincent's whole crew are dressed up nice and taking their wives out for a much-needed good time? It's not only juxtaposed with a similar scene with Robert De Niro's heist crew's family night where Vincent's crew is doing surveillance on them from the roof top of the building across the street, it's very clearly the very same night. In other words Vincent's crew's wives are only getting a night out at this nice restaurant because it's across the street from the one where Neil's crew is taking their loved ones. Really. Not only do the scenes immediately follow each other, but Vincent's crew are wearing the exact same suits in both -  they all just went to the bathroom at the same time or some juvenile shit like that to go up on the roof and spy on the bad guys. Fail.

Here's a link to the episode - we talk about a lot more, of course, including me putting Blake on the spot about what his least favorite Michael Mann movies are and whether L.A. Takedown is superior in any way to Heat. Plus, Blake does a pretty great Ted Levine impression and that's worth tuning in for.

Hey, two appearances on One Heat Minute is an honor, but holy crap, I've now been a guest on Mike White's excellent The Projection Booth podcast seven times? Dang, that's cool. And not slowing down. Several more appearances booked this year.

Anyway, in my latest appearance I discuss Peter Hyams' space western Outland starring Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, James B. Sikking, Frances Sternhagen and Clarke Peters with Mike and Josh Hadley. It's shittin good too (the movie, that is). One of those movies I grew up seeing advertised on TV and the images I caught gave me great ideas. Few movies like that that ever live up to the imagination of a child, but when I finally saw the movie as an adult I was very pleased.

Pleased too for the excuse to go back through a bunch of Hyams films. A quick list of movies I watched in preparation for the episode: Rolling Man, Goodnight My Love, Busting, Capricorn One, Hanover Street, Running Scared, The Presidio, Timecop, Sudden Death, The Relic, End of Days and of course I had to watch Fred Zinneman's High Noon and Ridley Scott's Alien back to back with Outland.

Here's a link to the episode (also featuring an interview with co-star James B. Sikking!) where you can hear me make dubious claims like "Outland is better than High Noon". And if you'd like to hear more episodes with me talking to Mike and his always great lineup of co-hosts, guests and interviews I keep a list on Letterboxd with links to the episodes I'm on.

Next up I'll be on to talk about Paul Verhoeven's Philip K. Dick adaptation, Total Recall which should fit nicely into the lineup of pictures I've thus far discussed on the show. I've noticed a theme of the malleability of memory and reality in my guest spots (Session 9, 12 Monkeys, Mulholland Drive...).

Season two of the Do Some Damage podcast chugs along and on recent episodes I suggested checking out a few flicks including S. Craig Zahler's Dragged Across Concrete. I think it's his best movie yet and I really liked Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. It's a chewy piece of crime fare that rewards thoughtful viewers. Back in the mix are Zahler cast vets Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Udo Kier and Don Johnson, along with Zahler newbies Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden and the scene stealing Tory Kittles. Right up front though is Mel Gibson, an actor of outsized gifting and no little controversy.

If Mel's presence is gonna keep you from checking this one out I'm not here to talk you out of your stance. Instead I highlight another new flick starring another performer of outsized gifts. Writer/director Maria Pulera's Between Worlds is a hell of a thing. It's an erotic, supernatural thriller that goes in a half dozen directions at once and features a lead performance to match from the absolutely off the chain Nicolas Cage.

The romantic pairing of Cage and Franka Potente was enough to grab my attention, but the movie (and Saint Nic) don't stop anywhere near there. In fact, they're probably still going somewhere in the space between worlds. I was so taken by the audacious confidence in Pulera's film that I checked out her previous effort, 2016's Falsely Accused, and while the two films share undeniable dna, Rosanna Arquette, despite all her rage, is just no Nicolas Cage.

Kudos to Pulera for casting Cage and for gifting all the worlds with this performance. It is marvelous. Please don't deny yourself this experience.

In the second Do Some Damage episode that's dropped since I last blogged I recommend two more recent favorites it's hard to imagine won't be on my year's favorites list.

First up Karyn Kusama's Destroyer starring Nicole Kidman. If you, like me, have to wait for the third season of True Detective to be released on DVD, but need something to scratch a similar itch, I highly recommend this one. Kidman plays a police detective whose latest case appears to have ties to her past. The film splits the narrative between the current investigation and her character's past undercover with a group of high desert outlaws and it features some terrific violent content and a satisfying story of criminality and corruption.

Second is writer/director Henry Dunham's feature debut, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. The story concerns a small militia group who discover that one of them may have started a war with the cops. The group whose politics are never discussed are torn between sniffing out and offering up their member who shot up a cop's funeral and bracing for inevitable Armageddon. The dramatic tension is expertly drawn out and the cast are uniformly good. I can't wait to see where Dunham's career goes from here.

Side note: James Badge Dale had a good year. IMDb lists his 2018 credits as The Standoff at Sparrow Creek and Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark, plus a spot in Tim Sutton's (disappointing) Donnybrook, and I'm really looking forward to catching Nia DiCosta's Little Woods.