Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: COMING TO AMERICA

at 1:00 PM
Holy shit these are getting too long. GREMLINS was like 3000 words. Time to relax and just let your soul glo, feelin oh so silky smooth, just let it shine through yeah.

COMING TO AMERICA (1988)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Eddie Murphy (story), David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein (screenplay)

COMING TO AMERICA in one sentence:
Yourself: Before there was the King of Queens, there was the Prince of Queens.

Golem: Does this make Eddie Murphy and Mark Hamill brothers?

Here's a story about me and COMING TO AMERICA:
Yourself: The instrumental version of the Soul Glo song was my ringtone for a while in college. Good way to farm nods of approval.

Golem: You get in good with an American woman's father, you in good with her.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: While there is the occasional weird foreigner joke, the movie rarely stoops to that level of ignorance. Prince Akeem is more Richie Rich than Charlie Chan, and most of the humor once we land in America is at the expense of Americans. But I could do without the fake accent.

What's his name, Darryl, is a surprisingly weak romantic rival. He knocks himself out of the race pretty early, teaching Akeem that don't be a psycho control freak. Akeem mostly grows by observing others fail, but he does eventually get his big flop on the subway.

Falling in love with someone and getting married within 40 days is a very stupid and irresponsible thing to do. But speed of light romance is nothing new to fiction.

Golem: Did I miss something about Lisa McDowell's mother? Did she die? Was Cleo ever married? It's strange that Cleo makes such a strong parallel with Jaffe Joffer, only to have no matching Aeoleon. I honestly think I missed something. [editor: he did not miss anything]. As it is, I imagine the American version of Aeoleon leaves her husband.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: There is a cartoonish atmosphere to the film, couched in the exaggerated emotions and dialogue of the main characters and elevated by the surrogate locales and sets. I wish I could find a screengrab of it: in Cleo's house there's this random framed collage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. epitomizing this winking fiction (another that comes to mind is the preposterously long royal breakfast table). You can't set a movie in the real world and have your star play six different roles, but in the fictional land of Zamunda, McDowell's, and Soul Glo, the story automatically graduates to a figurative level. It is very acutely a fairy tale.

It's time to reword this question to "style", since more often than not that's what I find myself reflecting upon.

Golem: Queens is a very grungy place. For all too long, the cleanest set in the film is McDonald's McDowell's.

The Zamundian palace also gets a hefty bit of attention at the film's start. It's an overly ornate palace, mocking the viewer's understanding of Africa. To this end: when Akeem and his father walk together through the palace backyard, they pause for the occasional zebra or elephant.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: John Amos holds this damn thing together. He's so American, eager to please anyone that will help him get his way - where "his way" just means financial security for his daughter. His accordingly mercurial moods keep his interactions with other characters fresh. When Darryl comes to his door at an inconvenient moment, you get to see him ramp from impatient dismissal to exasperated fury.

I would be remiss not to mention the SNL-esque character sketches peppered in by Murphy and Hall incognito (including the always hilarious whiteface!). They are glaring (I could live without Sexual Chocolate, an idea looking for a home if ever there was one), but the camera returns to them regularly enough that they contribute to the surreal texture. The recurring barbers are a ton of fun - I particularly like that Arsenio's is perpetually eating. Talk about the last thing you ever want to do at a barber shop.


Golem: Arsenio Hall plays Semmi, Akeem's trusted servant. If Akeem shows our good side, hoping to see the best in everyone and play fair, then Semmi satisfies our immediate urges. Akeem gets  sickeningly sweet, setting up Semmi to relieve our annoyance. Adorned in ugly "I <3 New York" buttons, Akeem smiles. Semmi complains: "I feel like an idiot."

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: If GHOSTBUSTERS has the most quotable dialogue of its era, COMING TO AMERICA has the most quotable imagery. Hamburger phone. Jheri curls. Soul GloJames Earl Jones wearing a lion. The awed bystanders (or bysitters) to the subway proposal. The McDowells uniforms (better still because what kind of movie casts John Amos to play up Scottish heritage?). It thrives on good old-fashioned visual absurdity that's there for you to get or not get - there are very few punchlines hung up for applause. The movie can make a joke just by putting swelling regal orchestration on a steady shot of the Zamundan flag, which appears to depict a lion punching the sun in half.

Golem: Akeem's apartment is infested with rats, littered with newspaper shreds, and features a stained mattress with no covers. By the time you see the outline of a crime scene involving a man, a dog, and a cane, it becomes funny just how absurdly awful this apartment is.

When Semmi gets his hand on it, though, he transforms it into a knockout bachelor pad (he's picked up an American sense of taste quickly). The enormity of the apartment's transformation sells the joke well enough, but it also lands because it marks a change in tone. We first see the new apartment after witnessing Akeem prepare for a sweet-hearted date.

So, not wishing to keep the gaudy apartment, Akeem gives it to his landlord. The mismatch of a lightly-shaven, cigar-chewing guy chilling in a swanky hot tob (hey what's the name of that hat?) is only heightened when Jaffe Joffer, complete in royal robes, tromps through low income housing with his entourage and arrives at this unbelievably ostentatious room tucked away in a corner.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: This is a very traditional fable romance. Dissatisfied princes dressing in rags to bang commoners has been a storytelling trope since at least classical Greek mythology, possibly a couple years earlier. Good intentions are rewarded. It is basically a kids' movie for kids who already know about hand jobs.

Golem: People are basically good. Only one person in the film is a genuine bad guy, Samuel L. Jackson's fast food robber. Darryl Jenks, as much as I hate him, finds his match in Patrice, as if he just needed the right partner to domineer over. (Reminds me of that line from ANNIE HALL, after Alvy asks a passing couple how they manage to stay in love: "Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.") COMING TO AMERICA simultaneously speaks to the tragedy of love (you can't always get what you want) and provides a sense of hope (everyone has a match out there). Akeem seeks out a woman to challenge and fulfill him, but don't forget that his father has a successful and happy marriage.

Note to future self on watching COMING TO AMERICA:
Yourself: This has to be one of the most universally liked movies ever. I should file it away to use on dates along with MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.

Golem: This is a really happy and goofy movie. It has a lady who bounces on one foot and yaps like a dog.

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit Part 5: BRAINDEAD.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA

at 1:00 PM
Alright, this isn't exactly a movie you already should've seen unless you're a Godzilla fan. Luckily I am. Golem though is too pragmatic to waste his time on such "hullabaloo". Be sure to check out our primer on the franchise.

GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992)
AKA: Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth
Directed by: Takao Okawara
Written by: Kazuki Ohmori

GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA in one sentence:
Yourself: The poster's cool I guess.

Here's a story about me and GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA:
Yourself: Since first being exposed to the series almost exactly two years ago, this is my 12th Godzilla, 5th Heisei. I rank the original MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA highly for being so gung-ho weird, but I've never been big on Mothra as an idea.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: The story goes that after the grim scifi of VS. BIOLLANTE failed to score at the box office, Toho Studios lost faith in the series and rerouted toward nostalgia. In addition to a broader tone, that meant reviving old monsters. You could argue either way for this as a creative decision (I'm okay with it on an occasional basis), but it wasn't one, so it doesn't matter. Mothra and the gang had to come back for the movies to be made. By comparison to the insane time-travel abomination that is the interceding VS. KING GHIDORAH, VS. MOTHRA's premise as a semi-remake of 1964's MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA seems downright agreeable. But it is all handled with the careless aplomb of the Heisei writers, whom I imagine providing one line descriptions of each scene and letting the director randomly select a location and actor to provide that exposition.

Both the 1964 story and this one hinge on convincing a dogmatic protector of the earth that humanity is on its side. In the original that guardian was Mothra, provided a human avatar in the Infant Islanders. To win over Mothra, the protagonists had to travel to Infant Island to face the tribe, in the process owning their past abuse of technology and pledging reconciliation. I thought that was pretty phony, but it's fucking Shakespeare compared to GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA's handling of the same idea. This time Battra is the angry spirit and Mothra humanity's advocate, which incidentally leaves no reason for Godzilla or the Infant Islanders to be in the film (unsurprisingly only the latter were cut). Inspired by some really pitiful begging and the shameless plea of a child, Mothra sways Battra by moth-talking to it. For way longer than I need to see two puppets hover face-to-face accompanied by nonsense Foley.

The real-estate developer subplot is back too, likewise managing to be more banal than its inspiration. Last time the developers monopolized the Mothra egg for a tourist attraction, endangering civilians and preventing scientific research. It was also presumably their digging that awakened Godzilla. They eventually stole the Minimoth Girls, impeding the heroes' ability to make amends with the Infant Islanders. This time the developers are the ones who send the protagonist to find the Mothra egg, but Mothra is good, so whatever. Again they steal the Minimoth Girls (to use them as a tourist attraction), but this is resolved when the one guy feels bad about it and gives them back. What an awesome subplot. I did find it funny that they make the girls live in a dollhouse, though even that is delivered poorly (why spoil the joke by having a character say it before showing it?).

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Lazy is a word that comes to mind. Most of the first 20 minutes are set in the wilds of Infant Island. The greenery is nice and I would've bought that they were in the jungle were the whole thing not over so quickly. There are some ancient ruins that look claustrophobic in the sense of a crawlspace, decorated with more dirt and cobwebs than authentic stone and carving. Ignoring that this is all straight out of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (see that weird thing I discussed re: GvB, GvKG, and GvD), it's a novel enough setting for monster battles. I'd like to see Godzilla mow down the rainforest (actually they basically did that in Skies of Arcadia!).

Unfortunately the only monster we get on the island is Mothra's giant egg, then it's back to boring light-grey Tokyo that I've seen a million times. I said this in regards to GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA and it once again applies here: broad daylight and miniatures do not mix. Worm-Mothra is as awful a costume as it's ever been, but its rigid plasticity is at its worst during daytime shooting that casts the sets like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: I sat looking at the ceiling for a good 90 seconds before I decided the most honest thing to write would be I sat looking at the ceiling for a good 90 seconds trying to remember a single performance. And I literally just finished watching the movie a half hour ago. There's not even anyone with a dumb gimmick like eating eggs, and by the time the 'main' character stopped wearing a Rambo headband there were actually a couple scenes in which I did not recognize him.

That being the case, let's just use this segment to talk about monsters. Battra is a good idea. I always wondered what would happen if the second Mothra larva in MOTHRA VS. hadn't been killed, and this is clearly riffing on that. The Minimoth Girls are twins after all; duality is in some way inherent to this character. Unfortunately, that means Battra fails what I have just this second dubbed "the profile test" - that to be sufficiently memorable, a monster should be distinguishable by its general shape, i.e. its profile. Rodan has bat wings. Ghidorah has three heads. Anguirus is a ball of spikes. Hell, even the MUTOs provide a distinctly insectoid silhouette. The shitty forgettable monsters are the ones that look like a human in a Halloween costume, e.g. Megalon or King Caesar. Likewise, Battra is just a black Mothra with spikes. It is too different to cruise by on the strength of Mothra's design but too similar to pass the profile test. The resultant spiky alien caterpillar is a contrived creation that echoes the conceptual drought of monster-of-the-week shows like Ultraman or Super Sentai. Or Pokemon. Or late-'60s Godzilla.

Also, I don't really like Mothra to start with. The worm form is so fucking sluggish and the imago is mostly an amalgam of magic powers making lemonade from the fact that a moth can't do much other than hover and glide (particularly considering the limitations of giant puppet wings). The new 'reflector spores' are actually kinda neat, although possibly just because I recognize the attack from PS2's Save the Earth. The main problem is that there's not much Godzilla can do with Mothra. He can't grapple it, he can't throw it, he can hardly bite it or slap it with his tail, so it's mostly just lazer breath. And while the Heisei lazer breath is typically its best special effect, eventually it does get old.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: We get two new takes on the kaiju duel here. Introducing two airborne monsters opens the opportunity for a fully aerial battle, and thankfully the film takes it. (I have to assume this happened at some point in the Showa years with Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan floating around, but I have not seen it). At a basic level it's scripted like a dogfight, with the monsters speeding after each other firing off lasers and fighting for position. There are even some overhead shots showing the city underneath, enforcing the sense of enormity that could be lost in shooting directly against the sky. I'd say it doesn't go on for long, but it goes on for plenty long. The other battles are just so distended that this one feels short by comparison.

Better still, there's a sea floor battle between Godzilla and Worm-Battra. It is definitely one of the coolest fights of the series, at least in concept. Worm-Battra doesn't do much but shoot lightning, but the whole thing is quickly edited and shot at weird angles, suggesting the disorienting darkness of the ocean. The bluish murk has just the opposite effect from daylight on the miniatures - for a moment they were believably obscured. Just don't ask me how Godzilla is suddenly kilometers under the surface (deep enough to fall into the Earth's mantle) after two seconds earlier he was standing waist deep swatting battleships.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself:

Note to future self on watching GOJIRA TAI MOSURA:
Yourself: When we started this feature, I told Golem I'd like to keep these reviews positive, forgoing the process of weighing good vs. bad to instead focus on aspects that might pique a reader's interest. Since he's not here I'll cut straight to it: this is not a movie anyone should see.

Come back next week to find out if Greg and Greg finally get around to finishing COMING TO AMERICA.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: GREMLINS

at 1:00 PM
Get out the fruitcakes, because Christmas has come early this year. Get out the Christmas Ham, because it's Christmas in July. Get out the menorah, because it's July but it's cold as Christmas - in the middle of the year. GREMLINS.

GREMLINS (1984)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus

GREMLINS in one sentence:
Yourself: Even in 2015 I spotted a man escorting his young daughter from the theater near the 50-minute mark.

Golem: In this god game, it's your job to help little green-haired creatures traverse mountains and valleys.

Here's a story about me and GREMLINS:
Yourself: In the Gentry family we have a special tradition: every Christmas Eve we argue about whether GREMLINS is a Christmas movie. The verdict - Mom: No way. Dad: What is gremlins? Younger brother: Sure if you say so. Older brother: hates movies. For the record, it is the greatest Christmas movie known to man.

Golem: This was on TV a bunch, but I never paid attention. Imagine how different my life would be if I had only listened.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: Billy goofing off with his neighbors and family is a lot of fun, and I guess I would've enjoyed more of that in the "Gremlins go wild" portion of the film. Judge Reinhold never shows up a second time, making his early cameo feel oddly weighted. Most of the gang we visit in "meanwhile..." vignettes (Corey Feldspar wielding a slingshot, Dick Miller getting flattened by a bulldozer (which, per GREMLINS 2, was not a fatal incident)). Absent Billy, these omniscient-view snapshots feel suspended above the story. At the cost of character development, they lend scope and immediacy that creates a disaster movie feel.

The Christmas-cliche bank drama ("I can't pay my mortgage, have a heart, etc.") never gets explicit resolution either. The ostensible villain at the onset, bank manager Mrs. Deagle, makes a very early (and very unforgettable) exit. That's symptomatic of the movie's decision to resolve the dilemma of a nice town with a corrupt heart by destroying the nice town. It's a structural twist and dead on thematically.

I never realized this was written by Chris "Home Baby's Day Out Alone" Columbus. That sorta makes HOME ALONE that much hackier. I kinda assumed it had been written by Dante, but turns out he doesn't write.

Golem: For a horror movie, not many people die. Mrs. Deagle's death marks an important point; since Mrs. Deagle is herself a villain, her death carries meaning with it. So, that's satisfying, but the first death comes to Mr. Hanson, the kindly and helpful biology teacher. His sin is being thoughtless and oddly abusive with the mogwai given to him. The movie maintains a motif about pets (Barney vs. Gizmo vs. mogwais vs. Mrs. Deagle's cats), and maybe Mr. Hanson plays into that. He does introduce the practice of using animals for experimentation. But we're not given much to work with.

That said, GREMLINS is a kids' movie (...I think - it's at least a mostly-fun movie at any rate), so it's not the lack of deaths itself that gets me. It's that one of the two deaths in the movie could've been better. There is a syringe planted in his butt, for what it's worth.

And the bar scene - while genuinely entertaining throughout - also slightly overstays its welcome. But that's like, if I absolutely had to think of something that bugged me. There's also the small role Gizmo plays in the climax, pulling open a window, in proportion to how much time the scene spends building him up. I watched him zoom around in a toy car for a few minutes, which is fun, but it came without much payoff.

Yourself: On the editing of the bar scene, I could do without the FLASHDANCE reference. It's funny, but unoriginal and unnecessarily dates the movie.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: A Hollywood history lesson. GREMLINS is so deeply entrenched in filmic tropes that it would take an essay per scene for me to poorly explain the atmosphere. The film opens with a mysterious glimpse into a pulp-Chinatown, stuffing shots with exotic trinkets cast in crimson light and layers of mist. It moves on to a lively daylit village caked in snow, bustling with sweatered and scarved Middle-American White Folks (I'll take MAWFs over WASPs anyday). We get a haunted house with canted lens and elongated shadows. A teenager's bedroom covered in movie posters. A packed theater shot from the front, wide-eyed patrons flickering under the projector bulb. A rowdy barroom shown with quick cuts and dollies.

The tone is sort of a bachelor's Christmas weekend. The family arrives and the whole gang is in good cheer and spirits; too many spirits and false cheer make things ugly; after everyone's stormed out, you flip on some cartoons.

Golem: A wistful, small-town Christmas under a blanket of snow. It looks a little fake, fitting in with how everyone acts a little too quaint. Contrast that with the hectic opening in Chinatown with fog and saturated lights with busy, crowded streets. When the gremlins take over Dorry's Tavern, their cigarette smoke casts a thick haze, and blue and red lighting gives a strong contrast to the visuals.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It probably doesn't count to say that Kate (Phoebe Cates) is still unfairly dreamy, but Kate (Phoebe Cates) is still unfairly dreamy. I could describe the performance with critic words like "earnest" and "vulnerable" but I don't know what they actually mean, except that I want to ask Kate to marry me.

When the movie calls for darkness, Kate delivers the requisite tragicomedy. Amidst all the special effects, perhaps the most lasting scene from GREMLINS is Kate's horror story about her father's demise. The Santa-in-the-chimney episode would be far too cruel to show and would run as sadistic (the sick twist is more the fare of Tales from the Crypt), but the further layer of removal allows us to take it as a sort of tragic fairy tale. Naturally, the final line of her soul-baring tale - "that's how I found out there's no Santa Claus" - that's a punchline. It is the blackly comic wink behind the entire movie. That Cates sells it so somberly with her stammering delivery and misty stare is what makes the comedy poignant. It isn't funny that our culture values collective fantasy over personal hardship.

Michael Winslow is credited for sound effects in this film. That's all they had before computers.

Golem: I felt bad that I found the dad's death story funny.

In a town of folksy folks, lots of them are fun to watch. Pete is a total twerp, Mrs. Deagle is predictably crotchety, and the lazy policemen have a good point when they mock Billy. And don't forget Dick Miller with his gremlin shtick. Pick your favorite.

A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: Mom vs. The Gremlins is giddy movie-making glee. For the fifth or sixth time I sat with an ear-to-ear grin on my face and I swear to god I would've cheered if Golem hadn't been sitting right next to me. It is a scene that packages, spoofs, and celebrates everything I love about horror cinema in less than 5 minutes. The scene is worth working through shot-for-shot, but I am mildly exhausted with GREMLINS at the moment (see below). Some salient points:
- How often does a character warned "Get out of there, now!" actually survive?
- The gremlins are first seen devouring mom's gingerbread family
- Watching a scared character fight back is way more cathartic than watching a tough one
- Probably one of the top 5 gore scenes ever. There is a satisfying simplicity to using the kitchen hardware exactly as designed. In fact Ebert was so worried about its realism that he admonished the movie for fear that impressionable kids would be stuffing their kittens in the microwave.
- the gladiator thing she does
- alright I'm tired

Golem: I thought this one over, and the mom-killin-gremlins sequence is the only standout in the film. That's not to say the rest of the film isn't worthwhile, but as Yourself mentioned to me, it reverses typical slasher roles by putting the hero in the role of the murderer. Upon hearing suspicious racket in the kitchen, Lynn Peltzer stalks around the corner with a butcher knife. She chops up one in a food processor, blows up one in a microwave, and in between, stabs one to death - all splattery deaths that would provide spectacle to a slasher flick, and all with creepy sideways and close-up camera angles.

If you read this scene in context of the movie references made throughout (a scene from IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE on the TV, an E.T. doll prominently featured, so on and so forth), this reversal of slasher roles is a way of standing up to the town's corruption. After all, Lynn is uncomfortably quaint and supportive of her screw-up husband (that's a harsh way of putting it, but come on - does he ever get it right?), falling into the role of wife-as-supporter. By taking a more active role, and by becoming the slasher herself, she's the one element in a sleepy town that wakes up. It's odd that the mother stands up for herself and succeeds, and it's that odd variety of thinking and acting for oneself that the town needs to get out from under Mrs. Deagle's grasp.

What does it all really mean?
Golem: The old mogwai-caretaker says, "You do with mogwai what your society has done with all of nature's gifts." He calls to mind tales about Pandora's box and Prometheus. Gizmo brings joy to Billy's life, but like Pandora's box, it comes with grave consequences, and like Prometheus' flame, it must be stolen.

Gizmo himself is emblematic of nature's gifts, and you can trace the movie's meaning through him. Taking absolutely ginger care of him is of the utmost importance, and the mistakes that lead to the gremlin invasion are understandable. Pete gets water on Gizmo in an innocent attempt to pet him. And Billy feeds the new mogwai after midnight, but only in an effort to care for them; his mistake is trusting them while they've sabotaged his clock.

Randall and Mrs. Deagle provide thematic backup to Gizmo, with Randall playing a mistakenly destructive entrepreneur (trying to be productive with nature's gifts, only failing) and Mrs. Deagle taking an approach as vindictive as possible (hoarding those gifts for herself). These are two potential abuses of Gizmo.

The whole idea is that capitalism, when it values itself over humanity, takes the resources we're given and perverts them - and we end up killing ourselves. The evil gremlins kill Mrs. Deagle.

My favorite visual comes when Billy dashes outside of the Y after a gremlin has just jumped in its pool. From outside, you see flashing green and red lights, foreshadowing the Christmas chaos to ensue. This gets at the core of GREMLINS' meaning, where a friendly idea (fun Christmas colors) becomes menacing. This is also how Kate's dad gets to his death.

Yourself: It's easy to walk away with the moral about exploiting nature, taking the movie as simple allegory, but that's fairly boring and sorta missing the point. I'm not calling the script a liar; "Don't Kill the Whale" is Billy's lesson, not ours. He lives in a world where mogwai are literally a real thing. Stopping our interpretation there suggests the creatures are an arbitrarily conceived plot device; the truth is they're the realization of the cultural homage in which the film is steeped.

Billy's room, the home of the mogwai in his world, is stacked with cinema memorabilia. It's an attic, a brain, a studio, a bastion of creativity. Gizmo lives there contentedly, watching old movies and singing his lilting song. Gizmo is film at its birth - he is original, innocent, a simple realization of natural beauty. A kid begging for a mogwai of his own carelessly splashes Gizmo with water, spawning a batch of mischievous clones not entirely as pure as their predecessor. The new generation of audience (the kids, as it were) are more concerned with having their own film than with creating it, and they receive accordingly soulless results.

The newborn mogwai are restless and selfish; they want to breed, they want to eat, they want to break the rules. The rules, restraint, and respect were what preserved Gizmo's originality; transgression creates countless monstrous look-alikes. When Billy investigates the lab where the first gremlin is born, he finds the projector stuck spinning a finished reel. Now that the hideous imitators have arrived, film is over; the blank white image on the screen signifies the void of originality that's taken its place. These gremlins are the film industry, insatiable, determined to expand for their own sake, obsessed with the basest of senses. Descending on the sleeping village, they wreak havoc through subterfuge and sabotage. The townsfolk are assaulted by the machinations of their daily lives - their cars, their TVs, their automatic-goer-up-the-steppers. It's a catastrophic implosion: the culture that created and fostered the evil critters - vacuous entertainment - is reaping the horror it has sown.

The bar scene demonstrates the gremlins' ascendancy. They've taken on a crude humanity, a mockery of the people they've supplanted. Corrupt movies - cynical, bitter, exploitative entertainment - have corrupted the people, usurping their identities and reducing them to wrinkly little stereotypes. This new population invades the movie theater to celebrate its victory over media, but they haven't quite demolished the old regime. SNOW WHITE, whose very title proclaims original innocence (and, notably, Disney's very first animated feature), mesmerizes the devolved audience. The movie refuses to stoop to cynicism - despite their hideous appearance, these twisted beings can still experience childlike wonder.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're redeemed. The gremlins are still monsters, tearing through the screen when awoken from their reverie. And the only thing a hero can do with a theater full of monsters is blow it all to hell. Demolish the cinema, demolish the film establishment, demolish the false culture - and the town is freed. That he does, but the weasel that kicked off this game - the one so gluttonous not to be entranced by SNOW WHITE - manages to survive. Gizmo, inspired by an old movie quote, flies to the rescue, teaming up with Billy to snuff corruption in it's final refuge: that emblem of shallow consumerism, the department store. Cinema is saved by recognition of the classics and a return to natural beauty.

Note to future self on watching GREMLINS:
Yourself: Yes, okay, I wrote an essay about GREMLINS. But this is my ~5th time seeing it, so I feel some sense of obligation to give it its due. In the process I developed a new appreciation for its intelligence! Next time I guess I better tie that all back to Christmas and loss of innocence.

Golem: Catch all the movie references.

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of Eddie Murphy's *first* intergalactic adventure, COMING TO AMERICA!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

at 1:00 PM
If our GHOSTBUSTERS piece was too erotic for you, this oughta cool things down. DOUBLE INDEMNITY is too dense a movie for me to have extremely thoughtful thoughts on a first pass - on the other hand, Golem's seen it like eight times, so he better have some super awesome stuff to say.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain

DOUBLE INDEMNITY in one sentence:
Golem: A guy breaks his leg, falls off a train, and dies... or does he?

Yourself: Forget it Moltar - it's Chinatown.

Here's a story about me and DOUBLE INDEMNITY:
Yourself: I've never known the difference between German expressionism and film noir.

Golem: My understanding is that the main difference between German expressionism and film noir is historical. Although I'm pretty sure German expressionism tends to take its methods farther and get crazier, that's based off of very little data.

I had to write a paper about this in college, but all I really wanted to talk about was DETOUR.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: I like the names! Neff (arious), Keyes (key[e]s), Phyllis (fill - as in, with purpose, or emotion, or skittles) - you know who everyone is right there. I'm a sucker for good wordplay - it puts me in the metaphor mindset. Here's a fun fact: the book has Walter's last name as "Huff". Also interesting, but I like Neff better. For one thing it feels less made-up.

I found myself so engaged by the story that I barely had the mental capacity to spare for anything else. There's a lot of complex motivation. Why does Phyllis want money? Why is Lola attracted to Neff? What the hell is Nino Zachetti's deal? Why does Walter reject the job as an investigator? What the fuck is Keyes' "little man"? The question that looms over the entire movie is why is Walter confessing? We never get a simple answer. To be clear, this is a compliment, not a complaint. The movie is a lot to chew on, but the flavor goes on and on.

Golem: This part is always difficult to write, but DOUBLE INDEMNITY poses a particular challenge. The plot itself can be hard to watch because you know how it ends from the beginning, but that is the point, after all. The film takes its time really digging that in. I always feel relief watching Walter walk out on Phyllis after calling her out for her insurance scam, only to remember that he's currently bleeding out in his office chair.

If we can go beyond plot, there are also weird little bits of Walter's personality--he loves name-dropping Keyes, his self-defeating way of waffling between justice and gain--which are frustrating to watch in action, but are crucial to the film's identity.

The key to any good noir flick is generating frustration in just the right way. I often teeter between boredom and edge-of-my-seat tension depending on how our lead comes to his (...never "her," to be frank) tragic flaw(s).

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The main textbook example of film noir, which is the main textbook example of a filmic aesthetic. I'm not trying to be pretentious, I just feel a little presumptuous trying to decontextualize a movement that is the subject of literally 65% of post-graduate film theory dissertations. It is ingrained in my head more as a film fan than as a film noir fan (which I am not). In fact most of the noir tenets can be learned just by watching any film made since the '40s, not least of all neo-noir (I like CAPE FEAR).

Plenty of the stuff I picked up on isn't necessarily stuff I picked up on so much as it caught my eye specifically because I've heard it discussed. For instance, visual motifs such as shadows, matches, cigarettes/cigars, doors/locks/key[e]s, smoke, hats, feet, windows, palmer, childs, norris, blair, and macready. And it's all shot in the accentuated light/dark dynamic that looks so nice in black and white. Compare the brightly lit insurance office of Keyes' investigation with the dark scenes Walter and Phyl share after committing their crime. Also, if you're trying to remain inconspicuous, I don't think it's a good idea to wear sunglasses inside the grocery store.

Speaking of the grocery store, were grocery stores in 1944 actually just shelves and shelves of canned food? Seems believable, it being the war and all. Regardless, it's a good metaphor for repression.

Golem: DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the gold standard for noir, due in no small part to its visuals. Black and white, lots of venetian blind shadows, see the paragraph above. But it's also about off-kilter shot composition: just enough to be conspicuous without being comical.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY creates tons of striking images, making it plenty of fun and easy to watch. Phyllis' house at the beginning of the film is blisteringly white, putting on the appearance of perfection and innocence. "Murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle," Neff remarks. And the film's climax takes place inside the house late at night, with its action almost obscured by darkness. Phyllis' face moments before she's shot is particularly creepy because she's the only bright spot in the frame, surrounded by inky black. Also because Barbara Stanwyck is great.

But DOUBLE INDEMNITY creates those striking images with way more than color. Take, for instance, the elevation motif. It introduces Phyllis at the top of a staircase above Walter, and it has Walter walk the hallways above a sea of off-screen salesman most of the film.

Performances to speak of?
Golem: Edward G. Robinson plays a great Keyes here. His strong personality is driven by deep, statistically-proven convictions. For example, you should see him go on a tear about suicide statistics. Everyone in the audience laughed when he took that drink of water [editor: re-watching it I laughed again]. Anyway, he puts his heart and soul into catching frauds, and his earnestness comes out in Robinson's exuberant performance. I just wish I knew why he considered Walter such a good friend. I get the idea that Keyes is drawn towards more competent--no, respectable insurance salesmen, but that's something I hear rather than see.

In fact, Keyes himself marks a nice contrast to Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff, who is often cool, collected, and distanced. As Walter says, "I don't rate this beef. I clipped a note to that Gorlopis application to have him thoroughly investigated before we accepted the risk." He thinks he's in control, he looks like he's in control, but the whole situation is beyond him. I just don't find that engaging, so I don't take much interest in the performance. If I had to guess, that would be why I've never enjoyed DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Yourself: I'm not sure "why does Keyes like Walter?" is the right question to ask. While I agree that Robinson is a delight, part of that is his lack of conflict. As you say, it's cathartic to watch a man who wears his "little man" on his sleeve. But Keyes is a one-dimensional element that informs the rest of the players - his close friendship with Walter didn't make me question him, rather it made me conclude Walter must be a stand-up guy. Keyes is trusting - he never suspects Walter til he hears the confession. His passion evaporates in the face of betrayal, his voice becoming a somber monotone. Walter expects a long speech, intimating the complex motivation for his sin. But for Keyes it's simple black-and-white: "You're all washed up".

I think you also underrate Walter Neff by honing in on the expressiveness of the performance. He's not just cool, he's distinctly emotionless. The Walter we see from scene-to-scene is merely the conductor of the psychosis projected through his recollections. This is expressionism, after all, and the majority of the film is a recreation of Walter's confession. This Keyes, and this Phyllis, and this Lola, are his fictions. I wouldn't go so far as to invoke the doctrine of the unreliable narrator, but the exaggerated performances hint at Neff's idolization of Keyes, his infatuation with Phyllis, and so forth.

A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: The use of dramatic irony throughout DOUBLE INDEMNITY is one of those things that makes me say oh yeah, this is an actual film. It involves technique. Not that every farce on the planet is high art, but there is something to be said for comedy that aspires beyond punchlines. DOUBLE INDEMNITY gets double use out of it by driving tension with would-be humorous scenarios.

Case in point: Keyes interview with Mr. Jackson, the only man on the train to have spoken with the soon-to-be-deceased "Mr. Dietrichson" (i.e. Walter-in-disguise). When Keyes reveals he's about to bring in Mr. Jackson, Walter's face freezes. He follows the action with his eyes but stands out of the line of sight, afraid to reveal himself or even to speak until he's had time to formulate a plan. Walter grimly glares at his potential accuser, ready to jump on the offensive. Their initial handshake relieves the mounting tension - Mr. Jackson doesn't seem to recognize the impostor - but his brief double-take keeps the dance alive. When the two are left alone and Jackson's had a moment to think, he starts twisting his head for a clear look at Walter, reigniting the tension. Walter's weaving in attempt to stay out of sight is a cartoony image, funnier because we actually hope the dumb trick works. Of course it can't, and Mr. Jackson gets his clear look... whereupon he mistakes Walter for a fellow trout fisherman. So we get a chance to laugh at ourselves and Walter for getting worked up about nothing.

Golem: "It's straight down the line for both of us," Walter Neff says. The film fixates on rails, a one-way movement that consumes. This idea is referenced as soon as the opening credits. The shadow of a man on crutches walks closer and closer towards the screen, slowly but without changing course, eventually swallowing the whole thing in its darkness.

The opening sequence reflects on Walter as he walks through train cars to his fake death. You might superimpose one over the other in your mind. In one, he's alone, and not even present onscreen; he's just a shadow. In the other, he quietly shuffles past train passengers, keeping his head down and hoping no one notices him. He's not just isolated from the world, he's isolated from himself, having taken on the identity of Mr. Dietrichson.

Walter's journey through the train cars ends in his fake death routine. He imagines this as his escape from The Fate Train; as he says, "It's you that's going, baby. Not me. I'm getting off the trolley car right at this corner." In reality, he's throwing himself right onto the tracks to his own death. Walter plans his own death, which comes to fruition when he gives himself up at the end (beginning??).

What does it all really mean?
Golem: Crime doesn't pay. Keyes says:
They've committed a murder and that's not like taking a trolley ride together where each one can get off at a different stop. They're stuck with each other. They've got to ride all the way to the end of the line. And it's a one-way trip, and the last stop is the cemetery.
Murder stains its perpetrators with guilt that won't wash off. Walter maintains his personally, while Lola hangs on to Phyllis' where she would just as easily have forgotten it. And when Walter and Phyllis kill Mr. Dietrichson together, that guilt binds them together: "I'm afraid of us," Phyllis says to Walter. They're stuck facing each other. Predictably, it eats up Walter inside, but when Phyllis--femme fatale extraordinaire--crumbles at the end, it's a killer moment.

But DOUBLE INDEMNITY has plenty of doubles, and having to face your guilty self can be just as difficult as facing the guilt in someone else, as you can see in Walter.

Yourself: I'm not sure the movie ever invokes criminal justice. Keyes statement applies broadly to the idea of sin. But maybe I'm being a semantics sally. After all, the insurance company provides surrogate law and order. And Phyllis' murder streak only caught up with her when she went for the double indemnity payout.

My general sensation was of stuff more like "repressed emotions really fuck you up". The canned food got me thinking about it. If you look at the murder through the psychoanalytical expressionist's lens, maybe Mr. Dietrichson represents Walter's social responsibility (he makes money, he's always at work, his idea of vacation is a college reunion) and Phyllis is his primal urge (forwardly sexual and violent, no concern for law/marriage/policies). So you have a classic conflict between id and superego being negotiated by the ego, Walter. Keyes, whom I originally read as the superego, actually could work as an external conscience, basically just a semi-omniscient observer (if I was feeling brash I'd say God). He rants about suicide because he doesn't buy that the social identity could just up and kill itself. The speech about two murderers being stuck on the trolley til the end of the tracks initially sounds like it applies to Phyllis and Walter, but it could also be taken to mean Phyllis and her husband, as Walter assumes his identity to commit the crime. Thus instead of a (honestly fairly goofy) truism about murder it becomes a statement about the inseparability of the person: you can't just dump the superego - the social role - at the next stop. Without the superego present, the house becomes a heart of darkness and Walter is consumed/killed by the id.

I honestly just thought of that right now, I need another viewing to determine if it makes any sense.

Note to future self on watching DOUBLE INDEMNITY:
Golem: I know that this is a stretch, but it always bugged me that A) Walter imitates another man and B) the film's name could be mistakenly read as "Double Identity."

Yourself: Re-evaluate that theory up there. Whenever you get around to it, consider Lola, insurance, and Keyes' "lil' man".

[****NEW!!!! PROMOS SECTION!****]

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of the neo-noir landmark, GREMLINS!