Saturday, June 25, 2011

Death Hunt (1981, Peter Hunt)

Part of the 1981 Project

Is there a more appropriate visual metaphor to open a film starring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin in 1981 than with a vicious bloody match between two mangy dogs, specifically a pit bull and a white German Shepard? At the age of 59 (Bronson) and 57 (Marvin), and never really handsome in the generic “matinee idol” mold to begin with, had seen their weathered and wrinkled faces proudly suggested the hard living off-screen one would like to associate with their on screen personas. Death Hunt (1981, Peter Hunt) gives the duo a forum to prove they still had leading men chops. It’s a decent yarn that moves (what one once may have referred to as a “programmer”, though I don’t think of that generally in negative terms), but I couldn’t help but see potential for exploring more resonant themes or that an even more potent film could have resulted out of the existing materials.

It’s 1931 in the Yukon but you wouldn’t be entirely remised to think it’s actually 1831, seeing how the snowy village is still completely unpaved, and transport is purely via horse drawn buggy. Trapper Albert Johnson (Bronson) is returning home to his log cabin in the middle of the desolate woods when he comes upon Hazel (character actor favorite Ed Lauter) fighting his dog against another asshole’s dog in a death match. Seeing the pathetic state of the dog, Johnson kicks some ass, and buys the dog off of Lauter for $200. Considering he was about to shoot it himself, that’s a pretty good deal I’d say, but Lauter is an asshole (natch, the motherfucker’s engaging his dogs in fights), and since he’s publicly humiliated in front of his cronies (amongst them William Sanderson and Len Lesser (Uncle Leo!), he takes it up with the local Mounties, claiming that his dog, who let me reiterate he was about to cold-bloodily kill, is worth at least a thousand dollars. Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin) is the grizzled veteran Mountie, and has no interest in petty claims, so despite the suggestion of rookie Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens) that they investigate matters, he’s of the “shit will work itself out” mentality. Well, shit just goes from bad to worse, as Lauter and his cronies ambush Johnson at his cabin, and kill the now healing dog, but Johnson, as one would expect from a Bronson character, is a heavily armed militia type and takes out one of the crew.

So of course now Marvin has to get involved. Trying to be the mediator he attempts to convince Johnson to come with him and let legal avenues sort out the mess before anyone gets hurt, he even personally insures that Johnson will be back in his cabin writing his anti-ham radio technology manifestos in three days. As he’s about to decide, one of Lauter’s gang take a shot at the open man, and Johnson ain’t going for that, so a full on Waco type stand-off ensues. The manhunt compounds after Johnson survives the dynamiting of his cabin and extends to the wilderness as Johnson heads to the Alaskan border where I am sure his down home whimsical habits like curing his own homemade jerky would make him a local hero, and the number of pursuers multiple as a bounty has been offered for his head, meaning anyone with a firearm (and remember this is the Yukon in 1931, so everybody’s packing) wants the reward money.

Director Peter Hunt got his start in editing, including many of the early James Bond films, before making his directorial debut helming the sole George Lazenby starring Bond sequel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which may have an at times ineffective actor in the lead, but is a very solid Bond entry). Editing is definitely his strong suit, as Death Hunt hums along at a great pace. The snowy on location shooting lends itself an appropriate desolate environmental atmosphere that is foreboding and aides in the suspense. However, one major flaw in Hunt’s visual scheme is his reliance on shooting action scenes primarily in medium shots. Since it’s a chase film with a heavy emphasis on stand-offs, this ruins their effectiveness as the hunter and huntee are never really composed in the same shot. While it may be more practical from a filmmaking stand point (actors don’t all have to be there at the same time), it makes the action, the driving force of the film, ultimately mundane. Towards the back end of the film, there’s a moment where an airplane chases after Bronson flies low and we see both man and machine in the same frame, and it’s a revelation after the more muted style employed previously.

An overriding theme in the screenplay by Michael Grais and Mark Victor is older men addressing and resisting impending changes. Bronson and Marvin’s character are firmly entrenched in their ways (Bronson—isolated living; Marvin—the policy of letting matters work each other) that leads to explosive conflicts when presented with fluctuating times and attitudes. As previously mentioned, for a film set in 1931 the town and technology is more representative of Westerns set in the prior century, which makes the sight of a ham radio or airplane glaringly stand out. While I am always one to appreciate scripts that don’t explain everything point blank or lazily rely on expositional dialogue in attempts to create a more developed character, allowing the viewer to figure things out for themselves or (gasp) use their imaginations, I do think the lack of any evidence of the men that Bronson and Marvin here proves a misstep. We get a brief glimpse that Bronson’s father has passed away, and Marvin is still sleeping with the one that got away (Angie Dickinson in a nothing role), and through their brief interactions we gather they at least know each other, but anything more tagential is never inferred. Since Marvin is eventually faced with a major decision that seems to hinge on an emotional connection (as well as the old school shared characteristic), this lack of a connective strand weakens the impact (though in fairness this decision is alluded to subtly with the fate of the two dogs at the film's opening). While most films will come up lacking when compared to the work of Sam Peckinpah, I think Death Hunt would've be served to explore the dichotomy-of-men themes he mined frequently between his two protagonists that often found themselves on the opposite side of a cause. One other minor complaint, we all like to see Bronson kicking ass and blowing deserved punks away, but I wish by this point that perspective could be skewed a bit to question his morality, however, in the scene that kicks off the conflict, he’s essentially let off from any moral quandaries as one of Lauter’s crew kicks things off by taking a free shot at him.

In one way, this was a landmark film for Bronson, it would be his last film of the decade not to be released through Cannon studios, instead co-produced by James Bond series producer Albert S. Ruddy (probably explaining Peter Hunt's association) and Chinese studio Golden Harvest and distributed by 20th Century Fox (similar to The Cannonball Run). My comment about a lack of connective tissue between the characters portrayed by Bronson and Marvin is ironic considering how many connections from the past and future cinematic collaborations exist through the primary cast and crew of Death Hunt. Obviously Bronson and Marvin famously comprise 1/6th of the Dirty Dozen and this marked the third Dickinson-Marvin connection after Point Blank and The Killers. Additionally, Bronson and director Hunt would reunite for the 1987 silly but not entirely unentertaining Cannon feature, Assassination, and Bronson would also share the screen in the future with two co-stars here, Ed Lauter in Death Wish III (where they eventually would be blowing up punks together) and future soft-core superstar Andrew Stevens, who he would face of again in the sleazy (and awesome!) 10 to Midnight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Posterized: Now Playing June 1981

Happy Summer Solstice everyone. Let's step into our time machine once again and travel back to 1981 and see what movies were playing theatrically in cinemas throughout America thirty years ago this summer. Included amongst this blockbuster summer releases our such stalwarts like Burt Reynolds, James Bond, the Muppets, Bill Murray and Superman, and one soon to be summer icon, of course I am referring to Demonoid, Messenger of Death. I can't tell you how many times I dragged my parents to that film, and then made them buy me the lunch boxes, collector glasses, action figures and footie pajamas. I know after all the prequels we've all been so inundated with Demonoid, Messenger of Death nostalgia that fatigue has started to set in, but let's remember before he was a product, and touched our hearts and ignited our imaginations for the first time.

Also, that film with Indiana Jones came out this month.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meanwhile in Blogs that Actually Post Content...

The June Gloom that has infested Los Angeles has bled into my posting frequency here on the blog, so I thought I'd point you good people who have been kind of enough to visit here to check some other worthy sites out.

Here are a few links to articles or feature that I've recently found to be of particular interest:

TMT: A Theatre....A Movie...and a Time at It Rains, You Get Wet

Inspired by little ol' me's rant about the potential future of the Chinese Theatre (quick note, things seem okay for now, they even opened X-Men: First Class last weekend), blogging pal Leopard13 has started a new series on his frequently updated, and always engaging, blog where he traipses down Memory Lane, recalling a vital film in his cinematic history, where he saw it and the circumstances at the time of his viewing.

My favorite so far is his very personal and touching (especially for anyone whose lost a parent) post concerning watching Superman at the Chinese Theatre.

Other entries include:

Alien at the Avco

Empire Strikes Back at the Egyptian (at 5:30 AM!)
The Godfather at the Rosencrans Drive-In

Summer of 2001: 10th Anniversary at The Life and Art of Vern

The still anonymous save for first name, Vern, is one of my favorite writers on cinema period, and I love when a project lights a fire under his ass and he goes at it full throttle. This sort of dedication to a singular cause has resulted in his wonderful tome Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking films of Steven Seagal.

This year, he's stepping in a time machine and looking at the summer blockbusters of ten years ago, 2001 (aka the summer before September 11th), thus far he's going out it with his usual witty and insightful aplomb, so far discussing Crocodile Dundee in LA, Driven, The Mummy Returns, and Pearl Harbor (egads, what a crappy summer so far!)

Soundtrack Jukebox vol 1 and 2 at Obscure One-Sheet

Ned Merrill took time out of his busy Lucinda River swimming and suburban ennui schedule to post two volumes (and 68 tracks) of some favorite, forgotten, and obscure tracks from films that call to mind past summers. I've downloaded both volumes, and have been listening to them randomly, fueling nostalgia and a desire to watch (or rewatch) all the films he's culled this tracks from ASAP!

Here's Volume 1 whose highlights include "Number One" by Chazz Jankel aka that song featured in the montage from Real Genius, "Goodbye Horses" by Q. Lazarus, the perfect dance song for one noted serial killer Buffalo Bill, and Talk Talk's "Why is it So Hard" from the personal favorite of mine at the time, but MIA on DVD teenage drama, First Born.

And here's Volume 2 featuring the Roxy Music song "Same Old Scene" that kicked off Times Square, The Crusader's "Street Life" from Sharky's Machine, and the Lindsay Buckingham song ("Holiday Road") that introduced us to the Griswald's.

Professor Ed Avery's Cortisone Fueled Bigger Than Life, Super-Gulp Sized Summer Movie Quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Ain't no meme, like a Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule meme, cause a Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule meme don't stop.

Have some time to answer 38 cinema related questions? If so head here and answer such probing questions like Lars Von Trier: shithead or misunderstood comic savant? (A little from column A, a little from column B); Favorite Non Spartacus Kirk Douglas role? (Paths of Glory! Ace in the Hole! Lonely are the Brave! That's too hard); and What's the worst remake of the 21st Century? (only one!)

As for me, I would participate but I got some pills to pop.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Trailer of the Moment: Psycho Series Addendum

After finishing up my retrospective on the Death Wish series, I followed the last review with a post embedding the trailer for each film. So I thought I would do the same for the Psycho series, with a few extra Easter eggs.

Since I already did a post on the famous Alfred Hitchcock hosted original trailer a few years ago (link) I will instead focus this on the sequels and remake.

Psycho II Teaser Trailer

"It's 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home"

Much like the film itself, the trailer for the first Psycho sequel opens with the shower scene from the original film before the Bates Motel segues from black and white to color, and the poster art of Psycho II is recreated with Anthony Perkins walking up the stairs to his childhood home.

And who is that narrating? Why none other than our good pal Percy Rodrigues!

Psycho II Full Length Theatrical Trailer

"...and he's back in business"

This is the longer, more typical "compilation of greatest hits scenes" trailer for Richard Franklin's 1983 film.

Anthony Perkins interview circa 1983

Here's part one of a five part interview (follow the link for the other parts) with Anthony Perkins while he was promoting Psycho II. In this section he reveals he was in New York on a stage during the shooting of the original film's shower scene.

Psycho III Theatrical Trailer

"But mother's off her rocker again"

This trailer for the Anthony Perkins directed second sequel is pretty much half teaser (with extra footage shot for it) and half typical trailer with scenes from the film. The narrator here is a famous voice (whose name I am not aware) but has none of the gravitas of Mr. Rodrigues!

"Scream of Love" Music Video with introduction from Anthony Perkins

Here we have a music video for Carter Burwell's sax heavy pop song featuring the theme from Psycho III. Shot on the same locations as Psycho III and featuring a Diane Scarwid look-a-like and Perkins himself, as well as footage from the original and 1986 sequel, pay attention to the thin narrative which concludes with an Inception like dream within a dream finale.

Introduced from the MTV studio (back when MTV, you know, showed music video) by Anthony Perkins sporting a gold lame tie, fashionably tucked into his shirt. Rock on, Tony!

Psycho IV: The Beginning Trailer

"How did it all start?"

Since Psycho IV premiered on Showtime, it never had a theatrical trailer, but here's the preview that was placed on VHS tapes by Universal.

Psycho 1998 trailer

"Discover the world of Norman Bates"

And we conclude with the trailer for Gus Van Sant's infamous remake which is full of little lame music video type effects like the film burning and bubbling. Was anyone reminded of the drug PSA featuring the cracked egg after the first two tags "This is the Face of Norman Bates" and "This is the Mind of Norman Bates"? Personally, I was waiting for the final tag to be: "any questions?"

Well that's all for the Psycho series, I have plans for my next two series retrospective, one a low budget exploitation series (of which I've never seen any of the three films) and the other a highly successful but much maligned comedy series. Considering it took about a year for me to complete this, please don't hold your breath.

If you want to read my specific review for any of the film in the Psycho series, below are easy links to those:

Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) (an appreciation)
Psycho II (1983, Richard Franklin)
Psycho III (1986, Anthony Perkins)
Bates Motel (1987, Richard Rothstein)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990, Mick Garris)
Psycho (remake) (1998, Gus Van Sant)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"We all go a little mad sometimes"

Forewarning if you haven’t scrolled down yet: this sucker is pretty long.

The infamous Psycho remake (1998, Gus Van Sant) sat on my DV-R for about six months, and each time she would scroll past it, my wife seeing only the title and assuming it was the original would ask why a film I owned on DVD and Blu-Ray is taking up room in our DV-R while I constantly beg her to go through and delete the deluge of Masterpiece Theatre episodes accumulated (I can be a fascist with our recorder). After publishing my review of Psycho IV here back on February 1st, I only had the remake to watch and review before completing my look back at the series. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to actually watch it, until finally this week, like one pulling off a bandage in a single swift motion, I decided: it’s time. Here’s the thing, I think for people interested in film studies and theory there is a value in revisiting films that you had a highly charged negative reaction to, especially if the film in question is made by a person of some artistic integrity and/or you came into the film with some preconceived notions or opinions. This is something I was definitely guilty of in regards to this film.

Van Sant’s Psycho lead to my first attempt at starting a website, because what the internet needed in the winter of 1998 was another hot and bothered twenty year old’s bitching diatribe about that film. Ultimately, a combination of bad dial-up connection and boredom slash laziness with Geocities programming led to that becoming a non-starter. As stated in my first post in the series, starting at the age of ten, I have claimed Alfred Hitchcock’s original Psycho to be my favorite film of all-time. Something that probably is not actually true anymore, though I still very much admire and get a cinematic charge from it, while also not blind to its faults. Either way, it still and forever remains a very important film in my cinematic education for reasons I will just gloss over (you can read that appreciation for further details): first black and white film I connected with (discounting opening of Wizard of Oz and various Three Stooges shorts), first time I was cognizant of the role of the director, and a personal history between my father and I. Twelve and a half years ago, Van Sant’s film seemed like a personal insult, but in 2011, it’s a little easier to swallow; the original’s legacy has not been tarnished by the remake and when you refer to Psycho I doubt anyone has to add the qualifier, “I mean the black and white one”.

In fact so much time has passed I think that some history of Van Sant’s project needs to be addressed. Flashback to winter 1997/98, half the country has Titanic-itis, while the other half caught Good Will Hunting fever (personally, I had contracted the rarer Jackie Brown whooping cough, which for most people was a short lived ailment that they couldn’t help but compare to earlier, more financially successfully diseases, but for people infected with it, is ultimately a more interesting and rewarding experience). So struck by the success of this scrappy Boston indie drama and their “how’d ya like those apples” precociousness, Hollywood offered screenwriters and stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the keys to the city. “Hey Ben and Matt welcome to success, please take the leads of any projects of your choice, and feel free to fuck whichever starlets your heart desire, I hear Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow are willing and able. Wink wink, nudge nudge” Caught in this contagious spell, and completely ignoring the disastrous result of Van Sant’s first attempt at a studio film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues from only three years prior, Universal offered the director his pick to make or remake any film in its vault. Want to make a new version of Duck Soup with Chris Kattan, Jim Bruer, David Spade and Rob Schneider? Go for it! An inter-species romance between E.T. and the Bride of Frankenstein? We love it! Strolling past the famous Bates house, Van Sant smirked “I’ve got a crazy idea, a shot for shot remake of Psycho, in color!” And history, and infamy, was born.

I am on the fourth paragraph here and have yet to discuss the film itself. So, mild mannered administrator Marion Crane (Anne Heche) is having an affair with unhappily married Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson who went for the Hitchcock 1998 remake gold by also appearing in that summer’s Dial M for Murder “reimagining”, A Perfect Murder) who needs money to get a divorce and allow an open relationship between the lovers. She steals some cash and hides away at a motel operated by a lonely man named Norman (Vince Vaughn)…okay, just kidding, I won’t condescend you with a plot synopsis. I am assuming if you’re reading this, you know the fucking plot of Psycho. So let’s get straight to the filmmaking choices Van Sant makes. First of all for the claims of just taking the original film and making a shot for shot remake? That pretty much goes out the window with the first goddamn shot of the film which is a long zooming shot presumably filmed on a helicopter. To Van Sant’s credit this was actually Hitchcock’s preferred opening shot but he was limited my money or technology. However, to Van Sant’s discredit the lame subliminal insert shots of clouds and other odd cutaways during the two murder scenes reek of either cliché bad film school or music video techniques that are more apropos of a hacky in your face Rob Zombie film (apparently a song by him is actually on the soundtrack, but I guess I missed it) than Hitchcock.

I am not sure if it was an intentional commentary on Van Sant’s part about alleged sinking intelligence of then modern audiences or just a preference for being blunt, but everything in the remake is obnoxiously hit your over the head obvious. For example, in the opening hotel rendezvous between Marion and Sam, the seedy location is made evident in the original through dialogue and subtle visual clues, however, in the remake not only does the dialogue remain (it’s the same exact script after all), but the color and the gaudy décor in the place are turned up to satirical levels, and on top of everything else, the sound design is full of moaning sexual encounters leaking through the walls. More notoriously Van Sant unnecessarily added the sound of Norman masturbating during the shower sequence which is an insulting miscalculation. Van Sant is assuming something like 75% of the audience will have already seen the original or be aware of the film’s final twist, and he’s operating as such, however, it completely changes the character of Norman Bates who in the original has been so repressed sexually that his “mother” would never allow such an openly gratuitous act.

Thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle (most famously known for his collaborations with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai in the 90’s) the remake at least looks great, with an emphasis on bright color. I prefer the more muted template that Richard Franklin established when Psycho II first introduced us to a color universe for the Bates motel, but the change from the stark black and white John Russell shot original to the gaudy almost Technicolor palette of Van Sant’s film is one of the more successful differences here. There’s definitely a kitsch vibe to the color, production design and costuming that makes everything (purposefully) exist in more of a movie universe than real world—the stolen money is off color and resembles the type of funny money you buy at a magic shop more than actual cash—I do wonder why they bothered to set this film firmly in 1998 instead of having it be some weird Wes Anderson-ish amalgamation where people listen to iPods but still use typewriters. The kitsch factor leads one to not really take the whole enterprise all that seriously, which was probably intentional. Since Van Sant is a gay man, one will notice some queer subtext, for example at one point Viggo Mortenson noticeably cradles a Judy Garland album, but as someone who has watched Hitchcock’s Psycho at the Castro theatre in San Francisco, I can attest there’s already gay subtext up the wazoo in the original and the gay community is fully aware of it.

The cast is comprised of stalwarts from the independent film world circa the mid-1990s including Julianne Moore, Phillip Baker Hall, James LeGross, William H. Macy and Robert Forrester, how the hell Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Eric Stoltz didn’t end up in this is a mystery that still confounds. Out of every cast member, only one actually improves on his 1960 counterpart, Viggo Mortenson. His Sam Loomis is more sexy and smoldering (and I am a straight guy) and sports a devil may care attitude and Southern drawl, a vastly superior take on the role than John Gavin’s everyman good guy. Anne Heche, who was at the height of her fame during shooting as the world’s second most famous lesbian (FYI, for those of who aren’t aware, Heather Graham’s conniving sleep-her-way-to-the-top character in Bowfinger is a veiled version of Ms. Heche), is downright awful here. The original Joseph Stefano script and dialogue is reused here, and most of the actors struggle with bringing the lines to life. What may sound natural in the 60’s doesn't naturally read thirty-eight years later, and Heche struggles most of all in this department. But just as damaging is her smaller, skinnier frame, quirky clothing and haircut that make her come across as a pixyish co-ed, not anything like the fully formed woman that Janet Leigh brought to the role.

In 2011 it’s hard to remember, but post Swingers, a svelte Vince Vaughn actually was trying his hands at some serious roles, not just playing the same smooth talking man-child with a frat boy sensibility in numerous comedies. He worked with Steven Spielberg, and played darker characters like the serial killer in Clay Pigeons. So while it’s hard to imagine today anyone remaking Psycho casting him as Norman Bates, it was where his career was headed at the time. Vaughn looks taller and is more masculine and menacing than Anthony Perkins, but instead of attributing the physical change to a different take, he pretty much replicates Perkins’ line delivery, ticks and gesticulations. As they say, you can’t improve on the Mona Lisa, and there’s no way that anyone can embody the character of Norman Bates like Perkins did. If you’re going to try, then bring something new to the table, besides a very calculating and unnatural nervous laugh at least. The parlor scene between Norman and Marion is for me the highlight of the original film. It’s the only scene featuring any extended interaction between Leigh and Perkins, and reveals so much about each character's past and possible futures, all while ominously framed between the watchful dead eyes of the stuff birds, victims of Norman’s taxidermy hobby. Here the scene is a resounding dud, it feels like a high school play production, and Heche and Vaughn seemingly admit to not being up to the challenge and speed through this scene (it’d be interesting to time each of these respected scenes to see if there’s truth to the rushed nature or not).

Twelve and a half years and 1,900 plus words later, I still find myself asking the same question I asked when I saw the film at the now defunct Tanforan Discount Theatre in January 1999 where it was on a double bill with I Still Know What You Did Last Summer as part of their unintentional “boy, mainstream American horror sucked in the late 90’s” programming, and that question is why? Why did Van Sant decide he was going to cash in all his chips on remaking a beloved film (pretty much) shot for shot? Was his intention to show that yesterday’s radical cinema is today’s kitsch? I know I spent much of this review comparing Van Sant and Hitchcock interpretations of the same material, but how could you not? Ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that this was all just an experiment on Van Sant’s part, maybe not even knowing what the end result would be himself. Sure, the film is pretty much a failure on most levels save for the contributions of Mortenson and Doyle, but as the film concludes with a sincere thank you to Alfred Hitchcock, I thought to myself, you know what, Hitch himself would probably dig the balls Van Sant displayed helming this project. Remember the legendary director was prone to make certain films solely for technical peculiarities himself such as shooting in 3-D (Dial M for Murder) or continuous invisibly edited shots (Rope) and even remade one of his own films (The Man Who Knew Too Much). After all the dust has settled and time has passed, I guess I can respect it on that level, even if I still don’t actually enjoy it. At least it saved us from a Platinum Dunes’ version.
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