Saturday, December 2, 2006

Cinema of the Absurd: The Black Dahlia

THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006, dir. Brian De Palma)

It’s been over a week now since I saw Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia and, as others have mentioned, it’s a very confounding picture. It’s not the type of movie you just sit down and whip up a few hundred or so words about off the cuff. It’s an incredibly strange creature of a film, if you can even call it a film. I mean, it has all the traits of a film – actors, sets, costumes, dialogue, etc – but I can’t possibly think of any movie it even slightly resembles. There are similarities between it and many others, but The Black Dahlia is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. It’s not a movie you should sit down to watch if you want coherence, acting or a clear resolution. No. It’s the sort of film you sit down to watch and just let it wash over you. Just dive head first into the wacky tobacky bong water that De Palma was clearly drinking on the set.

The Black Dahlia is a movie at seemingly complete odds with itself. Consider. On one hand it is so professionally tailored, yet nobody and nothing quite fits. The lead roles are all filled by hapless wolf in sheeps clothing actors yet the fringes are filled with electric, vibrant performances. De Palma has crafted many astonishing memorable sequences yet they seem more like jigsaw pieces just kind of floating around being placed anywhere at whim without any thought as to if they fit or not. The movie plays itself as the mystery surrounded the Black Dahlia herself yet at some times it feels as if De Palma (and screenwriter Josh Friedman, it must be noted) loses interest and just films whatever he wants cause the cast showed up to the set. On one hand the central mystery is such a mindbogglingly confusing maze, yet when it comes down to the murderer’s reveal it’s as if they just played eeny-meeny-miny-mo with the cast.

This movie really has no idea where it’s going until it realises the 2 hour mark is approaching and they have to end. Characters disappear because… well, we don’t know. They get throwaway lines alluding to a drug addictions or a deep dark secrets or such and such yet nothing is made from it. Scenes take place that lead nowhere. De Palma just gets bored half way through a scene and cuts to something else that he thought looked pretty.

This is truly inept filmmaking. But, ya know what, it’s totally fascinating. I dare a hardcore cinephile to sit down and watch this movie and not find something positively riveting. Sure, when all is said and done, the movie is a wreck, but what a wreck. It’s hilarious. Watch as actors like Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart play around in Mummy and Daddy’s clothes (even Eckhart, approaching 40 seems out of place). Swank puts on a curiously shapeshifting accent and wig. Johansson amps the cleavage up to 100 but drowns in all her cashmire and fur. The camp drag queen appearance skyrockets with it. Hartnett drowns in said accents, cleavage and cashmire. And Eckhart? Well… he plays his character as if he’s just been to a 1940s sleuth movie marathon and he decided to impersonate the lead actors to the nth degree.

People will compare it to LA Confidential and that movie was positively in the era. The Black Dahlia is sort of just transported into the area and the cast seem to be doing whatever they can to fit in. It’s sorta hilarious.

But as I’ve said, next to all the bad, there is fascinating bizarre stuff. Fiona Shaw plays a character that is so unhinged that it’s amazing she even exists in his movie, or any movie at all for that matter. If I thought The Black Dahlia was unlike any film I’ve ever seen before, then Shaw’s performance (as Swank’s slightly perculiar mother) is an even deeper form of crazy. She only appears in two scenes, but when she’s there (from the very first shot of her) the film jumps several tracks and becomes the deranged David Lynch noir that is just begging to get out throughout – think of Grace Zabriskie in Twin Peaks and you get a similar idea. Shaw’s performance is the very definition of a Supporting role. She takes the films by the horns and does what the actual leads should be doing. She makes everyone else around her look better simply by being in her presence. It also helps that it’s probably the funniest performance of the year too (funnier than Cohen, Jacobson, etc). It’s essentially what Gina Gershon did in Showgirls, but with less tit flashing.

Mia Kirshner gives good work too as the Black Dahlia herself seen in flashbacks as sad sorry little creature. She reminded me of Laura Palmer (again, from Twin Peaks) in that she new she was heading down a rabbit hole she couldn’t get out of. Rose McGowen shows up briefly to show us why she should be the go-to-gal for big-breasted witty characters. kd lang even shows up to sing an exotic version of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” surrounded by erotic female dancers (a funny touch, I thought.)

And there’s no denying that the film is, essentially, flawless when it comes to things such as art direction, costume design, cinematography and music. And all that just continues to fascinate. When you’re not staring at the beautiful scenery you’re holding back tears of laughter from the stupendous acting and dialogue. When you’re not devouring the many, many, many stunning and memorable individual sequences (I haven’t even discussed them! I could talk for hours…) you’re getting whiplash from wondering how the previous scene lead to the next.

Movies like The Black Dahlia are rare. A movie so hopelessly bad, yet it is because it’s very badness that makes it so fascinating. It would’ve been easy to make a mediocre movie, but everybody is trying to infinity and beyond that I am reminded of that old quote: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

On the Absurdity Scale from 1-5, I rate The Black Dahlia a 4
It's stupendously absurd!
For a proper grade? B+ (or C- if you don’t have a sense of humour)

Monday, July 3, 2006

Cinema of the Absurd: Friday the 13th: Part III (in 3D)

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III (1982, dir. Steve Miner)

Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of murder and mayhem that is present in Friday the 13th Part III., sorry. I tried to type that with a straight face, but I couldn't keep it up. You really wanna know what there's an onslaught of in this film? Laughs. This movie has it all! Eye-poppings, knitting murders, small-town biker gangs, a weird disco soundtrack and it's all in glorious 3D!!!! Now, this was only in 3D on it's theatrical release in 1982 so unfortunately the DVD release just features characters throwing things at the screen, which has it's own wonderful entertainment value.

Plot: Following on directly after the quite dire Friday the 13th Part II, Part III again follows a bunch of teenagers at some random lake who don't know it yet, but are soon all going to be killed with humourous ways by Jason Vorhees - new and improved after dying in Part II and gathering a new mask (the debut of the famous Hockey Mask). Personally, I think the heavy-handed social commentary weighs it down but that's just me. :P. Let's discuss.

Warning: This entry contains images and discussion of violence. Please don't read if you wish to remain innocent and carefree *chuckle* Also, this is very Spoiler-heavy so don't be annoyed when I tell you who dies!

The Set-Up: The film starts with one of the scariest images you'll ever see. The words "Friday the 13th" and "Part III" appearing out of the eye sockets of the rotting head of Mrs Vorhees. That's not the scary part. The scary part is the absolutely mind-boggling DISCO SOUNDTRACK! Gloria Gaynor does Jason! I don't think this moment is bested as the film's most unintentionally hilarious moment. The Friday the 13th theme being turned into a disco inferno is priceless. And in 1982 no less.

After that brilliant title design we get a wonderful opening featuring two old people getting murdered! He gets an meat cleaver to the chest, while she gets the better death, by getting her knitting needle through the brain. Suffering for your art is so tiresome. Let's not even bother to mention who these two actually are. They're just randoms, which makes their deaths even more comical.

We then move on to the real story of the film. YOUNG MOSTLY-NAKED VICTIMS! You can always tell who the lead role is in these films because they always have a HIDDEN PAST. This is easy to spot as they are the one who looks off into the distance/at mysterious shacks/out across the lake/at the only exit/warns everybody to not go skinny dipping at midnight because they'll catch a cold.

This time we get the usual suspects. The girl with the mysterious hidden mystery past, the boyfriend, the best friend, the practical joker who will pretend he's been murdered early in the movie only to be murdered for real later on, etc. Oh, and randomly there's some hippies joining them? I don't even think they knew each other before this supposed road trip.

Hilariously we get a subplot involving a small town rebel motorcycle gang! These guys (well, 2 guys and one badass mofo chick) terrorise convenience stalls and like to hide out in empty barns. WOW. I don't really get why they are even in this movie other than to up the (inevitable) body count.

The Slaughter Begins: This is where some hilarity really happens. We get many many murders in Friday the 13th Part III (more than in the other two) with 12 altogether (including that poor bunny rabbit on the side of the road. We assume that was Jason's doing because he hates everything, even bunnies). The biker gang bite the dust in the barn (for no apparently reason) but there's a twist coming up later that is just too good. They die with the help of some 3D effects and farming tools. Priceless. It's also not explained why there is a barn right next to the lake in the first place, but that's just being pedantic, isn't it?

Other deaths come via spears in the eye (in glorious 3D), machetes to the body (while doing yoga!) - both can be seen above - and a retread of Kevin Bacon's death in the original Friday movie, we get a girl sitting in a hammock getting a sharp object in the neck! YAY! That one's hilarious because the make-up job is so bad. Really bad. There's some throat-slitting (the practical joker dies in such a boring way, it was really depressing)

And I'm not even going to tell you what happens to this chick. Hilarity ensued though. Also, in this movie, Jason dies twice! He first gets thrown of a balcony and hung in a noose. He then later, after somehow surviving, gets an axe to the face. The lead actress (Dana Kimmell btw) has two of the best reaction shots I've ever seen. "No! You can't be alive!" after realising he's alive for the first time and then a look of pure horror as Jason continues to come towards her even with an axe in his face. Way to go Dana! You're definitely my favourite Friday the 13th chick. It is this moment with the axe that includes the return of the bikie gang leader! Apparently he has Jason-style ability to survive impalings and such and returns rather randomly, but dies a mere second or two later. He gets his arm chopped off! Sweet.

The 3D: This film was made at the height of the 3D-'80s movement. As I mentioned earlier, the DVD release isn't actually in 3D so it features a lot of characters randomly waving sharp things at the camera. Thing such as bats, pitchforks, machetes, spears, axes, eyes and entire bodies and even yoyos (I suppose it was made at the height of yoyo popularity too?). It's all rather silly, but hilariously entertaining. Watch as the bikie leader waves a pitchfork around like a fool. I almost felt as if he was waving it at me (the point, I suppose) but makes me go "Why are you waving that thing at ME?!"

Jason: Jason is a hoot and a half in this flick. When he's not killing people in hilarious ridiculous manners, he's being an absolute moronic klutz. He has zero balance and falls over and the slightest touch and he gets his body parts (keep it clean people) stuck in all sorts of places (again, keep it clean). Although, he does have stellar aim!

Conclusion: Friday the 13th Part III is my favourite of the franchise. While the original is a fun-as-those-things-go type of affair, the second wasn't much cop and the others I have seen are mostly dumb. Jason in Manhattan would be a wonderful contender for this series if the movie was set in New York - only about 10 minutes of it are (and they are indeed absurd yet wonderful), and Jason X is just bad. But this one is So. Much. Fun. Even without the 3D it'd be a blast, but the added bonus of idiots waving silly objects around makes it even better! And who can go past the murders! Murders in 3D no less. Eyes popping out at you is just wonderful. The proposterousness (is that a word?) of the whole thing made me fall in love. It embraces all the cliches of the horror genre. This is a perfect movie to sit around with a group of friends (who like this sort of stuff), have some drinks, and laugh your freakin' ass off.

On the Absurdity scale from 1-5, I rate Friday the 13th Part III a 3.5
It's really absurd, but it's hard to penalise a movie that waves funny objects in your face and thinks it's scary!

(click the above image to watch a wonderful Friday the 13th Part III clipshow. Brilliant.

I really need to thank Ultra Secret Website for the images.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Cinema of the Absurd: Staying Alive

STAYING ALIVE (1983, dir. Sylvester Stallone)

Three words come to mind when I think of Sylvester Stallone's apparent sequel to Saturday Night Fever - Preposterous, leotards and masturbatory. Obviously amongst others descriptors such as 'poorly acted', 'awkwardly choreographed' and 'eye-buggingly hilarious'.

Plot: Tony Manero (John Travolta) is now a down-on-his-luck Broadway-wannabe dating Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) another dancer who has a chorus role in a production starring the (I think) Russian superstar Laura (no last name provided) played by soap-star Finola Hughes. All three eventually land roles in a hot new musical called "Satan's Alley". Tony happens to become the lead because the director has a hunch that he's better than the man who's starred in 6 Broadway shows (or whatever) and soon enough Tony is torn even more. Then comes the oh-so-hard decision of "To wear clothes, or not to wear clothes". Frivolity ensues. Let's discuss.

Proposterous - Everything about this movie fits this description. How could any movie be this cliched? Well, I'm not entirely sure, but director, co-writer and co-producer Sylvester Stallone (!!!) sure did manage to make it happen. The films opens with a ridiculous Broadway audition. Ridiculous because it shamelessly steams from a Broadway-set musical that was made four years prior - All That Jazz. The first thing I actually noticed though was John Travolta's hair. I know it was the '80s, but John's hair is approaching massive scales here. I'm fairly certain the amount of hair sprays used on this film are at least partially responsible for the hole in the Ozone Layer.

One of my biggest pet peeves about movie musicals that have production numbers set on a stage is when they forget that apparently there are people actually sitting in a theatre watching it occur in front of their eyes without the added extra of camera angles, edits and effects. My only fault with Lloyd Bacon's 1933 musical 42nd Street is apparently the big production number at the end is being performed infront of an audience, yet the film's most famous shot is of a camera moving through the legs of a chorus of leggy female dancers and meeting our loving couple at the end. The shot is amazing and looks great, however, if you were in the audience it would merely be some dancers standing on a stage with two people lying on the stage at the end of it. And don't even mention the fact that the musical appears to only be 15 minutes long (I know they can't show the entire production, but at least make it appear as if stuff is missing).

Now, that brings me back to Staying Alive and the preposterous production number that concludes the film. Now, I always thought Broadway musicals had dancing AND singing, not just dancing - but maybe the '80s were different? Anyway, watching the 10-15minute cut of the production we see at the end of this film is like watching some unholy freak light show at a bondage orgy. We don't have any idea as to what Tony's character is supposed to be, or even where he is (we know he's in Hell because we've been told earlier in the movie). Finola Hughes' portrayal of the Devil is assumed simply because of the red leotard she is wearing. Add to that camera angles and dance moves that the audience wouldn't be able to see and it was just so weird watching it. And add to that the fact that THE LEAD OF AN EXPENSIVE BROADWAY PRODUCTION DECIDES TO IMPROVISE A DANCE SOLO RIGHT BEFORE THE BIG FINALE! At that stage I just couldn't stop laughing. And then to top it all off, the characters start to talk to one another while on stage. It's all so hilariously stupid that you sort of need to laugh.

Leotards - Aah, leotards. Apart from Madonna, has anyone ever looked good in a leotard? It doesn't help that every. single. one. is. ugly. My favourite (ie; the ugliest) was this disgusting yellow... thing that Finola Hughes wears in rehearsal. It. Was. Grotesque. One of the film's funniest scenes (seen above) is when Cynthia's Jackie gets dropped off at the rehearsal theatre by her date and meets Tony. Tony asks her if they can rehearse the dance number, she says sure, and then proceeds to take her coat off to reveal a tight pink leotard! If you were a horny dancer (which they all are apparently) and were going on a date would you WEAR YOUR LEOTARD?! And a full-body one at that. I must say though, I was tres pleased to see Jackie wearing LEG WARMERS. They had been suspiciously absent from the movie until that point.

Mastabatory - As far as I know, Sylvester Stallone isn't gay. I am positive he wasn't pulling a Victor Salva and turning his movie into soft-core gay porn, but just LOOK at that poster at the top. that was the first image of the movie people would see. And trust me it ain't a pretty site in the movie either. It's all quite ridiculous watching Travolta prance around trying to look all manly and macho with his black singlet top and dripping with sweat. It's all very strange watching John writhe around on stage looking like an over-worked gigolo, but that's what it's like.

Conclusion - Really though, Staying Alive needs to be seen to be believed. It is utterly ridiculous, ludicrous and silly. How did Stallone and co think people were going to buy into this as serious material? Luckily for us, we can look upon it today as the absurdity it is and look at it fondly. I appreciate this movie for providing so much. Not many other movies can claim to not destroy the career of two up-and-comers (1983 was the beginning of John Travolta's first decent into over-the-hilldom and Cynthia Rhodes' career never took off because of it too) and one director (after 1985's Rocky IV Stallone never directed again until this year's newest Rocky sequel) and I'm sure The BeeGees, leotard manufacturers, Broadway producers and any other film that had dance in them were negatively effected because of it. All in all though, Staying Alive is a hoot and a half.

On the Absurdity scale from 1-5, I rate Staying Alive a 4.5
It's pretty fuckin' absurd!