Living in a SAFE Space

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Our movie features a glamorous movie star, really it does. 

I still haven’t forgiven Todd Haynes for I’M NOT THERE, one of those really stupid ideas that, surprisingly, makes for a really stupid movie. He’s a Critics’ Darling for CAROL and MILDRED PIERCE, among others. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his movies.

BUT…

SAFE was chosen by the Village Voice as the best movie of the nineties. I don’t agree, but it’s a fascinating flick that seems to have dropped off the radar.

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But…she was SUPPOSED to win!

Carol White (Julianne Moore) develops “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,” i.e. she’s allergic to the chemicals in the environment, everything from burning fuel to aerosol spray. She gets progressively sicker and attempts to isolate herself from the crap in the air.

That’s the plot.

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“You’re allergic to everything.”

The fascinating thing about the movie is you know where it’s going and you’re just compelled to watch. At no point does this come off like a Disease of the Week movie. Watching it, I never thought it would end with Moore, wet-eyed and regretting life choices as she died. That would be an easy out, and movies that the Village Voice critics like don’t end in easy outs.

Instead this is about watching a woman grapple with LIFE, not impending death. And she just keeps getting sicker, more sensitive to the very air she breathes.

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It’s a typical indie flick of the nineties in that it shows Moore’s character as being a victim of The American Dream. She’s married, has friends, does housework, is a mother, but none of these things are depicted as anything but stifling. Her life isn’t horrible; it’s bland. And then this stifling blandness starts to get to her. Ultimately she’s so desperate, this little American Housewife We Can Mock For Not Being Cool, that she follows a New Age guru! (The only people I know in real life who follow such folks are Village Voice readers. Or were.) Haynes just keeps pushing her out of her Normal Life until we’re left watching her in complete isolation. In the final scenes she’s like an alien, The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

This was Moore’s first big starring role. Watching her housewife go deeper into the medical and alternative medicine and quasi-cult world, we see she’s not looking for an escape from her established life, but for peace. She doesn’t need to dump the husband and stepkid and hook up with a biker.

The problem is, she just wants to live, but she doesn’t know how. She keeps looking for alternatives. They don’t work. And she’s still alive.

The message about our environment is delivered with minimal preaching. The problem is THERE, we can see it working on her, and it’s easy to see Carol as the tip of the iceberg. How long until those of us less sensitive find it hard to breathe?

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#sickofeverything

SAFE is a weird movie, all right, but it illustrates just how weird real life can get.

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Wrong Address: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981)

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I’m not sure why, but James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is a great novel that SHOULD be simple to transfer to the screen, but has been bungled twice by Hollywood. The basic idea–two horny people turn to murder to be with each other–has been stolen a thousand times. Cain didn’t come up with that idea, of course, but his particular variation on it boiled it down to the basics. Young, footloose man–one of those drifters so attractive in pulp fiction, so creepy in reality–meets hot, unappreciated and married woman. Sparks fly. Must have each other, because the sex is great. Plot to murder husband, plot fails, lovers end up dead and/or caught. Cain’s setting is what made his novel so powerful–these two aren’t big Hollywood types, they’re not rich, they’re working-class slobs, one of them in a bleak marriage to a pig.

What’s not to like?

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Oh, right.

The John Grafield/Lana Turner version has some kind of rep, apparently among people who haven’t read the book or don’t like good movies. Turner seems like such a delicate thing who’d blow away under the kind of passion that tortures the book’s Cora. Garfield just seems so earnest all the time that you don’t get the sense he’d be swept away by this or any other woman. Horrible casting. (Who would’ve been better? I dunno; Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth?)

Bob Rafelson was a surprising and good choice for this, but the material seems to have knocked him off his stride. I wish he’d kept in FIVE EASY PIECES mode–I don’t mean in terms of content, but style, loose and amused at the self-destructive hero. The one scene everyone agrees could be axed from this–I agree–is the meeting between Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, who has really rotten dialogue to work with. But that scene is also playful and critical of Frank (Nicholson). If that tone had been used throughout, I think this could have been an excellent adaptation.

Instead, the approach is very straightforward. Frank is a drifter who gets a job for Cora’s husband, Nick. Frank and Cora can’t stop doing the nasty.

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You’re FILMING this???

This is David Mamet’s first produced screenplay, and he does a great job for the first half or so. Once the trial and acquittals happen, though, the movie loses steam. What was most startling to me was that this was the point where the book gets better. Frank and Cora believe they’re plotting their own course, but the reader can see they’re just being led around by their privates. Once they get off (legally), they are wounded but we can see they’ll stay together…right? That’s what THEY think.

The novel has a trap door waiting for the reader. See, everyone knows Cora and Frank did it, but their getting off was just a game by their attorney and the D.A. The revelation of the bet between the lawyers is a real cold shower for the reader, and for Frank. He and Cora ‘got away with it,’ probably because Nick was just some Greek immigrant, so who cares? The lovers didn’t fool anyone, and now they’re stuck with each other.

While the book’s last section increases in tension, the movie loses momentum. The last half hour is adequate in showing that all that hot sex can only get you so far. I think the problem is that Frank isn’t all that different from Nick, especially played by Nicholson. He’s good in the part, but it’s the wrong part for him–he was over forty, when the book’s character was in his twenties. He’s going to be Nick soon. Cain makes it very clear why Cora wants to be free of Nick, but the movie doesn’t show us why he’s such an ogre–he actually seems like a decent guy. We need to see that Cora really wants to be free of him, and we don’t.

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POSTMAN is a revisionist noir, ala CHINATOWN, which popped up in the seventies, using the new freedom to show the stuff classic noir movies couldn’t. But as in most cases, it deflates the tension of the genre without giving much back. OK, you can show two Hollywood stars almost getting it on–so what? (I’m with Mamet, who says sex scenes pull you out of the movie because you can’t get past that these are two famous people faking it, and you wonder how far they went.) It tries to be an eighties movie that’s going to show those dumb old noirs how to do sex and violence, and it doesn’t work. That the first hour or so DOES work shows that when the source material is taken straightforwardly, as a crime/sex story, you can get something decent out of it, even in the more permissive eighties. But that last 40 minutes or so wanders, as the movie makers try to find something edgier than what Cain came up with. Except what he came up with was already pretty awesome. The only ‘modern’ touch is that we see Frank crying, and we don’t see his ultimate fate as we do in the book (which is where the title comes from).

Sven Nykvist’s photography is of course fine. Michael Small, who did such a great score for KLUTE earlier in the decade, treats the movie as if it’s being a straightforward, sincere noir, instead of a hipper spin.

If Rafelson had taken a cue from the Huston scene (even if he cut the scene itself) and pushed the mockery of these little people by fate, he might have cooked up something as good as CHINATOWN. Instead, it’s kind of a failed mashup.

TPART is worth seeing if only for the first part, and for Jessica Lange’s real breakout performance. (After KING KONG she’d been in a lame comedy and ALL THAT JAZZ, where her good part is spoiled by the costuming.) Nicholson is always entertaining. It’s also fascinating to see how such a great story keeps getting messed up.

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Alexandro Jodorowsky Is One Crazy Effer

Some might think my rant about Jodorowsky’s DUNE was a little over the top. I’m sick, leave me alone.

I very much like two of A.J.’s films. Yes, he’s A.J. to his friends who don’t call him His Most Excellent Weird Genius Who Babbles About Messiahs.

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I’m not a huge fan of SANTE SANGRE, but I mention it because it seems to be the most accessible of Jodorowsky’s movies. It has a little too much of a ‘Fellini-esque midgets in makeup’ aesthetic for my taste, but it’s a coherent narrative.

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Mom, this is weird.

A parade of asylum inmates, tattoos, and a guy who throws knives for his armless mother and by sheer coincidence kills a lot of women. It’s a mind trip, surreal and gaudy, but it actually grapples with issues most horror movies sidestep, namely the self-delusion of the murderer. I can’t say I’m a fan, but I appreciate AJ’s attempt to wrestle his high-flying ideas to something approaching a story.

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I don’t have the heart to enter a caption to this.

I said something about really liking two of his movies.

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At no point is EL TOPO as normal as this poster makes it seem.

EL TOPO, “The Mole,” used to be celebrated for being one of the original Midnight Movies of the seventies. Its mix of ‘acid western,’  mysticism, bloody violence, nudity and general wackiness marked it as something for the out-there crowd. (John Lennon was a fan.) These days it is notorious for actually killing animals on-screen, in great numbers. You don’t have to be an animal rights person to find some of this stuff disgusting. Ye have been warned.

Other than the maimed and dying rabbits, EL TOPO is recommended for its weird take on the post-Leone western aesthetic. El Topo the character is a spiritual wanderer in the desert who must pass through trials to attain some kind of level of spiritual awakening.

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EL TOPO is sort of like a druggier version of the T.V. show KUNG FU, minus the auto-erotic asphyxiation. Jodorowsky himself stars as El Topo, and he’s no worse than any other Chilean director starring in his own drug-drenched violent western.

While there’s violence a-plenty, what made this jump out at the time was the druggy aesthetic, symptomatic of the era’s outsider art. The violence, the sex, the freaks, but especially the drugs-lead-to-mind-expansion made it something the ordinary folks were afraid of, which made it something the freaks and college kids wanted to see. All those pot-smoking Pink Floyd fans were stumbling over each other to hand over their cash for the next big thing that would bug The Straights.

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Only a great artist could make lesbianism so un-hot.

Sex, violence, drugs, philosophy, midgets/dwarves/little people/non-tallists–EL TOPO is a greatest hits of Midnight Movies because it helped start the whole Midnight Movies thing. Check out J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book on the subject to learn about the distribution and cult adoration that started the whole thing. (If you can find one at a reasonable price.)

 

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No animals were killed in the making of–oh…
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At least you’re honest.

EL TOPO is a crazy mess. What’s not to love?

My favorite AJ movie, coming up.

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No, not that Room…not that one, either: ROOM

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Of all the movies I’ve written about here, this is the one I’m most iffy about.

Wikipedia:

“An overworked, middle-aged Texas woman embezzles from her employer and abandons her family to seek out a mysterious room that has been appearing to her in visions during seizure-like attacks.”

That’s the whole movie. SPOILERS AHOY, but actually, the only spoiler is that there is nothing to spoil. THAT’s the movie.

Cydi Williams stars as Julia Barker, a harried, overworked and overweight Bingo hall employee. Her kids sass her, her husband means well but he’s of little help, and she’s got these horrible migraines in which she has visions of…a room. An empty room, like a loft, or one of the rooms being cleaned up in SESSION 9. Nothing happens in these visions, there’s no one to see, it’s just that she sees this room. Julia does what anyone would do in her position: steal a wad of cash and head for New York to find the room from her hallucinations.

Whoever put up the cash for ROOM clearly has an ax to grind with the Manhattan Visitors’ Bureau. Julia has a lame time. She (improbably) bumps into an old friend, Susan (who insists Julia call her Alex), and gets a lead on a real estate agent. Was this meeting fated, or is Julia putting things together that don’t belong as she strains for some deeper meaning in her lame-o life?

After a few bum steers she is given a flier by a couple of cross-dressers and follows some arrows to what she assumes will be her destiny. She gets somewhere and we see some of the same visuals we’ve already seen, some augmented and slowed down. And then the movie ends.

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Yeah, whatever, what’s in the damn room?

Written and directed by Kyle Henry, ROOM is a triumph of tone over substance. I’m woozy from looking at some of the reviews that call it a vertigo-inducing wacky romp through the wasteland of alienation that is America, but I remain unconvinced that this is more than film-school-level obscurity created because having a point is just too ‘mainstream.’ It feels like an assembly of a movie before the final scene is dropped in, the one that reveals what this has all been about. It’s like a plainer version of Aronofsky’s PI, going for the somber alienation. The repeated use of clips of George W. Bush is painfully cliched–yes, America is evil, invading Iraq is evil, blah blah. But none of that seems connected at all to Julia. She veers from one episode to the next, buffeted around by chance. If that’s really all Henry has to say, well, he should’ve hired someone to flesh out his script.

So why am I recommending it, with great reservations?

Julia is played by Cyndi Williams, a voice actress who doesn’t seem to have made many other movie appearances, a mystery greater than those the movie putters around. Henry doesn’t write Julia as a flawless angel, but as a normal person who’ve being worn down by life. Williams was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for this part. Why didn’t this lead to more acting gigs? I don’t know; maybe she prefers the work she’s doing now, and good for her. But this is the sort of performance that wins Oscars. Williams plays Julia as someone in panic, someone determined, and unlike so many movies as a heavy woman who manages to get laid. What she couldn’t do was rescue the shoulder-shrug of an ending.

There is also a tantalizing hint of a secret society ala THE CRYING OF LOT 49, with its Tristero and horn symbol hidden among the graffiti of our modern cities. It’s there if you’re looking for it.

You might have better luck figuring this one out. If so, drop me a line, because I like this movie a lot, but rarely recommend it to anyone. It just feels like 2/3 of a movie, and there are countless movies that seem like they might be good until the last third.

This had the potential to be an upscale Twilight Zone or even Kafka in New York. As a movie it’s just that, potential; Williams’ performance is much more than that.

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I DON’T CARE

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I Just Don’t Care About…

…musical scores for thrillers with piano. I didn’t say I’d have an explanation.

…the Olympics, or Olympiads spending their time talking politics. Yes, they have the right, but when you spout an opinion it should be based on facts.

…football. I watch the Superbowl when the hometown team plays, get really worked up, and then don’t think about it again until the next time they play the Superbowl. Unfortunately for me that team is the Patriots.

…what J.J. Abrams thinks about people who like a stupid space movie. Eff him and his sneering dwarf mug.

…that stupid space movie. A series that has been running on fumes since I was 14 is still of interest to people my age. That’s embarrassing.

…Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and other popcorn movies I’m supposed to like to signal I’m one of The Good People.

(Not Good GUYS, of course.)

…awesome fight scenes. My measure for fight scenes is believability. NOT realism. The action scenes with the slo-mo 300 shit make me laugh. They show off the star’s ability to follow their instructors. They look like they’re dancing.

(The Wild Bunch, Heat, various others)

…”Awesome CGI!”

Can you tell I’m still sick, and am sick of being sick?

…horror that involves knives/blades. That’s not horror to me. It has no connection to supernatural horror, which is what horror used to be. The movie Dracula was advertised as a ‘thriller’ in 1931, and the horror label as a commercial category has gone through its ups and downs over the years. Now it seems to mean “blood flowing as the result of attack by sharp object.”

God damn I’m in a bad mood. I’m coughing like an asthmatic.

…action scenes backed with songs. Even old ones.

…who am I kidding? I don’t like current movies. With foreign films, seventies films, 40’s, experimental, weird little horror things, there’s enough to keep me going without selling bottles of fresh blood to see some comic book movie.

…adults who see comic book movies.

I have the flu. Pity me.

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My Favorite Cyberpunk Movies That Aren’t Blade Runner or Animation: Part the First

…because otherwise the list would consist of Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, Alien yes Alien, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Metropolis (animation) and that’d be boring.

Part One has the ones most folks might know. Part Two A LITTLE less well-known. Part Three we lose all touch with reality and/or high standards

AVALON (2001)

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Japanese-Polish production about a player in a VR game trying to delve into its workings and layers.

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AVALON has some script issues–the climax is BIG, and the machine in it is BIG, but seems anticlimactic to me–and for some the dated CGI might be an issue.

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Large Machine o’ Doom

Dark setting in a typical drab future is well-delineated and Ash is an interesting protagonist, if not particularly original in naming.

 

 

STRANGE DAYS

I  do not like this movie. I think it has a sloppy script that tries to be hip and political and sprawling and ends up being a mess filled with boring, unlikable people. Most hurtful is the portrayal of its villains and their behavior. Cops are corrupt, all of them, until the climax, when it turns out there are just a couple bad apples. I’m not big on hatin’ on cops, but if that’s what you wanna do, that’s your thing, and I’ll watch. But the sudden reversal at the climax really ruins this movie, which was already on shaky ground.

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Ralph Fiennes, action hero

Ralph Fiennes plays one of the most unlikable, drab heroes in SF. He deals in memories, which people jack into to live VR experiences. This could go in many directions, but director Katherine Bigelow and the screenwriters (including James Cameron) go in the Evil Cops vs. Gangster Who’s Actually A Messiah route.

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What does she SEE in him????

There’s some great art direction and some risky attempts to look into the near future, something that’s fascinating. SF isn’t really about predicting the future but playing out current trends. Black Lives Matter didn’t turn out like the social engagement shown in this movie–there’s a moment that’s out of that Pepsi commercial that pissed off the Antifa cosplayers. The cop villains are bad enough, but the movie makers have to tack on some racist sentiments as if to make sure the viewers are on the proper side.

BUT…

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I really like the look of it, and Angela Bassett is one of the great science fiction heroines. As Mace she’s believably athletic, smart, caring and just cool. She deserves a much better story. Kudos to Graeme Revell for his fine score, which I think was a replacement.

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PI

Max Cohen is having a bad day. I mean life. He has intense headaches, and he spends all his free time in his room packed with homemade computer equipment, trying to find the secrets of the universe inside numbers.

This is not the answer to the question, “What’s the most boring-ass movie you could force John to watch?” but the set-up for one of the few science fiction movies that actually IS a science fiction movie and not an action movie in a sci-fi setting. But I promised not to bitch about that every time I write about science fiction movies. So I won’t.

Darren (mother!, aka that Jennifer Lawrence movie everyone makes fun of even if they haven’t seen it which no one has) Aronofsky’s first feature, which won something at Sundance back when that meant more than it does now, PI is the perfect film if you like black and white movies full of machinery. It’s also an interesting intersection of math, the Torah, and the surveillance culture.

The repetition of shots of Max taking pills for his teeth-grindingly-awful headaches is a forerunner of some of the horrific operating room stuff from the climax of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, which is still one of the most horrible endings in mainstream American cinema. Yes, including MONA LISA SMILE’s climactic lesbians-behead-white-guys-on-the-New-York-Stock-Exchange-floor scene, I DID think of that, so shut up.

I haven’t said much about what this movie is about, because after seeing it in its theatrical run and once on DVD I can’t really figure it out. You watch it and get back to me.

 

 

I haven’t talked much about the cyber-punkedness of these movies. I’ll get to that.

One from the Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER utilized some of the neon set elements built for ONE FROM THE HEART. The original movie’s aesthetic was adopted and augmented for BLADE RUNNER 2049, which has some resonances not just with BR but with ONE FROM THE HEART, second-hand.

That’s the only real connection between these two worlds. While I have issues with HEART, I think it deserves more recognition than it’s gotten for its visual style.

The world of the Coppola film was a sunnier version of Scott’s noir hellhole.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 did something I didn’t think possible: it built on and expanded Scott’s world without getting into Star Wars prequel-level CGI overkill. The movie makers didn’t just make 2049 MORE and BIGGER. They thought about how the world of 2019 would evolve.

A key moment was the shot of the Tyrell building. Once the grand center of Los Angeles, now shuttered and dark. (Did homeless people or criminals live there now?)

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 and the original struggled to tell a story about humanity without long speeches. The movie makers used VISUALS to tell the story, didn’t just use them to illustrate a series of dialogues.

Imagine BLADE RUNNER as a love story.

Imagine ONE FROM THE HEART as a post-apocalyptic tale of two replicants.

I’m not saying there was stealing involved or intentional nods.

I’m not talking about the filmmakers at all, not really.

 

So what am I saying?

Movie images–some, like above, not even closely related–collect in the memory. When new ones are added to my personal cinematic attic, sometimes echoes ring out. That’s all.