The Vintage Revisits: Batman&Robin

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Wow, how Batman can go off the rails when put in the wrong hands. I recently rewatched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman and was blown away by its bold style, dark humor and everyone’s level of commitment to this heightened universe. I know Nolan gets all the credit for making the gritty, realistic Batman, but I don’t need him to exist in my world. Burton’s vision of a 1930’s cartoonishly drawn Gotham works because the peril feels real and the visuals are corrupting. Jack Nicholson’s disfigured Joker with his plasticy face that is more creepy as a normal skin tone or the two bit crooks Batman encounters in the opening who look like Tommy in Trainspotting post-AIDS are really disturbing. I was so impressed that the first swing at making a Batman movie post Adam West cult classic TV show, managed to still have that childlike appeal of a comic book but have this sinister edge. After the well-earned success of this blockbuster, sequels were bound to follow and the bar was set insanely high. You may ask why I decided to jump all the way to the end of this quadrilogy bypassing Batman Returns which has the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and penguins with bombs strapped on their backs and then Batman Forever a movie I’ve never seen so I can make a comment on how great the villains are and ending up at the notoriously panned nail in the coffin that is Batman & Robin. Is it because it was all that was available at the library? Who’s to say but there is some small connection I have to this forlorn entry. While I didn’t see it upon release when I was the ripe age of 5 (the target demo) I did have the coloring book which made me aware of the characters and broad design of the feature. Twenty years later the images in that book pay off and I saw that world animate in front of my eyes, and boy is it a shit show.

Joel Schumacher is definitely the person I’m gonna blame for all of this. Taking over the reigns from Burton, there is a huge visual and tonal shift that accounts for the downfall of this film. The stories are always the same, Batman comes up against some big baddies, usually two wackos that got their powers from falling into a vat of fill-in-the-blank and their plans for overtaking Gotham must be squashed. Because of the simplicity, it all comes down to the execution. Burton’s color pallet was hues of black and when there would be splashes of color like in the Prince scored Balloon Parade it really pops. That’s why the Joker’s white and green face is so striking because it’s contrasted against a black backdrop of the city. Here, Schumacher takes that cartoon element and runs with it more literally. Every set is painted in heavy neon. The movie never feels dark because there’s so much neon light pouring in at every angle. Just looking at the poster itself, it’s very honed in on the fact that if Mr. Freeze is around, everything is super blue or Poison Ivy, it’s painfully green. He then also tweaks the tone to fit that brightness. Gone is the disturbing grossness you get with a creep like Penguin. Every inch of this movie has to be bubbly, big and kid friendly. All the henchmen do extreme sports which relegate our heroes to having to fight on roller skates, motorcycles and sky diving surf boards. It’s a clear reminder at how lame extreme sports are but that they were studio shorthand for “cool” in the late 90’s. All the sets look like cheap paintball arenas compared to the well crafted, gothic scenery of Burton’s landscape. As someone who loves a hand built, practical set I found myself cringing at locations like the artificial icicle lair and Poison Ivy’s Audrey Two puppet.

It’s pretty obvious that what makes Batman so great are his villains and it has been stated already that it often stands as the best way to judge a Batman movie. I definitely wouldn’t want to have this movie solely be judged by its heroes because they’re pretty abysmal. George Clooney taking over the role filled first by Michael Keaton then Val Kilmer, the salt and pepper haired gentleman seems less than thrilled to be taking on the iconic caped crusader. Clooney sleepwalks as Bruce Wayne made only more clear by the high energy, chipper demeanor Chris O’Donnell brings to the boy wonder. The newest edition to their crew is Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and she’s never been the greatest actress to begin with but when saddled with dialogue only written in quips, she can not sell the contrived lines like “watch and learn, little boy.” The quips and puns are a staple of the campy Batman era and are in full swing here as that is only way Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy know how to communicate. Mr.Freeze is the central villain with his diamond robbing needs and character motivation of trying to find a cure for his cryogenically frozen wife. Schwarzenegger has the natural build for a super villain but due to the goofiness of the environment, he never feels like a threat, just a rogue agent of the Blue Man Group. Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) becomes the nastiest of the baddies mostly because she’s a woman and her transformation from nerdy scientist Pamela Isley to a vivacious seductress in a coded sexual awakening makes her be fit for ultimate punishment. Antiquated sexual politics strikes again! Uma Thurman is by far is my MVP because she’s having a grand time delivering every line with a slice of ham. Least valuable player goes to Bane who is played by a luchador Stretch Armstrong which is one of the most disappointing characters I’ve ever seen put on screen. Once you’ve had Tom Hardy do it right, you can’t turn back,

From the word go, my reaction to this was “is this a joke?” It literally begins with ass shots of Batman and Robin suiting up. I wish I could say that the juicy homoeroticism continues throughout but it’s just this weird note to kick off the action. This is a children’s movie that starts like a gay porn. It’s so hokey and the campiness isn’t fully embraced by the cast and ontop of that is overshadowed by the obvious angle that this movie exists to sell toys. It’s caught in such a limbo of intent. Lost Boys is a better example of Schumacher’s ability to make a children’s film that can balance the camp and the darkness while appealing to a broader audience. Batman & Robin dissolved the 90’s incarnation of Batman, only reviving its credibility with the animated series then getting a second chance with Batman Begins. I find myself enjoying the muddled mythology and vicissitude of Batman’s on-screen history which all pays off in Lego Batman. Suprise! Didn’t expect this review to be a ploy to praise Lego Batman but that’s the kind of chaos the Joker would unequivocally approve of.

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Revisiting and Reanimating Pet Sematary Two

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This year alone, I’ve been taking on the pointless and often unfulfilling task of watching 80’s horror movie sequels. My consumption has included the surreal weirdness that is the Phantasm series which incarnations span decades and the Friday the 13th saga which is the same movie over and over again except the original work is objectively awful and the only halfway decent entries are the campy ones. All this is prelude to say watching Pet Sematary Two made for a more fascinating experience than any other sequel I’ve slogged through. While I can’t find proof that the follow up script to the wildly successful Stephen King adaptation was a repurposed one, Two deviates greatly in style and ambition. It’s more surreal, gory and exploitative surprising considering it’s Mary Lambert returning to direct.

This may be a case of making a sequel no longer beholden to a stringent source material, the filmmakers were allowed to run a little wild. The film begins at a Tim Burton-esque gothic castle where a red headed woman in a white slip cautiously walks down some narrow stairs, just as she begins to reach for something, skeleton arms pop up from the ground and the director yells “cut!” This opening prologue sets up the death of Renee (Darlanne Fluegel), actress/ mother of 13-year-old Jeff (Edward Furlong)/ ex-wife of veterinarian Chase (Anthony Edwards) which forces the boys to return to the small town of Ludlow, Maine for a fresh start. The structure of escalation is similar to the original film, first an animal death this time Jeff’s friend Drew has his dog shot by his abusive stepdad Gus (Clancy Brown). The boys bury the large K-9, Zowie, at the Indian burial ground and after it returns and eventually attacks Gus on Halloween when he is wailing on his stepson, the boys repeat the burial ritual and then they have an undead Frankenstein of a stepdad on their hands. Yes, this is level of crazy this movie is functioning on. Gone are the days of baby Gage cutting Achilles’ tendons of old man Fred Gwynne, now it’s a motorbike tire to the face.

What is most troubling to this film that it takes the road less traveled and opts for maximum amount of violence towards animals. As proven time and time again the sanctity of animals and our emotional response when cute furry beings are under threat is very strong. We all know the horror cliche of the villain killing the family pet and then intensifying. The animal body count of Pet Sematary 2 is three kittens, a dog and at least a dozen rabbits. Not to mention the egregious scene of Chase calling a fellow vet and that guy is operating on the skull of a dog. Not pleasant! Sure, pull on our heartstrings but no one wants to see that much animal cruelty.

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While those horror attempts are a bit misguided the dreamlike instances are what make this a stand out sequel. The influence may have come from the mangled patient that haunts Louis Creed in the original work, the visions here manage to be more nightmarish as the hybrid dead mom-head of dog combo visits both father and son (for dad it’s in an unsettling sexual context). Most of the scenes are given some sort of unnatural lighting to dissociate from reality but it becomes muddled as we embark on the finale with the narrative going off the rails with Gus making his own undead army that includes Renee so he can “fuck her”. Her reincarnation seems more for Jeff’s benefit as Furlong’s performance becomes Oedipus meets The Omen that made me question if I’d missed the scene indicating this lascivious and malicious change in character. Of course, I didn’t, this movie is coo-coo bananas but it keeps winning me back with melting faces and heads exploding.

Pet Sematary Two is everything you want from an unnecessary sequel. It has just enough budget to make decent effects but 90’s enough to give it that straight to video quality. The quality of the actors is most impressive especially after all the Friday the 13th movies which is real no names amateur hour. Furlong was hot off of T:2 and Edwards and Brown are terrific character actors. My reason for seeking this movie out was on a recommendation by Andrea Subissati on The Faculty of Horror and while I thought it a weird choice, my tastes tend to align with her’s (except when it comes to Buffy). This doesn’t hold a candle to the original but you can’t expect it to. You have to view it through a lens of studio capitalism that demanded the churning out of a sequel to squeeze money from a profitable name. In that light, it’s way better than it has any right to be and a sufficient late night curiosity viewing with a friend. There are worse ways you could spend a Monday night.

The Vintage Revisits: Mulan

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Like every girl from the 90’s, I grew up with Mulan. Though not having seen it in maybe a decade, I still could recite many of the lines and of course sing along to all the songs. Disney post renaissance is often known as a subpar period. I categorize Mulan as still in a sweet spot before things really went south with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Sandwiched between Hercules and Tarzan, there’s still remnants of similar animation from the former (lots of swirly cloud designs) and the music that would show up in the latter (Mulan’s run away sequence is scored with synth that evokes Genesis). It very much comes off as a product of other products, building from tropes they know that work which is often why that if you didn’t grow up with this movie, it gets lost in the sea of pre-CGI animation. I realize there’s some nostalgic talking here but it’s got that Disney magic with gorgeous animation, catchy songs and some attempt at diversity that makes it more than worthwhile.

 

The strongest aspect that differentiates it from past Disney films is that Mulan is not a princess. I appreciate the message of subverting gender norms especially as a seven-year-old tomboy in ’98 although as unfeminine as I was/am, I wanted to be Meg from Hercules more than Mulan. Because it’s a kids movie, it hammers home Mulan’s “otherness” pretty hard in the first act. That becomes more laborious and on top of that the movie is trying to inform the young audience with a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese culture specifically the notion of honor which is repeated ad nauseum in the exposition. I can forgive the clunky set up because you still get to spend most of it with the main character and actress Ming-Na Wen who brings such life to the protagonist. She balances sweetness, innocence and vitality as the character progresses. Also in this introduction we get Mushu which is a very obvious rip-off of Aladdin’s Genie. While Eddie Murphy does a decent job as the dragon scamp, it’s in no way as hysterical as Robin William’s iconic ad-libs that make the Genie one of the greatest Disney characters of all time. The efforts pale in comparison of what the filmmakers were going for but I like the ways in which they work Mushu into the journey through basecamp and the battlefield both helping and hurting Mulan’s situation. The supporting cast once in the Imperial Army is the most spirited with the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Poa who I guess are added comic relief on top of Mushu. Harvey Fierstein as Yao, the least Asian of them all, still makes me smile.

 

In a more woke era almost twenty years later there’s more to question about the accurate representation of the Chinese in this movie. I’m the last person who should have any say in this as a white person but it’s a predicament for me of do you choose to appreciate that Disney made some effort into telling a non-white story or do you criticize that they didn’t try harder in diversifying the behind the scenes creators (majority of the creative team is caucasian). It takes a very simplistic view of China i.e. its decision to put so much emphasis that it’s a culture of honor and women hating but it’s 500 AD when all cultures devalued women. It’s also a simplistic depiction of the nomadic Hun people that fight the Imperial Army. The choice to make the villains noticeably Mongolian but with black eyes and a gray skin pigmentation is quite bold. The central villain Shan Yu is voiced by Miguel Ferrer which immediately disassociates that character from feeling anything close to Asian, maybe for the better.

 

PC-guilt aside, there’s still so many things to appreciate. I’m a sucker for traditional animation and this film is filled with some fantastic designs. It’s really elevated by the blending of CGI and animation for the sequences such as the mountainside battle with the Huns with sweeping ariels of stampeding soldiers, also the wider shots of the Emporer’s palace in which the extra dimensions emphasizes its grandness. I can’t hammer home enough how much I love the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is a bonafide training montage song worth being listed next to the greats of “Circle of Life” and “Whole New World” and for real, Donny Osmond does a perfect BD Wong impression. I also find the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” not only fun but extremely emotionally effective when the lyrics are cut off by the destroyed of a village. Mulan is often an underestimated movie much like the main character herself. By appearance or reputation, it may seem light or harmless but when given a chance it packs one hell of a punch.

A Post Election Dick

Michelle Williams And Dan Hedaya In 'Dick'

A peek behind the curtain: for my usual Thursday blog posts, I watch the decided movie the weekend before and do my writing on Wednesday. This past Sunday, Cinefamily did a very feminist and patriotic screening of the 1999 teen comedy Dick This seemed like the perfect film today write about post-election; girl power, bad ass blondes etc. I hadn’t ever entertained the idea that I’d be writing this piece under very different circumstances. I live in the bubble of Los Angeles with like-minded millennials so the reality of Donald Trump being elected president sounded like a farce. The past 24 hours I’ve been at a loss for words, feeling as if I’m in an alternate timeline from Back to the Future Part II. To my fault, I’m not a very political person. I get most of my news from BBC Africa so I’d describe myself as someone who looks at things from a global scale. I leave for Senegal on Saturday (a trip I planned before the election results) and I’m going to have to explain my country’s decision to every taxi driver, tour guide and shop owner I meet. When I visited Ghana last year and people found out I’m American, they’d smile and start cheering “Obama!” I don’t want to imagine what they’ll say to me now. Something much worse and in French.

So how do I tie this in with the movie Dick? I wasn’t alive in 1972 and I’m no historian but at that time, America had the smell of doom, similarly falling apart. Most notably, we were stuck in an unwinnable war that was killing men faster than we could send them and with the Watergate scandal, the country was betrayed by those in the highest entrusted power. Those issues and the general climate of sexism is at the center of this movie about two 15-year-old Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) who find themselves in the wilds of the corrupt administration after witnessing the Watergate bugging. The film’s tone is able to look back with a more upbeat perspective rather than the bleak nihilism one might have felt while it was happening. This is a movie packed with loud, colorful costumes by Deborah Everton, a best-of disco soundtrack and satirical performances by premier sketch comedy actors including Will Ferrell, Dave Foley and Harry Shearer. Writer/Director Andrew Fleming turns the turmoil of the 1970’s into a hilarious spectacle as these two girls unbeknownst to the public and even themselves, change the course of history. It’s an escapist, popcorn flick but with this poignant, educational undertone. And there’s Ryan Reynolds to boot!

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It’s quite bizarre that this movie was made and not surprisingly a flop because it’s an unlikely intersection of genres with politics and teen comedy. The more successful films of that year would be She’s All That, American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You, none which you would imagine prime for an All The President’s Men mash up. Yet that’s why this movie is so great, partially because it’s combining the unlikely but that it’s not underestimating its audience. This is a movie about underestimation, especially towards women. Betsy and Arlene are seen by men as giddy empty-headed girls and the opening presents just that. As Nixon’s men break into the Watergate complex where Arlene lives, the two girls are up late writing into a contest to win a date with pop idol Bobby Sherman. Arlene dictates her puppy love to Betsy who is inept with the typewriter. While they sneak out to mail the letter, they run into G. Gordon Libby (Shearer) which provokes the administration to “deal” with the teens, making sure they don’t comprehend or tell anyone what they saw. The men in power quickly assume they have nothing to worry about with the ditzy youths who are more interested in walking Checkers and baking cookies that Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya) and his cabinet speak freely about their criminal acts in their presence. The plot is all leading up to the administration’s incorrect perceptions biting them in the ass as Betsy and Arlene become the notorious “Deep Throat” informants that break the Washington Post story and force Nixon’s resignation. Even with knowing the outcome of the narrative, you’re excited for these girls to deliver the ultimate fuck you to the men in suits who rule their lives. What I like is yes, they are ditzy but they’re not dumb. Dunst and Williams light up the screen with their bubbly presence and are such believable teens with their naivete of the world but they mature in the course of the film and for sure Arlene grew up to be a boss politicians. Just like many of the youths of that decade, the older generation looked at them as stupid potheads who would amount to nothing but they protested and fought back. In this movie those sentiments are compacted into high spirited, roller skating young women.

Watching a comedy like Dick that has the 20/20 hindsight and sense of humor to make light of what was an equally scary moment in America’s history makes me hope we will be able to do the same in thirty years. That’s hard to envision because the state of affairs right now already is larger than life. Dick is an obvious exaggeration but life as it is November 9th, 2016 feels impossible to heighten. Betsy and Arlene’s emotional arc is very similar to mine yesterday. It began with blissful ignorance that the world was fine then the harsh realization that there’s a lot of hate and lies that were right in front of me. I want the grand finale elation of a giant banner that exclaims “You Suck” which is how a lot of us feel right now. I try to look at everything in an African standpoint but the world is so surreal right now listening to Zimbabwe’s massive inflation and failing economy, the human rights violations in Somalia and the continued political protests in Burundi, it doesn’t sound too farfetched for similar ripples to occur here. If I can recommend a movie during this trying time, Dick is not a bad way to go. Revel in bell bottoms, flower power and ABBA for an hour and a half. It will help to take the edge off.

The Vintage Revisits: 40 Days and 40 Nights

The premise of 40 Days and 40 Nights is pretty arrogant on its part which is where some of the hate towards it stems from. Having not seen it since high school, my touchstone of knowledge came from the Flophouse Podcast whose three white male hosts are steadfast in their opinion that it’s one of the worst films ever made and have gone on record stating “if you see it in a video store, you should rent it and then throw it away.” I understand their frustration when at a glance this is a movie about a guy who is having so much sex that he feels compelled to give up all types of sexual pleasure for lent. Pretty infuriating if your twenties weren’t as fruitful in love. As a woman, I don’t harbor that resentment regarding the “lothario” Josh Hartnett’s dilemma or attraction to him for that matter as Harnett has always come off as the blankest slate of a human being. I find the film appealing as a sweet sex comedy and I enjoy watching the brief but sexy career of Shannyn Sossamon. Not that the movie deserves much credit, it’s not the waste that certain podcasters may lead you to believe.

 
It’s actually a movie about a guy dealing with a break which is something I respect. Maybe because I want to see men hit as hard by a break up as women, I like the perspective of a dumped Matt (Hartnett) whose friendships, sexual encounters, and productivity at work are all stunted by a crushing end to a relationship. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is his inability to orgasm during a one night stand due to visions of his ceiling crumbling and he seeks solace in his priest-in-training brother which is where he gets the idea of cleansing himself of sex for the 40 day long lent season. Yes, it’s ridiculous but the movie is aware of it as his quest is far from saintly. It’s not smart or bold enough for a critique on religion but tongue and cheek with the Christ illusions. The crux of the story is that during Matt’s symbolic absolution he meets the irresistible Erica (Sossamon) and finds himself at a crossroads of wanting to sleep with this stunning woman who he develops feelings for and following through on this commitment that becomes a bigger deal than anticipated. The plot gets dumber as I explain it as it relies on the stereotype that men are ravenous, sex crazed beings who can’t go a month without getting some. While that’s more far fetched, I buy Matt’s need to follow through on his word when it becomes this sprawling bet and friends, coworkers and complete strangers will benefit financially if he breaks the purge.

 
The sensual romance that blooms from the celibate relationship is what charms me and that courtship is what I’m a sucker for in rom-coms. At the same time, 40 Days contains the most aggravating trope which is that most of the conflict that arises is from simple miscommunications. They fight because he didn’t tell her he was undertaking an abstinence pledge, they fight because she thinks he had sex with his ex, the opening incident of him not orgasming is embarrassing because he inexplicably lies about. The film is adamant that all men are liars and pigs. The workplace which is an upstart tech company (ahead of the curve in 2002) is prime for a sexual harassment case as it’s the most uncomfortable business environment I’ve seen since Secretary yet the film presents it very casually. This is tangential but a convenient moment to appreciate Maggie Gyllenhaal in the best friend role who straight up kills it as “roommate who rolls her eyes.” A movie could always use more Gyllenhaal but the film works in spite of the grating plot devices and limitations of the actors. Where Hartnett falters, he makes up for it by having the perfect look of handsome enough that he can get laid consistently but boy scout-ish enough that you grasp the moral compass that leads him to this undertaking. And Sossamon who is not strong in other roles creates convincing chemistry that compels the balance of laundromat meet-cutes and board room boner jokes that are done exemplarily here.

 
If you can sit through the stupidity or at least suspend your disbelief that not having sex is such a brutal challenge that a man would turn to model plane building, then there’s fun to be had. This was released during the height of R-rated sex comedies like American Pie and Van Wilder which have questionable gender politics. There is a female-initiated rape scene that goes wildly unaddressed in the narrative which would have spun into a million think pieces if released today. I’d be harsher on this film’s reduction of women to sex objects if it wasn’t that the whole movie’s focus being about sex and that the men are portrayed equally poorly. I didn’t care for the trite scene of parents talking about sex which is awkward and unnecessary for the characters in the sequence and the audience or the sea of bare breasts Matt envisions as his abstinence drives him insane. There is the childish humor and male gaze that isn’t my taste but the love story gets me. As I said, I’m in it for the Sossamon and for some reason I can forgive most of this movie to arrive at the satisfying moments with her. It beats watching her being date raped in Rules of Attraction but I’ll save that review for another day.

The Vintage Revisits: Westworld (the movie!)

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When you first hear the premise of Westworld, an adult theme park where patrons can relive a particular historical era until robots go awry and kill everyone, it sounds perfect for a television show that can spend seasons worth of time building the vast environment and inner workings of such a place. Surprisingly enough at the original conception which was a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, jammed all that into 90 minutes, and quite unsuccessfully. Not from a financial standpoint as the film was a box office hit earning $10 million and that’s in 1970’s dollars. It spawned a sequel (Futureworld) and a previous flop of a TV Show (only 3 episodes aired) which is proof that audiences and executives have been in love with the concept which is why it is continually resurrected. Where the original falls short is that it is fairly poorly structured as a screenplay and directed by an inexperienced Crichton. The fact that with these flaws my feelings still skew positively is a testament to the foundation that’s so intriguing and that it can carry a film that otherwise falters under its ineptness.

To an extent why I give it a pass is because it starts so strong. It kicks off with news footage or more likely a promotional video where a chipper interviewer speaks to guests leaving the park about their experiences. In a tongue and cheek manner, people knowingly smile as the articulate how much they enjoyed the hunky men in Romanworld and shooting outlaws in Westworld (the visitor hoping he only shot robots and not real people). It’s a great tactic to build up the excitement for these time travel Disneylands before we even arrive. We’re then introduced to our protagonists Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin as Christian Bale) a situation where I couldn’t figure out who was the main character until one of them dies at the midway point. These seeming strangers who are actually friends (another script problems) embark on their vacation of drinking and debauchery in Westworld. The film jumps around between their experience, some other unknown characters in Medievalworld and the row of nameless control room operators who direct the action while ordering their lunch. The film manages to be specific enough that you understand the intricacies of running this park as each night deactivated robots are cleaned up off the roads and taken underground for maintenance and how these humanoid A.I.s interact with the either with sexuality or violence but show signs of overriding their programming yet at the same time is vague enough that you don’t care about all these people who die at the hands of vengeful machines. It’s entertaining to watch our heroes get into bar fights and seduce whores (which leads to the most bizarre, dissolve heavy sex scene ever) but I don’t care or even understand why robots want to massacre them. The main villain is the Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner who Michael Myers-esque stalks Peter the whole movie for some unestablished vendetta.

Why this expansive plot can be carried out in 90 minutes is because there’s not a second act. The movie goes from the exposition of the parks and behind the scenes to Gunslinger killing John and everything going to shit. If you didn’t guess it by now, this movie is a prototype for Jurassic Park. Westworld is very top-heavy with exposition and escalates so quickly with nothing to transition that in between where JP cultivates an amazing group of characters and starts with the bang the initial T-Rex escape but still can build tension after that climactic turn. The third act or second act (whatever it is) in this case has its creepy moments and unexpected brutality for what had been a bright movie but lacks any pathos because you don’t have the reasoning for the machine’s malice other than the 70’s fear of uncharted technology. At least for JP, dinosaurs are just being dinosaurs which entails eating humans. These robots are fed up I guess but no emotional cognizance has been presented to show that they don’t like their designed enslavement. Peter is as baffled and relinquished as us as he runs from the Gunslinger maintaining the most neutral and uninterested expression.

It’s still a fun hodgepodge of ideas that obviously needed twenty years and Steven Spielberg to do correctly. I would breakdown Westworld as 75% set up, 10% robots going crazy and 5% laborious horse chase and I like that 75%. It’s so 1970’s future a la Logan’s Run with its blocky hovercrafts and light bright switch boards which are always a delight. Overall though it’s just a brilliant concept. The delineation from what would be repurposed into Jurassic Park is that Westworld is a strictly adult resort and I like the choice to keep the movie as such. It’s perfect for HBO because they can maintain that hard R rating as the appeal is the idea of an amusement park that caters to vices and immoral acts that you can’t commit in normal society that’s paired with the sweeping backdrop of a period piece. This movie is a great pitch that someone has finally realized how to form into prestigious television. Give me characters to root for, complexity to the A.I. and most importantly, spare no expense.

The Vintage Revisits:The Panic In Needle Park

panic_in_needle_park

Before Requiem for a Dream there was The Panic In Needle Park which has the appearance of a film sponsored by D.A.R.E. if it wasn’t so artfully made. The 1971 film was adapted from James Mill’s exposé in Life magazine as an intimate tour into the danger and grit of New York City which was perceived as a hub of dope fiends and criminals by middle America. Panic definitely doesn’t prove that incorrect because you are placed directly amongst the most adulterated inhabitants. These are addicts who go to alarming lengths to get their next fix yet what makes this depiction of the perils of heroin so unsettling is its level of humanizing done for its characters. You’re welcomed into the lives of young couple Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino), presented through a nonjudgmental lens. While brutally honest about their imperfections, the enlightening performances provoke such sympathy so as their lives spiral out of control, it becomes a gut punch with each poor decision. Shot cinéma vérité, director Jerry Schatzberg takes you deep into the dark allies of the city but paired with such moving performances, you can’t look away.

What differentiates Panic from Requiem is the appeal of the characters. With Requiem, everyone starts off pretty unlikeable (except for Ellen Burstyn of course) as Jared Leto kicks off the movie stealing his mother’s television. The film’s tone is immediately pessimistic as the three leads situation goes from bad to worse that by the end characters are either incarcerated, homeless or turn to prostitution. All this is included in Panic but at its core, it is a love story. It’s a tragic love story of a couple doomed by drugs and lose themselves in a cycle of self-destruction but in a fucked up way, they have each other. It’s not all bad, at least to start, you’re lured into the sweet amidst the sour environment. We are introduced to Helen quite deceivingly as she sits dazed on the subway. We already know her fate as the film states upfront with text that Needle Park is the nickname for Sherman Park on the Upper West Side populated by heroin addicts. Her vacant stare leads you to believe she may already be in the throes of a habit but as she returns to her then boyfriend’s loft (a handsome Raúl Juliá) you learn she had an abortion, a botched one that lands her in the hospital. An equally handsome Bobby who has become smitten with her sneaks into the hospital to flirt with her and this is where the affair blossoms. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Even though Helen is conscious of his reputation as a user (her boyfriend his supplier) she is instantly charmed and you can’t blame her. We meet Bobby at a high point which later becomes few and far between but when at his best, he’s magnetic as hell. He chats up the bum outside the ER, playfully teases the elderly pawnbroker to whom he sells a stolen TV and he loves sitting on the park bench with his pals swapping stories about what drugs mix best. Helen being an introvert is drawn to his bravado and they become a winning couple. So when Helen inevitably gives in to her curiosity and takes her first hit, you feel as betrayed as Bobby. She’s no longer pure but as flawed as him. The light in her eyes in gone as she is a zombie with a hunger stronger than Bobby’s.

Panic must have been shocking to audiences at the time of its release with its brazen depiction of heroin use and even by today’s standards is quite jolting. It’s not for the squeamish as there are long takes of how one injects heroin, something most films generally cut away from but that’s part of the film’s impact. This is coming out of the era of censorship when such sadism was only implied. The first time we witness shooting up is when Bobby takes Helen to a flophouse and while they talk mundanely in the background we watch a man strap up, find a vein and insert that needle, injecting the clear liquid, pulling back some blood, injecting again then sitting back as he’s hit by the rush of the high. The sound fades out as all we hear are his heavy breaths and watch his eyes go cross. A registered nurse was reported to be on set observing the technical precision and safety of the act making it all the more unnerving, knowing it’s real. The depiction in continually gratuitous with needles dangling from long track marks as unattended babies cry out on the shared bed.

Out of all the horror movies I consume, I can stomach ghosts, serial killers and masked assailants but nothing scares me more than drugs. It’s more terrifying because it’s undeniably around me. Helen’s deterioration could happen to anyone especially when it comes to the most addictive of substances. Kitty Winn incredibly sells Helen’s descent from the bubbly girl who picks at her fries to a pale, disheveled shell of a person turning tricks to pay for her $80 a day needs. What is so agonizing is how the film will give you these fleeting moments of happiness. There will be instances where both are somewhat clean and take the ferry to Long Island to buy a puppy and Helen dreams of moving away and starting a home. Before her thoughts can be completed, Bobby whisks her into the ferry bathroom for a hit, leaving the puppy to stumble off the side of the boat. Optimism is always dashed as the drugs dimish any good intention. They encourage each other’s habits but hate it when one is too strung out or hides their dwindling supply. What they look like slack-jawed, eyes rolling back from heroin could be mistaken for a corpse. The addicts in Needle Park are the real Walking Dead.

Panic is now a faded snapshot of a sanitized New York. Sherman Square is now adjacent to a Trader Joe’s and Haagan-Daz. That doesn’t mean these dark narratives have disappeared, they merely aren’t as visible. Even without the abysmal aesthetic, it’s a pertinent cautionary tale. Though maybe it only scares straight edge people like myself, inherently fearful of all forms of illicit consumption. I mean this couple marred by drugs finds solace with each other. The film concludes with Bobby being released from jail, a situation which Helen set him up for, yet they walk in toe towards the Manhattan horizon. There’s no way they live to see another winter but that’s ultimately unknown. They could get clean, finally get married and move to Connecticut, but throughout their relationship, we see little promise of that. Bobby is in love with Needle Park and Helen is in love with Bobby and the cycle continues. That entrapment is what is so haunting, addiction eliminating one’s free will. All that’s left is death which one of Bobby’s friends remarks “is the best high of all.” A depressing outcome to look forward to but that’s what this movie is, the dispiriting life of a junkie. It’s a morose note to end on but that’s how I felt when it was over, completely broken. So yeah, thumbs up.