Monday, February 24, 2020

Escape From New York (1981)

The year is 1997. After the crime rate increased by 400% New York City was walled off from the rest of the United States and turned into a prison. America has become a quasi-fascistic state of mass incarceration and never ending war. John Carpenter was uncanny in his use of a b-movie aesthetic to make a distinct looking dystopia. The punk attitude and comic book sensibility are epitomized by the anti-hero Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell.

After Snake is arrested for robbing the Federal Reserve (a sequence left out of the film) he's drafted against his will to rescue the President of the United States or face certain death. Donald Pleasence is wonderfully banal as the American president.

The production design portrays a police state with neon computers and black uniforms. Lee Van Cleef plays Snake's tormentor, a security officer for the regime. Technology being used for mass surveillance was another prophetic idea. 

New York City is under the control of the Duke (Isaac Hayes), presiding over a society that's regressed back into a medieval system. Along the way Snake meets a number of characters who make for a whacked out version of The Wizard of Oz - including Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton. Carpenter uses the urban wasteland to full effect, a cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Warriors. The action scenes are methodical and accompanied by Carpenter's signature synth soundtrack.

An anti-blockbuster if there ever was one, the grungy look of the Escape marked a strong contrast to the other mainstream films of the time. Escape From New York may not be the best Carpenter film, but it's a quintessential one. 


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood examines two powerful forces in American history - Christianity and Capitalism. Spanning the early decades of the 20th century, the film follows Daniel Plainview as played by Daniel Day-Lewis who earned an Oscar. Anderson takes the audience on a kaleidoscopic journey into the 20th Century, like Travis Bickle, Plainview appears to have arrived from the depths and confounds everyone around him.

The story begins in 1898 with a young Plainview prospecting in California. He falls and breaks his leg in the middle of nowhere yet somehow survives in a Jack London survival scenario. The lonely and unforgiving wilderness will only allow those with strength and determination to survive. Daniel rises in the oil business and adopts a boy whose father died in an accident. He gets a tip from a Paul Sandy (Paul Dano) that large oil deposits on his family's land, setting up the central conflict in the story.

At first Daniel appears to be an ambitious businessman getting getting a jump on the emerging oil industry in the West. He offers to buy the land from the Sunday family, but one of the sons Eli, also played by Dano, wants Daniel to fund a revival church in return for use of the land. While Eli and Daniel appear to be at cross purposes, yet both are not above using deception to achieve their goals. Both are consumed with greed, but their methods are different. Daniel uses know how and intimidation, Eli manipulates the emotions of his congregation through dramatic healing rituals.

As Daniel and Eli began to prosper, other complications enter into the story. Daniel's son and constant companion HW loses his hearing after an explosion and cruelly sent away by Daniel to a boarding school. A man who claims to Daniel's brother proves to be a negative influence and continues to push him over the edge into madness.

The second half of the film continues to follow Daniel's descent into self-destructive and violent behavior - culminating in the unforgettable final confrontation between him and Eli. I view Daniel as a symbol of American capitalism - sociopathic and motivated. At first he has a sense of mission, but greed starts to intrude on all his decisions as he becomes something monstrous. By the end, the entrepreneurial spirit has mutated him into a fire breathing dragon, only content when all his enemies are vanquished.

Like Citizen Kane, another allegory on greed, there's nothing too complicated about idea of wealth leading to an empty life. It's an often told story. But Anderson creates a unique cinematic experience of period detail and stunning composition in each frame. Jonny Greenwood's music adds a layer of even more heightened reality, providing a science fiction ambiance. 

Anderson also reverses the trajectory of a typical tragedy, starting out serious, but letting humor slowly creed in until the story ends in farce. Daniel Day Lewis, speaking in a John Huston cadence, deserves credit for creating a remarkable character, an all knowing destroyer. Dano was equally effective as the corrupt evangelist. An unblemished portrait of American standing beside The Godfather and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, There Will Be Blood leaves a vivid impression. 


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark (2019)

Based on the series of scary books for young readers from the 1980s by Alvin Schwartz, the 2019 film Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark is unabashedly retro horror in the best possible sense, a perfect gateway horror movie for young fans of the genre. The title may be a misnomer, I went into it thinking it would be an anthology film, but the movie is actually set in 1968, following a group of teens who find themselves in some prototypical scary movie situations. 

The production design of Scary Stories is its most impressive feature, many scenes are shot in the dark providing just the right atmosphere. The 1968 ambiance was also a nice touch with recurring imagery of Nixon on the eve of the election, hovering over the proceedings ghost like. There's a Vietnam War subtext and the early days of the Rustbelt (set in fictional Mill Valley, Pennsylvania). Donovan's "Season of the Witch" plays non-diegetic as opening credits rolled conjured David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac (the film does have a Fincher vibe to it). Of course there's also the strange new sense of revisiting a time with no google, don't we look back with envy . . .

The protagonist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) writes scary stories (resembling a young Shirley Jackson) and is socially isolated although she will find faithful friends in newcomer Ramon played by Michael Garza (on the run from the draft) and school friends Auggie and Tommy. Reviews I've read have criticized these characters for not being interesting enough. But it works to the film's advantage, these are everyday kids getting thrown into extraordinary circumstances and they react with fear and bravery (Stella's knowledge of horror helps her survive).

At the same time the film skillfully utilizes the tropes of classic horror: haunted houses, scary cornfields, anti-septic looking hospitals, school hallways, and of course the vulnerable place of all - the bathroom. The scares themselves are never sanitized because there are consequences the characters have to endure. 

Produced by Guillermo del Toro (who also got a screen story credit), his unique touch guides the film, especially on some of the gross out moments. The director Andre Ovredal kept the story moving along with sly references to the genre throughout. Dean Norris from Breaking Bad plays Stella's Dad and I wish the film had used him more. The 1980s made space for movies that might scare kids a little, whether it be Gremlins or The Monster Squad, but also brought fun and imagination. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does a superb job delivering the scares - in a PG-13 way.