“Blair Witch” … revisited

With Halloween bearing down quickly on us, I realized it was time, again, for my annual trip to the Blair Witch woods, to revisit and re-evaluate what I regard as one of the scariest movies ever made, “The Blair Witch Project.” The 1999 box office sensation retains the title of all-time champ.

Let us consider: “The Blair Witch Project” scared the hell out of audiences 20 years ago, introducing us to the concept of found footage, or a directed film that pretends to be a documentary in raw form. No one had ever seen such a thing in 1999 – no one. Today, of course, found footage is a genre all to itself, usually of the horror variety, and usually not any good (although “Paranormal Activity,” released in 2009, comes close to “Blair Witch”-style chills.)

The movie was a huge hit; I was unable to penetrate the long lines that greeted me the first time I attempted to see the film, in Plano, Texas, one warm July night. Later in the weekend, I achieved success, catching the movie not once but three (count em, three!!!) times. It was a strange experience, exhilarating, scary, compelling, and unexpectedly funny. It was also one of the great audience-reaction films, provoking giggles and gasps from enthusiastic, appreciative crowds. This film, along with that year’s “The Phantom Menace,” “The Matrix,” and “Fight Club,” changed the game, in a major way.

OK, but what of the movie itself? It’s still a great story. In 1994, three would-be documentary filmmakers take some rented equipment out to the Maryland woods to capture footage of the legendary Blair Witch, an evil feminine presence, long reputed to have haunted the woods, killed children, possessed men, and generally make a nuisance of herself. It begins brilliantly, with each of the filmmakers getting a brief introduction. They are Heather, the pushy, obnoxious, self-regarding director, and her camera operators, Josh and Mike, two likable (if always slightly stoned or drunk) slackers. We don’t dislike Heather, but her personality does take some getting used to. She would have made a decent Hollywood director if things had worked out differently. Mike and Josh are personable, smart, and owners of incredibly foul mouths. This movie has more F-bombs than anything this side of Tarantino.

Let us take stock of the three characters – they’re all very Nineties. Using cheap camera equipment (which they are conscious of getting back on time!), they no doubt found inspiration in the DIY style of filmmaking that reigned supreme in the early Nineties. Kevin Smith was probably a big hero of theirs, or maybe Richard Linklater or Jon Favreau. Mike and Josh look very grunge, in their muddy plaid shirts, canvas pants, boots and scruffy beards. (Heather has adopted pretty much the same style.) You can almost hear Pearl Jam, Nirvana and System of a Down playing in the background. The movie is a perfect window in the attitudes of its time.

Let’s also consider the technology. There’s not a single digital doo-dad or cell phone in the movie. Would GPS have saved these kids from their fate? Would an iPhone have been the answer to all their problems? As it is, they’re limping around with a map that is so ineffective that, at one point, a character foolishly kicks it into a creek. Seriously, who uses a map anymore? By today’s standards, 1994 might as well have been 1934. It’s no wonder these kids get so badly lost.

At the heart of the film is, of course, the mystery of the Blair Witch, but the real drama is what happens between the kids. The group dynamic is one of tension, distrust, suspicion, and, ultimately, paranoia. We don’t know if these three were friends before the story began; they certainly don’t end up that way. As the danger increases, they become a bigger threat to themselves (and each other) than the witch … which might, of course, be part of the supernatural aspect of the story. Is the witch driving them insane, turning them against each other? Was Mike persuaded to dispose of the map? Have they intentionally been led astray, far from the trail, into the woods? Why is it they seem to be wandering in circles, unable to read their own compass? Do the laws of nature and physics no longer apply? Have they entered an alternate reality? Wouldn’t it have been funny if our wandering heroes stumbled accidentally into the cast of “The Village”?

The movie is spine-tingling in its you-are-there atmosphere; some scenes, especially the one where they’re visited in the middle of the night by something that sounds approximately like a squalling baby, are absolutely terrifying. The three actors playing Josh, Heather and Mike are never anything less than convincing; it would be hard seeing them in different roles. The woods are scary, enigmatic, cold, dead. The folktales related at the beginning of the movie are hair-raising, both in their details and in what they leave to the imagination. Just as there would seem to be multiple ways out of the woods for our doomed young heroes, there seem to be as many explanations for what they’re experiencing, what (or who) may or may not be stalking them.

Then there’s the conclusion, which takes place in the most literal description of a haunted house I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen lots of haunted house movies. This old hell house in the middle of the woods (which strangely never appears until the “witch” wants it to) is terrifying, yet we understand totally why the two remaining cast members would feel compelled to enter. They have no choice; their friend might be inside, and if he is, he’s in terrible, mortal danger. Wait, are those bloody handprints on the walls? Handprints of … children? Oh, let us not linger here too long.

The movie ends as it probably should, on exactly the right note, giving us a definitive answer without taking anything away from the mystery of the Blair Witch. We know what happens, but we don’t know how, or why. We never actually see the witch, but is there any other explanation for what we’ve seen? Sure, it could be a bunch of lunatic rednecks, but … really? Everything we’ve seen and heard up until the final shot seems to point to something else.

Yet the ending doesn’t at all feel depressing or unnecessary. Some movies are too brutal for their own good; the blood quotient detracts from the suspense. This is a movie that demands you pay attention and listen; if you’re in the market for mindless violence, CGI creatures, actors in masks, or easy answers that are comprehensible and comprehensive, this isn’t for you. I wouldn’t even call this movie a classic; it still feels too edgy for that, and classics are generally set in stone. “The Blair Witch Project” remains a living document, a horror movie that is more about the human condition than the supernatural. It is alive, and surreal, and exists on a level of its own. Nothing else can touch it.

 

 

 

 

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Bed racing at SAU

At each year’s Family Day celebration at Southern Arkansas University, student organizations hold the Bed Races on campus. This is a fun, athletic event, hot even in October, that emphasizes a lot of what SAU is about – social connections in a burgeoning academic atmosphere. I photographed the event, and though most of my pix will probably get filed away on a server somewhere, these were my personal favorites.

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The Craig 007 series

There is something about the spy genre that I find fascinating, over and above science fiction, action, romance, almost any other category there is. While I won’t claim to have seen all the classic spy dramas (I still have not seen, for example, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” starring Gary Oldman), I have imbibed of quite a few spy novels and am, of course, a huge admirer of Ian Fleming and the James Bond films inspired by his books.

I enjoy the Fleming novels for his economy of style, his verbal wit, and psychological depth he gave Bond on the page. The books focus as much on Bond’s lifestyle – or any English gentleman’s of the 1960s – as they do on SMERSH or MI6 or the gadgets that consumed and defined the films (sometimes unfortunately). You get a real sense for Bond’s personal tastes in alcohol, clothing, cars, and, of course, women. Both Bond and his creator are, were, connoisseurs of women, and though some of this attitude comes off as mighty sexist today, it’s all part and parcel of the underground through which 007 navigates.

I won’t go into the roster of actors who’ve played Bond over the last 55 years but will say, briefly, that Sean Connery is the definitive Fleming Bond – debonair, sophisticated, deeply sexist, casually violent. (Roger Moore was a cartoon caricature, Pierce Brosnan a block of wood, and I never saw either of the Daltons.)

Comes now before us Daniel Craig, who’s not new to the franchise – he was first announced as Bond almost 15 years ago – but brings something different to the character, and that is brutality. Where Connery seemed to almost hate getting into dust-ups with bad guys – he’d much rather wine and dine the ladies, and indulge in the latest gadgetry from Q branch – Craig’s 007 lives for the fight. He puts violence first and physical comfort second. He plays Bond as a wolf, a killer, the shadowy assassin that he always was, and his films are altogether different than any Bonds that have come before.

The best of them is still “Casino Royale” from 2006, which I think is that year’s best movie. It’s not only an action classic in and of itself, but embraces all the essential elements of Bond in a fresh, exciting way. Directed with style and humor by Martin Campbell, the film (based on the first James Bond novel, by the way) has all the accoutrements of Bond – lavish locations, beautiful women, enviable modes of transport, stylish clothing, top-flight alcohol – but none of the clichés that had come to ruin the Moore and Brosnan entries. The gadgets are kept to a minimum, the bad guys are totally plausible, and the level of idiocy – well, there’s no idiocy at all in this movie, it’s smart and thoroughly entertaining.

Craig pretty much owns the role from the opening frame, in which he attains 007 status by cold-heartedly killing two traitors to the Empire. He’s an attack dog kept on a leash by M, played with steely-eyed relish by Judi Dench. There is no physical challenge Craig can’t master, whether it’s running, leaping, dodging, punching, stabbing, etc. Watching him play Bond for the first time, I thought of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. It’s a great action performance. Craig also nails all the subtleties of Bond, whether reacting with sly pleasure to a sip of cold vodka, or gloating privately over the death of a terrorist. (He’s also the best poker player in the business, apparently.) There is never a moment we don’t believe him as Bond – not a Bond imitator, but Bond. The final scene, in which he finally delivers the famous line – “The name’s Bond …. James Bond,” is so perfectly timed, in just the right time and place, that you can’t help but look forward to his next outing.

That next outing was 2008’s “Quantum of Solace,” which must have gone before the cameras without much of a script, as it was a noticeable step down from the narrative complexities of “Casino Royale.” This is a straightforward road movie in which Bond kills a lot of guys in a lot of locations and looks good doing it. That is about the extent of this movie. It got bad reviews but did well enough at the box office to bring Craig back for a third film.

Next up was 2012’s spectacular, smashing, unforgettable “Skyfall,” one of the greatest action movies of all time, second only to “Casino Royale” in terms of advancing Bond’s character and getting the most out of Craig. This movie, directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, ignores most of the plotlines left over from its predecessors and plunges into a new adventure. Javier Bardem plays the villain, a scary super-terrorist named Silva with former ties to MI6. This movie is a blast, its lavish visual style matched by Craig’s ferocity and Bardem’s weirdness. Yeah, there’s a lot to swallow here – Bardem seems to have bombs planted magically all across London – but “Skyfall” remains the most down-to-earth and believable Bond, which we never even knew we wanted. It’s a great movie.

Finally, Mendes and Craig returned to Bond with “Spectre” in 2015. This is the most uneven and slightly disappointing entry in the series (“QOS” not withstanding). As it ties up loose ends from “Skyfall,” it also brings in characters and situations from the first two films, attempting to tuck them all underneath the umbrella of an overarching criminal organization called, well, SPECTRE. This is classic Bond, culled straight from the Connery films as well as from the pages of Fleming, but Mendes delivers a slightly botched screenplay that contains a few large holes, especially toward the end. The atmosphere is thick enough to choke several undercover operatives, and everything about the film is sleek and smoothed and gorgeous. Craig once again owns the role of Bond, almost making us forget anyone else ever played the part. Unfortunately, the role of Blofeld, filled in by Oscar-winning Tarantino favorite Christoph Waltz, has little or no dramatic weight – he’s fey and fussy, not intimidating or particularly evil. Mendes compensates by blowing stuff up real good, but this is supposed to be Bond, not Rambo. And when Bond knocks an escaping helicopter out of the sky with little more than his Walther PPK – from a speedboat on the Thames, no less – well, that’s kind of asking a bit much.

Still, I like “Spectre” overall. It’s more detailed and atmospheric than “QOS,” and has several amazing scenes, including the pre-titles action sequence set in Mexico City (Bond blows up a building and commandeers a chopper) and a brutal close-quarters fight on a train between Craig and man-mountain Dave “The Animal” Bautista, who definitely deserves his own espionage flick.

All four Craig-as-Bond films have crack supporting casts and memorable faces that emerge from the shadows to give 007 either support or hell. What would the series be without the ladies? Eva Green’s Vesper Lind is still the best “Bond Girl” of the 00s; she’s sleek and seductive, smart and deceitful, all at once. The “Casino Royale” script gives her the best dialogue of almost any character in any of the films. After enduring an especially wrathful tongue-lashing from Vesper, Bond comments that he feels “skewered.” Naturally, he falls in love with her.

The biggest disappointments may be the Bond girls in “QOS” and “Spectre,” who’re given little to do and fail to provide much of a romantic pulse. But this Bond isn’t distracted at all times by the bedroom. Craig has shit to do. He beds down with only one female acquaintance per film, more or less – maybe two in “Spectre.” This isn’t Connery’s Bond, who played a good host to any number of luscious babes in his films. Craig, who’s operating in a post-9/11 environment, really doesn’t have the time.

Then there are the cars, weapons, and other accessories that make Bond who he is. I have to say that all are top-notch, though Craig doesn’t seen enamored of any particular make or model of anything (except gin and vodka, don’t forget the lemon peel). His suits are as well-cut as he is, and he gets to wear an awesome white tuxedo for his dining-car fight with Bautista. Craig also dresses down for much of his stalking; he spends a good deal of time in “QOS” in simple fatigues, appropriate for his humid adventure in Haiti.

The villains of the Craig films are, as I said, an uneven bunch. Bardem might be best of show, but Mads Mikkelson runs a close second as the blood-weeping Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.” (He does, after all, get to bust Bond’s balls, in a scene that forever hands the toughest-guy-in-the-world mantle over to Craig.) Most disappointing would be Dominc Greene, the baddie in “QOS,” who’s little more than a quivering, bug-eyed fool.

One thing: Craig’s Bond doesn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to save the world. Unlike other Bonds, there’s no ticking time bomb threatening to wipe out a city or half the planet; there’s no mention of nuclear weaponry in any of them. Hell, Bond’s biggest goal in “QOS” is protecting the water supply of Bolivia! Even the dastardly Silva, in “Skyfall,” is focused on hacking infrastructure and banking, and not, say, the world’s nuclear missile silos. The smaller stakes make for a more intimate Bond, but for some reason, I can’t help but think 9/11 changed things. There’s no mention, for example, of al-Qaeda, which would have made a natural enemy for 007. Craig’s Bond is part of the real world, but not too real.

Finally, we have the supposedly iconic theme songs of the past four films. I dislike pretty much all of them, with the possible exception of the title song to “Skyfall,” sung by Adele (which won the Oscar). There’s not a “Goldfinger” or a “Moonraker,” a “For Your Eyes Only” or “All Time High” or “Nobody Does It Better” in the bunch. Sorry. Fail. Next time, the producers need to just go ahead and hire U2 to record a balls-out rock song. They’ve already written the lyrics to one Bond song, “GoldenEye,” but this time, the band needs to play it.

 

 

 

Pandemonium

As I read with dismay and astonishment the news of GateHouse Media’s purchase and “streamlining” (oh, how Orwell would love that phrase!) of The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City, I realize with finality that I no longer work in the newspaper business. Don’t now, and will never again.

GateHouse, that devourer of all things American, democratic and good, purchased The Oklahoman last week and promptly dismissed (laid off, fired, choose your nomenclature) some 35 employees, many of whom had been with the newspaper for decades. After subjecting the staff to a bunch of nonsense about how rosy the future would look under GateHouse, the sharks then reportedly sent out emails to those employees who’d gotten the shaft. (I think the more exact wordage was along the lines of, “Check your email for a special surprise announcement from GateHouse!”) According to the diplomatically-worded story on Poynter, “pandemonium” then broke out as unsuspecting staffers began trying to find out who was safe and who had been evicted. At that point, the article states, the “meeting began to disintegrate.”

Yes, apparently GateHouse managed to sabotage its own “hey there, pard!” meeting by laying off workers. Fantastic start, assholes. Way to go.

Ah, well, I don’t work for GateHouse Media and don’t really know anyone who does. I didn’t work for The Oklahoman. But, I do feel for each and every journalist stuck on the payroll of this corporate Great White, which swims through an ocean of money, sniffing out victims and devouring them whole. It is becoming the biggest and most distrusted purchaser of media properties and has cultivated a reputation for shitting out the remains of ingested community newspapers. It does so by portraying itself as some kind of fiscal savior, claiming, “Boy, these books are a mess, the first thing we gotta do is get rid of some of these fucking people!”

This is the fate of the newspaper industry. It is full of talented, bright, educated, well-read, tech-savvy, compassionate, dedicated people, all of whom are now threatened by Donald Trump, “fake news,” mass shooters, and corporate pigs like GateHouse. We don’t even bother with blaming the messenger, now we just shoot him (or her).

When I was a kid starting out, our management was, more or less, local. Our publisher came to work every day like all the rest of us, from the janitor on up to the editor. True, he sat in his office on the phone all day, only occasionally coming out to yell at us, but he didn’t have six other failing properties under his umbrella, either. He worked in our building, for and with us, and we all suffered the same pains and felt the same joys together. I’m talking about a very brief time, here, for maybe two years in the early 90s. Then it all began to change.

I remain convinced that things started changing the day I was introduced to my first Macintosh computer. I have no empirical basis for this claim, but nothing was ever the same once I started pushing a cursor around on a screen. Immediately after came email, then the Internet, and then the ability for me to sit in my office in Magnolia while my boss sits in his house 250 miles away, telling me how to do my job. Today, Indians sit in air-conditioned buildings in Mumbai doing the work of your local hometown reporter; all it takes is a phone call and a server. The concept of a “local newspaper” doesn’t even make sense anymore. It certainly isn’t fiscally sound.

I wouldn’t be so bitter if GateHouse hadn’t recently shut down four (4) of our area newspapers, two of which I used to work for. It isn’t the most pleasant sensation knowing that a good bit of your work history no longer exists, although I’m sure millions of other Americans have found themselves in the same situation, especially since the Crash of 2008. Corporations do nothing but buy, sell and fold, with no thought as to the consequences. But this is nothing new.

I doubt I will work for a newspaper again. I’m not sure I’d ever want to. The skills it takes to put out a newspaper are no longer valued; there’s no real call for “great layout,” or even a great headline. It is an antiquated profession, today’s equivalent of the horse and buggy. Besides, how many newspapers do I read in a given day? Fuck-all zero. My news comes from a small glass rectangle I hold in my hand. I haven’t looked at a newspaper in two years.

So, the industry is fading into a static-y blur of corporate incompetence and greed. I’m sorry to say it, but the handwriting was on the wall 20 years ago. Now the ax has fallen. For myself, I am trying to get a master’s degree and move on to a new field, something completely different. Maybe I’ll go to work for the CIA, who knows. For now, I lament the fate of democracy. Dicks like GateHouse certainly won’t stick up for it.

 

 

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is no less than the fourth SW movie pumped out by Disney in as many years, and in spite of its flaws and overall irrelevance, it’s a fun, old-fashioned little throwback to a more innocent-feeling era – specifically, the late-1970s, when George Lucas released “A New Hope.”

This movie endured more than its share of production problems, including, famously, the firing of its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were apparently not getting things done fast enough to suit the Disney machine. Ron Howard, a reputable but sometimes bland director, stepped in to lead the film to the finish line, and I have to say, his skills and personality and well-suited to “Star Wars.”

The film is light, witty, often charming, and tremendously entertaining, all of which it wants to be, in spades. It is the second “Star Wars Story,” Disney code for SW movies that aren’t official Skywalker episodes but fill in some of the blanks we might have always wondered about. I personally never wondered about Han Solo’s back story, which this film provides, or the suicidal raid on an Imperial stronghold to steal the Death Star plans, which “Rogue One” detailed in 2016. Some things are best left to the imagination, if told at all. (I was always more curious in Han’s post-“Return of the Jedi” career, but the Powers That Be decided to go back in time.)

I happened to like this movie more than “Rogue One,” if for no other reason than this story is more fun and Howard’s approach more entertaining – more farcical and space opera-ish – than the Gareth Edwards film, which was a closed loop, a suicide squad story if ever there was one. “Rogue One” was the first fully nihilistic SW movie, which in my view is a bit antithetical to the vision George Lucas crafted way back when. But that’s just me.

“Solo” takes the unprecedented and somewhat heretical step of re-casting its title character, played originally by the iconic Harrison Ford. Howard, Lucasfilm and Disney chose Alden Ehrenreich – an unknown – to play Solo, and the gamble sort of works. I liked Ehrenreich’s performance, even if it is imitation Ford. He’s snarky, witty, poses well for the camera, and strikes a properly rebellious tone. I don’t know if Ehrenreich will ever work again after this movie – Hollywood tends to take down actors after one big, controversial role – but I think time will ultimately be kind to this actor, who does the best he can with the material he’s given.

The movie was judged as a box office failure because it didn’t ignite the world by scoring $600 million on its opening day. It did score somewhere around $300 million, which is great for any mortal film, but chickenfeed for Disney and Star Wars. I dunno why people didn’t pack theaters for this one for months on end; maybe they’d already spent their summer movie money on “The Avengers.” “Solo” is certainly better than, say, “Jurassic World 2” (I refuse to use its subtitle), which was a box office smash but an artistic and creative stillbirth. Is it better than “Avengers: Infinity War”? I’d say no, simply because IW scores a greater emotional impact with that OMG finish, but I would in no way call “Solo” a failure.

So what happens in this movie? Well, we meet the young Han, portrayed as a stoic flyboy-wannabe orphan living in tough conditions on his home world of Corellia, from which he tries to escape with his girlfriend Q’ura (not sure the spelling, doesn’t matter). She’s played by Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones” and in every way makes a welcome addition to the (irrelevant) SW backstory universe. Q’ura doesn’t make it off Corellia, but Han goes on to enlist in the Imperial Navy, in which he achieves his dream of becoming a pilot.

Or so we’re told, because we never actually see Han flying a ship until later in the film. During a violent battle, Han meets three rogue thieves out to steal equipment for a big intergalactic heist. They are led by the swaggering Beckett (Woody Harrelson, perfect) and his girlfriend, played by Thandie Newton. (The girlfriend, frankly, is killed so early in the film she barely makes an impression.) This all leads to a spectacular and vastly entertaining set piece where Beckett, Solo and Chewie (oh, yeah, Chewie!) raid a magnetic train soaring through high snow-capped mountains. This scene alone is reason to see the movie – it’s fun, and has consequences for the characters.

This movie sets us up for everything that would come later in the life of Han Solo. We see how Beckett influenced him, how Han met Chewie (it’s a pretty good scene!), how Han acquires his iconic blaster, and find out how he developed his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. It features no Jedi, no Skywalkers, no lightsabers, no Rebel Alliance, no Death Star, and I find that refreshing. (There is one callback to an earlier [or future?]) SW Episode, which I wish the film had pursued, even to the point of making this guy the main villain.)

There are two other major developments in the film – Han’s introduction to Lando Calrissian (played here by Donald Glover) and his first flight of the Millennium Falcon. These are two wonderful story points that make the film really worth seeing. I don’t care whether “Solo” was considered a box office disappointment, or whether Disney goes on making standalone SW movies. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this outing. You don’t have to see it, but if you do, you won’t be sorry.

 

The primordial insanity of ‘Mandy’

 

Watching “Mandy,” directed by Panos Cosmatos, I realized with a shock how cool it is to see Nicolas Cage again in a movie worth seeing. I can’t remember the last time I saw Cage in a worthwhile film. Maybe “Face/Off” from 1997? Or “Con Air”? Or maybe one of those “National Treasure” things? It’s been awhile.

Ah! I’ve got it! The last decent film that starred Cage was “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” which was almost as insane as “Mandy,” but not quite. Nothing is as insane as “Mandy.” It is original, unique, in many ways, brilliant. And it is not what I’d call entertainment. The best thing about it is Cage, but there are many, many good things about it. It just isn’t the kind of movie you’d want to subject your mother to.

I’m going to have to watch “Mandy” at least one more time to fully “get it,” but after a first viewing, I would say that it is A) unlike anything else I’ve ever seen and B) absolutely batshit insane bonkers. What the hell is this movie, anyway? Well, for starters, it is a horror movie – as horrific, terrifying, gruesome, brutal, and suspenseful as anything you know, perhaps more so. It is not a comedy. It is not a spoof. It is not “ironic.” It is not someone’s clever take on the horror genre. It’s a horror movie, as in horrible things happen to people who are undeserving of their fate. And, horrible things happen to people who are totally deserving. There’s not much more to it than that. Or is there?

It is a revenge movie, too, on the lines of “Death Wish” and the original “Mad Max.” As a matter of fact, it reminded me a lot of “Mad Max,” in its production design, in its energy, in its crazy obsession with serving up just desserts to the scummiest people on the face of the planet. Let’s not even call them people; they are more like dogs, or demons. Dogs get more respect, and are more deserving of our empathy. The bad guys in “Mandy” exist to do bad things, and to die at the hands of Nic Cage.

This movie has two modes, or halves. In the first, we get to know Red Miller (Cage) and his ethereal girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough, stunning). They are deeply in love and live alone in the American Northwest, in a remote, wooded area called the Misty Mountains. We know this because a flashy, glitzy 1970s-styled title card sets the location for us. It also tells us the year: 1983. Absolutely nothing about this movie suggests it is set in 1983, but then again, 1983 seems just the right time period. It’s very retro, very analog. There are no cell phones. Television is just basic cable. Everything is rundown, old, shabby, yet also flashy and cool – kinda like 1983.

I have not yet even begun to suggest the STYLE of this movie. It is, in all honesty, like the cover of a 1980s Heavy Metal album come vividly to life. Cosmatos drenches every lovingly-shot frame of this film in color – deep reds and purples, shocking yellows, scary blacks. He doesn’t deploy his color filters strategically, or sparingly – the whole movie is oversaturated, and a pure joy to behold. From a sheer visual perspective, this is a gorgeous film. Some of the shots you just want to freeze so you can stare at them, and Cosmatos is the kind of director who favors long takes, and silence, so that his camera can tell the story. I can’t be sure, but I think dialogue is held to a minimum. The actors’ faces convey so much.

So does the music. There is not a moment in this film that isn’t scored by the late, great composer, Johann Johannsson, who takes your basic synthesizer-heavy music from the early 1980s and somehow makes it feel futuristic, like the Vangelis score for “Blade Runner” – only louder, darker, more menacing, and scary as hell. The score is part of the character of the film, and helps tell the story. There is pretty much no need for dialogue; all the other elements, including the acting, are turned up to 11.

OK, so, the first half of the film ends with an encounter with the Children of the New Dawn, a terrifying, unexplained, senseless drug cult existing out in the wilderness next to Red and Mandy. Its charismatic leader, Jeremiah, falls in love with Mandy, or thinks he does. All he knows is that, after one glance, he “needs” her. His disciples – braindead druggies who’ve long since given themselves over to Jeremiah’s fascistic cult of personality – endeavor to kidnap Mandy and bring her into the New Dawn. This plan ends in disaster and brutal death. I shouldn’t have to say this, but Mandy’s final scene is hard to watch.

This leaves Red to carry out a mission of revenge that is hardcore, gory, and wholly fun, as long as you can stand a lot of blood. His quest takes him to another lonely fella in the woods, Caruthers, played by the great Bill Duke. Caruthers gives Red the back story on the cultists, and on the demonic apparitions summoned by Jeremiah to help him kidnap and kill Mandy. (These demons … well, there’s almost nothing I can say about them. You’ll just have to see for yourself.) He hands over some weapons to Red, who pledges to kill the “crazy evil!”

I’ve totally skipped over the feeling of magical realism in this movie, which exists in a kind of parallel fantasy world that’s like a live-action Frazetta painting. Mandy is a beautiful, delicate, harmless forest creature, and Red is her caveman protector. When she dies, he goes into overdrive, tapping into some primordial rage that simply cannot be extinguished. In keeping with the film’s surreal tone, Red forges for himself a heavy metal axe that can be used for only one purpose: splitting fucking heads. He puts said axe to said use.

The movie is violent but never ugly, unforgiving but never exploitative. There are parts of it that you don’t want lingering in your imagination or you’ll have sleepless nights. There are parts you won’t want to watch at night, or with the lights out. It is heavy, intense, remorseless. It is a horror movie, through and through, but sort of fun, and there’s nothing quite like watching unredeemable bastards get what’s coming to them. Red spends the final hour of this movie chopping, stabbing, punching, kicking, blasting, choking and otherwise slaughtering all those who wronged him and murdered Mandy. I’m not giving away anything by saying this; I’m simply telling you what happens. The plot is simplicity itself. Fiends kill woman; woman’s boyfriend gets even.

Nicolas Cage not only owns this movie, he was born to play this role. He disappears into the character. Red has almost no dialogue, and what there is, Cage spews out in horror and disgust. His scene with Bill Duke is poetic perfection. But there’s an even better scene, one everybody will be talking about – the moment Red finally reacts to what has happened to Mandy, when it finally hits home. It’s a devastating moment, and a genius piece of acting, all done in one take. Cage’s reputation has been in the shitter for the last 15-20 years; he’s taken roles he shouldn’t have, in movies that should never have been made. This one reminds us that he is an acting genius, a real, old-school, rock-star movie star, and probably the only actor who’s crazier than this movie.

 

 

Bad days at Black Rock

I’ve been experiencing frustration lately with my photography. Much of it has to do with situations and interactions with people. I have decided that there is no photography subject more difficult to deal with than other human beings. Even farm animals are more cooperative!

Lately we’ve been photographing lots of events both public and private, work-related and for-hire. This week, my wife and I have taken pictures (on a private basis) at the County Fair, in particular, the various beauty pageants. The first night, I handled the shoot alone. My frustration level was high in that none of the contestants (teen miss) did what the pageant coordinator promised. Rather than stop, pivot, pose, smile and get their pictures made, they paraded non-stop across the stage, did their thing in front of the judges, and walked smartly off. I chased them up and down the ramp trying to get a pose. Nothing doing. They simply refused. I got some pictures, but I also got a lot of smear, a lot of blur, a lot of backs of heads. Fuck all.

Later, when I attempted to get individual pictures of contestants with their prizes, they seemed irritated and impatient, and their smiles looked forced. Which leads me to wonder: do even beauty pageant contestants dislike having their pictures made? What the hell have we come to?

In this age when everybody and their cousin Mike is a photographer, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones that double as the most amazing point-and-shoot cameras the world has ever known, I think people are put off by the sight of DSLRs. Such professional-looking cameras mean that their picture really is being taken. Psychologically, I think people have gotten used to the safety and predictability of a selfie. When I show up with a big bulky black camera and all these lenses, they don’t want “their picture made.” Thanks, iPhone, for fucking up photography.

Same thing happened to me last night at a public reception at the local bank. Though the bank sponsored the event, and one of those god-awful “photo booths” had been set up for the guest of honor, hardly anyone wanted to be in the “candid” pictures I was there to make. They’d turn away, they’d make a goofy “go away” face, they’d frown, they’d look awkward – anything but engaged, happy, talkative, etc. I got crowd shots of backs of heads and shoulders. It’s almost like they were intentionally making it difficult to get an unequivocal shot of their faces. (Which is crazy, right? Surely not!) One woman even told me she had “better not” turn up in a picture of mine. I just ignored her and walked on.

Worst of all, I had a professor complain about pictures I took of her in a classroom. I thought the pictures were fine – they showed her interacting with students, gesturing, engaging in discussion. But what she saw was her own figure, which apparently is very unappealing to her. She sent me an email griping about it. She body-shamed herself!

My question is, what am I supposed to do in this situation? I can’t Photoshop the body of Angelina Jolie onto a college professor. Nor can I photograph anything other than what is in front of me – the actual subject of the photo. I’m not taking your photo to body-shame you; I’m trying to do my job.

I had taken her pictures to accompany a story, but because she complained, I pulled the pictures and instead ran one of a building, which at least can’t complain. (Or can it? Maybe the lighting was off.)

There are days when I think about simply laying the camera aside. There are days when it is goddamned hard to be a photographer. It’s one of the hardest things you can do.