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Monday
Feb042019

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot (2018)

It Stares Back

Usually when I'm not "feeling" a movie, it's difficult to point to any one particular thing and say, "That's it! That's why none of this works!" Thankfully, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot provided a giant, hairy signpost for my malaise. Toward the end of the film, as Sam Elliott wrestles with Bigfoot (sorry, "The" Bigfoot), the creature vomits thick, pink-orange sputum into Elliott's mouth. It's not just a grindhouse-trailer moment, it's a Grindhouse trailer moment, an All Caps encapsulation of what makes our collective obsession with '70s exploitation appropriation so powerful: Cult Character Actor + Kitschy, Low-Budget Premise x Over the Top Gore = Nostalgia Bomb3.

Had the rest of the movie embraced the promise of the premise (or even the era-authentic title card, complete with production date in Roman numerals), I might have been on board in the same way I rooted for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, Todd Strauss-Schulson's The Final Girls, or, to a lesser extent, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. But just about everything writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski has to offer is in the title, and in the handful of sporadic trailer-worthy moments that he scatters throughout his wildly incongruous film. This is not a midnight movie; it's Walden Pond with commercial interruptions.

I'm about to get into specifics here, so turn back now if you don't want to know precisely why this project was doomed very early on in the creative process.

Still with me? Good. Let's dive in.

The film opens with World War II veteran Calvin Barr (Elliott) remembering his time as an elite spy for the U.S. Army. In flashback, we see a twenty-something version of him (Aidan Turner) posing as an SS officer and working his way through a series of checkpoints and pat-downs before gaining access to Adolf Hitler's office.* The resolution of their encounter (and the whole Bigfoot subplot, better described as an "afterplot") isn't revealed until much later. Besides a geriatric, Jack Reacher-lite parking lot fight with some townies, much of the story hinges on Barr moping about his house and the sleepy streets of his small town, wandering in and out of existential crises and a broken heart. He was in love with a school teacher named Maxine (Caitlin Fitzgerald) before the War, you see, and The Man Who's great mystery is "Whatever Happened to the Girl Who Got Away?"

We're still left with this question at the end. I mean, she's dead. That much is handed to us in a bit of offhand dialogue that comes far too late to be helpful. But even the basic facts of Maxine's relationship with Calvin are cast aside in favor of time-jumping theatrics and morose reflection on a tragedy that doesn't really add up. How long were they together before Calvin's service? How long was Calvin away? How much time passed between Maxine's last letter to Calvin and her move to another state to live near her parents? And why, upon reading this news, didn't Calvin immediately hop on a train to win back the love of his life? Was she dead by then? If so, why didn't anyone tell Calvin when he arrived back home? More importantly, why didn't anyone bother to tell us?

These are warm-ups to The Man Who's larger conundrums, which center on the identity of Calvin Barr. He speaks multiple languages; has keen negotiating skills with Russian mystics;** and can so thoroughly James Bond his way into enemy territory that he barely breaks a sweat while assembling his anti-Hitler gun out of a flask and fashion accessories during the long wall down a heavily guarded hallway. It's entirely possible that I missed the twenty-minute exposition scene wherein we learn that Calvin is a patriotic prodigy, or the beneficiary of a Super Soldier Serum--but I don't think so. To hear this small-town hat salesman tell it, he simply "did what he was told".

Okaaaaay.

There's an even bigger problem at hand, if you can believe it. Calvin is a pacifist, or at least he abhors the idea of killing. We learn that he spent all his post-war decades crying over Maxine and drowning in regret that he murdered someone. To reiterate, that "someone" was Adolf Hitler.

This is where a training montage would have been helpful. In this instance, I don't really care about watching Calvin do fifty sit-ups in a minute or recite the Russian alphabet in as much time. No, I just want to be a fly on the wall of the Army brass as they review his record, aptitude, and psychological profile. I'm neither a military expert nor a historian, but I have a hard time accepting that Uncle Sam would entrust a pacifist with assassinating Adolf Hitler--regardless of whether or not (according to Calvin in later years) der Führer's ideas were more significant than his actual personage in 1945. The modern analogue is the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, and I suspect there's a reason we sent Navy Seals to do the job, instead of Coast Guard Reservists.

Let's compound this problem, as the movie does, by looking at The Man Who's strongest scene: two federal agents, nicknamed Flag Pin (Ron Livingston) and Maple Leaf (Rizwan Manji), visit the elderly Calvin Barr with a mission. The Bigfoot has been spotted in the wilds of Canada, and not only is it killing tourists, it's harboring a super-virus guaranteed to wipeout humanity if not contained. In an effort to warm icy tensions between the three, Flag Pin tells Calvin about the amazing yarns his grandfather used to spin about a military legend who did incredible, Top Secret things, including killing Hitler.

So now we're asked to believe that Calvin Barr--weepy, guilt-stricken pacifist Calvin Barr--was also Captain America and Indiana Jones wrapped into one. And he did all his globe-trotting adventuring without...killing anyone. Did his double-super-secret exploits involvee slapping Nazis and Communists into submission? Did he bravely sterilize the operating room during the Roswell incident? Maybe he drove Oliver North to the Iran Contra hearings?

As a character, Calvin Barr doesn't make any sense. And perhaps he's not meant to. It would take less effort than you might think to set up the fundamentals before launching into this short-sighted tall tale. Just look at Mel Gibson's much-maligned but narratively note-perfect Hacksaw Ridge. As broadly drawn as that love story was, the audience at least had a foundation for who Andrew Garfield's character (also a pacifist) was and what he was risking by heading off to war, both spiritually and relationally.

Robert Krzykowski's screenplay (and, subsequently, his film's final edit) falls into the same trap as a lot of the mid-to-late-'90s Pulp Fiction knock-offs. I don't have any insight as to how Krzykowski laid out his script, but the result feels as if he jumped in with a loose, time-jumping structure in place, rather than planning out a straightforward series of themes and "A" and "B" plots, and then re-arranging them chronologically in such a way that preserved their core integrity. Based on the end result, it looks like all the critical information that makes stories make sense was sacrificed to the cutting room in the name of expediency and "cool".

You can see evidence (circumstantial as it may be) in the Third Act, when we finally get into the Bigfoot stuff. In the course of two minutes, Calvin transitions from talking to his brother about accepting the assignment; sitting in a quarantine facility near Canada where he chooses his weapons; standing outside an impossible wall of nighttime fire in the Great White North, and then ducking behind a tree after having taken a shot at The Bigfoot sometime the next day (or the day after that. Hell, it could've been a week).

Again, I had to wonder if there weren't several scenes missing. In the last fifteen minutes, The Man Who devolves from confused movie to awkward highlight reel, which brought me back to Grindhouse. You may wonder what kind of humorless scold would spend several hours and fourteen-hundred-plus words nitpicking a movie called The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot.

I take movies seriously, even the silly ones. Especially the silly ones. If a darkly comic genius or a big-hearted, off-kilter dramatist can do the heavy lifting of locking down character, plot, motif, and structure for me, that lessens my brain's obligation to apply real-world logic to a fantasy. I don't appreciate having to confront escapism, but I'll do it--every time.

*In The Man Who's version of history, that nutcase in the bunker was one of several body doubles.

**I'm sure there's a back-slapping metaphor that ties together the fact that A) this mystic reads the future by shaving spies' faces, and B) Calvin's little brother, Ed (Larry Miller), is the town barber and the personification of Calvin's regret--but I'll be damned if I can muster up the energy to dig for it.

Friday
Feb012019

Cobra (1986)

Recoil

Cobra wasn't on my radar for thirty-three years. I always loved the painted movie poster, a knock-off of The Terminator artwork with Sylvester Stallone subbing in for Arnold Schwarzenegger as the expressionless, sunglasses-wearing murder machine. But even at nine years old, I knew to be skeptical, based on negative critical reception and a plot that sounded like Dirty Harry with less tact: a rogue L.A. cop uses his own brand of violent justice to bring down a serial killer, while (sorta) romancing the model/witness he's been enlisted to protect.*

In fairness to my miniature know-it-all self and the movie reviewers of 1986, I can see how George P. Cosmatos' gleefully authoritarian shoot-'em-up would have felt like piling on in an era of glamorized movie vigilantism and a wider Conservative culture that made dark satire like American Psycho not only possible but essential to the arts. Nowadays, if an '80s-set period piece features a photograph of Ronald Reagan in a cop's office, it's meant as a joke, a derisive jab at out-of-touch law enforcement. On the surface, there is no such irony in Cobra: "The Gipper" stares hopefully across the desk of Marion "Cobra" Cobretti (Stallone) as he prepares to stomp on due process with as much vigor as he does the throats of murderers, rapists, and drug pushers.

Three decades on, from the vantage point of peak '80s nostalgia, it's easier to appreciate Cobra for the myriad quirks that make it stand out among its contemporaries. The themes are still gross, but the balls-to-the-wall weirdness with which Cosmatos executed his adaptation of Paula Gosling's 1978 novel (which Stallone himself turned into a screenplay) suggest that the director was playing an elaborate joke on his cast, crew, studio, audience, and pop landscape. Before "Weird" Al Yankovich parodied Rambo in UHF, and before Ben Stiller ripped the action genre a new one in his "Die Hard 12" sketch for The Ben Stiller Show, America had a sterling example of meta-parody, staring at its credulous, slacked-jawed face from behind a pair of impossibly reflective Aviator shades.

Right off the bat, there's too much going on in this movie, and none of it makes any sense. We encounter a Los Angeles beset by a serial killer called "The Night Slasher" (Brian Thompson), who is also the head of an underground anarchist army that includes street-level pushers, businessmen, and even police officers (it's Project Mayhem fifteen years early). Cosmatos intercuts a regular-life-in-progress montage with hazy shots of criminals engaged in synchronized weapons-clanking. One of these psychos marches into a grocery store with a shotgun, taking lives and hostages.

Cobretti arrives n his black 1950 Mercury Monterey Coupe (license plate: "AWSOM 50"), berates the suits who reluctantly summoned him, and sneaks inside the store. Bullets fly, chests explode, products are placed, and the encounter comes to a head with one of the best tough guy exchanges in cinema history (paraphrasing):

Bad Guy: I'll destroy this entire place, man!

Cobretti: That's okay. I don't shop here.

You can guess how this scene ends.

Later, we meet a model named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) who drives by the Night Slasher's gang mid-murder. Ingrid instantly becomes their target and, following an attack on the studio where she has just wrapped a photo shoot featuring robots, smoke machines and semi-nudity, Cobretti enters her life as a protector--and as the one person who believes that the Night Slasher is more than one person. There's a lot of "business" leading to the Wild Bunch-meets Streets of Fire climax, including the Night Slasher's Halloween II-style rampage through a hospital, a car chase straight out of the files of Police Squad!, and lots of sneaking around by the death cult's main snitch-cop, Officer Stalk (yes, that's a real character, played by Lee Garlington). For a gang of psychotic, nihilist anarchists, this crew seem overly concerned with keeping a passerby from testifying in court.

Cobretti and Ingrid head to a motel in a small town up north with Cobretti's long-time, junk-food-obsessed partner, Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), and Officer Stalk in tow. Thanks to the Law of Attractive Performers, our hero and his charge begin to fall in love--despite Cobretti's nausea at the way Ingrid eats French Fries.** Two very strange things happen here:

1. Cobretti and Ingrid begin a sex scene, but don't finish it. She calls him to her bed as he (ahem) assembles his weapon. They kiss. Sexy music plays. Cut to the death cult closing in on the motel. Back in the room, Cobretti sits up from what was apparently a fully-clothed cuddle sesh, and resumes preparing for Armageddon. Some movies have sex scenes; others don't have sex scenes. The difference is usually cut and dry--not this Choose Your Own Adventure nonsense.

2. Cobretti confronts Officer Stalk about her suspicious behavior while on the case. We know he's onto her, and the fun is watching her try to make him believe that he's wrong. However, since we've seen Stalk call the death cult with the location of the motel, and have not seen any attempts by Cobretti to actually stop her, I can draw only one of two conclusions (neither are flattering to Cobretti's qualifications as an officer of the law; both are very compelling reasons to side with the straight-arrows on the force who think he's dangerous trash):

a. Cobretti doesn't actually know that this dirty cop has sold him out.

b. He looks forward to taking on an army of fifty-plus motorcycle-driving, automatic-weapons-toting maniacs whose messiah takes joy in slicing up innocent men, women, and children--ostensibly risking the lives of himself, his best friend, and his newfound snuggle buddy.

The climax of the climax finds everyone running around a foundry, immediately after a car chase during which Cobretti mowed down twenty-five bad guys while standing upright in the back of a pickup truck. The Night Slasher taunts our hero in a wild-eyed monologue about the societal degradation and weakness that he and his followers intend to eliminate. In a true bravura performance by Brian Thompson, I was reminded of Vincent Klyn's apocalyptic ravings in the movie Cyborg, which came out three years after Cobra.

Modern sensibilities dictate that the rogue cop should have realized the hypocrisy in his twisted moral code (i.e. Cobretti's policy of sinking to criminality in stopping crime is only a few degrees cruder than the Night Slasher's own bent philosophy). But we're still talking about the mid-1980s. The comparatively touchy-feely, self-aware exploits of Robocop and John McClane were still a year or more away.

Which brings us back to Cosmatos. Is it likely that he purposefully turned in a sloppily edited paean to machismo that featured one of the world's biggest action stars acting like an utter buffoon--and hoped that the dregs who showed up for the carnage wouldn't "get" that they were being spoonfed a funhouse-mirror repudiation of the so-called values they held dear?

I have no idea. This could all just be me explaining away one of the nuttiest genre flicks I've ever seen. It's possible that Cobra is just a bad movie, with no more depth than Ingrid's sex-robot co-stars, and no greater ambition than giving Stallone his own Terminator poster.

*Hell, Andrew Robinson even stars in both--playing decidedly different roles, but still...

**There's a reaction shot here that mirrors a close-up of Mark Wahlberg from Transformers: The Last Knight. In a split-second of real-world vulnerability on the part of Stallone and Marky Mark, we see what looks to be genuine confusion and revulsion. Each case may offer credence to my theory that the filmmakers were may have been screwing with absolutely everyone involved.

Monday
Jan142019

8MM (1999)

Schlock and Trade

Joel Schumacher’s 8MM turns twenty this year. As someone who didn’t see the film until a couple weeks ago, I’m struggling to evaluate it as anything more than a fascination. Nicolas Cage stars as Tom Welles, a fledgling private investigator hired by a millionaire’s widow to determine the authenticity of an 8MM film found in her dead husband's safe (the movie in question depicts a runaway teen’s murder). This dour neo-noir finds Welles immersed in underworld depravity at the expense of his family, his sanity, and his humanity. For all the allegedly edgy themes in Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay (snuff films, bondage, black market porno), there’s little to recommend in an undeniably dated thriller that’s less shocking than a CSI rerun.

I’d imaging that’s true for mainstream audiences, anyway. Pop junkies will get a premium rush from Schumacher’s follow-up to Batman and Robin. What to make, for instance, of Catherine Keener’s thankless turn as the distraught Wife of a Cop on the Edge?* Did she bring anything extraordinary to the role? Or did I just imagine she did, based on performances she’s delivered in the intervening decades?

Impossible to say for sure.

Then there’s the Three Degrees of Face/Off factor: Keener fills Joan Allen’s slot from the ’97 John Woo blockbuster, also starring Cage. Also, 8MM’s antagonist is played by an actor who also appeared as a rival of Cage’s character in that film (even though John Travolta played Cage in those scenes**).

Speaking of unintentional crossovers, is it possible that Schumacher and Walker are big True Romance fans? How else to explain the appearance of James Gandolfini as a murderous scumbag, and the main villain’s assertion that he likes killing people in order to watch their expression change?

The no-fun answer, of course, is “coincidence”.

Then there's 8MM's bizarre ideas about the trajectory of home video. The 8MM film is practically a Maguffin, since no other 8MM films appear in the movie (there is also, given the age of the supposed crime, no reason for the murder to have been captured on such arcane media). The currency of Welles' underworld is VHS tapes. One character makes a passing reference to snuff films making their way onto the Internet, but it's worth noting that disc technology, which dominated the consumer market for nearly two decades in the wake of VHS, doesn't even get a nod. It's as if, on top of everything else, 8MM is secretly an alternate-reality fantasy.

The movie's pièce de résistance, though, is Joaquin Phoenix as Max California, Welles’ scrappy tour guide through the underbelly of illegal entertainment. Again, his performance may only excite pop historians that get a thrill tracking the careers of rare child actors who develop into Oscar-nominated powerhouses. Indeed, I experienced another bout of the Keener Problem during 8MM's climax, assuming that what happens to Max California doesn't really happen to him, based on what I know of characters Joaquin Phoenix became known for playing in later years. When I realized that Walker hadn't planted a climactic twist in his screenplay, and that I'd simply been watching an oddly earnest performance from a young actor who was not long for these kinds of roles--honestly, part of me got giddy.

You don't read much about giddiness in criticism of movies about kidnapping and murder, but that's just another checkmark in 8MM's "Plus" column. I don't know if I would've given a damn about this film in 1999. All I have is my reaction in the modern context, and it's pass-the-popcorn positive.

Thank God for that.

Who wants to rewind the tape on joy?

*You’re right: Welles isn’t a cop, but he fits the archetype.

**Those who’ve never seen Face/Off are right to assume these are the words of a crazy person.

Wednesday
Jan022019

First Reformed (2018)

Void Where Prohibited

Throw a handful of popcorn and you'll hit several films about middle-aged men grappling with existential crises. This phenomenon is genre-agnostic. From Tony Stark's superhero-ethics quandaries to Jackson Maine's struggle to keep his life from becoming a country song, I've seen this story a hundred (thousand) times, and in about as many forms. But I've rarely seen it presented with as much brilliant, questioning depth as in Paul Schrader's First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, an upstate New York minister whose congregation is as thin as his self-esteem. Besides grappling with a dead son, a divorce, alcoholism, and nagging pains in both his gut and spirit, Toller must prepare for his church's 250th anniversary re-dedication (which is being overseen by a local mega-church and sponsored by a fossil fuel magnate) and counsel a troubled young couple who are expecting their first child.

Schrader begins with a gimmick: Toller has resolved to keep a journal of unedited thoughts for a full year, the contents of which are available to the audience and God by way of Hawke's detached voice-over. We see the pastor's daily routines, his nightly binges, and his forced composure when dealing with his boss/benefactor (Cedric The Entertainer, framed in a perpetual fish-eye closeup that underscores the weird duality of holy service and corporatism). We also catch glimpses of his former self, as he tries to walk a fanatical environmentalist from the doorstep of violent activism into the more hopeful (but equally problematic) realm of fatherhood.

The narration becomes Schrader's dramatized prayer, offering up Toller's fears and frustrations to a force that may (or may not) give meaning to the seemingly random world it created. Later on, the truth of the film's structure really hits home. We begin with an outline that appears to have been painstakingly written by a master creator. Gradually, Toller loses all sight of his already shaky guiding principles, and becomes obsessed with what amounts to a secular religion. From here, the film's conception of reality breaks apart. Narrative and visual language become polluted, marked by expulsions of pent-up rage, erotic hallucinations, and a climax in which damnation symbolizes rebirth.

That's one interpretation, anyway. First Reformed ends abruptly, leaving us to wonder about the master plan we'd been led to believe existed at the outset. Ultimately, the audience's frustration is Toller's, too: Sadly, if there is a "higher power" at work, its only interest in us may resemble the marginal fascination of gradually applying heat to corn kernels and watching them explode.

Monday
Dec242018

Vice (2018)

Like an idiot, I expected Vice to be a Dick Cheney biopic. Writer/director Adam McKay follows up his powerful and informative housing-crash drama The Big Short with a cartoon, a red-meat polemic aimed strictly at progressives whose political memory drops out between late 2008 and early 2016. Speaking of Barack Obama, the best way to describe this film's disappointing lopsidedness is to imagine a right-leaning McKay crafting a seering POTUS 44 biopic: We open on an aimless black kid snorting cocaine in the 1970s. Later, he ascendeds to the presidency on a wave of identity politics and aspirational charm. He leaves office having overseen unprecedented journalist prosecutions and deportations, and an expansion of his predecessor’s war campaigns into so many countries that we nearly ran out of bombs. All true. But weaving a context-free narrative from speculation and bullet points doesn’t make you a historian. It makes you Dinesh D’Souza.