Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Small Wonders, Big Missteps

Carol Kane in THE DEAD DON’T DIE (they just get wasted)

When you cut the zombies in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), puffs of red dust explode from the wound. It’s a nifty effect that, sadly, stands as the film’s main addition to walking dead lore. For a movie that wears its affection for the genre on its sleeve, this deadpan spoof is sadly lacking in all the elements that make films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Zombie (1979) and 28 Days Later (2002) such delirious delights.
The picture seems to be an arrangement of comedy sketches, using pauses and repetition for comic effect. That requires a great deal of discipline and control on the part of the performers. It’s a natural tendency to want to speed up to get laughs. But Jarmusch’s cast—including such solid comic actors as Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Steve Buscemi—keeps the pace down through the funnier bits, so the film starts off well.
The plot involves the reanimation of the dead after a series of fracking exercises at the North and South Poles—the kind of crazy causality you find in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Return of the Dead (1985). Before long, corpses are popping out of graves and rising from slabs at the local mortuary. As in Dawn of the Dead (1978), in addition to eating the living, they're preoccupied with their main interests in life. That's a joke with a rather short shelf life. Once you've seen them going for coffee or nicotine or booze, the bit doesn't go anywhere. Jarmusch has also cast a few name performers as zombies, and it seems rather a waste to put Carol King into a film where all she does is say "Chardonnay" before being dispatched.
But then, after the first few scenes establishing the film's comic rhythms, Jarmusch doesn't make particularly good use of anybody in the cast.  Tilda Swinton, who usually can steal a film with the lift of an eyebrow, appears as the town's new mortician, a mysterious Scot who carries a katana. She's great at offing zombies, but she's been given next to nothing to work with. Bits like repeatedly addressing everybody by their full names just don't go anywhere.
At least her character gets something of an arc. Others, like a group of teens headed by Selena Gomez, get lost in the parade of shambling corpses. The kids arrive in the same type of car driven by Johnny and Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, and everybody thinks they're from Pittsburgh (where George Romero's film was shot). Then they vanish until they turn up dead with no explanation. A trio of youngsters in a home for delinquent youth (and we never learn why they're there; there's hardly anything delinquent about them) run off to hide, and that's the last we see of them.
By that time, the film has worn out its welcome. The final scenes are almost an anthology of all the stupid things people do in horror movies -- locking themselves up in buildings and forgetting to secure the back door; driving into the cemetery from which the dead are rising, etc, At that point, the deliberate pace that was funny in earlier scenes, when nobody can figure out what's going on, works against the film. The improbabilities move the film into the realm of farce, which needs to move quickly so you don't have time to question all the craziness going on. The picture dies on the vine, its conclusion met with a collective "Huh?" (that's not exaggeration; I actually heard that from several seats while I was watching the film). It’s almost as if the film were made by the living dead, which makes it a rather typical Hollywood production.

An animated Steve Carell and his surprisingly hot shoulders in WELCOME TO MARWEN

The computer-animated scenes in Robert Zemcikis' Welcome to Marwen (2018) are a subversive treat. They’re inspired by a true story. After a hate-inspired attack left artist Mark Hogencamp unable to draw, he turned his home into an artistic installation, a miniature World War II Belgian village called Marwencol (reduced to Marwen for most of the movie). He filled it with dolls he transformed into a female fighting force lead by a U.S. military captain. Since the attack was triggered by Hogencamp's drunken revelation that he liked to wear women's shoes, the captain wears high heels while fighting Nazis, a queer image if ever there was one.
In Zemickis' film these images come to life, with motion-capture technology turning Steve Carell, Merritt Weaver, Janelle Monae, Gwendoline Brooks and others into the stars of a computer-animated war film. The figures have the stiff-legged gait of dolls, and when Carel's Cap'n Hogie takes his shirt off, it reveals the shoulder armature, which is oddly sexy. Best of all is a scene in which he not only wears heels while fighting the enemy but also uses them as weapons. As long as the animated scenes dominate the action, the picture is liberatingly subversive, dismantling essentialist notions of masculinity and femininity.
Unfortunately, Welcome to Marwen is not an entirely animated film. After the first war scene, in which Cap'n Hogie's female protectors save him from a Nazi squad, the picture transitions into live action. It follows Hogencamp (Carell) as he deals with memory loss and PTSD and tries to work up the courage to deliver a victim-impact statement at the trial of his assailants and attend a gallery opening for his photos of Marwen. Were these scenes treated in a realistic manner, they'd provide a fascinating counterpoint to the animated fantasy. But they're not. Rather, they're a throwback to the romanticism of Hollywood at its height. The plot materials are contemporary, but the treatment is glossy and artificial.
You can't blame the actors for this. They're doing what the script requires of them. Carel, whose first successes were in the American version of The Office and a series of surprisingly intelligent sex comedies, immerses himself in Hogencamp's emotional state. He doesn't rely on any of his comic tricks to wink at the audience and reassure them he's not really as tortured or eccentric as the character seems. Then again, he doesn't have to. The film keeps doing that for him.
For some reason, Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson's script creates a love interest for Hogencamp (the real Hogencamp has had no romantic involvements since his attack). Leslie Mann plays Nicol, a woman who's just moved across the street. As his fascination with her grows, Hogencamp even adds her character to the Marwen installation and changes its name to Marwencol. Mann is a perfectly capable actress, but she's saddled with a barely defined role. Nicol is some kind of eternal innocent, a figure right out of Victorian literature and Golden Age Hollywood. She works with sick animals, and though she's trying to get away from an abusive ex-boyfriend, his mistreatment doesn’t seem to have affected her character. She's just an inexplicable ray of sunshine, a male dream of what a good woman should be.
She's not the only actress consigned to some kind of dreamlike role. All of the women in Marwen are reflections of the women in Hogencamp's life, and they have a lot to do in the animated sequences. Except for Buttrick, who plays a faithful friend nursing a crush on Carel, however, they have precious little to do in the real world scenes. Christie, the wonderful Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, has one scene as Hogencamp's Russian-born caregiver. It's basically a series of dialect jokes, and she pulls them off well, but you know she could contribute a lot more to the film if given a chance. Monae, the unsung heroine of Hidden Figures and Moonlight (both 2016), has even less to do, a brief flashback as a fellow physical therapy patient encouraging Hogencamp to walk.
After a while, it becomes clear that the live-action scenes are undermining everything that's wonderful about the animated sequences. Whenever Cap'n Hogie gets close to a woman in Marwen, he's thwarted by Deja Thoris, the witch of Marwen, who has no real-world equivalent in Hogencamp's life. As the plot develops, she seems to represent some emotional conflict the artist can't acknowledge. Could it be some latent sexual issue that prevents his becoming truly intimate with women? Who knows? In the end it's hard to tell why she's in the picture except to generate conflict.
That muddy bit of symbolism, coupled with the real-life scenes' failure to fully embody the female characters, makes the picture seem to be rejecting all the tantalizing queerness of the animated scenes. We're constantly reassured that there's nothing really different about Hogencamp. Sure, he likes to wear women's shoes, but he can still fall for a beautiful dream girl, and it's all going to come out fine when he learns to believe in himself. If he's a little eccentric, well, what can you expect from an artist.  It's the kind of thinking you’d expect from a Steven Spielberg adaptation of Glen or Glenda (1953).

Ayn Ruymen navigates corridors of kink in PRIVATE PARTS.

By contrast, an older film, Paul Bartel's debut feature Private Parts (1972), is a minor miracle. The film doesn't set out to achieve anything earth shattering. It's just trying to unsettle us a bit with its combination of horror film tropes and sexual perversity. But it accomplishes that with style. Young, not-so-innocent Cheryl (Ayn Ruymen) has robbed her parents to escape Ohio for the joys of the West Coast. After a falling out with her best friend (Ann Gibbs), she tracks down her aunt (Lucille Benson), who runs a seedy hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The aunt takes her in on condition that Cheryl not go exploring.
Naturally as soon as the aunt has left (she likes to attend funerals for people she doesn't know), Cheryl goes looking for trouble, turning up kinks in the hotel that overshadow her petty larceny. There's an old lady (Roger Corman regular Dorothy Neumann) who wanders the halls cleaning her false teeth and looking for Alice, a tenant who seems to have vanished (three guesses what happened to her; first two don't count). The Reverend Moon (Laurie Main) has a swarthy young handyman come to his room on a regular basis and later turns up in full leather regalia. Most mysterious is George (John Ventantonio), a reclusive photographer who spies on Cheryl when she bathes, sells pictures of couples he catches making out in the park and sleeps with an inflatable doll filled with water and some of his blood.
This would all degenerate into just so much smarm were it not done with a high level of skill. Bartel and cinematographer Andrew Davis create a strong sense of atmosphere, shooting on location at Los Angeles' King Edward Hotel. As Cheryl roams the halls and discovers strange, secluded rooms, the place becomes another character in the film. It's almost as if the ramshackle building were driving its denizen's crazy.
There's also a lot of good work from the cast. Benson, who seems to have been born old and eccentric, has one of those wonderful Southern accents that renders everything she says faintly absurd. She keeps adding extra syllables to words, drawing them out in a way that almost deprives them of meaning. Her presence makes Aunt Martha's preachments on the importance of traditional values feel hollow. They’re less family values than just another form of decadence.
Ruymen, who seems to have vanished from the business sometime in the 1990s, was one of the hot young actresses of her day. She held her own opposite Maureen Stapleton on stage in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady and on TV in the early feminist movie-of-the-week Tell Me Where It Hurts (1974). Here she's a demented Alice down the rabbit hole.  She does a skillful job of limning her character's gradual seduction by the hotel's world. She has a particularly fine scene when she's out on a date with a normal boy (played by Barry Livingtone, taking a break from his decade-plus wallow in the mediocrity of My Three Sons). She can't let go of what she's seen at the hotel and eventually walks out on him in pursuit of more dangerous pastimes.
The film isn't completely flawless. Gibbs has been directed to play the former roommate on a single shrill note; it's a relief when she disappears into the hotel's basement. Hugo Friedhofer's wall-to-wall score is very much of its period, but now seems one of the film's most dated elements as he Mickey Mouses everything the characters are going through. And the ending is the kind of self-conscious dark moment you should have stopped finding deep and meaningful by the time you graduated high school. Until then, however, the film is a pretty delicious walk on the wild side, a celebration of the queer little kinks people try in vain to hide behind closed doors.

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