Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #30: The Bodyguard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Bodyguard (released November 1992)

Whitney Houston as superstar Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard
(This futuristic Egyptian warrior queen outfit is not the silliest thing about the movie.)

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The Bodyguard is one of those movies that can literally be summed up in three sentences: Someone is trying to kill superstar singer/actress Rachel Marron. Her handlers hire ex-Secret Service agent Frank Farmer to protect her. Complications arise when Frank and Rachel fall in love. 

Kevin Costner is Frank Farmer. He abandoned his Secret Service career after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. We're reminded over and over again that he wasn't even on duty that day, but Frank has apparently spent the last decade brooding about the incident while freelancing as a bodyguard. Whitney Houston is Rachel Marron. She lives in a gargantuan mansion surrounded by handlers, a passive-aggressive sister, an adorable eight-year-old son and a security guard whose sole qualification seems to be that he's a big lug. After a Rachel Marron Barbie doll blows up backstage at one of her concerts, Rachel's primary handler, Devaney, seeks Farmer's help. "I don't do celebrities," Frank protests, but you know he's going to change his mind in about ten minutes.

Rachel's been getting death threats for six months. The letters say things like this:

Marron bitch
You have everything
I have nothing
The time is coming
When you shall die

Someone has also gotten into the estate, located Rachel's bedroom and masturbated on her bed. Devaney and Rachel's publicist, Sy, decided not to tell her about any of that stuff, even explaining the bomb away as some kind of "electrical problem." And no, they haven't told the police or the FBI either. Her publicist is worried that all those creepy letters and that anonymous spooge on her bedspread is going to "freak her out." Frank recognizes that Rachel Marron is being handled by idiots and takes the job. He orders all kinds new security measures and moves into a swell guest house on the grounds. And still no one, including Frank, tells Rachel what's really going on. She's alternately enraged and titillated by Frank, constantly poking fun and teasing him with lines like, "You probably won't believe this, but I have a reputation for being a bitch." Whether she's a bitch or not is arguable, but she definitely nails obnoxious.

Anyway, you were promised a love story. So, Frank goes shopping with Rachel in a funky little clothes shop. She tries to engage him in some flirty banter with only a dressing room curtain between them. He's deliberately aloof. She interprets this as disapproval. He grins. She pouts. Back at her super-secure gargantuan estate, Frank watches one of Rachel's music videos on the big TV in his swell guest house. He's so absorbed by her talent and beauty that he can't even blink. All the way up in her bedroom, she hears the music and watches him from her window. Yes, that's exactly how this movie chooses to demonstrate that these two people have fallen in love. Rachel loves Frank because he went shopping with her. Frank loves Rachel because her music video cast some kind of weird spell over him. I guess that music video business is plausible; I fell in love with Michael McDonald, the former lead singer of The Doobie Brothers, after I saw him in a music video for "Sweet Freedom" in 1986.

So, Frank and Rachel have a date night -- a movie, then drinks at a bar -- and no one recognizes her. At all. Even though she's a superstar singer and actress. They slow dance to a country version of Houston's hit, "I Will Always Love You." For a minute, Frank is nervous that someone in this country bar where no one recognizes her is going to kill her. So, they end up back at his place for some puzzling, not remotely erotic Samurai sword foreplay. Then they sleep together. Frank immediately regrets this. Rachel gets petulant. Her songs keep invading the soundtrack. She gets nominated for an Oscar. A boat explodes. Her sister sings "Jesus Loves Me." And somebody still wants to kill her. Truthfully, about an hour and ten minutes into this mess, I wanted to kill her, too.

Kevin Costner -- an often underrated actor --  isn't half bad as the bodyguard. The script requires him to perform plenty of cartoonish heroics, but there are moments when he almost makes you believe you're watching a much better movie. He tries everything short of rubbing sticks and stones together to ignite sparks between himself and Whitney Houston. There's just no chemistry. It's easy to contend that Houston is miscast -- she is -- but the problem with Rachel Marron is twofold. First, she's just a badly written character -- fractious, selfish and clueless one minute, schizophrenically lusting after her bodyguard the next. For a superstar, she barely works. For a mother, she has almost no contact with her child. In fact, she has exactly one inconsequential scene alone with her son and it lasts less than thirty seconds -- Frank has multiple interactions with the kid. Rachel lacks most of the human characteristics that might make her relatable or recognizably vulnerable. Are we really supposed to like a woman that sits by the pool listening to her own songs on headphones? And second, I'm not sure anyone could have made this awful part work, but Whitney Houston simply did not have the skills -- this was her debut role -- to convince you of anything other than the fact that she had a phenomenal singing voice (and we already knew that). She couldn't sell lines like, "Frank, I need you. I'm afraid. And I hate my fear."

I was genuinely surprised that The Bodyguard is such a bad, bad movie. It blusters right on past unbelievable to become the perfect storm of stupid in its last half hour -- that's when all is revealed and somebody tries to kill Rachel at the Academy Awards in front of a worldwide audience. Sound dramatic enough for you? Don't worry, the filmmakers depiction of an Oscar ceremony is so hilariously wrong that the movie finally becomes a can't-look-away-belly-flop into the deep end of the camp pool. (A refresher: Camp is what happens when a bunch of creative people come together to make a serious drama, but something goes monumentally awry in the process and they unintentionally make a comedy... and they don't know it until the audience starts laughing in all the wrong places.)

Stray Gay Observations:

There's an idea for a gay remake stirring around in my head: Ryan Gosling is the bodyguard for Kanye West.

The Bodyguard was written by Lawrence Kasdan. According to my research, it was Kasdan's first script, originally submitted to studios in 1976. At one point it was supposed to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, then Ryan O'Neal and Diana Ross. I doubt the outcome would have been much different.

After seeing the godawful movie that eventually got made from his first script, it's kind of amazing that Lawrence Kasdan also wrote the screenplays for some fine American films -- Raiders of the Lost ArkBody Heat, The Big ChillThe Empire Strikes BackThe Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon.

Should You See It? As ill-conceived Hollywood star vehicles go, The Bodyguard crashes and burns in all kinds of enjoyable ways.

Next Week: Blue Velvet (1986)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 6

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my ass crack. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! The sixth and final volume in this year's series features earworms from Bear Hands, Dirty Heads and Team Me.

Bear Hands. Formed in 2006, things started clicking for this Brooklyn band in 2010. Their sound is an experimental (but very self-assured) kind of alternative post-punk rock. There's some amazing variety on their albums. Check out their website here.

The men of Bear Hands
Left to right: Dylan Rau, Ted Feldman, Val Loper & TJ Orscher

Song & Video -- "Giants." It's a propulsive, infectious track with a terrific guitar riff and a lyrical hook that hits a sweet spot. The video? Director Mark Pellington had this to say about it: "I wanted to make a sexy noisy pop blast. The energy and weird electric sense of desire and aggressiveness of the track was our theme. Love this band and this piece." (Me, too.)

Dirty Heads.
Named one of the best bands of 2010 by Rolling Stone, these California dudes successfully mix a variety of genres -- hip hop, reggae, rock -- into an, unexpected, uncomplicated sound. Vocalist Jared Watson says, at the end of the day, "We just want to make you feel good." Check out their website here.     

Dirty Heads
Left to right: David Foral, Jared Watson, Dustin Bushnell, Matt Ochoa & Jon Olazabel

Song & Video -- "My Sweet Summer." Sounding a little more poppish than usual, the Heads have created an end-of-the-season groove with a bittersweet edge. There are two versions of the video. One features a puppet and it's weird and cheerfully vulgar. I'm showing you the alternate version that features a hot bearded guy. Because hot bearded guy.

Team Me. The six members of this splendid indie pop band come from a little town called Elverum, outside Oslo, Norway. They came together in 2010 to compete in a Norwegian national radio contest for unsigned bands. They got a recording contract and enough attention to book show dates and festivals. Their innovative sound is a mix of grandiose, fragile and intimate elements. Check out their website here.

Team Me

Song & Video -- "Blind as Night." The track is layered, orchestral, haunting, almost ethereal, and genuinely gorgeous. Listen to it on headphones. Immediately. The video is a dreamy, surreal, mesmerizing stunner featuring the band.

Wanna check out the other five entries in this series? Just click on any one the links below.

Volume 5


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #29: Forrest Gump

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Forrest Gump
(released July 1994)

Tom Hanks as the title character in Forrest Gump

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Forrest Gump establishes it's idiosyncratic sense of humor and structure right away. The simpleminded titular character, a man in his 30s, strikes up a conversation about his childhood with an African American woman while siting on a bench waiting for a bus. With naive obliviousness, he tells her he was named after a distant relative, "the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest." And then he adds a bit more biographical information: "He started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan." I'd have appreciated seeing her reaction to that because, you know, that would make some sense. But, no. Instead, the movie jumps head first into a rabbit hole of flashbacks. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is going to tell his life story to anyone who sits down next to him on that bench, whether they like it or not.

Raised in a rural part of Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, Young Forrest (played wonderfully by Michael Connor Humphreys) has to wear braces on his legs for some kind of medical condition that never gets a name -- the whole movie is going to be like that, so get used to it. The local public school principal informs Mrs. Gump (Sally Field) that Forrest has an IQ of 75 and needs to go to a special school. Forrest is "a bit on the slow side," she concedes, but her child is going to get the same education as everyone else, so she sleeps with the principal to make sure that happens. It's never clear if she has to sleep with a new administrator or teacher every year just to keep the kid enrolled, but this is not a movie that's interested in details like that anyway. This is a movie that wants you to react to the fact that Forrest overhears that business about his IQ and the sexual encounter his mother has with the principal. This is also not a movie that has any interest in telling you what happened to Forrest's father. At all. Did he die? Did he disappear? Did Mrs. Gump murder Mr. Gump, butcher the parts and feed him to the inhabitants of her boarding house? It's a mystery.

Nobody wants to have anything do with Young Forrest except a classmate named Jenny. They hang out, climb trees together and she encourages him to run fast whenever the school bullies are chasing him or pummeling him with rocks. Jenny comes from a broken home and her father sexually abuses her. But this is not a movie that's going to dwell on that for more that 30 seconds, so let's all just move on. Jenny and Forrest (somehow, miraculously) graduate high school. Jenny is college material. Forrest can run really, really fast. One day he runs through a football scrimmage and impresses the coach so much that he ends up playing football at the University of Alabama. And earning a college degree. So, let's review: IQ of 75, high school and university graduate, college football star. Do we ever see Forrest in even one classroom situation? Nope. This is not a movie that believes you need to see someone with borderline intellectual functioning, you know, struggling to comprehend something.

Forrest enlists in the Army after a recruiter asks, "Have you given any thought to your future?" He ends up in Vietnam, giving the filmmakers lots of opportunities to blow up stuff while they pack the soundtrack with some of the era's most popular songs. Forrest does take a bullet to the "but-tocks," but still fares better than everyone around him and is awarded the Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Jenny (Robin Wright) pursues her dream. "I wanna be famous. I wanna be a singer like Joan Baez." Interestingly, Joan Baez does not appear on the soundtrack. Anyway, Jenny poses for Playboy, gets a job as a topless folk singer in a dive bar where no one is interested in her voice, turns into an anti-war hippie with bad taste in men, and then falls under the spell of disco and cocaine.  Forrest and Jenny cross paths throughout the movie, interacting just long enough to for you to ascertain that he loves her and she's a sad, tragic mess with pretty good fashion sense.

Adapting a not particularly well-received book by Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth departs significantly from the source material to create something like an epic, genre-bending fusion of melodrama, comedy, reality and fantasy. As Forrest guilelessly stumbles through a tumultuous time in American history, the movie plays like a goofy ode to the latter half of the 20th century. Broken down, a significant portion of the film is made up of loose vignettes that provide excuses for the visual effects technicians to seamlessly insert Forrest into a number of preposterous scenarios -- he meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; he starts college at the same time the University of Alabama is integrated; and he appears on a talk show seated next to John Lennon. These are all awe-inspiring effects, even 20 years later, but Roth and director Robert Zemeckis don't know when to stop with the technical wizardry and historical grave robbing and just tell a story. I was amused by an early scene where Young Forrest inspires Elvis Presley to actualize his signature hip-swiveling dance moves, but I was rolling my eyes by the time Adult Forrest inadvertently motivates John Lennon to write "Imagine."

Forrest Gump moves along briskly. It's infused with a quirky sense of humor and filled with extraordinary visuals. Tom Hanks is probably about as good as an actor could be in a role like this. Forrest views the world simply and truthfully -- Hanks nails that, conscientiously avoiding the kind of acting that would make the character pitiable. As Forrest's Vietnam platoon leader, Gary Sinese has the film's most emotionally resonant character arc -- it's heavy-handed stuff, but Sinese doesn't overplay the material. And that's the good. The bad? Alan Silvestri's swelling musical score and all those pop tunes are designed to thrash your heart and rattle every nostalgic bone in your body. Sally Field is utterly wasted as Mrs. Gump -- the character is peripheral at best and should have been fleshed out by a good character actress who might have at least tried to get the Alabama accent right; Field's star power is just distracting. The Forrest/Jenny relationship is the movie's only real through line. We're supposed to care whether they end up together or not. Hanks and Robin Wright try hard to keep us invested, but the overwhelming number of superfluous elements and historical digressions supplant the narrative.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, The Polar Express) stages some amazing "Look what we can do!" sequences. The problem is that there's just no dramatic basis for all the big moments in Roth's script. Forrest is rubbing up against all those presidents because Hollywood figured out how to convincingly insert real actors into archival footage. Forrest becomes a world champion ping pong player because Hollywood figured out how to make it look like he's hitting a ball that's not even there. All these brilliant technical advancements make Forrest Gump an achievement, not a good movie. You have to ask yourself, among other things: "Why is Forrest sitting on that bus stop bench eagerly telling his emphatically absurd life story to strangers anyway?" The movie is a goddamn epic, so what's the point? Well, it does try to make some kind of point about destiny vs. the randomness of fate, I think. But it mostly ends up suggesting that the borderline intellectual functioning meek will inherit the earth.

Stray Gay Observations:

What the hell is this movie supposed to be? Is Forrest Gump a parable? For that to be true, there needs to be some kind of discernible moral or spiritual lesson. Here's what you get: "My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." I do understand someone with an IQ of 75 mistaking that for a deep philosophical message, but the rest of us have no excuse. Really, the only things missing from Forrest Gump are talking animals. If there were talking animals, I might be able to call this story a fable. Fables typically feature some talking animals and a lesson. But even a talking animal couldn't sell that business about the box of chocolates.

During one vignette, Forrest runs back and forth across the country, from coast to coast. It takes him, to be exact, "three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours." This is really no more farfetched than anything else in the movie, except for the fact that the filmmakers not-so-subtly bestow a Christ-like quality upon Forrest around the same time. That's when I started to worry that this movie was going to end with Forrest ascending into heaven and taking a seat at the right hand of the Father.

You know those movies where a character visits someone's grave and has a heartfelt, teary-eyed conversation with a headstone? That's probably my least favorite cinematic trope of all time -- it's lazy, hackneyed and mawkish. If there are real, live human beings who go to cemeteries and spill their guts to slabs of granite, I don't want to know them. Forrest Gump does this twice -- twice! -- in the movie, and I'm not inclined to give him a pass just because he has an IQ of 75.

Forrest Gump ends around 1983, just in time for one character to be diagnosed with "a virus." They're talking about HIV, of course. It's introduced awkwardly, handled superficially and feels like a punishment -- for the character and the audience.

In the twenty years since its release, I've heard Forrest Gump described as a patriotic film and a paean to the American Dream. Jumping to either of those conclusions must take some fancy mental gymnastics. It's simply impossible for me to ignore the film's twisted central premise: Forrest Gump is the luckiest dumb bastard in the world. He succeeds at everything, accidentally and without ambition. Just about everyone else in his orbit fails, flounders or becomes a fatality (seriously, dude is like the Angel of Death). So, it's possible to read the film as a dark, dark comedy about the fickleness and mendacity of the American Dream. Or, it's possible to read it as a curious grand mockery of the American Dream. And I'd be fine with either of those scenarios because a solid, subversive skewering of the so-called American Dream should never be off limits. I just don't think the filmmakers were that clever. Forrest Gump is a tone deaf, super-sized amalgam of whimsy, bathos and tragedy.

Should You See It? Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thinks so. It won six Oscars -- Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture. If you want to see what state of the art visual effects looked like in 1994, Forrest Gump is worth a look. Otherwise, this movie is so calculatedly manipulative that I found myself actively disliking it at fairly regular intervals. I unequivocally hated the last thirty minutes.

Next Week: The Bodyguard (1992)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #28: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (released October 1974)

Gunnar Hansen as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Here's the trailer for the 40th anniversary re-release in summer 2014...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It all begins with one of those portentous opening scrolls, read aloud by the most serious-sounding dude they could find...
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Okay, three things... (1) The actual title of this movie is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's right there in the opening scroll. Since I never see chainsaw spelled as two words, I looked it up. The Oxford, Cambridge and Urban dictionaries all assured me it's just one word. Merriam-Webster says it's two words, with no explanation for their contrariness. (2) This is not based on a true story. Nope. It's just inspired by Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer and grave robber who fashioned trophies and keepsakes from bones and human skin. Writer/director Tobe Hooper added a chainsaw to the mix after spotting one while standing in line at a hardware store; Gein never used one. (3) That "idyllic summer afternoon drive" mentioned in the scroll? No. The reason these five twentysomethings are driving around rural Texas in triple-digit heat is because of news reports about vandalized graves -- Sally assembles everyone and makes her boyfriend drive his van to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere to see if her great-grandfather is still resting in peace. What's idyllic about that? That's a terrible way to spend a summer afternoon. In fact, this is like a horrific lost episode of Scooby Doo.

So, who do we have in the van? There's Sally and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin. Sally's boyfriend, Jerry, and their friends, Pam and Kirk. Hearing a lot of bad news on the radio, amateur astrologer Pam explains it to the gang: "Saturn is a bad influence. It's just a particularly bad influence now because it's in retrograde." And then they spot a hitchhiker, have five seconds of conversation about how he probably works for the local cattle slaughterhouse and decide to give him a ride, primarily to spare him from the heat. Pam's the only one with an objection to this. "Oh, he's weird-looking. No!" There's a streak of blood on his face, he's got an animal-fur man purse hanging around his neck, and he over-shares about the best way to kill a cow. Hint: You hit them on the head with a mallet. Repeatedly. Until they die. And then the hitchhiker starts waving a knife around, cutting himself and Franklin before they can throw him out of the van.

This is the hitchhiker. I mean, seriously. 
The gang stops for gas, but the twitchy attendant tells them the pumps are empty, so they head off to find the farmhouse Sally's family abandoned years ago. They find it -- dilapidated, filled with spiders, but within walking distance of another house. Kirk and Pam think maybe the owners might give them some gasoline if they ask politely enough. That turns out to be one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, of course, because the occupants are a cannibal family with an intellectually disabled, chainsaw-wielding adult son who probably can't read or write but excels at the kind of skills one might pick up working in a cattle slaughterhouse.

Here's the truth: I've been avoiding this movie for a long time. I'd even relegated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to what I like to call the That-Shit-Can-Really-Happen subgenre of horror movies. Other famous entries in this category include Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. See, I can certainly be scared by movies about haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possession or monsters, but I don't believe in any of those things. Haven't for years. Silent, savage killers like Jason or Michael Myers from the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, respectively, have been given supernatural strengths (and immortality) by the filmmakers, so I just don't find them authentic or compelling. What really freaks me out are profoundly unbalanced people with knives or chainsaws and a sickening inclination for torture and killing and doing incomprehensible things with human body parts. Because... That. Shit. Can. Happen.

Often described as a watershed moment in American horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre essentially ratchets Psycho up to 11 and perennially lands on every list of the best/scariest horror movies of all time -- usually in the top 5. Made for around $85,000 with an inexperienced cast , it endures right alongside The Exorcist (1973), an $8 million studio blockbuster with stars and state-of-the-art technical wizardry. And while both provoked media controversy, it was Chain Saw that was rejected by theaters and banned in countries all over the world. Both films break new ground in horror, so why the difference in treatment? I have a personal theory. The Exorcist and Chain Saw were released less than a year apart. Because of their R ratings, I was too young to see either without a parent or adult guardian. My sister, eleven years older than me, said, "Do you want to see The Exorcist?" I did. My mother agreed to this because it was a major studio release based on a best-selling book and she recognized some of the actors involved. What could go wrong? (Well, for one thing, I didn't sleep for three nights after I saw it.) On the other hand,  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sounds like a lurid, low-budget exploitation flick explicitly made for people with bad taste and twisted minds. Civic-minded theater owners, movie critics and mothers tend to unite in their disapproval over a thing like that.

But there's a reason Chain Saw is recognized as a classic today: it's good. Sure, I could quibble about that deceptive and wholly unnecessary opening scroll, but it's the only real misstep. Writer and director Tobe Hooper relies more on atmosphere and tension than gore -- from the sounds of a shovel breaking dirt, crackling bones and disembodied radio voices to the sights of skeletal remains, meat hooks and a man in a homemade mask of human skin. It may take a solid 30 minutes for the first death to happen, but that time is never wasted -- the characters are sketched out enough for you to care about their fates and the dread becomes palpable. Hooper draws unexpectedly strong performances from his cast of unknowns, too, particularly Marilyn Burns as Sally. Once that chainsaw starts buzzing away, Burns goes from desperate woman to abject terror personified. She may actually be the Meryl Streep of scream queens.

I also want to talk about Tobe Hooper's script because it's so much smarter than it ever had to be with a title like that. He's written his doomed characters as ordinary and unlucky, not horny and stupid. The chainsaw-wielding "Leatherface" is one of the most iconic killers in history, but Hooper gives him no supernatural or superhuman characteristics -- he's obviously an intellectually disabled young adult who's been taught to butcher people by a deeply depraved and impoverished family. His human skin mask looks like the bizarre craft project of an untalented child. Amidst all the gruesome mayhem, Hooper pulls back just long enough to give the audience a quiet moment alone with Leatherface. It's hard not to think, "This poor creature has probably never had any sense of right or wrong." You're still terrified, but it's almost as if Hooper is saying, "Come on, I dare you not to feel some pity for this guy."

When I reviewed Pink Flamingos (1972) for this series, I acknowledged that while it's an assertively disgusting film, I really admired writer/director John Waters for his unapologetic attitude and the perseverance it must have taken to get his vision on screen. I feel similarly about first-time writer/director Tobe Hooper here. Waters and Hooper excelled at defiantly transgressive, anarchic filmmaking. The difference, for me, is that Hooper is a better storyteller and a better filmmaker. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deceptively simple, absolutely harrowing and most giddily sick, but I'd be willing to defend it as a near-masterpiece that absolutely earned its place in New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent film collection. Can you name another movie that starts out as straight-up horror and fluidly pivots into an astonishingly dark comedy?

Stray Gay Observations:

Somewhere in the United States, a cannibal family is shopping at Walmart right now. I'm convinced of it.

Naturally, I noticed the costumes. Lots of bell bottom pants, a fashion trend that bridged the 1960s and '70s, then reappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, Cher has been around long enough to both popularize the style and refuse to have anything to do with its rebirth.

Think about this: how often do you hear male characters scream in a movie? Very rarely, and usually for comic effect. In Chain Saw, one on the guys is abruptly confronted by the man in the human skin mask. He has the single most natural male scream I've ever heard in a film. And it's not funny.

Now, I'm going to show you a picture of William Vail, the actor who plays Kirk. I'm just showing you this because he's hot. His death was particularly unsettling for me because he's hot. And no, I don't think you needed a spoiler alert about that; massacre is right there in the title. Vail made four movies and then became a set decorator.

William Vail (far right) as Kirk. Far too cute to be a chainsaw massacre victim.

You probably won't believe this, but Marilyn Burns was found dead in her Houston home the same day I watched this movie. She was 65. When I read the news online, I immediately thought, "Wow, that's eerie." And then I found out she was born in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Burns earned a Bachelor's degree in Drama from the University of Texas at Austin in 1971. She made about a dozen films, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, shot in the summer of 1973, was her first film role. In a 2013 interview, Burns said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that almost 40 years later I would be talking about it."

Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty -- a manic, bloody mess by the end of the movie.

Originally, the house used in the film was located in Round Rock, Texas. In 1998, it was cut up into little pieces... um, sections... and transported to Kingsland, Texas. It was put back together and renovated into a restaurant. Because, you know, that's the kind of thing we do in America.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Restaurant
(Actually, as of this writing it's called Grand Central Cafe.)

Should You See It? To my surprise, I liked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a lot. I've probably seen a couple of hundred horror movies in my life, but this one has a visceral edge and a striking aural intensity that really works your nerves. You'll recognize so many familiar tropes here -- the creepy hitchhiker, the crazy old man with an opaque warning about evil in the world, the masked slayer and the lone survivor, otherwise known as the Final Girl. This is pretty much the movie that invented them all 40 years ago, and it's been ripped off in every way since then. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has spawned sequels, remakes and reboots -- six to be exact -- and I'm not interested in seeing a single one of them because I imagine the only things they have to offer are increasingly sophisticated special effects and bigger body counts. This is not a movie that needed a do-over. They got it right the first time.

New Week: Forrest Gump (1994)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 5

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my ass crack. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! Volume 5 in this series features earworms from Hercules & Love Affair with John Grant, Jungle, and The Gaslight Anthem.

Hercules & Love Affair. Formed in 2004, Hercules & Love Affair is a collaborative disco-house project from DJ Andy Butler that features a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists. Yup, there's disco in Butler's DNA, but the sound is a unique and ambitious revival. He also co-wrote my favorite dancefloor hit of 2008, "Blind." Website is here.

DJ Andy Butler, the sexy ginger beast behind Hercules & Love Affair
First job: DJing at a leather bar in Denver

Song & Video -- "I Try to Talk to You" featuring John Grant. Butler got a surprise when he collaborated with gay singer/songwriter John Grant on the song lyrics. Butler recalls: "He tackled the story of becoming HIV-positive, and while I mentioned to him that he did not need to go there if he was not comfortable, in that beautifully punky, spirited and courageous way he has about him, he told me that was what the song was going to be about. What came of it is an elegant song featuring John singing and playing his heart out." Serious and haunting, yes, but also a shimmering dance track. The evocative video depicts two men engaged in a lover's quarrel -- all done through an enthralling interpretive dance.

John Grant and Andy Butler
To read an excellent article about these guys, go here.

The two producers behind this London band, J (Josh Lloyd Watson) and T (Tom McFarland), have done a good job of remaining deliberately mysterious about themselves and the musicians making the music. Essentially, they have no public image because they decline to be photographed for interviews. And thus far, the band hasn't even appeared in their own videos -- it's just dancers. But the buzz about their live appearances has been good and the modern revivalist funk sound is atmospheric and pretty groovy. Check out their website here.

These are the musicians that show up for Jungle's live shows, mostly. Sometimes there are more.
I can't find all their names. And believe me, I tried to get the name of the hot guy in the Cubs jacket.

Song & Video: "Busy Earnin'" --  It's a perfect blending of electro funk and a bright, soulful falsetto with a relatable message. Skipping narrative, the video features a dozen diverse dancers in a big white room. It's all intricate, kick-ass choreography with plenty of attitude. How do you make a perfect dance video? Skip the obnoxious quick cuts and place the emphasis on the dancing.

The Gaslight Anthem. These New Jersey rockers came together in 2006. Their sound has evolved from punk to something a little more accessible perhaps, but the lyrics and Brian Fallon's lead vocals are consistently heartfelt. Their fifth album, Get Hurt, arrives this summer. Frontman Fallon promises a "completely different vibe," and recently told British music journalism publication NME this: "You get a realization at some point in your career that whatever it is you do, you can no longer continue to do it. You just realize you can't put out the same records forever."

The Gaslight Anthem
Left to right: Alex Levine, Brian Fallon, Benny Horowitz & Alex Rosamilia 

Song & Video: "Get Hurt" --  According to Fallon (via Rolling Stone), "The song itself is similar to the feeling of a wreck you see coming, but long past the point you can avoid it." And that "completely different vibe" he was talking about is not hyperbole. This is more mellow than what the band is known for, but Fallon's voice is as a raw and passionate as ever. The video places the band in a simple barroom setting surrounded by melancholy patrons who suddenly become interpretive dancers when the chorus kicks in. Sublime song + silly concept = something plenty watchable.

Wanna see more music in this series? Check out volume 1 here, volume 2 here, volume 3 here and volume 4 here. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #27: Top Gun

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Top Gun (released May 1986)

Tom Cruise confronts Val Kilmer in Top Gun, the highest-grossing film of 1986.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: 
At the beginning of Top Gun a title card somberly informs us:
On March 3, 1969, the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it Top Gun.
One day, some filmmakers should craft a meaningful, big-budget, Oscar-bait motion picture about the origins of Fighter Weapons School... because Top Gun is so not that movie. Screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. toss you immediately into an intense aerial combat sequence over the Indian Ocean. One of the Naval Aviators has a mid-air meltdown, survives, then promptly gives up his flight status. Since he was the aircraft carrier's number one choice for Top Gun school, there's a slot to be filled -- which turns out to be very convenient for a pilot named Maverick (Tom Cruise) and his radar officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). Everyone is a little iffy about this turn of events since Maverick is "dangerous," "a cowboy," "a wildcard" and "completely unpredictable." "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!" Maverick's commanding officer barks just before he sends him (and Goose) off to Top Gun school at a naval air station in Miramar, California.

In Miramar, Maverick encounters the rest of the one percent of all Naval Aviators who get into Top Gun school. They're handsome, chew gum with their mouthes open and fondly regard one another as "dickhead" or "pussy." Top Gun school gives them a hard on. We know this because, well, it's the kind of thing the men in this movie say out loud. A rivalry is quickly established between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) -- who will win the Top Gun trophy? And Maverick's mavericky reputation precedes him -- as does that of his father, a pilot who died under some unexplained, classified circumstances that everyone has decided to interpret as recklessness. Thus, Maverick is a dangerous, completely unpredictable wildcard cowboy because... like father, like son. Oh, and the Top Gun instructor is a preposterously hot woman named Charlie (Kelly McGillis) that Maverick intends to bed because the audience must always be reminded of Tom Cruise's heterosexuality, especially since this movie is about as homoerotic as it gets. I mean, seriously, at the 41-minute mark, Top Gun interrupts everything for a glorious, completely irrelevant, shirtless outdoor volleyball match featuring lots of sweaty abs and pecs. In gay porn, this is the kind of scene that precedes an orgy.

That's Rick Rossovich as "Slider." He's very enthusiastic about volleyball.

Top Gun is... uncomplicated. Every question raised -- Will Maverick and Charlie be a thing? Will Maverick triumph over Iceman? Will Maverick ever find out what really happened to his father? -- gets answered. When someone dies, Maverick loses his confidence and has to prove himself again. This is Scriptwriting 101, but I have to give Top Gun credit where credit is due. That opening aerial combat sequence is stunning and emotionally impactful. Nearly 30 years later, in fact, the aerial sequences are still genuinely spectacular. Jeffrey Kimball's cinematography is extraordinary. No matter how bogus the love story here is, Cruise and McGillis sell it; they've got chemistry. Meg Ryan is solid in a small supporting role, and the older cast members -- Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, James Tolkan -- bring the gravitas. I'm indifferent about most Tom Cruise films, and I especially hate it when he acts with his teeth (that overtly cocky bear-trap smile is more off-putting than inviting to me). But to be fair, he has his moments here; some of his reactions and gestures suggest a vulnerability that feels absolutely truthful.

Stray Gay Observations:

Owning my own embarrassing misogyny: Watching Top Gun, I dismissed the idea that there was ever a female Flight Weapons School instructor in the 1980s. As I researched the film, I discovered that Kelly McGillis' character was inspired by Christine Fox, a real civilian flight instructor. In 2013, President Barrack Obama appointed her as acting deputy defense secretary, making her the highest-ranking woman ever at the Pentagon.

Kelly McGillis appeared in a couple of huge Hollywood films besides Top Gun, like Witness and The Accused. She became a major star, but felt unmotivated by fame or box-office success. Instead, she chose stage roles and, occasionally, more low-profile film projects. She's done quite a bit of Shakespeare, took the lead in Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler on Broadway, and played Mrs. Robinson in a national stage tour of The Graduate. In 2009, she publicly acknowledged that she's a lesbian, something she believes has been true since childhood. She's transitioned nicely into character roles; I particularly enjoyed her as a psychic in The Innkeepers (2009), a smart little slow-burn horror flick.

Everyone in this movie has a nickname -- Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Viper, Jester, Cougar, Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman. Everyone. Kelly McGillis plays Charlotte Blackwood, but her character is referred to as "Charlie." At first I thought all that was a dumb contrivance by the writers. Nope. These are call signs. Reading the credits, I noticed that all the instructors and pilots serving as technical advisors or flyers -- all of them -- have call signs: Bozo, D-Bear, Loner, Curly, Silver, Rabbi, Too Cool, Squire, Bio, Vida, Horse, Player, Organ, Circus, Jambo, Secks, Sunshine, Hollywood, Flex, Sobs, Tex, Boa, Rat, Jaws. Sight unseen, I just want to hang out with Bozo, D-Bear, Bio and Sobs. Admit it, you really want to know how a guy gets a call sign like "Sobs."

Filled with electronica, synthpop and power ballads, the Top Gun soundtrack encapsulates '80s radio. Giorgio Moroder wrote and produced the film's love theme, "Take My Breath Away" by the Los Angeles-based band Berlin, and it won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Moroder's influence over music has been inestimable -- since the mid 1970s he's collaborated with, among others, Donna Summer, Electric Light Orchestra, Sparks (oh God, how I love that quirky-queer band), Queen, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, David Bowie, Kenny Loggins and, most recently, Daft Punk.

Maybe one day Tom Cruise will win an Oscar for packing on some pounds to play Sen. John McCain, the real Navy maverick and POW with a nice smile who probably wrecked his own legacy by choosing Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate in 2008... and then turning into a grumpy hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn dotard that really doesn't know when to get the hell off the political stage.

In a post-Don't Ask Don't Tell America, surely someone must be thinking of a remake where Maverick hooks up with Charlie the Gay Male Top Gun Instructor. Or, he falls for Goose the Radio Intercept Officer. Well, anyway, I was thinking about that.

Should You See It? Frankly, I don't have a very high threshold for superficial, jingoistic nonsense like this. I kind of hate it when filmmakers crassly oversimplify the complex aspirations and dangerous accomplishments of military personnel. This would have been a better movie (maybe) if they skipped the dramatically inert romance and made the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman more realistic and observable. And with the exception of Anthony Edwards as Goose, the supporting cast is woefully underutilized. The filmmakers don't even have the courage to name an enemy -- the bad guys in the MiGs are generically referred to as "the other side" and they come from "foreign territory." But somehow, dammit, Top Gun entertained me even as I rolled my eyes, proving that I'm not completely immune to the charms of rousing, testosterone-oozing, Support Our Troops propaganda. Top Gun is a patriotic elixir: After the film's release, the Navy reported a 500% uptick in the number of young men who showed up at recruitment offices wanting to be Naval Aviators.

Next Week: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #26: Sunset Boulevard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. Studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Sunset Boulevard
(released August 1950)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The screenwriters behind Sunset Boulevard -- Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshall, Jr. and Billy Wilder (who also directed) -- made an audacious choice: the narrator of their movie is a dead man. His name is Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), "just a movie writer with a couple of B pictures to his credit." We're introduced to him floating face down in the swimming pool of an old mansion located somewhere along that 22-mile stretch of asphalt known as Sunset Boulevard. The incorporeal voice of Joe Gillis has a story to tell. It's a winner, and he's not about to let a little thing like death stop him from sharing it. Flashback to six months earlier, the fateful day he met Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging, reclusive silent movie star with a couple of decades between her and her last picture.

No one's buying Joe's scripts, so he's broke and way behind on his rent and car payments. When a couple of repo men show up for the car, Joe flees, but a flat tire forces him to seek temporary refuge in the garage of Norma's mansion. Joe's narration describes it as "a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy '20s." Her manservant Max -- played cryptically by Eric Von Stroheim, himself a one-time silent movie director -- lets Joe into the house, mistaking him for the funeral planner who's been summoned to make arrangements for Norma's recently deceased monkey. She wants a white coffin, lined in flaming red satin. "Let's make it gay," she declares. Joe attempts to explain his real reason for being there, Norma overreacts and orders him off the property. But she changes her mind when Joe suddenly realizes that this is the Norma Desmond.  "You used to be big," he acknowledges. "I am big, it's the pictures that got small," she retorts. When Norma finds out Joe's a screenwriter, she proposes that he turn the handwritten script she's labored over for years into something Hollywood will produce as a star vehicle for herself. "I didn't know you were planning a comeback," Joe says. "I hate that word! It's a return," Norma seethes.

Desperately needing an income, Joe agrees to work on Norma's script. She has one condition: Joe has to move into her deteriorating mansion, complete with Max the vaguely sinister manservant, a wheezing old pipe organ that's susceptible to drafts, and hundreds of old photographs of Norma in her prime (all actual stills of Gloria Swanson from her prolific silent pictures heyday). Joe's disembodied narration sums it up: "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion." So, he stays, a willing hostage grinding out script pages for a picture he knows will never be made. Is he using Norma? Sure. She's wealthy and delusional and prone to buying him expensive gifts. His initial reluctance to being a "kept man" abates and Joe becomes comfortable enough with the arrangement, right up until the moment he realizes that Norma has developed a possessive love of operatic proportions for him. But is it love? Maybe. He's pretty darn handsome and nimble with the quips. Or, does he simply -- and finally -- fill the void in her pitiful life, one that a funereal manservant and that recently-deceased monkey could not? To give away much more of the story would be kind of spoilery.  

As morally ambivalent Joe Gillis, William Holden is fine. He's sardonic, raffish and looks awfully damn good in a pair of swim trunks. But this is Gloria Swanson's film all the way. An enormous star and fashion icon throughout the 1920s (she's been described as the screen's first clothes horse), Swanson made a successful transition from silent to sound pictures in 1929. Her career peaked by the early 1930s and she knew it, so she left Hollywood for a quieter life of radio and stage work in New York City. She made one film in 1941, but didn't return to the big screen again until Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Swanson is entirely credible as Norma Desmond, a woman who can't stop rhapsodizing about a career that was over twenty years ago. "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" And you get right away why her stardom is a thing of the past. Norma's facial expressions and gestures are frequently big, broad and overly-dramatic, as if the exaggerated movements and reactions she perfected for silent film acting are permanently embedded in her marrow. Worse, there's a strident, affected cadence in her voice that's fascinating only because of how unnatural it sounds.

Sunset Boulevard delves into some dark and juicy territory, even threatening to become a full-on gothic horror picture at times. John Landis, the director behind American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson's Thriller video, has even called Sunset Boulevard a monster movie. I tend to agree with that assessment in a way. Norma Desmond attained unimaginable fame, was roundly rejected by the film industry, then disappeared into obscurity. All this, plus her own inability to move on, made her more than a simple anachronism -- it created a monster. The frequently grotesque work Swanson does with her hands and eyes reminded me of early screen vampires like Max Schreck's Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Even Desmond's fate here has a bizarre parallel to that of Frankenstein's monster -- just switch out the torch-bearing villagers for merciless cops and relentless reporters. This glimpse of her life is wildly entertaining and perversely amusing, but the movie never lets you forget how profoundly sad it is to be Norma Desmond.

Sunset Boulevard deservedly earned eleven Academy Award nominations. It won three: writing, score and art/set direction. Nominees Holden and Swanson lost to Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday). The Academy has made some stupid choices in the acting categories over the years, but Swanson's loss to Holliday is particularly grievous. Swanson's performance is idiosyncratic, risky and so, so smart. It was, in fact, an astonishing return to feature films. She was robbed.

Stray Gay Observations: Sunset Boulevard left me with an immense desire to see Norma Desmond interacting with a monkey. I just need to own that. I can't be the only person, right?

Comeback -- we use that word far too liberally. Artists and musicians are allowed to go away and come back. Or not. I agree with Norma Desmond: "It's a return!"

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and legendary, Oscar-winning director Cecil B. DeMille (his career was so long that he actually made silent and sound versions of The Ten Commandments) play themselves in the film. DeMille is unexpectedly excellent.

"It was all very queer" says dead Joe Gillis at one point. He's right. Sunset Boulevard is so queer, I can't believe three heterosexual men wrote it.

In the scene where Norma shows Joe one of her silent films, director Billy Wilder chose a clip from Queen Kelly (1929). That's a real Gloria Swanson movie that was directed by Eric Von Stroheim, who plays manservant Max. It was a notoriously troubled production with lots of "creative differences." Swanson was so big a star at the time that she had Von Stroheim fired after he'd shot a third of the film. I don't know what Billy Wilder was thinking, but that must have been a weird day on the set.

My favorite William Holden film is Network (1976) -- a truly extraordinary film that's so prescient it's scary. He's also in one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, The Towering Inferno. He's the guy who thinks everyone's overreacting about that fire on the 81st floor that is never going to reach the 135th floor. Unpleasant deaths ensue.

In a film brimming with great dialogue, I think Holden has one of the best lines ever uttered in a movie: "Norma, you're a woman of 50, now grow up. There's nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25." That had to have been startling candor for an audience in 1950 to hear. I'll know that America has matured a wee bit when Jennifer Lawrence gets to say something like that to one of her male co-stars. Like Bradley Cooper, her co-star in Silver Linings Playbook... who's sixteen years older than her in real life, but apparently we're not supposed to be having a conversation about that.

Should You See It? Absolutely. It's one of the best movies ever made about the movies, and Swanson gives one of the all-time great performances.

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Next Week: Top Gun (1986)