Old Henry

Pete: “I’m votin’ for yours truly!”
Everett: “Well, I’m votin’ for yours truly, too!”
[they look at Delmar]
Delmar: “Okay. I’m with you fellers.”

The Coen brothers professed a certain glee in putting the highly intelligent Classics major Tim Blake Nelson into the role of the affable dunce, Delmar, for O Brother! Where Art Thou and it was the sort of breakthrough role that could get you typecast for years; it’s certainly the role I most remember him for, at least until now. In Old Henry, Nelson plays a farmer with a backstory who stumbles across an injured man (Scott Haze, Venom, also in Bukowski with Nelson)  and a satchel of loot that badman Stephen Dorff (Blade, Zaytoun, and many child acting roles like The Gate) and his rowdies would like very much to recover.

In other words, writer/director Potsy Ponciroli has given us a good, old-fashioned Western, and The Boy and I (and the six other people in the 16-seat theater) liked it!

Not such an affable dunce any more.

Dare you to call him dumber than a bag of hammers now.

The story follows a simple path—you could see Clint Eastwood doing this 30 years ago—where a tough, laconic farmer in 1906 New Mexico (?) on a hardscrabble farm has trouble relating to his teen son, who’s champing at the bit to get out into the big city, while Old Henry is there admonishing that things aren’t necessarily that great out there. He’s smart enough at first to not take the money or get involved with the injured man but in that a twist that ensures we have a movie, his wisdom is fleeting and he does, in fact, get involved.

Now, he’s attracted the Bad Men who claim to be sheriffs, and he’s none too sure about the injured man he rescued, who also claims to be a sheriff. Horseplay ensues. Gunplay also. And it’s all cowboys all the time.

Quoth The Boy, “Cowboys are cool.”

If you're luck, it's not the BACK end they smell like.

They smell like horses, though.

Tim Blake Nelson pulls off the hardass role quite believably and actually kinda looks more like those old cowboys did—not that rugged handsomeness of even a just pre-geriatric Clint Eastwood. He looks like he’s had a hard life. He’s narrow shouldered and stringy. He doesn’t move in a cool, stylish way, but in more unpredictable, kinda dopey looking ways that might actually keep someone from being able to draw a bead on you.

Gavin Lewis as the son, Wyatt, is annoying but it’s not his fault. His character is the punk kid, semi-whiny teen—nowhere near Skywalker annoyance levels, mind you—and you know he’s going to come to some understanding of the world that—well, let’s just say it’ll all come to tears, ’cause it kind of has to. Dorff is menacing, Trace Adkins (An American Carol, The Lincoln Lawyer) is stalwart as Old Henry’s brother-in-law, and the cast does a fine job all around.

As you do.

Sometimes a boy just wants to go hunting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon.

The cinematography (by John Matysiak) makes wonderful use of the terrain, and makes me weep this wasn’t shot on film. Lots and lots of good shots that fit nicely in those classic Ford/Hawks-type styles, though not nearly as dry looking. (Westerns make me thirsty.)

The music (by Jordan Lehning, who collaborated with Ponciroli on an early project called Super Zeroes) was also very effective, both in when it was used and how effective it was.

I mean, it’s weird to have so little to say about it, I guess, but it’s just a good, fun, old-school Western that doesn’t seem to pack even the meagerest agenda, and just seems to be about making a good, old-school Western. There’s a twist of the sort that normally makes me roll my eyes, but it worked for me here.

The Boy liked it a little less than I did, but we both were very happy to have seen it. Cowboys are cool.

Not robot cowboys. They have to protect the pig-o-lets.

Sometimes a cowboy gets sad, though.

Scream (1996)

You know how you see an old movie—and I think we can call Scream an old movie, as this was the 25th anniversary showing—and you say, “They all look so young!”? As I was watching this, I was thinking, “I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since this movie came out!” Well, sure, Scream 2 and Scream 3. Rose McGowan on Twitter, I guess that counts. At first I was inclined to draw some sort of conclusion from this, but “ever thus” in Hollywood: Young 20-somethings are not likely to be icons 25 years later. Where was the Brat Pack in 2010? Frankie and Annette in 1990? You get your occasional Judy Garlands and Tom Cruises, but fame is fleeting.

The Janet Leigh move.

Drew Barrymore has some sort of talk/news show. It was cool that she opted for this role when she could’ve had the lead.

Of all of the cast, W. Earl Brown as Courtney Cox’s toady cameraman is about the only one I recalled seeing much after this came out, as he is one of those character actors who turns up all the time and I was a fan of “Deadwood”. I realize at this belated date, Brown is dressed exactly like Silent Bob in Clerks and has very little dialogue. This is not an accident. This whole movie is so chock full of knowing cultural references that it’s surprising how well it holds up, only occasionally annoying the viewer. (Well, your mileage may vary.)

From Wes Craven’s cameo as a rugby-sweater wearing janitor named “Freddie”, Linda Blair as an obnoxious reporter yelling “The public has a right to know,” Henry Winkler as the principal who keeps the Fonz’s leather jacket in his office closet, to all the (slightly) subtler nods, like “Billy Loomis” (Dr. Loomis is Donald Pleasance’s character in Halloween) recreating Johnny Depp’s climb-in-throw-the-window scene from Nightmare on Elm Street, Jamie Kennedy’s character, Randy, yelling “Turn around Jamie!” at Jamie Lee Curtis while the killer is coming up behind him, or for that matter, Randy explaining the entire plot in the video store down to the red herrings.

See, it's commentary, not exploitation.

McGowan’s nipples being the most prominent part of this scene is no accident. We get it, Wes! We get it!

We wouldn’t get a movie this meta again until Cabin in the Woods. One of my pet peeves, however, is this notion of The Final Girl, and specifically Jamie Lee Curtis, being virginal. JLC did four non-Halloween horror films (before going on to get topless for the first time in Trading Places, as noted by Randy here) and in none of those is she a virgin—something she’s noted ironically over the years. (In The Fog she jumps into bed with Tom Atkins within minutes of him picking her up as a hitchhiker.) Friday the 13th played up the sexuality of the teens (because it’s a narratively cheap way to get nudity into your film) but the first (contemporary) victim in F13 is a girl whose sole crime is liking animals and children the Final Girl was having an affair with the middle-aged head counselor. (I don’t think there is a virgin in the F13 series until maybe #7.) Yes, Nancy is a virgin in Nightmare on Elm Street, but by the time you get to Nightmare 5, the Final Girl is pregnant.

What I’m saying is that “virginal final girl” trope was ginned up ex-post-facto by Carol Clover in her 1992 book , and it was far more a staple of teen comedies than it ever was of horror. (And not just a staple but the staple and sole plot point of all ’80s teen comedies.) So it’s kind of irritating that it turns up in the mouth of a supposed horror expert. The first “Final Girl” (at least according to Joe Bob), Sally, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably not a virgin. Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas is actually in the process of arranging an abortion—her virginal pal is the first victim. Graduation Day, Happy Birthday To Me, Final Exam, The Initiation, My Bloody Valentine, Funhouse—and if you want to stretch the definition, we could include Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley as non-virginal final girls.

But I digress.

Truly inexplicable.

The chemistry was real. Inexplicable, but real.

Horror-comedy is a challenging genre, and we can probably find the best examples of in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, when bad spoofs like Saturday the 14th and Student Bodies gave way to more interesting mixes, like April Fools Day, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night. As the horror movie petered out after the orgy of slashers spawned in the wake of Halloween (and gave way to the erotic thriller), and Wes Craven looking to get out of the horror biz, it was more than a little gutsy to make a slasher movie by 1996 even with a comedy element.

This is an entertaining film, and clever (perhaps too clever) and does a good job with the suspense, comedy and mystery aspects. Despite the oft-repeated, would’ve-been title Scary Movie (later cribbed by the Wayans brothers for a comedy spoof that would end up having more sequels than Scream), it’s not very scary. Well, scratch that, it is scary, but in a suspense-movie way, not really a horror-movie way. The movie takes great pains to keep itself out of supernatural realms and “ghostface” is decidedly mortal and rather easily injured.

The initial kills are nicely gory and the movie went through some 50 gallons of blood, still the violence seems so tame to me, I’m sort of shocked that they struggled to get an R and left a lot of stuff out (but I’m willing to admit to being jaded on that front). Beyond that, though, it feels more like a whodunnit, with a mystery story’s calculation—a feeling that is compounded by the movie’s meta-commentary, such as when Sydney loses her virginity. It’s not the worst movie deflowering by a long-shot, yet its unlikelihood—that her change of heart would come at that exact moment in time with a boisterous party (after all the girls have left, no less), and its self-conscious tweaking of the trope (explaining the significance of the topless shot downstairs while using Skeet Ulrich to block the same shot as it’s going on upstairs) begins to feel, as I said, a little too clever, like the characters are just pieces in a puzzle.

Very creepy.

You probably don’t want to look to this movie for male role models, unless you’re aspiring to be a creep.

The characterization, in retrospect is thin—though “thicker” than most horror movies, if we’re being honest—while the acting is top-notch. Neve Campbell is likable and more believable than your average 23-year-old high-schooler. (Drew Barrymore, who was actually two years longer looks way too old to me, but perhaps that’s just because she’s been in the public eye so much longer.) Matthew Lillard clocks in at 25, but acts like such a doofus it works. (Molly Ringwald turned down the role, not wanting at 27 to still be playing high schoolers. It was probably a wise choice.) I didn’t care for Rose McGowan’s performance at the time, as it felt too on-the-nose blond bimbo, but in retrospect I’d say she actually manages to pull it off. David Arquette and Courtney Cox have a genuine chemistry that would lead to a 15-year marriage.

It’s fun and frothy and very safe feeling. Not in terms of who lives and who dies; the movie does a fine job with that aspect of the horror movie ethos. But you’re not going to see anything offensive here beyond the basic Camp Crystal Lake blood bath, which is doubtless why it was so successful and probably led to the subsequent spate of well-produced, well-crafted, well-acted PG-13 horror movies of the next ten years starring a crop of fine young actors who cut their teeth in television.

The house, which was pretty packed, applauded at the end—I didn’t look closely but I assume these were people who had bought into the franchise’s original three movies (Wes Craven also tried a New Nightmare kind of gag in 2010 with Scream 4, which in turn led to an on-again/off-again TV series) and were maybe even bringing their kids to this one.

And we’re getting a remake/reboot next year. So, whee.

Which ain't easy.

On the plus side, Neve Campbell may actually be even better looking now.

A Place Among The Dead

I remember when I first heard Juliet Landau announce she was working on a documentary about vampires. It was on Twitter and it was at least five years ago. (I had to check: I would’ve guessed more like ten.) It’s been a while, is what I’m saying, and it finally went to streaming last year after the brief fall reprise from lockdowns. I wanted to see it on the big screen and I finally got my shot when it played for one night at a local theater, with Ms. Landau and her husband Deverell Weekes in attendance (who actually gave us a spare ticket). Ms. Landau was brightly greeting everyone who had communicated with her on social media and the house was pretty full. (We neither stayed for the subsequent Q&A nor the after-party but it seemed like a friendly feeling all around.)

Looking good in the right light. (Though, in fairness, she’s quite radiant in person, too.)

Now, something happened in the making of the vampire documentary (which is actually still being edited, I think), which was that she got it in her head to meld the documentary stories with a more traditional narrative and produce this film, A Place Among The Dead. The premise is that she’s interviewing Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Robert Patrick, and there’s some recurring Incident That Happened 15 Years Ago with a serial killer who thought he was a vampire. She then goes back to the scene of the crime (in beautiful Santa Barbara city!) to investigate what happens.

There is a moment of brilliance early on here where she’s constructed this parallel between vampires and actors: the narcissism, the hunger for attention, the vanity and desire for eternal youth—that essence of the glamour of constructed beauty. The cinema verité aspect combines with a more traditional aspect and we see characters (especially her) in their most unflattering views, often immediately juxtaposed with their more traditional look. An actress (Meadow Williams?) whose work I’m unfamiliar with and who isn’t in the actual documentary, as far as I can tell, appears in such flattering light with such heavy makeup, it’s impossible not to view it as some sort of statement. (She’s in her 50s and she doesn’t look it here, though she doesn’t look entirely human, either.)

But not afraid to look rough.

This movie is chock full of the sort of raw, emotional acting that actors do in acting workshops with other actors. The movie begins with pictures of her parents (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain) and phrases they presumably said to her about not being pretty enough, about not daring to challenge them, etc. which is brutal. She’s a compelling actress, and the vampire metaphor makes a strong comeback at the end, when she has to face the serial killer/vampire.

The Flower sort of wanted to see this, as a fan of the old “Mission: Impossible” series and someone who went through a “Buffy” phase and when I told her about it, she said she would’ve liked to just given Landau a hug. (Barbara Bain apparently said Juliet would never be as pretty as she was, which was funny to us because we’ve always thought that Juliet looks like both her parents, but somehow makes it work better.)

That said, the rest of the movie—the bulk of it—is hard to take seriously. The basic idea here is a sort of “found footage” type thing, but it’s constantly undermined by, on a mechanical level, the profusion of reverse shots (and occasional visible camera man), and worse, on a narrative level, the framework of a police procedural—where we’re supposed to accept the Santa Barbara police working closely with an actress to catch a serial killer, doing things like inviting her into a (potentially hot!) crime scene and admonishing her and her husband (who is actually documentary cameraman, by the way) not to touch anything. Also, since we, the audience, are there to see Landau, and not her husband, he holds the camera while sending her into the supposedly dangerous locations ahead of him. In the hands of Christopher Guest, it would be high comedy.

Dig that '90s double-exposure, tho'.

I’m not saying the film could’ve used more exposition, but I’m really not sure who this other woman was suppose to be. An earlier victim?

The last act just goes full on Blair Witch Project, down to being lost in the woods alone for no reason and giving a long, impassioned, apologetic speech to the camera, in this case the speech being oriented around her husband. Which is nice. But between that and the extended mega-death-scene—oh, geez, and the extended chanting spells in Spanish scene—you’re gonna be feeling your butt by the 70 minute mark. Those last 4-5 minutes are going to hurt.

It needed much tighter editing, but it was barely feature length as it is.

I was glad I saw it, and pained mostly by the potential greatness that’s not realized. The raw materials in tighter rein could’ve been brilliant as a micro-budget film can be. The Boy, having none of the backstory—you wouldn’t necessarily even get that there was a documentary, originally, going on, if you weren’t plugged into Landau’s social media accounts—had a hard time following what was going on, and was left with a bunch of people he didn’t know (though he liked Gary Oldman anyway even without knowing who he was, because he’s Gary freakin’ Oldman) talking about vampire stuff that was a little too on-the-nose, and then some very goofy and highly improbable serial killer (or is it a vampire?) hijinks.

I’m afraid this narrows the audience for the film tremendously.

Some goofy ones, too.

Some nice images here and there, though.

Cry Macho

“It was awful!

I had asked The Boy what he thought about the new Clint Eastwood Cry Macho, and he said, “It was okay. What did you think?” I said, “Yeah, it was okay.” A nearby lady then exclaimed “It was awful!” and The Boy said something about opinions at that point.

Happens to us all.

It’s one thing not to let the old man IN. I think the old man is getting OUT these days.

You have to give Eastwood half-a-star for being 91 and starring in and directing his movies, I say, but you don’t have to give him any more than that, and there are aspects of this movie that are challenging, let’s say, to the viewer. Let’s talk about the good: Eastwood still has a fair amount of vitality for his age. He knows redemption stories better than anyone. He knows how to make a story that is complex without being complicated.

In this case, he plays a washed-up cowboy, Mike, who’s been carried by his employer, Howard, (Dwight Yoakam) f0r the past few decades(?) since the death of his wife and kid and his subsequent slide into alcoholism. Howard’s had enough, and fires him, but doesn’t kick out of the house he’s apparently let Mike stay in, but he does send him down to Mexico to fetch Howard’s son (Eduardo Minett) from his crazy mother. Mike (reluctantly, natch) agrees and goes down to Mexico City(?) where he finds the crazy mother living an opulent life and the boy out on the street cockfighting, because the mother will otherwise pimp him out to her friends. Eastwood and the boy set out back to America, said trip complicated and extended by crazy mother (Fernanda Urrejola), who has enough money and power to get the cops riled. (The economics of this are never explained.)

So, we got ourselves a road picture, a buddy comedy, a fish out of water, a bildungsroman and a gray caper, or whatever you call it when old dudes pull shenanigans.

He fights.

No greater love is there than that of a teenage boy for his cock.

The good aspects are when Eastwood pulls off a few of his old tricks: He throws a decent punch, he holds a gun briefly, he even rides a horse. (And they got a very skinny stunt double for the horse-breaking scene, so it’s not so obviously not Clint.) There’s a nice warmth to the proceedings, with Eastwood not hammering the crusty side of his crusty but benign character. The supporting actors have their moments, sometimes, and are affable enough. The story is interesting for the most part, though it doesn’t bear a whole lot of scrutiny.

The bad aspects largely stem from Eastwood being 91. This is his 30th year (since Unforgiven) of playing a badass cowboy (or cowboy in spirit) who is trying to redeem himself for his sins, even though the harms visited him in his life appear to be completely unrelated to said sins. If I had to guess, I would say his character age in this film is supposed to be mid-60s, and the age difference is distracting.

Old folks, for example, have trouble breathing sometimes, and this shows up in an inability to say a complete sentence without breaking for a breath. And I suspect it shows up here also as an unwillingness to do another take when you’ve flubbed a line. As I mentioned in Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality, things read differently on old people than they do on younger ones (like running crouched when you’re old just looks like your spine is curved). There are places where this is hidden well, and when it’s not, it’s jarring.

I mean, ew, but you get the point.

Gotta sting a little having your advances spurned by your great-grandpa.

The most difficult part is in accepting Clint as a romantic lead, when he spurns his charge’s mother’s sexual advances: We can believe she’s crazy and slutty, sure, but hot for nonagenarian? Even if it’s Clint Eastwood?

And the main plot point of the story is the elder cowboy teaching the younger one the tricks of the story in a small Mexican town where the pretty owner of the diner makes eyes at him, and offers him (in a plot sense, she doesn’t outright say this) a chance for a peaceful life with a family as she raises her recently orphaned granddaughters. “Aha,” you think, “at least he’s getting it on with a grandmother, right? Not like, say, in The Mule where he has a threesome with girls who might be his great-great-granddaughters.”

“Oho,” says I, “this grandmother is still young enough to be his granddaughter.” (Natalia Traven, the Mexican grandmother, is 52 as it turns out. You do the math.)

As I said, we liked it okay. There’s enough going on that I’m willing to suspend belief.  It’s just that said suspension gets to be a bigger and bigger ask with every movie.

She's not THAT busy.

Maybe next movie, Clint could date an older woman, like Betty White.

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Is it too soon to do another Nicolas Cage movie review? I swear that guy makes movies faster than most people can watch them. And this is going to make a great contrast with the relatively sedate (dare I say mature?) Pig, because this is probably the kind of performance people are thinking of when they say they don’t like Mr. Cage, and the sort of movies they think he’s making. Malignant is tame by comparison.

If you want something more conventional, I offer you the blandly pleasant Free Guy, the well-meaning-but-occasionally-shockingly-amateurish Tango Shalom, or Malignant. I guess people are talking about and shocked by the latter, but it was essentially a solid slasher with a well-telegraphed reveal which you’re either going to buy or not. No, no, you want weird? Let’s get weird.

Naked Cage!

There’s a perfectly rational explanation for th—okay, no, of course not. Don’t be silly.

Here we have the…I don’t know…43rd? film by Sion Sono (director of such hits as Why Don’t You Go Play In Hell? and Bad Film) about a bank robber (Cage) in a dystopic Old West town (called “Samurai Town” and full of samurai and geisha as well as cowboys) who is turned loose (although constrained by a leather suit with time-bombs wired to his arms, neck and ‘nads) by the evil governor (Bill Mosely) and sent on a mission to retrieve his “granddaughter” (Sofia Boutella) who we’ve seen escape through the mysterious Ghostland into a city where forlorn urchins listen to Enoch (Charles Glover) as he reads them things like Wuthering Heights, as the wretched men of the town work night and day pulling a rope to keep a giant clock from advancing.

Sure we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it with Nick Cassavetes playing a psycho ghost named Psycho who, underneath his penchant for blowing children away, is actually a decent sort of guy? I think not!

Abandon all rational thought.

Outside the bank: A dirty 19th century town with people dressed in peasant clothes. Inside the bank: pristine white décor with women dressed in 1960s-style primary-color dresses and a boy in a cable-knit sweater.

This movie is what you call a pastiche: The premise is Escape from New York (or more likely Escape from L.A.), the setting is Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome especially, but with elements of Road Warrior), there are costume elements that reminded me strongly of Running Man, there are story elements from westerns (the bank robbery reminded me of Peckinpah, if he’d made his shootouts in a brightly lit banks where everyone was wearing primary colors, and the giant clock recalled Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, as did elements of the ersatz Old West towns), and there are action sequences and blood effects that are straight out of samurai movies (Lone Wolf and Cub leapt to mind).

None of it makes a lick of sense. This is kind of interesting to me because the screenplay writer (Persian?) Reza Sixo Safai, whom we know around here for his role in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, apparently spent over a decade trying to get this made. Enough time, one would think, to iron out the kinks, were one so inclined.

As do we all.

Sophia Boutella wonders what the hell is going on.

So, we have to assume that it isn’t really trying to make sense, and indeed embracing that is about the only way you’re going to enjoy this film. The Boy and I? We enjoyed it. One thing that won me over early on was that it’s quite beautifully shot. Some of these Japanese directors will turn out two, three…six!…movies a year, and yet they’ll often be more interesting visually and more engaging than the bland, focus-tested, color-coded fare we get in America.

The tone is, shall we say, uneven? It’s mostly pretty serious, with heavy overtones of the weird—dreams, fate, ghosts—but it does occasionally and quite consciously get silly in places, not always to the best effect. Much worse is how many truly great things were left on the table: The big clock has no meaning, really. There’s a whole theme about time that doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s a heroic samurai whose backstory just kind of peters out. It’s a tale of redemption, in the classic western mold, but it’s too busy doing other things to give weight to the various story elements that make that sort of story resonate.

You want sense or you want beauty?

I think these are the boss’ girls on their way to the manor house, walking in front of the enslaved girls, though there’s a lot of reasons that doesn’t make sense. But look at the colors!

Hats off to the 57-year-old Cage doing a pretty good job as an action hero. We’ll see how he fares in 2028, when he’s 66—Harrison Ford’s age in Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality. (I can’t even hear about the Indy 5 shoots without wincing.)

This is not for everyone, obviously. Hell, it’s not for most people. And if it hadn’t been so visually interesting with over-the-top performances, it would’ve been boring. More than anything it would’ve felt like one of those ’80s Italian versions of Mad Max or Escape From New York; Italians also don’t care much about making sense. But we were glad we saw it. We had some laughs and least manage to get out into the city ahead of the impending vaccine passport fascism.

The plot is less important.

Somebody really cared about getting good shots. (Less so about plot.)