Slow in the fast lane

DRIVE

The danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has mentioned the impetus for “Drive” in many interviews. He met with Ryan Gosling, who wanted him to be the director. The meeting didn’t go so well. They get in a car, listen to an REO Speedwagon song, and suddenly Refn has it: “Drive” is a movie about a guy who drives in his car and listens to songs. He tells Ryan this, weeping with relief or joy or some combination of both. They both agreed, and went to make the movie.

With the exception of one or two sequences depicting Gosling in his car, chewing on his toothpick, with gloved hands clutching the steering wheel a little too tightly, I thought Nicolas was full of crap when he told that story. Don’t be fooled. This is not a minimalist low key movie about a getaway driver. I think the first third may be a decent argument for that, but the rest of the story is generic, grade B mobster movie stuff that left me wondering what movie Nicolas set out to make.

There’s a scene towards the end where Ryan’s character stalks a mobster on a dark beach, wearing a mask. The whole concept looks like it was taken out of a John Carpenter movie. It was evocative, and very effective, but completely incongruous with everything that preceded it.

I felt there were several kinds of movies here, with all different styles at play. Refn references Michael Mann with his overhead night time LA shots. He references Tarantino with his overt violence. He calls up Carpenter at the end, on the beach. Under different circumstances I would have appreciated everything mashed up like that. Refn is singling himself out by pushing style over substance. But it is not a singular vision. It’s muddled. Here’s a movie where that experiment falls short of the goal line.

Style is what a director brings. Story is what a screenwriter brings. Let the former serve the latter under most circumstances. Unless you are David Lynch, or Refn’s older counterpart, Lars Von Trier. Then you may have some room to maneuver around the script because of pedigree. Generally Refn’s style is to subsume dialogue in favor of silent storytelling. Visually that is probably the most interesting thing you can try to do. Difficult, but ultimately rewarding, right? Let a look between two people say more than words ever can.

A lot of those moments come between Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and Oscar Isaac. It’s a dramatic triangle that shows the most interesting directions that the movie can go. But after a heist gone wrong, it’s cut far too short (about 1/3 into the movie), leaving us with nothing else as interesting, except generic B movie mobster movie boredom.

The mobsters in this movie talk as if their dialogue was written by a screenwriter who just watched Pulp Fiction and set out to write his own version of that movie. Frankly I was surprised by the generic level of mobster-speak. I was surprised by the generic story choices, eschewing a compelling love story in favor of a routine mob plot.

There is nothing less interesting to me than bad mobster movies. I just don’t relate to guys who act like hardasses going around stabbing and shooting their way through an arcane underworld.  They are caricatures I have seen one hundred times before. I’m not super intrigued by intense violence either, unless it is driven by a dramatic context that feels emotional. (yes, Tarantino is the master of it)

The violence in this movie is not emotional. I was laughing during the most egregious violence. Probably not the intended effect, I am guessing. The violence comes with a certain fetishism. It would probably exist in this movie whether the script dictated it or not.

In the end, “Drive” is just another bad mob movie. Set aside the new wave (or is it new new wave if it’s made today) soundtrack, and the deep, penetrating looks from Ryan Gosling, and I don’t really know how entertained I would have been otherwise. While I am glad to see Albert Brooks on screen, I don’t really think playing a violent mobster was anything inspired. Brooks is a charming guy. He charmed his way through the 80s and 90s. Here it’s just a variation on the mobster character. Mobsters are always charming. They always pretend to be a good friend and then they do something violent that contradicts their character. Not a big surprise. At first I thought Refn made a smart choice casting Brooks, and in retrospect I resent that he was even used.

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Are you eating it, or is it eating you?

THE STUFF

The Stuff begins innocently enough. A miner at a quarry finds some white goop that looks like a cross between yogurt and Elmer’s glue bubbling up from the ground. Whether invited by curiosity or an uncontrollable appetite, he reaches down, scoops some of it in his fingers, smells it, decides to try it, and discovers he really likes it.

I don’t know about you, but I did that a lot when I was a kid and then at some point, probably later than I’d admit, stopped that bad habit. Was it premature of this miner to taste it from the ground, given his expertise of what’s down there? Probably. But I’d be hard pressed to find a better opening to a movie.

The Stuff. It becomes a phenomenon, like Coke. It’s low in calories. It’s organic. It tastes great. No one seems to know exactly what’s in it though. And that’s where David “Mo” Rutherford comes into the picture. He’s on a mission to find out. David, or “Mo”, is played by the enigmatic and always underappreciated Michael Moriarty. His height is intimidating. He carries himself unlike most actors in films. There’s a looseness about him. A casual air of indifference that’s fun to watch. His hair and plain Canadian features might subtract from his potential sex appeal, but there’s also his Lone Star accent. In a different universe it might have propelled him to being an A-list star. But in that same universe we never would have gotten The Stuff or Q: The Winged Serpent.

When I first saw The Stuff in college, I didn’t know who Michael was. My friend had an appreciation for him and after we watched The Stuff and Q, I developed a good appreciation myself. I don’t think he’s so cult that people follow him like Bruce Campbell. For instance, he was in about 80 episodes of Law & Order (R.I.P.) but he isn’t known for playing ‘that guy in Law & Order’. If a retrospective documentary is ever made on Michael, Larry Cohen will be interviewed a lot more than Dick Wolf.

There are a lot of movies from the 80’s that could have only been made during that time. In that way, The Stuff is quintessentially 80’s. It’s an overt, on the nose attack on consumerism that mixes up its story with 2/3rds humor, 1/5th gore while the rest is just basically bad filmmaking. From its premise, you expect it to be a very ritzy, colorful affair as most 80’s movies tend to be. I love the lighting in 80’s movies. But because it’s so low budget, they cut some corners. A lot of the picture is really muddy and dark. Even the commercials that advertise The Stuff in the movie don’t look very vibrant. I think if the cinematography was handled with a little more attention to detail, this movie might have exploded into the mainstream.

There are a couple of interesting performances worth mentioning. Danny Aiello plays a guy who works for the FDA. Mo comes over to his house to ask questions about the ingredients in The Stuff. The whole scene is shot really badly. I mean, you could have asked some retired lady vacationing in Boca Roton to come in for a day and she would have done a better job. Aiello is a great actor. Everybody who’s seen Do The Right Thing knows this. But somehow they make him look totally incompetent. And I love it. It’s hilarious. The blocking is horrible. The actors don’t know where they’re supposed to be walking, and the DP doesn’t know where the camera is supposed to go. On top of that, Aiello looks like he forgot all his lines. He tries really hard to convey that he’s afraid of his dog (because the dog also eats The Stuff). As a viewer you’re not making the connection he’s afraid of his own dog until the scene is almost over. It’s really weird. I can’t even talk about this scene without sounding retarded. Just imagine how it must have felt to film it.

Another performance for the record books is from Paul Sorvino. I don’t know what it is about this guy, but he always looks like he’s just snorted five lines of coke. He’s always sweating. Always talking with that stiff upper lip. He’s an army colonel that Mo visits which sets up the climax of the movie. He convinces him that there is something far worse than communism in the U.S. that must be stopped: The Stuff. Why? It’s turning people into zombies! It really doesn’t take much to push him over the edge and get all his men together. It’s funny that he only has a half assed interest in doing it though. His other interest is women. For half the time he’s with Mo, he’s trying to steal his new girlfriend away from him.

One of the key ingredients to movie success in my opinion is logic. Even if it might not make sense in the real world, as long as the movie has its own interior rules and plays by them, I’m cool. But somehow, The Stuff evades both real world logic and interior movie logic.

Great example: there is a young boy whose parents and older brother pressure him to eat The Stuff.  He knows it’s bad, because he saw some of it move in the middle of the night when he peeked in the fridge. He complains that it’s wrong, but they don’t listen. They’re “Stuffies” now.

So he asks his parents if he can finish The Stuff in his room. That way, you think, he’ll just throw it away and they would never know the difference.

Right? Except he doesn’t do that!! He goes to the bathroom, flushes it down the toilet, and then believes there’s an additional step to the process. So he fills the rest of it with shaving cream. Then returns downstairs, and eats the shaving cream in front of his parents to convince them he likes The Stuff. Your own parents already told you it was okay to finish it upstairs. And you’re coming back downstairs risking getting caught.

Some reviews of this film I’ve come across: “Delightful.”/ “Tasty schlock.”/ “Quirky.” / “80’s Time Capsule”. Let me add some of my own: “Retarded”./”Kind of darkly lit”./”Danny Aiello’s never funnier”.

I don’t think it is quite the 80’s time capsule many believe. It didn’t get mainstream enough for that. It never had the money to really go all out with the style, and even the gore. It’s still heavily edited. So the gorehounds might not be greatly impressed.

That said this is a great Michael Moriarty movie. Paired very nicely with Q: The Winged Serpent.

Eat up kids.

I own a motel not far from here…

PSYCHO II

This sequel opens with the original shower murder from Hitchcock’s classic. After Crane dies in the tub, the camera begins searching for the next closest protagonist to follow. It’s only the mid-way point of the movie. Where do we go? To the window, where we can see the Bates house looming above us. We’re about to get intimately familiar with Norman, who at that time we haven’t suspected is “mother”.

This 1983 sequel takes this concept of following a protagonist we might not like and goes a couple steps further. It’s 22 years later and Bates has been rehabilitated. We watch him come home again, scared to take the first steps inside. We see him start his new job at the local diner, where he has trouble using a knife to cut a head of lettuce. He meets one of the diner’s workers, played by Meg Tilly, who we see becomes his new friend. He gets a second chance at life.

And this time, we’re actually rooting for him. What makes this sequel worthy is that it plays from the knowledge we have that Bates had at one time done these horrible things to his mother and the people who checked into his motel. Now we are drawn to his recovery, a part of us thinking that he deserves a second chance.

But then, Bates starts getting creepy phone calls from someone who claims to be mother.

There’s also a new guy running his motel, played by Denis Franz pre-NYPD Blue. He’s turned it into a haven for prostitution and drug abuse since that’s where the good money comes from. So Bates has to fire him and clean up the place.

It seems lots of folks know about his past, but aren’t ready to let him live it down. Everyone working at the diner knows about it. Mr. NYPD Blue sure knows. Bates isn’t ready for that, and it’s about to eviscerate twenty years of rehabilitation.

His house, left abandoned, becomes a  hot spot for teenagers to smoke dope and make out in the basement. That little detail I loved, and it comes back in play later when some teens make another attempt at it once Norman’s moved in. They do it during the day, probably because it’s summer vacation and they’re bored.

Back when I was a teenager in high school there was an abandoned mental institution we would visit. It was buried in a nondescript industrial part of town. We went at night, armed with flashlights. Red splatters on the walls that looked like blood turned out to be dry marks from paint ball gun pellets. The wide halls were littered with broken glass, probably from people that left behind their beer bottles. We would dare each other to slide down the laundry chute which was rumored to empty out into a gymnasium. Once cops started coming around, knowing there were vandals, the fun ended.

Those sure were the days. Anyway–there’s only about three people who give Norman the benefit of the doubt. The town’s sheriff (who says he was the deputy from the original but I don’t know if this is the same guy), his new friend Meg from the diner, and his psychiatrist played by Robert Laggia. He checks up on him every once in awhile, but it’s Meg that spends the most time with Norman. She becomes his roommate and starts sympathizing with his problem and even attempts to set him on the right path. At one point she provides an alibi for him when the cops come creeping around asking questions.

Throughout all of this, Norman has an enemy. It’s Lila Loomis, who is played by Vera Miles from the original.  She wants nothing more than to send him back to the institution, convinced he is going to kill more people. What makes her a great addition to the story is that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to send him back – even if it means dressing up as his mother, making phone calls to the house pretending she’s her, or even going a step further and…killing people?

Even after watching it, I can’t quite say. There’s certainly enough evidence to suggest she does. Either way the most interesting aspect is that she’s not really a hero anymore. Now that we side with Norman, the tables turn.

The script was by Tom Holland, who wrote mostly horror (Child’s Play, Fright Night, etc), and it’s a very good turn on the events of the first film. I would argue this is even more suspenseful than the first, and the twists that add up in the third act make for a much more entertaining finale too. Obviously none of it’s possible without the original. There is another shower scene incorporated into the story. We go back to the swamp and dig up yet another car. So the iconic elements are still here. Nothing has been tampered with to give us any reason for concern. I don’t know what happens in parts III, IV…was there a V? But for a film that is trying to cash in on the 80’s slasher zeitgeist it’s certainly an excellent sequel. This movie shows that Norman Bates is always going to be as American as apple pie.