Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Watch Nicolas Cage Lose His Shit in Richard Stanley's Lovecraft-Powered Color out of Space

Eat your heart out, Thomas Kinkade / RLJE Films
(Richard Stanley, 
USA, 2019, Not Rated, 110 mins)

"This is what you want… This is what you get."
--Public Image Ltd, "The Order of Death" (1984)

From the people who brought you Ana Lily Amirpour's Iranian vampire noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Panos Cosmatos's psilocybin-laced revenge thriller Mandy, comes South African filmmaker Richard Stanley's first feature in 27 years, Color out of Space. Not only is Elijah Wood's SpectreVision presenting the film as a special theatrical event before it appears on streaming platforms, but it stars Mandy's Nicolas Cage. And Stanley adapted it from a 1927 short story by H.P. Lovecraft,
so those are the primary selling points. Either you're in or you're out.

Stanley starts by introducing us to the Gardners. After an unsuccessful sojourn in the city, they've moved back to father Nathan's family farm in Arkham, Mass. (Stanley shot the film in Portugal, though you'd never know it). The extended clan includes a dog, alpacas and horses, stoner teen son Benny, Wiccan teen daughter Lavinia, grade-school, Coke-bottle glasses-sporting son Jack, and squatter Ezra (Tommy Chong). According to Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Nathan (Cage) did too much acid back in the day and Theresa (Joely Richardson) is recovering from cancer. Lavinia wants her mom to get healthy; then she hopes to get the fuck out this podunk town.

Theresa and Nathan dreaming of Italy / RLJE Films
One night, a weird, glowing magenta object lands in their front yard. Ward (Elliot Knight, Merlin from ABC's Once Upon a Time), a handsome hydrologist in town to test the groundwater, says it looks like a meteorite (Ward also narrates; Lovecraft's story features an unnamed narrator). The Black hydrologist's full name, Ward Phillips, is a bit of a poke in the eye at Howard Phillips Lovecraft, horror/sci-fi master and known white supremacist.

Strange things start to happen. Headlights flash on and off, TVs and computers display Poltergeist-like imagery, freaky insects appear on the scene, Lavinia hears odd voices coming from her cell phone, Jack communicates telepathically with "the man" in the well, Theresa has a bloody freak-out, and otherworldly colors pulsate in the forest. As Iggy Pop's DJ Angry Bob exclaimed in Stanley’s technology-goes-berserk predecessor Hardware (1990), "Nature never knew colors like that!"

So, it's weird, except Nathan acts relatively normally, and anyone watching this movie is going to be anticipating the sort of Bizarre Cage Behavior on display in, say, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Vampire's Kiss, the film that convinced Stanley to cast him here (not least because he previously tried to cast Cage in 1992's Dust Devil, but it didn't work out). Aside from a few eccentric line readings, Cage doesn’t lose his shit and embrace BCB until about an hour into this thing--I'll just note that it has to do with alien-infected produce--and then there's no going back. That's the point at which the scenario segues into the disturbing, body horror realm of The Thing, Altered States, and Annihilation.

Jack (Julian Hilliard) loses his shit, too / RLJE Films
In the end, I couldn't say whether Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris were trying to make a statement about the nuclear family or not. The alien influence drives each family member insane in different ways, and they spend more time turning against each other than joining forces to fight the evil. Further, technology can't save them. When this isolated farm family needs them the most, their transportation and communications devices fail.

Although it may disappoint some viewers, the biggest surprise for me is that Cage, the marquee name, isn't really the star of Color out of Space. It's Arthur (ABC's The Family, Netflix's To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), and she's quite good. Similarly, Dylan McDermott isn't really the star of Hardware; it's Stacey Travis, another plucky woman with long, wavy hair.

Colin Stetson, who scored Hereditary, also brings the menace with his fine score...and Stanley makes the interesting decision to include an aptly-titled track, "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown," from Norway's Burzum, black metal project of convicted neo-Nazi murderer and arsonist Varg Vikernes. That said, he adds a track from fellow black metallists Mayhem, "Watchers," and that's significant, because Vikernes's victim was their guitarist (Øystein "Euronymous"Aarseth). I'm not sure what to do with this information, but to quote Al Pacino in The Irishman, "It is what it is."   

Despite the surface similarities to Mandy, Stanley's cinematic return doesn't measure up to those lofty standards, but it's worth seeing if any of the factors that went into its making appeal to you. Especially with a well-lubricated audience hyped for the weird, the strange, and the disturbing.


Color out of Space plays the Egyptian on Jan 22 and 24-30. Click here for more information. Free Full Tilt ice cream for the first 100 people on Wed.

Monday, January 13, 2020

They Say Betty Davis Was Different, But This Documentary Doesn't Provide Enough Detail

Betty Davis / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic
(Phil Cox, USA, 2017, 54 minutes)

The angle British filmmaker Phil Cox takes with his Betty Davis documentary, which arrives on DVD this week, is this: she emerged as a funk force in the 1960s, influenced one of the world's great musicians, and then disappeared.

In scholar, culture writer, and Pop Con veteran Oliver Wang's introductory comments, the words recluse and reclusive get a workout (Cox neglects to mention that Wang wrote the liner notes for three Davis reissues). They aren't inaccurate, but they serve as a warning that his subject, who is still very much alive, feels more like a supporting character in her own story than a lead. Try as he might, it's a gap Cox isn't completely able to fill.

Instead, he relies on commentary from friends and associates, excerpts from interviews, music and performance clips, photos and collages, and lyrics that float across the screen. There's enough material to get a taste of her fiery shows, uninhibited lyricism, and arresting fashion sense--silver-sequin hot pants above all--but not enough to fill out the standard running time, since They Say I'm Different clocks in at just under 54 minutes.

Betty in her element / Baron Wolman / Light in the Attic 
Cox traces Davis's be-
ginnings to North Carolina and Pennsyl-
vania where she developed an interest in songwriting (she was living in Pittsburgh when Cox caught up with her). When she was ready to make music her career, she moved to New York. She enrolled in design school, worked as a model, and wrote songs. Did you know she wrote the Chambers Brothers' urban funk anthem "Uptown"? (She was only 20.) That was around the time she met Jimi Hendrix in the Village. Unfortunately, we learn nothing about their meeting, so I couldn't say what went down, but Betty proceeded to turn Miles Davis on to his music.

She met Miles when she went to see him play at the Village Gate. She told him she dug his shoes, and that was that. They got married in 1968. Out went his Italian-made suits and in came silky shirts, over-sized shades, and the other sartorial signifiers of funk. He also incorporated psychedelic-rock elements into his music, though it's possible he might have done so even without Betty's influence. Rock was an all-pervasive thing in the late-1960s, and Miles wasn't the only jazz musician to segue to fusion, though she certainly inspired his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which features her image on the cover and ends with the contemplative "Mademoiselle Mabry" (a reference to her maiden name). They also wrote a song together, the tender ballad "You & I," which appears on her 1975 album, Nasty Gal.

The marriage was a short-lived thing. In the film's voice-over (provided by Kim El), Davis notes that Miles could be violent. Frances Davis, his first wife, makes the same point in Stanley Nelson's documentary, Birth of the Cool, which will be coming to PBS's American Masters in February.

Betty Davis (1973) / Light in the Attic
After their divorce, Betty's recording career began in earnest. Local label Light in the Attic reissued her three albums, Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974), and Nasty Gal in 2007, though no one associated with any of her labels--Island, Columbia, Just Sunshine, etc.--appears in the film. Cox also neglects to mention that Light in the Attic issued her previously unreleased 1976 album, Crashin' from Passion, as Is It Love or Desire? in 2009.

There's also very little information about the recording of these albums. Interviews with more of the participants, like bassist Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) and guitarist Neal Schon (Sylvester, Journey), would have gone a long way, though it's nice to hear from her still-funky backing band, Funk House, and producer, drummer, and fellow Family Stone player Greg Errico--even if we don't learn much about him. Considering that Errico has played with David Bowie (1974's Diamond Dogs tour), Weather Report, Santana, and the Grateful Dead, that seems like a strange oversight.

As for Davis, she's heard, but she isn't really seen. Though she spoke with Cox, who worked on the film for four years, she's always facing away from the camera. He mostly focuses on her hands. It's her choice, but she provides so few details about her years in exile that she ends up feeling like a ghost haunting a film about a past she doesn't especially care to revisit rather than a full-fledged participant in a comprehensive look at her life.

Wearing lingerie as clothes / Light in the Attic
The extra features include a five-minute interview with Davis, in which Cox filmed her from the back ("No one wants to see an old woman," she says) and a 16-minute inter-
view with the filmmaker. From these features, I learned that it took Cox a long time to gain Davis's trust, and I appre-
ciate his diligence, but I'm not sure he was the best person to tell her story.

When he realized she wouldn't be forthcoming in interviews, for instance, he could have lined up speakers to explain what she's been doing for the past 42 years. It's possible to do this in a respectful, non-salacious way, but he took the path of least resistance, and the film pretty much ends in 1975.

Somehow or another, Betty Davis has managed to keep herself alive since then. That is no small feat, and I'd love to know how she succeeded when so many of her hard-rocking peers, like Janis Joplin, weren't able to pull it off. Did she work a succession of odd jobs, learn a new trade, remarry...? There's a story there, and it's worth telling. Maybe someday somebody will.

MVD releases Betty Davis: They Say I'm Different on DVD Jan 17, 2020.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Michigan Battle It Out in Jon Avnet's Fact-Based Film

Goggins, Dinklage, Gere, and Whitford / IFC
(Jon Avnet, USA, 2019, 109 minutes) 

In 1959, when Jon Avnet's fact-based One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-meets-Awakenings film begins, paranoid schizophrenics were treated with prefrontal lobotomy, insulin-induced coma, electroshock therapy, and anti-psychotic drugs. Therapy wasn't considered a significant treatment option.

Dr. Stone (Richard Gere with credible Brooklyn accent) sets the story in motion when he makes the switch from professor to institutional psychologist. Concerned that state hospitals have an assembly-line approach to patient care, he believes that more humane methods can produce better results. Faced with overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance--Ypsilanti State Hospital has five staff psychiatrists for 4,000 patients--he has a considerable challenge ahead of him.

Dr. Stone is just settling into his new gig when Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage), a patient calling himself Jesus of Nazareth, attempts to take his life with a serrated can lid. He only succeeds in cutting his arm and that of the doctor when Stone attempts to restrain him. The next two Christs include Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford) and Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins). By the time Dr. Stone meets Leon, he has hired the Amy Adams-looking Becky Anderson (Charlotte Hope, a Games of Thrones vet, like Dinklage) as his research assistant. In the course of their interview, he notices she took a year off. She had to deal with a family issue, she explains, but neglects to provide details. It's a given we'll find out by the end of the film.

Goggins as Leon Gabor / IFC
For his next move, Dr. Stone removes the three Christs from the general population and meets with them regularly. The first group therapy session goes poorly when Leon insults Joseph, who attacks him, but no one is hurt and the sessions continue. Leon proceeds to take a special interest in Becky, starting by claiming that she's attracted to him. Then he claims that Dr. Stone is attracted to her. Both of these things may be true, but he's mostly trying to get her to react. She does her best not to take the bait.

The other Christs have their own unique characteristics: Joseph, who has an Edwardian-style vocabulary, speaks with a British accent, though Leon tells us he's from Canada, and Clyde carries a rumpled cardboard box with him that contains a photograph of his late wife. The implication: he suffered a psychotic break after her death. He's also convinced there's an ever-present stench in the air. Considering that he's confined to an overcrowded mental hospital, that may also be true.

After a few sessions in which Dr. Stone and Becky engage with the Christs, the doctor leaves them to their own devices, instructing them to take turns serving as chairman and to begin by singing a song. He and Becky continue to observe them from behind glass. Together, they decide to honor the delusions the men harbor, instead of trying to disabuse them of notions that have some basis in fact. It's against protocol, and Dr. Stone's colleagues, including the sympathetic Dr. Rogers (Stephen Root) have their doubts.

Adding to Becky's stress: Dr. Stone's wife, Ruth (Julianne Margulies), thinks she's attracted to her husband, a theory that has nothing to do with the young woman's professional deportment and everything to do with the fact that Ruth, now a mother of two, also started out as his research assistant--and that he's played by Richard Gere, who's still plenty foxy even if he's 42 years older than Charlotte Hope (then again, Gere is at least 33 years older than his current wife). Unfortunately, this story strand gets short shrift, which means Julianna Margulies gets short shrift, and that's a shame when fans of The Good Wife know just how hard she can go when given the chance. Still, she looks fabulous, and that's...something, I suppose.

Charlotte Hope as the good doctor's assistant / IFC
For the most part, though, I was on board until a development that isn't completely unexpected--it involves a collision between the unorthodox Dr. Stone and his by-the-books boss, Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak)--but it stops the film cold. And it never recovers. That may be why it was completed in 2017 and shelved for three years, despite the name-brand talent involved.

As for the director, Avnet is best known for 1991's Fried Green Tomatoes, and he was also one of the driving forces behind FX's Justified on which Goggins played meth-dealing antihero Boyd Crowder. I suspect that Goggins' involvement in the show led to his casting here, and he's quite good. (Plus, he looks cooler in white scrubs than any man has a right to.) If anything, the acting is good all-around; it's the writing from Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian, drawing from Dr. Milton Rokeach's 1964 book-length study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, that lets this charismatic cast down.

It's too bad, because I would have liked to learn more about how psychiatry can better serve paranoid schizophrenics. If you take this film literally, Dr. Stone's approach works 66.66% of the time, more in terms of relieving their loneliness than exorcising their delusions, but we're never told if it's still in practice today, not least when overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance persist. Nor do we find out what happened to Becky, whose chemistry with Leon suggests mutual attraction. Did she even exist? Or was she a screenwriter's contrivance? Hope's sensitively-rendered performance makes me want to believe, but I'm left with more doubts than not. A film doesn't have to answer every question it raises, but this one leaves too many unanswered. The subject--and the actors--deserves better.


Three Christs opens at the Varsity Theatre on Friday, Jan 10. According to Wikipedia, "The book served as inspiration for the song 'Ypsilanti' on the Detroit band Protomartyr's debut album No Passion All Technique."