Five still-unsettling screen deaths

Depicting death has been a part of cinema since that cowboy in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) pointed his gun at the audience and fired. These days, we’re so inured to death in film that we had to create an entire series (FINAL DESTINATION) dedicated to increasingly extravagant death tableau, not to mention the once-feared series of video tapes, FACES OF DEATH, which I have never watched.

Still, movies are still capable of giving us a death scene that will brutally remind us how unexpectedly yet inevitably death will grab us all. This short list (SPOILER ALERT) was inspired by the long list of 100 Great Cinematic Deaths curated by the great web site The Pink Smoke, which you can find here http://www.thepinksmoke.com/deaths.htm. These are not included there (neither is anything from THE OMEN, oddly enough) and as I type this I realize I should have included the gruesome end to Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931).

But the headline says five, so here they are:

THE REAL GLORY (1939)

Poor Lieut. Larson, good-natured lug ready to do anything for handsome superiors Gary Cooper and David Niven. Director Henry Hathaway has always had a mean streak (see: KISS OF DEATH) and it doesn’t get much meaner than the cheap-shot death of Broderick Crawford’s Lieut. Larson. It’s unclear whether he was killed by the ants, or whether the unfriendly Philippinos killed him before burying up to his neck and pouring honey all over his head. But that’s how his friends find him, and for a grade-school kid watching this on television, it was a real punch in the gut. I recently saw this on TCM and can swear this death scene was edited almost completely out.

SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (1970)

Paul Newman was an accomplished director, good with actors, obviously, but particularly skilled at creating the verisimilitude that marks the best of 1970s cinema (see: THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS). That’s what makes Richard Jaekel’s death scene in Newman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s epic novel so devastating. The freak accident that has Jaekel — playing Newman’s half-brother — pinned beneath a log in shallow water is terrifyingly random; and the length of his death, while Newman (by himself in a great wilderness) tries to extricate him is nearly unbearable. In an otherwise unsatisfying movie, the denouement is one of the great depictions of man’s fragility in a world that will, in one way or another, kill us all.

BORDER INCIDENT (1949)

Good guy and second-billed George Murphy is dispatched relatively early in Anthony Mann’s overlooked film noir, and it’s the kind of death that tells the audience anything is possible, ratcheting the tension for the rest of what has already been an uncomfortable ride. Henry DeSilva might be the nastiest villains on a long list of nasty film noir villains, and henchman Charles McGraw carries out his death sentence on Murphy’s earnest immigration agent with extreme prejudice, running the injured man down with a tractor as he tries to crawl away through a farm field. Mann, director of photography John Alton and a panicked Murphy make it unforgettable.

THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974)

This guileless piece of agit-prop culminates in perhaps the most comically tasteless cheap shot death in screen history. A sweet, young boy with a prosthetic arm tries to save a rabbit from the indiscriminate shooting of the National Guard when a soldier with a conscience resists his better instincts and shoots blindly into the crowd. The young lad, of course, gets it in the back. This likely plays as comedy now, but it really messed up a certain 8-year-old seeing this in the theater (no, my parents did not take me).

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)

I still have a hard time watching this, even on its own. For those who saw this cold, the rapidity and brutality of William Peterson’s death is stunning and it sticks with you even after William Friedkin’s ne plus ultra ’80s thriller wraps with an ending that should cleanly clip the narrative.

Review: The Conjuring 2

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JAMES WAN IS A HORROR FAN and so is not an easy target for criticism from the like-minded. He is one of us. And because he is only 38 years old, one suspects he will someday have something to say in his careful recreations of horror tableau. But he’s not there yet.

Which is to say, Wan’s horror movies are always watchable, and good for a couple of terrific scenes, but generally lack the subtext that might make them successful films. They aren’t movies you think about when you’re lying in bed at night.

Like its 2013 predecessor, CONJURING 2 is based on a case file from demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose life work makes for good reading and good one-hour television. It should make for good cinema, as well, but hasn’t so far. Lorraine Warren and her late husband are captivating subjects, and attractive to boot as played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson.

CONJURING 2 focuses on the Warrens as a couple but inexplicably tries to shoehorn that story into the most exhaustively documented haunting in modern history, the Enfield Poltergeist. The result is a 2 hour, 12-minute movie that handles neither story well and, despite its length, uses awkward shorthand to evoke the time and place of 1977 England.

It is decidedly not based on the book “This House is Haunted” by Guy Lyon Playfair, who lived with the family for months and documented their experiences in often dull detail. His presence is redacted from CONJURING 2, which was probably smart in a movie already crowded with half-drawn characters.

Still, Wan manages two set pieces that make CONJURING 2 worthwhile: One is a seance of sorts in which the young center of the haunting, 11-year-old Janet, channels her suppressing spirit. Mostly one shot, Wan makes strong use of widescreen and CGI (go figure) for a genuinely disquieting effect.

The other is a classic, a long waking dream of a terrifying painting and a demon in the house, a sort of amalgam of incidents that purportedly happened in the Warrens’ Connecticut home. It likely will join the ranks of the LEGION: EXORCIST III (1990) hospital scene in horror cinema lore.

For the most part, however, Wan’s palate — a crisp, digital sheen — doesn’t lend itself to scares. It’s too artificial, at odds with his focus on ordinary families struggling with the ineffable.

CONJURING 2 is getting a lot of positive press and I suppose it delivers in a summer movie way. But horror is having a renaissance of sorts, and alongside films such as KILL LIST (2011), IT FOLLOWS (2014) and THE WITCH (2015), Wan’s horrors are second rate. They are not about anything, and therefore don’t resonate in any way.

The Coolest Music Clips on YouTube

AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK, I’m prompted to say to myself, or to anyone within earshot, “Man, I love YouTube.” Here’s why …

TOM JONES/CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG

From the THIS IS TOM JONES show and it’s become somewhat popular but I don’t care. This was taped in 1969 shortly after the first record came out, and presumably not long after drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves were hired for live shows. And, we have Neil Young before DEJA VU was recorded. Apparently Young wasn’t thrilled to be slumming it with Jones, whose recent hit was “What’s New Pussy Cat?” So, fuck him. The guy has a singular voice and he crushes this; besides, the guy whose part he’s taking, David Crosby, seems to be having a blast. Great to hear Crosby and Graham Nash work together on harmonies. And yet my favorite part of this might be Taylor and Reeves holding it all together. What a rhythm section they were, and together for only one record. Their work on “Carry On” and “Woodstock” is first-ballot hall of fame.

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THE MOVE on BEAT, BEAT, BEAT

The British Invasion’s most awkward winners did three of their best songs on German TV in 1967 — live, live, live from the group’s original and best lineup. Impossible to be any cooler. Dig that set up: Drummer in back, four lined up shoulder to shoulder in front of combo amps. They all sing, solo and as one, and knock these out of the park — and these aren’t easy songs to pull off live. Oh, to have seen them in person. Many thanks to elodevi for posting the entire performance.

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THE FLAMIN’ GROOVIES on FRENCH TV

The first commentor (I see this is not really a word) on this YouTube page nails it: “God bless the motherfucker who uploaded this.” The mix isn’t great (too much maraca and the rhythm guitar is louder than Cyril Davis’  lead Ampeg) but certainly I never thought I’d see the Groovies play one of their best songs in their prime. The rest of this segment is posted, as well, but they do “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Little Queenie,” admirably but so what? This was a good four years before they recorded “Shake Some Action.”

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MC5 on BEAT CLUB 1972

First let me say, not enough people run a Rickenbacker through an Orange stack. This is another rare look at a (relatively unpopular) band at its peak. If we had lost the war, would we have had this instead of American Bandstand? It’s worth contemplating.

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BLUE OYSTER CULT, “THE RED AND THE BLACK,” 1981

This is after Albert Bouchard left. so the drumming, courtesy Rick Downey, is a little ham-fisted, but this is a great glimpse of BOC in, if not their prime, good form. This was recorded at a Florida show for television, so there’s a longer version with some interviews also posted. But this has sound boosted by a BOC fan. See also: “ETI” from the same show, excellent, as well.

 

What’s Wrong with Season 2 of “True Detective?”

“I’M GOING TO PUT MY OTHER HAND UP NOW,” drowning crime boss Frank Semyon tells cop-turned-muscle Ray Velcoro. “Don’t you fuckin’ shoot me, Raymond.”

It’s moments like this that keep one coming back to Season 2 of “True Detective,” absurd interactions of intense awkwardness born of bad decisions and an unwillingness to address them that have the ring of truth about them. Such is life.

It was “True Detective” creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto’s knack for revealing character primarily through dialog that carried the remarkable Season 1, an eight-hour conversation occasionally interrupted by bursts of action that ostensibly moved toward the satisfying conclusion of a mystery of Lovecraftian proportions. In the end, the mystery was relevant only as it affected the characters trying to solve it — the old MacGuffin. It worked because the threads were few; what seemed byzantine was, in fact, fairly standard. And in an eight-episode schedule, it was perfect.

Season 2 finally kicked into high gear Sunday with Episode 7 of Season 2, with the season’s surfeit of plot threads coming together in a manner threatening to become dramatically satisfying. But the episode’s success as entertainment reveals, starkly for the first time, Season 2’s weaknesses: a nihilism so hard-boiled that it’s limiting; a plot exoskeleton stolen from other great L.A. films noir (notably “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential”), and a hard-boiled patois that bleeds into parody. The dialog is so uniquely stilted that one knows not whether to blame the actors or the writer when they land with a thud. To wit: At one point in Episode 5, Rachel McAdams’ enraged cop tells her sister that the past is “always there, staring back at you,” which is a great line but rings like the bell on the concierge desk. Better suited is a terrific Vince Vaughn as the flailing crime boss, Frank Semyon, who was THIS close to going legit before a corrupt city manager was killed before he could close a deal that cost him $5 million.

That murder sets into motion the investigation into an ostensibly complex conspiracy that unites three of the most miserable people on Earth and their similarly hopeless satellites. Unfortunately, the conspiracy, it’s becoming clear, is pretty stale: big money land grabs by polluters who convene for kinky sex parties in some of California’s ritziest compounds. When McAdams infiltrates one, Season 2 achieves the remarkable feat of simultaneously ripping off “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

Which raises the question: Is this a joke? All that staring; those mean, inscrutable Mexican Bros.; and that bar where the only entertainment is Suzanne Vega’s lugubrious cousin. That’s funny, right?

One final plot thread was introduced in Episode 7, a “Twin Peaks”(almost literally) flashback that appears to finally explain the whole “Source Family” subplot. But it doesn’t bode well. The musculature is too weak to withstand the show’s morbid gravity (“there are signatures all over this,” for example).

But, man, do I hope I’m wrong.

Satan Met a Lady: “Borgman”

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“BORGMAN” IS A FILM living in a sort of cinematic purgatory, sprawled out — legs on the coffee table — between two extremes. Because this is the same comfortable resting spot for the film’s nominal protagonists, one assumes this was the aim of director Alex van Warmerdam.

Without fitting squarely into any category, “Borgman” settles on a disquieting pastiche of modern genre filmmaking, blending fairly seamlessly supernatural horror and home invasion thriller into a darkly comic critique on the bourgeoisie. It’s a genre picture without a genre.

That is to say, it’s an allegory, and van Warmerdam is to be applauded for making his point rather artfully. His movie’s flaw is that its characters are drawn from such distance, and with such broad distaste, that “Borgman” is neither (particularly) funny nor (particularly) frightening.

To be fair, though, this might be calculated; were a viewer to invest in the family whose home is somehow commandeered by a klatch of demonic dullards, “Borgman” likely would be unbearable.

Camille Borgman seems to be in charge of a group of what, Gypsies? Homeless people? In any case, they’re slinking through the Dutch suburbs and eking out an occasionally comfortable existence. But in a beguiling opening, they’re living underground. The imagery is not subtle — Borgman later sits atop a victim ala Fuseli’s “Nightmare” — but in case you didn’t get it, they also are being hunted by a rifle-wielding priest.

On the run and searching for his next project, Borgman insinuates himself into a family we gradually learn is remarkably unlikable. The husband is your classic A-type prick, and his wife is a white wine artist with a studio near the garage and little interest in her three children. After Borgman seduces the wife, first through pity, later through shame, he and his pals find them all easy prey.

Explaining more would be unfair; “Borgman” is a good movie, and seeing it with fresh eyes — do not watch any trailers — is a treat, even if the viewer sometimes feels like cutting to the chase before van Warmerdam does (he and his wife, by the way, are onscreen). But there are smart touches: with a little landscaping, for instance, the family’s concrete home turns quite easily from modern chic to WWII bunker; and it’s genuinely funny when the husband explains to his children that suddenly mean-spirited and unemployed Mommy is “overworked.”

If “Borgman” seems to shamble out of sight without a pulse, it does so with purpose. There are a lot of movies that purport to examine the banality of evil, but this might be the first to actually portray Satan as a cipher.

A Short History of Violence: “Blue Ruin”

CINEMA’S GREATEST FLAW AS POLEMIC is its tendency to romanticize that which it intends to criticize, which probably is why most polemic movies aren’t very good. Perhaps the best example is Michael Winner’s notorious “Death Wish,” which was torpedoed as any sort of statement about vigilantism the moment Charles Bronson was miscast as its protagonist. The racism didn’t help, either, but that’s almost beside the point. Even Peckinpah’s magnum opus, “The Wild Bunch,” works not as an indictment of violence, but as an illustration of its futility in civilized society. And in any case, Peckinpah’s graphic violence became the movie’s calling card and inadvertently paved the way for, say, “Cobra.” When he got it right — “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Cross of Iron” — movie-goers weren’t particularly interested.

In that light, “Blue Ruin” is a revelation, a narrative of murder and consequences, and more to the point, vengeance. Its central “twist” is the decision to start with what would be the denouement of a shitty movie and follow the natural consequences. Here is a revenge movie in which the revenge is never truly thought out, let alone planned. The revenge is the catalyst, not the conclusion. The characters, and audience, are forced to deal with the consequences. They aren’t pleasant. In “Blue Ruin,” revenge is neither sweet nor served cold; it’s hot and sweaty and impulsive.

The protagonist is a homeless man named Dwight Evans whose entire life already is the result of revenge, and in that sense the plot was set in motion by someone else — in this case, as in so many others, his father. This is revealed as the plot plays out, and there is a plot. The narrative is smart and engaging — the ending revolves around a clever trap set by the increasingly effective Dwight — and the dialog sticks with you, as when Dwight’s sister tells him, “If you were crazy, I’d feel sorry for you. But you’re not crazy; you’re weak.” Ouch.

The movie revolves around an often silent performance by Macon Blair, whose general anonymity helps, but this is what they call a “breakout performance.” Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, whose career started as a DP, has a keen and eye and ear for detail. The character of Dwight’s friend Ben, as written by Saulnier and played by Devin Ratray, is a fascinating brush with both the outside world and insular state of affairs in rural Virginia. The punchline joins a rare cinematic club (“Smile,” “Wake In Fright”) of perfect endings.

“Blue Ruin” is streaming on Netflix. Watch it while you can.

Why You Should Watch “Kill List”

IN 30 YEARS, SOME FETED AUTEUR will spark a revival for Ben Wheatley’s off-Hollywood danse macabre “Kill List,” a piece of “White Light/White Heat” cinema currently making the rounds on streaming devices two years after it was released to wildly disparate reviews. Too grim and too odd for the majority of what newspapers would call “movie-goers,” it no doubt already has sown its seeds in the heads of dozens of aspiring filmmakers.

I spend a good part of my life looking for movies like “Kill List,” and it took two years and a Halloween hay ride through “best horror movies you’ve never seen” Google searches to discover its existence. Unfortunately, the very first list — which correctly made it the top horror movie of the new millennium — gave away the secret at its core by name-checking one movie. And although I was ultimately surprised by the denouement, I essentially knew what was happening.

“Kill List” is in many ways that movie’s direct inverse.

Yet it didn’t spoil the movie, nor did it stop me from thinking about for days afterward, because “Kill List” is not a stunt; it’s part allegory, part agitprop and all horror movie. The best piece I’ve yet read on “Kill List” compares it to “Mulholland Drive,” although in some ways it’s about as far as one can get from Lynch’s dreamy jigsaw. It also features the kind of Saviniesque in-camera FX one doesn’t see much anymore and a pair of remarkable performances by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley at its center.

If this sounds as if it might be in your wheelhouse, watch it. It’s streaming on Netflix. But don’t read anything else about it until you’re done.