Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' Review

I've returned to the Fulci fountain many times over the years that I've been blogging in the Village, reflecting on his cinematic high points (Zombie, Don't Torture a Duckling) as well as his unintentionally hilarious...erm...misfires (Murder Rock). But what I haven't done is complete my critique of his Gates of Hell trilogy. I chronicled City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery in detail previously, but the middle installment, The Beyond, had remained unwrit.

Well, thanks to Mondo and Alamo Drafthouse, that all changed. Last night I was able to see what many consider to be the director's chef d'ouevre the way it was meant to be seen — via a speckled 35mm print with visible reel changes. And although I've seen the film on DVD many times before, this analogue theatrical presentation makes it a more visceral experience — in more ways than one.

A bit of history — after the successful Zombie/Zombi 2 reignited the director's career, Fulci decided to defy audience expectations by making three films that reflected his personal taste. He idolized the French surrealist and playwright Antonin Artaud, whose "Theater of Cruelty" motivated him to make the "Gates" trilogy — a series of nearly-plotless films that concentrated more on tone and gruesome imagery as a way to provoke viewer response. Of these three, The Beyond/Seven Doors of Death/L'aldia is certainly the most hallucinatory.

Catriona MacColl had the dubious privilege of playing the lead in all three, and here stars as Liza, a down-on-her-luck New Yorker who inherits a rundown hotel in Louisiana and plans to reopen it as a last means of financial support.

Of course, the hotel has a history of sinister occurrences, not the least of which was the 1927 flaying and crucifixion of a painter named Schweick, accused of sorcery by a local lynch mob. And when a strange woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale), who sports a pair of bizarre boiled-egg eyes, comes to warn Liza of impending danger, it gets pretty foreboding.

With Zombie stalwarts (cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi) along for the ride, The Beyond looks and sounds like the Fulci films of that era, but the barely-there plot and slow, deliberate sequences of mutilation transform it into something else altogether.

Examples: Liza's hotel is situated above one of the seven doors to Hell and, as such, is a gateway for all sorts of mayhem. The hired plumber, Joe (whom everyone seems to know and anxiously welcomes, including an unabashedly lustful maid) goes down to the flooded cellar to discover the source of the leak, only to be rewarded by having his eyes gouged out by a monstrous claw emerging from the wall.

The maid shows up and discovers his eyeless body with relative calmness, only to seriously freak out when she then sees a mummified corpse. This is one of many strange moments in the film. I mean, surely finding someone you had just moments before been panting after suddenly and violently deceased would be a lot more jolting than spying an obviously dead-for-years husk.

And in a hospital autopsy theater (as they call it), people keep ignoring the "do not entry" sign on the door. First, Joe's widow comes in to dress him in burial clothes, but when her young daughter, Jill, hears her mother scream (at what we never find out), she rushes inside to find the woman lying motionless on the floor with a large jar of hydrochloric acid slowly dissolving her face.

This is one of several sequences in which the victim seems to just lay there and allow the damage to occur. Furthermore, when a puddle of Mom oozes toward Jill in a crimson tide, she tiptoes away in  disgust.

Another wild sequence involves Liza's friend, Martin, who goes to the local library to find the hotel's original documents. Perched high on a ladder next to a shelf, he is frightened by a sudden and inconvenient lightning strike and crashes to the floor.

As he lay there immobile (of course), a group of tarantulas — yes, tarantulas — emerge from under a shelf and start to devour his face. As a combination of real aranchids and pipe cleaners attached to fishing line set about ripping out chunks of cheek and piercing his tongue, they make loud crunching noises and also sound like they're desperately in need of oil.

Much more mayhem occurs, including Jill acquiring a set of white peepers of her own and Schweick's corpse popping up at inconvenient times. Liza rushes into the arms of town doctor John (David Warbeck), who first doesn't believe her story until most of the mangled cast returns to shamble toward them in all their undead glory. They rush from the haunted hotel to the hospital to confront even more reanimated corpses, so they hurry down a spiral staircase to find themselves...back at the hotel.

Like its brethren in the trilogy, Beyond concludes on a grim and hopeless note.

There are two ways to take The Beyond. One way is to howl at Frizzi's inappropriately funky score during the stretched-out killings, as well as the obvious latex effects; the other is to get into the disjointed pacing and oppressive mood that Fulci was trying to convey, as well as admiring the truly fine frame composition and design of the film.

Whichever road you choose to take, The Beyond is a bizarre experience you're sure to remember. It's certainly not a quickie ripoff by any means.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Voices from the Hollyood Fringe Fest: Michael Evans Lopez and Maria Pasquarelli

I just spent seven days in Hollywood covering the Fringe Fest and I gotta say it was one helluva trip! There's so much talent and so much good work being done there. I wish it was all year long!

One of the most intriguing solo shows at this year's Fringe is The Inside Edge of the World (or Where Have All of the Good Serial Killers Gone?). It's a fascinating study of a wannabe forensics detective who communicates telepathically with his dog and is simultaneously dealing with the trauma of being brainwashed by a suicide cult.

It's an intense and complex piece, and writer/producer Michael Evans Lopez and director Maria Pasquarelli had their work cut out for them to delineate multiple characters and help audiences navigate a labyrinthian plot that's mysterious, compelling — and yes, humorous.

Michael and Maria were kind enough to answer some questions for me and provide some insight on the development and meaning of this puzzle-box of a play.

What was the genesis of the creative process here? What influenced you to write this piece?

Michael: Maria and I have been listening to a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch detective series in our cars on our long commutes to work. I started with the idea of a socially isolated character that has a particular interest in forensic criminology. A guy who goes to forensic science conventions and imagines himself tracking down serial killers. I imagined him becoming fixated with a suspicious character in his neighborhood and treating his dog as his own, personal Watson.

Then I went to an enormous Catholic wedding in Pittsburgh and was overwhelmed by the ritual of it. I kind of thought how funny it would be to have inexplicable rituals that seemed comical to anyone outside of the religion and that brought about the ‘cult’, which was highly influenced by my research on the Heaven’s Gate Cult.

It takes a lot of effort to delineate characters in a one-person show, and there are quite a few of them in the piece. How did you collaborate on making each character identifiable as an individual?

Maria: During our time at our respective graduate acting programs, Michael and I both had the opportunity to create and perform solo performances. Each school had their own methodology and reasons for putting us through these processes. I had the great fortune of working with playwright Luis Alfaro and one of the greatest takeaways I got from this work was to create a gesture for each character to help delineate one from the others.

So, we worked through the various characters, one at a time, to find a voice or gesture for each that was easy enough to transition through, but different enough to provide clarity to the audience.

Michael: Maria’s suggestions were instrumental in getting me started with differentiating the characters and, as I’ve done them, I’ve learned more and more who each one is and I think it helps me to provide a more complete feelings as I understand them more completely.

You cover a lot of topics in the show, including suicide cults, serial killers and guys who can communicate telepathically with their pets. What’s the overriding theme you most want to put across?

Maria: For me, this piece is about loneliness and an overwhelming human desire to connect to people. Humans need each other and are desperate for that connection, be it through religion, obsessions or imagination.

Michael: For me, I think it’s about how a person can build a world out of loneliness, fear and grief.

There are a lot of ambiguities in the piece that are intriguing rather than frustrating. Was it your intention to give audiences a chance to draw their own conclusions?

Maria: I feel like that was my exact intention. When I go see something or even read something, I don’t like it to be wrapped up in a tidy little bow at the end. I really prefer to be challenged to think for myself and draw my own conclusions.

Michael: I’ve been thinking about this piece kind of like a short story. There isn’t the same obligation to answer all the questions. It’s a peek into the world of your story like passing an open doorway and catching what you see as you go by.

How has audience reaction been to the show so far?

Michael: Overwhelmingly positive, but lots of questions, a good bit of confusion and several requests for a sequel.

What are your future plans for the piece? Do you have other festivals scheduled? Are you adapting it for other media?

Maria: We are just beginning to considering these options. Our original intentions were just to put something up for the Hollywood Fringe.

Michael: We’re having fun with it now and learning more about it. We’re definitely keeping an open mind. Fist The Mountain was started as an outlet for us to create original video content, so we might play around with adapting it.

What other projects do you have in the works?

Maria: We have a web series that I started after graduating from my MFA program at USC, which we want to finish up this summer. We also participate in the LA 48 Hour Film Project every year, which is a fun, crazy, slightly stressful weekend of filmmaking chaos. In November, we shot a short film that we are still editing, and hoping, once things calm down this summer, to put more time into. Our film from last year’s 48 Hour Film Project is currently in the festival circuit, so we tend to keep ourselves pretty busy.

Is this your first time at the Fringe? How has your experience been?

Maria: I participated as an actor last year and I have been a Fringe patron since year one, but this is our first time producing in the Hollywood Fringe. We are having a blast — seeing as many shows as possible with our crazy schedules. We have been making a lot of new friends and since we have a piece that we are excited to show to people, we really feel like we are a part of it all.

Have the two of you collaborated on other projects?

Michael: We’ve collaborated on a six-year relationship and a one-plus year marriage. We’ve provided a home for various pets — there was an Alec Baldwin, and Buddy is an amalgamation. With our video projects it’s been almost entirely me directing Maria. This reversal has been surprisingly pleasant.

Maria: Michael is much easier to direct than I am — at least when it comes down to us directing each other — I admit to getting entirely too defensive when he directs me, but we haven’t had any issues this time around. When people find out we’re married, their first question is always about how difficult it is to work together, but that’s just what we do, so I guess we’re used to it.

Michael: Yeah, Maria can get testy. As a director, though, she’s incredibly patient, she never panders to my need for her to laugh at what I’m doing and tell me how great I am. So, I work harder to please her.

What’s your opinion of Los Angeles theater in general? Where do you see it heading in the future?

Michael: This is a really interesting time in L.A. theater. The new AEA rules requiring theaters to pay union actors minimum wage is going to have a profound effect on our theatre community. Where previously, it’s been a kind of wild west and 'anything goes' approach, now it’s hard to say. The requirements will challenge L.A. theaters to focus on quality over quantity. I empathize with the challenges that small theaters have, but I also think ‘how wonderful to potentially be able to do a play, as an actor, and it not trash your bank account with wages you aren’t going to be making.’ I’ve lost jobs because I’ve chosen to do plays.

Maria: I’ve been a part of the L.A. theater scene since 2001 and I have seen it go through many changes over the years. I do have hope for the future. I believe that events like the Fringe bring a lot of notoriety and awareness to the theatre that is happening in Los Angeles. There is an overwhelming wealth of talent in this city and it’s not often used to its full potential. I am looking forward to whatever the future brings and — like Michael — am curious to see how small theaters will deal with and rise to the challenges.

The Inside Edge of the World plays the Hollywood Fringe June 22 and 27 at Theater Asylum's Elephant Studio, 1078 Lillian Way. Tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.

Monday, May 18, 2015

George Miller's Spectacular 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Pure action films are definitely a tricky business. If you hurl machines, bodies, and buildings at your audience for two hours without rhyme or reason, accompanied by a relentlessly crashing and slamming soundtrack, you risk inducing boredom.

However, if you present the same action in comprehensible, well-edited, and exciting sequences, you’re more likely to keep them riveted. Happily, George Miller has once again achieved the latter — in spades.

Miller, whose original Mad Max blasted onto the scene more than 35 years ago, makes a triumphant return to the Wasteland and, at age 70, shows that he’s still able to school younger filmmakers in how one does action right.

His outrageously exciting Mad Max: Fury Road is a garishly-colored jolt of adrenaline that strips plot to the barest minimum in order to deliver the bone-crushing goods. From its striking opening scenes, Fury Road hurtles us back into Max’s world, giving us in shorthand everything we need to know about the society in which he now dwells. No superhero, Max (Tom Hardy) is a mournful survivor suffering from PTSD who’s immediately kidnapped by the “War Boys” of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the half-human, half-machine leader of a society of cliff dwellers that keeps its subservient populace under control with the occasional gift of precious water, pumped from underground wells to a surface that has been irreparably blighted by man.

Right off the bat, Max finds himself literally attached as a “blood bag” to insane War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is desperate to earn the affection of his master and be carried henceforth through the gates of Valhalla. When word reaches Joe that one of his prize warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has gone rogue, kidnapping his harem of breeders and escaping his realm, Nux snatches his chance to get them back and earn his reward.

Thus the stage is set for a two-hour chase that, in less talented hands, would become stultifying, but Miller knows how to keep the engines revving. He’s always had a gift for populating his Max films with interestingly bizarre secondary characters, and Fury Road is no exception. In addition to Joe’s army of maniacal War Boys on a fleet of vehicles modified for maximum mayhem, there’s a canyon-dwelling motorcycle gang, a strange group of stilt-walking swamp-dwellers and — most surprising for this genre — a mob of elderly female warriors who provide a link to Furiosa’s past and hold the key to the world’s survival.

In a surprising but well-realized twist, it’s the feminism that Miller introduces into the film that is refreshing. Brian Tallerico at rogerebe says the director consulted with no less an authority than Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” on the script, and it results in a depiction of female empowerment that’s free of cliché and so rare for this genre. These women are here to take back the earth from filthy dictators like Joe, whose only interest is to spawn a male child — which flatters his disgusting ego, but is a dead end, reproductively speaking. Even the breeders, who could have merely been a simpering, cowering lot, have strong wills of their own.

As far as the performances go, Theron is magnificent as the conflicted Furiosa, who’d been snatched from her peaceful existence to slave for Joe (and lose an arm in the process) before finally rebelling to rescue the breeders to take them back to her Green Place. Like Max, Furiosa is a strong and silent type, but Theron lets us know what her character is feeling with her eyes.

Hardy’s Max is an impenetrable cipher at first, but he also manages to win us over. Initially loathing all human interaction (his opening narration informs us: “Who was more crazy? Me or everyone else?”), he aligns himself with Furiosa’s cause and even convinces the erstwhile antagonist Nux to fall into line.

As for Nux, Hoult goes full-bore in his depiction of this religiously insane character, kicking his pretty boy image to the curb with a bald pate, crazy eyes, and a painfully scarred torso. And, like Theron’s Furiosa, he’s got a soul in there somewhere just dying to come out.

The action, as previously mentioned, is off the hook, with Miller utilizing as many real stunts and actual mechanical vehicles as possible. According to the Miami Herald, he lured the 72 year-old Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) out of retirement to give Fury Road a decidedly old-school vibe, including the familiar trick of undercranking the camera to give the action a surreal speed. Miller also bucked the trend of dark, washed-out post-apocalyptic films, and this one pops with vivid reds and oranges — and gleaming chrome. I was concerned about a score by a composer named Junkie XL, but it’s just as intense and orchestral as the earlier work of Brian May (The Road Warrior).

I saw Fury Road in 3D, and it’s fun, but it’s really not necessary to relish Miller’s terrific return to the genre he created.


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