Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Revenge of 3-D: DARK COUNTRY 3D (2009)

I like weird movies. I like movies that make me wake up in the morning in a cold sweat thinking "what the hell did I watch last night?" Some folks wake up and wonder what the hell it was that they drank, or what the hell it was that they screwed. More power to 'em. I dig cinema that would make David Lynch stumble bleary-eyed out of the theater scratching his head in confusion. I also dig expressionist thrillers and mysteries, whether or not you want to call them "noir" is up for debate. The noir era according to most folks doesn't start until the '50s. Personally I think that line of thought discredits a huge amount of great noir-style films of the '30s and '40s, such as Fritz Lang's M (1931), which certainly fits the description of "Film Noir".

Semantics aside, this genre of film has a niche audience and tend to be hard to come by in the modern era. The closest we've come to a mainstream hit in this area is SIN CITY (2005) which used a noir influence as a springboard to a complete clusterfuck of a movie. A popular clusterfuck, but a clusterfuck all the same.

With all that in mind, it is amazing that I never saw DARK COUNTRY until five years after Sony Pictures unceremoniously dumped it direct to DVD in a barebones 2D release with zero promotional push.


A suddenly middle aged man, Richard (Thomas Jane) awakes in a shabby motel room outside of Vegas with his new wife, Gina (Lauren German). As we find out, they had an alcohol fueled whirlwind romance that resulted them waking up with rings on their fingers. Richard has quit his job, cleaned out his bank account and hit the road in his well-worn 1961 Dodge Polara looking for the girl of his dreams. Their playful new romance begins to slide into dark waters almost immediately when Richard picks up a few things at a diner and notices a missing persons flyer taped to the register with a woman's face that somewhat resembles his new wife. If that wasn't ominous enough, a slick guy in a suit, sitting in a booth starts asking questions and telling him that he should take care not to get lost on the roads at night and that nothing happens to his pretty new bride.

Once on the road, night descends and after playing sex games with the lights off, they come inches away from running down a blood-soaked man who has barely survived a horrible car accident (make up designed by the one and only Bernie Wrightson). Deciding the best thing to do would be to take him to a hospital, they discover that they are lost and their mutilated passenger starts becoming somewhat aggressive, mumbling cryptically "have you ever been murdered before?" To give any more details would spoil the film that is a superb homage to film noir, Hitchcock and even a bit of BLOOD SIMPLE by way of highly stylized comic book visuals. Where SIN CITY went to the extreme with it's highly polarized black and white imagery, DARK COUNTRY uses CGI to paint the screen with a slightly surreal brush, echoing the color palette and style of a graphic novel without falling headlong into overkill.

The film itself has a fascinating out of time design to it. It feels like it could be the 1940s, except there are plenty of deliberate anachronisms to lend an almost disorienting feel to the movie. There is a scene with a cellphone (usually the bane of my cinematic existence) that is very carefully done to make it look as if the cellphone was made in an era in which cellphones hadn't been invented. It is probably something that you will either love or hate as it as it is a device to keep the audience off-balance. There is a part of your brain that will nag you that things aren't right, which is the point. Things aren't right, they are very, very not right.

I have never been much of a fan of Thomas Jane. I thought he was horribly miscast in THE PUNISHER (2004), which had the added burden of being a horrible adaptation. I thought he was fine in THE MIST (2007), but this film made me change my entire outlook on the man. Sure it is a flawed film; due to it being a niche film, it was a very low budget and only had a 25 day shooting schedule, as opposed to the average 60 day shoot of a Hollywood film. Then again, it is about three times longer than Jim Wynorski takes to shoot a BARE WENCH sequel, which should give you an idea of how important time is to filmmaking. Because of the short shooting schedule, there were some concessions made, and Jane himself is very open about the films flaws. I think he's harder on the film than I was, but he has talked about how wasn't able to devote more time to editing the film and has expressed disappointment that they had to resort to CGI for a car stunt.

When you see the car stunt in question out of context, you might think that Jane's heart wasn't in the right place. However there are many outstanding elements in the film that erase that cynical notion. The opening craneshot (done in one take, no cuts) of the '50s era hotel sign took them half of a day to shoot. That may not sound like much, but when you have a 90 minute movie to make with location shooting (enhanced by CG), spending a half a day on one small shot digs pretty deep into your resources. For me, the shot is crucial and completely sucks you in, letting you know before a single actor shows up, before a single line of dialogue is uttered, exactly what kind of film you are about to experience. In addition, the film was shot in stereoscopic 3D. Jane made intricate notes while storyboarding on what style of 3D he wanted for each shot. Some sequences have enhanced depth, some have pop-out effects, some are a very subtle layering and some transition between the three. The effort taken to make the 3D work in the context of the movie is truly stunning in an age of cynical post-conversion.

Jane wanted a slightly shorter cut, trimming down some of these scenes that he felt went on a bit too long. He's right, it does need a little tightening up here and there. Unfortunately Sony Pictures stepped in and shut down post production right in the middle of it. Everyone seems to be tight-lipped on the specifics, but I think it's pretty obvious that it had to do with money and marketability. Sony halted the editing process and demanded a finished cut be handed in for review. After seeing the cut, only then was Jane allowed to go back to the cutting room and reassemble the film, almost from scratch, pushing back post production to the point where it interfered with the start of his next projects (presumably his cameo in 2010s SCOTT PILGRIM). Because of this, some of the editing and post was done while Jane was out of town and the film suffers a little from it. To add insult to injury, Sony decided that they were not going to release the film theatrically and instead dumped it on DVD with absolutely no marketing push whatsoever. Studio executives love to start production on something strange, but when faced with a strange movie they wet themselves in a panic and try to scrape it from the soles of their shoes, so that nobody can accuse them of stepping in it. As of this time, the only way to see it in 3D is via the French double disc release in blu-ray 3D and anaglyph DVD. The discs also include a making of featurette and audio commentary. Sometimes the French are pretty damn cool... sometimes.

The movie took a lot of flack from internet sites for being too obtuse (it is definitely a strange bird) and many viewers found it too confusing and too dark. Jane has stated that he made it for the kind of people that used to stay up late to catch "Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" as kids. While this has been used as a negative, to me it's a positive because I was one of those kids. It successfully captures that feeling and adds a layer of pulpy darkness in the vein of POINT BLANK (1967), except without the psychedelia. Jane even admits he told the composer to take his cues, so to speak, from composers such as Bernard Herrmann.

Unfortunately it's also one of those films were you can stumble across a spoiler on the internet completely by accident (thank you IMDb) and it's not too difficult to figure out what is going to happen if you were one of those "Twilight Zone" kids. Again, it is a flawed film, but a very detailed and compelling one.

Jane's return to the director's chair was to be with a film titled WET HOUSE, about an in-patient clinic in which hopeless addicts go to live out their final days. The clinic's doctor begins to suspect that the place is haunted, or could it be that he is losing his mind? Based on THE SIGNALMAN by Charles Dickens (not to be confused with Charles Dikkens the well known Dutch author), what sounded like a pretty amazing film has gone MIA for the past year. The reason for that as it turns out is the producers decided to divorce Jane from the project wholesale and cast a female lead and a new director. After viewing DARK COUNTRY, I think it's pretty obvious that the producers got cold feet and thought a safer (ie dumber) more by the numbers film would make them more money. It's really a shame as the premise sounds fantastic, it has a literary source and Jane is clearly a director who doesn't feel the need to set the bar at an 8th grade comprehension level. Something of a rarity these days.

It is now being reported that Jane's new film is Glenn Ford western homage A MAGNIFICENT DEATH FROM A SHATTERED HAND which stars Jane and Nick Nolte. Jane has stated that he wanted to do it in 3D, but it was so difficult to get the backing on a western in the first place, that getting a 3D western greenlit was impossible. It's a damn shame that Hollywood has insisted on crushing the 3D format through abject apathy and outright laziness, as a gritty western shot wide in 3D would have been amazing. Even so, I am really interested in seeing how he follows up DARK COUNTRY.

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