Saturday, May 18, 2019

Adding Color to the Sky

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Fast Color

"Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky."--Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds


There is a gloomy sense of millennial unease threaded through Fast Color (2018, directed by Julia Hart), a sense of a world on the downward side, worn out, done. In spite of its fantasy plot, this is very much a film about climate change and the looming extinctions--possibly including our own--that the century ahead holds in store. Contrary to its title, it's a monochrome film, shot mostly in de-saturated colors across desolate landscapes. Like many genre films that don't want to be thought of as genre films, it's a dour, unhappy experience.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here


David Harbour in Hellboy (2019)

"The devil is not as black as he is painted." -- Dante, The Inferno


I have to admit, I was looking forward to the new Hellboy movie in spite of the wave of negative reviews that hit the week before it opened. I mean, sure, it was never going to be Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy, and it would take a bit of getting used to someone beside Ron Perlman in the role, but things move on with these sorts of franchise movies. If anything, I thought David Harbour was pretty good casting and I've liked Neil Marshall's work in the past (even the critically derided Doomsday). And Mike Mignola's comics provide a wealth of material. Too much so, as it turns out. Marshall's Hellboy (2019) reminds me a bit of Doomsday, in so far as it's a mishmash of various sources. It plays a bit like an anthology film, with the film's main plot acting as a framing sequence. This does the film no favors though.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

Last Exit to Nowhere

Tom Neal in Detour (1948)

My friend, Willow Catelyn, has written an excellent essay about Detour in her ongoing posts about the Criterion Channel's movies of the week. You should all read that.


Meanwhile, I wrote about Detour a lonnnnggggg time ago in what seems like another lifetime. I looked at that brief review this morning and it holds up nicely. This is it:


Detour, 1948. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Edmund MacDonald, Claudia Drake.


At first glance, this poverty row quickie seems like any other Z-grade thriller that studios like PRC and Republic cranked out during the thirties and forties. It is certainly cheap, made for $10,000 with only six interior sets and a cast so small that it seems to take place in some hermetically sealed pocket universe. But there is a weird alchemy at work in this movie the likes of which occurs very rarely (other films in which this alchemy occurs include White Zombie and Night of the Living Dead). There is a spark of otherness that transcends its cheapness and turns that very cheapness into an asset. That hermetically sealed universe is a microcosm where doom stalks every character. It is a disjointed movie, filled with non-sequiturs and broadly pitched performances that take the movie out of the realm of the here and now and into the land dreams and hallucinations. The film follows good-natured loser Tom Neal cross-country to meet his fiance. Along the way, he gets detoured by the death of the man who gives him a ride. Panicking, he hides the body and continues on, only to meet fatal femme Ann Savage, who knows all about it. She blackmails him and seals his doom as well as her own. The movie is straightforward enough in telling us all this, but it is riddled with those non-sequiturs I mentioned, those strangely out of place coincidences. After careful examination of the film, one begins to suspect that the narrator is lying to us and those strange lapses in the flow of events are covering things up. Even on first viewing, the hints of things behind the curtain of the reality presented to us carry a hell of a punch, which is why Detour remains in the mind longer than any movie that cheap and that calculated as exploitation has any right to. This has a curious side effect: Detour may well be the only film in history that improves in inverse proportion to the quality of the print. The more battered and grainy the film, the better the movie. This functions as an amplification of the squallor on the screen and further removes the film from the shackles of verisimilitude.


By the time Detour came out, the great cycle of horror movies of the thirties had run its course. After the war, film noir took its place, feeding on a disillusionment and an anomie that is quite different from the desperation of the depression. The war showed that there were far worse things than "hard times" and the American consciousness was never the same. As a result, films like Detour presented far more virulent nightmares than the fur and fang epics of the heyday of the Universal monsters. And like all of the best film noir and hard-boiled fiction, Detour maneuvers itself into a state of existential nothingness worthy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Detour is film noir's blackest Bete Noir.














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Thursday, March 07, 2019

True/False 2019: Scenes from the Resistance

American Factory (2019)

There are always countervailing narratives at True/False (and, I imagine, at other documentary festivals). For every apocalyptic cautionary tale, there is an account of people resisting the horrors of their times. This year was no different. These kinds of films provide an uplift if you've just seen some of the dystopian nightmares presented in other films. Usually. Sometimes they're ambivalent.

Monday, March 04, 2019

True/False 2019: A Boot to the Face Forever

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

George Orwell, ever the optimist, once suggested that "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever." This undercurrent of despair underlines several of this year's documentaries, which chronicle the future of labor, the future of governments, the pre-apocalyptic mood of generations waiting for climate change to get worse, and the underlying sickness afflicting everything.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

True/False 2019: The Queen of Soul and the Queen of the Bronx

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace (2018, directed by Sydney Pollack and completed by Alan Elliot) chronicles the recording of the album of the same name by Aretha Franklin. The album remains the biggest-selling Gospel album ever recorded; the film has sat unreleased for nearly fifty years, beset by technical problem that have only been correctable with the advances of filmmaking technology of the present era, and by Franklin's own dissatisfaction with the film. I think I "get" why Franklin might have had qualms. As presented in what is basically a church service, she sublimates her own personality to the decorum of religion, something of which the Rev. James Cleveland reminds the audience at the outset. There is certainly a patriarchy at work in the musical and religious traditions from which this is drawn (Ray Charles, for example, famously appropriated the call and response dynamic of a male preacher revving up a choir). Aretha doesn't really talk much in the film--she's there to sing after all--but Cleveland and Aretha's father sure do. There's also a curious merging of the religious and the secular, which is pronounced even if it is at the heart of soul music in the first place.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

True/False 2019 Day One: Moonshots and Provocations

Apollo 11 (2019)

I thought last year's True/False Film Festival was an off year, in spite of crowd-pleasers like Three Identical Strangers and Won't You Be My Neighbor in the line-up. I mean, I had a good time and I saw some really good films, but I've gotten jaded in the last few years. I've been expecting something to knock me on my ass the way something like The Look of Silence or Stories We Tell did, and it hasn't been happening. Those kinds of films are once in a generation films, I suppose. It's entirely possible that I just hit the lows last year and the other films were amazing, but you never know. The first two films I saw at this year's festival are reason enough to think this year will be better. In fact, it's probably already better.


Friday, November 30, 2018

Beating the Devil

Errementary (2017)

Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (2017, directed by Paul Urkijo Alijo) is based on a fairy tale with deep Indo-European roots, one known in one form or another across most of Western Asia and Europe. This film interprets the story in Basque, one of the only European languages that doesn't have Indo-European roots. Given that this film was produced by Spanish enfant terrible Alex de Iglesias, I can only assume that this is one of the ways in which the film is trolling the audience. This film is both a rich Gothic and a droll comedy. It's one of the year's best horror movies, and this year has not been short on good horror movies.


Note: this contains spoilers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sighs and Whispers

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (2018)

The most instantly noticeable difference between Dario Argento's original Suspiria and Luca Guadagnino's 2018 cover version is the way each film chooses to decorate itself. Argento's film often seems intent on burning the viewers' retinas right out of their eyeballs. Many of its best effects are accomplished through abstractions: color, stained glass decor, the pulsing electronic Goblin score. Guadagnino's film, by contrast, is a grey, bleak affair, taking its cues from the dismal world of Fassbinder's 1970s Germany. Both films start with a woman seeking help in a driving rainstorm, but where Argento's opening orchestrates a world of peril and chaos, Guadagnino's opening is a portrait of misery and defeat. It wouldn't be right to claim, as some have, that Guadagnino's film is "artier" than Argento's, because Argento's films from the 1970s are all art objects to one degree or another, both as objects unto themselves and in their contents. Argento made films in which art is dangerous, in which art can be used as a weapon. It shares this theme with the new film. They just have different ideas about art.


Note: this is heavy on the spoilers.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Monsters During Wartime

Mathilde Ollivier and Jovan Adepo in Overlord (2018)

Some years ago, the Criterion people produced a disc for a forgotten film from the 1970s called Overlord by a director named Stuart Cooper. That film was assembled, documentary-style, from footage surrounding the build-up to the D-Day invasion of Europe and wove in new footage relating a haunting love story. The new film bearing the title Overlord (2018, directed by Julius Avery) bears absolutely no resemblance to that previous film other than its title and that it takes place just before the invasion of Normandy. I can see some gorehound horror fan ordering the previous film by accident and wondering what the hell some black and white art film was doing on his TV or some film snob becoming completely appalled by the newer film. The difference is stark. The new film, for its part, doesn't aspire to art, though it may accidentally stumble over it from time to time. It's the kind of horror film that you just have to follow over the cliff as it careens off the rails. If you can't do that, you're in for a rough time. It's that kind of film.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Mystery and Manners

Good Manners (2017)

Good Manners (2017, directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra) is the best werewolf movie anyone has made in the last 37 years. This is, admittedly, a low bar to clear, given the preponderance of Howling sequels that form the backbone of werewolf cinema during that time frame, but it's better than the Ginger Snaps movies, too, and those are pretty good. It might even be better than those two pillars of werewolf cinema from 1981, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, but I won't swear to that. Like Ginger Snaps, this is a distaff horror movie that finds some of its horror in the biology of women, and some more horror in the social roles women often occupy, salted with problems of class and race.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

New Flesh for Old

James Woods in Videodrome (1983)

Although the real world caught up with Videodrome (1983, directed by David Cronenberg) a long time ago, in the late 2000-teens, it seems especially prophetic. What is the work of Russian bots and Cambridge Analytica and Fox News but the exact same "philosophical" signal as the one behind Videodrome? The Videodrome conspiracy is a right wing authoritarian fantasy made flesh as gooey cyberpunk hallucination. The real world version is, perhaps, even scarier and more insidious, one that has already wormed its way into every corner of the world's media. One lone assassin is never going to take it down, though our real-world Videodrome continues to manufacture assassins all its own. Sometimes on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Still More of the Night HE Came Home

The Shape in Halloween (2018)

When last I bothered with the Halloween movies*, with Halloween: Resurrection, I lamented that the folks at Dimension films had only themselves to blame for its failure. It committed two cardinal sins: first it killed off Laurie Strode in the prologue, a callous fuck you to anyone who might have become invested in her character over the years. Second: it was released in July. You DON'T release a movie with the word "Halloween" in the title in the middle of summer. You just don't. The makers of the new film, simply titled Halloween (2018, directed by David Gordon Green) don't make either mistake. They've ignored all of the continuity between John Carpenter's original film and their own, so Laurie Strode is still alive and Michael has not been burned alive or beheaded as the case may be, and their film has a late October release date (when it is on track to make a shitload of money).


This film represents the rubber match between Laurie and Michael: Laurie "won" the first match in Halloween H20 when she took off his head with an ax, Michael "won" Resurrection when he killed her at the mental hospital. The retcon here doesn't really bother me, given that the history of the franchise is littered with retcons. Dr. Loomis was killed at the end of Halloween II (as was Michael), but that didn't stop him from coming back in Halloween 4 and 5. Laurie Strode seems a different character in each of her subsequent appearances, too, all suggesting differing timeline branches from her teenage encounter with Michael. In H20, she was a college professor with Josh Hartnett as a son. In Resurrection, she was a mental patient. In the new film, she's a doomsday prepper, a la Sarah Connor, no longer possessed of a son, but of an estranged daughter and granddaughter. This is a series that doesn't give two fucks for internal continuity. And so it goes.


Note: what follows contains spoilers.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stephen King's America

Bill Skarsgård in It (2017)

Whenever you have a massive breakout success in the horror genre, there is usually some underlying social force at work over and above the relative quality of the film. It's not just that, say, Get Out is a crackerjack thriller. There are plenty of crackerjack thrillers that are at least as good as Get Out that never find a wide audience. But Get Out appeared in the social ferment of Black Lives Matter and a conversation about race in America that wasn't happening four years earlier. It hit a window in the zeitgeist that provided it with the exact moment to become a monster breakout success. You could probably say the same thing about the new version of Stephen King's It (2017, directed by Andrés Muschietti). As a movie, it's good enough. It's well-made. But merely being "well made" isn't enough to explain its success. Director Andrés Muschietti's last film, Mama, was "well made," but that only got it modest box office, not the gaudy success of It. As I write this, It has become the highest grossing horror movie ever made. Its success is the stuff of summer blockbusters, not autumn horror movies. You might think that this is a matter of kids who grew up in the nineties latching on to something from their childhood, but I don't think that's it, or, at least, that's not everything. Its brutal view of what childhood entails (not just in the 1980s) goes a fair way to debunking pure nostalgia as the author of the film's outsized financial success. There's more to it than that.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Life of Illusion

Scott Bakula and Kevin O'Connor in The Lord of Illusions

I was caught up in the hype when Clive Barker's short stories first started to make the rounds in the 1980s. The first three volumes of The Books of Blood made the kind of splash in the horror genre that comes around once in a generation, completely changing the rules of the genre and becoming one of the founding texts of what would become known as "splatterpunk." The cover blurb on the American paperbacks (which had completely horrible covers and not in a good way) read, "I have seen the future of horror...and it is named Clive Barker" and was attributed to Stephen King, who would know about such things you would think. Initially, it was worth the hype, too. The stories in the first three volumes were vivid and angry and genuinely original. No one had read anything like them before. Some of them were repulsive. Some of them were funny. Some of them were both at once. Some of them were decidedly queer and closeted queer me responded strongly to that. It was the one of the first examples of queer lit that I had encountered in a form that appealed to my own literary appetites. I love a good horror story. Barker often built his stories around images rather than around plots, which worked marvelously in short stories. It didn't work as well at novel length, as I discovered when his first couple of novels, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, appeared. It worked even less well on a movie screen. The first feature film based on one of Barker's stories was Rawhead Rex, which is a masterclass in how to botch Barker's ideas. It rendered images that are terrifying and transgressive on the page ridiculous and vulgar on the screen, not helped by an atrocious monster that looks to have escaped from a Halloween rubber mask store. Watching this monster piss in the face of an Anglican vicar wasn't transgressive so much as it was just tasteless. Moreover, the film was boring, something I rediscovered when I re-watched the film earlier this month. Barker himself was a filmmaker, though, and he parlayed his literary success into a film career. His first feature film, Hellraiser, is much closer to his literary aesthetic, but it is still plagued by the literal nature of the filmed image. It's undone by dodgy special effects, particularly at the end of the film in scenes that are as ridiculous as they are confusing. Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is arguably more effective, though Barker ceded the director's chair to Tony Randel. Barker's second feature, Night Breed, was plagued by producer interference, and although it has memorable imagery (particularly David Cronenberg's serial killer psychiatrist), it has some of the same flaws as other Barker adaptations. His third film, The Lord of Illusions from 1995 is more sure-handed. Adapting a story from the sixth volume of The Books of Blood, Barker had a bigger budget, better actors, and access to then-state of the art special effects. The result is Barker's best feature as a director. But it's not an unqualified success.