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.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Dream Within A Dream

Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

My local art house is running a series of classic (or "classic") horror movies for Halloween this year. The first in the series was Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which plays pretty well to an audience of young people even today. Most of the audience I was with was under thirty. A large part of it was under 20. Teenagers, it seems, never get tired of seeing other teenagers massacred on screen. It was a good time at the theater, though I admit that Nightmare is not a film of which I am overly fond. But, whatever. I don't get to make the canon and it's a film whose place is firmly established.

Craven conceived of Nightmare after reading about a number of refugees from Southeast Asia who had died in the throes of nightmare from unexplained causes, and formulated the character of Freddy Kruger after the model of the song, "Dream Weaver," by Gary Wright. Craven, a magpie for ideas, incorporated a number of other influences as well, but the idea that if you die in your sleep, you die in real life is the spark behind the film's ideas. The central theme of Nightmare is the tenuous boundary between reality and dreams. At its core, it's an epistemological film shaped in the form of a slasher film.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Fearless Vampire Hunter

Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998)

Blade (1998, directed by Stephen Norrington) didn't seem like a landmark film at the time of its release, but time has been kind to it. It remains a shock that this film and this character were the first foundations laid in what has become the Marvel Entertainment empire. Blade never had a comic book of his own prior to the movie. He was a supporting character from the long-forgotten Tomb of Dracula series in the 1970s. And yet was the first Marvel Comics character to become a big screen success after previous attempts--famously Howard the Duck, less famously The Punisher and Captain America--crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. But more than that. Blade ushered in both a cinematic idiom and design aesthetic that would spread like wildfire throughout cinema. The Matrix movies were the immediate inheritors of Blade's fetish-attired action look, but you can see it in the Underworld movies, too, and in the Resident Evil movies, and in countless vampire films and television shows littering the backwash in the film's resulting wake in the myth pool. Pick up any given "urban fantasy" romance novel these days and you'll see an echo of Blade's influence right there on the cover. Guaranteed.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

What Big Teeth You Have

The Company of Wolves

Although it came during the cycle of werewolf movies of the early 1980s, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) doesn't have much in common with The Howling or An American Werewolf in London and their imitators. Apart from a taste for gory transformation effects, The Company of Wolves comes from the tradition of arty European horror movies from a decade or so earlier, indeed going back to the likes of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Like these films, The Company of Wolves reinterprets the Gothic through a modernist lens, influenced as much by surrealism and by the various European New Wave movements as by the then-contemporary norms of the horror movie. Its director claims that it's not a horror movie at all, but there is a whiff of self-interested deflection in that pronouncement. And besides, Jordan has made several other horror movies of a similar bent, so it's not like a horror movie is out of character for him. But in some ways, he has a point. There is certainly an otherness to The Company of Wolves that sets it apart from its contemporaries.