Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last Call for 2009

The year is winding down. Here are the last stragglers for the Christmas week. I don't know what I'll get to this week. Something, I hope.

I was really irritated with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009, directed by David Yates) the first time through. I don't know if it's the fault of the filmmakers or the DVD transfer, but the damned thing was so dark that there were long stretches where I couldn't actually tell what was going on on the screen. Annoying. The second time through, I adjusted the brightness and contrast on my tv to compensate. I don't know that it was much of an improvement, but it did save on the eyestrain. The Potter movies continue to get metaphorically darker, too, which they take from the books. This is adapted from the darkest at heart of the books, but like the last film in the sequence, it seems like it rushes from set-piece to set-piece in order to get everything in. It's all plot at the expense of character. Still, it's not all bad. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into a pretty good actor, and Emma Watson finally gives a performance that's not all twitches with eyebrows and her mouth. I'll be interested to see how they do in the final story, now that they've been stripped of mentors and allies.

I think I was sitting too close to the screen for Guy Ritchie's version of Sherlock Holmes (2009), because the visual image was really soft. Checking the technical specs of the film, I find that it was filmed with both a 35mm camera and a HDTV camera, which explains, perhaps, why the image is softer at some points than others. In any event, the film is visual mud. I liked Downey and Law as Holmes and Watson, but I think turning Holmes into a kind of super action hero was a bad idea (I should note, however, that there is some justification for it in Doyle). I liked the presence of Professor Moriarty. I hated the way the movie uses him as a franchise builder. For the most part, this is a film for which I should have waited until it came out on home video.

Don't ask me what I was doing watching Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008). I mean, this is a character who hasn't exactly had the best cinematic track record. I will say that I was curious to see Ray Stevenson in the part, having really enjoyed watching him in Rome. I was also curious to see another action film directed by a woman (and to see if Lexi Alexander is a patch on Kathryn Bigelow--she's not). Actually, the action sequences aren't bad. The glue that holds them all together, on the other hand, is awful. Every time a character opens his or her mouth to speak, you have to cover your ears. Stevenson comes off the best, mainly by virtue of having so few lines. I will also admit to laughing out loud at one scene where a petty crook is handcuffed to a chair as the FBI agent on the case negotiates with him, only to have the Punisher walk in and blow his head off. I guess you had to be there. Otherwise, this pretty much sucked.

I also watched District 9 (2009, directed by Neil Blomkamp) again because my partner hadn't seen it. It doesn't hold up well to multiple viewings, in part because I really hate everyone in the movie and I hate that it uses the "white savior" archetype. Odious.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Decade: The Horror Movies

The "'aughts" have been a pretty good decade for horror movies. For the last several years, I've been saying that this has been one of the genre's periodic golden ages. Unlike previous golden ages, you would never know it from the marquee at your local multiplexes. Most of the real action in the genre has been pretty sub rosa. While Hollywood studios have been recycling the genre's past successes with ever-diminishing returns, seriously great horror movies have been creating waves just below the surface. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order. Keep in mind that I have some idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes a horror movie, so if you think one or another of my selections don't actually qualify, feel free (but I don't really want to hear about it). Anyway...links are to old reviews of these movies both here and on my old stand-alone web site.

A Tale of Two Sisters--A puzzle movie and a ghost movie and a showcase for the craft of film making (as many Korean films these days are), this takes the tropes of this decade's Asian horror movies and applies them as an elaborate ruse as we plunge into traumatic memories in a fractured narrative.

Frailty--A religious horror movie that manages the tricky feat of disturbing the viewer regardless of his or her stance on matters of faith. From my perspective, it's a harrowing portrait of the way fundamentalism distorts families, but it pulls the rug out from underneath that quite nicely. Terrific performances, particularly from director Bill Paxton.

May--A film that drinks deep the wine of loneliness. Angela Bettis is superb as a downtrodden outsider, and the ending of this film is kind of magical even while it is deeply horrifying.

Let the Right One In--My favorite queer horror film of the decade, and also a chilly examination of the horrors of childhood.

The Devil's Backbone--I think this movie really kicks into high gear when the ghost of the murdered boy, Santi, walks away from his place of haunting and pursues our young hero through the halls of his boarding school. All bets are off at this point, and when the movie lets the horrors of war intrude at the end, it goes for the throat. A piece of work, this film.

The Host--The monster movie as family farce, this throws the script for the monster movie out the window and marches to its own drummer. It contains, possibly, THE best scene of gigantic monster mayhem ever put on film, and it puts it right up front.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer--The return of the Gothic, this is a twisted examination of obsession, shot through with fairy tale elements from the darkest of European folklore. But where it really excels is in finding a cinematic equivalent of smell. It doesn't even need to rely on smell-o-rama cards.

Inside--Probably the most relentless horror movie of the decade, this pursues its grinding horror with single-minded brutality. That it's even watchable is some kind of miracle, but it pulls this trick by mating its instinct for visceral horror with a surprisingly deft command of suspense film making. Bracing.

Pan's Labyrinth--One of the GREAT fantasy films, this is a companion piece to The Devil's Backbone. Like that film, it throws children into the horrors of war. But it also provides a dream life of children that is, in some ways, just as horrifying.

Spider Forest--The horror movie as epistemological mind fuck, or perhaps it's a cubist horror movie. Whatever it is, it's another fractured narrative from Asia that arrives in the territory of the Gothic novel and its descendants.

For the most part, though, this has been such a rich decade that ten films are just too few to really give a coherent snapshot of the state of the art. I could easily have gone in other directions. Some other suggestions:

The Others
Dagon
Drag Me to Hell
[•REC]
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
Dawn of the Dead
The Descent
Below
Seance (Kurosawa's remake of Seance on a Wet Afternoon)
Kairo
Thirst
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Slither
The Ruins
Rogue
...and any number of other films.

Those people who complain that horror is dead are morons, by the way. There has been quality filmmaking in every sector of horror filmmaking: in the mainstream, in the indie sector, on every continent, and in a broader range of sub-genres than has held sway in a very long time. It's good to be a horror fan right now.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Snowbound



So I went to see Dead Snow (2009, directed by Tommy Wirkola) last night and I think it's a movie that's going to suck on home video unless you can find a way to make it into a party.

Mind you, I had a great time at this movie, in part because I went to see it with a relatively large audience (that skewed surprisingly female) with my friend, Anna. We went to a microbrewery beforehand for dinner, so we were in a good mood. A good mood is paramount for this film, because if you're not in one, you'll get pissed off by it. The set-up is familiar, of course: vacationing young people in a remote cabin with no cell phone signal, beset on all sides by zombies (Nazi zombies, no less). It knows its cinematic roots (it explicitly name checks Peter Jackson's Braindead and The Evil Dead Movies), even if it was made in Norway, and, further, it hits the notes by rote. The role of each character is pretty much obvious from the get go, and they make their respective gore-strewn exits in more or less the order you think.



There are a lot of things to like. This film makes creative use of intestines, including one image that might elicit a spit-take if you're drinking at the time, and another in which a character witnesses their own disembowelment in a POV shot. It has an arresting visual design, too, which, much like the wood chipper scene in Fargo, uses the white landscape to spray oodles of blood in high contrast. It's a design that mirrors the colors of the Nazi uniforms worn by the zombies. But, frankly, I've seen this film before, and so have you. Lots of times. I didn't resent it, really--I don't insist on the thrill of the new--but it was disappointing.

That said, the experience of watching it made it fun. Find your best girlfriend and see it with an audience. That makes it a fun, communal experience, even if you have seen it all before. Movies can be a terrific social activity, after all. I like it a lot better than going to church or bowling, frankly.

Still and all, I can't really hate a movie that ends with the line "Oh, fuck."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wayward Impulses

I had a brief exchange with my friend, Kevin Lee a couple of days ago, in which he was composing his "best of the decade" list and I casually mentioned that I hadn't seen any films by Ming-liang Tsai, one of his favorite filmmakers. Most of these blind spots are reserved for filmmakers of recent vintage and are the result of spotty distribution of recent foreign films in North America, and some of them are deliberate. After my experience with Abbas Kairostami, another of Kevin's favorites, I've been, well, kind of avoiding Tsai. Not necessarily because I'm using Kevin as a barometer, mind you--I've greatly enjoyed the Hsiao-hsien Hou films I've seen at his recommendation--but mostly because descriptions of his work tend to mix the words "minimalist" and "transgressive" a little too liberally. Anyway, Kevin's surprise at my admission kinda sorta impelled me to seek out something by Tsai, and the most immediately available film for me was The Wayward Cloud from 2005.

Which was probably not the best place to start.

Anyway, the first shot in the film is long, characteristic of a minimalist director. The second shot, however, is something else entirely. Here are a couple of screen caps from this shot (well, actually, I think it's from the third shot, but they're similar enough):






To which, my brain started going: "What the fuck am I watching?"

The story here involves two people who are drawn to each other during an acute water shortage in Taipei, with the male half of the couple concealing his career as a porn star. The long-take, minimalist idiom at work here, combined with the text of the movie, is fairly alienating, but unlike some alienating movies, this film is ultimately about connections. That the connection involved involves fairly explicit sex is almost beside the point, until the end of the movie, in which the connection becomes literalized with an on-screen oral copulation. I never thought I'd see a blow job that could be considered "touching" in a movie, but this comes close. It is placed, however, on the other side of a sequence of profound nastiness. Our hero's Japanese co-star finds herself unconscious for the last quarter of the movie, but that doesn't stop the filmmakers from using her to complete their porn film. The sight of a man fucking an unconscious woman, whoever she is, is so troubling that it kind of makes the ultimate end of the movie ring a bit hollow, if not a more than a bit misogynistic. Maybe that's the point.

Oh, and this is a musical. Really.



The rhythms of this films are such that the musical numbers are particularly jarring, though not necessarily out of place. Some of the imagery in these sequences is striking, and for the most part they got me wondering whether a movie that cries out for some variety of gonzo film making really benefits from a minimal approach. I'm not really sure. In fact I'm not really sure about what I think of this movie generally. It certainly makes an impression, but I'm not sure it says anything that I can hold on to. I do know that the film has terrific moments that I can hold on to, like a scene in which several live crabs escape into a kitchen, and a foot fetish scene that would make Tarantino weep. Is this the point? To take the moments when they come? Maybe.

I dunno: whenever the art house and exploitation intersect like this all bets are off.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Light Fantastic



So, a couple of days ago, I saw a preview of something called Leap Year, due out in early 2010, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. As I watched the preview, all I could think was: "Hey! That's I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)." And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a LOT of romantic comedies are I Know Where I'm Going. As much as I love this movie, you'd think I would have noticed that, say, Pixar's Cars is an Nth generation descendant. In my defense, I've only seen I Know Where I'm Going! twice, a decade and a half apart. I notice on the IMDB's trivia page for this film that Paramount used this film as a guide for screenwriters in the years after it was released. I'm not surprised.

Anyway, the preview for Leap Year also reminded me that my local art house, the excellent Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, was showing I Know Where I'm Going! this week as part of their ongoing Ragtag 101 series. This was my second viewing. I've never seen I Know Where I'm Going! on a television screen and I'll probably keep it that way*, because, like many of The Archers' movies, this one is what movie screens were made for. It's the light fantastic, conjured by those two sorcerers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Oddly enough, it doesn't start that way. It starts out as a screwball comedy. We find our heroine bullying her way through life and dreaming of a life of luxury and money (the dream sequence in this film is one of its best magic tricks). Then we come to the stark beauty of the Hebrides and mournful shots like the one at the head of this post, and the tone of the movie shifts so dramatically that it's hardly the same movie. It shifts again, later. The structure of the film is one in which Wendy Hiller's character is constantly walking through doors into other worlds, each wilder and more primal than the last.


Along the way, the filmmakers puncture the social structures that still held sway as WWII came to an end, particularly the lordship of the aristocracy. Hiller's foil, played by Roger Livesey with restrained grace, is aristocracy that has already had his place in the world transposed. He's come to terms with a world that doesn't conform to his expectations. And here, the film shifts again, because Hiller can't come to grips with this and follows her determination into the maelstrom. The Archers weren't shy about turning their movies into horror stories, though this one is milder than the end of, say, Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes, but you can see Poe all over this one, though in the end it's far more humane a film to descend fully into the abyss.

One of the things that I noticed during the film was how much the thick Scots accents reminded me of Scandanavian accents, and the occasional Gaelic dialog increased that impression. The association came mostly from the light, though. This film has Bergman's light, and the compositions from the middle of the film onward are occasionally as tenebrist as anything in Bergman. Cinematographer Edwin Hiller famously shot this film without a light meter, relying instead on a painter's feel for light and darkness. It's a tour de force, one that imbues what might ordinarily be a run of the mill romantic comedy with a whiff of other worlds, and turns the whole movie into a waking dream. The interesting thing about this is how concrete the film is while it turns this trick. Take, for instance, the sequence in which Livesey goes about fixing the engine of the boat while they're being sucked into the whirlpool. Another film would show the actor mucking about in the engine without bothering with the details, but here, we see each meticulous step of the way. This has a dual purpose in the film: first, it ratchets up the suspense during this sequence; second, it grounds the film in reality as a means of counterbalancing the mythological elements (Herman Melville would have envied this).






*actually, I'll probably relent on this. I mean, this is a film that rewards careful viewing, and I'm told that the Criterion edition is lovely.



Friday, November 13, 2009

October Wrap-Up pt. 2

Okay. This is waaaay late. I'll get back on track this weekend. Promise. Anyway, wrapping up the October horror-palooza:


October 26:

Altered (2006, directed by Eduardo Sanchez) is a less gimicky sci-fi horror film from one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project. He knows his way around a camera when directing a conventional film. The movie, on the other hand, is pretty bad. It concerns a group of former abductees who capture an alien in the woods. While this might sound fun, the filmmakers have given the proceedings characters by giving us human characters who are a bunch of foul-mouthed rednecks. I had more than enough of THAT particular screenwriting convention half-way through The House of A 1,000 Corpses, thank you very much. Some interesting gore effects, but the story is an ungodly mess that pushes credibility way past the point of snapping.

The Blame (2006, directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) finds an abortionist developing an unhealthy obsession with her nurse and her nurse's daughter after taking them into her home as live-in help. Serrador is the ring-leader of the Six Films to Keep You Awake series and is currently the grand old man of Spanish horror (having a career that stretches back to the 1970s). He knows how to turn the screws, and, as he did in Who Can Kill a Child?, knows that pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are a minefield of raw nerves to be mercilessly exploited. He's good. I wish more of his stuff was available.

October 28:

Bob Burns Hollywood Halloween (directed by Lindsey Keith Jackson) is a kind of love-letter to the Monster Kids of the 60s and 70s, focusing on superfan/pop-culture collector Bob Burns and his famed Halloween haunted house shows. These shows were a proving ground for up-and-coming talent that would soon become big players in Hollywood, including special effects guys like Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, Greg Nicotero, and William Malone, as well as genre stalwarts like Dorothy Fontana and Walter Koenig. I watched this with a fair degree of envy. These shows looked like a gas to produce (and they've given me ideas for next Halloween). Perhaps the best part of the documentary, though, is the rescue of George Pal's Time Machine from prop museum hell, much to the delight of George Pal himself. A portrait of the fun that creature features used to engender in the young and young at heart.

Red Eye (2005, directed by Dong-bin Kim, a Korean film not to be confused with the Wes Craven film of the same name), is another Asian film in which the ghost is in the machine. In this case, it takes place on a late-night train between Seoul and Pusan which has cars from a train that had been involved in a horrific wreck. Of course, the souls of the dead rest uneasily. The first two thirds of the film are a standard slow burn, but the end explodes with violence. This has a lot of ideas, but it doesn't connect the dots very well. It's a disjointed effort, though not without pleasures.

October 29

MOH: The Black Cat (2006, directed by Stuart Gordon) casts Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe, drinking his life away as his tubercular wife spirals downward. In his need, he falls into a delirium in which the events of his short story, "The Black Cat," enact themselves in his marriage. Combs is a surprisingly good Poe, and Gordon seems on top of his game with this. Of the big name "masters" assembled by this series, Gordon is the one whose work is most typical of the films that made his name, and reuniting with Combs gives this an added kick.

October 30:

A Real Friend (2006, directed by Enrique Urbizu) finds lonely Estrella living in a world populated by imaginary friends. Estrella loves horror movies, and her friends derive from the movies she watches when her mom isn't home. This installment of the Six Films to Keep You Awake series isn't wholly successful--in fact, I would call this the weakest of the lot--but it has several unforgettable images, including the unexpected and touching sight of Leatherface giving comfort to a lonely little girl. Whatever the merits of the film itself, this image is going to stay with me for a long, long time. Call it a personal quirk.


October 31:

The Spectre (2006, directed by Mateo Gil) is a character piece, concerning a man who recently lost his wife and who is haunted by the affair he had with a woman who might have been a witch when he was 16. This film is probably my second favorite of the Six films to Keep You Awake, but it's a hard film to talk about without dismantling the surprise of a first viewing. I will say that it's beautifully filmed and beautifully performed and adds a touch of bittersweet to the horror. Take it as a recommendation and be surprised if you like.

A Christmas Tale (2006, directed by Paco Plaza) closes out the Six Films to Keep You Awake series for me, and in many ways, it saves the best for last. It's the least cinematically subdued entry, and it's certainly the most playful. The story here involves a group of kids--reminiscent of The Goonies and Stand By Me--who stumble upon a woman in a sinkhole who has stolen a huge amount of money. Rather than turn her in, they extort the woman for the money and torture her when she doesn't comply. Unfortunately, she escapes. This set-up plays like A Simple Plan crossed with The Lord of the Flies, and I can't recall any American film that has as clear an eye when it comes to he cruelty of children. What's really interesting about this point of view is how it contrasts it with a name-dropping cultural milieu intent on evoking nostalgia for the 1980s. It's a heady mixture.


The finale of this film is an addition to the cinema of killer Santas, deliberately recalling Tales from the Crypt's ax-wielding Santa and placing her in the funhouse. And after that's all said and done, the movie turns a neat trick as it slips its reality sideways. It's totally earned by the film from the first frame, but it's unexpected. This is very much my favorite of these films, and it makes me even more anxious than ever to track down a copy of director Paco Plaza's other films (particular Second Name).


The Ring Virus (1999, directed by Dong-bin Kim) closed out my October. It's the Korean remake of that constant font of Asian horror, The Ring, and, like the American remake, it alters some things in subtle and not so subtle ways, returning to Koji Suzuki's book rather than the film for many of its alterations. The biggest difference between this film and its source is that it replaces Hideo Nakata's deadpan dread with oodles of atmosphere. Like most Korean movies of any pith or moment, this is a showcase for the craft of filmmaking, though also like many Korean films, it is a failure at the craft of screenwriting. This gives its characters short shrift, for the most part, and without an investment in the characters--something that both Nakata and Gore Verbinski got right--I was adrift, because, when it comes right down to it, The Ring is a ridiculous story, and if you don't buy into it, it comes crashing down. Bae Doo-na is in this, so it has some interest for me, but I was more than a little irritated at the way she was wasted. Ah, well.

And another October Challenge ends.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

October Wrap-Up pt. 1.

For various reasons, I've been unable to keep up with blogging the October Challenge. I got hung up about two thirds of the way through. Here's an effort to get caught up.


The total number of horror movies I saw this year was 32. Of those, 29 of them were movies I had never seen before. Here's the list of what I saw (I've listed first-time viewings in red):

October 2:

[•REC]
The Baby's Room

Comments here:
http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/2009/10/pain-in-spain.html

October 3:

To Let
The Curse of Frankenstein

Comments: http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/2009/10/no-exit.html

October 5:

Quarantine
Splinter

Comments: http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/2009/10/deja-vu-all-over-again.html

October 7:

What Have They Done to Solange?

October 8:

Who Can Kill a Child?

October 11:

The Vault of Horror
Tales from the Crypt
Zombieland

Comments: http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/2009/10/scenes-from-apocalypse.html

October 12:

MOH: Deer Woman

October 13:

Shiver

October 14:

MOH: Valerie on the Stairs

October 15:

Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans
The Uninvited (2003)

October 17:

Evil Dead Trap
The Beyond

Comments: http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/2009/10/fiznit.html

October 19:

Hatchet

October 20:

MOH: Sounds Like

October 21:

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

October 23:

Thirst (2009)

October 24:

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)

October 26:

Altered
The Blame

October 28:

Bob Burns Hollywood Halloween
Red Eye (2005, Korean film not to be confused with the Wes Craven film of the same name)

October 29

MOH: The Black Cat

October 30:

A Real Friend

October 31:

A Christmas Tale
The Spectre
The Ring Virus



Here are some general comments about the films from the second half of the month (I'll be splitting this in two to accommodate the tags):

Hatchet (2006, directed by Adam Green). This kind of sucked. A lot. I knew this was going to be one of THOSE movies when Robert Englund gets killed off in the first five minutes. Tony Todd is in it too. But the filmmakers obviously didn't want to pay for any extended work from either of them. Oh, and Kane Hodder is here, too, but since I don't like the Friday the 13th movies in the first place, I didn't really give a flying fuck.

October 20:

MOH: Sounds Like (2006, directed by Brad Anderson). Very much a variant on X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and pretty much assembled from stock horror elements, but the addition of a director who hasn't used television as an excuse to leave behind his own cinematic intelligence makes this into one the series best episodes.

October 21:

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003, directed by Masaaki Tezuka) was a surprise, because, for the most part, the Millennium series Godzilla movies have kind of sucked. This one was really fun, though. The initial sequence, with some fighter planes encountering Mothra, was really cool, and the monster mayhem in the back half is really satisfying.

October 23:

Thirst (2009, directed by Chan-wook Park) is a box full of wonders, but it's all over the place in terms of tone. This isn't a criticism, per se, so much as it's a description, because this film is endlessly fascinating. This is a weird conflation of the vampire film with film noir--it's what you'd get if you crossed Dracula with The Postman Always Rings Twice--but that's a really facile description. This is one of those horror movies where the tropes of the horror film aren't necessarily used to scare the audience--though this has some amazingly horrifying scenes--so much as they're used to dissect the film's characters. Kang-ho Song is now officially my favorite actor in the world right now, and he's wonderful in this, but he's arguably upstaged by Ok-vin Kim's femme fatale, who could give Barbara Stanwyck some pointers. The final ten minutes of the film are existential comedy at its finest, and it's last shot is a magnificent visual pun.

I'll have a LOT more to say about this one once I get my hands on the DVD. Thirst hits DVD on November 17th.


October 24:

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009, Chris Nahon) remakes a well-known anime, and you can see the influence all over this thing. The story follows a vampire working for a shadow agency, tasked with exterminating demons, all the while looking for the arch-demon who killed her father and mentor. The film contrives to dress its heroine in a schoolgirl outfit, in spite of there being no dress code at the high school where it sends her undercover. For the most part, this is pretty much crap, with lots of motion (the fights were choreographed by Hong Kong director Corey Yuen), and no suspense or any kind of investment in characters. The performances are uniformly awful.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dubious Masters

So far, I've been keeping up with the October Challenge fairly well, though I've been lagging when it comes to blogging about it. I'm not doing poorly, really, but if I let myself fall behind, I'm pretty much screwed. So far, that hasn't happened. That's the good news. The bad news is that I'm not really pulling ahead, either. Part of this is the limited supply of movies I haven't seen before. Part of this is real-world demands on my time. Damn that pesky job and mortgage. Ah, well. Anyway, here's a recap of where I am since I left off.

*****

I suppose that, since it was his idea in the first place, Mick Garris had a right to direct an installment of the Masters of Horror. His long association with Stephen King does not grant him the status of "master" merely by association, and I don't think he's ever really knocked anything out of the park. His second season entry, Valerie on the Stairs (2006), sidesteps this complaint fairly neatly by adapting a story by Clive Barker, who has a much more legitimate claim to the title of "master of horror." Unfortunately, this isn't one of the better outings for either Garris or Barker. The story revolves around a writer who is accepted into an apartment building for unpublished (ie: "failed") writers. The complex is haunted by a beautiful woman and some kind of demon, which it becomes obvious are the fevered inventions of the other writers in the building. This is a hard one because Barker doesn't really translate to the screen particularly well. His prose emphasizes visionary scenes over storytelling, and unless the director is some kind of visionary himself, this is bound to strain the audience's credulity to the breaking point. Garris is NOT a visionary, and this is filmed in a flat, television style that torpedoes any kind of mood. The result is fairly ridiculous.

John Landis might have a better claim than Garris on the title "master of horror", but it's debatable. His two major horror films aren't anything like his best films, the horror community's fondness for An American Werewolf in London not withstanding. When he's on his game, Landis IS a pretty good filmmaker, though, and a lot of the beats of comedy filmmaking translate to horror. Especially if the production in question is conceived as a horror comedy to start with. Deer Woman (2005) is just such an animal. This installment finds Detective Brian Benben on the trail of some kind of Native American deer spirit who manifests as a beautiful woman in order to seduce men and trample them to death. The filmmakers are perfectly aware of how ridiculous their own premise is, and they incorporate this into a scene in which the nature of the deer woman is explained by a worker in a reservation casino. On the whole, it's intermittently funny, but rarely scary. Cinthia Moura, who plays the title role, is smoking, though.

I picked up the DVD double of Amicus's Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973, directed by Roy Ward Baker) from a bargain bin a couple of weeks ago, I've written at length about Tales from the Crypt in the past, so if you want my thoughts on that film, you can see it here. I'd never seen Vault of Horror before, though I knew it by reputation. For the most part, it's more of the same, though it's more of the same if you discard the first film's rising quality. The stories in this film are all more or less on the level of the first couple of stories in Tales from the Crypt. In other words, the weaker stories. These are all variants of the "heel gets his come-uppence," and they're directed with indifference by Roy Ward Baker. There are some interesting performances--particularly Glynis Johns's put-upon housewife in the second segment--and there's some interesting casting--real life brother and sister Daniel and Anna Massey in the first segment--but beyond the cast, there's not much to recommend, and worse, the film itself has been neutered to the point of mutilation. The censor's scissors are blatantly obvious in the first segment, where a shot of Daniel Massey with a tap in his neck for the benefit of a town full of vampires has been removed, with a freeze-frame of the shot with a blacked out area over the tap substituted. Given that this film could have used the nastiness to punch things up, this has to count as a murdered movie.

*****

I didn't have a lot of interest in Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans (2009, directed by Patrick Tatopoulos). I didn't like the first film at all, and I skipped the second film, given that it was from more or less the same cast and crew. Further, the first film is one of the films that suggests the Kate Beckinsale rule, which states that if Kate Beckinsale appears in your movie in a leather corset, your movie probably sucks. Beckinsale is absent for the prequel save for a shot at the end, and in her place we have Rhona Mitra, an actress who has already proven adept at holding the screen in B-movie genre fare. She certainly has more screen presence than her predecessor. This film is pretty much a wank fest for goths and LARPers, telling the origin of the war between vampires and werewolves. It turns the tables on the first film by painting the Lycans as the oppressed heroes and the vampires as the villains, and in doing so, it improves things immensely. Vampires SHOULD be the bad guys.



I should note that I LOVE werewolves, but I'm almost always disappointed by them. A movie that gets the werewolves right can get away with a lot of sins. This movie has pretty cool werewolves. While they won't displace the werewolves in The Howling in my affections (because Rob Bottin's transformation effects are still better than any CGI I've ever seen), these come pretty close to matching the werewolves of my imagination. For this alone, Underworld 3 is surprisingly not bad.

*****

1988's Evil Dead Trap (directed by Toshiharu Ikeda) predates the Japanese horror boom of the late 1990s by about ten years, but it has certain elements in common with it. Principally, it's in touch with the unease generated by technology. It's among the first Japanese films to put the ghost in the machine. But from there, the similarities become few and far between. This film is not a slow-burn horror movie; it's a gore-fest. It's first hour is a fairly merciless slasher movie, while its second jumps the rails with a grisly, bio-horror finale. I have to admit that the structure of the film gave me pause. After the first hour, our killer has knocked off everyone but our final girl, causing me to speculate on the wisdom of leaving her to her own devices for another forty minutes, but the movie itself is bifurcated, like two separate movies in one.



In any event, the story such as it is follows the crew of a late-night TV news program following the breadcrumbs of a video that appears to be a snuff film. Whoever made the video went to great pains to demonstrate how to find the scene of the crime, which should have been a warning to our heroes, but plausibility isn't one of this film's strong points. Once on site, the mostly female crew is killed off in sundry creative ways. The final murder in the first half of the film is a baroque trap that foreshadows the Saw movies. The second half of the movie is as aggressive as the first, but considerably more ridiculous, and slightly less cruel. And the very ending is vivid, but utterly laughable.



Director Ikeda isn't afraid of showing his influences. He steals the maggot scene from Suspiria outright, for one example, and the Goblin-ish score further tips his hand. There are also echoes of Cronenberg in the movie's videodromic dread, as well as hints of Larry Cohen and Frank Hellenlotter, of all people. It's fun picking out the influences, but when all is said and done, there's no new ground broken in this film. As film, though, Evil Dead Trap has some of the feel of the Hong Kong films from the same period. It's energetic and outrageous, which means it IS entertaining. I just don't know if it's all that good.





Current tally:

14 Films

11 First-time viewings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scenes from the Apocalypse

Of all of the idiot children of Night of the Living Dead, I think Zombieland (2009, directed by Ruben Fleischer) might be the farthest from the source. Where Night of the Living Dead's apocalypse demolished all of our social constructs concerning race, gender, and family, Zombieland spends its brief 80 minute running time reasserting those very constructs (well, most of them--the racial content of NotLD is conspicuous by its absence). The heroes of Zombieland were solitary loners to start with, and wind up constructing their own version of "family" by the end of the movie. Where NotLD was radical, Zombieland is essentially conservative. And by constructing the movie in part as a "how-to" guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse ("Rule #1: Cardio"), the filmmakers put the film at a certain remove from the horror genre, converting it into cultural object rather than an art object, if you catch my drift.

That all said--and really, who wants to know all of that, eh?--I had a great ol' time at Zombieland. It's funny. It's not scary, but it uses the tropes of the horror genre to great effect. The film provides a metaphor for what it actually is by setting the end of the movie at an amusement park. It's a ride, and not a bad one, really, and it's populated by an interesting band of misfits, mixed and matched. Jesse Eisenberg's nerdy hero wouldn't seem like a perfect foil for Woody Harrelson's bad-ass, but it works. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are fine as sisters working the short con. None of the principles is asked to explore a wide range of emotions, really, but the movie is set far enough into the zombie apocalypse that that makes a certain kind of sense.

*****

1976's Who Can Kill a Child? (directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) presents an all together more disturbing vision of the apocalypse, in which a British couple expecting their first child vacation on a Spanish island where all of the adults appear to have been killed by the island's children. The moral dilemma is framed by the film's title. Could anyone kill a child if it was kill or be killed? For the most part, this is built in the vein of Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned, but it takes its premise to a far bleaker conclusion than either of those films.

The film starts with grave newsreel footage of the varied atrocities committed during the 20th Century, most of which disproportionately killed children, then follows it within the background of the main narrative with hints of a world spinning truly into chaos. Our heroes, played by Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome, are a blissfully unaware of the dire omens surrounding them, from the bodies washing up on the beach to the collapse of Thailand in a civil war. They almost seem like a pointed indictment of an indifferent bourgeoisie.

The island setting is ominous and, unusual for a horror movie, splashed in bright sunlight. This is one of those sunlit horror movies that acts as existential dreamscape and it's very creepy. Even creepier is the behavior of the children on this island. Their new way of "playing" seems completely natural, whether it's beating at a corpse hung up like a piñata or, more ominously, "willing" other children to join their games. The most disturbing instance of this passes without a hint of what's going on, until near the end of the movie, as a smiling girl feels the pregnant belly of our heroine. Later, in a scene of sublime nastiness, her unborn child attempts to kill her.

The title of the film is asked explicitly in the course of the movie. "Who can kill a child?" The movie corners it's protagonists into confronting this dilemma head on, and once there is an answer, the movie turns bracingly nihilistic.

This is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s.

*****

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972, directed by Massimo Dallamano) also asks a question in its title, one that holds the key to the giallo mystery it presents. Someone is killing the students at a prestigious British girls' school, and the main suspect is the foreign gym teacher. He's having an affair with one of his students, who in turn is having seemingly psychic visions of the murders. When the student in question is murdered herself, our hero finds himself compelled to get to the heart of the matter on his own. It's a pretty straightforward plot, that plays fair with the audience once the title question begins to be asked by our hero.

What sets this apart from some other giallos from the same period is its approach to violence. There's very little overt gore in this film, but the nature of the crimes and how they are filmed make them very disturbing none the less. Is this the first movie in which the killer prefers to murder women by stabbing them in their vaginas? I think it might be. This became a common trope in some of the more outrageous giallos that followed, but this film actually makes something of the image beyond the phallic violence the knife usually signifies. It's a stand in for a particularly nasty flashback scene in which one character is submitted to an involuntary back-alley abortion.

For the most part, this is one of the better giallos, but I'm beginning to wonder if there is actually a giallo that benefits from a strong central performance. Fabio Testi's Enrico, our hero, is a complete stiff, regardless of his sinister, Richard Chamberlain-ish good looks. Karin Baal fares better as his frigid wife, and Christina Galbo is okay as Elizabeth, the girl he wants to woo. But, let's face it, these aren't actor's movies, and even if they were, the practice of dubbing everything would torpedo any good performances that managed to escape. On an up note, this has an Ennio Morricone score, though it's one of his minor works.





Current tally:

9 Films

7 First-time viewings.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Deja Vu All Over Again

What Quarantine (2008, directed by John Erick Dowdle) reminds me of is Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. It's essentially the same damn movie as its forbearer, but in playing the notes, it somehow misses the music. It's interesting watching this movie so soon after watching [•REC], because it makes identifying what went wrong so much easier. I really do want to emphasize that this is the SAME movie. Same plot, same ending (more or less--there is one significant change), even the same shot set-ups for the most part. And yet it winds up running eleven minutes longer. Go figure.

As I see it, Quarantine makes two mistakes. First, it has a recognizable cast. Worse, Jennifer Carpenter as the lead is miscast. This mitigates the documentary "this is real" vibe that the original item had. Second, it injects a sexual tension in its early going that makes it seem more like a movie than a television news piece. This just doesn't work.

Quarantine does have a larger budget than the original, and it shows this giving the audiences more glimpses of the containment outside the building. There are also more inmates in the building, which means there are more zombies in the end. These two elements intersect when snipers take out one of the victims who gets too close to one of the windows.

Okay, I take it back. The movie this reminds me of isn't Psycho, it's the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Like that movie Quarantine is presented with a primal original that's low on cliches. The filmmakers will have none of that, of course, and like the drunks at Platinum Dunes, they've poured everything they can think of back into it.

I'm much more sanguine about Splinter (2008, directed by Toby Wilkins). This is another film that's assembled from familiar elements, but that's the nature of genre, I guess. You pick and choose from the same pool of ideas. The story follows two couples, one a couple of criminals on the lam who have taken the other couple--a young scientist and his girlfriend--hostage. The movie strands these characters in a remote gas station besieged by the victims of some kind of parasite that spreads itself as splinters. It's an interesting monster, actually, recalling the vines in The Ruins and the alien in The Thing. The monster provides an excuse for some fairly inventive gore effects. The monster acts as a contagion, too, in the tradition of Romero's zombies. So, for the most part, this is familiar stuff.

What isn't familiar is the design of the monster. That's fun to watch. And unlike Quarantine, it doesn't obviously indulge in cliches (besides its borrowed genre elements, I suppose). The characters are interesting. The scientist is a nicely non-traditional hero, though he takes a back seat to his tough girlfriend and the fleeing convict. Its fun watching them trying to find a way out of their predicament because none of them is obviously stupid. The film also has an agreeably unfamiliar setting. Filmed in Oklahoma, it doesn't LOOK like most films of its ilk.

All in all, it's an efficient, brutal genre film, well-executed.



Current Tally:

6 films

5 first time viewings

Monday, October 05, 2009

No Exit

Jaume Balaguero's entry in the 6 Films to Keep You Awake series strikes me as the genesis of [•REC]. As in that film, To Let (2006) centers on another apartment building in which our characters are trapped with the monster--in this case, a psychotic building manager--and cannot escape. The film is kind of a droll send up for anyone who has ever felt trapped in a crappy apartment. Be that as it may, there aren't any laughs in this. It's deadly serious.

Our heroes, are Mario and Clara, who are shortly going to be out of a home. Rather than move in with Mario's parents, they follow an apartment ad of mysterious provenance to a remote and foreboding apartment building managed by the psychotic Portera, whose dedication to maintaining her tenants has driven her mad. The bulk of the film is a brutal cat and mouse game between Clara and Portera, and the film is fortunate in its casting, both Macarena Gomez and Nuria González give committed performances in bruising roles. Gomez, in particular, seems doomed to comparisons to Barbara Steele, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance (see also, Dagon).

Balaguero is a firm believer in the "bad to worse" method of storytelling (sometimes at the expense of credibility, but still), and he categorically repudiates the idea of letting the audience off the hook at the end. He's a brute force kind of director, though he's capable of surprising subtlety given the pile-driver nature of his films. He also believes in narrative economy. Again, like [•REC], this is brief. It hits the viewer suddenly, like a staple to the forehead, and lets the effect linger by not taking things further.



This was made for television, but it looks like a feature film. It has a wonderful sense of dreariness and a kind of waterlogged dread. It's also agreeably violent. It features one of the best, and most credible scenes of horror committed by a trash disposer, for instance, and the blood sprays all over the place. Blood in copious quantities.

Again, this series kicks the holy crap out of The Masters of Horror, which looks like small beer in comparison.



I can only imagine the shock that Christopher Lee's first appearance on screen in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher) must have caused in 1957, especially in the face of the enduring memory of Karloff's creature from the Universal horrors. Lee's creature looks like a walking industrial accident victim, bringing home the fact that this is a monster cobbled together from the bits and pieces of corpses (a visual association the Karloff monster never really made). Allegedly, Lee's appearance put most of the crew off having lunch with the actor when he was in make-up. In this, and other ways, it's a thankless role.

The movie really belongs to Peter Cushing, and his version of Dr. Frankenstein is ALSO a shocking departure from the Universal horrors. Hammer was always a very conservative studio, and they pass a stern moral judgement on the good doctor for meddling in the affairs of God. Cushing's doctor is evil. No getting around it. He's a philanderer and a murderer in addition to his little science project. Cushing handles it with aplomb. It's the role he would have been forever known for if it weren't for that Star Wars nonsense.

This is a weird version of the story, though. Hammer reduces it to what is basically a chamber drama with four characters (five if you count The Creature). It's downright intimate. This is partially a function of the studio's notorious penny pinching, and it hurts the film a bit, I think. The sets aren't as lush as they could be, and it really emphasizes the genius of Daniel Haller's work for Roger Corman in the Poe pictures, because he had much less to work with, and ends up with productions that still look much, much larger than Hammer's. But I digress.

Watching this after a weekend with [•REC] and To Let was interesting, because it shows up either how fast and how propulsive horror movies have become or how leisurely they used to be. They're barely in the same idiom.




Current tally:
4 movies
3 first time viewings

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Pain in Spain

I've had to give up buying expensive import DVDs over the last couple of years, so I'm considerably behind the wave of hype surrounding Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [•REC] (2007). I also missed the American remake, Quarantine when it was in theaters, but the original item rampages off in directions I can't imagine an American film ever going.


Basically, you have The Blair Witch/Cannibal Holocaust set-up. A camera crew--in this film, a TV news crew filming a documentary about local firefighters--thrown into a horror situation. The situation here is a zombie outbreak in an apartment building. We see the movie in the first person through the lens of the news camera. The conceit of the movie is carried through to the end: there is no score and the actors are reacting to things they haven't anticipated because none of them was given a complete script. This film pulls a pretty neat inversion of the Rio Bravo/Night of the Living Dead scenario, because instead of being barricaded inside a farm house or a shopping mall with the living dead laying siege from the outside, this film quarantines its characters inside with the zombies. This simple reversal is good for squeezing some new thrills from a tired scenario. It also manages to draw an explicit connection between Romero's zombie films and The Crazies, with its clean-suited storm troopers, a very threatening image in [•REC].

Up until the end, this is more or less old wine in a new skin, but then something interesting happens. Our heroine and her erstwhile cameraman retreat to the unused penthouse and discover one of those convenient expositional walls of newspaper clippings. While this in itself is a pretty blatant cliche`, what it does to the movie is not. Is the zombie outbreak the result of a virus? Or something much, much darker. The end of the movie argues for the latter. What we have here is something very similar to what co-director Jaume Balaguero attempted in Darkness (a film that I liked, but few others did). He's set up a set of expectations, and then pulled away the curtain to reveal something else. And here, the movie has some level of cognitive disconnect, because it's really NOT organic, but it's executed during a portion of the movie that is as pile-driver scary as anything I've seen in recent cinema. If I start to think too heavily about what the ending of the film actually means, I think the whole thing might start to unravel. The technical conceit of the movie creates an experience that is always in the moment, which creates an exhilarating "ride" movie, a pretty good one, but it teeters dangerously on the brink of ridiculousness if the audience is given time to think. Still, there's no shame in this. [•REC] joins films like The Descent and Haute Tension as a contemporary horror film that gets by on the force of its film making rather than the brilliance of its screenplay.


Still and all, the run and gun style employed here does tend to obscure some of the film's other technical accomplishments. We never get a good look at the little girl in the film once she turns zombie, which is a shame, because, as the supplemental material on the DVD shows, she's pretty damned creepy:


*****

Alex de la Iglesia is one of the directors who contributed to the 6 Films to Keep You Awake anthology series for Spanish television. The series was Spain's answer to The Masters of Horror in the US, but based on Iglesia's entry, and on Jaume Balaguero's entry (about which I'll write in my next post), the Spaniards kicked the holy crap out of the Americans.

The Baby's Room (2006), Iglesia's entry, is one of those epistemological haunted house movies where reality becomes suspect. The director approaches this in a fairly classical way, though there is an infringing influence of Asian horror and it's ghosts in the machine. You have a young couple who have just bought a palatial home at a suspiciously low prices. They hear odd voices on their baby monitor, and, when they place a camera in the baby's room, the husband begins seeing a man sitting next to the baby's crib.

Somewhere in the middle of Stephen King's Dance Macabre, King suggests that haunted houses are really the pool of Narcissus, where haunted people gaze and lose themselves in the reflection they see. They are often stories of doppelgangers. He might very well have been talking about this film, because it establishes the house as a reflecting pool before the credits roll. Literally, as it so happens:

Horrible things glimpsed in mirrors is recurring motif in this kind of film, and lo and behold, this film indulges that element, too.

But Iglesia is too smart a filmmaker to just throw these images in without thinking hard about them. He winks at the audience at one point by throwing in the old "horrible thing under the bed" trope as a clever insert. Significantly, this isn't treated jokingly, and the director wrings the maximum amount of mood out of it.

The interesting thing about haunted house movies in this era is that ever since The Amityville Horror and The Shining, it's usually the male partner who cracks, whether it's James Brolin dreaming about planting an ax in his wife's forehead or Jack Nicholson attempting to do the same. There's an underlying unease in these kinds of movies about the role of men as breadwinners among the bourgeoisie--and owning a house is the ultimate in bourgeois status, after all. This spills into other aspects of the male social role. The Baby's Room takes its deteriorating psyche into the work life of its hero. Oddly, it ignores his sex life.

In any event, it's a pretty classical haunted house movie, but it's an expertly made one that generates that wonderful sense of frission in the back of the head at key moments. What more can one ask of a horror movie?




Current tally:
2 movies
2 first time viewings

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The October Challenge, 2009


Longtime readers probably know that I participate in The October Horror Movie Challenge every year. This event originally started on the IMDB horror boards, but it's spread a bit beyond that now. Today is the first day of October, so it's "Game On" for this year.

The premise is simple enough. Watch 31 horror movies (or more) by midnight on Halloween. 16 of them have to be movies that you've never seen before. I usually keep a running tally with mini reviews as I proceed. This year, I thought it might be fun to invite other people to participate in this as a kind of blogothon. To this end, I've made the graphic at the head of this post. Feel free to use it on your own blog, or make your own. If you're participating, put a link in the comments and I'll update this as a kind of directory over the course of the month.

Anyway, the game is afoot. I need to get to work, myself.

Enjoy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Odds and Ends

Catching up on last week: I've been slowly delving back into my vast VHS archive and transferring it to DVD. Two of this weeks viewings were watched during this process.

Ringo Lam's Burning Paradise (1994) was a huge failure when it was originally released, but it's an interesting failure none the less. Ostensibly a kung-fu movie set in the aftermath of the burning of the Shaolin temple, this is really a horror movie in disguise. Most of the action is set in the Red Lotus Temple, which has been turned into a prison by the ruling Manchus and is ruled by the monstrous Elder Kung. The hero of the film is that ubiquitous wu xia hero, Fong Sai Yuk, who is incarcerated with the rest of his fellow monks. The temple is a house of horrors, in which the monks are toyed with by the jailers with a myriad selection of ghastly traps, the most baroque of which is a statue of the Buddha rigged to mow down the supplicants who give offerings, but there's also an appearance of that famous tool of mayhem, the flying guillotine. This is a Tsui-Hark production and it has the look of some of Hark's other movies, but the director imports his own, gritty sensibility to the violence. It may look a bit like Once Upon a Time in China, but at its heart, this is a redux of Prison on Fire. I quite like it.

You have to squint to see the familial resemblance between La pointe-courte (1954), Agnes Varda's first film, and the other lions of the New Wave, but it's there. Varda wasn't a cineaste, like the Cahiers crowd. She was a photographer. The difference in approach shows through; this isn't a reflexive film, but is rather a very carefully controlled one. It is very different from the chaos (or freedom, if you prefer) of Godard or Truffaut. But the similarity is there in the way Varda uses found images. The instance that jumps out at me is the sudden squeal of a slowly moving train. It's inserted for texture, just for the hell of it, because the director CAN insert it, and that's the soul of the New Wave. Which is all well and good, but this film also seems like one of those films at the nexus of all cinematic realities. The background story, about a fishing village that's fishing in polluted waters, is reminiscent of Visconti, while the central character arc seems positively Bergmanesque (including a shot that anticipates a very famous one in Persona, a decade before the fact). It's like this one film, placed at a very precarious point in time, is some weird kind of singularity sucking up all of the European cinema around it.

It's a lot of fun watching Ruth Chatterton walking with a swagger that would be the envy of most men in Female (1933, directed in turns by William Dieterle, William Wellman, and Michael Curtiz). A hard as nails automotive CEO, she has little time for “feminine” niceties. When she sees a man she wants, she takes him. All well and good, but this one goes all weak in the knees in the end as our heroine meets a man who makes her want to be more “feminine,” which is disappointing, and a little reprehensible given the way it puts her business in the lurch. But cultural norms will out, I guess. It's still fun for most of its running time. Even so, Chatterton's profligate career was completely unacceptable to the Breen office, and rather than castrate the film on re-release, it was simply banned. Alas.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

West is West

One of the funniest scenes in Buster Keaton's Go West (1925, directed by Buster Keaton) finds Keaton on the wrong end of the gun held by a man he has just caught cheating at cards. The man says "SMILE when you say that." So Keaton attempts to smile. He has to use his fingers to turn up the corners of his mouth. That's The Great Stone Face for you.

The genius of Keaton, on full display in this movie, is that he's an existential everyman. He is Sisyphus with his rock, pushing it eternally up hill only to have it roll back over him so he has to start again from the bottom. Keaton's films are rarely about romance. They're often about work--Keaton usually has a job to do in his films, and, suited to the work or not, he does it. Go West finds him trying to be a cowboy. Mostly, he fails, but in the end he succeeds through sheer determination.

There's more sentiment in this film than is usual for Keaton--he forms a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes"--but I wonder if the sentiment in this film is a poke at Chaplin. I wouldn't put it past him. Plus, it gives Keaton a means of completely deflating whatever romance might creep into the movie. There's a girl, as it so happens, but she loses out to the cow.

A lot of silent comedies end with a set-piece designed to set the audience's jaw to hanging open, and this one is no different. Keaton finds himself solely responsible for herding a thousand head of cattle to the stockyards through downtown Los Angeles. How he does this is one of the film's cleverest surprises.

I saw this at my local art house, accompanied by The Rats and People Orchestra. They wrote and performed the score live. It was a pretty terrific score, and seeing this movie with an audience was fantastic. I watch a lot of movies on video out of practical necessity, but it's no substitute for the communal experience of a good theater audience. This is especially true when it comes to seeing comedies.



They prefaced Go West with one of Keaton's two-reelers, "The High Sign" (1921), in which he falls afoul of the Blinking Buzzards, a dastardly gang of extortionists. The end of this movie is almost like watching a live-action Looney Tunes short. It's all kinds of insane, and all kinds of hilarious. But don't take my word for it. You can see it on YouTube:









Friday, September 18, 2009

Money in the Bank



Whenever I start to get annoyed at our local art house (Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinema), I need to remind myself of how completely awesome they are from time to time. Oh, sure, their main features occasionally leave me less than enthusiastic--a problem with the indie sector more than with our art house specifically--but they really do go the extra mile sometimes. They have two series in particular that make me inclined to forgive everything. The first is their "Ragtag 101" series, which is similar to TCM's "Essentials" series, but which tends to be a bit quirkier than that. The other is the "Passport" series, which focuses on contemporary foreign films. Both series are a godsend to this wicked little town.

I hadn't been to one of the Ragtag 101 films in a while, but I was damned if I was going to miss The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, oddly enough, directed by Mervyn LeRoy), which is one of my very favorite films. I mean, really, what can you say about a movie that starts with Ginger Rogers dressed in a gaudy outfit made of coins singing "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin? It's one of those completely out of left-field things that makes movies from the Pre-Code era a constant delight. There were no rules yet, so anything goes (as Cole Porter would later write).



In truth, this film's predecessor, 42nd Street, is probably a better film, but this one is the better movie. It's certainly more in love with surreality. The accomplishment of Busby Berkley in this film, and others, is to reclaim the "cinematic" for movies. Most early talkies are stage-bound. They unlearned everything from the silent era and had to re-learn it all over again. The Gold Diggers of 1933 is is a stark break from that. Even though the musical numbers are presented as diegetic, as performances on stage within the film, there's no way these were ever performed on a stage. There's no way they were designed the way that they are to be seen from down in a theater audience. The camera roams too freely for that. It becomes an active participant in creating the image, particularly from deliriously abstract overhead shots in which dancers become moving design elements. Parts of this film look like it was designed by Dr. Seuss.

The musical elements alone would be fun enough. But this is an interesting movie for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the musical numbers (or, reasons that feed them). It's a film of pretty stark contrasts, made in the deepest part of The Great Depression. Like many films, it presents an escapist fantasy for Depression audiences. Unlike many films--particularly those made by MGM, which would never have made a film like this--this film doesn't shy away from the Depression, either. Part of this stems from the movie's parent studio, Warner Brothers, who were New Deal populists (in contrast to MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who was a Hooverite), and took it upon themselves to speak for the little guy and to deflate the rich and pompous. A good deal of this film's plot is devoted to exactly that. Anyway, as a stark reminder of the world outside, the "We're in the Money" number is shut down by the show's creditors, putting our showgirl heroines out of work before the show even opens. The placement of the musical numbers suggests a kind of yin and yang, too. The film is front loaded with the exuberantly upbeat "We're In the Money" and "Petting in the Park," but it finishes up with "The Forgotten Man," which is as dark a number as I've ever seen in a musical. The host for this showing, a pretty smart guy named Lokke Heiss who teaches film at the University here, prefaced the showing with documentary footage of the "Bonus Army" that Hoover had forcibly removed from Washington (with tanks, no less), as a means of providing context:



This is the state of the Union just before this film was made, and it adds a good deal of desperation to the "Forgotten Man" number at the end of The Gold Diggers of 1933:



Beyond all that, the film itself is typical of the pre-Code movies, in so far as it has a knowing sophistication and freedom of sexuality that would vanish from American movies a year later. The double entendre is employed like a razor in this movie, often by Aline MacMahon's Trixie, the comedian, but also from squeaky clean couple Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and from Joan Blondell, to whom the film ultimately belongs.


Powell plays the scion of a rich family who would cut him off if they found him composing for and appearing in a Broadway show, which is the movie's McGuffin. Powell is fine, but Warren Williams has a much harder role as his uptight brother, who begins as a complete snob and thaws as the movie plays out. He manages the difficult task of becoming a character the audience actually likes.

All of which adds up to a film that would be my favorite movie musical if Singin' in the Rain didn't exist.

*****



The Passport Series brought me The Chaser (2008, directed by Hong-jin Na) last week, a Korean film in the mode of Memories of Murder. Like that film, it tracks the investigation of a serial killer. Also like that film, it goes to great lengths to show the strain the investigation exerts on the cops. But from there, it parts company. The hero of the film is Joong-ho Eom (Yun-Seok Kim), an ex-cop turned pimp who starts to get worried about the number of his girls that are disappearing. The latest to disappear wasn't even supposed to be working, and he takes it on himself to find her before the killer does her in. The rest goes to great pains to subvert the serial killer procedural, sometimes to the film's detriment. This is especially true of the film's ending, which seems gratuitous, though, admittedly, it's the kind of ending that would NEVER fly in Hollywood (there's an American remake in the works, unfortunately).

What the film lacks in, well, "heart" for a better word, it more than makes up for in forward motion. This is director Hong-jin Na's first film, but the narrative pulse he gives it is sharper than what many veteran directors can manage. It helps that the streets of Seoul at night represent a terrific noir background. There's a palpable sense of danger in the setting. The character arc of our hero is good, too, and Yun-Seok Kim invests him with a world-weariness that suggests that his choice of professions is taking a spiritual toll on him.

Worth seeing, in any event.