Friday, December 30, 2011

Should You Choose to Accept It...

Improbably, the fourth Mission: Impossible movie turns out to be pretty good. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011, directed by Brad Bird) is the most inventive film of the series, one that takes its inspiration not from the contemporary action film, or the Hong Kong New Wave, but from silent comedies. One of the film's major set pieces seem like transliterations from Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. Another seems like a conflation of several Keaton movies, filtered through Chaplin's Modern Times and a few Looney Tunes shorts. The finale, set in an automated car park, bears comparison to some of the loonier set pieces from Pixar. Director Brad Bird is a Pixar alum, after all. This all comes at a cost, of course. Mission: Impossible 4 has a screenplay that seems like it was made in a food processor from a couple of shredded James Bond novels. You can't have everything, I guess.

It's Just a Shot Away

There's a really good horror movie buried somewhere in Take Shelter (2011, directed by Jeff Nichols). I think the filmmakers know it, too, because they spend a large part of the movie dancing around horror movie imagery. More than one sequence is reminiscent of a zombie movie, while others recall disaster movies and J-horror ghost stories. There's also an economic horror movie here, in which a family that has heretofore done everything right, that is participating fully in the American dream, loses its footing and falls off the precipice. I don't think the movie manages to synthesize all of these strains into a cohesive whole, though. I think it's undone by its own millennial vision.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Officially LOVE Isabella Rossellini

...possibly even more than I love her parents. "How Did Noah Do It?" from her Sundance series, Green Porno:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do the Collapse

There's a pervasive feeling of melancholy at the heart of the 2011 financial drama, Margin Call (directed by J.C. Chandor), in which every character moves through the film as if it were a party that had ended and the last stragglers are loath to head home. You can almost hear someone say "turn out the lights before you leave." Indeed, most of the movie is set after hours, where desperate characters seem even more desperate. This is the kind of financial drama that Edward Hopper might have made. It feels kind of like The Nighthawks:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Vampire Redux

Add another casualty to the list of movies I chose not to see in the theaters this year. When the remake of Fright Night (2011, directed by Craig Gillespie) hit theaters this summer, I gave it a pass because I didn't feel like paying the damned up-charge. This was a familiar situation for me all year long, and by the time Fright Night came along I was getting angry about it. I wanted to see Fright Night, actually. I just wasn't willing to pay the going rate. So here it is, months later, and I'm watching it on TV alone rather than with an audience, the way movies are intended in the natural order of things, and I'm feeling pretty crummy about it. Because, y'know, it's a pretty good popcorn horror movie. This movie would have rocked with an audience. Alas...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Arrested Adolescence

The arrested adolescent man-child has become a fixture in contemporary comedies. Like most right-thinking feminist film types, I blame Judd Apatow for this. Fortunately, we're beginning to see a countervailing narrative: there are arrested adolescent women out there, too. Jason Reitman and his muse, Diablo Cody, take a look at one of them in Young Adult (2011), and it's like gazing into the abyss. Young Adult is funny, though it's not a farce like the similarly themed and structured Bridesmaids, but it's also kind of a horror story, with a completely psychotic central character and a bitter view of mid-American banality.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Final Problem

I had a discussion on the social networks last week that went something like this:

Me: There's a movie coming out that has both Stephen Fry AND Noomi Rapace in it, and I don't particularly want to pay money to see it. What is WRONG with me?

Friend: Hey, it's got Jude Law in it, too--and you know that alone is enough for me!--and I don't want to see it, either. Looks like shit.

Me: This is like that time that Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards were in a movie together playing pirates and I thought: "How can this be bad?" Hollywood turns everything it touches to shit...

Friend: Well, now, not EVERYTHING. But point taken.

Basically, I was not looking forward to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, directed by Guy Ritchie). I didn't like the first film at all. I thought it looked like mud and I thought it was a bit too arch, playing to Robert Downey, Jr.'s screen persona rather than to the character. Add to that my absolute delight with the BBC series, Sherlock, and you have a film that is completely superfluous to my interests. But then, as I note, they went and cast Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes and Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortune teller and my resistance to seeing the movie with my partner (who has no such qualms--she's a much less demanding viewer than I am) evaporated. To my surprise, it wasn't awful, though there are elements that make me cringe.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We'll Always Have Paris

I'm trying to be objective about Martin Scorsese's new film, Hugo (2011), and I'm finding it to be almost impossible. I love it with an unreason out of all proportion to its qualities, because it's a distillation of the things I treasure in life into one great delirium-inducing decoction. It's an act of unashamed love of cinema. It's the warmest, most affirming film that Scorsese has ever made and I came out of it walking on air in spite of the fact that my eyes were watering. This comes by tears honestly, with pure unadulterated joy.

And it's the most unlikely of movies. It's a kids movie? In 3-D? By Scorsese? The amount of cognitive dissonance built into that combination is daunting. What would attract Scorsese to such a project? As I watched the movie, it all became clear to me. This movie is chock full of the things that Scorsese values most in the world, too: the joy of movies, the history of movies, and preserving the legacy of the movies. Having seen it, I can't imagine Scorsese NOT making it.

Return of the Repressed

I sometimes forget that the Gothic novel is one of the roots of the horror movie, usually when I'm watching some stolid, well-costumed, Masterpiece Theater-style movie adaptation. These adaptations are so rarely filmed with an eye toward terror. Filmmakers prefer, instead, to pump up the romance elements or the drama or the respectability of great literature. Take a look at William Wyler's version of Wuthering Heights if you want an example, and contrast it with Hitchcock's Rebecca (Hitch knew the value of terror). So it's a bit of a surprise to me that so much of Cary Fukunaga's 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre embraces the terror. It keeps the romance, sure, but it also casts Thornfield Hall, with its madwoman in the attic, as a great haunted house full of haunted people and things that go bump in the night.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Lost Girls

I wasn't feeling either of the movies I rented from my local video store last night, so I decided to give the ol' roulette wheel a spin. I sort of quailed when the result came up as We Are the Night (2011, directed by Dennis Gansel), a German vampire movie. I thought: "Vampires. Crap." Vampires are probably the most played out, most annoying archetype in the horror tarot these day, whether from the proliferation of paranormal romance novels or the vampire-themed soaps all over television or the goddamn sparklers in the Twilight movies. I really do try to leave my preconceptions behind when watching movies I haven't seen, but sometimes, it's really, really hard.

Anyway, We Are the Night opens well with a scene on an airplane, where the pilot and all of the passengers have had their throats ripped out by a trio of lady vampires. The plane is approaching Berlin, and with no one to fly the plane ("You shouldn't have killed the pilot," one of our vampiresses deadpans), the three jump ship and let the plane crash. I warmed up to the movie a little with this scene, because it's a neat modern reworking of the arrival of the Demeter in Dracula. I thought: "Okay, maybe this isn't going to suck."

Friday, December 16, 2011

One Whose Name Was Writ in Water

There's a scene near the beginning of Silent Souls (2010, directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko) in which two men prepare the body of a dead woman for her funeral. The scene is filmed in a single shot, and the loving care and attention to detail makes it one of the most indelible images I've seen in a movie this year. The two men prepare the body as if she were going to her wedding. The narrator tells us that the Merjans, a Baltic ethnicity to whom the two men and the woman belong, customarily weave threads into the pubic hair of brides for their new husbands to undo. The two men follow this custom in death, too. Sex and death are the two great themes of the movie, and it incarnates these two themes as symbolic avatars, as love and water, the two ancient gods of the Merjans. This sounds kind of grandiose, but it's not. The movie is careful to elaborate its themes in quotidian strokes and an earthy sexuality. This may be a film about death, but it's also a film about life. Yin and yang. World without end.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I've been trying to get caught up on this year's movies. For various reasons, my moviegoing has been way down this year. I blame most of it on 3-D. I mean, I LOVE popcorn movies. Love them. But in the last three years or so, I've had to put up with those damned glasses that don't fit over my own glasses and a ridiculous surcharge for the experience and a splitting headache afterward. If I choose to see a given movie in 3-D, that is. And this is even with the so-called "good" 3-D, as opposed to the after the fact 3-D conversions. It gets worse, though, because even when the movie is shown 2-D, there's a penalty. My local multiplexes--there are only two within reasonable driving distance because I live in the sticks--don't change out the damned 3-D lenses for 2-D showings, which darkens the picture. I saw both Captain America and the last Harry Potter in the theater and regretted it. I didn't write about either film, because I don't feel I could give them a fair shake based on what I could actually see on screen. My local art house is excellent, I should add, but they can only show so much, and often fairly late in the release calendar. Some movies never make it here at all. So, for the first time that I can remember, I'm preferring to see movies on video. This wounds my love of cinema, part of which is a love for the communal experience of sitting in an audience of strangers. Cinema is like church to me. I feel like an apostate these days. But it is what it is, I guess.

I probably could have seen The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, directed by Rupert Wyatt) in the theater. It wasn't a movie that was released in 3-D, and probably would have been shown on a projector that didn't have the lens. I don't remember why I skipped it in the theater. Spite, I imagine.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cult Movie

For a movie that generates such deep wells of creepiness, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, directed by Sean Durkin) starts on a note of pastoral banality. We see the various members of a farming community doing farm community chores: repairing the roof of a truck barn, planting gardens, etc. We also see a woman setting a table for a dinner, and the dinner is where the first notes of discord are played. The only people at the table are the menfolk. The womenfolk wait outside the dining room for the men to finish before entering the room for their own food. This is a patriarchy, then. When, a couple of shots later, we see how the women of this community live, warehoused in a room full of mattresses with no apparent privacy, it's apparent that this is a pretty stark patriarchy. It is, in fact, a cult, from which our title character, Martha, escapes.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Films of Robert Aldrich: Kiss Me, Deadly

Film noir filled a void left by the horror movies of the previous decade during the post-War years. By then the Universal Monsters were pale shadows of their former selves, being paired against each other like they were carnival wrestlers.* The old monsters must have seemed quaint in the wake of the death camps, the Baatan Death March, Iwo-Jima, and the atom bomb. These were the real horrors in the world and the old fang and claw just didn't cut it anymore. Noir, on the other hand, seems like the ideal horror idiom for the post-War era. There's a profound sense of personal annihilation in most of these movies, which is appropriate in a world where the horrors have become so large that they dwarf most human concerns. There's a line at the end of Jim Thompson's Nothing More Than Murder that seems to sum this up perfectly:

"They can't kill me. I'm already dead. I've been dead a long time."

Hence, you have noir anti-heroes like Jeff Baily in Out of the Past and Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard's Joe Gillis charting a steep downward spiral into the grave. Hell, Joe Gillis even tells his story from beyond the grave.

But film noir wasn't the only genre of film filling the void left by the horror movie. Science fiction had also entered the fray, and science fiction addressed the horrors of the post-War world more expansively in apocalyptic visions like the ruined cities of The War of the Worlds and the soulless pods of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A lot of the concerns of film noir and science fiction intersect, and so, too, do the genres themselves in Robert Aldrich's profoundly disillusioned adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly from 1956, a film that marks the beginning of the end for the classic film noir era.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Mirror in the Sky, What Is Love?

The science fictional premise of Another Earth (2011, directed by Mike Cahill) isn't unique. The notion of a duplicate planet orbiting the sun in the same orbital path as Earth appeared on movie screens way back in 1969's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and even before that in the pages of the science fiction magazines of the 1940s and 50s. What Another Earth does with this concept, however, is very much of a piece with the science fiction new wave, in which sci fi high concepts are used to examine the interior of the human mind and heart. This isn't "sense of wonder" stuff. Indeed, it plays like an artifact of late capitalism, full of defeat and desperation. I like to think that this is the corner being turned on cinematic speculative fiction away from eye-drugging fantasies of destruction into a more humane idiom. I can be a foolish utopian sometimes.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

There's A Riot Goin' On

I was genuinely surprised by Cell 211 (2009, directed by Daniel Monzón). Toward the end of the movie, I kept wondering: "Are they really going to go there?" I must be conditioned by American movies that don't follow the strength of their convictions, because I didn't think this movie would turn the way that it did, given its various elements. It was kind of thrilling to watch, actually, as not only did it go that way, it did so with a vengeance. It serves as a stark reminder that the rest of the world still has the 'nads to kick the audience in the gut.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Strangers on A Train

It's funny, the things you think about after you watch a movie. Sometimes, they don't have anything to do with how good or bad the experience was. For instance: when I finished watching Source Code (2011, directed by Duncan Jones) the other night, my first thought was: "When did Jeffrey Wright start to turn into Orson Welles? I mean, he has the vocal intonations down, and he has the forehead. I can hear him saying, "We will sell no wine before its time," in my head. Then, as I was driving to work the next day, it occurred to me that the movie demonstrates the limits of the Bechdel test. It has the requisite number of women in the cast, both playing characters who have names, one of whom is not the hero's girlfriend, but these two characters don't talk to each other, so it fails. Vera Farmiga's part, in particular, is a pretty juicy one that doesn't require her to be a sex object or a victim. She's almost a hero. Michelle Monaghan gets the more traditional hero's girlfriend role, but she's pretty central to the movie, and not just eye candy. Anyway, these are just random impressions. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Skin Flick

After I got home from seeing The Skin I Live In (2011), Pedro Almodovar's new film, I sat down at my computer and started to peruse the film's reviews. I do this sometimes when I'm trying to clarify my thoughts on something that I've just seen. Sometimes it's helpful. Sometimes its not. The reviews of The Skin I Live In fall into the latter category. Most of them get tangled up in the "twist," while others trot out words like "perverse," "kinky," and "twisted." Most of them catalog the film's many obvious touchstones (and I intend to do a little of that myself). Pedro does like his influences. Almost none of them treat with the central themes and problems of the film or what they suggest about its director. A twist will do that, I guess. As for the adjectives, well, I suspect that my own history inclines me to accept certain things as a matter of course.

I'm going to spoil the hell out of this movie. I thought I'd let you know that up front, because there's no way I can talk about what I want to talk about without spoiling it. If you're someone who hasn't seen the film and doesn't want it "spoiled," then stop reading now. You have been warned. For myself, I don't think a legitimately good movie can be spoiled, but for the sake of politeness, I'll put the rest of this below the cut and insert a handy still from the movie as a bumper. From here on out, though, I won't be coy.