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.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Woof!



I have to give Wolfcop (2014, directed by Lowell Dean) some credit: it showed me something I've never before seen in a movie. During its first transformation scene, we start not with the hand that's turning into a paw, nor with the face that is sprouting hair or distending into a snout. No. That is for "lesser" werewolf movies. We start, instead, with our titular hero's penis, as he's pissing. It expands and becomes harrier as it transforms into a wolf cock. I admit that I laughed my ass off at this because there's still a ten year old lurking somewhere in the back of my brain. This scene tells you most of what you need to know about the artistic aspirations of this movie.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Careful With That Ax

Nicolas Cage in Mandy (2018)

The day after I saw Mandy (2018, directed by Panos Cosmatos), I posted a knee-jerk reaction on social media to the effect that it was "the movie you might get from a couple of stoner kids after snorting crank off the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal, which might be interesting if it was even remotely watchable. Unfortunately it's not." Or something like that. I forget the exact wording. I should probably expand on that, because I'm usually not that out of patience with movies. I'm not even usually out of patience with Nick Cage at his most deranged, either--I loved Mom and Dad, which has performances so broad that it's a wonder any of the scenery remained intact, and even stuff like Season of the Witch and Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Mandy, by contrast, rubbed me the wrong way. It's a film that conceals a dearth of ideas with suffocating style, which can work sometimes, but which here usually conceals the basic images of its shots.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kingdom Come

Chris Pratt and friend in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Juan Antonio Bayona would not have been the first name on my list to direct a Jurassic Park movie, and yet we have in theaters this summer Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom (2018), a film that is surprisingly close to Bayona's established cinematic personality. Indeed, you could view it as a melding of three of Bayona's other films. The first part of the film, in which a volcanic eruption destroys Isla Nubar and the remains of the Jurassic World theme park (already a wreck after the events of the previous film) recalls The Impossible and its terrifying depiction of the Christmas Tsunami. The second part of the film, set in the gloomy gothic mansion of Benjamin Lockwood, who has financed a "rescue mission" for the dinosaurs to prevent their extinction, is a classic "old dark house" scenario, territory that Bayona covered in his breakout film, The Orphanage. And, of course, you have monsters, which was the subject of Bayona's last film, A Monster Calls. This could almost be called an auteur's film, were it not a cog in a multi-billion dollar franchise. It certainly has a different personality than its predecessors. It even manages a note of tragedy once or twice. I like it better than its immediate predecessor, which is faint praise after what I said about that film.


Note: this contains spoilers galore.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

More Scenes from the Singularity

Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade (2018)

I'm surprised that Upgrade (2018, directed by Leigh Whannell) actually made it into theaters. A science fiction/horror hybrid with a modest budget, it's exactly the sort of thing that Netflix and other streaming services have been gobbling up of late. It's good enough to justify the theatrical release, but in past years, this is a film that would have found its audience as a perennial inhabitant of the back shelves of mom and pop video stories. It has a 1980s feel to it. It has films like The Terminator, Robocop, The Hidden, Screamers, Total Recall, and Videodrome in its DNA. And yet, it's contemporary, too. It's a film about post-humanism, trans-humanism, and the Singularity, and as such it's entirely of this moment in time. It's a pulp fiction version of Ex Machina, with echoes of Moon and Under the Skin. It is not a film that reinvents or thinks deeply about the themes it inherits from these sources. Like many genre films, this is a film that's focused mainly on story. It doesn't linger on anything that doesn't drive its narrative. But some of the things that do serve the story are more food for the mind than one normally expects from a pure genre film.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Hard Femme

Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

When first we see Jen, the heroine of Coralie Fargeat's blood-soaked rape/revenge fantasy, Revenge (2017), she's the very picture of a sex kitten, done up like Sue Lyon in Lolita and sucking provocatively on a lollipop. Just a few minutes later comes a scene in which she goes down on Richard, her rich, married boyfriend. And then further scenes of her playing the cocktease to Richard's hunting buddies, who have shown up a day earlier than expected. Jen is high femme, dressed in crop tops and sexy underwear and a dress that is cut down to her belly button and gaudy star-shaped earrings. She is an avatar of the kind of girl/woman our culture expects to be raped. Our culture despises what she is: a construction of girly femininity that's designed to titillate the male gaze. If the rape in this movie had played out as it might in "real" life, the defense attorneys for her rapists might have asked, as a legal defense, if she was asking for it and a jury might have decided that, yes, she was. Women like Jen aren't allowed to say no.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Death and the Maiden

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

Somewhere in the middle of A Fantastic Woman (2017, directed by Sebastián Lelio), I began to get irritated at the miseries heaped on Marina, its titular heroine. In my head, I began to ask of the film: "Is no one going to be kind to this woman?" Is being transgender such a mark of Cain that it encourages everyone in Santiago, Chile to view her as a punching bag? There's a certain level of hopelessness in this depiction that is suggestive of the reasons trans people attempt suicide at such appalling rates. This, in spite of the fact that Marina is not a stereotype. She doesn't fall into the specific fallacies of transgender depictions. She is never shown putting on make-up even though she wears it (you have no idea of how much of a relief this is, o cis reader). She has a profession that is not serial killer or sex worker. She even has someone who loves her as the movie begins. This does everything "right," or as right as you're probably ever going to get from a filmmaker who isn't trans. Certainly, star Daniela Vega's fingerprints are all over this. She was originally hired for the film as a consultant on the trans community before director Sebastián Lelio realized that she was the perfect actress for the role, so there's more to their collaboration than what is usual between a trans actress and the director. There is certainly a level of rage involved that might elude a cis actor in the role as an equivalent collaborator. Speaking as a trans person myself, I found the film deeply infuriating, which is admittedly part of the film's design. It also made me deeply unhappy, which is probably not part of the film's design. I suggested on social media that a more accurate title for the film would be "Fucking Cis People!", but I'm sure that would be a provocation that's more headache than it's worth. Eventually, the film relented on its version of the story of Job and did allow someone to be kind to Marina, and then someone else, but it so front loads its whips and scorns that by then, it almost doesn't matter.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Grant Mystique: Enter, Madame!

Cary Grant and Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

From a perspective eighty years later, it's surprising to see Cary Grant second billed to Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame! (1935, directed by Elliot Nugent). Grant is so obviously the only bona fide movie star in the whole production that you wonder what they were thinking. Elissa Landi was only ever a minor star, even coming off successes in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Sign of the Cross (where she is completely blown off the screen by wicked, wicked Claudette Colbert). The rest of her output is mostly obscure apart from a supporting role in After the Thin Man. She retired from movies soon after. I don't know how her films did in their day; I can surmise that they were successful given the order of the billing in Enter, Madame! Charitably, Grant wasn't the supernova he would become a mere two years later and Paramount was hardly Warners or MGM. And he was second-billed behind his leading ladies in a couple of  his other 1935 films, too. In spite of all this, the billing seems weird to me.