Monday, September 05, 2022

Wedding Jitters

The Invitation (2022)

The main villain in The Invitation (2022, directed by Jessica M. Thompson) looks like someone crossed Sean Connery and Udo Kier in a genetics lab, which for a film like this one is like flashing a big red light to warn the heroine (and the audience) to run away as fast as she can. She does not run away, alas, and gets herself ensnared in a Gothic mansion full of creepy aristocrats and even creepier family history. I sometimes wonder if the Gothic as a mode of filmmaking hasn't worn out its usefulness in the age of microchips and LED lights, and this film doesn't make a case for the opposite point of view. But I also wonder if it's just the filmmakers who make use of it. There's plenty of evidence on screen that the latter case is where the rot resides.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Grant Mystique: Penny Serenade (1941)

Penny Serenade (1941)

On the Wikipedia page for Penny Serenade (1941, directed by George Stevens), there's a short section detailing a recent "AI colorization" of the film. Curious, I took a look. It looks about the same as colorization has looked for a couple of decades, now, which is to say it doesn't look very good at all except for in fleeting moments. It's in the wrong aspect ratio, too. This particular film is a prime victim for this sort of noodling because when the copyright came up for renewal 28 years after its release, Columbia Pictures neglected to renew it. Thus, it fell into the public domain. As a result, its presentation on home video usually has been awful, with countless editions available from fly by night video companies. Public domain is invaluable and necessary, but it is often a haven for philistines and grifters. Most PD versions of Penny Serenade are short five minutes of movie in addition to the usual defects. It's a shabby fate for a film that contains Cary Grant's first Oscar-nominated performance and a performance from co-star Irene Dunne that the actress herself felt was her very best. For what it's worth, the edition from Olive Films is excellent, sourced from primary materials and restoring the entire film. My screen caps for this post come from the Olive disc.

The story one finds in Penny Serenade follows the marriage of Julie Gardiner (Dunne) and Roger Adams (Grant), from their first meeting through tragedy after tragedy in which Julie loses her unborn child in an earthquake in Tokyo and becomes unable to bear another child. They adopt an infant daughter after a close inspection by the state, only to have her die of a fever. Roger loses the newspaper he owns, and the law refuses to allow them to adopt another child due to Roger's insolvency. Pleading with the courts. The shock is too much to bear. We meet them at the very end, as they are prepared to go their separate ways. The flashbacks that tell their story are keyed to music--they first meet in a music store where Julie works--and the film's vignettes are accompanied by well-known songs of the day (hence the title of the film).

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Dirty Dozen (1937)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

When I originally started to write about Robert Aldrich in the early days of this blog, I formulated a list of some of Aldrich's main themes and recurring story elements. Aldrich was a true auteur in so far as his private universe is distinctive and consistent across the entire body of his work. Aldrich had contempt for authority, a deep hatred of Hollywood myth-making, and a preference for protagonists who are individualists caught in a suffocating system. I also had the idea--maybe the main idea when I look at his films--that he made Gothics, and not just the pair of psychobiddy films he made in the early 1960s. One of the key films in my thinking is The Dirty Dozen (1967). On the surface it doesn't seem much like a Gothic film. It's a classic "men on a mission" film--at this point half a century later it's probably THE classic "men on a mission" film--which seems far removed from brooding castles and ghosts and madwomen in attics. But let's look at some of the elements of the Gothic: sublimated sexual derangement, confinement as a microcosm where personalities and psychological forces collide, a sense of encroaching doom, characters haunted by past crimes, a big house that is a character unto itself. Many Gothics--maybe even most of them--are psychoanalytic in nature. If we look closely at the elements of The Dirty Dozen, most of these hallmarks are actually there, including the psychoanalytic nature. This is the frame into which Aldrich slips his own private obsessions. The Dirty Dozen is one of the key works on his resume. Even if it hadn't been a gargantuan hit, it would be an important film. It was a gargantuan hit, though. It was the highest grossing film of 1967. Its success enabled Aldrich to form his own production company in order to keep working on more personal projects, at least until he found another gargantuan hit. It took him a while to find that next hit, and he went through The Dirty Dozen's capital--both social and commercial--in due course. But that, as they say, is another story.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Future is Now

Crimes of the Future (2022)

There's a sense of the world moving on in David Cronenberg's new film, Crimes of the Future (2022). A lot of Cronenberg's films seem like they depict a world on the brink of collapse, but this one seems like it takes place afterwards, rather than on the brink. The director has watched the world tumble over the falls in the decade since his last movie, precipitated by many of the very things that make up the unease and horror in his earlier films: a pandemic, right wing conspiracies, unfettered capitalism, a brain-washing media landscape. The various apocalypses postulated in the director's earlier films are a fait accompli at the present historical moment. In Crimes of the Future the director says, "yeah, all that happened and this is the result: a world in which no one can feel anything anymore. "

Friday, May 27, 2022

A Hymn for the Red Planet

I bought a copy of The War of the Worlds (1953, directed by Byron Haskins) during a recent Criterion Collection sale. When my long-suffering partner saw it in my stack of loot, she said: "You'll be watching that one on your own." The ticking of the Martian war machines gives her nightmares. When I popped it into the player at home, that ominous ticking was the soundtrack for the menu screens. She threw up her hands and walked out of the room after ostentatiously slamming the door to drown out that sound. It's a fair reaction, particularly if you first encountered the film at a young age. It still resonates. Once you've heard it, you never forget it.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Free Falling

A Free Soul (1931)

There is an unspoken assumption among some connoisseurs of American pre-Code cinema that the shocking freedom these films enjoyed was somehow linked to a progressive attitude toward social mores. The willingness of filmmakers and studios to take on such "forbidden" subjects as drug addiction, abortion, sexually liberated women, racial issues, and what have you might suggest that the filmmakers and the studios were in the forefront of social and moral progress. This is a mistaken assumption. While it is true that the Hays Code absolutely was a mechanism for conservative social engineering, that doesn't mean that every film that flouted it was on board with an opposing viewpoint. Sometimes, filmmakers used their freedom to demonize that very freedom. No one could have accused a filmmaker like, say Cecil B. DeMille of being socially liberal, and it was one of his films that more or less brought about the end of the pre-Code era. Films like Female, Baby Face, Call Her Savage, or Torch Singer were all retrograde critiques of the sexual liberation of women hiding behind their sexual frankness and racy imagery, with many of their "liberated" heroines repenting and eventually settling for their more "natural" roles as wives or mothers. While this narrative was often played ironically with its fingers crossed behind its back, sometimes it was in deadly earnest. One such deadly earnest version is found in A Free Soul from MGM in 1931, directed by Clarence Brown. It's a film whose only brush with irony is its title. No one in the film is free and that's the way the filmmakers like it.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

True/False 2022: Wayward Daughters and Hot Volcanoes

Sirens (2021)

All of the films I saw on my second day at True/False were directed by women and were by and large about women and relationships. I didn't plan this. Hell, I rarely plan anything when I'm at the festival because nothing ever lines up the way I expect. In recent years, I've picked my films based on what venues have the most comfortable seats. I'm getting old and my back and my ass appreciate this. I would recommend this approach at any film festival, not just True/False. You have to trust the festival programmers for this, and they mostly know what they're doing. Mostly.

In any event, seeing a slate of movies by women was pure coincidence, and not an unhappy one.

Friday, March 11, 2022

True/False 2022: People Watching and Shoot 'Em Ups

The Balcony Movie (2021)

I took last year off from my city's annual True/False film festival. It was the first time I'd missed the festival in the seventeen years it's been in existence, but I have trust issues and co-morbidities that make me disinclined to stick my neck out into a global pandemic. You know how it goes, sometimes. I'm fully vaccinated this year and the festival is being militant about safety protocols, so I'm back this at it. The experience of being in crowds has changed. Crowds are now fraught and anxiety-inducing. Once I was in the auditorium, I was thankful that I could shrink the scope of my world to just me and what was on the screen.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Carrying on the Family Business

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021, directed by Jason Reitman) is two thirds of a good movie. That two thirds of a film are better than any comparable running time in any other Ghostbusters film, including the original item. This should not be a surprise. Jason Reitman is a better director than his father ever was, and is a better director than Paul Feig. He's better at blocking his scenes, better at writing dialogue, and better at working with actors, particularly young actors. Since the lead characters in the film (rather than in the credits) are kids, this gets value from its director that the other films never demanded. Better still, the first two acts of Ghostbusters: Afterlife don't play like any previous film in the series, either. Part of this comes from moving the film out of New York and out into the sticks. Part of it comes from a cast of characters who are drastically different character types than what you find in the other films. It's only when the film decides that a paying audience demands what the original item provided that the film gets itself into trouble. Big trouble.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

The Grant Mystique: The Last Outpost (1935)

The Last Outpost (1935)

I used to think that Cary Grant could do anything. Comedy? Drama? Action? There's a classic film in almost every category to make an argument. In more recent years, I've been discovering the limits of the Grant persona. Grant was not particularly suited to historical pieces like The Howards of Virginia or The Pride and the Passion (though he's not bad in the latter). Some registers of comedy don't work with the polished perfection of "Cary Grant," either. I've often thought that Grant was wasted in sitcoms in the 1950s. But the thing that Grant really couldn't pull off was facial hair. This is the problem with The Last Outpost (1935, directed by Charles Barton and Louis J. Gasner), which finds Grant sporting a 1930s-style pencil thin mustache and that mustache completely dims Grant's star power. I mean, he's barely recognizable, which is a shock given how small a change it is to his face. It's like Superman putting on a pair of glasses to become Clark Kent. It makes him ordinary.

Friday, October 29, 2021

In It For the Kills

Halloween Kills (2021)

I guess you could call it an epiphany. While I was watching Halloween Kills (2021, directed by David Gordon Green), I realized that the artfulness of a slasher movie doesn't matter to its audience. You could say I've been blind to what slasher movies actually are, and maybe I have been. I admit that I've never understood the appeal, except on the rare occasions when the filmmaking is sharp and the sensibility behind the camera has actual ambitions beyond the red meat of the sub-genre. It's purely an accident that the foundational film in the category is a genuine work of art, one that's informed as much by autumnal melancholy and cinematic legerdemain as it is by teenage sadism. It barely spills even a drop of blood. Maybe that's why its inheritors refuse to learn anything from it. Not enough Christians for the lions.

So now we have this film. It was inevitable that a sequel to the 2018 Halloween would be made once that movie raked in summer blockbuster money, and it was perhaps inevitable that the same talent would be attached. It's more of the same; it's more of more of the night HE came home, if you will. In truth, I like this film a little better than its predecessor. I thought that film completely immolated itself with one colossally dumb plot twist. This film has no comparable moment. I enjoyed some of the metacinematic touches in this one, too, which reach just beyond aping moments in John Carpenter's original, while connecting it to the broader roots of the horror genre. Mind you, there are a lot of things connecting this film to Carpenter's original and to the original film's first couple of sequels. This is as much an homage as it is a (not so new) new narrative. If cinema going forward is going to be a recursive echo chamber selling you the same experiences again and again, then this film is a state of the art example. If you want something new, like a story about a latter day druid killing a generation of kids with sinister masks, then you will be left wanting.

I admit that I am swayed a bit by the circumstances under which I saw the film--as the first half of a double feature at a drive-in theater as god intended. That counts for a bit. But the overall film? Well, maybe not so much.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Going Ape

I must have been in a bad mood when I saw Kong: Skull Island (2017, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) when it was in theaters because I didn't like it very much at the time. I remember grousing about the distinct lack of dinosaurs in the film, and that's a rule I apply to any King Kong movie. There must be dinosaurs. It's one of the reasons I dislike the 1976 De Laurentis Kong so intensely. No dinosaurs. None. All we got was a giant snake and I think Carlo Rambaldi may have re-used that snake for Conan the Barbarian. Don't quote me on that. For what it's worth, the lack of dinosaurs is by no means the only reason I dislike that film. In any event, Kong: Skull Island at least has the courtesy to replace the dinosaurs with monsters, so that's some consolation. I probably let my prejudices blind me to the very real virtues the film surely does possess. Of the Monsterverse films, this is the one with the best cast of human actors, and it does the most with them. It also has an antic sense of metacinema that crops up in unexpected places. None of this should be dismissed just because I don't get my fill of ape on dino mayhem. It's not a bad film by any stretch. As corporate franchise product, it could be a lot worse.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

It's Not a Tumor!

Malignant (2021)

I wasn't expecting much of Malignant (2021, directed by James Wan). The film has received withering reviews from other quarters and my own experience with James Wan's other horror movies has been indifferent to actively hostile. So imagine my surprise when I found myself cackling like a maniac when the film turned its cards face up and let its freak flag fly. I wasn't expecting a movie that so gleefully followed its muse over the cliff, but by golly, when that moment arrived I was ride or die for the duration. Mind you, I don't want to suggest that Malignant is a "good" movie. It's not, really. James Wan is still who he is and the movie is still burdened with the family über alles moralizing Wan picked up in the Insidious and Conjuring and Fast and Furious movies, but the raw materials? Oh, mercy!

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Creature Stole My Twinkie

The Monster Squad

Fifty-two horror and mystery movies made before 1948 were licensed for television in 1957, including the Universal horror movies like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The famous "Shock Theater" package (Twenty more followed the next year). On television, they became a huge hit all over again and were part of the spark of the Gothic horror movie revival of the late 1950s. One of the side effects of this package was the creation of a subculture of horror fans, particularly among young people. The so-called "Monster Kids" were a phenomenon throughout the decade that followed, providing a reliable audience for the Hammer films and Corman Poe films and Italian horror movies that filled the drive-in movie circuit in the next decade. The phenomenon spilled over into broader pop culture, too, resulting in horror-themed television shows (The Addams Family and The Munsters and Dark Shadows), horror imagery in car culture (also in The Munsters), cereal festooned with cartoon versions of the classic Universal monsters, glow-in the dark model kits, and dedicated horror culture magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein (and belatedly, Fangoria). Eventually, the monster kids began to be an element in horror media, in a kind of feedback loop. Stephen King was a monster kid and one of the protagonists in his novel, 'Salem's Lot, is a monster kid. Eventually, they started to show up in movies. You had entire generations of kids who knew the "rules" of horror movies, and you couldn't just ignore them if you made a monster movie. You see this in films like The Lost Boys and The Goonies, arguably The Blob, and (tangentially) Fright Night. The living end of this phenomenon is Wes Craven's Scream, which explicitly lays out the "rules" of slasher films in the text of the film, but that's a late mutation of the monster kids. The traditional monster kid phenomenon was largely spent by the late 1980s. Universal has been trying to revive interest in its traditional monster movies for the last couple of decades with indifferent results, but it seems that the world has moved on from that kind of horror movie. Even the monster kid movies in the 1980s seem like nostalgia pieces when they weren't actively trying to integrate with more contemporary horror movie imagery. Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad (1987) seems like a nostalgia piece. It certainly feels that way to this particular Gen X viewer.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

A Dragon and His Wrath

Jason Statham in Wrath of Man (2021)

Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! 

--Williams Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene III

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen was one of the last films I saw before the Covid pandemic closed the theaters. That film was pretty good, and on brand for Ritchie who has always been a deft hand at the achronological semi-comic crime thriller. The theaters are open again, finally, and I've been vaccinated against the virus, so I finally returned to in-person movies at a goddamn theater on Memorial Day, 2021, after the longest absence from moviegoing in my entire long life. As it so happens, the film I chose to see is another Guy Ritchie film: the doom-haunted Wrath of Man (2021), and it suggests that Ritchie could dispense with shit like live-action Disney remakes and King Arthur rehashes and spend the rest of his career playing variations on crime cinema. On the evidence, he would never exhaust the possibilities of the form. Wrath of Man is as different a film from The Gentlemen as you can imagine for being essentially the same damned thing. Like The Gentlemen, it pulls its central events apart and rewinds through multiple perspectives to view them from an almost cubistic perspective. Both of them are crime films. But where The Gentlemen is nimble and fairly light, with jokes aplenty, watching Wrath of Man is like watching a tornado approaching your house and you're in its path without a storm shelter. The gloom is only the precursor to the calamity. It's a stone-faced revenge tragedy that doesn't bother with niceties like humor or sympathetic characters. Its protagonist isn't a hero so much as he's an elemental force. He most reminds me of Clint Eastwood's revenant gunslinger in High Plains Drifter. But even that film cracked a smile once in a while.