Thursday, September 30, 2010

Help Dr. AC fight AIDS with SCARE-A-THON 2010

One final note before the Challenge begins. My friend, Aaron Christensen, who blogs and agitates for horror under the nom du guerre, Dr. AC, has turned his month-long slog through the strange corners of the horror genre into a fundraiser. Here's his explanation:

However, this October, while celebrating silver screen screams, I also hope to strike a blow against real-life horrors. In the spirit of a read-a-thon or a walk-a-thon, I plan to embark on SCARE-A-THON 2010 and I am asking for your help.

Season of Concern is Chicago-based organization that provides direct-care support for people living with HIV and AIDS. ( My request is simple: For every movie I watch, I am asking folks to donate one dime. Yes, a mere ten cents per scream. My goal is to watch somewhere between 60 and 80 films next month, which means that you would only be asked to contribute $6 -$8 – the price of a restaurant burger. However, if this is too steep, you could donate $0.05 or even $0.01 per film. Or you could even make a straightforward donation of whatever amount you deem viable. Every little bit helps and many hands make for light work. Together, we can make a big difference for someone out there who needs our help.

There's more information on Aaron's blog. I'm taking the plunge. I hope lots of other people do, too.

Habitual Offenders

The challenge starts tomorrow, but I still have a couple of civilian movies to write about first. These will be brief:

Shinsengumi (1969, directed by Tadashi Sawashima) is a middling historical epic produced by star Toshiro Mifune. The story of the Shinsengumi, a band of ronin in the employ of the Tokugawa Shogunate right before the Meiji restoration is almost as popular in Japan as the story of the 47 Ronin. This is the sort of movie that's long on historical incidents that the movie assumes the audience knows about. They tend to be disconnected to the eyes of this gaijin observer, who is ignorant of the details. AnimEigo's DVD of the film includes their standard exhaustive program notes and good thing, too, because this film needs them more than most. Mifune plays Kondo Isami, the head of the Shinsengumi, an honorable man leading a band of less than honorable subordinates. Of his co-commanders, one is an epic drunk and the other commits seppuku after disgracing himself while out whoring at the Gion festival. Once he's on his own, he institutes an iron discipline that urges the band to feats of renown. Unfortunately, the Shinsengumi have backed the wrong horse, and at the end of the movie, Kondo sacrifices himself to allow his men to scatter as the Shogunate falls. The movie itself looks like any number of other chambara movies from the same era--it certainly throws in some gore for the groundlings--though it lacks the subversiveness of movies by Okamoto or Gosha. It does come briefly to life during two sequences: in one, the Shinsengumi's accountant is urged to commit seppuku over a 50 ryo shortfall. This is staged against a snowy backdrop the better to show the blood. In the second, at the very end of the movie, Kondo politely moves his pony tail so his executioner can have a better shot at his neck. But the rest of the movie is kind of a slog.

The Hot Rock (1972, directed by Peter Yates), in which sad sack professional thief John Dortmunder and his band of misfit accomplices must steal the Sahara diamond. And then steal it again. And then again. This is a comedy caper movie, and while Peter Yates directs this with anonymous efficiency and he makes good use of the wide screen in setting up his mayhem, it's the wrong tone. Donald Westlake's book is funnier than the movie, which is hard to explain given that they're as close to each other as any adaptation I can think of. Westlake wins on style points, I guess, though I think my own hang-up with the movie is that it's miscast in almost every particular. Robert Redford, especially, is just too damned good-looking to play a credible Dortmunder, who in personality is more like Bob Newhart than The Sundance Kid. George Segal and Ron Leibman are both actors who chew scenery, even when it's detrimental to the film, as it is here. As a purely personal reaction, I just read one of Westlake's Parker novels, the dark secret sharers of the Dortmunder novels, and it set up a curious double vision as I was watching this. Westlake famously wrote the book with Parker in mind, and, oddly enough, I can see Redford as Parker. Westlake was wise to invent Dortmunder, because I can totally see Parker just shooting everyone involved and having done with it.

Dark Habits (1983, directed by Pedro Almodovar), finds nightclub singer Cristina S. Pascual hiding from the mob among a demented order of nuns (including Almodovar regulars Carmen Maura and Marisa Paredes). What starts off as a kind of ur-Sister Act quickly becomes Pedro's take on nunsploitation. The Mother Superior is a lesbian and a dope fiend. One of the sisters is raising a tiger. Another is taking communion with LSD rather than the Eucharist. One surmises that Pedro saw in nunsploitation a progenitor of his female-centric melodramas, and you can see him working in that direction, but the director was still very much an enfant terrible when he made this, and some the elements he's assembled exist only for their prurient shock value. It's not one of his better movies. There is an uneasy dynamic between Alodovar the provocateur and Almodovar the artist here, which results in a film that's too sober in its mood for the gonzo subject matter. Still, it's eminently watchable, but it's probably for completists only.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Fistfight at The Edge of Forever

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, directed by Leonard Nimoy) was set up at the end of the previous installment in a naked bit of franchise building. This film begins where that film left off--indeed, it re-uses a fair amount of footage from its predecessor. It's also the middle film of a trilogy, and it suffers from the awkwardness of middle films.

The story here finds Dr. McCoy carrying around Spock's consciousness after a Vulcan mind meld at the conclusion of the previous film. Spock's body, meanwhile, has been launched to the Genesis planet, where it has regenerated itself, much to the surprise of the scientists who are monitoring the project. Sarek implores Kirk to retrieve Spock's body so it can be conveyed to Vulcan for a proper Vulcan ceremony. Unfortunately, Star Fleet won't let Kirk take the Enterprise back to Genesis, so he and the crew steal it. Meanwhile, a Klingon Bird of Prey has arrived at Genesis to steal its secrets.

In spite of the Very Serious Themes this movie tries to convey about grief and friendship, it all comes down to a fistfight at the end. This represents a failure of imagination for the series, but it won't be the last such failure (see also the recent J. J. Abrams film). There are no fisticuffs of any kind in either of the first two films. Still and all, I like this installment better than Number 4, which I thought was goofy. I remember seeing this the week that it opened and getting a little choked up when the Enterprise, rigged to self-destruct with a Klingon boarding party on board, streaks across the sky. It's the movie's best moment. They tried that stunt again more than once as the series moved on, but it works here.

Following the lead of the previous film, Star Trek III has an obvious villain (without any metaphysics to interfere with his villainy) in Christopher Lloyd's Captain Kruge. Casting Lloyd might have been a mistake--it's hard to watch him without flashing on his other screen personae--but he charges through the role with bluster. The Klingons get a serious overhaul here (more so than in their brief appearance in the first film), complete with a subtitled language and interesting chain of command. John Larroquette plays one of the Klingon subalterns and Miguel Ferrar plays a Star Fleet helmsman, establishing a pattern of familiar faces in the background of these movies. The movie goes out of its way to give the secondary crew members their moments: Sulu gets to show off his judo, Uhura has an amusing run in with a young subordinate, Mr. Scott has a twinkle in his eye after sabotaging the next-generation Excelsior, and Chekov gets to puzzle over the controls of a Klingon warship. This is really the film where Shatner starts to exaggerate his Shatnerisms, which isn't to the film's benefit, really.

Structurally, the film has a big problem. Having provided the audience with a big special effects climax, the movie grinds to a screeching halt fifteen minutes from the end as we are shown in detail the Vulcan ritual for the dead (and the resurrected). The movie's other big guest star, Dame Judith Anderson, shows up here in Vulcan drag. When I first saw the film, I hadn't seen Hitchcock's Rebecca, but now I can't see Anderson without seeing the monstrous Mrs. Danvers in everything she does. Interesting that the filmmakers would take that persona and convert it into Vulcan. In any event, this portion of the film, though necessary for the franchise going forward, causes the mind to wander well before the credits role.

The October Country

The October Horror Movie Challenge is upon us again. The rules are simple: watch 31 horror movies in the month of October with 16 of them (or more) being movies you've never seen before. Hopefully, my horror movie friends will all blog about their experiences. I'm going to try to blog about it every day, an insane pace that I may not be able to keep. We shall see.

I made the above graphic for this year's challenge. Feel free to borrow it to use on your own blog or web site this year.

The game is afoot!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goodbye, Vincente

I sometimes think that Vincente Minnelli should have put a pistol to his temple after finishing Two Weeks in Another Town. That was effectively the end of his career. Everything afterward is evidence of a director clinging to an idiom that was drifting further and further into irrelevance. Minnelli's slow eclipse during the 1960s is one of the more ignominious declines for a legitimately great director.

Today's subject is the gender bending comedy, Goodbye Charlie, a film obviously using Some Like It Hot as a touchstone--hence, the presence of Tony Curtis. Unfortunately, it doesn't really send up gender roles the way Some Like It Hot does so much as it suggests that biology is destiny, as a womanizing cad comes back from the dead as Debbie Reynolds, starts to soften almost immediately, and repents his womanizing ways. Whatever.

There are all sorts of problems with this premise: ignoring the obvious feminist and queer complaints, the main problem is that it fixes its battle of the sexes theme in time. Oddly enough, it seems like it fixes the state of the conflict a few years prior to its making, 1958 rather than 1964. It was out of touch when it was released and never mind the day before yesterday. From a feminist point of view, it works a little as a revenge fantasy before it goes all weak in the knees. From a trans-queer point of view, the way it postulates a fungible kind of sexuality based on the kind of body one is issued is risible. This film can't stand the idea that Debbie Reynolds might remain attracted to women as a woman, no matter the premise. It also has an undercurrent of autogynephilia, which shades the film into the province of transgender slash porn. Feh.

The film retains the artifice of studio-era Hollywood even as that system was crashing around its head, which, combined with the film's horribly dated social milieu makes this seem like a relic. Minnelli, it seems, stubbornly refused to change with the times. This can be seen in the performances, too. Debbie Reynolds is fine in a difficult role, doing a broad lampoon of male mannerisms, then morphing into a kind of mantrap (not the kind of role one thinks of with Reynolds). It's better than the movie deserves. Curtis, on the other hand, is visibly uncomfortable with the material (odd, considering his resume), and Walter Matthau is abominable as Charlie's murderer, affecting a lame accent and bad age make-up. Pat Boone is, well, Pat Boone.

This is arguably the director's worst movie, but it has some competition from the movies he made afterward. There are directors who have late-career flowerings and remain relevant until the day they die, but Minnelli, closely associated with the Hollywood dream factory and a slave to that style until the end, was not one of them. Oddly enough, Goodbye Charlie has been remade on a couple of occasions, once for television, once by Blake Edwards as Switch, to indifferent results.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Netflix Roulette: Blackout

This was originally published on the Wildclaw Blood Radio Blog.

Shortly before his death, an interviewer asked William Faulkner what he was reading. Faulkner replied: "Charles Dickens and the Bible. At my age, I don't have time for anything but the good stuff."

I used to have a lot more patience for the crap that forms the largest part of the horror genre. In my youth, I could watch any given zero-budget slasher film or ridiculous creature feature and still have a good ol' time. Over the years, though, I kind of got burned out on it. In part, this was because I was watching a lot of amazing stuff outside the genre, which was giving me an appetite for "the good stuff." In part, it was because I had been over-fishing the waters for years. And, in part, it was because the market for low budget and direct to video horror had contracted to the point where I wasn't able to find the diamonds in the rough I was able to find in past years. It wasn't giving me return on investment. So I gave up, and the sub-strata of the horror genre plugged along without me. It's been over a decade since I regularly trolled this area of film. This is where Netflix comes in. A lot of the stuff that used to stock the horror aisle at chain video stores is beginning to find a home on Netflix's instant streaming service (I presume that the same thing is happening over at Blockbuster, but I won't do business with them). Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that I might play roulette with the movies on Netflix Instant as a way of putting me back in touch with my roots. Who knows, maybe there's a diamond in the rough waiting to be unearthed.

In any event, here are the rules: Netflix currently has 18 pages of Instant Watch horror movies, and each page has 24 movies on it, so I needed to come up with two random numbers: one between 1 and 18 and one between 1 and 24. I set up a function in an Excel spreadsheet to generate these and I was set. The first numbers that came up were 3 and 1, which corresponds to Blackout, a 2007 thriller starring Amber Tamblyn and directed by Rigoberto Castañeda. The premise of this movie, in which three people are trapped on an elevator and one of them is a serial killer, sounds more than a bit like Shyamalan's upcoming Devil, though on a much smaller scale.

The movie starts with a dead woman in a bathtub, then moves to a scene of her husband grieving for her in a cemetery with his young daughter. This the first of our trio of characters: Carl, a doctor, played with amiable sadness by Aiden Gillen. Then we meet Claudia (Tamblyn), an asthmatic who may or may not have been responsible for her grandmother's death. The final character is Tommy, played by Armie Hammer, a tough kid about to go on the lam with his girlfriend. The backstories of each of these characters is filled in at excruciating length in flashbacks cut into the scenes in the elevator. Frankly, they mostly feel like padding to avoid the point or, at the very least, bring the movie to feature length. That being the case, the last twenty minutes or so, once the masks have fallen from our trio of characters and the flashbacks have been abandoned and everyone knows exactly who everyone is, are actually pretty damned good. The movie sets up its suspense set-pieces with a Hitchcockian attention to significant objects (a lighter, an asthma inhaler) and pays off with a delightfully nasty denouement. In truth, I was kind of surprised that I liked this as much as I did, given how lackadaisical the first half of the movie seemed. Once it starts paying attention to its own little microcosm, it turns the screws tight. It does, however, point out the main flaw in the Netflix Instant service: it doesn't have a fast forward button.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Last Sunset

1961's The Last Sunset is just about as perverse a Western as you could imagine. Of Robert Aldrich's other movies, it most resembles Vera Cruz, with its dichotomy of good and bad men working together only to confront each other at the end. But that's almost too simple a comparison, because there's not really anything else in the director's portfolio quite like this movie. The obvious frame of reference is Douglas Sirk, and if that weren't explicit enough, The Last Sunset casts Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson to emphasize the point. This movie was work for hire for Aldrich, after a short exile in Europe after being blackballed by Harry Cohn. The primary motivating force behind it was star Kirk Douglas, who produced the film through his company. Douglas brought in screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after working with him on Spartacus. There's a lot of talent involved in this movie. There's also a lot of ego.

The story here resembles a Greek tragedy. Outlaw Brendan O'Malley (Douglas) is on the lam in Mexico, where he is reunited with his lost love, Belle (Malone), who has married another man and settled down. Belle's husband (Joseph Cotten) is a drunk and a failure. Her daughter (Carol Lynley) is taken with O'Malley. O'Malley has been chased south by Sheriff Dana Stribling (Hudson), who vows to take him back to Texas to face a murder charge. The whole cast heads north on a cattle drive. Belle's husband soon finds himself on the wrong end of gun, and O'Malley and Stribling vie for her affections, with Stribling earning Belle's hand. O'Malley then sets his sights on Belle's daughter, unaware of the fact that she's HIS daughter, too. The weight of incest weighs heavily on him as he confronts Stribling in a duel at the end of the movie. It's a bitches brew of passions, this film, which is why it's puzzling that it just kind of lays there on the screen, inert.

This is not among Aldrich's better film. You can sense a certain amount of disinterest in this film, but more than that, you can sense a certain amount of neglect, too. The opening sequence is a good example. It's a scene in which two riders follow each other, but doesn't reveal itself as a chase scene until it's over with. Aldrich has filmed it from such a distance that it's never clear that it's two riders rather than just one, nor does there seem to be any urgency in the cutting of the scene or in the music. Lazy. One gets the feeling that Aldrich's goal with this film was to stay out of the way of Kirk Douglas's ego. Douglas already had a history of clashing with his directors (he hired Stanley Kubrick for Spartacus after firing Anthony Mann a year before), and it's entirely possible that Aldrich needed the film as a calling card to get back in the game in Hollywood rather than in Europe. The trouble with this is that Douglas's presence in the movie is unrestrained, and as a vanity project, it gets kind of tedious. There are far too many scenes of Douglas just talking (and singing, even!) that undercut the image of the outlaw. It hurts the film; it fills it with too much of its leading man. It's also kind of icky watching his character make the moves on a sixteen year old in the back half of the film (even if it's the sort of thing that went on all the time in the West). For their parts, Hudson and Malone are fine, and the movie tries gamely enough to get them their scenes, but it's swimming upstream.

From an auteurist point of view, this is a hard film to place. Aldrich's own themes are still present, but they're filtered through Trumbo's lens and seem impersonal. (This is one of the drawbacks of auteurism, but since this series is about Aldrich, it's hard to avoid). Certainly, the director must have been attracted to the transgressive elements of the narrative. One wonders what he might have done with the film with another actor in the lead. Hard to say. In any event, Aldrich went back to Europe for another movie before returning to Hollywood and starting his golden period with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Some Thoughts on Seven Samurai

Note: A slightly different version of this piece was written for another, long defunct blog. My apologies to anyone who may have read it before.

One of the hallmarks of a legitimately great movie is the ability of that movie to reveal hidden depths after multiple viewings. The greatest movies are bottomless wells in this way. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is one such film. It still functions as one of the best action films ever made. It still functions as an archetypal hero’s journey. It still functions as a probing drama. It reminds me of the description John Steinbeck gave for East of Eden in his introduction to the book: it’s a box into which Kurosawa poured everything that he was.

With this week’s viewing, I noticed that it functions as epistemological inquiry. It never dawned on me before that great whacks of the film are based on misrecognitions. This begins practically at the outset, in which a bundle of twigs turns out to be a peasant carrying a load on his back and continues through Takeshi Shimura’s samurai masquerading as a priest, Toshiro Mifune masquerading as a samurai, and so on. When this thought dawned on me, my first instinct was that it was accidental until I caught myself in the realization that Kurosawa also made Rashomon, in which epistemology is the whole point of the movie. Once this thought occurred to me, I started to realize that most of Kurosawa's films are based on epistemological themes, from the mistaken identity that sets off High and Low to the impostor in Kagemusha. It's the director's dominant theme, it seems, usually hiding behind the other concerns that are in the foreground.

I also noticed that the camera occasionally functions as an echo of the blocking of the characters. During the duel near the beginning of the film, the camera moves not like a camera on a track, but like an additional samurai, watching the action. It mirrors the hyperactive loser of the duel, actually, and when he dies, the film speed slows down, as if the camera movement during the duel and the film speed during the aftermath have put us into his skin. Interesting. I was also very conscious of the way Kurosawa frames shots of groups. Groups of non-samurai always seem to be in motion, fleeing something or running towards something else. Samurai almost never hurry, and are often static against the tide of villagers or bandits. Kurosawa–in this film in particular–is often compared to John Ford, but a more apt comparison is Howard Hawks, who composed shots of groups as a means of building communities. Kurosawa rarely separates the seven samurai when they are in a scene together–he generally keeps them all in the same film frame, even at the end when four of them are marked by gravestones.

I could probably spend a lifetime with this film.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


One of the things that people don't often discuss about Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is how boring it is. Oh, that's not a criticism. I think it's a deliberate effect intended to simulate how boring a long space voyage might actually be. On the other hand, one of the complaints about the first Star Trek movie has always been that it's a crashing bore. Andy Warhol famously said of it: "It's boring, but I like to be bored." I hadn't seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, directed by Robert Wise) in (mumble mumble) years, but that jibed with my recollection of it. The truth of the matter is a little bit different from my memory. It's not actually boring, per se, so much as it's devoid of action. Instead, you have a heavy emphasis on special effects (and actors standing around reacting to special effects that they can't see). You can see an uneasy compromise between the cerebral, "boring" 2001 and the whiz bang wonderment of Star Wars in this movie. On the whole, the producers' choice not to stage any action sequences strikes me as misguided (see Star Trek II for a compelling counter-argument), but the movie isn't nearly as lugubrious as I remembered.

As a specimen of production design, this is horribly dated. Oh, there were lavish resources expended here, and it certainly doesn't look like any of its cheaper sequels, but it reeks of the 1970s. Mind you, the subsequent films--particularly the Star Fleet uniforms--are of their times, too, but not to the extent of this film. Is this the last major sci fi film untouched by the "used future" of Star Wars and Alien? It might be.

As a story, this recycles the original series' episode, "The Changeling." A vast destructive force approaches the Earth. The Enterprise is dispatched to investigate, with Admiral Kirk resuming command at the expense of Commander Decker, his hand-picked successor to the command. Once the Enterprise engages the alien, it becomes evident that the entity, V'ger, is a reconstructed Voyager space probe augmented by a race of living machines to a godlike power.

Some of the conflicts in the movie are interesting. The relationship between Kirk and Decker is nicely defined, if underdeveloped. Persis Khambatta's Lt. Ilia has an amusing moment upon first sizing up Kirk, when she says that "My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain." Funny.

That all said, huge chunks of the movie seem like they're recreations of 2001's stargate sequence. Had this been made a decade earlier, it would have been one of the great psychedelic movies. It's certainly eye candy, occasionally resembling an album cover by, say, Roger Dean. I think the boredom the film sometimes evinces stems from a film too in love with its special effects vistas. A good example of this is the initial fly around of the Enterprise, which goes on way longer than its dramatic weight requires. The same footage was edited into a much tighter sequence in the second film to much greater effect.

There is one element of the movie that has continued to resound in the years since its release. That would be Jerry Goldsmith's splendid score. It pretty much towers over every other element of the film.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One Froggy Evening

I really wanted to like The Princess and the Frog (2009, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker), Disney's return to hand-drawn 2-D animation (it was actually drawn on a computer, but details). I did. It's certainly a good-looking movie, and the comedy bits mostly work. And, sure, I'll give it props for finally providing an African princess, but there's some animating spark that's missing.

The story here reinvents "The Frog Prince" fairy tale in 1920s New Orleans, and the movie is drenched in a vision of that city that's more fantasy than reality. But this is a fairy tale, and at least it's not an obnoxious fantasy. There's jazz, and there's food, and there's a hint of the hothouse in its depiction of its characters. Tennessee Williams is in the bones of this movie. As are Marie LeVeau and Baron Samedi. Our heroine is Tianna, a young black woman who is saving to buy a restaurant, to no avail from the dismissive real-estate men who agent the place she wants. Her friend, Charlotte, is a princess wannabe in the worst Southern Belle way, and when New Orleans is visited by Prince Naveen of Maldonia, she holds a ball. Meanwhile, Naveen and his treacherous retainer, Louis, have run afoul of Doctor Facilier, a voodoo shadowman with debts to pay to his supernatural allies. The prince finds himself turned into a frog, and subsequently mistakes Tianna for a princess. The subsequent kiss doesn't work out quite the way anyone intends, and the game, as they say, is afoot.

For the most part, this is fun. Hell, there's a lot to like about this. The visuals are nice, and the character design is excellent. I LOVE the voice work by both Anika Noni Rose and Keith David (Keith David needs to voice more cartoon villains; he's amazingly suited to it). But there's definitely something "off" about the whole enterprise. It occurred to me some hours after I finished watching it that what's dragging the movie down is its music. Randy Newman provides the songs, and, well, they're not his best work. I can't honestly recall any of the music, even at a relatively short remove from watching it, and this seems wrong for a movie set in New Orleans in the 1920s. This movie should breath jazz and zydeco, and even though it makes the attempt, there's no electrical charge in it, and no authenticity. Where is Louis Armstrong when you need him?

As I say, I want to like this--and in some ways I DO like this--because I think the notion that traditional animation is passe is completely wrongheaded. (I'm glad nobody at Disney told that to Hayao Miyazaki or Sylvain Chomet). And if someone really needs to be making animated films of this sort, it's Disney. I mean, Disney without cartoons is like jumbalaya without hot sauce. It's just wrong. It just is. But, as I say, it somehow doesn't work, which just sucks.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hot Buttered Fuzz

Although it's billed as a parody of the supercop genre, there's a secret agenda at work in Hot Fuzz (2007), Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's follow up to their cult hit, Shaun of the Dead. The giveaway is an actor tucked in among the various vaguely familiar English character actors who inhabit the film's sleepy country village. Simon Pegg's supercop has been consigned here for making his fellow officers look bad, where he encounters local populace that includes Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Billie Whitlaw, Bill Nighy, Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman, and Paddy Considine, among others.

Ever the meta-filmmaker, Wright name checks his main points of reference in-movie, with Point Break and Bad Boys II making appearances, but this is really a horror movie send-up in disguise. The film even tells you this early on when Dalton's character, the weasley grocer Simon Skinner tells Simon Pegg's character that he needs to be locked up as a "slasher." Sure enough, there's a mad slasher about, who decapitates a lawyer and his mistress, blows up a developer and his awful McMansion, crushes a nosy reporter with a piece of a flying buttress, and takes out the local florist with a pair of garden shears. The murders are more sanguinary than you might expect from a comedy, but maybe they aren't too far outside the tradition of British comedy; they recall Monty Python and their occasional jabs at Sam Peckinpah, actually. Horror and humor go hand in hand, as Wright and Pegg well know.

It's not hard to imagine a white board in the production office for this movie, on which there's a list of cliché action movie tropes from cop movies without number. Wright owns up to using Roger Ebert's Big Little Movie Dictionary for just such a purpose. Maybe because this is British and very twee countryside British to boot, the clichés don't read as well as they should. Maybe that's why the film leans more heavily on horror tropes than on cop movie tropes. Mind you, they're there. Just look at this shot of Simon Pegg going all Starsky and Hutch:

The filmmakers certainly port over the gun fetish of American action movies (including, improbably, a sea mine). When the bullets start flying at the end of the movie, it comes into its own as a cop parody. I'm kind of amused that no one actually gets killed in the fireworks at the end (the movie's not shy about racking up a ghastly body count otherwise). But then, it doesn't really spare the main baddie. His fate is positively wince-inducing.

It's entirely possible that Wright is too distinctive a visual stylist to be an effective parodist along these lines. Oh, his movies are funny, sure, but they are manifestly his movies, and tend to sever the umbilical between his source material and what ends up on screen. This happened in Shaun of the Dead, too. That's not a complaint, really, because it does tend to make Wright's movies more genuinely surprising, if only for the visual panache and the delirious invention of his editing schemes. The man knows how to put together a movie.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fright Night, 25 years later.

This was originally published on the Wildclaw Blood Radio Blog.

Fright Night turned 25 last week. I didn't see anyone mark the anniversary, so I thought I'd raise my own glass. You don't look a day over 20.

Well, that's a lie, actually. Fright Night hasn't aged particularly well. The combination of eighties fashions, Spielbergian idiom (horror comes to suburbia), comedy relief, and gooey special effects is very much of its time. More than that, it's a kind of nostalgia piece in itself, one that pines for the late-night horror show and the classical horror movie (in reaction, I suspect, to the shasher films that were dominating the genre at the time of its release). All of that is receding in time.

Still, it has its pleasures. Prime among them is a barnstorming performance by Chris Sarandon as our urbane vampire, Jerry Dandridge. Is Dandridge the first movie vampire who's smart enough to lock his coffin from the inside? He might be. But he's still dumb enough to play the talking killer with poor hapless Charley Brewster. The rest of the cast isn't up to his screen presence, not even Roddy McDowell, playing a gentle homage to the old school Gothics of the 50s and 60s.

What Fright Night does well is update the vampire archetype into the idiom of the special effects film. Oh, vampires have always had some interesting effects--the resurrection of Dracula in Dracula: Prince of Darkness is particularly creative--but not to the extent of this film. The story is almost incidental, given that the last forty minutes or so are a carnival of prosthetic monsters. The actual action sometimes grinds to a stop in order to watch the effects play out. It's almost as if writer/director Tom Holland looked at a list of the legendary abilities of vampires and picked them a la carte for their effects potentials, then, having paid for the gags, made damn sure he got them on camera, whether it made logical sense or not. The most obvious instance of this is the disintegration of Dandridge's familiar, at which our heroes stand and gawp while Dandridge makes good his escape:

The end result of all this is that we get some pretty good monsters, including one of the movies' first really convincing vampires in monstrous bat form (which the movie emphasizes in its parody footage from one of Peter Vincent's movies depicting a toy rubber bat on a string), a terrific werewolf transformation, and the first real attempt to reconcile the various divergent cinematic images of vampires: the sexy, Byronic anti-hero and the foul ratlike creature of the night; between Dracula and Count Orlock, if you will. As an aside, a friend of mine really resents the fact that the werewolf effects in Fright Night are better than the werewolf effects in just about any actual werewolf movie made since Fright Night was in theaters.

This is also a strangely gay horror movie, not that it's overt about it. I mean, Dandridge and his familiar seem like a gay couple moving into an old home to gentrify it. Amanda Bearse was one of the first prominently "out" lesbians in Hollywood. And Stephen Geoffrey went on to a long career in gay porn. I suppose you can't really blame the film for the later careers of its actors, but the plot asks us to believe that our teen-aged hero is more interested in the two guys across the way than he is in his willing girlfriend. Mind you, I'm perfectly aware of the fact that this last element is cribbed from Hitchcock's Rear Window (which asks us to believe that James Stewart is more interested in his neighbors than he is in Grace Kelly, but I digress). None of it may be intentional, but it still trips the ol' gaydar.

In any event, my experience of Fright Night back in the day was that it was a nice change of pace--the other prominent vampire movies of the 1980s, The Lost Boys and Near Dark, were still two years in the future when Fright Night was released--and that it was a pretty good summer popcorn movie. It works best with an audience, I think, and as a first-time viewing experience, too. I just wish I didn't feel so old knowing that I saw this when it was first released. 25 years went by fast.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Grave Matters

My mother wasn't a film buff in any sense of the word. She didn't like any particular directors as such. I doubt she could have named any, except for Hitchcock, who had been on television. In spite of this, she had exquisite taste in movies. One of her favorite movies that I remember watching with her was A Matter of Life and Death (which was titled Stairway to Heaven at the time), one of the fancier flights of fantasy from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It's a kind of film that had a brief period of popularity from the mid thirties to the mid forties: the near death fantasy. Other films that utilized similar plots include On Borrowed Time, Between Two Worlds, Heaven Can Wait, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Guy Named Joe, Death Takes a Holiday and (most famously) It's a Wonderful Life. This last bears some of the stamp of Powell and Pressburger's films. A Matter of Life and Death starts with the stars and planets, drifting in the void. Capra does the same, but, ever the sentimentalist, anthropomorphizes the stars at the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life, turning them into angels. It's not an improvement, really, but my appetite for Capra is at a low ebb these days.

There's a bit of a difference between A Matter of Life and Death and the other films of its ilk, in so far as its a skeptic's version of this fantasy. I hadn't remembered that from my long-ago viewing of the film with my mom. The story has British pilot David Niven having to jump from his burning plane without a parachute. He's scheduled to die, but the "courier" charged with escorting him to the next world loses him in a fog bank and he survives to fall in love with Kim Hunter, the air controller who talked him through his final moments. In the afterlife, the balance must be reasserted and a trial is arranged in order to decide Niven's fate. In this world, a doctor examines him for neurological distress due to his visions of the other world. Is the whole thing an hallucination due to injury to the brain? The movie strongly suggests this, and it doesn't get cute with equivocation. On the whole, the plot of the film is kind of silly, but that's not what makes the film memorable.

Lest I've fallen down on the job, let me reiterate my complete devotion to The Archers. Michael Powell (with and without Emeric Pressburger) may very well be my favorite British director. His films have a kind of playfulness to them that eludes the more austere formalism of Hitchock or David Lean. Plus, his films are ravishingly beautiful. The Archer's long collaboration with cinematographer Jack Cardiff occasionally resulted in images that burn themselves into your retinas. Cardiff was able to manipulate the ultra-saturated colors preferred by Technicolor busybody Natalie Kalmus like no other cinematographer.

Yet for all its visual grandiosity, it winks at the audience. There's a shot of an eyeball's view of a surgical procedure, when the eyelids close on the camera. There's a Coke machine in the arrival lobby in heaven. Ever interested in metacinema, the filmmakers include an in-movie metaphor for the movies in the form of Roger Livesey's camera obscura, which also doubles as a God's eye view of the town where the movie is set and mirrors the great holes in the heavens where the afterlife gazes down.

(Short digression: I'm developing a huge crush on Roger Livesey. In this film and I Know Where I'm Going, his voice makes me kind of weak in the knees. That's just me, though.)

I mentioned that this is a secular movie. Certainly the brain surgery plot device is evidence of that, but there's an even more subtle element that reinforces this. The Archer's film the afterlife in black and white, and this life in a blazing Technicolor (one character notes that there's not enough Technicolor in the afterlife, another meta wink at the audience). This suggests a deeply existential worldview, where this world is experience, while the next is colorless. Live for today, this color scheme intimates, because living for afterward isn't worth it.

There's a broader political dimension to the film, too, in which there's a jockeying for post-War relevance between Britain and the US, in which both sides tweak the other on the nose. The movie openly admires the American melting pot, and the trial sequence when the American jurors are chosen is something I wish I could show every nativist know-nothing in America these days. The movie is fairly critical of the British Empire, too, which raised some hackles when it was released. Of course, the movie pokes fun at Yankee exceptionalism, too, in the person of Raymond Massey's blowhard colonial lawyer.

Of course, it's the delirious romanticism of the movie that has kept it in the minds of film audiences, not all of the meta elements and political subtexts. Certainly, this is the element that most appealed to my mother all those years ago. Everything else is icing on the cake. This is a movie in which the world and the afterlife come to a halt over a single tear shed in the name of love, in which love will not be denied even by death. Everything in the movie is focused on this one idea.

Omnia vincit amor.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Marriages and Infidelities

This was originally published in a slightly different form at The Second Awakening. Our local art house picked this film up after it tanked at our multiplex, so I took the opportunity to see it again.

I'm a bit late to the party when it comes to The Kids Are All Right (2010), Lisa Cholodenko's comedy of manners about a lesbian couple whose children seek out their sperm donor. It's a droll movie that shades into painful drama with deceptive ease. It's good. Very good. You should see it if you haven't already. It's a film that begs the question of why doesn't Annette Bening have an Academy Award yet? All well and good. But it does raise some questions.

From my perspective, there are two elephants in the room in regards to this movie. First: For a decidedly queer movie from a queer filmmaker, there are surprisingly few queer people in front of the camera. As in none. Second: The plot twist that drives the second half of the movie, in which Julianne Moore's character, Jules, has an affair with Paul, Mark Ruffalo's character, is a cliché, and an obnoxious one at that. The movie actually does deal with both of these issues, but it's debatable whether it deals with them successfully.

Taking them one at a time:

While I don't demand that gay characters be played by gay actors, its galling to see an entirely straight cast playing gay characters in an era when Newsweek magazine is decrying the "fact" that gay actors can't play straight characters (and why doesn't this impediment flow the other way? Hmm?). The timing of the movie is unfortunate in this, and it's compounded by the fact that Cholodenko is herself a lesbian and would presumably have no blinders on when it came to straightwashing the movie. It's obvious that she's aware of the problem because she comments on it directly in the text of the movie: When quizzed by their son about why they prefer gay male porn, Jules explains that in lesbian porn, the actresses are all played by straight women. "It's so inauthentic," she adds. This is probably the funniest line in the movie, given the casting, but it's also kind of a bitter pill. On the other hand, the actors Cholodenko does have are so good that it suggests that there were no better choices available.

The second issue is more vexing, given the underlying patriarchal meme that all a lesbian needs to turn straight is a good fucking from the right man. Fortunately, this is demolished by the movie--Jules repudiates the idea that she is somehow straight and she repudiates Paul in the end, too--but should it have been raised in the first place? I don't know. In the context of the movie, it does rise organically from this particular story and these particular characters. Jules is demonstrably having a mid-life crisis even before Paul shows up, and such people often do stupid things. This is compounded by the fact that some lesbian women actually DO occasionally have sex with men, even once they're in touch with being lesbian, and this is NOT indicative of some latent heterosexuality (or even bisexuality), so the movie could claim some level of verisimilitude if it wanted. I just wonder if it couldn't have explored Jules's crisis in some other way. It might not have, given the film's plot for Paul: he wants a family and he wants Jules and Nic's family. This comes to a head when Nic rages at him that it's HER family and he can bloody well go out and get his own. It's a terrific moment, and it wouldn't be possible without Jules's dalliance with him.

In any event, it's a lot to think about. Fortunately, the movie grounds all of this in a very closely observed depiction of Nic and Jules's marriage, the details of which suggest that the movie as it actually plays probably could NOT have been made by a straight filmmaker. The way Jules and Nic behave with each other betrays too much knowledge of lesbian culture, from the therapy-speak they sometimes use to the details of their sex life together. The second funniest moment in the film comes when Nic pulls a big comforter over herself while Jules is goinq down on her: "I'm cold," she says. "I'm suffocating!" Jules replies. The sexual relationship throughout the movie has a hint of bed death, which happens to gay couples just like it happens to straights. Oh, and there's the vague disappointment visible when they realize that their children are totally hetero. Mostly, though, it's a celebration of marriage, and a timely one at that. It suggests that Jules and Nic's marriage is exactly like anyone else's marriage, which is to say that it's like no one else's marriage. Because no two marriages are alike.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Burn, Baby, Burn

One of the things that sucks about being a pop culture junkie is that, over time, it sets up an echo chamber that becomes inescapable. EVERYTHING starts to remind you of something else. Genuinely surprising books or movies or comics become rarer and rarer. A case in point is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Shortly after I wrote about it in the spring, it occurred to me that it was a variant on Holmes and Watson, with Lisabeth Salander as Holmes, near-psychic leaps of intuition included. I had this firmly in mind when I sat down to watch that film's first sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009, directed by Daniel Alfredson), which strikes me as one of the mid-period Rathbone and Bruce Holmes films--The Spider Woman, perhaps. (Yeah. That fits.) Of course the analogy breaks down on inspection. Lisabeth is less like Holmes in this movie, and Blomqvist is cast in the role of the lead detective this time. For the most part, it's more conventional than its predecessor, both cinematically and in its plot construction, and it's probably not as good, but it does illuminate some of the choices that film made.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably own up to the fact that I haven't read the books and don't intend to until I've seen all of the movies (if then).

One persistent conversation I've had about the first film concerns the rape scene. More than one of my correspondents thought it was gratuitous (Tenebrous Kate over at the Tenebrous Empire suggested that though it was a necessary scene, the filmmakers chose too many shots in which Noomi Rapace seems to be "posing" too much). On the evidence of that film only, an argument can be made. Little did I realize that that scene would become central to the sequel. Nor is that the only trauma from the first film that becomes central here.

The plot of The Girl Who Played With Fire finds Lisabeth framed for multiple murders. Blomqvist, ever the knight errant, is convinced of her innocence and sets out to prove it. There's a lot of other plot about sex trafficking and Cold War defectors, too, but these serve the main plot. The plot of this movie is a little bit more interesting than its predecessor from a psychological point of view; I hope it doesn't give too much away to say that this ultimately turns into a more sanguinary version one of those Bergman movies about families tearing each other apart. It maneuvers itself into a memorable final sequence that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie. (I approve!). But none of this matters.

As with the first film, the fun in watching the movie is in watching the characters. Blomqvist, again played by Michael Nyqvist, remains the second fiddle, in spite of a lot more screen time than Lisabeth, again definitively played by Rapace. The movie manages the neat trick of putting her in the crucible to see what makes her tick, not Blomqvist, in spite of the fact that she's often the Maguffin. The movie is a tour of her dark places. She herself is the central mystery, and the movie runs the risk of explaining her away. Fortunately, it stops just short.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Opening Shots #2: The Conversation

My admiration for the last shot of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 paranoia classic, The Conversation, knows no bounds. It's more brilliant than the entirety of many other films (including some of the director's own films). Re-watching the film last week, I noticed that the opening shot (and sequence) is kind of brilliant, too, given that it's THE central event of the film. Like the last shot, it's filmed from the point of view of surveillance operatives. The event in this shot, the taping of a clandestine conversation between Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams, is the film's primary obsession. It seems so banal, too: a street fair in which some garbled communications occasionally flare on the soundtrack. But it has a delicious creepiness to it, too, and it echoes through the rest of the movie.

Oh, and the movie? It's my favorite of Coppola's movies, bar none. You can have your Godfathers and your Apocalypses. I'll take this modest character study. A better depiction of alienation I have never seen on film. It might be my favorite movie of the 1970s. Here's to you, Harry Caul.

DIY Cinema

My posting has dropped off the cliff this month, but I have an excuse. I've been a screener for a film festival this summer and the past few weeks were crunch time (plus, I went to Dragon•Con last week, but that's another matter). I can't tell you which festival. I can't even tell you about the movies I saw. I can tell you about the experience, though.

For the most part, I saw short films. There were a scattering of features, but most of those were sent in on DVD and, since I don't actually live in the city where this particular film festival takes place, I missed out on those. The festival also used online screeners for their entries, presumably because wrangling a bunch of people into one place to watch a DVD is a bit like herding cats. The quality of the entries was all over the place, especially given that the preponderance of entries were student films. Here are some general observations:

  1. Digital filmmaking rules the day. I don't believe I saw a single film shot on actual film. The quality of digital, like the films themselves, is all over the place. A goodly number of films looked like they were shot on consumer model cameras. A fair number of them looked to be shot on seriously high-end cameras. Most of the ones that were shot on high-end cameras were from outside the US and were presumably funded by government film institutes and whatnot. I won't say that the quality of the image didn't have an effect on my opinion--it did--but creative filmmaking works regardless.

  2. The major theme of the movies I saw was "parents recovering from the death of a child." It got to the point where I wanted to throw up my hands and shout "Again? Really?" Not all of them were like this, nor even a majority, but there were enough to be annoying.

  3. Animation is alive and well. Several animated shorts were included in the submissions. While the 3-d computer animation tended to be really stiff in these films, other forms of computer assisted animation--one film looked to have been made in Flash, for instance--make creative use of their limitations. One film was a small-scale knock-off of Miyazaki, and not a bad one, either.

  4. Documentaries and film noir produced the best films among the entries. While not all of the films from these sectors were good, they hit on a higher percentage than other kinds of films.

  5. Conversely, comedies were the most trying sector. Comedy is hard.

  6. Feature films are hard to make. Of the features I saw, only one didn't seem like it was padded to make length. The others tended to meander with footage that didn't have much to do with the thrust of the film. An excess of establishing shots was a major problem with almost all of these films. I don't think many of them were well-thought out at the script stage. Mind you, there are plenty of films in the multiplexes that aren't well-thought out at the script stage, either, but they generally don't make the same mistakes as DIY features.

  7. Only one queer-themed movie among the entries. Only one Western. Not the same movie, by the way. Only a small handful of truly experimental films (and these were generally not that good). A smattering of horror films, too, and a couple of these were very good indeed (though I'm sure that some varieties of horror fans would deny them the name "horror," given that there was no actual blood in them). The two horror films I really liked were both from Scandinavia. Go figure.

  8. I tended to be really nice with my comments and ratings. I think I only rated one film below the middle rating. I think I still wound up with a bell curve and the best films still matriculated to the top, but I was told that the filmmakers themselves would receive my comments and I really didn't want to be a bitch about it to filmmakers who are doing it for love rather than money. I mean, each of these films represents some filmmaker's dreams, and who am I to stomp on that, eh? It's kind of a tightrope. I don't know that I have it in me to adapt Flannery O'Connor's dictum that the universities aren't suppressing enough young writers toward young filmmakers. Can you do this job without going for the jugular? I don't know. Only one film got a rise out of me, mainly for pointless sexism. The rest were trying really hard, and you could see that even in the films that didn't have many resources or, really, any talent behind them.

In any event, this was a great experience, and I hope to do it again next year. All told, I think I watched about eighty films. It was fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a transgender actress who is on my list of Facebook friends. She wanted to know if I would review her film. I said, sure, but I warned her that I have serious issues with most TG-themed movies. She sent it to me anyway (perhaps foolishly) and it arrived in the middle of my festival work. The name of the movie is Lexie Cannes (2009, directed by Tom Bertling), which is a pretty bad pun. The film follows a deaf transgender photographer who is being stalked by two men--one harmless, the other less so--and who is having issues with her girlfriend. Oddly enough, it looked a LOT like some of the festival films I've been watching: filmed on lower-end digital from the looks of it, it compensates for less than high-end equipment by including in-movie video footage from the point of view of the camera of one of the stalkers. This is a familiar technique to anyone who has seen, say, The Blair Witch Project. It's more or less silent (appropriate given the main character's disability, so it makes an asset out of a limitation), and has lots of extraneous footage (establishing shots out the wazoo toward the beginning).

I've said this before: when you're dealing with movies from this sector, you make allowances. In spite of the obvious limitations, the filmmakers make good use of their resources and Portland, Oregon locations. There's even a fair competence when it comes to suspense filmmaking. It's well-edited. I'm a little bit uneasy about the exploitation elements of the film. In the conversation I had with Courtney O'Donnel, the film's lead, she mentioned both the pressure for such elements from the film's backers and a desire to make a film that gives a positive depiction of its transgender heroine. It's a bit of a knife's edge the filmmakers are trying to negotiate. It's a conditional success with this. The film is set in a world mostly populated with sex workers even though its lead character is not one, so the exploitation elements tend to sexualize the movie (and, by inference, its lead character). But then the movie bends over backwards to present Lexie as a quasi social worker, who takes battered women to a women's shelter and who follows a man she suspects of being a serious creep to get the goods for the police. This last part is the most interesting storyline in the film, and I wish it had occupied more of the movie, but that's the fan of horror movies in me talking. The refusal to make Lexie a victim is laudable, even if they take it to a kind of extreme.

The movie does have a big structural problem, though. It contains, basically, three stories, but fails to integrate them. It's episodic, almost a picaresque. This is not an uncommon problem for super-low budget films. Could it have managed a feature length with any of these stories? Probably. Certainly, the central episode with the second stalker could have been greatly expanded. It probably should have been, but there may be a budgetary limitation at work here. Or the film might have been able to integrate them with some chronological reshuffling or judicious cross-cutting. Be that as it may, the whole isn't bad, but it's also kind of a curio.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

On Vacation

I haven't died. I've been finishing up some other real-world projects. I'm going on vacation this week, too. I'll be back to my regular posting schedule next week.

Meanwhile, here's a trailer for Zhang Yimou's remake of Blood Simple: