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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Thoughts On Nightmare Alley

So I didn't have to make a pilgrimage to Noir City to see Nightmare Alley on the big screen after all (which I thought was going to be the case when I wrote about the movie in January). A mere eleven months after my last viewing, my local art house programmed it as part of their fall film noir series. I couldn't be happier. Nightmare Alley was an "A" picture that demands to be seen big. There's usually a discussion before and after these film series showings which greatly enrich the experience and get me thinking about the movies in new ways. Here are a few of my thoughts from this showing:

  1. For some reason, the religiosity of the movie never registered for me before. I think this is a because religion is shown to be just another con early in the film in the aftermath of the circus being rousted by the cops. The religious element that gets taken seriously late in the film is no good for anyone, least of all our hero, Stanton Carlisle. When he starts acting like he's a preacher rather than a con artist, that's when the fall comes. Also, I never really thought of the name "Lilith Ritter" in a religious context before, but she precipitates The Fall. It's probably a stretch to call Carlisle another Adam, a la the Frankenstein monster, though.

  2. I did not know that William Lindsay Gresham, author of the novel, had a wife who left him for C. S. Lewis. It makes me wonder a bit about whether Stanton Carlisle is meant as a kind of stand in for Lewis. Given Lewis's dubious conversion to Christianity after professing atheism early in his life, I can't help but see Carlisle as the same brand of hypocrite--at least in Gresham's mind. (edit: this speculation turns out to be groundless, per my friend Lee Price. See the comments).

  3. Nightmare Alley is a conflation of a bunch of different film noir idioms. It's specifically at the intersection of the psychiatric noir, the epistemological noir, and the alcoholic noir. This intersection makes it a perfect film for film series where slots are limited, because it can sub for, say, The Lost Weekend or Spellbound.

  4. Stanton Carlisle doesn't appear to like women very much. Oh, he uses them just as he uses everyone else in the movie, but there doesn't seem to be any sexual attraction to them. Both Edmund Goulding, the director, and Tyrone Power were bisexual, and I spent part of this viewing trying to spot whether or not Nightmare Alley is coded queer. I can't decide if it is or not, apart from Carlisle's curious indifference to women. He's a bit touchy feely with men, but not in any kind of sexual way. It's a curiously asexual movie, actually, a rare film noir not motivated by lust.

  5. The discussion after the film touched briefly on film restoration, so I thought I'd throw out a plug for the Film Noir Foundation, which restores film noir. They were the beneficiaries of this year's Film Preservation Blogathon, and you can still donate to the cause. Here's the link:

Anyway, this remains a corker: Dark, perverse, sordid, and nasty. Just the way I like it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brain Drain

"Moderation is a fatal thing" -- Oscar Wilde

So the news came down today that Ken Russell had passed away. I don't think I've ever written about any of Ken Russell's films, though those films had a formative effect on the younger me. I remember staying up way too late to catch Altered States on HBO when I was 14 and I saw Tommy at a midnight movie a year later and I remember wondering what the hell I was watching on both occasions. Ditto with Crimes of Passion and Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm, all films that appealed to my sensibilities when you look at what they're about on paper, but which doggedly refused to conform to my expectations. And no reason why they should. They're Russell's films, not mine, and they're a challenge. In any event, in honor of Russell's passing, I decided to sit down with one of his movies. I picked Billion Dollar Brain (1967) because its streaming on Netflix right now and because I haven't seen it before and because it has Françoise Dorléac's final screen appearance. It turns out not to be typical of Ken Russell, though, at least not at first glance.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cuckoo Clocks

“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
― Albert Camus

Orson Welles famously didn't much like The Stranger (1946). No reason why he should, really, given that it was a test to see if he could be a tractable commercial filmmaker. Welles had a reputation as a profligate genius whose movies didn't make money. "Showmanship in place of genius," RKO vowed after showing Welles to the door a few years earlier. The Stranger, made for the independent International Pictures and released by RKO was delivered on time and on budget and in spite of this, the producers still saw fit to meddle with it, removing 20-30 minutes of now-lost footage. It was Welles's only box office hit, too, which must have stuck in his craw. This is why it's always dangerous to take an artist's word for the worth of his work. The Stranger is one of Welles's most entertaining films. It's also one of his darkest.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving in my house is kind of a big event. Don't get me wrong: I understand the sore spot Thanksgiving represents to Native Americans and I'm under no illusions about to whom most Americans give thanks. I'm uneasy with both of those elements of the holiday. Still, Thanksgiving is my second favorite holiday on the calendar after Halloween because it's an opportunity to gather with friends and cook and eat a whole bunch of food. We usually watch a movie afterward in my house. This year, I went a little bit overboard with the food. I did the turkey, which for me is a week-long production involving brine, wine, and a food injector. This year, I took advantage of the rosemary bush growing in my sun room and stuck a couple of rosemary branches into the cavity with the stuffing. The end result was terrific. The pumpkin I got at the farmer's market a couple of weeks ago made two pies and a loaf of pumpkin bread. I've never made pumpkin pie before, so the resulting pies were a huge crapshoot. Fortunately, they came up sevens. They were awesome. There were roasted root veggies, garlic mashers, cranberry stuffing, plus the various dishes brought to the table by my guests. A splendid time was had by all.

This year's movie was Anne of the Thousand Days (1969, directed by Charles Jarrott), a film I remember watching with my mother when I was a teenager. We used to watch a lot of these kinds of historical friezes, and I'm not sure if my fond memories of these kinds of films are due to the quality of the films or the experience of watching them with mom. On the evidence, I suspect the latter, because it's not nearly as good a film as I remembered. Anyone who read my review of Becket a few years ago may recall that I have a problem with these kinds of church and state showdowns, because you're choosing between the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and the absolute power of a secular despot, both equally illegitimate if we start from the proposition that authority to govern derives from the consent of the governed. This film compounds the issue by suggesting that Henry VIII of England put aside his wife, Catherine of Aragon, solely because he wanted to fuck Anne Boleyn and damn the consequences. Those crazy Tudors, eh?

Anne Boleyn has the title role of the movie, and I suppose the film is as much hers as it is Henry's. This makes the movie a bit more interesting than Becket or A Man For All Seasons, because it sidesteps the whole Church/State conflict and focuses, instead, on the role of women in Tudor England, and their means of ascending to power (and falling from it). Anne, for her part, has no desire to be a King's mistress and mother bastards for him. She's seen how that plays out with her sister, who was herself one of Henry's discarded mistresses. She'd much rather marry Harry Percy, who she actually loves. Blocked from doing so, she games the system with Henry and won't give it up until she's a queen. And then the movie does an about face, much to its detriment, by making Anne actually fall in love with King Henry and suffer the pain of losing him to indifference once he tires of her. This might have worked on the stage--this film is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson--but it's bad cinema.

Hell, most of the movie is bad cinema. Oh, the actors are good, though Richard Burton's Henry is entirely outshined by Genevieve Bujold's Anne and Irene Pappas's Catherine, and the supporting cast is mostly nondescript. For that matter, the palace intrigue is fun for a while and the costumes are gorgeous. But as cinema, this is dead on the screen. Embalmed, no less. It might as well be a filmed play. What should be glittering and ornate seems drab and utilitarian. And for a film that's chiefly concerned with sex, it's surprisingly sexless.

Bleh. In retrospect, I wish we had gone with the Kurosawa film, instead.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why This is Hell, Nor Am I Out of It

"Those repressed Okies, they go for that twisted, perverted stuff"
--Ed Wood (1994)

According to Wikipedia, Leave Her to Heaven (1945, directed by John M. Stahl) was 20th Century Fox's biggest hit of the 1940s. Bigger than Zorro, bigger than Santa Claus and Natalie Wood, bigger than everything. This, frankly, amazes me. All through last night's showing of the movie, all I could hear in my head was the line from Ed Wood that I've quoted at the head of this post. This is twisted, perverted stuff.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Snakes and Ladders

I couldn't tell you when the rest of the world fell in love with Maggie Cheung, but I suspect it happened when she started making movies for Wong Kar-Wai. There's something to be said for that, because Wong and Maggie Cheung are one of the great cinematic collaborations of the last quarter century. I'm not kidding about the "love" part when it comes to the world at large, either. French director Olivier Assayas fell so hard that he designed a movie specifically to court the actress, who he subsequently married. The marriage didn't work, and I probably could have told you that it wouldn't given that Assayas's image of Maggie Cheung involved a latex cat suit, but who knows what actually went on with that. Love can be funny sometimes.

As I say, I couldn't say when the rest of the world fell for Maggie Cheung, but I know exactly when I fell for her. It was a few minutes into Tsui Hark's Green Snake in 1993 (which I actually saw about two years after its release, but details). It was the snake dance scene at the beginning of the movie:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Netflix Roulette: The Hazing

It's been a while since I spun the Netflix roulette wheel. I'd forgotten what a crapshoot it is. The first spin gave me a Masters of Horror episode that I've already written about. "No repeats" is in the rules, so another spin gave me The Hazing, a Tiffany Shepsis vehicle from 2004, directed by one Rolfe Kanefsky. The version on Netflix looks like crap. It looks like it was sourced from VHS and Netflix's transfer has more artifacts than I usually find acceptable. Great whacks of the movie look like they're projected on a tile wall, if you know what I mean. This isn't the movie's fault, but it doesn't speak well of either its distributor or Netflix that this movie looks this bad, because 2004 isn't that long ago. This ISN'T a movie that was ever on VHS, it's just one that was mastered by a careless film company.

The movie itself? It's kind of a fun throwback.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Poor Superman

The folks over at People magazine have completely lost their minds. Not that I follow People, mind you, but I can't help but absorb certain things from being in the culture. Their annual "Sexiest Man Alive," for instance, is one of those inescapable cultural events that you have to actively hide yourself away from. This year's award goes to Bradley Cooper. I've liked Cooper in the past, mainly in movies where he's suffering some horrible horror movie death or torture, a la The Midnight Meat Train, but I generally enjoy those movies because he has one of those leading man faces I like seeing get punched. But "The Sexiest Man Alive?" Um, haven't you guys seen this guy?

Hubba hubba, right? C'mon. I know you've seen him. He was on the cover of the magazine back in May. Well, to each her own, I guess.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Womathology Update

As I mentioned back in July, I'm contributing to a huge comics anthology by women creators. The project brings together comics creators of all experience levels, including industry veterans like Gail Simone, Devin Grayson, Amanda Conner, Ann Nocenti, Ming Doyle, Stephanie Hans, and Colleen Doran, side by side with relative nobodies like me. There are something like three hundred creators all told. I wanted to bring this up because the book can be pre-ordered from Amazon (link below) and should be out in a month or two. I've also linked to the Womathology sketchbook, which is available now. This is a project for charity, so buy a couple and give them as gifts. You'll be doing good work in the bargain. Also, even though I've included a link to Amazon, please, please only use Amazon as a last resort. Try to get it from your local comics shop if at all possible, because if you buy it from your local comics shop, it will send them a message that there's a demand for comics by women. This is something that's not always apparent in the comics trenches, and one of the primary missions of the Womanthology is to expand the playing field.

If you'd like to get a feel for what's in the book, a huge preview has been posted over on the Womanthology website. My own story is only a page long, but I had fun drawing it and I'm honored to have it included.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bitch's Brew

The opening shot of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) has a streetwalker cross the screen while walking a dog. It's one of those visual puns that Lang specialized in, because this movie is based on a French pulp novel titled La chienne, or, The Bitch. The shot, as it continues, is a kind of summary of the movie itself, as it turns its gaze from the lower-class "bitch" to a trained monkey and then to a high society kept woman. As opening shots go, it's a doozie. And then the story begins...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Small Assassin

The plot of Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright) makes me kind of roll my eyes. It's about an ex-secret agent who is raising his daughter off the grid somewhere in a barely sub-arctic wilderness so that she'll be tough enough to deal with the enemies the agency will inevitably send for them. This set-up is basically La Femme Nikita or Leon with a new coat of paint. The older assassin preparing a younger, female assassin is a relatively recent cliche, but it's a cliche none the less. But that's okay, I guess. It was Sam Goldwyn who once vowed that all his studio needed was a bunch of brand new cliches.

Ebb Tide

As I was sitting in the theater watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie eight years ago, I remember wondering if lawyers were going to be having words, because great whacks of that movie reminded me of Tim Powers's novel, On Stranger Tides, a book for which I have pleasant memories. Apparently, someone at Disney had the same idea, because they sewed up the rights to the novel early on, and after two artistically disastrous but financially lucrative sequels, they've dusted it off and gone back to the fountain, as it were. The newest film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, directed by Rob Marshall) places Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Mr. Gibbs into a story that more closely follows Powers's book, though only in so much as it doesn't impinge on the hallmarks of the series.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It Can't Be Love, For There Is No True Love

So True Classics is hosting a debate this month concerning Citizen Kane:

Here’s your chance to either defend Kane’s position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or to knock it off its storied pedestal. At some point during the next month (until November 13th), put up a post on your blog either explaining why Kane deserves to be numero uno, or lay out your reasons why it is overrated. And if you are among those who feel that Kane is not the best movie of all time, tell us which film really IS, in your opinion, and defend your choice!

The entries will be judged by Carrie, Nikki, myself, and a couple of guest judges whom we haven’t determined yet. We’ll be looking at several factors, but first and foremost, we’re looking for enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining entries that will engage us–and your readers–in lively discussion. And we will award prizes to our top three favorites entries!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Out of Time

There's a shot near the beginning of Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) where Claire Trevor is sitting in the foreground and Marsha Hunt comes through a door in the background that has me completely mystified. I don't know how it was done, and it's a shot that most viewers won't even notice. It's a deep-focus shot, but it's a deep focus shot lit with a strong chiaroscuro. As I understand the way these kinds of shots were accomplished back in the days before diopters were available, this required a huge amount of light. But this shot is dark. Very dark. And I don't know how it was done. I especially don't know how it was done on the kind of budget for which this film was made. This was made by Edward Small Productions as "Reliance Pictures" and distributed by Eagle-Lion Films, which means that it was a Poverty Row movie. If it had a budget much higher than $10,000, I would be shocked, and I imagine that most of that probably went to Claire Trevor. So how did they do it? Hell if I know, but that's why John Alton is considered a giant. Giant? Hell, he was a sorcerer, conjuring dark dreams out nothing but shadows and fog! He worked on micro-budget quickies and, to paraphrase the host of the showing of Raw Deal I attended this week, he made them look like Citizen Kane. Even his day for night shots look good, and day for night shots NEVER look good. But these are the ordinary bread and butter shots. He saves the fireworks for the end, when he projects the image of Claire Trevor into a clockface as time runs out for her and her no-account beau. And then he stages a gunbattle in the San Francisco fog that's all abstract shadows. He would recreate this effect in The Big Combo a few years later, but here, it functions as a kind of existential dreamscape. The movie itself follows a kind of dream logic that seems unique to film noir.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

They Might Be Giants

I really wonder what the hell is going on in Norway right now. I mean, in the last couple of years, we've had Dead Snow, Norwegian Ninja, and now Trollhunter (2010, directed by André Øvredal). All three of these movies work perfectly well as genre films, and you can watch them as such and have a grand old time. But, man, these films are all merciless put-ons, and I can totally forgive anyone who sees them as being entirely too goofy to take seriously. Is this what Norwegian cinema is generally like? Because if it is, I think Norwegians might be fun people to party with. Certainly, these films aren't as dour as the movies that come from their neighbors in Sweden (or, perhaps, what the rest of the world gets from Sweden), though the Finns are apparently in on the joke given the nature of Rare Exports last year.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Cat's in the Bag and the Bag's In the River

For the second year in a row, I attended a big Halloween movie party held by a dear friend of mine. She likes to dig deep into the oddball with the aim of showing her guests stuff they'd NEVER find of their own accord, and all of the stuff at the end of my challenge this year came from her collection (I was staying with her for six days; I was a captive audience). Perhaps the most oddball thing on the menu this year was Felidae (1994, directed by Michael Schaack), an animated horror movie from Germany that makes all kinds of bank from its idiom. It looks like a lost Don Bluth movie from the 1980s--All Cats Go to Heaven, perhaps--but that resemblance is a trap. The filmmakers are ruthless when it comes to springing that trap.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ex Cathedra

My first impresion of Terrence Malick's much lauded The Tree of Life (2011)? Jessica Chastain has a rawboned Northern European face that seems specifically sculpted for photography, though not in the manner of a model so much as in the manner of a landscape. Her face reminds me of those austere, careworn faces one sees in Bergman movies. She's Malick's version of Liv Ullmann or Bibi Anderssen. She's an actress whose face seems to reflect the light and cares of the world when you point a camera at her.

Design for Dying

It's never a good thing when you veer off into a conversation about some aesthetic point about a movie while you're in the middle of watching it. After the film? Fine. That's part and parcel of processing what you've seen. But if you start discussing the niceties of design or cinematography while you're in the middle of it? That means that the movie has probably let some element intrude on the experience and has shocked you out of the flow. This happened to my companion and I as we watched Fear(s) of the Dark (2007, various directors). At some point, we began talking about design and about how portions of the movie featured animation without the cartoon outline around its shapes and whatnot. In other words, the movie had lost us.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Come and Get It

About a half hour into The Pack (2010, directed by Franck Richard), my viewing companion mentioned in passing that she was getting a torture porn vibe from the movie. We were expecting a monster movie of some variety, so this was not a good turn of events. Given our druthers, we prefer monsters to torture. We got monsters eventually, but the torture vibe never quite went away. Maybe it's because of the production design of the movie, which is an Nth generation descendant of the grotty interior of the Sawyer homestead in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including, as it so happens, sliding metal doors that the main villain makes a point of sliding abruptly closed. You can't miss the reference.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Things Fall Apart

I have to admit that I like the idea of setting the zombie apocalypse in Africa. Africa, after all, is where the worst of the AIDS plague has hit, and it has so few reliable institutions that the spread of the zombie would be rapid and terrifying. So it stands to reason that I should like The Dead (2010, directed by Howard J. and Jonathan Ford), which postulates just such an apocalypse. And for a while, I was digging it. The first forty minutes of the movie are some of the finest examples of the zombie movie I've seen in a while. It starts at a dead run, and takes off like a shot. But as the movie slowed down a bit toward the end, I started to become a little bit uncomfortable with it. Without the frenetic terror of its initial scenes, the movie let me think a bit too much about the meaning of the images on screen. I didn't like my conclusions.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Block Party

As fun horror movies go, you could do worse than Attack the Block (2011, directed by Joe Cornish), in which a gang of teenagers defend their apartment block from invading monsters from outer space. It's a comedy, but one that knows the value of throwing its characters into the meat grinder. It's surprisingly socially aware. And it has good monsters. This last part is what sold it to the group with whom I watched it, because all of us are kind of down on the state of contemporary monsters. The monsters are surprisingly simple, too: black fur outlines with glowing teeth. It's like they suck up the light in a room until they smile at you, and then they're genuinely scary.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Women and Men

Lucky McKee's new film, The Woman (2011) finds the director in fine form after years of marginal projects and aborted films. It re-unites the director with writer Jack Ketchum after a troubled stint directing an adaptation of Ketchum's Red (which he wasn't allowed to complete) and after McKee produced another adaptation of Ketchum's The Offspring. That last project provides a jumping off point for this film, which is a sequel of sorts. I haven't seen The Offspring, so I can't comment on it, but I've read both the book on which it's based and Off Season, the book that precedes it. So this is a sequel to movie that's a sequel to a book that hasn't been filmed. Fortunately, none of that really matters. All that you need to know going into this film is that the title character is a feral woman from a family of cannibals. At the beginning of the movie, she's shown tending to a stab wound suffered in the previous film, but that doesn't really figure into things, so it's best to ignore it.

One of Us! One of Us!

One of the pleasures of October is the chance to discover horror movies that have, for one reason or another, slipped through the cracks. These are sometimes movies that through no fault of their own have been murdered by their distributors. These are sometimes pleasant surprises. This year's surprise is Blood Moon (2001, directed by Thom Fitzgerald, aka: Wolf Girl), a film originally made for Canadian television and given its frankly awful title by its American distributor. This has been made to look like a cheesy werewolf movie. It turns out to be a fairly sensitive examination of what it means to be a freak, of what it means to be "normal," and what it means to change during adolescence. This is closer in spirit to Tod Browning than it is to Paul Naschy, and closer in spirit to John Cameron Mitchell than it is to either of them.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Devil, You Say!

Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1968) is a capstone of sorts to his career at Hammer. He would go on to make a couple of other films for the studio, culminating in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, but it's this film that pretty much sums up everything that Fisher accomplished at Hammer. For that matter, it's a summary of the studio's values in a year when the horror genre itself was turning those values upside down. It's no wonder the movie was a failure at the time. It's painfully un-hip. Downright square, even. But that's not necessarily a detriment to the movie itself.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Island Holiday

Peter Cushing had a hard time when doing the islands. In Shock Waves, he had to deal with zombie Nazis while hiding on a remote island, but that was perhaps not as dire a vacation as dealing with the bone-sucking Silicates on the Island of Terror (1966, directed by Terence Fisher). The Silicates are a new life form spawned by a cancer research station whose experiments have gone awry, and they leave a trail of victims with bodies without bones. They look a little bit like the silicon-based Horta from Star Trek's "Devil in the Dark" with a tentacle attached at the front, a familial resemblance, perhaps.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Random David Cronenberg

It's no secret that I'm a raving fan of David Cronenberg. I used to name Cronenberg as my favorite director (though I don't actually have a favorite director these days). It was Cronenberg who basically demonstrated the usefulness of auteur theory to me, and he was a director who simultaneously fed the adolescent sadist I used to be and the burgeoning film intellectual I turned into. Cronenberg films were formative experiences for me. So I'm always happy to see him show up in other people's movies. Whenever I spot him in films like Into the Night and Extreme Measures, I always perk up. My favorite of his appearances is as the assassin at the end of Gus Van Sant's To Die For, though I'll also admit that he's THE reason to see Clive Barker's Night Breed. I'm not sure how I missed Blood and Donuts (1995, directed by Holly Dale) all these years, but when I sat down to watch the film on Netflix Instant this week, I sat bolt upright when Cronenberg's name showed up in the credits. He plays a crime boss in this movie, and he's good at it. He always has a soft-spoken menace when he gets longer roles.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Late Night Picture Show

My first impression of Popcorn (1991, directed by Mark Harrier) is that I liked this movie better when it was titled The Phantom of the Paradise. But that isn't quite right. It doesn't have that film's cruelty (or misogyny, for that matter). Another point of comparison is Joe Dante's Matinee, what with the deadpan send-up of old school creature features, but that doesn't seem quite right either. It doesn't have that film's innate sweetness. Unfortunately, comparing Popcorn to other, frankly better, movies may be kind of inevitable given both its choice of subject and the way it's filmed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monsters and Misfits

When I was seven, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, directed by Roy William Neill) was, like, the ne plus ultra of monster movies, only to be topped by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. The story and the performances didn't matter. All that mattered was the monster mayhem and when they teamed up, there was more mayhem for the buck. Children are undiscriminating viewers, and if I have any love for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or the other films at the ragged end of the great cycle of Universal horrors, it's because I loved them when I was a child. I wish I could see it through those eyes again. But I can't.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Roughing It

I was talking to a friend of mine last night about the appeal of gore and violence to the exclusion of all else among some horror fans. Throw enough Christians to the lions and some horror fans are satisfied. I was there once. I was a first class adolescent sadist, and I'll admit that freely, but I grew out of it eventually. These days, I like subtext. I like having at least some kind of reflection of the human condition. Or, failing that, at least, something approaching artfulness (which can't help but reflect the filmmakers' own humanity). It is possible to film gore and violence artfully, or to use it as part of a larger design with a point. It's even possible to deploy it for its own sake and STILL connect it to some basic shared humanity among the audience. Maybe I expect too much, though.

I couldn't help but think about this as I was watching Wilderness (2006, directed by M. J. Bassett), because its primary appeal to a horror audience is going to come from its gore sequences, but also because this is a movie that understands what I'm talking about when I make more demands of art than just pointing the camera at the bloody thing in motion. There are plenty of gore scenes in this movie and they are brutally executed, if you'll pardon the pun. Seriously, this sucker is red meat city. In spite of this, I don't think this is necessarily a sadistic movie. It doesn't groove on the violence, or, if it does, it doesn't only groove on the violence. It's not meaningless.

Exquisite Corpses

I rediscover Mario Bava every few years. The entire time I was watching Bava's Sei Donne Per L'Assassino, aka Blood and Black Lace (1964), all I could think was: "Wow. Dario Argento has been trying to make this film for decades." This was a huge gap in my horror knowledge. I've seen pieces of the film before, usually on bad prints badly cropped, but this is the first time I've ever seen the whole movie start to finish. I can't believe what I've been missing. I've had this experience before, I should mention, when I first saw a good, uncut print of Bava's The Whip and the Body.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Gloom from the Tomb

When it comes to Poe on film, you might as well give up on comparing the films to the stories. Filmmakers hardly ever pay any heed to what Edgar Allan Poe actually wrote. The movies are jumping off points for improvisation. Certainly, that's how Roger Corman went about it, and Corman is an inevitable yardstick for films, too, I guess. So color me surprised to discover that The Tomb (2009, directed by Michael Staininger) finds a way to do it both ways: it's veers wildly off model only to discover that what's in Poe's story is pretty durable. It's a neat trick. The movie has problems, though, and not the least of them is the fact that Corman's version of the same story, The Tomb of Ligeia, is one of the best of his Poe films. I think Corman might have admired how the filmmakers have gone about this, though. They've gone to eastern Europe (and St. Louis, which is like eastern Europe for filming purposes: cheap and evocative), they've hired a well-known science fiction and fantasy writer in John Shirley to write the screenplay, and they've populated the cast with familiar actors perhaps on the downward spiral.

Last Train to Nowhere

You know those genteel old English gothic horror movies? The ones from Hammer and its imitators? Those aren't the face of British horror anymore. British horror in the 21st Century has been brutal, gritty, and modern. It's shot through with the grit of British noir and has a sense of disillusion, a sense of things being wrong in the world distinctively its own. One of the new British horror directors is Christopher Smith, who is at home out in the woods or in the middle ages or in the London underground. Rural or urban, Smith sees the world through crap colored glasses. This all appears fully formed in his first feature, 2004's Creep, in which Franka Potente gets herself trapped in the subway system after hours only to find that she's not alone. There's another world under the city, and it's not the twee fantasy world of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, but the abattoir of Gary Sherman's Raw Meat.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pub Crawl

This represents an accidental failure on my part: My personal challenge for this October was to best last year's tally of films and first viewings. Last year, I posted 37 first viewings, representing my entire tally of films. I had one level of failure last year, in so far as I wanted to write about every film I saw, but I skipped out on writing about Stay, always intending to return to it and never quite getting around it. I'm behind on viewings this year, so I'll be lucky to make the minimums. And I went to a party last night where one of the central entertainments was a showing of Shaun of the Dead (2004, directed by Edgar Wright). I suppose I can take some solace in the fact that I've never actually written about Shaun of the Dead, and, for that matter, I could just not count it, but there's no sense in being stubborn. As I say, I'm behind this year.

I liked Shaun of the Dead a lot way back when it was in theaters (which seems like just yesterday, I should add). I never bothered to watch it again, so I'm not part of the film's cult, I suppose. I don't own it on DVD, either. I don't know that this should be construed as indifference. Life just moved on for me. Watching it again was almost like watching it fresh and, well, I still like it lots. It's a terrific send-up of the zombie movie--perhaps the best send-up of the zombie movie, which has become something of a genre unto itself since Shaun came out. It's a stickler for the rules of Romero's zombie films, so there are not rage-y running zombies in this movie and it even makes a point to mock the premise of 28 Days Later and it's zombies. It manages all of the critique of consumer culture Romero ever dreamed of for his movies. The line between average everyday living and being a zombie has never been blurred as much as in this film. Like Romero, it postulates that the living dead are attracted to places that were "important" to them once, and, this being British, that place isn't the mall, it's the pub. And that's just brilliant.

Playing by the rules of the genre are the key. This is the lesson Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright take from Young Frankenstein: make the film as if it was a serious entry in the genre you're parodying. If it can stand as bona fide zombie film, then the rest will come. To this end, the filmmakers have a fine eye for mimesis. It gets the world right before it starts finding the humor there. The fun part of this is the oblique way the film lets the audience piece all of this together from elements in the background before it lets its characters know where they are. There's very much a sense of a world in chaos lurking in the background. It's interesting the way this film puts that genie back into the bottle with a variant of Romero's unfilmed Twilight of the Dead, in which the zombies become a commodity for the survivors.

Edgar Wright's directorial style is distinctive. No detail, no matter how quotidian is unworthy of style. The result is a kind of restless, hyperactive film, but this suits the genre, whether you're talking about a horror movie or a comedy. My favorite piece of pure WTF styling is Shaun's repeated encounters with his own distaff opposite number. There's a history between the two, but no hint of a relationship, nor even any real impact on the central narrative. It's just there for the gag. This is pure Godardian filmmaking, in which things are put on screen solely because the filmmakers feel like it. This can be self-indulgent, of course, and Wright isn't immune to that, but it can also be joyous, too. It's mostly joyous here. The film feeds off that joy.

Current tally: 19 films

First time viewings: 18

Around the Web:

Dr.AC over at Horror 101 is on a furious pace this year. He's blogging for charity, as am I, so pay him a visit and pledge to the cause.

Lee Price continues his own examination of The Golem over on 21 Essays.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Playing the Mind Guerrilla

How degenerate has the movie industry become that John Carpenter--John mother fucking Carpenter!--has to have the backing of b-movie actress Amber Heard to get a job directing a movie? Is this a reflection of how low Carpenter's own career has sunk or a reflection of the movies generally? Or both? I don't know. I DO know that I'm mad as hell that I never got to see his new film, The Ward (2010), in a theater. I mean, Carpenter's name alone would have guaranteed a decent release even a decade ago, but this film, like a LOT of independent films these days, is in the twilight zone between limited festival release and video on demand. It doesn't deserve it, either, because I think this would have played fine at the multiplex.