Monday, May 30, 2011

Secret Sharers

I tend to think of Star Trek: Nemesis (2002, directed by Stuart Baird) as the last of the Star Trek movies. Oh, I know there's the re-boot, but I'd prefer to ignore it, truth be told. As with Star Trek: Insurrection, I remember hating Nemesis on its original release. I thought at the time--and still do, actually--that it was trying a bit too hard to be The Wrath of Khan. In retrospect, it's not a bad sci-fi action film if that's all you're interested in. I'll get to that in a bit. What I DIDN'T remember, maybe because I wasn't as sensitive to such things at the time, was how appallingly sexist it is.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Netflix Roulette: The Funhouse (1981)

During the summer between my senior year of high school and my first year of college, I had a temporary gig assembling and disassembling a carnival. I got the job through my dad, who had a line on it through his connections on the military base where he worked. The carnival was set-up right outside the boundaries of the base--a shrewd location given the paucity of things for bored young servicemen to do in the vicinity. They raked in a ton of G.I. cash. I had an interesting view of it. I wasn't a carny, per se, but I got to move among them. The day workers they had working the joint were paid out of a trailer that doubled as an armored truck, and inside that trailer was an arsenal. There was also a drug concession, of course, and a fair amount of prostitution. There wasn't a freak show, but it was the sort of operation that would have HAD a freak show even five years earlier. It was pretty seedy, actually. After assembling and dismantling the various attractions at this carnival, I vowed that I would never, ever ride another carnival ride again. Ever. You know the cars at the end of the arms of The Octopus? They're held on by a single cotter pin. Or were at this particular carnival, anyway. The guns and the drugs made me uncomfortable, too. It's no wonder that Tod Browning set so many of his movies in a carnival. WhenI saw David Skal describe the horror genre as "Tod Browning's America" in The Monster Show, I realized that I had lived in that America for a week.

This was all in my head as I watched Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), a film that gets the ambiance of the carnival exactly right. This is something that I didn't know when I first saw the movie way back when it was first on cable. I hadn't worked the carnival yet. I remember disliking the grottiness of its setting, which turns out to have been a stupid opinion on my part. A horror movie is not obliged to polish off its rough edges to make its audience comfortable, after all, and if it knows what it's doing--and this one does--it can use that discomfort to its advantage. It's the same kind of trick that Hooper pulled in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the mood is everything.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Surcease of Sorrow

We trundled ourselves up to St. Louis on Sunday to attend the Vincentennial showing of The Raven and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In truth, this would not have been my choice (the Laura/Dragonwyck double tonight would be more to my liking), but it's what fit our schedule and, well, it's an event that we wanted to support. Plus, I had never seen any of the Corman Poe films on the big screen, and feel poorer for it.

The Raven came after the initial flurry of films when Corman was beginning to burn out on Poe. The director used the film as a kind of rearguard action to maintain his interest by taking the elements of the Poe films and turning them into a comedy. The story here wanders pretty far from the text of The Raven, but that's not surprising. There actually IS a raven in the movie, and they read the poem at the outset, so it's truer to Poe than, say, The Haunted Palace (which wasn't intended as a Poe film). Most of the virtues of the Poe films are on screen here, from Price's neurasthenic aesthete to Daniel Haller's eye-deceiving sets to Corman's penchant for weird light shows. It's fun watching the director navigate a film that cries out for elaborate special effects without spending any money on them. Corman's main special effect is the jump cut.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Vincentennial

Cinema St. Louis is holding a Vincentennial celebration this week to honor Vincent Price's hundredth birthday. They've got a fabulous schedule of films, including a Laura/Dragonwyck double feature and Price's hilarious Champagne for Caesar. I'm probably not going to have the opportunity to see the showings I really want to see (including showings tonight of The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia introduced by Roger Corman his ownself!). But I'll get over it. I live two and a half hours away from the festivities and I'm starting to weigh the price of gas with my need to see movies I already own in a festival setting. I'd like to support the whole thing, though, because these kinds of things are important to me. My partner and I may go see The Raven and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, even though there's nothing particularly special about those showings, unfortunately. In any case, if you happen to be in St. Louis this week, check it out.

My own favorites of Price's films are non-horror movies like the aforementioned Laura and the crazed His Kind of Woman, and I take some solace in the fact that they were Price's favorites, too. My favorites of his horror movies were Witchfinder General and Theater of Blood. Tonight's showings of The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia represent my favorites of his work with Corman, and since I can't be there to hear Roger speak, I'll have to content myself with reprinting my thoughts about The Tomb of Ligeia here in honor of the event. From 2006:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Heartstopper (2006)

I sometimes think that making horror movies is like growing cotton. If you grow your cotton in the same soil again and again and again, it leeches the nutrients from the ground and leaves it barren. I couldn't get this idea out of my mind while I was watching Heartstopper (2006, directed by Bob Keen), a film that springs from a long since depleted plot, watered by a poisoned well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion, May 2011 Edition

Some of my readers may know that I'm a graphic designer. I was asked to make a flyer and poster for our local GLBT Pride Festival's Atomic Dance Party. This is the result. It was enormously fun to make. This is a vector, created in Adobe Illustrated over various pencil sketches. I don't normally show my own work on this blog, but I'm pretty pleased with this, so here it is...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Method to the Madness

For something that provides an entire genre with plots, it seems odd that the scientific method features in so few actual science fiction movies. I mean, it's the backbone of the whodunnit: form a hypothesis, gather and examine data based on that hypothesis, state a conclusion. Detectives from Nick and Nora Charles to the cops of the 87th Precinct have all used this method in movies and books without number. Science fiction, on the other hand, usually has no use for actual science, which is a pity. You would think that it would be the scientific method's natural habitat, but you would be wrong. I can think of one film that gets it right: Robert Wise's 1971 thriller, The Andromeda Strain, which not only gets the process right, it gets the scientists more or less right, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


My initial impression of Toy Story 3 (2010, directed by Lee Unkrich) was that it was more melancholy and not as funny as the previous entries in the series. I formed that impression about halfway through the movie. The second half of the movie dropped the bottom out of my assumptions. It still wasn't as "funny" as the other movies, but it turned into a film suffused by such existential terror that it is perhaps more frightening than anything in any recent horror movies. Oh, it's still a comedy. Sure. But the category, "Pixar comedy," has become an expansive one, loaded with every other kind of emotion to which human beings are prone, whether it's the intense romantic longing of WALL-E or the sadness and loss of Up or the sensory delight of Ratatouille.

Their palette has darkened considerably in Toy Story 3.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Cinema of Delirium

My local art house's series of pre-Code movies came to its conclusion tonight with a showing of Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), a film released mere weeks before the production code put the clamps down on everything fun in movies. The Scarlet Empress is a kind of cinematic delirium, a film so in love with surfaces and textures that it is palpably tactile, a film so drunk on images that it overloads the screen with them. It's one of my very favorite movies. But before I get into that, I need to talk a little bit about the first part of the program. The showing began with the "Lullaby of Broadway" number from The Gold-Diggers of 1935, directed by Busby Berkley. Here's a pair of clips containing the number in question:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Zombies, Zombies, Zombies

This is the description Netflix offers for Zombies, Zombies, Zombies (2008, directed by Jason Murphy):

"When an unorthodox drug experiment conducted by a mad scientist transforms the residents of a small town into flesh-eating zombies, a motley crew of exotic dancers, pimps, hookers and johns are forced to take refuge inside a seedy strip club. Helmed by first-time filmmaker Jason Murphy, this zany, tongue-in-cheek horror-thriller stars FHM model Jessica Barton and Playboy Playmate Hollie Winnard."

Yeah. It's another one of those movies. No Jenna Jameson in this one, though, and a slightly higher-quality veneer of professionalism. I should probably own up right now to the fact that I don't have a lot of patience for these kinds of intentionally campy movies, and when this came up on the random movie generator, I was dreading the experience of watching it. I was tempted to bounce it and generate another movie, but that would be cheating. The things I do in the name of blogging.

Queer Film Blogathon

Caroline over at Garbo Laughs is running a Queer Film Blogathon at the end of June. Appropriate, given that it's Pride month in most places. Here's the call for entries, and a nifty, Marlene Dietrich-themed graphic:

I'm thinking about writing about the bizarro gender construction of Loony Tunes, but I haven't made up my mind yet. Check it out if you have a mind.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Ye, Gods!

The summer movie season kicked off for me this weekend. What that means for me is getting together with my brothers for whatever big tentpole movie is in theaters at the time. This weekend it was Thor (2011, directed by Kenneth Branagh). I'm sure we'll get together again for Captain America later this summer, and probably a bunch of other fanboy-targeted movies as well. Having "event" movies like this as a gathering point makes the experience of watching these kinds of movies more pleasurable than they might be otherwise. I've become very disillusioned with franchise movies lately, because I can't say that watching the multiplexes turn into an upscale version of a comic book shop makes me happy. "Regular" movies have been squeezed to the margins by these kinds of movies, just as every genre but superheroes have been pushed off the shelves in most comics shops. None of this is Thor's fault, really, and, as I say, it's an excuse to visit with my family. I come from a family of comics geeks, so if I can dissociate the comics geek in me from the movie geek, I can enjoy these outings, but it's hard for me to feel the kind of movie-drunk glee I used to feel during past summers.

As I say, none of this can be laid at Thor's feet. On its own terms, it's not bad at all, but I had this weird epiphantic moment about halfway through the movie: I would watch a movie that consisted of nothing but Jane Foster and her friends working. I found myself digging the "girlfriend" character a LOT more than I did the ostensible hero of the piece. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Joining the A List

I don't watch a lot of high school comedies. Even though I was in high school when they came out, I wasn't a fan of John Hughes movies, which are apparently the template for the form. For that matter, these kinds of movies aren't made for middle-aged women, though I certainly know plenty of people in my demographic who eat this shit up. Arrested adolescence, I guess.

High school comedies don't generally resemble my high school experience in any respect, given that most such movies from Hollywood represent a level of affluence that I never saw when I was in high school and a level of freedom and irresponsibility that was never allowed among my high school friends. Maybe it's a California thing. We didn't have a beach, either. The closest high school comedy ever came to my high school experience during the golden age of high school comedies was The Breakfast Club, which kinda sorta resembled my drama club. (Yes, I was a drama geek). Then again, it's been a long time, and maybe I just didn't know the right circle of friends. Plus, I had other issues to contend with of a sort that I've never seen addressed in a mainstream movie about teenagers. For the most part, I have to approach these movies like like they're fantasies, or anthropological reports from an alien culture. 2010's Easy A (directed by Will Gluck) is no different. I don't recognize any of these people. Even the Christian kids are different from the Christian kids I used to know. That doesn't mean that the movie is bad, though. Quite the contrary.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Life Among the Savages

Somewhere toward the end of Call Her Savage (1932, directed by John Francis Dillon), Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) and her beau of the moment go "slumming" in The Village. Their destination is a bar full of anarchists and degenerates, but that's just movie speak. It's a gay bar and it's not even really coded. Mind you, the movie had already thrown so many fastballs at the audience that it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it was. This is a movie about all kinds of love, so the "love that dare not speak its name" seems all of a piece. Pre-code movies are kind of awesome this way. There's a lot to digest in the subtexts of this movie. Hell, there's a lot to digest in the not so sub text of this movie. It's at an intersection of sex, gender, race, and class that seems to have permeated the zeitgeist of 1932.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Dangling on a Shoestring

So, I'm a film festival screener again this year, and the second film I watched has put me of a mind to NEVER forgive crap filmmaking because the budget is microscopic again. That sucker was made for next to nothing and it friggin' rocked. I mean, sure, it was a short, but it packed more creativity into eight minutes of running time than some features pack into two hours, calling to mind Ambrose Bierce's assertion that a novel is "a short story, padded." Well, to my mind, anyway. If this is the average quality of submissions, this is going to be a rough season to choose, but a pure delight to watch.

Oh, yeah, this means that my posting might suffer a bit over the next few months. Nothing to be done for it. Last year, I watched something like eighty films for the festival. This year, it looks like I'm going to hit at least a hundred. I love the gig--LOVE it!--But it makes me want to explode sometimes when I can't say "This film kicks all kinds of ass! You should run out and find a copy immediately!" I sign a confidentiality agreement for my screening duty, so I can't even tell you where to see these films until the selections have all been made.