Sunday, July 31, 2011

Monster Mash Blogathon: It Came from Outer Space (1953)

I was having a discussion a few weeks ago with a friend of mine about Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). For a long time, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the touchstone for "thinking man's" sci-fi, and it's not hard to see why: it's sober, cerebral, and significantly lacking in bug-eyed monsters. Its plea for peace, too, is a refreshing change of pace for Cold War sci fi. But over the last ten years or so, I've kind of fallen out of love with that movie. The political undertones kind of bother me. Klatuu (Michael Rennie) strikes me as a neo-con alien, who is pursuing an intergalactic version of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare. He brings "peace" with an ultimatum and a big goddamn stick. If I squint, I see the same kind of xenophobia in this film as I do in other fifties sci fi film, except for the fact that the movie has cast human beings in the role of monster. I'm also uncomfortable with the veiled religious allegory that casts Klatuu as a messianic figure, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.

I find that I much prefer Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953) as a paragon of "thinking" 50s sci fi.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Night of the Comet (1984)

I'm not ashamed to admit that when I saw the movie the roulette wheel spun up for me this week, I couldn't resist smiling. Thom Eberhardt's ebullient Night of the Comet (1984) is a film I remember fondly. I remember seeing it when it was in theaters in a crackerbox twin theater in a town in podunk, Missouri, back when independent movies were still likely to be interesting genre efforts like The Terminator or The Hidden or crap product from Cannon Films like Tomboy and Avenging Angel. That's all gone now, and movies like Night of the Comet don't show up at the multiplexes anymore. Or if they do, they show up as bloated remakes. Blech.

Night of the Comet is the living end of the "last man on earth" subgenre, what you might get if I Am Legend were filtered through a John Hughes movie. Instead of hardboiled survivor types getting on with the business of, well, surviving, the heroines of this movie are a couple of self-reliant teenage girls whose first instinct upon arriving at the end of the world is to go shopping at the mall. Their main story conflict isn't survival, but who gets to "make it" with the last guy on earth. It's not a film that takes its subgenre seriously, though it never really mocks the subgenre, either. It's a lot more fun than many another more stomach-churning zombie film.

At the very least, it's a time capsule, an effect heightened by the film's long absence from home video during the 1990s and early 2000s. The cultural signifiers of the Reagan era are all in the foreground, from the big hair and shoulder-padded fashions to the hints of illegal wars in Central America to the conspicuous consumption to the empty synth pop of the post-New Wave to an emphasis on video games. Having played second fiddle to the master gamer Lance Guest in The Last Starfighter, Catherine Mary Stewart graduates to the role herself. The whole thing has an ersatz feel to it appropriate to its time. Lending the film some gravitas--if you want to call it that--is Mary Woronov, whose character suggests a different kind of survivor: a survivor of the B-movies of the 1970s. She projects a kind of tired decadence the likes of which is completely alien to our duo of Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney. It's a nice contrast.

The film's not without its faults, of course. After a while, the fact that the lights are all still on and that the roads are clear starts to strain the audience's credibility. For that matter, the degeneration of the partially exposed victims of the comet creates some convenient plot turns (as well as an excuse for some zombies). On the whole, though, it makes the best of its modest resources. Its portrait of an abandoned Los Angeles is certainly creepy and indelible, while its hand-crafted make-up effects are as convincing as they have to be.

This is a movie that doesn't think too hard about the nuts and bolts of the Apocalypse. In this film's universe, the machine still works even after people are removed. It would be interesting to see what these characters do once the machine stops, but the film elides this at the end, when our sister heroines argue about crossing against the light. Civilization, the movie says, is in their hands and rather than be cynical about it, it's kind of hopeful. As the last line of the movie suggests: "Bitchin' isn't it."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Random, Drug-fueled Rambling

This week has been a dead loss for me. I've watched a lot of stuff, but most of it comes through in fragments. I've been laid up by a leg injury, and the pain meds tend to fracture my attention. I once watched Solaris while doped up on codeine and vaguely delirious with pneumonia, and I won't make that mistake ever again. "Nothing challenging," was my mission this week. I had to abandon Oliver Assayas's excellent and propulsive Carlos when I realized that the girlfriend character had changed somewhere along the line and I failed to notice it. I'll get back to it when I can actually pay attention to the entire through-line of the narrative. I also watched various television things, from the X-Men Evolution cartoon to the pilot episodes of Twin Peaks (also probably a mistake), Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Enterprise. In my current state, Star Trek: Enterprise trumps the hell out of Next Gen. I was surprised at how good that opening episode was, crappy theme song and all. X-Men Evolution, on the other hand, was just what I needed. The episodes were short, and didn't insult my intelligence. They actually managed to capture the charm and broad themes of the classic X-Men comics without ever going near the Dark Phoenix story. Bully for them. Between this and The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Marvel appears to be catching up to DC's animated output. It was only a matter of time, I suppose.

One thing that did engage my attention was Zombie Girl: The Movie (2009, directed by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck), which documents the efforts of a 12 year old girl in Austin, TX, to make a feature-length zombie movie. The girl, Emily Hagins, has the full support of her parents and her mom is her best ally in the project, but over the course of the movie, you begin to see the strain between Emily and her mom. It's a fascinating relationship, though it's one that tends to drag the film down a little in its third act. What carries the movie through is the sheer "Let's Put On a Show!" moxie of Emily and her friends. She has the drive to make the movie and, by golly, she does. It takes her two years, but when she premiers the movie at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, it's cause for celebration. Hagins, who is 18 now, has made a couple of other films since Pathogen, and I'm kind of curious to see them. This is the movie that Super 8 probably should have been, but that's another matter entirely...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Two-Faced Lovers

I have to admit that I don't really understand all of Luis Buñuel's last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), and that may be the point. It's a deep mystery. I think this is appropriate, actually, because desire and love and obssession--which are things I can say with some assurance by the movie itself that the movie is about--are all the kinds of deeply mysterious noumena we all keep locked up inside of us that can never be explained to others. Perhaps the film's best joke is that its main narrative consists of a man trying to explain it to others. I'd like to say that he's an unreliable narrator, that his essential untrustworthiness is why the movie plays the epistemological games that it plays, but that supposition isn't supported by the film.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Face to Face

This originally appeared in another form on another now-defunct blog back in 2010.

So, I feel kind of embarrassed that I clicked on the news links for pictures of the first successful full face transplant last week. I'm not entirely sure why I did it. It's more complicated than just the attraction of a freakshow--not that I think the man who received it is a freak, just that some of the people who look at him may be doing so for the same reason people used to go to sideshows. This is part of why I'm embarrassed to admit that I clicked the link. But not all of it.

I'm fascinated by plastic surgeries. I've spent hours looking at the before and after pictures of trans people who have received facial feminization surgeries. I've even had consults myself. FFS is kind of a raw nerve for me. On the one hand, I don't actually think I need it. On the other, I like the idea that it would reduce the chances of random people identifying me as trans. There are times when I'm sure that this is the crazy part of my brain talking, because I know perfectly well that I look fine. If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn't think twice. Be that as it may, when I look in the mirror every morning, I see the male face I wore for a couple of decades staring back at me. I don't know that bankrupting myself on FFS would even change that perception for me. It's all in my head, but the impulse remains.

All of which got me thinking about Eyes Without a Face, the great 1960 French movie about a mad plastic surgeon who kidnaps and murders women to harvest their faces in a vain attempt to restore his own daughter's ruined face, and how it completely demolishes the beauty myth as an instrument of patriarchy. The movie portrays an attempt to enforce a standard of beauty by force. The recipient of our mad doctor's radical treatments never asked for them. At the end of the movie, she retaliates against her oppressors and wanders into the night.

It goes without saying that Eyes Without a Face is a ghastly movie if you're even a little bit squeamish. It's notorious for its scenes of surgical gore, expertly faked. It looks real and it's filmed with a striking clinical clarity and dispassion. It's less obvious that this is a feminist movie, a fact obscured a bit by the outrageous violence perpetrated against women in it. But it is. It's an indictment of what patriarchy values in women: beauty and obedience. During most of the film, Christiane Genessier, Edith Scob's character, wanders through her father's palatial mansion with a featureless mask. To the world, she's dead. The combination of this plot point and the visual of the mask suggests that a woman without beauty is a woman without identity. There are persistent images of animals in cages--especially birds--that further suggest that Christiane is imprisoned by her father's obsession and that her function is decorative, like a songbird. The actual depiction of Christiane's disfigurement suggests the horror patriarchy feels for the physical bodies of women, though it's greatly exaggerated for effect. Also built into the fabric of the film is the doctor's accomplice, a nurse played by Alida Valli. Her character is a stand-in for the way that patriarchy co-opts women themselves as enforcers of unrealistic beauty standards.

Trans women feel that enforcement more keenly than most, I think. We're sometimes held to an impossible standard relative to cis women in order to even be accepted as women, so I feel for Christiane Genessier, because she's an avatar for anyone who submits to the surgeon's knife in order to have her identity as a woman, or even as a person, validated.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Baboons and Ninjas

So I did the Twitter bad movie live event last night, and it was fun. I had to bow out of the third movie because my dogs needed walking and I was nodding off during the second film of the trio. The first two, however, are all kinds of bad movie awesome.

The first film of the night was a James Bond rip-off from 1987 called The Order of the Black Eagle, directed by Worth Keeter. Keeter, it should be noted, has made a career out of directing Power Rangers projects, and this movie is a harbinger of that career. As a bad movie, this one doesn't offer the usual bad movie pleasures of excessive blood and boobs, which is vaguely disappointing, but this offers up a variety of batshit that's all uniquely its own.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blogorama Part V

Short notice on this one, but I'm doing the Netflix Instant Bad Movie Marathon on Twitter tomorrow night, hosted by Mr. Gable over at Mr. Gable's Reality. The movies we'll be liveblogging are The Order of the Black Eagle, Mafia vs. Ninja, and Trespassers. This one promises to bring the pain. If you want to follow along, or, god help you, participate, the hashtag will be #badnetflix. I'm @doctor_morbius, but y'all knew that already, right?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ungendered*: Fassbinder's A Year of 13 Moons. A Dialogue

This was originally published a couple of years ago on another blog. I still haven't gotten around to seeing the film again.

So, I finally got a round to watching Fassbinder's A Year of 13 Moons. It was recommended to me on the IMDB's Classics Board earlier this spring after I was outed as a transsexual. Well, not recommended, per se, but I was asked what I thought of it. Here, many months later, is the conversation I've been having about it. The asterisk in the title of this post? To remind me to give apologies to Julia Serano.

My initial, knee-jerk reaction:

I'm still sorting out my reaction to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year With 13 Moons (1978). It's been a while since I was more conflicted over a movie. On the one hand, the cineaste in me recognizes a keen cinematic intelligence behind the film. But another part of me, the transsexual who is completely fed up with the way transsexuals are depicted by cisgender media, is completely appalled by it. I mean, DEEPLY offended by it. She wants to take the cineaste part of my mind, tie her to a chair and make her watch Jess Franco movies A Clockwork Orange-style as penance for even suggesting that this is a worthwhile movie. Well, you can see my dilemma. I'm sure I'll have a LOT more to say about this when I actually sit down to write an in-depth analysis. I'm going to watch it again, first. But for now, I have this to say. First: while it's striking from both a cinematic and symbolic standpoint, this film's tour of a meat packing plant is probably what most pissed me off. The suggestion is that our heroine--if you can call her that, rather than "our object of pity"--is a piece of meat, not a human being, mutilated by her desires and ultimately disposable. That the film ends the way that it does reinforces this idea. Frankly, this sucks on so many levels that it has an event horizon. Second: I can see this film's influence on European cinema's depictions of transsexualism ever since (which is NOT a good thing). Three: when I was sorting through critical reactions to the film, I stumbled across Ed Gonzalez's review of the film for Slant. I rarely agree with Gonzalez under the best of times, but he's never written a review that actually offended me before: from his occasional tendency to put the words "she" and "her" in quotation marks, to his egregious use of the phrase "she-male" (which is more or less equivalent to the "N" word when you're talking about trans people), to his condescending sympathy with our object of pity, this is the work of someone who has bought in to the kinds false truths Fassbinder arrives at by setting up a false set of conditions under which to examine his characters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Labor Movements

I'm not entirely sure how to take Horrible Bosses (2011, directed by Seth Gordon). It's a sterling example of a film that sets out to offend every sensibility (and succeeds) in the name of comedy. I've maintained for years that the only yardstick for comedies is the question, "Is this funny?" Obviously, this is subjective. I'll get this out of the way right now, then: I laughed my ass off at Horrible Bosses. So, yeah, it's funny. End of story, right? Right?

Well, it's not as cut and dried as that, because even though it's intentionally offensive, it's also unintentionally offensive. I say I laughed, and I did, but I also squirmed a bit in my seat, and I feel a LOT conflicted about laughing at it. Dirty about it, actually. There's an old joke: Q: "How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" A: "THAT'S NOT FUNNY!" I so don't want to be that person. I don't. But, y'know, I find myself drifting that way.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Hey, kids! Comics!

Well, in keeping with yesterday's vow to colonize this blog with comics and with the additional promise to recycle old material, here's a comic strip I did last year for another blog. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion: Womanthology Edition

Please pardon this interruption of my usual movie-review format, but I'm participating in Heroic: A Womanthology, a HUGE comics anthology, created entirely by women. The line-up for this includes some completely awesome artists and writers, including Gail Simone, Devin Grayson, Ming Doyle, Stephanie Buscema, Lauren Montgomery, Colleen Doran, and Ann Nocenti, as well as unpublished creators like your's truly. Believe me, the thought of appearing in a comics anthology with the likes of Gail Simone and Colleen Doran has me more than a little bit starstruck. If all goes to plan, then the whole thing will be published by IDW. More than that, this is a charity book, with the proceeds going to the Global Giving Foundation. For more information on the entire project, visit our web page. And take a look at the awesome promo video put together by the project founder, Renae De Liz:

There's a catch, though: we need to raise the printing bill. That's where Kickstarter comes in. In order to print the book, we need to come up with $25,000, at a bare minimum. More than that would be great. There are a ton of awesome incentives, including art, books, and other goodies. So if you want to see this project come to fruition, please become a backer. I don't like to beg, but, hell, this is worth it.

On a more personal level, participation in this project has rekindles my (relatively) dormant love of comics and cartooning. I've always been painfully shy about posting my own work (though I've gotten over that in recent years thanks to some profound changes in my life). This is a step into the broader comics community for me. It's the kick in the ass that will get me back to the drawing table. Don't be surprised if comics begin to colonize a wing of Stately Krell Manor. I'm excited beyond belief by this project, and I hope to share my enthusiasm in the coming months.

Terrorist Chic

I'm going into low content mode for a while. I'll be reprinting some short movie reviews from another, long defunct blog, including this mathom from 2005.

So what makes a suicide bomber do what they do anyway? That's a question at the heart of The Terrorist (1999, directed by Santosh Sivan) a film that follows the last week in the life of a suicide bomber. It examines both the pressures that have made her what she is, and the countervailing pull of basic humanity. It makes for a startling drama. On the one hand are her militant handlers, all of whom are intent on easing her into her role as a fanatical assassin. On the other hand is the old man who owns the house where she is staying until her appointed time. The old man is the voice of reason and conscience in the film, the face of decency and good will towards fellow human beings. More of the events of the movie I will not describe, because it's best for a first-time viewer to know nothing more, but I will state that it's fascinating to watch a narrative arc in which every moral issue starts as a crystal clear, black and white certainty, only to dissolve into a quagmire of moral ambiguity. Most movies about assassins make the audience complicit in their crimes. This one is quite the opposite.

On the whole, the film functions as an allegory for the terrorist impulse: there is no specific ideology espoused by the film or its terrorists, nor does the film specify a geographical location. We can make some assumptions, though. The director, Santosh Sivan is from India (though this film is very far indeed from standard Bollywood cinema). The film was shot in Sri Lanka (which has been embroiled off and on in a long civil war). The details of the plot resemble the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. These details are provocative, but the film resists them, much to its benefit. In the years since this film was made, the reticence of the filmmakers has worked a change on the film's relevance. As more and more terrorists take up their various causes, this film's terrorist becomes something of an everywoman. As a result, it's a film we NEED more than ever.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Netflix Roulette: It's Alive (2008)

I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to remakes. As I'm fond of telling people, the Bogart/Huston version of The Maltese Falcon is the third screen version of that story within a ten year period. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get it right. Which, by the way, is why filmmakers are better off rethinking bad movies rather than classics. Of course, this line of thinking presupposes that the remake improves on the original. The nature of contemporary remakes means that the actual quality of the movie is an afterthought.

Here's the thing about Larry Cohen's original version of It's Alive: it's ridiculous. It's a film that attempts to exploit the unease that pregnancy generates for new parents. It exploits the fear that something is wrong with a newborn child. It's the product of the thalidomide tragedy. The method it uses to examine this unease is a mutant killer baby. This is it:

Monday, July 04, 2011

More Youth Misspent

I was having a conversation about Super 8 (2011, directed by J.J. Abrams) last night with a friend of mine who didn't much like it. She gave as one of her reasons the fact that the story of the kids who are making a movie when a monster escapes in their town has no connection whatsoever to the story of the monster itself. She has a point. The kids in this film have no agency of their own. The story--much as it pretends otherwise--is NOT about them. They are inconsequential to what happens in the movie. For the most part, they're a point of view rather than actual protagonists, and their actions ultimately do not direct the course of the movie at all. My friend also complained that J. J. Abrams has the dream job of coming up with monsters and the Smoke Monster in Lost, the monster in Cloverfield, and THIS monster are the best he can come up with? Seriously? As I say, she didn't like this movie, but I kinda do, in spite of all of this.