Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

I don't actually have a movie to write about tonight, but I thought it would be a shame to let Leap Day go by without writing something. It only comes around every four years, right? Right. The trouble with this is that I don't have anything to write about. I lead a dull life.

I picked up my passes for True/False tonight and I'm psyched about the whole festival, I guess. It's been a while since I've been excited about True/False. It's gotten so big that it's a hard festival to attend casually. You need to be hard core about it now. Not like it was when it started nine years ago. I've been holding off on watching movies this week because I want to be hungry for a movie when I show up for my first showing tomorrow night, kind of like the way the Romans starved the lions before throwing the Christians into the arena with them. In the mean time, I've been working on other stuff. I've been writing an overview of transgender cinema for another blog. That should go up sometime after True/False.

I've also been re-reading Moby Dick. Moby Dick is one of my favorite books, in part because it's a so damned Lovecraftian. Moby Dick is The Great Cthulhu, after all, a distillation of a brute, indifferent cosmos incarnated as a monstrous whale. Melville even name-checks that old Philistine god, Dagon, so beloved of the old Providence spook. The cosmicism of the book appeals to me. It's also really droll. For instance:

At last, stepping on board the Pequod, we found everything in profound quiet, not a soul moving. The cabin entrance was locked within; the hatches were all on, and lumbered with coils of rigging. Going forward to the forecastle, we found the slide of the scuttle open. Seeing a light, we went down, and found only an old rigger there, wrapped in a tattered pea-jacket. He was thrown at whole length upon two chests, his face downwards and inclosed in his folded arms. The profoundest slumber slept upon him.

"Those sailors we saw, Queequeg, where can they have gone to?" said I, looking dubiously at the sleeper. But it seemed that, when on the wharf, Queequeg had not at all noticed what I now alluded to; hence I would have thought myself to have been optically deceived in that matter, were it not for Elijah's otherwise inexplicable question. But I beat the thing down; and again marking the sleeper, jocularly hinted to Queequeg that perhaps we had best sit up with the body; telling him to establish himself accordingly. He put his hand upon the sleeper's rear, as though feeling if it was soft enough; and then, without more ado, sat quietly down there.

"Gracious! Queequeg, don't sit there," said I.

"Oh! perry dood seat," said Queequeg, "my country way; won't hurt him face."

"Face!" said I, "call that his face? very benevolent countenance then; but how hard he breathes, he's heaving himself; get off, Queequeg, you are heavy, it's grinding the face of the poor. Get off, Queequeg! Look, he'll twitch you off soon. I wonder he don't wake."

Queequeg removed himself to just beyond the head of the sleeper, and lighted his tomahawk pipe. I sat at the feet. We kept the pipe passing over the sleeper, from one to the other. Meanwhile, upon questioning him in his broken fashion, Queequeg gave me to understand that, in his land, owing to the absence of settees and sofas of all sorts, the king, chiefs, and great people generally, were in the custom of fattening some of the lower orders for ottomans; and to furnish a house comfortably in that respect, you had only to buy up eight or ten lazy fellows, and lay them round in the piers and alcoves. Besides, it was very convenient on an excursion; much better than those garden-chairs which are convertible into walking-sticks; upon occasion, a chief calling his attendant, and desiring him to make a settee of himself under a spreading tree, perhaps in some damp marshy place.

That's comedy gold right there.

The graphic at the top of this post is by an artist named Tom Neely, by the way. Right click the picture to see it big in a new window (control click it on a Mac). It really is splendid. Then take a look at Mr. Neely's other stuff.

I also had an encounter at my local comic book store today that fills me with a modicum of hope for the future. I'm sure that when I use the phrase "comic book store," an image of a particular kind of lair for trollish white arrested adolescent males comes to mind in some readers--and believe me, I know these kinds of spaces all too well myself--but my experience tonight gives lie to that. While I was making my weekly purchase, there were three other people in the store: the cute gay kid who runs the register on Wednesday, another woman who was picking up the new issue of Batman Beyond, and a trans guy friend of mine. That makes: two transsexuals, a cis woman, and a gay guy (sounds like the beginning of a joke...). Nary a stereotypical fanboy in sight. It was kind of magical seeing that kind of diversity in a milieu known for misogyny and a hostile attitude toward diversity of any kind. So, yay, you new millennium and the changes you've wrought upon the world. It's not all shit. Some days, it's a right fucking utopia.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: True/False Film Festival Edition

Columbia, Missouri's True/False Film Festival starts on Thursday. I've been going to True/False since its inception nine years ago with varying levels of enthusiasm. It's grown so fast that, in recent years, it's been increasingly difficult to do the festival "off the cuff" as it were by showing up and queuing up for movies you want to see. So this year, I finally broke down and bought a pass and made my ticket reservations. Most years, I see a small handful of movies at True/False. This year, I'm going to gorge myself with them.

A couple of days after I made my reservations, something interesting happened. I was asked to blog about True/False for Indiewire. With a press pass and everything. This comes at a time when I'm scrambling for freelance work--I thought I'd be working as a freelance illustrator, but I'll write freelance, too. I'm not proud.

Anyway, over the next week, I'll be linking my Indiewire pieces here. Feel free to pay them a visit. Indiewire is one of the better movie portal sites, and it's an essential stop for anyone who loves movies.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Slavery is Freedom

I've been kinda sorta doing a series on late John Carpenter movies. I'm not really a fan of Carpenter after, oh, say 1985 or so. Some ineffable quality present in his early films shuffled off and left his films after that point and his films diminished over time. I haven't seen most of these films since they were in theaters, so I'm going on twenty-plus year old memories of most of them. My own indifference to mid to late Carpenter, not withstanding, most of these movies have their defenders. One or two of them even play better today than they did when they were made. One of those movies is They Live (1988), which on balance seems like it was made last year rather than sometime in the last century.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Indifference of Wolves

There's a scene in The Grey (2012, directed by Joe Carnahan) that I like quite a bit. In it, Liam Neeson's character has a crisis of faith. The movie has established that Neeson's character, Ottway, is an atheist, and this particular scene tests the old maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes. In a moment of weakness, he prays for some kind of deliverance from his predicament--which, it should be noted, is really friggin' dire. When no divine intervention is forthcoming, he says, "Fuck it, I'll do it myself." This scene encapsulates the movie. The cosmos, this movie suggests, doesn't even know we exist. The wolves who are this movie's main antagonists don't care who is faithful and who is unbelieving, who is good or who is bad, who is an asshole or who is a loving family man. They know only the red of fang and claw and act accordingly.

There's another scene in this movie, too, that puts an exclamation point on this. It comes before Ottman's crisis of faith, when Diaz (Frank Grillo) finally comes to the realization that he can't go on. He chooses his place of dying, a place with a spectacular view of the mountains and forest of Alaska. It's a place of great beauty. But he winds up just as dead. The universe is a beautiful place; beauty is a meaning that we attach to it that has no relationship to its fundamental indifference to human beings.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The World Writ Small

I've never read The Borrowers. My girlfriend has a copy of it somewhere. I remember seeing it the last time we moved, but I can't find it right now. I never had a copy, myself. It wasn't among the children's books that my parents provided for my brothers and I and I don't have children in my life myself upon whom to lavish books. Not having children upon whom to lavish books is one of the pleasures of parenting that actively regret, even though I'm generally happy to be child-free. But I digress. I do remember seeing a television production of The Borrowers when I was young, though, so I can't say that The Borrowers wasn't a part of my childhood. It just wasn't a beloved part of my childhood the way the Oz books were. This is down to the luck of the draw, I guess. The Borrowers have been a sturdy source for children's movies over the years, so it's not like I'm unaware of them. I suspect that that may cease in the wake of Studio Ghibli's The Secret World of Arrietty (2010, Hiromasa Yonebayashi), a film of such surpassing charm and enchantment that I can't imagine anyone wanting to suffer the comparison.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Female Authority

I'm not actually sure how I should write about a movie like Yes, Madam (1985, directed by Corey Yuen). I mean, on a very basic level, it's a bad film. It has a terrible plot, unfunny comedy, and mostly awful performances. It was designed as a starring vehicle for American martial arts b-film star Cynthia Rothrock, but it winds up being completely stolen by her co-star, Michelle Yeoh, who was a superstar in the making. And, man, is the cinematography flat. But, holy crap, when this film wants to kick ass, it kicks SERIOUS ass. The fight scenes in this movie belie the mundane scenes that connect them. This is the kind of movie where you walk away from it with your jaw hanging open, unsure if you actually saw what you just saw. Mind you, there are much better movies from the period that have the same effect, but it's a brute force approach that works even at the most basic of levels. This is not a film that cares about the formalities of film, as it were. ALL it cares about is bodies and fists in motion. And broken glass. Lots and lots of broken glass.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Warmest Place to Hide

Connant stopped at the bend in the corridor. His breath hissed suddenly through his throat. “Great God – ” The revolver exploded thunderously; three numbing, palpable waves of sound crashed through the confined corridors. Two more. The revolver dropped to the hard-packed snow of the trail, and Barclay saw the ice-ax shift into defensive position. Connant’s powerful body blocked his vision, but beyond he heard something mewing, and, insanely, chuckling. The dogs were quieter; there was a deadly seriousness in their low snarls. Taloned feet scratched at hard-packed snow, broken chains were clinking and tangling.

Connant shifted abruptly, and Barclay could see what lay beyond. For a second he stood frozen, then his breath went out in a gusty curse. The Thing launched itself at Connant, the powerful arms of the man swung the ice-ax flatside first at what might have been a hand. It scrunched horribly, and the tattered flesh, ripped by a half-dozen savage huskies, leapt to its feet again. The red eyes blazed with an unearthy hatred, an unearthly, unkillable vitality.

--John W. Campbell, "Who Goes There?"

There's a scene near the end of the 2011 version of The Thing (directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.) that depends on the audience noticing a small detail that is absent. In another movie, this detail might be a continuity error. It's a subtle tell in a movie that is generally not subtle. The audience for this film isn't watching it for the cleverness of its filmmaking. It's watching for the carnival of monsters. For the freakshow, as it were. The Thing doesn't skimp on that, but it's nice that it has some ambitions as a film beyond chewing with its mouth hanging open. I kind of wish that this film weren't designed as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 version. I wish it were a straight-up remake. The need to sync the details of this film with the Carpenter film will likely have a smart viewer asking too many questions. Really, this should be able to stand on its own and it's frustrating that it doesn't.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

...and Die Behind the Wheel

The first ten minutes of Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) are some kind of manifesto. The film's nameless anti-hero is the wheelman for a robbery. He tells his compatriots that he'll be there for five minutes. They don't need to know the getaway route, and if they're late by even one minute, he's gone. The Driver also appears to be a sports fan, but that's part of the plan. The resultant chases sequence is unlike any other chase I can remember seeing on film, as the filmmakers map out a strategic cat and mouse game that relies less on speed--though that helps--and more on grace under pressure, intelligence, and seeing two moves ahead. I say that this is some kind of manifesto, and I think it is. It's a repudiation of the way Hollywood films action sequences. This is not a run and gun sequence, nor even a classical Hollywood action sequence a la Bullit. This is a sequence that deconstructs the conventions of action. It breaks it apart and examines its function. It provides the audience with the geography of the scene, with a crystal clarity of purpose. It shows not just what happens, but why, and it shows how each actions flows into the next. This sort of thing used to be the province of directors from Hong Kong, though they never wielded it as a kind of ideological statement the way Refn does. Refn, it should be noted, is a Dane.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Muriels are Upon Us

Back in September, I got the following email:

"Hey there. My name is Steve Carlson, and I (along with Paul Clark) run The Muriel Awards. We're always looking for new voters to add to our rolls, and we thought you might be a good fit. Would you be interested in participating?"

The Muriels are a kind of online critics' poll with voters who are a mix of amateur and professional movie people. I've been aware of them for a while, mainly because of Dennis Cozzallio over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (surely one of the best names for a blog, ever) and Jim Emerson, who in addition to editing Roger Ebert's blog, writes about film on his own Scanners blog. Participation is by invitation only, so the invite kind of knocked me for a loop, but in a good way. I turned into Sally Field at the Oscars for a couple of minutes. "You like me! You really really like me!"

Anyway, I turned in my ballot a couple of weeks ago and the results are starting to issue on the Muriels blog. Today's first posting awards the Muriel for Best Supporting Actor of 2011. The rest of the categories will trickle out over the next couple of days. The results are interesting, a good deal more interesting than the slate of Oscar nominees.

I'll post the entirety of my own Muriel's ballot when the full results are available. For the record, this is who I voted for in the Best Supporting Actor category:

  1. Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
  2. Alan Rickman, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2
  3. Alan Tudyk, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
  4. Christopher Waltz, Carnage
  5. John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Muriel's winner is Albert Brooks for Drive, which I haven't had the chance to see yet, though I finally have the disc in my hands.

I voted for Choi Min-sik, who placed ninth, though I put him in the lead actor category. You never can tell how this sort of thing will shake out when it comes to categories.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentines Day (Shameless Self-promotion)

Some art for Valentine's day, because I love my readers. I posted this on my Deviant Art page a couple of days ago. Here's how I described it there.

This was done for the Womanthology Valentine's PDF, sent out to Kickstarter backers. This is a vector, drawn in Adobe Illustrator CS4 over a pencil sketch. I'm actually pretty happy with how it came out, which is a nice change for me. It felt like it was teetering on the brink of disaster while I was drawing it.

A word about what this depicts, though: When I first started working on my Womanthology story, I was in the three to four page category. Renae De Liz asked me if I would be willing to scale down to a pin-up/one page story instead, and I agreed (fortunately, I had an idea for that). Thing is, though, I had already started work on a longer story based around a character named "Fantastic Woman," who in the story foils a bank robbery then goes back to her day job teaching (and reading to) kindergarten students. I only drew a few panels before Renae asked me to switch, and I never finished it. But this is the character. She's obviously a sideways version of Wonder Woman and Superman, and in the strip I imagined afterward, she's got a little of The Bionic Woman in her, too (Jamie Sommers was a schoolteacher, you know). Given that I was riffing on Wonder Woman, I knew that she was queer, and I started drawing this other character as her version of Lois Lane. Anyway, that's where this comes from.

Also, don't forget to order a copy of Womanthology, if you're interested. It's due out in March and there's only a limited print run. It's for a good cause and there's lots of awesomeness inside of it, including a comic by yours truly.

I also did this piece sort of for Valentine's Day, which you can buy from my Deviant Art print shop if you so desire. This, too, is a vector created in Adobe Illustrator. It comes in prints, postcards, greeting cards, magnets, coffee mugs and other geegaws. I've been working on a lot of art lately, because during the coming year, I'm probably going to have to earn my living from art alone, so buy lots of prints. Send them to friends. You know you want to.

As for movies, well, Valentine's Day means gangster movies in my house, so you can expect to see a review or two later in the week. I think the schedule is going to be Murder by Contract, Larceny Inc., and The Petrified Forest, but a friend of mine suggested gangland love stories like Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde. We'll see how it goes. Anyway, Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Classic Film Meme

I haven't been blogging about classic film lately thanks to the Muriels, but they're never far from my mind. Rachel over at The Girl with the White Parasol inadvertently clued me in on this Classic Film Quiz, originally authored by Rianna over at Frankly, My Dear, and it looks fun. I'm heading into low-content mode for a while, so this should tide me over for a bit. Without further ado...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Back in Black

I've been holding off when it comes to writing about the new version of The Woman in Black (2011, directed by James Watkins). It's the kind of movie where, when I was in the moment of watching it, it was profoundly terrifying. When I was not in the moment, would it still resound in my mind? The best horror movies linger in the memory. The original BBC version of this story was such a movie; it gave me bad dreams for weeks after I saw it. Is it an unfair standard, this insistence that horror movies continue to disturb you after the screen fades to black? I don't think it is. I can think of several horror movies that did exactly that. A personal example: my mother would never take a shower if she was in the house alone. Psycho did that to her. Jaws kept people off the beaches for months during 1975. I sometimes pose this question to people who don't understand my indifference to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies: what's more frightening, some dream demon in a bad sweater and a drawer full of steak knives on his fingers or the notion that your gynecologist is whacked out of his mind on drugs, designing his own medical instruments, and using them on patients? I know what my answer is. And yet, there's something to be said for a scare machine, for movies that want to do nothing more than jump out and say "boo!" There are even legitimately great horror movies that do exactly that. Halloween is one of them. So is Carrie. I don't know yet if The Woman in Black is a great horror movie. It's much too soon to make that kind of judgement. But it IS a pretty great scare machine, though, and it even has a jump scare that's as cunningly executed as the dream sequence at the end of Carrie. And that, my friends, is high praise. I had a grand time watching it.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Psychoanalysis and its Discontents

It wasn't until a couple of days after I saw it that I realized that David Cronenberg's new movie, A Dangerous Method (2011), is thematically similar to Dead Ringers. This shouldn't surprise me, really. Cronenberg has the most instantly recognizable private universe of any major director, after all, and it's not like he ever throws anything away. It's just that while I was watching the movie, mentally cataloging the Cronenbergian hallmarks, I missed some of the film's bigger concerns. It's an interestingly queer movie, though that, too, is subliminal. I'm not entirely sure what I think of it, actually, though my first impulse as I left the theater was that it was a lesser film. It doesn't have the ferocity--for want of a better word--of Cronenberg's best work. It's not necessarily that it's non-violent so much as it is unfocused. I wasn't sure what the aim of the movie was. Most Cronenberg movies act on me like a slap in the face, and in past years, I've left the theater with my face burning. This film doesn't do that. Maybe it's too genteel.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Soul of an Artist

I don't know what it says about The Artist (2011, directed by Michel Hazanavicius), but I came out of it wanting to write about Vertigo. I suspect what it says is that The Artist is done in by the touchstones it calls to mind. It's too "meta" for its own good. This is an occupational hazard for films that are deliberately nostalgic for bygone eras. There's nothing wrong with The Artist itself, per se, but its best moments all remind a savvy viewer of other films. This film is (mostly) silent and in black and white, so its audience is likely composed of nothing but savvy viewers. If this is the case, and if the filmmakers are playing to this, then it's not ambitious enough.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Blogorama Part V

So the annual film preservation blogathon is coming around again, and this time it has a Hitchcockian theme. The proceeds this year will fund the streaming (for free, no less) of several silent films rediscovered and restored within the last several years. Face it, if you don't live near a film industry hub, you have little or no chance of seeing these films otherwise. One of the films in question is The White Shadow, the first film with substantial contributions from Alfred Hitchcock. He didn't direct it, but he did damn near everything else. And, damn it! I for one want to see it!

The blogathon is being hosted once again by Ferdy on Film and the Self-Styled Siren. Marilyn's partner in crime, Rod Heath, is striking out on his own for this and will also be hosting at his new This Island Rod blog. There's also a wonderful array of banners this year, so many, I had a hard time choosing one for this post. Fortunately, Vertigo has been on my mind because it's been on my iTunes. Finally, for the luvva Pete, "like" the Facebook page! Every "like" helps the cause.

This is kind of serendipity for me. I've never written much about Hitchcock. I started blogging after I was "over" my Hitchcock phase. This is an opportunity to get back in touch with the things that corrupted me in the first place. This will be fun. Hopefully, any bloggers who are reading along will join the fun. Or just open the ol' checkbook. Or do both! Did I mention the prizes? There will apparently be prizes. As if a Hitchcock film you've never had the opportunity to see wasn't enough. P'shaw.