Monday, December 30, 2013

Midwestern Gothic

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Nebraska

"Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."--Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven

I don't know that director Alexander Payne mocks mid-westerners in his films set in the heartland. I mean, I live in the rural mid-west and I recognize a LOT of the characters who populate Payne's films, from Tracy Flick to Woody Grant. I recognize the cultural and economic wasteland he depicts, too. His new film, Nebraska (2013), is ostensibly a comedy, but its stark black and white cinematography turns it into a mournful comedy at best (if that's not an outright oxymoron). This is a film that's laboring under a pall of disillusion and disappointment, set amid a bleak landscape spotted with vultures picking over the remnants of the American dream.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Innocence and Experience

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

I'm not entirely sure how to process Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche), because it short-circuits a lot of the ways I tend to think about movies. It's a deeply problematic film and it's one that I would ordinarily take to task for the way it deals with sex and sexuality, but I would be lying if I said it didn't have a profoundly emotional effect on me. Somehow, it works, even though it probably shouldn't.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Where There's Smoke

Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013, directed by Francis Lawrence) is more or less the same film as its predecessor. The filmmakers behind it prove that they are savvy to the way people consume sequels. That it also happens to be better than its predecessor in just about every conceivable way is just some kind of weird alchemy that happens with sequels sometimes, perhaps because it can jump right into the story without having to set up the primary conflicts and relationship (or the world in which it takes place), but I think it's more than that. The craft--for want of a better word--is better. This film cost considerably more than its predecessor and that expense winds up on the screen. This is a case of more being more. But it's not just that, either. Francis Lawrence (presumably no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence) comes to the film from genre filmmaking and proves to be more adept at the film's genre requirements than Gary Ross ever was. The action in this film is more comprehensible, the genre beats more on the mark, and in general, the style of the film is smoother and less rawboned. This is true even in the film's more miserablist settings, where Lawrence has reined-in the lazy shaky-cam of its predecessor and created images of surprising power. The opening shot of Katniss, for instance.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dirty Laundry

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

I saw a headline on one of the entertainment sites a few days ago that posed the question of whether or not Stephen Frears's new film, Philomena (2013) was anti-Catholic. Given the subject matter of the film--the sorry history of the Magdalene laundries is central to its narrative--I'd say it's not anti-Catholic enough. This film goes out of its way to be understanding, but I can't imagine the headspace that permits its heroine to forgive. I'm much more inclined to less Christian reaction, myself, especially given that this is a "true story," as the saying goes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Big Quiz Redux

This time of the year is kind of a slog for me, with most of my movie viewing confined to festival screeners (about which I can't write) and award season movies. I've been struggling to write about the last several films I've seen, which is why things have been so quiet around here. I'm hoping to have pieces about Philomena and Blue is the Warmest Color up by the end of the weekend, but we'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, here's another of Dennis Cozzalio's film quizzes from the extravagantly named blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Enjoy:

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Dying in Dallas

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

I've been dreading Dallas Buyers Club (2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee). I always dread films made by cisgender filmmakers in which transgender characters feature prominently, especially if those trans characters are played by cis actors (as they almost always are). Someone in the activist spaces I frequent once mentioned that consuming media while trans is like playing Russian roulette, though lately I've been thinking that it's like playing Russian roulette with a live round in every chamber. You're going to take a bullet to the brain without fail. It won't be random. It's just going to happen. The cause for my concern with Dallas Buyers Club is Jared Leto's character, Rayon, a trans woman character constructed by the filmmakers for reasons I'll get to in a bit. She's fictional even though the film itself purports to be based on fact. Leto has been getting Oscar buzz for his performance, and why not? It's a character and performance that's almost a parody of Oscar bait: straight actor playing gay? Check. Playing trans? Check. Dying tragically? Check. Dramatic weight loss? Check. It's almost diagrammatic. (As I write this, Leto has just been awarded Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critic's Circle, which isn't a bellwether by any means, but still...) Of course, star Matthew McConaughey does the weight loss thing, too. This is a film full of scarecrows.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ragnarok and Roll

Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013, directed by Alan Taylor) is a better film than its predecessor. It may be a better film than The Avengers, but that's not that hard. As fun as that film was, it had its issues. Prime among them was finding something for each member of its expansive cast of characters to do. That's not a problem for this film. It seems as if they went out of their way to make sure that each character has a function in the plot that arises naturally from who those characters are. Even Kat Dennings's Darcy Lewis gets to do something. There are a lot of better movies than this one that fail in this basic task. It's fun to watch this unfold. This film trumps The Avengers in two other respects, too. First, it passes the Bechdel Test. Second, we get that most glorious of natural cinematic wonders: Chris Hemsworth's bare torso. Note to future cinematic interpreters of Thor: this is an essential element of these movies.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Modern Prometheus

Boris Karloff and Marilyn Harris in Frankenstein (1931)

The last film I watched this October was James Whale's Frankenstein, a film I've written about twice before. I don't have a lot to add to the last piece I wrote about the film, which went through the film scene by scene (not quite shot by shot). With a few minor revisions, I've reprinted that piece here. The trick or treaters were all gone by the time I put on Frankenstein, and I had settled in to watch the film while wrapped in a big fluffy bathrobe and with a cup of mulled cider at my side. It was a fine, fine end to the Halloween season, though, in truth, I keep the spirit of Halloween in my black little heart every day of the year. Even Christmas.

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken."
--Mary Wollestonecraft Shelly, preface to the 1931 edition of Frankenstein.

Note, this is heavy on images. My apologies

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Why, an Invisible Man Could Rule the World!"

Claude Rains in The Invisible Man

James Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man (1933) is candy, pure and simple. Appropriate for Halloween, I think. It's the apotheosis of the classic horror film's formulation of the tragic hero/villain, it's one of the drollest black comedies, and it's a film that embraces the fantastic possibilities of the cinema. It's a true inheritor of the legacy of Georges Méliès.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Walking After Midnight

I was home for Halloween this year, the first time in many years that I've been at home for the holiday. I live in small town America where Americana still holds sway, so I expected and got a steady stream of children and parents to my doorstep, holding out bags for trick or treating. I don't have children, myself, and this panoply of adorable tots in various costumes made me ache to have my own, so I could pass on a love of Halloween to them. I'm generally happy to be child-free, but Halloween is one night when that decision weighs on me. In any event, I got a side-eye from many of the parents, given that I was dressed up as Morticia Addams, if Morticia Addams had had a thing for black PVC. That, too, is part of the fun.

Halloween is a night when I want to see classic horror films, so I queued up a trio of favorites. I started the first of them just as the sun was setting.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lost in the Woods

Ritual (Modus Anomali)

At the end of Ritual (Modus Anomali, 2012, directed by Joko Anwar), I wanted to refer to the movie by the title of "Ritual in Transfigured Time," after the old short film by Maya Deren, because, to an extent, this film would fit that title to a "T." No insult meant to Maya Deren, of course. This is a film that turns back on itself. It starts as a survival narrative, and ends with a death impulse. It's not entirely successful at this.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Rat Race


My friend, Renee, is absolutely mad for obscure horror movies. Every Halloween, she dredges up oddities from around the world to show at her big movie party with the aim of showing things none of the attendees has ever seen before. Given that she's friends with some hard core horror fans, this is no small task. She's been trying to stump me for years, sometimes successfully, but I don't have the same kind of monomania she has. The upside of this is that I get to walk behind her as she blazes a trail through the undergrowth. This year's mathom is Izbavitelj (1976, directed by Krsto Papic) from Yugoslavia. It's one of those strange cometary remnants of the Prague Spring, rippling half a decade later as the Croatian Spring, when Eastern European cinema had joined the raging New Waves of the 1960s and began criticizing the old order of things.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Dying By Design


The only way I can make sense of Dario Argento's 1980s output is if I consider it all as a merciless put-on. How else to approach a movie like Tenebre (1982), which has a title that translates as "Darkness" but which is brightly lit? It's a film in which the director's pet obsessions turn inward on the movie itself in a fireworks display of self-reference. It's self-serving, too, in so far as it offers a defense for Argento's peccadilloes where no defense is really needed. It is funny, though.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Going Through the Motions

Danielle Harris and John Jarratt in Shiver

It's been a while since I've seen a movie as bad as Shiver (2012, directed by Julian Richards). I almost hate writing about it, to tell you the truth. I know that some film writers love tearing into the defenselessly dreadful, but I'm not one of them. This was somebody's baby even if it's incompetent at every turn, and pointing to its awfulness seems like piling on to me. Ignoring it would be just as damning. Movies from this sector thrive on word of mouth, after all, and even bad publicity is publicity. Be that as it may, this isn't like a small indie that the director financed on credit cards. This is a film that has the resources of professional actors and a camera, so the fact that nothing comes of this largesse is an affront. As it is, it squanders what it has on trite genre tropes and unimaginative formal compositions. It's a terrible film.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Christopher Walken in The Prophecy (1995)

About a third of the way through The Prophecy (1995, directed by Gregory Widen), I stopped the movie and went and did something else. It's not that it doesn't have a hook. It does. It's more a case of needing some perspective on how poorly it's directed. If I were teaching a class at a film school, this is a film that I might show to demonstrate how not to elide changes in time and location, or, better still, as an example of the limits of auteurism. This is a film written by its director, and as such he's positioned as a classic auteur. But, man, the screenplay and the direction are totally not the reason to see this film. This is a rare film where the on-camera talent manages to completely enliven dead material. I came back to the film eventually. I mean, I've seen it before. I originally saw it when it was in theaters. My brother is fond of this film, so I've watched it with him, too. But it's not a great film, or even a particularly good one. I returned primarily because I had Viggo Mortensen to look forward to. And Christopher Walken, of course.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Free Falling

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity (2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón) is a technical marvel and one of the most viscerally terrifying films I've ever seen. It's the very definition of a "ride" movie. Show this on the huge screen at Epcot center while shaking the audience with rumble seats and it wouldn't be out of place. This isn't a criticism, and if I seem ungrateful going forward for focusing on what the film lacks, I'm not, really, because for what it is, Gravity is absolutely splendid.

The film this most reminds me of is The Impossible. Like that film, the seeming miracle of what it puts on screen frequently overrides other critical concerns. Film craft is underrated in critical discourse, sometimes. Does a Fabergé egg need to say something beyond the exquisite craft of its making? I say no. A narrative film, though, makes promises, and like The Impossible, this film has dramatic deficiencies. Cuarón is smart to keep things simple, but it makes for a film that's ultimately shallow, however broad the net of its craft may be cast.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Inside Outside

Sharni Vinson in You're Next

I think that you can't actually spoil a good movie, but I also know that many people think that spoilers are rude. This is a dilemma when I'm confronted by a movie like You're Next (2011, directed by Adam Wingard), because many of its pleasures are built around surprising the audience and picking it apart to demonstrate how it works is a bit like dissecting the golden goose. The fact that it does work is also a surprise in itself, given that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's previous films have sometimes felt like shambolic, kit-bashed affairs, and this one is constructed like a watch.

Note: I'll try to avoid spoiling the film, but I may not completely manage. You've been warned.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Not Constantinople

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

For a filmmaker who isn't normally thought of as a genre director, Neil Jordan sure does make a lot of horror movies. Byzantium (2013) is his second vampire film, and acts as a kind of distaff companion piece to Interview With the Vampire. Jordan is attracted to the Gothic roots of the horror film, which are on full display in Byzantium, a film that nests flashbacks inside flashbacks, and spirals around its narrative to come at its core elements obliquely. Those core elements are the two great themes of the Gothic: sex and death.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mix and Match

Shadow (2009)

My friend, Roberta, teaches Italian film, so when she says I need to have more Italian films on my long Halloween slog, I'm inclined to listen to her. Her recommendations were Dellamorte Dellamore (which I've seen several times, including the uncut version she recommended) and Shadow (2009, directed by Federico Zampaglione), of which, I knew nothing. Fortunately, it's on Netflix so into the queue it went. It's been a while since Italy produced any important horror films--the golden age of Italian genre film ended when the government decided to quit funding "entertainments" in favor of more highbrow fare--so I was curious to see what a contemporary horror movie from Italy looks like.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Roll Them Bones

The Living Skeleton

During the golden age of Japanese film, Shôchiku was Japan's Tiffany studio, home to Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Kinoshita. It's singularly weird to see their familiar Mount Fuji logo attached to schlocky horror movies. And yet, during the 1960s, horror came to Shôchiku, as the title of Criterion's boxed set of their horror movies announces. The Living Skeleton (Kyûketsu dokuro-sen, 1968, directed by Hiroshi Matsuno) is a fun example, though it's quaint even in the mainstream of Japanese horror. I mean, Japan was already making horror masterpieces like The Face of Another and Kwaidan, so it's not like this film appears in a vacuum. In spite of that, it's strangely forward-looking, anticipating the J-horror boom of the 1990s and John Carpenter's The Fog.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cold Comfort

Kevin Yeger and Laurence Fishburne in The Colony

I went into The Colony (2013, directed by Jeff Renfroe) completely blind. I knew nothing about it except that is was a science fiction/horror hybrid. I like going into a movie blind, to tell the truth, because it allows that movie to surprise me. That most movies rarely do speaks either to a lack of ambition on the part of filmmakers or to my own jaded familiarity with movie tropes. Regardless, it's up to the film to break through that. The Colony isn't that film. About a third of the way through the film, I realized that I was watching a zombie movie in post-apocalyptic dress. Well, crap, I thought.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lovecraft a Go-Go

The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror Lancer Paperback Cover

I first read The Dunwich Horror when I was fourteen, if I recall correctly. A haunter of used bookstores even then, I found the story in an awesome old Lancer paperback with the cover at the right. This wasn't the first Lovecraft I read--I had a collection of some of his lesser prose sketches and Lord Dunsany rip-offs, and those didn't really fire my imagination. This book, on the other hand, with stories like "Pickman's Model," "The Thing on the Doorstep," "The Haunter of the Dark," and the title story--this book kicked my ass hard.

I don't think I saw the movie version for another six years. I never caught it on TV, and finally found it at a mom and pop rental video store next to the door to the porn room. It was next to Jess Franco's Eugenie on the shelf, and a couple of tapes down from Die, Monster, Die, both of which ended up in the stack of tapes I rented along with The Dunwich Horror. Also on that stack was City of the Living Dead and Liquid Sky. I was in for a disappointing weekend. That's cinephilia for you, I guess. The Dunwich Horror (1970, directed by Daniel Haller) never comes anywhere near the weirdness of the short story, mostly because it's a monster movie with out a monster and a movie about sex without any sex and a horror movie without any horror. Looking back at this film from a vantage point in 2013, it seems absurd that the MPAA rated this "R", even in those days before the PG-13. There's a lot about this movie that's baffling.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Hellbound Train

Night Train Murders

I took a break from new viewings last night to watch an old favorite. Here's what I wrote about Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders (1975) a decade ago. I don't really have much to add to this.

Synopsis: Lisa and Margaret are on holiday from their school in Munich. They decide to take the train to Lisa's home in Italy. Unfortunately, the train is host to a pair of young hoodlums, Blackie and Curly, on the lam from roughing up Father Christmas in the street and looking for more trouble. Blackie has the swagger; Curly has an arm full of hop. Also on the train is an upper class woman. She looks prim and proper, but the predations of Blackie and Curly unleashes something within her and she is soon their partner in crime, slowly taking control of their activities. Unfortunately for Lisa and Margaret, the trio has fixed on them as their victims. At the upper class woman's behest, Margaret is raped by a passing peeping tom and Curly deflowers Lisa with his knife. The shock kills Lisa, while Margaret flees in terror, out the window of the bathroom and onto the rocks below. The killers stuff Lisa's body out the window of the train and get off at the soonest stop, where the woman seeks medical attention for a laceration she suffered in the commotion. Unbeknownst to them, the doctor is Lisa's father, who discovers exactly who he is treating...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Second Verse Same as the First

Kurt Russell in Escape from LA

Back when Escape from L.A. (1996, directed by John Carpenter) was in theaters, a friend of mine suggested that John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, and the late Debra Hill had photocopied the screenplay for Escape from New York, whited out all mentions of New York, and penciled "L.A." in its place. Certainly, the scenario is the same, if adapted for the left coast. The two films are similar, too, in so far as they're both films with ideas that exceed the reach of their available resources. This is perhaps an exaggeration. Escape from New York was a far more serious-minded exploitation film than its sequel. Escape from L.A., on the other hand, seems like some kind of demonic parody of the original film, of tough-guy action pictures in general, and of the body politic in 1996.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Another Roadside Massacre

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres (2012, directed by Cameron and Colin Cairns) is one of those rural massacre movies that grew up in the American South, only to take root worldwide. This one is set in Australia, where the bush is prone to drive folks a bit looney. The Cairns are completely aware of the cinematic tradition in which they're working, and they're certainly not above throwing in references to other movies, but they don't do it in a lazy, self-referential manner. Instead, they weave it into a running thread of black comedy. There has always been a strain of ghoulish humor in this kind of movie, and this one embraces that with a gusto.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

There's No Time Like the Present

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

I normally don't believe the teenagers in most films about teenagers. Hollywood teens aren't like any teens I've ever met, even back when I was one. So it comes as a surprise that I believed the teens in The Spectacular Now (2013, directed by James Ponsoldt) implicitly. There's a level of verisimilitude in this movie that's so unusual for films of its type that it's a shock to see it on screen. Movies are almost never this clear-eyed and candid about what it's like to be a teenager.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Duplication Errors

Come Out and Play

Call it the Psycho dilemma: The danger that, when closely remaking a given film, you will miss some animating ka that gave the earlier film life. Gus Van Sant's Psycho is almost (though not quite) a frame for frame recreation of Hitchcock's film, but there's some spark of life that's missing. It's a film that sits dead on the screen. It's a bit like the kid in Pet Semetary. He looks like the living kid, but he's dead inside, and worse. He's possessed of something rancid and awful. Another such film is last year's Come Out and Play (2012, directed by Makinov), an ill-advised remake of Who Can Kill a Child? In both it's broad outlines and in its particulars, this is the same damned movie. Like Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates and the kid in Pet Semetary, something has been lost and replaced by something...wrong.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Carrion Comfort Food

Cockneys vs. Zombies

After sitting through Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012, directed by Matthias Hoene), I think I'm going to take a long vacation from zombie movies. This one doesn't do anything that Shaun of the Dead didn't do better, even taking into account this film's greater willingness to indulge in over the top gore. I'm sure that teenage gore hounds out there will love this film even though its best gag is a retread of Day of the Dead. I was bored by it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dispatches from the Void

Europa Report

As I was saying a couple of days ago, the "found footage" film appears to be here to stay. Here's another example. Europa Report (2013, directed by Sebastián Cordero) is a hardcore science fiction film that uses the form to ratchet up the dread as a crew of intrepid astronauts investigate the possibilities of life on Jupiter's icebound moon, Europa. This is a film that demonstrates the fact that science fiction and horror were born as conjoined twins and were never quite separated into tidy, discreet individuals.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Luis Tosar in Sleep Tight

Jaume Balaguero is a horror filmmaker who knows the value of cruelty. His films aren't content to just knife the viewer in the small of the back: he likes to twist the knife a couple of times for good measure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ending of Sleep Tight (2011), which is as nihilistic an image as is possible given that it's a shot of a mother holding her son. It's a brutal movie that manages its brutality with surprisingly little violence. Physical violence, in any case. Emotional violence? Oh, mercy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

War is Hell

Frankenstein's Army

A friend of mine designs role playing games. When I mentioned that I was watching Frankenstein's Army (2013, directed by Richard Raaphorst), she told me that it's a game movie. She compared it to a first person shooter--and it's TOTALLY that--but my own preferences in gaming run to table top wargames, where kitbashed monsters like the beasties that inhabit this movie are incredibly common. So, yeah. It's totally a game movie, on multiple levels. I can't call it a fan film, because it has a level of production value that's well beyond what that phrase entails, but the impulses behind both its form and its aesthetic are both derived from fan culture.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When the World is Running Down...

Brad Pitt in World War Z

World War Z (2012, directed by Marc Forster), which is a zombie film writ large with nearly limitless resources, gets a lot of things right: it has an awareness of the terror that comes when the machine stops. It has an awareness of what it's like to be adrift in a world where you're surrounded by malign forces around every corner. What it does well is what the best zombie movies have always done well. When it rampages off into new territory, though? That's when it gets itself into trouble.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Grave Men

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in Burke and Hare

It's appropriate that Burke and Hare (2010), John Landis's long-delayed return to feature filmmaking should bear the name of Ealing Studios. Ealing, after all, made its name with quirky comedies laced with gallows humor in such films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, and they produced at least one genuine masterpiece of a horror film in Dead of Night. Even at their sunniest, Ealing's films often had a whiff of Halloween about them, even if they never really went in for the kinds of shocks Hammer Studios would pioneer a decade later. Hammer's biggest star, Christopher Lee is in this film, and thus acts as a bridge between their traditions, while adding a touch of class and a smidgen of horror movie cred to a film that's a sweet-tempered black comedy at its heart.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Chinese Connection

Louis Koo in Drug War

Johnnie To's Drug War (2012) finds the director working in Mainland China for the first time. As such, he's had to make the demands of the mainland marketplace. It's a testament to the director's filmmaking savvy that not only hasn't this hindered his ability to put his trademarked noir sensibility on the screen, it may have intensified it. Still, there are some noticeable differences between this film and his usual crime films.

Note: Here there be spoylers.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Round on the House

Russell Covey, Richard Coyle, and Ruth Bradley in Grabbers

The premise of Grabbers (2012, directed by John Wright) is what you would get if Ealing Studios back in the early 1950s had been into monster movies. A meteor containing monsters that eat humans crashes off the coast of Erin Island north of Ireland. Humans who are drunk are toxic to the monsters, so bottoms up! It's like Whiskey Galore crossed with It Came from Beneath The Sea. It's ridiculous, of course, as all mash-ups are. Once you get past that, you begin to see its charm.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

It's Only a Movie, It's Only a Movie...

The Act of Killing

It seems almost obscene for me to be categorizing The Act of Killing (2012, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer) as any kind of genre film, given that its subjects are men who committed mass murder with impunity in the 1966 Indonesian civil war, but the film itself invites the viewer to deal with the horror it's depicting through the lens of film. Its conceit is that the men involved recreate their atrocities on film. The result, as both the global project that is The Act of Killing and the scenes within authored by its subjects is a derangement that you might get if Abbas Kairostami, Alejandro Jodorowski, and John Waters had collaborated on a mondo documentary. This is a tough film to watch.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Disease Vectors

Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon in Antiviral

It's always hard for children of titanic fathers to step out of the shadows of their legacies. Some children make dramatic breaks--Duncan Jones, for instance, is making movies that don't resemble anything Bowie in the least. Some children carry on the family business: Arlo Guthrie, for instance, or Sophia Coppola. This is the path chosen by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, whose debut feature, Antiviral (2012) is exactly the sort of psychoplasmic nightmare with which his father once made his name. Like those films, this is intellectual, distant, clinical, and creepy as all get out.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Lost Horizons

Event Horizon

Back when Event Horizon (1997, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) was first in theaters, a friend of mine came back from a first-night showing and absolutely raged at how stupid it was. Such was his vitriol that I eventually passed on it. I never did catch up to it in the years since. Now I find myself approaching it with apprehension. The premise--which my friend detailed with the loving umbrage of the truly offended--is genuinely silly: The first interstellar spacecraft--equipped with a gravity drive that folds space and allows it to use an extra-dimensional shortcut to bypass the speed limit imposed by relativity--mysteriously vanishes on its first voyage. Seven years later, it reappears in orbit around Neptune, having, literally, gone through hell. Yes, hell. H-E-double toothpicks. As a literal place.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Pit of Despair

The Hole (2009)

For a film that plays squarely in the realm of young adult horror, Joe Dante's The Hole (2009) goes to some very dark places. I mean, this is a movie for people who grew up reading Goosebumps and watched movies like Poltergeist or Arachnophobia or Gremlins (natch) on long autumn Saturdays back when Reagan was president. Had this been made back then, this likely would have had the imprimatur of Amblin and Steven Spielberg. It might even have been directed by Dante himself. But this film is different from the films Dante made in those halcyon days: more introspective, more in touch with psychological horror than with the antic possibilities of cinema. It's more of a horror movie than any of Dante's features since The Howling. That's a long stretch of time.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Damned If You Do

Joséphine de La Baume in Kiss of the Damned

The obvious touchstone for Xan Casavettes's 60s vampire pastiche, Kiss of the Damned (2012) is Jean Rollin, who made vampire movies and other horror movies that straddle the art house and the grindhouse, and most of the writing I've seen about the film makes that connection early and often. What's perhaps under-perceived is the debt this film owes to the surrealists and the symbolists. The roots of the Euro-vampire film, whether lowbrow trash like Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos or upscale trash like Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses are not found in Hammer films or Murnau, but are rather derived from Cocteau (particularly L'enfants Terribles, his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville), Franju, and Alain Resnais, whose Last Year at Marienbad contains the same kind of dream logic and vaguely erotic ennui that permeates its more sanguinary descendants. Marienbad provides the art-vampire film with one of it's signature performers in Delphine Seyrig, who would later star in Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness in a performance that is intended to invoke her work for Resnais. Kiss of the Damned is (self-)aware of this tradition, and isn't coy about cluing the audience into it. In an early scene, for instance, it conflates Viridiana with a vampire movie on late-night television. In another, its heroine meets the object of her desire in a late-night video store that still has VHS tapes on the shelf. It's a funny wink and a nod, though the film is generally deadly serious. This is a film out of its time and it knows it, and its great misfortune is to appear after decades of tragic neurasthenic vampires have crowded the marketplace. But then again, Anne Rice was influenced by Jean Rollin, too.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

In Dreams I Walk With You...

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street 4

I lost track of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies somewhere in the mid-eighties. I saw the first three in the theater and then never got around to another one until New Nightmare. I'm not really a fan of the series, though I do like the New Nightmare quite a bit--I think it's Wes Craven's best film, actually. In truth, I haven't even thought much about the series in the years since. So the fourth entry, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master (1988, directed by Renny Harlin) was terra incognito for me. I'm hazy on which characters are held over from the third movie, but it doesn't matter much. They're all meat for the grinder.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

All Politics is Local

Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai

There are two musical interludes in Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai (2012). I can't say that they aren't jarring, because they totally are. I mean, I get it. This is an Indian film and hews to the conventions of its cinematic tradition. Bollywood is hard to escape. But, man, there's a serious cognitive dissonance involved. This film is dark and political and gritty, and then suddenly, we're in the middle of a Bollywood musical? In retrospect, the musical numbers actually work in context, but the change in tone is enough to give one whiplash.

An Arm and a Leg

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary

As it flies off the rails in its second half, all I could think while I was watching American Mary (2012, directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska) was, "How could this film NOT fly of the rails?" This is a film that thrives on transgression. It's the rare film that can forge transgression for its own sake into something coherent and satisfying and integrated, and this isn't that film. In spite of that, it's fun film to follow down the rabbit hole.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Bird of Ill Omen

Robert Redford and Cliff Robertson in Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor (directed by Sydney Pollack) was made in 1975, right after the first oil shocks and in the aftermath of Watergate. At the time, its conspiracy theory was thought to be ridiculously far-fetched, indistinguishable from other strains of lefty paranoia. From a vantage point in 2013, it's a movie that seems unusually prescient, with its secret plans to invade the middle east and its shadowy intelligence shenanigans. That parts of the film are set in the World Trade Center underline this with a dread that the filmmakers could never have foreseen.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Running To A Standstill

Abdelhamid Nawara in Die Welt

Die Welt (2013, directed by Alex Pitstra) starts out with an absolutely savage critique of American cultural imperialism. In this scene, a man asks the clerk at a Tunisian DVD shop to sell him a copy of Transformers 2 only to receive a tirade about the meaning of the images in that film, about how they disrespect both the customer and Arabs in general, about how the forces of the Middle East aren't up to the challenge of evil robots, but the Americans are. This scene is hilarious, pointed, and absolutely futile, even for Abdallah, the clerk, who the film follows through pre- and post-revolution Tunisia chasing dreams of escape. It's the film in microcosm.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Gentle Reminder

October Horror Movie Challenge Banner Thing version

The October Horror Movie Challenge starts in a little over a week. I hope all you boys and ghouls have lined up a fabulous slate of movies to watch. I'll be busting out my corsets and black latex hobble dress and getting into my horror hostess goth girl persona for the month. Let me know in the comments if you're blogging the challenge and, especially, if you're doing the challenge for charity. I'll be watching movies for the MS Society this year at a rate of fifty cents for every movie I watch. In past years, I've given more, but things are tough all over right now. Be that as it may, if any of my readers (hah!) would like to pledge some amount of money to the MS Society for every movie I watch, that would rock (let me know if you do, and I'll keep a running tally, Jerry's Kids-style). No obligation, though. The Challenge is first and foremost intended to be fun.

Also, feel free to join the Challenge on Facebook or at the the IMDB's horror board. Lots of good folks doing the challenge in both places.

For myself, I have no idea of what I'm going to watch yet. Some films I want to see are these, though, if I have the opportunity:

In any event, ladies and gents, prepare to start your screaming...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Family That Plays Together...

Robert De Niro in The Family

Making a "one from column A" movie is a lot like improvisational cooking: you throw flavors into the mix in the hopes that they'll complement one another. A good cook knows that chocolate and peanut butter go together. Throwing together flavors that don't complement each other? That's a recipe for disaster. A famous example of this is Stephen Bochco's notorious TV flop, Cop Rock, which tried to fuse his Hill Street Blues/N.Y.P.D. Blue with musical numbers. Man, that didn't work at all. Most of these kinds of experiments aren't nearly so radical. The Family (2013, directed by Luc Besson), for instance, slides easily into the category of the mob comedy--itself a hybrid, but a road-tested one--and adds a dash of Twain's Innocents Abroad. It's an uneasy mix, but it's not so radical that it will put an audience off its lunch. It doesn't necessarily add up, though.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Haves and Have-Nots

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

At the end of Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine (2013), my moviegoing companion turned to me and said: "Wow. That was totally Streetcar." She's right, of course. Blue Jasmine is consciously updating A Streetcar Named Desire for the Great Recession, but that's not all it has on its mind. It's just the framework. This is yet another portrait of the wreckage of late capitalism, seen this time from the point of view of the mighty who have fallen. It's a steep drop from the top of the world.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

High and Low

Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux in L'enfant d'en haut (Sister)

L'enfant d'en haut (aka: Sister, 2012, directed by Ursula Meier) is the first film that the great cinematographer, Agnes Godard, has shot with a digital camera. I wonder if this is a film that could have been shot digitally before this year or last, because the main drawback of digital has been the dynamic range of the image. This is a film that goes from a physical (and metaphorical) darkness to the blinding white of snowy ski slopes and back with regularity. I can imagine Godard pulling her hair out trying to get her camera to do what she wants. Part of her solution was a careful focus on the film's characters, shot mostly in intimate close-up whenever the landscape threatens to intrude. This is a film set in a spectacular landscape that resolutely ignores that landscape. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Godard tells how she wanted to avoid shooting postcards (and how difficult that is in this film's setting). They don't serve the story, she says. She's wrong about that, but she's such an intuitive artist that her approach manages to integrate the landscape with the story in a way a cinematographer more cowed by the visuals of her surroundings might not. In any event, this is an intimate film.