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.