January 26, 2007

Critical Potpourri 1/26/07

Remember the Colin Ferrell who stole scenes from Tom Cruise in Minority Report? What happened to that guy? He doesn't show up in Miami Vice (2006, Michael Mann) [38], but then, that's really the least of the film's problems. Ostensibly based on the TV show (which I never saw), the feature version is so bland, so lacking in distinction, it may as well be called Drug Bust!. We know the Mann m.o.: men who define themselves by their work, who have to define themselves that way because the world they live in is slippery, amorphous, and only they can bring meaning to it, while the whole package is delivered with operatic brio. This was best demonstrated by Heat, where his Dostoevskyian universe felt grounded in everyday, banal reality, the grand philosophical crises of cops and robbers undercut, as in the famous robbery sequence, by the dull clack-clack-clack of gunfire.

But where Heat had actual characters to organize this worldview around, here he has department store mannequins named Sonny and Rico, and the drama required to bring his m.o. in focus is replaced by hot air and testosterone. Most scenes are standard issue my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours confrontations between our undercover heroes and drug lords, whose trust they want to earn. But there never feels like there's anything at stake. There's a middle-section romance between Sonny and Gong Li's assistant drug lord or whatever she's supposed to be, and we're expected to care because... why? They have hot monkey sex? All that's left is the visuals, which have been bafflingly heralded in most quarters. At the risk of sounding like A----- W----, I can't help but think this approval boils down to "Oooh, pink sky! I've seen that in real life!"

While there's nothing wrong with appreciating Miami Vice as a series of abstract images, it doesn't really hold up, because there's still an underlying reliance on Hollywood conventions of structure and closure. Had Mann really jumped in with both feet, Drug Bust! could've looked a bit like L'Intrus (The Intruder) (2006, Claire Denis) [70], a spy tale at turns haunting and frustrating. The story, as far as I can tell, is about Louis, an old man living in Switzerland, who is actually a Russian spy. His heart is going out on him, so he retires and arranges to have a heart transplant and, with a new lease on life, attempts to regain ahold of the past that slipped away from him while he was a spy. I think. The film is fragmented and impressionistic, so that summary is possibly full of errors -- and I've seen it twice.

(I want to pause to note that the first time I saw it was in a theater, and near the end, there was a projection problem, and the image started to darken, very slowly, over the course of ten minutes. Despite this, I was always enthralled, and if Louis' problem had been glaucoma, I'd never even known there was something wrong.)

Still, the plot is somewhat secondary. It's the succession of images that enthrall: a baby's smiling face, a dog chewing on a human heart, the black ocean, the oppressive weight and hugeness of a steam ship contrasted with floating ribbons dispersed in its honor. Between this and the monolithic score by the Tindersticks, the film creates a wonderfully oneiric mood, where the distinction between reality, memory, and dream dissolve. Yet this is also the source of my frustrations; at times, it's so cryptic, that it can feel like the movie is drifting off without you. The ending is particularly irritating -- no summation, no resolution, it just disperses the way it floated in. (Does this make me a hypocrite w/r/t my problems with Miami Vice? Then so be it.)

However, the emotional journey of Louis is never less than clear. Despite the occasional obfuscations, we discover just how isolated this old spy is, how pathetic his attempts are to engage with life again, not realizing that, despite his money, his connections, and his new heart, he is no longer the one in control. Louis returns to Tahiti to find the son he believes he has from a past affair (while essentially ignoring the one he has in Switzerland), and the people there play a trick on him. I can't decide if this trick is cruel or hopeful, but it definitely comes out of pity.

A few quick notes about V for Vendetta (2006, James McTeigue) [57]: 1. No, not as good as the comic. 2. Yes, it's been dumbed down, most egregiously in presenting V as an uncomplicated hero, where Moore always viewed him with some suspicion. 3. The direction is pretty clumsy -- repeating Evey's childhood trauma in the present, with the same exact camera setups comes across as comical, and the hectic opening, cramming too much in fifteen minutes, makes the film feel shallower than it actually is. 4. However, a few moments make their way from the comic more-or-less unchanged, like Evey's interrogation, Valerie's letter, and V's confrontation with the doctor, and the movie is stronger for it. 5. Still, I was shocked by how moved I was by the final sequence, invented for the film, where the army of Vs take off their masks, and some are revealed to be characters who had died earlier -- the one moment of fanciful unreality in a film that takes itself way too seriously.

Posted by kza at 01:49 PM

January 18, 2007

A Very Short Note about "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu"

I've read that some people think this is a comedy, albeit a black one. If it is, it's the aesthete's version of "Ow! My Balls!".

Posted by kza at 02:49 PM

June 01, 2006

The House on the Edge of the Park (1980, Ruggero Deodato)

I was expecting the worst of the worst here. Slasher flick? Check. Early 80s? Check. Italian director? Check. Cheap DVD compilation? Check. (Entitled "Horrorlicious", no less.) Fortunately, this turned out to be a stylish, well-directed "maniacs & hostages" flick, and the transfer aint bad, either. (At least compared to a different set's Cathy's Curse, which was so horrible I had to pretend it was an experimental video work.) David Hess more or less reprises his Last House character, and invites himself and his buddy Ricky (Giovanni Radice, looking an awful lot like Trey Parker) to the dinner party of Annie Belle and Spader-esque Christian Borromeo. The first forty minutes, where the lower class hooligans and the upper class weirdos sniff each other out is the best, the highlight being Ricky, to Hess's disgust, doing a striptease for the partiers. But then the knives come out, and for a while, it works. It should've ended not long after Hess literally says "boo!", as the tension extinguishes itself. Unfortunately, it continues on for another forty minutes, where it gets repetitive, then dull, then finally ludicrous. (Note to Kim Newman: There's a fine line between etc. etc.) Still, a worthy genre flick, and a capsule of a time when, if you were an actor in an exploitation film, yes, you will get nude. Good job, disco 2001 guy.

Posted by kza at 11:11 AM

May 30, 2006

Dead Again (1991, Kenneth Branagh)

I remember seeing this twice in one week when I was a sophomore at Humboldt -- and I remember being dazzled by it the first time and thinking it was a crock of shit the second. (I also remember saying as much on the tiny dry erase board on the outside of my door. That's what we had before blogs, kids. Readership quantity was about the same, though.) I grabbed this out of the bargain bin of the Evil Corporate Store That Shall Not Be Named, thinking maybe fifteen years might've softened my view of it -- although, honestly, I couldn't even remember what bothered me so much about it.

Oh that's right -- it's a crock of shit. Scott Frank's script is slathered in gooey New Age nonsense (the one character we expect to be the voice of skepticism, Robin Williams' uncredited psychiatrist, does a 180 at the end) and, like insult to injury, a heaping dose of sappiness. (Admittedly, sappiness and New Age nonsense are the peanut butter & jelly of aesthetic crimes, but one would've hoped for more from Branagh.) As a narrative, it's still undeniably engaging, thanks to Branagh's direction and a good performance by Emma Thompson. (What's interesting, fifteen years on, is that the odd-looking Thompson could have a romantic lead role like this. The 21st century does not have an Emma Thompson.) Branagh's clearly having fun with the absurd story and making references to Citizen Kane and the Hitchcock oeuvre, and even when Frank is tying everything together waaay too tightly (it feels so very McKee), it still goes down easy. (Frank's forgiven, though -- he wrote the whip-smart Out of Sight.)

At the time, I wondered why Branagh, known then as the Shakespeare Wunderkind, would take on such a big, loud, ridiculous project. Seeing his inner ham emerge over the years (Wild Wild West, Harry Potter 2), it's now obvious in retrospect that it was made for him.

Posted by kza at 06:47 PM

April 28, 2006

The Last American Virgin (1982, Boaz Davidson)

Kudos to Davidson for trying, in the last twenty minutes, to dig underneath the surface of the adolescent sex comedy and find something "real"; unfortunately, these characters aren't built to handle that kind of weight. (Imagine the Flintstones trying to do Macbeth -- it just doesn't work.) No doubt many at the time were annoyed by the wall-to-wall pop songs (especially since every single one is on the nose, thematically), but 24 years later it felt more like a time capsule, The Greatest Hits of 1981, coating the film in a kind of nostalgic haze that helps, even though it's completely unearned. (And was this thing tied up in rights issues like Heavy Metal? I can't see how it wasn't.) Only one single moment transcends the movie -- the "I Will Follow" montage -- and yet, how can you screw up with "I Will Follow"?. Still, it's good enough. People Are Gonna Look At Me Funny, Part One: Haven't done the research, but I feel pretty confident that this was a huge influence on Judd Apatow. People Are Gonna Look At Me Funny, Part Two: Kimmy Robertson in 1982 -- awww riiiight.

Posted by kza at 12:01 PM | Comments (5)

April 27, 2006

59 Movies in 35 Days

Yes, I still have a blog, although I've been so busy with Spitball! and other projects that it's taken a back seat. And unfortunately, it will probably continue to do so for the near future.

However, even though I'm not writing about films for the time being, I am concerned about my slow viewing pace. Looking over my Listology lists, I figured out that, as of yesterday, I'll need to see 59 movies in the next 35 days (now 34!) to catch up.

I'm stupid enough to try.

To that end, I'm using a free tool called Backpack to set up a public page so friends, family, strangers, The Funky Four Plus Two More, etc. can keep track of my journey. Take a look at the opening slate of 22 movies here.

UPDATE: I'll be updating my progress every Monday morning with a note at the bottom of the Backpack page.

2nd UPDATE (6/1/06): Yeah, this is over. It was pretty much over about two weeks ago when I had to take care of some family business and watching movies just wasn't in the cards. But the dream lives on -- look for the sequel in July or August.

Posted by kza at 02:20 PM | Comments (11)

February 26, 2006

Crash (2005, Paul Haggis)

[SPOILERS!]

Second only to Sin City in unintentional hilariousness. I know a movie isn't working when the tensest, most dramatic moment of the film -- in this case, the Iranian man's revenge on the Hispanic locksmith -- unleashes a giggling fit... and that was before we find out that no one was hurt. In fact, as the scene ended, with a crane shot over the confused shopkeeper, I said aloud, MST3K-style, "THESE ARE FAKE BULLETS! YOU GIVE ME REAL BULLETS!".

So yeah, it didn't quite work for me. Maybe it's because I'm tucked away in the liberal bastion of the Pacific Northwest, but I can get through the day without turning every interaction with my fellow human beings into a shouting match. I can also, amazingly, have a conversation with someone without using a racial epithet. Maybe those Angelenos are different, I dunno.

And while I don't think this'll win Best Picture, you know what would be most horrific about that possibility? They're giving Robert muthafuckin' Altman an honorary Oscar that same night. "Hey Bob -- thanks for elevating cinema with your narrative tapestries Nashville and Short Cuts. We're going to honor your contributions by giving our top award to a movie that takes all your innovations and reduces them to feces! No, thank you."

Posted by kza at 02:45 PM | Comments (9)

Red Eye (2005, Wes Craven)

Not the Hitchcockian throwback everyone seemed to be claiming at the time (if it were up to Hitch, he'd have never left the plane), but a reasonably entertaining and fast-paced (76 minutes!) thriller. "Next Julia Roberts"-if-she-wants-it Rachel McAdams is unsurprisingly good (she projects such a vulnerability, even when she has the upper hand) and while I'm still not completely sold on Cillian Murphy (he's at his best when the role takes advantage of his otherworldly, amphibian face, like Batman Begins and Breakfast on Pluto), his performance in the key scene (when he reveals his plan to McAdams) is a wonderful bit of acting, blurring the line between charm and menace. Still, I'd prefer a version that had, say, George Clooney, doing his best Cary Grant in Suspicion. Also, while ifs and buts are candy and nuts, I'd prefer a version that had a real third act (fifth-rate cat and mouse doesn't cut it), a version that didn't have a villainous plan that suggests the terrorists have been playing too many videogames (A rocket launcher aimed at a hotel room? Didn't I play that in GTA: Vice City?), and most importantly, a version that took the effort to set up long-term tensions on the plane-- every time McAdams comes up with a plan to foil Murphy, it's immediately defused a few minutes later, giving the film a turbulent, herky-jerky rhythm. Hitch would've sailed above that, as well.

Posted by kza at 01:14 PM | Comments (4)

January 20, 2006

The Island (2005, Michael Bay)

You know... is there really anything I, or anyone for that matter, can say about this movie that's interesting or even surprising? All right, Theo comes close, but really, it's pearls before swine. It's probably Bay's best movie, and that still isn't a recommendation. I mean, when Ewan and Scarlett fall off the freakin' skyscraper and survive, that's hilarious, but who's really getting the last laugh here? The only thing really that kept my attention was wondering if Scarlett's absurd, girly running was a character choice or just natural.

Posted by kza at 10:03 PM

January 07, 2006

Dark Water (2005, Walter Salles)

Piffle, but for awhile there, pretty damn good piffle. I've said before that one of the best kinds of horror movies are the ones where the horror could be removed from the story and still be successful, yet paradoxically, the horror is inextricably intertwined with the everyday concerns of the protagonists. (See also: Divorce-as-horror in The Brood or Fear of sex-as-horror in Cat People.) But while those two examples, IMO, are thematically rich, here we're saddled with Parent issues-as-horror, and the whole thing deflates, when it becomes clear that the parent issues are merely a pretext for ghost clichés and nothing more. But wow, what a great ride until then! Top notch cinematography by Affonso Beato (Ghost World) and great sound design by Frank Gaeta, and a cast that's, frankly, too good for this. I've never thought Jennifer Connelly was quite the actress everyone thinks she is (she was better when she was younger and heavier) but she turns in good work here, convincing as a loving mother but subtle enough to suggest she's as crazy as her ex-husband suggests. And John C. Reilly, as you've probably already read, rocks on toast. (Everything he says is dripping with subtext; so why couldn't the little girl be given the same kind of respect? Why couldn't we just read her distaste of the apartment through her face and body language, rather than her banal whining? Just asking.) Finally, I didn't know beforehand who played Connelly's lawyer; when I finally recognized him, I let out a yelp of glee. Theo, typically, has it exactly right: "[He] is the real magician, moving from flaky Alan Dershowitz figure to plausible (if not quite endorsed) romantic lead without apparently changing a thing." Not successful, but definitely worth seeing.

Posted by kza at 09:15 PM | Comments (2)

The Cave (2005, Bruce Hunt)

Surprisingly straightforward and unpretentious telling of a delicious premise -- well, delicious if one of your key cinematic experiences was Cameron's Aliens. Seriously, I can't really get enough of the "team of professionals trapped somewhere with vicious monsters" genre, so YMMV -- but after watching a half-hour of the execrable Into The Blue, a celebration of wealth and vacuousness that makes "MTV Spring Break" look like Ken Loach, I'll take this relatively sober and clamped-down affair.

And it's not without its little surprises and tensions. There's a nice moment when lead spelunker Cole Hauser peeks over a rock and into a small chamber -- I won't spoil it, but it made me laugh with surprise -- and the set-pieces (Piper Perabo's climb, the rapids, the giant lake in the pitch black cave), in and of themselves, work.

Unfortunately, Hunt doesn't seem to know how to properly pace and draw out his set-pieces. It feels like all the necessary slow parts to properly set up the action parts were edited out -- imagine Aliens without the re-grouping scene right after the transport ship crashes on the surface, or any of the lab scenes. It's particularly notable in the rapids sequence, which could've been really cool but, because we're in the dark about where it might go or what precisely the dangers are, is merely interesting. And so the film ends up a lot like those rapids: fast, brutal, but a little monotonous.

Posted by kza at 09:14 PM

January 03, 2006

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

Sorry folks, but I'm going to have to throw my hands up in defeat. It's been 11 days since I saw this (I'm writing on the 12th) and I just don't remember enough to say anything even remotely worth reading. A shame, too -- formally interesting but also emotionally moving, it was the best film of 2005. With any luck, Matt will fill in the blanks.

Posted by kza at 09:13 PM | Comments (3)

April 10, 2005

Saw (2004, James Wan)

So apparently, there are two kinds of bad horror movies -- or more precisely, I have two distinct reactions to bad horror movies. On one side are the ones that have promise, whether it be a good idea or a decent actor or an intriguing trailer, but bungle the follow-through so bad that I sit there literally seething, wanting to reach through the screen and strangle everyone in front and behind the camera. (Think: May, Cabin Fever, and all-time winner The House of the Dead.) Then there are the ones that are so inept, so lacking in any sort of clue, that they achieve a kind of accidental brilliance, usually (but not always) by biting off more than they can possibly think to chew. The only appropriate response is laughter, but (for me at any rate), there's a grudging respect behind the laughter, marveling at the chutzpah behind each terrible decision. (Think: 1979's The Amityville Horror, Larry Buchanan's "It's Alive!", and all-time winner Dreamcatcher.)

Saw, for the first eighty-five minutes or so, falls squarely into Type One. It begins with an interesting premise, but soon wastes it with nonsensical character actions, unnecessary subplots, poorly-conceived flashback sequences, and awful, awful dialogue. (Amusingly, co-screenwriter Leigh Whannell plays one of the main roles, and not only is he a terrible actor, but he gives himself the worst lines.) Most annoying, however, is the amount of style (or better put, "style") that director Wan ladles over this thing: dropped frames, jump-cuts, second-hand Se7en chic, culminating in a ridiculous 360 degree shot that circles around a bound-and-gagged potential victim. Any built-up horror is extinguished by Wan figuratively sticking his thumb on the camera lens.

So, yeah, I was about to give up on Saw, ready to give it a single digit rating, chalking its $55 million box office take to collective insanity. (Well, that last one still applies.) But then, miraculously, in the last fifteen minutes, it turns into a Type Two. I'm not sure where exactly it happened, but the climax of its brilliant absurdity (if not the movie) is a ten-second car chase (or better put, car "chase"), so cheap-looking and ludicrous, clearly so embarrassing for the actors involved, that it would put an admiring tear in the eyes of schlock filmmakers everywhere. But there's more than that. There's Cary Elwes' shocking transformation from bland hero to over-emoting monstrosity, which some have compared to that of Vincent Price and silent-era actors, but I think is more comparable to when Calculon grieved over the body of his beloved Coilette. (Watch the moment when he learns he's talking to his wife, not the killer, on the cell phone.) And finally, there's the final twist ending, which was much derided in the geek world, to which I must reply, "Didn't you watch the previous ninety-nine minutes?" Yes, it's illogical, unlikely, and possibly stupid, but those are the qualities that the film is based on. Yet, unlike the rest of the film, the ending was genuinely surprising and done well. Too bad that means Saw 2.

Posted by kza at 11:36 AM | Comments (2)

April 02, 2005

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974, Michael Cimino)

Tiring, glib, pointless action/comedy about an old thief (Clint Eastwood) and a young thief (Jeff Bridges, a terrible performance from a reliable actor) who attempt to rob a vault in a Montana town. Well, that's what happens about an hour into this thing, the previous sixty minutes being a character piece without any characters. At times, the gorgeous Widescreen Montana countryside and rambling narrative make it look like a road movie/Western, like Butch Cassidy or Two-Lane Blacktop, but it lacks the wit and strong structure of the former and the (admittedly, hard to repeat) Beckettian rigor of the latter. Instead, it tries for a slice-of-life, then-this-happened folksiness, but the results are contrived wackiness. (The worst scene features a character that picks up the hitch-hiking duo, who turns out to be crazy and carrying rabbits in his trunk, all for no good reason). And the weird gay subtext (Eastwood and Bridges "meet cute" in an action context; Bridges constantly talks about their relationship, and makes baiting passes at George Kennedy, the villain) is interesting, but I'm not convinced Cimino put it in there for anything other than cheap yuks. The climactic heist is adequately entertaining, and I get a strange pleasure from watching regular cars leave the pavement and drive off-road (see also: Badlands, Moby's "Porcelain" video), but then it ends on a "bittersweet" note that it did absolutely nothing to earn, in the process looking like a parody of the 70s downer ending. Bonus points for Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, and Burton Gilliam; points taken away for doing nothing with them.

Posted by kza at 09:04 PM | Comments (1)

March 21, 2005

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974, Brian Clemens)

Contrary to his entry in IMDB, the World's Phoniest Bat does not appear in this film. Rather, the part of "Bat" is played by his cousin, the World's Most Immobile Bat. Born with rigiditis, a disease that only afflicts sentient bat puppets, TWMIB admired his cousin's success in the film industry, and yearned to live what he thought was his cousin's glamorous Hollywood lifestyle. Although TWMIB found a few paying jobs -- Captain Kronos was his most high-profile appearance -- there simply wasn't demand for a bat that had to be held in place by the "victim" to simulate a vicious attack, and TWMIB soon retired from the industry. He currently runs a BP station in Medford, Oregon. Ironically, he is unable to pump your gas.

Posted by kza at 10:35 AM | Comments (1)

January 18, 2005

The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire (a.k.a. Count Yorga, Vampire) (1970, Bob Kelljan) (v)

Another fond childhood nightmare down the shitter. Still has its moments: a good shot revealing the heroine's vampire-induced madness by focusing on her ankles as she moves around her trashed apartment, one of the young men lighting a match after a blackout, then looking up into the face of Count Yorga (a shot expanded upon to greater effect in Kelljan's Scream, Blacula, Scream), and the tense climax -- when the villain mocks your call for help, you know you're in deep shit. I don't even mind the oft-derided narration, which attempts in the opening scene to bridge the gap between gothic Hammer horror and the sunlit, New Agey world of 1970 Los Angeles. But the integration isn't as successful as I originally thought. How did I miss how fakey and House of Waxy Yorga's inner chamber looks? Why did I think that the film had a creepy Hotel California vibe when it's just underexposed? Why didn't I notice that it was originally intended as a soft-core cheapie (see original title, on the DVD print)? Speaking of which, how could I have possibly missed the poor lighting, where certain nightime scenes look exactly like the daytime they were filmed in, and the blotchy, flat look that would embarrass the producers of stag films? Still worth a look, especially for the last fifteen minutes, but I'm thinking I seriously underrated the more professional Blacula sequel.

Posted by kza at 12:32 PM | Comments (2)

January 13, 2005

Dragonslayer (1981, Matthew Robbins) (v)

Still my favorite fantasy movie (of the D&D subtype) of all time, and that's including LOTR. I love them hobbits as much as the next geek, and while the epic scale of the thing is impressive, I really love Dragonslayer's inconsequential-corner-of-the-world setting. And what a setting: The time of magic and fantastic beasts is at an end, soon to be replaced by some newfangled religion called "Christianity". Everyone can feel the change in the air, from sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to the peasants to the dragon herself. (Naturally, only the local ruler is clueless.) When a group of peasants led by Valerian (the late Caitlin Clarke) ask Ulrich to kill the dragon that's terrorized their village for years, the last living sorcerer and the last living dragon are pit against each other. And in this medieval backwater, hidden away from any cultural or political center, the old world of magic takes its last breath, only witnessed by a few.

Arguably, the movie doesn't have to do anything more than provide a dragon and a hero to slay it, but smartly, it takes this scenario and adds some depth and twists to it. Nearly every character has more than one side. There's the protagonist, Galen (Peter MacNicol, an interesting choice that works), a socerer's apprentice-turned-warrior, who, amusingly, steps into his hero role with glee and a sense of entitlement. (Ironically, his true role is revealed to be much more passive.) Valerian is a girl who has been disguised as a boy for her entire life (to protect her from the virgin-eating dragon); interestingly, she becomes a stronger, more willful character once she drops the charade and embraces her femininity. The Princess (Chloe Salaman) is a sheltered girl who grows a political conscience. Tyrian (John Hallam), the nominal bad guy, is a warrior with the soul of a bureaucrat. Nobody, not even the dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative (the best dragon on film, a marvelous achievement from ILM; it wasn't until this viewing that I could tell that a form of stop-motion was used) is a clear-cut villain.

But all of this doesn't hint at how fast-paced, witty, and light-on-its-feet Robbins has made his movie. Often, a scene will kill two narrative birds with one stone (as when the Princess confronts her father about the lottery while he's examining Galen's magic amulet) and there are a number of dry humorous bits (Ulrich's entrance upon meeting Valerian and company; the way the soldiers start to run away one by one during the last sacrifice to the dragon). And Ralph Richardson is a hoot.

The end of the movie, which until this point has been all fog, smoke and darkness, is the only time we see clear sky and full daylight. It rings of a happy ending, light defeating darkness, but there's an irony there as well, as Galen and Valerian are given two choices as to what the new world will be. The darkness was dangerous, but it is missed.

Posted by kza at 02:49 PM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2005

Cabin Fever (2003, Eli Roth) (v)

While Ed Gonzalez suggests that Cabin Fever is an allegory for the Reagan administration's piss-poor response to AIDS in the 80s, and I think there's something interesting in the contrast between the clean and pretty images of this 2003 movie and the grimy funk of the 70s horror that Roth clearly admires (especially in the context of a virus story), that doesn't excuse it from being one of the worst-written movies I've seen since May. Text before subtext, I always say. (Actually, I've never said that, but I think I've always believed it.)

And the text is amazingly, frustratingly terrible. Nearly every important moment in the story is lazily contrived to the Nth degree: the decision to drink only beer, the nearby camper and his dog, the attempt to get help from the nearby cabin, the damaged truck (which is ridiculously unspecific; there may as well be a Sims-style status bar over the character that fixes it), and the biting kid, the fucking kid that bites. Biting Kid is representative of how arbitrary everything in the story is; Roth sets up "rules" for his behavior in the beginning, then blatantly violates them at the end for the sake of moving the movie forward.

And a little thought and imagination could've improved things. Roth reveals the source of the infection early on, presumably in order to create some Hitchcockian tension. But he blows this (there should be at least one moment when someone accidentally knocks over a glass of bad water), and it turns out the tension is a zero-sum game anyway; either they drink it, or they don't. If the reveal of the source had been delayed, the audience would've been in the same place as the characters, confused and terrified as to the source of the disease. The arguments and strategies the characters devise for protecting themselves would've made them more sympathetic (always key to a horror story is, "What would I do in that situation?"); instead, we know what the problem is and are encouraged to take a smug, superior view of things.

I suppose some would say that all of the above is beside the point, that Cabin Fever is not a horror film but a nightmare comedy, like After Hours. Perhaps. But a nightmare comedy is more than just a bunch of crazy shit that happens; it's a philosophical statement, that the universe is random and unknowable, and it's expressed through the travails of a Job-like Everyman. But the presence of a virus and its known vector undercuts the philosophy, and the ill-defined and obnoxious characters undercut the Everyman. It's just a bunch of crazy shit.

Posted by kza at 12:00 PM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2005

The Skydivers (1963, Coleman Francis) (v)

I'm going to pretend for a moment that Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn't exist, a) because I watched this without the guidance and support of Mike and the 'bots, and b) as a kind of acknowledgement of some of the criticisms hurled at the show, primarily by J. Ho and J. Ro, even though I think those criticisms are misguided.

Coleman Francis was kind of a right-wing Ed Wood: a passionate filmmaker with a vision and absolutely no talent to bring it forth. The Skydivers was his second of three completed features, in between the tentative steps of his first, The Beast of Yucca Flats and his defining statement, Night Train to Mundo Fine, a.k.a. Red Zone Cuba. The world of Coleman Francis is one of guns, airplanes, cruelty, a mistrust of government, and finally, guns, and it's probably just as well that he only made three films.

The Skydivers is slightly odd in the context of his work, in that it is the only one to feature sympathetic characters. (The men in Red Zone Cuba are thoroughly despicable, and there are no characters at all in Yucca Flats, only images of people.) The focus is on Beth (Kevin Casey) and Harry (Anthony Cardoza, Coleman's longtime producer), a couple that run a skydiving school and whose marriage is crumbling. However incompetent the staging and acting may be (and it's worse than you may imagine), there's a genuine attempt here at conveying real emotions and the distance that can come between two people. Refreshingly, Francis allows these characters to experience happiness amidst the inevitable deaths; there are plenty, plenty of shots of skydivers' faces, as they gaze on the land they are gently floating down to meet. The act of skydiving and the comraderie it fosters becomes a metaphor for the joy and acceptance that Francis sought in filmmaking.

Beth has a unique position in the Francis canon: she's the only positive female character he created. It's interesting to note that she's stripped of the usual stereotypical feminine traits of Francis Coleman women. Until the very end, she never wears anything but a baggy jumpsuit, her utterly strange hairstyle is not unlike the helmets of the skydivers, and she runs the skydiving school with quiet authority, like she was one of the guys. I also think he's non-judgmental about the affairs that Harry and Beth have; although both suffer consequences, it's clear to me that they suffer because (in all Francis pictures) there are evil people in the world, nothing more, nothing less.

But discussion of a Coleman Francis movie is incomplete without mentioning the typically garbled use of cinematic syntax. The editing is atrocious, so bad that it's literally educational -- you could learn how to edit by its negative example. While there are the expected shots with mismatched lighting and shots that make characters standing next to each other seem like they're miles apart, there is one shot that is absolutely jaw-dropping. Beth is piloting the plane, and she's on the runway, either having trouble taking off or landing (it's unclear which). The plane is moving and bouncing up and down in a wide shot. In another shot, Harry and sees her, and runs off-screen towards the plane. Then, in a medium shot, we see the body of the plane. It's still bouncing up and down (clearly from the machinations of off-screen grips). Our learned experience of film tells us, subconsciously, that the plane is still moving. But then Harry rushes into the shot -- plane still bouncing -- and pulls Beth out of the plane. In one short sequence, Francis seriously injures the Bazinian idea that there is anything "real" in the photographic image; it's all artifice, and it's (barely) held together by the viewer.

By the end, Francis' attempts at some kind of empathy are stillborn, and we get the usual manhunt-via-aircraft that ends all his films. This one is particularly noxious, since the manhunt, convened to catch a pair of murderers, is essentially a mob. No one attempts to contact the police; instead, the characters form a posse and extract frontier justice. Fittingly, the man with the rifle in the airplane is played by none other than Coleman Francis himself.

Posted by kza at 11:45 PM | Comments (2)

January 04, 2005

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969, Paul Mazursky) (v)

I'm starting to think Robert Culp is an unappreciated actor. He's got an interesting presence, a kind of wounded machismo, like a tough guy who's gone on an inner journey and discovered his feminine side, and it scares him. In A Name For Evil, he never seems entirely comfortable, either in his skin or in his social role, but is always trying to hide and/or contain this discomfort.

Which means he's perfect as Bob in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as a documentary filmmaker who, along with his wife Carol (Natalie Wood), finds himself transformed (or so he thinks) by a New Agey resort into a more open, honest, and loving human being. Meaning: he and his wife are open to having affairs without the attendant jealousy or anger. Culp is terrific; we never believe that he totally buys what he's learned at the resort, but rather that he believes he believes. When they rejoin their closest friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) after the retreat, their new attitudes (everything is "beautiful" to them) clash with their friends' neuroses, setting into motion a series of seriocomic episodes and epiphanies.

I'm not sure that "seriocomic" is the right word here; that indicates to me an alternating sequence of serious and funny scenes. What Mazursky does, to his credit, is let the viewer decide what's funny and what isn't. There are very few straight gags or one-liners; instead, the film is structured into a handful of very long scenes, each filled with awkward moments between characters that shift instantaneously from painful to funny and back again, like a ray of dramatic light that changes from a tragic particle to comedy wave. It's emotional slapstick, watching Gould trying to get Cannon to have sex with him (she's upset upon learning about Culp's affair) or Culp as he bends over backward, against his natural instincts, to treat his wife's extramarital lover with kindness and respect.

Make no mistake, however; this is definitely a Hollywood film. The ending, a rip of 8 1/2 that's a welcome departure from the naturalism of the previous hundred minutes, is also an attempt to leave on a positive note. The previous scene may have changed the relationships between the four characters for good, but we aren't privy to what those changes are, just an exhortation for the audience to find and hold onto love.

Yet while the film is a sitcom by Cassavetian standards (at times, it feels like a Hollywood reaction to Faces), it's arty and European by mainstream ones. I like how Mazursky sneaks in certain visuals from the resort (the group hugs, the beating of pillows, the intense eye contact) into this quartet's upper-class world. Interestingly, though (at least coming from the director of Down and Out in Beverly Hills), class isn't addressed here; these are rich people, with maids and giant swimming pools, and it doesn't seem like much is made of the fact that they have the money to be this self-indulgent.

(Confidential to "M": Thanks for recommending this. It did help with the script, even though I gave up on that draft after three days. [That's another story.] It has exactly the right kind of tone I'm searching for and have yet to achieve. What was most interesting, of course, was that the character in Gould's story has the same name as my main character. That was a weird coincidence.)

Posted by kza at 03:07 PM | Comments (2)

December 20, 2004

Secret Window (2004, David Koepp) (v) 42

Since it was adapted from a Stephen King story, I suppose it had to be an in-your-face horror film -- that was the selling point -- but it's a real shame no one had the guts to ditch the tired psycho stuff, since the material (divorced writer, still angry at his ex, who's getting remarried) was juicy enough as is, especially with Johnny Depp's lived-in performance and good dialogue from Koepp ("You okay? You look pale." "Yeah, thanks."), assuming that Depp isn't improvising a lot of it . Pretty obvious from the dead dog where this one is going; it has to go there, otherwise, dramatically, it doesn't make a lick of sense. (I'd beat the living fucking shit out of anyone who so much as laid a finger on my pet.) So it's pretty much an exercise in waiting for no beer and no TV to make Johnny something something... but damn if Depp doesn't do everything in his power to make the wait as painless as possible. He's always giving us something to watch: cracking his jaw, swatting at flies, hiding cigarette smoke. This performance is almost as good as the one in Pirates -- some, I suspect, might even say better, since it's less showy and more about minute gestures that reveal the character's hidden rage. Also, gets points for accurately detailing the life of a blocked-up writer (sleeping on the couch, consuming copious amounts of Doritos and Mountain Dew, talking to oneself). A shame, then, that even with a plot this dumb, the ending (with the Sheriff) goes the extra mile for stupidity.

Posted by kza at 11:07 AM | Comments (8)

December 09, 2004

Twentynine Palms (2004, Bruno Dumont) (v) 57

I'm sorry, but the corner of Eros Street and Thanatos Boulevard is getting to be a real tired place to visit in my opinion, especially when the Thanatos seems to be taken for granted. Irréversible is the most obvious referent, but Noe's film creates a universe (quite literally, come to think about it) that provides a context (right or wrong) for its violence; for Dumont, there's no need for context, no need to examine, just a simple declaration that humans are animals who fuck and kill. Frankly, that's stupid. (You'd think a former philosophy professor would feel the need to prod and examine rather than declare, but here we are.) Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the idea of a loving, destructive couple; but if you're looking for insight, then listen to The Mountain Goat's Tallahassee album.

Yet, until we get to Dumont's foregone conclusion, it's not a bad entry into the "rigorous" mise-en-scene sweepstakes. I'm fond of movies that are shot in America but are directed by non-residents (Zabriskie Point comes to mind for lots of reasons); seeing something familiar (in this case -- the deserts of Southern California -- very familiar) through another's eyes is always refreshing. There's a quick shot of the highway twisting its off-ramps into the desert that's quite beautiful, and I liked the close-up of the texture of the Joshua tree.

Still, I can't help but feel that Dumont blows it with the two "gotcha!" moments at the end, revealing a fundamental dishonesty in his approach. Both moments are, cinematically speaking, excellent; I jumped both times. But both are very much horror conventions, and I'm having trouble reconciling them with the hands-off, just-observing technique of the previous ninety minutes. If it's so important to simply to show a story that's simply happening, to "allow the viewer to think" (to paraphrase from the interview on the DVD) why resort to such manipulative tactics? Why not show these two moments from a cold long-shot? Or was everything up until this point just another way of manipulating the audience?

Posted by kza at 03:44 PM | Comments (3)

September 01, 2004

The House By The Cemetery (1981, Lucio Fulci) (v) 28

Hey folks. One visitor down, one to go. Thought I'd take this moment and post an entry so this blog doesn't look like an empty goldfish bowl. I was going through my pristine mint-condition set of Cinefantastiques when I came across this article. Enjoy!

An excerpt from “On Strings Of Darkness: An Interview with the World’s Phoniest Bat”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 28 No. 7 January, 1996, pp. 56-59.

How did you get involved with The House By The Cemetery?

After Suspiria failed to take off in the States, I started looking around for a vehicle to take advantage of my talents. I was in Germany, cooling my heels, and my agent sends me a mimeograph of a new book making the rounds – he thought I might be interested. It was Martin Cruz Smith’s Nightwing. Read it all in one night. Mesmerizing. Clearly a talented writer – this was before Gorky Park, you know. I got on the horn with my agent and asked him if the film rights were available. They were, we made an offer, and the rest… would have been history.

What happened with Nightwing?

I was forced off the project. [Director Arthur] Hiller saw the story more about the humans than the bats, and as draft after draft was written, I saw my starring role go down the tubes. I was furious. I flew back to L.A. to meet with the other producers to figure this thing out, and they sided with Hiller. So they bought me out and that was that. I went back to Europe and just went crazy. Throwing cash everywhere.

Drugs?

[Long pause.] Yeah. By the end of 1980, I was at the bottom. I was so strung-out – pardon the pun – that I couldn’t even hang upside-down anymore. December, just before Christmas, I flew straight into a plate-glass window. They said it was an accident, but I just wanted it to end. So I was in the hospital, not just recuperating but drying out, when [Dario] Argento calls. Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it? “When Argento Calls.”

He was in pre-production on Tenebre?

Right. That wasn’t the kind of movie for a bat, and if I’d been clean, I might’ve found a role in Inferno. But Argento was great. He helped me get on my feet and introduced me to [Lucio] Fulci. And that’s how I got into The House By The Cemetery.

How was your experience?

Both the best and the worst. I’m only in the one scene, but we spent three days on it. Paolo Malco was great to work with, totally professional. And patient! I’d have to spend hours on his hand. The man did not complain once. And all that blood – I’m very proud of that scene, one of my best performances.

But you didn’t know anything about the movie.

I was only given my pages. So I went in and did it and it was great. Then it’s released, and I like to sneak in and hover over the back row, you know, see the movie but more importantly, get a sense of the audience seeing the movie. Oh, God. Nothing happened. For like, half the movie. And when stuff did happen, it’s nonsensical bullcrap. I didn’t even watch the whole thing. The part where the annoying little kid, the one named “Bob” for God’s sakes, is stuck in the door, because he’s slammed the door on his own arm? I left. I flapped my way out of the theater and glided across the street to the bar.

Posted by kza at 08:56 AM | Comments (2)

July 01, 2004

Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock) 81

The charming story of a sweet young girl, her charming uncle, and the dirty little secret they share. Of course, that secret is murder, but the relationship between Charlie and her Uncle Charlie is so loaded with incestuous subtext that the murders of the widowed women seem a lesser offense somehow. The movie itself makes no secret of the bond between the two; Charlie babbles on about telepathy early on, and in their introductions, each sits on a bed on opposite coasts, facing the other. Clearly these two are twins, in a literary sense; they even seem to share the same sub-Nietzschean philosophy (even though they draw radically conclusions from it). But there's more to it than that. What about such scenes as Charlie and Uncle Charlie stopping to chat with her girlfriends, the young women ogling the Uncle like he's Charlie's new catch? Or the scene in the sleazy bar, which makes them look like a pair of illicit lovers? (No doubt that's what the waitress thinks they are.) And then, near the end, once she is sure that he is the Merry Widow Killer, she refuses to blow the whistle on him, for fear of the impact it would have on her family and the community. For me, it's this moment that the subtext overpowers the text and warps it away from believability; although Hitchcock takes pains to establish the genteel Santa Rosa community and Charlie's strong family ties, ultimately I don't buy that Charlie wouldn't turn him because of these social elements. It's her guilt, her percieved complicity, that keeps her silent.

That Hitchcock could get away with this kind of stuff in '43 is mind-blowing; no wonder he considered it his favorite. But it's not his best. I first saw this movie as a teenager, and I didn't like it, considering it the most boring Hitchcock I'd seen (and that's counting The Birds). I realized that the problem then is the same reason I find it fascinating now: the story is pretty basic and there's little of that classic Hitchcock tension (the garage scene doesn't cut it), but it gets its energy from the twisted relationship of its leads and the interesting way Hitchcock shows this relationship with the camera, stuff that totally flew over my head back in the day. Unfortunately, that (and the great performances) are all it really has going for it. The romantic subplot featuring Macdonald Carey and his weird hair is both improbable and boring. The debates on the best way to murder between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn (who, judging from this, was the Bob Balaban of his day) are amusing, but as counterpoint to main story, it's unnecessary.

But again, it gets all the mileage it needs from its central conflict. Joseph Cotten is fantastic as Uncle Charlie; I don't know enough about his history with Welles, but if I didn't know better, I'd say he was doing a bit of a Welles impersonation here. And Teresa Wright does a great job portraying a smart young woman who becomes cognizant of the darkness that lurks outside the comfort of her family's house.

In fact, there's a definite David Lynch quality to the proceedings (the above sentence could describe Blue Velvet), so much so that I wonder if it was a big influence on him. Not to mention one of Shadow of a Doubt's key images, one that often acts as bridge between scenes: twirling dancing couples in what appears to be a ballroom setting, a strange and dream-like image that is never literally explained in the movie proper. Every time I saw it, I thought of the opening swing dance in Mulholland Drive and all the lost hopes and dreams it represented.

Posted by kza at 12:23 PM

June 17, 2004

The Beyond (1981, Lucio Fulci) 58

Or, The Discreet Charm of the Eye-Gouging Zombie. This falls squarely into the no-logic, pure-dreamscape type of horror movie, such as Inferno, Messiah of Evil, or Phantasm, where the story is less important than the cumulative effect of the images. This is my first Fulci, and I was under the impression that he was a hack; he still may be, but he's a hack with a knack for a good composition or a nice camera move. At one point, a woman's face is dissolved by acid (don't ask) and the resulting blood and foam creeps along the white floor towards the woman's daughter, taking on a malevolent life of its own.

The thing about these kinds of movies is that they aim to strike the viewer in the pre-rational part of the brain via all the illogical and discontinuous imagery, and I think that a lot of people block off that part when adulthood sets in, ironically making these violent and gory movies most effective for kids. (Had I seen The Beyond when I was nine, it might be one of my favorite movies; as it happened, I saw Phantasm instead.) The Beyond is even more bizarrely organized than most. The movie starts with an evocative prologue, taking place in 1927 and shot in sepia tones, but in terms of narrative information, it's superfluous. From that point on, it doesn't even really build to any particular moment; rather than progressing in a linear, horizontal fashion, it seems to stack its scenes vertically, moving from scene to scene based on feel, match-cuts, and of course, the next victim to die a gory death.

Ah yes, the gore. Perhaps Fulci is a hack, since he insists on ending every legitimately spooky scene with an outrageous (and terribly done) bit of gore, usually meaning someone's eye is torn or poked out. The probably-infamous spider scene is particularly egregious, although its silliness borders genius; I know Fulci needed a fake spider to crawl into a guy's mouth and bite his tongue, but did he need to put the fake spiders in with the real ones for the establishing shots?

The real problem though, is that, for me, a film of this type has to compete with Phantasm. Don Coscarelli's masterpiece, for all its ridiculousness, is about something: the moment when a child realizes that death is real, and not only are those dead relatives not coming back, death eventually comes for him as well. (Also, the combination of a pre-rational narrative and a kid protagonist makes it double effective.) The Beyond can only offer stumbling zombies.

And yet, despite all this hackery, Fulci manages to pull off an incredibly effective slow-motion finale, one that's haunting and damn-near poetic. Okay, I'm sold. Mr. Fulci, where shall we go next?

Posted by kza at 10:12 AM | Comments (7)

May 28, 2004

what's yr take on the cassavetes box set?

Criterion is bringing out a box set of five Cassavetes films (Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night) plus a 200 minute documentary (A Constant Forge) sometime this Fall. Generally, I'm pretty fucking pleased. Cassavetes is one of those directors who deserves the Criterion tiara-and-roses treatment, and maybe this will expand his audience.

Unforutnately: A) I just friggin' got both Shadows and Influence for Christmas! True, I didn't pay for them, and I could hock them to pay for the box set, but still. And B), no Husbands, Minnie & Moskowitz, or Love Streams. (Gloria, I can take or leave.) I'm assuming there are hard-core rights issues involved, which is why it took so long to get this box set going. (I'd bet dollars to donuts that the Criterion guys didn't just wake up a few months ago and say, "Hey! Cassavetes box set! Let's do that!" It must've been in the works for years.)

I remember the first time I saw one of his films. It was just a few years ago, 2000 or 2001, I think. The Grand Illusion was playing the long version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take On Cassavetes" was in my head. Le Tigre offered three possible takes: Genius, misogynist, and alcoholic. After walking out of the theater, I went with "alcoholic". It was like the film had been dipped in booze just prior to projection. The plot stumbled around like it was drunk, passing out in dark alleys. The characters were sad-sack and pathetic, like a barfly's sob story. Honestly, I didn't get it.

And I didn't get it after Faces, either, despite the killer performances. I think it was with the reviled Husbands that it began to sink in. What a bunch of assholes these three are! Yet their pain was clear. The whole movie is like Harvey Keitel's patented Moan O' Anguish, only hidden behind booze and smiles and songs. It's both heart-breaking and chilling.

But unless you've got something like Scarecrow Video in your neighborhood, you won't be able to see it, or Love Streams, for that matter. While the C-Man had a reputation for a kind of ultra-realism (it wasn't really; his characters were more like opera arias in flesh form, but I digress), in Love Streams, he began to show a willingness to go beyond what we might call a "Dogme-style" world and into some freaky Resnais-type shit. He died about five years later, without completing another film, and one can only imagine what else he could've accomplished.

(I also wonder what Cassavetes would have made of the so-called digital revolution. This was a guy who put his monetary ass on the line with nearly every feature. Would DV have freed him to make more movies more quickly, for less money? Or did he need to walk the tightrope every time?)

Posted by kza at 12:23 PM | Comments (6)

May 10, 2004

Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant) 40

From the home office in Mountlake Terrace, WA

Top Ten snarky potshots at Gus Van Sant's Elephant, in the Martin McClellan-approved style:

10. I'm glad there were those title cards giving us the characters' names; otherwise, I might've gotten them confused.

9. Less Classrooms, More Moving Students.

8. Rumor has it that the planning scene with Alex & Eric is actually a word-for-word transcript of a discussion between Van Sant and his cinematographer Harris Savides.

7. Where can I pick up a copy of KILL MATT DAMON & CASEY AFFLECK, and is there a Mac version?

6. I know the line goes something like, "I've never kissed anyone before," but I heard, "Dude, Gus wants us to kiss or something."

5. "Hi, I'm Benny. I'm here to dispel stereotypes about the survival rates of black characters in...oops, no, wait, guess not."

4. I think there was something wrong with my copy; I pushed all the buttons on my game pad but I couldn't make the characters turn around.

3. Pretty Teens Make Corpses.

2. I'm so, so very happy John found his dad, creating the possibility of an open dialogue between father and son. It really made everything worth it.

1. I've always wondered what it was like to be a student at Columbine on 5/20/99. Now I don't have to. Thank you, Gus Van Sant!

Posted by kza at 12:05 PM | Comments (1)

May 05, 2004

Night Tide (1963, Curtis Harrington) 73

...part of my ongoing attempt to post something new every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You know, just like my closest competitor, Penny Arcade.

Anyway, this is a small, low-budget flick heavily inspired by Cat People, starring a very, very young Dennis Hopper. And because of its similarities to that Val Lewton classic (Kim Newman called it the first of the CP homages), it gets slotted as a horror film, but it isn't really. If anything, it falls under the category "Haunted Romance", like Rebecca or Wuthering Heights (not that it's anything like those films or books, of course).

Two of the sources I read for commentary on this flick compared it to Cocteau; admittedly, I've only seen Beauty and the Beast, but I don't see the connection. While the plot, of a young sailor (a good, sensitive performance by Hopper) falls in love with a woman who believes she is a siren destined to kill, certainly has a dream logic to it, the cinematography has that great, sixties indie flavor, full of great B&W photography of real places. It made me think of Cassavette's Shadows, actually.

While the ending is unsatisfying (didn't need the Psycho-esque "Here's what it's really about"), it's really worth watching for Hopper's performance, the atmosphere of loneliness, and especially the sense of place. The story occurs mostly on the long-gone arcades of Santa Monica, wonderfully weather-beaten piers and merry-go-rounds and sideshow attractions. We get to learn a little about the people who work here, and occasionally it has the feel of an Altman film, with the piers like the man-made towns of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Popeye. A small, modest gem.

Posted by kza at 01:23 AM

March 09, 2004

The Brood (1979, David Cronenberg) 85

We all know the critical line on Cronenberg by now: "Body in revolt against itself", "From the disease's POV", "Sex=Horror", blah blah blah. Although this theme is present in The Brood (in spades), it's not what's interesting about the film. (The Fly, from 1986, was probably the last hurrah for this theme anyway. If Cronenberg is past this, and the piss-take that is eXistenZ suggests he is, then maybe we should be as well.) What comes through, 25 years later, is the depiction of divorce as an intensely painful death spiral.

Reportedly, Cronenberg was going through a divorce when writing The Brood, and it shows. The anger and despair from Frank Carveth’s divorce is palpable, so much so that when the monsters come out, it’s less like an invasion into normal reality than the period at the end of a sentence. Yet, what makes this film so good is that the people at the center of this darkness (Frank's wife Nola, her parents Juliana and Barton) never seem like villains, just very weak and human. Even Dr. Raglan, the “cause” of the horror in the classic mad scientist mode, is sympathetic by the end. And the film is filled with little human touches that make the horror lurking under the bed even darker: Frank tucking his daughter into bed, watching over her, telling her everything will be okay; and Barton’s breakdown over his ex-wife’s death (unusually poignant for a horror film, but then, grief is rarely allowed to intrude in this genre). Hell, even the supreme gross-out at the end of the movie is based on tenderness.

I seem to be developing a new aesthetic towards horror movies. I'm finding myself more and more attracted to films that can splice together drama and horror without betraying either, unlike The Birds or a certain *cough* Project Greenlight script. The Brood is a perfect example of this ideal, where one could remove the horror element entirely from the story and it could still work, yet paradoxically, the horror element is intimately entwined with the drama.

(How does that work, you ask? Good question. I’m still puzzling over it myself. It has to do, I think, with the essential conflict of main character, Frank, and how that conflict -- he wants custody of his daughter -- is part of the drama side of the equation.)

The only weakness in The Brood is Raglan's therapy, which props up the equation's horror side. Frankly, it doesn't make a lick of sense. How exactly is it supposed to be helpful, moreso than, say, a punching bag? Send your thoughtful answers to Kza, c/o this blog, the Internet, USA.

Posted by kza at 11:45 AM | Comments (4)

February 25, 2004

The Birds (1963, Alfred Hitchcock) 60

(first viewing in about 12 years.)

Not a whole lot to say about this classic, except that I'm shocked, shocked to realize I never noticed the obvious and profound influence it had on Night of the Living Dead, on both a macro and micro level. As a zombie movie aficionado, I'm quite embarrassed. And it's not like it's subtle, either: Look, there's the dead body in the empty farmhouse; there's the radio report from the outside world; now there's the heroine, mute and slightly crazed by the attacks, gripping the mantel as if to hold on to reality; and there's the yokel, whose philosophy is "just shoot 'em all". I feel like the last to know and the first to cry.

And of course, there's the hero boarding up the house from an unnatural attack, the staple image that nearly every zombie movie is built upon. (It's become such a cliché, that when a lesser zombie movie like Resident Evil comes along, I have to give it some credit when it avoids using it.) It's an image of apocolypse, seen from a peculiarly specific vantage point, which is probably why Hitch ditched the original ending, a drive through a devastated Bodega Bay. (The devastation on the characters' faces is enough.) For me, this image, almost an archetype, of the Boarded-Up House is one of the great inventions of the cinema, and it sure as heck looks like The Birds was there first. (I would've thought it was The Last Man On Earth, the first "I Am Legend" movie, but that came out a year later.)

While The Birds is no doubt an historically important movie, let's face it: it's a bit slow. I understand the reasons behind the careful buildup, but unfortunately, these characters aren't really worth the effort. The Tippi Hedren--Rod Taylor--Jessica Tandy conflict is a real yawner, especially since Hedren's character is a bit vague. What happens is that a drama slowly morphs into a horror film, yet there are no strong links binding the two genres to each other. (Unlike, say, Cat People, which is both a horror movie about lycanthropes and a drama about a disintegrating marriage, but it's impossible to separate one from the other.) While there does seem to be a connection between the repressed feelings of the characters and the bird attacks, it remains in the airy realm of symbolism, never touching down onto concrete reality.

Posted by kza at 10:15 AM | Comments (5)

February 06, 2004

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970, Dario Argento) 57

(Third viewing, never seen in a theater.)

Sorry, Steve, but this movie still seems to slide off my brain like butter on teflon. I suspect it's because it's the talkiest of Argento's early works (I've seen Cat O'Nine Tails but I don't remember much about it, and I've never seen Four Flies On Grey Velvet). (Another aside: Man, I love giallo titles.) There are lots of interrogative scenes, going through the plot inch by inch, and no pretty Christmas colors to hold me. It's funny; it seems like the normal journey of a film director would be to start with wild, irrational, incoherent, indulgent films, and then slowly harden his/her style, using their craft to create films that are slick and efficient, but Argento (at least through the 70s), went the opposite route.

However, a lot of Argento stylistic trademarks begin here, as well: the protagonist as foreigner in a strange land; the half-remembered clue to the killer's identity; the use of art, as a backdrop, as a clue, as a weapon; and the use of gender as a smoke-screen. What seems to be missing is the free roaming camera that gives his best work an oneiric quality.

(Hey, Vittorio Storaro, winner of 3 Academy Awards for cinematography: How did Argento convince you to do a shot where we can clearly see the cameraman reflected in the glass?)

Another thing I noticed (or at least, finally paid attention to) this time around was the obvious Hitchcock influence. There's the scene where are hero loses his yellow-jacketed assailant in a crowd full of similarly-attired men (which I'm sure Hitchcock used, but I can't think where -- was it The Man Who Knew Too Much?). Then there's a climactic guy-hanging-by-fingertips scene (which we've scene Hitchcock use countless times), made more amusing by the fact that the guy holding on to dear life looks a lot like Anthony Perkins, c. The Black Hole. Finally, the coda at the end is just like that in Psycho, with a psychiatrist explaining (uncovincingly, but I'd say unconvincing rationalizations are a genre trope) the killer's dementia. Hilariously, though, this bit is delivered in a TV studio, to be broadcast into millions of Italian homes. That's right, folks, the killer in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage gave birth to the 21st Century.

Posted by kza at 12:46 PM | Comments (3)

February 05, 2004

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento) 88

(Correction: Fourth viewing, never seen in a theater)

This is where Argento comes into his own, yet it's also where he drops the pretense of giving a damn about story, instead focusing on colored lights, tracking shots, wild wallpaper, and of course, horrible, painful deaths. What little plot there is could fill an hour on TV; here, though, it's extended to 98 minutes. Naturally, there's some dry spells, especially for about 25 minutes after the first set-piece. Yes, this portion sets up the "Woman Held Captive By Conspiracy" plot, but clearly, Argento isn't interested. (If you like that kind of story--and I'll admit, I do--try either the classic Rosemary's Baby or the Mary Steenburgen vehicle Dead of Winter.) The film also features the World's Phoniest Bat, which makes the flying bug in Phantasm look like the Facehugger.

But there's a reason this film is beloved by horror buffs, and the reasons are squashed into the back 30 minutes. There's the attack on the blind man (a great sequence starring two Greek-style buildings), Sara's journey into the attic (culminating in one of the great sick jokes of horror cinema), and of course, the end, a masterful use of tracking camera, sound (those voices!), and editing. It's one of the tensest and scariest climaxes in horror history, and makes the tedious parts worth sitting through.

Posted by kza at 11:19 AM | Comments (6)

January 20, 2004

Seabiscuit (2003, Gary Ross) 28

Show, I guess. A shockingly flabby follow-up to Pleasantville; where Pleasantville was (whatever else you might think about it) narratively tight, this thing lumbers through forty minutes of beginnings before starting where it should, with Jeff Bridges meeting Chris Cooper. Until that point, we have to suffer through a tiring succession of "dramatic" events that are supposed to tell us "who these characters are" and what's "at stake for them", and failing at each of these tasks. Ever taken a writing class where, as an exercise, the class creates a character, and throws a bunch of life story on the blackboard? Well, here's what it looks like when it's filmed. Screenwriters, do me a favor: cut this backstory shit out of the first draft, or incorporate it into the story in a way that doesn't slow it down. You're killin' me.

Once it starts, though, it's enjoyable enough, if unremarkable. I mean, sure, I can sympathize with a character who likes to sleep all day and eat twice as much as anyone else; who can't? But don't tell me this horse was more important than the New Deal. Director, please.

Finally, call me cynical or just over-sensitive, but I can't help but feel queasy when a rich character completely unaffected by the depression gives a series of bullshit press conferences and the reporters nod furiously and jot down every word like it was gospel. Guess I'm just funny like that.

Posted by kza at 01:47 PM | Comments (3)

January 13, 2004

From Hell (2001, The Hughes Brothers) 8

Oh, why am I even bothering? If you've never read the book, I don't see how it could be comprehensible; if you have read the book, you can only shake your head as the plot rushes by, like twitchy semaphore, while the point is completely missed. (For the non-readers: Everything that's kept as a secret or a plot twist is revealed in the first couple chapters.) Filmmakers: if you don't have the guts to do the skyscraper scene, why are you bothering to use the title "From Hell"? If you just wanted to make a stupid serial killer movie, why set it in 1888 London? Set it in modern day L.A., cast a Busey or a Hauser, be done with it.

Posted by kza at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)

January 08, 2004

Dreamcatcher (2003, Lawrence Kasdan) 60

Wow. Dismissed by most critics as simply a bad movie, Dreamcatcher deserves a second chance on DVD. Not because it's actually a good movie; in fact, it's utterly terrible. But this kind of awfulness, this kind of bone-headed wrongness should be seen by anyone who loves movies.

It starts out promisingly. We learn that four buddies share some kind of ESP, and in an interesting, quirky scene, one of the buddies, a car salesman, helps a woman find her missing car keys. During the course of the scene, the woman goes from intrigued, to mystified, to totally weirded-out. It's a close parallel to my reaction to the film.

About ten minutes in, the buddies go to a snowy cabin in Maine, and it's here where it all goes to hell. I don't want to reveal too much and spoil the pleasures to be found. And by pleasures, I mean the jaw-dropping, slap-your-forehead choices made in this movie.

I've never read the Stephen King book it's based on, but there are several concepts and scenes that simply cannot work in a film. It may work on the page, since words force the reader to be a partcipant in creating the scene. But film is too literal. Yes, a director and a crew can create an image that is suggestive and ambiguous in meaning, but some things, like farts, are just that -- farts.

That was a bit of a spoiler, I'm afraid, but it's really only the tip of the iceberg. The next two hours is filled with silly, unworkable ideas, stuff that might've made Ed Wood pause. But please understand: this is why I like this movie. It brings some truly out-there ideas to the table, and the filmmakers try to meld them with a serious SF thriller; they don't try to be funny with it. (If they did, it would be very, very Python.) In fact, a Dreamcatcher played for laughs would've been a better movie, but it would never be as interesting as this one.

I want to single out Damian Lewis, who plays Jonesy, who gives a fantastic performance. Seriously. The role of Jonesy is unplayable. (To explain why would be spoiler country.) Yet, a more established actor, I think, would've recognized the futility of trying to make the part work, and would've given a performance that undermined the serious tone of the movie, one that winked at the audience. Mr. Lewis never winks; he takes a deep breath, rubs his hands together, and grabs the role, desperately trying to make it work the best he can. As a result, Dreamcatcher transcends mere badness, into something enjoyable.

Posted by kza at 12:52 PM | Comments (6)