So as I’ve mentioned Nick Hornby has spent the past decade royally pissing me off. But perhaps the worst example of this was when he started his wonderfully funny Column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” in The Believer, gave me time to love it, and then dropped it so he could come to my home and make a martini from my tears.
Well damn it Nick Hornby those are the last of my tears that you will ever mix with your sweet Vermouth! I’m going to bring back Stuff I’ve Been Reading myself, and I don’t give a damn what you or David Egger’s Lawyers think about! (Not actually a challenge to David Eggers who is undoubtedly much richer then me.) You know what they say, if you want something done right by Nick Hornby you have to do it yourself.
For those new to the game, each Column consists of two lists “Stuff I Bought.” And “Stuff I Read.” And I attempt to explain the reasoning behind both. A few personal notes for this particular blog. Just because I write about books at the end of the month doesn’t mean I’ll stop elsewhere. So for example, I wrote about Juliet Naked earlier this month. I’ve mentioned that I read it. I mentioned that I’ve written about it. And Now I’ve mentioned that it’s pretty good, a return to form, but still not quite top shelf Hornby. Done done onto the next one.
As I’m a pretty avid comic book reader, I’ve wondered what my approach to trades should be and have decided on having no firm rules. Basically If I’ve read a graphic novel (say Ball Peen Hammer) I’ll probably talk about it, if I’ve read a trade (say Ultimate Spiderman Vol. 6) I probably won’t, unless it was A) Particularly good, or B) I’ve never written about the title before. This isn't so much a judgement call, so much as it is a way to avoid repetitiveness, There are only so many ways one can find to write, "This Bendis fellow certainly knows how to write Spiderman!"
So with that out of the way lets get on with it. All kidding aside, I really did admire Hornby’s column and wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t sincerely miss it. So as he said the first time out, lets have some fun.
-Ultimate Spiderman Vol. 6: Brian Michael Bendis -Our Dumb World: The Onion Staff -Terror: Dan Simmons -Changing My Mind: Zadie Smith -Naked: David Sedaris -Where I’m Calling From: Carver -Girl Sleuth: Melanie Rehak -Holidays On Ice: David Sedaris -Anthem: Neil Stephenson -The Colorado Kid: Stephen King
Carrie: By Stephen King Telegraph Days: By Larry McMurty The Score: Richard Stark Pygmy: Chuck Palahniuk Girl Sleuth: Melanie Rehak Juliet Naked: Nick Hornby
Most of my book buying, this week was limited to filling in holes in my collections. Only the new Smith, Girl Sleuth, and The Terror (Recommended on The AV Club's best of the decade list) were blind buys (Technically Anthem was as well but as I got it for free I'm not sure that it counts).
I started out the month by finishing an audio book of Carrie (And yes I will be including audiobooks in the read category). It’s been awhile, maybe even as much as a decade since I’ve read the story of Carrie White and her doomed revenge. I took Halloween as an opportunity to revisit the work and it remains an effective violent tragedy.
The books not perfect, it is in fact endearingly clumsy at times (as when the book breaks the fourth wall and solemnly informs us that Carrie is telekinetic). It’s very much a first book, filled with literary tricks that later more straightforward King would avoid, such as “secondary sources”.
Still even with the baggage from King’s career its easy to go back and look at the book with new eyes, and see the potential people saw in the unknown writer. Though much of King’s weaknesses are here, both those he’s shed and those he retains, so are all of his strengths. His knack for character, instinctive empathy, lucid prose, nimble plotting, and his preternatural ability to draw a feeling of impending doom and horror from the day to day rhythms of life, are all present and accounted for.
On a side note the audio version I listened to was narrated by Sissy Spacek, listening to her reinterpret the character thirty years after her famous performance in DePalma's film was fascinating.
From the beginnings of the career of one of my favorite authors, to the end of another, Telegraph Days is unfortunately another disappointing latter day turn from Larry McMurtry. Despite some striking moments, Telegraph Days can only be summed up as “A Bunch of shit that happened.” Playing like a n Old West Version of Forrest Gump. If ever there was an author more indeed of a plot then McMurtry he doesn’t spring to mind.
McMurtry has always been an episodic storyteller by nature, that’s part of his considerable charm. However, when you look at something like All My Friends Will Be Strangers. Despite its episodic rambling structure it builds to a fulfilling climax. It might be just as meandering as Telegraph Days, but it still feels like a novel rather then a simple series of events.
And while the novel’s lumpen shapelessness can’t obliterate all of the things that make McMurtry enjoyable. His gift for capturing character in a few strokes remains, as does his gift for voice, wry sense of humor, generousness with characters and occasionally strikingly descriptive prose (The passage involving the disasterous birth of a Calf that our heroine witnesses is among McMurtry’s best and worthy of Cormac McCarthy) and our narrator Nellie Cortwright is an appealing creation. One wishes that McMurtry was still using these talents to build towards something, rather then just using them.
I found Pygmy, the latest by Chuck Palahniuk similarly depressing. The aughts have not been a productive decade for Chuck Palihaniuk. Sure Lullaby was pretty good, and Rant showed some signs of life, at least until it revealed its endgame a of being just one big shaggy dog story. And for the first couple of (truth in criticism, very funny) chapters of Pygmy, it looks as though the old Paliniuk the one who made Fight Club and Invisible Monsters such bracing reads is back in full swing. Unfortunately, the book soon turns into nothing so much as an example of everything wrong with Paliniuk today.
The problem with Paliniuk is that he’s lost his talent for character while retaining his knack for caricature. What made his work so powerful and invigorating was how organically it pushed off our own, how effortlessly the horrific things he imagined became believable through his skill at anchoring things inside the real world. What if you could wipe of the world with a song? What if a sex addicted conman was the second coming of Christ? What if you accidentally ended society through your psychosis? What if? What if? He still can come up with the What If? Pygmy’s (What if some terrible almagation of China and North Korea sent a bunch of Exchange students into the US to destroy it?) is pretty good. He just doesn’t bother to anchor it anymore.
The problem in the last decade of his work is that EVERYONE is a cartoon. Its impossible to have a satire in which no one has the slightest resemblance of normal behavior. I’m willing to believe that the title character could get away with anally raping a bully in a Walmart bathroom, I’m unwilling to believe that a pastor could be nearly murdered in a baptismal font in front of a congregation without anyone batting an eye.
Pygmy’s not wholly without merit. Like with Rant Palahniuk at least seems to be having fun writing Pygmy's Malapropism based "Engrish", even if it doesn’t amount to much. Thus avoiding the depressing going through the motions “Aren’t I being just ever so naughty?” feelings that Haunted and Snuff produced. And a few of his chapters, particularly those regarding flashbacks had by the titular character to his training (and notably the only ones that deal with him as a character rather then a walking grotesqueries reporter) contain some really striking prose (something that even his apologists often fail to note is that on a line by line basis Palahniuk is a GOOD writer).
Palahniuk entered the decade looking as though he’d be the next Vonnegut, or at least the next Bret Eaton Ellis, he exits it looking like a new John Waters. The centeral conceit and better parts of Pygmy seem a part of something great. If any character had acted like a real person for about two seconds it could have really been something. Instead, it joins a disappointingly long line of minor work. Its time for Palahniuk to remind us just why he matters, or I might soon lose interest altogether.
The Score, is the fifth novel in Richard Stark’s Parker series of which I’m a fan. While it lacks the pitch black sense of humor that made the fourth book The Mourner my favorite of the series. It also lacks that book’s predictability as Stark attempts to shake up the formula a bit, laying off his old tricks like the double backed chronology, and putting Parker in some new situations.
The Score finds Parker and his crew robbing an entire town. While the premise at first struck me as a bit too outlandish for Stark’s down to earth armed robber, Stark makes it work by playing it completely straight, never playing up the novelty. The book changes the formula in several ways, making the lone wolf Parker work in a large crew, changing his dynamic, giving Parker someone he almost counts as a friend in Stark’s other creation the flamboyant thief Grofield and lastly by putting Parker in a situation he can’t control when the secondary motives for the robbery comes through and all hell breaks loose.
Its interesting to watch Parker out of his depth trying desperately to keep a lid on things as the town burns down around him, wondering just what the fuck happened. If there’s a flaw its that Parker regains control of the situation a little to easily. If Stark had allowed him to lose just a touch more of his trademark cool, we could have been in some truly unexplored territory.
Still Stark’s story is lean and propulsive as ever. It’s a fun engaging read all around.
On the exact opposite spectrum of the Crime fiction continuum is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew And The Women Who Created Her.
While Girl Sleuth is a bit slow and tangential (It seems determined to fit in every anecdote about early 20th century proto feminism into its pages) It’s over halfway through before the girl detective actually makes an appearance, it remains an entertaining, occasionally fascinating etymology of an icon.
An engaging portrait of American life in the first half of the century in general, and the pulp fiction industry in particular, this is a must have anyone who loves reading the fiction of the time period. It ends up being not only a fascinated historical piece but an interesting consideration of just what it is that allows Drew to still work as a character rather then a nostalgia piece.
An interesting and enlightening read.
All together not a bad month to start out on. I’m currently neck deep in some fascinating books that’ll make up the backbone of next months column. Hope to see you then.
Raising Arizona choosing between it and Blood Simple was a terrible choice. But this funny, beautiful movie holds so much of what I love about the Coens in it while simultaneously acting as a showcase for the heart they’re accused of not having. If this isn’t a humanist movie I’ll eat my hat. The Coen’s may mock the absurd little details of people but never the stuff that matters to them. And when HI’s dream plays out at the end, even though its absurd, its genuinely moving, I hope it comes true.
2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
Ooh this is tough. If criticism and preservation where included I’d have to go with France. But I’m just going to go by the movies and pick Japan. At the end of the day there are only two French filmmakers who I truly couldn’t live without (Truffaunt, Melville) There are several Japanese ones.
4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
Favorite Line comes from Ride The High Country, “Hell, I know that. I always did... You just forgot it for a while, that's all.” The moving climax to one of my favorite films.
Favorite Moment has to be the final showdown in For A Few Dollars More. The best of the trilogy and I will duel at dawn to defend it. The multiple emotional climaxes happening, Morricone’s haunting score. The look on Van Cleef’s face. The sheer style of Leone. It was one of those formative movie going experiences that hooked me for life. Sheer cinematic bliss.
5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
I’d have to go with Photography. The Ability to compose and juxtapose are really cinema in its essence. 6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Vanilla Sky Cameron Crowe’s so ahead of his time on this one its not even funny. He’s the only filmmaker who understands just how much of our head space Pop Culture has co-opted. Our ideals of love are curtisy of Truffaunt, Father’s via Gregory Peck, Romance, Bob Dylan. This film is a landmark and a touch stone, a bravura visual work and touching character piece to boot. 7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
I don’t really have one. I find that nothing ever really erases the affection I have for a particular artist, even when they’re actively destroying their own work (Lucas). Even when I no longer respond to what I once loved, I still retain my affection for the time it meant so much to me. 8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Asylum gives Lom the edge. 9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
Dune remains an unredeemably muddled mess. Apologists be damned. Though the scene where Sting prances around in Blue Panties whilst the Baron murders a eunuch has its charms.
10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
Charley Varrick. Its like a lost Cormac McCarthey novel as reimagined by Richard Stark (happy ending aside). 12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
Moment: Marlowe attempting to put on his pants in Murder My Sweet.
Line: “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from Gutter To Gutter” Out Of The Past
19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
I’m awful partial to the guy in the wheelchair rolling down the stairs with a hatchet embedded in his face in Friday The 13th Part 2.
20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
DVD - 5.00 Dollars Strange Days. Not because I thought it was bad, but because it really did upset me. And I’m a pretty cold fish when it comes to screen violence. It’s the only film I’ve ever returned on moral grounds. I didn’t want it in my house.
Movies – Free: Transformers. Christ I’m upset I wasted anytime at all on that travesty. Proud to say I didn’t get fooled again.
21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
I’m aware of no such thing.
23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
The Z Channel. It’s the most loving valentine to cinema I know. As well as a moving portrait of a broken man. It brings up such conflicted emotions because I recognize so much of myself in Jerry Harvey, we share a lot of history. In a lot of ways this movies was an intervention. But one I don’t mind watching over and over again.
24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
Oh God yeah. I always make sure to put a quota on my film conversation “in mixed company” and have given up mentioning movies on a first date all together.
26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
My uncle is the white Samuel Jackson. Looks, body language, even speech rhythms. It’s uncanny.
28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
Transformers 2. See above. It’s only films that are time wasters that I avoid seeing altogether. Even if I have some hestation going into a film (A lot of Almodovar is that way just because I don’t feel like luxuriating in Anti-Catholic land for a few hours) It’s more of a “I’ll see it someday.” Then a “I won’t see it.”
29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
Fargo. 30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
A genius director (see Kurosawa)
32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
El Dorado. Wayne. Mitchum. Hawks. The most incogrinous, out of nowhere, racist Chinese joke in the world performed by James Caan. What more does one need?
33) Favorite movie car chase.
Normally I’d say The Road Warrior, but I’m going to go with The Matrix Reloaded, because people don’t acknowledge that scenes specatacle admid all the other baggage that film has.
34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
Feldon. 36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
House Of Wax. Play Dirty also deserves mad props.
37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Its a cliché but probably Michael Bay, not because his films are loud crass and dumb. All three can occasionally be admirable qualities. But he has had a detrimental effect on film Grammar. I’m sure he’s shot some of the greatest action scenes ever filmed. Too bad you’ll find no evidence of this in his actual movies.
38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
Deadman, and the few other Jaramusch films I’d seen at that point. Watching Stranger Than Paradise was like finding a key that allowed me to understand just what the hell he was trying to do.
Another notable is American Werewolf In London. Still think it ends with an anti climax, but the rest is golden.
39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
Delta housem because fat drunk and stupid is away to go through life son.
41) Your favorite movie cliché.
I’m always down for a tale of righteous vengance
42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Minnelli was an interesting and ahead of his time filmmaker. Donen made two of the most perfectly entertaining films ever made. Donen for the win.
43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
Does Jack Skellington’s moonlighting as Santa Claus count?
44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ “It IS ACCOMPLISHED!” I know it’s a corny choice, but as the film burns and Gabriel’s score comes in I can’t help but be moved anew.
45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Kaelites. Or rather that particular breed of Kaelite who thinks its there job to never enjoy anything, act as contrarians for the sport of it, and think the canon is a waste of time. Basically Armond White.
46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
Caroline Munro, I have an odd affection for Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter.
47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
Zodiac. No one knows. The past swallows another mystery without so much as a burp of indigestion.
49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
Coraline. That something so delicate beautiful and idiosyncratic exists makes me glad. As does the fact that Neil Gaiman now has a decent Adaptation from his work. I’d give an arm for Selick to give Sandman the same treatment.
50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Why’d I Buy It? Part of The Frankenstein Box set I bought.
Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Its reputation as one of the lesser Universal horror films kept me from it.
How Was It?: I considered for quite awhile which Karloff film to write about. Of the horror stars only Christopher Lee and Vincent Price had such rich careers as a whole, with their different eras all so uniquely rewarding and both rank a distant second to Karloff. Should I write about his collaborations with Val Lewton? Or those with Bava? What about his Corman films and the way his old school Hollywood elegance rubbed up against The Film Brat generation. There is however, no escaping the fact that the Universal Monster Movies, and in particular that large distended brow loom large over Karloff’s career.
So as odd as it might seem for someone so in love with the role, I had no idea that Karloff played the character a third time until fairly recently. Son Of Frankenstein, is the red headed stepchild of the franchise, and isn’t usually referenced as one of The Universal films of the first water. I thought I’d use the opportunity of the blog-o-thon to view a film I’d never seen.
I wish I could tell you that Son Of Frankenstein is a true Universal Classic ripe for rediscovery, but that’s unfortunately not the case. It has much to recommend it, and I certainly think it’s underrated, but its also talky, long (at 99 minutes it contains none of the great storytelling economy that nearly all the other Universal pictures possess) and filled with unsympathetic characters and meandering subplots.
The story tells of Victor Frankenstein’s Son coming back to reclaim his ancestral homestead. He’s be met by suspicious townsfolk and also Bela Lugosi, and a giant monster in the basement. The former has been using the latter as the baddest one monster hit squad in town, as revenge for his little nearly murdered by the townsfolk thing and needs SOF to resurrect the monster from an inconvenient coma, so he can continue his horn fueled murderous rampage.
The main problem with Son Of Frankenstein, is that the Son Of Frankenstein himself is kind of a wash. Rathbone has always been a charismatic actor, and I’ve never seen him give a less sympathetic performance as a preening jackass. He’s a vain, cocky, drip, ignoring the warning of the helpful constable and the problems of the monster (Not to mention way way over the top). He really never seems to consider the moral or existential ramifications of The Monster in the least. How someone this blasé and blithe managed to become a doctor in anything baffles me. He possesses none of the hubris, insanity, and remorse that made Colin Clive such a fascinating watch. He plays around with The Monster the way other middle aged men putter around with model trains, with a vague air of boredom and embarrassed satisfaction. Its really impossible to overstate the douchiness of the character. By the end of the film you're begging for his comeuppance. The fact that it never really comes adds to the frustration.
It helps nothing that Rathbone’s towing along a child for whom the term Moppet is too mild (Seriously Diabetics should consult their physician’s before watching this movie) and the long scenes of science babble in which he is given the unenviable task of trying to give feasible reasons for the existence of The Monster, which involves The Monster being the secret fifth member of The Fantastic Four.
The other problem with Son Of Frankenstein is the lack of The Monster. He doesn’t show up until nearly a third of the way through the film (wearing a fur coat that the can only be referred to as “pimp”), and remains comatose for a long while after that. Its over halfway through the film before he comes out of the coma and starts doing shit.
It all boils down to the script. Everything is played too broad, and while the Universal Horror films always had a touch of the theatrical, between the hammy townspeople and the various winking self references (have a shot for every “It’s alive!!” joke and see how drunk you get), this one seems to be gunning for vaudeville.
It’s on the whole a stupider Frankenstein, the instinctive sympathy of Whale and Shelly have been replaced by paranoia. We get a story of Frankenstein ripping the arm out of a child, and references to him hunting, its like someone based the film’s premise off of someone else’s description of the previous films, rather then the real thing. Only Karloff’s mournful performance retains the original’s nuanced sympathy. He plays the Monster in away that’s almost fragile. It’s more Golem-like then his first two performances, something mournfully human like then actually human. His performance before the mirror and his reaction when he encounters the death of his "friend" are stunning and belong among any counting of Karloff's greatest moments.
Still there are other things to recommend the film, ironically enough most brought by Bela Lugosi, in his wonderfully malevolent performance as Igor. Played with a physicality that wasn’t usually Lugosi’s forte. With a permanently broken neck, cataracted piggy eyes, and a leering filed grin, Lugosi is to put it quite bluntly, some freaky shit. He steals every scene he is in (which is about 2/3rds of the movie) and the image of him leering through a secret passage at Frankenstein’s sleeping child is some genuinely haunting stuff. Yet like all great monster's he's somewhat sympathetic. Much more so then Rathbone, Igor at least takes responsibility for the monster.
Though director Rowland V. Lee isn’t able to capture the pathos of Whale, he is a capable stylist creating both sinister shadow soaked expressionist frames (Frankenstein’s decent into the pit where he’s been holding the monster plays like an outtake from Caligari as does the requisite scene of the villagers mobbing at the castle gates) and capturing the Gleaming Art Deco feel of the Mad Lab’s set. His history in silent films is put to good use.
But in the end all of this stuff is window dressing. Merely a pretext to the distinct pleasure of watching a great actor perform his greatest role. Disappointments and nitpicks aside nothing can take away from that.
Well it only took nearly a decade of frustration for Nick Hornby to get off his duff and serve up two slices of greatness. An author I like doing stuff I can stand, a fella could get used to that.
It feels odd crediting so much of the film’s admirable success to Hornby, after all not only is it directed by Lone Scherfig whose work I am not familiar with, and is based on another person’s memoir, so its possible she had something to do with the story. But its weary humanism, and wry humor feel so very much like Hornby, that I can’t help but approach it as his work.
An Education tells the story of an ill fated love affair between a teenage girl in 60’s Britain and a man twice her age, played by Peter Sarsgaard. It’s a slice life movie in all the best ways. Rendered in all the rich details of our most painful memories. Its also one of the most perfectly cast movie of the year. Odd that I took an opportunity in my Juliet Naked review to complain about the deterioration of skill, in Hornby’s secondary casts, because his knack with his supporting cast is in full flower here.
From Alfred Molina’s stoop shouldered, good hearted, but clumsy father (his “wandering Jew” sequence is some kind of perfection), to the great Olivia William’s reprising her role in Rushmore but fifteen years older and a great deal sadder and Emma Thompson in a delightfully caustic acid tongue cameo. Sarsgaard is tremendous, not playing his usual role but letting his character’s inherent sleaze show through his inherent charm by degrees. For my money the real scene stealers are Domnic Cooper and Rosamund Pike (Whose willfull ignorance is laugh out loud hilarious) as David’s best friends and semi willing partners in crime.
And of course there’s Carey Mulligan, who has been receiving mountain loads of hype and might just deserve some of it. Perhaps even most of it, swinging as she does between charming, funny, vulnerable, and occasionally stupid. She’s not afraid to play her character as unlikable and in the process ends up making her loveable.
Part of me hopes An Education stays small, though I doubt its likely. It seems the type of gentle movie that backlash can crush. In which case I’m glad I saw it early, its effects are still buzzing warmly around my head.
So when I'm not blogging I also serve as a critic for the local weekly. I have a column where I basically get to write about what ever film I want as as long as it clocks in a 500 words or under everybody's happy. Anyway this somehow led to me programming the first half of a film noir festival and today I get to tell a bunch of people why Out Of The Past is awesome. I've had tougher jobs. So I thought I'd go ahead and post my introduction for you fine people. Forgive me if the cadences are a bit off, they're written for speech after and the editing I did on them was minimal.
When I was first asked to pick a film for this screening the one that leapt to mind before any others was Out Of the Past.
Out Of The Past in so many ways isn’t just a film noir, it’s the film noir. All the elements we think of when we think of the genre, the classic stars, the moody shadow drenched style, and doom laden story are all present and accounted for in Out Of The Past. Keeping that in mind I’d like to share two quotes that to me sum up Film Noir better then any other.
The author James Ellroy put it pretty simply when he said “Film Noir, means you’re (blanked).” Scorsese put it a bit more eloquently when he said, the essence of Film Noir was “No matter which way you go Fate sticks out its foot to trip you.”
It’s fitting then that the director of Out Of The Past, Jacques Tournier, knew a little something about fate. Today he is best known for his horror films; particularly those he made with Val Lewton. Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, as well as Night Of The Demon which he made after their partnership but which shared many similarities with his earlier work. All four of these excellent films, deal with fate as a conscience malevolent force. From their opening frames there’s no doubt that the film’s could end any other way except the way that they do. No way for its desperate characters to escape what fate has in store for them. Film Noir so often narrated by the dead, or dying shares this concept, and Tournier applies it masterfully here.
Like Ellroy and Scorsese said, the main conceit of Film Noir is that you’re doomed. This is in direct contradiction to most Hollywood films of the time, and indeed today, with their basic message that everything is going to work out for the best. That fate is kind. The message of Film Noir is that everything is not going to work out OK, Fate is not only uncaring it is actively malevolent.
As Ebert said in his essay on the film, “Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past. The noir hero is doomed before the story begins -- by fate, rotten luck, or his own flawed character. Crime movies sometimes show good men who go bad. The noir hero is never good, just kidding himself, living in ignorance of his dark side until events demonstrate it to him.” Mitchum’s certainly charismatic, but he’s a man with no qualms about working for a mobster and no problem with screwing over his partner and client. Once he gets a whiff of the woman in question it’s not his brain he’s thinking with.
Out Of The Past provides us with one of the greatest Noir casts of all time. Mitchum has such dynamic that we can actually fool ourselves that he might get away for a little. Kirk Douglas is one of Noir’s great villains, his cool malovelence is scarier then then his rage ever could be, he never even raises his voice.
But the real key to the movie is Judy Greer as Kathie, as Ebert notes, “Mitchum and Douglas think the story involves a contest of wills between them, when in fact, they're both the instruments of a corrupt woman.” The Femme Fatale in her purist form. However, The crime writer Ed Brubaker… and if you like crime fiction (and if you’re here I’m assuming you do) and you’re not reading Brubaker you’re missing out. Has a different view “Kathie has often been called the ultimate Femme Fatale, but to me she’s so much more then that. Because I can understand Barbara Stanwyck’s motivesin Double Indemity –she wants out of her loveless marriage and she wants to be rich- but Kathy Moffett remains an enigma. Why is Kathie doing any of the things she’s doing? What made her so alone and so afraid that she’ll turn on almost anyone, even trying to murder the people she loves.” It’s that beautiful chaotic desperation that elevates Moffett and Out Of The Past to a level most noir films never achieve. Kathie’s only motive appears to be survival and yet with Jeff, she finds both happiness and passion, as well. That she’s wiling to give the latter up for the former is her undoing. But it’s a particular kind of human failure and one again which comes from desperation. Long after any viewing of Out Of The Past I will find myself wondering where that desperation comes from.”
Desperation is really the key word in Out Of The Past. Everyone in it is desperate for something, Mitchum’s trying to escape his past, Douglas is trying to keep control of his empire and the only woman he’ll never be able to keep, and Greer is desperate to get away from whatever terrible thing is driving her. Of course none will get what they want, the trap is already been sprung, the only thing anyone can hope to do is “Die Last” as Mitchum says late in the movie.
In closing I’d like to take another quote from Brubaker’s essay “Good noir often has an element of disability layered inot it. It’s symbolism and character all at once – the old man in the wheelchair who hires Bogart in The Big Sleep, the Professor’s sexual hang ups in Asphalt Jungle, the reporter with two canes in Lady From Shanghai the GI with shell shock in The Blue Dahlia, just to name a few off the top of my head. Noir is showing us a fractured world full of damaged people, who nonetheless try to survive, but who mostly fail… The mute kid that Jeff Markham befriends fits that noir theme here, serving as both a supporting character and as a symbol for Jeff’s need to keep his past a secret. That alone would have been a great noir beat., to hit, but the final stroke of genius of this film is that only the mute boy and the audience ever know the truth about Jeff and why he does the things he does. No one else in the film does, not even the girl who loves him. The silent pact between movie and viewer echoes long after the final credits have rolled.”
And that to me is what Noir is, a dark secret that reaches out past the decades, coming for us always Out Of The Past.
Though Fight Club’s actual Tenth anniversary was a couple months ago, all the cool kids are writing about it now. And what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t write about what’s arguably the film of my generation.
Because make no mistake Fight Club is probably the closet thing to a cultural touchstone my generation has. The one piece of art that everyone has seen and has an opinion about. It’s ten years old this week, which quite frankly makes me feel like The Crypt Keeper, and people are still debating whether it’s a fascist piece of crap of a true masterpiece.
However, just because a film captures the cultural zeitgeist, doesn’t mean it’s any good. Just look at Easy Rider (Digression!!! Its worth noting that Fight Club takes the exact opposite trajectory of Rider. While Easy Rider spent its run time in a cloud of Hippie idealism to crash into nihilism at the end. Fight Club spends the majority of its run time in a venerable swan dive of nihlism only to pull out at the last second boosted by a wave of, I think exhilarating, romantism.) Fight Club, I’m happy to report, holds up. Its still the same incendiary power that it always had. In case you have literally been a space monkey for the past ten years, Fight Club tells the story of “Jack” a white collar wage slave whose quietly gone insane. He meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman, and without either really meaning too they start Fight Club, an organization that allows similarly soul dead corporate drones to beat the ever living crap out of each other. The project becomes all too successful, gaining a life of it’s own and morphing into Project Mayhem, dedicated to destroying society, with an idea that might actually do the trick.
The main criticism about Fight Club is that it glamorizes thuggish nihilistic violence. And to a certain extent, of course it does. Brad Pitt is a fucking rock star in this thing, he’s fully convincing as a man who as he puts it, “ Looks like you wanna look, fucks like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” It helps that he’s shot by David Fincher. The film still is stylistically on the bleeding edge ten years on. Particularly the manic first act which puts you so thoroughly in Fincher’s universe, bolstered by Norton’s droning monologue that its still disorienting on the umpteenth rewatching. The stuff Fincher pulls off here still seems genuinely next level, though whether that’s due to Fincher’s genius or the paucity in American cinema is up for debate.
But Fight Club was always deeper then it’s critics, hell it’s fans too, ever gave it credit for. As attractive as Pitt and Fincher make the surface look it is just that, the surface. Fight Club at it’s core is about the danger of giving yourself over to ANY school of thought, any ism. Whether it’s the white collar hell it’s principles inhabit in the beginning, or the counter culture they create, and are almost destroyed by. Any organization that you allow to view you as a cog in a greater whole will invariably treat you as such. And Cogs are very replaceable. Still those who talk about the film's supposed misogyny and machoism should remember that the ending can only come when Norton grows the fuck up enough to be able to reach out to a woman.
While other films that shocked at the time, such as Clockwork Orange, or Easy Rider, have grandfathered their way into the canon, Fight Club still maintains it’s edgy outsider status. I don't even think its Fincher's greatest film (but we'll get to that in my massive decade ender) but for sheer cinematic exhilaration its tough to beat. It still feels genuinely dangerous, like a hand grenade thrown into a bassinet.
When those buildings came down to The Pixie's coo it felt as though we where living in a new world. Two years later would confirm how right we where. The past eight years have been a "very strange time" in everyones life. And for the kids who came of age in its shadow, it'll always loom.
Do you like Horror? Do you like comics? (And if you’re on this blog then statistically speaking you do.) Are you reading Locke And Key? No?
What the fuck Is wrong with you?
Locke and Key is simply put one of the best comic books hitting the stands, second only in delivering the monthly goods to Brubaker’s Criminal. I’ve geeked out about Joe Hill before and I’ll do it again, because God damn it it is unfair for anyone to be this talented. Hill can write in any format, He can spit out great concept after concept (20th Century Ghosts), infused them with heart and depth (Heart Shaped Box) all the while being scary as hell. And he’ll write it in Swahili too. Why? Because he fucking can.
Hill is in the fabled “Eat your brains to gain your knowledge” spectrum of writers, chilling along side of the likes of Gaiman and Vaughn, as us mere mortals scratch in the dirt with sticks trying to form “words”. He’s just that good, and Locke and Key might be his greatest work.
Locke and Key tells the simple story of a family that suffers a tragedy and ends up moving to their family hate in Lovecraft (MWAHAHAA Maine). Starting off as a fairly pulpy Ghost story, Locke and Key has proven expert at redefining the terms of its story. Extending the scope with each arc with the grace of The Wire. I described it before as The Royal Tenenbaum's staring in The Haunting, by way of Lost, and that still seems right. Except its gotten even better.
Locke and Key does of course employ a few tropes that I am, to put it politely, a total sucker for. Few things will get me into a story quicker then the hint of a mult generational conflict, and the introduction of this element in The first issue of the second series might end up being my favorite issue of comics ever.
But its not the cool mythology, beautiful artwork, or truly scary moments that keep people coming back to Locke and Key and makes damn sure I’ll be there to pick up the book opening day. It’s this extraordinary family that Hill has at the center of his conflict.
Hill shares his father’s great gift of being able to firmly couch the supernatural in the mundane world of the every day. The problems of day to day living seem worse then the ssupernatural. After all what’s a monster living in the well, when you’re dealing with a loved one’s alcoholism, or a friend in the hospital, or are still reeling from a death in the family. Hill burrows right to center of his characters (sometimes extremely dark) hearts the stakes are so high not because of the cosmic nature of the horror but because of how much these characters stand to lose.
Locke and Key’s the best comic to deal with the supernatural since Sandman. Pick up an issue, give it a shot, just have some extra spending money handy because you’ll soon be compelled to pick up everything Hill has ever written. And you’ll be better for it.
Other Comic Notes:
Ultimate Spiderman #4: Despite the iffy art (great at times notso much at others) this series is still superlative. Part of its power comes from Bendis’s unparalleled long run. Bendis knows how to use the fact that we’re not just attached to the characters, but to his version of said characters, to his advantage. By this time we’ve grown attached to more or less everyone in Bendis’s cast. Conventional wisdom says that the essence of drama is conflict between the characters. Bendis seems to realize that writing Characters who aren’t utterly hateful to one another is also has its merits. It’s not Bendis’ large scale thinking that makes him one of the best in the business. It’s his humanism. And it’s never on display better then in his signature book.
Though I have to say the master plot is looking pretty good on this too. The issue ends on a cliffhanger that actually cliffhangs, and there’s a real feeling of momentum on this thing that’s intriguing. When Bendis can make the frigging Shroud Intriguing, you know he can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants.
So here I am on the other side of the weekend faced with writing about the first entry of the other granddaddy horror franchise. Who says there’s no such thing as kismet. Its ironic that I’ve written more about The Friday The 13th franchise then I have The Nightmare one, because I’ve always considered myself a Freddy man rather then a Jason guy.
Which brings us to an important question. Why? Why after all the terrible sequels, and corny jokes, and VJ-esque minstrelsy, after and I never get tired of stating this, he was resurrected by Dog Piss, and backed by Doken, and had his stop motion skeleton fought John Saxon, and was a squeamish metaphor for Homosexuality, after he killed someone with a power glove and terrorized Rosanne, Why after all of this stupid shit is this character even remotely scary? Because make no mistake, good old Fred Krueger, at least in his debut film is still a fucking scary guy.
I’m not going to talk much about the film, it’s already been covered. It’s probably Craven’s most elegant (which isn’t saying much but oh well) the young cast sells their roles well, the dreams feel like real dreams, and the atmosphere of dread is overwhelming. I just want to talk about the character of Krueger and why he’s lasted.
Part of it is of course the look. Freddy was an instant icon, while Michael and Jason are designed with a certain amount of anonymity, it could be any butcher knife that does you in, Freddy’s glove is purposeful, lethal, specific, and just plain nasty looking. The fedora and sweater help too, as does the awful magnetic face. Its all that sense of purpose. While we’re never quite sure why Myers and Jason feel the need to decrease the surplus population, Freddy’s motivation is literally all over his face. Once again, purpose.
That Purpose extends to Englund’s performance, and while it would eventually devolve into sub Borscht Belt schtick, here Englund strikes just the right note of conscience malice. Because that’s the thing while Myer’s and Jason go about their business almost like forces of nature, its no more use to be mad at them then it is a cyclone or a house fire. Freddy knows what he does, and what’s more he enjoys it. Not only is he going to cut you up, he’s going to laugh while he’s doing it.
But I think at the end of the day all this is secondary. I think the real reason that Freddy Krueger still scares the shit out of people, despite all the bad puns, and all the lame kills, and the fact that “Bitch” is now a national catchphrase, is that Freddy is the slasher whose closest to death.
Like the characters in the movie who know that they will die if they go to sleep, we can postpone but never escape the inevitable. Go ahead work out, quit smoking, drive the speed limit, cut out red meat, and cut back on the old drinking, sooner or later something will get you. And even if you do beat it back momentarily and that ugly lump goes into remission, well there’s always a sequel.
At the end of the day we all go to sleep for good and meet what ever is out there. We can only hope it won't call us Bitch.
Oh yeah. People who go back to the OG Friday The 13th might be confused as to just what the hell is going on. The movie is practically gentle. And that’s what I enjoy about the first Friday The 13th is just how lo-fi and unassuming it is. Unlike the stark guerillla madness that the technique causes in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the effect in Friday The 13th is, well nice. The whole movie even Savini’s kick ass effects has an almost cheery “Let’s put on a show!” vibe. It’s a prime example of this kind of movie being fun, while at the same time completely paying off on a genre level.
The film is basically in existence because someone gave Sean Cunningham a copy of “Psycho For Dummies” for his birthday. Basically every beat, crazy mother, Schizio killer, would be protagonist killed at the end of the first act is taken from Hitch.
I also have a special affection for this film because I actually worked as a camp counselor (true fact the Camp actually owned a 16mm print of the film and once a year a projector and screen would be dragged out into the woods for the counselors to watch and if you ever want to make Friday The 13th scary, walk back alone through the dark woods trying to make it to your cabin after watching it. It’ll work wonders) proving indeed that you can still do that and be alive! In fact I’m a little miffed at Friday The 13th for starting the stereotype why, only half of my friends and Coworkers where brutally hacked to death by maniacs. There’s a higher mortality rate at Kohls.
So much of Friday The 13th is so unabashedly goofy, long sequences are devoted to sketeches involving a snake in a cabin, and wacky cops. Those looking for a kill fest, are likely to be disappointed, but I’ve always liked the weird diversions this movie takes. Like I’ve said the main difference between the Slasher films of the eighties and the Nu Horror of today isn’t what happens during the kills but between them. While Nu Horror seeks to be relentlessly depressing, The Slasher movies where always fun. Edit out the sequences of Brutal murder in most Slasher films and what you have is a movie about a bunch of friends having a good time and playing strip Monopoly (albietly with the cast getting smaller and smaller with no explanation). The ensemble cast is likable, with a good final girl.
That’s not to say modern day horror fans won’t have a good time with Friday. Savini’s effects are as always superlative. Some of the stalk sequences are pretty cool. Betsy Palmer turns in a suitably unhinged performance. And Kevin Bacon gets an arrow through his throat which never really gets old. And while Halloween and Psycho usually get the credit, Friday the 13th is really responsible for the “tits n’ gore” rhythms of the slasher films we all know and love.
In short while Friday The 13th might not be a particularly scary movie anymore. It is still a very endearing one and still a great flick to put on for the unluckiest night of the year.
Well I think that’s about it, for the Friday the 13th series for me. I’ve really covered every one that I feel like writing about…
Oh. Alright angry Hitchhiker the next time this date rolls around you and me are gonna rumble.
Have you seen the new Lady Gaga video? That woman is not a person, she’s a super villain who has somehow escaped from the pages of Scott Pilgrim, and is going to enslave the world through her brand of Warhollian spectacle. Make no mistake Lady Gaga is completely fucking evil, but that just makes her kind of fascinating.
She seems like the end point of pop, and say what you will about her, she seems a true diva. Unlike the caught in the head lights bovine look that defined certain unnamed Pop stars at the beginning of the decade Gaga has turned herself into the event. What makes her special is that there is nobody who’s even pretending that she’s famous for her musical ability. Her fame is completely by decree and by virtue of the fact that she has removed the parts of her brain where shame and awkwardness register. Who gives a fuck if she can sing when she’ll wear a white latex bondage suit, and then a “real life” anime suit that will disturb even the most dedicated fetishists, all before she lights herself on fire while wearing a bearskin, in the process of prostituting herself to Baron Underbeight? Sure why not have her back up dancers be the roadshow cast of Eyes Wide Shut On the sets of Clockwork Orange? The music itself is so utterly beside the point that it’s kind of flabbergasting.
Still every action has an equal but opposite reaction, and if Gaga’s escape from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s head spells our certain catchy flamboyant doom, there’s a certain pair of super powered twins who have come to save us.
Tegan and Sara are simply great songwriters, as dedicated as Gaga is blaise. And the best part is they’re so unabashedly pop that if they announced a collaboration with The Archies tomorrow I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s nothing small about Tegan & Sara’s songs, though there is plenty that’s intimate. They create soaring antechambers of melody. Listen to Arrow off their newest album.
The sound is as big as anything off of Gaga’s hot tranny mess. And Tegan & Sara’s image, playing cannily on the aloof private nature of twins is probably just as carefully calculated as Gaga’s. But the craft and care in the song sets it apart completely. The haunting melody, dramatic use of discord as punctuation, combined with, a stunning live presence, and drop dead cool persona. If their was any justice in the world Tegan & Sara’s following would be a real life counter part to Dethlok. Why they’d be bigger then Lady Gaga.
Inevitably the two will battle to the death. Hopefully on a Space station that is telecasting their concert to every screen in the world Interstella 5555 style. Its nice to have twin angels fighting on the side of our soul.
EDIT: AND THEN IT HAPPENED (COURTESY OF DEPTFORD. Click to see it in all its heavenly glory rebigified. Which I failed to find a way to do on the page.
Why’d I buy it?: I’m a huge Werner Herzog fan. I’ve been lucky enough to meet the man twice both of which rank as surreal ass experiences. The idea of being able to buy one of his films at a big box store made me kind of giddy.
Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Like I said no Goddamn idea. I love Herzog, I love Bale, I love the original documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. And I loved the utterly subversive notion of a Werner Herzog film playing in the multiplexes where normal people could be exposed to his mutant filmmaking rays. But for whatever reason, I missed it in the theaters, and then despite the fact that I bought the DVD the first day it was out, it just sat their on the shelf accusing me. I don’t know why I never made the time to watch it. I mean yeah a harrowing story about a Vietnamese prison camp maybe not the first thing you wanna pop on after a hard days work. But really, I never made time for a new Herzog film? Really?
How Was It?: Pretty fucking great. The film was exactly what it promised to be. A real Herzog, driven to the limits of human experience, film that somehow managed to get released by a major studio. I’m pretty much a gushing fanboy when it comes to Herzog’s style, so bear with me, but the thing I love about the man is that he never seems to have seen a movie other then his own before. He genuinely plays by his own rules. Check out the scene where Dieter’s first shot down. The laws of narrative expediency tells us that Dieter will surely be captured right here. Herzog instead delivers a fifteen minute mini odyssey depicting Dieter’s first battle with the jungle. Basically a brutal tone poem, It’s the kind of left turn no one else would do, maybe Malick but Malick would never even conceive of shooting it with such an unromantic eye. Herzog does it perfectly.
Once Bale is finally captured, the film slips into a different gear. Herzog has never been accused of being a great humanist (at least not in his narrative films) but the relationship he creates between Bale and Steven Zahn is the movies frail doomed heart. The only real problem with the movie is Jeremy Davis’s ultra twitchy performance as a fellow POW whose gone round the bend. I’m not a Davis hater, in fact I usually enjoy his idiosyncratic style (“I could tell you what's happening… but I don't know if it would really tell you what's happening.”) but Jesus the man took the twitchy up to eleven.
The movie continues with Herzog’s pet themes of extreme behavior (watch an A list star choke down maggots), the pitilessness of nature, the bounds of human physical and mental endurance, and human folly (The death of Zahn is so stupid and pitiful and pointless that it’ll break your heart).
Rescue Dawn is a truly great film, and deserves its place Herzog’s Oeuvre.
Believe it or not I digested other media then horror films this October. Some of which I even wanted to write about, and did, then didn't have the inclination to turn into proper posts once the month ended. But still wanted to get my two cents in. Well here they are!
Whip It – Whip It is the kind of funny, intelligent movie that hardly ever gets made for young adults, and it’s failure to connect with said group has caused no end of wailing and gnashing of teeth on my end.
Maybe it’s my own odd affection for films set in Texas. Maybe it’s the fact that Barrymore has a sense of place, people, and community that’s nearly Linklaterian. Maybe it’s the fact that even Juliet Freaking Lewis who normally makes me want to tear out my eyes and jab knitting needles in my ears does a good job in this movie, but I kind of sorta loved Whip It.
While I doubt Barrymore is going to prove herself to be the next Altman, she aquits herself admirably with this film, showing a sharp eye for talent, with the ensemble cast, creating a real feeling of intimacy. This is the kind of movie I hope to be able to share with my own children someday.
Batman And Robin:
A lot of people have been bitching about the second arc in Batman and Robin, I for one have been enjoying it as much as the first. Maybe it’s because I haven’t really been reading the series lately, and thus haven’t read the last dozen, “Jason Todd is an asshole” stories, but I like the way Morrison handles the character. While I agree that it was a mistake to bring him back, Todd’s purpose in the comics was to serve as a monument to Bruce’s failure. The one time he wasn’t up to the task. Well now he’s the same thing, except this time he’s a walking talking example of it who is murdering people. I think Morrison's take on Jason That he's basically the runt of the litter, (I love Damien's contempt that he let the fucking Joker kill him) is interesting. He's not a badass he's a bitter, weak and losing his hair. It takes all of two seconds for The Flamingo (who I'm also loving) to take him down. Paring him with Sasha who is proving to be a living example of Damian’s first failure, gives it a nice feeling of synchrony and dare I say tragedy.
I like how Morrison is taking the language of the old Batman TV show, flamboyant villains, identical henchmen, outlandish plots, and visual sound effects, and is turning it on its head. When you talk about something like subverting Iconography, its normally just empty buzzwords. Morrison knows how to do it.
And we’re not even on The Flamingo yet, the second memorable freak that Morrison’s created this run. Most modern day comic books feel like they’re written by people just happy to get a chance to play with the toys. Afraid even to take them out of their packaging. The genre feels positively inbred now, is it any wonder that it’s so unwelcoming to new readers?
I have to give credit to Morrison, I may not always like him. In fact I may very often hate him, but he’s never interested in just playing with someone else’s toys, he wants to use his own.
So one good things come out of Ultimatum, Bendis is energized on this book like he hasn’t in years. While Ultimate Spiderman has long served as the one comic that was guaranteed to be at least pretty good, Bendis has really kicked it up a notch. Moving things on a faster clip, weaving an intriguing plot with the same deft ear for character that’s always set him apart.
A lot of people are getting hung up on the artwork but, You know it's grown on me. I hated it when I read the annual, and there's stuff that still bothers me; mostly the way the characters only seem to have noses half the time and the way he can't seem to figure out that there are old people (his Aunt May is freaky).
What I like is the fact that he seems to have his own twist on manga style. It's not like he’s a Huberto Ramos (for whom I would not brake my car if I saw him crossing the street). He takes the warmth and dynamism of Manga and marries it with some good American detail.
I love his Mysterio, and MJ but I really like the way he's gotten Bendis to step up his game plotting wise. For those who complain his books are nothing but talking heads, these are event packed.
Sky Crawlers –
Sky Crawlers is the latest from Ghost In The Shell director Mamoru Oshi. Which means you’ve either already seen it or you never will.
It tells the story of a young group of pilots fighting a war in a vaguely European setting against an ill defined enemy. There is of course something totally up, but it’s not really a secret to the characters only to us.
In a lot of ways Oshi is like The Monte Helleman of anime. Many are put off by his deliberate pace (slow) existential (slow) musings, and meditative (slow) style. But the rhythm and world he creates are so unlike any other, that I can’t help but be drawn to them. Still for those who don’t respond to long indistinctly animated scenes of a basset hound frolicking, or characters reading the morning paper might be turned off.
It plays like a version of Never Let Me Go in which the characters occasionally get into planes and blow each other up. The problem with the movie, which I think keeps it decidedly second tier Oshi, is the fact that while the film’s central conceit works as metaphor, it works as nothing else.
Sky Crawlers isn’t Oshi at his best, and at his best I think he genuinely is one of the greatest filmmakers in anime or any other medium, but it’s an intriguing odd movie, that’s more then worth your time.
Where Men Win Glory
John Krakauer remains one of my favorite authors, and Where Men Win Glory, might be his masterpiece. Krakeur’s muse has always been those who push themselves to the very edge of experience. In Tillman he seems to find his ideal, and then watches with dismay as he’s tossed away. Its the story of a good man so poorly used by the country he sacrificed everything to serve. This book will piss you off royally no matter what your political leanings are. Still the book isn’t just another tract of Bush era crimes. Aside from side trips into the philosophy and anthropology of War, and a damning look at the whole “Saving Private Lynch” fiasco; It also contains one of the most concise, damning and terrifying portraits of the last fifty years of Afghan history. If you consider yourself at all involved in politics, or indeed are a sentient being living on the planet you owe it to yourself to read Where Men Win Glory. It’s the best book of the year.
Jane Campion is an incredible director. The depth, beauty and sensuality of her frames are more or less unmatched among the formalists. So it’s been a real bitch that I haven’t liked any of her films.
The Piano was one of the damndest experiences I’ve had with a movie. A case of it simply not working for me despite both my and the movie’s noblest of intentions. I just sat looking at the screen bemused. Clearly something was happening though I had no idea what.
Holy Smoke was an agreeably strange movie, with it’s Freaky to the nines performance by Kate Winslet, and Harvey Keitel’s wang. But it’s not exactly something I’ve been dying to see again. And the less said about In The Cut, that ghoulish anti-vanity immolation the better.
But with Bright Star, Campion has really hit upon something. There might not be much on the surface to separate it from the dozens of other “tasteful” costume drama’s out there. But Campion’s artistic ferocity really hits home. She strikes at something primal, bringing out the emotion of the story full flower. Capturing the beauty and sensuality of Keat’s poetry, in away that usually isn’t touched in the dubious genre that is “films about writing”
The lush beauty of her frames, the doomed romanticism of the performances, all combine to make Bright Star something truly memorable.
I didn’t know what to think walking into The Box. Despite the fact that I’m a pretty big Southland Tales apologist, I’d pretty much written off Richard Kelly. I mean I like Southland Tales but I pretty much like it the same way I like a Freakshow; nice every now and again but nothing I want to make a habit out of. I basically thought he might make interesting films, or more accurately he’d probably make interesting scenes in mediocre films. But did I ever expect him to connect with me the way he did with Donnie Darko? To deliver that gut punch of emotion and intellect again? No I did not. As Vern said with Southland Tales he went from being the director of Donnie Darko to the writer of Domino and I kind of expected him to just keep fucking around.
Well I might not have loved The Box, but I sure liked it a hell of a lot, and one thing's for sure Kelly isn’t fucking around anymore and I’m no longer writing him off. Maybe he’s not just the director of Donnie Darko again, maybe now he’s the director of the Donnie Darko Director Cut, that slightly more muddled, less sure footed re-edit. I don’t know if Kelly will ever regain that Golden boy status he had just after Darko. Nor do I believe that he necessarily should. Domino and Southland Tales are movies made by someone who literally believes he can do no wrong. The Box is the film of a man whose learnt his lesson. It’s as intriguing and adult as Southland Tales was Juvenile.
The premise of The Box is pretty killer. If you haven’t heard it, it’s as basic as it gets. The Lewis’s a cash strapped couple is given a box with a button on it by Frank Langella (AKA I’m not Robert Loggia). If they press the button, someone somewhere in the world will die, and they will receive a million dollars. If they don’t, they’ll get a hearty slap on the back for being such good sports about the whole thing.
After a minimum amount of hemming and hawing the couple eventually push the button. The way it’s played you can’t really blame them. It’s just the idea of someone dying, it’s so abstract, and the money well it’s so concrete, it’s right there. How can you not be tempted? Besides (and not to get too grad student here) but by participating in this society we basically do the same thing every day. What Diaz does with The Box isn't much more different then what we do every time we buy something we know was made in a sweatshop, or grab a steak from a factory farm, which most of us do every day for the sake of convenience. We ignore our moral obligation because we're so far removed from it. It's so easy just to not think about it. Anyway one head slappingly obvious and but so well delivered complication later and the Lewis’s are scrambling to find some way out of what is essentially a cosmic mousetrap.
The Box’s success really comes down to it’s performance’s, it’s not a big special effects film, in fact it’s down right intimate. Particularly impressive is Langella, an actor whom I will admit I’ve never given much thought to before, this will of course change. His Mr. Seward, smooth as silk and merciless as a garrot, with his hypnotic face, shot by Kelly with such wit. Kelly shoots Seward’s wound as negative space as often as he shows it full on, highlighting what isn’t there as much as what is. It’s right up there with Christopher Johnson as one of my favorite effects of the year.
James Marsden proves once again that he’s one of the best secret weapons in the movies today. And Cameron Diaz acquits herself admirably here. I’ve seen her used as a bit of whipping boy in some of the reviews I’ve read, and while her range may not be particularly wide, she really sells the bond she shares with her husband, which is frankly really all she needs to do. You can feel how much they depend on each other, and when that bond is put to the test you can really feel it.
Kelly really does well here, creating a genuine feel of dread and tension throughout the runtime. Reining in his worst tendencies while keeping his personality in full force. There’s a nice little in joke about Kelly’s supposed obtuseness, when Langella exasperatedly explains exactly what he’s doing to a beleaguered NSA official before asking “Do you need a clearer explanation?”. There’s also a sly Darko in joke (check the pictures in the manual Marsden’s character rifles through on his car trip with Langella’s last test subject).
What keeps The Box firmly in “good” territory, rather then great is the film’s somewhat muddled middle section. While the first and third acts are tightly wound, things get a little soft and confused in between. The fact is that we know that the Lewis’s can’t escape the bed they’ve made for themselves. And we know it to, and to be fair Kelly says as much, the fact that they go see the high school production of “No Exit” isn’t an accident. But the strictures of Hollywood filmmaking demand that they must be given a chance to escape, we follow the Lewis’s separately as they are given cryptic hints that they can save themselves that are never mentioned again, then try to accomplish things we are unsure of, to achieve objectives that are never clear.
These scenes are painfully perfunctory, particularly one in which Langella calls up and literally tells Diaz to “Make sure her husband isn’t playing detective.” This despite the fact that he never minds, neigh actively encourages such actions later on. These scenes are going to drive Kelly haters up the wall, filled as they are with cryptic clues, and seemingly meaningless revelations.
Still these scenes are not a total wash, Kelly has a pretty good concept up his sleeve to power most of these sequences. The basic idea is that once the button is pushed Mr. Seward gets to run his rats through the maze with the aid of his “employees” who can be literally anyone he cares to tap into his hive mind. The encounters with the employees aren’t even particularly malicious, but they tap into a kind of paranoia that’s hard to shake. Even in these weaker scenes there are some great moments, A scene where Mardsen is corralled through a library is particularly disturbing, though the films pay off is the closest the movie gets to Southland Tales style “What the fuck” obtuseness, in which Mardsen must choose between three pillars of water to walk into, two of which apparently lead to hell. (Truth in criticism: To be fair, it makes more sense then most of the stuff in Southland Tales, and even has an explanation of sorts, its just the way it's presented "Eternal Damnation?" really?)
Still things pick up for the gloriously odd (love Santa), nerve wracking, and even heartbreaking ending. To spoil it would be unfair. I will only say that no matter what can be said about Kelly or his various movies, he has never lacked the courage of his convictions and he takes the movie to it’s logical conclusions.
The Box is not perfect, but it’s powered by that same bracing mix of intelligence and daring that made Kelly so exciting to me in the first place. Against all odds he has firmly recaptured my attention.