Thursday, January 28, 2010

1919-2010



"Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jackie Brown


(If you happen to be in SLO come out and watch some Jackie Brown at The Palm tonight)

Watching Jackie Brown today is like watching a film from the filmmaker Tarantino could have become. While I feel using the term maturation does disservice to the movie’s Tarantino has made since then, all of which I love (yes even Death Proof) there is no denying that Jackie Brown is a very adult work, while Tarantino’s other films are fueled by a more anarchic adolescent sensibility. It’s a peek down the road not taken.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a whole lot of Tarantino’s trademark irreverent humor, intextuality (“Killer had a Forty Five THEY want a Forty Five.”) deliciously rich dialogue and key little moments (“Is this the Delfonics?). But it all feels different somehow, like a seventies crime film, something like The Friends Of Eddie Coyle or Charley Varrick. Low key, grungy and very human.


Of course part of that has to do with the fact that Jackie Brown is based off of one of Elmore Leonard’s, the king of Seventies Crime Fiction, Novel’s. The other part of it has to do with the fact that half of Tarantino’s excellent cast could have stared in any of those seventies films. Robert Forester, Pam Grier, and Robert De Niro (Maybe the last cinematic evidence of him giving a fuck, this or Ronin I go back and forth) all do amazing work. Particularly Forester in an understated, somehow heartbroken performance. Forester isn’t any kind of badass. He’s just a guy who knows how to handle himself. He uses his competency like an armor, but somehow remains endearingly vulnerable. He’s just such a hangdog you can’t help but feel for him.

The movie of course belongs to Grier. Who brings to Brown a sense of compelling sadness and weary, along with her trademark sexiness and cool. There’s a real sense of soul to Jackie. She’s someone whose missed a lot of chances in her life and senses this might be her last one. Even getting killed is preferable to missing another shot.

The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. Samuel Jackson, is fantastic as Ordell, a sentient ball of jovial malevolence. The pleasure that Jackson gets from the role and the pleasure Ordell gets from himself are inseparable. And when he starts to really lose his shit as the film goes on, he becomes a genuinely menacing figure.

The rest of the cast is great too. Particularly Bridget Fonda as an aging Sex Kitten, and Michael Keaton as a DEA cop. Hell even Chris Tucker Rises to the level of tolerable.

The plot of Jackie Brown is purposefully low stakes. A couple hundred thousand up for grab after a misplaced baggie of Cocaine gives the police leverage over the titular character, a low level runner for the weapon’s dealer Ordell Robbie. Ordell uses the services of Bondsman Max Cherry to get the witnesses against him sprung from the police, then executes them. Together Cherry and Brown devise a plan to rip off both the Feds and Ordell. People start to lose their shit, people start to die.

Tarantino shoots the whole thing in a natural sunny California bright light. Jackie Brown doesn’t look like a crime film. Even De Palma’s Scarface had more scenes shot in the shadows then this. There’s none of the mad plotting of Tarantino’s other films. It’s as he describes it, a hang out movie, kind of like a crime movie directed by Richard Linklater. Except you know not terrible like The Newton Boys was.

Jackie Brown may be a divergence but it is by no means minor. Simply put there are very few films so purely pleasurable to watch.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Passing Strange


“He Never Understood The Purpose Of Love Without Understanding.”

“Do You Now?”

-Passing Strange-

Passing Strange shreds the line between concert film and musical, and is a welcome reminder after the bloated and misguided Miracle At St. Anna (One of those sad cases where a film is very close to a directors heart, and has pounds of potential, and just isn’t any good at all), of what a vital director Spike Lee can be.

Most filmed Broadway shows lose what an electrifying experience such a show can be, because without the live energy behind it, most shows are just samey sounding songs with sing talking the plot at you. By shooting the performance live but cinematically Lee is able to capture the spontaneous energy of the show while making it look amazing.

I can’t overestimate what a unique experience Passing Strange is. It’d be damn near impossible to film in conventional cinematic form (Hell its going to be damn near impossible to REVIVE). What Lee pulls off is nothing short of miraculous. Calling it Electrifying is like calling a shock to the testicles electrifying it just doesn’t cover it.

Passing Strange is one of those rare works that manages to speak frankly about race without ever once coming off as didactic or heavy handed. It manages to be at once deeply personal and bracingly singular. A combination of huge musical and personal exorcism so raw that its damn near performance art. A striking tribute to art and a frank assessment of its limitations.

The story follows the journey of Stew, narrated by his older and somewhat wiser self, from his comfortable middle class existence in Los Angeles, to his search for “the real” across Europe, and then finally back home when a dose of harsh reality brings the awakening he’s searched for his entire life. Albeit at an extraordinarily heavy price.

Passing Strange features a small cast fielding multiple roles, with smooth grace, it’s the sort of stage production that looks easy with its minimalist structure and cast but is really filled with the stuff that’s the trickiest to pull off. Still the cast is more then able, nimbly skipping through the play’s tonal gearshifts, the play often goes from laugh out loud funny to tragic in the space of a line, without missing a beat.

I’m worried about lapsing into Hyperbole with this review but somehow I don’t think I’m going to. Film is a medium for loners. As much as we love the experience of watching a movie with a crowd of strangers its not truly communal. Just a bunch of people alone together. Theater is different. It is a communal experience. Passing Strange somehow captures that feeling onto celluloid. The film is so alive that it damn near seems sentient.

Passing Strange is the sort of experience you want to share. It’s the sort of movie you just shove in peoples hands, you want to transmit the feeling like a virus, to just about anyone including you reading this right now.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Black Sabbath


It's that time again. Final Girl's Film Club has risen to kick your ass. This month with Black Sabbath.

I like Mario Bava pretty much across the board, and given the size of that board that’s a pretty big statement. I put him easily above the fun but uneven Fulci, and even the best of Argento. I like Bava when he’s making moody little gothic films or gigantic pop art monstrosities. I like Bava when he’s making horror movies, westerns, crime flicks, sex comedies, sci fi, and yes even when he’s making Viking movies. There’s no time period of Bava’s I don’t care for, hell there’s not even a movie of Bava’s I don’t care for (The possible exception being the influential but overrated Blood And Black Lace).

The point is I’m what you could mildly call pro Bava, and given that Black Sabbath is considered by many to be Bava’s finest (though I’d give the title to the Psychedelic little gothic chiller Kill Baby Kill), not to mention being the film that inspired a certain group of acid worn British Hippies to down tune their guitars and to stop singing about evil and start wailing like demon monks where eating their skin (Meaning that Mario Bava invented both Heavy Metal and The Modern Slasher movie BY ACCIDENT) I can basically watch this movie at anytime.

Black Sabbath is a great little horror movie, it’s only real flaw the fact that Bava puts his weakest segment last (Depending on what cut you watch. I was reviewing Anchor Bay’s version on You Tube) and stilted framing devise that features Boris Karloff first rambling (In its oddest moment the intro ends only to have Karloff reappear and start another not particularly easy to follow tangent.) and then explaining that you’ve just watched a movie.

The first segement, A Drop Of Water is the best, featuring a greedy nurse who is tormented by the spirit of a patient whose corpse she robs. It’s a great minimalist piece of horror cinema. A grisly morality play with an ending that just doesn’t quit. It’s like one of the greatest EC Comics never made.

The second episode is just as strong featuring Boris Karloff at his best as a vampire cursed to dine on his family members. Karloff pulls off one hell of a performance here, investing his creature with as much sorrow and genuine menace as he ever did in the classic Universal days. It’s the kind of swan song that you always hope your old favorite one’s get, fueled not just by nostalgia but by the fact that Karloff, unlike so many others never lost his talent.

Like I said Black Sabbath ends with a whimper rather then a bang. Its not that the last part is BAD exactly, its just not, special. A decent enough psychological giallo with a pretty nice darkly funny ending, but after the last two films it just doesn’t hold up.

Still Black Sabbath is the sort of flick that you can’t help but have a good time with, a dark genuinely malignant horror film that features a couple of masters at their best.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bigelow Fest: The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker is such a good movie that it makes up for every misstep in Bigelow’s career. It plays like a lost Sam Fuller film and coming from me that’s no small praise. Its daring in both the ways it ignores and subverts genre conventions, and its sickening stylistic clarity marks is Bigelow at her best.

It’s one of those movies that hits the ground running. Much has been written about the opening scene, but God damn it’s a beauty, going off with the precision of a Swiss watch fulfilling about fifty different functions at once. Not only does it set up the character dynamics that’ll power the rest of the film, it gives you a rudimentary course in Bomb Design and Army Protocol. It sets up a textbook situation with an IUD then watches as the team tries to disarm it using the play book.

Starting the film with a tutorial is a stroke of genius. Not merely demonstrating just how badly things can go when everything goes “right” but by setting it up so when Remmer’s character starts to improvise and go off manual you know what he’s doing, why it matters, and just how wrong it can go. Not to mention starting with a basic bomb allows us to see how each of the improvisations the crew comes across later complicates things further. In short it lets the movie go off without a single further scene of exposition. Rather then having to explain to us what’s going wrong, we know what’s going wrong. Its one of the boons of treating the audience with intelligence. And in my opinion The Hurt Locker should be taught in every Screenwriting 101 class in the world.

The scripts other stroke of genius is its subversion of the maverick archetype. We’ve seen the character who plays by his own rules in practically every movie ever. Normally though its from the perspective of The Maverick. So when we see Mel Gibson crash his car through the front of a bank and watch all the uniformed officers run for cover. We think “Ha ha what pussies they don’t have the balls Mel has fuck them.”

Hurt Locker expertly portrays just how pants shittingly terrifying it would actually be to work with one of those people. It’s a movie from the perspective of the uniformed cops running for cover. When you’re on a job where literally every assignment can get you killed, rules tend to be there for a reason. And watching Renner cavalierly disregard his own safety and by extension his units, you understand why his partner’s consider fragging him, despite his often brilliant leaps of intuition and insight.

And Christ Bigelow puts you right in the meat grinder scene after scene after scene. Like The Big Red One and Generation Kill, the only films I can think of to compare this one too. There’s no master plot no grand mission. Just these guys waking up in a bad situation every day. Going to sleep then waking up in a worse one. Its one punishing vignette after another, and the best ones particularly one involving Ralph Fiennes, a crew of British soldiers and some unseen snipers, just burn their way into your brain. The only narrative arc is as the film winds its way to the pitch black ephiphany that some people don’t leave hell because they don’t want to.

This film marks Bigelow as one of the sharpest talents working today. Twenty years into her career and it feels like she’s just getting started (Here’s hoping she makes the Triple Frontier before I Escaped From The Taliban) and I don’t mean that as an insult.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bigelow Fest: Strange Days



Strange Days might be the most frustrating movie in Bigelow’s frustrating ass career. On one hand it’s a brilliantly prescient Sci Fi movie, with an intelligent premise, great performances, and a unique style.

On the other hand it’s one of the most vilely violent and misogynistic films I’ve ever seen. Let’s just take a moment here, I’m a Brian DePalma fan for the love of Christ, so it’s not exactly like I label stuff misogynistic for shits and giggles.

I am also the man who in this very column has recommended this, and this as well, and oh let’s not forget about this. The point is I’m hardly what you would call squeamish about onscreen violence. So when I say that I actually sold my copy of Strange Days on moral grounds, please consider the source, and take a moment to reflect before you rent.

The fact that you may still want to see Strange Days despite this fact is a testament to its quality. Taking place at the turn of millennium (OOOOOOOOHHHHH!!!!!) Strange Days takes place in a world where anyone’s memories can be experienced by anybody else in the first person, thanks to VR technology called “squids”. Ralph Fiennes, fresh off Schindler’s List, plays a low level dealer of illicit squids, selling the experience of kinky sex and hard drugs to those too timid to take the plunge in real life. Then someone starts sending him snuff, which as you might have guessed is where the vile shit comes in.

The film was written by the current lord of Pandora, and at the time beau of Bigelow, James Cameron and has the distinction of being just about the only thing he has his name on to flop. It has a lot of Cameron’s fingerprints, but the film is all Bigelow’s. It’s interesting to think how the film would be different, with Cameron at the helm. My guess is it would have been less vicious. Cameron has always known when to cut away, and there are some sequences in here that are nigh unwatchable.

This all gets tied, none too well, into an intricate (read borderline incoherent) mystery involving, the Tupac like murder of a hip hop star, Tom Sizemore, the dude from The Crow who seemed to be the bad guy in every 90’s movie ever made (Michael Wincott) and the career of Fiennes ex girl friend played by your favorite braying semi coherent scientoligist and mine, Juliet Lewis. It’s up to Fiennes and his girl Friday Angella Bassett, in one of her best performances, to solve the mystery before LA burns to the ground. Not that that would be, ya know, the worst of consequences.

Strange Days has it’s fair share of problems, like the problem that it made me throw up in my mouth a little. But chief among them is the fact that it stakes it’s emotional core on the idea that Juliette Lewis, who is once again, for the record the worst person in the entire world, is some unattainable gold standard of feminine beauty and grace with the artistic purity of a muse. Indeed the only thing that undercuts Basset’s fine performance, is that she is so clearly the superior person in every way shape and form that the question of whether Fiennes will eventually end up with her seems moot. Still for it’s bracing style, heartfelt performances by Fiennes and Bassett, and prescient ideas (in our Solipsism based society who wouldn’t start pimping out their memories? I mean shit, what else am I doing on this blog?), I have to reluctantly recommend Strange Days. In a lot of ways it’s Bigelow’s career in microcosm. Equally parts bracing and frustrating, electrifying and just plain depressing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fantastically Frightening... And Not Just My Face

Jay Clark over at the always fun The Horror Section was kind enough to nominate me for a "Fantastically Frightening Award" Thanks so much Jay. Let's take a look at this thing...



...And just like that my blog lost ten class points. But in all honesty, I really do appreciate this. I may not strictly be a horror blog. But from my very first post I've written about Horror a lot. I mean seriously I write about horror one hell of a lot.

The reason is simple. Aside from the fact that I have an obvious affection and passion for the genre, I like being a part of the horror blogger community, no matter how tangentially. I'm not the first to note that Horror fans make the best movie fans but I'm beginning to think they make the best bloggers too (Accept for you non horror blogger reading this. You're not like the others. You're awesome.) Generous, personable, passionate, happy to throw traffic to a struggling site, there's nothing about Horror Bloggers I don't like (Except for that one dude MIRITE!!!).

So here are seven horror bloggers who've been awesome to me. Nice little chance to give some of the awesome back. By taking away ten dignity points from their respective sites.

If you like cool stuff from Classic Horror movies and you're not following Robert Leninger's blog you have something the matter with you. Just a quick FYI.

Freddy In Space is a great guy who writes straight from the heart few people can match his passion for the genre. Few people can get me positively stoked to see a movie called Thankskilling. He's one of them.

The Deadly Doll's House Of Horror Nonsense Currated by the literate and witty Em is one of the best place for horror reviews on the net. But you already knew that right. Cause it's awesome. Good thought so.

It's easy to get jaded as a horror fan. And just not get surprised by whatever filmmakers are able to cook up. This is not true of The Tokyo Scum Brigade, where Dr. Senbei and crew are dedicated to bringing you the oddest shit that the horror scene of the East has to offer. Take a visit but be aware that you can't un see anything you look at there. .

The Basement Of Ghoulish Decadence is a great site. Fueled by passion and a quick wit. Well worth an addition to your daily read.

The Atomic Fox hasn't been around to post much lately. I hope she comes back soon as hers was some of the brightest quickest coverage on the scene.

And finally there's the Grand Maven herself, Stacie Ponder over at Final Girl. Though the design of the award will probably make her want to hit me with a brick, I couldn't not give Stacie a shout out simply because she's the best at what she does. Funny, frighteningly knowledgable, willing to wade into the most esoteric films and the classics with equal aplomb, affection, and sidesplittingly funny prose. Plus a collection of the greatest mid nineties motivational clip art known to man.

Thanks again to Jay for granting me the award, an thanks to all the afore mentioned bloggers for being such great reads.

Bigelow Fest: Point Break



You're about to jump out a perfectly good airplane Jonny, how do you feel about that?

Vaya con Dios, Brah


-Point Break Being Awesome-

Time for a critical Mea Culpa. Up until very recently I had never seen Point Break. Yes that’s right…

The guy who can quote the entire screenplay of Hot Fuzz verbatim, never saw Point Break.

The guy who has been known to after a few beers defend Keanu Reeves. Indeed citing his performance in Constantine as particularly kind of awesome, in a weird cat on your lap sort of way, never saw Point Break.

The guy whose love of camp and kitsch rivals that of most drag queens, never saw Point Break.

Why I never saw it I can’t say. It’s just one of those things I missed when I was young enough to take it seriously and have never been all that interested in watching when I found out it was insane. But I knew I couldn’t write up Kathryn Bigelow’s career, much less consider myself a complete human being, without seeing it. It was there burning… Like acid in my mouth. And for what it’s worth I’m glad I did. I mean for fuck’s sake it’s a movie featuring Gary Busey, Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Sky Diving, Surfing, Bank Robbery and serious man love. To not find something to enjoy in this glorious mess of a movie one would have to be some alien supercomputer incapable of feeling what we human classify as “Love”. Sure it’s a hyperactive cartoon that is on some basic level a squandering of Bigelow’s potential. And birds have wings, its simply the nature of the beast. Accept or reject it, but don’t blame the particulars.

Keanu Reeves plays an FBI agent, named Johnny Utah CAUSE HE FUCKING IS!!, who goes under cover with a group of surfers who are suspected of robbing banks while dressed as ex presidents. The gang is led by the mysterious Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze at his Patrick Swayziest, and an epic bromance begins between the two (and yes I know the term is annoying, but well sometimes one can’t help what the right word is). Skydiving, surfering, bank robbing, and “firing a gun up into the air because he just loves him so much” also ensue.

If Blue Steel was hampered by Bigelow trying to rein in her utterly insane impulses for the sake of mainstream cinematic propriety, Point Break is basically her throwing up her hands and going, “Fuck That.” The appeal of Point Break is how little lip service is paid to making it seem even remotely plausible. Normally words like “Ridiculous” and “Nonsensical” are used as negatives but in the case of Point Break they’re positive boons. Point Break is so far over the top that it’s damn near surrealist. Little separates it from the average episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. When the straight man in your movie is Gary Busey you know something has gone horribly wrong. Or in this case, horribly right. Point Break is the logical endpoint for the wonderfully Vulgar 80’s blockbuster cinema. It’s also and uncoincidentally it’s completely mad.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bigelow Fest: Blue Steel


At it’s core Blue Steel has a pretty damn irresistible premise. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a cop who has to shoot Tom Sizemore (Proving he can bring more crazy to a movie in ten minutes then most can bring in an entire runtime) in the line of duty.

A witness to the event, steals Sizemore’s gun, making it look like Curtis shot an unarmed man, and develops a bizarre obsession with her. Silver runs around the city doing his best Son Of Sam impersonation and simultaneously begins to insinuate himself into Curtis’s life.

Basically it’s about a female cop who has to stop someone who really wants to be shot by a female cop. This poses a problem to say the least. Its the kind of pulpy premise Sam Fuller would come up with and its too bad Bigelow doesn't do more with it. Blue Steel is a lot more reserved then most of Bigelow’s work, which is a relative statement sure, but none the less. It plays at a slow burn, more like an old school noir then her patented rush of insanity (Although there is plenty of that as well, not to worry).

The film’s got a good cast backing her up including Clancy Brown in a rare non villain or Mr. Crabbs related roll, and Richard Jenkins pre Coen Brothers.

This was the first film made by Bigelow, and writing partner at the time Eric Red that wasn’t technically exploitation (After Near Dark and the little scene Willem Dafoe as a Biker movie Loveless). A lot of what makes Blue Steel interesting to watch is how Bigelow tries and often fails to walk that tightrope, reigning in her excessive tendencies only to have them burst out at all sorts of awkward and interesting moments.

Blue Steel has its problems, mostly do to its aforementioned struggles in tone. It has no idea whether it wants to be a whackadoo exploitation movie, or a regular cop drama. As a result the films schizoid and sometimes plays, as in the scenes where the psychos lawyers keep getting him off on technicalities no matter how blatant his guilt, like a parody of 80’s cop movies.

Still everytime you think the films made one misstep too many, it counters with a tense setpiece, or a bit of smart writing, character work, or style and you convince yourself to give it another shot (In that sense it almost serves as a good microcosm for Bigelow’s career.)

Consummate scumbag Ron Silver plays the obsessed lunatic. It’s a great example of less is more, there’s no real scenery chewing (Well not an inoridinate amount anyway, the scene where he rolls around in a woman’s blood in central park is a bit much.), just measured irrationality, no big explanation of why he’s off his rocker. For all we know he was some normal guy whose just been warped by this encounter. Curtis matches him, clearly relishing a good role, even if she was a little to old at this point to play an inexperienced rookie. Still on the whole, Blue Steel is a stylish, tense thriller made for adults. There’s not a lot of those around.

Halloween II Directors Cut




I was one of the five people who genuinely liked Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (down from being one of the dozen people who liked his original). Hell I liked it so much I bought the album by the fake psychobilly band featured in the film. Now for the record I’m a pretty big Rob Zombie Apologist. I was one of the few folks who liked his original Halloween remake for all its flaws, The Devil’s Rejects is a truly great horror film, and House Of 1000 Corpses is fun to watch when your drunk. Hell I even found nice things to say about his direct to video goofy practical joke of a cartoon The Haunted World Of El Super Beasto. Not many nice things true, but I found them. And I think I might literally be the only one on that account.

While most thought Halloween II was nothing but two hours of gore and white trash behaving badly, which to be fair isn’t entirely untrue. I found it to be one of the best most original (and yes I know that writing that word in conjunction to a sequel to a sequel to a remake takes me to Armond White levels of crazy) slasher films of the decade. A nasty, occasionally truly scary horror movie, with a perverse imagination, and some really disturbing imagery (The movie’s worth seeing if only for a brief silent film interlude involving a family of shrunken pumpkin heads). While a lot of people where bothered by Zombie’s stylistic excess, cast of rehensable rednecks, and stiff middle finger to series canon, I couldn’t help but find the whole thing pretty exhilarating.

Zombie’s directors cut complicates things thought. It makes his problematic film even more problematic. All the nice things I have to say about the flick are true, and I still say it has a few of the most effective horror sequences this side of The Strangers, but now it has some problems I can’t quite justify.

Not that all the blame can go on the additions. The film was always flawed, between The Strip Club Massacre that manages not to merely be the definition of gratuitous but indeed the thesaurus of it. To the fact that nearly every character demonstrates at one point or another the ability to teleport, to the charaters who might as well have fodder written on their foreheads, and Michael Myer’s new preternatural ability to hunt down and slaughter anyone who has ever so much as served Laurie Strode at Taco Bell, Halloween II was always kind of a sloppy movie. The added hateful bitchery just kind of exacerbates things (that means make em worse Shaun).

The great Outlaw Vern summed it up thusly

The new cut is quite a bit different, but mostly what’s added is unpleasantness to make you not like the characters or enjoy the experience of watching the movie. There are several scenes and extensions added so that Laurie – who had a sweet friendship with fellow survivor Annie in the theatrical cut – is angry at Annie and they’re always fighting. Most of the new material involves Laurie screaming, crying and swearing, getting in arguments with Annie, then screaming FUUUUCKKKK!

...

But all it does is emphasize Zombie’s biggest weakness as a writer: he seems to think that having sympathetic characters is some kind of sell out move and that it’s somehow subversive to bum you out by forcing you to watch obnoxious, hateful people swear at each other.


The film “restores” fifteen minutes to Zombie's runtime and I’m willing to bet that fourteen of them are Strode screaming fuck at the people who care about her like an unconscionable bitch. The rest is used to make his bizarre ass ending even more bizarre ass. The added hatefullness in Laurie's character does make the ending twist come less out of nowhere, but that doesn't make it anymore pleasant to actually watch.

The thing is that Zombie appears to have forgotten what made his first Halloween remake work. The thing that made me forgive that movies many flaws was the fact that at the end of the day, I liked The Strodes, and didn't want to see anything bad happen to them. And when Myer's attacked the pit of my stomach dropped not because "It was about to get fucked up!" but because I truly dreaded what was happening. There's none of that here. (with the exception of Brad Douriff)

But despite all this, the thing I like about Zombie’s movies is they’re so tactile. Exaggerated yes, but like the nineteen thirties cartoons and black and white horror films he loves to put in the backgrounds of his movies, his movies feel deliberate, hand made. Places like the Java Hole, where Strode works, feel like a place you would actually like to hang out. The bar where the climatic halloween party is held is over the top yeah, but at the same time its kind of cool. I don’t know about you but I’d like to go to that Halloween party. Psychobilly, naked women, booze, and costumes that look like they where put together by a Hollywood production designer. I could go with that.

Say what you will about them but Zombie’s films aren’t antiseptic. And Yeah occasionally this aesthetic makes him do stupid things like hang a picture of Charles Mason above Laurie Strodes bed, despite the fact that a woman whose entire family was butchered by a serial killer wouldn’t be likely to let a huge potrait of a serial killer dominate her room. But they occasionally stumble across a feeling of reality There’s something about his images I just like to watch. They’re tactile.

Still despite all the flaws, both original and additional, I stubbornly like Halloween II. For all the stuff we like to talk about in regards to movies, something remains very primal and binary about them. They work or they don’t. Halloween II for whatever reason, despite all its problems works for me. I hope whoever follows up for the third go round has the balls to follow through on the genuinely mean twist Zombie pulls at the end of the film.

Halloween II remains enormously flawed as a film, and Rob Zombie flawed as a filmmaker, but damnit I kind of like them both.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Near Dark

(God I love awesome foreign movie posters)

The Hurt Locker came out on DVD, last week, so I’m using it as an excuse to go back and look at some of Kathryn Bigelow. That’s right, it’s BIGELOW WEEK here at Things That Don’t Suck. Or not quite Bigelow Week, because there’s no way I’m watching K-19 and Harrison Ford’s Rooshin accent. Let’s all just agree that this week there will be more articles about Kathryn Bigelow, then you would find in your average week.

That may not be snappy enough for a banner, but I’m all about honesty here.

The debut of The Hurt Locker has brought about a much needed reexamination of director Kathryn Bigelow’s career. Her's is one of the most interesting and frustrating of the modern day, easy to like, damn near impossible to love. An intelligent and energetic director who has spent a dismaying portion of her career dedicated to the idea that she can make movies as loud and dumb as any man. A feminist who has portrayed some truly stomach churning violence against women in her movies. Watching a Kathryn Bigelow movie is like inviting yourself to wonder “What was she thinking?” For a couple of hours.

However, her first film, like her latest, is just about perfect. It’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and brother, I’ve seen a lot of them. Near Dark follows a pack of feral vampires, who induct a young hick into their clan. About as far from the romanticism of the Twilight and Anne Rice series as you can get, (nobody is sparkling here) these vamps are feral animals who prey on drifters, truckers, and in one terrifying scene an entire bar. Basically anyone whose not going to be missed.

The clan is led by the great, and seemingly embalmed Lance Henrikson, digging into an unusually meaty roll, and backed up by Bill Paxton with a twisty methed up biker energy that’s unlike anything else he’s ever done. When he rips into a steaming juglar with the line “Finger Lickin Good” there’s an anarchic joy to what he does that makes him at once repellent and impossible to look away from.

The only time Near Dark toy’s with cliché is when it feels like ripping them apart. We get the obligatory child Vampire here, whose been kicking around since the civil war. But he’s mostly around to get mocked. It’s odd watching the film in the aftermath of Twilight, since they both cover a surprising amount of the same things, particulary the obsession with a clan of Vampires as a family unit. The difference of course is that Near Dark approaches these things with dark humor and some great scares. While Twilight approaches them by being the most effective deterrent to Feminism since the cudgel. Hell Bigelow puts more depth into the idea in one subplot, following the struggles of his biological family to get him back from his adopted one, then Meyer’s put into her entire “saga”.

To call Near Dark gritty would be a vast understatement; it’s positively grimy. There’s no gothic manse here, just boarded up RV’s, sleazy motels, and truck stops and juke joints just waiting to be pryed open like a can of sardines. Near Dark makes the most of its unique back roads aesthetic and half of the fun of watching it, is getting to see chunks of the American countryside that no one else bothers to film. At times it plays almost more like a Western then a horror film. And while it’s been influential (as much as I like it, The Devil’s Rejects basically ripped just about everything off from this one) it’s rough enough to retain a lot of its originality.

Near Dark does have a few problems, the ending is sort of a cop out. And Adrian Paster (yes that dude from heroes) makes a convincing out of his depth hick, he’s less convincing as a dedicated undead ass kicker. But by this time the movie’s got so much momentum it just rolls over these issues.

Near Dark is such an intense experience that maybe it was a bit inevitable that whatever Bigelow did next would be a bit of a let down. But still it’s nice to see her reconnect with greatness with The Hurt Locker, after all horror fans always knew she always had it in her.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why The Hell Is The Lovely Bones Pissing Off Everybody So Badly?


Spoilers

Lets get this out of the way. A lot of people are getting very pissed off at The Lovely Bones. Even Roger Ebert, who has been pretty mellow since his surgery cracked his knuckles and wrote what’s less of a review then a napalming of the movie. I mean read that thing. God Damn (Although I do find it comforting, that Ebert can still right an absolute scorcher when he puts his mind to it).

He’s not alone either its virtually impossible to find a good review, Peter Travers, Richard Corliss, and Drew McWeeney are all positive but that’s about it. The movie’s a Thirty Six on Rotten Tomatoes, forty two on Meta Critic. These are the type of scores you see for the new Renny Harlin movie, not the work of a major director.

So just what is it about The Lovely Bones that pissed everyone off so much? And just so I’m being clear here, I feel as though there IS a lot wrong with that movie. There are two or three sequences so ridiculous that its impossible to watch them and still feel connected to the film. Just jarringly wrong notes. One involving Mark Wahlberg, a cornfield, and a baseball bat, suddenly turned Marky Mark’s meek accountant character into his Dingham from The Departed, I was shocked Shipping Out To The Boston wasn’t playing (In all fairness Wahlberg otherwise acquits himself quite well, for once using his natural awkwardness and inarticulacy for the character rather then against him). Tucci’s bizarre horror movie style death is so jarringly awkward that it took me a minute to realize that it was actually happening and wasn’t just a joke. The film’s concurrent climax is another harsh misstep, mainly because of how utterly nonplussed everyone seems to be. I mean if you suddenly found yourself having sex with the fourteen year old ghost of your first crush (Remember this is YEARS after the fact) wouldn’t you be a bit weirded out?

And yet, there are moments and images in The Lovely Bones that stubbornly work. And I found it to be on the whole quite moving. It plays almost like the Anti Zodiac. While Zodiac showed how tragedy and evil weave themselves in the course of time, doing incalculable damage as they go along. The Lovely Bones shows how in the face of eternity tragedy, and evil are ultimately rendered insignificant.

And that’s the idea that seems to have gotten out Ebert’s and other’s whacking sticks. Now look let’s say you don’t believe in heaven and all this God bullshit. That’s a reasonable place to stand. But you can’t accept it on say purely story based terms? Or even metaphorical ones? I don’t believe there’s a town south of the border named El Ray where the buildings are made of human shit, but I’m willing to roll with what Jim Thompson was going for. Besides the heaven of The Lovely Bones is so stringently non denominational that getting pissed on religious grounds seems faintly ridiculous.

Another thing that seems to have pissed off people, is the film’s handling of the rape murder at the center of the film. I admit I haven’t read Sebold’s novel (though I’m curious to) so I don’t know how graphic its handled there but the film, implies much and shows little. And as such its probably the first movie I’ve ever come across that is getting bashed for not showing the graphic rape and murder of a fourteen year old child.

But to suggest that the film somehow doesn’t confront the sickening weight of the crime is ludicrous. The scene where Susie watches the clean up of her killing, as her killer (Stanley Tucci, Great) meticulously wipes away any trace that she ever existed, is one of the most gut wrenching scenes I watched in a movie this year.

Even the imagery has been taking a licking, with Jackson’s, surely one of the most confident stylists working today, vision of the “in between” being blasted as derivative of his work in Heavenly Creatures at best, and looking like the world’s most expensive Loreal commercial at worst.

But well yeah, of course it does. Of course its an immature looking world. Susie is Immature. Death as a consequence tends to halt maturity pretty much dead in its tracks. The resulting imagery is still primal and communicative.

So in short is the Lovely Bones a big clumsy, awkward, earnest movie that makes some bad choices. Yes. Do you have to like it? Of course not. But pretending it’s not a work worthy of consideration is foolish. Every director has a film where they just have to take their lumps. And unfortunately for Jackson, this seems like his turn.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Unseen #21: Do You Like Hitchcock



Why’d I Buy It: Given to me during the Insomniac closing. Heard it was merely disappointing modern day Argento film as opposed to his ususual modern day standard of Fucking Awful.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: I don’t know if there’s any director who lost their mojo as violently as Argento did. Here is a man who has created some of the most unique and disturbing Horror films in the modern age, all with a signature style that could belong to no one but him. Someone who has made probably a half a dozen films that are straight up classics of the genre, and another half dozen that are just as fascinating.

And lets face if folks, he hasn’t made a good movie since Opera. Opera was in 1987. That’s over twenty years. And let’s be honest here to, Argento’s films since then, haven’t been mediocre but bad bordering on incompetent. When the best thing you’ve put your name on since 1987 involves Meat Loaf and a haunted raccoon coat, you know you’ve fucked up. And it’s not like Argento is one of those guys like Joe Dante, or John Landis, or John Carpenter, who made one or two bad movies and then hasn’t been allowed to work either. The mother fucker keeps making films somehow.

He’s made dream projects, he’s made movies with big American stars (I’ve heard Giallo, his big “comeback” film is literally unwatchable), the only thing he hasn’t done in the past twenty three years is make something actually worth watching. So I thought I’d watch Do You Like Hitchcock, to see if it’d break the streak.

How Was it?: It doesn’t.

It’s not the movies fault that Anchor Bay was discourteous enough to start the disc with a reminder of how awesome Argento used to be. As one watches the trailers for Opera and Suspiria (or as the trailer puts it Suuuusssspeeeeeeeeeeeeriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!) One cannot help but be reminded that Argento was once a director who you expected good things from. But if the former master’s work wasn’t bad enough point of comparison, Argento has no one to blame but himself for filling his opening credits with the posters of much better movies. Movies I could be watching rather then Do You Like Hitchcock.

The film begins with a little boy following two women out to the woods where they cut the head off a chicken while smearing the blood around on themselves and laughing, in the least convincing way possible. As far as I can tell this sequence never has nothing to do with anything else that happens in the film. The movie doesn’t improve. Years later that little boy has grown up into a film critic and peeping tom, which gives the movie a chance to turn into the Italian white trash version of Rear Window. Through a series of over heard conversations the dumb kid comes to believe that two beautiful women are recreating the Strangers On A Train scenario, with a series of gory Hitchcock inspired murders.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Brian De Palma would find that concept a little much. Let’s set aside the fact that the score would sound gauche in a porn and for that matter so would the acting and the digital video. Let’s set aside that every aspect of the film borders on incompetence, this unfortunately would be nothing we haven’t seen before from Argento.

What is unexpected is that the film is dull. Dull dull dull so utterly, terribly, awfully dull. Not disasters like Trauma and The Third Mother can claim that.

It’s the worst kind of bad movie the kind that makes you wonder why you gave a shit about the director in the first place.

Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call New Orleans and The Princess And The Frog: Best New Orleans Double Feature EVER!!!




Yes I watched both of these films within an hour of each other. No my head somehow managed not to explode.

Herzog’s journey into the Iguana fueled heart of Darkness has by now been justly praised as a bit of batshit looney wonderfulness.

I unlike most of the people who have reviewed the film, I actually LIKE Abel Ferrara’s original, even though I have a friend who literally hasn’t forgiven me for showing them it. Ferrara’s movie is a dark, achingly serious film, a parable about God’s capacity for Grace, that’s earnest in both its theology and its depravity. Its no wonder that some find it a bit hard to swallow. That and it features a scene involving Harvey Keitel’s guttural howls and penis.

Herzog as expected took another route, turning the film into a perverse black comedy (if you want an uncomfortable try being the only person laughing during Bad Lieutenant while you are also perhaps the only person under 70 in the theater). And even less expectedly into a genuinely effective policier. Herzog has never been one to really give a fuck about plot. But he acquits himself surprisingly well here. You genuinely do want to see how it all comes out.

The film’s Catholic Angst has been almost surgically removed (Herzog keeps a lot of Catholic Iconography in the frame though in what basically amounts to a fuck you to Ferrara) replaced by a Teutonic Nietzschian splendor.

The film of course follows Nic Cage behaving badly as he stumbles his way to the conclusion of a case involving the execution of a family of immigrants by a gangster named Big Fate (Xzibit shockingly not terrible) Herzog uses post Katrina New Orleans the way he used the burning Oilfields of Kuwait and the Rainforest previously a wild exterior landscape that somehow perfectly reflects the interiors of his characters.

Fairuza Bulk continues her quest to appear naked in a film by every director of The New German Cinema (Its too bad Fassbender didn’t hang around he would have loved her. The scenes involving Cage’s alcholic mess of a family have a surreal Tennesee Williams on Abysinthe Southern Gothic vibe.

And yet, praising this film almost feels like praising bad Behavior. Not from Herzog but Cage. No matter how committed he is to the role, Bad Lieutenant feels like the apotheosis of BAD Nicholas Cage. The Cage who screamed “HOW’D IT GET BURNED!!! And THE CAVES WON’T SAVE YOU!!!!”

And the thing is I liked Good Nicholas Cage. Watching Kick Ass was such a shock, because Matthew Vaughn managed to pull out a good Cage performance for the first time in decades. I don’t know if he’ll be recognized for it, but for the first time in well forever, Cage was using all his weird live wire energy towards building a person rather then a ball of twitches.

Herzog on the other hand, is nothing if not indulgent, and he’s more then happy to let Cage go as far over the moon as he want’s too with his lucky crack pipes.

Still it seems churlish to complain about a movie’s gonzoness when it yields such rich rewards as the Iguana scene and a line like “Shoot him again his soul is still dancing.”

If I was surprised by how cruel Gilliam ended up being to his characters, the surprise of how lenient Herzog was to his but was just as shocking. Though he pretty efficiently mocks the idea of a happy ending to this story, he doesn’t preclude it either.

It’s a surprising ending to this surprisingly glorious mess of a film.

Princess And The Frog, has been taking a lot of lumps. Rather then hailing the return of 2D animation to theaters, many have stuck up their nose because of the film’s supposed flaws. It sticks too close to the standard style, it doesn’t focus on racism in the deep south setting, its unimaginative in its animation, and stupidly praises the Princess lifestyle.

I can’t help but find that most of these charges ring false. The film’s supposedly lack of a social conscience is kind of a head scratcher. I mean first of all this is a fantasy film for children, not The Color Purple. And secondly though it doesn’t beat you over the head with it, the commentary on racial disparity is there. On the opening trolley ride from Charlotte’s life of unearned opulence to Tianna’s own home in the slum, and a later patronizing comment from a real estate agent about “a woman of her position” make the point subtly but without any doubt to the subtext.

As for the supposed empty praising of the princess style, I was actually surprised at how harsh the film was to the whole idea using the character of the vapid Charlotte to take some pretty hard shots at the vapidity of “Waiting for you prince to come.”

As for the animation. I just rewatched Lilo And Stitch and was gratified by just how daring much of the animation was, from the Miyaziki inspired impressionistic water color backgrounds, to the expressionistic designs of the aliens themselves. While Princess And The Frog sticks much closer to the house style, though its far from the stagnant dung heap the studio drew in for its last couple of 2D films, it proves itself unafraid to take some real bold leaps with its animation. The film uses its (idealized of course) New Orleans setting to its full extent. Most strikingly in a Hirschfield inspired musical number, but also in the free form animation on Dr. Faciler and his merry band. The angular shadow men are sure as to inspire as many nightmares as Malificent and her isometric trolls. The handling of Facilier is surprisingly and gratifyingly dark. By the time he turns into a psychedelic Baron Samedi for his big musical number, he has simply become a literal joy to watch. The animation on his “friends from the other side” is genuinely unsettling, and Keith David’s performance has a delectably nasty edge to it.

It draws on other surprising influences as well. Some of the animation in the beginning draws on an anarchic Tex Avery style spirit (And features what I believe to be Disney’s first out and out tit joke. Though I could be wrong there). Later in the one truly inspired sequence in the film’s saggy middle section, involving three grotesque hill billy hunters, it reaches into its past doing the personality filled intensely caricature based animation, that made the Disney formula work in the first place.

Like I said, after the inspiring opening third, the film does sag in the middle. There’s a real chip on this portion's shoulder. A real “THAT’S RIGHT THE CLASSIC DISNEY PLAYBOOK STILL WORKS!!! WHAT!!!” As a result the sequences hit every beat in the Disney style that annoys the shit out of people. From cheery animal sidekicks, over blown (but above average) musical numbers, “banter” the fetishtic idealization of everything (It takes some work to idealize a fetid swamp but its managed) and valuable life lessons learned.

Now I don’t mean to be controversial here, but if anyone thought that any of these things wouldn’t be in a Disney movie they might not have any brains at all.

Still things pull together for a climax that brings back some of the innovation, with a surprisingly dark tone, along with some of the Disney beats that payoff well enough to suggest that there’s life in the dusty old playbook yet. 2D animation is an artform that’s very close to my heart. And it’s gratifying to see it back in such fine shape.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Unseen #20: Bloody Mama


Why’d I Buy It?: Came in the Roger Corman boxset. I picked up.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Well here’s the thing, I hate Shelley Winters. I mean I really hate Shelley Winters. I’ve never been one to shy away from Kitsch, but God damn, something about that braying queen bothers me. Like a proto Juliet Lewis, she infects movies I love. I have to flinch through the opening twenty of Night Of The Hunter, and Harper. She’s the reason Lolita is my least favorite Kubrick Movie.

Since Bloody Mama is a Shelley Winter’s vehicle this poses something of a problem. But at the same time I was curious. Its one of De Niro’s first movies, even predating Hi Mom (Though not Greetings). It’s a twenties Gangster movie, AND a Southern one, both subgenre’s I have an affection for. And it’s the Cinematic Paterfamilis of the far superior Boxcar Bertha. So I couldn’t help but be curious.

How Was It?: Bloody Mama gets to a pretty fucked up start with an old man raping his grade school aged daughter. Which even by exploitation film standard is a pretty inauspicious start. This for some reason inspires her to start a big family, one CW song later and we have Shelley Winters in all her drag queen glory lording over a gaggle of Rednecks including a young Robert DeNiro.

Before you can say naked Bathtub wash, Winters is defending her boys against a true accusation of Gang Rape. Now look I liked a fucked up exploitation movie as much as the next guy, Hell I praised the trailer for The Rape Killer, I liked the Candy Snatchers, in a kind of slack jawed stunned way, fer Christ sakes. But man Bloody Mama’s got one pretty fucked up Moral Compass. I suppose its supposed to be somewhat ironic, there’s a scene where Winter’s praises The KKK’s infamous march on Washington. But still the movie feels genuinely dirty. As an exploitation movie should I suppose. And that’s before prison rape.

The movie doesn’t have so much of a plot as it does a bunch of shit that happened.

Still despite Winter’s cawing at the center of nearly every scene (And voiceover too Jesus Christ) there is a lot to recommend Bloody Mama. Despite the fact that it was obviously done as cheap as it could possibly be, there’s a lot of fun period detail to the film. And though Corman’s better known as a producer as a director, there’s a certain something to work behind the lens. Though Corman has films where he can be accused of lazy direction, when he gave a fuck he was an energetic and innovative director. He showcases it here, splitting the difference between Altmanesque intimacy in some scenes and out and out exploitation in others. Sometimes like in a conversation carried out during a sex scene in a moving car he combines both.

Look Bloody Mama’s not perfect, its not even good. But if you want a genuinely corrupt exploitation experience there’s nothing that fits the bill better.

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus



There are few directors I love more then Terry Gilliam. And note I didn’t say director’s films, though I certainly love those too. I just like Terry Gilliam, I like the way he talks about film, the way he thinks about film, the films he makes, his honesty, his artistry, his anarachy. I used to read Gilliam on Gilliam in my classes at high school because I knew what he had to say had to be more interesting then the boring fucker up at the head of the class. Brazil is just one of those rare perfect movies for me, something without a note wrong. 12 Monkey’s is perhaps the most underrated of the nineties. So it’s tough when you do like an artist on a personal level to just watch life kick him in the balls again and again and again.

Its not been an easy decade to be a Terry Gilliam fan. Point of fact there’s never been an easy decade to be a Terry Gilliam fan, but its hard not to imagine that for the past ten years Ole Terry has been wishing for films on The Monkey’s Paw. First came The Man Who Killed Don Quioxite, which of course famously imploded in a most spectacular fashion barely a week into production, with Gilliam lucky enough to have a camera crew standing by to document his humiliation in excruciating detail. Then came The Brothers Grimm, with The Weinsteins Interfering Gilliam into a half assed film, the typical touches of Gilliam genius that somehow survived (The Gingerbread Man) somehow make it even tougher to watch. This was followed immediately by Tideland, which plays less like a film then a psychological purge. Even I the hardest of the hard core Gilliam fan can find nothing to recommend in that grotesque walking travesty of a film. And then of course there was the death of Ledger, which hangs over this film, passing out poignancy and discomfort in equal measure at unexpected intervals. The sad fact is not only have we not had a great Terry Gilliam film in over a decade. We haven’t even had a good one.

Well at least that’s one thing that has changed in the new decade. The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus isn’t a perfect film. It’s messy, unsatisfying, and not at all what I expected from Gilliam. It’s a film I have major issues with.

But damn it it’s a complete film, and a rewarding one. One that I think will just get richer with repeated viewings.

The film follows the thousands year old titular mystic, as he peddles his ramshackle but wonderous show to the piss drunk and the ignorant. Locked in eternal combat with Tom Wait’s Satan who seems to have emerged living and breathing from a 1930’s Black and White Cartoon and who is now possibly my favorite on screen version of Old Scratch, it seems at though Parnassus might be about to lose his daughter and perhaps all of existence on a bad bet, until a new mysterious stranger brings the possibility of salvation.

It’s easy to read a lot of autobiography into the story, as drunken assholes pass the Imaginarium by. Gilliam too has spent his life peddling his odd visions to a world that more or less couldn’t give a fuck. The odd thing is the surprising darkness in tone. Parnassus is just an almost oppressively pessimistic film. Less a paegn to the glories of “the stories that sustain the world” but an exhausted middle finger to them. The only film I’ve ever seen that’s remotely like it is Miyaziki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, where Miyaziki cheerily firebombed the Europe of the mind he had spent his entire career building.

You can’t say Gilliam hasn’t earned this sentiment…


But still…

The problem extends to the style of the film. Parnassus, like Tideland is shot HD, and while am not a complete luddite when it comes to Digital Film, I just don’t think Gilliam is the director for it. Here as in Tideland, Digital lends a harsh almost abrasive quality to the film that wasn’t there in his work before. Film softened Gilliam, made everything go down easy.

The unforgiving nature extends to his story as well. Though I won’t give too much away I’ll just mention that the majority of Gilliam’s characters don’t make out well. I’m not one to demand a happy ending. But I think the Gilliam on the other side of a decade of cruel experience might of. Watching the man who let Sam escape, snatched Baron Munchaussen from the clutches of death and let the holy grail be found in The Fisher King might allow his characters a smidge of mercy. Its harsh stuff he ends with and as someone whose followed Gilliam for so long I couldn’t help but feel a bit like the little girl at the end of The Fall, wondering why the storyteller I was listening too had started breaking his characters out of spite. The fact that at this point Gilliam starts mixing his metaphors, and its tough to decipher just what's happening doesn't help any.

But God there’s so much in The Imaginarium that works so well. Not least of all Heath Ledger’s final performance. It’s an odd one, defined obviously as much by what he does not do as what he does. But he invests Tony with grace and style.

The rest of the cast is a little uneven, Verne Troyer manages to beat his stunt casting. Which isn't easy for him to do.

(And you Brits say we're barbarians...)

While Plummer feeble and muddled makes a surprisingly poor representative for the wonders of storytelling. Lily Cole on the other hand… well Terry Gilliam has always had an eye for beautiful young women, being the first to notice Uma Thurman and the first to figure out that Christina Ricci had grown up. I have no idea what she’ll be like in another film, but she fits the role of Valentina to at.

The scenes inside The Imaginarium are filled with life and that old Gilliam spark. The scenes particularly one featuring a bunch of Russian Mobsters chasing Jude Law through what looks like a nightmarish combination of a mutual fund commercial and an old Monty Python sketch, capture the anarchy and dadist joy of Gilliam’s animation.

Because for all my issues of style, tone, and story, this film is a true Gilliam film. And as such it’s a rewarding fable even if its not a perfect one. It might end up being his Alfredo Garcia, one last gasp of bitter integrity before he’s swallowed up by a sea of idiocy, but damn it he got that gasp and he made his movie.

Like someone says near the end, “Happy Endings are not part of the guarentee.” You’ve just got to keep telling your story’s and hope you eventually get one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Unseen #19: The MacKintosh Man


The Macintosh Man

Why’d I Buy It?: Came in the Paul Newman Boxset I picked up this Christmas.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: The Macintosh Man is a movie I’ve always been curious about, and one of the large reasons I bought the set (well that and I wanted to own Harper and The Left Handed Gun). It’s a 70’s John Le Carre style espionage movie directed by John Huston, written by Walter Hill, starring Paul Newman and I don’t think I’ve ever read a single positive review of it.

So in order to reiterate. This is one of my favorite directors, adapting a script from one of the greatest genre directors, with one of my favorite stars, making a film in one of my favorite genres, smack dab in the middle of my favorite era of filmmaking… And it’s bad? How could I not be curious to watch it?

How Was It?:

Well go ahead and consider this the first positive review of Mackintosh Man. It’s not perfect and it’s kind of lumpy but I couldn’t find it anything but entertaining, Mackintosh Man is one of those movies that seems like a couple of different movies at once. It starts as a lofi heist movie, Before turning suddenly into a prison movie and a pretty good one (One difference between Brit’s and American’s Newman must fend off a polite request for anal sex not an attempted rape) And THEN a spy flick.

It’s a down beat gritty spy movie (with the exception of a prison break involving a giant yellow crane so utterly conspicuous its not even funny.

Hill and Huston (God can you imagine if those two had a drinking session? It’d be so manly it’d resurrect the ghost of Hemingway) are ballsy enough to let you NOT know everything Mackintosh is up to. In fact you don’t learn what he’s up to until nearly 2/3rds into the movie. Even then you don’t get the whole story.

Huston brings his skill and style to several great scenes, particularly a tense escape through the Irish moors (which beats No Country For Old Men’s “large angry dog plus river” beat by a over thirty years). In a later sequence over same moors, he also directs what as far as I know is his only car chase. A perversely exciting chase between two of the shittiest looking cars you have ever seen in your life.

Huston lends the movie a gritty downbeat style drawing an ominous vibe from Posh Parlimentary Chambers, London’s Urban Sprawl, the grey anonymous prison and the wide open spaces of the countryside equally. Newman in turn projects his trademark era of cool and quiet competence. Watching Newman it came anew just how much of a shame it was to lose Newman. He straddled the line between old school movie star and “new era” actor perfectly. He was a good enough actor to play just about any role but enough of a movie star to always be undeniably himself. James Mason is a hell of a lot of fun playing a Foppish (how else?) British Neo Con with a dark secret.

For movie fans weaned on the Bourne, Mission Impossible, and Craig era Bond films, Mackintosh might come off as a bit dull. But for fans of the old school European espionage by the likes of Graham Greene and John Le Carre, The Mackintosh Man is a wonderful bit of old school genre craft. A pretty good movie, until an eye poppingly unexpected and bleak climax that arguably makes it great. If you get a chance pick it up.

Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 3: Murder My Sweet



"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”

-Raymond Chandler”

For the final film of The Film Noir Festival I was asked to co-curate I chose Murder My Sweet.

Noir and the hard boiled private eye fiction have an odd relationship. While this hardboiled style of fiction particularly Dashiel Hammet’s Contenental Op series, certainly influenced Noir filmmaking, Private Eyes are by the rules of the genre people who come out on top, Noir by its very definition about people who fail. The true precurser of Noir are the fatalistic books of James Cain, whose stories likewised showcased working class losers who where doomed to fail.

The exception to this rule is Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe who has always translated extraordinarily well to Film Noir. The reason might have something to do with something Scott Tobias noted in his review of tonight’s film, at The AV Club. “Mike Hammer gets information by beating it out of people; Marlowe, by contrast, gets information when crooks beat it into him.” This is why I chose to show tonight’s film starring Dick Powell, over some of the films in which Marlowe is more famously portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. While there films are always enjoyable, there is something just not right about their characterization of Marlowe, something their iconic baggage that Powell doesn’t possess keeps them from playing, no matter how much trouble they’re in they are always fundamentally in control of the situation. What Powell understands about Marlowe is like all Noir heroes he is someone who is in fundamentally over his head.

This is perhaps why Marlowe as a character has endured so well. We look at the Mike Hammer’s and The Sam Spades with a sort of nostalgia, They could never survive being played by Elliot Gould or directed by Robert Altman. Marlowe is still very much with us. What’s The Big Lebowski but one long seriously weird Phillip Marlowe story?

Marlowe is of course the creation of Raymond Chandler, who said of his hero: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. My detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.”

Marlowe doesn’t go into the dark places of human nature, or pit himself against the dangerous because he’s some goody two shoes, he does it because he’s strong enough, unlike most Noir protagonists to look into that dark side and not be destroyed by it.

Farewell My Lovely is considered by many to be Chandlr’s finest novel. It was actually the first to be adapted to the screen in a version called The Falcon Takes Over back in nineteen forty two.

Murder My Sweet was made two years later. The change in title was necessitated by star Powell. Powell was best known as a song and dance man and the studio didn’t want anyone wandering in thinking it was a musical comedy. Powell’s lighter touch serves the character and the picture well. Like I said, we’re always relatively certain that Bogie and Mitchum will make it out unscathed, Powell not so much.

The film was Directed by Edward Dymtryk a Russian émigré whose dark moody style fits the picture perfectly. Dymtryk was one of the most interesting filmmakers of the forties making films such as this and the dark noir Crossfire. Stylisitcally Murder My Sweet is years ahead of its time, with Marlowe’s “Trip” alone putting it ahead of the curve.

Dymtryk was subpoenaed before the HUAC committee and went jail for refusing to testify. After several months behind bars Dmytryk cooperated with HUAC, naming names. Though he would start making films again they would never have quite the same intense troubling mood.

Because for all the pleasures of Murder My Sweet, the effortless wit and sophistication of its style and dialogue it remains an intensely dark film. A movie about betrayal on a very personal and vulnerable level. Even though Marlowe merely surveys the damage rather then getting swept away by it, it still touches him. He still bares the scars. And Scars after all is what Film Noir is really about.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The First Ever Review Of Joe Hill's Horns



He felt he was being swept away, not just from his life but from God, the idea of God, or hope, or reason, the idea that things made sense, that cause followed effect, and it ought not to be like this, Ig felt, death ought not to be like this, even for sinners.

-Joe Hill-



So there I was all ready to write an epic tantrum about the idiot move that was the sacking of Sam Raimi from Spiderman 4 and the myriad of ways that this spells disater for anyone who dares to want to tell a big budget movie with (GASP!) a personal stamp.

And then something amazing happened, and I received an advance copy of Joe Hill’s Horns.

You can’t really throw a tantrum after receiving a complementary copy of one of your favorite writer's works a month before it comes out. It just sucks the tantrum right out of you.

I was looking forward to Hill’s second novel. There’s something about Hill that brings out the my most enthusiastic side. I’ve written about this absurd talented writer before. I think Heart Shaped Box is the greatest ghost story published since The Shining, an aching heart broken work that happens to be genuinely scary as hell. 20th Century Ghosts proved Hill to have a mercurial talent ranging in his book of short stories from laugh out loud funny, to pants soilingly terrifying, unbearably poignant, and able to bring forth a sense of unease that rivals David Lynch. Locke And Key is crack in comic book form, weaving a long term story of family, tragedy, and mystery that rivals Lost, in sheer “GOTTA KNOW” from installment to installment.

Once I saw that copy laying at my (REDACTED) everything else officially left the building with Elvis there was nothing on the agenda but reading Horns as quick as I could. Even Hill’s Dad's Under The Dome, which I’m currently 700 pages deep in and loving went on a temporary vacation.

But I can’t say that I wasn’t just a touch nervous, when I started Horns. Even the best authors aren’t immune to the sophmore slump. Sometimes the best authors actually fall on it the hardest.

Hill ain’t one of those authors.

Horns is devilishly good, and if it doesn’t quite reach the heart wrenching levels of Heart Shaped Box, mainly due to the fact that its antatgonist is a drawn more muddled then that perfect sentient ball of malevolence that was Craddock, but also because its messier more ambitious, much more complicated. In either case it comes damn close. It starts out as a pitch black comedy, and slowly morphs into a story of metaphysical terror, that rivals the best the genre has ever produced, taking many intriguing detours along the way.

Horns follows Ig, who we’re introduced to pissing on The Virgin Mary. Ig’s the black sheep of a family of semi celebrities, whose only claim to fame is being the only suspect in the rape murder of his girlfriend a year ago, a crime he’s pretty sure he didn’t commit. Like Coyne the hero of Heart Shaped Box, it isn’t immediately clear that Ig is anything but a worthless bastard. Hill makes brave choices writing his protagonists, he buries the rich veins of decency that make them worth following deep. The question with Ig is it submerged completely. And Hill leaves it an open one.

After waking up after a night of Drunken debauchery during which he trashes an impromptu memorial at the site where his girlfriend’s body was found, Ig wakes up with a pair of Horns growing from his head.

The way it works is when Ig gets near a person, they start confessing their worse impulses, Ig’s overweight girlfriend confesses a desire to binge and recounts the times she’s cheated on him. Ig’s Doctor confesses a desire to snort Oxycotin during his examination of Ig and have sex with his teenage daughter’s friends. Ig is suddenly privy to the worst side of everyone he meets. And what’s more. He can make people act on those desires.

You can probably see how wrong this goes…

Hill tells the whole story with his lucid, witty, occasionally bitingly cruel prose. The passages where poor Ig is forced to hear his loved ones at their most honest and debased take the line between comedy and tragedy and break it over its knee. He keeps the “gag” as it where going throughout the book, having complete strangers admit there darkest secrets to him in a completely nonchalant manner, and it never gets any less queasily hilarious or darkly fascinating. Hill also has a gift for unforced nightmarish imagery whether the scribbles on the eyes of the dead in Heart Shaped Box, the titular character in Pop Art, or the carpet of snakes that eventually follows Ig around in Horns.

Then without warning the book turns into the most demented revenge stories I’ve come across since Oldboy, before morphing yet again into a balls out horror story that’ll make your jaw drop and finally a surprisingly sober story of memory and loss on a cosmic scale.

The book does have some problems in the home stretch, a strange narrative choice kills a lot of momentum near the end, and Hill puts a few too many one liners into poor old Ig’s mouth once things really start to gear up.

It’d be unfair for me to give away the magnificent gut punches Hill and Horns has in store for the gentle reader. Suffice to say that if there where any thought that Hill was just a flash in the pan, this wondrous dark little heartbroken fable should dispel them quite handily.

The Unseen #18: Branded To Kill



Why’d I Buy It?: I love Seijun Suzuki. This is by many considered to be his seminal work.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: I’ve tried a couple of times, It wasn’t as though I disliked the movie it was something more insidious, there was simply nothing happening between us, no real reaction at all. I decided I’d take the radical step of trying to watch it sober and see how that worked.

How Was It?: If you’ve never acquainted yourself with the idiosyncratic joy of Seijun Suzuki I recommend that you do so as soon as possible.

Suzuki was a hired studio gun who in the fifties and sixties suddenly went insane and started turning thse regular genre films into surrealist pop art meltdowns. In his best work like Youth Of The Beast (still my favorite of his films) Story Of A Prostitute, Gate Of Flesh and Fighting Elegy, its literally tough to believe what you are seeing from scene to scene. Branded To Kill takes such an approach to its zenith or nadir depending on your view.

Branded To Kill was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nikkishi the studio that employed Suzuki fired then blacklisted him for the crime of making “incomprehensible films” which to be fair is not an entirely unjust charge.

Branded To Kill is Seizuki’s most influential film, with Tarantino, Kitano, Johnny To, Wong Kar Wai, Woo, Chan Wook Park and Jim Jaramusch all citing it as an influence (Jaramusch did a little more then site lifting one of the best gags for Ghost Dog).

Branded To Kill tells the story of the number three killer in the world. After botching a hit he finds himself hunted by the organization that employed him. This is the sort of story you’ve seen a billion times in a hitman film, but Branded To Kill of course takes it as an invitation to go completely insane (The way the obligatory exposition is delivered when it finally is, a montage so deadpanly perfunctory that its kind of hilarious, serves a showcase for Seizuki’s contempt of narrative).

Aggressively absurdist, Branded To Kill is like a hitman movie written by Beckett. With a plot filled with inscrutable authority figures and enigmatic missions. Its shocking minimalistic (Not something you can normally say for Seizuki) at times, with its backgrounds either black voids or modernist abstractions. This is of course except for when its not like the scene in which our hero is besieged by animated rain, birds and butterflies and the time our hero escapes from the scene of a hit Via Balloon (not a typo).

The film follows a killer whose fetish for the smell of boiled rice is matched only by the films own fetish for butterflies. He goes on missions, has rough sex with his nympho wife, falls in love (of a fashion with a fellow hitwoman) and then enters into an abstract duel with the Number One killer. It’s a jazz style movie, unbelievably freeform. Seizuki famously made most of it up as he went along, and then was rumored to have edited the entire thing in one day.

I know its uncool to side with the suits but in this case I can’t help but have some pity for them being that I would probably be unable to describe to you on a moment by moment basis just what is happening in Branded To Kill, even if I was watching it at the time.

I’m still not sure what I make of Branded To Kill. Seizuki’s a pretty bianary filmmaker to begin with, but this takes it to another level entirely. Its aggressively unpleasant to watch, perversely (yet flippantly) psychosexual, and jarring. Yet there’s something there. Branded To Kill is one of the few films that’s truly singular, there really is nothing else like it in existence. For better or worse its one of a kind.