Saturday, January 21, 2012

There's A Doings Transpiring....

(T-shirt available from the fine folks at T-shirt Bordello)

Over at Son Of Danse Macabre I finally finished the Modern American Horror Film: Subtext And Text chapter. Whoo Hoo! That means there's only two chapters left to go in Son Of Danse Macabre.... Two Chapters that come to think of it, will be just as long as that last monster.... woo hoo...

Well time to get cracking. We're halfway through the eighties at this point, with a twofer covering two of my absolute favorite ridiculous slasher films, The Burning and Friday The 13th Part 2. And if the posts get you in the mood remember that friends at T-Shirt Bordello have the best eighties horror gear around. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I would be shocked if Gary Oldman speaks much over a hundred words in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but every one of them counts. By the time the film ends we- well I was going to say know him, but that’s not right, no one with the possible exception of his wife really knows George Smiley and given what she’s done to him with that knowledge perhaps we can understand why no one else does. Only twice in the film do we see an emotion break through Smiley’s carefully composed mask, once in pain and once in what is unmistakably satisfaction, both reveal depths to the man that were heretofore unexpected. But we can follow him and his train of thought and to a man like George Smiley thought is everything.

Indeed I don’t think I can remember the last film I’ve seen to feature so many shots of people thinking and considering. Attempting to see as far down the path of their minds eye as they can. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes place during at the end of The Cold War in MI5, where the blown cover of an agent and the ousting of the former head of intelligence have revealed that there is a high ranking Mole in British Intellegence. Smiley forced out after the botched operation that led to the exposure and death of said agent is brought back to The Circus in order to expose who the traitor is.

Every once in a while a film comes along that feels like it fell through a time warp from 1976. These tend to be some of my favorite movies. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a relentlessly mundane look at the Cold War and Warriors. The men who wage it are in late middle aged, a collection of thick eye glasses, balding pates, paunches hideous comb overs and bad uncomfortable suits. The battlefield shabby bureaucratic offices with track lighting and dirty carpet. The film is so relentlessly dreary that it takes on its own sort of bizarre antiglamor. Smiley is well kind of cool, in his own way.  Anyone smart enough to navigate this bureaucratic nightmare and keep themselves and their integrity intact is a man worthy of admiration.

Credit Tomas Alfredson for crafting this level of oppressive gloom and handling the film’s sprawling cast.  I admit as I prefer Matthew Reeve’s version of Let Me In, that I previously underestimated Alfredson. But watching the grace with which he handles himself here I am forced to reassess.

His cast is uniformly strong. Oldman is of course at the center and makes for a magnificent Smiley. We all love Oldman for his theatricality, but it’s nice to be reminded of the astonishing range that he has. Smiley is an implosive character instead of an explosive one, but he contains all the force that is Oldman’s hallmark. Toby Jones and Dave Dencik and Colin Firth are all effective as bureaucratic survivors, one of whom has almost certainly turned traitor. They are upstaged by Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch (Oh he of the most British name of all time) as two men just beginning on the path that has wrecked so many before them. By the end of the film both have been ruined to a various extent (Also note the all too brief appearance by Stephen Graham). It’s the price of the job. But the movie is damn near stolen by Mark Strong as the broken end result of that price, giving  a performance of more depth and complexity than I would have thought him capable.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,  is not interested in feeding you answers. It’s a film that demands your attention. Many have complained that the plot is unclear, and though it is dense I’d argue that it’s never obtuse. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you can follow every thread. How much you know about The Cold War is irrelevant, how much the film knows about Human Nature is everything. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I got some minor surgery for Christmas. As a result I spent a lot of time over the holidays convalescing at the various big releases. Which puts me in an odd position as I don’t feel necessarily able to write about these films objectively but I still wish to talk about them. True I “enjoyed” The War Horse, but I most likely would have enjoyed it more had I not been suffering from a migraine and intense nausea during the second half of the film when the Vicodin wore off. So I’ve decided to split the difference and treat the following four films as capsule reviews. Consider yourself disclaimered!

Sherlock Holmes: Game Of Shadows: (Spoilers) I ended up enjoying this one quiet a bit more than most people did. The first half is a bit unfocused, but Downey and Law’s chemistry keeps it entertaining through out. Jared Harris ended up being superb casting as an understated Moriarty (and is this really the first time we’ve gotten a Big Screen version of this character who is not a cartoon rat played by Vincent Price? Really? Wow!)  Ritchie’s film is atmospheric, the action crisp, with a sense of humor that serves well as the films secret weapon and it features a far better understanding of the source material than most give it credit for. On the whole it’s the rare sequel that manages to match the charm of the original. Only the killing of Irene Adler, a rather cheap way to raise the stakes, felt off. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, but it’s more or less exactly what I’m looking for in a Saturday Matinee.

War Horse: And then one day Stephen Spielberg awoke and said, “Hey, what if Au Hasard Balthazar  had been directed by John Ford as his follow up to The Quiet Man. And what if it is also a War Movie!” Everybody thought he was joking until after the first day of filming was over.

Still I have to think that Pappy Ford would be proud of what Spielberg has accomplished here (oh those horizons!) Sure The War Horse plays it about as broad and sentimental as humanly possible, but aside from a few moments near the beginning it works. And to write it off as simple histrionics isn’t doing justice to some the true grace of some of Spielberg’s filmmaking. He’s one of the few directors who would have been just fine in the silent era, very few have his ability to communicate yards of narrative with a single shot.

WWI is as far as I’m concerned, one of the hardest subjects to make a film about. Setting aside for a moment that the grim absurdity of the actual fighting of it made Vietnam and Iraqi look about as romantic as boy’s own adventures, anything you can salvage from it comes with the grim knowledge that in twenty years everyone you see is going to be fucked all over again, most likely worse than before. It’s hard to consider something a satisfying conclusion when the best you can hope for is, “Gee I hope their children aren’t killed in the blitz.” But for all it’s flaws, it’s hard not to be moved by Spielberg’s story of hard won innocence. A bit broad at times sure, but it’s a poetic and moving vision all the same.

The Adventures Of Tintin: WHHHHEEEEEE!!!! This is Spielberg at his most playful. Whether recreating one of the most famous action beats of his career with a small white terrier, or displaying a giddy feeling of “Oh why the fuck not.” With the eight minute unbroken chase sequence. This is what happens when you take one of the most imaginative visual minds of the era and completely unfetter it. There’s not a heck of a lot more to it than that. The film’s an intriguing blend of new (Tintin himself falls smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley more often than not) and charmingly old fashioned, (“It’s funny because he can’t stop drinking.”) All in all it’s pretty Teflon, and doesn’t rank with Spielberg’s truly great adventures. But for what it is, an ambitious experiment, it’s pretty damn fun.

Mission Impossible 4: I’m not going to lie I was pretty spaced for this one. But the impression that I got was that Brad Bird wins live action. Seriously the success of this film should surprise no one. Bird has proven himself time and again to have one of the most audacious imaginations in commercial filmmaking. Mission Impossible 4 is what happens when you let an unabashed film fan make a film. It plays like someone’s dream of a spy movie. Only the disappointing lack of Ving Rhames (They at least fit him in for a cameo at the end. But his absence was distracting particularly when Cruise spent a third of the film trying to get in touch with a mysterious contact I was sure was Rhames.) and a strangely bland villain (especially when compared to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s sociopath in Part 3). Still the set pieces here are gold standard stuff, all big budget filmmaking should be so imaginative, Cruise regains some of his charisma (particularly in a an opening Prison Riot set piece which seemed designed to make the idea of Cruise as Jack Reacher not ridiculous). Like Sherlock Holmes there’s nothing revolutionary here, but what is done is done awfully well.  


And over at Son Of Danse Macabre the hits just keep on coming. I just finished my chapter on The Horror Films Of the 90's with a take on The Blair Witch Project. It's my goal to have the whole first draft of this book finished by the end of March, which means the content is going to be flying thick and fast over there for the next two months. Hope you'll join us. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Ten Films Of 2011

4th Annual Southland Tales Award For Film I Liked For No Damn Reason: Drive Angry: It’s a film that begins with Nicholas Cage shot gunning four people to death in broad daylight on a city street and ends with him riding into hell in souped up muscle car as Meatloaf croons in the background. Somewhere in betwixt there Tom Atkins summarily orders their execution and Cage drinks Beer from a skull. Not just any beer. Simpler Times. Fuck Yes.

If you didn’t have fun with this movie the problem is you.

Worst: Your Highness: It’s not a good sign that when a film startles an accidental laugh out of the audience, a feeling of appalled shame immediately fills the theater. David Gordon Green is actively trying to murder Roger Ebert, it’s the only explination I can find for his last two films that makes sense.

Underrated: The Ward: Sure it falls apart mightily in the end, but John Carpenter’s return to the big screen was far more effective than most gave it credit for. With a script that’s careful not to cheat (listen closely to Jared Harris’s dialogue) a dread soaked atmosphere and some very effective scare sequences. Next time you watch it, think of it as a siege film, I guarantee it’ll work better. Not perfect, but it’ll make a hell of a double feature with The Fog.

Overhated: Scream 4: Look I’m not exactly one to go out of my way to defend Wes Craven, but I was surprised by the way this effective little Meat and Potatoes slasher film riled everyone up so much. It’s not great, but it’s not actively embarrassing in the way Scream 2 and 3 were (if only for the fact that the ghost of Sydney’s mother never points at the camera and moans “You’re just like meeeee!!!” in order to subtly suggest that Sydney is afraid of turning into her mother.) As Stephen King once said, “It’s awful pedestrian but then again so is beer.”

Overrated: Hanna: I don’t get it. Rarely has a disconnect between myself and a movie been as thorough as this one. I quickly sunk into a deep stupor as this Bourne Identity by way of Rocky And Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales played out. The tone of the film is so inconsistent that it feels like Joe Wright was actually angry with his audience when he made the film. But apparently not as angry as he was at Cate Blanchett who was apparently directed to do her best impersonation of Dianne Ladd in Wild At Heart. Eric Bana is the only one in the cast who seems to know what he’s doing.  The action is lack luster and all the fairy tale motifs in the world can’t hide the fact that this has been done before. Though rarely so ineptly.

Most Pleasant Surprises: Kung Fu Panda 2: Dreamworks sequels do not exactly have a strong track record for creative integrity. So it’s a pleasant surprise that Kung Fu Panda did not merely match the charms of its original (easily the best of the Dreamworks animated films) but surpassed it. Beautiful animation, innovated fight scenes, and centered on another great Gary Oldman villain (not to mention Michelle Yeoh's best American role), Kung Fu Panda 2 is for my money the best Kung Fu film given wide theatrical release in US theaters this side of Hero.

Most Disapointing: Rum Diary: Finding out that Bruce Robinson was coming out of retirement and then seeing this was  like finding out that Santa is real and then watching him puke from Dope Sickness in the corner of your living room. Delight curdling into Horror with record speed. (Not to mention making this a three peat for Amber Heard. Did that girl wish to be a movie star on The Monkey's Paw or what?)

10. Sucker Punch: Oh no I dinnit. Oh yes I did. I’ve written twice about my reaction to Zack Snyder’s audacious experiment in biting as many of the hands that feed him as he can fit in his mouth at one time and I am unrepentant. It’s a big insane dare of a movie. Not quite successful, even on it’s own terms, but all failures should be this spectacular. The ultimate pastiche and a slightly incoherent shout of J’Accuse to the entirety of geek culture. Say what you will about Synder’s self immolating act of kamikaze auteurism, there’ll never be another like it.

9. 13 Assassins: From a director who I admittedly have a bit of a soft spot for, to one I don’t much care for. I was as surprised as anybody at how caught up I got in Miike’s Samurai epic. A pure, near perfect genre film. With a great slow burn set up and an utterly insanse meat grinder of a finale that gets extended beyond all reason, 13 Assassins is one of those films that doesn’t merely capture everything you like about a genre, it reminds you why you loved the genre in the first place.

8. Bridesmaids: My favorite farce since Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. What strikes me, having watched the film probably about half a dozen times and thusly finely able to see it without water obscuring my eyes, is just how directed Paul Feig’s film is. So much modern comedy direction is done in the indifferent Dennis Dugan school and why not? It’s a pretty thankless job. If you do it right you’re not the one who’ll be getting the attention. But it makes all the difference in the world. Look at the perfectly timed insert shot of stunned glee on the face of Helen’s step daughter during the big meltdown scene. Watch the perfect way that Feig frames Annie’s walk as she boards the airplane. Ceiling and walls all in claustrophobic view, her eye’s slowly widening to Doe in the headlights proportions. It’s a comedy crafted with care on every aspect of it’s production and it’s fucking hysterical. And if you disagree you’ll have to take that up with my Mexican Drinking Worm. It’s like a Native American symbol for getting fucked up.

7. Rango: Huh. A Children’s animated film the owes more to El Topo than Fievel Goes West. Animated in an aggressively abrasive style that explicitly references Ralph Steadman and at one point features an army of inbred mountain men sweeping down giant bat creatures as Ride Of The Valkeryies arranged for the banjo plays in the background. Nope I can confidently say that I didn’t expect to see any of that. But I’m awfully glad I did.

6. Melancholia: Von Trier’s staggering unblinking ode to oblivion was one of the most visceral experiences I had this film going year.  More humane than it’s critics or supporters gave it credit for, it was like watching Ingmar Bergman become completely unhinged.

I’ve written before about the intensely negative reaction I’ve had to some of Von Trier’s work and to be honest I would be hard pressed to say exactly what it was about Melancholia that felt so different. But just this once it felt as though Von Trier was playing on the level.

5. The Innkeepers: If you didn’t like House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers probably isn't going to change your mind. Like it’s predecessor, a deliberate (note I didn’t say slow burning, as an exasperated West put it in Austin “People say my movies are slow but there are jokes and scares in every scene!") tense film, interested in earning your fear as opposed to playing cheap. West may be the horror fan’s horror director, but only because he has takes such obvious care with the genre. With a well constructed script, elegant style and a preternatural skill at linking the anxiety of day to day living with a larger supernatural framework, The Innkeepers is exactly the type of careful horror filmmaking that is often so lacking in the genre. Ti West’s last film may have been a loving tribute to the past, but The Innkeepers proves that he is one of the precious few director’s interested in pushing the genre forward.

4. Midnight In Paris: Beautiful, effervescent and the funniest thing that he’s done in years (at least fifteen of them by my count) Allen’s tribute to the art and illusions that sustain us, is by far the best of his European films and may just be one of his best period. Centered around Owen Wilson, in a perfect bit of “whoddathunk?” casting, Paris is smart wistful and beautiful. The fact that it contains the funniest Ernest Hemingway parody of all time is just gravy.

3. Hugo: A real oddity, a nostalgia piece about endless possibilities of the future. As a film Hugo is as viscerally made and felt as any of Scorsese’s. As a tribute to the art form it inhabits it is superlative. A wonderful film in the true sense of the word. 

2. Drive: If Jean Pierre Melville and Sam Fuller had a baby and that baby was raised by being left in a room with the better films of Peter Yates, William Friedkin, Seijun Suzuki, Budd Boeticher, and Brian DePalma, and that baby was also raised to be an unabashed romantic. Then that baby would grow up to give the world Drive. An example of the primal, lizard brained pleasures of genre film that made me kind of giddy. Is there much more to the movie than the fact that it is about as stylish and cool as it is possible for films to be? Not really. But in this case I have to say that that is enough. It’s the type of film that makes you buy the soundtrack, and makes you walk a little straighter when it turns up on your iPod. There was no more purely pleasurable film going experience this year.

1. Tree Of Life: If Drive perfectly illustrated the pleasures of genre cinema, Tree Of Life can only be called the exemplifier of the pleasures of turning away from genre and pushing the limits of cinema as far as they can be. I haven’t written about Tree, because there’s no way for me to intellectualize it. I can only think of it in the terms of the visercial way I experienced it, which seems like a fairly useless thing for someone who is not me, to read. The film stirred memories and sensations within me that I would have thought were dormant or dead. If I had cared to think about them at all.  All while communicating things that ordinary films don’t even have the framework, much less the ambition to do.

There’s a moment in the film where a toddler looks at his new born brother for the first time. Seems to realize that he once was as this baby is, internalizes the implications of this and starts to cry- and holy crap did Malick just capture a human being realizing for the first time that he’s going to die on film? It’s a film that feels like sifting through someone’s memories and it’s impossible not to consider ones own. The Tree Of Life is a film where one feels the weight of life, and the sensation of it passing through. Less like seeing a film than meditating under the Bodhi Tree.