Friday, November 21, 2008

Séance on a Windy Afternoon

A Chronicle of Corpses (2000)
directed by Andrew Repasky McElhinney
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

"When you were young, you didn't like this place, either."
"Of course not."

A lovely tracking shot through one of those old Puritan cemeteries, with a man walking slowly at the border where grass finds the great overgrown woods of old Pennsylvania, stems but does not control the boredom. There is a certain claustrophobia to everyone knowing everyone's secrets and everyone keeping someone else's, but no horror of the late-night something-in-the-woods variety (although there is, in fact, something in the woods). Doleful lines like "God will be lost to us forever" are delivered in flat monotones, and the director's promising low (low) budget use of light and shadows is undone by a theatre director's sense of the dramatic and over-attention to stylistic theory.

The first thing we hear is a story about Samson and Delilah, with a priest, in voiceover, wondering about the differences between desire and faith, between faithlessness and failure. The emotionless - not "tortured" - odyssey that follows occurs at some indefinite time period in Philadelphia when moony young women were permitted to wear undone shifts into a cathedral. Too bad McElhinney isn't a McIlhenny; it's like facing a plate of PA Dutch cuisine without a bottle of Tabasco in sight.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Last Breath Illuminated by Cold and the Moon

Black Sabbath (1963)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Only an Italian could begin his three-part trick-or-treat with a dubbed introduction by Boris Karloff hoping the good people in the audience aren't in attendance alone (wink wink), and then segue into a half-hour, killer-on-the-telephone approximation of what's going through the head of every adolescent Genoese male in the theater. Pity the date he's goosing, wondering if this kind of Friday night endurance test is the best young love can offer. For my money, it isn't the rubber rigor mortis face in the third act that I'll be seeing in the windows this winter, but a haunted, haggard Karloff dressed in long hair and beard, wrapped in Bavarian animal furs, stalking the churchyard of his rural highland farm. The sudden appearance of Boris's profile in the foreground of a blue set looks just like the severed head pitched on a post in the farmer's front yard. If you're sitting close enough to the television, there's a twisted and disheveled face on a rope in your room.

The movie's last moments of artifice are perfect for ghost stories; as the crew laughs and the electric lights spin like a bonfire, the darkness - ignored - creeps in and consumes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dr. T and the Woman

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
directed by Roy Rowland
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Early on - let's say before Dr. Seuss left the set in a huff - Dr. T is as red, white, and blue as Hollywood or Bust and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Young Bartholomew Collins watches helplessly as his widowed mother tries to make nice with the socially respectable piano dandy who teaches the neighborhood pre-adolescents to play the keys. Why can't she pick someone sensible, Bart asks, like August the all-American plumber? Because it's 1953, I guess, when anarchists' short pants got run up the HUAC flagpole, and even a closeted quasi-intellectual celebrity was a better father for Joe McCarthy's well-rubbed elbows than the sucker with the wrench and slop bucket beneath the kitchen sink. But the boys know best, and Seuss and Stanley Kramer were liberal enough to see it. The weird isn't as weird as I wanted it to be, but then, I'm not a kid.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In a Word, Atmosphere

Salem's Lot (1979)
directed by Tobe Hooper
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

To paraphrase a passage from the book I read last night, "goddamn wind plays with the nerves." Like Jacques Tourneur before him, Tobe Hooper knows just what to do with an industrial high velocity fan: find the right dark spot in the woods, set some kids wandering lost for home, and turn the switch. Salem's Lot takes a small town's daily habits and hollows them out from the inside: the teenage brothers from a normal home, the couple by the lake, the real estate agent's blousy secretary. The forest is rotten, and the outpost at the edge of it is full of fear. There's the dead child at the window, pawing in the fog; the old man in the old car (one of James Mason's best performances); and the hospital rooms and rocking chairs where near-dead die and live again. Hoop can't scrub away King's Catholic/husband/father dross completely, but the miniseries' successes are entirely cinematic (Mr. Barlow is the Jaws of 1979), making Salem's Lot the preeminent pre-'90 TV school of horror. In real life, Tobe Hooper is a Texas conservationist, the sort of someone who might seem distracted if he crossed your path walking by a hill country river. But what were you doing by the Frio at night anyway?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Millenium Mumble

Millenium Mambo (2001)
directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It isn't that Hou isn't capable of some beautiful shots - here, Jack cooking noodles at the stove in his bare feet, the kitchen lit in blue light through the window - but that composition can't be an end in and of itself. I'm the target audience for a slow-motion track of Shu Qi walking through the entrance of a Taipei subway station, but sometimes the responsible thing to do is call it a commercial and call it a day. The snow scenes in Hokkaido are an exception: a succinct contrast to city life and a clean, pure image of the lonely heroine happy. Singular moments are inherently sad; you don't need the fights and the tears.

Incidentally, the Palm Pictures logo sounds just like The Legend of Zelda whenever Link wanders into a sacred tree. It's like hearing the zither from The Third Man and then having to sit through The Remains of the Day!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Great Movie Deserves a Great Title

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Harryhausen effects aside, there's something a little cheap in American sword-and-sandals stalwarts like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. From what I remember, it's the cinematography: garish on costumes, makeup (lots of heavy blue eye shadow in that genre), and fishbowl-bound ocean sets. Hercules cost some thrifty Italian producer less than a pretty penny, but if Christopher Lee can transcend the globetrotting actor's curse of bad dubbing, surely Mario Bava can be the sort of cinematographer a world of storybook nights demands.

I've never enjoyed a movie about Roman mythology more. Surely this is the thrill my father gets reading Prince Valiant each Sunday, or why everyone treasures The Adventures of Robin Hood. Reg Park is no Errol Flynn, but their laughs and their verve come from similar perspectives on the role of a movie star. Be Mr. Universe and Hercules together.

Bava, who I finally like as much as I've always wanted to, gets a great silhouette of a sorcerer carrying an unconscious woman in a long white dress in his arms. Every movie should have one. Around them, the haunted world is all light and color, and no sharp lines except the high cheekbones and pretty noses on those beautiful Italian girls.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Future/Past of Hawaiian Airlines

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
directed by Nicholas Stoller
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It isn't the improbability of K-Bell and Mila Kunis fighting over the half-assed "sensitive guy" (read "stay-at-home slob") ministrations of Jason Segel. Movies are fantasies, I get that, and there seems to be more than enough goodwill in the Apatow tent to let me be unexpectedly charmed by Russell Brand for two hours (seriously). And you're right, what's wrong with watching beautiful people smile and be sweet in lovely Hawaii? Absolutely nothing. But for better or worse, Segel didn't write a comedy; he wrote a "serious relationship" movie with lots of funny parts, and everything that isn't funny in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is egotistical, unaware, and mean. For me, Segel's obliviousness to everything in women except the casting director's good call on physical grace and beauty is the film's bottom line. If I was Linda Cardellini, I would wonder how on earth I ever dated a guy that long who knew so little about me.

Riding Giants (2004)
directed by Stacy Peralta
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

So surely there's a backlash against the "tow-in" surfing style that Laird Hamilton embodies these days, right? The jet ski and rescue team, the helicopter crew and the noise? It seems antithetical to original loner Greg Noll, trolling Waimea Bay with his prison-stripe trunks for Point Break waves of the century. Peralta's film might be hagiographic, but it's also pretty genuine myth-making, which is a different beast. Myth-making inspires, which means Olympus belongs as much to the anonymous friend who thought to record Noll's early Hawaiian exploits on camera as the gods prevailing over their first 50-footer.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

One Minute to Widnight

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
directed by Peter Sykes
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If there's a film corollary to the create-your-own Traveling Wilburys game, it might be the less intellectually demanding "My Three Stooges," aka "3 Amigos Más." So before the Farrelly brothers beat me to it, allow me to introduce Denholm Elliott, Christopher Lee, and Richard Widmark. If you follow the parlor trick to its natural Curse of Soul Men conclusion, Christopher Lee's number is most definitely up in 2009.

It's no secret that Hammer's remakes of Universal monster movies do nothing for me, but if the studio's willingness to exploit popular movie trends eventually leads occultist oddities like this one to my windy doorstep, I'll always be happy to lend my half-hearted endorsement. Most of the time, the production just takes it too far: physical Satanic babies, Widmark screaming at a window, silly shock and titillation. The closest comparison is the Columbia-enforced monster that ruins the otherwise evocative Night of the Demon, which in some ways would make a good double-bill. But you can't keep a good performance down, not in old-people reading glasses (Richard), devil-induced shock (Denholm), or the 98th priest's frock of your career (Chris).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My Pirate Joke Begins with "Yar"

High Society (1956)
directed by Charles Walters
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When Calvin and Hobbes was still in newspapers, there was a comic swap one Sunday among some of the most popular strips in syndication. I don't remember the specifics, but try to imagine Bil Keane of The Family Circus filling in for Gary Larson. High Society is like Marmaduke playing Hobbes. Since so much of apparent "journeyman" John Patrick's screenplay is lifted verbatim from The Philadelphia Story, one can't help but see the ghosts of Kate, Jim, and Cary just behind the shoulders of Grace, Frank, and Bing. The changes the script does make (Bing is a musician instead of an alcoholic, Frank makes his love for Liz Embrie explicit in the wedding scene) play like pablum, and only Louis Armstrong as the Greek bard in a straw boater sparks anything like the candle of creation.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Gelflings in the DGA

Nightbreed (1990)
directed by Clive Barker
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I'm a little surprised that this was made as late as 1990, since it bears all the scars of the previous decade's affection for bloated childrens' costume epics, Jim Henson monster mashes, and fantasy worlds broached by "real world" Janes. The lone cravat is mostly for sheer - albeit horrendously misguided - enthusiasm, as evidenced by more explosions than the "attack on Prince Feisal" sequence of Lawrence of Arabia, and soppy but well-intentioned affection for history's cast-offs. After Season of the Witch, no ghoul's mask can ever be so cool again, and David Cronenberg's stitch-face serial killer costume must be first against the wall. He's a terrible actor, by the way.