Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Mixtape Begins with “Runaway Train”

Habit (1996)
directed by Larry Fessenden
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If Halloween, for me, is best encapsulated by Meet Me in St. Louis, there is something at work in the holiday that a straight horror film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t accommodate. I prefer the supernatural, of course, but it isn’t just that; Meet Me in St Louis has nothing except mood, no ghosts but wind and fallen leaves. Horror films and Halloween, in other words, can diverge, and I am happy catching up with Trick 'r Treat and Rasputin: The Mad Monk well into November, long after I’ve left my jack o’ lantern on the curb for the garbageman.

Habit is as quiet and romantic as any horror film since Near Dark, and Habit is superstitious if not quite supernatural. Like Slacker, it follows interesting, self-sustaining twenty-somethings before hipsters killed them off for good. But more than a horror film or a generational relic, Habit is a great Halloween movie, one that captures the atmosphere of passing people in costume on the street of a city - parties are different, they don’t feel the same - on a surprisingly warm or surprisingly cool fall day, and getting caught up in the details around you: the angles of things, the play of light, the sound of footfalls and fabrics. I won’t do Larry Fessenden the disservice of ignoring the elephant in the room - that’s “A” for “Allegory” - but I like to think that heroin addiction led him to vampires, instead of the other way around. It’s a beautiful movie. Fessenden should be a movie star.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

LaPaglia Looks Towards Mixed Nuts; I Look Away

Innocent Blood (1992)
directed by John Landis
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I didn't know Innocent Blood was filmed in Pittsburgh - at the station where I put gas in the car, even - until the movie started. That's strange, because there's so little else to recommend it. I guess watching Robert Loggia go through his usual (wonderful) scream and rant routine as a zombie half justified my having nothing better to do, especially when he ransacks the bar at his attorney's house and his attorney is Don Rickles. Luis Guzmán shows up, and there are plenty of funny cameos - funny on paper, anyway - but the movie doesn't mesh. There isn't a single "scary" scene (a la An American Werewolf in London), and once you get past the always-entertaining swaths of Italian-American mafia stereotypes, nothing to really laugh at.

The Resurrected surprised me by not featuring the expected tawdry, low-budget sex scene; not so Innocent Blood, where for some reason La Femme Nikita is completely naked from frame one. The strange - and plentiful - sex is difficult to read as anything other than a random imposition of John Landis's domination fantasies, and it's completely inappropriate to the rest of the film. The rest of the film is terrible.

Sure Thing

The Resurrected (1992)
directed by Dan O'Bannon
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

As co-author, at least, of the famous introduction to the greatest song ever written for a movie soundtrack, Dan O'Bannon didn't need The Resurrected (or Alien, for that matter) to win my heart. Production costs may come and go, movies may limp into a pan-and-scan DVD, but there's nothing like the initial, glorious confusion of plunging your hero into darkness and forcing him to try and navigate a room. A floor becomes dangerous when people don't know where to step. Pits and the abominations inside of them segue from creepy to horrifying. Everything beneath the house that John March needs to find is so lovingly designed, so archaic, and so mesmerizing, that the small miracle of actually setting a Lovecraft adaptation in Providence (where the stories took place all along) fades behind the more basic pleasure of a good tale well told.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pain in the Cusp of a Spoon

Hellraiser (1987)
directed by Clive Barker
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

So Pinhead - or "Lead Cenobite" in his original incarnation - is essentially Prince Sirki/Joe Black enlarged to his most cynical (or inevitable) manifestation, right? "Curious Death" when curiosity is gone, supplanted by awful and all-encompassing knowledge? Clive Barker signs on for the Lady Chatterley's Lover approach to winning a woman over - fuck her right and she'll do anything for you - and while I wish that so many of the horror films that I love from the 1980s weren't rampant with that kind of sleazy misogyny, the world that Barker imagines to let his silly drama play out in is pretty memorable. The Cenobites are great, of course, but so is the puzzle box. It's the key men and women use to go farther in their pleasures than they think they can go - the idea that we invite in no horror worse than the one we want. The smile on Uncle Frank's tortured face says he'd do it again in a second, and isn't that the point?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Give Me Men in Monster Costumes or Give Me Death

I Am Legend (2007)
directed by Francis Lawrence
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It should go without saying that nothing I’d heard about I Am Legend suggested it could approach a fraction of the entertainment value of watching Charlton Heston’s previous West Coast post-apocalyptic adventures. If you like to read The Bogdanovich Chorus as efficiently as possible, I was right. Will Smith isn’t the kind of actor to want to enjoy himself too much in any situation in which honest citizens have died; if you kill off all of New York, then throw a wife and kid into the mix, even the things he does to stay sane - like hitting on mannequins at the video store - will inevitably segue into anger and outbursts articulating a sense of personal failure. But I'll happily concede that Will Smith can carry a film, and here, Oskar Schindler’s scientist Robert Neville’s eyes reflect the words that no one can hear him say: “I could have done so much more.”

So could the director. In this third (and worst) adaptation of Matheson's novel, the last man on earth can’t just “be alone” from the start of the movie until the end. Instead, the initial viral outbreak begins to play back in dreams as soon as the title screen disappears, down to a mother who begs the soldiers - just before Manhattan is quarantined - to take her baby if they won’t take her. I don’t hate the novelty in seeing the streets of New York completely empty, or in watching the hero hunt a herd of deer through Times Square. I don’t object to the dog as something sweet and dumb that we - the audience - can immediately fix our shallow emotions to. But I want something more from a nightmare scenario than to know that humans are resilient. Life is plenty bleak; to make the most of a story like I Am Legend, one can’t just ask the viewer to imagine living out one’s days alone. Of course it would be sad to leave your wife behind, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little entertainment for our trauma. At least Heston slept with the woman he found!


Let the Right One In (2008)
directed by Tomas Alfredson
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

What I'd feared would be an all-too taxing allegorical meditation on childhood did a lot more than just try on The Spirit of the Beehive as a vampire story. The kids behave like children, not as much of a surprise with the boy as the girl, who has too many ageless 12-year olds behaving like adults to live down. She does, though, and though she insists she's not a girl, she is. As with any great vampire movie, this one has nice takes on the classic tropes - namely, the need to invite a vampire into your home each time the beast comes calling (as opposed to once); what happens when a vampire does enter uninvited; and what a roomful of scared animals will do to Nosferatu when they have the numbers to do more than hiss and run away. Nothing comes close to the climax, though, as clean and elegant a sequence of vengeful violence as anything not shot in slow motion can be. The coda, which invites such cynicism about the tender events which came before, seals the deal: one of the best horror movies in years.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

With My Heroine and Eric Rohmer's Fighting Skills, We Can...

Drag Me to Hell (2009)
directed by Sam Raimi
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A good candidate for a future revision of Los Angeles Plays Itself - "Not even branch manager David Paymer could afford the monthly payments on the house in Echo Park that Alison Lohman's tormentor tears to shreds" - Drag Me to Hell is what the murdered pets call "good fun." Special effects have gotten worse in the last twenty-eight years, but Sam Raimi could sell regurgitated embalming fluid to a socialite, so let him sell a haunted handkerchief to me. Horror movies, even more than romances, should always have women as their heroes. No one makes a muddy, flooded burial plot look better, and no one else can convincingly muster the requisite fearlessness needed to defend powder blue coats and pale yellow sundresses against the everyday endings that make the course of life so sad. That would re-write The Evil Dead, of course, but a man like Bruce Campbell can always find his way in the world.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Put Me in a Boat and Sink It

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
directed by Spike Jonze
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Manor Theatre

What a disappointment. This really did feel like a project that had been in development for five years, and not at all the oddity I expected from the director of Adaptation. It's obvious Spike Jonze likes Chris Cooper, or he wouldn't have used him in two films. I like Chris Cooper, too, but the only thing any of the funny actors who surround Max in hairy costumes get to do is read back glib platitudes about Dave Eggers' youth ("I'm sad" or "I don't understand") that say nothing - nothing! - about the precarious years that Max is going through. The title screen, knocking a pair of owls from the sky, and the hero hiding in someone's stomach are the only moments that reminded me of Spike of Old, and that's a shame. You can, as always, learn more about "the loneliness of childhood" by actually enjoying yourself at a movie. Scratching Karen O for the Animals' "Wild Thing" might have been a good place to start.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

There is Only Beauty Here

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

The "mother who cares too much about her sons" routine doesn't have to come from Hitchcock, doesn't have to be shrill, and can even seem mysterious in the wake of the movie's central revelation. What would the zombie really have done if Wesley hadn't fled into the sea? After all, we never see Carrefour kill someone. And isn't it, in fact, Carrefour walking beside Betsy along the beach of the opening credits?

Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I Walked with a Zombie is smarter about race relations than most movies made today, although it superficially looks like the worst kind of exoticism (jungle drums, the shadows of black men on the bedroom walls of sleeping white women, superstitious maids). The West Indies island where the drama plays out is steeped in hatred and oppression; everyone Betsy encounters, from the carriage driver to Sir Lancelot, tells her so. Sir Lancelot, the calypso singer with the funny name, is - like Hoagy Carmichael in Canyon Passage - the avatar of menace in the picture's dreamy tropical spell.

The magic at work is like nothing else in the movies, unless another horror film like The Fog or The Beyond, though this has romance that must operate at the register of life and death to try and succeed. Maybe it doesn't; maybe Betsy needs her Ottawa winters again. One never finds out in 70 minutes, but the time couldn't be spent better.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Souvenirs from Tibet

Werewolf of London (1935)
directed by Stuart Walker
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Werewolf of London has no fog but many shadows. The werewolf makeup predates the Cowardly Lion of Wizard of Oz by four years, and Lon Chaney Jr.'s more famous wolf man incarnation by six. Besides the incredible special effects, typified by an editing method that allows Dr. Glendon to "change" as he passes behind a series of columns, John Colton's screenplay provides surprisingly astute and understanding takes on class and marriage. The homoerotic undertones usually go without saying in Universal monster movies, but again, there is a gentleness and generosity here that sets Walker's film apart. Hardly camp, Werewolf of London is, instead, a fine sad tale about secrets, the past, and the circular transit of love.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Million-Dollar Figures

The Big Steal (1949)
directed by Don Siegel
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Vidéothèque

Who knew that Don Siegel was so effective a proponent of location shooting? That seems a small ambition, but it makes all the difference in a movie like The Big Steal. On a backlot, Mitchum might have looked the same, but the mood of the picture - from the humor in William Bendix's cultural confusion to the tempo that real Mexican countryside gives to a road comedy - would have been robbed of its simple but considerable charms. In 1949, the local Tehuacán government couldn't have bought a better advertisement for its natives so friendly to Americanos, and the difference between that and the "citizens abroad" genre my sister enjoys - Brokedown Palace, mostly - means that racial considerations of the era, just like in Liberty Valance, were more complex than we assume.

El Marielito

Homeboy (1988)
directed by Michael Seresin
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD at Syl's

In 1988, Rourke still looked good and carried himself with the sort of unpracticed self-assurance that an actor needs to be a movie star. His screenplay isn't great but it's modest. By writing low-ambition lowlifes and letting characters like Christopher Walken, Kevin Conway, and Jon Polito flesh them out, Sir Eddie Cook does right by almost anyone who thinks Rourke's general public reception continues - and will always continue - to underestimate his abilities. He has some sense of who he wants to be, and he chooses the roles (or writes them) to work it out on camera. It's too easy to make the title a punchline, but McGuirk was right to recommend it, and I can happily do the same.

Monday, October 12, 2009

At the Piano by the Sea

White Zombie (1932)
directed by Victor Halperin
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on TCM at Syl's

Everything great about White Zombie begins in the opening scene: a couple travels by carriage through Haiti and is stopped after dark by a funeral procession burying a body in the middle of the road. The middle of a highway is the only place a body is safe from sorcery; the carriage passes towards its destination, where the couple unloads their bags and heads towards the house of their host. Meanwhile, the driver has noticed movement on the hill behind them. "Zombies!" he warns, and hurries home.

I like the idea that zombies roam the countryside but shy from any encounter they cannot win unless in number. It makes them more like leopards - fearful things that emerge after sunset, things that can be avoided if only one is careful where one goes after dark. The couple, of course, is fated for a different end, a third man having fallen so desperately in love with the woman that he is willing to do anything to satisfy the fever pitch of his obsession. Lugosi - alias Murder Legendre - enters the picture, the young man takes a tour of a sugar plantation run by the undead, and nothing after that is ever quite as effective as the sights and sounds that came before. Well, except for a cemetery like the aftermath of a mudslide, swelled and scattered across the dark face of a hill.

To be watched late at night, when the considerable ordinary seems less so, or not at all.

Shadow of a 75-Watt Bulb

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
directed by W. S. Van Dyke
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Old Town Music Hall

Shadow of the Thin Man finds Nick and Nora in San Francisco, and less the San Francisco of The Lineup than the Bay City a pair of New York transplants would be more likely occupy: studio sets, a canopied park, and a short little tour across the bridge. Unlike Myrna Loy, Donna Reed never played the vamp, even in her earliest roles; here, she could be Mary Hatch taking summer work in college, although if that were true, Mrs. Bailey probably wouldn't have been so happy in Bedford Falls. It isn't that the usual alcoholism jokes don't ring true, or that the Charles' cynical take on child-rearing isn't fun, but Nick even admits that getting a suspect to talk is the surest way to solve the crime, and this one has to many suspects to keep track of, let alone listen to.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Skies of Funny Named Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
directed by John Ford
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Egyptian Theatre

Seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen was probably one of the best movie experiences I've ever had, and this time the new things I noticed all take place at the beginning and the end. I think Syl and I agree that each time we watch the film, we have less and less respect for Ransom Stoddard. Condescending in his average interaction with the good townspeople of Shinbone, he's similarly pathetic throughout the most public example of his "Mr. Law & Order" approach to the eponymous villain: instead of just picking up Tom's steak with a glare, he flops around on the floor and shrilly berates both Doniphon and Valance, making a spectacle of himself and not really convincing (except, I guess, Tom) a soul.

That Hallie's respect for Stoddard's ideals never translates into love makes the final moment on the train all the more devastating. No one ends up happy in Liberty Valance, least of all the Ericson girl. But even at the revelation of the cactus flowers - at the moment when Ransom extinguishes his match and stares, defeated, at the floor - Stoddard can't come out and promise to take Hallie back home. No, they'll return to Shinbone "after we get that water bill passed," meaning later, meaning - given the rumors that Stoddard is about to be approached to be Vice President - never. Stoddard is the classic New England carpetbagger: show up, steal a good man's sweetheart, and return east, with no mind at all for the ensuing devastation.

But the character who knows all this, besides Hallie, besides Tom, and besides Pompey, is Marshal Link Appleyard. Not only does Link keep his mouth shut about the Stoddards' return to Shinbone for Tom's funeral - surprising everyone who knows Link as a loudmouth, from the man at the train depot to the editor of the Star - but Link has clearly kept his mouth shut about what he knows regarding Hallie and Tom. It's Link who suggests taking Hallie to the abandoned Doniphon homestead, Link who was left in town to be Tom's friend when the Stoddards moved to Washington, and Link who seems, with Pompey and Hallie, to be the last protector of all the damage Ransom Stoddard wrought in his short tenure as citizen of the West. It isn't just Tom's sacrifice that Ranse has to carry, but the weight of that whole, small world. I wish he carried it better.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Company of Kittens and Monsters

Alien (1979)
directed by Ridley Scott
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Egyptian Theatre

The easiest thing to forget about Alien is that Sigourney Weaver was 29 when it was made. Aliens wasn't released for another seven years, and although James Cameron's gun-toting Ripley is a wonder, Weaver at 29 was a knock-out, plain and simple. Visually, Alien is as organic as Blade Runner, as if matte paintings were a kind of Ouija board into the future. Today, of course, a space crew would know exactly what to do upon discovery of a roomful of alien eggs, but - excepting Ash's destructive, hell-bent single-mindedness - there's something remarkable about the curiosity of the Nostromo's men and women. They do their best to make sense of it all, while we just sit in awe.

Epitaph and Born Again

The Lineup (1958)
directed by Don Siegel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Vidéothèque

So incontrovertible is the fascist verve behind the gun-carrying fantasy of Dirty Harry that, with the exception of Charley Varrick, I've avoided the second half of Don Siegel's career ever since. I guess I wasn't even aware of the first twenty years, but 1958 splits Siegel's credits right down the middle, and it's time - on this blog, at least - for a revival. The Lineup belongs in any repertory of great San Francisco crime films, stripping the city of its fog and noir for unfinished highways, industrial ports, and roads through the barer parts of town. There is splendor, too - houses on hills, unwitting tourists in glamorous rooms - and a kind of near-dark strangeness in spades - the man in the wheelchair, the inexplicable relationship between Eli Wallach and Robert Keith - but all of it stitched with the strength of a machine, punctuating the cloth with gunfire, speed, and death after death - in steam rooms, in parlors - in an altogether democratic glee.

British Columbia County Line

First Blood (1982)
directed by Ted Kotcheff
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Vidéothèque

First Blood could just as easily have been set in the south and not involved a Vietnam veteran. Brian Dennehy could have tuned his Bridgeport, Connecticut, accent to a twang, Sylvester Stallone could have kept his muscles to himself beneath a long-sleeve shirt and jeans, and the newest in a long line of good old boys taking revenge on drifters would undoubtedly have made its small budget back at the box office. But instead of a horror movie, Kotcheff made a survival video, giving Rambo powers not usually bestowed on the average unlucky transient. As a retired Green Beret, Stallone takes his shirt off early, revealing not only muscles but scars; his fight for survival is as much a chance for us to explore the Pacific northwest as wondering whether or not our hero will prevail. Inevitably, the extent of John Rambo's post-traumatic stress eventually erupts in a Stevie Janowski-like catharsis, but he and the rain-soaked trees do their best to play their parts to suit a quiet mood.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Signs and Wonders

A Serious Man (2009)
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Arclight Cinerama Dome

Enter Larry - cuckold, blackmail victim, aggrieved neighbor - subjected to a series of routine-for-the-movies (that is, stereotypical) embarrassments, slights, and all-around bad luck. His life isn't funny at all, except in a sad way, and thinking of A Serious Man as a comedy simply doesn't give credit to the title. What the movie is, is gentle, and one smiles at Sy, Danny, and Clive because the difficulties they impose on Larry can only be managed (to the degree that they can be) with a kind of open-eyed, bemused acceptance. There are no surer comforts to be won in this 1967 Minnesota, cold and enigmatic in its gaze at God. A scene of warm light and a slight slip of sound - when Larry gets high at his neighbor's - reveals no truth at all about Larry's condition - the experience, like the rabbis, says nothing new - but underscores perfectly the care and craft with which the Coens execute their trade. Persecuting this saddest of Jobs isn't science, it's art, and finding no answers makes it no less profound.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Easy, Breezy Yesterdays

Dillinger (1973)
directed by John Milius
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When Richard Linklater wanted a particular sense of bank-robbing camaraderie - of the sort that The Newton Boys aspires to but doesn't achieve - I'd be willing to bet that he sat down and screened Dillinger. And thinking of that as Warren Oates, Geoffrey Lewis, and Harry Dean Stanton wend their way through the countryside, dancing in Tucson and kidnapping Michelle Phillips from a Chicago bar, one can't help but amend John Milius' screenwriting mantra. It was a pleasure to be robbed by a man like Dillinger, Milius says; but even better, one comes to believe, to be a participant in this movie about him, whether stuntman, gaffer, or star. Ben Johnson's Melvin Purvis could convincingly bring every gangster of the era to justice, although the real-life Purvis only got "Pretty Boy" Floyd and John. Dillinger wouldn't be the same without the rest of them, though - Machine Gun, Baby Face, Handsome Jack, and Harry Dean - so there they are, guns in hand, and an hour and forty-five minutes to empty every shell in sight.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Last Chance for Some Pie

The Monster Squad (1987)
directed by Fred Dekker
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A movie for kids more than a movie about them, The Monster Squad is akin to Calvin telling Hobbes how cool a fleet of F-14s piloted by tyrannosaurs would be, and Hobbes looking at a plastic toy, shrugging his shoulders, and uttering "meh." It doesn't help that actor Tom Noonan makes the unfortunate choice of having Frankenstein sound like a mentally handicapped giant, but even that seems a part of the junior high milieu that informs so much of the gang's conversation. The bottom line is that Dracula wouldn't recruit a mummy to help take over the world, leaving Stan Winston's designs purposeless in the face of a largely gentle cashing in on The Goonies' "kids with imagination" fantasy. But it's fun enough, and The Monster Squad, unlike The Goonies, is strictly Southern California, paving the way for the movie's best scene: watching a drive-in through binoculars from the roof of a house in the hills because the older brother has to stay at home to babysit his sister.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Odd's Bodkins

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)
from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, and Jack Kinney
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I remembered the last third of this thirty-minute short nearly moment for moment from my childhood. Those scenes begin with Katrina's father asking his guests for ghost stories of a windy, cloudy autumn night. Brom Bones, who can't keep up with the dances that Ichabod learned in other towns, takes the opportunity to spin the tale of the Headless Horseman. Jack o' lanterns grimace, the fireplace flares, and Ichabod begins his doomed ride home to a cacophony of bullfrogs, branches, and hands around the moon.

It made me want to watch the first three quarters of Sleepy Hollow, frankly, so true to the source does Tim Burton's adaptation initially stay. But the first twenty minutes of "Ichabod" are worth mentioning, if only for the odd eponymous schoolmaster himself. Ichabod dreams of Katrina Van Tassel more for her family's gold than her beauty; unlike Brom, a lustful, appealing, salt of the earth heavyweight, Crane's something of a deceitful dandy. He impresses the natives with his city-slicked graces much the same way an itinerant preacher would charm his girth into a seat at every table in the Hudson River Valley. Nor does narrator Bing Crosby even suggest that Brom had anything to do with the horseman himself. No, Bones is there to sweep Katrina to the altar, but for all intents and purposes, he deserves to.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Many Grays of the Thames

The Lodger (1944)
directed by John Brahm
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Unfortunately, there's so little mystery surrounding the lodger's true identity, it isn't so much a question of waiting for a climax as it is making the most of details along the way. Laird Cregar helps, of course - he of "His Excellency" fame from Heaven Can Wait, and a much too early death. And I don't know if the story of Merle Oberon falling in love with cinematographer Lucien Ballard is true, but it's an awfully romantic use of Ballard's foggy London streets and attic rooms shaped by gaslight. I'd never heard of the Black Museum before, and cannot imagine it as anything other than a disappointment now, having been introduced to me first by George Sanders as the man with a fingerprint kit from Scotland Yard.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Pink and Gold are My Favorite Colors

The Shining (1980)
directed by Stanley Kubrick
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

Critics pay so much attention to the psychological aspects of The Shining and to the grueling filmmaking techniques of Kubrick himself that it's easy to forget how opulent the movie is - the heir to Barry Lyndon's candlelight and the supernatural antecedent to the rotting grandeur of Eyes Wide Shut. Joe Turkel's bartender is the famous ballroom scene in miniature, eerie but comforting, as warm as a hearth fire. Each fade from scene to scene; each tracking shot from room to room; the rhythm as Danny rides his tricycle over Indian rugs (softly) and hardwood floors (a rolling gait): these are rich, physical impressions, without which the ghoul in the tub or Jack himself could be part of any anonymous thriller.

Anyone else would make the child a signpost to preface each new horror, and keep young Danny's expression glazed. Kubrick does, at first, but Danny eventually spends more time reacting to his nightmares than predicting them. Kubrick's sympathy for the child is an emotion the coldest readings of The Shining don't make room for, as when Danny sees the twins in the hallway and covers his eyes. It's how all of us tried to crowd out bad dreams as kids, and how we scare off scary movies even today. But The Shining isn't scary, it's a dream.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Cut Chemist

Knives of the Avenger (1966)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

So many great movies begin around a campfire, which is something a story in a book can't do. Knives of the Avenger may not be great, but it's what a viking movie should be: scenery, sorcery, and a great score echoing from cliffs to caves. Antonio Rinaldi's ghostly pools of primary colors have the effect of natural, if otherworldly, light - the ochers and magentas of Frank Quitely's Gotham City - and Bava would be the man to dye your haunted house for Halloween. He's still underestimated, I think, in a genre that has resurrected even its most obscure dead.

Planet Zoot

Strangers with Candy - Season 1 (1999)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The dance sequence beneath the credits at the end of each episode is when the creators of Strangers with Candy really tip their hand; you'd think Principal Blackman dressed as a squirrel in an effort to dispel stereotypes couldn't get much sillier, but the next thing you know, he's doing a striptease from behind the tree. I never watched afternoon sitcoms, so the sort of after-school special Jerri Blank and friends deconstruct has nothing to do with my enjoyment. I could say how smart the show is, good comedy being so difficult to write and all, but you don't have to be a genius to think it's funny. And that, I guess, is the surest sign of real brains. Braaains!