Friday, October 29, 2010

The Past is a Wilderness of Horrors

The Wolfman (2010)
directed by Joe Johnston
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It depressed me to see Art Malik - who I first knew from The Jewel in the Crown but last watched in True Lies - forced to dress as one more brown-skinned stereotype, this time a riff on Morgan Freeman's Azeem. I knew the wolf CGI would be bad, but I didn't realize how much of the movie would look similarly cartoonish. Why buy the fake moon when the real one is so reliable? Are fake trees easier for fake monsters to run through?

Not enough movies set in rural England utilize standing stones for mist-laden mysteries. This one does. But Benicio Del Toro is an actor (I'd argue) who remains more famous for having sex with Scarlett Johansson in an elevator than any role he's played. Why hire the celebrity if you want him to timidly seduce the very dull Emily Blunt over a lesson in skipping rocks?

More importantly, if Anthony Hopkins' John Talbot "loves life" as much as he claims, why does he continue to live in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do but hunt the occasional gypsy and roam about his empty home? It isn't Hannibal Lecter that directors ask him to keep playing, but the surly patriarch from Legends of the Fall. Hugo Weaving is a good city man out among hicks who underestimate him, and he, at least, makes the case for an A-list cast every time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Your Favorite HBO Cast Wholesale

Winter's Bone (2010)
directed by Debra Granik
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Winter's Bone reminded me of what I liked most about Ballast, another film about poor people in rural America: winter weather. Ballast took place in the Mississippi Delta, and Winter's Bone is set in the Ozarks of Missouri, where new graves stand out as "humps that ain't settled." It bothered me that the writer and director of Ballast was a white guy; Debra Granik was raised in Massachusetts and educated at NYU.

Like Lance Hammer, she is interested in the beauty of southern landscapes. Meth is prevalent in Winter's Bone but not central to the plot, whereas the blackness of Hammer's protagonists in Ballast very much was. But it's not like John Ford grew up on a ranch in Arizona, and Granik's film is as much about absent fathers as using a chainsaw to remove both hands from a corpse.

I wish more movies spent time in places like Missouri and Mississippi. I like the gunshots you hear, far off in the forest, and the way you wonder if it's a hunting party or something worse that's responsible for them. I like how Granik treats hills and hollows like fiefdoms in England - areas of land one can cross in a day, controlled by kings who see their property lines as the ends of the earth. Everyone in Winter's Bone is family, from Sheryl Lee to John Hawkes, and that graveyard and its long-buried dead are spooky by flashlight, even among friends.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Even Demons Need Down Time

Paranormal Activity (2009)
directed by Oren Peli
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix during daylight

I love that Oren Peli is afraid of ghosts. I love that he did his "research" and that the scariest thing he found was a demon you never see. The secret to Paranormal Activity is Peli's decision to connect Katie's hauntings to childhood, where memories are half-formed, half-invented, and only sometimes remembered as they actually occurred. I love the idea that it's not the house but the girl, and that it isn't the girl who brings the pain, but the jerk who doesn't believe her. Her fate isn't in her own hands, poor thing, but as long as she's conscious of what she's doing, she's okay. But we have to sleep sometime.

That banal San Diego tract home is the perfect setting, just as I believe that Katie, who has been haunted since childhood, would be attracted to the false bluster and macho bravado of a day trader, who never takes her situation seriously because he isn't willing to see it as anything other than a scary movie on his computer monitor. Like Steve, the things that take place in that space between waking and dreams are the closest I ever get to an unconscious, visible world separate from the reality I call my life. Ouija boards are scary, darkness is scary, and so are the things that go bump in the night. And yes, the movie-lover in me misses the cinematic elegance and atmosphere of a production like Poltergeist, but Paranormal Activity is more frightening than any other film I've watched this month, and I'll take it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Riding in the Van with Michael Murphy

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
directed by Bob Kelljan
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Although Count Yorga never approaches the geometry of Model Shop in its love of Los Angeles terrain, Kelljan shows a lot considering a vampire's penchant for interior sets and nightfall. I'm sure there's a joke about Isaac's best friend dying because his car broke down in LA, but I've never liked Michael Murphy better. The soft-core origins of the film emerge mostly in unintentional but clever insights into Dracula's personality. For one thing, a distinguished Bulgarian count has a better chance seducing aging widows than their daughters, who more often than not must be physically overpowered by the lumbering help. And what, in the end, are Dracula's brides if not a trio of goth lesbians more interested in each other than a kill? It's the coffin routine as striptease.

Judy Lang, in what appears to be her last film role, goes out in style, with a grin as wonderful as Megan Fox's in Jennifer's Body. Like Megan, Judy's mouth is covered in blood, and former household pets are again the reason why. I can't explain it, but that's the sort of casual carnage that just gets me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Give Your Lady Fair a Little Smile

The Seventh Victim (1943)
directed by Mark Robson
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

I enjoyed that Val Lewton book a lot. It suggested, among other things, that Lewton's elevation of minor characters gave the actors who played them a permanence in the mind's eye of folks in the theater and people at home. Darby Jones, as Carre-Four in I Walked with a Zombie, inspired the most compelling chapter because of what Carre-Four says about race, and what that says about movies: "As a slave, Carre-Four is presented as a sacrifice without transcendence... minor characters die without fanfare. They are not heroes, and their only glory is down."

But if Zombie is Lewton's most beautiful film, The Seventh Victim - directed by Mark Robson because Jacques Tourneur was promoted to A list at RKO - is the one to watch when an October evening is not full of ghosts and voices on the wind, but rain and loneliness and the first early darkness of the season. Like the rather pedestrian band of devil worshipers who gather to drink tea and sit in cozy chairs, no one in The Seventh Victim ever quite fits in. Some try more than others, but no one can be said to find much happiness, even in the warm rooms of small Italian restaurants where a meal can be had for a song. In some ways, it is a picture about finding your place in a city. In others, yes, it is about the second World War. But most of all it's a love letter to beautiful actresses who try for happiness in the land of dreams but end up lost in the crowd. Still one of my favorites.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Honeymoon with the Band

Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare (1987)
directed by John Fasano
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Not only did Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare remind me of my time spent driving to the Fat Possum recording studio outside of Water Valley in my mid-twenties, but it makes the perfect, bottom-of-the-budget-barrel double feature to another self-financed testament to one's imagined self worth, Running Out of Luck. The affection I feel for Canadian bodybuilder/rocker Jon Mikl Thor can only exist in tandem with how terrible this movie is. It's the equivalent of something produced in a mildly imaginative kid's backyard, except that Thor is kind enough to float you a shower scene where his breasts are bigger than the girl's.

Cravats are meaningless for a movie like The Edge of Hell (the original, less fitting title), where sincerity and narcissism are two sides of the same crooked coin. Thor's personality is closest to that of a delusional professional wrestler, but his take on the domestic life of a heavy metal rock n' roller is more innocent than even staged TV. Thor's fictional band, the Tritons, decides to record a new album in an old barn in rural Ontario said to have been used by "Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper," presumably together. But the place is full of demons, and as the inevitable group tensions melt away while each member pairs off with a wife or girlfriend for sex, he or she is systematically killed by very silly-looking monsters. The rising body count and accompanying smell of blood eventually draws out Beelzebub himself, but - in a genuinely great twist - Thor reveals that he is an "arch angel" in disguise, sent to challenge His Satanic Majesty to a duel. Groupies from town, the addled manager, the bass player in Spandex: all were a vision conjured to lure the devil into the open.

I can't underscore how bad it all is, but I continue to write about it because it won me over. What, exactly, is Thor - producer, screenwriter, star - trying to say? Something about how difficult it is to record a metal record? That wives don't get enough credit, or front men are misunderstood sweethearts? Who knows? But Thor is willing to show rockers as lousy, distracted lovers who could use a little hellish pep in the attention they pay to their significant others. When the director asks for a crane shot, Thor the producer obliges.

That recording studio in Mississippi sat on a street in the middle of nowhere. At night, the woods felt close, and getting to the driveway was like traveling through a covered bridge, or something out of Faulkner before the Compsons cleared the land. The old house could easily have been haunted; it had the smell of a hunting cabin that is only opened from time to time and can never seem to get free of its past. But I remember it fondly, in spite of promises to myself that I never would.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To the White Cliffs

Thirst (2009)
directed by Chan-Wook Park
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot compared Chan-Wook Park to Sam Mendes, and that's appropriate. It would be difficult to say whose films I like less, but Thirst was complicated (or simplified, given the absurd plot) by tiny subtitles inside the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I want my subtitles legible, superimposed, and white as the driven snow, but when I couldn't understand what Ok-bin Kim said, I could at least watch her face and wish her a better movie somewhere down the line.

There's little worse than a director who's long on style but short on substance catching the religious bug and stretching an already interminable try on my patience into a catalogue of crucifixes, communions, and confessionals. John Carpenter's Vampires could have been another Leopard Man, but for that Vatican hocus pocus and more than a little late-career bitterness about box office failure as professional emasculation. Park is no Carpenter, and no one eats an octopus this time around.

Rather, Thirst is a kind of black comedy that's only funny in the last few minutes, when feuding vampire lovers argue about whether both of them deserve to die for the murders they've committed. Their lone sanctuary from the rising sun is either inside or beneath a tiny car that the man (a former priest) drove to the edge of a cliff for the express purpose of committing suicide. His paramour enjoys being a vampire more than she's enjoyed anything her entire life, and objects to the priest speaking for both of them.

So she tries to stay alive. She burrows in the dirt; he drives forward ten feet. She gets in the trunk; he rips it off and hurls it into the sea. The end plays out almost wordlessly, a brief respite at the conclusion of a long, noisy crawl.

Put another way, the less said, the better.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Metal Busters

The Gate (1987)
directed by Tibor Takács
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

What I like about The Gate isn't, I think, exactly intentional. I like the way it starts: a kid comes home and expects his parents and his sister to be there, but they're not. His world is instantly topsy-turvy, as it would be for someone that age, and the fear sets in.

Unfortunately, that scene is a dream. But The Gate is good at archetypal suburban horror geared towards an audience not much older than the protagonist's older sister (about 12). Instead of disappearing, the parents go out of town, and the sister left in charge invites her buddies over to drink and pick on the pesky younger sibling. He hides out with his friend - and later his sister, once the monsters show - and opens a gate to the Underworld they unwittingly discover while looking for geodes.

Because it was made in 1987, the scarier stuff isn't so scary today, although there is an intensity to the danger that the people the main character relies on fall prey to. But something about the way that decade aged has smoothed the rough edges into polished, stylish narratives. As in I, Madman, which I watched last year in 2007, Takács demonstrates enough competency not to deserve his relegation to episodes of Red Shoe Diaries a mere five years later. The kicker for me is the idea that records by heavy metal bands do the heavy lifting on background research for knowing your local demon rituals, and that playing the albums backwards shows you the best way to rid your house of its hellish inhabitants.

Place your trust in the new gods of metal.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Still Waters Run Deep

Jackass 3D (2010)
directed by Jeff Tremaine
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

With Jackass 3D, the Mouse Trap approach to the single take has been supplanted by slow motion photography shot by multiple cameras as the best use of a crowded room. Tremaine's opening credits and final act would be beautiful even without the technology that James Cameron re-introduced to the world; as it is, Mr. Avatar has been beat at his own stupid, stupid game. Why go to Pandora when you can bask in the sun outside of Los Angeles? And yes, there are many things happening every time a cast member takes a boxing glove to the face or hoof to the groin - socially, psychologically, and emotionally - but because the onscreen/real-life buddies who gather around the victim in sympathy can laugh it off and move to the next gag, I can too. Well worth the 3D surcharge because this is exactly how much fun going to the movies is supposed to be.

I Can Command the Sails but Not the Wind

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
directed by Albert Lewin
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Dreamlike, exotic, and deeply romantic, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman might also be one of the most deliberately paced movies I've seen. It runs at just two hours, and tells the story of a woman in a Mediterranean town in Spain who compels men to impossible sacrifices on her beautiful behalf. Bullfighters, race car drivers, and the fabled Dutchman of old ghost tales line up to walk the dock beside her, and although Ava Gardner had been in movies for ten years at this point, she hasn't looked this beautiful in any film that I can recall.

Part of it is Technicolor, I'm sure, which captures the twinkling lights of homes on the surrounding hills as well as the surf near the boat in the harbor with impossible delicacy. So many scenes are night scenes, and Gardner is very nearly an apparition, though the point is that someone so flesh and blood could only exist for a short and specific length of time. Had the movie been made a decade prior, it would be in black and white and run an hour and a half. But Lewin makes room for silence, as if each of his characters is caught in an ancient spell. He gives them lovely things to say, about love and lost hours, and counts off heartbeats to match Gardner's softest, most languorous delivery.

It is unlike nearly anything else I've watched, and though not quite a ghost story, it secures the position of open water, traveling winds, and a window from which to watch them as the three likeliest ingredients for a successful myth and sad story of regret. I can't believe that I once thought Technicolor did no service to real life - the images here are like standing in blue water and gazing at shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reflection of the Moonlight on a Loose Pane of Glass

Tormented (1960)
directed by Bert I. Gordon
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This low-budget delight is everything a ghost story should be: the low-end microcosm of a love affair gone bad to The Fog's moneyed sets and rich nautical history. Shot by Ernest Laszlo, Tormented can't match RKO for shadows sets, and apparently Bert Gordon never spent a dollar he didn't have to on actors or time. I'm reading a book about Val Lewton, and author Alexander Nemerov makes the case for a moment at the end of World War II when children began to deal more directly with death in films. Meet Me in St. Louis is perhaps the most famous example of this, and Nemerov writes - correctly, I think - that "Minnelli represents Halloween as the natural condition of a child's mind."

In Tormented, a child named Sandy is in love with her older sister's fiancée. He's a jazz pianist with a house by the sea, and the little girl - whose family is rich and lives nearby - comes to visit him when he practices. But before Tom can marry Meg, he has to break up with his old flame Vi, who visits the island where the movie takes place to tell Tom that she won't go quietly. She doesn't, but Sandy - the girl - is the only one willing to deal with Tom as he is.

There are few scenes in the movie without apparitions, voices from beyond, or the drift of coastal breezes through open windows. Tom breaks up with Vi in a lighthouse and runs into trouble with a local grifter who overhears the wrong piece of news at an open-air grill where Tom orders Pacific-side hamburgers. Between the guilt-stricken protagonist, a lost ring, and the Malibu and Catalina Island sets, you can almost conjure the sounds of the Casino Ballroom in the still of a Pennsylvania evening.

It's cheap to be sure, but it never relies on effects when a blind woman with a story to tell about a dead boy and his dog will set the scene better. It isn't a sense of humor you need to see past the surface (MST3K was wrong to lampoon this one), but lantern-light from Halloween. There aren't many movies I can imagine taking Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, and John Carpenter to see, but Tormented is one of them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Love is Old, Love is New

Easy A (2010)
directed by Will Gluck
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

Easy A felt like a Jean Arthur movie - and not just because I wanted it to - except that Jean Arthur was too old to play a high schooler, and went for the career girl angle instead. Emma Stone doesn’t exactly look like a teenager, but teenagers are expected to be more adult about sex these days. And that’s the point, more or less: that they’re not ready to talk about sex the way adults do. But they try, and they do it viciously, and a lot of kids get hurt.

I was afraid that Easy A would pull its punches, because Judd Apatow has made me gun shy about the lessons that romantic comedies are supposed to teach. But no. In the end, Woodchuck Todd tells Olive that he knows the rumors aren’t true, and since she isn’t really the town bicycle, he wants to date her. But there are women in the world who like to sleep around, and they should turn out okay, too. In the Ojai of Easy A, they do; Olive's mother slept with anyone and everyone back when, and grew up to be the accepting, kind, and warm-hearted woman we want adults to be.

Not that adults are reliable. Not that there wasn't a little Election in Lisa Kudrow's high-school counselor, or that Easy A isn't Mean Girls meets Saved!. But I like that none of the expected resolutions happen, not with Olive's best friend or Olive's tormentor, not between Olive and Mr. Griffith or Mr. Griffith and his wife. Easy A not only acknowledges gay teenagers, but puts the gay teenager who first approaches Olive for help in a sexual interracial gay relationship at the end of the film. They don't kiss, but Olive doesn't kiss anyone either.

The rest is Southern California country roads, more than a few dickish high school classmates, and an unwavering distrust of religious counsel. For all my ham-handedness in reviewing the thing, the cast and crew pass it off as a breezy lark. You can't always count on the people you want to, and counting on yourself isn't necessarily enough to get you through. You do your best.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Near the Peach Tree, There's a Highway

Zombieland (2009)
directed by Ruben Fleischer
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

To whatever degree I might appreciate a genre film that tips its hat to genre films of the past, there’s a cut-off point, after which I feel like I’m being courted instead of entertained. Zombies, unlike serial killers, don’t exist in real life, so rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse are more like trivia night at your local brew pub. It’s probably easy to read one of my reviews for an Eric Rohmer movie and think that I like nothing more than flattering myself, but that isn’t always true, and Zombieland, however innocuous in its ambitions and execution, ain’t my brand of rodeo.

For one thing, I don’t ever want to see Jesse Eisenberg’s Michael Cera impression again, and if I actually watch The Social Network and think for even one minute of Clark and Michael, I’m walking out of the theater. Whoever wrote the part of Tallahassee clearly had Woody Harrelson in mind from the beginning, but Harrelson is a gifted comedian and Tallahassee plays out like a bad caricature. That, and I’m tired of “as himself” cameos (in this case, Bill Murray) prefaced by a big build-up of the guest star’s accomplishments/belovedness/heroic aura. But maybe it was only too many computer effects when none were needed. Maybe there isn’t much left to say in the zombie department. Maybe I need to get back to the old black and white, since it’s raining today anyway.

Don't It Drag On

Mad Men - Season 4 (2010)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on a computer from iTunes

I admire shows that don't run their success into the ground, and I like that the start of the fourth season saw Don and Betty's divorce through. But the consequences of that decision haven't worked. Don might be the focus of Mad Men, but Betty was too good a character to lose.

In her absence, Don gets overwritten because he has more space to fill. Don "drunk" is more obvious now than in Season 1. Instead of picking up a birthday cake and parking the car beneath a bridge, he runs around the office with a Cleo award. Part of that is meant to illustrate how far Don has lost control, but it doesn't fit. Don sleeps with his secretary, then a competitor, then an anonymous woman, and finally a second secretary. What does the second secretary say that the first one didn't?

Sure, it's funny when Betty drives around the neighborhood like Michael Myers. And John Slattery can get a laugh with the inside jokes he tries as actor and director both. But Roger not knowing Megan's name feels clubbish, not cute, and the season, taken as a whole, felt like a half-season's worth of ideas stretched out to take up 13 episodes. They can't reset the firm forever, and there won't be another newcomer as good as Jared Harris has been.

On the other hand, "The Suitcase" was possibly my favorite episode of the entire series. I love Anna's ghost but I hate what they did to Betty. I miss the foil that her background - rich, with a loveless mother and doting father - made to Don. Don didn't have money and he doesn't understand the world that Roger Sterling lives in: isn't that the heart of everything this season tried to say?

Betty knows Dick and Don both, better than Faye Miller and maybe even Anna. She used to be every bit as important as Don to the show's creators, and I for one believe that January Jones is the reason that's so. Although Peggy picks up the slack admirably as the female we're meant to care the most about in Season 4, it's condescending to all of the women on the show that I was forced into a choice between one or the other.

Is the point of the finale the idea that Don Draper hasn't changed? If so, it's a cop-out. Pete is my favorite character now, but it's because of his comedic timing. Mad Men doesn't make the same points it used to about what it means to try and make a normal life in a difficult world. Like Don, it's rudderless, but Matthew Weiner, unlike his hero, can write the ending he wants. He needs to do it sooner rather than later; anything past season 5 is going to be too little, too late.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Woman in the Road

Nancy Drew (2007)
directed by Andrew Fleming
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

At some point, this project must have looked pretty good on paper. A teenager moves to a house in Los Angeles where an actress was murdered years ago. Among the clues the sleuth finds is a bathrobe monogrammed with crossed palm trees from a resort outside the city. A chase leads the girl through the wilderness of Griffith Park; she emerges near the observatory while the sun sits low in the sky.

Well, you know how it goes. But the city is never less than 6:00 pm beautiful, Emma Roberts acquits herself well of the line between old-fashioned and behind the times, and if Nancy Drew had made money at the box office, this might have been a great little series about the Los Angeles we all know and love. As it is, the mystery is simply too conventional and the subplot of Nancy finding her place at Hollywood High feels shoehorned in to take up time. Which it is. But at 99 minutes (including picture credits), it doesn't take much, which you can bet is more than I'll be saying for the director's cut of The Wolfman.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Far from the Madding Crowd

These Are the Damned (1963)
directed by Joseph Losey
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's nothing like a British studio known for low-budget horror movies deciding to give everyone a dose of what's really horrible about the world: the prospect of nuclear war. Honestly, I have no excuse for putting this preachy piece of pop nonsense in my queue, and I can't for the life of me remember why I did (unless it was to watch the pedophile-in-your-neighborhood propaganda Never Take Candy from a Stranger on side B). "The age of senseless violence has caught up with us at last," complains an old Brit in the old town of Weymouth, where black leather motorcycle gangs harass aging American tourists clearly cast to look like aging Cary Grants. But the senseless violence doesn't arrive nearly fast enough for that maudlin soundtrack, and horror studios shouldn't moralize anyway. It's a very specific product from a very specific time in a place that has no relevance to me, and the biggest joke is the idea that stretching out on your yacht will get you a tan along the coast of England.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Escape is the Only Answer That Makes Sense to Me

I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
directed by Chris Sivertson
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The opening credit sequence lets you know just what you showed up to see, but I have to admit, Sivertson does it with style. Too much, in fact, for the train wreck that follows, which I'd hoped since 2007 was secretly a gem. But no, it's a comedy of miscommunication and non sequitur edits, best exemplified by a two-minute segment that cuts from a murder autopsy to Lindsay flirting with the yard man to a scene out of Friday Night Lights. Nevermind the glow from rechargeable robotic appendages lighting up the room while newly paraplegic Aubrey/Dakota has sex, because that scene is saddest simply for my having sat through the movie that long.

The first question you ask is whether Aubrey is supposed to be in high school. She looks thirty, but she isn't, and she can't decide whether she wants to be a gifted piano player or a gifted writer. This is the kind of line that Aubrey likes to speak, except that she speaks it as her twin sister/alter ego Dakota (the one from the previews): "You know, maybe that's why ghosts are restless. Because there's nothing left of what they were except the pain."

But Aubrey goes without a choice, in the end, because she's kidnapped by a serial killer and tortured to a degree that Christopher Lee never would have stood for. Being the monster he is, the bad guy goes right for the fingers with dry ice and a plate of broken blue glass. The color blue plays a recurring, if not important role in I Know Who Killed Me, but it gives the killer's latex gloves a Blue Man Group vibe. Julia Ormond, meanwhile, delivers some incredible soliloquies on motherhood while holding a hairless cat; she's married to that actor you usually see as an Army corporal or German terrorist.

It isn't enjoyable, though, as hard as I might try to see it that way. Lilo, you never had to play a stripper. You could have been funny and sweet your whole career, and it would have been enough.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Your Light's Right, Your Night's Bright

Let Me In (2010)
directed by Matt Reeves
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

Ugh. It takes Matt Reeves half an hour to convince his cinematographer to focus the camera, and once he does I regretted it. Why did I bother to see a remake of a movie I love as much as Let the Right One In? Because I wanted to see a story about childhood set in Los Alamos, a city in a state that could look every bit as beautiful as The Spirit of the Beehive and still be sad and lonely. Reeves makes New Mexico look like Sweden, or anywhere with a parking lot, darkness, and snow. It's how you might begin to talk about his wrong calls.

Eli was better cast than Abby because Abby looks like a movie star. There's no question she's a girl, in spite of what she says. There's no question of the background of "The Father" this time around, although there should be. Owen, unlike Oskar, lives in an apartment complex full of vibrant twenty-somethings; drab exteriors aside, the sets have nothing in common except to be a fence for neighbors. And, oh, how Reeves wastes Cara Buono, going so far as to cut off her head, Peanuts-like; Don Draper taking advantage of that beauty is enough, but two men is more than I can bear.

So let me be serious for a moment. In the scene in the pool, Eli keeps the blood away from Oskar. But Owen comes up covered in gore, and without that necessary tenderness, Let Me In is simply a study in the good press you can get for a movie with child actors - protection against the bad reviews that Let Me In deserves.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Goodbye if You Call That Gone

The Whip and the Body (1963)
directed by Mario Bava
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Mario Bava came closer than almost anyone to directing classic Hollywood productions after the studio era was gone. He did it for pennies, and often behind a pseudonym, but those pools of primary colors sink clear to the cold October stars. His best films star Christopher Lee, a favorite actor of mine, introduced in The Whip and the Body as he spurs his horse along a darkening beach to assert his former position in a house - no, a castle - that hates him. But the real story is the woman he loves, a masochist named Navenka betrothed to someone dull as dirt. Lee's Kurt Menliff understands her secret, and indulges it. She curses him beneath the titular whip on an abandoned stretch of rocky coast and a cinematographer's dream of sunset on her back.

The elderly servants wish Kurt dead - pain is absent in their own definitions of love - and with so much collective animosity, King Death appears. But Kurt is devoted, even past death, and Lee's aristocratic face bears class resentment with a grin. So he returns, and this Technicolor romance for the ages is everything I want a ghost story to be. Lovely and macabre, sometimes sordid but never cheap, and spooky of a night at the end of an ordinary day. It's the Laura of Italian horror, only everyone's in love with a dead man.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Torture is Torture to Sit Through

Conspiracy of Torture (1969)
directed by Lucio Fulci
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Thematically, Conspiracy of Torture wouldn't usually qualify for my October slate: it's political in nature. But from a slightly different angle, this could easily be a movie about witches (which, from the perspective of the Catholic church, I suppose it is). The truth is, I received and watched this very worst of the Fulci movies I've seen because it's the poorly dubbed B-side on the same DVD as The Whip and the Body. So it doesn't really count, but I've missed at least a review or two this month, and I sat through it, so I'm going to. New York-born Adrienne Larussa looks just like a Guess model, and although Fulci's men are appropriately sweaty for a plot about incest, their convoluted, flashback-riddled narrative is best summed up as drearily melodramatic. There's something in the sleaziness of reactionary anti-Catholic cinema that always seems pretty accurate with regards to church hierarchies, but Halloween is too good a holiday for all that religious nonsense.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gone with the Morning Sun on My Back

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
directed by Pupi Avati
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When Argento "Americanized" the giallo genre, he - among other things - made women protagonists instead of victims. A less accomplished Italian director like Pupi Avati swings from torturing his pretty brunette love interest to abusing her with her on-screen lover's childish, misogynistic outbursts. But mother, as always, is the star of the show, and unless that scares or surprises you, The House with Laughing Windows, pretty as its setting is, is a silly, repetitive bore.

The motives of the hero, as opposed to those of the deranged painter he encounters, are never clear. Ditto his impulses and passions, or the absurd lengths the town goes to to keep him in its grasp. There was one moment I loved: an old tape recorder shorts and sets the light socket on fire, then cuts on in the darkness that follows to reveal the crawling, runny voice of a madman.

Otherwise, the movie relies on oddness and novelty more than fear. That Italian girl is beautiful, in spite of her fridge full of snails, but the protagonist never takes his pants off during sex. He's free and easy with the word "bitch," and maybe that's how Italian boys think it's done. They're wrong.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


My Bloody Valentine (1981)
directed by George Mihalka
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Director George Mihalka is from Hungary. Leave it to an Eastern European to anticipate the "heritage" trend in American men's fashion while pitting a Simpsons animator against the love child of Rufus Sewell and Robbie Robertson. Even more ridiculous than the vaguely Canadian casting are the killer's grievances: men were killed in a mining accident on Valentine's Day twenty years ago, and the lone survivor returns to slaughter twenty-somethings when the town holds a holiday dance. So he's opposed to parties? Or maybe he's someone, like Steve, who gets caught up in the "corporate aspect" of February 14th.

The failures of My Bloody Valentine seem so obvious because the premise could be so good. If I told you that I was writing a script about working-class kids who decide to throw a kegger at the place that employs them - namely, the local mine that's scary to us but not to the guys who clock in at the top every day - you'd think that Pennsylvania had finally gotten to me, but that otherwise it sounded like kind of a cool idea. Mihalka certainly appreciates the look of his overcast northern location, but the edits, timing, and sense of humor are all off.

Compare the way the original Hanniger mining disaster is told to Mr. Machen's fireside ghost story concerning the Elizabeth Dane. Mihalka shows instead of tells, but John Carpenter knows that a face and a voice like John Houseman's, soaked in the sea air of Spivey Point, is a look and a tale both. Less is always more, unless that 3D remake took my suggestions and ran with them, in which case, once again, I don't know what I'm talking about.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Cotton Candy Clouds

The Funhouse (1981)
directed by Tobe Hooper
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

At this point, isn't it safe to say that Tobe Hooper's run of horror films from 1974 to 1982 deserves to be compared to John Carpenter's partnership with Dean Cundey as one of the great genre accomplishments in movie history? Hooper's movies are more vicious than Carpenter's, but they share a formal elegance that I miss so much in horror today. The Funhouse begins with an homage to Halloween, unstable enough to set the tone with little more to go on than a brother, a sister, and a bedroom.

The traveling carnival to which both siblings are inevitably attracted isn't frightful right off. Hooper was born in Austin in 1943, and understands the glamor of any novelty from out of town. Dates mingle on a ferris wheel lit up as pretty as the kiss from Before Sunrise. The seediness of the enterprise, inevitable as it is, seeps in slowly. Characters encountered briefly in crowds wander back into scenes, and the camera takes notice. The younger brother gets lost, and his sister doesn't even know he's there. The last we see of the boy, his parents take him home in a catatonic state. What happened in the trailer with the kind man who found him?

Kevin Conway appears as three different barkers; instead of novelty, the repetition imparts an eerie sense of memory and anticipation mingling. The teenagers smoke pot, but is that what accounts for the strangeness of the things around them? Kids can accept more at face value before they really need to find the man behind the curtain, and it isn't until an hour into the movie that any of the teenagers is really in danger. By then it's too late, of course.

Hooper's biggest mistake is relying on a Rick Baker monstrosity for his principal antagonist, when Conway and the creaking chains around him are far more terrifying. Stay away from those Florida state fairs.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Pinball on the Fatal Shore

Road Games (1981)
directed by Richard Franklin
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If long-haul truck drivers are cowboys of the modern world, Stacy Keach takes Errol Flynn by way of Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West to tell his open sky tale. Road Games is a thriller, not a horror film, but it's beautiful and epic. The main benefit of all that country is enough loneliness to latch onto the stories of the drivers who pass Quid's eighteen-wheeler. With only a voice on the other end of the CB and a dingo in the cabin to keep him grounded, Quid gets by, but barely. I'm of a mind with the disposition of directors like Richard Franklin: heaven is a truck backlit by lightning on an open desert plain, with a pretty girl opposite the campfire and a killer out there, somewhere, in the dark. Duel might be suspenseful, but you can't beat a face like Keach's cracking jokes to pass the time. Why movies this good aren't better known is beyond me.


Thursday, October 07, 2010

As Long as They Can Think, We'll Have Our Problems

Night of the Creeps (1986)
directed by Fred Dekker
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Night of the Creeps is a story about a really great girl surrounded by assholes, although no one except for the aging, haunted cop played by Tom Atkins seems to see it that way. Casting Jill Whitlow as Cynthia more than makes up for the decidedly 1986 idea that the guy with muscular dystrophy (portrayed, of course, by the actor without it) can't do anything but play matchmaker for his "normal" friend. Fred Dekker tries too hard - to reference other horror films, to give Atkins a catch phrase, to mix comedy and suspense - and although a bus full of frat guy zombies is my kind of party, the movie is too self-conscious to mesh. Today, the eighties look like seventh heaven for horror films, but part of that, I think, is nostalgia for the last era before technology became central to every criminal investigation. Slither, in turn, is an homage to this, but like Slither, Night of the Creeps isn't the classic it wanted very much to be.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Headbanger's Ball

Hardware (1990)
directed by Richard Stanley
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Hardware is a time capsule from 1990 served on a platter to anyone who wants to be smug about it. It isn't until Dylan McDermott strips down for a shower with Stacey Travis that you realize one of his hands is "robotic," meaning you see a Power Glove caress those bare shoulders as the dirt from months in a post-apocalyptic desert washes from our hero's hair. There's even a midget from Willow to capitalize on Willow's already meager success.

But why is Elements of Crime canonized in the Criterion Collection while people like me dismiss Hardware for a glorified music video? The truth is, Richard Stanley does a lot with very little, and although Hardware is essentially one long drawn-out fight between a murderous cyborg and a red-headed artist in her heavily fortified apartment, effort saves the day. All those filters make it moody, the camera tricks come fast and furious, and close-ups of actresses' eyes do just as much justice to Stacey Travis as they do to one of Lynch's girls. I won't say it isn't stupid, but it's fun.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Occidental Accidental

Silent Scream (1980)
directed by Denny Harris
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

An enjoyable take on the Psycho family dynamic that - like Psycho - makes the house itself enough of a character to keep the crazy mom off-screen without compromising the weirdness factor. This particular Pacific-side mansion (filmed in Highland Park) utilizes at least three sets of stairs (the main stairwell, a hidden stairwell, and a rickety wooden walkway to the beach) to inspire fatigue in its co-ed boarders and a surprisingly confined sense of space in the audience at home. When already narrow passageways are blocked by tides, cobwebs, or bodies, claustrophobia sets in, and the rational mind that should head out the door finds no place to go but up or down.

The other thing I liked was the three and a half minutes of slow motion that opens Silent Scream. After Race with the Devil, it's the second creative use of a rarely well-utilized effect in as many weeks. In an extra, Ken and Jim Wheat - screenwriter brothers with matching beards, matching guts, and plenty of down-list sequels to their name - get to the bottom of their own efforts with the film: Rebecca Balding was happy to get naked "at the drop of a hat." That and five minutes worth of reminiscing about Vin Diesel in Pitch Black makes you wonder why one-time director Denny Harris wasn't available to defend a more or less admirable credit. Unless the DVD was released post-2007, in which case he was dead.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Natural Anxious

Cat People (1942)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

I've sold off most of the DVDs I used to own, except for those I like to watch on bad days. Aside from being more or less valueless on the open market, my Val Lewton set will be with me until I can't play DVDs anymore - either because I've been paralyzed in a freak football accident or the technology gets left behind. They encapsulate everything good about movies: the craftsmanship, the beauty, and the pleasure of sitting through them. The key to Cat People is simplicity. It takes place in a city, where one is not usually afraid of being mauled by panthers. But Tourneur is a master at twisting the familiar into something uncertain, just so. The empty spaces on a well-trod late-night walk are expanded, say, or a character realizes that the associates of her husband from work, while kind, could be anyone behind closed doors. That scene in the Serbian restaurant when Elizabeth Russell calls Simone Simon "sister" is as quiet as the snow that falls outside the window but as eerie as a sudden wind on a still October evening.

Friday, October 01, 2010

It's Time for Scary Movies Again

Race with the Devil (1975)
directed by Jack Starrett
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on TCM at Syl's

My dad and I recently conversed about Muhammad Ali in the wake of the Mad Men episode "The Suitcase." Growing up, he said, Ali's decision to go to jail instead of Vietnam was seen as a cowardly act by my grandfather. Obviously, a statement like that implies all sorts of things, but in my household, where we didn't talk about celebrities much at all, no celebrity was more reviled than "Hanoi" Jane Fonda. I'm not sure who I'll have to hate on behalf of my children, but thanks to my father, I was always ambivalent towards Henry's kids. Even Peter, who seemed interested in making the kinds of movies I like to watch (westerns with Warren Oates), stayed off my radar forever.

Wouldn't you know it, everyone met over bottles of Pearl in San Antonio and decided to make a great, scary Texas witchcraft movie. On paper, Race with the Devil looks like something Warren Oates did for money - aren't they all? - but in practice, the credits set the right tone early. It's hard to say if it's the script or the direction (by Refugio native Jack Starrett), but a very specific mood builds slowly from the casual day-to-day routine of Oates and Fonda. They know one another, they like each other, and it's time to take their wives and the new RV up to Aspen for a short vacation.

Race with the Devil is a car chase movie where the dirt bikes Peter and Warren bring along are never brought into play. Its occultists are everyday Texans, like The 7th Victim by way of Johnson City. If re-watching Kill Bill is too tacky a way to say goodbye to Sally Menke, imagine the night Quentin Tarantino screened a print of Race with the Devil with snakes on RVs in mind. Every time I think I know all I need to about home, I don't.