Sunday, October 15, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Freaks

"Gooble gobble, gooble gobble. We accept her, we accept her."

This is one of the greatest films of all time, in my opinion, and one that could never be made today. The stars of this film are not the traditional screen gods and goddesses, but actual deformed, "abnormal" human beings. There's a guy known as the Human Torso, who's missing his arms and legs; there's a half-man/half-woman; there are conjoined twins, and other assorted people who have been rejected from society because of their physical defects.

Freaks was banned for a number of years and signaled the end of Browning's career, but it is a true masterpiece, a horror show with true insight, and one of those films that everyone should see at some point in their lives.

The basic story goes like this... Madame Tetrallini runs a circus and has taken in several of these so-called freaks. There are also several "normal" people in the circus, including Cleo, a beautiful trapeze artist. All the men in the circus are infatuated with Cleo, including a little person named Hans, who is actually engaged to another little person, Frieda. Hans starts sending Cleo gifts, and she accepts them sweetly to his face, but mocks him in private. Cleo eventually gets wind of the fact that Hans has a rather large inheritance and decides that she's going to marry him. Cleo and the circus' Strong Man, who have something going on behind Hans's back, plan to poison Hans after the wedding so that Cleo can get the money. The "freaks" find out about this plan - albeit too late to save Hans - and exact their revenge on Cleo and the Strong Man.

This is a really piercing look at humanity and the way we treat people who are not like us. The film makes you completely comfortable with the freaks. You see them as the normal people that they really are, and it's as if the "normal" people are the real freaks.

I don't think this would be considered a horror movie at all, were it not for the scene where the freaks get their revenge. The thing about that scene, though, is that the audience shares their desire for revenge. Even though what they do to Cleo is deeply disturbing (you don't actually see them do it, but you see what she looks like after), you can't help feeling they are justified in their retribution.

Excellent, excellent, excellent film. It's a shame that Browning wasn't able to do much more after Freaks, but the film is - in and of itself - a worthy career legacy.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

31 Days of Horror - I Was a Teenage Werewolf

This film was featured as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it's actually not that bad. It's a rather famous B-movie, and "I Was a Teenage..." became a kind of catch-phrase (I Was a Teenage Hairdresser, I Was a Teenage Stunt Man, I Was a Teenage Teenager... you get the idea). It's a rather well-made film, despite the B-movie acting, a fairly absurd premise, and some entended sequences of general goofiness.

The plot centers around a - wait for it - teenager, named Tony (played by a younger Michael Landon than you probably remember). He gets into a lot of fights - and apparently has a bizarre penchant for milk-throwing - and is constantly in and out of trouble at school. He has a girlfriend (played by Yvonne Lime, who was dating Elvis at the time of filming) who sticks by him, despite his random bouts of rage. Tony's father is perhaps the most dejected dad ever seen on film. When Tony gets into trouble one time too many, he is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell, who I like much better in The Magnificent Seven). Dr. Brandon, a very experimental shrink indeed, injects Tony with a sedative and hypnotizes him into becoming a werewolf. It's a regression thing that I don't quite get. Anyway, wackiness ensues, and soon his classmates start dying.

I like this movie for the campiness and the way it takes Tony's wolfiness and misanthropy a little more seriously than it should. It's not particularly scary, except perhaps for a musical number performed by an elfen blonde guy, and that's really just scary because of his pants. :P

Friday, October 13, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Friday the 13th

Kevin Bacon claims his first movie was Diner, but there he is (two years eariler) in the white shirt, just waiting for an arrowhead through the neck.

Blood, bad acting, and boobies. That's this movie in a nutshell. I said yesterday that Psycho was the invention of the "slasher" flick, but Friday the 13th is the movie that made the slasher stereotype that so many of us know and love. There's something specific that comes to mind when I first think of slasher flicks, and this is the icon of that sub-genre.

Do I even need to bother with a plot recap? It's the mold on which every 1980s teen horror movie was cut. Okay, just briefly... A kid named Jason Voorhees, attending Camp Crystal Lake, drowns in the lake (body never found, of course) because the counselors aren't watching him. The next summer, two counselors are murdered and the camp is subsequently closed. Locals start calling CCL "Camp Blood." Despite efforts to thwart reopening, Camp Crystal Lake reopens and several counselors arrive to ready the place for campers. Only they never get around to it, because they all die one by one, hacked and slashed by a skulking creep in a hockey mask. Amid all the formula, though, is a pretty cool twist in the last act (which I don't have the heart to spoil for you, even if you never plan to see this one).

Jason Voorhees was one of the unholy trinity of splatter movie boogeymen - the other two being Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Jason was the first of these that I ever heard of as a kid, and I remember wondering what the heck people were talking about when we were at Girl Scout camp and people would tell me Jason was going to get me.

This film established several "obligatory"s for the next few years of horror. Obligatory gore - its predecessors, most notably Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, are essentially bloodless - courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Obligatory T & A. And, most significantly, the peanut butter and jelly of 1980s horror - the Obligatory Murder-as-Punishment-for-Teen-Sex. EVERYONE who has sex in this movie dies a horrible, bloody death. Someone once speculated that this was a response to the growing threat of AIDS (it was made a little too early for that, though, I think). It's become kind of a joke with horror movies - Scream, for instance, where "Don't have sex" is one of the cardinal rules of surviving a horror movie. Jason X (speaking of "obligatory"s, that's another one - Obligatory Sequels) even has a running gag where Jason has a kind of Spidey sense that tingles whenever someone somewhere is "doing it."

The Friday the 13th sequels are vastly inferior to the original, but the whole franchise is noteworthy for its impact on the horror genre. The original, however, is a genuinely scary film, even if it is a bit cheesy.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Psycho

Okay, first off, I don't generally think of this as a "horror" movie. In a strange way, I find it less like a horror movie than my previous Hitchcock selection, Rebecca. But it's undoubtedly - as I'm sure I don't need to tell you - one of the icons of screen scariness.

Norman: "You eat like a bird."
Marion: "And you'd know, of course."

What can I say about this movie that hasn't been said dozens of times? It set the bar in so many ways. This movie is where "slasher" flicks came from. Norman Bates was the first of several movie killers to be based (quite loosely) on real-life killer Ed Gein. Robert Bloch wrote the book Psycho just two years after the story broke, and Hitchcock's film came out the next year.

Hitchcock worked out a gimmick with theater owners that audience members were not allowed inside the theater if they arrived after the movie started. I cannot imagine what a movie audience in 1960 must have thought about this film. There are so many elements that just were not done in the movies of the time, as well as topics that were not heretofore explored.

One of the key things that makes Psycho such an interesting (and disturbing) scary movie is the fact that the character we think we're supposed to sympathize with is killed in the first half of the film. This throws the audience off-balance and leaves them with no one else to relate to but Norman Bates. In a way, we're on his side. For example, when he puts Marion's body in the car and pushes it into the bog, he stands there watching it sink and it stops for a moment, and I'm literally afraid that he's going to get caught. I think part of the reason he gets our sympathy is because he's played so well by Anthony Perkins. He's a very sympathetic character, in a lot of ways. I think my favorite scene in the film is when he fixes a sandwich for Marion and they have the conversation in the parlor. He's just so friendly and innocent, with his trusty umbrella and aw-shucks smile.

I'm no good at talking about all the technical stuff, but it's obvious even to me that the movie is a technical masterpiece. It looks so clean and bare-bones, which makes it feel more real, I think. This is such a great film - regardless of the genre. It's like the Citizen Kane of suspense movies.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Thing

Director John Carpenter made cinematic history four years before this film with Halloween. Carpenter's The Thing is roughly based on Howard Hawkes's The Thing From Another World, where researchers in a remote, icy region are attacked by an alien organism. This film has the added twist that the organism can replicate whatever it touches. This creates a great conflict between the characters, as no one knows who's a Thing and who isn't.

Oh, and another huge difference is that this film is swimming in fake blood and gore effects. It's very over the top, which to me makes it a lot less scary. But there are plenty of other genuine scares in the film to make it a very effective horror movie.

The Thing came out in 1982, and it should have been more of a hit at the time than it was. Sadly, it came out at the same time the world fell in love with E.T. - a much cuter and more lovable alien than The Thing. The Thing is an immensely fun movie, though, and is the kind of film that would play well at a party with friends and beer. And pizza, to go with all the blood and viscera.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Black Cat

Another great silver screen classic, this time with two legendary horror stars - Frankenstein and Dracula Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Satanism, torture, and necrophilia - oh my! And all in a movie made in 1941. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Verdegast, who is on his way to the place where he once served as a soldier. He shares a compartment with a honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan. While taking a bus to their hotel, the bus crashes during a winter storm, leaving Joan injured. Verdegast takes Peter and Joan to the nearby home of a former acquaintance (and, it turns out, mortal enemy), architect Hjalmar Poelzig.

This movie pushes all the classic "stranded in a strange house" and "dependent on a mysterious and creepy stranger" buttons in the plot with Peter and Joan. Meanwhile, Verdegast makes some horrific discoveries of his own, in terms of what happened to his wife and daughter. There is a tremendously creepy scene depicting a Satanic black mass, and there is a very subtle reference to necrophilia. The most famous scene in the film is when Vergegast finally gets the upper hand over Poelzig, chains him up, and (in shadow, of course - this was still the 1940s) starts to cut Poelzig's skin off.

The interaction between Lugosi and Karloff is really spectacular, and the film pushes the envelope of "sick and disturbing" pretty far for a movie of its time. It's still fairly tame, though, and like Rebecca, this is one you might be able to actually stomach if regular horror fare is not your cup of tea.

Monday, October 09, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Carrie

For everyone who was picked on in high school. :P (Actually, I'm surprised there wasn't a sharp decrease in school bullying after this movie - or the book, for that matter.) The only film to deal with feminine products in an adult manner, and the movie that brought us the delightfully hilarious term "dirty pillows."

I distinctly remember being in my fifth grade science class and hearing a classmate talk about this movie. All I remember her talking about was the beginning, and what happened to Carrie in the shower, how she didn't know what was going on, and how the other girls made fun of her. That meant something to me at the time, I suppose, because I was in the middle of learning about the "joys" of womanhood myself. And I also knew what it was like to be made fun of because physical developments that were out of my control.

I can't imagine that there's anyone reading this who is not familiar with at least the basics of this story, but here's how it goes. Carrie is a misfit, in more ways than one. Her mother is a religious fanatic who believes that sex - even after marriage - is a sin, and that "women's troubles" are a judgement from God on a woman's sins. This has led to Carrie being a very shy and ostensibly weak person, as well as not being as "womanly" as the other girls her age.

One of the first scenes in the film is the famous shower scene, where seventeen-year-old Carrie gets her period for the first time. Because of her upbringing, she has never been told about what this is or that this is normal, so she thinks she is dying. She screams for help, but the other girls only mock her, throwing maxi pads and tampons at her and chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" The gym teacher intervenes and sends Carrie home, after explaining to her what happened. The girls who taunted her are given detention and threatened with refusal of prom tickets if they try to ditch. Naturally, this does very little to show the girls that what they did to Carrie was wrong, and instead makes them hate Carrie even more.

There is one girl (Sue) who actually has learned her lesson. Sue feels genuinely sorry for her part in the mockery and tries to make amends by persuading her boyfriend Tommy, the prettiest boy in school, to take Carrie to the prom. The other girls, however, are only concerned with how Carrie has ruined their lives. At the top of the totem pole of hatred is Chris, who has other plans for Carrie's prom night. Chris, her boyfriend Billy, and a few others rig the vote for prom queen and king so that Carrie and Tommy will win. Chris and Billy place a bucket of pig's blood over the stage, so that when Tommy and Carrie get up to be crowned, Chris can pull a rope and dump the blood all over Carrie.

Little do the girls know that Carrie is not as helpless as she seems. She turns out to have telekinetic powers. As she puts it, if she concentrates hard enough she can move things just with her mind.

The real meat of the story, though, is Carrie's relationship with her mother. Every one of the scenes between these two are bone-chillingly scary. After the mother gets a call from the school, telling her that Carrie has been sent home after the shower incident, she berates Carrie mercilessly. She starts reciting pseudo-religious propaganda ("the first sin was intercourse", "Eve was weak", etc.) and making Carrie recite it with her. She apparently believes that if Carrie had not done something to deserve it, she would never have been punished with "the curse of the blood." She then drags Carrie into the prayer closet to repent under the watchful eye of the most frightening crucifix you've EVER seen.

This is the best kind of horror movie - one that isn't just scare after scare but has a real story and believable, sympathetic characters that you care about. The big slow-mo shot where Carrie and Tommy walk up to the stage and are crowned king and queen of the prom is just heartbreaking. She's so happy, and you know what's about to happen to her. And when she snaps and starts killing everyone left and right, part of you is cheering her on. Then you really cheer her on when she finally takes on her psychotic mother.

Carrie is one of the great horror masterpieces. And the last 20-30 seconds of the film is one of the most skillful chair-jumper scares of all time.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Audition

*SPOILERS below, but I don't think they'll ruin the overall effect of the movie.*

I'll see your Leatherface and raise you Girlfriend From Hell.

There are some great things that have been happening in Asian cinema over the past few years, particularly in the genre of horror. These films have truly pushed the boundaries of how far into hell filmmakers are willing to take their audiences. And the new frontier - perhaps the only one left - that many of these horror films explore is the concept of torture. The Torture Movement has heavily influenced films like the Saw series and Hostel. I'm not sure how I feel about this trend. On the one hand, it seems incredibly gratuitous and distasteful. On the other, when it's done artistically and done well - I know that sounds like some film critic BS, but there are times when it can be done well - it can be a very effective device.

I've only seen a few of the 70 projects for which Audition's director, Takashi Miike, has received a directing credit. So I don't really know if it's a trademark of his or not. However, I know that the three films I readily associate with him - including Audition - all feature torture as the paramount creep factor.

Audition centers around a widower who, with the help of a friend who works in the film industry, sets up a fake audition to find a new wife. Despite how strange that setup might sound, the guy is very normal and a quintessential "nice guy." One girl in particular catches his eye, and he takes her out to dinner. He tells her he'll call, and when he does, we see her sitting on the floor of her apartment, staring at the phone and having been staring at it for quite sometime before it rang. There is a burlap bag in the background, and while we're staring at this crazy chick staring at her phone, it suddenly, violently flips over. At this point, the DVD goes on pause while the viewer goes to change his/her underwear.

The relationship between the widower and the girl progresses, and the girl appears to be very fragile and damaged. But we see her again in her apartment and find out what is in the moving bag ... a man. A man who is missing all kinds of body parts (tongue, ear, fingers, and more). The girl proceeds to vomit into a bowl and feed it to the bag!man.

As if that weren't disturbing enough, we go from there into the climax of the film. The girl has the widower spread out on the ground. She's wearing a little white dress, black leather boots, black leather gloves, and a black leather apron. So, okay, we get the general idea of what she's about to do to him. Cue obligatory shot of the torture weapons. They're not typical torture weapons, though. The girl is very tiny and fragile and her torture instruments are very slim and delicate - syringes, acupuncture needles, wire, etc. But it's a brutal torture sequence, and the little-girl glee on her face as she's doing these unspeakably cruel things to the poor guy is - GAH!

This movie hasn't been around long, but it's already in the annals of scary classics, and for good reason. It will freak you the hell out.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Rebecca

Yes, this is a horror movie. This was Hitchcock's Best Picture winner of 1940, and incredibly creepy, especially for its time. And I think it's one that even horror un enthusiasts will enjoy - if they haven't seen it already, that is.

Based on the Daphne DuMaurier novel of the same name, Rebecca centers around a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the rich widower Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a paid companion for a woman who is vacationing in Monte Carlo. The young woman's employer, Mrs. Edyth Van Hopper, wants very much to rub elbows with DeWinter, and tells her companion a bit about him and the tragic death of his first wife. Maxim and the young woman cross paths a few times, and there is a clear attraction between them. Maxim asks her to marry him just before she is supposed to leave with Mrs. Van Hopper, and Mrs. Van Hopper makes it clear to her departing employee that she doesn't know what she's getting into and will never be able to be a great lady, suited for the job of being mistress of DeWinter's extravagant house, Manderlay.

Up to this point in the movie, it plays much like a romance, but soon after the wedding, things take a Hitchcockian turn. When Maxim and his new bride arrive at Manderlay, Mrs. DeWinter is duly intimidated by the place and the servants. But nothing intimidates her more than the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, played to chilling perfection by Judith Anderson. At first it seems as if Mrs. DeWinter's fears of the house and the staff are mostly in her head. For example, she breaks something in the house and - fearing that the servants will be upset with her - hides it and pretends not to know where it is when asked about it. She is caught, however, and Maxim chides her for being afraid of the people who are supposed to be working for her.

However ... there is a strange shadow hanging over Manderlay that is not of Mrs. DeWinter's making. Mrs. Danvers loses no time in acquainting her new employer with the former Mrs. DeWinter, Rebecca. How Rebecca did things, how beautiful she was, how she had things arranged in the house, etc. Danvers is frankly obsessed with Rebecca. No one else in the house is quite as preoccupied with remembering her as Danvers is, but it's clear that Rebecca's death has done nothing to remove her presence from Manderlay. To make Rebecca's presence even more commanding - and to make the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter even more of a nobody - we never even know the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's name. (In the book, she's the narrator and we're in her POV).

This is great, early Hitchcock - his version of the old-school silver screen classics. He would go on, of course, to invent the heart-stopping suspense thriller genre. But Rebecca is a wonderful example of an "Old Hollywood" film as seen through the eyes of an artist of fright.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

31 Days of Horror - A Nightmare on Elm Street

This movie came out when I was 9 years old, and all the kids my age were somehow getting to see it. I was, of course, too fraidy and too young and too, um, "minister's child" to see it, so I had to wait until we got cable to see what all the fuss was about. This was the first actual film made by New Line Pictures (which, incidentally, made the Oscar-winning trilogy of Lord of the Rings movies), and in some corners of the film industry New Line is still known as "the house that Freddy built."

Director Wes Craven had read about a group of young people in Cambodia who had had some really horrible nightmares and refused to go to sleep. When they finally did, out of sheer exhaustion, they woke up screaming and died of a heart attack. This was the inspiration for his story about the Elm Street kids, terrorized in their dreams by a badly-burned, red/green-sweater-wearing, knives-for-fingers boogeyman named Fred Krueger.

One of the cardinal rules of a successful horror movie - okay, I haven't exactly consulted with anyone on this, but it seems fairly obvious to me - is that you have to show an audience something they've never seen before. Something new. And Nightmare was definitely a new concept. Not just the threat of bad dreams, but bad dreams that could actually kill you. Because how do you keep from sleeping?

Freddy is also one of the better boogeymen, mainly because he stands out from most of the slasher murderers of his time. Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface are all silent (well, Leatherface grunts, but it's not exactly speech). Freddy's sarcastic one-liners make him an entertaining and (yeah, I'll say it) fun movie villain. He taps into the fact that, for most horror fans, the kills are a huge part of the entertainment, and by preceding the kill with a laugh, he's kind of telling us it's okay to get a sick kind of enjoyment out of horror movie deaths.

This is definitely a horror classic. I saw on the big screen for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The biggest audience reaction was a huge laugh when Nancy says "God, I look twenty years old." (Get that kid a walker and a can of Ensure!)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

31 Days of Horror - When a Stranger Calls

And the moral of this story is ... never have two phone lines in the house.

I'm sure that the "twist" of this movie is a surprise to almost no one - even people who haven't seen the film know the story as a kind of babysiting urban legend - but I'll try not to spoil it. A teenage girl (Carol Kane) is babysitting two kids. She is downstairs watching television or something while the kids are upstairs asleep. She gets several anonymous phone calls, first just heavy breathing, then the question "Have you checked the children?" The calls get increasingly creepy and the babysitter eventually calls the police, who say they'll trace the call. And ... that's all I'd better say about that.

This movie was originally supposed to be a sequel to Black Christmas, which I've written about here and which has a similar setup with characters getting threatening phone calls. Apparently, they hoped to make a sequel to BC out of what eventually became Halloween as well, but both Halloween and When a Stranger Calls became stand-alone films. There was a sequel to When a Stranger Calls in 1993, also featuring Carol Kane, and it's one of the rare sequels that's every bit as scary (perhaps more so) than the original.

This is a VERY suspenseful and quite scary movie, without being bloody. It reminds me a good bit of Wait Until Dark, actually - if you've seen that, it's that particular kind of scary. When a Stranger Calls kind of dies in the middle, but the opening and the finale are absolutely heart-stopping.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Blair Witch Project

This movie will probably be better remembered as a marketing phenomenon than a movie. That's unfortunate, because it really is a unique and interesting film, but the background of how it was made and the publicity that made it such a hit are half of what made The Blair Witch Project so effective.

[I was determined NOT to post that overused picture of Heather crying, with half her face out of frame. That pic is like HALF the results on Google images for "blair witch project." So, this is Josh.]

Three unknown actors - Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams - were paid (I think) $1000 each to work on this film for almost 2 weeks. They were each given a 35 page backstory of the invented mythology behind the "Blair Witch" legend, which they all thought was authentic until after they finished filming. They were given camera equipment and sent to the woods of Burkitsville, MD to pretend that they were film students researching the story of the witch. Every morning, they would awake to find their daily rations and a film canister that contained envelopes for each of them. The envelopes contained their respective "directions" (e.g., "Mike, you're starting to not trust Heather," etc.). At night, the real directors of the film would skulk around the edges of the campsite and "be" the Blair Witch - i.e., break sticks and make other mysterious creepy woodsy noises. After the actors had shot eight days worth of film, the directors then took that footage and cut it into an actual story.

However, not many people knew any of that before the movie was released. Producers of the film told people that this was actual footage. The three actors were listed on IMDB as "missing, presumed dead" on the movie's page and on their own pages. There were "documentaries" all over television promoting the idea that this was a true story. And it worked like a charm; people came out in droves.

This movie is the ultimate "less is more" film. It gets at the very basic fear of being lost and alone in the woods, where something's out there that wants to harm you. All it takes is an unexpected noise - the slightest hint that you are not alone - to scare you out of your bloomers. And when Heather's fellow filmmakers disappear, you can feel her fear. Especially when you can hear one of them in the distance screaming in apparent torture. And you don't even need to see what's happening, because there's nothing they could have shot that would be worse than what you're imagining.

I don't think this kind of film could be made again - at least, not for the same kind of response. People are much more skeptical of "true" stories, largely because of this movie. What made this movie brilliant was not just the film itself but the fact that audiences were scared before they even saw it. By making it sound like a real story, the filmmakers were able to exploit our fascination with real-life horror and the fact that it scares us in a way that can never be achieved by all the boogeymen and fake blood that Hollywood can throw at us.

Monday, October 02, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Wicker Man (1973)

Next up on my month-long tribute to all things creepy is the quintessential cult movie - a term which here means "movie about cults" - The Wicker Man. [*not-so-mild SPOILERS for film below*]

The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police officer, Sgt. Howie, who is summoned to a remote village in the British Isles to find out what has happened to a young girl who has gone missing. From the very beginning, there is something odd about the people on this island - how they talk to Sgt. Howie, their seeming reluctance to answer his questions, and (most tellingly) their inability to agree on whether or not the young girl even exists.

And when night falls, the very religious and conservative Sgt. Howie gets an even bigger culture shock. The culture of this village seems to revolve around sexuality and fertility. Howie is utterly shocked to see the locals engaging in very sexual rituals and even teaching the young schoolchildren about fertility rites (including what the "maypole" represents). But shock gives way to suspicion as he gets increasingly contradictory testimonies from people about the young girl whose disappearance he is investigating. Eventually, Howie meets Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the patriarch of the island, and becomes even more suspicious.

*Please don't read any further if you don't want to be thoroughly spoiled.*

One detail in particular catches Sgt. Howie's attention. The island has a festival every year, and at the center of each festival is a specially chosen young girl. Howie - along with the audience - comes to believe that the purpose of the girl is to be a sacrifice to the village's pagan gods, burnt alive to prevent their crops from failing. Sgt. Howie's search then becomes much more urgent, as he tries to find the girl before the festival takes place. What Howie doesn't know, however, is that the entire time he has been searching for the girl, she hasn't been missing at all. In truth, the sacrifice is Sgt. Howie himself, and the girl was simply a ploy to lure him there.

What follows this revelation is a quite unsettling ritual sequence. Seen out of context, the climactic scene in which Sgt. Howie is tied to a platform and raised up through the infrastructure of the burning "Wicker Man" is quite disturbing. He is shouting out a hymn written to the 23rd Psalm while the villagers are dancing and singing around the Wicker Man in celebration. I suppose people's view of this scene will be different, depending on what they bring to it. In the context of the entire closing sequence, I see Howie as dying a martyr's death - confident in the knowledge that he will soon be in heaven. Someone else, however, might see it as Howie crying out to God for help and not getting an answer.

This is a very interesting and quirky film - the kind that was meant to be made in the 1970s. If you're not really a horror fan but are in the mood for something kind of off the wall, this might be a movie for you. And I'd definitely recommend this as a substitute for the new remake with Nicholas Cage.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

31 Days of Horror - The Exorcist

In honor of October - the month that all the cable channels go apestuff running B-movie horror and lame sequels to the real horror classics - I'm going to do a post a day on some of my favorite horror movies. Actually, not all of them are what I technically categorize as horror, but they're all hella scary in their own unique ways.

And I'm going to start at the top. The cream of the crop. The film that, in my opinion, is the scariest movie I've ever seen. The Exorcist.

The Exorcist is obviously legendary. When it came out in 1973, there were all kinds of tales about people claiming to have gone insane from watching it. This, of course, increases the appeal for many viewers, who see the film as a "test." I first saw this film on late night cable, and let me say right now that if you've only ever seen it chopped up for basic cable, with commercials and edits for contents ... you haven't really seen it. This is not one of those fun scary movies. It's actually quite a serious film, despite a somewhat absurd premise. There's only one scene in the film where I've ever heard anyone laugh or feel comfortable laughing myself.

A quick recap of the plot... Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress shooting a film on location in Washington D.C. She is living in a townhouse with her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair). Reagan begins to act strangely, and the mother goes through several avenues to figure out what is wrong - first doctors, then a psychiatrist and a hypnotist. Eventually the team of doctors suggest that Chris request a rite of exorcism be performed by a Catholic priest. The idea is that Reagan has convinced herself that she has been possessed by a foreign spirit, and that the same power of suggestion that has led her to believe this can convince her that the exorcism ritual is actually curing her. Chris is extremely skeptical; she is not religious at all, and she seems to feel that the doctors are sort of giving up on her daughter. Until... something happens with Reagan that convinces her to consult a priest. I won't say what it is, but it's the most shocking thing I've ever seen in a film - and it has to be, in order for us to believe that this woman is so desperate that she literally believes that her daughter is possessed by the devil.

The story of the priest (Jason Miller) - who is not the eponymous Exorcist, but the local priest (and psychologist) who evaluates Reagan - runs parallel to Reagan's story. In a lot of ways, he is the real main character of the movie, and the film spends a lot of time on his character, his loss of faith, and his own (metaphorical) demons. Because of his fallabilities, his superiors decide that he should not be the one to perform the exorcism. They contact the only man they know of who has actually performed one - Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).

I don't really consider this a "horror" movie. It's more of an emotional drama that just happens to deal with the supernatural and just happens to be very scary. It's certainly not a gimmicky horror movie. For example, I can't think of a single cheap chair-jumper style scare in the entire movie. It's a story that's more about pressure, and the exorcism itself is one of the more intense half-hours you'll ever spend in front of a screen. There are some really shocking images, even more shocking dialogue, and Mercedes McCambridge (who does the voice of the demon) will make your blood freeze.

In addition to the shock factor, though, I think the movie also has a striking perspective of faith. Father Karras is a deeply flawed character who no longer knows if he believes in God. He doesn't even really believe that Reagan is actually possessed. Yet it is his faith and sacrifice that ends up saving Reagan.

This is a brutal, awful film. But it's also incredibly impressive. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), and Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair). And it won three Oscars - including Best Adapted Screenplay. It's still a shocker, even now, and I can't begin to fathom what a 1973 audience must have thought of it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


[from September 8, 2006]

Hollywoodland, to me, is about failures. It is so dark and bleak that at times it seems like something Charles Dickens would have written about Hollywood. There were moments when I wondered why I was still sitting there watching it.

However, the more I sit and think about it (and I can't help thinking about it), the more impressive it is to me. It reminds me a lot of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (and I'm wondering very much if the upcoming Black Dahlia - which is part of the same trilogy as Confidential - will have this same feel). It paints a raw picture of the real Hollywood. The cesspool that's seething beneath the glitzy façade. The truth that underneath all the expensive clothes, houses, and dental work, people in Hollywood are as ugly as the rest of us - perhaps uglier. I've always found Hollywood somewhat creepy that way.

The writing is ... nothing special. The directorial technique is likewise not that extraordinary. What really makes this film stand out are some really spectactular performances.

I'm going start with Ben Affleck, because I believe he's rather unfairly gotten a bad rap in the past few years. He's made some poor job choices, and people were more interested in his love life than his work for a while there. But hopefully, that part of his life and career is over now, because I've always found him to be an interesting and talented actor. You can tell from the movie's marketing that they were a bit nervous about advertising Affleck's presence in the film, but he really gets a chance to shine here, and does. He plays the late George Reeves (TV's original Superman, for you kiddies out there) with a great balance of charm and desperation, humor and despair. The last time his Reeves is seen alive in the film is just breathtakingly sad, and I'm sure every actor who has ever been out of work and felt unwanted

Diane Lane is getting a lot of Oscar talk, and deservedly so. Despite not being the main characters of the movie, she and Affleck are the real heart of it. Lane's role of MGM studio exec's wife Toni Mannix is almost cliché. She's married to a philandering studio bigwig who encourages her to find love outside their marriage. She meets the much younger Reeves at a party and soon begins "keeping" him. So, it's basically your garden variety older-woman-loves-younger-man story, with the predictable outcome for the foolish and unfortunate female. But Lane makes this ordinary role something very special, and her last scene with Bob Hoskins is a thing of beauty.

I started by saying that this is a movie about failures. George Reeves and Toni Mannix are both failures in their own ways, but Adrien Brody's Louis Simo is the real personification of this idea. At first it seems obvious and rather cheap to say he's a failure - he's an investigator who works out of a seedy motel room and takes incriminating pictures for ducats a day. His former partner throws him the Reeves case, which has been closed by the police, but which also has lots of holes in it. His exploration of the case and the surprising effects it has on his personal life are the meat of the story. A small side plot involves the children who are Superman fans and who are so devastated and depressed by Reeves' death. One of these children is Louis' son, and every scene between this boy and his father is *about* Reeves' death, and the realization that there are no heroes. That no one has superpowers. That everyone fails. And Brody's exploration of that theme in his character is the backbone of the story.

The more I think about this movie the more I like it. It's quite dark and probably not for everyone, but I think it's an outstanding movie in it's own dismal way.

The Wicker Man (2006)

[from September 2, 2006]

If you want to see The Wicker Man, I'd highly recommend seeing the original 1973 version with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward instead (warning: lots of obligatory 1970s nekkidness). This new version is an interesting exercise in subverting the premise of the original. I loved the idea of making Summersisle a more matriarchal society, and the metaphor of the bees is particularly cool. However, some of the scenes made me think the movie needed a beta reader. Even worse is the very "glued on" romance angle - Nicolas Cage and Kate Beahan couldn't have less chemistry if they tried, and they just seem like two dolls that the filmmakers are playing with and saying "Okay, you love her, you love him, now kiss."

But the climax - OMG so bad. Maybe part of it is that it's so close to the original (except for an added twist that I sort of liked) and I was expecting most of what happened. The original does such a great job of building the tension and delivering a payoff that just guts you. This version, while doing a pretty good job of building the tension, throws it all out the window with a highly ridiculous conclusion. It's not the Big Reveal itself that's a failure - it's the way the movie presents it. The emotions are wrong, and there's some really weird voice-over stuff. People in the audience were actually laughing.

So yeah, if you're interested in The Wicker Man, check out the 1973 version.

The Illusionist

[from September 2, 2006]

This movie was quite enjoyable, despite not meeting my expectations. I won't go into any details because it's a highly spoilable movie, and even knowing nothing about it going into it, I was totally unsurprised by most of what happened. The setting and costumes are gorgeous - it's a great-looking movie - and the illusions are very impressive and entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised by Jessica Biel, whose acting talents I had not been hitherto impressed with, and the romance was unexpectedly pleasing. The Viennese accents were spotty, but not too distracting, and if loving Rufus Sewell as the baddie is wrong then I don't want to be right. :P I'd recommend it, if you're looking for an interesting diversion and don't mind being a few steps ahead of the movie's "secret."

Little Miss Sunshine

[from August 19, 2006]

I didn't really like this one at first. The first 20-30 minutes plays like dozens of Quirky Indie Films that I've seen and am getting kind of bored with. The whole setup just seemed so contrivedly "offbeat" and I found myself rolling my eyes at some of it.

But this is definitely one that grows on you. The real magic of the film naturally comes from Little Miss Sunshine herself, Olive (played with an adorable lack of "little girl" guile by Abigail Breslin). At the beginning of the film, we learn that she was the runner-up in her local Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but that the winner (for some reason I can't recall) was unable to continue her reign. That means that Olive is the winner and has the chance to go to the national Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. After a good deal of arguing, it is decided that the whole family will go with her. What follows is a hilarious ... you know, I hate to call it a "road trip" story, because that sounds so generic and sells it short.

The characters are fairly predictably quirky, but their respective storylines and relationships are truly interesting. And after the first 20-30 minutes, when the movie gets all of the "Look! I'm an indie film!" out of its system, it is hysterically funny. And it gets more and more funny as it goes along, until an absolutely absurd climax. I will never hear "Super Freak" the same way again. :)

And, as usual, Steve Carell is love.

Gratuitous "Snakes on a Plane" Post

[from August 18, 2006]

This movie is awesome for what it is. It is, without a doubt, a B-movie. Perhaps C. It's bad, but it knows it's bad. Revels in it, even.

If you are the kind of person who is intrigued/amused by the title Snakes On a Plane, you will probably enjoy this. This is the kind of movie where the filmmakers know their audience and are not afraid for their audience to be a step or three ahead of them. We know what's going to happen when the horny couple goes to get it on in the bathroom. We know, as the film gets closer to the end, that there's going to be one last showdown with the snakes. And we're waiting the whole movie for Sam Jackson to say "mutha****in' snakes on this mutha****in' plane." And that's fine, because it's fun in spite of being predictable. You can see the Audience Response buttons being pushed and Obligatory Movie Elements being checked off a list somewhere, but it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that it's a good time.

I *do* think it's a rather effective horror movie, though. It seems to follow all of the cardinal rules of horror, even down to the anti-sex message. If you're going to check this out this weekend, I wish you a good audience to see it with - one that gets the "so bad it's good" vibe - because that's pretty key to the enjoyment factor. I guess it could also be entertaining to watch people leave in disgust, though. :P

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[from July 16, 2006]

I love storytelling. I love that it can be done in lots of mediums, but one of my favorite mediums (other than cinema, obviously) is oral tradition storytelling. The National Storytelling Convention happens every year in Jonesborough, TN, and my family tries to go regularly (though not successfully for a few years). I love listening to these professional storytellers spin their yarns and hold audiences for hours at a time.

Ted Elliott said the following about he and Terry Rossio writing the first movie: "We wanted to have moments where people told stories ... about their lives, about their backgrounds, about other characters..." Something I dearly love about these movies is that they remind me of stories that might have passed down through oral tradition. I can totally picture someone (whether 300 years ago or today) telling these pirate stories. I can picture people sitting around a campfire listening to the story of Captain Jack and how he got his ship back after a mutiny, with the help of a plucky blacksmith and the feisty object of his amour. The details of the story probably change depending on who's telling the tale. If there ever was any truth to the story, it has been exaggerated again and again, often to the point of the ridiculous. And there are probably tangents that don't really further the story, but are fun nonetheless. That's very much how I see the first movie, and I think Dead Man's Chest continues most admirably in that tradition.

I can barely express how much I love this movie. It's actually quite different from the first movie (despite the occasionally ponderous references to it). It's a good bit darker, it goes a good bit deeper into the plot and characterization, and the humor largely comes from the action this time instead of witty dialogue. The Ain't It Cool News boys have branded this as the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Pirates franchise, and I agree in terms of tone. But in terms of its role in the story as a whole, this comparison to the LOTR world is even more apt, because it's not just continuing the story and setting up a cliffhanger. It's taking a smaller story and creating a mythology for it.

So where do I start? I suppose the beginning of the film is the best place. The ruined wedding. The torrential rain that seems to permeate the entire film, both literally and figuratively. This opening, like the first scene of Black Pearl, sets the tone for the rest of the film (Also, like the first film, it all begins with Elizabeth - I'm wondering if that means something in the scope of the films, but I digress). This is going to be less pirate lore and adventure on the high seas (though still quite a bit of that), and more emotion, character development, and obstacles for ... well, everyone.

Will Turner - Harry Knowles calls him "the Ronald Reagan character," and I can totally see that. He's the nice, good guy who's usually kind of boring, but usually gets the girl. Of course Orlando Bloom is nice to look at, so it wouldn't really matter if he was boring. I saw him as a bit dull in the first movie myself, but I think that was just how his part was written. Straightforwardly good people just come across that way, no matter who is playing them. This time around, though, the part gets juicier and Bloom really sinks his teeth into it. His best stuff is in the scenes with Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). He's especially strong in the dice-rolling scene. The whipping scene is just brutal (I felt kind of guilty drooling over wet, shirtless Will there :P). And the last few scenes, where he reacts to Elizabeth apparently (I'll get to that in a bit) falling for another man, are GOLD.

Elizabeth Swann - I really loved how Keira Knightley played her in the first movie. She could very easily have been a generic pretty face, but there's a lot more depth (and quite a dark side) to her than that. Ted and Terry obviously had a great deal of fun writing Elizabeth this time. I love what an absolute mess she is. That whole pouting scene on the island ("Oh! Oh! The heat!" *pretends to faint*) is just all kinds of awesome. From a very young age, she's been fascinated with pirates, and now she's pretty much become one. I feel sure that her character arc in At World's End will at least partly involve the psychic consequences of essentially killing Jack. And then there's-- no, I'm not ready for the shipping yet. :P

Pintel and Ragetti - the unsexy pirates, and a large source of non-Sparrow comic relief ("I could be in the circus!"). I'm glad we got to see what became of them (though I'm sad not to have seen their Royal Navy counterparts, Murtogg and Mullroy, in this one). They're the leftovers from Barbossa's crew, left to fend for themselves and make it as best they can. They strike me as the Peter Pettigrews of piracy, who don't care much what side they're on, as long as they're on the right end of a blade. I loved the little scene during the three-way sword fight when they explain each of the guy's motives for wanting the chest, and one of my favorite parts of the whole movie is when the two of them and Elizabeth are trying to fight Davy Jones' crew with two swords between them ("Sword!" "Sword!")

Gibbs - one of my favorite characters of the first film that didn't get as much of a character arc this time. But he's fun nonetheless, and out of the whole cast, he's the one who sounds most like a pirate. Well, he and Barbossa. :)

Norrington - Oh my. I loved him in the first one, but man oh man did he turn into a badass hottie! So much love. I was so worried when I heard about one of the scenes he was in that he was just going to be in one or two scenes, all miserable and emo because Elizabeth left him. But I couldn't be happier with the role he was given in this story. I *LOVE* that he was the one who absconded with the heart to buy back his life.

Barbossa - There is but one word for his appearance in this film, and that is, of course, "ZOMG!"

Cutler Beckett - I love Tom Hollander. I like him more as a sympathetic character, such as he played in Gosford Park, but he does make a great baddie. He doesn't try to make it over-the-top; he just plays it as bland, bureaucratic, and very real Evil. That takes talent.

Davy Jones - the other kind of evil, naturally. :P I love what the CG guys did with him, and Bill Nighy is just superb. I love his weird brogue, and the way he emphasizes the ends of words ("Ninety-nine sow-uhlzzzz-AH"). He's got a kind of Sean Connery lip waggle going that I loved. And the scene where he's playing the organ is just the coolest.

Tia Dalma - I have to say that she was possibly my favorite part of the whole movie. I sort of cringed at the little clip I saw in the trailer, thinking this was going to be a cartoonish "islander" stereotype. But this woman is amazing. Her look is perfect, her voice is perfect, and she loves her some pirate booty, nudge nudge, wink wink. :P I can't wait to see what part she has to play in bringing Jack back "and him precious Pearl." And speaking of Jack...

Jack Sparrow - I'm always concerned when actors come back after a little break to a character that is as well-loved as Jack. So few actors have the ability to be consistent in later films. They either lose the charm of the original character or they're trying too hard and step into the realm of self-parody. But I feel like Depp just picked right back up where he left off with Jack. And luckily the writers gave him lots more to dig into instead of relying purely on the audience's love for the character to carry the movie. Here we see a little bit more of Sparrow's bad side - his cowardice and selfishness most of all. This film was clearly the slough in his character arc, and he'll come out in At World's End with some heroic gesture to finish things off. I mean, just look at that last scene he's in. I wanted to jump up and down and yell "JOSEPH CAMPBELL! BELLY OF THE BEAST, YO!"

Yeah, it's kind of convoluted. There's a lot of stuff going on and it will probably take several viewings (shucky-darn!) to get it all. But I don't think it's too tortuous. There are a lot of characters with a lot of different motives. And don't even get me started on the complaints that it's too long. I don't mean the comments that the first section drags - those opinions are more than valid, even if I don't feel the same way. I mean the very idea that anything longer than 2 hours is "too long." Dude, most people pay as much as $10-15 per ticket, and critics complain that they're being given too much???

Technical Stuff
If this movie doesn't win a Visual Effects Oscar, I'm going to be upset. The first movie had to compete with Return of the King, but there's no reason it can't win something this time. The animation of Davy Jones alone is worth some Oscar gold. My favorite effect is the guy who's grown into the side of the Flying Dutchman.

The Action
Yeah, it's fairly absurd most of the time. The bone cage, the shish-kabob, the shell-head pirate, the mill wheel, etc. To me, this goes back to these movies' resemblance to the oral tradition tales. I just imagine someone telling this story and what, in a real story, might have been someone falling off a mill wheel in the middle of a sword fight becomes an elaborate 12-minute farce that's packed with physical impossiblities. Much like Gibbs and the story of how Jack got off the island via sea turtles.

Also, I can't help remembering while watching that this whole story is based on a theme park ride. A ride that the writers each rode 100 or so times. Ted & Terry seem to treat these movies as a ride, in a way, pulling the audience wherever they want them to go. I think that's a big thing that makes the movies so fun and what bothers the people who don't like them.

The Shipping
Okay, here we go. Let me start by saying that I'm positive that Will and Elizabeth will get their happily ever after. What happened in Dead Man's Chest was an obstacle to their eventual reunion - one that will begin a stronger relationship between them. Having said that, however, this is the only love triangle I can think of that I've ever actually enjoyed. I *love* the Jack/Elizabeth sideline, and I think it makes all three of their characters a lot more interesting in relation to each other.

So ... here's how I see it. Will loves Elizabeth. No, scratch that. Will loves the idea of Elizabeth. He's put her up on a pedestal, in a lot of ways, and she doesn't really belong there. Well, no woman does, really, but ... who Elizabeth really is, what we learn of what she's really like deep down, doesn't match the ideal of her that Will spent much of his life building. Sometimes, in a situation like this, the seedier parts of someone's character come out of their own accord. But in Elizabeth's case, and the more to cause pain for Will, this side of her character is largely drawn out by another man.

Jack Sparrow does not love Elizabeth. He is certainly drawn to her in a basic heterosexual sense. There's a strong tendency, especially in women (or maybe it's just me :P), to feel sympathy for this kind of character, in romance terms. I mean, why does the girl have to end up with the "Ronald Reagan" character? Doesn't Jack deserve some lovin'? The answer is that deserving love is beside the point. Elliott and Rossio, like many writers and filmmakers, have been inspired by the Sergio Leone model, and Jack (as well as Barbossa) are in the "god" role. Gods don't have the same kinds of stories as the mortals who surround them. They don't fall in love, and they don't get the girl. They just don't need to.

Elizabeth loves Will. No doubt about it. She has feelings for him that she'll never have for Jack. But I think she also has feelings for Jack that she'll never have for Will. I agree with those who have said that being robbed of her wedding night has a bit to do with it. She's horny and Jack represents the freedom she wants. It's not surprising that this translates into some chemistry. Not to mention a kiss that's as hot as a supernova. And no, I don't think Elizabeth kissed Jack just to distract him so that she could shackle him to the ship. There's a distinct moment after they break apart where she leans in to kiss him again but stops herself.

Is that kiss a threat to Will's and Elizabeth's relationship? Sure it is. That's why it's there, to provide an obstacle. I think the next movie will explore the distrust that kiss created, and Elizabeth may have to "win" Will back, as it were.

HOWEVER... if this weren't Disney and Jack weren't the Leone "god" character, I would SO be predicting a menage a trois between these three characters. I mean, they're PIRATES. Hang the social mores!

The Bottom Line
I really, really love this movie. I think this may rank even higher than the first movie. Yeah, I've got a couple of complaints, but they're WAY overshadowed by all the stuff there is to love. I can just feel the geekish glee emanating from the screen as I watch it. And what I probably love *best* about it is that it started as a theme park ride ... then it was made into a hugely successful film whose star was nominated for an Oscar ... and now with the second film it has become a full-fledged hero myth. This is very much the kind of story that could have been passed down by oral tradition, much like the songs in the Tolkienverse that told of the epic adventures of hobbits in Middle Earth. And what I find the most satisfying is that my affection for these movies is shared by many of the same people who share my affection for LOTR and HP - and that now our Pirateverse is becoming so rich in the mythology and worldbuilding (and theorizing!) that we love so much about those other works.

The Devil Wears Prada

[from July 1, 2006]

Except for about 15 minutes in the middle, I quite enjoyed this film. Fluffy, without being sentimental, and lots of GREAT fashion eye candy. And I *loved* that not one female in the movie had a "get the guy" subplot. I can't tell you how refreshing it was to see a story dominated by women that wasn't even a little steeped in shipping. Yeah, the women in the movie had men in their lives, but they were in the background.

The centerpiece of the film, of course, is Meryl Streep - or, as I refer to her, The Greatest Actress Ever. It was once said that what she does is more channeling than acting, and this is one of the best roles she's had to play with in a while. The power her character has over her magazine and in the fashion industry itself is established before she even appears on screen. And she's able to convey a lot of different emotions without removing the mask of that power. Her character, Miranda, would never have gotten as far as she has (as a woman, I mean) if she hadn't learned to control and disguise her emotions, i.e., play it like a man. That really comes through here, and it's a testament to Streep's acting ability that despite not being able to give over to her emotions she still manages to convey what she's feeling.

The rest of the cast is remarkable as well. I quite like Anne Hathaway, and I don't want to gloss over her performance, because it takes a great deal of ability and presence to share a screen with Streep as much as she does. But my favorite performances were Emily Blunt as Emily and especialy Stanley Tucci as Nigel. I'd never seen Blunt before, but she was SO great as the bitchy fasionista-wannabe. She was such a great foil for Anne Hathaway. But Stanley Tucci was by far my favorite, almost edging out Ms. Streep herself. His mentor-ish relationship with Hathaway's Andy is fascinating, and he has some of the best lines. (Referring to women's sizes, he says "2 is the new 4, 0 is the new 2, and 6 is the new 14.") A lesser actor in a lesser film would have played this as a stereotypical, swishing, lisping gay man. Now, I do think his character was probably supposed to be gay, but Tucci plays it very subtly because that's not Nigel's defining characteristic.

However, as much as I loved most of this movie, there was about 15 minutes that took me out of the film almost completely. I won't spoil it for anyone, but it involves Harry Potter, and it's the kind of thing that drove me - as an obsessive HP fan - crazy.

Despite that weird little detour, though, I found the rest of the movie very enjoyable. It's not deep or anything, but it's a fun movie - for women, at least. :P And Anne Hathaway makes a great, flawed heroine.

Superman Returns

[from June 28, 2006]

Even though I'm not the biggest fan of Superman in general, I simply had to go to the 10:00 screening last night and see this with my nerds.

I have my issues with Superman as a hero and as a franchise. To own the truth, I find Superman kind of boring and goody-goody. His big weakness is something he should only be faced with in a bizarre situation that seems to come up more often than it really should. And how the hell can people NOT TELL that Clark Kent is Superman?!?!?! Spiderman and Batman have masks to hide their faces, but Superman is able to bamboozle people with a pair of glasses? Are you kidding me?!

I have issues with this movie as well. I understand that some time had to have passed, but it's rather laughable that no one seems to notice that Clark Kent and Superman disappeared at the same time and then reappeared at the same time five years later. The ridiculousness of this is further amplified by a little scene where Lois Lane and her not-quite-husband think "Could Clark and Superman be the same person?" for a second before laughing it off. But hey, if it only takes a pair of glasses to pull the wool over people's eyes, I suppose their sense of logic wouldn't be sophisticated enough to make a connection between Kent's return and Superman's return.

Having said all of that, though, I couldn't NOT love this movie. It completely won me over, despite my issues with the franchise and even with this specific story.

It started with the opening credits. Well, no. It actually started with the Warner Bros. logo and the little musical theme that accompanied it. Music which ended with a faint whisper of John Williams' Superman theme. After a few more logos from a few more studios (dude, it really takes a village - several villages, in fact - to build a movie) the opening credits begin. Nothing too fancy, and not a part of the film itself, thank goodness (One of my cinema pet peeves is when a movie's credits play over the first part of the movie itself. I mean, does that part of the movie not matter as much? If so, why is it in the movie? What do you want me to look at, the names or your movie? [/rant]). But the best part of the credits is that the movie uses Williams' original Superman theme. That majestic, perfect superhero theme. A theme that brings us right back to the Donner movies, and which permeates the entire film, despite John Ottman's still-impressive score.

Because this isn't a reinvention of the franchise, like Batman Begins. This film wants you to remember the Donner movies. It wants you to remember Christopher Reeve (which is, I suppose, part of the reason Brandon Routh was cast - he looks alarmingly like Reeve). The director, Bryan Singer (yes, this is the same guy who's the executive producer of House, M.D.) even uses archival footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El from the first movie.

And I think that's ultimately what makes the movie work. I think a lot of people, if not most, find Spiderman a more satisfying, relatable, "better" superhero. In fact, it amused me to note that the teaser trailer for Spiderman 3 which preceded this film got more cheers and applause than anything in Superman. But Superman is the superhero. He's the first one people generally think of when they think of superheroes. He's almost generic. So you can't really mess with that and reinvent it. Get different actors to play the parts, sure, but the essence is the same.

Consistency is Superman's strength, I think - in a meta sense, that is. People need to believe in something greater than themselves, because the world is often too much for we mere mortals to handle, so there'd better be someone somewhere who can handle it. Superman has a fascinating mythology, and he is - more so than any other superhero, in my observation - the most like an anthropomorphic god. Because he is like a man, but is clearly much more than a man. And you can't really mess with that.

There are more interesting superheroes out there, to be sure (and Spidey is probably my favorite), but Superman Returns reminds us of why we love Superman.

The Break-Up

[from June 12, 2003]

I don't care what the critics say, The Break-Up is a unique and outstanding "romantic" comedy. I used the quotation marks because this is so far-removed from your average rom-com that it doesn't really belong in that category. I've read a few good reviews of this, mostly on AICN, but the stuffier crowd (even Roger Ebert, who isn't stuffy but who shares the stuffy opinion) is pretty universally panning it. But I think the people who dislike it, for the most part, are missing the point.

The Break-Up

Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) meet at a baseball game where he sort of bullies her into having a hot dog and then proceeds to corner her on the way out of the stadium to convince her that her date is a loser. Sounds like a jerk, right? Well, no he isn't. He's an aggressive suitor, to be sure, but his ultimate goal is to make her smile, and it works. You get the feeling that if it were any other man doing that to any other woman, he'd get slapped in the face. And if you're paying attention, you can see what's really happening here. Brooke is watching a baseball game she couldn't be less interested in. She has come - as non-sports-loving women occasionally do - to a sporting event in order to spend time with her guy. The problem is that she's not that interested in the guy either. She keeps sneaking sidelong glances at Gary, even before he makes the scene with the hot dog.

Mr. Ebert doesn't like this opening, but I think it perfectly sets up what Brooke likes about Gary and why they're suited to one another. I totally bought it, and I'm sorry for those that didn't. We get a few more quick glances at the Relationship, through candid photos that run through the credits (that's probably my only complaint about the film - I can't stand once the movie has started telling me the story). In these photos, they're happy and decidedly in love. But once the credits are over, it's time to get to what the movie is really about.

The relationship falls apart bit by bit, and the break-up is complicated by the fact that the two of them are co-owners of a condo. Their real estate becomes an interesting symbol of their life together that both of them are loathe to let go of. But there are clearly problems, and you think you know what they are at first. However, this movie is smart in that it doesn't go where you think it's going. Gary and Brooke make some spectacular and classic mistakes, usually preferring to play games and drop hints rather than actually talk about their problems. And they ask the absolutely wrong people for advice, which makes matters worse.

I don't want to spoil any more of it, but it does end very unconventionally, which may disappoint some people. But I think the ending is perfect - somewhat ambiguous, but I think your interpretation of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.

I have to say a word about the writing, because I think the dialogue was atypically (for the genre) great. Lots of rom-com dialogue makes me cringe (or maybe that's the formulaic plot that does it to me). The fights are exquisite. Real, nasty, and over the stupid crap that most couples fight about. And it feels so unwritten. Like the script simply said:

Gary and Brooke FIGHT for 3-4 minutes.

It just seems like the director pointed the camera at Vince and Jennifer and said "Okay, go for it." It's just so well done, and the writers don't give two flips about the Formula. It's almost as if they took a traditional romantic comedy and turned it inside out and stomped on it.

Speaking of Vince and Jennifer, they have an interesting kind of chemistry. I usually don't care for real-life couples playing on-screen couples, because - bizarrely - much of the time their off-screen chemistry doesn't read into the film. I'm not sure how Aniston and Vaughn would play as a traditional rom-com couple, but they were quite good with this particular material. The fighting dynamic was great in itself, but the few tender moments they have feel very real and are surprisingly moving. (Yes, I cried a bit - why do you ask?)

If you're thinking of seeing this but have been scared off by the negative reviews, give it a shot and leave all your preconceptions at the door. Personally, I just really loved this movie and I'm glad that there are people who want to make "romantic" movies that take you to unexpected places. I'm sick of being able to guess how everything ends by looking at a movie's poster. :P

The DaVinci Code

[from May 19, 2006]

Let me preface this by saying that I have not read the novel on which it is based. I have no intention of getting into the contents of the story or the attending controversy. What follows is simply my view of the film itself.

The Da Vinci Code

Meh, whatever. As a film, it's rather unimpressive and dull. In serving the intricate plot, the director, writer, and actors all but abandoned any humanity or soul it might have had. Maybe the novel didn't have much to begin with - I have no idea - but I don't think that's an excuse.

Ian McKellen makes his scenes interesting because of his amazing voice and delivery, but he's stuck with almost nothing but exposition. Everyone in the film is stuck with mostly exposition. Well, that's not true. Paul Bettany (as the monk Silas) has some great moments - GAH! The self-flagellation scene! - but they kind of get lost in all the blahblahcrypticblahblahcluesblah. He does get the best scare of the movie, though. Audrey Tautou looks like an arthouse actress who got lost on the way to the market and ended up on the set of a blockbuster - i.e., she seems totally out of place. And I don't think I've ever been more underwhelmed by Tom Hanks.

Akiva Goldsman - I know you're an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but it does not show here. I'm sure you did a great job of condensing the novel, but I felt nothing for the characters, I winced at several lines of dialogue, and I saw the identity of you-know-what coming a mile away. For shame. I wouldn't be so disappointed if I didn't know you could do better.

I have no doubt this will be the numero uno movie this weekend and maybe the next. But I can't see it as a big "repeat viewing" movie. Maybe it will be a conversation starter - for me and those two other people who haven't read the book. But all controversies aside, it's fairly forgettable.

An American Haunting

[from April 21, 2006]

With a little less excitement and tickets to far fewer flicks than last year, I joined several hundred other Nashvillians last night for the beginning of our local film festival. I was a bit surprised when I got to the Will Call desk and they couldn't find either of the tickets I had reserved. But the event staff were very, very nice and just gave me replacement tickets, without even asking for my confirmation or anything. But this did tie me up for a bit, which meant that I just barely made it in time to find a seat.

The opening film was preceded by the usual festival schpiel, and we got a brief intro from the director, Courtney Solomon, and one of the stars, British actor James D'Arcy. I think the room temp may have gone up a bit due to the fierce hotness of James (though he'll always sort of be George Blifil from the BBC's "Tom Jones" miniseries to me).

We were about to see An American Haunting, a film which opens nationwide May 5, but which the director particularly wanted a Tennessee audience to see a little early.

This movie is based on one of the many versions of the Bell Witch legend. I'm actually a little scared to even type some of this stuff. I'm not superstitious about many things, but the Bell Witch is something that definitely spooks me and has done ever since I used to hear the stories as a small child. The movie studio is pushing the idea that this is the only recorded case in American history where a spirit caused the death of a person. I don't know how true the "death" part is ... if it happened like it does in the movie, I can't imagine sane, reasonable people unable to come up with any explanation besides "ghost." But I definitely believe that the Bell family of what is now Adams, TN, was tormented by a supernatural presence for several years. As to whether or not that was the real cause of the death, however, I'm rather skeptical.

Most of the movie follows pretty much what I had always heard. There was a fairly well-off and respectable family named the Bells, and strange things started happening to them in the night - though most of the spirit's focus seemed to be on their daughter Betsy. An invisible something would pull her hair, smack her face repeatedly, and drag her around her bedroom. The attacks grew more and more violent, and (in the movie) the father, John Bell, is convinced a local woman - who John has wronged in a business transaction - is behind it.

The Good
It is VERY well made, visually and stylistically. You don't see many horror movies that are period pieces (unless the 1970s counts as "period"), so that was something pretty unique about it. It didn't look like your average horror film. There were almost no special effects, no blood, and there were no visible monsters.

It is impeccably paced. It isn't like the cookie cutter horror movie where it spends the first 10 minutes going "Grrrrr! Look at me, I'm SCARY!" and then becoming a totally different movie for the next hour while you get to know the characters and the story before it explodes in a frenzy of jump-scares and blood in the final act. This movie is continually tense. You never get to relax for more than a couple of minutes at a time. And the scares keep getting better and scarier as the movie goes on.

It is beautifully shot (by the late Adrian Biddle, whose other recent work many of you have seen in V For Vendetta). I was kind of bummed that they shot it in Romania, rather than, you know, Tennessee. But maybe they were superstitious - plus, supposedly you can't take a good picture in the town of Adams, because the spirit still lives there. At any rate, the camera work is gorgeous, and there's a very cool "Ghost-Cam" shot (kind of like the opening of Evil Dead) that culminates in possibly the most awesome horse-and-buggy wreck ever filmed.

The cast is (for the most part) outstanding. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are Mr. and Mrs. Bell, and Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy, of the most recent Peter Pan film) is Betsy. James D'Arcy is the local schoolteacher, Professor Powell. I usually don't care much for Sutherland, at least when he's playing a character that requires him to dress in period costume or speak with an accent, but he was quite good here. Spacek, of course, does Teh Scared about as well as anyone. And Hurd-Wood is poised to take the Scream Queen title away from Jamie Lee Curtis. I am very sensitive to badly done dialects, particularly if they are southern accents. And this time the accents were supposed to be specifically from my neck of the woods, so I braced myself for bad ones, but they were actually not that bad, except when a couple of the actors forgot not to be British for a second.

The Bad
My main problem is with the writing. I know 19th Century dialogue is going to be different than modern dialogue, but there is no reason it should be all clunky-ass like it is for so much of this movie. Also, the little modern-day bookend is totally pastede on yay. It would have been far more effective to have the whole thing happen when, you know, the whole thing happened. I think they were basing the secret writings on the actual ones that were supposedly written by, I think, Professor Powell. But here they've got it written by Mrs. Bell, like a letter to her daughter explaining things, as if she didn't experience them first-hand herself. The way the ghost story is set up, too, is very confusing. I imagine they were trying to go for an ambiguous feeling of "Is this is a dream?" or "Where do the nightmares end and reality begin?", but it doesn't really work and only serves to make the audience go "huh?"

I also had a HUGE problem with the "reason" for the haunting. It reminded me forcibly of the twist in 28 Days Later, where it all seemed to be about the victimization of women. I realize that this is a real problem, and it's one I'm particularly sensitive to, but I can't stand it when people use it as a soap-box in a story, especially when it's so damn obvious. And the fact that they connect the Bell's haunting with the modern-day story - again, in a very "pasted on" fashion - just added insult to injury. This is, however, presented as only one (of many) explanations for the haunting that people have come up with over the years. It doesn't make much sense logically, but apparently neither do many aspects of the story in general.

So, all in all, it's a very effective scary movie, and I'm strongly considering seeing it again. It does have its flaws, but they don't really take away much from the experience of watching it.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Black Christmas

I had never heard of this movie before seeing Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments." Olvia Hussey - who stars as Jess - told a story about meeting Steve Martin and him telling her that Black Christmas was his favorite film and he saw it 27 times. After seeing a few highlights, I was very curious to see it. It's been at the top of my Netflix queue for about 4 months. This is a true cult classic, and for good reason. This preceded most of the slasher films, and is one of the great ones, because it's terribly scary without being bloody.

It's a classic slasher setup. A bunch of girls are staying at their sorority house over Christmas and a maniac gets into the house and kills them one by one. And in true horror movie fashion, the first death is the most memorable. The first girl to be killed - in a shocking departure from horror cliches - is the virtuous virgin. There's also an element of the "obscene phone call" setup which would later be used to great effect in When a Stranger Calls.

This is a really great scary movie. Perhaps something that greatly adds to its creepiness is the fact that you never see the killer. You never know who it is, or why he's killing people, and he's never caught. That's extremely unsettling and disturbing, and I think it makes it more successful.

This movie is being remade with Michelle Trachtenberg. I'm not sure why. Remakes, as a rule, are inferior, and horror remakes are more so. They should really just re-release the original. The tag line is so right - "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl ... it's on too tight!" *shudders* Quite.

A Clockwork Orange

The first shot of this film always scares the bejoodles out of me. There's something so bone-chilling about that expression on Malcolm McDowell's face - head down, looking up. I've seen this flick a couple of times - once on the big screen in London when it was re-released there in 2000. Despite not being a horror movie, it's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. I can't even hear the song "Singin' In the Rain" (unless I'm watching the movie of the same name, of course) without seeing Alex and his "droogs" terrorizing that man and his wife. I think the real achievement in the performance is that, even though Alex is so incredibly nasty, you end up feeling sorry for him.

If you're not familiar with this one, you should be it's set in Britain some time in the future. Alex is part of a group of young men who spend their evenings beating and raping anyone who crosses their path. Alex tries to assert his authority, but the other gang members beat him up and leave him for dead. He ends up going to prison and volunteers to be part of a behavioral experiment that will get him an early release. The experiement is little more than torture, and when he is released into society again he is virtually helpless. One of Stanley Kubrick's finest films, IMO - a highly stylized movie of ideas (scary, disturbing ideas, but ideas). Never has a guy drinking a glass of milk been creepier.

Joyeux Noël

I wish this had been out where I could see it closer to Christmas, but it's powerful nonetheless. I'd heard the story about the cease fire between the German, English (actually Scottish, according to the film), and French troops on Christmas 1914, during World War I. The film elaborates quite a bit on the story, but it makes for a good movie. What struck me the most about this movie is how up close and personal war used to be. Perhaps that is what made the cease fire possible in the first place.

The portrait of the night itself is incredibly poignant, as one would expect it to be. The songs, the mass, soldiers sharing wine and pictures of their wives and children. But even more poignant is the aftermath. The soldiers are accused of treason. The priest who performed what he called "the most important mass of my life" was sent home, criticized by the bishop who proceeds to tell the troops the men they shared drinks and exchanged addresses with were not children of God. Upon first hearing this story, I wondered how it ultimately ended. The film suggests that the men were forever changed and had not the heart to continue fighting these men that they now knew as human beings with common goals and struggles. But the war, of course, would not be stopped.

There's not much actual "war" in this war movie, but it's only fitting, since it is about a moment of peace. It's an amazing story, even if much of the film version is likely fabricated. And perhaps best of all is the wonderful music, particularly the "Fraternizers' Hymn." Truly wonderful.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash vs. Brokeback

Never can I remember the words "Oscar upset" being more accurate than they were at the end of last night's Oscars, and I think some things need to be said about it.

First of all, I loved all five of the Best Picture nominees. I thought this was one of the strongest years in quite a while. I would have loved to have seen at least four of the five nominees take the "top" prize (Capote was the weakest, in my opinion, and that's saying a lot for the other four, because Capote was awesome). Brokeback clearly had all the momentum going in last night, but I knew Crash would be the dark horse.

There are a lot of things that go into whether a movie wins Best Picture or not, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of the film. There are a lot of political machinations, campaigns, and what not, and if your movie peaks at the wrong time, it could mean people voting for something else.

I detest ranking art against art, but personally, if I had been given an opportunity to vote for the Oscars, I would have gone with Munich for Best Picture. I think it was the strongest "total package" of the five. Well written, well acted, beautifully shot, and very timely. But that's just me, and I knew that it was probably the least likely to take home anything, because it was so under-advertised. However, when it came to the two frontrunners, I felt there was a strong possibility for Brokeback NOT to win. In fact, if I had only had those two movies to choose from, I would have picked Crash over Brokeback myself (though it would have been a difficult choice).

For one thing, I think "Brokeback-mania" reached its saturation point too early and people were sick of it. "Brokeback" as a word is now a part of the cultural lexicon. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing a gay cowboy joke. In some ways, it kind of played itself out. Also, as great as I thought it was, it just didn't seem that revolutionary to me.

Crash was a different kind of underdog. It came out early in the year, and it's very rare for the Academy to remember anything that came out before Thanksgiving. It was a very divisive movie - there were people who really loved it and people who thought it was the cinematic antichrist. I think a few things put it ahead of Brokeback (though, I'd bet money that the race was quite close, if we could see the vote percentages).

1) It was an L.A. picture. Most Academy members are Angelinos, so this picture was bound to resonate with them.

2) It had a huge cast, many of them well-respected actors. Naturally, everyone in it who got to vote would vote for it. And - as a friend of mine pointed out - by voting for Crash, Academy members no doubt felt that they were rewarding as many of "their" people as possible.

3) As an "issues" movie, it was both more pointed and more universal. Preconception is perhaps the most basic problem we face as human beings. Brokeback dealt with this on a small level with homosexuality (i.e., the image of gay men was very non-stereotypical), but it was by no means the focus. This movie shook people and forced many of them to look at their own preconceptions of people. Even the casting of the movie was clearly designed to achieve this.

I'm not saying there aren't some homophobes in the Academy who thought the world wasn't ready for a Best Picture that put homosexuality front and center. But I seriously doubt they're numerous enough to have affected the vote that much. I find accusations that the Academy is somehow sending a message to the gay community - and even more incredibly, that they are condoning and perpetuating homophobia - by not rewarding Brokeback with Best Picture to be utterly ridiculous. And I'm saying this both to the people who are gloating that this is supposedly the case and the people who are angered by it. It's just. Not. True. Would anybody be saying the Academy was perpetuating racism if Crash had not won? Is Kanye West going to go on television and say that the Academy doesn't care about Jewish people because Munich didn't win?


It just means that there was another movie that people - people who make movies for a living, by the way - thought was better.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

[Oscars] The Academy's Position on Groundbreaking Films

With all five of this year's Best Picture nominees being "issues" films and the fairly well-established frontrunner (Brokeback Mountain) being touted as "groundbreaking cinema," I found this article in USA Today to be particularly interesting.

I've heard several people say "Oh, I hope Brokeback doesn't win." There seems to be an implicit assumption that if it does win, it will simply be because of the issue - a mere gesture on behalf of the Academy at legitimizing the homosexual lifestyle. There's a Greek word for that attitude ... horses**t. The reason Brokeback is getting so much attention from these award shows is not because it's a "token gay movie," but because it's an amazing film that tackles a delicate subject in a wholly new way. Just like Good Night, and Good Luck is being recognized for taking issues that are very sensitive - and which usually cause people's characters and patriotism to be called into question - and looks at them through the filter of a similar event in the past. Just like Crash takes one of the oldest problems in human relations and gives us a rich tapestry of character interactions in which most of us can see something of ourselves. Much like Munich takes an extremely volatile and timely topic and handles it in a sensitive and yet brutally honest way. And like Capote deals with the ethics of writing and shows both sides of the story honestly and movingly.

These are well-made movies that make you think and help you to see things in a different way. That's what great films do, in my opinion. And it's nothing new for the Academy to reward films that handle modern issues well and try to change people's perceptions. Looking at the article linked above, I find it amusing to wonder what audiences of the time thought of those films (and others that broke new ground and were rewarded by Oscar) when they were released. Not to mention what people must have thought about the stand the Academy seemed to be making by honoring them...

The Lost Weekend - a thoroughly adult drama about a problem that had not been seriously dealt with in film. Alcoholism.

Carmen Jones - Dorothy Dandridge's nod preceded Poitier's for The Defiant Ones by four years.

Baby Doll - Kazan tells a story about a lascivious man and his child-bride. The film was condemned from pulpits and the Catholic Legion of Decency called for a nationwide boycott. It got four Oscar nominations.

Tom Jones - Made almost as big a scandal as Fielding's novel, with cries of "Won't someone think of the children?????" Yet it still was named Best Picture of 1963.

Dr. Strangelove - It's a classic now, but can you imagine if such a movie were released today? A movie that makes fun of the president and the military and nuclear war that wasn't even that big a hit in theaters? Probably would still have gotten the recognition from Oscar. :P

Network - A frighteningly prescient look at the creeping cancer of showmanship in the news. Part of this story involved the development of a show centered on a real terrorist group - The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.

The Silence of the Lambs - Very controversial at the time, for several reasons, not the least of which was its depiction of the sexually ambiguous Buffalo Bill.

The Crying Game - Boy howdy, do I remember the stir this caused, both when it was released and when Oscar recognized so extravagantly.

I always crack up when people talk about the Academy as though it were a committee of six people, sitting in a room somewhere and deciding who gets an award. There are over 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - actors, directors, producers, writers, technicians - and all of these people are eligible to vote on the awards. I just don't see how a win for a controversial movie is some kind of statement, other than that the film impressed a lot of people who know a lot about movies.

Also, it's not like the Oscars are some kind of Nobel prize. As much as I love them, they are essentially self-congratulatory nonsense, meaning little in the grand scheme of things, except to people who are intensely passionate about movies. So really ... who cares if the "gay cowboy movie" wins? According to Hollywood's grapevine, virtually no one has seen it (or any of the other nominees) anyway.

Although, I have to say that I'm quite sad that so few people seem to have seen any of the nominated films and that there is a staggeringly low interest in what happens Sunday night. 2005 was a great year for films, and each of the Best Picture nominees is worth a look, no matter what side of their issues you're on.