Saturday, October 10, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #9: DARK SKIES (2013)

Another day, another horror movie.  This time we have Dark Skies, a Blumhouse production (are you surprised - if you go to check out a horror film released in more than a 1000 theaters the past few years you'll hit one without even trying).  What's remarkable isn't so much the film itself but that this one had a trailer that made things look rather epic, in a 'What is THIS' sort of way:

I was intrigued, but for some reason or another (i.e. funds, time) I didn't venture out to see the film.  But the image of Keri Russell banging her head against the window, and the birds flying head-on into the house from many directions, were startling and memorable images.  When I thought it looked 'epic', maybe the word I was searching for was 'campy', or 'ridiculous'.  But Scott Stewart's movie is actually anything but, with the exception of those very few moments of outrageous behavior.

I have to think that the filmmaker pitched this as 'Poltergeist with aliens', since that's what we get.  Sure, there's no sisters this time, just two brothers, but the general principle applies: a suburban family, living somewhat usual lives - the father works at, uh, design or something, the wife as a real estate broker (Josh Hamilton and Russell respectively), and the two sons are about junior high and (young) elementary-school aged.  They start to notice some strange things, at first in their kitchen - the mother comes down in the middle of the night, the fridge has been ransacked ("What kind of animal takes the lettuce and not the bacon," she comments), and they leave things in big, prank-like ways, as if their kitchen was an art-installation.

Things keep occurring in more horrifying ways - with the youngest son seeing the "Sandman" as he calls it, and black-outs, head-aches, the birds, a mark behind Hamilton's eat, the sons finding marks on their bodies, and so on - and of course things don't move to try to get to problem solving as one of the adults doesn't fully believe it as much as the other.  The script isn't jokey about this in the slightest, and it's no wonder as this is meant as a real spooky type of time for modern (emphasis on PG-13) audiences.  And that's fine, except that it doesn't really leave much room for anything, shall one say, exceptional to go on.

There are things that I did like regarding some of the presentation of the characters, notably that the older son, Jesse (Goyo), is portrayed as being what a junior high schooler is like: hanging out with other asshole friends (or friend, really), watching hardcore porn (just to, you know, pass the time), and taking shit from this asshole friend just because, well, you don't know any better at that age (plus the first-kiss sort of thing, which is cliche but it's handled well).  I imagine another film where just the son was developed strongly, it was all from his point of view, and you might have something with it all being from his POV and how his parents become unglued and, shit, parents, they just don't understand.  But at least he's got a world that works, and the same is with the parents' financial situation (hey, modern times, fellas), and it's nice to see that there is some kind of external struggles that are around them anyway, without this threat.

But aside from providing the internet with two priceless gifs, which I'll put at the bottom of this post, there's not a lot remarkable here.  The filmmaking is competent and moves slickly, and there's a nifty cameo for JK Simmons as basically the version of Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist - the Exposition Dump, as it were, giving the adults as much as he knows (which is a lot) about the "Greys" as he calls them and how long they've been on Earth - except that he doesn't stick around really past the one scene, and it would've been so much more involving if he'd been there at the end (perhaps I'm colored by wanting as much JK Simmons as possible).  But the main actors, and even the kids, don't really get that much to do that requires much from the audience to see them as an otherwise pretty normal, ho-hum family caught up in pretty normal, ho-hum terror.

"Damn it, Uncle Irving, I told you to keep your hands off the little ones!"
There are some legitimate shocks scattered about, and yet even these are dulled by the PG-13 rating.  Not that Dark Skies would suddenly become a triumph with extra gore, but I'd like to think, say, a scene of the adolescents watching porn would be more realistic, or the adults would curse more (also, I'd argue, realistic once shit really starts hitting the fan and they realize how much their children are in danger - possibly from themselves if Society takes them away ala Child-Protective Services).  But the scares and violence correspond with that, and it's never not bad, but it's easy to watch.

It doesn't ask for that much, and we can sit and take in these characters and situation in such a way that one wishes it was really a movie about just the characters; if you got more in depth with them, as it's sort of hinted at in the first act, maybe we'd get more from Hamilton and Russell (certainly the latter's proved herself over and over again on FX's The Americans), with the kids as just OK throughout.  Ironically the aliens possibly get in the way of a more insightful marital/familial drama just around the corner, with their presence and escalation of invading their lives taking things in a more terrifying but less dramaturgically exciting way, if that makes sense.

But, two last things: 1) it's not found-footage, albeit Blum can't seem to not help but have a surveillance element (maybe needed for a key plot point, but still reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, to a major degree really).  And 2) these:

Friday, October 9, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #8: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

"I know wind when I see it."

(oh and minor spoilers be ahead)

The Old Dark House was called for a long time the "Lost" Universal horror movie.  It got that title because in the 1960's, William Castle did a version of the story, and for some odd reason or another it got out of circulation; thankfully a print was discovered, and we have a DVD of the film today.  It's also got a special distinction of being one of the rare Universal horror movies of the period (maybe the only I can think of) that doesn't have one of the classic monsters.  I actually didn't hear of the movie, despite probably looking up James Wale's filmography at some point or another, until the Cinemassacre review some time ago.  Finally sitting down to watch it the simple question to pose of a movie over 80 years old: is it still frightening?  In some ways, yes, very much so.  In other ways, no, but that's fine.

The premise of the Old Dark House is one that I'm sure could be told around a campfire (it came from a novel, from JB Priestly) and I'm sure has been used, unintentionally I'd suppose, for many movies with terror and horror like this (Psycho being one of them): on a dark and stormy night out in the countryside, three people are driving along and just can't keep going on as they're lost, so they come upon a house which is run by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and her brother Phillip (Raymond Massey, who you may recall from Things to Come and/or Arsenic and Old Lace).  It's not the most welcoming home - it's lit but it has some dark parts to it - not least of all because of the 'Servant' Mr. Morgan (Karloff). 

This is not.... wine.
There are other guests who show up unannounced as well - Charles Laughton (in a rather funny role with an excellent monologue about his busted-up life, that isn't like his villainous or BIG parts), and Lilian Bond (just a chorus girl, and, as she says, not a very good one at that) - and this is during a potato-y dinner.  The tone has been set by this point, as they show up about twenty minutes into the story of a 72 minute film, and the Femms are, shall we say, not totally hospitable. 

There's a rather awkward, kind of demented scene where Gloria Stuart needs to changer her clothes, and the old Ms Femm follows her into the room and while she's changing (we don't see that, but see more than we would being pre-Code and all) and tells the rather sad and gruesome story of her sister who died when she was 21.  Often in this scene Wale and his cameraman shoot the old woman through a distorted view that's supposed to be a mirror, giving her the visage of some old witch telling of death and madness in this warped perspective.  In other words, this woman doesn't really take to hints such as 'Get out of the room so I can change'; it's her home, she'll talk about her dead sister, goddamnit!

The movie has a curious opening, by the way, just before the Universal logo pops up, where a title card is shown that explains THE Boris Karloff in the case is one and the same as the "Mechanical Monster" from Frankenstein.  One might expect Karloff then to be the star, but The Old Dark House is actually an ensemble picture, and he's in it about as much as he was in the 31 Frankenstein. 

That said, his Morgan is a creepy, deliberately strange and off-putting presence, dressed in a raggedy suit, with a full beard, messy hair, and a scar down his face that probably has a story to it (I don't think it's told in the film, adding to the mystery).  He doesn't have a line of dialog, and all the better for it - he is akin to the Monster from the previous Wale movie, but a little more like an Ape-Man or something, lunging and having more force than the stilted form of the Dr's creation.  What I liked too is that by the final reel his character isn't quite *as* terrifying as before, and for good reason.

This is the sort of horror tale where there is a twist, but it doesn't come out of the blue; this is a house that is haunted not by ghosts but by a member of the family locked away in the top floor.  I really liked how Wale set up this house as a place that is bigger than it might look from the outside - when one of the characters is asked by the old lady Femm to fetch a lamp, he goes at first with Mr. Femm, and he acts squirmy and 'off'. 

If you just were to look at what he's saying it'd sound reasonable, but he's directed to play it as wormy, and as the audience we can't be sure about this Massey guy, that he might just pull all of the guests together and chop them into pieces (the woman too, though she'd complain more about how to chop them together).  So the guest has to go up the stairs alone, but it seems like it goes longer than it should; this isn't through any trick photography, but in the pacing, and how Wale suggests that there is a really dark mystery at the top. 

Few things are scary in this world as pointing for no good reason...
The discovery of this comes in the 'final reel' as it were, following a bit of exposition from the 'Mother' of the house, a MUCH older woman in a bed.  This is one of those creations and performances, in just a scene, that gripped my attention by just how this woman looks, with hair growing on her face like a beard, as if she's been unattended for for years, and could fall dead at any moment but has just enough energy to give us a little more information about this Femme lineage - including the OTHER son! 

The Old Dark House is loaded for bear with creepy atmosphere and dialog that has some real kick going on.  In some ways this is a very dark comedy, as we have to know from the moment the guests step in that this will not go well, so why not get a few chuckles - not least of which by Laughton, which might be expected, but the actors playing the Femms have a lot of awkward, cringe-type comedy as they have mad, terse exchanges about what to do next or if, say, to answer the door when new guests arrive.  And when violence erupts, it's staged in such a way that it's messy and brutal, like someone could die at any moment from the wrong blow (except for Morgan, he's solid like a brick shithouse). 

One thing keeping it from being all great is what I guess is something akin to a trope seen in certain slasher movies and the like - there's a romantic subplot thrown in there between two of the guests (Douglas and Bond); the attraction part might be alright, since they're attractive enough people for 1932 England.  But they not only immediately fall for one another, but they profess to get married.... after, I don't know, twenty minutes being around one another (!)  It's melodramatic nonsense that is performed with a minor wink to the audience, but not enough, and it holds up a story that is tight enough to probably (no, definitely) not need it.  After all, we really want to get to the 'other' brother, Saul and, luckily, by the time we do (via Brember Wills, a character actor mostly), it's a knockout.

But you should see this movie if you want to get a fuller sense of what Universal could do if it stepped outside of their franchises; this is a spooky, chilling 'haunted' house movie without the ghosts, rather, a story about the damned, conspicuously living (and near dead) who are perfectly miserable by their lonesome, and when any outsiders arrive it's like All Systems On Alert.  One might think that it's not always this ridiculously, apocalyptically stormy out, but from the look of the Femms you'd think they'd been here all along... with their potatoes...

Oh, and here's the notice before the studio title to your left...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Steven Spielberg's BRIDGE OF SPIES

And no, don't worry, this isn't the story about the spies who form a human-suspension bridge to connect two pieces of disparate land together.  (Also, this is an uncut version of a review that's also on IMDb)

One of the surprising things about Bridge of Spies is not really that Steven Spielberg directed this story, which tracks the trial and then trade of a Russian spy in 1957 (an exchange for an American pilot, and someone else who I'll get to shortly). It's the kind of material that would attract Spielberg, especially with the hero of the story, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), who comes into a situation he shouldn't be involved with but not only can pull off talking and reasoning with people and finding the better side of a situation or person's nature. What's surprising in a way is the involvement of the Coen brothers with the script.

It's hard to say if Matt Charman was the primary writer (someone I'm not familiar with, not least on the level of his co-writers) and if the brothers came in on a polish. But watching the movie, it does make more sense - certainly more than Unbroken, which barely has their touch - since it carries a lot of dry wit in the exchanges between characters, in particular the opposing attitudes of people in this 'period' setting.

Hanks' Donovan is a straight-shooting guy who believes in the constitution of the United States and wants to do right, legally speaking, by his client Rudolf (Mark Rylance in a fine, subtle supporting role), and doesn't really care per-say what he's done or didn't do. This doesn't fly well in a society that is overrun with Red-Scare fever and end up doing the worst of things when in total fear of things (i.e. the A-bomb, which gets a kind of cameo in the film in a way that Spielberg I'm sure has a personal connection with, being a child of the 50's, but I digress).

Hanks' "I ain't gonna take yo shit, fool" face

The Coens I think brought a sense of realism to things, but also stylization; the way characters talk at times there's a lot of things where people try to figure the other person out, which is fascinating to watch. When Donovan arrives at the first part of the mission he's given in the second part of the film, to do this exchange of the Russian for an American pilot caught by the enemy, he goes to the Russians and doesn't talk to the lawyer (who he thought to talk to) but some other official.

Spielberg covers this expertly, going in on Hanks and the other actor at just the right moments to emphasize things getting tenser, as the chess game of wills grows stronger on each opposing side - another young American, a student caught up in the mix of things (it IS East Berlin, after all) - but the script dictates a lot of the momentum here. And at the same time the Coens aren't necessarily making it 'Coens-y', in a manner of speaking; they serve their filmmaker extremely well, giving a light air to a good number of scenes in a way that keeps the tension and suspense in a good balance.

Not a fair multiple-choice question as to who makes it out alive right there...
In a way it's interesting to get this so soon after The Martian, also in theaters: two films about perilous situations and men caught in a struggle to survive, and two stories that benefit from some levity. Between the two though, Bridge of Spies is the more serious affair, and certainly Spielberg has a lot thematically on his plate. The story takes place during the Cold War time, but it's really a war-war (so to speak, sorry, couldn't find another way to put it), only with terse words and missions via the CIA instead of men on a battlefield. At the same time I feel like the message can, and probably will, resonate today; Spielberg knows that we're in times where it can be dubious whether people are put on trial and given proper legal counsel if they're suspected 'others' or combatants, and if they get the counsel who knows how the trial will go.

Bridge of Spies may have Hanks being, shall we say, Jimmy Stewart-like (I know other critics will or have), and is the guy the audience likes - his endearing characteristic in the second half, of all things, is a cold. But it's because Spielberg embraces this, as does Hanks in playing him, that he's a man who will stop at nothing to get done what needs to be done for a man's freedom and security (or how he sees it, so down the line, despite whatever happens in prison walls with glaring lights and big questions about this or that for information).

Perhaps with a tougher kind of actor this wouldn't work, like I could never picture, say, Bruce Willis in this role. Hanks comes in and is unequivocal in his earnest desire for justice ("Everyone deserves a defense, every life matters" echoes another Spielberg motto in Schindler's List), and it's refreshing in a way to see this in a movie right now.

Aside from the plane crash which takes down the pilot Powers, which kicks off the main part of the story, it's not an action movie, and it's really about men and their will in tense situations. The filmmaking is that wonderful, seemingly effortless take on dramatic storytelling, and the acting by the supporting players (many character actors who you may have not seen before or recognize from other films just vaguely) are superb.

Two little issues: the film's ending is a little long, with a coda that feels like it stretches just a little longer than it should, albeit for a visual callback that does add a bittersweet tinge that is welcome and interesting; and the lack of a John Williams score (the first for Spielberg in 30 years) is startling. Thomas Newman isn't bad at his work, but it's unremarkable, and doesn't give certain scenes that do need a little extra punch or kick that 'Spielberg' type of music. It's hard to describe it, but I feel it when I do, especially during the climax.

Aside from those small points, this is near-classic work by this director, with a star in top form who is so wholly convincing that I'd love to see a sequel with his character (without spoiling, per-say, as it is history, the real man went on to the Bay of Pigs crisis of all things). It's also a wholesome movie in that old-time Hollywood sense, but not in a way that should date it any time soon; it takes a stand for what should be held accountable for those accused, and that, really, having a good insurance policy is maybe the only policy that's logical.

Spooktacular Savings #7: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009)

Hey, we can have a documentary in here - why not?

This comes from several years ago, and is not too complicated - this is a look at horror films from the past century of cinema in the United States.  This is not to say director Andrew Monument (not sure if that's his real last name, though it's his only pic as director, mostly he's an editor) and writer Joseph Maddrey (based on his own book apparently) don't reach out occasionally; clips from Shivers (Cronenberg's first film in Canada) and films by Hitchcock and Guillermo del Toro are shown.  But then this is really about the *impact* of horror films on America, not so much who makes them (though most are). 

Tod Browning's Dracula (1931)
How deep does this get?  Nightmares is really a clip show when one gets down to it, and there are some lines blurred.  It starts with a brief mention of the early groundbreakers - Roger Corman mentions his love for Caligari and Nosferatu, and we see some clips and talk about Lon Chaney and the Phantom of the Opera, for example - and then goes into the Universal monsters, into the 40's with Val Lewton's productions (with a brief mention for... The Invisible Agent (?) who knew that got made, I should've).  Then... it gets into the 50's, and it goes more into the science fiction realm.

Cat People (1942)
A brief side-bar here, though it relates to the documentary: are these Atomic-age/alien-invasion sort of science fiction movies horror movies as well?  Maybe a movie like THEM or THE THING blurs the line a bit due to the scary nature of the the Thing getting set on fire, or those giant ants coming for little kids.  But should we draw the distinctions?  Does it matter to classify something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers as just science fiction, or is it horror, or both?  Maybe the documentarians look at this roster of films as being about what frightens and terrifies Americans... but if that's the case, then they leave off a helluva lot of science fiction movies in the 1970's and 80's (albeit They Live is one that gets a spotlight, and I'll get back to that momentarily) - certainly some better than others, but plenty, I'm sure, that were scary or hit a nerve with the public.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

But back to the clip show: in the 60's we see the push-and-pull between keeping the torch up for Hitchcock's new form of The Monster is Living in Our Town and May Be Sympathetic/Understandable (Psycho) and classic-gothic style horror of a literate-nature (Corman's Poe movies; sadly, since they were British, Hammer horror gets just a scant mention here, with fuck-all for Christopher Lee and just barely anything for Vincent Price).  Of course, Hitchcock's films are seen more still today arguably (on my side of yes) than the Corman Poe movies, like Pit and the Pendulum, but there is good commentary on both sides of the coin.  What it really comes down to in Nightmares is this split, between looking at horror that was reflecting the period it was in - Vietnam, post-Vietnam, Reagan, new audiences, franchises - and what is just straight-up spooky.

Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death (1964)
I think the strongest purpose and necessity for this kind of movie, which is decent if not incredible or totally mind-blowing for the (over) initiated, is for younger people who want to educate themselves about the history of 'scary' movies in this country and find this on Netflix (the perfect place for it, though it was made pre-Netflix-Instant).  You get so many clips from things that it can be hard to keep track, and while I can say I've seen most of them I realized there were gaps (I haven't seen anything by Tom MacLaughlin and scant things from Larry Cohen, the latter a regrettable admission). 

John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)
So while there are scenes from the Essentials (with a capital E) on Night of the Living Dead (and Dawn/Day/Land) from George Romero and others in the film, plus Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing 82, we also get Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the rise of the slashers (seeing as this director IS an editor, it's not too surprising that we get BIG FLASHY HOLY SHIT MONTAGES for Freddy/Nightmare movies and Jason/13th flicks.  But also things like The Stuff, Wes Craven's Shocker, One Dark Night, Phantasm, and some other things you may (or of course have) seen.  A lot of the filmmaking, what these directors were doing or attempting with tone and approach and effects, and why these characters and tropes mattered why they did - and why things like The Exorcist or Evil Dead 2 still resonate - get looked at in a way that's clear, credible and has the weight of decades of fandom.

George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985)

The secondary purpose of the documentary is to get the testimony of why a lot of these films matter, and whether you agree or not it's important to hear them out (i.e. Last House on the Left and Saw are bad movies, but have their ardent fans, and they're here).  We get some of the major masters - Corman, George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante (yeah, sure, I'll put him in there for The Howling and Gremlins), and then some names you may or may not know like Larry Cohen, Brian Yuzna (producer of Re-Animator, which is a lot of fun to see here in just a few moments), Darren Lynn Bousman and Mick Garris.  With Romero and Carpenter, it's always a treat to hear them speak since they talk intelligently and plainly about why they made stuff like Night and They Live, and how those films reflected the periods they were made.  For the latter, here's a block quote:

"I had this deal with Universal to make some movies where I would write the scripts and I'd have complete control and such, which was great. And I wanted to do something about Reaganism and... because it pissed me off so much. The crowd was kill a commie for Christ and uh... let's get those commies and kill all of them.Something I grew up laughing at that in Dr. Strangelove. And now here it was again and with this massive enthusiasm behind it, and this unrestrained um... free enterprise."

For that quote, I'm happy a, technically, sci-fi movie is included in this bunch, but anyway...

HAVE A HEAD with Re-Animator (1985)
There is a general thesis with this movie, which does qualify it as a documentary in some part, not simply a clip show (which it is is in major part), which is: horror movies allow for some release and 'wow, look at that' type of reaction when it comes to viewing violence and death and killings.  There's something about the bogeyman, or the thing in the dark, or simply when people cannot trust one another (the problem dealt with in Carpenter's The Thing and Romero's Day of the Dead), and what happens when that little girl or that businessman we thing is on the level gets transformed into a monster (or is one from the start) that stays with us and has us coming back - not simply that we're kids or teens looking for a good time, though a lot of us are.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
Nightmares works best when it tries to dig deep with its subjects, the films and interviewees, into what these movies DO to us, on a subconscious level if possible.  A lot of themes and issues are explored in ways that get just enough screen-time, though of course this could be material that could stretch for hours and hours - and I'd watch all of it, intently. 

So, in other words, this is a good primer, a fun clip-show, some excellent talking heads, and blood and guts and boobs and some fun thrown in with knowledge that it's entertainment... though not always (usually best) when connected to the public consciousness.  And by the way, here is the FULL LIST of films discussed and shown in the doc.

One more:

Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #6: Roger Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND

"You think that you have killed me. But I will be with you forever. I am unbound."

Some of you reading that line above may think that I am spoiling something about the film.  In a way I may be, but I wouldn't dare tell you who says it.  I post it because it's rather fitting in a way that for Roger Corman's final film as director - he made it after a near 20-year hiatus, and since then has produced but hasn't gone back to be an official 'Action!' man - as if this was like a final mission statement.  You may think Corman's style of cheese and, sometimes, actually, good horror and science fiction in the B-movie mold is done away with as the next century comes along, but in reality, he's with us, whether we like it or not (hell, even though he didn't produce Sharknado, he might as well have - take a look at his IMDb and you'll see he still exists with his 'Shark'-combo movies - he never dies, folks, NEVER!)

Ok, that was a probably pretentious note to put there, as if Corman meant anything by it except to deliver one last whopper for his audience (indeed, he thought there'd be room for a sequel - I have no proof of this, I just assume so).  Adapted by him and FX Feeney from a novel by Brian Aldiss (author of what would become A.I. Artificial Intelligence), what he delivered with his 1990 entry Frankenstein Unbound is an actual, serious horror/science-fiction/time travel movie.  For the most part.  It wouldn't be a good slice of Corman without the cheese and the over-the-top moments.  Right?

See, the future!  Eh, eh!  Those doors totally don't make it look like another (albeit better) Delorean!

This is a strange story if one takes it too literally, though it could have worked as a kid's movie (maybe it still does, minus the violence and strong sexual connotation, which I'll get to momentarily).  It starts off in 2031 with Dr. Buchanan (John Hurt), who has created some kind of special laser that makes things implode, though his chances of getting it into wide circulation or whatever it might be are slim.  Why is this?  Eh, why explain too much - the point is that whatever crazy contraption he's made has made a rift in the space-time continuum, and what appears to be a thunderstorm in the sky is really just a big cloud which opens up and a... guy on a horse pops out(?!)  Buchanan gets knocked on the head - luckily he still has his future-talking-car with him - and winds up in the early 19th century.  Specifically, in the land of Byron and Shelly and Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

This is a combination of a lot of things, and it should all fall apart - that is, in lessor B-movie hands.  This is a time-travel piece with potential paradoxes (though they don't come realized, I think, until maybe near the end, still not clear); it's a costume picture set in rural Austria; it's a horror movie with the Monster created by Frankenstein going around the countryside killing people, and others get blamed/hung for it; and it's one of those sad love stories where people like Frankenstein have to raise their loved ones from the dead (poor Elizabeth).  A lot happens in less than 90 minutes, and a lot of it is driven in such a way that kind of feels like a lost Doctor Who episode (come to think of it, Hurt was involved with that show once, but I digress). 

It's missing that show's sense of bizarre play in its main character - Buchanan is all business really - and yet this is fine, for the most part.  Corman actually creates a credible past world.  Sure, it's nothing we haven't seen, better, in movies with larger budgets; it wouldn't be Corman if he didn't make it look as good as he can get it, and 'Unbound' has a fine period flavor.  So how about the svript then?  As mentioned, Buchanan may not be a man with big eyes or eccentric flights of fancy like the Doctor of the BBC show.  No, this is more about him coming in and trying to a) simply stop the Monster from killing others, as soon as he ascertains this is a bigger problem that no one else sees, and b) have some interactions with the likes of Lord Byron (oh hey, Jason Patric reciting poetry about time-travel clouds!) and Mary Not-quite-yet Shelly (Bridget Fonda).

There were times in the middle and sort of early on I was checking my watch.  What could they really do with this premise, I wondered?  I assumed it would stay in the 1820's or 1830's or whenever it was, but that's not really the case at all.  Corman and Feeney are out to have some fun with their premise, though it comes on slowly.  What I liked though is that Corman's direction, perhaps after all these decades, didn't make things *feel* rushed like some of his early pictures, or cheap in the ways that would really hurt it.  Is all of the dialog strong?  Maybe not - it's a script meant to push the story forward, with only some character development; Buchanan himself is a Man of Science (in capital letters), and gets really, barely, one scene to converse about his Agnosticism to Mary.  The most interesting one dips in and out of the picture: Dr. Frankenstein himself. 

Luckily, Raul Julia is as good in the role as Hurt is in his; indeed Hurt has the more difficult role to play since his is kind of underwritten.  I was worried at first Julia would deliver a sort of precursor to his final role as M. Bison in Street Fighter, something that would be wild and manic and reach up to some Mad Doctor level (in capital letters again).  Not really the case, as Julia plays it subtle and controlled for most of it, and then in the final third, when it's time to really become the character we've been waiting for, that he makes it big and dramatic and his Doctor becomes a little more crazed.  But not outside the realm of believability.  For the script they're given, with dialog that could be delivered really badly, Hurt and Julia bump the movie up a good notch or so.

It's really left to Nick Bramble to bring the old-school, schlocky Corman side of things.  His performance isn't all stupid either, though he's not at the caliber of his co-stars.  What I mean is when things do get violence and (not really, only just minimally near the end) scary, when he sort of Monster-Hulks out in his ridiculous make-up that stretches his face like he's been hit by a frying pan, and cuts off people's heads and body parts like tearing off tree limbs.  And not to worry if he loses a limb at any point - he'll just look at it a moment, scream a little, and move on with the suspense sequence.  It's laughable stuff, but I think Corman knew it, and while it's not AS funny as if it were totally unintentional, it helps lighten up the mood of what is a pretty serious monster/mad scientist story.

I wish the movie were a little longer, in a way.  The story just ends at a point where it could get really interesting, as Hurt's characters is in another point in a "Time-Slip" as it's called in the film, and we're left on a... is it even a cliffhanger?  I'm not sure if it means to be a definite end or the beginning of something else.  And other detail about Buchanan's life, probably in the Aldiss book, is left off to make him a straightforward 'good' Doctor, far as it goes.  And the sets are impressive too, might as well mention that... except that, near the end, it feels like they're almost pandering, like 'Hey, we have these Mad Scientist labs - why leave them staying in their place for long?!  These are only LASERS here, right?'

It can sometimes get tiring seeing the "Bad-Ass" image of a guy holding a gun, but... this is pretty bad-ass.

But with all this anyway, Corman's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND gets better- simply more enjoyable, I should say - as it goes along, and I was weirdly riveted through the final 20 minutes.  It's in general a weird movie, at times giving that shitty conventional stuff one usually fears in a time-travel movie with famous icons (i.e. here's the copy of Frankenstein you WILL write, Mary Shelley!)  Other times, Corman plants his feet firmly as someone who knows what he's doing, wants to do a *good* job, and mostly pulls it off. 

If he can't help but make some of it wild and dumb and a little crazy... well, that's what we come back to Corman for, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #5: Coppola's TWIXT

And now we come to Twixt... like, Twix, the candy bar?  First this guy does a movie called Tetris (scuse me, Tetro) and now it's about fuckin candy?  Sheesh, come on, Coppola, get it together!

Anyway, this movie... is this even a movie?  According to its history, this is actually an experiment much moreso than something that was conceived as a traditional film; Coppola wanted to make it almost like a Choose Your Own Horror type of scenario, where he would show the film and personally select scenes to play based on what the audience wanted to see happen next.  He had to drop the idea because not simply that it was too ambitious (it was), but that the story wasn't nearly that complicated.

I get the impetus though - this is a film that takes in large part in the realm of dreams, specifically those of two-bit, second-rate Stephen King type Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer, not completely disinterested here it seems), as he is trying to find a good story for his next book while on a tour in a small town.  Maybe having a narrative that changes based on audience's taste could be a captivating way to gain interest that wouldn't come in other ways; for a horror film, you sometimes wonder, what if YOU choose to make the person go into that room or not interact with that ghost, or just run away and get the cops, etc.  With Twixt the problem is... should you even care enough to push a button to make things go different?

What happens, however, seems like Twixt puts together all of the scenarios that Coppola had in mind into one narrative.  This would go a ways to explain why the film has a second ending; we think the movie is over, or at a point where it's like "Oh shit!" and it's actually, truly, scary and bloody and the intensity gets ratcheted up to the kind of point one saw in the best of his 92 Dracula... but then the scene cuts to that moment where a writer turns in this story we've just heard as his new book(!)  Uh, que?  There are other times this feels apparent, but none more than that, which is a shame since the gotcha takes away from the brightest horror-movie spot of the thing.

I do think Coppola was trying, just not always in the best possible ways; due to a low budget he uses green screen often during the dream sequences (many, if not almost all of them, featuring Ben Chaplin as Edgar Allan Poe, not a bad Poe but a little dull).  It looked and felt like Sin City but just cheaper, without any real edge or reason for this to be green screened.  Part of the problem is that there are plenty of good actual, real backgrounds that Coppola and company use, so that when they revert to this other way of showing their actors in these backdrops, it's not very convincing.

I've read people online saying this movie is a mess.  It's not that it's hard to follow, and I think Coppola still has a good through-line in Twixt, as it's really about dealing with the loss of a girl (Baltimore's own daughter as well as the Elle Fanning character, who we see eventually was part of this cultish gang of teenagers). 
I think what people responded to was that it's tonally all over the place; at certain points, the movie is quite funny, as when Kilmer is trying to write just one line to start his book, inspired by Sheriff Bobby LaGrange's "The Vampire Executions" (Bruce Dern really does bring it and is my favorite of the cast, by the way), and does voices and imitations like Marlon Brando ("straight razor" makes for a self-homage), and a black basketball player (hey, why not).  There's also a funny scene involving a Ouija board and how this is supposed to lead to the clues of what happened to the dead girl in the morgue with a stake in her heart.

However, the movie will then become dreary, mostly with Poe comes around, and it tries to add some gloom and doom, like with the pivotal story of the reverend (or was it a priest, or a bishop, I forget who) and how he killed his flock of children over... lemons(?)  It also doesn't help that, again, the green screen makes this all look amateurish at certain points; it's interesting to note that Coppola (on the DVD documentary) took time to light the sets and make sure actors were in the proper moods and mind-sets for scenes.  But all to what end?  Is this all a meta-commentary for Coppola about the troubles of independent productions?  Is it an homage to the silly Corman films that he cut his teeth on in the early 60's?  And what's up with the split-screen scenes that don't really need to be split-screen (it looks kind of awkward the way it's all shot)?

To Coppola and company's credit, there are some chilling images and moments of mystery - a scene at a clocktower carries some strange tension - and the ending (before the final scene) is kind of spectacular.  It's just that Twixt doesn't add up to what it is trying to go for, which is.... a bizarre melting pot of motifs and moons and big, scary houses and buildings and goth-teen vampire gangs led by people with a name like "Flamingo".  So it's a mixed bag, to put it kindly.

PS: One more nice thing, that's Tom Waits as the narrator.  Wish there was more of him doing it in the story.

RIP Train: CHANTAL AKERMAN (1950-2015)

You may or may not have heard of Chantal Akerman.  She never worked in "mainstream" cinema, so to speak, or Hollywood for sure.  She was a French filmmaker who made radical, even experimental pieces of cinema in large part about the female experience - and by that I mean revolving around ritual.  She grew up, from what I've read, in a relatively strict Jewish religious household, and ritual was paramount. 

So a film like Jeanne Dielman, starring Delphine Seyrig - probably her crowning achievement, a 3 1/2 hour film that she made when she was 25 years old - is all the more precious because it chronicles, in painstaking detail, what it means for a grown woman to have to *do* things in the home (both domestic and sexual in nature.

Considering how few and precious female directors are in this industry, let alone masters, this one hurts (I should note I hadn't seen a new film from her in a while, but she never stopped working even as she became obscurer from time to time). 

Here is my review of Jeanne Dielman (it's a longer title by the way, but you can click the link to see what it is): 

And some other films:

Histories d'Amerique (1988) (a very rare film, got to watch it on a college documentary class)

Je, tu, il, ell (1976) (notable for Akerman acting in the film)

Spooktacular Savings #4: Tony Scott's THE HUNGER (1983)

Well, I'll give it this at the least - I won't be able to get out of my head "Bela Lugosi's Dead" for a few days/weeks/years now...

You know, it's one of those things that in screenwriting you sometimes need to have exposition.  It's not something that audiences or critics like - or maybe they do, I may be out of touch with the times, i.e. the gobs of semen poured over for Nolan films, but I digress - but it's necessary for a story that has a rather original premise.  You may be able to get away with exposition if it's in a creative way (Spielberg is great at this, i.e. the cartoon in Jurassic Park or the fact that Dr. Jones is a professor in his movies and can talk a good lesson to guys who didn't spend time in Sunday school).  But sometimes you just need a character to say a little about what's going ON in a story.  The Hunger doesn't really have that, not to the extent that it should, and that's a problem.

Oh, for sure, Tony Scott's feature-directorial debut is astonishing to look at - at first.  The film opens with what is almost like music-video cutting (maybe a couple years ahead of his time, or planted firmly in 1983 coked-up, gaudy excess in cutting and visual pinache), we see a guy singing one of those classic new-wave songs, "Bela Lugosi's Dead", as chic John and Miriam, aka David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, are in a club, find someone, take him (or was it her, or both) back to their place, use a small knife and cut into their throats for their blood.  It's actually an astonishing opening, for its fast pace, its rigor in taking us into this smoky, spooky atmosphere.  We know right away they're vampires.  Good, so far.

Special guest director, Audrey Lorea (at least I'd like to think so from this and other shots)

We also get introduced to Sara, (Susan Sarandon), who is a doctor with a book and an interview on a TV show talking about Progeria, an illness that rapidly increases the aging process, and she's been studying it in small monkeys for some time (think the disease in Coppola's Jack only less silly).  This connects to these vampires in this sense: John finds that he's not as strong as he used to be, can't play his cello like how he used to, and he finds he has liver spots.  But, wait, huh, he's 30, right?  Or, we should say, an 'everlasting-30'.  It's not entirely clear at first, but Deneuve's vampire turned John about 200 years ago.  And now he is aging.  Rapidly.  Like, by 80 years in a day.

The main question here is, why is this happening?  Damn if I know by the end of this movie.  I would almost be fine if we knew that Miriam lied to John, as well as others she's turned over the years, that only she has everlasting life, and the promise to her lovers is bunk.  Or, perhaps, if Sara came in, was able to take a look at John, and the movie became kind of like a scientific inquiry into the aging process of vampires.  Interesting too, right?  The film has an original take on vampire lore, which is welcome when done in captivating ways: here the vampires can stand sunlight (we don't see them much in it, but we know they can), and they don't have fangs - they drink blood by slashing someone's neck and drinking it up that way.

"See these eyes so... wait, uh, line?"

But the question, for me, never got adequately answered, and that's a problem with the movie.  I don't necessarily need a character to stop the movie dead in its tracks and give a full speech or monologue about it, but at least give me SOMETHING.  The other problem is that an intriguing character is set up with Bowie's John, and I liked seeing Bowie as this laconic, cool, but then shaken (if maybe stirred) vampire at the prospect of aging so quickly.  He even asks to be 'released' and killed by his beautiful French lover, but she says no and puts him away in a box - he goes away for more than half the movie, just barely making a reappearance near the end.  This might be fine too if there was a little more purpose in the Miriam/Sara relationship.  But there isn't.

Maybe this story needed to be longer, and maybe the book it's based on has more detail (loved by many, from what I could tell from a brief scan of the IMDb message board on the film).  But I have to take light of what is here.  And what is here... it sucks having to fly to the 'style over substance' commentary on a film, it's lazy and it's the sort of thing that could be applied to masters of the craft (yes, even slow filmmakers could be called that, like Ozu, if their stories weren't still compelling).  Scott and his set designer and cinematographer create a rich ambiance in this world of Miriam and John's place, with curtains that obscure faces, and melancholy piano music by Schubert (you'll know the one, also used exceptionally in Barry Lyndon).  We get an ominous feeling that has the air of sadness in the filmmaking.

 Here's the rub: it's too much.  It's a fine movie to watch until you realize that, really, this is all Scott's got.  There are moments he can make things suspenseful - a man gets in an elevator, thinks he's trapped, comes out and is attacked by the Queen vampire, or a young woman is playing an instrument and is circled by the aging John.  There are times it becomes a real horror movie, one with teeth (metaphorically speaking) and a sense of how to go from shot to shot that makes for tension and dread.

It's just that it takes itself so seriously and yet is... it's not even so much a 'style over substance' thing as it's lacking a core substance, or the 'Logos' to put it in English 101 terms.  Deneuve is sexy as hell, so is Sarandon, their sex scene is sexy (it'd be hard to fuck that up, and Scott doesn't to be fair), and so is Bowie in his early scenes to an extent.  But all to what end?  For lots of preening and smoking and smoky shots of faces?  It's not enough.

The Hunger's all dressed up, and it only has the curtains and the bedsheets to go to.  Just because every fame can look like a painting, doesn't mean you don't still need some concrete beats to your art-filled intentions.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A FREEWHEELING Conversation on Facebook about Ridley Scott and THE MARTIAN

Earlier today, after seeing The Martian (the review for which will be up on IMDb very soon, and I'll link it in here when it's up), my idiosyncratic Canadian facebook movie buddy Karl and I had a conversation about the movie and Scott in general - he hasn't seen the movie, I just had (I deleted a few LOL's for your convenience):

Jack Gattanella: the real shocking thing this weekend.... Ridley Scott does like people
The Martian - maybe among his top 3 films
Alien, Blade Runner, that fucking good man

Karl Leschinsky: it's all a ruse
they got him too
for the moment
Jack: haha
Karl: then hell unleash another four prometheuses on you until you say you like them

Jack: Well, it [Martian] is a crowd-pleaser
god help us [more Alien sequels]
Actually, the script is maybe the most brilliant part about it
If I get to teach any screenwriting classes I'll use the Martian first
it has a lot more humor than you'd usually expect
better humor than Gravity, much more than Interstellar...
it's like.... hey, we get to LIKE these characters and get invested in them
they're not just like finding space goo and calling Guy Pearce "... Father"
so yeah, check it out some time soon
I'm curious whether you'll like it or not
Karl: i'd like it, most likely
Jack: it's hard sci-fi, but it's amusing
Karl: i like ridley
it looks good, well done
Jack: it's like, he's loosening up in this movie a iittle
letting Damon take the reigns a little
though he's secretly in control all the time
Karl: in my james cameron rap [unpublished], one of the lines calls out ridley for selling out "redhanded" 
Jack: hm
Years back you know, he said he wanted to be the John Ford of sci-fi and it didn't quite happen, but this is like him fulfilling the promise of his early movies
Karl: lol
Jack: haha
Karl: well, i'm happy to see him succeed
because hes better than nolan lol
so thats a bit overdue..
i always liked him but it's only recently i realized how brilliant he really is
Jack: sure
Karl: the counselor sort of foresaw movies like sicario becoming a thing
Jack: hm I have to wonder if Nolan will see Martian and be like... damn, wish I'd thought of doing that
Karl: lol well nolan was doing something similar imo
his howard hawks journals in which howard hawks is trapped inside a motel / his mind
howard hughes* sorry lol
except he never got out
that sounded like it could be nolan's best movie ... but warren beatty, gangster that he is, muscled him out
so he moved on to saving the children with akira
anyways ridley
ridleys trying to save the world, still
nolans already given up on that
interstellar was a great big: we're doomed... but LOVE!
ridleys more like: fuck that. science. war. FIGHT MOTHERFUCKER!
Jack: hm... well
The Martian is about sciencing the shit out of things
while listening to disco
(which the main character can't stand, but does anyway, and begrudgingly likes)
Meanwhile, Troy from Community saves the world
I'm serious
It's just great to see a movie that follows real problem solving
like, we know the outcome
he'll survive and be rescued
but the shit that's thrown in his way makes it really intense
plus, it's MATT DAMON!
hard not to like him, albeit with his comments about black women directors and gays in the closet sigh
Karl: [Troy from Community?] you mean that rapper who was in community
ya know...
all and all i'm going to embrace this
ridley getting respect is not a bad thing... he doesnt do crap 9 out of 10 times
i'm glad people can appreciate how dedicated he is to his craft
personally, i see the martian as a great big political maneuver in coordination with nasa and the u.s. government
an illuminati thing basically but thats okay, it can still work on a filmmaking level and i like what MZS wrote about it [otherworldly yeah and yet also, deliberately, somewhat bland]
Jack: yeah
well China is also involved too...
in the movie, as in life
Karl: right
Jack: like, the Chinese come in at one point to help them out with like mega-super-rockets
and yeah, on a filmmaking level it's boss
Karl: yeah to teach TEAMWORK
(see Kung Fury t-rex) (or VICE Hermit Kingdom doc where the korean commentators can only praise the teamwork in commentating on the bball game)
Jack: o true
I think as someone who is, technically I guess, a Screenwriting "Master" it impressed the hell out of me, insomuch as - hey, you can actually do THIS in a major Hollywood level. it's not all dumb action beats and shit like the Godzilla 2014 thing
Karl: i'll give Martian credit there (without having seen it lol)
it's a lot smarter than the typical idiot blockbuster
Jack: yeah
Karl: yeah lol
Jack: It's certainly not the "it's all about LOVE" thing like Interstellar is, where it's like, love kinda saves the universe (or that's the upfront message, secretly it's about how we can try to save ourselves from dying but that'll never happen)
Karl: right... again... very Obama-like... by that i mean: this would have been beautiful 1 decade sooner
i think that's my only issue with it really
theres a part of me that cant get over that -- why didnt you make this instead of GLADIATOR?
Jack: aye
Karl: Ridley will occasionally take huge risks and go against the stream, but he really plays both sides in order to take those risks, like the guy he is grooming, Villeneueve (new Blade Runner 2 director) ... and... yeah... I love when he does something crazy like EXODUS, COUNSELOR, MATCHSTICK MEN, 5 ALIEN sequels... stuff that he must know on some level are going to flop...
Jack:I still like Gladiator
Karl: me too, it's really good lol
Jack: though it's lessened over time in my estimation, where like in high school I thought it was the shit. but now it just seems really dreary and sad, maybe more like Scott's unintentional (or not?) response to the oncoming years of torture and war (and which Black Hawk Down was more directly related)
Exodus wasn't crazy, it was just dull
routine really
Counselor was crazy, I'll give it that.
Karl: right, BLACK HAWK DOWN and AMERICAN GANGSTER are these middle ground flicks that will be successes just not huge
(two of his better movies imo, even tho GANGSTER is more, to me, your idea of EXODUS... but i can live with that... Scott makes a big thing of boring work in his movies, it's become a motif...)
Jack: yeah, gangster was one of his better ones - he sometimes comes in with those seemingly under the radar like Matchstick men, secretly one of his best
Karl: most of them are his best lol
you mind if I post this FB... ? it seems better than our usual shit.

and the rest is history...