Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Movie Roundup 2

A few more, as promised:

Nightmare City is one of the many cheap Italian-produced zombie movies made after the major success of Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The first of these spawn was Lucio Fulci's Zombie, which is okay but something of a letdown; Zombie's trailer promises a zombie meltdown in New York City but then the actual movie mostly takes place on a rural Caribbean Island. Nightmare City fulfills that promise and takes place in a modern, unnamed Western city. Technically they aren't 'zombies' but rather victims of 'nuclear contamination' which has destroyed mens' brains, given them a thirst for blood, and caked brown gunk on their faces. Like so many Italian horror movies from the 1970s and '80s, it's a movie that privileges action and spectacle over coherence and narrative sense, which means that things happen for no reason, like the existence of a TV dance show so that women can be chased around in their leotards and attacked by zombies. It's fun in a cheesy, grindhouse kind of way.

I had seen The Innocents once before but it seemed like a good idea to revisit it again when I found out that Deborah Kerr had died. It's a handsome movie, well-acted by Kerr and well-shot by cinematographer Freddie Francis, and a pretty good adaptation of James' The Turn of the Screw. However, I question the approach taken here in adapting the story's ambiguities. The movie feels like it's trying very hard to be superior to the character of Kerr's Miss Giddens, condescending to her sexual repression and hysteria. And that's why I think this movie is ultimately inferior to its next-door-neighbor, Robert Wise's The Haunting, which is about many of the same things but remains closer and more emotionally connected to its main character, Eleanor, and her problems, and more willing to indulge in the pure pleasures of the horror movie, with the bulging doors and creaks and jolts and so on. The Innocents, in trying to be so purely psychological and tasteful and genteel, falls a little short for me. Kerr is great, though.

Like everyone, I've seen The Silence of the Lambs a bunch of times and it's become an influential, landmark film. The weird thing about it is that it really straddles the line between the highbrow and the low-brow - I don't know of any other Academy Award-winning movies that include a character escaping from the police by disguising himself under a dead man's face - and then forty-five minutes later, we're laughing that he's about to murder and eat a guy.

The movie exists on two different planes - there's the sensitive, emotional half of the movie that focusses on Clarice Starling, her childhood traumas, and her efforts to try and get by in a male-dominated society, coupled with Brooke Adams as the victim down in the bottom of the well. Then there's the half of the movie where you have a superhuman, hyper-intelligent bad guy named Hannibal Lecter who the audience falls for. Demme sews these elements together pretty seamlessly, but when you really get down to it, Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who's smarter and more cultured than you are and therefore transcends the category of mere murderer doesn't really belong in a movie that purports to be a real, psychological portrait of authentic serial-killers and victims. He's a sophisticated, archetypal cartoon character, which Ridley Scott realized when he made Hannibal and reconfigured that movie into an over-the-top fairy tale.

There's no way to verify this, but I have a pretty strong feeling that Jonathan Demme was embarrassed by having created the biggest horror icon since Freddy Krueger, and took pains to only make serious-minded liberal movies and documentaries for the rest of the 1990s.

More to come soon.

Horror Movie Roundup

Here are the last few things I've watched on video:

Marebito (2005) is an entertaining enough Japanese horror movie from the director of the Ju-On/Grudge movies. It was obviously made fast and cheap, which gives it a sort of giddy energy but also means that in the home stretch the story devolves into something routine. The first half is the best part, as a deranged cameraman (Tetsuo's Shinya Tsukamoto) explores the nature of fear, wanders into the Tokyo sewers to find a Lovecraftian fantasy world, and brings back a mysterious feral girl. There's a little self-critique inherent in a movie about a man staring at video screens trying to understand the nature of terror, but this trails off into cliche by the end of the movie too. Aside from the weak third act, though, fun stuff with some juicy imagery.

I had never seen The Lost Boys (1987) before. I can see why it was a hit - it moves along briskly and has good performances from the leads (Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, and the gape-mouthed Corey Haim) even though none of their characters are very interesting and the story is pretty predictable. But the movie succeeds on its own terms well enough, and the kids manage to somehow steal enough Holy Water to fill a bathtub and melt a vampire with. The movie's subtext - the bad kids in town are all vampires - is right out of a 1950s movie.

Speaking of which, The Bad Seed (1956) would have fit right in if it had been made in the 1930s. It's painfully stagy, barely 'opened up' from the original stage play and full of flowery monologues and one character who gets two whoppingly grandstanding drunk scenes and all manner of flowery overdramatics, so it's not really a surprise that Charles Busch does the DVD commentary track. There's a little bit of outdated discussion on the nature vs. nurture debate - here, the evil little girl Rhoda (Patty McCormack) was apparently born that way, thus reiterating the 19th century notion that the lower-classes were inherently worthy of their place in life - but the debate is basically just a veneer for outdated melodrama. There are some good moments where terrible things are not visualized, but only heard/spoken of (what happens to Henry Jones, for example) but on the whole this movie would be a good candidate for a remake.

More to come - Nightmare City, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Innocents. And at some point I'll endure Saw IV, too.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Top Fifteen Liberal Horror Films

At Libertas, you can be amused and scared at the same time at what passes for intelligent discourse on film in Conservative circles - specifically, their list of the top fifteen Conservative horror films. William F. Buckley, this is not. I mean, some of these are jokes, right?

Horror has been called an inherently reactionary genre, because so often it's typically about our fears and the quest for 'normalcy' in a world gone mad. And some movies are inherently 'conservative' - Libertas is correct about Fatal Attraction and Friday the 13th - they both espouse a Conservative perspective. (They're also both bad films). But the list is also indicative of what Conservatives are afraid of - women, sexuality, science, the Social Contract. (The fact that Libertas doesn't include any Cronenberg movies, who is loathed as a reactionary by Robin Wood, is indicative of a basic lack of film-criticism literacy, and even though I love The Brood, it's more than a little misogynistic.)

At the same time, there are plenty of progressive horror movies and TV, because fears can run the political spectrum, and because the genre is also about exploring the realms of possibility - physical, mental, and spiritual. Anything written by Rod Serling counts, to the extreme of several obnoxiously liberal Twilight Zone episodes. Any movie by George A. Romero counts, visualizing the hypocrisies and hollowness of modern society with scathing wit. Plus, there are great liberal horror movies on Libertas' list. Craven's Last House on the Left, while expressing the reactionary fears of a post-60s generation worried about the basic collapse of civilization, still shows that revenge is a horrible thing, damaging to the soul and basically unproductive. And then there are the movies which are so great as to transcend politics, including The Exorcist, which spouts some deeply reactionary ideology within a structure that nonetheless is one of the scariest and most effective horror movies ever made (credit goes to William Friedkin for translating William Peter Blatty's nonsense into art). And I don't believe in organized religion, but the final scene in the church at the end of the original War of the Worlds gets me every time.

So with all that in mind, here are the Top Fifteen Liberal Horror Films:

15. Deathdream (1974)
A young man returns from the Vietnam War transformed into a bloodthirsty zombie - but the prevailing mood is sorrow and anguish. A much better version of the same basic story that was told in In the Valley of Elah.14. The Blob (1958 & 1988)
The teens are the only ones who can save the town from the spreading evil when the authority figures are too full of themselves to listen.

13. It's Alive (1974)
Unregulated environmental toxins start turning perfectly normal babies into killer mutants.
12. Candyman (1992)

Our history of slavery refuses to stay buried as residents of Chicago's ghettos pay the price.

11. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Military groupthink proves inadequate to the threat of mass chaos, and actually makes things worse despite the best efforts of individual soldiers. See also George Romero's The Crazies (1973)

10. The Shining (1980)
Your standard story of patriarchal-power-run-amok.

9. Street Trash (1987)
Chaos reigns supreme under the poverty line in Reagan's America, where homeless and mentally ill Vietnam vets go crazy and murder each other.8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)
Individuality-stealing monsters seek to impose their will on everyone else.

7. Audition (2000)
Take that, Salaryman! This is what you get for objectifying women!

6. The Devils (1971)
Corrupt politicians team up with the Church to destroy a man through slander, fanaticism, and torture. This one's almost too easy but the film isn't out on DVD, and is therefore slipping into obscurity even though it's brilliant.5. Carrie (1976)
Repressive religious sentiments team up with pathological fear of female sexuality to explode into a mass bloodbath. The perfect 'return of the repressed' movie.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The terminal stage of capitalism is reached - cannibalism. (See also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, where the victims are turned into chili.)

3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Civilization crumbles and The Man doesn't know how to deal with it, from the bureaucrats in Washington to the bald guy in the basement.

2. Psycho (1960)
The tyranny of the dead past, in the form of Mother.
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Consumer society as a necropolis, a magnificent epic horror movie in which society's basic ills implode in on themselves.

Happy Halloween weekend to everyone.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cannibal Campout (1988)

Now I'm the first to agree that some bad movies are very entertaining to watch - this is not one of them. This is just plain awful, one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen, which is saying something.

It was shot somewhere in New Jersey, which we learn in the movie's first scene, when the Jerseyest girl in the world puts on a bright pink headband and leg warmers to go jogging before she abruptly gets murdered. From there tt's basically a Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff - four college kids get in a van for a road trip and run afoul of a family of murderous flesh-eaters. All well and good, except that then the movie fails to do anything - it's not scary, it's not funny, it's not dramatic. It's kind of gory, but so what. This movie's contribution to horror iconography, Jet Helmet Man, falls flat.
Also, the movie is insanely cheap. Now I'm not one to hold a movie's tiny budget against it, if something interesting is going on, but this is just a bunch of New Jersey kids running through the woods - they didn't even get a real house to chase each other around in, just a State Park and the occasional abandoned shack. And it's shot, apparently, on VHS. So there comes a point, in one of the rape scenes, where the cinematic illusion is so thin that it's like watching a sociopath's home movies. This means that suddenly the movie takes on a scarier subtext, but not one that the filmmakers were intending. Watching an ugly kid from New Jersey play-act his Leatherface fantasies is dispiriting, at best.

I can't believe I wrote even this much about it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Rox vs. Sox

Well that's kind of a surprise after a season in which the Rockies managed to just squeak into the Wild Card spot and the Mets collapsed after seeming like a pretty sure thing. I'm kind of a sports dilettante but I've always liked the Red Sox as underdogs against the evil Yankees, but too bad for them - they already won a damn World Series.

Any other topics of interest?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

30 Days of Night (2007)

This one kind of feels like a missed opportunity, due to a certain basic lack of filmmaking competency, and it's kind of shocking to realize that Sam Raimi's Ghost House Productions has now released five horror movies and they've almost all sucked.

Quick plot synopsis: a band of vampires descends upon the town of Barrow, Alaska, which is above the Arctic Circle and thus dark for 30 days in the middle of Winter. For some unexplained reason, nobody in the rest of the world seems to think it's strange that they suddenly lose contact with an entire town of people for a month, which means Sheriff Josh Hartnett and estranged wife Melissa George have to fight them off.

The biggest problem with this movie is simple narrative disjointedness. The story stops and starts, nothing flows together, we don't really get to know any of the characters beyond the headlining three or four. It feels like there may have been a longer cut with more character beats (like showing how the residents of Barrow spend their time in-between story beats, eating canned food and being cold and miserable in hiding) but these were cut to the bone to make the movie shorter. Bad idea because the story becomes uninvolving and tedious as a result.

The second biggest problem with the movie is casting: Josh Hartnett is stiff and unconvincing as always, and only Danny Huston (who's great) really seems suited for his role, as the feral leader of the pack of vampires (correction: Mark Boone Junior is pretty good too). Ben Foster officially crosses the line, for me, from 'interesting' to 'annoying' with his performance in this movie.

The final major problem is basic directing: wayyy too much of this movie is shot in close-up, a standard problem for inexperienced directors. I also don't care for the overabundance of digital mattes and fake snow, especially after seeing the real thing not long ago in The Last Winter - standard Hollywood insistence on comfort over detailed realism. Lastly, the movie's ending is a ripoff of the similar, perfectly realized end of Guillermo Del Toro's Blade II.

On the other hand, I do like the make-up and performances of the vampire characters, rendered as vicious and wolf-like (although the one vampire with fake blood on his mouth for most of the movie would surely have wiped his face at some point during the month). Also, the action/gore beats are pretty good, including some pretty vicious vampire killings including (SPOILER!) one nasty little vampire kid whose death will almost certainly be extended in the inevitable director's cut. And I do have a softness for horror movies set in snow, no doubt about it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Vincent Price in Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

(This is a contribution to the Close-Up Blog-a-thon sponsored by The House Next Door.)

There are a lot of ways to consider great acting, and as far as I'm concerned one of the best at what he did was Vincent Price in dozens of sci-fi and horror movies for five decades. If the minimalistic, emotionally grounded Method approach of someone like Marlon Brando is filet mignon, then Vincent Price is a slightly greasy hamburger - you know it's not really good for you, but damn if it isn't still pretty damn good. Price raised ham to the level of fine art.

The best vehicle for Price's acting range in a single movie is probably Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum (spoilers from here). Price is Nicholas Medina, a tremulous man scarred after a lifetime of living in the same cavernous castle filled with torture implements, Nicholas's father having been part of the Spanish Inquisition. For most of the movie, Price is in full-blown Poe anguish mode, tormented about the possibility that his recently dead wife (Barbara Steele) might have been buried alive. This is how Nicholas looks for most of the movie:
Note that even Price's 'pathos' is at at least 8 or 9 while everyone else in the movie has their performance scaled around 5.

As it turns out, Nicholas has reason to be nervous, because his wife has faked her own death as part of an elaborate scheme to drive Nicholas crazy and steal his fortune. After Barbara Steele emerges from her tomb and chases Nicholas around the castle for a bit, he's basically catatonic. But after the reality of the deception sinks in (with the help of a little added taunting from his wife), Nicholas's demeanor changes dramatically, which Corman shows in a single, uncut shot:

It's like watching the Grinch's heart expand three sizes. That supple transition from terrified and cowed into malevolent, purposeful, and joyously vengeful is the real climax of the story for me. This is Nicholas for the rest of the movie, and the way I like my Vincent Price: a magnificent, silky villain, bigger than life but under complete control of his face and voice.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cracked's "10 Most Asinine Movie Twist Endings" (when they reinvented themselves as a website did they abandon Sylvester the Janitor?) has up a list of their 10 worst twist endings. Fortunately, I haven't seen all of these movies, but I'm happy to agree with the lousiness of Stay, High Tension, Signs, and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. I do want, however, to stick up for two movies on their list.

Secret Window isn't really a narrative thriller as much as it is a sort of goofball tongue-in-cheek one-man-show for Johnny Depp. Maybe it makes more sense in the original Stephen King story, where it's more clear that the story is sort of inventing itself as it goes along, but here I enjoyed the movie's oddball deadpan logic.

The Forgotten is sort of a second-rate X-Files rip-off, but it's hinted visually throughout the movie that there's something stranger going on than a mere Lifetime movie. It doesn't make logical narrative sense, but it makes emotional movie sense, which I think is generally more important, plus it means that we're plunged into a surreal nightmare world with some indelible imagery. Plus, I would say that neither movie's ending is really a 'twist' in the modern M. Night Shyamalan sense of the word, intended to make the audience suddenly gasp before the credits start to roll - both are hinted at far in advance of the ending and seem like logical developments rather than paradigm shifts.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

Good stuff, although a little paint-by-numbers as so many documentaries tend to be. Nothing really surprising, this just hits all the marks from Kennedy's announcement that the country would land on the moon to the Apollo 1 tragedy to the triumphant landing of Apollo 11 and the hiccup of Apollo 13. Most of the movie is hanging out with the former astronauts, a bunch of mild-mannered military types who think the literary idea of 'the right stuff' is kind of funny.

Actually now that I'm writing about it, the movie's gaps stick out more - nothing is said of why the Moon landings were curtailed after Apollo 17 in 1972 and I would have loved to know what each of the various astronauts did with their lives after their missions. The movie ends by having the men talk about how fragile the world seemed, how small its problems felt in context, which is one of the movie's more interesting segments.

I also liked hearing from Michael Collins, aka the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn't actually walk on the Moon, who thought to himself that as he orbited, on one side of him were three billion people on the Earth plus two on the Moon, and on his other side...what? Anything?

Lastly, I'm a little embarrassed for the movie that the filmmakers even had to address the various wingnut conspiracy theories about the Moon landings being faked. It's an aside over the end credits, but it's a shame they felt the need to debunk these ideas at all.

NL Champs Colorado Rockies

I'm from Denver, and I remember the days when they were at the bottom of the NL West, so this is a very pleasant turnaround. Would have been nicer if I was still living there, but that's what this new invention called Tele-Vision is for.

Anyone else got a topic to talk about?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

Good stuff, very low-key and solid storytelling from Cronenberg, probably his least self-consciously arty movie since The Dead Zone. Too bad it's basically getting ignored by the public.
Obviously the best part of the whole movie is the now-infamous naked fight in the bathhouse, it's refreshing to see a famous actor getting thrown around on hard tiles and being able to tell that it's almost certainly really him and not a stuntman on padding. Cronenberg really knows how to get you to feel, viscerally, a fight without relying on the now-trendy shaky handheld camera and a million cuts. That's not to say that I didn't also enjoy the brutal fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum but this one just feels a lot more realistic. More specifically, it fits with Croneneberg's directing style, which has always been much more distanced, observing his characters rather than trying to put the audience into their mindsets, the objective of fight scenes from such directors as Paul Greengrass (to name a good filmmaker) to Michael Bay (to name a bad one).

On the whole this isn't an earthshaking Croneneberg film that is seeking to blow a mental paradigm, like Videodrome or Existenz, or confront you with bizarre imagery, like Crash or Naked Lunch. Instead it's a low-key narrative excursion, well-made but unspectacular. What I do like are the odd details in the corner - especially the implication that Naomi Watts has managed to get what she wants (a baby) through a most curious path, and that Viggo Mortensen, revealed (SPOILER) to be an undercover Russian agent infiltrating the mob, seems at the end of the movie to have been working for his own personal interests all along, settled in as the new London mob boss and answerable to no one. Good stuff.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A cat being bathed

Writing that review of In the Valley of Elah made me feel like a humorless scold (appropriately enough) so here's a picture of a cat not enjoying itself.Also congratulations to Al Gore for winning the Nobel Prize. I bet Bill Clinton is jealous.

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

I tried to go into this one with an open mind. I really did. I disliked Crash, but that was mostly because it deserved to be forgotten and swept under the rug alongside North Country and House of Sand and Fog and instead won the film industry's top accolades. Still, I wanted to give Haggis a second chance. But you know what happened? When the credits came up, I was still pissed off.

Most of In the Valley of Elah is about putting us in close contact with Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones as a stoic, no-nonsense former Army man whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker, a deer in headlights) has just disappeared after returning from duty in Iraq. [SPOILERS from here] When Mike Deerfield turns up murdered, Hank teams up with local detective Charlize Theron to figure out who done it, which leads to an excursion into the seedy underbelly of life in and around an Army base.

Now this is all well and good, and Jones's very strong performance is coupled with restrained direction from Haggis to make for a compelling portrait of middle America in crisis. The problem is, Haggis can't leave it at that - it's not enough for him to settle for emotional observation, and soon the mechanisms of his plot begin to grind out their payoffs. Mike Deerfield wasn't murdered by local gangs or drug runners, as is initially suspected, but by his own Army buddies in a moment of post-traumatic-stress-induced panic. Yes, his buddies have all become psychopaths thanks to the Iraq war. Also, Mike hit an Iraqi kid with his humvee, in a gratuitous storyline meant to make it clear that he was no innocent victim himself. This is all rendered in standard Hollywood heavy-handed feelbadisms.

In other words, In the Valley of Elah is Paul Haggis saying "I told you so" to red-state America, a dramatization of the idea that the working-class is bearing the brunt of the war effort and the psychological traumas that ensue. These aren't bad ideas to base a movie around, but what really makes the movie obnoxious is how patronizing Haggis's 'shocking' third-act revelations feel. We're meant to be stunned that such all-American soldier boys could commit these atrocities, but all I felt was annoyance at how Haggis was trying to insult my intelligence with his crude manipulations.

I was willing to roll with the movie in those sections when it's actually about genuine emotion and tragedy, but once Haggis starts to unveil his big statements, it all goes downhill fast. There's no honest art here, because Haggis doesn't really like these people - he's masked his scorn in paternalistic condescension. Ultimately for me, this movie was 100 minutes of waiting to see why Tommy Lee Jones would feel the need to raise an American flag upside-down.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A History of Violence (2005)

Rewatching this prior to seeing Eastern Promises (a review of which will be up shortly) I was surprised to find myself a little let down by it in places. Don't get me wrong - I'm a huge Cronenberg fan and this is a very good movie. But it's more flawed than I realized back in 2005. (Spoilers abound from this point on.)

The primary flaw for me, this time around, is the third-act jaunt the movie takes out of its small-town Indiana milieu to Philadelphia, where the secretive former gangster Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) returns home to meet with his brother Richie (William Hurt) after years in hiding for a settling of accounts. It feels like a tangent, a digression - the movie's most interesting aspect is the dynamic between Mortensen's split-personality family man and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) culminating in the amazing sex scene they have after his secret has been revealed. It feels like a mistake to suddenly abandon the movie's best plot line and introduce a whole new antagonist. I'm sure Robert McKee would not approve.

All that said, this movie is still a tricky little gem. For much of its first half, the movie has a decidedly strange tone, more Capra than Cronenberg, a small town that is (literally) too good to be true. You don't usually see a lot of Brechtian devices in action movies, and I can't imagine New Line or Benderspink were happy, if they had any notion of what Cronenberg was up to. It would have been easy for a different director to make a simple gangster/revenge movie out of this material, and it would have probably been a bigger hit.

Instead, Cronenberg has co-opted the template of a standard action movie in order to question and criticize such films. It's a tricky thing to do, but Cronenberg is about a hundred times more successful at provoking inquiry into the nature of cinematic violence and revenge than Neil Jordan and Jodie Foster were in The Brave One. Part of the reason for Cronenberg's success is that he isn't out to make a moralistic point - his films are never argumentative, trying to illustrate a point like 'violence is bad' or anything so simple as that. Cronenberg has always been more interested in documenting and encapsulating images and emotions dryly, free from commentary, and letting us make our own judgments, clinically. People were outraged by the perverse sex scenes in Crash or the deranged violence of Rabid or The Brood precisely because Cronenberg refused to frame them in conventional ways - Crash is practically a documentary about addictive and obsessive behaviors, but people misunderstood observation for approval. So here we have a movie that's less interested in arousing the audience's sympathies in a story of crime and punishment and more interested in simply observing a group of characters as they try to navigate the tricky waters of the movie's narrative. The film's final scene, in which it's suggested that Tom Stall's family is basically going to put aside their newfound knowledge about Tom's identity and pretend like nothing ever happened, is simultaneously one of the most heart-warming and chilling family scenes in recent years.

So the movie isn't really as disappointing as I was thinking when I started this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Two things: Mitt Romney really is spineless. When he said during Tuesday's Republican debate that, given the decision to use American military force against a target or wait for the approval of Congress, that he would check with his lawyers, you could practically sense that the GOP might be figuring it out as well. He's going to turn out to be too wishy-washy to be their nominee, at this rate.

Also, does anyone know if there's some way to put up a list of 'recent posts' on a side column here? Is that something that Blogger doesn't support?[UPDATE] I mean, 'recent comments'. 'Recent posts' I got.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

First of all, how surprising is it that with only four movies to his credit, Terrence Malick has emerged as such a major influence on the new generation of filmmakers?

As regards this movie, I'm not sure that it's more than half-successful as an examination of hero worship and celebrity culture, at least not until a second viewing. These elements in the narrative and in the characters' psychologies are present but not complexly developed, I don't think. I got more psychological depth on the subject of hero-obsession in Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James, from 1949.

Rather, this movie succeeds for me on the level of a purer cinematic experience, a filmmaker's film. This is a film about what it looked, sounded, and felt like to live in rugged frontier communities in 1882 America, a land still only half-civilized and under the grip of codes of personal honor and skill with weapons. It's a film about wooden frame houses, horseback riding across a snowy field, biscuits cooking on a wood fire, and men with revolvers ready to pump you full of lead for a familial slight. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is the best I've seen so far this year, and the sound design and production design are outstanding as well - this movie is lush. I love movies like this that aren't just about 'telling a story' but about experiencing a different time and place, and perhaps most importantly, a different rhythm, removed from the hectic pace of modern life.

The strong cast is topped by Casey Affleck as shy, insecure, and out of his league Bob Ford, and Brad Pitt as the paranoid outlaw Jesse James. Pitt is basically playing the same character that Russell Crowe did in 3:10 to Yuma, the charming bad guy, but where Crowe's character was half-baked and inconsistent, Pitt's Jesse is near-perfect, a man living outside the law who's gotten by on his own personal charm for years, but who now is sensing the end is coming and that it'll probably come from someone close to him. He manipulates the gang to keep them off-balance, uncertain, scared at every possible moment, under his control. Pitt has the finest moments of his career here as the very scary, very charismatic outlaw here. The climactic scene of the movie (the one referenced by the title) is one of the most intriguing scenes I've seen all year - precisely realized, but tantalizingly vague as to the characters' complex motivations.

It's not really surprising that a movie as slow and contemplative as this one would be doomed to lose millions of dollars, but I strongly urge everyone to see this in theaters, the way it was meant to be seen.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Fly (1986) & The Fly II (1989)

Until last night, I don't think that I had ever actually sat down and watched David Croneneberg's The Fly from beginning to end. Mostly I've watched chunks of it on cable over the years, so I had seen the whole movie but not in a long time. So watching it to get in the mood for Eastern Promises seemed like a good idea.

The great thing about The Fly is that it isn't really a conventional monster movie. Yes, it has a creature that carries a pretty lady away into the night, but for most of the movie, the horror comes not from being afraid of the creature, but rather from the growing, insidious fear of watching someone we like turning into the creature. Or even more to the heart of the matter, Cronenberg makes us think of that dread that we all have of disease, decrepitude, dissolution. And as a result, the movie transcends the monster movie genre and becomes something closer to pure, classical tragedy.
The simple design helps: there are only three main characters, and almost every scene in the movie is a two-person dialogue scene between some combination of them, making for a very economical setup, with only a couple of scenes of action or gore (although when these happen, Cronenberg lets out all the stops). And it 's all done in such a dry, uninflected manner that the audience is lured in and convinced of the reality of these people in this otherwise crazy situation.

I especially love the key Cronenbergian moments where Jeff Goldblum regards his metamorphosis with a dry disconnection. One is the scene where we see that he's stuck various discarded body parts in his medicine cabinet, calling it the "Brundle Museum of Natural History". Another is the moment where he picks up a donut to eat in front of Geena Davis and vomits on it to begin his new digestion process. He hadn't given it a second thought, but seeing her reaction triggers him to say, apologetically, "That's disgusting." He's gotten used to his new way of doing things.

As for The Fly II, it's a sequel that basically rehashes the plot of the first one, except without much resonance or dramatic integrity but with the addition of a bunch of evil scientists for Eric Stoltz to get revenge against. The only really good or memorable thing about this movie are the scenes of the dank pit in which the scientists keep the freakish mutated results of their flawed teleportation experiments. That's good nightmare fodder. [Update: here's a picture of the freak pit.]

It's also the only movie I can think of where two characters have sex and one of them is five years old.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

It's a good movie - entertaining with action, suspense, and nice character touches - but I don't think it's a great film. Like most classical Westerns it's a morality tale, pitting the differing ideologies of two men against each other: Christian Bale's desperate yet honorable Dan Evans and Russell Crowe's confident rogue Ben Wade.

The original 1957 film is a stripped-down character piece with Glenn Ford as Wade acting like a devil on Van Heflin's shoulder, constantly trying to tempt him away from doing the right thing. That's all well and good, but in the new movie this simple clash between two men is diffused over a larger cast and more wide-ranging plot. Bale's motivations are clear, to earn money to save his family's ranch, but I can't say the same for Russell's character. Sometimes, his Ben Wade is a Hannibal Lecter-esque bad guy, eliminating more obnoxious characters to our approval and
psychoanalyzing Dan Evans, seeing what makes him tick. Sometimes he's a soulful charmer, seducing a barmaid and making pencil sketches. Sometimes he's a victim in need of civilized due process. And and sometimes he's a total villain, ruthlessly murdering those who are in his way, and not in the 'villain you love to hate' kind of way. I can't tell if it's a script problem, ascribing too many different purposes onto Wade's character, or an acting problem with Crowe unable to unify each of these different facets into a single performance. Either way, the point is the same: the movie tries to use Wade for too many different purposes, so that his function as a foil for Evans is seriously weakened. A movie that's a dramatic clash of wills between two men is only as good as my ability to discern what each of the characters is hoping to achieve.

In the end, the movie is about a simple moral question: what will Dan Evans do, persist in turning Ben Wade in or settle for an easier, safer path? It's a good and interesting moral conflict, but hampered by a basic uncertainty at the movie's core. In the end I think that James Mangold wanted to make a serious, probing ethical drama but his instincts pushed him in the direction of making a crowd-pleasing adventure, and while the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, I don't think Mangold completely pulled it off.

Anyway, good work from Peter Fonda and Ben Foster amongst the rest of the cast, and a fun ride despite my reservations.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Stuck (2007)

This isn't a film that I've seen, just one that I found out about today. Back several years ago when I was trying to decide what story to tell for my USC thesis film, the true story of the woman in Fort Worth who hit a guy with her car and let him bleed to death in her windshield for several days was especially interesting to me and I wrote a 12-page version of it. I eventually gave up on the idea because I couldn't figure out how to keep it from being static, with two characters frozen in place, and I moved on to more dynamic landscapes.

Thankfully, Stuart Gordon has made what sounds like a really good film out of the concept and I don't have to worry about my short film being compared directly to an acclaimed feature. I hope this doesn't just go direct-to-DVD because it should be great.