Friday, August 15, 2014
With fall just around the corner, I've started thinking about a subject to write about this Halloween. This has become my favorite time of year to write on this blog, because I love Halloween and horror, but also because it gets me motivated to do a sizable amount of writing in a month. This year, I've been leaning towards writing a 100 Best Horror Movies of the '90s list, after having a great deal of fun putting together an '80s list last year. The problem is, as I was putting together a rough list the other day, I realized there are far less than 100 horror movies released in the 1990s that I love. Honestly, it was tough coming up with even 50 movies that I really like. As a child of the '90s, I'm as shocked about this as you are, but it turns out that decade produced a fair amount of garbage and considerably more forgettable sequels and rip-offs.
However, it occured to me that most of the movies I don't care for have at least a few devoted fans out there, and I'd probably end up with a much more interesting, eclectic list if I open it up to my readers and friends to choose your own favorites. So, until one month from now (September 15), please share your top ten favorite '90s horror movies, either by e-mail (email@example.com) or Twitter or Facebook if we're friends there. I'll tally up the results and write commentary for each movie - also, if you might be interested in writing about why one of the movies on your list is special to you, please let me know.
- You don't have to rank your list, as that won't affect how I'm tallying the votes, but feel free if you want to.
- In determining release dates, I usually go with the original non-festival commercial debut anywhere in the world, according to IMDb, but if you think there's a title that merits an exception, let me know.
- As the decade was the heyday of network adaptations of books by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, I'll allow TV movies/miniseries.
- Feel free to define "horror" however you like.
Thanks in advance for contributing - I can't wait to see how the list turns out!
Sunday, June 01, 2014
This is my contribution to The Ninth Annual White Elephant Film Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler IV at his blog, Diary of a Country Pickpocket.Red Lights is a well-crafted thriller with a talented cast that is, at its core, deeply silly. The silliest idea it asks us to accept is that it takes place in a world where psychics are as famous as rock stars, and when a small department of paranormal investigators attempt to debunk the world's most famous psychic, it's practically the biggest news story in the world. There's a scene where one of the doctors, played by Toby Jones, is about to present the findings of their investigation; as he leaves his office, he's flanked by a mob of yelling reporters shoving cameras and microphones in his face, like he's a murder suspect or one of the pilots in The Right Stuff. A scene like that, no matter how dynamically staged and shot it is (and director Rodrigo Cortés is skilled at both), is inherently goofy and impossible to believe in a movie that otherwise presents itself as taking place in the real world. There are bad movies, like The Room or Troll II, that are bad because of a level of amateurish incompetence that they become compelling works of outsider art. More puzzling are bad movies that are made by and star people that should have known better; you wonder what they thought they were making, and why nobody involved ever stopped and asked "Wait, what are we doing?"
The movie is well made enough that, for the first 45 minutes or so, I thought I might end up praising it as good junk food. I like the notion of making the paranormal investigators skeptics, as they're usually portrayed onscreen as believers or characters who very much want to believe. Unfortunately, the movie makes its nonbelievers, led by Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) - who is described as a physicist, though we see little evidence of it - look as smug and unprincipled as the anti-death penalty advocates in the supposedly anti-death penalty film The Life of David Gale (Weaver, Murphy and Elizabeth Olson, as the newest member of the team, try their best to make their clumsy expository dialogue work, God bless them). When world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) takes a more prominent role in the story, Red Lights flatlines (remember Flatliners?). Silver, who is blind, wears dark shades and is dressed entirely in black throughout the film; his stage show consists of him bellowing about faith from a mostly darkened stage, sounding a little like Max Cady, and occasionally levitating and causing stage lights to explode (or is he??). De Niro's presence in the movie, which Cortés is clearly relying on to give the story credibility, is a depressing reminder of the damage he's done to his own legacy. When he's onstage, we're supposed to be questioning whether Silver is truly clairvoyant or a very talented crook, but we can't forget that, as loud as his performance is, De Niro is only giving us a small fraction of what he's capable of. It's awkward to watch one of the greatest actors of his generation reduced to hack stagecraft.
That the character that is meant to be central to the mystery and suspense the movie is trying to generate is so empty at the center only emphasizes how silly the entire movie is, especially when the third act devolves into bloody fight scenes that have almost no bearing on the narrative, uninspired effects sequences and, especially, two twist endings. One is laughably obvious, and I was surprised the other was meant as a twist, as it involves a reveal about one character's true nature that is so poorly telegraphed, I thought we were supposed to know the whole time. It sucks when a thriller feels obligated to include a twist, so it's structured to withhold information that would be much more interesting if, like Jacob's Ladder or Shutter Island, it's purposefully letting the audience in on the whole time. Even if the character who is affected by the twist opts not to tell anyone else in the movie (though that still makes no sense), presenting it as a twist deprives us of learning how that character feels about it, how it has affected the character's life. Instead, we get a rushed epilogue bringing us up to speed and an ending that can't decide between Elmer Gantry-esque cynicism or wide-eyed Shyamalan-ian wonder. I'm fine with ambiguity, and I'm not asking Cortés to give me a definitive answer on whether psychics are real, but as the psychic wars are an Earth-shatteringly important story, you think he'd have more to say on the matter.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
The first half of the movie follows our unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) as she prowls around Glasgow and rural Scotland in a van, seducing men and taking them back to her place, where they're imprisoned in an abyss-like expanse of darkness for reasons we never learn (Michael Faber's book apparently explains the character's mission in more detail, but Glazer chooses to keep it a mystery). These early interactions were filmed with hidden cameras, as Johansson approached non-actors on the street; when a particular guy seemed right for the movie, the crew would explain it to him and invite him to participate in the stranger material. Not only has Glazer found an interesting use for GoPro cameras, he also found a perfect mirror of the film in its own production; it's fascinating to watch her conquest's tentative enthusiasm in those scenes, and fascinating to watch Johansson, who is brilliant throughout the film, shift between flirtiness and a chilling indifference as she tracks her unobserved prey. She's perfect for this role, and her status as a sex symbol adds another layer of meaning to the film, as we're watching a target of our collective objectification forcing male audience members into a very unsettling form of empathy. When I mentioned how much I loved the movie on Facebook, a friend commented that "naked ScarJo can't hurt," and I had to gently let him know that, if that's why he wanted to see the film, it was likely to really mess him up.
At the screening I attended, an older couple walked out about twenty minutes in, after the first instance of male frontal nudity, although I think this was just the last straw for them. Honestly, as much as I loved the movie, I can't blame them - this is a movie that wants to disturb us, and I think it has the ability to shake even the most jaded cinephile. With little explicit violence and no gore, Under the Skin is more frightening than any horror movie I've seen in years. There was actually a point where I wondered if I was going to turn on the movie, a scene where the protagonist meets a family on a beach (trust me, you'll know it when you see it). While I admired the film up until that point, I worried that the film would ultimately only be a well-crafted provocation, While I understood that what the main character does (and neglects to do) in that situation stemmed from a lack of understanding of human values, as I happen to be a human, I was repulsed by her and couldn't imagine caring about her for the rest of the film.
Then, shortly after, the character encounters a man with a severely deformed face (Adam Pearson). As she has no preconceptions about what a man should look like, she flirts with him as easily as she would anyone else; the man, understandably, is at first defensive, then moved to tears by what he takes as kindness. It's not really, of course - as with the other men, she's just doing her job. But the sequence builds to an astonishing moment where the alien feels - empathy? Sympathy? Affection? We don't know, but it's fascinating to watch the feeling, and the decision she makes, unfold on Johansson's face; between this and a similar scene in Birth, Glazer has a gift for showing a character's entire world change in a wordless close-up. It's here that Under the Skin reveals an unexpected spiritual dimension, not in a theistic sense but in the suggestion that compassion, genuine concern for others and even love are not necessarily the result of socialization, that these things truly can grow from within. And then, after reminding us how we all have this capacity for goodness, there's an incident of human cruelty that stings so much more when one considers how the movie arrived there. This movie wrecked me, is what I'm saying.
Glazer has been called cold and detached, but, while his visual sensibility is very precise and meticulous, he's perceptive about the human condition at its best and most horrible in a way that only an artist with a huge heart could be. Glazer favors big, archetypal images - bodies suspended in darkness, a stream of red liquid transported across space, the absolutely beautiful shot of Johansson asleep in a forest - and cinematographer Daniel Landlin and the effects artists achieve these effects brilliantly, blurring the line between the realistic and otherworldly scenes (if only CGI was more frequently used in such a beautifully impressionistic way). Under the Skin feels out of time, in a way - while movies this formally daring have always been rare, I suspect it would have done well at midnight screenings for stoned audiences in the '70s, alternating nights with Eraserhead and El Topo. While one can find Kubrick and other influences in the movie's DNA, it's ultimately the kind of movie that - again, a cliche here, but actually true - isn't like anything you've ever seen before. Based on Birth and on the advance raves for Under the Skin, I had high hopes for the film, and it easily surpassed them. If I see a better movie this year, than we're in for a hell of a year.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
It's been almost two years since I've seen a new movie on film (The Master in 70mm). For better or worse, digital projection is the new normal, and even repertory cinemas made a substantial shift to digital in order to survive - last year, I saw five classic movies at Boston-area rep houses, and only two of them were on 35mm. I'll avoid waxing poetic about the romance of hearing the clicking sounds of a film print making its way through the gears of a projector (though I guess I just did, and it is a wonderful sound), but every opportunity to see a classic movie on film has a new urgency. Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I spent last weekend driving 260 miles to Syracuse and spending the day (and night, and early morning) watching horror movies in a beautiful 90-year-old movie palace.
Billed as "The longest-running 35mm horror festival in upstate New York," the Salt City Horror Fest is in its ninth year. I first attended the fest in 2010, when it was still the Shaun Luu Horror Fest, a fundraiser for a local children's hospital organized by the friends of a young horror fan who passed away from brain cancer (this interview with festival organizer Jeff Meyer has more about the festival's history). The lineup that year included Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Halloween III and Street Trash (with live commentary by writer/producer Roy Frumkes), all on film. I've considered returning in the year between, but decided against it when I couldn't find anyone to go with me. This year, however, the lineup was too good to pass on, particularly the chance to see Halloween II, a movie I've always wanted to see on the big screen but didn't think I'd ever have the chance. I decided in March to make the trip by myself; a few weeks later, during what was shaping up to be the worst April of my life, leaving town and driving very, very far to watch ten horror movies in a row turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.
After a lovely, almost non-stop five-hour drive through three states, I arrived a few minutes after the start of the first feature, 13 Ghosts, presented in Illusion-O. One of producer William Castle's most successful gimmicks, Illusion-O consisted of watching certain parts of the movie through a "Ghost Viewer" - a duel lens with red and blue cellophane filters, similar to 3D, except that the audience only looks through one lens at a time. Looking through the red lens allows the viewer to see the ghosts onscreen, although they're still somewhat visibly on the tinted image without the lens; when viewed through the blue lens, the ghosts disappear. Text cues appear on the bottom the screen throughout the movie, prompting the audience to put on and remove the viewer (as mentioned in the interview, a friend of the festival recreated the Ghost Viewers for the screening). It's a far cry from IMAX 3D, but that's a large part of its charm. The Illusion-O scenes are fun in a carnival funhouse way - it's a simple gag, the effect of seeing the movie's ghosts separated from the background, as if they were suspended in front of the screen, is visually interesting and even a bit eerie in a few moments. The story, concerning a family who moves into a house they inherited from the patriarch's uncle (a paranormal researcher who had discovered a way to "collect" ghosts), is pretty thin, though there's a fun supporting role for Margaret Hamilton, as the uncle's housekeeper, that allows for approximately 500 references to her performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie is structured around the gimmick, instead of the other way around; still, it's a great gimmick, and if William Castle were around today, he'd be having a field day with the possibilities of 3D. It's a shame that 13 Ghosts was already remade, as this would be the perfect time for Illusion-O to make a comeback.
Next was Ernest Scared Stupid, a staple of 3rd grade sleepovers in 1992, which is a movie that I might be just a few years too old to have the nostalgic feelings for that many of the people I saw it with clearly did. As with the other Ernest movies, it's basically Jim Varney making funny faces and hayseed jokes for 90 minutes, occasionally employing cartoon logic to rotate through several other characters. It's dumb but harmless. Still, I could see how it could serve as a gateway drug for a budding horror fan, as the horror plotline - Ernest has to battle centuries-old trolls who turn children into wooden dolls - is played surprisingly straight for a PG Disney movie. The trolls, designed by the Chiodo brothers, are genuinely fearsome-looking and would work just as well in a straight horror movie. The rest of the movie is a compendium of '90s kids movie tropes - I was genuinely surprised that there were no scenes of kids kicking adults in the scrotum - but as far as objects of '90s kid nostalgia go, it's a heck of a lot better than Hocus Pocus. As a bonus, there was a trailer for Beauty and the Beast still attached to the print.
I hadn't seen The Invisible Man since I was very young, so I didn't realize how (deliberately) funny much of it is. While it's wonderfully atmospheric and the climactic chase is played straight, the early scenes of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) terrorizing a local village are hilarious. While H.G. Wells' book is quite creepy in how it considers how a seemingly normal person might behave if freed from any consequences for their actions, once it's translated to film, there's no getting around the hilarity of a disembodied shirt jogging around a room while Rains' disembodied voice cackles maniacally, and director James Whale smartly understood and embraced this, which also serves to make the thriller elements more credible. The audience was roaring with laughter for much of the first half, only to become absorbed in the story (and the movie's still-impressive optical effects) by the end.
This, incidentally, is why I generally prefer horror fans to the ostensibly more highbrow audiences that generally attend repertory screenings. Most cinephiles have had the experience of having a repertory screening marred by ironic laughter from an audience that regards any visible signs of a movie's age as campy and takes any scenes involving big or uncomfortably real emotions as a cute to laugh. A week before the festival, I went to a screening of Taxi Driver - a good print on a huge screen, marred by an audience that apparently thought it was a laugh riot. Taxi Driver is very funny in places, but practically every moment became a punchline; I've never felt more alienated from my supposed peers than I did when the line "Do you know what a .45 can do to a woman's pussy?" got a biiiig laugh. What I love about horror fans is that, in general, ironic detachment is not their default setting; while there are definitely beloved "so bad it's good" horror titles, in general I've found audiences at a horror screening have an easier time of considering a movie in the context of when it was made and appreciating the filmmakers' intentions without reducing everything to unintentional comedy. With The Invisible Man, the audience was cracking up, but there was no "LOL old movie" element to it - they clearly funny got that Whale knew what he was doing, and the laughter was appreciative. "Fanboy" has become a derisive term, and sometimes for good reason, but at least some niches of fandom are actually quite smart about why they love what they love, and horror fans are chief among them (also, horror nerds, for whatever reason, tend to be more attractive than the average nerd - I don't know why, but it's true).
I'd actually seen The Lost Boys on 35mm several years earlier, though the print in Syracuse was a little cleaner, if my memory is correct. Actually, all of the prints were surprisingly good, with Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky the only one that had any noticeable wear and tear. As for The Lost Boys, it's the quintessential '80s movie played just straight enough to work. Director Joel Schumacher is known for his slick, commercial filmmaking style, but it's actually quite entertaining when paired with the right material (which, unfortunately, has only happened with a few movies). The Lost Boys is the movie Schumacher was born to make; originally conceived as a Goonies-esque adventure with a cast of preteen characters, the script was rewritten after Schumacher became attached. It seems silly to say that Schumacher and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam made the movie "darker" - this is still a movie that caps a vampire's explosive death with the line "Death by stereo." But as flashy and MTV-influenced as it is, The Lost Boys also benefits from a surprisingly sympathetic cast of characters, atmospheric cinematography by Michael Chapman (who also shot Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), and strong performances, particularly from its adult stars, Dianne Wiest (between this and Parenthood, one of the most loveable movie moms), Edward Herrmann and, especially, Barnard Hughes as Grandpa. The movie has a standard '80s action climax, but it's done with panache and never insults our intelligence, and the last scene is a hoot. Leaving the theater, I overheard one audience member say to a friend, "I don't know, I guess I'm more of a Near Dark guy." So am I, guy, but Near Dark doesn't have this guy. There's room for both movies in this world.
I hadn't seen Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky in over a decade, and I was able to get past my distaste for its extreme gore and appreciate the deliberate humor behind its excess. I don't know how I missed it the first time - the warden character keeps mints in his glass eye, for pete's sake. The movie is an adaptation of a manga, and director Ngai Choi Lam goes for an over-the-top approach to the performances and outlandish action scenes that would seem a bit much even in a comic book. The title character is imprisoned for killing the drug dealers responsible for his girlfriend's death; set in the distant year of 2001, prisons have been privatized, its owners using them for opium production, and Ricky is soon forced to battle the administration's henchmen. Taught by his uncle, a qigong master, Ricky is able to literally put his fist through his opponents (I studied qigong but can't punch a person's head off; maybe I should have stuck with it longer). And the movie quickly becomes an escalating series of ultra-gruesome setpieces, and while it provokes a good deal of shocking laughter, I have to admit that it's not my cup of tea. I don't necessarily mind ultraviolence, but while a movie like Peter Jackson's Braindead approaches gore with a spirit of Looney Tunes-influenced cartoonish invention, in Ricky-Oh the gore is unreal but still brutal and punishing. That said, it's a great audience movie - the people I saw it with were cracking up throughout, and the triumphant final scene elicited massive applause. And at the very least, it's a potent cautionary tale about the dangers of government privatization.
Sleepaway Camp distinguished itself from the spate of early-'80s Friday the 13th with its famously strange, psychosexual twist ending. If you haven't seen the movie and haven't had the ending spoiled, it's worth seeing for one of the best "WTF?" moments in any movie. The rest of the movie, about a mysterious killer picking off campers, is pretty standard and formulaic but entertainingly quirky. Unlike most of its contemporaries, it doesn't have any gratuitous T&A and actually goes much further in objectifying its male cast. I'm not proud for noticing, but seeing it on the big screen made me wonder if the campers and counselors had a contest to see who could wear the tightest, shortest short shorts. And the only sex scene is some heavy petting between two men seen in a flashback that is part of shy camper Angela's (Felissa Rose) incomprehensible backstory. Sleepaway Camp isn't among the best slashers, but it's fun and entertainingly quirky and, as with the first the few Friday the 13th movies and The Burning, the rural East Coast locations (upstate New York here) have a cozy nostalgic appeal. And while I feel like I'd be stepping on Stacie Ponder's toes if I went on at length about Karen Fields's performance as Judy, she is one of the most enjoyably bitchy characters of all time.
Halloween II may seem like an odd choice for one of the movies I've most wanted to see on film, as there are many better horror movies I haven't seen on the big screen. It's partly because it seemed unlikely that I'd ever have the opportunity, and also, I think, because it was one of my gateway drugs into the genre. I watched it countless times on TV and video when I was young, and it frightened me almost as much as John Carpenter's original. Seeing it as an adult, the mostly generic supporting characters and some ho-hum gory moments stick out more; Carpenter was contractually obligated to co-write and co-produce the sequel (directed by Rick Rosenthal), and the script does feel like an afterthought even for a slasher. Still, I can't help loving it - the hospital setting is a great (if implausibly unpopulated) location for Michael Myers to stalk his prey, and Rosenthal and DP Dean Cundey (returning from the first movie) wring a great deal out of tension out of the location's many empty spaces. It helps that stuntman Dick Warlock does a great job playing Myers; it may seem silly to single out a performance that consists of wearing a mask, walking around and pretending to stab people, but there's a big difference between a stuntman going through the motions and one who, like Warlock, uses his body language and the close-ups on his eyes peering through the mask to give the character a believable sense of single-minded murderous rage. The climactic chase scene is as suspenseful as anything in the original movie, and it was a pleasure seeing Cundey's gorgeous scope cinematography on a huge screen, with Carpenter and Alan Howarth's terrific score turned way up - my inner eight-year-old couldn't have been happier.
I didn't see Pumpkinhead until long after it was released, on TV with commercials, and seeing it on the big screen made me appreciate it a good deal more. It's a southern Gothic tale about a single dad (Lance Henriksen) who, after his young son is killed in a dirt bike accident, makes a deal with a swamp witch to conjure the titular backwoods monster to take revenge on the young city folk responsible for the boy's death. It's a pretty simple supernatural revenge tale, but seeing it on the big screen helped me to better appreciate the craft that director Stan Winston and his effects crew put into it. The character design of Pumpkinhead is effectively creepy, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli takes an expressionistic, strobe-heavy approach to the monster's scenes that give them an eerie, otherworldly effect. I also had a newfound appreciation for Lance Henriksen's performance; as I have an adorable young son of my old, it doesn't take much to put myself in his character's shoes, and Henriksen makes some great, unexpected choices in portraying his character's grief. As Pumpkinhead is largely about that grief and the consequences of revenge, it's perhaps less fun than the average monster movies, and Winston and his cast are smart to play it straight. While I can have as much fun with a mindless "Boo!" movie as any horror fan, I always appreciate a horror movie that isn't afraid to take the consequences of its characters' actions seriously.
The ninth movie, The Girl Next Door, was preceded by a Universal promo reel from 1982 that the fest's organizers recently discovered in the basement of a local theater. It was a series of short teasers presumably prepared for exhibitors, and it was a pleasure seeing a near-pristine reel of clips from (let's see if I can remember them all) The Border, Missing, Cat People, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, The Thing and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The teaser for The Thing, which I've never seen in any form, was a treat - with no actual footage from the movie, it consisted of an evocative shot tracking over a barely-visible spacecraft encased in ice, capped with the alternate tagline "Anytime. Anywhere. Anyone."
The goodwill I felt towards the teaser reel was enough to get me through The Girl Next Door, which was the low point of the festival. Adapted from the novel by Jack Ketchum, the film is inspired by the murder of Sylvia Likens, a true story that could provide the basis for a genuinely disturbing movie about the banality of evil. The film is told from the point of view of an adult narrator named David (William Atherton) remembering the summer of 1958, when he became friends with a young woman named Meg (Blythe Auffarth) living with her Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) after her parents' death. Aunt Ruth is permissive with her sons and the other boys in the neighborhood, but she quickly begins emotionally and physically abusing Meg and her younger sister. Before long, Ruth has tied Meg up in the basement and is encouraging the boys to torture her. While the movie was released during the wave of so-called "torture porn" films, The Girl Next Door is more serious-minded than that, but while director Gregory M. Wilson and screenwriters Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman are obviously trying to say something about misogyny and the sort of diseased pack mentality that allows crimes like this to happen, they're never able to articulate their themes with any sort of clarity. Worst of all, the film flirts with the idea that young David is complicit in Meg's torture, only to quickly backtrack, which only serves to make it more implausible that he doesn't do more to help her. It's well-intentioned but deeply confused, and the Stand by Me-esque epilogue is so tonally inappropriate that the movie actually becomes more offensive than a run-of-the-mill slasher. I appreciate the impulse to include a movie about real-life horror among more entertaining movies, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was one of the highlights of the last festival I attended, but The Girl Next Door was the festival's only misstep - it was the only one that wasn't met with enthusiastic applause when the credits began.
Luckily, the last movie of the festival, Candyman, was the perfect movie to bring the long night to an end. It's a movie I'd point to when asked by non-horror fans why I would want to put those images in my brain. Candyman is a great example of horror's unique opportunity to tackle serious and weighty subject matter with a remarkable degree of intelligence and honesty. Beginning as a story about urban legends, Bernard Rose's adaptation of Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" expands into a nuanced, thought-provoking examination of race, class and sexuality that stands up against any respectable drama on those subjects. Main character Helen (Virginia Madsen, wonderful here), a grad student researching the titular boogeyman, seems largely inspired by Clarice Starling (with Kasi Lemmons playing a near-identical best friend role in both movies), but there's a subtle danger-seeking element to her character that complicates her eventual encounters with Candyman (Tony Todd, also wonderful) in fascinating ways (she's also a chainsmoker, to the point where it hurt my lungs just to watch her).
The backstory of Candyman, the son of a slave brutally punished for impregnating a white woman, is both tragic and darkly erotic, and I love the way Rose sets up Helen's own marginalization by her emotionally remote husband (Xander Berkley), her former professor, to create a push-pull relationship between her and Candyman; she's terrified him, but also empathizes and is subtly aroused by him (nobody understands the power of a hook as a signifier of virility like Clive Barker). Madsen allowed Rose to hypnotize her during her scenes with Todd, and the juxtaposition of the close-ups of Madsen in a trance state (lit like a Hitchcock heroine) and Todd's booming voice remains very unsettling. Building towards a final scene that is both thematically and viscerally perfect, Candyman has only gotten better with age, and is a great example of how much more a horror movie can offer the viewer beyond cheap thrills. The movie was followed by two disappointing sequels that swiftly ended the franchise; watching it again, I found myself hoping that the right filmmaker might have the opportunity to revive the character, as there's a great deal of potential to further explore the subtextual possibilities of the original.
Exiting the theater after Candyman, just as the sun was beginning to rise, I reflected on how the movie left me feeling about my relationship with the genre I love most. Being drawn to horror since I was very young, I've encountered people my whole life who questioned why I would be drawn to such dark subject matter and, when I was a kid, whether scary movies and books would have a negative effect on my developing mind. A really great, smart horror movie like Candyman, which really got under my skin as a kid, arguably had far more of a positive effect on me; as with so many great stories, it grew my understanding of the world around me, and though its implications are dark, it doesn't make me feel darker for having watched it. Quite the opposite, actually; leaving the theater, I reflected on the power stories can have to give context and meaning to our own lives. Soon after, as I drifted off to sleep in a motel bed, my inner (actually, outer) horror nerd felt sated and very lucky.
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
It was clear that 2013 was going to be a strong year for movies early in the year. Usually, spring is a dumping ground for subpar studio fare and a time when we mostly have to wait for the good stuff. But Spring 2013 saw the release of Spring Breakers, The Lords of Salem, To the Wonder, Upstream Color, Evil Dead, Room 237, Mud - movies that, whether you loved or hated them, were certainly unique and worth discussing. During both Spring Breakers and The Lords of Salem, I was baffled by the fact that I was watching each in a multiplex. If the summer was a little heavier than usual on big-budget dreck, there were still plenty of treasures at the art house, and interesting genre fare like The Conjuring and Pacific Rim. The fall and winter were packed with strong movies from legendary filmmakers and those, like Steve McQueen, who are well on their way towards being counted among the greats. As divisive as many of these movies were, any cinephile would have had an easy time finding at least a handful of movies to be passionate about.
A lot has been written about the many movies in 2013 that were in some way about America's unchecked greed and excess and, perhaps, the gun-toting cuties of Spring Breakers or the cocaine-fueled orgies and dwarf-tossing of The Wolf of Wall Street as symptoms of an empire in decline. Personally, the movies that resonated for me were largely about characters existing within much larger systems beyond their control - capitalism, but also family, technology, time, the laws of physics and, especially, mysterious pig-farming identity thieves - who stumble towards finding meaning and happiness in their own lives. This identification probably has a lot to do with my family's searching for and, ultimately, buying and moving into a new house, the first I've lived in since I moved out of my parents' home. With everything that decision entails about committing to and building a life with another person, it makes sense that I was drawn to movies about relationships this year; it felt right to bookend my list with two movies about couples. It wasn't just relationship movies that resonated, though; shortly after we made a bid on the house - a farmhouse that was built in 1875 and has all of the character that suggests - I saw The Conjuring. Afterwards, I joked to my girlfriend that it was a perfect primer for the problems of home ownership. As I have a work schedule that enables me to be at home with our kids most of the week, I couldn't help feeling for Lili Taylor's character - if there are any ghosts in this house, I'm the one they're going to give a hard time.
That The Conjuring, a movie I liked very much, didn't make my top ten, along with the rest of the year's crop of interesting horror movies, gives an idea of what a strong year this was. There are years where I've had to round out my top ten with flawed but interesting films, but this was one of those years where my honorable mentions list would be about as worthy as the top ten. To be honest, my rankings this year (minus my top two, which were both released in the first half of the year and stayed firmly at the top of the list despite strong competition) are mostly irrelevant; I can't remember another year where deciding which movie was my third or fifth or seventh favorite of the year was as much a matter of splitting hairs. I've never included an honorable mentions list, but this year is a good time to start. Here are all of the movies not on my top ten that I'd rate 4 out of 5 stars or higher:
John Dies at the End, The Lords of Salem, Frances Ha, Berberian Sound Studio, This Is the End, World War Z, Fruitvale Station, Pacific Rim, The Act of Killing, The Conjuring, Blue Jasmine, The Spectacular Now, Captain Phillips, American Hustle
And, in the interest of full disclosure, movies on Metacritic's Top 30 that I haven't seen yet:
Stories We Tell, Short Term 12, The Great Beauty, Dallas Buyers Club, A Touch of Sin, Leviathan, The Past
And now, the top ten:
Simply put, Before Midnight was the best moviegoing experience of the year for me. After my girlfriend and I saw this, we talked about where we are now and talked about the future. We talked and talked and ate good food and talked and made love and talked and talked and talked. If one of the reasons we love movies is because of how they reach us where we are and help us make sense of and find the poetry in our own lives, than no movie came close to Before Midnight for me this year. Of course, it also helps that's a perfect movie and the perfect end to one of the all-time great movie trilogies; I'm torn between the desire to revisit Jesse and Celine in ten years and the suspicion that this story may have already ended with a perfect balance of uncertainty and hope.
It's been six months since I last watched Upstream Color, and in trying to describe what makes it special, it feels more like trying to recount a dream. While Shane Carruth's haunting, elliptical sci-fi romance about love, memory and finite beings controlled by infinite organisms welcomes multiple interpretations, I don't think anyone will be able to create a timeline that explains it all, as someone did for Carruth's first movie, Primer (it would look more like a very dense Venn diagram). While Upstream Color is as conceptually ambitious as Primer, it's also got a surprising amount of heart - take away all the sci-fi trappings, and what's left is a story about two survivors of a traumatic experience that has altered their concept of reality helping each other rebuild their lives by creating new, shared memories. Carruth (who not only wrote and directed the film but was also the cinematographer, editor (with David Lowery), composer and male lead) demonstrates remarkable control over his film's idiosyncratic tone; his work here has been compared to Terrence Malick and David Cronenberg, which is true in that all three directors possess an incredibly unique and self-assured vision. As the term "independent film" becomes increasingly muddled, here's a movie that is truly independent; it owes its existence to the democratization of film production and distribution, but it's ambitious in a way that few DIY filmmakers attempt. It's a great movie anyway, but as a no-budget filmmaker, it gives me hope.
I honestly can't imagine what a relatively privileged white guy like me could say about 12 Years a Slave that could possibly be of interest. I don't mean for this to sound reductive, but I honestly feel like it's our job, as white audiences, to sit down, shut the hell up, watch the movie, allow the brutality - not just physical violence, but the way slavery breaks down Solomon Northup's sense of self - to wash over us and contemplate what the movie has to say about not only our terrible history but the legacy of privilege we continue to benefit from. I'm not trying to say the movie is perfect or beyond criticism, but when I read stuff like "Meh, I thought a few scenes were overdone" - no offense, but do you know how you sound? 12 Years a Slave is a punch to the gut, a descent into a hell that, it implies, we all have the potential to be complicit in creating. But it's not just the movie's intentions that make it great, as there are lots of well-intentioned but so-so movies on the subject of race. It's director Steve McQueen's ability (aided immeasurably by his remarkable cast) to be unflinching, to not just preach at us about the horrors of slavery but make them feel viscerally real and immediate, but also to find surprising moments of beauty and grace that serve to make the evils on display that much more tangible by contrast. McQueen is rigorous and precise, but never denies even the most loathsome of his characters an essential human frailty, which denies us the detachment of saying "That could never be me." I had a conversation with some friends, many of them black, who insisted that they had no interest in seeing 12 Years a Slave because the narrative is so ingrained in their culture and upbringing that they don't need a painful reminder. That makes perfect sense to me; conversely, if I had the power to do so, I'd show 12 Years a Slave in every predominantly white high school in America.
Or, as my friend Kevin dubbed it, Panic Attack: The Movie. Kevin was being a smartass, but it's also true. While Gravity is remarkable as a believably immersive experience, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Louis C.K. both missed the point when they criticized it for not being 100% scientifically accurate (though Louis C.K.'s point about Sandra Bullock's character as a "reluctant astronaut" is hilarious and duly noted). It's a great ride, but it's more than that. That I was moved by the emotional journey Bullock's character, Ryan Stone, takes in the film instead of being annoyed by her (admittedly somewhat awkwardly presented) backstory probably reveals my limitations as a critic (a friend asked a while back why I'm not writing about movies professionally, and as nice as the compliment was, I think I'm just too easily moved to hack it). Gravity plays like a more technically ambitious but also more intimate B-side to Alfonso Cuarón's previous film, Children of Men; both are about finding hope in the face of absolute darkness, made frighteningly literal in this film as Bullock is sent hurtling into the abyss. No movie engaged me on a primal, visceral level the way Gravity did this year, which is the kind of reaction that's easy for cinephiles to underestimate but is also essential to why we go to the movies.
As much as I loved this movie, I'm kind of sick of discussing it, at least the way the debate has been framed - between the controversy over Scorsese's film and the torture debate over Zero Dark Thrity last year, I'm ready to testify to Congress about the need to ban pundits from writing about movies. Once the dust has cleared, though, it'll be easier to place Jordan Belfort alongside other Scorsese protagonists who use money or violence or celebrity or something else to attempt to fill a spiritual void that, usually, they're not even aware is there. Two things set Belfort apart - with the exception of Rupert Pupkin, no Scorsese protagonist has been as unconflicted in his scuzziness, and unlike Pupkin and all the other gangsters and loners in the Scorsese filmography, Belfort's brand of amorality is almost completely legitimized and encouraged. I was so overwhelmed by the insane excess the first time that it took a second viewing to appreciate how great the movie is, particularly DiCaprio's performance, which is a remarkable feat of sustained insanity. It's wonderful that a great director in his seventies can still surprise us, and I'm not just talking about the sex and drugs - who knew that Scorsese had this kind of Felliniesque take on surreal excess in him? And though his movies are filled with great verbal humor, who knew he had such a knack for staging large-scale physical comedy? I always expect a lot of things from a new Scorsese movie, but I never expected to find him channeling his inner Jerry Lewis.
On the Cinephiles podcast, Keith Uhlich marvelled at the contrast between the bleakness of The World's End's final message and the exuberance of the filmmaking. I mostly agree, but without going into spoilers, my reading of that ending is a little less bleak than Keith's. As bad as things get and as much as we're "fuck-ups" who are responsible for our own self-destruction, there's an odd sort of hopefulness in framing the story of humans in the 21st century as a tale of addiction and recovery; it's only after hitting bottom, after all, that we can grow, as the triumphant final shot implies. It's such a consistently hilarious movie that it's easy to miss how much it has to say about addiction, self-destruction and the perils of nostalgia, not to mention how tightly constructed it is. Simon Pegg's performance has been terribly underrated - it's not easy, as Pegg must in the early scenes, to find humor in being deliberately unfunny, to play the guy who used to be the life of the party but long ago passed a point where his attempts at clowning reveal the desperation underneath. The rest of the cast is great - this is Nick Frost's best performance, and I love the unspoken joke of Martin Freeman playing the Ian Holm role - and Edgar Wright has grown into one of the best visual storytellers in comedy or any genre. I can't wait for Ant Man, mostly because Wright might be the rare director that benefits from having a ridiculous amount of money at his disposal.
Allow me to explain a theory that I literally just thought of: Mud is a southern Gothic Peter Pan, with its young protagonist and his best friend drawn into an adventure with an eternal child who teaches them what they have to leave behind, even as it ends with him arriving in his own Never Never Land. Mud (the movie, not the character) isn't sexist or misogynist, as some have suggested; it's that it so completely takes the point of view of its young protagonist that it's largely about what boys know about women and adult relationships and, as the ending suggests, what Ellis will soon outgrow. Writer/director Jeff Nichols does a great job of evoking the kind of wide-eyed boys' adventure that is very hard to pull off convincingly, while at the same time giving us just enough information that we can understand the larger narrative happening around Ellis. He's a great actors' director, too: Matthew McConaughey continues his recent hot streak, but the adult cast all excels in their supporting roles, and the performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are believable and compelling in the way that can only happen when talented kids are paired with a patient, empathetic director. Beyond that, Mud is just a wonderful, entertaining yarn that left me feeling genuinely elated in a way that no other movie last year quite did.
I don't like to accuse people who disliked a movie I liked of missing the point. However, I think that Room 237 is great for reasons that have little to do with whether you think its subjects' interpretations of The Shining are worthwhile or completely bonkers. Director Rodney Ascher does an excellent job of using film clips to evoke the effect the movies can have on our thought process, how we make associations between one movie and another and memories or other parts of our frames of reference. If some of the theories on The Shining are questionable, and their theorists frighteningly certain that theirs is the only correct interpretation, that's not a knock against the film. For one, they're a hoot, but they're also an extreme example of how all of us who love and obsess over the medium can get a little too deep into our own heads. There was a moment when I said to my girlfriend, "This is what the inside of my brain looks like." Not the moon landing nonsense, though. I think it was the map of Danny's path around the Overlook on his Big Wheel. Bonus points, obviously, if you've been obsessing over The Shining for 25 years.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis
Perhaps the smartest thing about Inside Llewyn Davis is that it never really tells us whether it thinks its struggling musician protagonist is any good or not. Without the validation of critical recognition or commercial success, anyone attempting to make music or art of any kind is left with the question of whether their work has value. Some find a way to work towards a different measure of success, while others, like Llewyn, indulge in self-pity and bitterness towards a culture they feel has rejected them. The easy thing for the Coens would have been to romanticize that self-pity, but they do something more complex here, finding the humanity in a character that isn't easy to like even as they don't shy away from his more assholish tendencies. That Oscar Isaac, as Llewyn, is able to project warmth even as his performance never begs us to like Llewyn helps a great deal. The Coens have long been preoccupied with our place in the universe, particularly how much of our suffering can be blamed on fate or chance or our own choices, and they've adapted subtly different positions in each film. Here, Llewyn has some bad luck, but the tragedy of the movie is seeing how a series of shortsighted choices, often forced by poverty, result in Llewyn sending himself to the purgatorial loop he seems to be caught in. You don't have to like Llewyn Davis to like Inside Llewyn Davis, but it's hard not to feel for the guy at least a little bit.
I usually shy away from recommending movies to people, because tastes are unpredictable and people can be a little resentful when they feel like you talked them into seeing a dud. But the day after I saw Her, I wrote a Facebook page (fittingly enough) urging my friends to check it out. It's amazing how, from what seemed like a weak, gimmicky premise, Spike Jonze tells a story that says so much about love and loneliness; watching it, I thought not only about my own experiences, but several of my friends and how they would find something to relate to in it. Jonze's collaborator Charlie Kaufman has this same ability to start with a strange central conceit and take it someplace deeper; where Jonze differs as a screenwriter for Kaufman is his warmth and essential optimism. It's refreshing, after so many movies in the past few years that envision a scorched-earth future, to see a vision of where we're headed that holds out hope for our ability to grow. When I was younger, I asked an older friend what he thought of a movie that I found schmaltzy, and he said "I loved it! It had such warmth!" I snickered inside at his description at the time, but I'm ten years older now, and I'm starting to appreciate what a rare quality that is.
And the rest of my ballot for the 2013 Muriel Awards, the results of which are coming soon (you can follow them and check out previous years here):
1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
3. Simon Pegg, The World’s End
4. Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
1. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
2. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
4. Amy Adams, American Hustle
5. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
1. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
2. James Franco, Spring Breakers
3. Nick Frost, The World’s End
4. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
5. James Gandolfini, Enough Said
1. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
2. Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
3. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
4. Scarlett Johansson, Her
5. Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
1. Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
2. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
3. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
4. Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
5. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
1. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
2. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, The World’s End
3. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Jeff Nichols, Mud
5. Spike Jonze, Her
1. Emmanuel Lubezki, To the Wonder
2. Hoyte van Hoytema, Her
3. Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Benoît Debie, Spring Breakers
5. Simon Duggan, The Great Gatsby
1. Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger, Gravity
2. Paul Machliss, The World’s End
3. Shane Carruth and David Lowery, Upstream Color
4. Thelma Schoonmaker, The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Kirk M. Morri, The Conjuring
1. T-Bone Burnett (music supervisor), Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Steven Price, Gravity
3. Griffin Boice and John 5, The Lords of Salem
4. William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her
5. Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, Spring Breakers
1. Room 237
2. The Act of Killing
3. At Berkeley
1. Debris, Gravity
2. "Roll, Jordan, Roll," 12 Years a Slave
3. Lemmon 714, The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Basement/Hide and Clap, The Conjuring
5. Pub fight ("I hate this fucking town!"), The World's End
6. "Everytime," Spring Breakers
7. "Please Mr. Kennedy," Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Mako's memory, Pacific Rim
9. "That's not my blood," Captain Phillips
10. Airplane attack, World War Z
1. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
2. Rodney Ascher, Room 237
3. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
4. Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing
5. Fede Alvarez, Evil Dead
1. Emmanuel Lubezki (To the Wonder, Gravity)
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
3. Sandra Bullock (The Heat, Gravity)
4. Steven Price (The World's End, Gravity)
5. Jonah Hill (This Is the End, The Wolf of Wall Street)
1. The World’s End
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. American Hustle
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
2. Lost in Translation (Coppola)
3. Dogville (Von Trier)
4. Elephant (Van Sant)
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson)
6. Big Fish (Burton)
7. Mystic River (Eastwood)
8. All the Real Girls (Green)
9. American Splendor (Pulcini, Berman)
10. The Company (Altman)
Sunday, January 26, 2014
When we meet protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), he's working at a job composing letters for other people, the first of many nifty aspects of the film's near-future setting that suggest how technology might continue to influence the ways we communicate with each other. Theodore has been separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), for a year, and is living a solitary life that seems comfortable if not content. Jonze does a great job in these early scenes of expressing the kind of raw, awkward desire for connection that we've all experienced in some form - Theodore's idle sexual fantasies clash with the painful memories of his marriage's end, and an attempt at phone sex ends disastrously (and hilariously). Jonze's take on social networking is refreshing - rather than ranting about how our gadgets have made us less capable of intimacy, he suggests that at our core is a need to connect that, for all our insecurity and self-doubt, has and will continue to define (transcend?) our means of communicating that need.
I feel like I'm being disingenuous in talking around the ways that Her touched a nerve with me. I've been divorced for about a year, separated for much longer than that; this doesn't feel like a confession, exactly, as many of you already knew that. A lot of you have gone through the same thing and, unfortunately, a lot of you will eventually. Spike Jonze got divorced several years ago, and while I don't mean to speculate about how much he's drawing from his own experiences, this is clearly the work of a guy who gets it. And while I've healed from the experience and have grown up a bit as a result, there are moments in Her that capture that experience with frightening accuracy - there's a montage of brief memories accompanied by the scratching noise of a pen on the soundtrack that is devastating. What's so perfect about Samantha, the operating system that Theodore falls for, is that she's an ideal object of affection for someone who has gone through a divorce. She's sweet and flirtatious and empathizes with Theodore, but more importantly, she quickly learns to express her own needs, and she challenges Theodore to grow and be his best self. The beautiful irony of Jonze's screenplay is that he starts with a premise that lends itself to an easy dynamic - the manic pixie dream computer teaches the sad guy to love again - and quickly takes it in a drastically different and more interesting direction.
It says a lot about how well the movie works that there's so much to discuss about a character that only exists as a disembodied voice on the soundtrack. As with Jonze's two collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Her begins with a goofy, high-concept idea that soon proves to be a means to explore bigger themes. However, while Jonze has always been a brilliant stylist who elicits great performances from his casts, Kaufman has such a strong voice that it was unclear how much authorship to attribute to the director. Her is the first movie solely written by Jonze (he co-wrote Where the Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers); maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised by how mature and frank his writing is. If anything, Jonze is more emotionally direct than Kaufman. When Theodore and Samantha move beyond the early infatuation stage to the more complicated process of trying to sustain a relationship, it hardly matters that Samantha is a computer - it feels painfully true to life. It helps that, as Samantha, Scarlett Johansson creates a fully believable character using only her voice; Samantha grows, over the course of the movie, from an adolescent into a being with an endless capacity for growth, and it's largely thanks to Johansson's performance that this evolution works. And Phoenix does a great job of making us believe that Theodore's relationship with Samantha is not only real but transformative. There are, admittedly, a few moments where I found his performance distractingly mannered, but for the most part, that unguarded, even feminine, quality that Phoenix has onscreen works wonderfully here. The supporting cast is excellent as well, particularly Amy Adams as a sympathetic friend (the game she's designing, incidentally, is hilarious) and Olivia Wilde, who succeeds in creating a memorable, wounded character in just one scene.
The production design by K.K. Barrett imagines a future that is neither apocalyptic nor utopian, defined by shiny, colorful interiors that are at once utilitarian and warm. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema favors a soft, tactile approach to lighting both the sets and the actors' faces, capturing some of the most strikingly intimate closeups in recent memory. The effect is that of a vision of the future that is hopeful in a real, earned way. Samantha makes a decision, near the end of the film, that speaks to the nature of artificial intelligence but also carries with it the notion that humans, too, are not only capable of growth and progress but are inevitably moving towards enlightenment. Her is a feel-good movie in the best way; this is probably a strange way to describe a critically acclaimed movie by a director I already like, but it's the most pleasant surprise of 2013.