Saturday, October 31, 2009

375) Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)

375) Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) Dir: Amando de Ossorio Date Released: February 1973 Date Seen: October 31, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Really and truly inept in most every sense. Take the anatomical skeleton from House on Haunted Hill, give him some buddies, facial hair, grotty cloaks and horses on which they can move around on in slow motion and you've got this film's menace. The victims shriek a lot, take about getting naked more than they do get naked and just in general do things that make you want to hurt the filmmaker for ruining a fairly simple premise: midieval Spanish zombies go to town. Terrible. Giving it one star just because the dated kitsch factor kept me watching.

374) The Exorcist (1973)

374) The Exorcist (1973) Dir: William Friedkin Date Released: December 1973 Date Seen: October 31, 2009 Rating: 4/5

The perverse decision to theatrically release The Exorcist two days before Christmas is fraught with telling meaning. Apart from being sacrilegious, the film is as cheery as a death sentence and in its own cynical way, that's what the film is for its two male protagonists, both Catholic priests undergoing spiritual crises. The possession of little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is not important as far as it affects her or her mother, though it may look like that in the film's ambling first half. Instead, it's a test for both Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), one that they cannot pass because there are no rules or signs of faith that work in the long run. Right off the bat in the film's superbly paced prologue, we're shown forces at work that are beyond their and hence our ken, ominous images of inexplicable violence that you want to be able to understand, to label, to quarantine with some explanation, reasonable or not. But you can't and that knowledge is what kills both men. Ho ho ho, suckers.

The crux of The Exorcist is a "chicken and egg" question: which came first, the portents or the disintegration of belief? The answer here is deceptive because in the prologue, it seems to be the former: Father Merrin putters around in Nineveh looking for mystical, arcane artifacts. He finds them, of course, because he's looking for them (Or is it the other way around?). We learn later in the film that he's an experienced exorcist and just barely survived a months-long exorcism. We therefore can't know if it's that previous exposure to paranormal phenomena that has led Merrin to further confirm his disbelief or if it was there all along looking for expression.

Father Karras has a similar story: his conspicuously Greek mother (Vasiliki Maliaros) is dying alone in her apartment. She refuses to move out--"Then pao pouthena!"--and he doesn't have the money to move her into the hospital she needs, so she dies unattended. Karras' guilt at her loss is overshadowed by a foregrounding scene where he crosses paths with a crusty bum claiming to be a former altar boy. Karras looks at his supplicating face as if he were looking at a vampire while the roar of an incoming train drowns out the queasy silence of their brief acquaintance. The train's horn brays before and after they meet, once again making it difficult to tell whether or not Karras finds his faith rebuked because he wants it to be or not.

This is ironic considering that that same question of psycho-somatic affliction is posed to little Regan by one of a barrage of doctors her doting mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) consults. One psychiatrist posits, "Belief in the power of possession can cause it." And he may be right but Regan and Chris are strictly vestigial parts of the story, much like Lee J. Cobb's Lt. Kinderman. Kinderman's name suggests he's here to care for Regan--"Kinder" is German for "Child"--but he and both women for that matter, are just there to push the plot along. They don't get any resolution to their stories, save for the fact that they get to move away from their troubles, as if that solves anything when those troubles are Satanic in nature. The matter is strictly between Mr. Scratch and the men of the cloth; secular protagonists need not apply.

We're encouraged to keep our eyes on Karras as he has five times the amount of screentime that Merrin, the titular avenger, does. Though he's initially doubtful that Chris' claims hold any merit, he visits Regan just to re-assure her that it's all in her head. When Regan brings up Karras' dead mother without ever knowing about her, his faith wavers. Still, he refuses to give in and armed with tap water, he douses her to prove that what he thinks he's seeing can be scientifically explained. The girl flinches after she's told that she's been spritzed with holy water so Karras thinks he's caught her in a lie. But later, she takes just as poorly to real holy water when Merrin applies it, suggesting that there's no strength to that placebo save for the strength of skepticism invested in it.

The futility of Karras and Merrin's final confrontation with Regan is vital because it confirms Karras' greatest fear: the emotion he struggles to invest in the cerements of his faith is wasted because none of it means anything. While most people remember the unbending strength of Merrin and Karras' repeated cries of "The power of Christ compels you!" they don't seem to recall that nothing effectively stops Regan/Satan. She kills Merrin when Karras isn't in the room and once she takes hold of him, he, now full of the Spirit and the knowledge of the existence that negates his faith, throws himself out a window.

In doing so, he saves Regan and Chris are saved but we're not left with a shot of them riding off into the sunset. Instead, we get a shot of another priest staring blankly at the foot of a long staircase outside Regan's window where Karras' body landed after his long tumble. And so the cycle begins again for another man of God. That knowledge makes the ending especially damning. It tell us in no uncertain terms that the only things you can count on is not that evil will conquer good and that your doubts can literally take hold of you any time they want. Seasons greetings.

373) Carnival of Souls (1962)

373) Carnival of Souls (1963) Dir: Herk Harvey Date Released: September 1962 Date Seen: October 30, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The psychological component of the stifling atmosphere in Herk Harvey's cult classic Carnival of Souls is really the heart of the film. Which is strange, because the film is widely remembered for its proto-zombies, living corpses created by the survivor's guilt of Mary (Candace Hilligoss), the only person to survive after a car full of her friends skids off a suspension bridge. These Roy Andersson extras are patently unnecessary, considering how disquieting Harvey's camerawork is. Thanks to Harvey's tracking, crane shots and the film's ethereal soundtrack, the viewer is immersed in a vast, desolate space within a small Everytown, USA. More so than the dead people Mary sees and probably more than the fits of invisibility she undergoes every now and then, the scenes where the camera shows her wandering around in an ever-expanding environment provides the film with its emotional complexity (though John Clifford's script isn't anything to sneeze at either; his disdain for the church is inescapable but thankfully not hysterical, creating a satisfyingly knotty context for Mary's malaise). After seeing what Mary's feeling in such a poetic and spare way, the walking dead are a joke.

Note: Would anyone buy it if I said that in the same way that Lost Highway is Lynch's homage to Kiss Me, Deadly that Mulholland Drive is his tribute to Carnival of Souls?

371) The Bellboy (1960)

371) The Bellboy (1960) Dir: Jerry Lewis Date Released: July 1960 Date Seen: October 30, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Not as audacious as either The Ladies Man or The Errand Boy but still, enough loose fun to keep me satisfied. See my mention of it in my Jerry Lewis piece for The Onion NY AV Club.

Friday, October 30, 2009

372) Blacula (1972)

372) Blacula (1972) Dir: William Crain Date Released: August 1972 Date Seen: October 30, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5

I was disappointed but not really. See my tweets and Amber Wilkinson's on the subject at by looking up: #blacula.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

370) Zombieland (2009)

370) Zombieland (2009) Dir: Ruben Fleischer Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 29, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

If Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake proved anything, it's that there's nothing wrong with a well-polished pastiche whose only ambition is to putter around with the scenarios posited by better films. Hedging your bets is one thing. But thinking that you're carving a swath for yourself by explicitly spell out what was already implicit in most films of your chosen genre is another thing entirely. Zombieland's creators, director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Resse and Paul Whernick, feel they've accomplished something by telling us out-and-out that there are "rules" to surviving the zombie outbreak and the world is now a morbid playground for anyone that follows them. They've turned the zombie genre, a type of drama primarily concerned with survival of the fittest, into a survivalist's wet dream. Fanboys, rejoice: you can vicariously live out your Gallagher-related fantasy of squashing a clown zombie's skull with an oversized mallet. This isn't giving the people what they want, it's just mindless fan service for its own sake.

Again, that would be tolerable had the Wernick and Reese provided something in the way of memorable characters. Sadly, we get Jesse "Michael Cera Way Too Lite" Eisenberg as our geeky "rule"-enforcing hero, looking for a family, a girl, a good line; and Woody Harrelson as the fast-talking moron badass who gets by with long-lasting one-liners like "Nut up or shut up." There's that cameo some people are talking about but, um, ok, so there's a cool cameo in a boring movie. I'm sure you could say that about Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. Promises tons of fun without the need to think too hard about them but then subsequently confuses bluster for fun. Feh.

368) The Errand Boy (1961) and 369) The Ladies Man (1961)

368) The Errand Boy (1961) Dir: Jerry Lewis Date Released: November 1961 Date Seen: October 29, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

369) The Ladies Man (1961) Dir: Jerry Lewis Date Released: June 1961 Date Seen: October 29, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

As messy and scattershot as these both are, they're both pretty funny. See my mention of them in my Jerry Lewis feature for The Onion NY AV Club.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

367) The 10th Victim (1965)

367) The 10th Victim (1965) Dir: Elio Petri Date Released: December 1965 Date Seen: October 28, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Elio Petri's The 10th Victim saunters from one point to the next in its mad, mod social critique of tv, commercialism, sexual conquest and ritualized violence by schizophrenically changing mid-dance from a quick-step to a tango then a foxtrot. That boundless energy is what makes it, a science fiction story about a world where men and women can hunt each other for sport, a uniquely funny vision of the future. The goal of "The Big Hunt" is to survive ten "hunts," five times as a hunter, five as a victim. For her tenth "hunt," Caroline (Ursula Andress) stalks Marcello (Marcello Mastroanni, of course). She will bag him but according to another game's rules.

What's striking then is that despite the unkempt zeal of its protagonists' various different feints and wonderful quips--"Live dangerously but within the law"-- Petri fancies his film a warped descendant of Fellini. Though its busy aesthetic and sense of humor can be more closely attributed to Marcello's avowed love of comic books, Petri also dabbles in playful, Fellini-esque decadence, as in a scene where Marcello leads a group of sun-worshippers in their evening mass. The flowing maroon robes costumes and the beach-side location recall a collision of La Dolce Vita and Roma, while Piero Piccioni's carnivalesque soundtrack could easily be mistaken for un-used tracks from Nino Rota's score to Toby Dammit.

Still, The 10th Victim is too energetic to be truly Fellini-esque: once, while Caroline has Marcello under surveillance, a comically violent crowd of kung fu fighters suddenly gathers around him and begins to attack each other, leaving him unconcerned and unharmed. We're told that they're just art students by a curiously blase narrator, who makes it seem as if it were just an everyday occurrence. In the Fellini-verse, fits of violent energy stop and start just as regularly but are only witnessed by soul-sick outsiders. In Petri's film, they're what you see when you're channel-surfing. Similarly, Marcello's lust for money, which he declares to be better than any aphrodisiac, isn't a sign that he's at the end of his tether but a sign that he's got a lust for life. In this way, the film's metaphor of marriage being synonymous with a televised game of death only extends so far but that's kind of the point. "Those wicked neo-realists almost ruined everything!"

366) The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Days (2009)

366) The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) Dir: Troy Duffy Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 28, 2009 Rating: 0.75/5

Sometimes, I like to get my blood boiling. So to answer a question that nobody, save for a small voice I've buried deep in the back of my head, has thought to ask: yes, I enjoy hating these films. Sue me. See my review for The New York Press.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

365) Julia (2008)

365) Julia (2008) Dir: Erick Zonca Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: October 27, 2009, Rating: 4/5

Any film that gives Tilda Swinton the opportunity to chew up as much scenery as she does in Julia is pretty unmissable, no matter how grim, nerve-wracking or uncomfortably campy her character's actions are. As the titular protagonist, Swinton delivers a Joan Crawford-worthy performance that is all menace, wide eyes, puffed-out chest and lacquered claws. It's a testament to director Erick Zonca's skill that his squirm-inducing side-trips into Lansdale-esque black comedy fit in naturalistically as they do here. In fact, it's a small wonder that Julia doesn't implode considering how reliant its plot is on a myriad little reversals, all of which have potentially dire consequences. You can't just credit Swinton with carrying this little gem. That'd be like crediting Godzilla with being the star of his films when we all know that honor really belongs to the mad set designers that gave the men in the rubber suits room enough to really have at it. Zonca and his three co-writers are damn good architects.

364) Overnight (2003)

364) Overnight (2003) Dir: Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith Date Released: November 2004 Date Seen: October 27, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

While the initial reasons for making Overnight might not be so objective, the impulse to provide a dialectical presentation of Boston-born enfant terrible Troy Duffy, director of the pompous cult hit The Boondock Saints, winningly persists throughout the film. Filmmakers and former Duffy colleagues Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith waver between condemning their subject, the egomaniacal loudmouth, and pitying him, the man who let his pride speak when he should've just played ball with the people that made him very famous, very quickly. This conflicted worldview is best expressed at film's end, when a quote from a Hollywood insider, who claimed that success only brings out what's already there in someone, is juxtaposed with footage of Duffy jumping into a swimming pool. You can't condemn Duffy as he's represented in that amateurishly idealized snapshot, no matter how much the film's skeins of condemning footage may make you want to.

Thankfully, as amateurish as Montana and Smith's tendency to sentimentalize Duffy may be considering how tellingly ugly footage of him telling off his band-mates and best buddies is, its a necessary means of making the film more than a one-note hit job. In striving to have their cake and eat it, Smith and Montana capitalize on the wealth of footage that they diligently collected and provide Overnight with the dollop of complexity it needs to feel like a telling character study and not a perversely long reality show pilot.

Monday, October 26, 2009

363) Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

363) Gentlemen Broncos (2009) Dir: Jared Hess Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 30, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5

A missed opportunity. See my review for The L Magazine.

362) The Keep (1983)

362) The Keep (1983) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released: December 1983 Date Seen: October 26, 2009 Rating: 3/5

An anomaly in Mann's filmography, as far as I can tell and an intriguing, though extremely campy, one, at that. See my piece for The House Next Door.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

361) A Serious Man (2009)

361) A Serious Man (2009) Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 25, 2009 Rating: 4/5

A Serious Man, the Coen bros. most recent film, simmers with the burning spiritual questions of its frantic agnostic protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Buffeted between his lack of faith and his need to believe that a divine plan exists, Larry is afflicted by almost every mundane problem one can think of and then some. Sarah (Jessica McManus), his dowdy wife, is having an affair with Sy (Fred Melamed), an unbearably warm, er, smug fuddy-duddy; his kids only care for him as far as his wallet extends; his depressed, eccentric of a brother Arthur (Richard Kind!) is still sleeping on his couch; his application for tenure looks iffy; and on, and on.

Accordingly, Larry wants to know why he's being singled out but the only answers he gets are variations on a cryptic truism from medieval French Rabbi Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." To the Coens, that means Michael has to accept his powerlessness. Any agency he's granted is an illusion and any attempt to re-assert control over his life is going to end in tears, though not necessarily of sadness. As mean-spirited as the film is at heart, A Serious Man is pretty damn funny.

While the Coens are right to dismiss critical responses that dismiss Larry as a modern-day Job--Job was a staunch believer; Larry's never nearly so sure--his quest for answers--his story and the oft-misappropriated Biblical parable are similar in that they both use tangible afflictions as the straws that break their martyrs' respective backs. After all the monumentally terrible, horrible, no-good things Larry puts up with over the course of the film, he's ultimately done in by a few strokes of his #2 pencil. His one insignificant, misguided attempt to take back his life is immediately slapped down from who knows where (Rashem is everywhere, as the film points out time and again).

This is because the comedy of the film comes from the Coens' reliance on material signs of divine power. What you see is what you get and anything else is, ahum, immaterial. Actions define people's worth: Sy is blamelessly unaware that his blustery reassurances are unwelcome but still, the fact that he's offering them so persistently is what makes him a putz and one of Larry's collection of miseries.

Likewise, Larry is only really broken down when he thinks he can take matters into his own hands and dig himself out of the hole he's in. He cannot "Accept the mystery" of life, as one Rabbi puts it, because there are no answers to be found in the world around him, just more questions. Another reason why Larry never had a chance is that he rarely goes out of his way to give other people one. He needs them to come to him for forgiveness--Arthur is the only one that he absolves with a brotherly embrace. He hypocritically believes both Arthur and his wife's claims of innocence sight unseen because they're family. Everybody else sinks or swims on their own.

Still, even knowing that the film's triumphal cynicism is tainted, I can't help but relate all too well to the Coens' insecurity. It's frail and utterly ungenerous but that's what makes it so human.

360) Trick 'R Treat (2008)

260) Trick 'R Treat (2008) Dir: Matthew Dougherty Date Released (DTV): October 2009 Date Seen: October 24, 2009 Rating: 2/5

Writer/director Matthew Dougherty's Trick 'R Treat left me feeling as listless as most critics felt about Dougherty's introverted Superman Returns script. It's very self-assured, moderately clever but completely lifeless and distractingly mechanical. Certain segments almost made me want to rise to the bait of feeling satisfied in seeing that people that don't respect the holiday are punished. But I didn't because there I never felt like there were anything at stake here. None of the mock-serious O. Henry morals that cap off the vignettes in the myriad omnibus films based on or influenced by Tales from the Crypt are this anesthetized in their macabre humor. Shrug.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

359) Dust Devil (1992)

359) Dust Devil (1992) Dir: Richard Stanley Date Released: March 1993 Date Seen: October 24, 2009 Rating: 2/5

After having seen Blood River go an initially similar route, I thought I had Dust Devil* pegged. Mangled as it is, full of silent inserts that survived only on VHS tapes of dailies, the film's first half looked coherent enough to be read as an unconventional "Christian Horror" movie. As with the hitcher in Blood River, the titular, shape-shifting stranger (Robert John Burke) in Dust Devil seemed like a more mythologically chimerical version of a righteous killer with God on his side. In fact, that interpretation kind of, sort of pans out to an extent: later in the film, "The Devil" will tell Wendy (Chelsea Field), a willful pregnant woman who just ran away from her husband, that she's got "a source of light in her," pointing to her womb with a Bowie knife and then telling her that he's just a midwife. Right, so he's a pro-life mystical, mumbo-jumbo Christian psycho killer--you can hear Evangelical preaching on the radio earlier as he burns down the house of another victim.

But what follows is frankly unreadable. There are two many contextless leads for the viewer to follow and no coherent framing structure within which they can be parsed. The film's main subplot involves another "faithless" loser, Ben (Zakes Mokae), a South African man whose wife left him after their child's untimely death. It's suggested that both he and Wendy are being targeted by the "Devil" because they both have had suicidal thoughts though Wendy, at least, proves that while it's crossed her mind, she doesn't want to die just yet.

For that matter, why anything else happens in the film is kept an imaginatively feeble-minded, blatantly open-ended mystery. Why the "Devil" collects fingers and polaroids, how the infrequent race-based confrontations in the film figure into the grand scheme of things, or even why it matters that the "Devil" tells Wendy he loves her before she blows his head off are just the tip of the film's opaque iceberg. Even the film's most attractive scene, wherein a movie theater is buried under several feet of sand, is just crammed in for its own sake without even the hint of meaning that would earn it the distinction of being a descendant of Kenneth Anger. A uniquely confused and confusing film.

*Talkin' 'bout the work print

RV!: Ebola Syndrome (1996)

RV!: Ebola Syndrome (1996) Dir: Herman Yau Date Released (DVD): July 2007 Date Seen: October 24, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Herman Yau is one twisted cuss and I love him for it. Ebola Syndrome, his most notorious film, is hilariously caustic and exploitative in its depiction of a Sweeney Todd-esque killing spree that makes Peter Jackson's Dead Alive look like the picture of self-restraint. Anthony Wong plays Ah Kai, the messenger of Yau as vengeful authorial God. Using Kai as "Exhibit A," Yau wastes no time in showing us how weak-minded, vengeful, preposterous and mean-spirited people can be. We're introduced to our scrupleless villain as he screws his boss' wife, gets caught after asking her to pee on him, is almost forced to castrate himself with a pair of pruning sheers, kills his boss, a bodyguard and his mistress with said pruning sheers and a mahjong table, then flees to South Africa. And Yau's just getting warmed up.

As deliriously vile as Kai is, he's not Yau's whipping boy but rather a poster child for man's inhumanity to man. Once he's contracted Ebola, by raping a sick native--"Her nipples are the size of prunes!"--we learn by inference from a couple of physicians' surprisingly straight-faced testimonials that he's the lucky "One in ten million" carrier that will spread the disease without being infected by the deadly disease. This allows him to rape, bludgeon, spit on, murder and serve up infected human burger meat with verve and gusto while his victims convulse like fish out of water as their internal organs liquefy.

While it may seem like Yau doesn't take anything seriously, he has an odd deference for the effects of Ebola, though he has an even stranger way of showing it. We're given three separate mini-lectures on the virus spreads, its after-effects and its symptoms, the latter two of which are illustrated by an autopsy and a slide show with a schlock-monger's attention for grisly detail (Who could forget that putrid, grey heart or that nude gumline?). These are the signs Yau gives us that in his world, Ebola is more serious than AIDS, a disease whose name is brought up as soon as the thought of a new pandemic in Hong Kong is mentioned. Ebola is more violent, more immediate and more catching than AIDS, flying about in every bit of ropy spittle. God, that's good!

RV!: From Beyond (1986)

RV!: From Beyond (1986) Dir: Stuart Gordon Date Released: October 1986 Date Seen: October 24, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

By golly, this movie's got legs! See my fast and loose live-tweet event on the subject by looking up #sgbeyond.

Friday, October 23, 2009

358) Saw VI (2009)

358) Saw VI (2009) Dir: Kevin Greutert Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 23, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5

I've come to snuff the rooster. See my piece for The House Next Door.

357) A Christmas Carol (2009)

357) A Christmas Carol (2009) Dir: Robert Zemeckis Date Released: November 2009 Date Seen: October 22, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Well, that happened. See my review for The L Magazine.

356) Blood River (2009)

356) Blood River (2009) Dir: Adam Mason Not Yet Released Date Seen: October 22, 2009 Rating: 2/5

It'd be painfully easy to dismiss Blood Lake for its spineless tendency to preach at and judge its characters safe in the knowledge that its villain is a messenger of Gawd. Director Adam Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes's script is flagrantly obnoxious in the way that its killer, an Evangelist's wet dream of a vengeful God's messenger, has come down to Earth to punish the unrepentantly wicked. They may think that they're good people but they're not so they have to be struck down hard. Forgiveness, compassion, love...nah, fuck 'em.

What kept me watching in spite myself is the modicum of tension and the dingy atmosphere that clings to the film's main three protagonists like a film of sweat. The omnipresent crackle of the radio, which spurs on the voice of some evangelist preacher telling tales about sinners of all shapes and sizes, is especially mesmerizing as is the cemetery riddled with crosses that the film ends up at. Scuzzy is as scuzzy does but for such a modest, albeit idiotic, indie, it looks pretty good while doing it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

355) Carriers (2009)

355) Carriers (2009) Dir: Alex and David Pastor Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: October 21, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Another 900-word whopper cranked out post-haste. Catch it at The House Next Door, you, guy or girl, you.

354) Paranormal Activity (2007)

354) Paranormal Activity (2007) Dir: Oren Peli Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 21, 2009 Rating: 3/5

I hated the characters but it got the job done. See my mention of it in my Halloween movie round-up for The New York Press.

353) Shivers (1975)

353) Shivers (1975) Dir: David Cronenberg Date Released: July 1976 Date Seen: October 21, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Feels like a sketch for one of his later, better films, though it is perhaps one of his most explicit in his pre-occupations with the out-of-control body. See me gab about it this Sunday at the Doomsday Film Festival and Symposium.

351) The Hitcher (1986)

351) The Hitcher (1986) Dir: Robert Harmon Date Released: February 1986 Date Seen: October 20, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Speaking of Rutger Hauer....pretty potent stuff, though an uneven viewing experience. See my piece for The House Next Door.

350) Mad Love (1935) and 352) The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

350) Mad Love (1935) Dir: Karl Freund Date Released: July 1935 Date Seen: October 19, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

352) The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) Dir: Robert Florey Date Released: February 1947 Date Seen: October 20, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Hard as it may be to conceive of a way that a double bill of horror films starring the iconic Peter Lorre and a pair of murderous, possessed hands could leave one feeling cold, the feeling recently stole over poor, unflappable, lil ol' me. Silly as it may have been, I watched Karl Freund's Mad Love to get a sense of where Lorre and those manicured killers had gone before I ventured to Lincoln Center to see him get similarly manhandled in The Beast with Five Fingers. That's pretty much like watching the original Wanted: Dead or Alive tv show to get into the Rutger Hauer vehicle in the '80s by the same name. Don't do it. It will only end in heartbreak.

The Beast with Five Fingers is easily the more dull film of the pair but Mad Love, I hasten to admit, also left me feeling a little cold. Five Fingers has a more complicated plot and a lot more campy humor, like a D-grade William Castle version of The Tell Tale Heart with elements of a Poirot mystery thrown in for good measure. Lorre's a lot more obvious in it and his role is pretty lousy too. He plays an obsessed astrologer whose patron dies mysteriously and is now convinced that the dead man's left hand is running amok though it's painfully obvious that he's the guilty culprit (he conspicuously sashays into the room right after all the murders are committed, insisting that he heard, saw nothing). Curt Siodmak, brother of Robert, provides a leaden screenplay comprised almost entirely of banter, some of which works early on but most of which is pretty flat.

As for Mad Love, I unfortunately probably admire it without really liking it too much. It has a lot of effective atmosphere--Lorre's zombie-like face looks great front-lit as it often is here--thanks to its German Expressionist influences but the rest is simultaneously too grandiose and too knotty to be very stirring. Lorre plays a lovesick, mad surgeon whose comeuppance is delivered by a flying scalpel hurled by the very dead man's hands he used to replace the mangled paws of a pianist, who also happens to be the lover of his object of obsession. It's got all the scope and incredulity of a tawdry opera, one that could easily fit in as the opening act to a double bill of Tosca. There's a combo I could get behind.

Monday, October 19, 2009

RV!: Re-Animator (1985)

RV!: Re-Animator (1985) Dir: Stuart Gordon Date Released: October 1985 Date Seen: October 19, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Starts off stronger than I remember but then really loses me once it starts its wonky third act. See my tweets on the subject from today and 10/24, when I will compare it to Gordon's superior follow-up, From Beyond.

349) Tales of Terror (1962)

349 Tales of Terror (1962) Dir: Roger Corman Date Released: July 1962 Date Seen: October 19, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Worth it if not just for the wine-tasting contest in "The Black Cat." See my mention of it in my Halloween-themed piece for the New York Press.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

RV!: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

RV!: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) Dir: Terry Jones Date Released: August 1979 Date Seen: October 18, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Comedy remains one the few genres that remains immune to the gradual maturation of my taste. Good. Rewatching Monty Python's Life of Brian, I couldn't help but remember how bored I was watching the thing as a kid. The zany flights of fancy in the first half are toned down in the second and then are mostly used to really browbeat the viewer with its point: religion is absurd and people are morons. You could get that from any number of their superior singular sketches so why I really needed to have that hammered home was and is beyond me. I still love the sets, the costumes and the inescapable feeling that what I'm watching is very silly and more than a little smutty ("Sex, sex, sex! All you can talk about is sex!"). So while singing on the cross is a hoot, I still prefer The Holy Grail.

348) Seance (2000)

348) Seance (2000) Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Date Released (DVD): May 2005 Date Seen: October 18, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Domestic tranquility is a foreign concept in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films, one which is constantly undermined by some kind of scabrous psychic discontent that eventually pops so persistently that it simply can't be ignored anymore. Seance shows us the depressing malaise that clings to the ailing relationship of Sato, a sound recording specialist, and Junko, a psychic, (Koji Yakusho and Jun Fubuki) in the film's first half through distant, mid-range photography with a fairly shallow depth-of-focus. Their sheepish grins of encouragement aren't much to write home about until events surrounding a missing girl require them to reassure each other in less discreet ways. Being a Kurosawa film, we're never told about a specific incident or even given a concrete hint as to why they're at their end of their respective ropes trying to keep their marriage together. They just are. Now, unfortunately, that's no longer enough.

Similarly, the elements of the supernatural in the film are not meant to frighten the viewer but rather be seen as hiccups in the characters' daily routines that have almost become naturalized by association. Though the film's ironic series of events cast serious doubts on Junko's supposed supernatural abilities, the banal ghosts that cruelly coincidental sequence of events conjure up are as much a part of the film's murky, ink-smudge landscape as any of the film's extras. An arm lopes over a character's shoulders, a lady in a red dress with no feet drifts slowly out the door of a diner bar, a light pulses on and off in an empty room. These events evoke uneasy titters of laughter* because both Junko and Sato want so badly to dismiss these apparition as part of their everyday surroundings. It's impossible to miss the one time in Seance where a ghost is supposed to be frightening as it's accompanied by mounting Kubrickian silence and the slow creaking of stiff joints. By that point however, the couple both know that their relationship is over, leaving all the other unanswered questions about how or why these spirits manifested themselves through the material objects they did--a hair tie, a napkin--unresolved. Genuinely unsettling.

*Kurosawa encourages this at times in the film--all I'll say is: bagpipes, doppelgangers and kerosene, oh my!--but nearly as much as in, say, Doppelganger, a quirky, messy film that I really need to revisit.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

347) Exotica (1994)

347) Exotica (1994) Dir: Atom Egoyan Date Released: March 1995 Date Seen: October 17, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Exotica is the first of Atom Egoyan's most highly regarded films I've seen and thus far, the most frigid. While I was consistently engaged because of its deviousness, the fact that Egoyan deals with the "other"ing of characters at so many removes from an identifiable perspective and deprives the viewer of a standard of "normalcy" to refer to is often, y'know, frustrating. Case in point: Thomas Pinto (Don McKellar) gets off on the ritual of brining men to the ballet but why the ballet, what about the spectacle he's attending that attracts him, is never even hinted at. Nevertheless, the film's density, or to put it more finely, the way that Egoyan exoticizes the mundane and vice versa, is often fascinating. In the Club Exotica, being possessive of someone necessarily makes you fantasize about familiarizing yourself with them. Both Francis (Bruce Greenwood)--"How could they ever take you away from me?"--and Eric (Elias Koteas)-- "What is it about a girl that gives her that special innocence, gentlemen? Such a thing you have absolutely no control over?"--radiate festering pain. But a man can't subsist on bruised egos alone.

Friday, October 16, 2009

346) Ravenous (1999)

346) Ravenous (1999) Dir: Antonia Bird Date Released: April 1999 Date Seen: October 16, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5

An uncommonly good new kind of gothic horror film and a grimly funny one at that. See my review for The House Next Door.

345) Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

345) Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) Dir: Narciso Ibanez Serrador Date Released: June 1978 Date Seen: October 16, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

It'd be a damn shame to only think of the entrancingly sinister Who Can Kill a Child? as a major influence on Eli Roth's Hostel. The film is so much more suggestive in the way that it torments its pleasantly vapid British tourists with a group of inexplicably homicidal children. Which isn't to say it's any less ham-handed than Roth's film in its periodic disdain for said foreigners. Tom (Lewis Fiander), the pale, mustachioed Alpha male, is especially over-the-top in his grotesque ignorance. He takes what he wants first and asks questions later, lies constantly and, when the going gets tough, he takes the easiest way out (SPOILER: I really couldn't help but roll my eyes at him when he dumps the old man's body in that open doorway. That's not just mean, it's stupid. END SPOILER). The bitter end is a bit canned and the scenes that show how the children's maliciousness is spread could have been finessed better but I suspect this one will get better with another viewing. An effective film where horrors committed in broad daylight look that much more depraved (take that, original Wicker Man).

344) The Stepfather (2009)

344) The Stepfather (2009) Dir: Nelson McCormick Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 16, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Woof. If this is indicative of the "high standards" of a McCormick production, it's no wonder that Global Frequency never made it past the pilot stage. I repeat: Woof. See my review for The L Magazine.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

343) (Untitled) (2009)

343 (Untitled) (2009) Dir: Jonathan Parker Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: October 15, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5

Dismal satire of the Chelsea art world. See my review for Slant Magazine.

342) Hausu (1977)

342) Hausu (1977) Dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi Date Released: September 1977 Date Seen: October 15, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5

My mind has been destroyed. See my mention of it in my Halloween movie feature for the New York Press bananabananabanana.