Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Thing (1982) ***1/2

John Carpenter's The Thing is cold, unsettling, extremely gory, and unabashedly nihilistic. One can see Carpenter honing the techniques he developed in Halloween: empty rooms, long silences, Kubrickian tracking shots - an atmosphere suggesting the evil is everywhere and nowhere. An all male (adding to the sense of doom) research post in the Arctic gets infected with an alien entity able to imitate its victims.  Watching The Thing I was struck at how much it resembled Ridley Scott's Alien: the claustrophobia, the paranoia, the assault on the body, and even the use of computers as agents of doom (the terror of a computer basically saying you are screwed).  Kurt Russell's stoic performance is as chilly as the Arctic itself.  Pay attention to Ennio Morricone's subtle score -  only there if you notice it. You really feel like the world's ending after watching The Thing.  So much fire and ice, fire and ice, fire and ice. Not a fun trip, effective cinema nevertheless.

Steve Jobs *** (2015)

Despite the number of cliches associated with the bio film, Hollywood keeps making them. 21st century biographical movies usually begin at a pivotal moment in the subject's life and then proceeds on with flashbacks and flash forwards hinging on that one moment e.g. Beyond the Sea, Step on Up, Walk the Line.

Others focus on a portion of the subject's life such as Lincoln, Frost/Nixon, The End of the Tour.  I like the snapshot approach.  Many of the cliches are avoided: aging makeup, death scenes, and soundtrack cues to mark the passage of time.  The only drawback to the "snapshot" approach is the movie can seem too much like a stage play.

Steve Jobs synthesizes these two approaches: we get three moments in the life of Jobs with the occasional flashback included for good measure. Sorkin's 1930s screwball comedy writing style and Boyle's exuberant visuals make for a fascinating, but not an altogether successful combination. A style over substance issue.

Michael Fassbender delivers a commanding performance as Jobs.  All the usual ticks associated with Jobs are present: tyrannical towards his subordinates, fraught relationship with daughter, the artistic visionary in conflict with conservative corporate types (personified in Jeff Daniels as the Apple CEO who fired Jobs).  Kate Winslet got the thankless task of playing his put upon assistant.  Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is the jilted former sidekick.

If Steve Jobs proves anything it is our persistent obsession with the lone genius illuminating the future. We see it in The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and to satiric effect with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. Maybe we need a movie about the people at Apple who created the technology by working together?

So the triple threat of Fassbender, Boyle, and Sorkin are very much worth seeing, despite the awkward attempt to transcend genre.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Storm of the Century *** (1999)

Storm of the Century, a novel Stephen King wrote for television, is a modern version of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, with elements of Rod Serling thrown in for good measure. As an ominous blizzard approaches an island off the coast of Maine a mysterious stranger (Colm Feore) enters the town. Despite the best efforts of the island constable (Tim Daly), things quickly go to hell.  When the visitor demands an unspeakable sacrifice from the townsfolk we see humanity at its worst.  The performances are strong all around and Feore makes for a charismatic and creepy representation of evil.  All builds to a shocking conclusion, a real gut punch in the tradition of The Twilight Zone.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rosemary's Baby (1968) ****

Roman Polanski's eerie adaptation of Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby is the ultimate Urban Gothic.  The unnerving post-60s sensibility relies solely on psychological horror: paranoia, treachery, and the perpetuation of evil all figure into the story.

Newlyweds Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) Woodhouse move into a luxurious new apartment building with a sordid history of witchcraft and bizarre crimes. Guy's a struggling actor desperate for a breakout role to launch his career.  Meanwhile their nosy neighbors the Castavets begin to intrude on their happy marriage.

When Rosemary discovers she's pregnant it becomes apparent no one is as they appear to be including Guy, her doctors, the Castavets, even the world itself.  Her only ally, the worldly Hutch (Maurice Evans), succumbs to the dark forces aligned around her.

The entire film is told from Mary's point of view.  Farrow plays her as naive, but never stupid. Her vulnerability adds to the sense of dread.

Polanski's direction feels claustrophobic, intrusive, yet chillingly realistic. A character study disguised as horror film.  

William Friedkin imitated the style for The Exorcist, only in that film we actually see the horror up close. Polanski never reveals the evil: we know it's there but cannot get a handle on it. Terrifying.

There's a sense of the old betraying the young to advance own nefarious agenda.  Evil never vanishes despite the best efforts of youth.

I won't even get into the odd coincidences that followed the release Rosemary's Baby, needless to say it makes one take pause, if you believe in that sort of thing. 

So next time you watch Rosemary's Baby, turn off the sound and put on the first Velvet Underground record to get you into the "let's get ready for the apocalypse" mood.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Willow Creek *

When annoying couple Jim and Kelly go into the woods to locate Big Foot they get much more than they ever expected.  Jim's had a life long fascination with Big Foot and has vague plans to make a documentary about his passion, much to the chagrin of aspiring actress Kelly.  They condescend to locals, argue about their relationship, and make many stupid decisions. What follows is a Blair Witch Project ripoff minus the scares.  I was rooting for Big Foot. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, Willow Creek offers nothing beyond the typical found footage film.  The first half feels like a mockumentary, while the second half makes a feeble attempt at horror. However a metaphysical question is raised: Can you really have a "Monster Movie" when the monster never actually appears?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge of Spies *** (2015)

In Bridge of Spies, the fourth collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, they document a pivotal moment during the Cold War. Promoted as an espionage film, I would classify it more as a procedural along the lines of Lincoln.  Almost as if Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln rematerialized as Tom Hanks.  After making Saving Private Ryan and Munich, two films about violent conflict and its consequences, Spielberg's now telling stories about conflict resolution in a political age where fiery rhetoric is the norm.

Tom Hanks is James B. Donovan, a straight laced lawyer assigned the difficult task of defending Rudolf Abel, an alleged Soviet spy. As America is transitioning from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, Cold War tension continues to intensify. Reluctant to take the job, he nevertheless defends Abel to his fullest ability.

Then the plot thickens.  In 1960 American spy planes began flying missions over the U.S.S.R. to photograph nuclear missile sites. On May 1, 1960 Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured by Soviet authorities and paraded on television to reveal the Eisenhower administration's cover up.  The incident agitated an already tense international situation.

Donovan is approached by the C.I.A. to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Soviets: Abel for Powers.  Bridge of Spies really picks up when Donovan goes to Berlin and find himself ensnared in Cold War intrigue. With Soviets building a wall in East Berlin the Cold War is no longer an abstraction for Donovan.  These sequences recall Saving Private Ryan because the aftermath of the Second World War is on full display.  The wintry Berlin adds an authentic atmosphere.

Cold War Intrigue
In recent years I've sense an audience weariness with Tom Hanks always playing the generic liberal hero. I'll admit his character is too good to be true, Hanks playing Hanks.  But my attitude changed as the film unfolded.  In one scene he's approached by a CIA agent who tries to intimidate him.  Donovan replies with a thoughtful speech on American identity, the idea being a belief in the constitution is the one thing above all else that unites Americans, not ethnicity or heritage.  That's a worthy notion.

Chaotic Scene in Berlin
Engaging with people who have different ideas is another key theme. Donovan's a tough negotiator who manages find common ground with the Soviets and the East Germans. Talking things out may lack drama, but it beats war.

In a moment between Donovan and Abel they discuss music they both enjoy, proving art can break cultural barriers.  The mutual respect between Donovan and Abel achieves a nice resonance.

Written by no less than Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Matt Charman, their dialogue keeps the movie humming along.  Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer since Schindler's List, wonderfully captures the panorama and grittiness of 1960s Berlin. Spielberg, now in the latter stages of his career, continues to use cinema as an arena to examine history and do what he does best - tell stories.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

It Follows (2014) **1/2

I'll give It Follows an "A" for effort.  While visually impressive and well directed there's an off putting chilliness to its tone.  Many have compared the film to John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street and those allusions are evident throughout.  I even picked up a Scooby Doo influence.

David Robert Mitchell, writer and director of It Follows, obviously studied Carpenter and Craven's movies closely and used them as a starting point to tell his story by inventing a new approach for an exhausted genre.

The cliche of all slasher films are that the kids who have sex will die and those who don't will survive.  Many movies have deconstructed the idea, Scream and The Cabin in the Woods being two examples.  It follows goes in another direction, what if sex leads to horrible things happening to you and the only cure is to pass it on to someone else? Why deal with the problem when you can make it vanish? 

Protagonist Jamie (Maika Monroe) faces such a dilemma.  She begins the film in the middle of typical suburban summer hanging out at her pool, watching movies, going on dates.  After a brief sexual encounter she is informed something will begin chasing her.  At first Jamie refuses to believe it, but then people really do start to follow her.

The promising first half gives way to a lackluster second half. Jamie and her friends make one illogical move after another, I guess they are teenagers after all.  The dialogue also turns stale: "let's go to my uncle's cabin by the lake." For myself, a bridge too far. Even the final sequences, which are visually interesting, never achieve a satisfactory payoff.

There's a recurring theme of lost innocence reinforced through the visuals: empty swimming pools, change from summer to autumn, fading photographs. The teens even act like old people.  They constantly talk about the past, sit around the couch eating (soooooo much eating in this movie), watch old horror movies, and spend much of their time at the hospital keeping the ER busy. Apparently they have awesome health insurance.  

Suburban alienation and urban decay are in the subtext as well, the setting of Detroit is not a coincidence here.  If the suburbs of the 70s and 80s were safe havens against urban decay, in the 21st century the neighborhoods are looking less and less idyllic.

I admire It Follows for its retro style and unique look, but the thin narrative and empty characterizations prevent me from loving it.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) *1/2

I have visions of studio executives sitting around and thinking any film with Exorcist II in the title would make money (they were right).  After all, the sheer audacity of topping the original would get people in the theater.

With a brilliant director like John Boorman at the helm, the man who made Point Blank and Deliverance, one can imagine a cinematic masterpiece existing in an alternate universe.  While there are some memorable visuals in The Heretic, they inspire laughter instead of terror.

Starring Richard Burton and Linda Blair (unfortunately reprising her role as Regan). I can only describe their performances as catatonic.  Burton shows no emotion for the entire movie and reads every line in the same mechanical tone.  Blair matches Burton for lack of enthusiasm; their scenes together are awkward and ridiculous

As for the plot. . . We reunite with Regan a few years after her exorcism of which she has no memory, although she is still being monitored at a psychiatric institute under the care of the dull Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Meanwhile Father Lamont (Burton) is assigned by church authorities to investigate the circumstances of Father Merrin's death during the original exorcism, Von Sydow appears looking confused in the flashbacks.

Under hypnosis and the use of a "synchronizer" Lamont comes into contact with Pazuzu, an ancient demon.  The somnolent priest heads to Africa and discovers the origins of Pazuzu and realizes Regan is still in danger.  Don't miss a trippy performance from James Earl Jones as a shaman/locust/ scientist.

According to Linda Blair and others the original script was good and I can see the potential of a compelling movie somewhere in the mess they produced. Maybe a 70s New Age investigation of spirituality, connecting modern religion to its pagan origins as a compelling and ambitious story?

Burton seems to be in his own world, when asked if he longs for the company of women he says "Yes!" Then a sudden cut to another scene!  

A pointless cabaret sequence looks like a weird outtake from The Muppet Show.. Scenes in Africa look like they were filmed on a Star Trek sound stage. .  And the locusts . . . Those things are a nuisance!

If the first film sent audiences back to church, the sequel is best followed by a few drinks.

The Exorcist (1973) ****

The Exorcist remains unsettling on so many levels. It's a wonder it ever got made. Since we live in an ever more materialistic times where science and technology appear to have all the answers - The Exorcist seems all the more prescient. 

But what if science fails us? What if logical explanations fail? What if our own sense of values folds up when confronted with real evil?  The Exorcist throws these questions at you like 100 mph fastball flying towards your head.

The Exorcist suggests two things: 1)Evil is real and 2) We dismiss the supernatural at our peril.

Director William Friedkin's documentary filmmaking background brought the right sensibility, making every scene feel natural.  William Peter Blatty's smart dialogue and philosophical themes brought structure and irony.

After a ten minute prologue filmed in Iraq the story jumps to contemporary Washington D.C. where movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has arrived to shoot her latest film. She's raising her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) after a separation from her husband.  Early in the film Chris and Regan are playing with an Ouija Board (I've heard too many creepy stories surrounding Ouija Boards over the years I will never get near one) and angelic Regan first mentions her imaginary friend "Captain Howdy."  

As Regan's behavior grows increasingly erratic the sense of dread grows unbearable. The WTF scene occurs during an evening cocktail party.  Everyone's having a great time singing around the piano until Regan walks up to the astronaut and tells him he will die and then proceeds to urinate on the floor.  We've entered into uncharted territory. All sorts of awful possibilities enter the mind of what might be coming next.

As Regan undergoes various medical procedures doctors fail to diagnose her change in behavior. The way Friedkin shot the spinal tap and CAT scan scenes feels medieval and unnecessarily cruel - recalling the real witch hunts from history.  As Father Karras explains to perform an exorcism would be like going back to the 16th century.

In the lead up to the exorcism scenes I believe a sea change happens with the audience: We are ready to fight for Regan.  It feels (and looks) like a confrontation with the heart of darkness.

In addition to the excellent writing and direction, the cast did an amazing job under difficult circumstances.  Jason Miller brought courage and a tragic sense of fate to his part.  Max Von Sydow looks like he literally walked off a Bergman film, a face made for theological thrillers.  Ellen Burstyn rightly earned an Oscar nomination (she would win the following year for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

Behind the scenes tales on The Exorcist have taken on a life of their own. Friedkin fired guns on the set to scare the actors for their close ups. A mysterious fire set back production for weeks.  Nine crew members died as well, on the DVD documentary Burstyn still seems shaken by the experience (a Priest had to be brought in to bless the set).

Legends aside, The Exorcist works as a smart and relentless horror: challenging the audience to think about faith, not in the way dopey religious movies do, but by presenting evil and the precarious nature of good.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Jacob's Ladder ** (1990)

A curiosity from 1990, Jacob's Ladder contains some horror elements, but is more of a supernatural thriller.  File it under a "What is reality?" type movie. Starring Tim Robbins as a Vietnam vet who endured awful trauma and subsequent amnesia.  Early on it's clear Jacob's world is way out of joint. Experiencing terrifying visions he's unable to explain to the people around him, Jacob starts to question his sanity. As Jacob's visions intensify it is revealed the army conducted drug experiments on his unit. The dreamlike logic and urban noir make for a haunting atmosphere but an incoherent story.  The script's all over the map and I suspect the studio meddled with the final cut.  Despite its flaws, Jacob's Ladder is worth a look for its strange tone and thoughtful meditation on memory and mortality.

Friday, October 9, 2015

An American Werewolf in London (1981) ***

From a script John Landis had written over a decade before, An American Werewolf in London proved his third box office smash on the heels of Animal House and The Blues Brothers.  With Oscar winning makeup effects from Rick Baker, American Werewolf stands as one of the best horror films of the 1980s.

American Werewolf has a great sense of humor to compensate the often bleak story line.  The movie opens with two American students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking through the English countryside and are attacked by a werewolf.  Wiseguy Jack perishes, but David survives.  

While recuperating in the hospital David experiences terrifying nightmares and receives visits from an "undead" Jack.  Dunne often gets the best laughs and is menacing as athe ghoul.  David begins a romance with a sympathetic nurse wonderfully played by Jenny Agutter who brings warmth and humanity to the picture.

American Werewolf works for me, because like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, there's a strong sense of reality thanks to the on location shoot. The heightened reality increases the sense of horror and the emotional toll. The wrenching transformation sequence, which took weeks to film, stands alongside John Carpenter's The Thing for most intense use practical effects.

An American in Werewolf in London remains the best of its kind for the jarring shifts in tone from comedy, romance, and horror. Many have tried to copy it without success.

Notice how the trailer plays up the horror elements.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Psycho (1960) ****

After years of watching Psycho on TV, thanks to TCM, I finally got a chance to see it on the big screen.  Over 60 years later Alfred Hitchcock's thriller has lost none of its power to unsettle and implicate the audience.

At a Pop Culture conference I attended a few years ago I stumbled upon a panel discussion on Psycho.  One presenter argued Psycho should be considered a comedy!  While Hitchcock typically injected humor into his films and Psycho does contain moments of levity, no one leaves the theater laughing.

Another speaker did a gender analysis.  In 1960, with the Cold War turning hot and with Vietnam War a few years away, some psychologists viewed moms as a threat to American masculinity.  The logic being that if young boys get too attached to their mothers they might end up like Norman Bates. An intriguing analysis, but I believe Hitchcock offered something more than armchair psychoanalysis.

Cultural interpretations aside, Psycho remains a masterpiece of modern cinema. Saul Bass's opening title sequence and Bernard Herrmann's ominous score set the tone from the outset.  Then the camera pans down to a hotel room where an illicit act has taken place, at least for 1960, a secretary Marion (Janet Leigh) and a divorced man Sam (John Gavin) are having an affair. They want to marry, but financial obstacles stand in their way.

Later that day, Marion runs off with a cash deposit her office entrusted to her in hopes of eloping with Sam.  In another film, we would have the basic plot: Will Marion escape and build a new life with Sam?  Almost immediately her plans go awry: her boss spots her and then she is pursued by an intimidating cop.  She trades in her car and ends up at the Bates Motel.

Then we meet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) a seemingly decent young man. Intrigued by the attractive woman in his lobby, Norman makes awkward attempts to converse with her. With a grotesque bird of prey looming above him, Norman speaks glowingly of his mother, while also sensing Marion's not the innocent she presents to the world.

Then the course of cinema history changes.  While the shower scene's been copied a million times in every slasher film, the terror of that moment lingers.

For myself, the real horror comes during the quiet aftermath: a zoom out from Marion's lifeless eye resembles the stuffed birds in the lobby. A stark silence fell across the theater, as I'm sure it did in 1960.  At that moment Hitchcock intrudes upon and implicates the viewer; forcing the audience to ponder what just took place.

The second act follows Norman's clumsy attempt to cover up the murder as Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam slowly discover the truth.  It's hard not to sympathize with Norman Bates.  The idea of a sympathetic killer, a victim in their own right, suggests there are no laws to the universe.

Many object to the procedural ending when the psychiatrist provides a rational explanation of Norman's troubled psyche.  The scene reminds me of when something awful happens, say a mass shooting or an act of terrorism, and the media trots out experts to explain the unexplainable.  We just get the illusion of order being restored, but is it really?

Hitchcock's final close up of Tony Perkins negates everything the psychiatrist just said. In reality, no one can definitively explain why people do the things they do.  Despite all our tools and technology the human mind remains a haunting mystery.  Therein lies the power of Psycho.