Monday, December 31, 2018

Letterboxd Nation

On I've been tracking my movie watching over the past few years. The website is easy to use, basically every time you complete watching a movie you enter an entry. The website allows a rating based on a five star system (I'm still locked into the Maltin 4 star system) and allows you to write a review.

I recall author Joyce Carol Oates remarking that people tend to be fascinated with the decade they entered into the world. I was born in 1979, so naturally movies from the 1970s and 1980s take up about a 1/3 of the movies I've watched.  There's a slight drop off with the 90s and even more so with the 2000s. 

As for older films, there's a steady drop off. Only two from the silent era! I will also make an effort to watch more from the 1930s and 1940s.

There's no doubt the 1970s were a watershed era for American movies and the spirit of those films continue to exert a sizable influence. The 90's mark a shift as television began to exert more influence. Also, genre movies went into decline in the 90s, while indie movies went through a renaissance. The 2000s are such a mixed bag it's difficult to make any sense of the decade at this point. 

As film writer Erich Kuersten pointed out it's almost impossible to make sense of current trends or get a sense of the big picture of movies with so much available on streaming. There's also the issue of what's not available on streaming services. Still, I find an ok two hour movie preferable to ten hours of mediocre TV content

I'm curious for your comments. How has letterboxd influenced your viewing habits? Does the website interest you? Are you conscious of the eras in film history you prefer? Or do you prefer just randomly stumbling upon movies?  

Thanks and Happy New Year!

Eric's Movie breakdown 2016-2018

2010's - 332  - 27.5%
2000's - 94   -  7%
1990s - 120 -   10%
1980s - 200 -   16.5%
1970s - 223 -   18.4%    
1960s - 106 -   8%
1950s - 75 -     6%
1940s - 33       3%
1930s - 22       2%
1920s -  2

Total - 1207

Film Discoveries of 2018

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932, Mervin LeRoy) 

This gritty Depression era film throws one gut punch after another. Paul Muni plays a man who is at the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in a hellish Kentucky prison. The depiction of the chain gang in this movie still rattles the spine, as the story jerks your emotions around like few others. Memorable sequence: the prison chow line.

Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)

A hypnotic film full of symbolism and metaphor. One of the most immersive movies I watched this year. An existential samurai/fable that's unforgettable. 

The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Orson Welles)

It's not everyday when a lost film from one of cinema's geniuses gets a wide release. Whatever one thinks of the film, Other Side of the Wind still a fascinating experience full of surreal imagery and cinematic flourishes. We get a glimpse of Welles still full of fire and creativity.  

Scarecrow (1973, Jerry Schatzberg)   

The story follows Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two aimless drifters living life on the fringes in 1970s America. Vilmos Szigmond's cinematography of American landscapes are on full display. 

The World According to Garp (1982, George Roy Hill)

Robin Williams plays a writer with an eccentric family as he tries to make sense of his life in an America with gender roles in flux. Glenn Close is excellent as Garp's feminist mother and John Lithgow as his transgender best friend. The film also reminds us how much Williams is missed and how good he was in dramatic roles. 

Lost in Yonkers (1993, Martha Coolidge)

Based on the Neil Simon play, Lost In Yonkers is an autobiographical story about growing up in New York during the 1940s. Seen through the point of view of two young boys who must live with their stern Grandmother (Irene Worth) as their father searches for work. Mercedes Ruel co-stars as their lonely aunt, Richard Dreyfuss is effective as their low level gangster uncle. Simon left an indelible mark on American comedy and this film is a great starting point.

The Silent Partner (1978, Daryl Duke)

A sleeper heist/thriller set in Toronto has Elliot Gould as a bank teller in a deadly cat and mouse game with professional thief Christopher Plummer is full of twists and turns. 

The Hired Hand (1971, Peter Fonda)

A revisionist Western starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, and Verna Bloom in a minimal film with existential themes. A worthy follow up to Easy Rider.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle  (1974, Peter Yates)

Robert Mitchum gave one of his best performances as a lifer in the criminal underworld who gets in trouble with both sides of the law. Great use of Boston locations, including a Boston Bruins game where Mitchum cheers on Bobby Orr (always cool when a film is shot during an actual sporting event). Just as gritty as The French Connection and Serpico, a real gem of New Hollywood cinema.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015, Brett Morgan)

Music documentaries can be the most hackneyed of genres, but Montage of Heck takes you so deeply into the life of Cobain that it does get uncomfortable. With access to Cobain's notebooks, home movies, and other materials, director Brett Morgen compiled a startlingly effective portrait of Cobain. 

Rock n' Roll High School  (1979,  Allan Arkush and Joe Dante)

I finally got around to watching this one, nice to revisit a time The Ramones could provide meaning and direction to a young person's life.  Great music montages that channels the spirit of The Ramones.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose  (1975, Floyd Mutrux)

A new one I discovered from Floyd Mutrux who also made the 1978 film American Hot Wax. Aloha, Bobby, and Rose is an American variation on Breathless. Paul Le Mat is excellent as a restless car mechanic who hits the road with Rose (Dianne Hull). Brilliant use of period music, especially Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." Although thin on plot, the propulsive editing never gives you a chance to breathe, proving that sometimes passion is enough to make a movie work. Tim McCintire appears at the end in a supporting role. Great use of L.A. locations

Husbands (1970, John Cassavates)

Heavy going Cassavates with three middle aged men Ben Gazzera, Peter Falk, and Cassavates in serious mid-life crisis mode, not a feel good outing in the vein of City Slickers. Husbands is like watching a slow motion train wreck. Brutally honest, but worthwhile.

Inside Moves (1980, Richard Donner)

John Savage plays as a troubled young man who finds emotional support and community at the local watering hole. David Morse is equally good as a bartender who aspires to be a pro basketball player. Almost Capraesque in its celebration of the basic decency of people.

Born to Be Blue (2015, Robert Budreau)

Born to Be Blue is loosely based on the life of jazz musician Chet Baker. Not a typical music bio, the approach is impressionistic and unpretentious. Another standout performance from Ethan Hawke in a decade full of great ones.  

Filmworker (2017, Tony Zierra) and S Is For Stanley (2016, Alex Infascelli)

These two recent documentaries feature people who worked for Stanley Kubrick, both shed some light on a figure who remains an enigma to many. S Is For Stanley features Emilio D'Alessandro, Kubrick's personal driver for over 30 years. A moving film about an unlikely friendship between two opposites. 

Filmworker presents a more complex portrait of Kubrick as a cold perfectionist, as told by one of his personal assistants Leon Vitali. 

He gave up a promising acting career in the 1970s to work for Kubrick, doing everything from casting,                                research, film preservation, even cleaning Kubrick's house! A compelling study of dedication pushed to the breaking point.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween 2022 #30: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead remains possibly the most influential horror movie ever made. Produced in the late 1960s as American society appeared to be coming apart at the seams, Romero broke horror movie conventions by doing something rather simple: not playing nice with the audience. There's no Vincent Price appearing for comic relief. 

So many taboos are broken whether it be cannibalism or the stark political commentary. It's an allegory of a society coming apart that takes may hit harder in the post-covid world. Think of how vulnerable we all are if the power went out for no reason, civilization would crack up within a week. Whatever the outside threat could be, your neighbors are now your mortal enemy. 

Duane Jones, one of the first African Americans to lead a horror film lead brings a timely poignancy to the film, his character's courage and ultimately tragic fate is still a gut punch that sadly still resonates. 

The film begins like an old driver's education short then devolves into something like a found footage movie, a terrifying account of what went wrong. The brother and sister visiting the graveyard is intentionally hokey, a misdirection of what's going to be a serious horror movie.

Romero covered all the primal horrors: claustrophobia, cannibalism, your space being invaded, your closest loved ones turning on you, and watching horrors play out in real time on television.  A relentless assault on the senses, few movies inspire such a potent sense of dread. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween 2018 #30: The Dead Zone **** (1983)

The Dead Zone is one of the best Stephen King adaptations.  David Cronenberg's icy direction and Christopher Walken's humanistic performance are an extraordinary combination. Not so much a horror movie, The Dead Zone is more of a paranormal thriller.

Walken plays Johnny Smith, an unassuming English teacher living an ordinary life.  He's about to marry fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams) until a car accident puts him in a coma for five years.  When Johnny wakes up he learns Sarah has moved on and married someone else. He's also picked up psychic abilities. 

As word spreads of Johnny's gift many begin to seek him out for help.  The local Sheriff (Tom Skerritt) drafts Johnny to aid a murder investigation.  After a horrific encounter with the killer, Johnny realizes his gift is more of a curse and decides to live as a recluse.

Some have speculated The Dead Zone was a personal novel for King.  People with unique gifts are often exploited by society.  King's ability to write terrifying stories gave him money and fame, but also unwarranted speculation in the media about his mental state and misguided fans stalking him. 

Stellar supporting performances adds so much to The Dead Zone: Brooke Adams as Sarah, Czech actor Herbert Lom as Johnny's compassionate doctor and conscience, and Martin Sheen as the demagogic Greg Stillson. Walken deserved an Oscar nomination for his lead performance, the nuances within it come through more with each viewing. 

Halloween 2018 #29: The Shining **** (1980)

Did watching Room 237 ruin The Shining for you? Or did it enrich the experience? Do you look for random details in every frame?

What books are laying around in the Torrance apartment? Scanning all those brand names in the freezer? Why does that bathroom look like that observation dock from 2001? When Jack disconnects the radio, is that a reference to the HAL 9000? Why are the most banal scenes the most compelling?  So on and so on.

Rabbit holes aside, The Shining is about the disintegration of a family. A Gothic tale set in a luxury hotel that hosts "all the best people." The story follows a predictable pattern, with Jack, failed writer and alcoholic, already on the edge of sanity from the get go. Shelley Duvall as Wendy tries to make the best of a grim situation, dealing with a frustrated husband and a child with mysterious gifts.

My favorite scene is the first meeting between Halloran and Danny as they talk about "the shining." I have no idea how many takes Kubrick forced Scatman to endure, but the foreshadowing and sense of connection between them is moving, two kindred spirits who will face down evil. The scene also displays Kubrick's uncanny ability to mess with your sense of time, even though they just met by the end it's as if they've known each for years.

A frequent criticism is that Jack goes off the rails way too fast, much unlike the novel where the character is in a constant struggle to fend off the evil spirits. As a screen presence Nicholson is likable enough to make Jack's swift descent into madness easier to process, even dare I say, comical. When I first watched the film I read it as a comedy, laughing out loud at Jack's outbursts. Even the "here's Johnny" moment is played for laughs. Much like Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick dares us to laugh at the ultimate terror - angry father.

Kubrick's family sitcom.

The middle of the film gets increasingly hypnotic with all of Jack's hallucinations. Scenes at the bar and the bathrooms put the audience inside his head as the ghostly forces take over. That incessant music when Jack encounters Grady! Kubrick's decision to have the ghosts appear as flesh and blood adds to the dreamlike feel of The Shining.

The last act is anti-climatic to a fault. Ironies abound. Wendy, who many consider a weak character, steps up and saves Danny from her husband. Halloran's journey to save the family ends in macabre humor. The climatic hedgerow chase is hokey yet visually stunning as father and son engage in primal battle. 

Why is The Shining a masterpiece? In my humble view, Kubrick's ability to subvert genre convention is crucial. It's as if he watched every horror movie and and deconstructed them into his own unique vision. Casting, music, production design, color schemes all work together in perfect harmony.

Each viewing is a Rorschach test of your current state of mind. There's nothing quite like The Shining.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween 22 #31: Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter's Halloween is one of the greatest b-movies ever made, a whizzing 90 minutes of craftsmanship and schlock thrills. Carpenter's previous two films Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 were immediately hailed as cult classics. Both updated the b-movie, one set in space and the other at a L.A. police station. Halloween completes a trilogy of sorts, a minimal horror film set in middle America.

The opening POV tracking shot mimics the 1960 Michael Powell film Peeping Tom, forcing the audience into the murderer's perspective. After witnessing his older sister having sex, Michael Myers stabs her to death in a highly unsettling sequence. He spends the next 15 years in an asylum under the supervision of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence). 

Then we are introduced to Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a shy and intelligent High School student starting her day. She gets teased by her friends for not going out with boys, she's content to make money from babysitting. As the day unfolds she senses Laurie thinks she is being followed. Her friends tease her about imagining men following her, yet for mysterious reasons Michael has fixated on Laurie

Carpenter's portrait of everyday life in the town tightens the tension, as laconic cops and store owners go about their business. They are not prepared for the threat of Michael. Laurie is one of the few awoke people in the town. Everyone from her parents, friends, even the kids are distracted by the routine of everyday life (and Halloween). Laurie's not the typical teenager, she's observant and ponders the world around her, essential survival skills for a slasher movie.

I like the interpretation of Michael being a total black void, a primal creation of unbridled rage. Nick Castle plays him with a child like disposition, yet monstrous in his actions. The ultimate boogeyman. There's enough left unexplained to allow a parlor game to on for hours as to the roots of Michael's rage: Freudian, Biological, Marxist, Feminist, or Theological.

Carpenter's music and direction allow for a natural flow. There's a focus to the story, the movie knows exactly when to end and begin. The 2018 big budget reboot looks better and has a sharper script, but it tries too hard to tell an epic story. Halloween 1978 keeps everything simple and razor sharp, a low budget triumph. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Halloween 2018 #27: 13 Ghosts **1/2 (1960)

In another screamer from William Castle the Zorba family moves into a mansion inherited from a rich uncle only to discover some unwelcome guests. For their uncle dabbled in the occult.

Thinly plotted, 13 Ghosts is a haunted house movie for the entire family. Castle invented the "Illusion-O" gimmick for the film, special glasses designed to identify the different ghosts. The ghosts are more mischievous than frightening, some prefer to spend their time baking in the kitchen. Each of the thirteen has a distinct trait. 

The Simpsons parodied 13 Ghosts on their very first "Treehouse of Terror" special. I even suspect Slimer from Ghostbusters may have been inspired by the film.  Margaret Hamilton also appears as the maid of the mansion and confesses to being a witch, her line deliveries are a highlight. 

Halloween 2018 #26: Sometimes They Come Back **1/2 (1991)

The TV movie adaptation of Stephen King's short story "Sometimes They Call Back" from his 1978 collection Night Shift aired on May 7, 1991. 

Tim Matheson stars as Jim Norman, a history teacher dealing with difficult students who attempt to ruin his life. Many of King's familiar tropes appear: an adult still dealing with a childhood trauma, a high school setting, supernatural villains, and evil cars. The premise mirrors that of The Shining, a married teacher dealing with psychological issues while trying to rebuild his life.

The best scenes are those in the classroom, a former teacher himself, King was familiar with the challenge of teaching. When some of Jim's favorite students begin to disappear and get replaced with some devious greasers, he suspects the supernatural. The story unfolds in a predictable way, but there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes. It's great to see Brooke Adams as Jim's wife and source of emotional support. Two direct to video sequels followed.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween 2018 #25: Halloween **1/2 (2018)

The highly anticipated reboot of Halloween set 40 years after the 1978 original has its share of good qualities: good characterizations, a retro soundtrack from John Carpenter, and a satisfactory update of the story. Jamie Lee Curtis is back as Laurie Strode, the final girl from the original. Audiences may forget Curtis had already returned to the franchise twice in Halloween H20 (1998) and Halloween Resurrection (2002), but now her character is given a completely new arc. Instead of being a psychologist, Laurie is still reeling from the events of the first film.

Halloween is indicative of the current reboot trend, telling the same story with some variations on the beats. While the 2018 incarnation of Halloween is better than all the sequels in every respect, it never transcends the source material. What the original accomplished cannot be replicated. Carpenter's original was an experiment in suspense and horror that found its way into the collective unconscious, while the reboot plays like a greatest hits of slasher horror for a new generation. Entertaining, but derivative.

In terms of plot the new story lends itself to some baffling coincidences, the fact that all this goes down 40 years to the day of the original is a bit much. While the gender politics of the film are progressive, the relationships among Laurie, her daughter and granddaughter are never developed fully. 

When the film moves into slasher territory the "kills" get repetitive. As for "the shape," we learn little about Michael except he hasn't changed much, maybe a little bit older and a little bit slower. When Laurie's adult daughter Julie (Judy Greer) says "I don't believe in the bogeyman," Laurie replies, "You should." That's about as profound as the dialogue gets regarding Michael, although there are some nice moments of levity among the supporting characters.

Halloween is a competent horror film, with non-offensive fan service, just a bit short on substance. 

Halloween 2018 #24: The Burbs ***1/2 (1989)

If there's a short list of movies that signal the end of a decade, The Burbs is one the great going away 1980s parties. 

Jerry Goldsmith's scored echoes his from Poltergeist as the camera pans across the Universal back lot (Patton also gets referenced). The Burbs was one of the last straight up comedies to star Tom Hanks before his career would skyrocket into dramatic roles during the 1990s. Corey Feldman appears as the Greek Chorus, a fading archetype of the 80s (the persona,not the actor!). 

Suburbanite Ray Peterson is on vacation, but his new neighbors the Klopeks have him on edge. Egged on by his obnoxious neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern), Ray starts to believe the Klopeks may be serial killers. With his patient wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) tolerating his shenanigans, Ray begins to investigate.

Director Joe Dante manages to send up every trope of suburban horrors (the world of Spielberg). Some of the humor gets really silly, but the cast makes it work. For a PG movie there are some genuinely creepy moments, but they're always counterbalanced with a gag. Hanks maybe has his best comic moment ever on film.

There's a delightful irreverence to The Burbs, anarchic at times. The 90s would end with the tragicomic American Beauty, yet Dante's sly direction appears even more subversive in retrospect, a determination to avoid seriousness. Spielberg's suburbs: the seat of ghostly terror, intergalactic connections, and intense family discord all gets satarized by Dante into a farce of the highest magnitude. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Halloween 2018 #23: Mazes and Monsters ** (1982)

A 1982 made for TV movie with a very serious message on the danger of role playing games, Mazes and Monsters stretches the limits of credibility, but stands as a curio of the decade that brought us the Satanic Panic. Tom Hanks received top billing for the first time as troubled gamer Robbie Wheeling. 

Based on a real case when a college student went missing after allegedly getting too involved with a Dungeons and Dragons game, a case that was enhanced in a bestselling book by Rona Jaffe. A few years later Jaffe's explosive claims were debunked in another book, blaming the incident on emotional distress brought on by factors that had nothing to do with the game.

The film hints early on that something might be amiss with Robbie, an all around nice guy who may be concealing some emotional issues. When asked if he plays Mazes and Monsters he replies "Not Anymore," then totally gets into it. He gets along with his Waspy college friends and things appear to be going well, except they all have issues with their hard driving parents. Robbie experiences an incident in a cave and starts to believe he's in an alternate reality and goes missing.

There's enough unintentional laughter to sustain Mazes and Monsters.The ending is especially ridiculous in its "message." The theme song of the movie may be the most disturbing part, "Friends in the World" by Judith Lander and Cathal J. Dodd. Enjoy some early Hanks with the climatic scene at the World Trade Center.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Halloween 2018 #22: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Case of Mr. Pelham"

In one of the more memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, directed by the Master of Suspense himself, a man discovers there is someone impersonating him. 

Character actor Tom Ewell was perfectly cast as Mr. Pelham, one of Hitchcock's recurring banal male protagonists who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. The episode begins with Pelham meeting with a psychiatrist as he tells his story. 

Pelham lives an ordinary life: boring days at the office, quiet evenings at home. He starts to notice co-workers mentioning they have seen him at other places, which is impossible since Pelham has no memory of these encounters. Eventually, his own sense of identity begins to disappear, realizing he is being replaced by a duplicate.

What if you meant someone who was exactly like you? Only your doppelganger can do everything just a little better than you. They have a more attractive personality and are more productive at work. It would be enough to drive one to madness in slow motion, a fate perhaps worse than death (as Hitch suggests in the introduction).

The episode is of interest because it explores themes Hitchcock returned to throughout his career, specifically, the fickle nature of identity. In The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda plays a man sent to jail because of mistaken identity. In Vertigo James Stewart loses himself in pursuit of a lost love, while The 39 Steps and North by Northwest bring an espionage twist to the identity concept. A man is mistaken for a serial killer in Frenzy.

"The Case of Mr. Pelham" is unsettling because you wonder if it could happen to you. It would be impossible to convince anyone without sounding insane. Those stories stick with you.

Roger Moore also starred in a 1970 screen version of the story, The Man Who Haunted Himself.

Tom Ewell as Mr. Pelham.

Halloween 2018 #21: House of the Devil ***1/2 (2009)

Some movies win you over in the first five minutes.  The House of the Devil opens with stylized tracking shot following coed Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) as 1980s John Carpenter style synth music plays in the background.  Suddenly, it's 1984!

Desperate for money, college sophomore Samantha accepts a babysitting job for a strange family (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), the sort who appear wholesome in the surface, but are hiding something dark.  Although she's somewhat skeptical, they offer her a nice paycheck. A night of terror follows for poor Samantha. Greta Gerwig also appears as Samantha's best friend. 

The House of the Devil takes it time and gradually builds up the tension. Ti West, director of the film, dipped into classic auteur horror for inspiration, maybe in response to the "found footage" movies that dominated the 2000s. House of the Devil is cinematic, a mishmash of 1970s and 1980s horror.

The style and pacing allow for repeated viewings since new clues will be reviewed. The film was also ahead of the curve its retro style that's been copied by more popular genre fare. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Halloween 2018 #20: Silver Bullet *** (1985)

If I was going to pick a film that exemplified Stephen King's reign over pop culture during the 1980s, Silver Bullet would be it. While it's not the best nor the worst of King's movies, the picture's got all the tropes. There's the dysfunctional small town, various degrees of alcoholism, corrupt or incompetent pillars of the community, and children who see the truth.

Marty (Corey Haim) and Jane (Megan Follows) are effective as a brother and sister who must vanquish a werewolf. Their uncle Gary Busey also helps them out (when he's sober). Silver Bullet might have worked better if it had only focused on the two kids and their relationship. But being the 1980s there must be some gruesome kills that are way out of tune with the rest of the movie. But the town is full of great character actors.

Silver Bullet was made for late night TV, a curious stew of after school special/werewolf/Hansel and Gretel/Our Town. And Gary Busey of course. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Halloween 2018 #19: Signs ***1/2 (2002)

Sometimes it's impossible to separate a film from your first experience with it. I remember being in college watching Signs in early 2003 when everyday there were "high" probabilities of catastrophic terror attacks. Watching the film about a beleaguered family facing down an alien invasion, a threat from an unknown source, matched the jittery moment. Much of what the family learns of the invasion is from the television, an eerie reflection of the uncertainty after 9/11. Like a great Twilight Zone episode, Signs builds character and relationships with with cinematic technique.

M. Night Shyamalan had the makings of being the next Spielberg in 2002 (unfair label to pin on any director), with three solid movies in his filmography, until a series of misfires sidetracked his career that's hopefully back on the upswing. Signs may be his best film to date in my opinion, no thanks to the two male leads Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix as unlikely brothers defending the farm. The two kids were excellent as well, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. 

Like Spielberg, Shyamalan makes the everyday mundane mystical and profound. The ritual of the dinner table, the art of storytelling, and and the pathos of an absence brings with it (in this case the mom). Reactions are realistic, there's a cheerful banality to the dialogue. A little bit of Norman Rockwell, but also a sense of darkness in the heartland we get from Stephen King. And the emotions are genuine and real, no moment rings false. When the family goes from arguing to group hug, on paper it might appear silly, but the actors made it work. 

The immediate post-9/11 vibe of Signs appears a bit trite now, it was mere prologue to the hyper reality of today. Signs still stands on its own as an effective thriller with elements of horror that plays the audience like a piano. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween 2018 #18: Se7en **** (1995)

Imagine a Gotham with no Batman and you get the dystopian horror of Se7en. With a setting that parallels the Weimar Berlin of Fritz Lang's M, the sustained darkness of Se7en brings no salvation, a city drenched in rain and gloom (but with an awesome library).

While the megalomaniac serial killer has been a staple of American movies since Michael Mann's Manhunter and Jonathan Demme's sequel The Silence of the Lambs, which both offered style and post-modern thrills, Se7en is more philosophical. It's a metaphysical crime story. 

The set up is the classic buddy cop formula, a seasoned pro and the young hot shot working a case. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week away from retirement. Then a new series of bizarre murders begins to obsess him, so he stays on longer. Somerset is melancholy and fatalistic, still fighting the good fight as he mentors his replacement Mills. Mills (Brad Pitt) is courageous and willing to learn, but will be outsmarted again and again by the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey). He's in way over his head.

As each murder appears more pre-meditated, Somerset and Mills tie the killings to Dante's Inferno, each one a punishment for the seven deadly sins. Mills keeps thinking the killer is some "freak", as if he got all his profile training from watching movies. Somerset understands they are dealing with something beyond madness and cruelty, maybe a self appointed prophet, too rational for the run of the mill psychopath. As played by Spacey, Doe is a creepy enigma, a messianic villain with parallels to Milton's Lucifer and Heath Ledger's Joker.

The sense of impending doom is overwhelming in the stunning set design, while the chase scenes were innovative. Fincher's career transition from music videos to features comes through perfectly, all the crime scenes are straight out of a horror movie. 

Gweneth Paltrow as Mills's wife is the only ray of hope in the movie and made something out of a nothing role (early Fincher films tend to be male dominated). 

Se7en is a cruel film. Aesthetically brilliant and always watchable, the nihilistic ending set itself up for parody on many occasions, Se7en is a grim study in futility with a Medieval sense of justice. As Leonard Cohen sang, "everybody knows the war is over/everybody knows the good guys lost."

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Star is Born: ***1/2 (2018)

A Star is Born features Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in the fourth screen version of the story. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a country rock artist struggling with substance abuse and creative malaise. One night stumbles into a drag bar and watches Ally perform "La Vi En Rose" and is enchanted. They hit it off, Jack invites her to start performing with him onstage. They eventually get married. Heartfelt performances keep the movie afloat, an old fashioned melodrama set in today's heady entertainment climate.

The two leads keep it real all the way through. There's a natural flow to the acting and the script. The music is for the most part solid, written so it has a timeless quality. Ally starts out the movie as an aspiring singer/songwriter, she has a picture of Carol King's Tapestry on her bedroom wall. Then the music industry turns her into a pop star, a path that will sell more records. 

Supporting performances from Sam Elliot as Jack's much older brother, Dave Chappelle as his best friend, and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally's father are all great screen presences. Elliot especially, his deliveries carry great weight as he and Jack work out their longstanding conflicts. 

Lady Gaga will probably win the Oscar. As Ally she's grounded, strong, and a decent person. She never rides the coattails of Jack's fame, but goes her own way, creatively and personally.

Cooper's direction is impressive avoids excess and keeps the story moving along, almost moves too fast at times. Anyone's who's watched the prior three versions know how the story ends, as Jackson's internal world starts to come apart. Ally's manipulative manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) seems unnecessary and maybe the only cliche character in the movie, of course, he's English. 

Despite the downbeat second half, A Star is Born is an outstanding mass entertainment. Good music, acting, and story will never go out of style. 

Halloween 2018 #17: Invaders From Mars *** (1986)

Tobe Hooper's remake of the 1958 classic Invaders From Mars goes full on retro as a homage to 1950's alien invasion movies, with some 1980s twists dashed into the mix. Much has been written on many similarities between the decades, especially the obsession with the nuclear family. David Gardner (Hunter Carson) wakes up one morning and realizes his loving parents, wonderfully played by Timothy Bottoms and Lorraine Newman, are not acting like themselves. With the help of the school nurse Linda (Karen Black) David discovers martians are taking over humans. An allegory of a child's discovery that adults (even parents) are not perfect, Invaders From Mars often goes into camp mode and gets downright cheesy in the last act. Still, it makes for a fun diversion if you're in a 1980s mood. Invaders From Mars would pair up nicely with Poltergeist, the Hooper/Spielberg extravaganza or the new wave vibe of Michael Laughlin's Strange Invaders

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Halloween 2018 #16: The Exorcist III (aka Legion) *** (1990)

Starring a world weary George C. Scott as Detective Kinderman from the original Exorcist film, Legion is about a series of grisly murders in Washington D.C. that are connected to the events of the first film. While the original story is referenced, the third chapter in the saga stands on its own as a unique supernatural mystery. William Peter Blatty wrote and directed an adaptation of his own novel.

Legion is about the eternal struggle between good and evil. Detective Kinderman's spent a life time trying to bring justice to the world, yet when faced with a horrible series of murders that will include his good friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), he struggles to find his faith. The scenes with Scott and Flanders are like a separate film as they swap one liners. Still haunted by what he witnessed in Regan MacNeil's bedroom, he struggles on with his faith.

Most of the major scenes take place in a hospital. Hospitals are places where life and death intermingle everyday, a clearinghouse for spiritual angst. A hospital is even more intense than a haunted house, a grand central station for spiritual combat. Blatty directs the hospital scenes with an unsettling intimacy, including one of the most bizarre murder sequences ever put on film, anticipating the found footage genre.

The story itself gets a bit muddled, involving a serial killer who may be possess supernatural abilities. Played both by Brad Dourif and Jason Miller, these scenes are dialogue heavy, creepy, but incoherent. 

The use of Washington DC as a setting sets a nice connection with the original, despite all the horror elements, in the end Exorcist III is a meditation on evil that offers few answers, simply suggesting these ancient struggles are at the center of the human heart. 

Halloween 2018 #15: Night of the Comet ***1/2 (1984)

The apocalypse arrives and two valley girls are one of the few survivors. Reg (Catherine Mary Stuart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney) are two sisters who discover a comet has passed by the earth and turned most humans into quasi-zombies. They make some friends, hang out at the mall, an abandoned radio station, and escape government drones after their blood.

The tone and look of Night of the Comet are everything that's best of 80s cinema. Subversive in its gender and racial politics, a true breath of fresh air to the dystopian genre. Why not have fun after civilization comes to a merciful stop? The kool aid skies of Los Angeles, retro movie theaters, and the mall are indelible images of 1984. Night of the Comet celebrates the breezy consumerism of the decade. The yuppies can wear their khakis and polos, but the rest of us can take simple joys in the orange julius and the latest Cyndi Lauper cassette. 

Thom Eberhardt's direction walks a fine line between sincerity and camp. There are some cheesy scares and true moments of reflection among the characters, but the sense of fun never goes away. Robert Beltran of Eating Raoul fame is not the traditional male lead as Hector, standing as an equal to the girls who can take of themselves.

Apocalyptic movies (and TV) get heavier each year, Night of the Comet refuses to take itself seriously, which makes the film timeless. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

First Man ***1/2 (2018)

First Man is an impressionistic portrait of the Neil Armstrong's personal journey that culminated with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Played with a stoic confidence by Ryan Gosling, First Man depicts an obsolete style of heroism. Coming off the success of Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle now has an historical epic in his catalog. 

Phillip Kaufman's 1983 film on the Mercury Program The Right Stuff was a big influence. Chazelle also took from the space action perfection of Apollo 13, but also went much further than those two movies. The script wisely avoids the historical baggage of the 1960s we've seen a million times and boils the story of Armstrong down the personal journey of going to to the moon, leaving one's family, and coming to terms with loss. 

There's a grim determination that sustains First Man. As one who was not alive during the Apollo Missions, the moonshots appear as inevitable. The film brings home how dangerous these missions were, they were risky and even the technology seemed iffy at times. These machines were built by hand, one gets the sense they could fly apart at any moment. Even the training methods appear primitive, one gets the sense astronauts had little agency whatsoever. Their lives were controlled by NASA and everything was on a need to know basis. Death always loomed around the corner. 

Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is pivotal to the story, while she supports Neil in his travails, we understand her thankless task of holding the family together. The astronaut corps are often portrayed as close knit, but here one gets the sense their camaraderie was more professional than personal.

Chazelle uses lots of close ups and bracing sound to supreme effect. Once they arrive on the moon most of the shots from Armstrong's point of view. The moment when the Eagle actually lands comes as close as any movie to imitating the actual experience of landing on the moon, such a distant and desolate place.

As I watched could not help thinking that many now believe the moon missions are a fiction. The political crunch of now negates any sense of truth, justice, and decency. While the late 1960s were polarized, these days people pick their own heroes, the loudest, crudest voice in the room typically wins the day. An archaic type of heroism pervades over the film. First Man tells us anything worth doing will be long, arduous, and painful. Success results not in joy, but catharsis.