Thursday, October 31, 2013

Top Five: New-to-Me Horror Films

As I've mentioned a few times before, I'm new to the whole horror game. I used to be both a wimp and a squeamish baby, so I avoided anything that seemed too scary or (especially) gory. But a few years ago I decided I needed to get over it, at least to some extent. And I think I've been doing a pretty good job! The best part is I discovered that horror as a genre is EXCELLENT and I have so many truly fantastic movies to check out since I've missed so many. For the past year I've been more actively seeking out horror films, and I have found a few new favorite movies. So in the spirit of Halloween and watching horror all year round (as I will continue to do- my netflix queue is top-heavy with scary flicks!), I'd like to spotlight the best horror movies I've watched since this time last year. Take note that these are selected only from films that were new to me in the past year, so something like The Shining or The Thing wouldn't count since I'd seen both of those previously. And this is in alphabetical order because I hate ranking things. Ok? Ok!

Carrie (1976)
A year later and I'm still thinking a lot about this movie, mostly that tremendous split screen and also the great jump scare at the end. My goodness, this movie rules. Even though I knew what to expect (to a point), I still was completely captivated by Carrie. It's dark and dreamlike and ultimately surprising, and the double impact of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie is just fantastic. Also: everyone has fabulous, impossibly big hair. Great job, guys. I'm gonna make it a priority to see more of De Palma's movies over the next year, for sure. I will probably not be checking out the latest remake of this though. The title links to my original review.

The Haunting (1963)
This holds the distinction of being the downright scariest movie I've watched this year, which is impressive since it's also the most understated. Disembodied sounds, breathing doors, topsy-turvy camera angles, and a frenzied internal monologue combine to create a quietly terrifying ghost story. I loved the brooding story and twisted visuals, and the dark implications of the script. Also all the mad sexual repression going on, I mean jeez. The air was thick with the stuff. Like, maybe if these ghosts stopped hollering for five minutes Eleanor and Theodora could finally bang and then they'd be more relaxed and able to handle all the supernatural happenings? Just a thought. The title links to my original review.

May (2002)
Oh my gosh, another one I watched many months ago but it's stuck with me closely. May is super fucked up and super good, and definitely took a lot of bravery on my part because of all the gory parts with eyes (I can't even watch someone put in contacts, eyes are my great weakness), but I don't recall looking away TOO frequently. The film succeeds so strongly as a whole because it takes its time to build character and tension, so that the insane, brutal spiral in the third act is understood while still being an intentionally jarring shift. Angela Bettis is a wonder in the title role, and I kind of want to be her for Halloween some time. I'll even get a little cooler to carry around with all my "pretty parts," won't that be pleasant? The title links to my original review.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This one I saw just a few days ago, and I will be writing about it in my upcoming posts about the Coolidge Corner Theater Horror Marathon. But for now let me just say that I LOOOOOVE ITTTT. This movie is scary and gory and kinda funny and especially thrilling. Like, I did not at any given point know what would happen next (well, except that certain characters would definitely die) and I wasn't sure how dark things would get. It's pretty damned dark but ever so entertaining, with a memorable villain and an admirably determined protagonist. And the kills! My god! Such phenomenal effects! Just amazing stuff all around. And best of all Beth from Better Off Dead is there, because yes that's the only thing I knew her from besides her bit part in Fast Times. Because I have selective pop culture knowledge, clearly.

Poltergeist (1982)
One thing that's nice about being so unfamiliar with horror movies is that I'm still surprised by even the more replicated tropes- I know Poltergeist has provided a template for a certain kind of haunted house movie, but I haven't seen them so it's all new to me! I really fell in love with this one for its visuals, I mean, my god that beautiful demon at the end, and the carnivorous tree, and the house vortex. It's just all gorgeous stuff. I also liked that while there is some attempt to explain things (house built on a cemetery, of course), it's not like anyone is trying to analyze it or fix it. Bad things are happening because bad things are happening, and if this family didn't have to save their daughter they would all get the fuck out of there post-haste and screw this mystery of a ghost meanie. The title links to my original review.

Honorable Mentions
An American Werewolf in London
Onibaba (only an honorable mention because I didn't consider it primarily horror)
Fade to Black
Pet Sematary
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (same note as Onibaba, but so good I had to mention it!)

Well that's it for now, but I still have so many more horror movies to watch! I can't wait!

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) (1964)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

So this semester (my very last semester of graduate school, hurray!) I'm taking a class on Latin American art during the Cold War, and it is fascinating. Most excitingly, I get to do a research paper on Cuban movie posters, oh my goodness, you have to know how gleeful that makes me. We watched Soy Cuba last week, and the script and on-set translator Pavel Grushko came and gave a talk about his experiences, which was very interesting. The film was a Soviet-Cuban co-production, but ultimately amounted to a Soviet representation of the Cuban revolution, tracking the nation's extreme disparity of decadence and poverty in the 1950s, and revealing the cruelty of both American capitalists and Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship. It is broken up into four major episodes, with the final story focusing on the guerrilla uprising led by Fidel Castro that ultimately took over the country. The film was shelved for years in Cuba because it was felt to be too epic and unrealistic, while in the USSR much of it was considered too sentimental and frivolous. It was rediscovered and released in the US by Martin Scorsese in the 90s, and is today considered significant primarily for its mind-boggling visuals courtesy of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.

Fusing propagandistic revolutionary rhetoric with sumptuous views of Cuba, Soy Cuba remains a fascinating testament to the differences between Soviet and Cuban ideologies, as well as a significant technical achievement. It is at once beautiful, sentimental, unreal, poetic, manipulative, and moving. The loose, episodic narrative structure allows the filmmakers to provide a multi-faceted view of Cuba and its inhabitants—its ethnic diversity, its natural resources, and its suffering and sacrifices in the period leading up to and during the revolution. Cuba is shown as a victim of American capitalism and hedonism, a nation that pulls itself out of Western colonial entrapment through inspiring, epic struggle (an exaggerated portrayal of the actual circumstances). It is not subtle in its propagandistic message, but it is also not untrue in its presentation of Battista's corruption and violent repression.

The film’s variations in tone can be jarring, shifting from loud dance clubs to quiet shantytowns, from toil in the sugar cane fields to university student protests; its manipulative qualities are easily uncovered but its range of characters can still be appreciated. The Cuban cast (primarily pulled off the street by director Mikhail Kalatozov's casting director wife) is excellent, with the standout being dancer Luz María Collazo as an unwilling sex worker. Her hard stare and determined expression manage to turn a mostly-silent woman into a more fully-realized character. The poetic segues between segments felt unnecessary, revealing a lack of trust in the effective visual storytelling, and adding a layer of mawkishness. Ultimately Soy Cuba’s strengths (and longevity) lie in its jaw-dropping visuals: the innovative long takes, sweeping camerawork, grand vistas, and symbolic imagery. But, its message of self-empowerment and rebellion against tyrannical leadership is one still recognized today, even if the context has changed.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I'm really not sure, I haven't seen any other Cuban films and I haven't even seen too many other propaganda films. Perhaps another offering from the director/cinematographer team? Pavel Grushko talked up The Cranes Are Flying. Or there's also a documentary about the making of Soy Cuba that I'd like to check out, called I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Fog (1980)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

Once in a while I'll remember that there are several John Carpenter films I haven't seen, and after seeing a trailer for The Fog at the Terrorthon I was like daaaamn I ain't seen The Fog yet! So here we are. Carpenter's fourth feature imagines a great evil hidden inside a thick fog that attacks a small harbor town on the anniversary of a horrific shipwreck. The experiences of various townspeople during the fog's midnight arrival are documented, from a harried government official (Janet Leigh) to a guilt-stricken priest (Hal Holbrook). The news is spread through the local radio station, as station owner Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) gradually pieces together the supernatural weirdness assaulting them. BUT HOW CAN ANYONE ESCAPE THE FOOOOOOG?

It's kind of silly in its premise but mostly this is a straight horror movie, working in elements of mystery and suspense. Unfortunately its narrative is stretched thin even in its fairly trim 89 minutes, and the climax is ultimately underwhelming. The first half of the film is paced slowly and deliberately, building up certain characters and revealing stranger and stranger occurrences in this isolated community. I loved the subdued but uncanny mood of the earlier scenes, which built up a tension that was clumsily dispersed by the final scenes. It's not that the ending is bad, necessarily, it just felt like the build up didn't really lead to a satisfying conclusion. It all happened too quickly. Plus most of the characters were underused, flailing about until Hal Holbrook's Father Malone drunkenly accepts his fate after solving the fog's mystery. Maybe my expectations were too high, because I thought The Fog would be more thrilling.

But of course there are plenty of things to like here! It's a John Carpenter movie! Jamie Lee Curtis is there as an adorable hitchhiker, plus Jamie Lee Curtis's mom is there! Janet Leigh, maybe you've heard of her? They don't have much screentime together but it's still cool. Adrienne Barbeau is easily the standout, rockin' a smooth dj voice in the studio while being a cool mom and a resourceful person in a crisis. I really liked the scenes at the radio station and the idea of this woman desperately broadcasting to a possibly unreachable audience as she watches this eerie, homicidal fog move in across the water. I wanted more of that, actually, but maybe it's just the Pontypool lover in me. Anyway, I don't actually have much to say about this movie I guess. It's got some great creepy moments, creative visual effects, and a good cast, but it loses its momentum by the final act and doesn't make the best use of its characters after introducing them. Oh well. At least there are plenty of zombie seamen! And Carpenter does that cute thing of naming characters after his friends, like the weather man is "Dan O'Bannon." Aww.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Ah, I don't know. The aforementioned Pontypool? Sure.

PS I forgot to mention that I have a new twitter account where I just post movie taglines (with accompanying posters) and that's it. For October I've been doing most horror movies but I'll mix it up next month! You should followwwwww meeeeee.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Somerville Theatre Terrorthon, Part II

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. But first! Read Part I!

After a very satisfying dinner and some much-needed caffeine, we were ready to sit through the next 4 Terrorthon films, continuing our cinematic odyssey into the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Again, not much "terror" to be had here, but a really solid offering of sci-fi adventures with mild horror elements. The only one from this grouping I hadn't seen was Tremors, but I'd tried watching it just a few weeks ago and my internet was being fussy so it didn't work. I was really excited that I could actually see it, and on a big screen no less! And since this Thon went from 12pm-12am, I wasn't even that sleepy (as opposed to the all-night escapades of the other marathons I go to). Anyway, read on for some sci-fi goodness!

5 Planet of the Apes (1968)
It'd been a while since I'd seen watched this one straight through, and it was both better than I remembered and just as silly. I mean, it's tough, because conceptually there are some pretty serious ideas in this movie, and of course it can all be read as a parable relating to our own culture, but between Charlton Heston's toothy, yelly performance and the privileging of spectacle over substance, it's hard to really get into its more dramatic implications. Also obviously certain scenes have been parodied to the extent that the film feels like a parody of itself. It's still a pretty good movie, though, with a fascinating ape society that I wish was elaborated on more, and great turns from Kim Hunter and a super evil Maurice Evans. Fantastic make-up as well, and I love the varied landscapes and weird biomorphic architecture. I just get bored with Heston's exaggerated macho act pretty quickly, as with many of his performances.
3.5/5

6 Westworld (1973)
Westworld has such a good premise (super fancy vacation spot where guests can act out fantasies with robots in Western, Roman, or Medieval settings but then the robots go CRAZY) that I'm always kind of bummed that I don't love it. Revisiting it now I feel much the same as I did the first time I watched it: It has some great ideas and a good cast, but the slow pacing and flat characterization is frustrating. I love love love Yul Brynner as the creepy, homicidal robot cowboy and how the whole movie basically turns into The Terminator in the third act, but the first two thirds are kind of boring. I didn't mind the glimpses into this strange amusement park and its inner workings, but the protagonists are all kind of boring (yes, even James Brolin, though he's looking good). Also: where are all the women? There are like zero ladies in this movie except for some sexbots and a few female tourists who are barely referenced. I mean I know all 70s movies are just about dudes but come on, can't that NOT be a thing, somehow, retroactively? Oh well, the title links to my original review.
4/5

7 The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
My love for this movie is no secret, and surely it's painfully obvious how much a film like this suits my sensibilities- it's wacky, it's funny, it's from the 80s, it's got a lot of attractive, bespectacled nerds, and it doesn't make ANY GODDAMN SENSE. Which I love. The titular hero is a rock star, comic book hero, heart surgeon, and physicist who saves the planet from asshole aliens with the help of his snappily-dressed crew. I've always wanted to see this film in a theater, so I was so psyched it was part of the line-up. It's a fun film to watch with a crowd because it's so weird and silly, that the audience reactions add to the fun. I've gotta say though that after watching this movie who knows how many times over the years, I only registered that Buckaroo is supposed to be half-Japanese a few months ago, and now I'm bummed by the whitewashing. I love Peter Weller and I think he's great in the role, but it's always frustrating when a white person is playing a character of color. I always thought he was just a white dude who was into Japanese culture because he'd been raised around Japanese scientists or whatever. This is revealing a not-very-well-kept secret of mine: I am terrible at paying attention to exposition. Like in every movie, I will constantly forget where the story is set, what year it is, how people are related to each other, what the overall goal of the protagonist is. It's embarrassing. ANYWAY the title links to my original review.
4.5/5

8 Tremors (1990)
Ok! New movie time! This is the cautionary tale of two best friends (possibly/probably boyfriends?) who work as handymen in a small, isolated desert town. The day they finally decide to leave to seek a better life, they are suddenly surrounded by vicious, man-eating monster worms who move about underground. The few people remaining in town all band together to try and blow these fuckers up but it's pretty hard when they keep eating everyone. It's funny, it's gross, it's action-packed, and it somehow makes Kevin Bacon into a kinda charming goofball. Also it has an adorably frumpy lady scientist! AND Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a trigger-happy couple! There are lots of reasons to watch Tremors, clearly. It's also the only movie in the whole pack that actually scared me once or twice, with these unexpected jump-scares of huge worms bursting out of the ground, it's kind of freaky stuff. Though it's primarily an action-comedy, the premise is actually pretty terrifying because honestly how would we handle a monster that sensed our movement and attacked from below-ground? Like, where can we hide? They'll just level all the buildings until they get to us, oh my gosh. The world is ending.
4/5

Well there you have it! Over 12 hours of movies, cartoons, and trailers and we came out mostly feeling like we had to brush our teeth. Which we did.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Somerville Theatre Terrorthon, Part I

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, all on 35mm.

This year the Somerville Theatre has revived its horror marathon (some might recall I attended its last incarnation in 2009), and of course we took the day off to attend because of priorities. It was a lovely time, complete with cartoon shorts and lots of horror trailers, and I even won a raffle prize that included From Dusk Til Dawn on blu-ray! Wow! Also lots of fantastic posters were hanging all around, courtesy of long-time Thon-er Francisco Urbano. I loved that they programmed it in chronological order (and one offering per decade), too, since I haven't been to a marathon that's done that before and you could sort of see the progression of style and writing in genre films. They called it a "Terrorthon" but honestly there was not much terror to be had, and the majority of the films were straight sci-fi with maybe some horror elements. Not that I'm complaining, since I love sci-fi and there were some very cool selections, but "Terrorthon" is misleading! They plan to do it again next year and if they do I hope it's actually scary movies. Then again I'm sure my horror lust will be sated at the Coolidge Corner Horrorthon this Saturday night. Anyway. Here are the movies, several of which I've already blogged about but that's ok.

1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
I saw this years ago streamed on my laptop from netflix, which isn't really the best way to experience it. Seeing it on a huge screen and with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis really heightened its effects, because this is such a goddamn beautiful film. I still think the protagonists are dull, and the pacing is totally off, but the artful visuals make it completely worth those drawbacks. I just can't get over the contorted, painterly sets, fantastic use of color filters, and absolutely stunning make-up. I've also come to appreciate Conrad Veidt's early use of leggings-as-pants, and his amazing face that I want to draw sometime. The title links to my original review.
4/5

2 The Invisible Man (1933)
I watched this for the first time three years ago, and remember not really loving it because I felt the horror elements didn't work and didn't like most of the characters. On second viewing I found myself really responding to the more comedic elements, because this movie is funny! All the scenes with the hysteric townspeople (especially birthday girl Una O'Connor) and bumbling police force are hilarious and I realized the film is more of a satire than anything else. Plus I still love the effects and Claude Rains' performance. He sure does love yelling. And fancy smoking jackets. The title links to my original review, but I'm upping its score.
4/5

3 Dr Cyclops (1940)
This is one of the few films that was new to me, and I was excited for it when I saw it was on an icheckmovies horror list, but it was mostly a let down. The story concerns a mad scientist (Albert Dekker) experimenting with uranium in the Amazon Jungle, and some scientists he invites to help him out. He is very secretive about his work and after he gets what he needs from the group he kicks them out, but they are determined to learn what he's developing. Turns out he's shrinking living organisms, which feels really anti-climactic. Of course he soon shrinks the gang and they run around as rodent-size people for a while and Dr Cyclops (named for his glasses) chases them around the jungle. Eh. It's mostly boring, definitely racist (hellooooo Latino stereotype!), and underwhelming in its premise. Dekker is good as the nefarious title character and I was happy to see a lady scientist who was mostly useful, and sometimes its silliness won me over, but that's really minor praise. I felt like I might as well just be watching The Incredible Shrinking Man which is totally amazing and way way way better.
2/5

4 Forbidden Planet (1956)
I watched this movie the year before I started this blog, I can recall watching it in my depressing dorm room sophomore year on my tiny tv. I don't remember it very well, something about Leslie Nielsen in outer space macking on Anne Francis and her dad's a dick and Robby the Robot is there. Right? Yeah. Well my companions and I were getting hungry and didn't want to miss any of the later films so we decided to take a break for dinner (at the meat-tastic M3, mmmm) during this one, sorry. We even braved walking into Honk! which just so you know was a very courageous thing to do. Oh, and there was a really fantastic Tex Avery short shown just before Forbidden Planet about televisions of the future, and it was literally laugh-out-loud and also fairly prescient.

Continued with Part II!

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Seen: In 3D at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Well, you know me. I only write about big-deal new releases after everyone has already talked it to death and moved on to the next thing. I just hate being relevant, it seems. Anyway. Gravity is about the terrifying, murderous reaches of space and how humans are not meant to be up there and we will be punished for even trying. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist and inventor on her first trip out, learns this cold fact the hard way after her crew is slaughtered and her ship is torn apart by an unexpected hail of debris from a dismantled Russian satellite. Alone and running out of time as the pieces trace a path of destruction through multiple orbiting space stations and satellites, Ryan must somehow make it to a functioning shuttle that will get her back to earth. But she doesn't really know what she's doing and literally everything about space is trying to kill her.

So if I were to list my biggest fears, outer space would definitely be in the top 5. I am really scared of it, because did you know that it is REALLY. FUCKING. SCARY. I've known this intuitively for years, but Gravity really made my seemingly irrational fear a suddenly physical, visceral thing, so this was kind of a horror movie for me. Which I guess speaks to how effective it truly is. With its long, unbroken takes and sweeping cosmic vistas, the film is astonishingly immersive. I could feel the vast emptiness, the loneliness, and most of all the awe-inspiring beauty that is so deceptive, and can turn on you in an instant as the thin sheets of metal and plastic keeping you alive can be shattered so suddenly. We see (and hear) many shots from Ryan's point of view, and as a viewer it's hard not to become entrenched in her experiences as she fights tooth and nail to survive. As many have noted, the script is weak, with clunky plot devices and an embarrassingly un-subtle sentimentalism that's shoehorned in at random moments. But, for the most part, the all-encompassing, experiential nature of the film was enough to compell me and I could forgive its disappointing writing.

I've probably talked about it before, but I'm a fan of Sandra Bullock as an actress and have never understood the extreme negativity often directed at her by critics and Internet people. So I'm really happy she is in a film like this, a highly successful mainstream thriller (that's kinda sci-fi) with a female protagonist who's over 40, that's a cool thing. She gives a very dedicated, raw performance that ably communicates Ryan's simultaneous terror and resolution, completely carrying about two-thirds of the entire film and allowing the audience access into her strange and alarming situation. Hers is a scenario that few, if anyone, could relate to but Bullock's determined, no-frills approach encourages the illusion of "realness" as much as the breathtaking visual techniques. And Clooney's cute, too. I was taken out of the film a few times by the hackneyed dialogue and unnecessary insertions of backstory, so I can't say I'm as passionate in my response as some others I've read, but Gravity is truly a fascinating and rare experience.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Clooney in space? Obviously I thought of Soderbergh's version of Solaris, which is pretty good.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Haunting (1963)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

The horror times continue with a film several people have recommended to me, and is honestly the scariest I've seen in a while. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting unravels the mysteries of Hill House, an old mansion where several inhabitants died gruesome or unexpected deaths. It's remained empty for years but a paranormal psychologist and researcher (Richard Johnson) who is out to prove the existence of ghosts enlists a small group to investigate the mansion's possible otherworldly properties. Theodora (Claire Bloom) is a snarky psychic, Eleanor (Julie Harris) is a nervous sensitive, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) stands to inherit the house and wants to catalog his future wealth. Eleanor immediately perceives a monstrous presence there, a violent intention that seems aimed at her specifically. Fearful of being left alone, she oscillates between terror at the ghostly forces threatening her and comfort that the house seems to want her there. The others try to pry her away from its supernatural grip but she doesn't want to let go.

Relying almost completely on disembodied sound and distorted camerawork for its scares, The Haunting is an eerie, visceral experience. Every shot is precise, every noise is a bad omen. Though its opening exposition is narrated by Professor Markway, the main events of the film are shown from Eleanor's point of view and her inner thoughts are often voiced. She is often anxious and unsure, longing to be accepted in a group- any group- and begin a life away from her oppressive sister and brother-in-law, who serve as constant reminders of Eleanor's recently deceased mother. The specter of Eleanor's mother presides over much of the film along with the actual ghosts, as the protagonist sifts through her own guilty conscience and darker inclinations. By bringing her emotional baggage to a creepy psychological cesspool like Hill House, Eleanor invites a targeted wave of terror, and the audience becomes completely wrapped up in her internalized struggle with the house's presence. The angry, faraway voices, the persistent thumping, the unwieldy doors, the writing on the walls, the invisible icy hand- these devices are well-employed and remarkably effective, proving that even with limited special effects a film can be truly terrifying. I'm getting chills just thinking about "Whose hand was I holding?!" Yeesh.

While memorable for its horrific moments and uncanny atmosphere, The Haunting is grounded in its character exploration. Honestly, I would probably find the four central figures insufferable in real life, but their interactions and narrative contributions are compelling, plus the actors are great. Richard Johnson's Dr Markway is the quintessential mansplainer, but his overconfidence and condescension are eventually overtaken by Eleanor's conviction and the pull of the house. Russ Tamblyn is adorable and cheeky as Luke, a nonbeliever who gradually comes to see that something is not right in his family estate. Julie Harris is a bit annoying in the lead, but really it's because Eleanor as a character is pretty annoying, as well as weird and moody and fretful and needy. She's an interesting case and while I didn't need quite so much of her ever-present inner monologue I was always curious about what she'd do next, and she was a good person to center the story around (as I assume the book does). My favorite was Claire Bloom as Theo, an unambiguous lesbian who pursues a relationship with Eleanor that mixes "sisterly" friendship and derisive judgments, with a frankly sexual undercurrent. Her sexuality is never villainized, however, and she remains a sympathetic player as her own fears are revealed through the house's nightly attacks, and her care for Eleanor is shown to be genuine.

Complicated in its characters and narrative but perfectly understated in its horror elements, The Haunting is a deeply affecting, downright scary film that hides as much as it reveals, and thus its mystery is never completely solved. This sense of unfinished business makes its eerie mood even more pronounced, and left me feeling satisfied but (appropriately) uneasy.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Some of the more surreal visuals and skewed camera angles made me think of Seconds, another psychological horror-thriller but with a very different theme. Or you could do a quadruple feature inspired by Andreas's senior thesis about gender and the "monstrous hero" in horror: Cat People, The Haunting, Carrie, and May.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Anti-Gravity Double Feature: Jason X (2001) and The Pacifier (2005)

Seen: Both on our projector set-up, streamed from Miles' harddrive.

Last Saturday my companions and I incorrectly assumed we could catch a 7:30 screening of Gravity at the Somerville Theatre. SILLY US. It was sold out at least a half hour in advance and so we walked back to our apartment. We decided to watch another space movie that Miles had recently acquired, a little something called Jason X. I haven't actually seen any of the other Friday the 13th movies so this was an interesting experience. After that we wanted something more and after making a Jason xXx joke we realized that this could be the night we finally watch The Pacifier, a family comedy starring Vin Diesel that most people probably try to forget existed but had been on my to-watch list for a while. I must tell you though that after spotting the German dvd in a video store in Stuttgart, I can only think of it as Der Babynator. Maybe my favorite film title ever, to be honest.

So Jason was this guy who killed hundreds of people over the course of several movies, and when they finally caught him they found he himself couldn't be killed (IRONY), so he was locked up for a while and eventually cryogenically frozen. Hundreds of years later he wakes up on a spaceship full of trigger-happy soldiers and hormonal college students, so, you know, one thing leads to another. I don't think there's much more exposition than that, really. I mean he kills a lot of people, and he's in space, and eventually he gets super-powered because of technology. There's a perky android in the mix, too.

Ok, I mean, OBVIOUSLY this movie is ridiculous, and like, what is even happening here. I don't know, but it is pretty gosh darn entertaining. I mean, you've got goofy "futuristic" costumes (which basically means a lot of netting and bellyshirts), sexy times at inappropriate moments, gruesome senseless violence, horrific dialogue, and SPACE. There's a surprisingly badass lady-action moment when Lisa Ryder's "Kay-Em 14" is weaponized and just unleashes hell on Jason 1.0, so that was cool. And Jason X himself is kind of weird and awesome, all glowing metal and gross veins and shit, but he's only there for the last 15 minutes or so, which felt like a cop-out. Overall it is not a very good movie, like at all, but I can't say I wasn't taken in by the grisly murders and hokey outer-space antics- it's just dumb fun. Also: David Cronenberg is in this movie, presumably because he's like best friends with director James Isaac.

As a movie: 2/5
As entertainment: 3/5

Hopefully you all know how I feel about Vin Diesel. I feel pretty strongly. Because he's so great, you guys! I knew The Pacifier would probably be dumb, family-friendly comedy and might feature a lot of Diesel embarrassing himself for the sake of the children, but I couldn't stay away. The story revolves around Shane Wolfe (Diesel), a Navy SEAL who is forced to guard (and essentially babysit) a family after he loses their scientist father on a mission. Through discipline and a little bit of love he helps these kids get through a few weeks of school while also looking for some secret technology their dad presumably hid in their house. Also I guess they're in mourning? I don't know, they never talk about their dad dying but also maybe I wasn't paying attention to most of the narrative exposition. I had a few drinks, ok?

Directed by Adam Shankman and written by The State members Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, this movie is a lot better than you'd think it is. It's extremely silly, of course, and generally nonsensical, but whatever- that's basically the point! And it made me laugh! It helps that the cast is pretty strong, including Brittany Snow, Lauren Graham, Brad Garrett, and Carol! Kane! (!), but naturally this is all Diesel's show. He's doofy and over the top as this military dude out of his element, and it works. The script is decent, filled with unexpected situational humor and a few good one-liners, and there's even some good action thrown in. Also: a Sound of Music musical number! Eep! It's stupid, yes, and it has too many children, YES, but The Pacifier is basically a funny movie. THERE I SAID IT.

3.5/5

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fade to Black (1980)

Seen: On my laptop, originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

For the life of me I can't remember where I first read about Fade to Black- I was convinced it was House of Self-Indulgence but can't find it in their archives. So if you're out there, Fade to Black blog post that I read that one time, just want to say "Thanks" and "Sorry I didn't link to you!" Written and directed by Vernon Zimmerman, the film is a seedy slasher that speaks to the movie-loving obsessive within me and probably a lot of you, but with more homicide than most of us are likely to engage in. Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) is a quiet, socially awkward twentysomething who lives with a bitter, wheelchair-bound "aunt" (Eve Brent) in L.A. and toils away at a film distribution company (I think, I couldn't actually tell what kind of film-related thing they did actually). He spends all of his spare time watching movies and devouring film trivia, and longs to be with Marilyn Monroe. When he meets a nice struggling actress (Linda Kerridge) who happens to look almost exactly like Monroe, he thinks his dreams will come true, but she stands him up for a date and something snaps inside of him. To unleash vengeance upon all those he feels have done him wrong, Eric dresses up as different film characters and acts out murderous scenes.

Though low budget as hell and clearly meant to be just an over the top slasher, what I really appreciated about Fade to Black was how it didn't rely on its gimmick. It is definitely gimmicky, I mean that's the whole reason I was interested in it, but I ended up truly caring what happened to these characters, especially Eric. The script takes care to build up the story for a while, gradually shaping this protagonist villain before opening up the floor to bloody movie reenactments. Dennis Christopher is excellent in the role, intense and strange and as scary as he is sympathetic. Plus he dresses kind of like a schlubby Elvis Costello, which I dug. The b-plot with Tim Thomerson is weaker, but at least slightly entertaining with Thomerson spewing psychobabble and snorting crack while he tries to get the cops to not shoot kids who are apparently just the product of violent images in the media. Or something?

It's funny and kooky, and hell yes I loved the overriding film obsession, though I haven't even seen several of the films he references. It was kind of fascinating to watch someone wholly give in to his hobby, twisted as the results are. The visuals are cool, with impressive costume/make-up work for Eric and Marilyn's different guises, and nice editing that cuts between movie footage and Eric's actions to sort of show how fragmented his perception is. Also there's a baby Mickey Rourke as one of Eric's jerk coworkers! And I think one of the Warriors is his buddy but imdb seems to think otherwise. I know it's not necessarily a "good" movie overall, but it is certainly memorable, interesting, and well-acted- a darkly comedic slasher comedy that I'm surprised I took kind of seriously. Fun stuff.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I think this might be a good double feature with something like Brainscan, which has a troubled outsider who's obsessed with horror movies unwittingly killing people because of an evil video game.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2011)

Seen: On my laptop, from a file on my harddrive. On a bus.

Last week I took a day trip to New York to visit the MoMA archives, putting the final touches on my MA thesis. I wasn't feeling great during the dual 4-hour bus rides but did manage to watch Damsels in Distress in parts there and back, which was a delightful choice. My first Whit Stillman movie (Sasha will be proud), it traces the experiences of four lady friends attending college together, all privileged, self-absorbed, and not as smart as they think they are. Violet (Greta Gerwig) longs to help the less fortunate, primarily the unfortunately moronic frat boys at school, and dreams of starting an international dance craze. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is vain and opinionated, and follows along half-heartedly with Violet's schemes. Heather (Carrie MacLemore) is a well-meaning airhead whose boyfriend might be the dumbest person. Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new arrival to the group, calls out their patronizing and at-times backwards approach to do-gooding but is certainly no saint herself.

Nearly plot-less and broken up into titled segments of uneven length, Damsels in Distress is a marvelously entertaining but slightly disjointed glimpse into the lives of some ridiculous young women. They're well-dressed, well-spoken, and perilously erudite, while also managing to be some of the least self-aware characters ever written. The dialogue is hilarious, a combination of weird juxtapositions and comedically shallow observations, all communicated with good vocabulary and a false sense of superiority. The cast is excellent, with Gerwig shining as usual but nearly matched by Megan Echikunwoke's exceptional haughty expression. Gerwig manages to be tragically buffoonish and genuinely sympathetic in the role of Violet, but maybe I'm just not over my Frances Ha crush. If I'm being honest, the secret star is kind of Billy Magnussen as frat boy Thor. I mean, he doesn't know his colors, he just never learned them. Bt that's why he's in college, he's gonna hit the books! He's so convincing as this doofy moron and ultimately stands out as the funniest character because he's the most ludicrous.

As much as I enjoyed the script and performances, Damsels in Distress was just a little too unstructured for me to be wholly engaged. It felt like Whitman wanted to tell a comprehensive story but also wanted to share these vaguely connected episodes, and I think it should have been one or the other. There are a lot of subplots that are dropped and picked up willy-nilly, and it's a little disconcerting. Then again maybe that's Whitman's thing and I can't really criticize a filmmaker establishing a certain style of storytelling. My biggest frustration was Lily's snobby love interest Xavier- I really didn't care about their scenes, they weren't as funny or interesting as the rest of the film. Couldn't we have more of Adam Brody's kooky "playboy"? Luckily the film ends with an adorable classic musical number, so any negative feelings I might have had were washed away by the sambola.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Hmm... silly but lovable ladies being best friends and talking about clothes and boys and helping the less fortunate? HELLO CLUELESS.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

The Loved Ones (2009)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles' harddrive.

Lately whenever Miles and I sit down to watch something I'm immediately like "Let's watch a horror movie!" because, well, it's just how I feel, you know? The other night he obliged me with The Loved Ones, an Australian slasher he'd seen at SXSW a few years ago. It covers a decidedly sordid day in the life of teenage metal head Brent (Xavier Samuel), who is still reeling from a car accident that killed his father but left him unscathed. He struggles to emotionally communicate with his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) as they're both getting ready for the big school dance that night. Shy outcast Lola (Robin McLeavy) is dismayed to find out Brent is going with Holly, and concocts a plan to secure his attentions for the evening, in extremely violent fashion. Meanwhile, Brent's somewhat dorky friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) takes out gorgeous goth Mia (Jessica McNamee), whose brother went missing around the same time as Brent's accident.

Structurally, The Loved Ones follows the well-worn format of "start small, get progressively more and more fucked up, and give no evidence of how far you will go" to great effect. It works as both a compelling teen drama and a supremely intense thriller, with ample amounts of gore and enough family dysfunction to fuel several soap operas. The performances are excellent, with Robin McLeavy offering an exceptionally devious and crazed turn as the almost-sympathetic but enormously sadistic Lola. Xavier Samuel is also memorable in his believably traumatic experience, essentially operating as a male version of the Final Girl and really making you feel his pain. The whole film is a wry reversal of the common male/female slasher tropes, with Lola serving as a kind of teenage Norman Bates (complete with an Elektra Cmplex). Not everything is so derivative, just toying with these recognizable images in clever ways. I'd say it's its own kind of fucked up by the end, and writer/director Sean Byrne definitely makes it his own while working within the conventions of the genre.

While the characters and the central narrative definitely held my rapt attention, the b-plot of Jamie and Mia was noticeably weaker, and out of place when set against the main story. I thought the characters were cute and the way Mia fit in to the overarching plot was interesting and relevant, but the many cutaway scenes of their date were just kind of off-putting. I understand the inclination to offer a lighter side story that juxtaposes with the extremely dark happenings of the protagonists, but the two don't quite mesh. If Byrne had more closely worked in their story to the main one, I think it would have given the film as a whole a better flow. Anyway, it's generally a minor concern because the rest of this movie is pretty damned rad. AND I would like to note that though a lot of it is watching a teenage boy get hella tortured in really gory ways, I only turned my eyes away like twice because I am getting SO GOOD at horror movies. One day I'll be a pro and movie gore won't make me faint in movie theaters anymore because lol that's happened to me multiple times.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Something about a lonely young woman, romantic longing, and knifey bodily assault combined makes me think of May, which is an amazing movie.

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pet Sematary (1989)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

When Dr Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) moves to small-town Maine with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and two young kids, he expects a quieter life than the one he left in Chicago. The only cause of excitement seems to be the road outside their house, down which large trucks come careening without care for pedestrians. Within a few weeks the Creeds' cat gets hit, and out of sympathy for their daughter their friendly but oddly foreboding neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) shows Louis a way to bring back the beloved pet. Behind their house is an abandoned Native American burial ground, presumed cursed, whose soil can resuscitate dead creatures- but, they don't come back quite the same. Soon enough Louis loses a person close to him, and in his grief is tempted by the call of the magical ground. TO HIS PERIL.

I'll admit it, a driving force in my decision to watch Pet Sematary was that it's directed by a lady and I haven't really seen any women-made horror. I assumed it would be a kind of ridiculous 80s movie about zombie pets, and my god I was completely wrong about that but CAN YOU BLAME ME? There is mad false advertising going on here, and when I thought I might get some fun, spooky camp, instead I got a really scary movie. Not that I'm complaining. This film combines ominous tension, dark subject matter, great special effects, and horrific imagery to create one damn enjoyable (and CREEPY) movie. It does start off kind of campy, mostly because the inimitable Fred Gwynne is fucking tearing through the scenery, and it's fantastic, and there's a lot of hilariously obvious foreshadowing. Like, these parents never pay attention to their goddamn toddler, and there are always trucks zooming around, so do we think he might get into trouble? HMMMM? Once shit gets real- and believe you me, shit gets very real- it becomes a truly horrifying story, complete with nightmare memories, lots of gore, and a homicidal doll-child. But! Barely any pets! There's like one pet in this movie, what gives?

One of the best things about Pet Sematary is that there's a friendly, decaying ghost who keeps appearing to Louis, and I've decided that I kind of want every movie to have a gross ghost zombie friend follow around the protagonist, just like in An American Werewolf in London! Everything else about it is pretty good too, I think the main thing I didn't love about it was that it felt very divided across the first and second halves, with the tone, visuals, and characters changing so abruptly it felt kind of like two films spliced together. I liked both halves, though, so it's not a major concern, and that sudden shift does make all the fucked up shit at the end all the more effective. Or maybe it's just that I'm super scared of children in horror movies, like they are always creepy and nefarious, especially the pale blonde ones. Yikes.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I saw a lot of parallels to Re-Animator, especially towards the end, and since Re-Animator is always a good movie to watch on any occasion, I heartily recommend this pairing!

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

20 centímetros (20 Centimeters) (2005)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

I found 20 Centimeters on my netflix queue a few weeks ago and wasn't sure why it was there, but the summary sounded intriguing enough to bump it up. I didn't really know anything about it aside from what netflix told me, but I'm glad I took the risk because it turned out to be a pretty cool movie. The story follows Marieta (Mónica Cervera) a trans sex worker who is saving up for reassignment surgery and trying to break in to the regular workforce. Unfortunately, her roommate Tomás (Miguel O'Dogherty), whom she supports financially, has made a bad investment with her money, and her friend and neighbor is in trouble with some mob, and her dreamy new boyfriend is obsessed with the huge penis she wants to be rid of. Through it all, her narcolepsy causes her to fall asleep at inopportune times, slipping into intense fantasies where she's a musical star.

Ok, high concept, I KNOW, but somehow 20 Centimeters works despite its narrative busy-ness. It's funny, it's touching, it's colorful, and a little kooky. On paper this sounds like it could be depressing or exploitative but there is a balance of tone and subplots that presents a complex, human story. The central figure of Marieta grounds the film, with a fantastic and impressive performance by Mónica Cervera, who helps create a realistic character within this over the top premise. She is charismatic and sympathetic, and impressively changeable in her many dream-roles. Marieta's experiences (good and bad) as a transwoman are explored, but she is not wholly defined by that identity. I found the general investigation of lower-class life in urban Spain compelling in itself, with a range of characters popping in and out of Marieta's day to day.

As a musical 20 Centimeters is highly referential, pulling from Jacques Demy, Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, and others in an eclectic offering of musical numbers. Some are really ridiculous and fluffy, some are sexy and romantic, and some are just kind of weird. I actually felt like there were too many songs, which is rarely a problem for me, but I was getting so interested in the characters and some of these irrelevant musical numbers took away from the story and certainly hindered its flow. Also their quality was a little hit and miss, but some I did truly love. I'll admit I was enjoying this movie anyway, but then the final number happens as Marieta is finally getting her surgery, and for several days I only wanted to listen to Queen and dance around majestically because maybe things will work out in life. And it's just really great.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The musical-inside-the-protagonist's-head thing of course made me think of Chicago, which would be a fun double feature. Alternatively, for another musical comedy-drama about a talented trans person there is the fantastic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The film's tone and themes are reminiscent of Almodóvar, so one of his films would be a good pairing too.

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