Thursday, July 24, 2008

New(ish) movies watched lately.

Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings, 2007

This somewhat whimsical and warmly nostalgic portrait of England in the 1980s centers around Will, a timid little wisp of a kid whose family belongs to some kind of strict and oddly cultish religion that doesn’t allow television—not even educational films, as we see when Will has to sit in the hall while his class watches a video—or any form of entertainment, for that matter.

While banished to the television-free hallway, Will meets Lee Carter, the school fuck-up whom everyone seems to hate, and despite the odds, they hit it off in their own weird way. Lee makes bootleg videos for his older brother whom he idolizes, but who treats Lee like shit (but since their mom is more or less nonexistent, “he’s all I’ve got!”, as Lee mawkishly cries). Lee shows a bootleg copy of First Blood to Will—I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through 14 or 15 years of life without ever seeing a minute of celluloid, and then to plunge right into a Sylvester Stallone action film. Will already possesses an intense creative impulse, stealing away to a shed in his backyard to make crazy, feverishly charged cartoonish drawings in his Bible (the only materials he has to work with), which he often imagines coming to life, moving around via wiggling, animated lines. But Rambo pushes him over the edge—the movie sets Will free, empowering him with a newfound strength, releasing his own barbaric yawp. With tinges of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Will and Lee start working on a movie, which requires some significant rule breaking and parental defiance on Will’s part in order to get away, as he’s not supposed to be cavorting with sinners. Their movie was initially supposed to be a remake of First Blood, but then Will has an idea for his own movie—called, as one might guess, Son of Rambo.

Meanwhile, a group of French foreign exchange students have arrived. On the whole much hipper than the bland and mild English, one of them, named Didier, is kind of a new wave Michael Jackson worshipper. Possessing a bit more world-weariness than the rest of them—he even has a pencil-thin mustache—Didier develops a following of schlubby English kids who mimic his hairstyle and look, while the girls swoon over him and line up to kiss him. As always seems to be the case with anything that’s somewhat clandestine and cool, they eventually discover the Son of Rambo project and try to glom onto it. While Will is excited about collaborating with others, thinking the more the merrier, not to mention relishing his sudden popularity, Lee does not react well to the additional participants. He knows they’ll only ruin it, steal it out from under them and turn it into something else, changing its dynamic irrevocably.

The film has a tone of hyperbolic slapstick, with a touch of the maudlin (for instance, when Lee proclaims to Will, “this has been my best day ever!”—heartwarmingly nauseating). Overall it was cute, fun, and entertaining, but nothing momentous, certainly nothing I’ll ever really feel the need to see again.

Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine, 2007

Harmony Korine’s third feature film entails a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator while he's entertaining a group of senior citizens. (“Live forever! Don’t die!” he chants, inviting each half of the room to join in chorus.) “Marilyn” invites “Michael” back to her commune in Scotland, a refuge for a motley group of celebrity impersonators that includes Charlie Chaplin (Marilyn’s husband), Shirley Temple (their daughter), the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, a surly Abraham Lincoln (“I’m Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. They’re currently at work building a theater in hopes of attracting new visitors and showcasing their talents for the world (somewhat unexpected, considering their self-imposed isolation).

There’s also a second plotline involving a priest, played by Werner Herzog,* who is training a group of nuns to fly by jumping from an airplane. As much as we might somehow expect them to, the storylines never come together, remaining wholly unrelated to one another. Despite these scenes’ perceived irrelevance to the main narrative, the image of a woman falling through the sky, her habit billowing around her, is arresting and bizarrely poignant. And did I mention that Werner Herzog is involved?

Mister Lonely is much more accessible and less disturbing than Korine’s previous films—one could chalk it up to maturation, or perhaps just his cleaning up and getting into a healthier state of mind—yet it still retains the strangeness of his earlier work. Moreover, it is not without elements of tragedy and melancholic overtones—a dark tale disguised as sweet and sentimental.

The film’s highlights are its striking, weirdly beautiful images—for instance, the falling nun, or the memorable opening scene in which our Michael Jackson look-alike rides a tiny bike around a track, a stuffed monkey with angel wings hanging off to the side by a wire, almost appearing to fly. This moment is inexplicably funny, moving in an intangible way. As Korine explains in an April 2008 New York Times article, “The story always comes from pictures I want to see,” which seems to account for the slight disjointedness, almost a random succession of stunningly oddball moments—the art lies in the unexpected manner in which such moments are placed into the film.

Despite its striking imagery and relatively straightforward plot—for this director, at least—the film seems flawed, almost a little bit boring, and I think I prefer the grotesquerie of his earlier works. Gummo has its own moments of beauty, though in a much darker and more perverted sense. Perhaps a happy medium of the two would be ideal—in the aforementioned interview, Korine states that “I think the next one will be more provocative,” so perhaps I’ll get my wish.

*Herzog was cast in Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, and as then, he still can’t act. But I’m such a fan of Herzog’s own films that this doesn’t really bother me. I can forgive him this one shortcoming—which might be the case with Korine as well.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

La Jetée, Chris Marker, 1966
Twelve Monkeys
, Terry Gilliam, 1995

Chris Marker’s “photo-roman”* is comprised of a series of gorgeously framed images, each one a museum-quality photograph, shot in that grainy black and white that I love so much. With the exception of one scene, in which a woman opens her eyes, the story is entirely told through still images accompanied with voiceover narration—yet they nonetheless suggest the impression of movement.

Humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “The victors,” as they are called, have established some kind of underground penal colony, and have begun conducting time travel experiments using the prisoners as guinea pigs, in hopes of gaining information about the source of the catastrophe, and ultimately to change the course of history. One man in particular is chosen for his strong mental image of the peacetime world—he has been haunted by a childhood memory, in which he witnessed a man die—the logic being that “if [he] were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps [he] would be able to live in it.”

This short yet accomplished film—and, as far as I can tell, one of the director’s most accessible, not to mention thrilling—focuses on issues of time and memory, involving a classic time paradox. It has been called the greatest science fiction film ever made—whether or not this is the case, it is definitely the most elegant, beautifully shot, and philosophically complex one that I have seen.

Inspired by and partially based on La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys expands upon the former, fleshing it out into a full-length feature with conventional movement and sound. Gilliam’s film adds various elements to the plot, such as the cataclysmic event being a plague rather than a nuclear bomb, the main character’s ending up in the wrong year and being incarcerated in a mental institution (naturally, everyone assumes he’s crazy when he explains that he’s come from the future), and of course the “Army of the Twelve Monkeys,” a militant animal rights group assumed to be the source of the deadly virus.

As in La Jetée, this film involves multiple time paradoxes. James Cole, the aforementioned man from the future, accidentally travels back to a World War I battlefield; in 1996 he can be seen in photographs of that battle. Cole is shown pictures of graffiti spraypainted on a wall days before the epidemic began; it turns out that the graffiti exists because of him. Then of course there is the film’s central paradox, which I won’t go into so as not to spoil it.

These paradoxes present some mind-bending questions about the nature of time. The film seems to imply that time cannot be changed, that all events are predetermined, that there was never a 1997 when James had not traveled there from the future, just as he had always been involved in that World War I battle. (In La Jetée the narrator avers that “there was no way to escape Time.”) Thus, these attempts at gaining information about the virus in hopes of thwarting it are futile; James was always part of that chain of events, and he will always fail.

Despite all of their similarities, these are two very different films. While I ultimately prefer the stark and graceful beauty of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys is not without merit. It retains a nice apocalyptic feel, and while the plot additions certainly change the story, they don’t detract from it. I don’t even mind that Bruce Willis is in the movie, although it should be noted that Terry Gilliam reportedly gave him a list of “Bruce Willis acting clichés” that were not to be used in that performance—good advice, Terry.

*This translates to “photo-novel,” which could really refer to any film, as they are all comprised of thousands of still images—this one just annunciates that aspect more pronouncedly.

Friday, July 04, 2008

After watching the terrifying masterpiece that is Black Christmas, I was inspired to check out a few more horror films from the long list I've been compiling. I have to say, Black Christmas still wins.

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
, Bob Clark, 1972
Bob Clark’s first film isn’t quite up to par with Black Christmas, but we’ll call it a practice round. A pretentious theater director wearing some ridiculous striped pants drags a troupe of actors to an island that serves as a burial ground for criminals, where he digs up a body and performs a ritual to raise the dead that doesn’t seem to work. While it was most likely intended as a joke—he’s hired someone to pop up out of one of the graves—the director seems disappointed and takes it out on the actors, going to great lengths to debase them. Of course, it turns out that while the ritual doesn’t take effect immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t take effect eventually.

Martin, George Romero, 1977
This psychological horror movie about a teenager who may or may not be a vampire is somewhat of a departure for George Romero. Unlike his cinematic predecessors, Martin does his bloodletting with syringes and razor blades rather than fangs, which seems to imply that he’s just a bit of a weirdo. His uncle, however, is resolutely convinced, calling him “Nosferatu” and harping on the alleged family curse. While the truth is left somewhat ambiguous I’d lean more towards his being human—disturbed, but human. The industrial suburbs of Pittsburgh are put to good use, serving as a fittingly desolate backdrop to this strange and captivating story.

The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven, 1972
Inspired by (or maybe just based on the same source material as) Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, two girls go to a rock concert—except before they even make it inside they try to score some grass off of a guy who brings them back to his apartment, where they’re kidnapped by a gang of sadistic escaped convicts who tie them up and put them in the trunk of their car.

The film’s most harrowing moment arrives when the car breaks down and Mari emerges from the trunk to realize that she’s parked in front of her own house and there’s nothing she can do about it. Feet from the solace of her loving parents, she’s instead dragged into the woods to face degradation and her ultimate demise.

After raping and murdering the girls, the killers clean themselves up and unwittingly knock on the door of Mari’s parents’ house to ask for a place to sleep. The parents quickly figure out what’s going on and exact their revenge; these scenes, which entail a chainsaw and a blow job that ends in castration, are somehow anticlimactic and disappointing—this can be said of the whole movie, I think. I suppose I could have just hyped it up too much in my mind, but I was not impressed.

The tone wavers between sadistic and incongruously slapsticky, due in part to the soundtrack’s almost upbeat hillbilly music. There’s also the ridiculous subplot involving a couple of bumbling, donut-munching cops that could have been out of something like Super Troopers. They see the killers’ car but think nothing of it, realizing their mistake when they hear a radio dispatch describing the abandoned vehicle. They attempt to head back but run out of gas on the way, unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike with a group of teenagers who extend their middle fingers at the pigs, and a grossly stereotypical toothless black lady driving a truck full of chickens. I’ve read that the contrast between the film’s soundtrack and its disturbing imagery is intentional—which is certainly interesting, but I nonetheless found the result to be rather ineffective.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, 1951
Not exactly a horror film but I’m including it in here anyway. This space age classic is a little bit high-minded in its messages about mass hysteria and man’s inability to cohabit peacefully with other nations. And I must say, I found it a little weird that the important announcement that this moralizing alien traveled all the way to Earth to communicate is that if humans don’t shape up and dispose of their nuclear weapons, his planet will bomb the shit out of them.

Regardless, I enjoyed the vintage sci-fi imagery, replete with flying saucers, massive killer robots, and a silver-clad spaceman wearing what amounts to a goldfish bowl over his head, and was rather amused to discover the origin of the phrase “klaatu barata nikto.”

The House by the Cemetery, Lucio Fulci, 1981
This is the first movie directed by Lucio Fulci that I’ve seen, and I found it to be pretty unimpressive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he hasn’t done better—I’m not totally dissuaded from seeking out other films in his oeuvre. (I hear there’s a pretty good one involving a killer who quacks like a duck.)

It has a particularly memorable opening scene, wherein two people sneak into a vacant house to have sex but somehow get separated. Thinking that he’s playing a trick on her, the girl goes to look for her beau and is stabbed in the back of the head, the knife coming out the other side through her open mouth. However, it kind of goes downhill from there.

Dr. Norman Boyle and his family move into a quaint New England house so that he can continue with a research assignment that one of his colleagues was working on (the colleague having just committed suicide). Immediately, the family notices some weird goings-on, and tries unsuccessfully to move to another house.

One of the high points is a creepy little girl (who I guess is really a ghost?) who used to live in the house and makes a habit of visiting Boyle’s son, who might be one of the most annoying children in cinematic history. The girl continually conveys a message of warning, but it’s wasted on the kid, whose parents of course dismiss his silly antics.

So apparently this perverted doctor, whose name is a pretty good amalgamation of two other famous doctors, once lived in the house (I guess he was the father of the creepy little ghost girl?) and was known for performing controversial experiments on his patients. As it turns out, he’s still there in the basement, kept alive by consuming fresh human blood. Although he’s not really living in the strictest sense of the word—when Dr. Boyle tries to kill him, a clump of maggoty innards resembling a nasty-ass sausage link oozes out of his side.

This movie had the potential for greatness—creepy ghost children are always a nice touch—but the film would have benefited from some more careful plotting. While unexplained phenomena can definitely be a good thing in horror films, in this case I’d say it errs on the side of too much vagueness.

Blacula, William Crain, 1972
In this melding of horror and blaxploitation, an 18th-century African prince meets with Count Dracula, who turns him into a vampire and seals him off in a coffin, where he remains for centuries until two gay interior decorators buy the castle’s contents, unwittingly shipping him to 1970s Los Angeles. When they open the coffin, which they had been thinking would be a pretty fierce guest bed, they unleash a vampire whose intense thirst for blood has not been satiated for about 300 years.

Blacula, as it turns out, can be pretty sexy when he’s not in vampire mode, and despite his odd getup (i.e. a flowing black cape), he manages to seduce a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his wife. Her sister’s boyfriend, however, is the cop investigating some of the odd murders that have been happening, complete with missing bodies—a.k.a. victims who are turned into vampires and thus wake up and disappear from their own funerals. It’s not exactly scary, but pretty entertaining and campy—I couldn’t help but let out a few utterances of “Let the cartoons begin!”