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|Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014|
|That's how one gets greeted in this village. Death rules here.
An atmosphere of pure dread pervades every frame of 1966's Operazione paura
, known in the U.S. as Kill, Baby... Kill!
(a far cry from "Operation Fear," the literal translation of the Italian title). Co-written and directed by Mario Bava, the film is about a depopulated village in rural Italy where superstition reigns supreme and the ghost of a seven-year-old girl has everyone in the grip of fear. Bava puts us on our guard right from the start, with a pre-credit sequence where a terrorized woman is compelled to throw herself onto a fence by an unseen force/threat. Next we see her coffin being carried through town by a quartet of red-hooded pallbearers, which is also the first thing seen by Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) when he arrives by coach to perform the autopsy. That the skittish coachman won't take him all the way into town is a clear indicator that the curse it's under is well-known to those who live nearby, if not to city dwellers like the good doctor.
The same goes for the exasperated Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who gets nowhere fast when he tries to interrogate the townspeople and is incensed when he learns they're trying to bury the dead woman before an autopsy can be done. Assisted by visiting science student Monica (Erika Blanc), Paul makes a curious discovery (the first of many) about how the town takes care of its dead, a conspiracy that ropes in sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali) and bald burgomeister Keirr (Luciano Catenacci, credited as Max Lawrence). And then there's the reclusive Baroness Graps (Giovanna Galletti), whose villa is the sort of place where people go and don't come back (although even to whisper about such things is enough to conjure up a visit from the spectral Melissa, a harbinger of the death for all who have the misfortune to see her).
Visually, Kill, Baby... Kill!
is one of Bava's most striking creations, with colored lights catching the cobwebs at Villa Graps just so and illuminating the backgrounds for maximum eeriness. Another bizarre touch (presumably borrowed from Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast
) are the candleholders that look like arms which line the hallways. That's not nearly as disorienting, though, as the room that Paul can't seem to leave no matter how many times he crosses it or the endless spiral staircase Monica keeps finding herself at the top of when she tries to flee. No wonder it's the kind of place that has developed a reputation for being inescapable.
|Tuesday, October 21st, 2014|
|God only knows what goes on in that head.
One of the most famous freeze-frames in movie history comes at the end of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows
, which closes with its young protagonist, Antoine Doinel, having reached the end of the line with school, with his parents, and with society in general. That wasn't the end of the story, though, since Truffaut periodically checked in with Antoine (always played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) over the course of the next 20 years, culminating in 1979's Love on the Run
. This is where it all started, though, in 1959, in the vanguard of the French New Wave.
Introduced getting caught with a pinup by his French teacher (who earns the nickname his students give him), Antoine never gives the impression that he has any direction whatsoever, nor any talents save for petty thievery (mostly from his parents), telling lies (mostly to his parents), and cutting school to pal around with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). No wonder his parents (Claire Maurier and Albert Rémy) are adamant that they "don't know what to do with him anymore" and eventually turn him over the state. Not that the state has that much more of a chance of molding him into a productive member of society, but if they want to try, they have to find him first. And maybe not slap him. Antoine has this thing about being slapped.
|Monday, October 20th, 2014|
|Girls eventually leave home. It was bound to happen.
The first Ang Lee film I ever saw was Sense and Sensibility
in 1995 (and that was almost entirely due to Emma Thompson's involvement), which means I missed out on Eat Drink Man Woman
by just one year. (I did go back and rent it -- along with Lee's first two features, Pushing Hands
and The Wedding Banquet
-- so I would be caught up with him in time for 1997's The Ice Storm
.) A pivotal film for Lee, Eat Drink
was made in bustling Taipei at a time when the city was also in transition (hence all of the shots of traffic being directed by whistle-blowing traffic cops). In the interest of smoothing it over, though, he brought back a few familiar faces from The Wedding Banquet
, starting with Sihung Lung, who plays the central role of master chef Chu, who has lost his sense of taste and is in the process of losing his three adult daughters as well.
The oldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), is a teacher and a Christian to boot, which makes her incipient "old maid" status damn near an inevitability. The one in the middle, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), is a rising airline executive whose talents in the kitchen were suppressed by her father. And the youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), who works at Wendy's, which Lee doesn't have to work too hard to contrast with Chu's epic preparation for the Sunday dinner that opens the film. Each daughter wishes to leave home, and not a dinner goes by that doesn't include an announcement by one of them to that effect -- with Jia-Cheng getting the ball rolling by putting a deposit down on an apartment and
being groomed for a promotion that would require her to move to Amsterdam -- but life has a way of complicating their plans.
Some of the complications cooked up by Lee and his co-writers, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang (who also collaborated on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
and Lust, Caution
), verge on the melodramatic -- I'm thinking in particular of the scenes involving Chu's loyal taster, Old Wen (Shui Wang) -- but overall there's a refreshing offhandedness to the way Chu and his daughters go about their business. While Jia-Chien continues to be friends (with benefits) with her ex (Chit-Man Chan), she flirts with her company's lead negotiator (Winston Chao, who played the reluctant groom in The Wedding Banquet
), which is in direct contrast with the way Jia-Jen pines for her school's volleyball coach (Chin-Cheng Lu), who may or may not be sending her anonymous love notes. For her part, Jia-Ning swoops in when a co-worker (Yu Chen) cruelly strings along a boy (Chao-jung Chen) she professes to have no interest in whatsoever. And Chu isn't immune from romantic entanglements since everyone thinks he's destined to end up with Madame Liang (Ya-Lei Kuei, who played Lung's wife in The Wedding Banquet
), the overbearing mother of their divorcée neighbor (Sylvia Chang), whose young daughter becomes very popular at school when Chu starts making her lunches. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Eat Drink Man Woman
so winning. It's all about people who can't help but want the best for the people they care about.
|Sunday, October 19th, 2014|
|What kind of convenience store do you run here?
I saw two independent films in the fall of 1994 that made a huge impact on me as a nascent movie-lover. The first was Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction
, which I revisited this past spring. The second was Kevin Smith's Clerks
, which I watched this afternoon to mark the 20th anniversary of its release. By coincidence (or perhaps not), both were distributed by Miramax, which I came to associate with writer-driven films that had an offbeat sensibility. The difference between them, of course, was that while I couldn't imagine pulling off anything as ambitious as Pulp Fiction
(something that didn't prevent Tarantino's countless imitators from trying), Clerks
was the work of a fellow New Jersey native who made it in his hometown with his friends and not a lot of money.
Depicting a disastrous day in the life of perpetually put-upon 22-year-old convenience store counter jockey Dante (Brian O'Halloran), who frequently laments that he isn't even supposed to be there, Clerks
perfectly captures the dead-end feeling of working a menial job with absolutely no prospects, something I came to recognize after I logged several years in retail. (When I first saw it, most of my working life had been spent in the trenches of fast food, which isn't quite the same, as Smith's less perceptive Clerks II
amply illustrated.) Between his relationship woes -- caught between his thoughtful girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), the cheating ex he's still holding a torch for -- and his interactions with surly video store clerk Randal (Jeff Anderson, who has the most facility with Smith's wordy dialogue), Dante has plenty on his mind even before he decides to close the store to play hockey on the roof or attend the wake of a former classmate.
And then there are Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself. Strange that they wound up being the film's breakout characters, but that's largely because Smith continued to write them into his scripts, giving them more to do each time out (save for Chasing Amy
, when they're relegated to a brief but memorable cameo). When Dante and Randal lament that there are a "bunch of savages in this town," they could very easily be referring to the miscreants dealing drugs right in front of the stores, regardless of how wise one of them turns out to be.
|Saturday, October 18th, 2014|
|It's premature, but there's a baby.
If ever a film demanded to be seen with an audience -- preferably at a midnight screening -- it would be David Lynch's Eraserhead
. To my regret, I have never had the pleasure, but the new Lynch-approved Criterion Blu-ray (which looks and sounds stunning, he said, needlessly) is an acceptable substitute. Now, I'm firmly of the opinion that the world needs another analysis of Eraserhead
's themes and imagery like Henry Spencer needs a hole in his, but I'm willing to take a crack at my favorite part of the film: the comically absurd domestic scene that is the X family dinner. Beyond that, I'm taking the Fifth.
For starters, I love Henry's pained reaction (which Jack Nance sells so well) upon hearing about the dinner invitation from his intimidatingly sexy neighbor. Like a man awaiting his turn in the gas chamber, Henry shows up at the X residence in his ill-fitting suit and endures an awkward, halting conversation with his estranged girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her nakedly hostile mother (Jeanne Bates) while trying not to be distracted by the dog noisily nursing her pups on the other side of the room. (Asked what he does for a living, he says he's on vacation. When pressed, he reveals he's a printer "at LaPelle's factory," which is significant since Lynch worked as a printer for a man named LaPelle when he lived in Philadelphia.) Things take a turn, though, with the appearance of Mr. X (Allen Joseph), who's inordinately excited about how "new" the man-made chickens they're having for dinner are.
As impressive as the Baby is when it appears, for my money nothing else in the film tops what Lynch does when, asked to carve one of the chickens by Mr. X, Henry is mortified by the way it starts to bleed profusely, causing Mrs. X to break down and leave the table, followed by Mary. That leaves Henry alone with Mr. X, who grins at him like an idiot as if nothing at all were the matter. Mrs. X's subsequent reveal that Henry has fathered an unbelievably premature baby, which she tells him about after cornering and coming on to him, would be disturbing enough, but coming on the heels of this dining disaster, it's a wonder Henry doesn't flee himself.
|The best part of my life's been spent amongst the dead.
Under the aegis of Hammer Films and director Terence Fisher, Christopher Lee made short work of the horror pantheon, appearing as Frankenstein's Monster, Count Dracula, and the Mummy within the space of just over two years. The last was in 1959's creatively titled The Mummy
, which must have felt like something of a step back for Lee since he spends the bulk of the film entirely mute and wrapped head to toe in uncomfortable bandages. Even so, he is one of the most arresting-looking mummies ever to bestride the silver screen, especially when he's glistening with fresh mud, having been called forth from the bog in which he was carelessly deposited. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster opens the film in Egypt five years before the turn of the 20th century, with father/son archeologist team Stephen and John Banning (Felix Aylmer and Peter Cushing) on the cusp of discovering the secret tomb of Princess Ananka, a high priestess who died some 4000 years earlier. The only hitch is John has broken his leg, which prevents him from being there when the tomb is opened, but against the advice of his uncle Joseph (Raymond Huntley), he refuses to leave the site to have his leg properly set. Someone else who's eager for the three Englishmen to be on their way is Egyptian Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), whose dire warning ("He who robs the graves of Egypt dies") is roundly ignored by Stephen. (Like father, like son.) Tellingly, we aren't shown what frightens Stephen out of his wits after the seal on the tomb is broken and he is left alone with the Scroll of Life (the removal of which causes a secret compartment to open), but it isn't very hard to guess.
The rest of the film takes place in England three years later as Mehemet Bey sics Lee's Mummy on the three men who dared to desecrate Ananka's tomb. (He should have thought twice before hiring the drunken English equivalents of Abbott and Costello to transport his precious cargo, though, which is how the Mummy winds up in the mucky depths to begin with.) Naturally, John is the last to be targeted, which is useful because Cushing is needed to narrate both of the film's flashbacks -- one to ancient times so Lee can have a speaking role and be seen made up as Egyptian priest Kharis (a name borrowed from Universal's Mummy sequels), and the other to the opening reel so we can see Stephen unwittingly revive him in Ananka's tomb. Speaking of Ananka, it's eventually revealed that John's wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) is the spitting image of the Egyptian princess when her hair is down, which comes in handy when Kharis is sent after John, who isn't exempted even though he was laid up with a broken leg at the time. (I'm reminded of the end of Time Bandits
when the Supreme Being is informed that one of them has died and says, "Dead? That's no excuse for laying off work.")
If this version of The Mummy
comes up short in any department, it's probably the local color, in particular Michael Ripper's rather broad turn as a poacher who has the misfortune to encounter Kharis in the woods on multiple occasions. And Eddie Byrne is a bit of a wet blanket as Inspector Mulrooney, who's dispatched from London to look into the murders of John's father and uncle, yet remains a skeptic about the whole mummy business right up until the moment he gets karate-chopped into submission by Kharis. At least Sangster and Fisher have the good sense to return their Mummy to the swamp from whence it came.
|Friday, October 17th, 2014|
|All things are good when carried to excess.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A duke, a bishop, a magistrate, and a president take up residence at a villa in Northern Italy in the waning days of the Second World War. There, they gather together four storytellers, four soldiers, four collaborators, and 16 virgins (eight boys and eight girls) for the purpose of determining just how debauched they can get. Wait, what's that you say? That's not a joke, it's the plot of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
, based on the novel by the Marquis de Sade? Well, no wonder it sounded familiar.
Since its reputation preceded it, I've spent the better part of the past two years preparing myself for Salò
by methodically working my way through the rest of the Pasolini's filmography. This, I believe, was the correct course of action because I got a great deal more out it than somebody coming to it completely cold probably would. A film that is almost as obsessed with order as the Fascists it depicts acting out their every whim and most debased fantasies, Salò
is broken up until four subsections. In the first, "The Antechamber of Hell," youths are rounded up in great numbers and examined by the four "masters," who divvy them up between them. (They must have planned for at least one runner, though, because when one of the boys makes a break for it and gets cut down in a barrage of machine-gun fire, one of the masters remarks that they no longer have the nine they started out with.)
Once the preliminaries are over, then come the three "circles": the "Circle of Manias," the "Circle of Shit," and the "Circle of Blood." Each one is informed by a different storyteller (the fourth is the piano player who accompanies them as they relate their perverted and scatological tales), each one includes a travesty of a wedding more outrageous than the last, and each one sees the young victims get more and more degraded until they reach the point where they spontaneously start informing on each other in order to avoid being punished for their own transgressions. All they're really doing, though, is putting those punishments off, and not for very long, either.
Even though they're effectively cut off from the outside world and get to make up their own draconian (and constantly changing) rules, there are reminders of the war being waged nearby throughout the back half of the film. The most insistent manifestation of this is the sound of planes off in the distance, which Pasolini includes in a number of scenes, although no one ever remarks upon it. As long as they stay distant, it seems, the masters are content to keep doing what they're doing, and the victims are resigned to their cruel fates. If it hadn't already been taken the year before, the tagline for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
-- "Who will survive and what will be left of them?" -- could have just as easily applied to Salò
|Thursday, October 16th, 2014|
|It's normal to be upset by death.
It's difficult to detect the hand of Jean-Claude Carrière in 1966's The Diabolical Dr. Z
, which the screenwriter wrote for Jesús Franco (based on the director's pseudonymously credited story) in between assignments for Luis Buñuel, Pierre Étaix, and Louis Malle. (It was actually the second of two films Carrière worked on for Franco that year, the other one being the Eddie Constantine vehicle Attack of the Robots
.) Ostensibly part of the Dr. Orloff
series, this was the follow-up to 1964's The Secret of Dr. Orloff
(which is actually about a character named Dr. Jekyll, hence its alternate title The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll
) and establishes its tenuous connection to the other films with a few passing references to the awful Dr. O. The main focus, however, is on the fringe-dwelling Dr. Zimmer (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), who has defined the physical centers of good and evil in the brain and attends a conference of neurologists to obtain permission to experiment on human beings (something he's already done without their say-so, but whatever). When he's roundly excoriated by three colleagues, the frail Dr. Z dies right there on the spot, but not before making his devoted daughter Irma (Mabel Karr) promise to carry on with his work.
Irma's first order of business is to fake her own death by picking up an unwary hitchhiker -- who bluntly states that she's all alone in the world, so why not
kill her since nobody will ever miss her -- running her down after they go swimming in a nearby lake, setting the car on fire with the hitchhiker inside, and sending it rolling into the water to make it look like an accident. Unfortunately, Irma's face gets singed in the process, but back at her father's laboratory she operates on herself and, remarkably enough, comes out of it with her looks mostly restored. Aided by her father's assistant Barbara (Lucía Prado) and escaped death-row prisoner Hans (Guy Mairesse) -- both of whom are under her control thanks to a spider-like contraption that holds subjects still while electrodes are inserted into the brain and spine -- Irma dragoons aspiring actress Nadia (Estella Blain, who's introduced performing a bizarre nightclub act as "Miss Death" where she slinks around on a spider web in a see-through body stocking with her naughty bits covered by a large, hairy spider) to help her eliminate her father's most vocal critics.
The first to get it in the neck is Dr. Vicas (Howard Vernon, the erstwhile Dr. Orloff), who falls prey to Nadia's sharp, poison-tipped fingernails. He's soon followed by the blithely unconcerned Dr. Moroni (Marcelo Arroita, who played Dr. Jekyll in The Secret of Dr. Orloff
) and the slightly more careful Dr. Kallman (Cris Huerta), who still fails to prevent Irma from exacting her revenge. Meanwhile, on her trail are Nadia's junior doctor boyfriend Philippe (Fernando Montes), whose attempt to cheer Irma up by taking her to see Miss Death's show right after her father's passing was misguided for multiple reasons, and sleep-deprived police inspector Tanner (an uncredited Franco), who's being observed by a visiting Scotland Yard inspector (an uncredited Daniel White, who also composed the film's jazzy score). Their scenes give the film the feel of a contemporary krimi and are perhaps the strongest indicator of Carrière's involvement. The rest, for good or for ill, is pure Franco.
|Wednesday, October 15th, 2014|
|We're all human here. We're not monsters from outer space.
When people carp about Michael Bay films like The Rock
being in the Criterion Collection or Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture
, I wonder whether they've poked around in it enough to turn up some of the truly odd titles lurking in the underbrush. Case in point: 1958's Fiend Without a Face
, which the company released in 2001, not long after The Blob
(another unabashed "B" movie from the same year that it had previously put out on laserdisc). Of course, while the latter has since received a Blu-ray upgrade, Fiend
languishes in DVD-only limbo where it is likely to remain. This is unfortunate as its list price ($40) is a bit high compared to 2007's Monsters and Madmen
boxed set, which goes for $80, but contain four contemporaneous horror films, making it a much better value for money.
In actuality, the Criterion edition of Fiend Without a Face
paved the way for that Monsters and Madmen
set since the film was executive produced by Richard Gordon, whose Amalgamated Productions also made The Haunted Strangler
, Corridors of Blood
and First Man Into Space
. (The lone film out, The Atomic Submarine
, was produced by his brother Alex.) And Fiend
fits in snugly alongside the other two "monsters" since it uses the fear of atomic power as a launching pad for an outré story about invisible creatures created by a not-entirely-sane scientist that devour the brains and spinal cords of their victims. Even if it's unable to show this in graphic detail, the film makes up for it when the creatures suddenly become visible in the final reel and are revealed to be disembodied, stop-motion-animated brains with attached spinal cords (which they uses to push themselves around and launch themselves at their victims) and antennae. Furthermore, when they get shot, which happens a lot at the film's climax, they spurt black, burbling blood and liquefy in an appropriately disgusting fashion when their power supply is cut off. (Spoiler alert: the icky brain monsters don't win.)
I realize I haven't said anything about the human beings menaced by the brain monsters yet, but that's because director Arthur Crabtree and screenwriter Herbert J. Leder (working from the Amelia Reynolds Long story "The Thought Monster") aren't much interested in developing them beyond being stock characters. As the public face of a U.S. Air Force Experimental Station that recently set up shop in Winthorp, Manitoba, Canada, so it could conduct radar experiments aimed at boosting its anti-missile program with atomic power, Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) has his hands full when a local dairy farmer is mysteriously killed in the vicinity of the base, yet the town's mayor (James Dyrenforth) doggedly refuses to let the Americans do an autopsy. The unfortunate circumstance does put him in contact with the dead man's sister Barbara (Kim Parker), though, and she in turn leads him to the eccentric Prof. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), an authority on psychic phenomena hard at work on a manuscript entitled The Principles of Thought Control
The plot kicks into high gear when two more dairy farmers are killed -- at their own farm this time -- and it's discovered that their brains have been sucked out of two little holes in the back of the neck, along with their spinal cords. First, though, Crabtree and Leder throw in an incongruous moment of comic relief when Jeff walks in on Barbara just getting out of the shower and subsequently gets into a fistfight with bitter local constable Howard (Robert MacKenzie), who may or may not consider himself Jeff's romantic rival. One thing is certain: after the mayor is the next to fall prey to the creatures (the movement of which Crabtree suggests by the shaking of foliage and tipping over of buckets and the like), Howard is the one who leads a posse of gun-toting Canucks on a hunt for the killer (which he believes to be a rogue G.I.) and goes missing, eventually surfacing at an emergency town meeting, a gibbering madman.
With Howard out of the way (read: locked up in the booby hatch), Barbara is fully prepared to soften her attitude toward Jeff just in time to help rescue him when he gets locked in a crypt while checking out the local cemetery (always the sort of thing one should do alone and at night). She's also present when he confronts Prof. Walgate, who owns up to being responsible for the whole mess, describing the thought experiment that brought the deadly creatures into being. The old fellow's dead wrong if he thinks they won't attack their own creator, though, a theory he tests when they besiege his house (a scene that prefigures Romero's Night of the Living Dead
by a full decade) and he distracts them so Jeff can high-tail it to the base and blow up the power plant's control room, which the professor believes is the only way to eliminate the threat. At least in that instance he turns out to be correct.
|Tuesday, October 14th, 2014|
|If there are any intelligent creatures on this planet, they're our enemies.
Like a lot of Italian genre films of its era, Mario Bava's Terrore nello spazio
went out under a wide variety of titles, few of which even came close to a literal translation of the original one. Most commonly known as Planet of the Vampires
, which is how AIP released it in 1965 even though there are no vampires to be found in it, its authorship is also the subject of confusion since the US version doesn't credit any of the Italian screenwriters, just the two that did the English-language adaptation and the writer of the original story Bava and his collaborators based their script on. (I wonder if this deficiency will be addressed on the version Kino Lorber is releasing in two weeks. I guess we'll have to watch and wait.)
A low-budget science-fiction horror film that, like It! The Terror from Beyond Space
before it, was an obvious precursor to Alien
, Planet of the Vampires
is a relic of the era when its characters could wear eye-catching black-leather spacesuits with high collars (a look that has to come back into vogue -- if it was ever in vogue in the first place). The premise: two spaceships have been sent to investigate a homing beacon emanating from Planet Aura (which, by the way, is totally uninhabited by vampires). One of them, the Argos, is under the command of Capt. Mark (Barry Sullivan). The other, the Galliot, is captained by who cares because his entire crew dies soon after they land. The same fate might have befallen the Argonauts as well, since they're all at each other's throats as soon as they touch down, but Capt. Mark is able to break things up before any of them loses an eye (or a throat). From there, it's a matter of repairing the ship's batteries so they can leave -- a job that falls to engineer Wess (Ángel Aranda) -- and investigating what happened aboard the Galliot.
As one might expect, the crew members that stand out the most are the two women -- brunette Sanya (Norma Bengell) and blonde Tiona (Evi Marandi) -- neither of whom has to suffer the indignity of being anyone's love interest. This is because this is the sort of film where the deceased are in the habit of pushing their way out of their graves and ripping off the plastic bags they've been wrapped in. There's no time for love when a colleague you've just buried gets reanimated and wants you to find out for yourself just how great it feels to be dead. (No bloodsucking required, they promise.)
|Monday, October 13th, 2014|
|The animal in question is by no means a normal product of nature.
There's no shortage of unusual films covered in the essential Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood
, but perhaps the most outlandish of them all is 1984's Razorback
, the one about the giant killer boar that starts ravaging the countryside out of the blue. And that's not all it has going on. It's also set in a small outback town where the economy is based on the wholesale slaughter of kangaroos that are turned into dog food at the grody-looking Petpak plant on the outskirts of town. Not exactly the sort of thing that the Australian Tourism Board would go gaga for, I would imagine.
The first attack takes place during the pre-credit sequence, when hardened kangaroo shooter Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) watches helplessly while a giant boar tears through his house, snatches up his grandson, and carries him away into the night. From there, director Russell Mulcahy (soon to turn his hand to the first Highlander
) and screenwriter Everett De Roche jump ahead two years, picking things up when American animal-rights activist Beth Winters (Judy Morris) is assigned to do a story on the kangaroo slaughter and, after being menaced (read: run off the road and nearly raped) by a couple of repugnant locals (Chris Haywood and David Argue as the abominable Baker brothers), gets gored to death by the boar. When her body isn't recovered, her husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) comes looking for answers and gets more than he bargained for. Arkie Whiteley rounds out the cast as Sarah Cameron, his replacement love interest, whose job tracking wild boars (of normal size) for the government comes in handy.
Thankfully, Mulcahy shoots around the kangaroo hunting in such a way that we never actually see any of the marsupials get shot, although there's still plenty of unpleasantness when their carcasses are carted to Petpak for processing. And there are multiple scenes of characters crawling through muck and generally getting as filthy as possible. These are counterbalanced, though, by some frankly surreal dream sequences and incongruously breathtaking shots. Even if I hadn't known going in that Mulcahy had cut his teeth directing music videos, I would have been able to guess that after watching this. As for the creature, well, what can I say? It's a giant boar. I wouldn't want to get cornered by one, but I sure wasn't scared by this one.
|Sunday, October 12th, 2014|
|We're not going anywhere, we're hunting.
There's a scene about a third of the way into the 2007 film Trigger Man
where the leader of a three-man hunting expedition is asked where all the deer are and replies, "It takes a while, all right? They don't just come out to get shot. Come on, you can't be impatient." For all intents and purposes, he could be speaking for writer/director Ti West, making his low-budget follow-up to The Roost
, but in this instance it's all too easy for the viewer to share the other characters' impatience for something -- anything -- to happen.
West, who also photographed (very shakily) and edited the film, doesn't help matters by including a time-waster of a seven-minute pre-credit sequence where his three protagonists -- Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, and Sean Reid, all playing characters with the same names -- meet up in New York City (time stamp: 7:04 a.m.) before heading off for a day trip to rural Delaware. (He even follows one of them to the corner store to buy cigarettes, a detail that gets the most negligible of payoffs.) Once the three of them arrive at their destination (time stamp: 9:51 a.m.), they don't do much taking, so the little we learn about them as characters in the opening scenes (Reggie is having girlfriend trouble, Ray is a bit of a wise ass, Sean is about to get married) has to hold us. Then again, if action defines character, Reggie winds up being the most defined by default simply because he's given the most to do. (He's also the one who deliberately leaves his cell phone behind in their vehicle, a decision he comes to regret when an unseen sniper starts taking potshots at them.)
It isn't until after our boys have been traversing the woods for two hours (not in real time, thankfully) that they discover they're not as far from civilization as they thought. ("Are you sure we're allowed out here with guns?" one asks, genuinely curious.) That's also about the time when, as the cliché goes, the hunters become the hunted, and West lets loose with the blood squibs. For many, though, that will be far too little and way too late.
|Saturday, October 11th, 2014|
|I'm a friend of the family.
It's a familiar scene. A soldier shows up on the doorstep of the family of a fallen comrade with some unfinished business to take care of. Sometimes it's the return of a prized possession or family heirloom. Other times it's to pass along a message, the last words of a dying man. Either way, it's the sort of thing that has to be done in person if it's to be done at all. The second scenario is the one that plays out in The Guest
, but then a funny thing happens. The soldier, David, having discharged his duty, doesn't leave, but rather is invited to stay by the family, the Petersons, whose lives -- individually and collectively -- are changed by his presence. In a way, it's almost as if writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard decided they wanted to do a remake of Pasolini's Teorema
-- only instead of seducing each family member in turn, their interloper uses his special set of skills to "fix" an aspect of their lives -- but I doubt they had anything so highfalutin in mind.
As David, Dan Stevens lets his intense stare and piercing blue eyes do most of the work, but he's less a ticking time bomb (early on, Pa Peterson speculates that he could have "the PTSD") than a loaded weapon with a hair trigger -- and that's before he manages to get his hands on some guns. When he gets teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) to point out the jocks who regularly bully him, we can guess what's going to happen to them a couple scenes later. Similarly, when father Spencer (Leland Orser) bitterly complains about being passed over for a promotion, we can anticipate the news that somehow his rival has been taken out of the picture. Things change, though, when David gets proactive, fixing it so daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) won't fall prey to her drug-dealer boyfriend Zeke (Chase Williamson). As for mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), well, she's just happy to have the help.
With the military angle, there's a fair bit of "The Monkey's Paw" by way of Deathdream
in the mix, and the conspiracy that gets folded into it (personified by Lance Reddick's Major Carver) makes plain that David is no ordinary combat veteran, although we probably could have guessed that on our own. What's perfectly clear to me is that Wingard and Barrett's winning streak continues, and composer Steve Moore (of instrumental rock duo Zombi) is a welcome addition to the team. Should his throbbing synthesizer score ever get released on CD, I'll snap it up without hesitation.
|Friday, October 10th, 2014|
|Something must have happened to trigger this insane decision.
When Pascale Ferran's Bird People
premiered, the word out of Cannes was that it was a strange film. And so it is. It's also mysterious, beguiling, and quite delightful. Set in and around Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where American tech consultant Gary Newman (Josh Charles) has flown for a meeting about a project in Dubai and where French student Audrey Camuzet (Anaïs Demoustier) works as a maid at the airport Hilton, the film tells contrasting stories about what it's like when a person decides to change their life and what happens when a life-changing event is thrust upon them without warning. In both cases, flight is involved, which is only natural in light of the setting, but one involves the deliberate missing of a flight while the other is about taking it on the wing in the most unconventional way possible.
Before he settles on Gary and Audrey as his protagonists, Ferran observes them as they converge on the Hilton, showing how the other commuters on the train with Audrey are in their own little worlds. (We hear some of their thoughts and the music they're listening to.) And when they settle in for the night -- he in his hotel room, she back home in her apartment -- we see how different their views are. While Audrey is able to watch the people across the courtyard from her, Gary is stuck with the sight of the airport's runway, reminding him that he's due to fly out to Dubai first thing in the morning. Perhaps that's what brings on the panic attack that makes him run outside to get his bearings and inspires him to come to a drastic decision.
That decision, incidentally, is for him to quit his job on the spot and leave his wife and family behind along with any vestiges of his old life. This, as one might expect, doesn't sit too well with his boss (Geoffrey Cantor) or his wife (Radha Mitchell), with whom he has an extremely lengthy video chat that gets quite heated at times. When pressed for an explanation for his behavior, the best he can manage is "Sometimes people change," which is literally true of Audrey when Ferran switches gears and shows things from her perspective. Precisely how this change manifests itself I'd rather not reveal, but I will say that it allows her to indulge her voyeuristic side (her scene with Japanese artist Taklyt Vongdara is a highlight) and gives Ferran all the excuse he needs to let his camera swoop around the airport at night to the tune of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." (This sequence, incidentally, mirrors an earlier one where Gary uses Google Earth to zoom in on Dubai International Airport, all the way down to the runway where he's supposed to be landing at that exact moment.)
Without going into too many specifics, there are actually a number of connections between the two halves of the film, including a friendly concierge (Roschdy Zem) who appears in both and a stray cat whose presence is benign in one and menacing in the other. And Gary and Audrey's paths cross a couple of times, although Audrey is the only one aware of it until the very end. That would seem to give her a clear advantage over him, but the one who chooses their destiny is the one who has more control over their own life.
|Thursday, October 9th, 2014|
|Most people adore children. They just annoy me. They always do what they shouldn't.
As anybody who's seen The 400 Blows
can tell you (and what self-respecting cinephile hasn't?), François Truffaut had a natural flair for directing children. It should come as no surprise, then, that he decided to make an entire film about them, 1976's utterly charming Small Change
(whose French title actually translates to "Pocket Money," but that was already taken). Written by Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman, who co-wrote a number of his later films starting with Day for Night
, it's an episodic film set in the last few weeks of school before summer vacation. A bit late in the year to introduce a new kid to the class, but when young Julien (Philippe Goldmann) is dropped off by Welfare, it's made clear that he's a special case. He's certainly ostracized by his classmates, which is typical behavior for boys his age.
One who attempts to be a little more considerate is the quietly observant Patrick (Geory Desmouceaux), whose father is in a wheelchair and whose mother is out of the picture for reasons that the film elides. He's so shy that when he goes to the movies on a double date, the other boy winds up making out with both girls. On the other end of the spectrum are born troublemakers Mathieu and Franck (played by brothers Claudio and Franck De Luca), who attempt to sell their schoolbooks at one point and are impressed by Julien's flair for petty thievery. The biggest attention-getter in the whole film, though, has to be Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel), whose parents leave her at home while they go out to eat, prompting her to pick up her father's bullhorn (he's the chief of police, see) and announce to the entire high rise where they live that she's been locked in (truth is, she locked herself in) and she's hungry. This inspires her neighbors to rig up an elaborate pulley system to deliver a basket of food to her, but the film denies us the follow-up scene of Sylvie's parents returning home and having to answer charges of child neglect.
Speaking of which, Sylvie's parents have nothing on top-billed Nicole Félix, the single mother of a precocious toddler named Grégory who's left alone in their top-floor apartment long enough for him to crawl up onto the windowsill and fall out the window. This isn't Lars von Trier's Antichrist
or Andy Warhol's Bad
, though, so little Grégory bounces right back as if he merely took a tumble off the couch. That's how you can tell this film is pure fantasy.
|Wednesday, October 8th, 2014|
|As long as you stay in this house, the nightmare will never end.
Coming off The Girl Who Knew Too Much
, with its crisp black-and-white cinematography, Mario Bava splashed out with the lush Technicolor compositions of Black Sabbath
, also made in 1963. A horror anthology made up of three stories, plus wraparounds hosted by Boris Karloff, who also stars in the middle segment -- or the last one depending on which version you watch -- Black Sabbath
is the most successful example of the form this side of 1945's Dead of Night
, and one which no amount of meddling can subvert. (For its American release, AIP shuffled the segments around, replaced Roberto Nicolosi's score with one by in-house composer Les Baxter, and gave it the title it's known by today -- its Italian title I tre volti della paura
translates to "The Three Faces of Terror.")
Having seen both versions, I can confirm that the Italian one is the more balanced of the two, opening with the contemporary chiller "The Telephone" (based on a story of F.G. Snyder), closing with "The Drop of Water" (based on one by Ivan Chekhov), and placing Aleksei Tolstoy's "The Wurdalak" -- the longest and most ambitious segment -- right in the middle. Taking place almost entirely in the apartment of the easily rattled Rosy (Michèle Mercier), "The Telephone" finds Bava replaying some of The Girl Who Knew Too Much
's paranoiac beats as she's plagued by a series of menacing phone calls from someone threatening to kill her. "A body like yours can drive a man to madness," says the sinister caller who claims he can see everything she does and is even able to listen in when she calls her estranged friend Mary (Lidia Alfonsi) for help. Eventually, Bava reveals who's making the calls and why, and he can't resist having somebody show up at Rosy's door wearing sinister black gloves, but this is one case where the payoff doesn't detract from the set-up.
The same goes for "The Drop of Water," in which trained nurse Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux) is summoned to the run-down mansion of a deceased countess because the woman's skittish maid (Milly Monti) won't touch the body. Transfixed by the jeweled ring on the countess's finger, Helen steals it despite being unnerved by the dead woman's rictus grin and staring eyes, which pop open even after she's closed them. It's after the theft that Helen starts hearing the sound of dripping water, which continues to plague her (along with a persistent, buzzing fly) when she returns home, which is spookily illuminated by a flashing blue light. Like "The Telephone," "The Drop of Water" wrings a lot of suspense out of a woman home alone, unsure of who's after them and why. "The Wurdalak," on the other hand, is all about the terror of knowing exactly who to fear.
Of course, it helps when that person is played by Boris Karloff in a furry parka. As Gorca, the patriarch of a close-knit family who sets out to kill a monstrous Turk who's been wreaking havoc in the area and returns a bloodthirsty monster himself, Karloff is disarmingly creepy, overriding the concerns of his understandably frightened children and contriving to steal away his grandson Ivan in the night. In the meantime, a passing count (Mark Damon) falls in love with Gorca's daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen) and convinces her to go away with him, but she knows she can't escape her fate.
A mini-masterpiece of creeping dread, "The Wurdalak" (which has been adapted for the screen several times, most recently as the episode "Skin and Bones" from the NBC anthology series Fear Itself
) is at its best in the sequence where little Ivan calls out to his mother (Rika Dialyna) to let him in, preying on her maternal instincts even though, as her husband (Glauco Onorato) points out, she knows the boy is dead. That's how the wurdalak gets you: by playing the innocent and getting you to let your guard down. As in 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers
, to do so even for a moment is all it takes to surrender your humanity for all eternity.
|Monday, October 6th, 2014|
|Europe has a long and sordid history of animalistic murders.
Game of Werewolves
aside, this decade has been disappointingly short on good werewolf movies, so I'm pleased to report that 2013's Wer
fills that void quite admirably. Co-written and directed by William Brent Bell (who previously made the little-loved found-footage horror film The Devil Inside
, but I never saw that, so I won't hold it against him), Wer
also reinforces the idea that all the good werewolf movies are being made outside the United States
since it's set in France and was shot in Romania. That said, it still jumps through a few hoops to establish that its three leads -- the defense team for a man accused of viciously attacking an all-American family on a camping holiday in France -- are two expatriate Americans and a Brit. The upshot of this is it means not having to constantly be reading subtitles, only sometimes.
Introduced during the flurry of quick-cut news reports and talking heads following the attack on the unremarkable Porter family (captured on extremely shaky video) and subsequent arrest of local recluse Talan Gwynek (Brian Scott O'Connor), public defender Kate Moore (A.J. Cook from Criminal Minds
) is convinced her client has been singled out simply because he's tall, thin, hairy, and lives just a couple miles away from the crime scene. That's more than enough for smarmy lead investigator Klaus Pistor (Sebastian Roché), who doesn't feel the need to look any further once he has his man, but Kate is intent on getting to bottom of things, especially when she learns about the mysterious car accident that took the life of Talan's father just the year before and its possible connection to the dispute over the land where he lives with his Romanian mother (Camelia Maxim). Another wrinkle is added by Kate's ex-boyfriend, British animal expert Gavin Flemyng (Simon Quarterman), who's flown in to build the case for the Porters being the victims of an animal attack. He also looks into the genetic condition that causes Talak to be so frail, yet physically imposing, but after he's bitten by the unmuzzled prisoner during a scuffle, the other member of Kate's team, tech expert Eric Sarin (Vik Sahay), begins to notice his increasingly erratic behavior and makes the connection to the full moon, which is approaching.
Even if you think you know where Wer
's story is going, the road Bell and his co-writer Matthew Peterman take there is still worth following. For example, the same scene where Gavin tells Kate and Eric about porphyria, which he believes could account for Talan's excessive body hair, is the one where he starts coughing, a sure sign that his "scratch" is more than just skin-deep. And the carnage that ensues when Talan is taken to the hospital and strapped to a table to undergo some tests, which include inducing a seizure with flashing lights, is more visceral than a similar scene that appeared in 2010's Wolfman
remake, largely because of how Bell has built up to it. As for the form Talan takes when he transforms, it may be underwhelming to some since he doesn't grow any more hair than he already has, but O'Connor brings a definite physicality to the role that is positively awe-inspiring.
|Sunday, October 5th, 2014|
|These pictures are not missing. They are inside me.
One of the year's must-see documentaries, The Missing Picture
is also one of the most unusual. As relayed by director Rithy Panh, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and disastrously transformed Cambodia into an agrarian society under the leadership of Pol Pot, it tells how Panh and his family were forcibly evacuated from the capital city of Phnom Penh and what happened to them (and others) in the reeducation camps they were sent to. Instead of resorting to talking-head interviews or dramatic recreations, though, Panh made simple clay figures and used them to illustrate his story, aided by the densely layered sound design. He also makes use of grainy archival footage of the work camps where he spent his teen years, which is contrasted with the colorful fantasy films that were the norm there before the country's clocks were set back to the Year Zero. The most resonant passages, though, are the ones focused on the immobile clay figures representing the millions that are unable to tell their own stories. Pol Pot's "model society" may have been a dismal failure, but Panh's is an unqualified success.
|Saturday, October 4th, 2014|
|Don't blame me if this whole thing falls apart.
Presenting a slice of gay life that hasn't often been depicted on screen, Ira Sachs's Love Is Strange
is about a New York couple of long standing (39 years!) that ties the knot now that it's legal for them to do so and the fallout when one of them loses their job as a result. Wishing to stay in the city while they hunt for an apartment they can afford (far from the easiest thing to do under the best of circumstances), Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have to be separated temporarily since the only one of their friends who can put them both up lives in Poughkeepsie, which is inconvenient. Hence, Ben goes to stay with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), a filmmaker with a wife, novelist Kate (Marisa Tomei), and teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George crashes with their downstairs neighbors, hot cops Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), an arrangement that is less than ideal for all concerned.
Instead of overdramatizing things, Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias emphasize the ordinariness of Ben and George's situation and their at times fraught relationships with their hosts. As Ben confesses to his husband at one point, "Sometimes when you live with people, you know them more than you care to." As he has to share a bunk bed with Joey, whose close friendship with a classmate (Eric Tabach) is raising a red flag for his parents, there is a great deal of truth to what he says. If I have an issue with the story's shapelessness, though, it is tied to Sachs's penchant for holding shots longer than necessary, giving the impression that the film is ending when there's still more of it to come. And the shot he does choose to end on makes me question who the film is actually about. Is it really Ben and George, or is it some mopey, awkward teenager who has to be goaded into talking to a girl he likes? Frankly, I preferred when it was the former.
|This case is about what people think of you.
This may seem like elementary filmmaking, but one thing David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl
gets exactly right is knowing what to show and what not to show the audience -- and when to do both. It's a tricky film to pin down, much like the title character, because it has a way of changing from scene to scene (and from moment to moment within those scenes). On his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike, seen mostly in flashbacks, à la
Gene Tierney in Laura
) missing and signs that she has been abducted. As the police investigate and the media puts its spin on the story, though, Nick increasingly finds himself under the microscope, which is an uncomfortable place to be in light of his behavior in the months leading up to Amy's disappearance, as she recounts in her diary, which we hear excerpts from long before anyone is able to find it.
To reveal too many plot details would do the film a great injustice, especially for those who haven't read Flynn's bestselling novel, which she adapted for the screen. I will say that Affleck does a terrific job with a tricky role and receives able support from the rest of the cast. In addition to Pike, it includes Carrie Coon as his twin sister Margo, one of the few people who sticks by him, Kim Dickens as the lead investigator on the case who comes to believe more and more that Nick is a murderer as the evidence against him piles up, Patrick Fugit as her assistant who suspects him right from the start, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's rich ex from boarding school who remains in the background for a good long while until the time comes for him to be put into play, and Tyler Perry (yes, I have finally seen a Tyler Perry movie) as high-profile defense attorney Tanner Bolt (what a name!), whose services Nick requires when he decides to stop cooperating with the police.
For his part, Fincher gets a huge assist from Jeff Cronenweth, his go-to cinematographer of late, who makes the most of a limited color palate, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, continuing the fruitful association that started with The Social Network
. And it would be a crime to discount the contributions of Kirk Baxter, Fincher's editor of choice going back to 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
. I doubt I'll see a better match-cut this year than the one that goes from Amy kissing Nick to Nick getting the inside of his cheek swabbed so the police can get a sample of his DNA. As discomfiting as it gets at times, it's a pleasure to watch a film where absolutely everyone is working at the top of their game.