Thursday, May 29, 2014
Director/photography/editor: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo, George A. Romero
Music: Capitol / EMI Hi-Q stock recordings
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, Russell Streiner, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Ridley, George Kosana
If anything is famous for being famous it is Night of the Living Dead and its rules of the road for zombie movies. These unique new monsters had been around before, or anyway the word had—I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and White Zombie (1932) at least are well worth tracking down. But you won't find a whole lot of lurching around by beings with rotted flesh, let alone intimations of viruses from outer space and such. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were a product of voodoo and strictly a Haitian affair. They also more represented minor problems for law enforcement, as opposed to the onset of apocalypse.
The deeper levels and fine details of the fantasy narrative, in fact, are still mostly nascent in this flagship production: the undead here have no particular taste for brains, for example, although the pseudo-scientific explanation advanced is that the brains of corpses have been "activated" by radiation. Authorities really don't know. That's part of the horror. But the cultural connecting point—that wonderful sense that masses of people around us no longer function the way they were intended, but instead only cling to materiality and sensations they once knew, ignoring everything that conflicts with a narrow world view (as exemplified in popular phrases such as "Fox News zombie")—is not explicitly emphasized at this early point.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
In case it's not at the library.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Photography: Mark Irwin
Music: Marco Beltrami
Editor: Patrick Lussier
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courteney Cox, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Henry Winkler
It's easy enough to knock Scream for attempting to have its cake and eat it too, make a scary movie and at the same time be all smug and ironical about it. Certainly the entire franchise played out that way—is still playing out, with the late-arriving fourth installment from 2011 (which I haven't seen). Many, many such exercises have followed—The Cabin in the Woods, for example, is only one of the better ones. More broadly, the whole decade of the '90s is often dismissed as an especially poor time for horror, and Scream tends to be assigned the face of that, turning horror into little twee comedy skits with occasional shock cuts and gore, until finally Saw, Hostel, the zombie apocalypse, and a lurching army of reboots reintroduced us to the experience of actually being scared by movies again (if rather unpleasantly so, but being scared is always unpleasant after all).
Still, the first 13 minutes of Scream are so good I really think we might need to back up a little here. Wes Craven may be uneven before he is anything else, but the confidence and pure verve are unmistakable. The details are just right: a teen girl alone at home at night in a big comfortable suburban mansion, Jiffy Pop on the stovetop, and someone with a funny voice who keeps calling on the cordless and asking weird questions. "Do you like scary movies?" he says. Drew Barrymore is a perfect choice to play the victim, and even better (shades of Janet Leigh in Psycho) she's gone from the movie practically before it's begun. The strokes of development are swift—from flirtatious joking with the strange caller to outright terror as he suddenly seems to be close by, and seriously malevolent too—and finally you just have to accept the premise. It forces you to, even as the action grows more outlandish and convenient. This opener has some air of the showoff stunt, but no one is about to get up and walk out after that, even as the movie quickly settles into the snide and, yes, very witty nonsense that follows.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
In case it's not at the library.
Friday, May 16, 2014
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Burgess
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Editor: Bill Butler
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Michael Bates, Sheila Raynor, Philip Stone, Anthony Sharp, Carl Duering, Michael Gover, Aubrey Morris, David Prowse, Clive Francis
There's nothing subtle about A Clockwork Orange. Its famous violence is obvious and programmatic: assault, robbery, rape, murder, the usual. In fairness, the picture does a reasonably good job of anticipating how ongoing societal breakdowns play out. And the solutions to the violence, arguably the point of this near-future fantasy, are also obvious and programmatic (see title metaphor, which belongs to the author of the original novel, Anthony Burgess). In the end, in an example of classic Stanley Kubrick cynicism, it appears that attempting to solve problems only makes them worse, and in unimaginable ways. We are left to try to live with the consequences. I suspect all the heavy-handed, clonking points are as much as anything the reason why I loved it so much as a teen. I do appreciate better now the horrors of the violence in the first 15 minutes alone—"the old ultra-violence," as voiceover narrator and main dude Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) insists on calling it. But I also still appreciate the energy, concision, and choreography that went into those early scenes, especially the gang fight, which is a case of pure infectious dynamics. And the Beethoven soundtrack only propels it.
In fact, much like the case with some Woody Allen movies, I now experience A Clockwork Orange at least partly as formative and already internalized, operating in a kind of twilight haze of nostalgia. Some of the language formations—the moronic "well well well well well well well" of one of the thugs, the use of "appy polly loggies" as a sarcastic way to apologize, "eggiwegs" and such for food, and Alex's occasional elaborately Shakespearian turns of phrase, such as "what didst thou in thy mind have?"—I still use, and am often surprised on revisits to this movie to find them waiting for me there. A Clockwork Orange is less than convincing in its ideas, bogged down in outdated Cold War gestures such as a youth slang pervaded by Russian (that was Burgess more than director / screenwriter Kubrick), or just simply smug about its ability to shock. But some of its individual elements nonetheless remain outstanding—a hallmark of Kubrick films, as we can see better all the time.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
In case it's not at the library.
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach, David Stone
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Editor: Alastair McIntyre
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux
It's probably not right to call Repulsion a horror movie—it's much too arty and urbane for that. And in spite of a few (highly effective) shock cuts, the disquieting narrative turns are all too naturalistic in the context of mental illness. But I came out of the theater the first time I saw Repulsion with a feeling of desolation I could not shake, and overnight that turned into a case of food poisoning. In spite of the obvious cause, I blamed the movie and not the bad pork ribs and thought of my sickness as profoundly existential. The association has stuck. Repulsion is the kind of movie that inspires one to such things. In fact, it was so disturbing I was even unwilling to look at it again until recently.
It's the first picture in director and co-writer Roman Polanski's so-called "Apartment Trilogy," with Rosemary's Baby from 1968 (in many ways much more the conventional horror picture, because the fantasy might be real and the madness not) and The Tenant from 1976. The idea of a trilogy is a critical figment—I'm not sure anyone thinks Polanski consciously intended them that way—but the elements they share are obvious: isolated individuals lost in great anonymous metropolises slowly going cuckoo inside their apartments, which serve both as sanctuaries and as killing fields. The way they walk the streets, the way they look at the world through peepholes, the obnoxious neighbors, the phones ringing and no one on the other end. All three dwell inside the heads of their protagonists nearly as much as outside. Spoilers ahead.
Sunday, May 04, 2014
In case it's not at the library.
Friday, May 02, 2014
Director: Carroll Ballard
Writers: Bill Lishman, Robert Rodat, Vince McKewin
Photography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Mark Isham
Editor: Nicholas C. Smith
Cast: Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels, Dana Delany, Terry Kinney, Holter Graham, Jeremy Ratchford
Sometimes I think Fly Away Home may be something like my token selection out of the ghetto of G-rated movies. All the reviews seem to find a way to mention that rating very quickly and usually also include the phrase "family fare" too (so glad I got them both out of the way myself). There are things to say about this, as there are about the other extreme of this spectrum, the X or NC-17 or "unrated" rating, or whatever it is called now. Both are commercial curses—in the case of the G it tends to relegate to a narrow market where I suspect managing children and their parents are more the goals and everything else secondary. At the other extreme—what is the last movie released with one? Henry & June? Midnight Cowboy?
With Fly Away Home it's almost certainly director Carroll Ballard who is most important in making it such an extraordinarily effective story, whose thoughtful themes are rarely cheated on and, indeed, are front and center right in the title: flight, and home. He pulled off a similarly elegiac stunt involving animals and sad children nearly 20 years earlier with The Black Stallion. Fly Away Home is populated with stock figures and sequences for a G-rated picture— funnee aminals, tender and frolicsome music, approximately six kind persons and/or institutions for every malevolent one, etc.—but it hits very hard at the longings and experiences of people of all ages (there, I said that too).