Thursday, May 29, 2014

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

USA, 96 minutes
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

The Cosmic Puppets (1953)

In case I needed any reminders of Philip K. Dick's productivity, this little feller comes along: written in 1953, his fifth novel, and published in 1957, his fourth published. It's raw and fanciful, basically going to the H.P. Lovecraft well for its charge, yet insanely compelling. It reminds me of the kind of exercises produced by another '50s science fiction writer, Fredric Brown, small-town American innocence in confrontation with dark forces. It also foreshadows Rod Serling by several years, and Dick could well have been under the spell of Ray Bradbury too. Guy is on vacation with his harpy wife. Decides he wants to pay a visit to the town where he was born and lived until he was 9, nearly 20 years earlier. But when he gets there everything is different in weird ways. The streets and stores have different names and nobody remembers him. Also kids are molding with clay and the objects come to life. Plus something about the anthropomorphic shape of the horizon. It's all quite mysterious. And as the plot wends its way across its stepping stones of convenience and coincidence it never loses momentum. The potency of the ideas is still strangely strong. There is a fairly steady stream of weird shit going on at any given time, and one of the secrets to this whole thing is the trim size, under 150 pages. It keeps you guessing, whops you upside the head, ropes you and jerks you along, and before you know it it's done. Good and evil weigh in with all the usual markers—rats, spiders, and snakes on the one side, sunshine and golden goodness on the other. There's not a lot to it but it is profoundly Dick all the same, at a practically primitive brainstem level, with cascading masks of reality itself continually tearing away and filling in again with fresh detail. That's how he does it. Who does that? And somehow he burrows inside our heads as well, to the kind of dislocations of novels such as Martian Time-Slip, when it feels like he's actually in there, doing something. Changing reality. There are roots of that here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Scream (1996)

USA, 111 minutes
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

Blood Relatives (1975)

Blood Relatives is still of the lean, compact variety of novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, less than 200 pages as a mass market paperback, and a very swift read. Digressions and subplots are minimal, although I don't necessarily count that as a good thing in this series. Blood Relatives is focused on one main case, making it more of a conventional "mystery book," including a twist ending that makes the whole thing unfortunately not very believable and something of a dud. The case is about a pair of teen cousins who are brutally attacked on the street by a maniac with a knife. One survives with injuries and has a confused story to tell. It's a very unpleasant crime, detailed to a discomfiting degree. McBain's fascination with knives is once again on full display. The story eventually goes off the rails (in my opinion) but the fundamentals of the procedural are solid as usual. Steve Carella is front and center, with Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling just to the side, and as often happens in these shorties they are mostly just working the case. Not to be tiresome about it, but when the focus of procedurals shifted to labs and high-tech doohick rather than, you know, good old-fashioned shoe-leather figuring things out police work, grinding away at putting together a picture, constructing a narrative if you will (which incorporates lab work, of course), well, that's when it lost me, as amazing as all that technology is. Again, see true-crime shows such as Forensic Files for better entertainment values built out of the same materials. "Big case" single-episode TV dramas also more and more preclude the parallel streams of cases developing at the same time, which is one of my favorite aspects of them (again, Adam-12). But Blood Relatives is disappointing to me not just because it is limited to the one case, but also because that case has a number of significant problems, including perhaps worst a pompous sense of profundity. It's the usual gang from the 87th, but proceed with caution.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

UK / USA, 136 minutes
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

Wild Town (1957)

If anyone is looking for a generic Jim Thompson novel, you could do worse than Wild Town. It's less than inspired but packed with familiar Thompson notes, including a return appearance by the Texas deputy Lou Ford, star of The Killer Inside Me. Unfortunately, Ford has become less psychopathic ham and more Lex Luthor crossbred with Professor Moriarty, a sort of utility super villain who knows all, sees all, etc., which makes him a good deal less interesting. Once again the scene is a big hotel, and an isolated Texas boom town, and once again the plot is distractingly intricate. Babes abound, most of them swell-looking, and our hero, Bugs McKenna, is a typical Thompson outsider antihero, gruff, even corrupted, but with a heart of gold, kind of. For no reason I can discern, Lou Ford's girlfriend Amy Standish—also from The Killer Inside Me—gets a big role too. I get the sense from these mid-'50s novels that someone was seriously counseling Thompson to focus on plot because that is ultimately all they are, to the detriment of Thompson's rampaging, demented energy, which feels in Wild Town as if it is absolutely suffocating. At least Wild Town helps me see better how great The Killer Inside Me is by comparison. In fact, the two side by side really throws the situation in perspective. Checking Thompson's biography, I find Wild Town marks the end of a sustained burst of productivity, which maybe helps explain why the last few have felt a little exhausted. Jim Thompson was not done here—arguably his best work was still ahead of him, which we will be getting to presently. As for Wild Town, it's only for the hardest of hardcore fans, I would say. I'm not touching on all Thompson's work in this little series, but had meant to get to his best. Maybe I cast my net just a little wide. Wild Town is approximately 98% recycled devices, with diminishing vitality. No one needs to see Lou Ford like this. Feel free to skip.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Repulsion (1965)

UK, 105 minutes
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

The Savage Detectives (1998)

It's hard not to feel a little intimidated by the formidable reputation this bore on arrival in 2007, when an English translation was finally published. By then the massive 1998 tome was spoken of by some as the greatest Latin American novel since One Hundred Years of Solitude. Knowing little more than that the experience of reading it was at once anticlimactic and exhilarating. On the one hand it is little more than an autobiographical hagiography of an arguably failed poet. On the other it is somehow compulsively readable all the way through and utterly engrossing, even if, as I made my way, I was hard put to explain to myself what was the attraction. Roberto Bolano once compared writing poems and novels to building houses and skyscrapers, and there is indeed a quality to this of an imposing edifice. What's fun is how he shuttles so easily from the penthouse view to the scenes in the bar in the basement, all with an earthy undeniable authority. He makes Mexican poets of the '70s sound like New York punk-rock bands in the same period, or the Beats two decades before that: deeply felt, profoundly committed to art and literature, willing to make all the sacrifices and live according to the terms. Bolano offers himself up in not one but two characters based on himself, the first the 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero in the first full flower of embracing life and poetry (not necessarily in that order), whose diary entries bookend the much larger middle section that tracks the elusive and mysterious Arturo Belano (Bolano's second surrogate) and his best friend Ulises Lima, based on Bolano's best friend Mario Santiago. The long middle section is a stunning cacophony of transcriptions of characters telling their stories and what they know of Belano and Lima, hundreds of details that slowly fill out the portraits. Their stories are endlessly weird and fascinating, all of them rooted in a world where poetry is the most important thing and poverty just doesn't matter very much.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Fly Away Home (1996)

USA / Canada, 107 minutes
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).