Monday, December 26, 2005

Zardoz (1974)

Welcome to the Outland, where men like Zed (Sean Connery) dress in fashionable speedos and suspenders, and a gigantic stone head floats around, vomiting rifles on fearful acolytes down below. When the head lands to be worshiped like the angry god it is, Zed crawls into the mouth and stows away, because everybody knows you gotta join 'em to beat 'em. Eventually he winds up in an iffy computer-regulated paradise, the Vortex, where men are fey, women are harpies, and Zed becomes the target of a great deal of withered pseudo-philosophy. Seems the poor devils in the Vortex have gained immortality but lost their sex drives (though not their taste for pornography, interestingly enough). Plot Twist: triggered by his scanty outfit, some citizens propose using the virile Zed for breeding purposes; this kind of hilarious misogyny was better handled in A Boy and his Dog (1975). Zed rebels, becoming the inevitable fly in the KY jelly, staring pensively into shiny crystals and finally, through skillful manipulation of fun-house mirrors, brings Death back to the Vortex. At least there was no blowhard talk of him "fulfilling the prophecy." Bizarro sci-fi love child of Barbarella (1968) and THX-1138 (1971). Not to be confused with Outland (1981) also starring Sean Connery, actually a bloated space-set remake of High Noon (1952) with nary a giant stone head in sight.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Watching fleet-footed robber baron Errol Flynn stave-duel with husky but surprisingly agile friar Alan Hale (Skiiiiipppppeeeerrrrr!) on a fallen log bridging the river in Sherwood Forest, I couldn't help but think of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, just kept waiting for one of those two to spin his staff fast enough to propel the other into the water. That, or for King Kong to come down the path and shake them both off the log and into the spider pit. As each tableau unspools, villains twirl their mustaches while good guys stand akimbo and laugh from the gut -- not a trace of postmodern irony, cynicism, pandering character catch-phrases, gratuitous poop jokes, or hypnotic imagery of folks leaping away from complicated explosions blooming in slow-motion. Just old-fashioned lighthearted fun. Tally-ho!

Friday, December 9, 2005

King Kong (2005)

You know the story: Ape meets girl during Skull Island film shoot. Ape fights for girl’s affections. Ape loses girl. Ape gets dragged to Manhattan. Ape gets girl again. Ape climbs Empire State Building. Ape meets biplanes. Things go south for Ape.

Merian C. Cooper’s original blockbuster wowed audiences not relatively long after motion pictures added sound – a 50-foot gorilla flossing with tropical islanders and smashing up New York City kept the box office humming in 1933. A generation later, schlockmeister Dino DeLaurentiis proclaimed that everyone, including “intellectuals,” was “gonna love Konk,” and “when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” But the only sobs punctuating the end of King Kong (1976) were those provided by suckers who paid full ticket price: ‘twas ineptitude killed the beast.

Peter Jackson’s stupendous re-imagining follows Cooper's story beat-for-beat, often with relentless faithfulness (just one thing sorely missing: that subversive little moment when Kong tickles his gal-pal Anne and then sniffs his fingers). The story is wisely kept a period piece (sparing viewers the sight of Kong climbing a Verizon cellphone tower or whatever), albeit contemporarily embellished and expanded, finally undone by just that much overindulgence. Jackson and his digital SFX shop, WETA, had already upped the ante on Cooper-scale spectacle with The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) so there was nowhere to go on Skull Island but over the top – waaaaay over. Even at three hours, the film isn’t overlong so much as overripe: witness the ridiculous brontosaurus stampede, in which all the major characters miraculously escape being turned to jelly; verisimilitude isn’t just strained, it’s willfully exploded, even by summertime popcorn-flick standards. On the other hand, there’s a surprisingly genuine emotional quotient for a monster movie: Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis breathe real life into the relationship between Anne and Kong. By the time Kong escapes into the larger manufactured trap of NYC, only the hardest of hearts would not empathize -- helpless and lonely (even with his favorite lady in tow), confused by his alien surroundings, and doomed by that very confusion. Lethal beauty, indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Brimstone and Treacle (1982)

An evil grifter who might be the Devil (Sting) latches onto the suburban Bates family, Tom and Norma (Denholm Elliot and a woman I could have sworn was a tarted-down Mollie Sugden from Are You Being Served? but who is actually Joan Plowright from .... well, says here she was in Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter (1995) so it's no wonder I'd blocked her out). Sting's emergent goal is to get his pedo-hands on the Bates' invalid daughter, Patricia, in a near-vegetative state since a car accident years before. To this end he pretends to be her former fiance, offers to care for her while Tom works and Norma gets her hair done. This cloying and sketchy new normal doesn't last long; Sting's abuses of the catatonic Patricia become more flagrant, and vile secrets begin seeping out of the wallpaper ... somewhat literally. Framing device and light exposition aside, most of the action takes place inside the cramped Bates Family Manor, revealing the material's source as a teleplay; flat production amplifies the low-budget quirk. Mostly remembered for the contemporary soundtrack (a couple hits from the Go-Gos and Squeeze, a cache of mood music from The Police). Sting went on to wear flying underpants in David Lynch's adaption of Dune (1984). 

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Capote (2005)

I know a man who is a long-time friend of the woman portrayed by Catherine Keener in the film Capote, and had occasion to ask him if she had yet seen it, and if so what she thought. She had, she liked it, he told me, though with some understandable reservations. Among her reported comments: "If there ever was a New York premiere party for To Kill a Mockingbird, I certainly did not get an invitation."

The movie describes the research, composition, and publication of Truman Capote's true-crime masterwork In Cold Blood -- work accomplished with the generous aid of his good friend Harper Lee. Philip Seymour Hoffman vanishes into Capote the same way Johnny Depp vanished into Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; it's an all-in performance. But despite the wry, droll appeal she brings to the role, whenever Keener appeared onscreen, questions about Lee's "reservations" arose fresh in my mind: Did they really go to these places? Did things really happen in this order? Did these conversations actually take place? It's a dramatization, after all, not a documentary, so leeway should be expected, understood, allowed. But in this context, seems to me completely ignoring those questions just might risk a haunting by the ghost of Perry Smith.

Humans do not live their lives along easy, cohesive narrative lines -- but maybe, with a little tinkering, it could be so. As suggested by Bennett Miller's film (based on a biography by Gerald Clark), this was precisely born storyteller Capote's "investigative" strategy during his interviews with the Death Row-dwelling Smith. Those scenes map their developing relationship with anxious, sublime energy; when the climactic moment arrives, Perry's single-sentence confession bursts out like the gunshot it represents. Capote calculates his position according to the moment, so he may extract from the situation just exactly what he wants (heedless of needs, whether his own or those of others). In the end, when he defends himself: "I did everything I could do," it rings sadly true; for him, everything was limited simply to write a great book. What Capote could not do -- due to his unexamined faults and overwhelming desires -- was actually help.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

According to the opening credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space." If you say so, movie. Aside from an asteroid crash that sparks mutation in neighboring plant life, this more closely resembles a cheap Hammer knockoff than anything inspired by HPL. Nick Adams, apparently on loan from Hemingway, shows up at his feckless fiance's family estate only to find Boris Karloff hamming it up uncontrollably. For those keeping a Horror Scorecard, we have: hints of black magic, family history of satanic appreciation, faint whiff of zombies, carpetbagging space plants, and a butler -- who in this case didn't do it -- who disintegrates like a leper in the tropics. Spoiler Alert: all prolonged, achingly silent scenes of characters investigating spooky corners of the house will end with the cat jumping out. Finally, Boris chokes on his own hambone, and it's all over. Die, Movie, Die.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Nekromantic (1987)

Years back, I got a call from one of my oldest buddies who had just been astounded by a horror movie. This wasn't something I took lightly; Anthony (name changed to obscure the guilty) is a long-time creature-feature buff and, having absorbed more than his fair share of gore and weirdness, isn't too easily shocked. So his flabbergasted, Lovecraft-level disturbance at Nekromantik, a German slice of Grand Guignol, was pretty amazing. As he described the vile story to me, I was repulsed, but like all confirmed horror fans (and who knows what makes us sick like this) I was also deeply intrigued. Over time, Nekromantic became a kind of in-joke legend between us, helped by the fact that the "weird little video store" in Boston burned down shortly after Anthony returned the tape -- obviously a sinister curse was at work. Or maybe he just forgot to be kind, rewind? Anyway, I'd bring it up from time to time, and he would say, "Ug. That movie's more unsettling than the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Stay away from there." Pfft, I'd say, nothing is more unsettling than the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I usually don't mind being proven wrong -- opportunities for learning, all that. But in this case, like a passing motorist rubbernecking at a roadside accident for a glance of something rotten, I got what I deserved. So, the nekromantic in question is a sanitation department worker whose particular dirty job is cleaning up human remains from car wrecks, crime scenes, so forth. A great job to have if you and your girlfriend are curating a collection of body parts back in your dingy apartment. Which, by chance, wouldn't you just know it. Then one happy day, the collection is blessed by an entire rotting corpse, inspiring the fellow and his lady to engage in an unusual threesome. Fairly sure the story continued past that point -- the girlfriend fled, stealing the corpse and complicating everyone's relationship -- but by then I had lost the ability to focus, and shortly thereafter blacked out for an unknown period of time. I regained consciousness just in time to witness the hideous hara-kiri climax.

Okay. My buddy is right: Stay away from there.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Lurking Lovecraft

If I were to describe to you a writer who did the bulk of his work in the early half of the 20th century, attracted the attention of a key editor, garnered a small but devoted audience during his short life but ultimately died broke and out-of-print (though his work outlived him, reemerging in the latter half of the 20th century, leading to canonization and reverence) you'd probably assume I was describing F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Born in Providence RI in 1890 and a resident of greater New England until his death in 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft published exclusively in pulp magazines: Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Home Brew, and others. His stories, essays, and poems were well received in this format and won him choice followers and correspondents (among them Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard), but he never saw his work collected in book form. Following his death, fellow writer August Derleth founded Arkham House publishers in 1939 for the sole purpose of bringing Lovecraft into hardcover print.

Lovecraft's weird fiction has been creeping into our literary consciousness ever since; he is now considered the primary architect of modern horror. The early Arkham volumes eventually begat a handful of popular mass market and trade-sized paperbacks from Ballantine's science fiction imprint DelRey. But the contents of those books were taken from older, corrupt forms -- pulp magazine reprints that had been indiscreetly chopped by editors seeking to fit the stories into available space. Beginning in the 1980s, Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi began painstakingly restoring the texts for Arkham House, using original manuscripts.

Joshi's revisions are newly showcased in the Penguin Classic editions of The Call of Cthulhu (1999), The Thing on the Doorstep (2001) and The Dreams in the Witch House (2004). These books comprise most of what Joshi dubs HPL's "major fiction." The first two volumes feature tales of cosmic horror culminating in the novellas "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and "At the Mountains of Madness" while the latter volume is built more around Lovecraft's early penchant for phantasmagoric ramblings (he was chiefly inspired by fantasist Lord Dunsany and the poetry of Poe before finding his own voice). While Lovecraft's narrative sojourns into a psychedelic dreamland do have their pleasures, it is his horror and the philosophy behind it that paints his ultimate legacy.

Lovecraft's medium of choice: Alien Terror. War of the Worlds, masterpiece that it is, represents a tinker-toy version of HPL's cosmic philosophy; indeed, Wells's
Martians are downright cuddly compared with what Lovecraft had in mind. In his universe, mankind is but a germ, at the mercy of eminent larger forces we cannot hope to comprehend. These so-called "Mythos" stories (though HPL was always adamant that his fictions were unconnected) are populated by a group of so-called Elder Gods and Old Ones who exist beyond the knowable barriers of time and space, though they do sometimes take shape in our reality; his narrator characters stumble across one or two pieces of arcane information (evidence of these "gods") that send them on giddy academic quests towards a truth that is, ultimately, a horror. Despite this cosmology, Lovecraft was not interested in depicting typical forms of morality, of Good v. Evil. There are no supreme gods or devils with their attendant dogmas, only bad choices on the part of the curious humans. The maxim from King Lear to them applies: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." That is, when they notice us at all.

The undisputed Big Daddy of these stories is "The Call of Cthulhu," a tale involving the discovery of a statue bearing cryptic inscriptions, and subsequent investigations into a voodoo-like cult in Louisiana and the sinking of a boat off the Australian coast by a hideous creature that arises from the deep. With "Cthulhu," Lovecraft perfected the quasi-reporter/historian/scientific storytelling technique that would serve him the rest of his career. Lovecraft understood how critical verisimilitude is for the weird tale better than his contemporaries, and better than most who have come after. Only Stephen King, who spends whole chapters weaving convincing internal lives for his characters, comes close. Perhaps critically, Lovecraft leaves no pauses for irony or comedy (a sticking point for some critics, who contend that a little levity would have taken Lovecraft a long way); thus invested, he drags the reader toward agnostic punchlines that may reveal little or nothing (the narrators, confronting unspeakable horrors, are often reduced to madness).

Other of Lovecraft's stories, such as "The Shadow Out of Time" and "At the Mountains of Madness" -- a short novel chronicling the discovery of an ancient Antarctic alien city -- represent similar variations on this theme (and provide templates for such modern horror as Neil Gaiman's American Gods and The X-Files). HPL also explored ramifications of the alien "Elder God" influence on humans who wrongmindedly seek power through them in "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Thing on the Doorstep." In these tales readers find the many references to Abdul Alhazred's evil volume The Necronomicon, arguably the most famous non-extant book in all of literature. HPL fabricated a tongue-in-cheek "history" of the book in 1927, and belief in its existence outside his stories has flowered ever since, due in part by Lovecraft citing it in association with other well-known if archaic tomes like The Sceptical Chymist and Hermes Trismegiste.

Most of Lovecraft's stories take place in an achingly detailed, shadow-draped corner of New England: those rural provinces surrounding Arkham (Lovecraft's fictitious stand-in for witch-haunted Salem). Elements from "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Picture in the House" evoke a backwoods dread on par with anything from Dickey's Deliverance, even as the landscape comes -- literally, in some cases -- alive. Rounding out Lovecraft's atmospheric Colonial Yankee oeuvres is the short novel "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." If you're hungry for Grand Guignol horror, "Ward" has everything you're shopping for: black magic, vampires, s√©ances, zombies, spirit possession, and finally the requisite god-like alien entities who stand to destroy all. 

Each of the Penguin Classics volumes comes with a typical scholarly apparatus of endnotes. Joshi has done far more than recall Lovecraft's seminal intentions: he amplifies the autobiographical echoes buried in the tales, and impressively reveals historical minutiae. "Ward" is peppered with obscure but contextually correct place and character names, all of which are defined. Also helpful are the cross-references to characters and "Elder God" entities who are named (or Unnamed as the case may be) throughout the Lovecraft canon; Joshi sorts them all out while explaining Lovecraft’s inspirations. Especially fun are the dissections of Lovecraft's faithful descriptions of Boston's North End and the routes of the Green Line trains, all of which add to the ghoulish verisimilitude of stories like "Pickman's Model."

Sure, Lovecraft has his follies. There is scant psychology (excepting gibbering madness) in his stories, and no romantic interests. His racism, though submerged, cannot be ignored any more than Cthulhu's own sunken throne. And many of the stories begin with the now-hackneyed "I will tell you my tale, though you may think me mad" approach. Even so, there is an addictive potato-chip quality to Lovecraft's stories. Once his cadence takes hold in your brain, you're apt to keep reading and reading and reading. This is a trait Lovecraft, a good storyteller above all else, shares not just with fellow horrormeister Poe, but with writers who were his contemporaries: Nathaniel West, Gertrude Stein, and Raymond Chandler.

HPL wrote while the Victorian ghost story faded as the dominant form of supernatural escapism and weird/science fiction (eventually popularized for mass audiences by Rod Serling) began rising to take its place. That his work appeared mainly in the pulps of the day has been one reason for Lovecraft's slow acceptance; another is that his work is unabashedly pure genre, and his philosophies cannot be extracted from their presentation. Only one other author comes to mind as one so embraced by readers yet deflected by critics and academics: Tolkien. Much like Tolkien, Lovecraft employs rich, rococo language to set his moods, pacing, and atmosphere, even to contextualize his message. This is purple prose elevated to an art form. This is over-writing with teeth. And because of his baroque, hypnotic skill, Lovecraft gets away with what so many others cannot; only Hunter S. Thompson has more failed imitators than HPL. Contemporary genre writers, willing to acknowledge Lovecraft's pervading influence on modern horror, are reticent to laud or even acknowledge his writing chops. Laura Miller, writing for Salon, called Lovecraft "American literature's greatest bad writer." Still, Stephen King, while accepting the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters medal at the National Book Awards a couple of years ago, asked critics whether they believe they "get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture." He was speaking in his own defense, of course. But he might well have been asking the question on behalf of Lovecraft. 

Now, the prestigious Library of America added Lovecraft to their curation of "America's best and most significant writing," with Lovecraft: Tales (2005). Edited and notated by Peter Straub (based on the Joshi texts), this compendium represents, in 800 pages, truly the best of Lovecraft's efforts, concentrating mainly on the "Mythos" tales. Every disciple will bicker over omissions, but Straub has undeniably put together the best single-dip of Lovecraft currently on the market, better even than Derleth's original Arkham House volume, The Outsider and Others

From beyond the grave, the self-styled "Old Gentleman" from Providence does seem to be getting his due. 

Originally published in the Mobile Register, October 30 2005

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Crash (1996)

David Cronenberg is one of the last of the Great Subversive Fimmakers who came of age in the 1970s, and his vivid re-imagining of The Fly (1986) is a pinnacle of body horror. His early career running gags often involve technology mingling with human flesh, and thereby human consciousness. In Videodrome (1983) it was television (tagline: Long Live the New Flesh). Here, automobile crashes facilitate the mergers; James Spader and Holly Hunter become fevered lovers in the afterglow of a head-on collision. Their trysts eventually reveal an underground network of folks who find automobile accidents (and their resulting bruises and scars) an incredible turn-on. What unfolds is more of a neo-porn situation than a conventional plot, orgies unfolding in and around busted-up cars.

Cronenberg is a master of cinematic unease. I had to watch Dead Ringers twice, just to make sure I'd experienced what I thought I'd experienced (and I had). Unfortunately with Crash, the chief element of disturbance is not so much that people find car crashes kinky (the internet has revealed that people will find anything kinky, from paper cuts to fire ants) but that despite the plethora of sex, the film still ends up dull. This is due to: 1.) Cronenberg employing a harshly detached, scientific style rarely seen this side of Kubrick; 2.) in a major stumble, little-to-nothing erotic about a car crash is believably posited -- Cronenberg replaces typical fetish triggers with alien reference points, with the result brilliantly stated by Roger Ebert: "It's like a porno movie made by a computer: it downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm." Yep: programmers call that GIGO.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

The first 45 or so minutes of Jeepers Creepers builds palpable dread: students Trish and Darry are headed home for college break, take a detour through the country. Tsk tsk, this is a horror movie. They are nearly forced off the road by a sinister cattle truck, which they later spot parked beside a dilapidated church, complete with a weird, hulking figure dragging bloody sheet-wrapped bodies out of said truck and chucking them down a large nearby drainpipe. The figure spots them back, and the chase is on.

These early moments recall Lovecraft's ominous backwoods settings, a la "The Picture in the House" -- the crumbling church; the nasty sepulchral lair; the still-living victims suffering with gory, oversized stitching across their chests; the diabolical winged monster; the local citizens who disdain/ignore the crazed story of the young couple even when the diabolical winged monster flaps down right in front of them. That might be part of the problem, actually: as long as it sticks to the shadows -- perversely sniffing at victims before deciding where to take a bite -- the Creeper is a sinister, unnerving slice of evil. But out in the open, stomping on a police car, looks more like some clumsy beer-bellied cosplay hybrid of the Mothman and the Jersey Devil. Meanwhile, all the surrounding eldritch story elements never get a chance to cohere, because still more elements, meant to escalate the Weird and Horrifying Quotient, keep piling on until the viewer is simply left with questions like: But if the Creeper can fly, why does it drive a truck?

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Director F.W. Murnau's decent rip-off of Dracula uses the better plot elements while discarding the overall story (Stoker's widow sued to have most of the prints destroyed after the film's original release). Result: a winning vehicle for blatant shock over theatrical art. It might not be freighted with the numinous or any psychology, but Max Schreck lurking up the staircase as Count Orlock has regardless become a cultural archetype; an image is worth a thousand creeps.

Silent-era films tend to linger on the mundane a bit, sometimes weirdly: Here's a mansion on a well-kept lawn. Hold it. Here's a field before harvest. Hold it. Here's a guy walking down the street. Hold it. Just so I can sound like an old fogey, allow me to pontificate: at the Dawn of Cinema, a projected image was minor cause for wonder, and occasion for a huge night out, shined shoes and everything. Nowadays, the movie theater is just another place you go to talk on your cellular telephone. Back before you were born, I worked with a woman who remembered going to see Frankenstein (1931) as a little girl and hiding under the seats, she was so terrified. Hard to contemplate, in this jaded era, just short of televised state executions, there was ever a day and age when Boris Karloff in pancake makeup was the scariest thing imaginable.

[I saw Nosferatu under perhaps ideal conditions: at the venerable and beautiful Capri Theatre in Montgomery AL, with incredible original live music provided by Boston-based Devil Music Ensemble.]

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

As a subset of horror's Slasher Genre, there exists a Killer Clan Genre, though not often divided as such -- primary example being Tobe Hooper's flinch-inspiring, mesmerizing low-budget Grand Guignol nightmare, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That template has begat every-miserable-thing from The Last House on the Left to The Human Centipede. The simple formula: a first set of characters (friends, family, combo) wanders into questionable territory, thereby encountering (often through vehicular breakdown) a second set of Very Bad People. Hijinks ensue.

In Wes Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes we have a family on vacation, camper in tow, taking a detour through the desert to visit a silver mine. While driving, the unfolded route map literally flies into dad's face. He steers the station wagon into a stand of sagebrush, breaking the rear axle. Night falls, a band of cannibals descends from the surrounding crags. Despite the National Lampoon-esque setup, Craven conjures a harsh, effective sense of unease. The targeted characters may not be fully drawn but are at least affable; even the most annoying of them (spoiler alert: the grandmother) is capable of evoking sympathy. Whereas Craven's previous Last House was a dismal exercise in viewer endurance, Hills provides touches of genuine horror; if not a classic, at least a taut exercise.

When a film aiming for big scares wants to go all the way, it often purports to be "Based on a True Story." It's long been said The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein; given that Gein was one person rather than a whole family and never used a chainsaw or a leather mask and was from Wisconsin, this might be a stretch. After all, TCM was originally released in 1974 -- just enough time for a low-budget, subversive cinematic echo of the upsetting evils of the Manson Family, pinging the dark undercurrent of the American Unconsciousness. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, Craven looked to Scottish folklore for inspiration: the grisly cannibalism of Sawney Bean. What, did somebody already have an option on The Alferd Packer Story

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Don't Go in the House (1979) / Broken Flowers (2005)

Would it be fair to compare the 80s horror flick Don't Go In the House to Jim Jarmusch's latest arthouse fare Broken Flowers simply because I watched both in close succession? Probably not, but here goes.

Jarmusch, who began his career with the role of Amos Dade in the Alex Cox masterpiece Straight to Hell (1987), concocts a suburban mystery in the character of Don Johnston (Bill Murray), a tracksuit-clad recluse who learns his youthful wild oats may have reaped him a heretofore unknown son: How did this utterly disconnected guy, who loathes budging from his leather couch, ever function as a Lothario? Murray has found a remarkable second career playing disaffected, disappointed middle-aged men taking life's continued punches with stolid grace. Johnston is silent, subsumed, undoubtedly suffering behind his poker face. He made his money in computers but now doesn't own one, is his chief character note. And he hates when his one friend, Winston, calls him "Don Juan" -- obviously his younger self earned him nothing he now values. Or so he thought.

This rich, sophisticated character is pretty much nothing like the subject (didn't catch his name) of Don't Go In the House, an blunt rip-off of Psycho, sans any of that Tony Perkins pizzazz. See, dude's mother burned him over the stovetop as childhood punishment, so now he keeps the crispy corpses of his female victims, dressed in their Sunday best, in the upstairs drawing room. Basically, this is the kind of movie that makes you want to go outside and stare into the sun for a while, to ensure you'll never see anything like it again.

But. Both those characters are annoyances, treading along with the barest modicum of motive. At least with House, of course it's just a bad movie, with a bad end, case closed. But Flowers has a fascinating set of situations, made maddening because everything is predicated upon the dead singularity of Johnston. He engages with the plot without tangible reason, following travel itineraries provided by a wannabe detective friend in order to interview women from his past. For a character shown as too lethargic to pick up a wineglass, it would have been more believable if he'd just waited at home, maybe a little impatiently, with nothing good to watch on television, for his Prodigal Son to inevitably appear on his doorstep. Johnston even phones home at one point in his quest, literally begging off the coming responsibilities of the story. Which is why, when he finally realizes he's aiming his life in the right direction, it couldn't ring more false; according to everything else in the narrative, that direction wouldn't have ever occurred to him in the first place.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Dracula 3000 (2004)

Marooned deep in the bloody bowels of the Carpathian System, cargo ship Demeter is captained by the intrepid Abraham Van Helsing played by Casper Van Dien from Milton, Florida. There's a nice canoe route through Milton, on the Blackwater River. I thought of that peaceful place often as I faded in and out of consciousness while viewing this film. Also aboard the skiff is former Playmate Erika Eleniak, fresh from Chasers (1994) and with a clause in her contract exempting her from exhibiting emotive talent. Likewise, there's rapper Coolio, who slides, slides, slippity-slides into vampirism with a good deal of relish, but no ketchup; a line referencing his "anaconda" and a section of Eleniak's physique is one of the more, uh, "witty" in the script. Anyway, the Demeter is just chock full of Space Coffins, each in turn chock full of sand (perhaps dredged from Milton, Florida?), and out of which Count Dracula and one of his brides arises. Took a wrong turn in Albuquerque, I guess. All in all, this reeks of something taped for the Sci-Fi Channel, then deemed too pitiful for the cablewaves. Moral of the story: In space no one can hear you suck.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Day of the Triffids (1962)

A meteorite shower that blinds 98% of the Earth's population is only a warm-up for the coming apocalypse: aggressive (and mobile) carnivorous plants take over the planet, giving new meaning to the term Persistent Vegetative State. One by one, survivors find each other and begin banding together, etcetera, etcetera. John Wyndham's original novel is one of those prescient, perpetually allegorical, perfectly eerie tales of SF armageddon, ranking with Matheson's I Am Legend, Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, King's The Mist and of course War of the Worlds by some dude whose name I forget. Those stories pivot not so much on the weird disaster element -- be it vampires or space pods or extradimensional creatures -- but on how the surviving humans react and fight back against their hostile new environment.

Steve Sekely's 1962 film does Wyndham a disservice by lifting only the highbrow concept (Killer Plants! From Space!!) and ignoring the characters who actually powered the novel in the first place: their frustrated attempts at rebuilding civilization while on the run, sometimes losing each other along the way, spiced the original tale with drama aplenty. In the film, everyone is scattered from the get-go, and stays that way. The lead character is teamed with a little girl whom he protects, rather than a potential love interest with whom he can hook up in order to repopulate the planet (is he supposed to wait for her to grow up? --because that's just creepy). Another couple are holed up in a lighthouse for no good reason; he's a belligerent drunkard, she yelps a lot, I set a timer to see how long it would take for the plants to shut them both up. Since the predicaments aren't especially interesting, Sekely relies on the venomous, flesh-eating plants for terror, but mainly they just show up and shake their fronds and rarely eat (or even hurt) anyone that we see or care about. In the final accounting, Danny Boyle's Triffid-free 28 Days Later (2002) is actually a closer adaptation of Wyndham's story.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Donnie Darko (2001)

There are various ways to view Donnie Darko, one of them being as a kind of anti-John Hughes movie: action takes place in an affluent big city suburb during Reagan's 1980s, contemporary music scores quasi-video set-piece scenes, semi-troubled but sharp-dressed wisecracking teenagers suffer ennui daily at a faceless but well-funded high school. Donnie's life is by all appearances charmed (as charmed as it gets in your teens, anyway); he's a bit withdrawn, has a loving if imperfect family, is growing up amidst material wealth, has understanding teachers, and attentive, geeky friends. There's even a girlfriend. So what's the problem? Why is he sleepwalking? Why does he need to take "medicine"? Why is he talking to an evil rabbit who warns him of the end of the world?

The story works like a Mobius strip, pulling the viewer in seemingly logical but ultimately convoluted directions. An airplane engine crashes through Donnie's bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night; thankfully, Frank the Evil Rabbit has lured him out of the house and Donnie wakes safely, miles away. Now indebted to Frank, Donnie does his bidding; whether he is compelled or simply wants to (with the end of the world coming, what does he have to lose?) is never made clear -- one of the more disorienting angles in the film.

Another: visitations from Frank aside, Donnie is distinctly characterized "disturbed" though by every appearance he's just a normal-ish teen -- detached, disaffected, self-involved, horny. In fact, he expresses insights and has questions for his authority figures that are both poignant and appropriate (if expressed a little gruffly). That is until he starts seeing wormholes projected from the chests of other people (and himself), predicating their next movements through space. Imagine Holden Caulfield on acid, and there's Donnie Darko.

The story is a slow swirl of seemingly unconnected events: the jet engine crash; Donnie's burgeoning relationship with Gretchen; midnight visitations from Frank; English class meditations on Graham Greene; Grandma Death and her forgotten book; pithy lessons from a self-help guru (a downright wicked Patrick Swayze) and his acolyte (the school counselor). To explain in a linear fashion how these things eventually do (or don't) connect would be a disservice to the way the movie assembles itself, which is part of its effect. Or its cause. Whichever.

Darko poses several questions it then does not attempt to answer; in most films this translates to immediate failure, but here that backhanded MO supplies disturbing narrative power. There are issues of time travel, of free will, of emotional intelligence, of isolationism and insanity, all fascinatingly raised, then held in shuddering suspension. It is a puzzle movie where the pieces fit together, but the picture doesn't make visual sense. Visual sense not being the point. Donnie Darko willfully occurs within its own universe, or confluence of universes, where meaning and appearance aren't necessarily parallel -- a pleasurable frustration, like a fun house mirror maze where every exit leads you back to the beginning.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Silent Running (1972)

In the wilted salad days of my misspent youth, a local channel used to air out old movies on weekday afternoons between 3 and 5pm. Films were bundled into themed weeks, usually Abbot & Costello comedies or Charlie Chan mysteries, the Blondie series, so forth. Creature Week meant the classic Universal Monsters, Godzilla, King Kong, giant radioactive insects, space invaders -- a genre melting pot. Unless I skipped out of school early, the programming meant I'd miss at least the first quarter of the story. Sometimes this was important, sometimes not (when you're ten years old, you don't care about small talk made during the boat trip up the Amazon, you want to see the Gillman!). One of the last afternoon movies I half-caught in this way (probably near about the time the channel dropped long films in favor of Oprah and The People's Court) was Silent Running. Which meant I lacked the first half of the movie, explaining how Bruce Dern became stranded in space aboard a greenhouse of a spaceship, and equipped with poker-playing robot pals. Still, as I remembered it over the years, the situation of Freeman seemed straightforward enough: he's an astronaut Adam, trapped in an Eve-less Garden of Eden, drifting towards future adventure....

At one point in college, when it was my turn to pick the Movie Night movie, I chose Duel. I'd seen it similarly as a half-told boob tube matinee, and my time-dusted memory was of a superb nail-biting quasi-supernatural thriller. Don't get me wrong -- Duel is a decent, if dated, piece of filmmaking, and would probably be well remembered even if it wasn't Steven Spielberg's early work. But I sold that movie to my buddies like it would be a pants-wetting rollercoaster like they couldn't imagine. And then the Dennis Weaver voice-over narration started....

Some things are best remembered, rather than revisited.

A worthy ecological message is muddled by astrobotanist Freeman's problematic mutiny, a dead-end operation, more of a protest sacrifice than a heroic measure. Slow-moving, moribund, and preachy, but an undeniable marvel visually, Silent Running is best left being fondly, fuzzily recalled -- and credited for being a large inspiration for MST3K. (Aaaah, to be trapped in space aboard an orbiting satellite, watching old sci-fi movies with a couple of wisecracking robots....)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Darth Vader, you finally reached the end of your beginning -- and your failure, as you once put it, is now complete. To say Revenge of the Sith is an improvement over the previous two Star Wars prequels isn't saying much, but what can be said is this: there's almost as much enjoyment to be found in Revenge of the Sith as there is in Return of the Jedi (1983). [Recall: Of the three original films, Return is the weakest. Our spacefaring heroes mumble through the motions as the narrative never rises above the obligation to tie up loose ends by way of a handful of action set pieces. Also, Ewoks.]

Sith begins with a terrific space rescue operation, only to then have its story engine clank out of gear, faltering into deep and near-purposeless exposition, chiefly political boondoggle smeared with embarrassingly lame "romantic" patter between Anakin and Padme ("You're beautiful because I love you so much," &c.) But there is a modicum of energy here, perhaps because this movie doesn't completely neuter itself in an attempt to cater to children. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were, in makeup and in tone, aimed at teens, folks in their early adulthood. Adulthood. Lucas has since tried to cover this by sugaring the saga with tie-in-ready Ewoks and Gungans -- even while claiming inspiration from the films of Kurosawa (specifically Hidden Fortress) and the philosophy of Joseph Campbell. You can't have both, George. And at least this time, that isn't really where he's aiming. I mean, the anti-hero of the saga gets burned nearly to death after having his legs chopped off by his friend and teacher, who then literally turns his back on him. Pretty dark for the kindergarten set.

Still, supermarket shelves are stocked with Lava Blast Pop-Tarts... and the six-year-old a few seats down from me in the theater repeatedly turned to his father to ask:"When does he turn into Darth Vader? When does he turn into Darth Vader?" Never mind that this was during the extended boring stretch that makes up the middle reels of the film and I was beginning to ask the same thing myself -- but, given that we're talking about Star Wars here, isn't that kind of wrong-minded, even for a six-year-old? Shouldn't the question be "Since the Jedi Council thinks Anakin is the Chosen One, why don't they trust him more? And why did the trade alliance fall apart in the first place?" Maybe I'm overthinking this...

Yeah. In 1977, my ten-year-old eyes had never seen a more cool-looking movie. Sith, while evoking that same spirit of fun, also looks cool. And that's about half the game: watching this final chapter link up with the first chapter (there's almost no way you can talk about the order of this saga and have it make any mathematical sense), like puzzle pieces falling into place. The world has known for 28 years now how Episode III would end. If Lucas hadn't made a fundamental connection back to the original Star Wars, he would have crumbled the entire enterprise. 

I read a quote somewhere recently to the effect that The Movies have outgrown Star Wars, that these prequels were unnecessary, that Lucas had already made his mark with the originals and shouldn't have indulged himself. On the other hand, moviemaking and by extension the experience of moviegoing are now evenly matched by the continued Star Wars saga. The 1977 film was the first genuine jaw-dropping wait-in-line-all-summer-long blockbuster. Quite a blast, and that was back in the days before mammoth cineplexes could exhibit a movie on 6 screens, ensuring round-the-clock showings every half-hour -- theaters would simply fill up, night after night. Word got around: You have to see this thing, it's incredible....

But now effects-laden, plot-by-numbers, summer popcorn action flicks are an established fact of life, and as if by rote we line up to see them. Just as the Ewoks of the original saga evolved into the Gungans of the new (with Howard the Duck as the Missing Link), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) gives way to National Treasure (2004). The Maltese Falcon (1941) becomes the remake of The Italian Job (2003). And Duck Soup (1933) morphs into Dumb and Dumber (1994). Is it any wonder Lucas chose the easier road for his prequels (Darth Vader is the clumsy result of Anakin Skywalker's disappointing childhood and subsequent forbidden love affair) rather than, say, a more nuanced avenue (Obi-Wan's colossal failure as a mentor begets the galaxy's greatest monster)? Who wants any actual opera with their Space Opera? After all: In space, nobody can hear the Fat Lady sing. 

Now, pass me those Lava Blast Pop-Tarts....

Monday, January 17, 2005

Faithful (2004)

During Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, as the Boston Red Sox were trailing to their hated rivals the New York Yankees, one of the Fox broadcasters crawled into the stands of Fenway Park to have a word with season-ticket holder Stephen King. Asked how he'd like the series to turn out, King replied that though he enjoys drama and suspense, he also likes happy endings. It turned out the master of modern horror couldn't have scripted a darker hour for the Sox, nor a happier, more historic ending.

Faithful is a journal of the 2004 Red Sox season, co-authored by King and fellow author Stewart O'Nan. In tandem they viewed, either in person or via television, every game in 2004, from spring training on through to the Fall Classic, with their eyes toward assembling this chronicle. Their ground rules were refreshingly simple -- no press-pass locker room access, no hobnobbing with players (other than O'Nan's often amusing batting practice brush-ups), no insider reporting. King and O'Nan skip all that in favor of just jawing about the games like any two fans might, over beers in any given New England tavern.

The jacket flap of Faithful describes the contents as "a fan's notes" and it is precisely that, a commonplace book of plays and scores. As such, there are no pauses to explain who the players are, no definitions of the field positions, no "story-so-far" expositions on Red Sox history, no long soliloquies about the Meaning of Baseball in Our Society. (Well, maybe a couple.) This is a straightforward contemporary keepsake for Red Sox Nation (and, by the way, anyone who hates the Yankees on principal is an honorary citizen), and for the kind of fan who knows his way around a scoresheet, who'd rather listen to a static-stitched AM broadcast of a game (King: "With each inning you build your own Fenway of the mind from scrap-heap memories and pure imagination") than watch the graphics-laden Fox Game of the Week.

To that end, O'Nan and King work their assignment like the best kind of chummy booth announcers -- O'Nan reeling out meticulous play-by-play accounts, King stepping in occasionally for extended color commentary. Faithful resembles nothing less than the longest sports-page recap in history. And that's a good thing. Just as we teach our children sportsmanship via the old "It's how you play the game" chestnut, in this case it's not that we already know the triumphant final scores, but how the nuances of the games are communicated.

O'Nan, award-winning author of A Prayer for the Dying and The Night Country, is the more detail-oriented of the two, often spending pages analyzing a single game, describing each play. He has his fun though, sneaking a telescoping fisherman's net into Fenway to catch longballs off the Green Monster, and taking shots at the "chucklehead blabbermouth" television announcers ("McCarver -- the true inspiration behind the mute button"). His enthusiasm for proper baseball coverage, and the game itself as an entity of history and emotion, sails over the edge of the page: "A straight score, lumped with others from around the league, is flat and paralyzing. It's a mindless, uninvolved way to follow baseball, almost zero content, as if the game is just about winning or losing."

King takes a more Gonzo approach to the progression of games, sometimes lumping several together, searching for a hint of context, and his informal, cozy style is engrossing, as ever. He does get away with a few flourishes classifiable as Baseball Romance, though always briefly enough that the no-nonsense ethic of the book isn't sacrificed -- such as one instance explaining the bedrock attitude of New Englanders regarding their beloved BoSox: "We buy new cars expecting them to be lemons ... we expect the snow to turn to freezing rain, rich relatives to die leaving us nothing, and the kids to get refused by the college of their choice. And we expect the Red Sox to lose." True enough. One can't help but wonder how much this attitude has since been adjusted, and happily so.

The journal is also peppered with email exchanges between King and O'Nan; these connective, intimate moments allow the reader to feel he's eavesdropping on two well-versed fans discussing their favorite pastime. At one point, O'Nan describes a phone conversation during one particularly gripping, and ultimately disappointing, game: "When [King] hangs up, I feel like I've lost someone on the suicide hotline." Such has been the plight of the Red Sox Nation; as King elaborates: "Red Sox fans can't escape the Red Sox; that is the basic fact of our existence."

Such touches keep the book from becoming the equivalent of watching a Tivo replay of a game you've already seen. Still, the temptation is great to fast-forward to the good plays, the standout moments, like the mid-summer brawl with the Yankees that marked the turning of the tide for the Sox (that's the photo gracing the cover, after all), or perhaps to a Fenway game you might have attended just to see the coverage these guys provide.

More ink has been flung at baseball than at any other sport, often from pens held by too consciously erudite hands. Faithful is refreshingly and gracefully free of romanticism, of social explanations, fitted symbolism -- the kind of overthinking that sometimes plagues a sheer appreciation of the game. It is a book about the machinery of the game itself -- no frills, just a couple of fans (okay, a couple of extremely well-spoken, best-selling fans) ignoring literary pretension to hash over the plays and the players, the games, and the trades. Just like the rest of us do, citizens of Red Sox Nation or not, for 162 games, every season.