Saturday, February 25, 2006

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Back in the day, zombies weren't out-and-about, freely chomping on the living, munching on brains, begetting other zombies. They were, well, just dead people who wandered around, looking creepy, because they were dead. In this particular case, a nurse sent to the West Indies to care for a rich man's invalid wife ends up falling for the guy, despite the escapades of his drunk half-brother, not to mention their wicked mother, or the voodoo freaks all around, etcetera. How can our heroes find time for love with all these zombies underfoot? Great atmosphere was Val Lewton's hallmark; the eerie path through the sugarcane field that the women must take to get to the houngan is a high point. Years later, ethnobotanist Wade Davis would document exactly the kind of voodoun society depicted here in The Serpent & the Rainbow -- which in turn Wes Craven would use as inspiration for a zombie B-movie of his own. Reincarnation, anyone?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heaven (1987)

Diane Keaton's short documentary about the Great Beyond is a zesty picnic of original interviews and bizarro Heaven-related stock footage. No celebrities or notables are questioned (everyone appears to be a random citizen of Hollywood's back alleyways, except for that one dude who eventually became a cheap-suited televangelist in the 1990s; perhaps this movie was his big break?). Under Keaton's lens, nobody has any real evidence of the afterlife, so any faith-based theory will do, no matter how kooky -- just pick one that fits. The one indisputable line: "In one-hundred years, everybody in this room will be dead." Worth seeing for 1950s-era television footage of three Bible "experts" cheerfully defining the architecture of Heaven: literal streets of gold, wealth, and mansions. Is that all there is? More of the same crap we mindlessly fight over down here? *sets an alarm for 100 years from now*

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wild Palms (1993)

Patent attorney Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) becomes embroiled in a virtual reality/3-D TV/mind control conspiracy puzzle-plot involving randomly appearing rhinos, a network of tunnels beneath the swimming pools of Los Angeles, roving packs of black SUVs, and extra-perception sunglasses that aren't nearly as cool as those in They Live (1988). This six-episode miniseries intends to skewer Scientology but instead ends up being about four (five?) episodes too long. Uninspired direction and flat cinematography are at odds with the scripted elements, rendering the final product akin to a crappy mash of All My Children and a latter-season installment of The X-Files; nothing looks eerie or intriguing when it's videotaped through a Vaseline-smeared lens under the warm California sun. The acting is both hammy and wooden at the same time, a real feat from the likes of Robert Loggia, Angie Dickinson, David Warner, Dana Delany. Not to be confused with the William Faulkner novel of the same name.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Catch-22 (1970)

Captain Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more WW2 bombing missions. The more he flies, the greater the likelihood he'll get killed. So flying more missions, well, that’s just crazy. But the base doc won’t ground him -- not wanting to fly dangerous missions is a sure sign of sanity -- which means he can’t be grounded and is therefore suited to fly more missions. Which is crazy. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Mike Nichols’ take on Joseph Heller’s midnight-black comedy is an underappreciated war-movie spectacle; Band of Brothers on acid. Transferring as many of the novel’s zany characters and madcap nuances as would fit into a single film, Nichols effectively distills the comedy and the greater allegorical message, especially as a third-act turn delves into more serious, bloody territory. The brilliant menagerie of players reads like dream-team casting for the period: Alan Arkin, Bob Newhart, Martin Sheen, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, Martin Balsam, Buck Henry, &c. The scene where Orson Welles shows up as General Dreedle (with a sexpot WAC in tow) to unnerve Richard Benjamin’s Major Danby is a masterpiece of comedic restraint. Yep, best catch there is.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) thwarts a robbery and probably worse at his small-town diner, and becomes a local hero. The ensuing press attention puts him on the radar of some creepy underworld types who claim to recognize Tom as "Joey" from some time back in Philly. Oops. The problem: Tom is a settled family man, docile and soft-spoken, lovely wife, two kids, rural home, all of which seems at odds with the kind of guy who would attract scarred-up gangster-types. Eventually Stall must answer to who he was (or at least to whom these men accuse him of being) in order to continue as, if not preserve, who he is. Not since The Dead Zone (1983) has David Cronenberg served up such a masterful depiction of extra-normal horror lurking behind the thin facade of everyday life. In this case there's nothing overtly supernatural in the story: the monster in question is Tom's past. The film explores the deceptive territory between what we've witnessed and can vouch for in our loved ones, the shared time and trust -- and that which we can never know, secrets buried by calendar pages and strategic silences. Where is the tipping point toward deception? Perhaps more to the point: when should we ask that of ourselves? Cronenberg never maps out easy answers, and this film ends -- in a sublime dialogue-free scene -- just as the biggest question is raised. A meaty, intelligent psychological thriller.