Thursday, April 28, 2011

Police and Thieves and Zombies

"Wake up, sucker! We're thieves and we're bad guys. That's exactly what we are."
--Dawn of the Dead

The set up is familiar. Confinement. Warring factions. Hordes of zombies waiting outside. This is the Night of the Living Dead formula (some might call it the Rio Bravo formula). It has proven to be remarkably durable. You can change the meaning of the whole enterprise depending on who your characters are. One of the best explorations of this formula can be found in John Carpenter's second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, in which you have cops and killers confined in a besieged police station. It's not a zombie film, true, but it's filmed like a zombie film. Because everything in genre comes full circle eventually, even at second hand, we find Assault on Precinct 13 regurgitated in the 2009 French zombie film, The Horde (directed by Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher), a film that removes the Assault on Precinct 13 narrative from the Hawksian tradition and returns it to the realm of the zombie film full on.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ethics Violations

I saw Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, directed by Jonathan Frakes) the day it opened, but I remembered almost nothing about it when I sat down to re-watch it. It's only been--oh, wow, 13 years. Time does fly. Anyway, I get the feeling that I'm not the only one who has kind of forgotten about it. Netflix doesn't have it, for one example, which is kind of a shock given that it's an entry in one of the key movie franchises of the last forty years. I almost never hear anyone talk about it. And no wonder. As I've been grinding through the Star Trek movies over the last year, I've been dreading the end films because my memory of them is that they suck. This dominant thought has drowned out every other thought I may once have entertained about them. This is not the best way to approach them, but fair or not, it's what I have to work with.

Insurrection, it turns out, is not as bad as I remembered it being, but it's bad enough. It's not Star Trek V bad. It may even be better than a couple of other installments, though I won't swear to that. What it IS, though, is conflicted.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Necrosis

I'll tell you what, if the random movie generator doesn't take pity on me soon, I might be chucking the whole "roulette" concept and going back to watching obscure art movies. Movies like Necrosis (2009, directed by Jason Robert Stephens) are demoralizing. It's the kind of movie that reminds me of those leech branches that grow around the trunks of large trees, leeching the vitality of the tree, only the tree is the horror genre.

The story here is your standard young people in a cabin Evil Dead rip-off, only our trio of bickering couples are haunted by the ghosts of the Donner Party, who, having turned on each other with axes, opened the gates of hell. (Those of you familiar with the tragic history of the Donner Party are probably saying "wait...what?" And you would be right. This would have been better off inventing a fictional history). Having framed this story, for good or for ill, it then loses the plot and veers off into Alfred Packer territory, or, more to the point, The Shining territory. It also occasionally loses track of where its characters are within the geography of the frame.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Somewhere in Africa

I used to think that Freaks was an aberration for MGM. I mean, it's not the usual sort of movie one associates with the so-called "Dream Factory." You think MGM, you think musicals and epic dramas. You think wealth and opulence. You certainly don't think of pinheads crawling through the mud. I think the notion that Freaks was an aberration was planted in my head by Carlos Clarens in his Illustrated History of the Horror Movie, one of the essential reference volumes on my bookshelf. But Clarens was wrong, and so was I for believing him. There's too much evidence to the contrary. I mean, it's not like Freaks was the first movie that Tod Browning ever made for MGM, and the studio counted Lon Chaney among its marquee stars. That alone counts for a perverse appetite for grotesquerie on the part of the studio. Most of these thoughts ran through my head as I tried to come to grips with Kongo (1932, directed by William J. Cowen), a film that begins with Leo the Lion and then dives headlong into batshit insanity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Netflix Roulette: The Swarm (1978)

My stomach did a little bit of a roll when The Swarm (1978, directed by Irwin Allen) came up for review. I saw The Swarm in theaters when I was a kid, and even then, I knew it pretty much sucked. It's the epitome of the "box" movie, in which the producers, having assembled an all-star cast, put a row of headshots of their actors along the bottom of the poster, with the name of the actor annotated with the name of their character or role (George Kennedy as The Cop! Maximillian Schell as The Commandant!). The more "names" the producers assemble, the more likely it is that the movie is going to cut corners on everything else. The Swarm has a once in a lifetime cast: Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Bradford Dillman, Olivia De Haviland, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Slim Pickens, and Henry Fonda, to name just a few. And I'll admit, there's a certain amount of cheap fun to be had watching the cast abase themselves in this, but that's only good for about an hour. All-star disaster movies tended to bloat, after all, because, having paid for the stars, they need to showcase them. The Swarm runs something like 160 minutes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Hunting Party

Every so often, I'll get it into my head that I'm somehow ignoring my roots. I mean, the name of this blog (and of my old website) are both taken from one of the great sci fi movies, so what the hell am I doing writing about obscure Korean melodramas and Romanian black comedies or what have you? I usually get over it, mainly because I love art films and foreign films and every other kind of movie, but it still feels like I'm, I dunno, cheating on my spouse or something. Let's face it, my love of movies derives first and foremost from horror and sci fi movies. So I'm going to try to reserve my Sundays for creature features and space operas for a while. Until I get bored with it, anyway...

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to today's film. Hunter Prey (2010, directed by Sandy Collora) is a film I would have totally watched with my friends on an overnight back in the 1980s, probably paired with RobotJox and Warriors of the Wasteland. It's that kind of film: made on a laughably low budget, no ambition but to entertain (and, mercifully, it doesn't have any ambition to pad its running time), steeped in sci fi tropes from other movies. It TOTALLY reeks of mid-eighties direct to video. Only, it's better than those films. Most of those films were intended as rip-offs, produced by businessmen whose business model was based on surfing. They were more intent on riding some wave of the zeitgeist than they were in creating something lasting. If a good movie got made by accident, then great! But quality was not, as they say, job one with these movies. Hunter Prey, on the other hand, is obviously a labor of love. There's no wave to ride here. The kind of sci fi this movie is emulating has been replaced, by and large, by Dickian mindfucks. This is an older model, based on Star Wars and Robert Heinlein novels and The Twilight Zone. The movie this most resembles is Enemy Mine, though, I'd argue, this one is better than that movie because it doesn't go all weak in the knees at the end.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dominos in Drag

(*with apologies to Van Morrison).

Thunderball (1965, directed by Terence Young) is the James Bond movie with which I have the least familiarity. I think I've seen it exactly once, and that on cable way back in the early 1980s. Thunderball is the first Bond film to be filmed in 2.35:1 widescreen, and I know that I've never seen it wide before. And yet, Thunderball somehow took root in my movie consciousness in spite of this. Part of this is the remake, Never Say Never Again, which I've seen several times (and remains the only one of the Connery Bonds I've seen in an actual movie theater). Part of it is Tom Jones's theme song, which is in heavy rotation on my iTunes; I think it's the best of the Bond themes, bar none. But the movie itself? It turns out that I had forgotten most of it in the thirty years since I first saw it.

It's...interesting. All of the associations I have with the movie, the ones that have nothing to do with the movie itself, overlayered the experience of watching it. Certainly, the baggage I bring to the movie isn't its fault, but it's there none the less.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Dead End (2003)

2003's Twilight Zone-y Dead End (directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa) is an unassuming little thriller in the mode of Carnival of Souls. I don't think I'm giving anything away by stating this up front, because it's so damned obvious to the viewer what's going on, even if it's not obvious to the characters in the film. This is the afterlife as an unpleasant car trip with your family. Hell, in other words.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Are You Watching? Can You See?

I like movies that take a swing at the fences, movies that have ambition. Usually, this means that I like movies that examine the unbearable lightness of being human, but it also equates to an appetite for movies that examine humankind's place in the grand scheme of things. Some of my favorite movies--particularly those by Ingmar Bergman--examine humanity's relationship with god (or gods). The ones I like best are the ones about the downward spiral, whether that movie is Nightmare Alley or Unforgiven. Tales of the fall, if you will. This may seem a perverse appetite for an atheist, particularly one who is a pure existentialist, and you're probably right. I say all of this because it explains the impact that Chang-dong Lee's Secret Sunshine (2007) had on me. It takes a swing at the fences and it's a tale of the fall.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

This Transamerican Life

I was invited to speak on a panel at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri this week. The subject of the panel was transgender imagery in film. The event was organized by a couple of film students for a class on Film and Social Justice. The movie they chose to show for the event was Transamerica (2005), a movie I've been consciously avoiding writing about since its release. I have a lot of friends who love it in a way that makes subjecting it to criticism seem like I'm criticizing them, which I don't mean to do. I also correspond now and then with people who were involved with the movie itself. So the fact that I don't like it much is...awkward.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Netflix Roulette: Dracula (1979)

This post was originally published on the Wild Claw Blood Radio blog.

Movie adaptations of Dracula almost never shed the influence of John Balderston and Hamilton Deane's stage play, almost always to their detriment. Virtually alone of Dracula adaptations, the one that I wish had hewed closer to the play than to the book is John Badham's 1979 version. Langella was just coming off a successful, and now legendary production of the play. You may have heard of it. It's the one with the sets and costumes designed by the late Edward Gorey in black, white, and red. The producers of the 1979 movies brought Langella to the screen, but left Gorey on the stage. I can imagine a movie version that includes both as a kind of ur-Tim Burton movie. Or maybe not. The existing photographs suggest a weird kind of silent film. Sadly, it was not to be.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Winter is Coming

My partner got me hooked on George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. I'm having kittens waiting for the HBO series based on the first book, A Game of Thrones (the series seems to have lost the indefinite article in the title). This is only being made worse by things like this preview, which from my perspective gets virtually everything right. And I don't have cable. This is a problem....

I'll be blogging this particular series. Oh, yes, indeedy, I will.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Life of Illusions

I loved Sylvain Chomet's first feature, The Triplets of Belleville. I thought it was one of the rare movies that fulfills the promise of animation, a promise so rarely kept by an industry that views animation as children's entertainment. It's one of those movies that I've inflicted on friends, usually to good responses all around. So believe me, no one was looking forward to his new movie, The Illusionist (2010) more than I was. I went into it expecting to love it, which was probably an unreasonable expectation, I admit, so it seems equally unreasonable for me to use my expectations as a reason for my discontent with the movie I finally saw.

This contains heavy spoilers, by the way. I can't speak to my discontent with The Illusionist without discussing the ending in detail. I don't think I can actually ruin the movie, but some people are sensitive about these things. You have been warned.

Friday, April 01, 2011

White Elephant Blogathon: Hair Extensions (Exte)

I used to collect wigs. Back in my wilder days, I liked to change my hair, color and style, often--more often than was practical were I to change it at a salon. Wigs were a nice way to cater to my changeable moods. I still have a lot of them. They're sitting on styrofoam heads on top of my comic book collection these days. I've been neglecting both collections in recent years. The relics of a misspent youth, I guess. My partner doesn't like the wigs. They freak her out. It's bad enough that the wig heads have a kind of creepy evil mannequin look to them; the fact that many of my wigs are expensive pieces made from human hair sends her over the edge. I can understand her loathing. Seen in a certain light, the line-up of wig heads looks like the trophy gallery of a serial killer, the hair itself a fetish object.

My assignment for the White Elephant Blogathon was Hair Extensions (Exte), ( 2007, directed by Sion Sono), a film that has a certain amount of resonance in my household. I didn't watch it with my partner, but I imagine that it would cause a freakout if I did. It's a little bit icky if this kind of fetish--the pathological kind rather than the fun sexual kind--hits a pressure point. I imagine that many audiences will find it ridiculous, but that's par for the course with horror movies. I like the notion that Asian filmmakers can make a horror movie about anything, which this film totally confirms.