Why Do I Do These Things To Myself?

Last year it was Wicked.

Someone says, “Oh, you have to read The Bridges of Madison County, it’s the best book!” (That line, by the way, was a Janeane Garofalo bit from back when she was amusing.) Plus, I have a mother who likes to buy the books she’s heard of versus the more obscure stuff on my reading list.

And so it came to pass that I began reading The Road. How could it go wrong? I mean, post-apocalyptic! That’s the home field right there! It’s also a pretty sparse book, couple hundred pages with a fair amount of white space. How bad could it be?

As it turns out… Well, let’s just say I “misplaced” this book several times.

Look, maybe it’s just a matter of taste. You might like a book that’s 200+ pages of a father and son walking and starving. ‘cause that’s what this: Walking and starving. Much like Wicked, I kept wondering when the book was, you know, gonna start.

I’m not a general enemy of walking and starving. There was a lot of walking and starving in, for example, Lord of the Rings. And maybe this is, like, avant-garde, having an entire book about walking and starving. I dunno.

The ending wasn’t as bleak as it might have been. You know from the get-go that at least one of the characters is giong to die. The tension, I guess, comes from wondering whether the other one is going to die, too.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the writing. The dialogue is presented without quotes and also apostrophes. That seems sorta gimmicky. But Cormac McCarthy is, I guess, an artist, so here we have a post-apocalyptic story with no mutants, no women, almost no one except for the two main characters, no hope, and precious little action.

OK, some technical books next.

Best of Fest

Knox asked me which films I would recommend from previous After Dark festivals, and whether they were things you could actually view on (e.g.) Netflix. Last question first: Yes, they’re all get-able through Amazon.com and get aired on FearNet and sometimes the Sci-Fi channel, so I have to assume they’re available through Netflix as well.

I wouldn’t recommend watching any horror movie on a network that has commercials, with the exception of FearNet because FearNet only puts one commercial break in, early on. (They do the noise at the bottom of the screen, though, which is nasty.)

Recommending movies is a much harder process, because it’s highly personal (and doubly so for horror) and the experience tends to be different at home which affects some movies more than others.

But assuming you’re not a horror fanatic, there are a few recommendations I can make pretty comfortably.

Borderland is probably the most genuinely frightening film of the three festivals, not because it’s based on a true story (which is usually an excuse for lameness) but because it’s so very, very plausible. Americans down in Mexico end up crossing paths with a violent gang. Sean Astin plays a very creepy role. I remember being concerned that it was going to veer into “torture porn” but the horribleness is mostly kept at a very real level–that is, you know, in real life, we’re more rattled by things that we brush off in horror movies–and is still very effective. (UPDATE: My reviews at the time say it is, actually, torture porn-style violence. So, use caution.)

The Gravedancers is probably the most fun. It stars “haunted house” and goes “Poltergeist”, with more than a nod to “Scooby Doo”.

Rinne (Reincarnation)is probably my favorite movie of the three festivals, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a mystery, you have to be very attentive, and it breaks Blake’s law of movie reincarnation (which is that audiences reject using dramatically different actors for the same characters). But it “made sense” to me. (It reveals “the rules” and “follows the rules” without being predictable.) Apparently some people find it slow, though. Subtitled. Must be relatively immune from “they all look alike” syndrome.

I love the atmosphere in Unrest, which is powered almost entirely by the verisimilitude of the situation. The corpses are not just realistic, they’re real. The writer/director having been a med student gets the feel just right.

In an entirely separate way, I loved the “realism” of Mulberry Street,which comes from the setting and the truly excellent characterization. I get the idea that the writer/director pulled his friends out of the neighborhood and said “Here, be in my movie.” Which may be totally false–because they all do their lines excellently and without sounding stilted–but it feels that way. The movie runs out of steam when it goes into standard zombie/plague mode, sort of ironically, or this movie would be a horror classic.

I can’t really recommend The Abandonedbecause I didn’t like it. But I don’t like this kind of movie. No matter how well done, if I know the characters are doomed from the start and yet the movie is going to make them go through the motions of surviving, I get both bored and pissed off. But for whatever reason, this movie is the only one they show on pay cable so maybe it’s a good example of a kind of movie I really dislike.

In the horror-like-Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-is-horror category, there’s The Deaths of Ian Stone.This is one of the few films that had a real budget, like $14M or something. It shows. And while it’s darker than Buffy, it feels like it could be a pilot for a Buffy-like series.

Butterfly Effect: Revelationhas a similar feel. I mean, the whole premise isn’t far off from “Quantum Leap”, which always threatened to scramble Sam’s brains. They just do it in this one.

Out of the 24 films, then, I’d feel comfortable recommending six pretty strongly. Sturgeon’s Law and all that.

If you’re okay with campy low-budget type flicks, then I can add Tooth & Nail,Nightmare Manand Autopsy.The camp in T&N may be entirely accidental but director Kanefsky (Nightmare) knows the limits of his medium and knows a laugh is as good as a shriek–and Autopsy is so completely committed to the “funhouse” style, it’s unimaginable that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.

So, those are my recommendations.

Except for Autopsy, there’s not really any heavy gore in any of them (and the gore in Autopsy is right on the line of horrific/comic). Oh, there’s a compound fracture in T&N, that’s always good for an “ew”, and the majority of Unrest features half-dissected corpses as props. (I’m trying to remember if there was a lot of gore in Borderland. If there is, I’ve blocked it out.)

For hardcore fans, most of the movies have something to recommend them. And for would-be filmmakers, these would have to be interesting if only to examine: a) how much can be done on so little; b) how easy it is to go off the rails.

But for entertainment, the six abovementioned are worth the 80-90 minutes.

In Which You Decide You Can’t Trust My Opinion On Movies Any More

If you ever did, of course.

We watched The French Connection the other night.

Five time Oscar-winning French Connection.

It registered a big “meh”.

Now, if there’s a period of time in the movies that registers a big “meh” from me, it’s the late ‘60s to the late ’70s. Say 1966-1975. Movies from this era tend to have certain elements in common:

1. A mustard yellow/avocado green color scheme. These were popular kitchen colors but the whole decade seems drab and–well, sort of like the ’50s-future gone totally degenerate. One thing TFC had over similar cop dramas is that it wasn’t all this way. There were some very nice shots and some good blocking, some things that presaged The Exorcist.

2. A gawdawful, ugly, brass-heavy score. That’s why John Williams was such a phenomenon with Jaws and especially Star Wars. He brought back the full orchestra and aesthetic music. TFC is slightly different if only in that it relies on some really ugly piano work.

3. An attitude of cynicism and nihilism this generation wishes they could touch. So, in TFC, we have incompetent cops chasing incompetent crooks with a bunch of innocent people getting killed, and the bad guys getting away or getting light sentences because the system is broken, man.

There are probably a lot of other things that I object to, too, but I just plain avoid movies from this era. Even good ones tend to be ruined by one or more of these issues.

The Godfather movies, of course, are both remarkably (and uncharacteristically) beautiful with lovely scores, but the “heroes” are mobsters who are slightly less evil than other mobsters. The Wild Bunch makes sociopaths out of the guys who had been cutting heroic figures in the preceding 50 years of cinema. Serpico has an honest cop lead–but he’s the only honest cop in the world, apparently. Even the Dirty Harry movies suggest that Harry’s the only honest and competent cop around.

The musical dies during this period, with Cabaret putting the nail in that coffin. I love Cabaret, don’t get me wrong, but it cemented the notion that we couldn’t accept the musical as a serious art form. Post-Cabaret musicals would either be fantasies, kiddie pix or the music would have to come from an “organic” source. No more random people breaking out into song and dance.

This was the time of Heston’s Post-Apocalyptic trilogy: Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Omega Man. The death of the pro-American war movie with The Green Berets. The death, probably coincidentally, of the big-budget animated feature and Walt Disney. The time of despairing features like They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Not coincidentally, this is both a time critics are often nostalgic for, and a time when box office receipts were phenomenally low.

If not for the (basically) pre-Boomer Spielberg and Lucas, and Roger Corman’s influence, movie theaters would probably be oddities today.

Getting back to TFC: It’s slow–the vast bulk of the movie is people following other people around! The acting is good, of course. It all feels pointless though, and probably that was the point. Between the nihilism and the super-duper chase scene (which has aged like an episode of “Barnaby Jones”), you had a copy story that you could avoid enjoying for the normal reasons, and could “enjoy” for what it said about The Man.

A Big Meh. For giggles, TFC beat the following movies at the 1971 Oscars:

  • Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Stanley Kubrick
  • Fiddler on the Roof (1971)Norman Jewison
  • Last Picture Show, The (1971)Stephen J. Friedman
  • Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)Sam Spiegel (I)
  • Films not nominated that year include Harold and Maude and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

    Psycho II: Electric Boogaloo

    There was a list linked from IMDB to “under-rated horror movies” but, as always, such things are dubious. It started, for example, with Suspiria, Dario Argento’s classic-for-horror-snobs. Suspiria has some great moments, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also an uneven mess of a film. And it’s far from under-rated. (The argument went something like “These kids today haven’t seen it, so it’s under-rated.” Meh.)

    I give them credit for including Arachnophobia. I’ve always felt it was a comedy, but if they say people are scared by it, who am I to argue?

    Psycho 2 is under-rated. It’s actually a fairly decent movie that mostly suffers because it doesn’t even touch the hem of the original. But it plays that way: It’s not Gus Van Sant trying to remake the original, it’s a very smart, knowing ripoff. It knows it’s a rip-off, and it knows you know, and invites you to have fun anyway.

    A dark comedy with little twitches and quirks that make the Psycho fan smile, if he’s not too uptight.

    Not to get maudlin again, but I’m drawn to certain tragedies among the cast. The beautiful Meg Tilly (whom I loved from her performance in One Dark Night) was sexually abused as a child. Perkins, of course, died of AIDS complications while his wife died on Flight 11. Cancer got director Richard Franklin, who did the underrated Road Games with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis prior to this.

    Writer Tom Holland’s career is dead. (Rim-shot.) Nah, he created Fright Night and the Child’s Play series (which ultimately would star Meg’s sister Jennifer). Last seen directing a tepid episode of “Masters of Horror” called “We All Scream for Ice Scream”.

    As I say, if you’re not too uptight, it’s worth checking out.

    Why Psycho Is Great and Death Proof Sucks, A Simple Explanation

    This is going to be a bit spoily, as well as a bit pissy, so, you know, caveat emptor, cave canem and all that. But it comes from a place of love.

    Grindhouse was a disappointment to me, for two reasons: Primarily, I wanted these to be great movies. Sleazy, but great. And they were the former, but not the latter. Secondarily, because they weren’t great, we’re unlikely to get any more, and there’s no reason that the Grindhouse concept should itself suffer because QT & RR got a little full of themselves.

    The primary sin of both films is overlongness. But Death Proof has another sin: We spend extensive time with the first set of characters, who are abruptly killed off.

    Ah, but wait, some have compared Death Proof to Psycho, which does the same thing with Janet Leigh. Alfred Hitchcock gives us some 30 minutes of Marion only to abruptly end her existence. So, why is it okay for Hitch to do and not QT? Heh.

    Ultimately, it’s because the viewer cares about Marion and not one of Death Proof’s five female characters is sympathetic. Hell, they’re not particularly believable as characters, but you’re almost rooting for Stuntman Mike by the time he kills the first set. Finally, you think, something’s going to happen.

    Then it’s all over and, O! God, the movie laps itself! Like Manos: The Hands of Fate, we start over again with four new, tiresome girls, and Kurt Russell’s only presence is his back in the background during that soporific Vanishing Point dialogue. (And, as it turns out, revolving the camera around people with boring dialogue does not, in fact, make the dialogue more interesting. Actually, that scene is appreciately less annoying muted.)

    Stuntman Mike is a little different from Norman Bates’ pathetic self. Hitch deftly switches our loyalty from the flawed but likable Leigh to the highly flawed yet still somehow sympathetic Perkins. At some level you wish he could just be left alone –well, some place where there’s no victims for him to stir-fry.

    In contrast, by the second half of Death Proof, you’re eagerly rooting for Stuntman Mike to kill his second batch–not because he’s a sympathetic character, but because these women are insufferable and they just won’t shut up.

    Kurt Russell is great in this film, but he’s more a Freddy Krueger than a Norman Bates. He’s likable in the sense that he removes the great annoyances that are the film’s characters.

    Spaced

    We’ve been watching the millenial Channel 4 show, Spaced this week, which seems to be the series that really established the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg team that would go on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. (I’ve written about Hot Fuzz before here, regarding its take on male friendship.)

    In a lot of ways, “Spaced” is a very traditional comedy with a very traditional situation. Tim Bisley (Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson) play two 20-somethings in need of a place to stay. They find the perfect place, with one catch: They have to pretend to be a “professional couple”.

    This setup is actually used for almost none of the stories that follow, but unlike most sitcoms, Tim and Daisy are constantly forgetting that they’re supposed to be a couple, and once they’ve warmed up to the creepy landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin), they find themselves mid-sentence saying something that makes no sense.

    “Spaced” features a lot of the cuts, setups and rhythms found in the two movies, and is rife with references to cinema, television, video games and comics. It’s a credit to the show that I probably got about half the references and still found it hilarious. (The references to television are particularly British, and I only know a handful.)

    A lot of what makes it work, of course, is the melodramatic camera work and use of movie tropes (camera angles, zooms, flashbacks) in situations that are either inappropriate or that don’t pay off as expected.

    For example, Nick Frost plays Pegg’s best moustachioed friend Mike, whose great desire for life is to be in the military, but who can’t get in because of…the incident…that happened long ago when Mike and Tim were kids. Several times, they mention this, and look skyward, as the camera drifts up to a flashback of the two of them as children, sitting in a tree, Mike still with his moustache.

    And then they’re interrupted, and the flashback ends. We do sort of find out later on what happened, but it doesn’t really make sense. We just know it was Tim’s fault.

    The show’s American parallel is probably “Arrested Development”, though it’s far less sleazy (from what I recall of AD), and far geekier. There’s some of the whimsy of “Northern Exposure”, and you could even compare it to “Friends”, except that it feels a lot less plastic, for all the contrived-ness in its setup and style.

    Rounding out the cast is Mark Heap as Brian, the tortured artist who lives downstairs and Katy Carmichael as Twist, Daisy’s bubbleheaded friend “in the fashion business” (she works at a dry cleaners).

    These six characters pretty much carry the show, though there are no throwaways: The guy who stole Tim’s girl, the bike messenger “Wheels”, Brian’s mum, and Marsha’s tempestuous never-actually-seen-but-always-heard teenage daughter–they’re all vividly drawn.

    Despite the wildness–which actually doesn’t seem all that wild ten years later–the show hangs together by its character development. So much so that, toward the end of the second series, the penultimate show is actually pretty serious. We were worried that the show was going to end on a downbeat.

    Having come to the show backwards, as it were, through the two movies, Jessica Hynes was the unknown element. She co-wrote the shows along with Pegg, and moved on to–well, to have a mess of kids, and to do movies. (She plays Simon’s ex-girlfriend in Shaun of the Dead, the one who is also leading a crew of characters to safety, though in the completely opposite direction.) Turns out she’s quite a force.

    To reference “Friends” again, I remember in the first season of that show, when it took off all crazy-like, the actors talking about the length of the series, and how sad it would be for them to be in their 40s, still doing the same setup of having roommates and no steady job and no family. Ultimatey, they did go for 10 years, and it was sort of sad. (Or so it seemed to me, I only watched the first season.)

    “Spaced” ran for fourteen episodes, encompassing a year or two of the characters’ lives, and by the end, there’s some concern that they all need to move on. (This is the sort of serious moment.) There’s even a speech where Tim talks to Daisy about how lucky they are to have been able to prolong their childhoods–though it was wisely cut out of the actual show.

    But basically, here’s a show about 20-something geeks, written, directed and performed by 20-something geeks. And you might have to be, or have been, a 20-something geek in the ‘90s to appreciate it. And there’s almost no way they could have gone on too long with it, or get it back together now for a third season, as they all approach 40.

    In fact, in both Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, the characters are in my opinion a little old for the roles. But we’re lucky to have this moment in time crystallized in DVD form, and for the creators to have gone on to do even more cool stuff.

    Manic Monday Apocalypso: I Am Legend

    Omega Man, part of the Charlton Heston apocalyptic trilogy (along with Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes) was a regular fixture on TV when I was a kid. (Apes was, too, but not Soylent Green which, I suppose, is the weakest of the three.)

    Of course, probably around the time I was 11-12 I had familiarized myself with the name of Richard Matheson, the author of “I Am Legend”, the story on which the movie was based. Not too long ago, I saw the Vincent Price version–the original movie take, which is rather talky and low-budget. And then a week or so ago, I saw the big budget Will Smith movie which, like most of Mr. Smiths’ movies, relies heavily on his own charm to keep it watchable.

    So I figured it was high time to read the book and ordered it up off one of Amazon’s sellers that uses their shipping. (That’s great because not only do you get a low price, you don’t have to pay for shipping if you have Amazon’s $79/year shipping deal.) It’s a novella, 150 pages long, and perhaps surprisingly, a very introspective work. (Not that surprising, though: Matheson has always had a talent for getting inside of his characters heads extensively without dragging the action down.)

    The story concerns Robert Neville, the last man on earth. Vampires have taken over the world and Neville is, for some reason, immune. He spends his nights barricaded inside his house while the vampires taunt him outside. He spends his days trying to figure out what these vampires are–or killing them in their sleep.

    The book is a combination of Neville’s grieving, his attempts to put this vampirism into a comprehensible form. When the book opens, we discover that the vampires: can’t come out in the day, are allergic to garlic, are repulsed by mirrors and holy symbols, and can only be killed with a stake through the heart.

    Neville’s transformation from grief-stricken husband and father to remorseless killing machine is interesting and, unlike the movie versions, you’re left wanting more at the end of the 150 pages.

    Of the three movies, each captures a different part of the story. The first one, the Vincent Price Last Man on Earth, captures the sort-of claustrophobia of the story: Not of space, but of mobility. (Wherever Neville goes, he has to be back well before dark.) But it doesn’t deliver on the intensity.

    Charlton Heston’s Neville in Omega Man best captures the feel of being the only normal one in an abnormal world. This is paralleled with the counter-culture movement, of course, and so can feel pretty dated on modern viewings.

    The latest I Am Legend, the first to use the real title, is more conventionally an action film with the prequesite explosion ending required of summer blockbusters. Smith does the grieving father well, and a captures a little bit of the book Neville’s sociopathy.

    But Smith is, in a big sense, the problem with the new version: No one’s going to waste an opportunity by putting him in a faithful adapation of the original story. Ultimately, “I Am Legend” is a horror story and trucks in that genre’s nihilism. What makes for a great ending on pulp isn’t necessasrily going to work on celluloid–and certainly isn’t going to be a crowd-pleaser.

    Thus we have extremely inhuman vampires–animalistic vampires, really, and while we’re at it, we won’t call them vampires at all. (The novella’s distinction between types of vampires–central to its story–is non-existent.) Any humanity has to be removed, or we might lose sympathy for Smith.

    As I pointed out in my Dark Knight review, a lot of the best Batman stories were low-key mysteries, but there was zero chance of WB releasing a movie that reflected on that aspect of the Caped Crusader. “I Am Legend” is probably a victim of its own success in that regard, too: Nobody wants to see it as the brooding intimate horror that it is, so we’ll probably never see a really faithful adaptation.

    Matheson is said (by various sources) to have helped with the first screenplay, or not, and the third screenplay (though he has no credit). Worse than not being faithful, however, is that all the changes serve to make the whole thing a blander experience, particularly in the most recent iteration. The monsters look generic, however well done the CGI is. And the ending is a perversion of the story, the very thing that gives it its punch is gone.

    But then, we always have the story to read.

    Kiss Me Deadly

    I’m not really familiar with Mickey Spillane’s work, being more a Hammett or Chandler guy myself. I rather liked the short-lived ‘80s series with Stacey Keach, but since I’d heard good things about this particular film–and I knew about the “whatsit” from somewhere (maybe the ’80s cult classic Repo Man)–I queued it up and gave it a view.

    It’s…well, it’s solid enough as a detective noir film, but Bezzerides script is subversive and Aldrich’s direction plays that aspect of it up. So, Ralph Meeker’s Hammer isn’t just tough, he’s sadistic and misogynistic. Life isn’t just hard, it’s cruel and isolating.

    Bleah.

    Part of the charm of the hard-boiled detective is that he’s a good man, but he knows that a white hat will get him killed. He’s not a sucker for dames but he’s got a code. He’ll think nothing of getting rough, but it has to achieve something.

    So, the great photography, nuanced performances (Cloris Leachman in her first film role!) and intriguing story are marred by this misanthropic world view.

    I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked, therefore.

    Manic Monday Apocalypso: Gas-s-s-s

    There are many endings.

    On the one hand, it’s arguable that I’ve never seen Gas-s-s-s because I’ve only ever seen it on commercial TV, and the last time was decades ago. The opening cartoon suggests something to a child that the movie itself doesn’t deliver.

    On the other hand, it’s arguable that no one has ever seen Gas-s-s-s. Roger Corman ran off to Europe to shoot another film while this was in editing, and lambasted AIP for their editing it down to incomprehensible hash. (I want to blame Sam Arkoff, but I can’t really remember who Corman held responsible.) It was the end of the road for Corman and AIP, and curiously, the end of the road for Roger Corman as a director as well.

    The movie takes the Boomer motto of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and puts it into practice. In the opening credits an accident releases a gas upon the world which kills everyone over the age of 25. (Being in the credits allows us to overlook the question of what sort of accident could spread a gas across the entire face of the planet.) Also, the nature of the apocalypse is fleeting, with way too many people being around, acting normal in some scenes.

    Anyway, this was doubtless meant in the dark vein of black comedies like Little Shop of Horrors, but it’s after the experimentation that Corman did for The Trip, and full of the psychedelic imagery and cuts that just annoy the crap out of sober people.

    Corman, for all his reputation as an exploitation guy, didn’t pander in this film. Instead of some sort of utopia that his audience might have enjoyed, the world of Gas-s-s-s is more like Lord of the Flies. There’s cynicism and disillusionment and nihilism, and it ends up feeling more like a world where the adults are simply being ignored rather than dead.

    Apocalyptically speaking, stories that center around wiping out a particular demographic are seldom as interesting as they should be.

    This movie was also a begining, being the first filmed effort of George Armitrage. Armitrage would go on to do a couple of “nurse” movies for Corman, but his writing career probably peaked with the HBO story of the battle between Leno and Letterman, The Late Shift, and his directing career certainly peaked with Grosse Pointe Blank.

    There were a handful of new, future celebs in the show as well, with Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams riding across country.

    In retrospect, I wonder if Corman didn’t deliberately produce a junk movie because he wanted an excuse to break away from AIP, and to get out of the directing game. It’d be interesting to see a “director’s cut”.

    It’s not something you’d want to watch in the expectations of a coherent narrative.