Saturday, December 12, 2009

#75: Private Parts (Paul Bartel, 1972)

Not to be confused with Howard Stern's auto-hagiography, Paul Bartel's Private Parts is another great movie from the seemingly bottomless pit of interesting-to-good-to-great films from the 1970s. Bartel, who died of a heart attack in 2000 shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer, is a much-missed B-movie giant. He acted in Hi, Mom!, Big Bad Mama, Hollywood Boulevard, Grand Theft Auto, Piranha, Rock 'n' Roll High School, White Dog, Frankenweenie, Chopping Mall, Gremlins 2, The Usual Suspects, and Basquiat, just to name a few, and he directed Death Race 2000, its sequel Cannonball!, and the dark cannibalism comedy, Eating Raoul. He also co-wrote Raoul with Richard Blackburn, director of Lemora. Private Parts was Bartel's first full-length feature as a director, but it's such a confidently made movie it plays like Bartel had been directing for years.

Private Parts is a dark horror comedy about sexual repression that manages the neat trick of being sleazy and endearingly cheerful at the same time. The film opens with a couple in the midst of a sexual encounter in a shag-carpeted, hippie-beaded beachside Los Angeles condo. A pair of boots appears under the beaded partition, but it's not a psycho killer. It's just the roommate, Cheryl. (For some reason, most of the characters pronounce Cheryl with a hard "ch," as in chuds, not a soft "ch," as in champagne.) Cheryl, played by the lovely Ayn Ruymen, is caught peeping and given the what-for by her roomie, who tells her she can "never make the scene" and other hippie put-downs. It turns out that Cheryl and her roomie are teen runaways from Ohio, but Cheryl is still too young and naive to plunge into the free love scene and peeps instead, much to roomie's chagrin. They split acrimoniously, and Cheryl heads to a seedy downtown flophouse, run by her long-lost Aunt Martha. Martha is a weirdo with a pet rat who likes to attend funerals and who thinks women are "painted devils" and sex is disgusting. The tenants of the flophouse are even seedier, including a British reverend with a sexual attraction to young beefcake studs, a raging drunk whose room is full of leaves for some reason, a batshit crazy old woman, and a creepy weirdo photographer.

Begin the sexual awakening of Cheryl! Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! She soon hears all kinds of weird noises in the night, and erotic fiction and sexy lingerie mysteriously turn up in her room. She becomes fascinated with the creepy photographer, played excellently by John Ventantonio, who has one of the best creepy guy voices in the movies, and he becomes fascinated with her. His apartment is something else and looks like it was designed by some mutant fusion of Larry Flynt, Andy Warhol, and David Cronenberg. Weird stuff happens. Weirder stuff happens. Stuff even weirder than that happens. And then it gets weirder. The film becomes funnier and creepier as it progresses, and it started off on a high.

I won't say anymore about the story because there are too many pleasures I don't want to ruin. Bartel is in top form throughout, and his movie is a visual treat, full of audaciously creative images and rich location shooting in seedy downtown 1972 Los Angeles. His actors are expressive and interesting, with great movie faces. Ventantonio should have had a longer career. He makes a great psychopath. Bartel sustains both the humor and horror throughout, and the lean 87-minute running time contains no padding and no fluff. I love this movie.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

#74: Prison (Renny Harlin, 1988)

The makers of Prison came up with a solid idea. Let's combine the most entertaining cliches of the prison movie with the most entertaining cliches of the possessed/haunted house movie. Then let's set it in Wyoming and get some inexperienced pretty boy from Finland to direct it. As it turns out, these were the right decisions to make. Prison is a highly entertaining piece of excellent trash. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I think it's time to release it on DVD.

Prison opens with the execution of a prisoner in the Wyoming state pen in the 1950s before jumping to the present day. The old, outdated prison was closed shortly thereafter, but a governor running a get-tough-on-crime reelection campaign and a budget shortfall halting plans on a state-of-the-art prison necessitate its reopening. The old warden gets an early-morning call offering a transfer back to his old prison, and he takes it. The warden, played by the insanely over-the-top bug-eyed character actor Lane Smith (who unfortunately died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2005), is having some intense dreams and is a little closer to the edge than city officials suspect. Soon, busloads of prisoners arrive, including our hero, a car thief with a heart of gold played by a young Viggo Mortensen. Viggo's rocking a Luke Perry by way of James Dean late-1980s rockabilly 90210 pompadour, so you know he's soulful, troubled, and independent. He soon befriends his wise, aging black cellmate with a secret, who would be played by Morgan Freeman if this were a Hollywood movie, and a wisecracking New York Italian kid nicknamed Lasagna, who puts up a poster of Rambo in his cell. Lasagna's cellmate is played by occasional professional wrestler Tiny Lister, aka Zeus from the horrible Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred. He also has a heart of gold, despite his large, tough, black exterior. (This movie contains four substantial African-American roles, each one hitting a different mildly racist Hollywood stereotype. The other two are the voodoo priest and the high-voiced, shaking, terrified, "yes-massa" Negro, possibly on loan from the 1930s. Guess which one dies first?) We get a lot of prison politicking, clique formation, threats, menace, and escape planning. I enjoy these prison-movie cliches when done well, and Prison satisfies in this department.

Prison also gets the horror elements right. Remember that 1950s execution? Well, that guy's evil spirit is now haunting the prison, and the evil spirit likes to kick out the jams, motherfucker. He doesn't care whether you're a prisoner, a guard, an official, or a warden. He wants to destroy. We get three or four pretty spectacular gore set-pieces with good, old-fashioned pre-CGI effects. And we get lots of Lane Smith, flipping the fuck out, his eyes nearly leaving his head. Man, that guy could do an excellent freak-out. Viggo is compelling as ever, though he's just a little too handsome as a young man. I prefer the character and age in his face now. He's turned into a fascinating actor. The rest of the cast is excellent, too. Harlin populates the prison with a lot of solid character actors and actual ex-cons from the Wyoming prison system. Harlin's and the producers' decision to shoot in an actual abandoned prison makes a big difference in mood, atmosphere, all that shit.

Prison was Harlin's second feature in what has become a long, mostly financially successful career. To be honest, he's a Hollywood hack who makes silly entertainments, but some of those silly entertainments are a lot of fun, and he stays out of the way of his actors and story, unlike that idiot Michael Bay, whose approach to editing and visual space would be almost avant-garde if you could trace any thought or feeling to it. Harlin followed Prison with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Deep Blue Sea. His most recent movie was the John Cena vehicle 12 Rounds. He was once married to Geena Davis. He also used to have a ridiculous head of hair worn in the style of such 1980s lite-metal frontmen as White Lion's Mike Tramp. Evidence here. If you can get past the film's racism, which I believe comes from a place of ignorance and misguided intentions rather than maliciousness or mean-spiritedness, you'll find an enjoyable haunted prison movie with solid performances and memorable horror setpieces. I don't think Harlin will ever top Prison.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

#73: Pin (Sandor Stern, 1988)

There is a long literary tradition of writers who are also doctors: William Carlos Williams, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Keats, Maugham, Schiller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and on and on. This tradition doesn't seem to exist in the other arts. For example, not a single practicing physician can be found among the members of successful 1980s hair metal bands. Similarly, the movie and television industries contain very few professional medical men. Sandor Stern is a rare exception. While I don't mean to equate the screenwriter/director of such made-for-TV movies as The Seeding of Sarah Burns, Muggable Mary: Street Cop, and John and Yoko: A Love Story with Williams, Chekhov, and Keats, I do find it interesting that he was a successful family doctor/screenwriter for many years, before becoming a full-time film and TV writer/director.

Stern's background as a doctor attracted him to Andrew Neiderman's novel Pin. Stern adapted the novel into a screenplay and turned it into probably his best work. (I'm making this judgment solely from looking at the titles of his filmography, which include the aforementioned Muggable Mary: Street Cop, Shark Kill, Heart of a Child, and several episodes of Touched by an Angel.) Pin is a truly weird and effective psychological horror film. Stern's directorial style is workmanlike and perfunctory, but the directness and lack of flash serves this particular film well. What could have been a ridiculous, exaggerated, unintentional sillyfest is instead creepy and understated.

Pin's premise sounds ludicrous, so bear with me. Leon and Ursula are a brother and sister who share a close bond because their parents are nuttier than a fruitcake full of nuts. Their mother, played by the hilariously named Bronwen Mantel, is a stratospherically uptight neat freak and their family doctor father is a real piece of work who can't be summed up in one phrase. He's played by Terry O'Quinn, star of The Stepfather (the great original, not the current probably terrible remake) and the inexplicably popular television crapfest Lost. The good doctor has a life-size anatomical model named Pin (short for Pinocchio) in his office with transparent skin so one can see its innards, muscles, and organs. Pin also has a well-endowed model wang. We know this because the doctor's receptionist uses Pin as a sex toy when the office is closed and the doc is away. Here's where it gets even more ridiculous. The doctor is also a skilled ventriloquist, who throws his voice to give Pin the gift of speech and deliver educational messages to his children. In a hilarious and creepy scene, Pin gives the young siblings a birds and bees chat after they're caught with a nudie magazine.

Ursula grows up to be a relatively normal teenager, though she is a lot more sexually active than most 15-year-olds, but Leon is totally whacked, to use proper academic psychological lingo. He believes Pin is real and has inherited his father's ventriloquism gifts, though he doesn't realize he's throwing his own voice. He's become a paranoid schizophrenic with a split personality, and when an accident leaves him in charge of the household, he brings Pin home, makes a flesh-like covering for the dummy, and dresses it in his father's clothes. He gets nuttier and nuttier, and when his sister asserts her independence by getting a job at the library and dating a nice young man who wants her to commit her brother, Leon lets his freak flag fly, vengeance-style.

I realize a movie about a crazy ventriloquist who thinks a medical dummy is real sounds like the stupidest thing ever, but this movie works. Pin is creepy, suspenseful, understated, blackly comic, and nicely performed. Stern is hardly a masterful visual stylist, but he's made a dark, interesting psychological horror film here. I liked it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

#72: Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988)

I'm guessing it's hard to make any movie, even a piece of dogshit, but it's probably really, really, really hard to make a movie that succeeds as a horror film, a children's movie, a character study of a young girl, a fantasy, and a compelling family drama that manages to be emotionally affecting without being sentimental, manipulative, or banal. Paperhouse somehow achieves all these varying, counter-intuitive, contradictory tones. I really liked this movie.
Paperhouse has yet to be released on DVD in the United States, which is ri-goddamn-diculous, but the circa-1989 Vestron VHS tape I had to visit three fine local video stores to rent compensated for its lesser image quality by wowing me with trailers for a David Hasselhoff/Linda Blair vehicle entitled Bail Out, an advertisement for Nancy Reagan's astrologer's 900 number (complete with a disclaimer warning that the ad was not meant to convince anyone of the existence of astrology), and a Sports Illustrated subscription ad that offered a free VHS of Amazing Biff Bam Blooopers (not a typo). This might lead you to believe that Paperhouse is a piece of schlock. You would be incorrect. Paperhouse may be a low-budget film, but it's a work of undeniable skill and visual invention.

The film is carried by its lead actress, the then-14 but playing and looking younger Charlotte Burke, who never appeared in any other films. This is surprising, considering how good she is in this movie. She plays a young schoolgirl who keeps fainting and dreaming strange dreams about a house and a young boy she's been drawing in her notebook. She contracts a particularly dangerous fever and has to remain bedridden for several weeks. I'm already getting frustrated because any plot synopsis of this movie sounds cliched, stupid, and heavy-handed, but the film rarely, if ever, plays out in such predictable ways. Anyway, she keeps having these oddball dreams, and she slowly realizes that anything she adds to her drawings shows up in these dreams. She eventually makes a close connection with a boy she's drawn, and they have to hide from a creepy, menacing weirdo who shows up in the dream. Part of what I love about these scenes is that the creepy weirdo is actually a nice person in waking life, but the girl has very complicated, frustrated feelings about this person's absence in her life, so he manifests as a nightmarish figure in her dreams.

This movie always makes a right step, even though it's constantly tip-toeing over a landscape full of narrative landmines. I was glad and enthusiastic during its entire running time. See it on crappy VHS today.
The director, Bernard Rose, tends to alternate smart horror films with modern updates of Tolstoy. What a strange career. He also directed Candyman, which I loved in high school but am hesitant to re-visit because of that high school love; Immortal Beloved, a bio-pic of Beethoven starring Gary Oldman; and Ivansxtc, an update of Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Illyich" set in contemporary Hollywood.
This movie deserves a more sophisticated analysis, but I'm drunk, it's Friday night, and I've got a lot of shit to do this weekend. I'll just say that it's very good.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

#71: The Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

Director Robert Mulligan, who died last year at the age of 83, had a long and varied career, though he's still somewhat underrated. A master craftsman who applied his skill, good taste, and sharply detailed eye to a variety of genres, Mulligan brought a strong sense of location, subtle but beautiful shot compositions, and a knack for picking great cinematographers and editors to his films. His most famous film is his 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but my favorite Mulligan film is the project immediately following Mockingbird, Love with the Proper Stranger, a beautiful black and white urban drama/romantic comedy hybrid starring Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood. Even his overly sentimental final film, Man in the Moon, starring a young Reese Witherspoon, boasted a lived-in setting, fine performances, and subtly compelling imagery.

Mulligan made dramas, comedies, crime thrillers, and Westerns. The Other is his only horror film, and it's a strange one. The screenplay by Tom Tryon, based on his novel, has a lot of problems, including mawkish sentimentality, overblown and stagy dialogue, and some predictability. The actors have a tough time convincingly putting this dialogue across, particularly the child-actor twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky and the late Uta Hagen. The German-born, Wisconsin-raised Hagen's Russian accent is weak and distracting (much like Pierce Brosnan's French accent in Nomads), which is particularly disappointing considering Hagen's pedigree. Primarily a stage actress and acting teacher, Hagen's pupils included Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Matthew Broderick, Sigourney Weaver, and Jack Lemmon, so I feel foolish criticizing her performance. She obviously knew what she was doing, but I found her awkward in this film. So far, it sounds like I didn't care for this movie, but that's not the case. Despite my many misgivings, The Other contains several wonderfully creepy scenes, a great location, Mulligan's excellent shot compositions, and, as always with Mulligan, expert cinematography and editing. It's a frustrating film, full of great and terrible things, but certainly worth seeing.

Fitting snugly in the rural American Gothic mold, The Other takes place in the old, weird America best exemplified in the early folk and blues songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Set in the 1930s on a small New England farm, the film focuses on the large, extended family living there, particularly a pair of twin boys. They are joined by hired hands and their families, their Russian grandmother, a cousin, some aunts and uncles (including a young John Ritter), and their half-mad, frail mother who is still in mourning for her dead husband. The twins, Niles and Holland, spend most of their time together. This isn't a good thing, because Holland is on the evil side of the movie twin spectrum and is probably responsible for his father's death. Niles, seemingly, is a goody-two-shoes who is very close to his grandmother. Just to make things weirder, Niles has a form of extra-sensory perception taught to him by his grandmother. Called "the game," it allows Niles to mentally step into another person's or animal's body and experience whatever he, she, or it experiences. The summer drags on, bad things sometimes happen, and the boys visit a traveling carnival's freakshow. Bad things continue to happen, including a nasty incident involving a pitchfork hidden in a pile of hay. Several scenes between grandmother and grandson pile on the drippy sentimental gloop, but are nicely offset by memorably dark setpieces involving a loony neighbor, the freak show, and a missing baby, leading to an inevitable but memorable conclusion.

Though Tom Tryon's screenplay was the weakest thing about the movie, his life story is fascinating. The Connecticut-born Tryon began his career as an actor in live-action Disney movies, eventually becoming a movie star and tabloid heartthrob. Tryon became disillusioned with acting in the 1960s, in no small part due to being fired in front of his visiting parents by Otto Preminger on the set of The Cardinal before being rehired shortly thereafter. Tryon quit acting and reinvented himself as a writer of horror, science fiction, and mystery novels. Surprisingly, the handsome movie star turned genre author reinvention worked, and many of his books became bestsellers. Alongside a handful of TV and movie adaptations, his novel Fedora was turned into a criminally underrated film by Billy Wilder. The openly gay Tryon dated both a cast member of A Chorus Line and a porn star and, bizarrely, invented an imaginary lover named Patrick Norton who inspired most of his male characters. He died in 1991 from stomach cancer.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

#70: Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)

I was a bit tepid about this movie the first time I saw it, but circumstances were different. I had recently seen two of Argento's best movies, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, so Opera suffered in close comparison. Also, Opera wasn't yet available on DVD, so I watched a crappy panned-and-scanned VHS copy. Most damagingly, I watched Opera at perhaps the worst possible time to watch a horror film: a bright Sunday summer afternoon. That's no way to set the mood for giallo, baby. What was I thinking?
Fortunately, this list gave me the chance to see Opera a second time in a beautiful, letterboxed DVD edition on a dark Friday night, and my opinion of the film considerably improved due in no small part to getting the full view of Argento's shot compositions. It also helped to have the knowledge that the film's final scene is a parody of The Sound of Music. It's been a goal of mine to go through life without ever seeing The Sound of Music, so the first time I saw Opera's ending, I was completely baffled.

Dario Argento is a master visual stylist with an expert handling of color, light and shadow, elegant and unusual gliding camera movement, freakishly outlandish and precisely choreographed scenes of extreme violence, suspense, and menace, and eccentric POV shots. He's great at mood and tone, and pretty awful at dialogue, characterization, and narrative drive. In his awesome run of horror and suspense classics from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, he minimized his weaknesses and amplified his strengths to insane heights, but he's had a long slide into mediocrity in recent years, with occasional bright spots. He does nothing with his formerly brilliant color palette, and he spends too much time on ridiculous exposition and dull plot points. Opera contains many of Argento's weaknesses, but it also contains many of his highs and is only slightly less impressive than Argento at his best.

Opera is about an opera company's series of performances of Verdi's Macbeth, and the gloved, masked psycho killer who is stalking the cast and crew. In the opening POV shot, the audience becomes the opera's lead as she has a titanic diva tantrum after one of the hundreds of ravens appearing onstage caws too loudly, interrupting her concentration. She runs out into the street and is promptly hit by a car, breaking her leg. This opening scene was shot from the camera's POV without an actress because Vanessa Redgrave quit the role right before shooting, and Argento had no time to cast a replacement. The diva's understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets the role and knocks it out of the park, attracting the crazed, obsessive killer. Fun fact: Argento said Marsillach was the most difficult actress he'd ever had to direct.
Our psycho killer likes to tie up Betty and tape needles to her eyelids so she can't close them and then kill an opera employee in front of her before letting her go. These scenes are hard to watch if you have squeamishness issues about eyeball torture, yet they are also visually striking and memorable. Argento got the idea for these scenes from a running joke of his. He was irritated about seeing people turn their eyes away from violent or suspenseful scenes during screenings of his films, and he joked about taping needles to their eyelids so they had to watch. That's pretty much the gist of the story, and despite lots of ridiculous dialogue (ex. "Could this be another manifestation of the curse of Macbeth?"), the horror setpieces are spectacularly filmed. The movie is one visual treat after another.

Fun fact #2: Both the Shakespeare play and Verdi's opera have reputations for being cursed. One theory posits that so many productions are plagued with misfortune due to Shakespeare's use of actual, word-for-word ancient curses in the play's dialogue. Once these lines are spoken aloud, the curse is unleashed. My own take on this "curse" is that any play and/or opera that has been performed thousands of times has most likely met with enough anecdotal misfortune to inspire urban legends. Life is full of misfortune and I'm a skeptic so I don't believe this nonsense, but I enjoy the legend anyway. Nevertheless, Opera met with many misfortunes of its own, fueling the Macbeth curse legend's continued appeal. Besides Redgrave's last-minute abandonment of the film, other problems included the death of Argento's father mid-filming, an on-set accident that almost blinded an actress and convinced her that Argento was actively trying to harm her, an off-set car accident involving an actor that broke several of his ribs, Marsillach's constant butting of heads with Argento, and the final screen appearance by Ian Charleson, whose untimely death from AIDS would occur a few years later. I still don't believe in the curse, even though the high school kids I worked with last year who performed Macbeth all died when their school exploded during a performance of Macbeth.*
Opera is well worth seeing if you're an Argento fan. It's definitely the high point of the spotty later portion of his career. It's also plenty creepy if you have a fear of eyeball torture and large birds.
Fun fact #3: Ravens can remember individuals who harmed them, even years later, even if the person only harmed them once. Argento uses this fun fact as an element of his story.

*This fact is possibly a lie.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My first angry comment! I'll treasure it forever!

My day began with an anonymous email calling me a douchebag for expressing discomfort with a 40-minute rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave on this very blog and ended with me getting yelled at by a rude, angry HR person (including rolling of the eyes, finger-snapping, and audible sighing) from a local school district not only for asking what she perceived as a stupid question but also for asking it too slowly! I'd only said two words when she hurried me up with the finger-snapping and eye-rolling. I asked the same question of HR people from two other local school districts and got a polite, friendly, civilized answer, but I digress. I deleted the "douchebag" comment from this blog because anyone who calls me a douchebag anonymously will be deleted. You want to call me a douchebag, leave your name or blog link. If you do that, I'll leave all personal insults up on the site in perpetuity. Call me a pig-fucker or a member of the Republican Party or a fan of the TV program Models, Inc. As long as you sign your name or link to your blog, you have my permission to hurl the abuse, insults, and criticism. Unfortunately, in deleting this anonymous troll's comments from the post, I accidentally deleted the first hate mail in this blog's history. My other two blogs have inspired the occasional "you suck" or "you're an idiot," but this blog was a hate-virgin until its hate-cherry was broken early this morning. I'm sorry. I will stop that metaphor now. Fortunately, I still have the email from Blogger containing the anonymous comment. Without any further delay, here is the first in a hopefully long line of blog comments telling me I'm a stupid idiot:

"shut up douchebag. No one even comments or problay even reads your blog on 'blogger' whoa. stop being smug and get a real job HAHAHA

In unrelated, or possibly related, news, Zombie Lapdance is an always informative and hilarious blog, and I'm not just saying that because he said nice things about this blog or because he also has Zombie in his blog title or because I know where he works and where his girlfriend lives or because I've seen him batter the hell out of a pig head in a bookstore parking lot during a zombie-killing simulation. It's good and fun to read. Read it today, call me a douchebag tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

#69: Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenabar, 1997)

When a 35-year-old Tom Cruise saw the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, he looked at the main character - a womanizing, self-centered, spoiled 25-year-old man who inherited a chain restaurant fortune from his dead, rich parents and who is constantly being told by his friends how handsome he is and from his conquests what a tiger he is in the sack - and exclaimed, "It's the part I was born to play, baby." Cruise bought the English-language rights and starred in the Cameron Crowe-directed remake, Vanilla Sky, four years later. The filmmakers changed the character's age to 33 because Cruise was then 39. I haven't seen the remake yet, and though I tend to enjoy Crowe's films about teenagers, I can't picture his sensibilities matching up well with psychological thriller headfucks, and I'm cautious about Cruise in the lead (he can be very good in some roles and oh so very bad in others) and aghast at the wildly inappropriate casting of Cameron Diaz in a key role. Anyway, as an apology or continued expression of goodwill, Cruise also produced director Alejandro Amenabar's English-language debut, The Others, starring his then-wife Nicole Kidman.

Spain's Amenabar started his career as an all-round filmmaking whiz-kid, working as a director, actor, screenwriter, and composer at the tender age of 20. At the time, and for the next five years, he was Spain's youngest working director. This makes me inclined to hate his guts, but I'll get over it. Amenabar works in both Spain and the United States, and though he's mostly made horror films, he's stepped out of the genre twice for the Javier Bardem-starring drama The Sea Inside and the upcoming ancient Egypt costume epic Agora.
Open Your Eyes, Amenabar's second feature and fourth film overall, is an arty psychological thriller with subtle sci-fi undertones and classic horror film imagery. If you want to be crotchety about it, you could say this isn't technically a horror film, but it often looks like one, reminding me of Paul Leni's 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which looked like a Gothic horror film even though it was an adventure/drama.

The story begins, appropriately enough, with a nightmare. Our womanizing hero Cesar wakes up, gets frustrated that his one-night-stand is still in bed, and meets his best friend for some racquetball. His friend, Pelayo, who would get laid a lot more if he didn't hang out with Cesar, later brings a new girlfriend, Sofia (played by Penelope Cruz in this movie and in the remake), to Cesar's birthday party. Cesar, trying to get away from an old sex buddy, starts working his magic on Sofia while a frustrated Pelayo gets drunk and goes home. Cesar spends the night at Sofia's place, though they don't have sex. The next morning, Cesar gets in an accident that leaves him disfigured, though I'll leave the details of the accident alone to avoid spoilers.

The movie then focuses on Cesar's attempts to reconstruct his disfigured face and his mysterious relationship with Sofia while flashing forward to scenes of a masked Cesar in a criminal asylum talking to a psychiatrist. The film gets stranger, and the boundaries between dreams and real life get blurrier, calling to mind both The Matrix (though it came out two years later) and episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Amenabar's film is not as deep as it thinks it is, and my wife thought we never got to know the characters as well as we should have, though I'm still undecided on that point, but Amenabar handles the dreamlife/waking-life tone skillfully and creates some powerful images, including some shots of Cesar in a nightclub with his creepy mask on the back of his head. Penelope Cruz, who has seemed flat and uncharismatic in English-language films, is vibrant and appealing in her native language. I don't see the towering masterpiece Tom Cruise saw, but I do see a solid, enjoyable, visually interesting little movie that skillfully blends genres.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

#68: Nomads (John McTiernan, 1986)

Nomads is the second film in a row I've watched for this site that I find difficult to write about. I don't know where to begin, simply because this film is so damn strange and talking about it a little reveals too much about it as a whole. I'm going to give it a try, though. I think I'll start with the filmmaker.
John McTiernan is primarily known as a capable director of sharp and stylish big-budget action movies. His three biggest hits are the three films that followed Nomads: the action/horror/sci-fi blockbuster Predator (which features former bodybuilder/future governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, former professional wrestler/future governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and future unsuccessful Libertarian candidate for governor of Kentucky/ex-porn star Sonny Landham, not to mention Carl Weathers, who has yet to run for governor), the action/action/action blockbuster Die Hard, and the action/Cold War/submarine/espionage blockbuster The Hunt for Red October. He also made the underrated flop action/comedy/post-modern blockbuster parody Last Action Hero and the probably not underrated flop remake of Rollerball, as well as Medicine Man, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The 13th Warrior, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and something called Basic I have no memory of starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. So, McTiernan is a mainstream filmmaker, but he's a mainstream filmmaker who mostly knows how to make quality entertainment in the classic Hollywood style as opposed to the Michael Bay school of disconnected, incoherent, sloppy narrative, editing, framing of shots, and direction of action, and complete ignorance of spatial relationships.

My experience with several of McTiernan's previous films did not prepare me for his directorial debut and sole screenwriting credit, Nomads. As I said above, this movie is strange. Incredibly strange. And, despite its overwhelmingly negative reviews and unsuccessful theatrical run, I think it's a scary, atmospheric, well made, enjoyable, unusual, ambitious, and slightly ridiculous movie. There is one major flaw that almost sinks the movie, however, and may ruin the film for someone else, depending on his/her tolerance for bad accents. Pierce Brosnan's French accent is so poor and so initially distracting that I had a hard time entering into the world of the film for about ten minutes. Then, I decided to just go with it, and my experience improved substantially. So, just go with it. If you can't, you're going to have a tough time, but you'll miss out on the pleasurable aspects of the movie.
I'll attempt to set up the story, though the film's experimental, dream-like narrative is just this side of linear and hard to summarize in a straight-forward way. Lesley-Anne Down is a doctor in Los Angeles working a 32-hour shift. Late in her shift, a bloodied, hopped-up, mad Frenchman, played by Pierce Brosnan, arrives in ER. He attacks her, whispers some French in her ear, then promptly dies. Yes, the main character dies, but I'm not spoiling anything for you because it happens in the first couple of minutes of the movie. The hospital thinks Brosnan was a crazy street person on PCP, but the autopsy reveals he had no drugs in his system, and they also discover that he was a famous French anthropologist who had just moved to Los Angeles with his wife one week ago to teach at a university. He studied nomadic tribes all over the world, and, according to a closeup on the cassettes on top of his stereo, was a huge fan of the solo work of Quincy Jones and the saxophone stylings of David Sanborn. Down gets some stitches in her ear after the attack and goes back to work, but she soon starts experiencing vivid hallucinations or visions of the final week of Brosnan's life, and the film cuts back and forth between her retracings of Brosnan's steps and flashbacks to Brosnan's final week.

Shortly after moving into their new L.A. home, Brosnan and his wife are menaced by a group of creepy street thugs, including Mary Woronov, Adam Ant, and Josie "Johnny Are You Queer" Cotton. These thugs are a little bit silly but also a whole lot of unsettling and creepy, particularly the always awesome Mary Woronov, who is scary as hell here and has a tremendous screen presence even though she barely says a word. Brosnan, instead of calling the police or finding a new place to live, starts following and photographing the thugs. He soon discovers that these street punks are nomads, too. They're always moving, with no fixed location of their own. Down in the present, and Brosnan in flashback, find out, to their horror and the detriment of their sanity, that these urban nomads are actually Inuit evil spirits who can take a human form. They are attracted to sites where violent death and destruction occurred, and they damage the lives of those who come into contact with them. I probably said too much already, so I won't spoil anything else.
I really enjoyed this movie. It deserves a better reputation, once you get past Pierce "Baguette" Brosnan's movie French.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

#67: The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999)

This is a hard film to write about. For one thing, it's not a good film. For another, it's not a bad film. It's not a mediocre film, either. It's strange. It's got some wonderfully filmed and orchestrated set pieces and some curiously flat and aimless moments as well, but the tone and pacing remain consistent, never upset by the movie's strengths or weaknesses. The dialogue is full of leaden cliches that no people except movie characters ever say, including "We have much in common, you and I," but the film is also light on exposition and generally nicely and wittily underplayed, except for a Frank Langella freakout near one of the 10 or 12 climaxes (this film has more presumably final scenes than the third Lord of the Rings movie). The Ninth Gate is slowly paced and long, though it never gets boring. It never really goes anywhere, either, though. It's narratively unsatisfying, yet always pleasant and watchable. The film is seriously flawed, but its flaws exist peacefully alongside its strengths, creating an odd but cohesive supernatural thriller that is disappointing as a Polanski film, entertaining as a minor yet relaxed and understatedly comic genre film, and a lot more interesting than your usual Hollywood production.

Polanski is an interesting guy with an impressive filmography and a wild and often tragic life. Growing up Jewish in Poland during World War II, he was forced into the Krakow ghetto, along with his parents. His father was placed in an Austrian concentration camp and managed to survive the war, but his mother was taken to Auschwitz and murdered. Polanski himself escaped the ghetto at the age of 10 and roamed the Polish countryside for the remainder of the war, sleeping in barns and receiving shelter from Catholic families. He attended film school in Poland during the Communist regime and made his early short films and feature film debut there, but quickly moved to France. He's been an international director ever since, making films in many different countries. His years in the United States produced some of his greatest films and more personal turmoil and tragedy. In August 1969, while Polanski was in London, Polanski's wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were murdered by the Manson Family. (The 40th anniversary of the killings was last week.) In 1974, Polanski photographed a 13-year-old model for French Vogue at Jack Nicholson's house. After plying the girl with champagne and quaaludes, he either coerced her into sex or forced himself on her, depending on which of the many versions you believe. Everyone, including Polanski, admits he did a very fucked-up thing. Polanski skipped the country after spending 42 days in a psychiatric facility. He settled in France, where the government refuses to extradite Polanski. He hasn't been back to the United States or England since then. The model, Samantha Geimer, has forgiven Polanski and thinks he should be allowed back in the U.S. She says she believes he's sorry for what he's done and has paid for his crime.

Inextricably connected to his messy, tragic, and somewhat creepy personal life are his often amazing films. He's made a lot of great movies: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and Tess, as well as a lot of less-than-great but still pretty good films like Macbeth, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Death and the Maiden. I still need to catch up with his other highly regarded films like Cul-de-Sac, Che?, The Tenant, Frantic, Bitter Moon, and the movie that got him his first Oscar for directing, The Pianist.
The Ninth Gate doesn't belong in that pantheon. It's easy to say while watching it, "This is the guy who made Chinatown?" A critical and commercial flop during its theatrical run 10 years ago, though not a disaster on par with Polanski's biggest flop, Pirates (1986), which cost $40 million and made less than $2 million, nearly bankrupting the studio, The Ninth Gate is minor Polanski. However, as I said earlier, this movie is always watchable and very, very strange. Johnny Depp stars as a rare book dealer/book finder in New York City (the New York scenes were filmed in a studio since Polanski can't come back to the U.S., but they look convincing). He's unscrupulous, willing to lie about a book's value to get it on the cheap and sell it for more, but he's good at finding rarities. Frank Langella is a rare book collector, professor, and multi-millionaire of independent means who possesses an enormous collection of extremely rare books in which the devil is the protagonist. He owns one of three surviving copies of a book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, whose author was burned at the stake during the Inquisition. This book was purportedly coauthored by Lucifer himself. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Langella suspects the other two surviving copies, one in Lisbon and one in Paris, are forgeries. He entrusts Depp with his rare book and asks him to find the other two books and compare the texts for any discrepancies. Of course, things are a lot more complicated than that, and Depp soon finds himself embroiled in a Satanic web of Luciferian conspiracies of Beelzebubbian proportions that involves a lot of professors, Satanists, rare book dealers, rare book collectors, menacing thugs, Lena Olin, and a possible guardian angel/possible demon played by Polanski's real-life wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. This is all silly stuff, plot-wise, but Polanski's virtuosic yet non-show-offy filmmaking, relaxed pace, and light comedic touch make for a compelling, watchable film that's never boring if you aren't expecting big narrative payoffs, gore, or a bunch of monsters. (There is a ridiculous sex scene, however, that plays like Ken Russell parodying himself.) I liked it, even if it didn't seem to go anywhere, and even though I was puzzled by its existence.

Three asides -- #1: I was irritated by the prominent billing of character actor Allen Garfield, who I love watching. I kept waiting for him to show up, and he never did. After doing a little Internet research, I discovered he had a bit part in a scene outside an elevator early in the film, and I didn't recognize him because he'd gone bald, except for a gray patch on the sides, and possibly suffered a stroke, because one side of his face was paralyzed. I was much more irritated by my failure to locate Garfield than I should have been because I just watched his compelling performance in Wim Wenders' excellent The State of Things the day before.
#2: For a bunch of characters who handle rare books, the people in this film were incredibly careless with them. They drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes and cigars over the books, they manhandled the spines and smoothed down the pages, they smooshed them over copy machines, they flipped through the pages like they were random issues of Swank. My archivist wife was going crazy.
#3: For someone as supposedly intelligent as Langella's character, why is his combination for the security system of his collection of expensive, rare books about Satan "666"? Smooth move, devil boy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

#66: Night of the Creeps (Fred Dekker, 1986)

Following the excellent Night of the Comet comes another fantastic 1980s horror/sci-fi/comedy hybrid with the words "Night of the" in the title. I saw Night of the Creeps on the great Denver station KWGN as a kid and loved it (KWGN was also home to the mildly disturbing Blinky the Clown), and I was pleased to love it even more as a grown-ass man. Unfortunately, Night of the Creeps is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD in this country. Fortunately, a DVD is finally coming out in October.
This movie has it all. Aliens, ax murderers, zombies, space slugs, cryogenics, "Stryper Rules" written on a bathroom wall, a girl who looks like Sarah Silverman, a frat dick who calls himself the Bradster. Fred Dekker's directorial debut is an affectionate and funny homage to youthful obsessions (comic books, 1950s sci-fi movies, George Romero's zombie trilogy, slasher flicks, cop movies, college social life), and the film visually resembles all these obsessions and includes characters and institutions named after David Cronenberg, Roger Corman, Sam Raimi, James Cameron, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter. There are little nods to all these filmmakers, as well as a cameo from Roger Corman/Joe Dante regular Dick Miller.

The film opens with a bunch of pig-like naked aliens and their tiny naked butts running around a spaceship, shooting at each other. The aliens' dialogue is subtitled in both English and the hieroglyphic-like alien language. An experiment in a sealed tube is in dispute, and it ends up being launched out of the ship toward Earth. It lands in a wooded area near a highway in an unnamed college town in 1959 (this 1950s sequence is in black and white with the rest of the film in color), and a couple at a teen make-out spot see it fall toward Earth. They drive off to check out the space junk and encounter something weird. Meanwhile, there's an escaped ax murderer on the loose as well, just to make things even crazier.

Fast forward to the 80s. It's Pledge Week, and the frats and sororities are partying it up. Our nerdy heroes, roommates Chris and J.C., are bemoaning their lack of female companionship. Chris fixates on the Sarah Silverman lookalike, Cynthia, but is too shy to talk to her. J.C. decides to make it his mission to get Chris and Cynthia together, so that Chris can escape his malaise and the good times can begin. Cynthia belongs to a sorority, so Chris and J.C. pledge to the Beta house in hopes of increasing Chris' chances. Unfortunately, the Beta house is full of hilarious frat dicks, led by the Bradster, who calls everybody "bro," "dude," "babe," "dork," or "chucklehead." (An aside: It's been interesting to see the evolution of frat dicks throughout the ages, both cinematically and actually. They've gone from looking like Tony Dow in the 50s and 60s to a young Donny Osmond in the 70s to James Spader in the 1980s to Fred Durst for the last 20 years. It's time for a new look, frat dudes. And the seashell-necklace pot-dealer look doesn't count.) The Bradster and his smarmy, smirking frat brothers send Chris and J.C. out on a massive frat prank, though they have no intention of pledging our heroes. Without revealing too much, this attempted prank sets into motion some crazy zombie and space slug insanity that ties together our space alien and 1950s elements with the rest of the movie.
Needless to say, the fall formal is going to be interrupted by zombie frat boys, exploding heads, topless sorority girls, flame throwers, shotguns, drunk driving mishaps, zombie cats, and zombie dogs, and lots of silly catchphrases. I love this shit.

The whole cast is likable and effective, but character actor Tom Atkins appears to be having the best time as hard-ass detective Ray Cameron. When he answers the phone, he doesn't say "hello." He says, "Thrill me." He's seen it all, and he's too old for this shit. He provides an excellent reading of the film's tag line: "The good news is, your dates are here. The bad news is, they're dead." I'm so glad movies like this exist.
Writer/director Fred Dekker has had a sporadic but interesting career. Besides Night of the Creeps, he wrote and directed kick-ass children's movie The Monster Squad (featuring the immortal line, "Wolfman's got nards!") and Robocop 3. He also wrote several episodes of HBO's Tales from the Crypt series and was a producer and writer on Star Trek: Enterprise. Dekker and his cast and crew reunited in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in June. Here's what they look like now. Rent this in October. You won't be disappointed. Unless you're a jerk.