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.