Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Collection Project: The Sanest Man in the World

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A telling feature of the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection is that of the five films included, four of them also feature Boris Karloff in roles that are as important as, or more important than, Lugosi’s. This is not something you’re likely to find in sets devoted to Karloff – those may feature films in which Karloff takes a supporting role, as in The Strange Door for example, but you won’t find him repeatedly paired with a single actor who has, over the decades, become more respected and beloved than him. Karloff doesn’t get overshadowed, in other words. Lugosi, on the other hand, seems always on the cusp of becoming a camp figure, at least popularly, due to his waning years spent making movies with Ed Wood. For that matter, Lugosi was never as lucky or as good as Karloff – his signature film, Dracula, is nowhere near as good as Karloff’s equivalent Frankenstein – and as a result Lugosi is fading into the background of his own box sets.
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Still, it would be wrong to try to write off Lugosi, or to ignore the fact he and Karloff made a hell of a double act. One of their strongest pairings is in Universal’s The Raven, directed by Louis Friedlander in which Lugosi plays a total fucker named Dr. Richard Vollin, a retired surgeon who, at the film’s opening, is asked by his former colleagues to perform emergency surgery on Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), who has just been in a bad car accident. Vollin refuses to help until Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), Jean’s father, goes to Vollin’s home and begs him in person, and even that’s not enough until Tatcher tells Vollin that he, Vollin, is clearly better than any other surgeon, his colleagues included. So Vollin performs the surgery, saves Jean, and promptly falls in love with her because, for all his coldness he is, as he tells Jean, “a god with the taint of human emotions”, although if you ever met the guy you might be forgiven for failing to notice that last bit. Vollin is, in truth, a hateful, venomous, violent sociopath, who is also an avid collector and, it turns out, consistent misreader of Edgar Allan Poe.
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Obviously, that title – The Raven, I mean – should tip anyone off to some sort of Poe connection in the film, and it is part of a short cycle of Poe films that Lugosi made. But The Raven is fascinating in that instead of taking Poe’s simple poem of Gothic mourning and inflating it absurdly to somehow encompass mad science and shambling monsters, which is the kind of thing that Poe must be used to by now, it instead uses Poe’s fiction, and the abuse of it, as the basis for Villon’s madness. Admittedly, this abuse takes the form of a torture room in which Vollin has recreated a number of lethal devices described in Poe's fiction, an idea which has been hammered into the ground over the past several decades, but here Vollin goes out of his way to assume an affinity with Poe that betrays a complete misunderstanding of what Poe was about. Vollin gets off on Poe's violence in a way Poe himself never did.
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Vollin's love for Jean develops quickly, but really gets moving when she invites him to see her perform. She's a dancer, and her current routine is one she calls "The Spirit of Poe", and involves balletic flailing on her part while some guy reads "The Raven" out loud. It is, quite frankly, a pretty doofy bit, but it cements Jean's place in Vollin's black and shriveled heart. Curiously, this routine at times also calls to mind the climactic ballet in Darren Aranofsky's Black Swan, though with the psychosis coming from outside so that Jean becomes the raven in Vollin's mind, as opposed to Nina becoming the black swan in her own.
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This flip matches to another flip, this time relating to Val Lewton and Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher. In that film, Henry Daniell's ice-blooded doctor sloughs away his guilt over the illegal procuring of bodies for his experiments, and the nefarious ways in which those corpses become corpses, onto Boris Karloff's Mr. Gray, who actually carries out the murders. Gray knows what's up, and knows how the Daniell character rationalizes his transgressions, and further has a lot of fun poking at the doctor's consience. Meanwhile, in The Raven, Karloff again plays a killer, an escaped con named Bateman who seeks out Vollin in hopes that Vollin can "change his face", not only to make him unrecognizable to the authorities, but because Bateman hopes Vollin can erase his ugliness, which he believes to be the source of his wickedness. In The Body Snatcher, Lugosi appears briefly as a drunk who sniffs out the deal between the doctor and Gray, and has to be done away with -- it's a very good scene, with Karloff plying Lugosi with booze (I especially like Lugosi's fuzzy attempt to bat away Karloff's hands as he gets closer). In The Raven, when Vollin's surgery makes Batemen uglier so that he can blackmail him into assisting him with a wild scheme to torture and murder both Jean and Judge Thatcher, Karloff becomes not only Bateman, but Daniell's doctor, in his attempt to hide from his own guilt, and Lugosi's drunk from The Body Snatcher in his inarticulate helplessness. Lugosi's Vollin, then, assumes the form of Gray the puppetmaster, keeping his face hidden and hands clean until the point of no return. He's perhaps somewhat less self-aware than Gray, however, considering that he claims all this torture and murder will ultimately result in his becoming "the sanest man in the world." Which, by the way, must have some claim to being one of the greatest lines of all time.
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The fact that The Raven predates every movie I've just compared it to is worth noting, as is the fact that it belongs to that glorious cluster of horror films from the 1930s that not only had the courage of their convictions when it came to dealing with their feverish Gothic trappings, but positively wallowed in them. Director Friedlander packs this thing with wall-filling shadows and mad cackling and drooping candelabra -- it's Gothic simply because its Gothic, not because it sees some snarky camp value in the form. If I may, I'd like to wear my old-fogey hat for a moment and wonder why pure Gothicism has been lost while most other forms of horror and suspense have found their unsullied way back to the big screen. This is the case in America, at least (Spain seems to found a rich vein of the stuff in recent years), with only Neil Jordan's somewhat underrated Interview With a Vampire embracing such imagery more-or-less sincerely.
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Anyway. The Raven is a treat. Occasionally absurd (Jean's car accident, which sets everything in motion, seems to have been caused by her desperate fear of detour signs) but easy on comic relief, something I can usually do without in such films, it's a jolt of pure, manic, old Hollywood-style horror, wearing its armchair psychology on its sleeve while somehow, at the same time, making it serve the characters and the emotion. And the moral of it might just be: Don't project yourself onto what you read. Sometimes I have no clue why I would ever want to watch any other kind of film.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Resume Normal Life

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On Saturday, the vintage copy of Robert Bloch's The Dead Beat I'd ordered online arrived in the mail. Upon receiving it, I began to flip through it, as you do, and I discovered on the inside front cover I found a second story, one separate from the one about murder and madness that I'd been promised. This one was not written by Bloch -- it was written by a previous owner, in pencil.
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You probably won't be able to read that, so allow me to transcribe it:

From now: exercise
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to touch toes - start 10 go to 25 - morn & aft
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12 days - can go for ride or downstairs movie
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20 days - exercise squeezing buttocks - 10 times - morn & aft
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25 days resume normal life
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30 days resume intercourse if no bleeding
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40 days see doctor
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I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I probably shouldn't laugh. I do hope things turned out okay.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Collection Project: Furniture

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[In an attempt to breathe some life back into this blog, I'm bringing back The Collection Project, at least for the time being. I unceremoniously dumped it a while back because I found it too pointlessly restricting, but I think it will give me some direction again. Of course, in the months since dropping it, I've covered several movies that would fall under The Collection Project's rubric, and I may go back and label those posts accordingly. On the other hand, who cares?]

I think it's safe to say that one of my interests, in film and literature if not quite so much, or anyway not in the same way, in life, is violence. Not death in general, so much, although that's obviously part of it, but violence -- murder, revenge killings, self defense killings, combat, the various kinds of violent or at least unnatural death found in the horror genre -- and how it is depicted by the artist. Connected to that is an interest in how that violence is perceived by critics (moreso than by audiences, because I'm not going to be taking any polls outside of movie theaters in the near or distant future), although I mention that only in passing as it doesn't really pertain to today's film.

It's a big subject, though one that is sometimes sniffed at, or even sneered at, unless the morality of the moment is absolutely concrete and in line with the views of whoever would otherwise be doing the sneering. Another element, apart from morality, that can keep people from engaging with onscreen violence has to do with a misunderstanding of the word "violence" so that it becomes synonymous with "gore". It can be, but violence, as I'm using it here, means basically any act of aggression intended to do harm to another person. This can range from sticking a live grenade in someone's mouth to poisoning someone as they sleep. Cinematically -- and in reality, of course -- one of these acts is going to be noticed and talked about far more than the other. Which brings me to Michael Clayton.

In Tony Gilroy's 2007 film, Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, an attorney for a company called U-Conn who has a mental breakdown stemming from a sort of moral collapse, which itself stems from the fact that U-Conn is manufacturing and selling a weedkiller that they know causes cancer. The film's plot revolves around attempts to keep this secret hidden from the public, and Michael Clayton's (George Clooney) attempts to save both his own soul -- he's also an attorney, brought in by U-Conn from the outside to help them deal with the crisis -- and protect Edens, who is his friend.

Until Clayton begins to take firm steps towards moral correctness, and even after, Arthur Edens is the good-hearted, right-thinking center of Michael Clayton. He reaches his epiphany well before Clayton does, though is less able to deal with it, or its repurcussions. The primary source of those repurcussions is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), an ambitious U-Conn executive put in charge of cleaning up this mess. She is, we learn, willing to do anything to support her company (one highlight of this very strong film, and one of the unacknowledged reasons Swinton won an Oscar for her performance, is Crowder's willingness to purge herself of all moral thought while trembling with horror as she does it -- this is a stark contrast to Catherine Zeta-Jones's probably intentionally over-the-top, but not quite buyable, Lady MacBeth turn in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic). One of the things she's willing to do is hire two hitmen (Robert Prescott and Tony Serpico) to silence Edens, who by this point has come just short of shouting out the truth about U-Conn from the rooftops.

And so. Arthur Edens is coming home one day, and is met by the hitmen. They grapple with him briefly, overpower him, and drug him.
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This all occurs in Edens' doorway, so they bring his body deeper into his apartment, one hitman at his shoulders, the other at his legs, prepping to lift him...
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...one hitman finally saying "Up", as though they were lifting a sofa, and bringing him to the bathroom.

They're nothing if not efficient, these killers. The scene is fast, and Prescott and Serpico play the hitmen as professionals, good at their jobs without a trace of psychology threatening to bust them at their seams. They've been paid well, and they get on with their work.

The method of Edens' execution is poison, which they inject into his foot with as little thought to its effects as they would if their syringe contained a mild anaesthetic.

It is not a mild anaesthetic, however, and all his killers need to do now is wait for Edens to die.

Which he does.

Though the two don't entirely match up, while thinking about this scene recently I was reminded of an actual murder I heard about -- I may have the details of it slightly wrong -- that involved a husband slowly and systematically poisoning his wife by putting a little bit of antifreeze in her, I believe, Gatorade every morning. Apart from the sad and prolonged death of that poor woman, the most horrifying feature of this case is the idea that this man woke up every morning, killed his wife a little bit, went about his day, and successfully went to sleep that night, day after day. There is a blankness in that man, as there is -- and I don't mean to connect these things too closely, since in one case a real person really died -- in the hitmen played by Prescott and Serpico. In Michael Clayton, Edens becomes an object, a piece of furniture, as I've said, to be brought down to the dumpster. It's only when the camera lingers on his corpse after the hitmen have left that any of his humanity is restored.

And this is violence. When violence disturbs in films, it's usually because much blood is spilled, or yards of guts have come unspooled, but I've never been able to shake this scene of bloodless murder in Michael Clayton since I first saw it more than three years ago. This is violence as work. This is violence as a project to be seen through to completion. This disturbs.

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POST-SCRIPT: I should have done this before, but I'd like to thank Ryan Kelly for providing the screengrabs for this post.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I'm Gonna Get Those Bastards

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The other day, lacking anything else to do, I posted a lengthy quote from Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. The natural progression from there is to write about Charles Bronson, of course, and to talk about, in microcosm, the career of one of the strangest movie stars America has yet produced. Bronson doesn't seem so strange on the surface -- he graduated from being a solid and dependable cog in ensemble machines like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen to the ensembles' mysterious hinge in Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the major films in which the seed of his subsequent vengeance-based career was planted, to eventually being one of the many go-to actors for portraying badassery in the 70s and 80s in films like The Mechanic and, his signature film, Death Wish.
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So that all makes sense. What makes less sense is those 70s and 80s films themselves, or at least some of them. The most notable, as in best-remembered, film to which the beginning of this era of Bronson's career can be pegged is The Mechanic, directed, as Death Wish would be, and the earlier Bronson Western Chato's Land was, by Michael Winner. The Mechanic (which has a remake due any day now) is a casually amoral film about a hitman, Bronson, who goes to rather absurd lengths to take out his targets in such a way that they don't appear to have been murdered. He eventually takes the son of one of his victims under his wing, but this young fellow, played by a fresh and ready to kill Jan-Michael Vincent, has his own plans, and the whole thing turns out to be, in theory, a cold-blooded and nihilistic battle of wits between the two.
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Apart from the fact that The Mechanic has a pretty cool ending, and that Jan-Michael Vincent was, at the time, the spitting image of Josh Hartnett (or rather, Josh Hartnett would eventually turn out to be the spitting image of Jan-Michael Vincent circa The Mechanic), the most striking thing about the film is how tired it is. Not in premise or story or anything, but just that nobody but Vincent, who has the scent of fame giving him a bit of a buzz, seems particularly interested in what they're doing. By this point, Bronson had switched from his earlier look from, say, The Magnificent Seven, which was that of a man who knows the world of men and of violence and of work, to his 70s' appearance. This look can perhaps best be described, despite Bronson's Lithuanian heritage, as "hungover samurai". And he just sort of shambles through the film, not suited for roles that call for him to smile, something you'd think he'd be able to avoid in The Mechanic, but no. He just looks, as I say, tired, as if he's already thinking "Welp, someday I'm going to be in Death Wish Part III, so I might as well prepare myself." And he hadn't even made the first Death Wish yet!
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That film came two years after The Mechanic and three years after Dirty Harry, the pro-vigilante (sort of), pro-violence-against-the-violent Don Siegal/Clint Eastwood sensation off of which Death Wish seems perfectly happy to leach. The nearly rabid support of private citizens shooting muggers in the face that Death Wish eventually takes as its mantel sat very badly with Brian Garfield, author of the source novel, but I have to say that, outside of certain particulars (the line about black muggers seems designed merely to shock and anger) I don't much care about that. Those who do, outside of Garfield, seem to presume that vigilantism is some kind of national problem, that Bernie Goetzes are a dime a dozen, when in fact films like Death Wish and Dirty Harry are simply plugging into an actual far-reaching frustration and fear and let the audience blow off some very impotent steam. Added to that, Death Wish, while nowhere near a great film, is actually less tired than The Mechanic, possibly because it's a good deal sleazier, and possibly also because it's trying to be "about something". Bronson, for instance, is quite good in the scenes where he's actually asked to do something. When his formally bleeding-heart character arrives at the hospital, where his wife and daughter have been taken after being brutally assaulted by a trio of thugs, Bronson -- who would never be accused of being overly demonstrative -- plays Paul Kersey's impatient fear right down the line, so that I could imagine passing through a hospital waiting room and seeing a man behaving just like him, before the horrible news is finally delivered.
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But Death Wish is only lively for a bit, and once Bronson's character becomes a folk hero, sitting around his well-appointed apartment and sipping at what I'm guessing is Expensive Liquor, Bronson is given nothing more to play, and he obliges. Paul Kersey stopped being an actual character about halfway through the first of five Death Wish movies, and it's almost as if Bronson can sense it, and, being the seasoned Hollywood guy he is, resigns himself to it early.
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Not having seen anywhere near all of Bronson's 70s and 80s crime and suspense movies (and if the truth be known, I'm writing most of this from my gut), many of them put out by Cannon (well-known for this sort of thing, going even further into outsized action violence once they got their paws on Sylvester Stallone, who would go on to deliberately evoke the Cannon style in The Expendables) and many directed by Hollywood veteran J. Lee Thompson, my instinct tells me that the nadir of this stuff, and maybe of Bronson's career, is Messenger of Death. Centering around a blood feud between two Mormon clans, of all things, Messenger of Death opens with the massacre of a family, women and children, which brings in Bronson's Garrett Smith, a Denver crime reporter. He sniffs out the truth, after a while, and the true villains turn out to not have Mormonism as their motives but rather water rights, and the rural setting of most of the film shifts to a richer peoples' party for the climax. Odd as its story is, the film is pretty rote for the most part, but what really matters is that I don't think I've ever seen a film more bored with itself than Messenger of Death. And that boredom is contagious. Made in 1988, the film features a more avuncular Bronson than you get in his 70s films, but there isn't a single moment in the whole film that isn't part of the plot. It just relentlessly moves forward, which might be good if not for the fact that the relentlessness comes from an apparent desire to just get the damn thing in the can. Of course, this leaves Bronson in as big a lurch as you'll ever see a good actor inhabit. He is, quite literally, not required to act at all. He's needed because he possesses Charles Bronson's face, and because somebody needs to say all the words in the right order.
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In 1971, Charles Bronson won a special Golden Globe for "World Film Favorite - Male" (an honor, of sorts, he shared with Sean Connery). His American stardom would follow, and the basis for this award was his overseas success. In 1972, The Mechanic began the real forward momentum of his career, and yet Bronson's best films were all behind him at that point. It wasn't all bad from that point on: as I say, I like parts of Death Wish, and Mr. Majestyk is nothing to sneeze at, for example. In 1991, Sean Penn cast Bronson in the role of patriarch of a troubled family in Penn's debut film as a director, The Indian Runner. It's been a while, but as I remember it Bronson is quite good, but the role is very small, as the character takes himself out early on. Bronson's career after this would include the fifth Death Wish movie, and a lot of TV.
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The point of all this isn't to rag on Bronson. I like him. I'll watch him in anything, really, because my God what a mug he had, and what a presence. But running parallel to the high-art young American upstarts of the late 60s and 70s, there were a bunch of filmmakers and actors from an earlier era whose job it was to keep the factory churning, and who weren't getting plucked for prime gigs. Bronson, Winner and Thompson all fit into that. They had success, and long careers, but the films themselves are odd, galumphing, often lazy affairs (even incongruous, or so it seems to me: there's something about J. Lee Thompson directing both the original Cape Fear and the slasher film Happy Birthday to Me that feels off), carried largely by the simple truth that Charles Bronsons, like Lee Marvins and Robert Mitchums, don't exist anymore, and were rapidly dying off by the time of Death Wish and The Mechanic. Speaking of not existing, neither do these kinds of B-movies. Today's equivalent, such as the remake of The Mechanic, have a lot of money behind them, and the hopes of a lot of money coming back in. So these things, these 70s and 80s Bronson films, fill a hole, however clumsily. Even when they're not very good, who would resist watching one of them on a Sunday afternoon? I mean, one of them that isn't Messenger of Death.
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But there's something to the fact that I have never seen Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, starring Bronson and directed by Thompson, the team that brought us that dull-ass Mormon shoot-em-up, and yet desperately want to, right now, this minute. What this means, I don't know.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Quote to Ponder While I Search for Something to Write About

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"Wait! There, I feel once again that I shall really express myself, shall bring the words to bay. Alas, no one taught me this kind of chase, and the ancient inborn art of writing is long since forgotten -- forgotten are the days when it needed no schooling, but ignited and blazed like a forest fire -- today it seems just as incredible as the music that once used to be extracted from a monstrous pianoforte, music that would nimbly ripple or suddenly hack the world into great, gleaming blocks -- I myself picture all this so clearly, but you are not I, and therein lies the irreparable calamity. Not knowing how to write, but sensing with my criminal intuition how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor's sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbor and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence; while I sense the nature of this kind of word propinquity, I am nevertheless unable to achieve it, yet that is what is indispensable to me for my task, a task of not now and not here. Not here!"

- Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Quizmaster Quatre

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So Dennis Cozzalio put up one of those quizzes again, and since everybody else has already done it but me, I figured now the time was ripe for me to step in and show all you hosers how we take quizzes 'round these parts. With pictures.

1) Best Movie of 2010
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Carlos.
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2) Second-favorite Roman Polanski Movie
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Chinatown. The more I see it, the more I realize that Rosemary's Baby really is just about flawless, and certain things -- such as Cassavetes' performance -- just get better and better as the years go on. Second best between Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby is kind of a silly thing to try to figure out, though.
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3) Jason Statham or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
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Oh, don't make me choose! Okay, Statham, because I have liked a few of his movies. The Bank Job, The Expendables, and so on. Not Crank, though. I do not literally wish death on Neveldine and Taylor, but I certainly do figuratively wish death on them.
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4) Favorite movie that could be classified as a genre hybrid
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Ah, why is this one so hard!! All I can think of are things like Event Horizon, which are like horror movies but in space! And on that same note, I'd rather not choose something as easy as Alien.
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While neither is my favorite, I will put in a good word for Eastwood's two "supernatural" Westerns, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider -- there aren't enough strange Westerns out there, and Eastwood, the classicist, has made two.
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5) How important is foreknowledge of a film’s production history? Should it factor into one’s reaction to a film?
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It's not remotely important. It can be interesting, but it's meaningless when it comes to how the film effects me. I'm sick of people who hate Spielberg trying to take Jaws away from him by saying "You know, he wanted to show the shark a lot more!" Yeah, well, I want to punch your teeth out; I should still get credit for not doing so.
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6) William Powell & Myrna Loy or Cary Grant & Irene Dunne
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I've decided to not actually admit to any shortcomings in this particular quiz, because it's become too much an embarrassment -- practically its own feature -- over the years. So I'm going to answer this question by simply saying that I really like Cary Grant a whole lot.
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7) Best Actor of 2010
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Based on what I've seen, Edgar Ramirez.
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8) Most important lesson learned from the past decade of watching movies
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That while I may be an ass man, everybody who makes movies is super into boobs.
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9) Last movie seen (DVD/Blu-ray/theater)
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DVD was The Return of Doctor X, which was a delight in many ways. Bogart's one horror film and it took me until just last night to finally watch it, but Bogart sure did the job asked of him, and it would have been really interesting to see more in this genre from him. Although, I have a vague memory of reading something about him not much liking this kind of film, so I guess it wasn't to be, at least not once he became a star.
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In the theater it was True Grit. I've mentioned this film around here before.
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10) Most appropriate punishment for director Tom Six
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You want me to say that I think he should be forced to eat shit out of somebody's ass, don't you? Well, I'm not going to do it.
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11) Best under-the-radar movie almost no one else has had the chance to see
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I never see movies before anyone else has had a chance to see them.
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12) Sheree North or Angie Dickinson
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Angie Dickinson. She has movies like Rio Bravo in her past, and plus she looks like she...like she knows how to do...things.
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13) Favorite nakedly autobiographical movie
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Fitzcarraldo. Or Stardust Memories.
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14) Movie which best evokes a specific real-life place
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It would have to be one I've been to, yes? Otherwise, how would I know? And it has been my misfortune, I guess, to never really see any of the places I've lived or visited depicted on screen in a way that fully evoked my own experiences. Certainly, the big city I know best, Washington, DC, is always depicted as That Place That Has the Washington Monument In It, and little else of color or interest is given any time. However, the other night I was watching Machete, and a couple of times I thought, "Hey, that looks like Austin." And it was!
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15) Best Director
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Olivier Assayas. I'm sounding like a broken record here, but Carlos defeats all comers.
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16) Second-favorite Farrelly Brothers Movie
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I'm not sure I have a first-favorite Farrelly brothers movie. By and large, I think their stuff is...fine. I used to hate There's Something About Mary because the heaping piles of adulation dumped before it reaked pretty badly, but I've come around to being able to appreciate the little things -- Matt Dillon, Ben Stiller saying "He told me it was against the law" -- but it's still not my idea of a great comedy, or a great anything. I tend to enjoy their forgotten films, like Shallow Hal and Stuck on You, a bit more than the ones people ever bother talking about, but even then I'm forced to wade through vestigial tales and Cher in order to get to the stuff I like. Which, at this late date, I'm having trouble remembering. But whatever, Stuck on You, I guess.
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17) Favorite holiday movie
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I do wish my answer was more interesting, but A Christmas Story is the one true answer. It was a staple in my childhood, and to this day something seems amiss if I don't see at least half the film every Christmas. I love the setting, a suburb in the 1940s, and the sense of detail -- my dad grew up back then, and that film was like going home for him, at least in some small ways -- and, of course, Darren McGavin, who worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oil or clay.
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To give you some idea of the hold this film has on my family, for Christmas one of my brothers bought another one of my brothers a Red Ryder BB gun (75th anniversary edition), and much time was spent plunking cans that night, I can tell you. The absence of a compass in the stock or a thing which tells time was but a passing disappointment.
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18) Best Actress
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Natalie Portman.
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19) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?
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Svenson as Buford Pusser -- I haven't seen Walking Tall in a long time, but by God that ending was like a kick in the teeth -- but Baker for Mitchell (Mitchell!), and for looking like Hoyt Axton's no-good brother.
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20) Of those notable figures in the world of the movies who died in 2011, name the one you’ll miss the most
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Scrolling through a few morbid lists, I'm struck again by two: Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's extraordinary editor, and one of my favorite charactor actors, Maury Chaykin. Chaykin's absence will be more palpable -- I recently found myself picturing him as a character in a book I'm reading -- and, as is often the case, he was never appreciated to the degree he deserved, which makes it worse. Menke's genius was more subliminal, and as she worked almost exclusively with Tarantino it will be hard to gauge her loss until he makes another film. But of course that's selfish reasoning, and both she and Chaykin are gone too soon, no matter what they did for a day job.
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21) Think of a movie with a notable musical score and describe what it might feel like without that accompaniment.
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Without Bill Conti's score, The Right Stuff would feel cold and unhappy and off-putting. With it, my heart pounds every time.
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22) Best Screenplay
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Is it really going to be Carlos again?? I think it is!!
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23) Movie You Feel Most Evangelistic About Right Now
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"Evangelical" implies, to me, a film that nobody else is particularly eager to back, at least not with my level of fervor. So with that in mind, my answer is "I don't know." I'm not feeling terribly evangelical at the moment, I guess, although of the films of 2010 the one I feel most deserves a rigorous defense against the naysayers is Shutter Island.
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24) Worst/funniest movie accent ever
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Marlene Dietrich's Cockney accent in Witness for the Prosecution. She's not playing a Cockney, but she's supposed to be a good enough mimic that she completely fools Charles Laughton. And it's the most absurd thing I've ever heard. She was like a Klingon who'd taken some ESL classes.
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25) Best Cinematography
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True Grit.
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26) Olivia Wilde or Gemma Arterton
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27) Name the three best movies you saw for the first time in 2010 (Thanks, Larry!)
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Yikes! It's times like this that I wish I kept records of this kind of thing! Which, I think it goes without saying now, I don't! But I'm pretty sure I saw Vincente Minelli's Some Came Running for the first time this year, as well as Fuller's White Dog. Oh, and Nightmare Alley! Wow, thank God I have a movie blog so that I can check such things.
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28) Best romantic movie couple of 2010
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My boot and your ass!
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29) Favorite shock/surprise ending
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Of all time, you mean? I don't know, man -- I realized in the last year that I don't really like those kinds of endings as much as I used to, as much as I might like the films to which they're attached. But I guess David Mamet's Homicide, if that even counts. I just love the dawning sense that everything he did was for nothing.
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30) Best cinematic reason to have stayed home and read a book in 2010
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Bradley Cooper. It's not like the guy was everywhere, but at some point while watching The A-Team, I realized, very quietly and without fanfare, that I really hate that motherfucker.
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31) Movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only _______________
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If they'd only let some ambition into horror films. I'm tired of "That was actually pretty good" being the most enthusiastic reaction I can hope to have.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Restless

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I'm feeling particularly restless and uncreative and unthoughtful, and all sorts of other words that make sense but probably don't exist -- this should explain why not so much in the way of posts lately. It's aggrevating, to be honest, because I don't feel distant from the blog, like I don't care, but simply empty of things to say.
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Ah well, who cares. My loss is your gain, though, because ordinarily when I wrote a post, a post that includes pictures, I dictate what kind of pictures you're going to look at. But tonight, since I have nothing else to offer, I'm going to let you pick which picture, out of a choice of two, you'd rather gaze upon. So: would you like to look at this picture of Amy Adams from Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day:
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...or this picture of Ernest Borgnine from The Devil's Rain:

The choice is yours entirely. I make no judgments, and don't even care to know your selection. It's your life, and you must find happiness where available. But -- and I probably should have said this before -- you can only look at one of them. Make your choice, and then look at that picture, and only that picture. This isn't a charity.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Return of Capsule Reviews (Positive Edition)

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The Damned United (d. Tom Hooper) – Hooper’s new film The King’s Speech is currently angling its way towards some Oscars, or so people keep telling me, but his previous film, The Damned United, about the disastrous 44 days Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) spent as the manager of his one-time rival soccer team Leeds United, is sort of an Oscar-bait film in miniature. I don’t mean that as a knock, either, because The Damned United – based on a novel by David Peace, whose work also inspired the Red Riding Trilogy -- is hugely entertaining and satisfying. Sheen’s performance is one for the ages, all Yorkshire ego, brains and anger. In some interesting ways, this film is a sort of English version of The Social Network: smart fellow with a hidden store of arrogance gets snubbed and uses that experience to fuel not only his future success but also his disasters. Though I see I’ve already pretty much said this, Sheen’s work cannot be praised too highly, because while the film is a good one, and he’s surrounded by some prime supporting actors (Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham, and so forth), it’s Sheen’s hysterical and fascinating Brian Clough that elevates this film to the realm of the Endlessly Rewatchable. Michael Sheen, ├╝ber fucking alles!
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The Tingler (d. William Castle) – Please note the above image. Taken from Castle’s 1959 film The Tingler, it is one of the most striking images from horror movies from that era. The Tingler is probably nobody’s idea of the best of the genre, but almost any time it’s mentioned, the context is Castle’s ridiculous and ingenious gimmick of rigging the seats in the theaters that showed the film with little thingamajigs that would shock the viewer any time the titular creature made some sort of feeble gesture towards violence. But the film – about a scientist (Vincent Price) trying to isolate the tingle one feels in one’s spine when one is scared, ultimately discovering that it’s caused by a nasty-looking electric worm or whatever – is actually a good deal better than the gimmick (which, again, was awesome) would imply. Price gives a fine performance, seeming worldly and kind and natural throughout, but even better, or at least very different, is Philip Coolidge, who plays a movie theater manager whose deaf-mute wife you can see above. His entrance into the film, and ultimate motives, take on different meanings as you go along, but Coolidge never plays the guy as anything other than an aw-shucks, good neighbor sort. It’s kind of weird, actually. As is pretty much the whole film, and right smack in the middle is that bloody bathtub sequence, which is powerful, disturbing stuff created by Castle as a kind of sub-gimmick, a warm up to the literal shocks he had in store. You don’t see showmen like that anymore.
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Rampage (d. William Friedkin) – A film I’d very much like to see on DVD is this one, Friedkin’s low-budget 1987 adaptation of William P. Wood’s thriller about a Richard Chase-like serial killer (a quite unnerving Alex McArthur), whose murders are both horrifying and repulsive, and who is finally brought down by the police and put on trial. The film’s main character is the prosecutor, played by Michael Biehn, who makes the counter-intuitive journey (for Hollywood, anyway) from being anti-death penalty to pro. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Rampage, and it wouldn’t shock me to learn that Friedkin stacks the deck in favor of Biehn’s ultimate conversion, and in any case my own views on the subject are nowhere near as confident as they were when I first saw the film. However, there’s something very powerful about the direct, cheap-paperback way in which Friedkin approaches the material, not to mention bracing about an American film not walking the expected path on a controversial topic. Not that any of that matters so much, really, because the film also features, apart from the good work done by McArthur and Biehn, Royce D. Applegate as a man whose entire family, save his son, were slaughtered by the killer, and Friedkin actually follows this man and his boy in the aftermath as they try to get away from it, leave everything, including the horror and anger. This section of the film doesn’t take up a hell of a lot of screen time, but almost no other film would include it at all. Add to that a typically excellent, yet forgotten, score by Ennio Morricone, and yeah, like I said, I really wish this was on DVD.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Don't Get Around Much Anymore

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Oh, I'm just joking! Sure I get around! I get around plenty! It's just that with the Christmas and the New Year -- happy New Year, by the way -- I haven't been on-line too much. I've left at least one post hanging as a draft, but otherwise I haven't actually watched all that many new films, or even old films, about which I could write. Okay, I did see The Kids Are All Right, and I liked it too much to be able to use my pre-planned joke (something about my reaction to it being right there in the title), but not enough to think about too long afterwards. And I saw the Disney animation documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which was equal parts fascinating -- Roy Disney, I know you've since passed on yourself, but you were a dick at Frank Wells's memorial service -- and frustrating, in the latter case mostly because of the way it was made, and the related fact that it relied heavily on narration. Also, though, I appreciated the mini-tribute to Howard Ashman embedded within the film, because that guy was a genius.
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But not much else to talk about right now, I'm afraid. This is just a post to let you all know I'm still here, and the blog-wheels should begin turning again at full speed pretty soon. And anyway, today we lost Anne Francis and Pete Postlethwaite. A moment of silence is in order.

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