Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sorry about the absence of anything like a "blog post" lately. But things have been, you know, whatever. Anyhow, I'm back with this, my annual list of The Best Books I Read This Year. As always, these books more likely than not were originally published in years other than 2016 (although there are three 2016 books this time around, which may be some kind of record). Of all the books I read this year, of whatever type and of whatever vintage, these are my favorites. No particular order, except for the last two, which are my two favorites of the year.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley - This thriller was something of a sensation in the UK, but somewhat less so here. Who can say why, though its fairly reserved pace might have something to do with it. Hurley's story is about a church's annual trip to a gray and windswept UK island nicknamed the Loney. The previous year, something happened on that trip which haunted the then parish priest until his death. The new priest, rather less strict and more easy-going than his late predecessor, wants this year's trip to be somewhere more light-hearted, but he bows to pressure, and off to the Loney they go. While there, the mystery of the island is solved, in a manner of speaking, and the truth is genuinely disturbing.

For some reason, I was resistant to The Loney at first, but it wasn't long before Hurley's simmering, moody novel got hold of me. Previously, he'd published two collections of short fiction, which I'll be looking into soon.

Herovit's World by Barry N. Malzberg - One of at least two novels by deeply respected yet nevertheless cult science fiction writer Malzberg in which his subject, or target, is science fiction itself (for the record, the other one is Galaxies).  Published in 1973, when SF was still in the throes of its New Wave boom, Malzberg's short novel is about Herovit, an SF writer whose heyday was several years earlier, and who now barely survives regurgitating what he and other Golden Age writers had already hammered to death before the 60s had even begun. As his marriage fails, and a smugly comfortable sell-out compatriot insists that Herovit is incapable of more than what he's doing now, Herovit begins to break down. Not so much a science fiction novel as a feverish psychodrama, Herovit's World is one of the most damning genre examinations ever written.

Silence by Shusaku Endo - A novel of such intense moral and spiritual complexity that I hardly know what to say about it in this space, Endo's 17th Century-set classic is about two Portuguese Catholic missionaries who travel undercover to Japan to give comfort to persecuted Japanese Catholics, and to find Father Ferreira, another missionary who, it's been said, denounced his faith under torture by the Japanese authorities. Silence is a novel of great brutality, the suffering of the innocent is relentless. How is it possible to hold onto one's faith when your cries of mercy are met with silence? This, of course, is the central question, not just of the novel but of religious faith, and Endo -- himself a Catholic -- attacks it with a clarity, and a determination to not fall for a simplified version of either the question or the answer, that is pretty much unheard of now.

Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns - For what I'm pretty sure is the fourth year in a row, Comyns has made this list (a status much desired by deceased British writers all over). Comyns's fiction is occasionally bizarre (see The Vet's Daughter for example), but other times, as in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr. Fox, it depicts the simple complexities faced by characters who are struggling through the days, weeks, months, and years of their lives. Here, Caroline Seymour, a young single mother (her husband decided one day to leave) meets and sort of befriends a shady businessman named Mr. Fox. They soon decide, for the sake of financial expediency, to live together (platonically), and for several years their lives intertwine and separate: Mr. Fox goes back to London while Caroline takes a demeaning job as a live-in housekeeper for a rude, demanding woman and her brat of a daughter; Caroline moves back in with Mr. Fox when he buys a building and becomes a landlord (though much of the actual work is done by Caroline). Mr. Fox devises a scheme to buy used pianos and sell them for a profit. Much of this goes on during World War II, so in the midst of this they have to worry about German bombing raids.

Mr. Fox was Comyns's penultimate novel, but I could detect no slip in her talents. If anything, while I don't consider this her best, necessarily, her skills here are as fine-tuned as they ever were. The humor and the tragedy are delivered in the same tone, and this story about domestic tension and the dramas of employment, somehow moves at a headlong pace. And regarding that domestic tension, most of that comes from how Caroline views Mr. Fox, how the reader views him, how the reader is meant to view him, and how we take it all by the end. It's handled exquisitely, because the reader never sees it being handled.

Dispatches by Michael Herr - Herr's book, one of the seminal pieces of 20th Century war journalism, has sort of had everything said about it that could possibly be said at this point. All I can tell you is that I've never felt the ungodly stress and fear of the Vietnam War, to the extent that only reading about it can make me feel anything of the sort, as I felt within the first ten pages of Dispatches. It's like you're breathing it in, while wondering how any of the men you're reading about, journalists as well as soldiers, could have ever survived twenty minutes, let alone months and years. This book has an incredible, undeniable texture to it. Even if it was just spoken words, I'd still feel like I could hold it in my hands.

Cigarettes by Harry Mathews - Considered by more than a few people to be Harry Mathews's masterpiece, my expectation was that Cigarettes would be a stylistically dense piece that, however rewarding, I would have to pull myself through. And indeed it is dense, but not in terms of language, which is quite straightforward. Where Cigarettes is dense, and maybe the word here is rich, is in its incidents and characters, the former of which span decades (and slip in and out of the worlds of finance, horse ownership, and art, with sex being the main thread connecting them all) as do some of the latter, who cross paths with each other, or are related to each other, or sleep with or betray or steal from each other. Though it could be described as a class satire, which I suppose it can't not be on some level, the novel is just too unusual to be merely that. The story itself is rambunctious, but somehow in the telling of it, Mathews himself refuses to be, which lends to the novel an air of biography. Which is perhaps the key to the satire.

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell - This is how Ruth Rendell begins this, one of her typically skin-crawling novel about a psychopath who mixes his life with those of naive, unsuspecting, every-day nitwits:

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions. Scorpians are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers. The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card in the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius. He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

If that's not the kind of writing you're looking for, then buzz off, friend! Like Barbara Comyns, Ruth Rendell's talent is one that is so expected that it tends to be taken for granted. In truth, we didn't know how good we had it.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze - My experience with crime fiction this year has mostly been one of reading very bad books by good writers. It's been disheartening, but there have been a few exceptions, the most striking of which is this one. I wrote about it here.

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton - In this novel, originally published in 1930, a young man with no prospects named James Wrexham answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to catalogue the library of one Jonathan Scrivener, while Scrivener is out of the country. Wrexham gets the job for reasons he can't quite figure out and discovers that Scrivener has already left the country so the two can't meet before Wrexham begins work. Furthermore, he will be living in Scrivener's opulent apartment, and his pay will be extremely generous. Over the course of the next few months, Wrexham will meet several of Scrivener's friends, none of whom knew Scrivener was leaving the country, and none of whom have known the strange man very long. Wrexham is hoping they can tell him something about Scrivener, and Scrivener's friends are hoping Wrexham can do the same.

A fascinating mystery in which much of the evidence gathered is done so through conversation or by making assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true, I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a singular book, a sort of metaphysical suspense novel about the way people choose to live, and whether or not that was ever really a choice.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - For a long time, I counted this as the Philip Roth Novel I Wanted To Read The Most, and so I did. As you may know, this one's fairly notorious, even infamous, for its graphic and depraved (I feel pretty confident this is the right word for some of the stuff that goes on here) sexual content. Mentioned less often is the emotional wallop that stuff carries when read in context. The novel's about an aging puppeteer named Mickey Sabbath who has betrayed every woman he's ever been with, ever married, and as the novel opens he's become sexually obsessed with his latest mistress, also married, and who dies of cancer. This sends Mickey on an aimless, amoral, rather disgusting journey that left me pitying and hating him in...well, I won't say "in equal measure" because that would be a lie. Anyway, the last line of the novel says everything, and there's a sequence about halfway through where the reader is made to jump back and forth between a footnoted phone sex conversation between Sabbath and his mistress, and, on the top half of the page, a long passage about Sabbath's wife, and the life he's left her to live. Sort of takes the heat out of the phone sex, I'll tell you that.

The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman - "Griselda de Reptonville did not know what love was until she joined one of Mrs Hatch's famous house parties at Beams, and there met Leander." So begins the great Robert Aickman's only full length novel (he also wrote a novella called The Model). As far as I'm concerned, Aickman is the greatest horror writer the 20th Century-plus ever produced, so it's somewhat curious, and therefore interesting, that his longest piece of fiction isn't horror at all. Of course, by "at all" I mean "mostly not"-- still, though, there's a ghost, and sinister goings-on in cemeteries. Otherwise, though, The Late Breakfasters is a wonderful, if sometimes deeply off-kilter, English Country Estate novel, full of the kind of sly humor and devastating characterizations you'd expect from the best of that form. Until, you know, the action leaves the country estate, and more than half of the damn thing becomes a different kind of society novel. With further strangeness to come.

"Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters." I found nothing frivolous about The Late Breakfasters myself, but I did find that the mystery of Robert Aickman, for me, had deepened.

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt - Offutt's 2016 memoir has at its deeply fascinating center Andrew J. Offutt, Chris's father and one-time mainstream science fiction writer, turned, after a while, full-time pornographer. What's incredible are the details: that his father wrote his pornographic novels openly, regardless of his many pseudonyms, that his wife typed all his many hundreds of manuscripts, that he talked openly around the house about his work in porn, that he was at the same time a serious writer, or anyway considered himself to be (he had a short story published in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Again, Dangerous Visions), that he gave up a lucrative, if hated, career in insurance in order to write pornography full-time, and that he wrote it all from a house in Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Clearly not a good man in the, er, traditional sense, Andrew J. Offutt (who died in 2013) had an enormous impact on his family, not least on Chris, his writer son, whose task upon his father's death, was to dig through and catalogue the thousands upon thousands of pages his dad had produced over the decades. In doing so, he forges a new relationship with his dad as a fellow writer, something that never happened while he was alive. Chris Offutt becomes Andrew Offutt's most insightful, and possibly most generous, critic, while relating stories of family and childhood that are sometimes funny, but generally awful, humiliating, terrifying. My Father, the Pornographer ends with a revelation that I regarded with horror, but which Chris tries to make the best of. It leaves Andrew Offutt as a figure I'm glad I never met, but also as a man I can't help but pity.

The Difference by Charles Willeford - The best way to describe this, crime writer Willeford's lone Western, is that it is exactly the kind of Western you'd expect Willeford to write. This is a compliment. Telling the story of Johnny Shaw, a young man determined to exact revenge on a rich land baron and his sons (and who, when we meet him, has already killed one of them and is on the run) for taking the land Shaw thought was his. Initially portrayed a sympathetic kid with good reason to be outraged, eventually, in classic Willeford style, Shaw is proved to be a pure sociopath. If the men he's feuding with are also villainous, they perhaps at least have human blood in their veins. Shaw doesn't. He doesn't even rise to the level of snake.

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald - Labeled a memoir but in fact a novel, Norm Macdonald's Based on a True Story may be the best book ever written by a stand-up comic. Loosely structured around Macdonald's (the character) iffy plan to gamble and win big in Vegas and taking the form of a road novel, Macdonald (the writer and comedian) has used the basic facts of his life to build a hilarious, dead-pan alternate universe in which, for example, yes, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but he achieved this primarily by taking advantage of Lorne Michaels's morphine addiction. But this is not at all a linear tale, and Macdonald digresses constantly, talking about his friends in show business (he is sincere and heartfelt when talking about Chris Farley), and dropping the occasional bombshell. For instance, it turns out that, though he was a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield was plagued his whole life by the fact that no one ever gave him any respect. Macdonald writes about being told once by Dangerfield that a hooker once said to him "Not tonight, I have a headache." Then Macdonald asks "Can you imagine hearing something like that from a prostitute?"

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe - Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2016 is this one, my first by Nobel laureate Oe. About a writer with an autistic son, much like Oe, whose ambition is to write a book of guidance and definitions for autistic children. Weaved into this is the writer's, and one presumes Oe's, relationship with the poetry of William Blake, whose enormously complicated philosophy, language, and spirituality inspire the writer, and will possibly guide him through his difficult task. Present also is the writer's memories of another writer he once knew, referred to only as M in this book but who is clearly meant to be Yukio Mishima (whom Oe himself knew, and whom Oe had many issues with). And so on. It's both easy and more than likely a mistake to regard Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! as a piece of fictionalized autobiography, but even if it is exactly that, it's no less rich for the fact. I read this back in February, and it still pops into my head from time to time.

Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore - Beginning with a fifty-page story of deceit and murder among what I guess you'd have to call cavemen, written in a syntactically fractured language that, well, takes some getting used to, this book, comic book writer Moore's first novel (his second, the 1,300 page Jerusalem, came out this year. I'll get to it) is a series of short stories that are connected by theme and imagery, and occasional references to what we've seen before, but more than any of those they're connected by geography. Spanning thousands of years (the last story takes place in 1996, the year the novel was published), the whole novel takes place in the stretch of land that would become, and now is, Northampton, where Moore has lived his entire life (and where Jerusalem is also set, by the way). As the title suggests, Voice of the Fire is infernal and apocalyptic, and the imagery is at times terrifying. Individual chapters could be lifted out and work as historical horror stories. It's quite an unnerving piece of work.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - As it happens, earlier today I watched, for the first time, Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice, which, in simplified terms, is about a group of people living, or visiting, a Swedish country house when the news breaks that a nuclear war is about to begin. Transplant that basic idea (also remove the nuclear weapons and make the danger something closer to the Apocalypse) to a village in the United States and you have The Sundial, Shirley Jackson's fourth novel, from 1958. Another major difference (there are quite a few others, of course) is that of tone: while The Sacrifice is somber (if also occasionally absurdist and fantastical), The Sundial is actually closer to The Late Breakfasters -- sardonic, cutting, funny. If anything, Jackson is more acidic in portraying her characters than Aickman, but then again, Jackson's characters are, by and large, more awful. In essence, The Sundial is about a bunch of passive-aggressive shits waiting for the world to end, an event they're sure they're going to survive. If that doesn't sound like a good book, I don't know what does.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey by Brian Moore - It seems like every year, I read at least one novel about a down-on-his-luck family man trying to find a job so he can support his family, but constantly getting in his own way. Obviously some of these are better than others. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is possibly the best one I've ever read, and maybe the best one it is possible to write. About an Irishman, Ginger Coffey, who moves with his wife and young daughter to Canada, only to find the job prospects that led him there collapsing almost instantly. When I learned early on that the money he'd set aside for the trip back home to Ireland, should Canada not work out, and which Ginger's wife Veronica believed was never in danger, had been almost completely spent, and Ginger still jobless, I think I caught my breath. Ginger has some small victories here and there, and he's not without ambition (he wants to become a reporter), but whatever ground he gains he quickly loses, or gives away, and soon enough he's drinking way too much, there's no ounce of happiness at home, and your heart just breaks. In the early stages of the novel, Ginger believes, perhaps even correctly, that his one friend in the world is a young boy who lives upstairs, who likes to play games with Ginger. How that relationship ends just about destroyed me. And then the ending of this novel actually made my eyes well up. Books never make me cry. Except this one.

Friday, December 9, 2016

You Just Kinda Wasted My Precious Time

Don't Think Twice (d. Mike Birbiglia) - Back in 2012, when writer-director-comedian Mike Birbiglia released his first film, Sleepwalk With Me, which was I think the fourteenth iteration of his collection of stories about how he is a sleepwalker and is a comedian and cheated on his girlfriend, I was not unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd enjoyed what I'd heard of his one-man-show version of the piece, and while the existence of the film did make me wonder just how dead one horse could possibly be, I wasn't actively offended. Then again, that film did do the job of blotting out Birbiglia's name from my wife's memory, theretofore a burgeoning fan, and it did make me question whether or not, as the "film" "played out" before me, I had actually been witness to anything at all. Was I dreaming? Was I, in fact, the real somnambulist?

In subsequent years, Birbiglia's cult/arthouse star has risen, due to his touring, and hitching that star to fucking Ira Glass of all people, such that his new film as the writer, director, and co-star, Don't Think Twice, arrived as kind of an event, I guess. Or it seemed that way because a lot of people liked it. And even though, as Don't Think Twice collected one hosanna after another, Birbiglia decided to present himself on social media as a latter-day John Cassavetes, savior of independent cinema -- a disingenuous bit of play-acting that is utterly noxious in its Swanbergian aspect -- I was, once again, willing to see what was what. The premise certainly intrigued: there's this improv troupe called The Commune, working out of New York City. The struggling six members -- Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Birbiglia -- spend all their time together, work demoralizing day jobs (though Sagher's family is rich), and wait for another chance at a big break. Which comes along in the form of being looked at by scouts from Weekend Live, that famous sketch show. Two of them actually get auditions, and one of them, Key's Jack Mercer, lands the gig. Meanwhile, the troupe's theater space is shuttering, and what will become of them?

Well, who gives a fuck? The first problem with Don't Think Twice is that it is never funny. It is never funny. Even if Birbiglia's goal is find the pain in comedy, he wants the audience to embrace the comedy of, I don't know, pain? as well. Yet The Commune is murderously unfunny, not only on-stage but off. The film is never more painful than when Birbiglia is trying to depict how a bunch of comedian friends interact with each other, how they're always joking and laughing, life is the ultimate improv really, etc. What this consists of, for example, is one of the troupe, Gethard, showing up to their apartment having missed that night's show. He says "I'm sorry" and the other five start teasing him. What form does this comedic teasing take? All of them say "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" and make clownishly sad faces. In fact, a lot of the troupe's inside jokes consist of gibberish, or repeated words and mugging faces. I'm actually forced to wonder if Birbiglia has any friends. I guess he probably does, but if he doesn't, I get it.

And it's not like he saves the day with his filmmaking. As a piece of direction, Don't Think Twice might be a step up from Sleepwalk With Me, but only because Birbiglia the actor often cedes the floor to better actors than he (though check him out at the end in a scene where he's supposed to be furiously aggressive -- you'll not be reminded of Michael Shannon, let's say, or of anger, the emotion) and because technically I suppose he, Birbiglia, the director, is trying something. The problem is that all he's trying to do, outside of some weird close-ups (check out the scene between Gethard and his character's father outside a club) that achieve an effect that I do not believe was desired (that effect, incidentally, is one that suggests that all Birbiglia could think at the time was that sometimes close-ups are used in movies) is be and look and feel like every other "poignant" indie hand-held-camera DVD-sinkhole-bound sleepy blink of a goddamn movie of which we get upwards of fifty-some titles a year.

I mean, it's not like Birbiglia cares. If you don't believe me, watch the movie, and look for a scene late in the proceedings, featuring Micucci, Sagher, and Gethard. They're backstage (talking about the importance of improv comedy, in case you were wondering), and Sagher hands Gethard a framed picture. When the camera cuts to Gethard holding the picture, talking about what it makes him think about and feel and so on, the back of the frame is facing the camera. He's holding the picture upside down.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Very Positive November Capsule Reviews

These three capsule reviews are very positive!

One-Eyed Jacks (d. Marlon Brando) - I'm not entirely sure when I first saw One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's singular Western, his one and only film as a director, but I was probably just old enough to appreciate it. The problem has since become that for many, many years it's only official home video release was on VHS. Due to what I have to assume are all sorts of reasons, the rights to the film subsequently fell into the public domain, which means that very few cared about it. But the drive to save, preserve, and restore films of the classic era -- from the silents to I'd have to guess the 60s -- has ramped up in intensity over the last decade or so, and with the help of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as is the specific case here, the people doing the actual hands-on work have been able to pull many films back from the precipice. Including, I think I hardly need say, Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, which as of yesterday is out on fucking Blu-ray, from fucking Criterion. Forgive me, but I have been waiting a long time for this.

And watching the film for the first time since the VHS era has been, let's say, rewarding, because while I used to think One-Eyed Jacks was that good, it turns out it's actually this good. In plot terms, this is a fairly basic Western revenge story (based on a novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider which itself was inspired by the legend of Billy the Kid, a legend that has no actual bearing on this movie, but anyhow, please ignore me), what ends up happening in One-Eyed Jacks is Brando uses basic genre ideas to, not create, but insist on the power of formulaic myths. That's a compliment. The plot's this: Rio (Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bank robbers. After a job with partner Woody Strode, who lasts a few minutes, they get into a serious bind, and the plan is, Dad takes off with the money to buy some a horse to replace the one Rio lost and come back so the two old friends can flee the law together. But for a variety of reasons, Dad doesn't come back, and Rio goes to prison. Then, with new friend Modesto (Larry Duran), Rio escapes from prison, with the single goal of tracking Dad down and killing him. He finds Dad because a couple of bank-robbers led by Ben Johnson want the help of the legendary Rio, and know that he's been asking around about the target of his revenge.

And so one thing leads to another. It's not too very long into the 140-minute film that Brando and Malden meet up again as hunter and prey, and in a scene where Brando, who lies to Malden about what he's been up to for the last five years, shares a glass of tequila with the man who left him behind, but who might actually buy into Brando's "you and me are okay" spiel, it occurred to me that pure cinema is and was achieved when Marlon Brando and Karl Malden were in a scene, any scene, together. Furthermore, later, Karl Malden, during a suspenseful chunk of that One-Eyed Jacks last third, rides along a ridge above a gorgeous VistaVision crashing waves, and it's as languorously beautiful and slow a moment during a period of rather heightened suspense as I can imagine. In an extra on the Criterion disc, Scorsese says Brando waited for those waves a long time. And it works, don't it? Most importantly, though, Brando, as Rio, plays the film hero as a figure of massive physical menace. I'm not sure Brando is as in love with Rio's drive for revenge -- in the face of other things the film is offering to him, anyway -- as, well, I was, and those doubts, my doubts, set in when I saw how ruthlessly Brando was playing it. He has moments when he's past reason, is on the edge of violence. In every instance, I hated -- and I suspect you do or will, too -- the men he's about to hand back a handful of their own brains. This doesn't mean Brando's Rio isn't unnerving in his heroism. Which should not suggest to you that he's not the hero.

Café Society (d. Woody Allen) - So it's fair to say, I guess, that Woody Allen's career since, arguably Bullets Over Broadway in 1994, has been the most contentious period in his nearly fifty years as a filmmaker (it would be exactly fifty if I was counting What's Up, Tiger Lily?, a film I like but which I can't pretend is the work of a director). Since then, some films, like Sweet and Lowdown and Midnight in Paris, have been widely embraced, while others have had at least the good fortune to be divisive, like Deconstructing Harry and Melinda and Melinda, while many others -- Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Whatever Works, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion -- are basically despised. I myself, a defender of some of the unbeloved Allen films of this period (I like Scoop and think Cassandra's Dream is pretty danged good), made it only thirty minutes into Whatever Works. But I do think, overall, his films since 1994 have been, on average, better than popular opinion would indicate (though even the positive reactions can get iffy: in my view, relatively appreciated entries like Match Point or Blue Jasmine are marginal. It's possible aesthetic opinions are very personal, who among us can say?). We may never know why this has happened.

In any case, as I've said, I think there's lots to admire in this stretch of films, and in fact last year, Allen's Irrational Man, one of his "murder" films (a clutch of movies that I find among his most intriguing) played for me as a deeply clumsy yet fascinating moral investigation. Most people hated it because, from what I could see, they badly misunderstood it. Still, though: clumsy but fascinating is one thing -- what was Allen's last great film? As it happens, I have the answer: 2016's Café Society is the best thing Allen has not only written, but directed, in I don't even know how long. A 1930s Hollywood-set love-triangle that features Jesse Eisenberg as an initially naive (but not entirely likable, as an early sketch-like scene between him and a prostitute played by Anna Camp, indicates) young man trying to find his way into the movie business through his hugely successful producer uncle (Steve Carrell), Café Society suggests, quite strongly, that Allen, who has, it must be said, long ago abandoned any claim to being well-acquainted with modern society (I do not consider this an unforgivable artistic crime) should focus now on period pieces.

It's also one of his better-plotted films in a long time, as well. The center of the love triangle is Kristen Stewart, Carrell's assistant with whom he is cheating on his wife, and with whom Eisenberg falls in love. There's also a gangster subplot involving another of Eisenberg's uncles (one of the great ancillary pleasures of Café Society is its occasional shifts back to Eisenberg's blue collar and/or gangster Jewish family in New York), which begins as a lark but transforms into something else. While remaining within the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, there are a couple moments of surprisingly blunt violence, which in turn help to turn Café Society into something resembling a mix between Crimes and Misdemeanors and Purple Rose of Cairo. On some level, that latter film is the more interesting link (if I do say so myself) to this new film as it's been a very long time since Allen has been able to connect to the kind of average human life depicted there. Cairo and Radio Days are his masterpieces in this respect, and he's not too far off it in Blue Jasmine, in all fairness. But with Café Society, which is mostly concerned with the high-life of Hollywood, manages to quietly show the tension between these different sorts of lives. Which is largely what Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are also about, while also being utterly gripping and visually beautiful, entertaining movies. As is Café Society. When you make as many movies as Woody Allen, the argument goes, you're not going to be able to tend to each work as closely as you should. But apparently, sometimes you can manage it.

Phenomena (d. Dario Argento) - Though a long-time Argento skeptic -- I love Suspiria, was bored sideways by Opera, have perhaps not chosen entirely wisely when selecting the other half-dozen-or-so Argentos I've seen -- I nevertheless have been genuinely and sincerely excited to see this one, from 1985, for a very long time. The problem has always been that for many years its availability as a home video item has been dicey, and those VHS and DVD releases it's enjoyed have not, I'd gathered as I kept my eye on things, told the full story of Phenomena. A film whose reputation, at least among fans and critics interested in horror, is that of a film which is utterly sui generis, thoroughly insane, and the work of an individual artist who, for good and ill, is following his vision wherever it may lead him. "Off a cliff" is always in the cards.

And yet, no. Before explaining why not, I should probably say that Phenomena is a horror film about a young teenager (Jennifer Connelly, fifteen at the time, and whose admirable refusal to buckle to certain requests kept the film from being a uncomfortably prurient as you might justifiably have feared from Argento), the daughter of an Italian movie star who winds up in a girls' school in Switzerland. That's actually not the problem though. The problem is that someone is serial murdering the students at this school. Homicide detectives have indeed been summoned, including Inspector Geiger (Patrick Brachau). Geiger is hoping the expertise of local entomologist McGregor (Donald Pleasance), who is studying, via maggots, the forensic evidence made available by the previous beheading murder, will, with the help of his chimpanzee best friend....

Hm. Also, Jennifer Connelly's character (named Jennifer, let's not make anything out of that) loves and is worshiped by insects. And my concern is that certain members of its cult love it because they think it's "so bad it's good." To be sure, it is utterly ridiculous. And I absolutely laughed at things Argento may not have wanted me to laugh at. But it's well made, and in its own way Phenomena is no less a jarring look into the brain of a singular filmmaker than Eraserhead. Besides which, it's so much fun. Phenomena ends many times, but each time I realized that one climax was going to droop and then build into another, I didn't sigh impatiently. Instead I thought "Oh good!" And I was never disappointed. Plus there's a chimpanzee who thinks she's people.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vote Yes on Prop. More November Capsule Reviews!

Here are two.

The Alchemist Cookbook (d. Joel Potrykus) - In 2012, Joel Potrykus made his feature film debut with Ape, about a struggling stand-up comic, played by Joshua Burge, who gets angry a lot. I thought it was awful, and found his 2014 follow-up Buzzard, also starring Burge and angriness, to be not much better. These movies complete Potrykus's, I guess, "Animal Trilogy" which began with a short film called Coyote, which I haven't seen and which Wikipedia describes as a "minimalist werewolf film." There are tinges of horror in Ape (there's a devil figure, of sorts) which are jumped up a bit in Buzzard -- a major element of that movie involves Burge's character adding Freddy Krueger knife-claws to a Nintendo Power Glove, and eventually using it. That last bit might you some idea of where Potrykus's brain's at, decade-wise. In any case, both Ape and Buzzard are fundamentally juvenile in a way that suggests Potrykus believes that he's grown up, and one thing you do when you grow up is you make genre films that tear the guts out of "traditional" genre films and show what's really behind them.

Hence The Alchemist Cookbook, which is I suppose technically his first horror feature. It stars Ty Hickson as Sean, a young man recently released (escaped?) from prison, who is now hiding out in a trailer in the woods, where he conducts obscure experiments which seem to be equally scientific and occultic. Mostly alone save for his cat, he is occasionally visited by his old friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who brings Sean food, supplies for his experiments, and Sean's medication. The moment that Cortez realizes he forgot to pack that medication, the rest of the film that follows this moment has been explained to us.

The one positive I could find in Buzzard and Ape was Joshua Burge, who is, I think, very good in both, and once again the disaster of The Alchemist Cookbook can't be blamed on Hickson (or Cheatom, but Hickson's basically it for the whole show). But like Burge before him, Hickson has been burdened with a bunch of bullshit to do. In Buzzard, Potrykus films Burge eating spaghetti and meatballs for minutes on end, apparently to prove to his audience that he will put something like that into one of his movies. His weird and unamusing relationship to things that are ingested continues here: one scene holds on Hickson eating many Doritos in a row. A "funny" scene involves Cortez proving that the incorrect cat food he brought is fine by, now get this, I'm not kidding, this is just how crazy Potrykus is, eating it himself. (Because Cheatom was very clearly eating ordinary canned tuna, I had a tough time believing it was as rancid as Cheatom was told to pretend it was.) Another scene in which Hickson guzzles juice is foley-ed almost to death. Does Potrykus think it's funny or edgy to make it sound like instead of a man swallowing juice, a walrus is swallowing blended-up penguin? I can't imagine his motivation, but it seems to be his big move.

Eventually the "horror" (Sean thinks he's summoned a demon or whatever) asserts itself, or fails to do so, and the emotional climax is reached in a monologue delivered by Sean in which he imagines what his perfect world would be. It would involve things like unlimited Capri Suns and I think Cap'n Crunch, and he probably at some point mentioned Snarf from Thundercats. It's an embarrassing scene, and I can't imagine caring what Potrykus does next.

A Flash of Green (d. Victor Nuñez) - The crime writer John D. MacDonald wrote something in the neighborhood of 60 books in his lifetime (he was 70 when he died, so put those numbers together and have a long hard think about it all). Though he's best known for his series of novels about the noble houseboat detective Travis McGee, The majority of his books were written before he wrote The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964. "Prolific" may not even begin to cover this. Anyhow, among the three novels MacDonald published in 1962 was A Flash of Green, not a crime novel, but a social problem novel that uses certain criminal acts to drive the plot. I recently read this book, and while I'd count myself as a wary fan of MacDonald (I've read bad, I've read good), I found A Flash of Green to be close to disastrous. Using the conservation of nature as his theme (something MacDonald, a Floridian who was aghast at the relentless destruction of the natural world he'd grown up with, would build his novels upon throughout his career), the novel A Flash of Green is a series of speeches about ethics and feelings and explaining exactly what all the characters think at all times. The dialogue in this novel is relentlessly unconvincing, and often appalling, and, on top of that, usually telling the reader about things that happened, when the reader might have actually been given a first-hand look, had MacDonald not been so busy writing lines like (paraphrase, but not by much) "I fell in love glamorous lady called the newspaper game." (This leads to cynical thoughts about that newspaper game, if that helps at all.)

In 1984, the director Victor Nuñez adapted A Flash of Green as a film. Outside of festivals, its release to the public was as an episode of American Playhouse, which makes very little since to me (it was released on VHS, but no other form of home video since then), but there you go. Nuñez's career has always struck me as that of an honorable filmmaker who has always struggled. He had a brief period of semi-prominence in the 90s, with Ruby in Paradise, which more or less introduced Ashley Judd to the world, and Ulee's Gold, which briefly boosted Peter Fonda. But his adaptation of A Flash of Green may stand as his most interesting film. It's better than the novel, to begin with, by a lot, the casting is exquisite, and Nuñez, as the screenwriter, absolutely hacks to the bone all the shit MacDonald couldn't shut up about.

The basic story is, a bay in a small Florida town is being threatened by local businessmen and government who want to develop it. Kat Hubble (Blair Brown) is a prominent member of the group who strives to stop this, and she enlists the help of her late husband's best friend, reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris). Unbeknownst to her, not only is Wing in love with her, but he's also in the pocket of Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), the man behind the development plan. Bliss has hired Wing to dig up dirt on the conservationist group so that he can blackmail them into backing off. Wing does his job.

Jimmy Wing is the most interesting part of the novel and the film, and casting Harris in the role was a masterstroke. The tortured, lustful, everyman cynicism that is the root of the character is also, arguably, the root of Harris's genius as an actor. Add to this Nuñez's minimalism, which is not so much at odds with MacDonald's maximalism as it is a force that completely dominates and reconfigures this story. Surprisingly, Nuñez adheres very closely to MacDonald's plot -- there's some combining of storylines and characters, but that's about it. Nuñez's great achievement as a writer here is how he slashes the dialogue, and turns MacDonald's endless moralizing into searching, hesitant, simple everyday language. The film is a wonderful transformation.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Capsule Reviews for November? Indeed So.

Here are reviews of things.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (d. Tobe Hooper) - Though I count myself among the many horror fans, and film lovers in general, who consider Hooper's original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be one of the great masterpieces of the genre, and as an admirer of other Hooper films (I consider The Funhouse to be especially underrated), I have nevertheless been resistant to Hooper's 1986 sequel. In fact, prior to this past Friday, I'd tried to watch the film twice before and failed to get through it. My problem has always been, essentially, that amping up the comedy isn't something I thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre especially needed. And while I realize that there is a lot of black humor in that first film, it's never been the thing that really appealed to me. In many cases, the jokes, such as they are, in that film played differently for me. If you ignore the joke Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel were going for in a given moment (which, and this may seem an odd thing to say, given that I've said I love the film, is easy enough to do because I don't really think the jokes are funny), the horror of that moment remains. And that's what works for me.

But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is beloved by many, so I had to finally bite the bullet. And I don't know what put me off those other times. Well, yes I do: the comedy, which is located much closer to the surface, in that it is right there on top of the surface, than it was in 1974, still didn't strike me as actually funny, or even interesting. Setting that aside, which I found surprisingly easy to do, as a mad, alarmingly graphic (far more so than the original, which fans will never stop telling others is actually surprisingly bloodless), brilliantly designed, and propulsively ruthless bit of slasher insanity. The plot (ripped off by Rob Zombie for his awful The Devil's Rejects) involves an obsessed cop named Enright (Dennis Hopper) hunting the family of cannibalistic killers we met in 1974 (with some changes, including a new actor, Bill Johnson, as Leatherface, and a new family member, Bill Moseley as Chop Top; only Jim Seidow, as Drayton, makes the transition from the first film to the sequel). The two murders that open the film are witnessed, in a sense, by a night-time DJ named Stretch (Caroline Williams, in a performance that struck me as potentially as exhausting to give as Marilyn Burns's in the original), who provides Enright's best lead in years, and becomes his, sort of, partner. And off we go, ending up in a very long sequence set in the family's phantasmagorically nightmarish underground lair of tunnels and skulls and skin and shadows.

Among the pleasures of the film is seeing Lou Perryman, who I know best from Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, another major piece of Texas cinema (and whose fate in this film is both awful on its own terms, and even worse when you know Perryman's own terrible end), and also Hopper's performance, which is better and more committed than I, unfairly, would have expected him to bother shooting for in a film like this. By saying "like this" I'm accusing Hopper of a kind of snobbery I have no actual reason to believe he actually felt. Anyway, he's real good here, is what I'm saying. And that long last set-piece is, as I've suggested, one lunatic visual after another. Even if it recreates the original's climactic dinner scene more specifically than it probably should have, it makes up for that with other, different insanities. Personally, I consider this to be a film completely separate from the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To me, they're both just riffs on the same idea, with different tones and employing different styles. Both valid, both terrific.

Carnage Park (d. Mickey Keating) - The films of Quentin Tarantino have been enormously important to Mickey Keating. Which is weird, since judging by Carnage Park he hasn't bothered to think at all about any of them.

Masques (d. Claude Chabrol) - The above shot is unquestionably my favorite from Masques, Claude Chabrol's 1987 thriller about about a young mystery writer named Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) who for whatever reason wants to write the authorized biography of the famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret), and for a period of time is a guest in Legagneur's expansive estate, so that he may interview the older man for the book. During this time, Wolf meets Legagneur's servants, which include a mute chauffeur/chef named Max (Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud), a flirty masseuse (Bernadette Lafont), etc., and most importantly, Legagneur's goddaughter (her parents having died in a terrible car accident when she was a child) Catherine, played rather brilliantly by the luminous Anne Brochet, a young woman, we're told, who is recovering from a strange illness the treatment of which left her briefly paralyzed, and is now terribly nervous, afraid, panicky, and sensitive to light. That's her up above. As Roland's motives become perplexing to the audience -- when he's hanging out in his room on his first day at the estate, we see him unpack a gun and randomly say the name "Madeline" to his reflection in a mirror -- it becomes clear that whatever mystery is about to unravel before us, Catherine is the key to it all.

That shot (look up) isn't static, it's a camera move, and I don't want to spoil what it signifies to the viewer, but it is so elegantly done, so precise and smooth, artful at the same time it is utterly free of ostentation. Though I wouldn't rank Masques among Chabrol's greatest films (of those I've seen), I would not hesitate to cite this shot as evidence that Chabrol was a brilliant director (and Brochet a terrific actress), or even film itself as a uniquely powerful artform that can depict true human emotion in its most naked and simultaneously most subtle forms. If you know the film and think I'm overstating things, I understand. But sometimes these moments can be so thrilling that I can't help myself, and I imagine it's the same for you.

What's interesting to me is that as much as I enjoyed Masques (I enjoyed it a great deal), it's probably the lightest film of Charbol's that I've seen -- it ain't exactly Pleasure Party, for example. There's one completely goofball shot showing Wolf, alone in his room, after an encounter that has left him feeling either happy or smug (which one is up to you). He was getting ready for bed when the thing that occurred occurred, and he's wearing a gray shirt. That's all we've seen of his outfit, until the camera pulls back to reveal that he's wearing cartoonishly colorful boxer shorts. It's an odd choice, but one that indicates the level of playfulness Chabrol's trying to get at. And which he gets at. Masques isn't unserious, but it's fun, more than anything. It's playing around so much that I think it loses track of itself now and again (I don't know what the point was of a revelation about one character), but any missteps are small. And they're further dwarfed by an ending that actually sort of recalls Network, but with an even better stinger of a last line.

Venom (d. Piers Haggard) - Speaking of significant shots, how about this one? While not significant to Venom in the same way that the shot in Masques I wouldn't shut up about is to that film, the snake in the liquor cabinet rather neatly symbolizes one reason, perhaps the primary reason, that Venom is such a cult favorite. Which is that somebody at some point, or maybe several people working together, decided that the best way to get this suspense film about a group of ruthless criminals who kidnap the young son of a wealthy family, only to find themselves penned into that family's home not only by, eventually, the cops, but also by the presence of a deadly black mamba snake loose among them, was to cast a giant handful of the most psychopathic alcoholic hellraisers in motion picture history: Oliver Reed, Sterling Hayden, Nicol Williamson, and Klaus fucking Kinski all star in this crazy thing. Very early on in Haggard's commentary track for the Blue Underground disc, the director says that he took over from the original director (Tobe Hooper, as it happens) who, Haggard says, may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his time on the film, though he's not sure about that.

This was more or less all I knew about Venom before watching it, and what's unfortunate about this undeniably alarming and curious fact about its production is that it suggests the film probably isn't very good and is nothing more than a curiosity. But the truth, as I see it, is that Venom is actually a pretty terrific little film. Whatever drove Hooper back to the US (this being an English film) isn't on-screen. As unpleasant as it must have been to actually spend time with that quartet (my guess is that Hayden was, on average, the most palatable), they were each, to begin with, immensely talented actors who all showed up to, at least after Haggard called "Action", do the work they were paid to do. Reed in particular is pretty superb, as the dumbest, most cold-hearted of the criminals, while Kinski, as the boss, tamps down on his natural, and probably genuine, psychopathy to play the smart (but probably no less evil) one. Williamson is the cop on the case, and Hayden is the grandfather of the little boy who, with snake scientist or whatever Sarah Miles, are the people in the house trying to keep things from spiraling out of control, have the least showy roles among this cluster of madmen, but their performances are just as good, in their way (plus Michael Gough is in there too, and Susan George, as the criminal partner of Reed and Kinski).

The weirdest thing about Venom, really, is that it's almost a riff on Dog Day Afternoon, with Nicol Williamson in the Charles Durning role, and Klaus Kinski in Pacino's (I suppose this would mean that Oliver Reed is John Cazale's Sonny). But man, this thing plays like gangbusters, because Haggard, who off the top of my head I only know from The Blood on Satan's Claw (a good movie!), knows how to put together a damn movie. If the premise is goofy, no matter: Haggard and screenwriter Robert Carrington (and, in fairness, perhaps also author of the original novel Alan Scholefield) know how to make it plausible, immediate, and even frightening. And the whole film hinges, in truth, on the first death by snakebite. It's prolonged, because nobody realizes, at first, how serious being bitten by a black mamba actually is. But the character who was bitten is starting to get an idea. Though the character is quite unlikable, their death is horrifying (and beautifully acted). At that exact moment, if not before, Venom is on rails.

Fear of Fear (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) - Some time ago, and I honestly don't feel like linking to it, but some time ago I wrote, in another post collecting a handful of capsule reviews, about Francis Ford Coppola's Gardens of Stone, in which I said something to the effect of, Coppola has never considered any era of filmmaking style, from the earliest silents to whatever year he happens to be making a given film, out of date, or unavailable to him. It's not a matter of homage; it's a matter of exploration, curiosity, and a complete refutation of the idea that a mode or style is "dated" simply because some audiences are born later than others. The same, more or less, goes for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I say "more or less" perhaps out of ignorance -- the man made a jaw-dropping number of films in his short life, and I've seen a mere handful -- but not as a criticism: Fassbinder wanted to rescue melodrama from the trash heap. Weaned on Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder's approach to that sort of classic Hollywood "women's picture" wasn't to recreate the florid style, as fellow Sirk enthusiast Todd Haynes has done on occasion, but rather to recreate it in his own image. When Fassbinder traveled this road, the results were a wild mix of that melodramatic intensity of Sirk and others, and a kind of grainy naturalism. You kind of can't just start watching Fassbinder blind. More than most filmmakers, it helps to know what's what.

Fear of Fear, one of four pictures Fassbinder made in 1975, is quite illustrative of all this. The film's title is seen over a dolly zoom, the shot Hitchcock invented for Vertigo, his masterpiece of what you might kind of have to call melodramatic suspense. What's being dolly-zoomed is an image of what might under other circumstances be seen as a moment of domestic calm, but which that particular camera move has informed us, on a primal level, is in fact soaked in dread and depression. Starring the great Margit Carstensen as Margot, a housewife with one young child and, as the film opens, pregnant with a second, whose grip on her life and happiness is threatening to slip away, Fear of Fear manages to be both frightening and sympathetic to characters you might not expect it to like very much. I'm thinking of Ulrich Faulhaber as Kurt, Margot's husband, who is initially ignorant and insensitive, perhaps even, at first blush, detestable, but Fassbinder allows him to become someone who we understand loves his wife, and who is truly scared that what seems to be her genuine madness might have been something he could have stopped in its tracks had he not been so self-absorbed. Other characters, such as those played by Fassbinder stalwarts Irm Hermann and Brigitte Mira, who make it their mission to make Margot feel as bad about her parenting abilities and as guilty as possible about the ways in which she tries to grab some happiness out of her day, aren't afforded quite as many levels, but if everyone in this world was at worst secretly nice, none of us would ever feel miserable.

It ain't a perfect film, though. One danger, the big one, I'd say, in what Fassbinder did is to confuse style with formula. It's a trap he was often able to escape -- look at Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or, better yet, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The idea of narrative formula is, I've always said, a bit of received wisdom that needs to be stuffed in a bag and drowned, and I think on some level, at least in Fear of Fear, Fassbinder received it a bit too happily. But definitely consciously and knowingly, too, so there's that. Anyway, there's the added touch of eerie mystery revolving around the character of Bauer (Kurt Raab), who seems to haunt Margot like a ghost, though until the end she doesn't seem to understand the meaning of it. Though she probably will, eventually, after the credits.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

These Are the Capsule Reviews of October

One of these is positive!

Angst (d. Gerard Kargl) - I learned of this Austrian nightmare only recently (that it doesn't find a spot even in the updated edition of Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies seems significant in some way), but I can say that it is the film I was told it was. Somewhat put off by the fact that this is evidently Gaspar Noe's favorite film, Noe being a filmmaker I do not admire, it was therefore interesting that I could not only see where the Argentinian filmmaker has repeatedly drawn inspiration, and where Kargl has beat him at the game Noe's been trying to play for years now.

But enough about Noe. And what else to say about Angst? It's not a plot-heavy film. Loosely based on the murders committed by serial killer Werner Kniesek, Angst tells the story, in close to real time, of a convicted killer (Erwin Leder) who, upon being released from prison, immediately goes searching for his next victim. After an aborted attempt on a female cab driver, the killer flees into the woods. He eventually finds a house, which draws him not necessarily because it implies human inhabitants for him to kill, but because it at first seems deserted, and may be abandoned, and may be his new home, or dungeon. But it is inhabited: by an elderly woman, her paraplegic, mentally handicapped son, and her daughter. They come home while the killer is there.

Angst is, as you might imagine, a very difficult film to watch, but it isn't a 90-minute violent assault as I'd feared it would be. The violence is concentrated within maybe about 20 minutes (long enough, I can hear you protest) and the rest is made up of the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, that violence. Otherwise, Kargl plugs us directly into the killer's head. Though not a silent film, the vast majority of the spoken words heard in Angst are the killer's narration, which is persistent, and which sometimes overlays the slaughter. He tells us about his life, his childhood, and his desire to kill others. Another way Kargl makes us live in the killer's brain is by, whenever the killer is running, or overwhelmed by the fact that he lives in this world, hooking a device to Leder's body on which the camera is attached so that effectively the camera is not only swiveling around Leder, but up and down his body so that I, at least, wondered how it worked. This did not have the effect of booting me from the film, but rather left me feeling some of the disorientation the Leder's killer is meant to feel. Which, further, is not meant to imply that Angst is making excuses for serial killers, or pitying those who carry out such acts. The three murders in the film are feverish (the one on which I believe the film's reputation as a work of shock cinema rests feels endless) and could only have been carried out by someone whose head feels like this.

Nerve (d. Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman) - Oh, this fucking thing. Embraced by many as a film that is better, and more fun, than you'd imagine, this 2016 film by the two dinks behind the fraudulent documentary Catfish, is pretty infuriating. I will go so far as to tempt the wrath of a certain corner of the internet by saying that the film's roots as a young adult novel are betrayed by the fact that Nerve the film is thoroughly chickenshit.

For a while, though, it's more fun than you'd think! Starring the very well-cast Emma Roberts and Dave Franco as two participants in the titular social media game, which requires its participants to fulfill a series of increasingly dangerous dares in order to gather online followers leading to some sort of championship round, two participants, I say again, who stumble across each other in New York City while just getting started on the game. Franco's Ian, it is suggested, has done this before ("Nerve" is an annual game), whereas Roberts's Vee has definitely not, she being kind of a "square" who is looking for "adventure" and "life" that might match that which is enjoyed by her fame-hungry friend and fellow "Nerve"-participant Sydney (Emily Meade). So anyway, you get the idea, and the film is fun for a while, not only because Roberts and Franco are both so appealing, but also because Nerve continues to behave as though it will become even more fun, and more interesting.

Eventually, however, the deep stupidity of the film begins to reveal itself. For example, throughout Nerve, the game is described as something deeply secretive, part of the "dark web" that only teens know about, and that no one who knows about the game should ever say anything about it to any authority figures. But then the climax takes place in a wildly crowded, neon-lit ancient stadium located in....what, Brooklyn? This is simply one example of Nerve telling the audience one thing is true and important while playing out in the opposite way. Not purposely, to achieve something or other, but because it doesn't really want to be the thing it's pretending to be. See also the fact that none of the dares ever challenge the morals of the contestants; at least not our heroes. At one point it looks like they'll have to commit theft in order to advance in the game, but in fact they don't have to. They're called upon to be reckless, but never to go against their own character. For all its nefarious shadow-world window-dressing, all Nerve is really saying is "You're fine, and everything is fine."

Lights Out (d. David F. Sandberg) - Oh, this fucking thing. In 2013, a short horror film called Lights Out was released online that inexplicably excited and terrified lots of people. Lasting only a few minutes (not the problem), it relies on one good idea that can only work once, but requires it to work several times in a row. That idea being, someone in their own home turns off a light in the hallway. In the shadows left behind is a frightening silhouette of someone or something that hadn't been there when the lights were on. Flip the lights back on? It's gone. Turn the lights off again? Now it's closer. Those actions as I've just described make sense to me. Someone flipping that light off and on so that the audience can watch the ghostly figure advance four or five times is just stupid, but that was the short film Lights Out (by the way, the upshot of the thing was that the scary thing had a scary face).

How might one stretch this into a feature-length film? Well. Because the short only had one idea (in fairness, films that short only have room for one), director David F. Sandberg realized that the way to step up to the plate for his feature debut was to add a whole other idea, that idea being that the ghost-thing from the short used to be a girl who was allergic to sunlight. There's little else here. The film stars Teresa Palmer as Rebecca, a troubled young woman whose young brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) still lives with their mother (Maria Bello, the best thing about the film), even though she, the mother, seems mentally unstable given her life-long belief in a terrifying shadow presence she calls "Diana." Rebecca has never believed in Diana, though Martin sees her too, and then one day Rebecca sees her. So then Rebecca's like "Well okay, let me see if I can dig up any evidence that this 'Diana' person ever even existed.'" Within about six minutes of searching her childhood home, Rebecca finds enough written, audio, and visual evidence to explain the whole thing. After that, it's just a matter of running out the clock.

By the way, the film opens with Martin's dad (Rebecca's step-dad) being killed by Diana. This sequence lays out the entire visual architecture of the film's horror sequences. If you've watched the first ten minutes of this movie (or, indeed, its earlier, much shorter version), you will not be surprised by anything after that. And like It Follows, Lights Out is eager to establish its rules but is less eager to follow them, so that one early scare moment requires a light source that should mean that Diana is invisible. Oh well! You can put only so much thought into your debut feature.

There's one really eerie moment in the film. I thought it was a fairly impressive idea that relied on the audience to put two-and-two together. I'm not sure how it wound up in the final cut.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Further Capsule Reviews of October

I know that last week I said I was going to write about two other films a day or two after my post about Grizzly and The Beast in the Cellar. Clearly I never did that. Those two films were Paul Feig's Ghostbusters and Christopher Guest's Mascots. All I can tell you is, I simply didn't have it in me to write about two comedies. That's hard to do. For the record, I didn't much like Ghostbusters, and I particularly didn't understand why the film chose to treat the belief in ghosts as empowering, and I really, really enjoyed Mascots, and I don't know why I'm in the minority on this. I've read some people try to explain why Mascots is bad. I remain unconvinced.

In a Valley of Violence (d. Ti West) - The first Ti West film I saw, 2009's The House of the Devil, I rather liked. I think if I watched it again today, I'd still like it (terrific Tom Noonan performances go a long way with me). It's been all downhill since then, however. I should have known, since The House of the Devil is an "80s throwback" kind of horror film, which, saints preserve us and so on. But West's much-loved follow-up, The Innkeepers, struck me as an exercise in giving the audience precisely what they expected to get, but just holding the camera on those things a lot longer than the norm, and then in 2013 he released The Sacrament, a fictionalized re-telling of the Jonestown massacre that does literally nothing inventive with it. The idea behind that film seems to have been "What if Jonestown was made up?" That The Sacrament is a found-footage film perhaps goes without saying.

Now West has "shaken" "things" "up" by making a Western. A revenge film starring Ethan Hawke as a mysterious stranger whose unwillingness to bow down to the bullies (James Ransone, Larry Fessenden, Toby Huss, and Tommy Nohilly) of a dying town leads to them leaving him for dead after witnessing the brutal killing of his dog, In a Valley of Violence has the fucking gall to knowingly wink (and may the saints preserve us from knowing winks, too) at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in its stylized opening credits. Which is bad enough, but the bigger problem is that West isn't even nodding at Sergio Leone -- he's nodding at Quentin Tarantino. Had Tarantino never made Django Unchained (I'm going to assume the wheels were already turning on West's film when The Hateful Eight came out), I believe In a Valley of Violence wouldn't exist. Add to all this the fact that for about the first half, this film is about as inauthentic, and as free of style, or even personality, as any Western I've ever seen in my goddamn life, and you can imagine how much blood was coming out of my ears by the hour mark. When Hawke, on his horse and with his dog, rides into the town where everything happens, he's moving his horse at a walk, all the better to cut from him looking around to shots of townsfolk sliding by as the horse progresses. This is the most beat-to-death shot in the genre, and West could not give a fuck. Plus the town is supposedly dying, but the paint looks pretty fresh, the wood pretty sturdy, and the only evidence that it's a dying town is that the budget for extras on this project had an obvious ceiling.

However, and call me a sucker (I am), bloody revenge motivated by the killing of a pet dog is going to be hard for me to not get behind, and I got behind it here (it didn't hurt that unlike in John Wick, which I liked, where the killing of the dog is sort of a metaphorical thing that must be avenged because Wick is mourning his dead wife, here the dog is important because she was a good dog). And quite honestly, the film does pick up. It becomes good for a little while. When Hawke dispatches his first victim, there is genuine savagery in the violence, and in Hawke's performance. Also, John Travolta plays the town marshal (and father of Ransone's character, who is the primary villain), and at this point his role expands. And Travolta, quite frankly, is really good here, playing the conflicted pseudo-villain (Toby Huss does that too, and is also good, but he doesn't have anywhere near the material or screentime to work with that Travolta has) who, finally, just wants peace.

But West fucks it up again. In addition to West including, in a film set in the 19th Century, dialogue like "Are you seriously bringing that up right now?", the final stretch of violence is both moronic and clumsy (at one crucial moment, West seems to have no idea where Hawke is aiming his gun) and witheringly ordinary. And the "witheringly ordinary" part is the last part. Why the fuck would you end your revenge story like that?? With that same action scene (a term I use for the sake of expediency) construction that at this point is nothing but condescending to the audience, at best. It's proof to me that West doesn't really care about what he's doing. If he has to think it up himself, if he can't simply lift it from somewhere else, it's probably not worth doing. Which is probably fair enough.

Cop Car (d. Jon Watts) - Not long before I began writing this brief review of a 2015 thriller that no one has any time for, I was shocked, even appalled, to learn that its director, Jon Watts, had previously not only directed, but even co-wrote, one of the worst films I've seen in the last two years or so. That film is Clown, a horror picture that is absolute trash, from stem to stern. This fact does slightly temper, or threaten to temper, my reasonable, grounded enthusiasm of Cop Car.

Yet reasonably and groundedly enthusiastic about Cop Car I shall remain. Before seeing it for myself, I kept hearing that it was "fine", it was just a a thriller that did thriller things, and it was honestly fine, you guys. No one seemed to want to give it any credit for being what these reactions seemed to be covertly saying it was: an effective thriller. Which, and I can say this because I watched it, it is. Cop Car is a well-shot, well-acted, modest little film about two kids (Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) out walking in the woods who find a police car, just sitting there, with keys inside. So they go for a joyride. That car is pretty important, for reasons that shall become clear, to a dishonest cop (Kevin Bacon) who then begins hunting the kids.

There's lots in this film that is goofy, or convenient. For example, while joy-riding, the kids are apparently blowing through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, because there's no one else on the road. Until Camryn Manheim, the only other driver in the world, spots them, and so she becomes an Element of Suspense. Which is fine, but by including no one else on the road, ever, she becomes a Script Thing, not a person. On the other hand, Jon Watts has a nice eye for childish behavior -- their idiot handling of the guns they find, their terror and inability to figure out how to extract themselves from the locked back-set of a police car. There are a few shots when Watts seems to want the kids to look cool, but ultimately he seems to view childhood confidence as, in hindsight, completely absurd.

It's a weird film, and interesting, and sometimes dumb. But I'll take it.