I've been dreading Dallas Buyers Club (2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee). I always dread films made by cisgender filmmakers in which transgender characters feature prominently, especially if those trans characters are played by cis actors (as they almost always are). Someone in the activist spaces I frequent once mentioned that consuming media while trans is like playing Russian roulette, though lately I've been thinking that it's like playing Russian roulette with a live round in every chamber. You're going to take a bullet to the brain without fail. It won't be random. It's just going to happen. The cause for my concern with Dallas Buyers Club is Jared Leto's character, Rayon, a trans woman character constructed by the filmmakers for reasons I'll get to in a bit. She's fictional even though the film itself purports to be based on fact. Leto has been getting Oscar buzz for his performance, and why not? It's a character and performance that's almost a parody of Oscar bait: straight actor playing gay? Check. Playing trans? Check. Dying tragically? Check. Dramatic weight loss? Check. It's almost diagrammatic. (As I write this, Leto has just been awarded Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critic's Circle, which isn't a bellwether by any means, but still...) Of course, star Matthew McConaughey does the weight loss thing, too. This is a film full of scarecrows.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Thor: The Dark World (2013, directed by Alan Taylor) is a better film than its predecessor. It may be a better film than The Avengers, but that's not that hard. As fun as that film was, it had its issues. Prime among them was finding something for each member of its expansive cast of characters to do. That's not a problem for this film. It seems as if they went out of their way to make sure that each character has a function in the plot that arises naturally from who those characters are. Even Kat Dennings's Darcy Lewis gets to do something. There are a lot of better movies than this one that fail in this basic task. It's fun to watch this unfold. This film trumps The Avengers in two other respects, too. First, it passes the Bechdel Test. Second, we get that most glorious of natural cinematic wonders: Chris Hemsworth's bare torso. Note to future cinematic interpreters of Thor: this is an essential element of these movies.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
The last film I watched this October was James Whale's Frankenstein, a film I've written about twice before. I don't have a lot to add to the last piece I wrote about the film, which went through the film scene by scene (not quite shot by shot). With a few minor revisions, I've reprinted that piece here. The trick or treaters were all gone by the time I put on Frankenstein, and I had settled in to watch the film while wrapped in a big fluffy bathrobe and with a cup of mulled cider at my side. It was a fine, fine end to the Halloween season, though, in truth, I keep the spirit of Halloween in my black little heart every day of the year. Even Christmas.
"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken."
--Mary Wollestonecraft Shelly, preface to the 1931 edition of Frankenstein.
Note, this is heavy on images. My apologies
Friday, November 22, 2013
James Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man (1933) is candy, pure and simple. Appropriate for Halloween, I think. It's the apotheosis of the classic horror film's formulation of the tragic hero/villain, it's one of the drollest black comedies, and it's a film that embraces the fantastic possibilities of the cinema. It's a true inheritor of the legacy of Georges Méliès.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I was home for Halloween this year, the first time in many years that I've been at home for the holiday. I live in small town America where Americana still holds sway, so I expected and got a steady stream of children and parents to my doorstep, holding out bags for trick or treating. I don't have children, myself, and this panoply of adorable tots in various costumes made me ache to have my own, so I could pass on a love of Halloween to them. I'm generally happy to be child-free, but Halloween is one night when that decision weighs on me. In any event, I got a side-eye from many of the parents, given that I was dressed up as Morticia Addams, if Morticia Addams had had a thing for black PVC. That, too, is part of the fun.
Halloween is a night when I want to see classic horror films, so I queued up a trio of favorites. I started the first of them just as the sun was setting.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
At the end of Ritual (Modus Anomali, 2012, directed by Joko Anwar), I wanted to refer to the movie by the title of "Ritual in Transfigured Time," after the old short film by Maya Deren, because, to an extent, this film would fit that title to a "T." No insult meant to Maya Deren, of course. This is a film that turns back on itself. It starts as a survival narrative, and ends with a death impulse. It's not entirely successful at this.
Saturday, November 09, 2013
My friend, Renee, is absolutely mad for obscure horror movies. Every Halloween, she dredges up oddities from around the world to show at her big movie party with the aim of showing things none of the attendees has ever seen before. Given that she's friends with some hard core horror fans, this is no small task. She's been trying to stump me for years, sometimes successfully, but I don't have the same kind of monomania she has. The upside of this is that I get to walk behind her as she blazes a trail through the undergrowth. This year's mathom is Izbavitelj (1976, directed by Krsto Papic) from Yugoslavia. It's one of those strange cometary remnants of the Prague Spring, rippling half a decade later as the Croatian Spring, when Eastern European cinema had joined the raging New Waves of the 1960s and began criticizing the old order of things.
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
The only way I can make sense of Dario Argento's 1980s output is if I consider it all as a merciless put-on. How else to approach a movie like Tenebre (1982), which has a title that translates as "Darkness" but which is brightly lit? It's a film in which the director's pet obsessions turn inward on the movie itself in a fireworks display of self-reference. It's self-serving, too, in so far as it offers a defense for Argento's peccadilloes where no defense is really needed. It is funny, though.
Sunday, November 03, 2013
It's been a while since I've seen a movie as bad as Shiver (2012, directed by Julian Richards). I almost hate writing about it, to tell you the truth. I know that some film writers love tearing into the defenselessly dreadful, but I'm not one of them. This was somebody's baby even if it's incompetent at every turn, and pointing to its awfulness seems like piling on to me. Ignoring it would be just as damning. Movies from this sector thrive on word of mouth, after all, and even bad publicity is publicity. Be that as it may, this isn't like a small indie that the director financed on credit cards. This is a film that has the resources of professional actors and a camera, so the fact that nothing comes of this largesse is an affront. As it is, it squanders what it has on trite genre tropes and unimaginative formal compositions. It's a terrible film.
Saturday, November 02, 2013
About a third of the way through The Prophecy (1995, directed by Gregory Widen), I stopped the movie and went and did something else. It's not that it doesn't have a hook. It does. It's more a case of needing some perspective on how poorly it's directed. If I were teaching a class at a film school, this is a film that I might show to demonstrate how not to elide changes in time and location, or, better still, as an example of the limits of auteurism. This is a film written by its director, and as such he's positioned as a classic auteur. But, man, the screenplay and the direction are totally not the reason to see this film. This is a rare film where the on-camera talent manages to completely enliven dead material. I came back to the film eventually. I mean, I've seen it before. I originally saw it when it was in theaters. My brother is fond of this film, so I've watched it with him, too. But it's not a great film, or even a particularly good one. I returned primarily because I had Viggo Mortensen to look forward to. And Christopher Walken, of course.
Friday, November 01, 2013
Gravity (2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón) is a technical marvel and one of the most viscerally terrifying films I've ever seen. It's the very definition of a "ride" movie. Show this on the huge screen at Epcot center while shaking the audience with rumble seats and it wouldn't be out of place. This isn't a criticism, and if I seem ungrateful going forward for focusing on what the film lacks, I'm not, really, because for what it is, Gravity is absolutely splendid.
The film this most reminds me of is The Impossible. Like that film, the seeming miracle of what it puts on screen frequently overrides other critical concerns. Film craft is underrated in critical discourse, sometimes. Does a Fabergé egg need to say something beyond the exquisite craft of its making? I say no. A narrative film, though, makes promises, and like The Impossible, this film has dramatic deficiencies. Cuarón is smart to keep things simple, but it makes for a film that's ultimately shallow, however broad the net of its craft may be cast.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
I think that you can't actually spoil a good movie, but I also know that many people think that spoilers are rude. This is a dilemma when I'm confronted by a movie like You're Next (2011, directed by Adam Wingard), because many of its pleasures are built around surprising the audience and picking it apart to demonstrate how it works is a bit like dissecting the golden goose. The fact that it does work is also a surprise in itself, given that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's previous films have sometimes felt like shambolic, kit-bashed affairs, and this one is constructed like a watch.
Note: I'll try to avoid spoiling the film, but I may not completely manage. You've been warned.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
For a filmmaker who isn't normally thought of as a genre director, Neil Jordan sure does make a lot of horror movies. Byzantium (2013) is his second vampire film, and acts as a kind of distaff companion piece to Interview With the Vampire. Jordan is attracted to the Gothic roots of the horror film, which are on full display in Byzantium, a film that nests flashbacks inside flashbacks, and spirals around its narrative to come at its core elements obliquely. Those core elements are the two great themes of the Gothic: sex and death.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
My friend, Roberta, teaches Italian film, so when she says I need to have more Italian films on my long Halloween slog, I'm inclined to listen to her. Her recommendations were Dellamorte Dellamore (which I've seen several times, including the uncut version she recommended) and Shadow (2009, directed by Federico Zampaglione), of which, I knew nothing. Fortunately, it's on Netflix so into the queue it went. It's been a while since Italy produced any important horror films--the golden age of Italian genre film ended when the government decided to quit funding "entertainments" in favor of more highbrow fare--so I was curious to see what a contemporary horror movie from Italy looks like.
Monday, October 28, 2013
During the golden age of Japanese film, Shôchiku was Japan's Tiffany studio, home to Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Kinoshita. It's singularly weird to see their familiar Mount Fuji logo attached to schlocky horror movies. And yet, during the 1960s, horror came to Shôchiku, as the title of Criterion's boxed set of their horror movies announces. The Living Skeleton (Kyûketsu dokuro-sen, 1968, directed by Hiroshi Matsuno) is a fun example, though it's quaint even in the mainstream of Japanese horror. I mean, Japan was already making horror masterpieces like The Face of Another and Kwaidan, so it's not like this film appears in a vacuum. In spite of that, it's strangely forward-looking, anticipating the J-horror boom of the 1990s and John Carpenter's The Fog.