Thursday, September 27, 2007

31 Films for Halloween

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. I went trick-or-treating way beyond the appropriate age, and I can't wait to put a confused Luna in a pumpkin costume. Most of all, I love the excuse to watch a mind-numbing amount of horror movies - it's largely through horror that I fell in love with cinema, the genre by design liberating filmmakers to follow their most imaginative, stylish and unrestrained instincts. So I was thrilled when Ed Hardy, Jr. of Shoot the Projectionist invited me to participate in his survey of the 31 greatest horror films. Sure, I'd been overlooked for the Online Film Community and Satyajit Ray lists, but no matter - this is the one I've been waiting for (and you can participate too, if you like - head over to Ed's blog for details).

The first question, of course, is what defines a horror movie. For me, a film crosses into the realm of horror when it bypasses our intellectual concerns to touch our primal, irrational fears. This does not mean that a movie must feature ghosts or goblins to qualify as horror; horror is a genre, like comedy or porn, defined not by what the film's content but by what it does to us. It's horror if you jump, it's good horror if you scream, and it's great horror if you can't stop thinking about what it is that made you scream. Here are 31 movies (in chronological order) that go for the jugular:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
Black Sunday (1960)
Peeping Tom (1960)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
The Haunting (1963)
Onibaba (1964)
Repulsion (1965)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Don't Look Now (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Jaws (1975)
Carrie (1976)
Suspiria (1977)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Halloween (1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Alien (1979)
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Inferno (1980)
The Shining (1980)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Creepshow (1982)
The Thing (1982)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The Fly (1986)
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Session 9 (2001)

Also, since we're temporarily away from home and our computer, the title card series is taking a break for the month - instead, look for a series of horror-themed top tens and other Halloween goodies. Look out - the boogeyman is coming!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Anybody ever tell you you look dead, man?

Alien is the rare horror film that terrifies from its opening credits, its title fading in like a cryptogram over a tracking shot depicting a remote, ominous corner of space that could be the scariest prog rock record art never used. While Star Wars opens with bombast, Alien, with its brilliant Jerry Goldsmith score almost inaudible on the soundtrack, opts for an eerily elusive note. And while Ridley Scott's genre-bending masterpiece was greenlit in the wake of the massive success of the earlier film, its universe is not populated by explosive interstellar dogfights and smart-alecky robots. A direct descendant of 2001's creepy zero-gravity homicide, Alien gives us space as the ultimate old dark house, an existential void where monsters lurk, waiting to be discovered. I wanted to be an astronaut until I saw Alien.

A sci-fi/horror hybrid revolving around a seemingly unstoppable extraterrestrial monster, Dan O'Bannon's screenplay is a direct descendent of 50's B-movies like The Thing From Another World and It! The Terror From Beyond Space, and is often derided as such. Putting anti-genre pretensions aside, Alien stands out from its predecessors in a number of ways, the first being its remarkable use of silence. The quiet journey of the space freighter Nostromo (its Conrad reference a none-too-subtle corporate jab) is suddenly interrupted by the electronic squak of the intercepted SOS message that wakes the film's blue-collar protagonists from their cryogenic slumber and propels them towards their doom. Scott's elegant tracking shots mirror the seeming precision of the craft and underline the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology (personified by an on-board computer named Mother that, alas, does not sing "Daisy"). As the crew of the Nostromo stumbles upon, is invaded and picked off by titular beast, Alien is propelled not only by a fear of the monster but of the machine, and the film blurs these distinctions in interesting ways.

As Ash (Ian Holm), the film's on-board robot says of the alien, "I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." But just as Ash represents something terribly wrong about the fusion of the organic and the artificial, the alien is a horrible marriage of animal instinct and mechanical precision, its acid blood and second mouth making it appear more manufactured than born. H.R. Giger's designs for the monster, and particularly his even more sexually charged Necronomicon, depict a life cycle carried out with impeccable symmetry but, as Ash indicates, absent of any humanity, at once perfect and totally monstrous. Scott repeatedly disguises the full-grown alien in plain sight amidst the Nostromo's nooks and crannies; it is as if the craft itself is a traitor against its crew. When Ash is revealed to be precisely that, his strange near-rape of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and subsequent breakdown are the result of a computer's inability to understand or express the human desire it sees all around. While any discussion of Alien will inevitably include a use of the term "vagina dentata," the alien's sexualized design is more than a rape metaphor - it's a perversion of the healthy carnality that Scott will repeatedly idealize in his ouevre (unsurprising that, on the most recent DVD release, Scott cites Francis Bacon as an influence). The classic demise of poor Kane (John Hurt) is shocking not just for its gore but as a distortion of childbirth, the screaming and viscera both reminiscent of the real thing and a corruption of femininity (another of Scott's ideals). It's a moment of physical but also psychic violence, its power amplified by Hurt's confused anguish and the palpable disorientation of the crew. If ever there was a moment in cinema that defines chaos, this is it.

Indeed, while Alien's design team is frequently and rightly praised, the cast is even more important to the film's success. There are eight actors in the film (including Bolaji Badejo in the rubber suit), and they make up a perfect ensemble, their early casual interplay as authentic as the best of Altman. Rather than overhwelming with exposition, the actors convey worlds about the characters' backgrounds, camaraderie and power struggles. Each represents a distinctly human opposition to the alien, whether it's Captain Dallas' (Tom Skerrit) cool logic, Lambert's (Veronica Cartwright) vulnerability or the pragmatism of Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), whose friendship becomes more oddly endearing with each successive viewing. The film celebrates these average characters for their respective strengths, yet none ar saved from the monster. Only Ripley, hard-headed and at first unlikable for her stubborn adherence to the rules, outwits the alien thanks to her resourcefulness and superior survival instinct. Ironically, this places her closer to Ash's ideal of a survivor; what separates Ripley from the machine and the creature is her humanity. Weaver is remarkable in the film's last reel, conveying with little dialogue an almost paralyzing fear and the inner strength needed to prevail (plus, she's a cat lover). Ripley is never a stock damsel in distress; sporting only undies in the film's last minutes, she projects a completely self-posessed sexuality that even the nastiest of monsters is unable to penetrate. As she blasts the alien into space, the film turns suddenly triumphant - it is the triumph of humanity, a restoration in the form of one nubile panty-clad warrior. Score one for Earth.

Released in 1979, Alien is very much a film of its decade - cynical towards corporate thinking, distrustful of authority, very much in favor of sex, drugs and rock and roll. As the series progresses, both its hero and its monster will change and evolve to suit the ideas of each film's zeitgeist. And while I love its sequels to varying degrees (and plan to discuss them in the weeks to come), it's the original that retains an iconic perfection. Alien is a singular concept, rich with subtext and masterfully executed. I admire its purity.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Title Card #32

The Trim Bin #61

- Is anyone else deeply conflicted over the Death Proof DVD? I could never get enough Stuntman Mike, but I can't get over the cynicism of chopping them in half in advance of an inevitable double feature release (plus, no HD). Also, my initial enthusiasm about an extended cut faded when Alex Jackson referred to it as "worse than the Star Wars special editions." For those who have seen it, is this truth or hyperbole? Should I accept a compromised version of the best movie I've seen so far this year in a presentation that completely misses the point? Or is this a job for Netflix?

- We recently moved to a new, cozy hillside apartment, and we decided to switch from cable to satellite. The occasional static is well worth the variety of hi-def, OAR movie channels (also the show Weeds, which is contrived but still pretty hilarious). But the channel I've really developed an unhealthy addiction to is Monsters HD, which specializes in favorite and forgotten monster, slasher and classic horror movies in razor-sharp 1080i. If you're stuck with Time Warner or some other similarly faceless, clunky cable provider, know this: until you've seen Sleepaway Camp in HD, you just haven't lived.

- Speaking of monsters, the trailer for Frank Darabont's film version of Stephen King's short story The Mist is online, and I must say that it really surprised me. The casting looks pitch-perfect (particularly Marcia Gay Harden as the bible-thumping Mrs. Carmody) and the look of the film is surprisingly stark (especially coming from the director of The Green Mile). Plus, I love the use of Clint Mansell's score for The Fountain. After the surprisingly okay 1408, the prospect of the first good, genuinely creepy Stephen King adaptation in years is terrific. My irrational fear of Toby Jones aside, I can't wait for this one.

- Edward Copeland recently posted The Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films, a survey designed to exclude The Shawshank Redemption and American History X. 174 film buffs submitted their choices, and the result is a fine and (despite the title) comprehensive selection of world cinema, complete with pretty pictures.

- Finally (courtesy of Nerve), just because it's Friday, here's the greatest thing you'll ever see:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Friday Title Card #31

One of many great films that didn't quite make the list.

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Top 101 (2007 Edition)

I've never gotten the point of making a distinction between a "best" and "favorite" movies list. My favorite movies are the best ones I've ever seen, that's why I love them so. Of course, the pleasure of making and sharing such a list is to find out what it (perhaps unwittingly) reveals about oneself. For instance, if Miller's Crossing ranks above Barton Fink this year, it's not because it's suddenly the superior movie - the movies don't change, but we do (this same process of rediscovery is one of the best things about film writing on the internet). So the changes this year are made up of films I'd never seen, films that landed closer to the heart than they had before (Tokyo Story is very different when you're a parent), and films I just plain overlooked last year (how the hell did I forget Touch of Evil?).

The goal every time I revise my list is to create a sort of representative collage of what cinema is to me at this moment. Glancing at the list, I know that I dig monsters, cowboys, ambiguity, sex, aliens and Freedonia. And I sure have a hard-on for the 1970's. Making the list is more and more like Sophie's Choice every year - I've seen at least 150-200 movies I'd consider perfect, and an alternate list of the next 101 would possibly make an interesting side project. But I'll remain disciplined for now; here are my 101 favorite best movies.

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
3. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
6. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
7. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
8. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
9. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
10. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

11. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
12. Kill Bill vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
13. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
14. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
15. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
16. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1975)
17. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
18. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
19. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
20. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

21. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
22. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)
23. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
24. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
25. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
26. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
27. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
28. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)
29. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
30. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)

31. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
32. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
33. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
34. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
35. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
36. Aguirre the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
37. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
38. Dead Man (Joel Coen, 1996)
39. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
40. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)

41. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
42. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
43. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
44. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
45. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
46. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
47. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
48. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
49. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
50. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

51. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
52. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
54. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
55. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
56. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
57. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
58. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
59. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
60. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

61. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
62. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
63. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
64. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
65. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)
66. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
67. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
68. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
69. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
70. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

71. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
72. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
73. Orphee (Jean Cocteau, 1949)
74. Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986)
75. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
76. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
77. Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975)
78. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
79. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
80. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)

81. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
82. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
83. Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990)
84. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
85. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
86. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)
87. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)
88. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
89. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
90. Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)

91. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
92. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
93. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
94. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
95. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
96. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
97. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
98. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
99. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
100. Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)
101. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gratuitious Nudity #4

Diego Luna, Maribel Verdú and Gael García Bernal, Y tu mama tambien (2001)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

I'm Big Joe Grizzley.

One of the most telling moments in the Rob Zombie canon is the scene in The Devil's Rejects where a grizzled, hypermasculine lawman threatens to beat the snot out of a geeky, trivia-spouting movie critic. Zombie invites us to laugh with the sheriff as he attacks the movie geek, even though he clearly identifies with the latter. This masochism is a trait shared by many die-hard horror fans - those of us who were more likely to spend a summer day reading the newest Fangoria than playing sports or whatever - and it also explains why Zombie prefers to make his monsters the protagonists of his films. Note, for instance, that the cast of Halloween, Zombie's remake of the John Carpenter classic, is filled with famous cinematic killers, as if they'd assembled to pay tribute to iconic slasher Michael Myers. Zombie portrays Myers as a pasty young metalhead who grows up to be a hulking, unstoppable killing machine. It's a huge departure from the original's conception of a blank embodiment of pure nothingness; the resulting tension accounts for the film's worst moments as well as its best ones, but Halloween is never less than fascinating.

The brief backstory Carpenter gave us fills the film's first half, as we're introduced to Michael Myers as a young boy quietly torturing animals in his bedroom as his pole-dancing mom (Sherri Moon Zombie) and bullying stepdad (William Forsythe, just a tad overstated) scream at each other downstairs. Before long, mom is talking to Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, having a blast) about Michael's puppy-killing activities, which Loomis warns are a sign of "much bigger problems." But it's too late - Michael soon kill half of his family, leaving mom and his beloved baby sister alive. These early scenes, and Michael's subsequent institutionalization under Loomis' care, are sleazily effective; while Zombie cites traditional characteristics of serial killers, the soundtrack, performances and excellent cinematography by Phil Parmet give the film a heightened reality, threatening to veer into camp before hitting us with some spookily well-realized moments of sudden, brutal violence.

In Halloween's most gleefully sick moment, Zombie cuts between mom at work and a dejected young Michael Myers sitting alone with nobody to take him trick-or-treating, scored to Nazareth's "Love Hurts" - it's not supposed to make us empathize with the killer so much as briefly occupy his deeply deranged state of mind. Zombie adapts an agnostic perspective where Carpenter is almost religious, yet both directors at the same conclusion, the idea of evil as something incomprehensible that we attempt to contain on Halloween (and with scary movies) by infantilizing our fears. While Zombie couldn't be more stylistically different from Carpenter, they share an innate understanding of the elements of the genre, namely a romantic concept of horror as a eulogy for all things lost (note the repeated menstrual imagery). In its own way, Zombie's Halloween is as much a postmodern exploration of its predecessor as Gus Van Sant's Psycho. So if you hated Psycho, take that as a warning. But I, for one, admire Zombie's attempt to make Michael Myers representative of more than action figures and cell phone ringtones, and as dramatically different as Halloween 2007 is, it ultimately honors the original far more than another generic retread.

Halloween does stumble in its second half, as Michael escapes from the institution (easily the film's worst scene, although it's redeemed minutes later by an awesome Ken Foree cameo) and stalks his now-grown baby sister and her friends on Halloween night. Here, Zombie mimics scenes and even borrows dialogue from the original, which only serves to remind us of what a perfect film the original is. I began to miss Carpenter's austere compositions and elegant tracking shots, his labyrinthine conception of suburbia. This wouldn't matter as much if Zombie had stuck with the tone and style established in the first half; instead, he can't seem to decide between paying homage or making the material his own. The rushed approach also shortchanges the characters; although Scout Tyler-Compton (in the role that made Jamie Lee Curtis famous) is cute as a button, she and her costars aren't give much of a chance to make an impression (although it's strange to watch the Shape kill a topless, bloodied Danielle Harris).

Ultimately, Halloween sort of falls apart in a series of blaring music cues, property destruction, and bizarre references to Blade Runner. Still, in incorporating the brother-sister twist from Halloween II with a resonance that even Carpenter wasn't able to pull off, Zombie does give his film an unexpected psychological resonance. Halloween 2007 isn't the travesty it's been made out to be - it's a fascinating experiment, not entirely sucessful, but one that takes its boogeyman very seriously. I can't guarantee that you won't hate it, but it's a hell of a lot better than Halloween 6.

You can find more Myers-related goodness over at Final Girl's Film Club.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Like a man dick?

An early highlight of Superbad, an extended montage of a child's drawings of penises, pretty much tells you everything about the heart and soul of the film. A geekier Y tu mama tambien, it's a movie that correctly depicts two teenage boys' desparate quest to get laid as a sublimated expression of their profound love for one another. While the look and soundtrack of Superbad are meant to evoke raunchy teen sex comedies of the 70s and 80s, it's written with a wit and insight that few of its predecessors match. This is a movie where a bomb-riding weiner isn't just funny - it has purpose.

Co-screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began writing Superbad when they were teens, and I'm sure many aspiring filmmakers wrote a script along these lines with their friends when they were kids (I know I did). The protagonists, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), are clearly autobiographical, and the film sweetly hinges on their mutual affection. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Seth and Evan's misguided attempts to procure liquor in the hopes of impressing the objects of their unrequited affection before they graduate. It's a well-worn scenario made fresh by the screenplay's emotional honesty - Seth and Evan are headed to different colleges in the fall, and their horniness is complicated by the unspoken fear that actual relationships will shatter their idyllic routine of getting drunk on stolen beer and watching It's while discussing porn early on that Seth describes the sight of vagina not being penetrated by a penis as "not for me," and Superbad mines many laughs from its protagonists' fear of that unknown quantity and retreat into the comfort zone of dick jokes, all the while nudging them into the realm of adulthood. Director Evan Mottola finds the perfect tone for the film, filthy but never leering, and aids his young stars in delivering surprisingly nuanced performances - Hill adds an effective layer of insecurity to the horny fat guy archetype, while Cera, at 19 already a master of deadpan, plays Evan as a nice guy at war with his own libido.

Underscoring the themes is the film's subplot, so hilarious that it nearly upstages the rest of the story, involving Evan and Seth's even nerdier acquaintance Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who carries a fake ID bearing the already-infamous pseudonym "McLovin." Almost busted for attempting to buy booze, Fogell ends up riding with two hard-drinking, Yoda-quoting cops (Rogen and Bill Hader) as they tackle drunks, destroy public property and try to educate the young man in the ways of women, all in the name of making cops seem cool. The cops essentially a cautionary tale for the protagonists should they fail to grow up, which gives them some of the film's most wonderfully absurd moments ("I call this the upwards spiral!"). And Mintz-Plasse is a real discovery, totally natural as he grows to embody the McLovin persona - he has the ability to make a throwaway line like "I've got a boner" completely hysterical. Best of all, it's the rare kind of film where one can laugh at boner jokes without hating oneself - lowbrow in a very knowing way, Superbad is hilariously dumb in a way that only very smart people can achieve. When Hill compares his sexual track record to the filmography of Orson Welles, I can't help but applaud not only the smart-alecky reference but the fact that the filmmakers are rewarding their smartest audience members at a time when most comedies aim squarely at the lowest common denominator.

The film ends on an interesting note, with the protagonists left to reevaluate their perception of women, to perhaps grow a little (this would resonate deeper if the film told us anything about its female characters, but still). The Judd Apatow canon seems largely aimed at speaking to overgrown adolescents, gently letting them that growing up isn't such a scary prospect. If, philosophically, I prefer Lindsey Weir getting on a VW bus and leaving town, that probably says more about me than it does the film, and we'll see how I feel in ten years. Still, my heart warms at the thought of 17-year-old boys sneaking into Superbad in the hopes of seeing boobies and perhaps learning a thing or two in the process. At the very least, I learned that, since McLovin is already taken as an alias, Muhammad is probably the next best thing.