Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treat

Halloween Trailerfest #31: The Boogeyman!

Sidenote: I've had Michael Myers nightmares since I was four (less frequently now). In each, I move to a new town, change my name and start a new identity, but eventually the Shape shows up and the dream becomes an extended chase. But it appears that as the series progresses, it continues to shape my unconscious, because in the last dream, I was accompanied by Danny Trejo.

Happy halloween.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #24: Cronenberg!

You are a beautiful, beautiful butterfly.

I've been putting off writing about Alien: Resurrection, mostly because, compared to its predecessors, there simply isn't much to say. Sapphic intrigue, gender politics and a curious pro-choice message are suggested but never really developed - the film is, as waifish android Call (Winona Ryder) refers to a Ripley brought back to life by science and international box office, a construct, the first superficial entry in the series. This is not to say that Alien: Resurrection is awful; on a pure gross-out level, it's a good deal of fun. But more often then not, it's like a mildly amusing party guest who thinks he's the suavest guy in the room.

Blame the typically obvious script by Joss Whedon, which revolves around a generic pre-Firefly gang of interstellar crooks battling the now-familiar xenomorths reborn through the miracle of cloning (how cutely 1997) along with a not-quite-human reincarnation of T. Ellen Ripley. As I mentioned before, variations on the themes that have sustained the series are touched upon, the difference being the arch, self-conscious attitude towards its own story. The concept of an part-alien Ripley, for instance, opens the film up to all kinds of narrative and thematic possibilities that are never pursued; it's simply a smirking gorefest made for self-important dorks who pat themselves on the back for knowing the phrase "vagina dentata." Add in awful dialogue composed of a constant barrage of empty sarcasm (1997 again), and it becomes staggering to recall how buzzed-about Whedon's script was back in the day.

With almost every significant element of the first three films reproduced here, it's telling that the notorious Weyland-Yutani company is absent from the plot (they went bankrupt). The sidestepping of the series' anti-corporate message meshes with what appears to be an extemely compromised, focus-grouped franchise entry (witness Ryder, woefully miscast in a misguided attempt to attract the Reality Bites crowd). Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of the best stylists around, and the film does have a memorably sticky, verdant visual style. At the same time, while few of Jeunet's films (save The City of Lost Children and A Very Long Engagement) are particularly deep, Alien: Resurrection feels unusually generic. Jeunet's tendency towards whimsy clashes against the grimier moments, which replicate the gross-out moments of the earlier films without capturing the same unease. Whatever the case may be, neither studio tinkering nor Gallic shenanigans can account for the newborn, a hybrid alien that looks like Frank Langella's Skeletor dipped in porridge. When the newborn dies a protracted, grotesque death, Alien: Resurrection ceases to be fun even on a gross-out level - it's just nasty, kind of mean and not very smart.

The film is not without its charms, among them Brad Dourif's reliably wacky supporting performance, Darius Khondji's striking cinematography, Dan Hedaya's back hair. But if there's anything that makes Alien: Resurrection worth visiting ten years later, it's Sigourney Weaver, who is clearly having a blast, delivering even the crappiest lines with knowing wit. Weaver immediately and consistently finds the tone the film really needed to succeed - she's sexy, cynical and unapologetically weird. It is clear, finally, that the Alien series is the story of not one but two unstoppable forces of nature. Take Ripley out of the equation and you get Alien vs. Predator. Case closed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #22: Who Made Who?!

Bonus points for anyone who can name the source of the trailer music.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cheveux Sans Visage

The following is a contribution to the Close-Up Blog-a-Thon.

When we first see Pam (Rose McGowan), it is from behind as the other characters that populate the first half of Death Proof speak cattily about her. Pam remains in the backgroud, out of focus, or in distant two-shots for most of her screentime, her marginalized position in the frame mirroring her status in the film. While the Final Girl archetype of slasher film has been frequently discussed (and is an important part of Death Proof, less talked-about is the First Girl, the generic, interchangable character who departs before we ever really know her. Think of Judith Myers, or Annie in Friday the 13th, or the dude who gets whacked with a mallot in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We're denied any emotional investment with these characters; they exist only as fodder.

The above two-shot (which reminds of both Magritte and Ringu) literalizes the oft-criticized facelessness of slasher characters. Tarantino is making reference to the often awkward visual compositions of grindhouse cinema, but it's more than the kind of tongue-in-cheek smartassery that comprises most of Death Proof's sister film Planet Terror. It's one of several times that Pam literally upstages herself, her ghostly hair concealing her features.

Indeed, Pam practically volunteers for her First Girl role (that McGowan plays such a low-status role after her Planet Terror supervixen is a great meta-joke). Stuntman Mike seems mostly annoyed and mildly amused by Pam - she's a momentary distraction from his real targets. But Pam begs for Stuntman Mike's attention and gets into his car even after this becomes an obviously bad idea. She's looking for trouble, and is absent even in her own shot.

When we finally view Pam in close-up as she pleads for her life, it is only because she has fulfilled her narrative purpose. Tarantino frames her through the smeared glass dividing Mike's front seat and the celluloid detritus that is a major part of Grindhouse. She is a prisoner not only of her killer but of the frame, conceived for a horrible fate she is doomed to repeat over and over again. She has no mouth with which to protest, because if she does not die, then we haven't gotten our money's worth. While Tarantino's talent with cinematic violence is famous, less talked about is the underlying empathy he grants even his most marginal characters. IAnd in McGowan's eyes, we can glimpse the sad story of the girl who never had a chance.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #12: Brimley!

This gets better and creepier every time I see it.

I've been out here a long time.

Sigourney Weaver reminds of Maria Falconetti in Alien 3, and not just because of the shorn palate that was the focus of the film's pre-release buzz. David Fincher's second sequel could practically be called The Passion of Ripley, so thoroughly does it subject its already-beleagured protagonist to a barrage of physical and spiritual torments. More impressive than the alien this time around is Weaver, giving her best performance as Ripley here - beaten, hopeless, her inner anguish palpable in every one of Fincher's clinical, Dreyer-esque close-ups. Taking the series to its nihilistic end point, Alien 3 deposits its heroine at "the ass end of space," strips her of her she-Rambo accoutrements and once again reinvents her, this time as a pre-Raphaelite martyr saint. A film about chaos that was famously made in a state of chaos, Alien 3 is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) incoherent and splendidly dissonant. While it cannot match its predecessor in sheer filmmaking craft, it's a more direct thematic sequal to Ridley Scott's original.

Easily the most inhospitable setting in the series is remote penal colony Fiorina "Fury" 161, a haven for rapists and murderers devoted to a monastic way of life in anticipation of the apocalypse (they haven't given up profanity, however - the screenplay is gloriously vulgar). It is here that the spaceship Sulaco crashes, carrying Ripley, a broken Bishop and the corpses of Hicks and Newt (a much-derided, impressively merciless choice). At a ceremony for the dead, Dillion (Charles S. Dutton) declares that "within each death, there is also the promise of a new life," a scene Fincher intercuts with the grisly rebirth of the alien from the insides of a very cute pooch. It's a moment that contains insight into the bodily horror that makes the alien concept so frightening, as well as the fact of a second sequel (the answer to Dillon's question "Why the pain?" being that Aliens grossed $130 million worldwide). As the plot develops, the alien is more clearly defined as the fear of something that exists within, in both a literal sense and in the early, provocative suggestion that, for these pious, sex-starved inmates, the alien is a manifestation of something long repressed.

Unfortunately, this suggestion is only addressed in a routine, too-reassuring attempted rape scene before being summarily dropped in favor of a bleaker take on Rio Bravo. While both elements work fine, each to some extent dilutes the other; if there's a problem with Alien 3, it's the overabundance of ideas that are never satisfactorily dealt with. Of course, Fincher and his cast and crew had to work under impossible circumstances - commencing production without a finished script, making up the plot as they went along - so it's honestly a miracle that the film succeeds as well as it does. Fincher manages to arrive at a final scene, depicting self-destruction as heroic, that borders on incendiary for a summer tentpole while commenting on his own treatment by the Hollywood machine (fuck Weyland-Yutani). None of this changes the film's myriad problems, the interchangability of some supporting characters and some shoddy-even-for-1992 CG chief among them. But it's a testament to Fincher's talent (not to mention Alex Thomson's glorious cinematography and Eliot Goldenthal's chilling score) that even in the film's most muddled moments, one can catch glimpses of the unsparing vision that would flourish in Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac.

There's a moment in Alien 3 that is perhaps the defining image of the series - Ripley and the alien, face to face, Ripley trembling in anticipation of her death before the alien suddenly retreats. It's an image worthy of Fuseli, capturing the balance between light and dark, creation and destruction (as Ripley herself tells the creature "I can't remember a time when you weren't a part of me"). It's also a self-reflexive moment, depicting the symbiotic, elemental relationship between actress and monster that enables the enduring appeal of a series that, here, reaches its logical conclusion. At least, that is, until Joss Whedon and Dolly the sheep had something to say on the matter...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Trim Bin #63

- I can't make up my mind about the new trailer for Sweeney Todd. The trailer looks gorgeous, Tim Burton's trademark style is certainly on display, and Johnny Depp apparently can sing. But there's too little singing on display here to be sure - it's a case of the studio trying to fool teens into seeing a musical. And I'm not sure about Burton's aforementioned style - his recent movies are too often on cruise control, and I'm not sure Sleepy Hollow-esque opulence is right for a musical that practically demands a stark approach. Either way, I'll be there on Christmas - as far as year-end Oscar-bid musicals go, it sure beats Dreamgirls (imagine what Burton could have done with that).

- So it turns out I'm in The Game Plan for about three seconds. The Rock's running one way, I'm headed the other way. I'll post a screencap when it hits DVD, because under no circumstances should any of you ever see The Game Plan.

- Over at Final Girl, Stacie Ponder is writing about the films that made her Willies List (so wonderful to see Ed's idea take off like it has) . Her recent post on Magic includes the tv spot that sent many a child of 1978 into convulsive sobs. It's funny - Magic is an interesting, occasionally creepy character study, but that commercial is way more terrifying.

- I was recently singled out at a party and accused of not loving (truly loving) Troll 2. Well, sorry. As an act of penance, here's a picture of my friend Jess and her boyfriend Nick being interviewed at a Troll 2 screening in NYC (third picture down). I must say, I do admire their commitment to Nilbog.

- Greg at Dreamscape is spending the month looking at mostly lesser-known titles in a series he's dubbed The October Ordeal.
- Doug at Nihon Musings, also getting into the Halloween spirit, lists Seven Amazing Character Deaths in Anime.

- Don't forget about The House Next Door's Close-Up Blog-a-Thon, which starts Friday (details here).

- On a personal note: Luna loves Superman. She becomes completely transfixed whenever Superman Returns is on TV, and giggles and squeals whenever Supes is in action. It's important to me that I not force my interests upon her, so it warms my geeky heart to find out Luna's a chip off the old block. Luna, have I got a movie to show you:

Halloween Trailerfest #9 & 10: Science Fiction Double Feature!

I love this:

But I love this more:

Monday, October 08, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #8: Cropsy!

This one is Final Girl's Film Club pick for October. Edgar Wright has definitely seen this one.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #7: Goblin!

Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?

That Aliens is as much a product of its decade as its predecessor is evident in far more than just Paul Reiser's perm. Replacing the genre-bending Alien's Agatha Christie-inspired structure with all-out war not only pushes James Cameron's film squarely into the action genre (of which it is one of the definitive examples), it also turns Aliens into a competely different philosophical beast. Sharing with Ridley Scott's film a distrust of corporations, it's also a more direct descendant of Star Wars - it's a slick, populist combat picture that leaves us exhilarated where its predecessor left us drained. When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) asks early on "We're going to kill it, right?", the question echoes Rambo's "Sir, do we get to win this time?" from the previous year's megahit Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron). And like Rambo, Aliens is a post-Vietnam attempt to revise nation's painful recent history, finding victory in an unwinnable war. Such fantasies were popular in the 80's, and appear to be making a resurgence now (witness the popularity of Ron Paul), and Cameron cannily exploits this need for catharsis. Aliens is one of the best movies of its kind, perfectly crafted and completely entertaining from beginning to end; if I love it a little bit less than Alien, it is because I find its motives suspect.

Aliens begins with the discovery of Ripley 57 years after the start of her cryogenic sleep, giving us a protagonist that is literally and spiritually adrift. At the film's core is the transformation of this woman, stripped of the world she knew and, consequently her identity, redefining herself in the crucible of violence and battle. Survival in Alien meant escape, here it means battle, and Ripley is transformed from Scott's liberated, resourceful warrior woman into one of Cameron's trademark gun-toting Überbitches. I'm of two minds about how Cameron treats his female protagonists; it's certainly a kick to see strong women celebrated (Titanic's sappier moments are largely forgiven by me thanks to the scenes of a buff, axe wielding Kate Winslet), but Cameron also defines strength in narrow terms. Early on, Ripley impresses the Marines she is accompanying on a rescue mission to LV-426 (the barren planet seen in the first film) by operating a power-lifter; bookended by her climatic battle with the queen alien, the two scenes are the first and last in a series of Ripley proving her strength to the skeptical soldiers (and, perhaps, to a skeptical audience). I admire Cameron's mostly successful attempt at creating a forward-thinking action movie, except that I already knew Ripley was strong and I don't need her to be talented with military hardware to belive this. Where the first, weapon-free film was driven by a kind of vaginal horror, Aliens is preoccupied with weapons and, thus, becomes about Ripley growing a dick. At worst this feels hamhanded; at best (which is, to say, for most of its running time), it's like Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers as directed by Hélène Cixious.

None of this, however, changes the fact that Aliens is one of the most entertaining movies of all time, a perfect example of what Hitchcock called "pure film." While Cameron's films are celebrated and derided for their technical sound and fury (underscored here by an effective if indelicate James Horner score), what distinguishes him from other technically sophisticated peers like John McTiernan and Tony Scott is his appreciation of silence. The largely action-free first hour of Aliens, mostly devoted to Ripley and the Marine's search of the seemingly abandoned LV-426, has an ominous, deliberate pace that, just as it is about to demand our boredom and frustration, snares us with a shocking variation on Alien's chestburster scene. The trick of any sequel is to both meet and subvert an audience's expectations, and by adapting the first film's universe to his own style, Cameron's film manages to keep us off-balance even as he delivers what we've paid to see. My aesthetic and philosophical preferences aside, I far prefer Aliens to a retread where eight new crew members go through a carbon copy of the original - luckily, the four entries in the series (Aliens vs. Predator doesn't count) have been a training ground for emerging directors posessing their own singular vision, something that distinguishes the series from other franchises (consider the cynicism of that term).

The heart of Aliens is the relationship between Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), an orphaned little girl resourceful enough to have survived for several weeks on LV-426. Ripley's prolonged climatic rescue of Newt from the queen (masterfully realized by Stan Winston and his crew) is complely gripping, as Cameron and Weaver have succeeded in creating a very real emotional in these the characters, each experiencing a total, existential loss resulting in a poignant mother/daughter bond. Cameron comes closest to aping Scott's concerns in pitting his warrior woman against a monster defined by her reproductive status - it's a battle between Amazons and breeders for the future of our children, and it's awesome. On the other hand, in a development that jibes sharply from Scott's film, Ripley learns to cast aside her fears and embrace technology in the form of a sensitive 80s man android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen). While both films are critical of Weyland-Yutani, the company determined to capitalize on the alien, Aliens ignores the relationship between the android and his creator, as if to say "Yeah, Lockheed Martin is evil, but the F-22 raptor is sooo bitchin'."

In juxtaposing the mother/daughter relationship against its relative corporate conformity, Aliens reveals itself as surprisingly domestic. And strangely enough, this works in the film's favor; while some ambiguity is sacrificed, there is an undeniable cathartic joy in watching a gang of wisecracking Marines (Bill Paxton's Hudson, like a buff, male Veronica Cartwright, is the biggest standout) blow away a hive of very nasty xenomorphs. And, best of all, Cameron never sacrifices intelligence or character in the process. Aliens is a landmark film, a redefinition of action tropes that has often been imitated but rarely equalled in style or substance. It's so good, in fact, that not even Paul Reiser and his perm can sink it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Halloween Trailerfest #4: Raincoat!

I first saw this in ideal circumstances - at the Harvard Film Archive on a grey August night. But even on the tiniest of screens, it loses none of its hypnotic, devastating power.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Monday, October 01, 2007

Top 10: Vampires

The enduring appeal of the bloodsucking ponce has never been better articulated than by Bela Lugosi himself (as played by Martin Landau). "The pure horror," Lugosi explains, "it both repels and attracts them. Because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror. Take my word for it. You want to score with a young lady, you take her to see Dracula." With that in mind, here's a list that was unusually hard to create (in the interest of diversity, I've limited myself to one Dracula and one Orlok).

1. Count Orlok (Max Schreck), Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens "Schreck" is the German word for "fright," and while this would have been a great pseudonym for the actor who first embodied Dracula (sporting his own pseudonym), it's a hundred times more awesome that Schreck was the dude's real name. Proof, in my mind, that Schreck was born to play the tortured, feral count - it's more than a performance, its one of the definitive images in horror. Klaus Kinski gave the role a palpable sadness, and Willem Dafoe turned it into sharp satire, but it's Schreck that really earns his surname.

2. Dracula (Gary Oldman), Bram Stoker's Dracula Coppola's version of Dracula is uneven and famously features a particuarly terrible Keanu Reeves performance. Still, it's my favorite Dracula, thanks to its visual opulence and the magnificent titular performance. Bela Lugosi is the most iconic, Christopher Lee is the scariest, and Frank Langella is the permiest. But Oldman is amazing here, his Dracula ranging from warrior to feeble old man to bummed Goth dude without ever becoming jarring or incoherent - this Dracula is a multilayered monster, driven equally by satanic instinct and human desire, and the Count has never been so compelling. Plus, gotta love purple-tinted shades.

3. Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve), The Hunger She's a pianist, she seduces Susan Sarandon, she's into Bauhaus, and she's trapped David Bowie in a coffin in her attic. Case closed.

4. Martin Madahas (John Amplas), Martin Possibly the creepiest vampire listed here, Martin is a vampire who can appear in sunlight, has no particular superpowers, and lacks fangs (a razorblade does the trick). Director George A. Romero never quite tells you whether the teenage-looking Martin is crazy or if he is, somehow, an 84-year-old bloodsucker, and Amplas' deadpan performance enhances the film's effectieve ambiguity. The monster here is competely unremarkable, which makes the bloodletting all the more unsettling.

5. Severen (Bill Paxton), Near Dark The coolest in a movie filled with cool vampires, Severen looks badass in leather, even more badass with a blistering sunburn, and gives the coolest possible delivery of the line "Finger-lickin' good."

6. Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen (Ingrid Pitt), Countess Dracula It's one thing to have large breasts. It's another to have large breasts that look nifty when covered in blood. Pitt, in a semifictional Elizabeth Bathory biopic, achieves the latter. And for some reason, I really respect this fact.

7. Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), Fright Night Dandridge, who moves in next door to a horror-loving teen, is walking subtext. An impeccably dressed, sexually ambiguous 80's archetype, Dandridge flirts with the hero's mother, seduces his closeted friend, and nearly turns his girlfriend to the dark side before they've ever knocked boots. Fright Night, for all its laughs, has always felt weirdly dark and nihilistic, and a lot of this is thanks to Sarandon, cheerfully embodying a fanged corruptor of the youth and imparting an important message to the film's young audience: fear yuppies.

8. Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner), Salem's Lot Typically I don't like to lump in TV movies with features. But I'll make an exception, as the above scene scared the bejesus out of the eight-year-old me and gave me nightmares for a week.

9. Max (Edward Herrmann), The Lost Boys Every time I come home to my wife watching Herrmann as the wealthy, doddering grandfather on Gilmore Girls, I can only think about the predictable but still excellent reveal at the end of Joel Schumacher's only watchable movie. Plus, Max's subsequent destruction, set to "La Cucaracha," is endlessly rewatchable (I have a friend who made The Lost Boys his first DVD purchase just so he could watch the ending in 5.1 surround).

10. Space Girl (Mathilda May), Lifeforce Because any list of the best vampires is incomplete without at least one naked space vampire.

Halloween Trailerfest #1: Meteor shit!

I'll be posting one spooky trailer every day for the month of October. First up, a movie that always just misses my top 100. I love it so.