Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Satan! Come to us! We are ready!

I saw a matinee of The Lords of Salem after an overnight shift, and I'd been awake since the previous afternoon. This was the perfect way to watch it, I think, as much of the movie is from the point of view of a protagonist who spends much of the movie slipping in and out of nightmares until it's unclear where dreams end and reality begins. Her name is Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie, in her strongest performance), a radio DJ and recovering addict who receives a strange record - a repetitive, atonal series of notes - that places her and any woman who hears it into a trance-like state. Heidi soon finds herself haunted by flashbacks to a 17th-century coven performing bizarre rituals and visions of demons. The story allows writer-director Rob Zombie to let loose with the hallucinatory imagery and inventive sequences he excels at, with the film's low budget meaning he's not constrained by the commercial compromises that came with directing two installments in the Halloween franchise. This is Zombie's best movie since The Devil's Rejects, and his most wildly imaginative - by the film's batshit climax, The Lords of Salem has less in common with any American horror movie in recent years than with European horror and its embrace of abstract dream logic.

It'd be easy to simply list the directors that are overt influences on Zombie and call it a day (for the record: Kubrick, Polanski, Carpenter, Argento, Fulci, Jodorowsky, Ken Russell and probably a dozen others I can't remember at the moment). But The Lords of Salem works as well as it does because of the way Zombie internalizes these influences and makes them his own. The many overt similarities between Heidi and Laurie Strode in Halloween II suggest that Zombie is preoccupied with female protagonists overcoming some sort of personal trauma, especially if they have dreads and decorate their bedrooms with vintage movie and rock posters. What makes Zombie unique is his sincere empathy for his characters; it's rare to find horror films that, even as the story finds his characters being stocked and terrified, have such a deep sense of sadness about their misfortune. The unrequited relationship between Heidi and a co-worker, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips), feels authentic, and Whitey's understated concern for Heidi is unusually affecting for a horror movie. As crazy as Zombie's movies can get, they work because of his underrated ability to populate them with people, not human-like avatars who kill time while we wait for them to get naked and get killed. This is the second horror movie of the year, after Evil Dead, to draw a line between addiction and possession, and there's a moment near the end of the movie, a look between Heidi and Jeff as she closes a door, that is as affecting as anything I'm likely to see in more "serious" movies this year.

As it's a Rob Zombie movie, The Lords of Salem is populated with beloved genre character actors and B-movie stars - Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace are a lot of fun as a modern-day coven, with Wallace's character drawing on her own real-life work as a self-described spiritual healer (between this and a similar character inspired by Wallace in The Innkeepers, it's interesting that she's left such a lasting impression on the horror directors she's worked with). Meg Foster is also, um, memorable and very creepy as the head of the 17th-century coven. Zombie's tendency for occasionally awkward dialogue and broad comic relief remains, but overall, The Lords of Salem is surprisingly mature and restrained. Zombie has continued to develop his talent for mining tension out of negative space and building suspense in the eerily quiet, still moments between scares. And though most of the movie was shot on sets, the exterior shots filmed in Salem do as great a job as any movie I've seen of capturing the uniquely chilly, eerie atmosphere of New England in the fall.

There are scares in The Lords of Salem that are as subtle as anything in Rosemary's Baby or The Tenant, including one instant classic where Zombie plants a terrifying detail in the frame, waiting for us to notice it. It's a very effective slow burn that builds to a completely insane climax - without spoiling anything, it reminds more than anything of William Hurt's hallucinations in Altered States. The Lords of Salem is the second movie this year, after Spring Breakers, where it seemed completely unbelievable that I was watching it in a multiplex - I can't imagine this movie playing well with a Friday-night teenage crowd, and even fans of Zombie's other movies might be baffled by it. But for horror fans who get excited about the genre's wildest possibilities, The Lords of Salem is well worth checking out.

Sidenote: Horror fans have poked a lot of fun at Zombie's tendency to let his camera linger on his wife's body in various stages of undress. But isn't it sort of sweet, after five movies and years of marriage, that his wife's butt is still one of his favorite subjects? I bet they're a great couple.

Monday, April 15, 2013

What is this love that loves us?

To the Wonder's haunting, beautiful opening scenes follow the film's lovers Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) as they visit Mont Saint-Michel. The shots of Neil and Marina exploring the eighth-century architecture and playing on the soft, almost rubbery beach as the water creeps in capture the heady, ephemeral feeling of the early stages of a romance as clearly as any movie I can remember. From these early scenes, it's clear that Terrence Malick is pushing the abstract, roaming narrative approach he's become known for further than he ever has, which gives them the bittersweet quality of a fond, fleeting memory. Almost as soon as we've been introduced to Neil, Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), the film abruptly moves to Oklahoma, where Neil has brought Marina and Tatiana to live with him. Malick follows the ebbs and flows of Neil and Marina's romance with this same elliptical, poetic style; it's a romance on a cosmological scale, a representation for Malick of our (often strained) relationship with the infinite. Though the scale of the drama is as intimate as Malick has ever attempted, it's characteristically ambitious, both formally and thematically; the result is uneven and often maddening, but fascinating nonetheless.

This is Malick's first film set entirely in the present, and the scarce biographical detail about Malick's own life suggests that it's even more personal than The Tree of Life. That his previous movies were all period pieces made them a clearer fit for the prism of memory that the director is increasingly drawn to exploring. It's jarring, in a pleasant way, to see mundane locations like a Sonic drive-in or a grocery store through Malick's eyes. As always, Malick's camera is very busy, circling the actors, peering out of windows and turning away from the action to catch a flower or rainwater flowing over leaves into a sewer grate (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has become Malick's most important collaborator). As others have noted, Malick choreographs his actors like a dance - when Neil and Marina fight, we see them chase each other from one room for the next, and in its impressionistic way, the moment perfectly captures the roaming tension of a real-life argument between lovers. With the near-total absence of dialogue, we can understand the health of Neil and Marina's relationship in terms of how they move around and apart from one another. Kurylenko is particularly suited to Malick's approach, allowing her body and movement to become girlish during the early stages of infatuation, animalistic (at points, literally prowling on all fours) when Marina is lusting after Neil, and rigid as their relationship falters and she struggles to regain her sense of place. This probably sounds ridiculous, but Kurylenko deserves a lot of credit for risking ridiculousness and, within what must be a very limiting framework for an actor, creating a character we feel we know and understand.

As Neil and Marina separate, reconnect and grow apart again, Malick connects the love between two people to a very Christian concept of communion with the world around us, even as God's presence and love for us can seem very elusive. This is made explicit by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest, who shows compassion to the poor, sick and drug-addicted people in his town even as he struggles with his own loneliness and distance from God. This aspect of the movie has been met with derisive chuckles by many of the film's reviewers, but I was actually fond of it; there are very few modern American filmmakers who deal with religious faith in a serious way, and I admire Malick's bravery in his earnest depiction of the world as beautiful and divine, even as he explores spiritual doubt. Less successful is the attempt, through Neil's work as an environmental engineer, of exploring our destructive impact on the earth; this was handled more successfully in The Thin Red Line, and it's brought up so cursorily here that it would have probably been better to leave it out.

The problem I had with parts of To the Wonder wasn't Malick's style, however, but the vague aspects of things he seems to have deliberately left out. While Kurylenko and Bardem do as much as they can with the little character detail they're given, Affleck and, especially, Rachel McAdams as an old flame Neil reconnects with when Marina returns to France for some time aren't given enough to work with, and their characters remain total ciphers. I don't mean to suggest Malick should have pursued a more conventional approach to character development, but I can't fully feel the intimacy I think he wants us to if I don't know who these people are, and it would be very possible for him to create distinct characters without sacrificing the qualities that make To the Wonder unique. A film like In the Mood For Love, for instance, is similarly elliptical and poetic, but by the film's end, we know who the two main characters are, and the result is emotionally devastating. Malick's own Badlands is also about relationships, but Kit and Holly are such indelible characters that the film moves us as both a story and a poem of images. By the end of To the Wonder, I had no idea who Neil was, though Affleck tries gamely. While there were certain scenes and moments that resonated with my own experiences with love, it was in a very broad sense; by reducing his characters to pure archetype, Malick has created a film that is aesthetically and intellectually interesting but emotionally remote, and I don't think that was his intention. If the movie is about how we know God by knowing one another, than why don't we ever get to know these people?

I'd known, going into the film, that Malick was also married to a French woman with a daughter who moved with him to Texas, that they eventually divorced, and that Malick later married a woman he'd known when he was younger. What I didn't know is that Malick's ex-wife died shortly before he would have begun the process of writing To the Wonder. I found this incredibly sad, and I immediately understood To the Wonder much more clearly; I occasionally wonder what it will feel like if my ex-wife passes away before I do, and I can understand why it would compel Malick to revisit the relationship. I wish that I had felt that urgency in the film; perhaps because the movie is so close to his own experiences, Malick remains elusive when I would have preferred him to be open, philosophical even in the moments when the movie badly needs a naked expression of feeling. Even the sex scenes are strangely cold - I don't mean to sound like a letch, but if you're going to have your attractive female leads disrobe, to drain the moments of any eroticism seems almost as exploitative as pornographic leering. For these reasons, To the Wonder was a surprising disappointment, at least when compared against Malick's other films. My problem wasn't Malick being Malick (I love all of his previous films), it was that the film badly needed its director, who sees the whole world with such incredible clarity, to look inward.

That said, To the Wonder is still very much worth seeing, as even when Malick stumbles a bit, he's still a master filmmaker. I realized, at one point, that I had no idea how long I'd been watching the film, and this is to Malick's credit - he makes films for us to lose ourselves in. The film frequently favors low-angle shots that keep the sun or moon in the frame, quietly reminding us that our own dramas are a small part of a much larger chain of being. We need films and directors who remind us of that, and more than anything, I admire Malick for continuing to march to his own beat knowing that the movies he makes aren't for everyone but inviting us to see things through his eyes all the same. A friend I saw the movie with remarked that "If Malick keeps this up, he's going to be in trouble." Perhaps, but I know that whatever trouble he gets himself into next, I'll be there on opening weekend.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

There ain't nothin' in room 237. But you ain't got no business goin' in there anyway.

I'm the exact target audience for Room 237. The Shining is my favorite movie, and as I've written before, even after watching the movie countless times over the years and absorbing as much criticism and information about the making of the film as I possibly can, I still find surprising new details every time I revisit it. It's been gratifying to see the film's stature grow over the years - I remember thinking, from the two-star reviews I'd find in TV listings and video guides back in the early '90s, that it was generally considered a bad movie. The only positive recommendations I knew of were my mom's and a reference to Danny's imaginary friend Tony in the "Weird" Al Yankovic vehicle UHF. Thanks to the internet, The Shining found the same validation as many other great movies with mixed receptions have, as fans consolidated and began to share impressions and theories about the film.

In recent years, Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich has hosted a treasure trove of Shining-related ephemera at The Overlook Hotel, and Movie Geeks United devoted a long episode (part of their Kubrick Series) to the making of and various theories - both insightful and charmingly bonkers - about The Shining. It's those more offbeat theories that are the subject of Room 237, which eschews talking heads in favor of audio-only interviews of several devotees of the film sharing their interpretations of its meaning. These interviews are illustrated by clips from The Shining, other Kubrick films and movies by other filmmakers - footage of the cinema in Lamberto Bava's Demons, for instance, is used repeatedly when subjects talk about the theatrical experience. The film is one of the video essays that have become a popular form of criticism in recent years, with Red Letter Media's Plinkett reviews and the more serious essays by Matt Zoller Seitz and others at Press Play being two great, very different examples of the form. Room 237 director Rodney Ascher's approach to the video essay is particularly sophisticated, placing The Shining in multiple contexts so that the film is seemingly engaged in a dialogue with itself, with its fans, with its director's larger body of work and with the medium in general. Not only is it an incredibly fun and sometimes uncanny approach to its subject - I told my girlfriend, about a half hour in, "This is what the inside of my brain looks like" - but it's a brilliant visualization of the way that a relationship between a movie and its fans can be a living, evolving thing.

As for the theories themselves, it's true that some are quite silly - I don't think Bill Watson has a boner in that one shot, the poster on the wall is clearly a skier and not a minotaur, I don't see Kubrick's face in a cloud, and I'm very confident that the movie isn't Kubrick's admission that he helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing, because the moon landing really happened. It's not important to be persuaded by these theories, though, as the movie is neither claiming they're credible nor making fun of them. Some have complained that Room 237 trivializes film criticism by presenting credible film analysis, such as Bill Blakemore's reading of the film as a comment on the genocide of Native Americans, side by side with conspiracy theories. But I don't think the movie is about "film criticism" as much as it is about how a work of art can inspire any of us to become lost in its mysteries.

Also, some of the interpretations presented here actually are quite insightful - while I don't think The Shining is a literal cryptogram about Native Americans or the Holocaust, it's clearly a movie about how we're haunted by our past sins, not just personally but in a broader cultural sense. Maybe not every Calumet can or German typewriter is a direct comment on this, but it's definitely a movie with multiple layers of meaning. When one narrator points out the frighteningly illogical course of Danny Torrance's rides through the Overlook's hotels on his Big Wheel, with Ascher mapping his route onscreen, it's difficult to reject the sort of dream logic that Kubrick was probably playing with. Perhaps, as another narrator suggests, the movie's many symbols, symmetries and paradoxes are the work of a bored genius. In any case, the thing that resonated with me most deeply was the insistence that Kubrick, who famously favored wide angle, deep focus shots, did so because he wanted every detail of the production design to register. It strikes me as a solid metric of a great director, one that communicates meaning not just with the subject of a shot but with every seemingly peripheral detail.

As I wrote earlier, I'm obviously predisposed to getting a kick out of this stuff - the use of the same sans-serif font, the white-on-black title cards punctuating the different sections of the film, and the quotations of Wendy Carlos' version of "Dies Irae" in William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes' score filled me with geeky joy. But while Room 237 is a treat for fans of The Shining, it should also be a lot of fun for anyone who has been accused of overthinking a movie (or book, or album) they love. It's a fascinating, highly entertaining valentine to cinephilia and the ways that the things we love end up defining us.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Nobody's ever gonna live in our house!

 This is my contribution to this year's White Elephant Blogathon.

One of the most interesting developments in the film industry during the drive-in era was the proliferation of regional independent and exploitation filmmakers. The most famous of these is George A. Romero - the spiffy new Monroeville Mall in Dawn of the Dead and the decaying neighborhoods in Martin are a large part of what makes them memorable. Among the most successful of the regional filmmakers was Charles B. Pierce, the head of a Texarkana ad agency who made his directorial debut with The Legend of Boggy Creek, a mockumentary about a sasquatch-like beast who prowls the Arkansas wilderness. Boggy Creek grossed over $20 million in the early 1970s, and the directors of The Blair Witch Project cited it as an influence. Both Boggy Creek and Pierce's third film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, have very effective fright scenes, with Pierce's lack of experience in Hollywood working for the films - they're homemade movies that don't play according our expectations, and without the security of formula, we dread what could happen next. In both films, the payoff isn't as effective as that early sense of foreboding; the pacing and tone are uneven, and the awkward attempts at comic relief are often wince-inducing. The Evictors, Pierce's third and final horror movie, has a much more assured tone; in its own unassuming way, it's very effective.

The film opens with a sepia-toned prologue showing a bloody raid on an isolated farmhouse whose owners have killed several people. Cut ahead to 1942, when a young couple (Jessica Harper and Michael Parks) move into the house. What follows is a straightforward southern Gothic, as locals try to warn the couple of the house's violent history - subsequent owners have all died under mysterious circumstances, naturally - and Harper is soon tormented by a mysterious stalker. It's a simple story, but Pierce does a great job of staging the bloody flashbacks and present-day scenes of peripheral characters dispatched by the unseen villain in a tense, effectively suggestive way. As my friend Greg pointed out in his Letterboxd review, Pierce knew how to get as much atmosphere as possible out of the use of locations and natural light - Greg compares the cinematography to the films of Terrence Malick, and after revisiting Badlands the other night, I can see the resemblance. The Evictors also benefits from the presence of Harper, who doesn't have a lot to do for much of the film but, when it's time for her character to be terrorized, has the same vulnerable, almost porcelain quality that made her performance in Suspiria so effective. And while Michael Parks is absent for much of the film, it's a hoot to see him as a young man, and I appreciated that Pierce skipped the obligatory scene where the husband tells the frightened wife that she's just imagining things.

Once the plot reveals what's really going on, The Evictors does deflate a bit. The film has the suggestion of a supernatural menace that made me hope for a Deadly Blessing-like "wtf?" ending, but the payoff is easily guessed from the outset and not very interesting. The film does end with one final twist that makes absolutely no sense, but I must admit that I did get a kick out of its almost defiant incomprehensibility. Though the ending of The Evictors is a bit of a letdown, it's a pleasure getting there; unavailable on DVD for many years (it's on Netflix Instant and getting a release as an extra on Scream Factory's upcoming The Town That Dreaded Sundown disc), it's a mostly forgotten but likeable little sleeper that is also a welcome reminder of the idiosyncratic gems that served as the B-features on many a drive-in double bill. I've been lucky in the White Elephant Blog-a-Thons these past few years, in that I keep getting genuinely good movies that are new to me; Paul, I know these things are chosen at random, but I'm probably due for a stinker.