Sunday, November 19, 2017


We all go a little mad sometimes. And sometimes that means we take an extremely long hiatus.

So.... I once again find myself asking the question of how honestly can a film be judged by its own merits when it has reached saturation levels of cultural osmosis? Psycho did what it did so well that it spawned countless parodies, references, and homages. If Jaws made you afraid to go in the ocean, Psycho had already made you terrified of the shower. It's a powerful image to see a young woman brutally murdered in the shower, even if the "graphic" shots of the murder now look comical. Especially since Janet Leigh's Marion Crane looks as happy as those weirdos in the Zest commercials until suddenly the curtain is ripped back. You genuinely believe this is the most refreshing shower ever, and then BAM! Murder time. It also helps that the shot of her unblinking, dead-eyed stare while slumped on the tile floor is genuinely chilling.

Since everyone knows the steps of the plot, the big question is can this movie still function well as a psychological thriller. In this case, it really can, but that's largely due to the bits left out of the re-treads. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates as a shy, golly-gosh-gee-whiz awkward guy who you could imagine being the nerdy friend in Leave it to Beaver. His almost aggressive wholesomeness is what makes all of his behavior off-putting. He kindly brings Marion a sandwich, then peeps on her through a spyhole. He makes nice conversation, then starts going down the road into creepy territory. Every woman has known a guy like this, who seems sweet and innocent, then starts speaking violently or getting agitated to the point of frightening when a particular button is hit. It also makes the central question of the film much deeper - which personality is actually the killer? Norman says Mother is violent and controlling, Mother says Norman is a cold-blooded murderer. Hitchcock doesn't think we need that questioned answered, any more than Ford thought we needed it confirmed who actually shot Liberty Valance. As a person who has been soaked in this film since childhood, but never actually seen it, I wasn't ready for that to be a question. It somehow gets skipped over in the parodies, which prefer to focus on "Haha, this man is wearing a dress".

On the front of disability activism, this movie does have problematic elements. Norman isn't a psychopath, and the portrayal of mentally ill people as killers is... well, it's a well-worn trope. But the movie does do a better job with dissociative identity disorder than could generally be expected from a film made in 1960. But while Norman's mental illness is shown as the reason behind the murders, it's also explained as a function of an abusive co-dependent relationship with a parent. While "Controlling Mother" is another well-worn trope, I'm not familiar with many earlier films that pushed the idea of abusive parents causing extreme reactions in their offspring. In the 80's, of course, we suddenly became obsessed with abusive parental figures, and I'll address that trope in some of the later films.

Overall, I'm really glad I finally watched this movie. In my opinion, it works better than some other films that have achieved a similar level of saturation precisely because the blend of cinematography and acting are ignored in the parodies and homages. Both are what make the story work, and without it, it's simply shorthand for a slasher film. The whole movie is needed to be a psychological thriller.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Night of the Living Dead

     Is reviewing the National Film Registry right? Well... the television said it was the right thing to do.

     So... Night of the Living Dead. I've been putting this one off, because to my ever-lasting nerd shame, I really, really hate zombie movies. Even though what we now call zombies are more properly termed "ghouls" (like they're called in this film) or "revenants". But the term zombie stuck, and now we've got a bonanza of the damn things chowing down on grizzled survivors, shrieking women, or trying their luck on eating wacky character types in the Zom-Rom-Com. But it really all started here, since the only earlier zombie film I know of is the obscure Bela Lugosi flick "Zombies on Broadway" (highly disappointing - while there are traditional Voudon zombies, they only show up on Broadway in the last scene). And this film didn't just make zombies a mainstream scare factory, it ushered in just how graphic a horror movie could get with its content!

     The film stars Duane Jones, Bill Cardille, and contains various other people. Duane Jones is really the only one to turn in anything resembling a performance, while Bill Cardille had actually been a reporter. The others... well, they help show just how low the budget was! They kind of lurch through the picture like extras in a high school play, occasionally reaching the level of first-time community theater performers. The camera effects are generally amateurish, with cuts especially being handled generally badly, and the camera choosing weird things to focus on (my favorite being the mincing zombie with the bob cut - she looks more concerned about dirtying her shoes than finding brains). But there is a certain effectiveness in the general lot of the film being amateur hour... especially since it was mixed with some very well-thought out practical effects and some amazing make-up work. The generally bad acting can feel a lot like random people facing this completely beyond the pale situation, and when the camera is focusing on the practical effects, it gives loving detail to the guts and gore.

     There's also the revolutionary casting of Duane Jones as the hero in a horror picture, and interestingly, the last to die. While everyone involved in the picture swears it was just because Duane Jones gave a really good audition, a black man keeping his head in a horrible supernatural situation, let alone being generally heroic, was pretty much unheard of. Here I'm thinking of the myriad of media from the era showing various black people being terrified of "haints", as an extra little nail of them being inferior to whites because they're so full of silly superstition! Ha! I take George Romero's word that he wasn't trying to do anything revolutionary with racial politics in film, but unconsciously achieving something is still an achievement. Even if that revolution was short-lived enough that "The Black Guy Dies First" is a standard horror trope.

     As you might surmise, my feelings on this film are mixed. It ushered in the era of everything I hate about horror films. I hate bloodfests and gore. I hate zombies. As a piece of entertainment that I was expected to find pleasing in some way, I hated this movie. But from the detached portion of me that is trying to engage these films on the level of "cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance", I have to admit this movie had all three.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


Sometimes people don't know when I'm reviewing. It's not important for them to know. It's important for me to know.

In other words, sorry for the hiatus.

In other other words, let's get right into Patton.

Patton functions well as a straight war picture, with some great battle shots and a good general sense of history. But it primarily functions as a character study of General George S. Patton - a man who seemingly lived his life as if he was a character written for a movie. Equal parts bombastic and sentimental, foul-mouthed and strangely delicate about particular matters, if Patton hadn't been a real person, you could probably confuse him with a character who wandered off the set of Catch-22. How can a man who has just given his men a vulgar speech full of fire, brimstone, and curses, then insist on being driven out to an ancient battlefield and quote his own poetry with misty-eyed rapture? Especially poetry that is actually rather good. The Roger Ebert review from 1970 points out that George C. Scott as Patton in the opening scene is wearing perhaps two fewer medals than Groucho Marx would have worn to play the parody of the character. Yet the medals are worn in all seriousness, without even a hint that they might be considered excessive. The whole movie functions on that level. It is undeniably the Patton Show, and when the camera goes off to focus on someone else - whether Americans, British, or German, Patton is still the subject of conversation.

Even many other biopics allow the subject a little more room, maybe some discussion solely of events that we know will affect the subject, but that they have no knowledge about. Yet here, if Patton is not directly involved, he is the subject of conversation. The Germans admire him as a romantic throwback, the British despair of him as a glory hound, and the Americans go between adoring him as a plain-spoken warrior and despising him for being a blunt old bastard. The thing that keeps him being likable as a character is that he is all of these things, and is fully aware of it. The problem comes in that he has to exist in the world with other people. He doesn't understand people who are not like him, and makes no real effort to try.

We've all known people like this, and they are generally exhausting in real life. But on the screen, especially as a central figure in a mesmerizing biopic, they can become irresistible. As a film, this functions as one of the truly great biopics, both by completely centering its subject, and by not attempting to whitewash any flaws. Lawrence of Arabia is another of the great biopics, and is also a Registry film, which I will get to eventually. But the difference between the two is that Lawrence of Arabia makes sure that the viewer never fully forgets that T.E. Lawrence is playing a part between two great dramas: WWI and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In Patton, WWII might as well have just been fought to give old George something to do in his twilight years. But judging by the characters of the two men, that's precisely how both of them saw themselves in relation to their conflict. And that's what makes Patton memorable as a war epic and as a biopic.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back

National Film Registry.... I am your blogger.

Okay, considering the reaction that gets in the movie and the fact that the personal pronoun is a totally separate line, maybe it's not the best thing to open up with. But when am I going to have another chance to make that joke?

Happy Star Wars Day, my dearest readers. I have to swallow my chagrin that my April Fool's Day post is the most viewed on my blog, but hopefully the new readers went beyond that. But hey, I'm in time for the only other Star Wars film on the National Film Registry. And, in my opinion, it's the best Star Wars film. A New Hope is incredibly important for reviving that sense of fun sci-fi space opera serial. It gave and continues to give new generations that whole wriggling in your seat anticipation.

So if the entire point of A New Hope is how fun it is, why do so many people consider the much bleaker Empire the superior film? I think that's a particularly relevant question now, when so many movies and series are going dark and ending on downers just for the point of being dark. There's been a kind of Kafka-esque gloom suffusing our fantasy and science fiction entertainment, especially over the last 20 years. Is The Empire Strikes Back where it started? I honestly don't know the answer to that. Maybe it started with Alan Moore and with Tim Burton's Batman. We got to like the darker, more frightening style. And yet, The Empire Strikes Back has a different tone than the current crop of "Life sucks so I brood in a barely lit scene" films. Instead of being dark for the sake of darkness, the darkness and doubt feel purposeful. Life isn't going badly for the Rebel Alliance because life itself is pointless and horrible, but because they are in a horrible situation. The downer ending isn't to make us feel like we're more clever for expecting it - it's raising the stakes.

Of course not every science fiction story prior had a hero who won. After all, the movie was made 15+ years after The Twilight Zone. But there's really the rub in this film - the center of a serial is always supposed to raise the stakes. You aren't supposed to believe the heroes could possibly make it out of this alive. In Flash Gordon and Captain Video, the heroes didn't only escape alive, but relatively unscathed. As Annie Wilkes says in Misery, "That's cheating". I think that's where the success of The Empire Strikes Back as a film really comes into play. You can talk about the Zen Buddhist elements, the deepening of the universe, or the storyline that mimics Greek tragedy... but for me, the strongest feature of the film is the lack of cheating. No one escapes unscathed. Leia finally allows herself to unbend a little from the pillar of strength she always has to be... and instantly her lover is forcibly taken from her. Han really finds the core of altruism and selflessness within himself... and is tortured and experimented on. Lando gives up his honor to protect his people... and loses anyway. And of course, there's Luke. Poor, poor Luke. Even Vader gets his first spark of real humanity in this film, where he proposes that instead of murdering his son, he can turn him to the Dark Side... and he is then rejected by a son who chooses death (even if he wound up surviving the fall) over him. I guess that's why the first half of Return of the Jedi feels like it has lower stakes. The Empire Strikes Back is all about these life-changing, often shattering events happening to the main cast, and then you don't see the recovery. Just a moment of hopefulness (though is anyone else bugged by the fact that Lando is wearing Han's clothes in the final scene?), set against that unforgettable backdrop of stars.

Maybe it's not a perfect film and maybe the next film weakens it a bit, but The Empire Strikes Back is space opera at its best.

And remember: the Fourth will be with you. Always.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Room

O hai, National Film Registry Project! How's your sex life?

What can one say about Tommy Wiseau's The Room? This cinematic masterpiece is truly destined for the National Film Registry. I might as well jump the gun on this one and be truly prepared, so I can be duly praised for my foresight and vision in hailing this as one of the most highly artistic films of all time. What can one say about unforgettable characters like Johnny, Lisa, Denny, Mark, Lisa's Mom, the wormy guy in glasses, Mr. "Me Underwears", Nuclear Bomb Lady, and Who the Hell is This Guy? Each turns in a stellar performance in this tour de force.

This is a movie that best captures the post-modern angst of the big city, combined with the aimlessness of the Gen-Xer's facing full adulthood - complete with a mentor role over a Millenial and conflict with a Baby Boomer, mixed with a masterful use of neo-medieval Christian symbolism. It is not that Johnny has absolutely no idea how to play football: his repeated tossing of a football without ever scoring a goal of any sort is a powerful visual metaphor of his lack of direction. Mark doesn't repeatedly forget that he has already had sex with Lisa because he's an idiot: instead, he is showing a Joyce-like ability to shift between the facets of his experience. What is not acceptable to one side of his personality (helping Johnny's future wife cheat), is acceptable to his baser nature. This then becomes a tragedy of Miltonian proportions, as the figure of Lisa - who can be equated with "Sin" in Paradise Lost or a masterfully crafted Eve figure from medieval drama, causes such severe temptation to the lower instincts of Mark as to cause him to "fall from heaven" (or Johnny's close friendship), while at the same time, making Earth unbearable to the pure soul of the Christ-figure of Johnny, who has no choice but to sacrifice himself rather than continue living in the depravity of this world. Because of this, the whole film culminates in the loss of Denny's innocence, which gives such powerful symbolism of the previous generation moving aside so that a new generation can be completely screwed by the system.

The world of The Room has touched a generation in a way that few films have before. Tommy Wiseau joins such luminaries as Ed Wood and M. Night Shyamalan as a by-word for quality film. Few will ever top the brilliance of this performance. except perhaps the geniuses of RiffTrax.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Is Spinal Tap

The National Film Registry goes up past 11. Obvious gag is obvious.

So, This Is Spinal Tap. One of the seminal documentaries of our time, though Marty DiBergi suffers from the usual problem of terrible sound editing. Do documentarians go to some sort of class to make sure that the interview sections of their films come out as hard to hear as possible? This being a "rockumentary", most would be grateful that the sound on the songs is pretty decent, but that is to be expected. Down to this day, Spinal Tap maintains their reputation as one of the loudest bands in England. But the story isn't particularly about the music - though that's clearly an important factor. After all, Spinal Tap have long served as a sort of cementing force in music: whatever new genre has become firmly popular, they will probably try it out, at least until their first complete break-up in 1992. Their 2009 album featured forays in reggae, funk, jazz, and Broadway musical, none of which is too much of a departure for the band.

The real story is on the interaction of the band's founding members, David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell, as well as longterm bassist Derek Smalls. Sadly, Viv Savage only has a small part in the interviews, He's definitely got some talent as a keyboardist, but never seems to think of much to say without the medium of music. There's more interview time with Mick Shrimpton, who tragically died during filming. Derek Smalls may feel overlooked, as the "lukewarm water" of the group, but it's clear throughout the rockumentary that despite his loud, and often lewd, stage presence, the real Derek Smalls is a kind, thoughtful, and truly talented individual. Nigel Tufnell's music also gets many moments to shine, such as his playing of the first part of "Lick My Love Pump", which clearly draws influences from Mozart's immortal "Leck Mich Im Arsch". However, as of his last interview, Nigel Tufnell is still struggling to complete this piece. Which... well, Nigel Tufnell has never been considered one of the big thinkers of our age, despite the fact that he has a high level of musical talent, and a strong interest in experimentation (which may not turn out well, such as some of his more discordant solos, but the idea is there). Meanwhile, David St. Hubbins comes across as rather tactless and thoughtless. While Nigel may be a bit spoiled in the matter of backstage delicacies, David St. Hubbins, as the frontman, never seems to think a set sometimes calls for a change (memorably playing "Sex Farm" for a USAF mixer), or notices the problems members of the group are having personally. This was definitely exacerbated by the presence of his now-ex-wife, Jeannine Pettibone. Neither of them seem to be bad people, but they can be kind of oblivious people.

Varying bands, such as Nirvana, Dokken, The Misfits, and Metallica have all discussed the influence Spinal Tap, especially through the lens of the film, influenced their careers, while Aerosmith and U2 seemed to have members very personally affected by the travails of the band. If it weren't for the disastrous US release of Smell the Glove, Metallica may never have had the idea for the now iconic Black Album. While Spinal Tap can be derivative, they were sometimes ahead of their own time.

This is definitely a documentary to check out, and one that clearly deserves its preservation. While it has many of the problems that plague documentaries (grainy film, bad sound editing), it portrays a fundamentally honest and rather tragic picture of rock music from the 1960's through the 1980's, often recognized as a heyday of the genre. While Spinal Tap hasn't released any new material in 8 years, their dedicated fans can only hope that they still stand as mighty as Stonehenge, and have not broken like the wind.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The African Queen

It can be hard on the nature to review so many films, but Nature is what we were put here to rise above.

And rise above we do with movies like The African Queen (though the film has a rather astonishing lack of Africans – even for the time period). Ostensibly, this is one of those romance/adventures where the totally unlikely couple find acceptance and love in their differences. Though watching tends to form a different reaction than most of the sappy thrown-together plotlines, where you could never for a moment believe they will last a week out of danger. My roommate commented that this was the first movie he saw where Humphrey Bogart wasn't in charge, and I pointed out that Katherine Hepburn is always in charge. You can believe Mr. Allnut would happily bend his will to Miss Rose for the rest of his life, seeing as how he's a useful, but not a particularly determined man without her. You don't usually get the narrative of the woman being the courage and the driving force in the “danger romance” genre, and even though the movie came out in 1951, it's still refreshing. Rose Sayer may be a bit naive on technical matters, but the only thing that makes her shriek in the entire film is a choking swarm of mosquitoes. In most other “danger romances” you spend half the time wondering if the man's turn-ons include helpless whimpering, blood-choking arm holds, and screaming like an infant. Like I said, it's refreshing that Rose Sayer does none of those things, but is instead, always flawlessly polite and level-headed, even as she actually becomes filthy enough for you to believe she's on a river (as opposed to most heroines, who manage to do perfect winged eyeliner and keep their eyebrows on point during the zombie apocalypse).

Really what the story is about is two people learning to deal with each other, and the understanding leading to love. It isn't too different in basic outlines as the basic “Beauty and the Beast” story, although it's subverted by having “Beauty” cast as an unattractive old maid (which must have been tough work for the makeup department, considering they had Katherine Hepburn to work with), and having the castle setting replaced by a dangerous river surrounded by hostile Germans. It seems like it should be absurd, but maybe because the mains are really so likable, you can't help but get invested in what happens to them. Also, a World War One movie? Stop the presses. There's also the admirable decision to not try to force poor Bogie into doing a Cockney accent (how Charlie Allnut was characterized in the novel). Rewriting him as Canadian helped prevent the kind of dignity loss inflicted on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now if only we would allow actors who can't do accents to retain their original style of speaking and maybe rewrite a little to explain things.

Overall, I really enjoyed this film. It is definitely one I would watch again, and it's a movie I would suggest aspiring filmmakers watch. Your heroine in difficult circumstances does not need to be either brain-rendingly annoying or be unbelievably tough and competent. She doesn't have to know everything to be courageous or admirable, and she doesn't need to shriek and grab the hero to have vulnerability or build up the romantic tension. This is one of the perfect examples of a heroine in danger acting like a capable adult human being, and as such, really deserves the watch.