Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan.  Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong.  Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me.  I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting.  I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either.  All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors.  In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me.  Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.

 The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts.  Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for.  The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials.  Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin).  So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.

So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated.  The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic.  For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue.  They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face.  Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people.  They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient.  Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.

This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it.  This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface.  In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor.  You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it.  Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences.  In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare.  But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.

****1/2 out of Five

October 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

Marriage Story(10/19/2019)

I’m not really the world’s biggest Noah Baumbach fan.  More often than not his movies either leave me cold (Frances Ha) or just sort of end up not being that memorable to me (While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories), but when he hits he hits and some of his films like The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America have impressed me, enough that I keep checking out his work but not enough that I really look forward to it.  Still, his latest movie Marriage Story promised to be one of his most probing and personal works and having seen it I can confirm that it is indeed shooting for something bigger and more memorable than a lot of his recent output and more often than not it succeeds.  The film concerns the marriage, or more specifically the divorce, of a New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his wife, an actress who stars in most of his plays (Scarlett Johansson).  The two have a young son and the wife has plans to move to Los Angeles with the son and could be staying there a while if the pilot she just shot becomes a series.  This bi-coastal setup will become a major point of contention but the bigger conflict here is deeper than that and is focused more on the differences that drew them apart in the first place.

The film is hardly the first movie to take a deep dive into the pain of the divorce process and it’s easy to make comparisons to the likes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, Scenes from a Marriage, and especially A Seperation but there is a particularly modern and Baumbachian spin to this one.  Like most of Baumbach’s films the focus here is on particular type of upper class urbanite and it’s hard not to imagine that he didn’t draw some inspiration from his own divorce with Jennifer Jason Lee, but the characters here do like distinct fictional creations rather than just thinly veiled versions of the writer and his ex.  The focus of the film is by and large on the Adam Driver character, who likely has the most screen time, but the film is definitely interested in the Johansson character’s perspective and sympathizes with her reasons for wanting the divorce.  If anything is vilified here it’s the legal system, or at least the way that the legal aspects of divorce (and high paid divorce attorneys) end up aggravating the separating couple and making things worse, but it also wisely points out here and there why the system works the way it does and isn’t naïve enough to believe there’s much of a way around it.

The film really does a great job of making you understand these two people and how they came apart without completely dumping exposition on you.  Occasionally the film indulges in having the characters monologue in a slightly theatrical way, but these moments largely fit in and the while the film is a bit more serious in tone than some of Baumbach’s other movies it’s not humorless at all and actually throws in some rather comical moments here and there.  Unfortunately I do think the movie stumbles a bit with its ending.  There’s a big heated argument between the main principles at something like the 100 minute mark which feels like something of a climax but then the movie just keeps on going after that and starts losing steam as it includes scenes and sequences that feel a bit indulgent and almost give it a bit of a Return of the King false endings problem.  This is what holds the movie back from greatness but it really is something special up to that point; an excellently written character study with keen insights into a common human experience today featuring two actors at close to the height of their careers.
**** out of Five


Pain and Glory(10/22/2019)

Pain and Glory has been heralded as a comeback film for the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, which is odd because he never really left.  His last film, Julieta, was quite strong so really this notion that he was going through a rough spot was only really derived from one poorly received film (I’m So Excited) in what is otherwise a pretty long streak of solid work.  This newest film is (to my knowledge) the first film in his career to be overtly autobiographical.  It stars frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas as a film director Salvador Mallo who is almost certainly a stand in for Almodóvar himself.  Like Almodóvar, Mallo is a successful filmmaker and he has had a roughly equivalent biography, but there are also definite differences between the two.  The character of Mallo is depicted as being rather lonely, unlike the real Almodóvar who has had a boyfriend since 2002 if Wikipedia is to be believed, and there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent character to his brother and business partner Agustín (unless that’s who his secretary in the film is supposed to be).  There’s also no mention of Almodóvar’s tangential involvement in the Panama Papers scandal and I certainly hope that all the health problems and drug addictions that Mallo is involved with are inventions as well.  Still I do think the film’s ruminations about the character’s childhood are legitimately drawn from his memories.

Almodóvar’s films have long rested on a certain brand of nuttiness and he’s at his best when he dilutes that nuttiness and mixes it with a bit of melodrama and some strong characters.  Occasionally he gets the formula a bit off and adds too much nuttiness but sometimes he doesn’t add enough nuttiness and plays things a little too straight and that is kind of what happened here.  Antonio Banderas certainly gives a strong performance and the spectacle of seeing Almodóvar creating an style alter-ego is interesting but I wish he had adopted a bit more of that movie’s energy and flair along the way.  In many ways I think Almodóvar’s heart was more in this movie’s flashbacks than it was in the modern scenes, but the modern scenes take up a lot more of the film’s runtime and are oddly episodic in nature leading up to a slightly abrupt ending.  Part of the problem may be that I’m not terribly familiar with Almodóvar’s personality outside of his films, he usually seems pretty down to earth in interviews despite his sometimes wild cinematic visions and seeing Banderas do an imitation of him only does so much.  But I don’t want to over-emphasize the negative here, there is plenty to like about the movie, I just don’t see it as this top-tier Almodóvar product that people are claiming it to be.
*** out of Five 


Terminator: Dark Fate(10/31/2019)

Few major franchises have been as mismanaged as the Terminator series, which came out of the gate like gangbusters with two straight classics of the action and sci-fi genres, but since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, but three different attempts at more or less rebooting the series that have either underwhelmed or completely and humiliatingly failed.  I didn’t even bother seeing the last two reboot attempts, so why did I find myself giving this one a chance?  I don’t know, maybe it was that James Cameron was on board as a producer (which didn’t help the forgettable Terminator 3) or maybe it was that it had serious money behind it (which didn’t help Terminator: Salvation) or maybe it was because I thought that if they had the audacity to try again so soon after the widely hated Terminator Genisys that they must have had something interesting up their sleeve.  Well, I’m not really sure that they did, because even though this is easily the most respectable Terminator film since 1991 it never quite manages to be anything overly inspired either.

There are a key handful of reasons why no one has managed to bring that Terminator magic back.  For one, Terminator 2 tied itself up way more than the second installment of any action movie ever would.  Cameron almost seemed to have intentionally written the series into a corner in an attempt to keep anyone else from following him.  On that front this reboot seems to have done a better job than some of its predecessors in that its script does a reasonably good job of explaining why the machines still rose even though Judgement Day was averted, it has to contrive a little (well, a lot really) to do it, but it does the best it probably could.  The second reason no one was able to follow up the first two movies is that that T-1000 was a hell of a villain and it was hard to come up with another machine that would be an even bigger threat than a bullet-proof morphing liquid metal guy.  For Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines they had the idea of having the liquid metal surround a more traditional robot endo-skeleton, but it was never exactly clear why that was supposed to be more intimidating, if you could just be pure liquid metal why would you want a crushable endoskeleton?  For the new movie’s villain they do more or less recycle that idea but do at least do a little more to establish why that might be an advantage.  It kind of lets him be in two places at once and can act as a bit of a backup plan.  It’s still not quite the inspired upgrade that the T-800 to T-1000 transition was but it does at least mostly work for the movie.

However, the film does run right into the third obstacle that’s been holding these Terminator sequels back: the hiring of second-rate jobber directors.  The last three Terminator sequels were directed by Jonathan Mostow, McG, and Alan Taylor who were respectively: a nobody who had just made a bad submarine movie, an infamous hack, and a TV director who had just made what is widely believed to be the worst MCU movie.  The guy they got to direct this one is Tim Miller, who to his credit does have a hit on his resume with Deadpool, but his hiring here seems to suggest a slight misunderstanding of why that movie was a hit.  Deadpool was popular for its comedy and general attitude but it most certainly wasn’t popular for its actions sequences, which were quite weak.  It is not a coincidence that they dumped Miller and got one of the John Wick creators to make the sequel.  The set-pieces here are reasonably well conceived but I don’t Miller shoots them particularly well.  He zooms in too close and the editing isn’t quite right.  That undermines the movie quite a bit but the bigger problem here is just the absence of interesting new ideas.  James Cameron may have retroactively hurt the film’s long term prospects by making two straight chase movies that kind of followed the same formula.  He was able to get away with that for Terminator 2 because he got his hands on some revolutionary special effects but there hasn’t been a comparable leap since, or at least not one that a Terminator movie is going to effectively show off.  So we keep getting movies like this which try to do that same thing but with ever so slightly different characters taking the place of the people who were there before.  There are a couple of neat ideas thrown into this one (I like what they did with Schwarzenegger’s character for example), and there are certainly worse movies out there but overall this still just feels like an imitation of a master’s work by a plainly inferior disciple.
*** out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies.  Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same.  2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it.  We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves).  Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised.  Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t.  But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.

After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse.  That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.  On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space.  As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).  Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light.  Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him.  Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.

The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking.  These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality.  You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away.  I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better.  This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level.  Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in.  Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.”  Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite.  The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.

But what does all of this mean?  I don’t know… does it need to mean something?  My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character.  Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about.  This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare.  Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway.  Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2019 Halloween Edition



Ma (10/1/2019)

I think I watched the trailer for this Ma movie a dozen times in front of various movies and while I was intrigued by the idea of Octavia Spencer in a horror flick I ultimately wasn’t interested enough to see it.  As it turns out having an over-qualified actress like that is pretty much the only thing the movie has going for it because it is otherwise quite boring.  The film is about a group of teenagers who start hanging out with a middle aged woman who allows them to party in their basement judgement free but then becomes obsessed and starts stalking them.  The trailer implies that there might be something supernatural about Ma or that she might be a practitioner of voodoo, but no, she really is just a crazy lady and the teens in the movie are rather slow to realize that they should probably be avoiding her.  No one actually gets killed in this movie until the last half hour and aside from some vague creepiness around the title character there really isn’t much in the way of suspense or scares at all in the first half and while things actually do start to happen in the last third they aren’t terribly interesting or nearly as outlandish as they need to be after all that buildup.  It’s a movie that’s too dull for the mainstream, too tame for the hardcore, not good enough for the critics, but there is a baseline competence to it which keeps it from being some kind of “so bad it’s good” kind of thing.  Ultimately it’s just kind of a bland horror flick, if you must watch a 2019 movie about a wacky stalker lady then Greta probably has more going for it.

** out of Five

Knife + Heart (10/5/2019)

I’m generally interested in horror movies that come from unique ambitions and I think it’s safe to say this would qualify under that umbrella.  The film is set in 1979 and is about a lesbian French woman who directs gay male porn for a living.  She has just broken up with her girlfriend, who does the editing on these movies, and seems to be going through a depressed grief when someone starts murdering the actors from her movies in highly sexualized ways.  It feels a bit cheap and lazy to automatically assume that a horror movie about gay people is meant to be an AIDS allegory but… it’s kind of hard not to go there when you’re dealing with a film where a woman sees all her gay friends dying one by one while the authorities rather coldly fail to intercede.  That’s something with potential but I’m not sure the film is ever quite able to find the right tone.  It looks really good and seems fairly serious, but the killer wears a really stupid looking mask and, well he kills people with a dildo that has a switchblade knife that comes out the tip (leading to a rather grizzly scene where someone tries to give this dildo a blowjob).  On top of that the movie just generally loses steam in the second half and gets kind of muddled at a certain point.  It’s a movie I want to support for what’s unique about it, but the simple fact is I ended up losing interest in it.

**1/2 out of Five

Inhuman Kiss (10/8/2019)

Inhuman Kiss is a Thai film which to the best of my knowledge has never received any theatrical distribution or marketing in the United States or anywhere else in the West.  It’s on Netflix, presumably to accommodate their customers in its home country more so than viewers in the English speaking world (to the point where they didn’t bother to include English subtitles seperate from the English Closed Captions).  The one and only reason I’ve even heard of it is that it has somehow been submitted by Thailand as the country’s selection to compete in the Best International Feature category at the Oscars this year and the novelty of a strange sounding horror movie like this being submitted has caught the attention of some awards observers.  The film deals with a figure from Southeast Asian folklore called a Krasue, which is a sort wereworlf-like legend where women become cursed and at night their heads become detached from their bodies and fly around (complete with internal organs dangling below) and kill people.  These things have been featured in movies horror before, perhaps most famously in the Indonesian film Mystics in Bali, but this one takes more of a “they’re misunderstood” approach to them and has you following the afflicted woman and posits as the villain someone who is going from village to village promising to hunt and kill Krasue.  The film also downplays the whole “guts dangling from the head” thing and makes them look more like tentacles than organs.  The film is better made than you might think; it’s got some pretty decent cinematography and the CGI visual effects are generally acceptable.  The film obviously won’t be for everyone.  I watched the movie out of a sort of academic curiosity about what a commercial horror movie from a very different cultural tradition would look like and that curiosity was satisfied and I also wasn’t unimpressed with the movie itself.  Not sure how many people are looking for that.

*** out of Five

Child’s Play (10/13/2019)

There have been remakes of just about every other slasher franchise of the 80s so it was probably a matter of time before someone decided that Child’s Play needed to be rebooted.  These reboots generally face a bit of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation where they feel lame if they simply rehash the movies they’re remaking beat for beat (ala Nightmare on Elm Street 2010) but they also alienate people if they change things too radically (ala Halloween 2009).  Ultimately the filmmakers seem to have opted for a fairly radical re-invention, and I want to give them some credit for that because going too far in the other direction can really be an infuriating exercise in cynical recycling… but if you’re going to do something new it does need to be something that people want and I’m not sure that what they’ve given us is that.  The remake completely eliminates the idea of a serial killer’s soul possessing a doll and instead the idea here is that the doll was this robotic smart device which goes haywire and starts over-interpreting the distaste his owner has for various people and murders them.  On its face that’s not the worst idea, but if they were going to make that movie they might have been better off ditching the Child’s Play IP altogether and making an original movie called “iDoll” or something.  The Chucky doll they go with looks kind of bad; making an evil toy both look scary and still be believable as something that would actually get sold is kind of hard and I don’t think they thread the needle very well here, especially given the nature of what this thing is supposed to do in the remake.  There are some good elements though, some of the kills are effectively gory and the human cast is mostly pretty solid, but ultimately it’s a pretty forgettable attempt.

**1/2 out of Five

One Cut of the Dead (10/14/2019)

One Cut of the Dead is a film that had something of a Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity like reception in its native Japan in that it managed to get a lot of publicity from being a film made on a miniscule budget (reportedly $25,000) but being impressive despite this and becoming a big financial success.  These “little movie that could” success stories are usually a little more complicated than the publicity departments make them out to be, and I suspect that the true budget for this movie was a little higher than that given the size of the cast, but it is a clearly low budget production either way.  The film begins in a sort of found footage scenario where a film crew is in a remote building making a zombie movie but soon come to realize that an actual zombie apocalypse is going on around them, much to the delight of their overbearing director.  This all seems reasonably well made if a bit odd but then the movie takes a dramatic change in direction which re-contextualizes the first part and changes the film’s genre completely.  Even saying that much borders on spoiler territory but I do think it’s important to point out given that this twist could potentially annoy people who simply want to see a zombie movie.  I also don’t want to over-sell the twist either because it’s not as meta and brainy as such a thing might sound.  The second two thirds are less of a radical genre deconstruction and more of just a charming little movie about characters you come to like the company of.  I don’t really want to say too much more.  I found it to be a pretty pleasant trifle but it’s not going to change the world either.

*** out of Five

Happy Death Day 2U (10/20/2019)

This was a movie I watched rather casually when it came on HBO and did not even consider at the time that it was a 2019 release and would consequently be a film I’d have to talk at some length in a canonical capsule review.   The original Happy Death Day made decent money in 2017 but it wasn’t really anyone’s favorite movie and I have a hunch that it only rather narrowly managed to get this sequel greenlit, and maybe they shouldn’t have bothered.  The first film was largely characterized by the fact that it was only barely a horror film, which was in some ways a strength because trying to make a real slasher movie at a PG-13 level probably would have sucked, but for the sequel they go even further away from being a thriller and venture into being a full-on comedy, but one that isn’t very funny.  The movie also generally over-estimates how much anyone really cares about the characters here or about the stakes involved in the first film.  If the first film wanted to be Groundhog Day this movie wants to be Back to the Future 2, but that movie worked because it was building off of a really solid foundation and you knew that first movie really well and wanted to see it get kind of deconstructed, not so much here.  The film also introduces a science fiction explanation for the repeating days thing and it makes absolutely no sense.  So, yeah, even if you found some marginal pleasure from the first movie you can skip this one.

** out of Five

Tigers Are Not Afraid (10/27/2019)

Man, I was really rooting for this thing.  This Mexican thriller spent an entire year playing festivals before it finally got a United States release and came with quotes in its marketing from Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro.  The film tells a story about children who are fleeing from vicious cartel while simultaneously having dark fantasy visions and envisioning the whole thing as a fairy tale… and you wonder why Guillermo del Toro likes this thing.  Del Toro’s shadow looms so heavily over this thing that it really can’t sustain itself, it just feels like a second rate knockoff.  The film does do an impressive job of conveying its setting, its cast is mostly solid, and the basic filmmaking is mostly solid but despite being only 82 minutes the whole thing proves to be a bit thin and repetitive.  The handful of ideas that the film does have for injecting the film with horror elements, like a CGI snake thing, don’t entirely work and the film never really establishes a logic to how the real and the unreal mix in this world.  I had assumed this was the work of a newbie filmmaker and that it maybe showed some promise for what they would give us in the ensuing years, but it turns out that this Issa López person has been making movies in Mexico for something like twenty years and if this is the best she’s got I’m not sure she’s going to become a major voice.  Still, I do get why it’s had a pretty good festival run, it probably does stand out a bit better in that environment but it was probably not fit for prime time.

** out of Five

Crash Course: British Horror (1967 – 1971)

Every October I like to do a “crash course” article around horror movies of a certain theme or type.  The last two years my crash courses have been in the horror films of a certain country, namely Japan and Italy, so I thought I’d keep that up.  This year I’ve decided to look at some uniquely British horror movies and specifically British horror movies of a specific era straddling the late 60s and early 70s.  This era of British horror is often associated with Hammer Horror, and while some of the movies I’m looking at were indeed produced by Hammer I’m trying to dig at least a little deep than the usual assortment of Dracula and Frankenstein movies they’re most known for.  It should also probably go without saying that I’ve already seen The Wicker Man, which would of course fit right in with this collection.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth as it is known in America) is the third film in a rather unconventional series of films that were based on a trilogy of televised serials that aired on the BBC in the 50s.  The first two films, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, were made by Hammer before they were known as a horror studio in the mid-fifties not long after their respective TV versions aired and starred a guy named Brian Donlevy but before the third serial aired things changed at Hammer films.  “Hammer Horror” as a brand started taking off and the American distributors they were partnered with wanted as much Dracula and Frankenstein as they could get and the Quatermass series was put on the back burner for a decade.  Then in the late sixties it was decided that it was finally time to make a movie out of the third and at that time final Quatermass serial, which was also the best remembered of the three.  This adaptation would be disconnected from the previous two; it would be in color, it would have a new cast, and it would not really reference the first two.  This time around Brian Donlevy has been replaced by the Scottish actor Andrew Keir, who certainly seems a lot more professorial than Donlevy and original creator Nigel Kneale would have more control over the screenplay.

The story concerns a buried flying saucer which is discovered while trying doing some sort of digging on the London underground.  Surrounding the saucer are the remains of some ancient neanderthal-like humans and inside the saucer are a bunch of dead bug-like aliens.  The conclusion they eventually come to is that there was a race of Martians that went extinct on the red planet but desperately sent a ship to earth and influenced the evolution of ancient pre-humans like the Monolith from 2001 and that ancient Martian memories are also implanted into humans because of this.  That’s kind of a lot to take in and the movie brings it up kind of casually midway through.  I think the movie actually comes to this conclusion a little too quickly and would have been better served coming more towards the conclusion (this might have been a remnant of the story’s serialized origins and might have been better as an episode cliffhanger).  I would say that the movie’s other big drawback is that its technical elements are kind of garbage, especially the occasional moments where we see the small insect-like aliens who barely move their arms and the way the film’s finale hinges around a weird looking blob in the sky is just kind of terrible and I’m honestly not entirely sure what was going on in the last twenty minutes of the movie.  The film being in color also isn’t quite an asset for it as the earlier films’ use of black and white both gave them extra atmosphere and also hid some of the more questionable effects work.

**1/2 out of Five

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General is one of the most famous films to be made in the Hammer style even though it wasn’t actually made by Hammer.  The film was actually the work of a production company called Tigon British Film Productions, a studio which was founded in 1966 and appears to have folded sometime in the early 80s and are primarily remembered for having made a handful of low budget horror films in direct competition with Hammer and this one is probably the most famous of them.  The film was directed by a guy named Michael Reeves who started directing films at a very young age before dying at the age 25 because of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose and this was his third and final film.  It also features Vincent Price in the title role, a casting choice that was made on the behest of American International Pictures, who were co-financing and would eventually distribute the film in America under the title “The Conquering Worm” which was the name of an Edgar Allen Poe poem in an attempt to pass the film off as one of the Corman/Price “Poe” movies that had been popular earlier in the decade.

The film of course has nothing to do with that poem and is instead based on a historical figure named Matthew Hopkins who operated during the mid-17th Century English Civil War and would go from town to town trying and executing people for witchcraft.  The film is fictionalized and would never be mistaken for a documentary, but it’s more accurate to the exploits of the real guy than you might think.  There are no “real” witches in the movie, Hopkins is the villain here and his inquisitions are the film’s real source of terror. The film is actually so grounded in its period that it almost isn’t really a horror movie so much as it’s a violent for its time revenge movie which happens to be set against a strange and slightly horror adjacent moment in British history.  That violence also isn’t as shocking today as it apparently was in 1968 though there are some nasty moments like a burning at the stake and some torture scenes so it does make sense that it would disturb some audiences who were expecting something a bit more sedate.  The film is also notable for largely being set in daylight and for its ability to find some interesting British countryside locations to film in.  The film is a product of tis time and should be judged against the other films of its era, and on that front it’s an interesting work for sure.

*** out of Five

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (which was renamed The Devil’s Bride in America because the original title sounded too much like a western) was a Hammer produced film with a distinction of starring Christopher Lee as a hero rather than a villain.  In the film Lee plays The Duke De Richleau, a character that was created by author Dennis Wheatley and featured in a a series of pulp novels from the 1930s through the 1960s.  De Richleau was an aristocrat and a sort of amateur detective and adventurer, a lot of them took the form of regular mysteries, but a lot of them had him investigating occult dealings.  I suspect the character had some influence on the character of John “Hellblazer” Constantine and maybe even Dr. Strange, but he doesn’t appear to be one to dabble in the occult in order to fight with it, the setup to these seem to be that the occult is 100% evil and De Richleau is going to fight it in the name of Jesus.  Presumably if the movie had been a bit more films about the character would have followed, but Hammer still kept the potential series on ice for a while for fear that a movie about outright Satanism would have trouble with the censors but by 1968 they clearly had confidence in the property because they brought in Terrence Fisher to direct and he was the guy behind a lot of their biggest Dracula and Frankenstein movies.

In the film Christopher Lee finds himself in a high society party where people are behaving strangely and concludes that they are a coven that has been worshiping satan and he is right.  This is not a situation like The Wicker Man where people’s beliefs and superstitions lead them to do horrible things in service of ideas that are probably wrong, in this movie the devil is very real and the Satanists are able to successfully wield black magic to do evil stuff.  As stated previously Christopher Lee is playing the good guy this time around though he still has a somewhat malevolent look sporting this sick goatee and speaking really authoritatively.  The film’s villain is played by Charles Gray, who is the guy who played Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, and he has this sort of effete aristocratic villainy.  The exact rules of Satanism here are a bit unclear, Satan and various demons tend to show up in visions from time to time but they often don’t really do a whole lot and some of these visual effects are kind of charmingly corny, but the movie does pick up in a big way in its second half and I’d say it’s one of the better Hammer efforts of the era.

***1/2 out of Five

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

The House that Dripped Blood is a film from the third and probably least successful of the studios making low budget horror films during this era: Amicus Productions.  Amicus was a weird studio that for whatever reason found itself going all in on making anthology horror films that would feature a few short segments tied together by a framing story.  They made at least seven different horror films which had that format and after the studio folded their main producer appears to have gone on to produce even more anthology horror films in Canada and America including the Stephen King film Cat’s Eye.  Their interest in this format appears to have at least in part been influenced by some sort of partnership they had with the American horror writer Robert Bloch, who is best known for writing the novel upon which the movie Psycho was adapted but he also had a long and prolific career writing short stories for pulp magazines like “Weird Tales.”  Most of these anthology horror films were based on Bloch’s back catalog of stories and would be scripted by Bloch himself and The House That Dripped Blood, which is probably their most remembered film, is no exception.

The film largely consists of four stories, all of them about various people who lived in the same, apparently haunted, house: the first is about a horror writer who starts hallucinating that one of his creations has come to life and is stalking him, the second is about a man (played by Peter Cushing) who becomes obsessed with a local wax museum, the third is about a father (played by Christopher Lee) who seems mysteriously over-protective of his daughter, and the fourth is about a horror actor who comes to believe that an old cloak he found it turning him into a vampire.  The four stories are not terribly bloody (the title is strictly metaphorical) and are all big on having sort of ironic twist endings, which are kind of a staple of short genre fiction.  Of the four I didn’t really care for the second one with the wax museum, which was predictable and sort of diverted from the haunted house motif.  The first story has a pretty decent if not wildly original twist at the end, and the last story is kind of comical and was clearly meant to sort of lighten things up at the end.  I think the third story with Christopher Lee is probably the best of the three, in part because you could kind of sympathize with the nanny who is brought in to act as the audience surrogate.  All of this is wrapped in a slightly (and I do mean slightly) better framing story than these things usually have, which involves a detective investigating all the weird things going on at the house.  Not much happens in this framing story but it does a better job than usual bringing the stories together and making it feel like a real movies.  This is all very by the book standard old school horror writing and in general there’s very little in the film that will surprise you if you’re familiar with this genre, but there’s kind of a charm to that.  It’s a rather quaint movie, one of the last of a kind of horror that was about to be obliterated by the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later.

*** out of Five

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

In 1968 a then unknown (but soon to be very known) filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich was given the task of making something out of some unused footage from an unfinished gothic horror film starring Boris Karloff.  Being the forward thinker that Bogdanovich was he knew the movie they were making was already an anachronism and the movie he ended up making was a film called Targets which was all about how real life violence had made movies of the kind Karloff usually made kind of obsolete.  This was a pretty astute observation given that the film was released the same year that movies like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby would point to a new future for the genre.  But not everyone got that memo, or at least if they did they weren’t going to change fast enough to fully leave the old ways behind and change how horror movies were made completely.  Because of this people like Vincent Price, who were very much of the horror old school like Karloff, were still able to make movies well into the 70s, many of which weren’t sure how much to dip their toes into the waters of what’s new and how much to stick to the traditions that worked before.  A perfect example of this would be The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a very strange 1971 thriller which has a certain Hammer feel (though it was actually financed entirely financed and produced by Hammer’s American distributor AIP) but with a certain sadism which those movies lacked and just another layer of weirdness on top of that.

Dr. Phibes is a deranged genius who was believed to have been killed in a fiery car crash but who actually survived and now wants revenge against a whole team of surgeons who failed to save his wife.  As such he hatches a plot to kill all nine of these doctors in various elaborate ways with each of these murders thematically tied to one of the nine plagues of Egypt from the bible (albeit with some of the plagues changed from the source material).  That business with the murders resembling a set religious edicts will of course remind any modern viewer of David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Seven, and there may well have been some inspiration from this but mostly just in terms of plot and concept rather than tone because a lot of the killings here are kind of silly rather than genuinely disturbing.  That isn’t to say the kills aren’t kind of messed up, because they kind of are conceptually.  There isn’t much actual blood or gore (in fact it managed to get a PG-13 rating when it was submitted for rating during a re-release) but the basic ideas like someone getting their face squeezed in by a mechanical mask or someone getting their face eaten off by locusts are pretty out there.  In fact there’s a certain Jigsaw quality to Dr. Phibes in the way he is sort of trying to make a point with his various traps and murders and the Saw series definitely borrowed from one of his final traps which involves surgically removing a key from someone’s body.  But there’s also just a bunch of other wacky shit going on like Dr. Phibes affinity for organ music and his mute lady assistant and clockwork band, and the banter of the police trying to find Phibes is also comical at times.  Really the whole movie is kind of a dark comedy, and while it’s hardly a perfect movie it’s worth looking at.

*** out of Five

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

If nothing else The Blood on Satan’s Claw has one of the all-time great horror titles.  The producers originally wanted to call it “Satan’s Skin,” which actually ties into the story more, but that doesn’t invoke the image of the devil scratching someone to death (something that does not really happen in the movie).  This film actually fits within the very small sub-genre of “folk horror,” which is a somewhat nebulous categorization for British movies about that country’s pagan past or neo-paganism and it’s recently being revived by movies like Apostle and Midsommar.  The most famous example of this is almost certainly The Wicker Man and the previously discussed Witchfinder General are both considered prime examples of this, and those two movies make a pretty interesting contrast if you think about it.  The Wicker Man, which not in love with the judgmentalness of modern Christianity, ultimately falls down on its pagan cult being dangerous one on the side of evil.  Meanwhile, Witchfinder General places the Christians (or at least the most fanatical example of Christianity) as being much more dangerous than the so-called witches.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw is interesting in that it sort of splits the difference and views both Satanists and anti-Satanists as being kind of dangerous forces.

This was another film made by Tigon, who also made Witchfinder General and you can kind of pick up on a different house style at play.  Their films are set earlier, have more outdoor scenes, and frankly don’t look like they’ve been recycling the same costumes and sets for twenty years.  This one is also notable for being a lot more R-rated than a lot of the movies I’ve been looking at here.  There’s full frontal nudity in the film and it also has a pretty creepy ritualized rape scene (between this, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, 1971 was a really rapey year for British cinema).  Like with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, this cross between the old style of horror filmmaking and increased levels of sex and violence does feel a bit odd, but in an interesting way.  What the film lacks is a particularly strong protagonist and for that matter a central villain that can really embody the threat at hand but it does make up for this a little with some cool images, including a shot of someone finding a corpse half buried in a field which may or may not have been lifted by David Lynch in Blue Velvet.  That said I’m not sure if I would have been as interested in the movie if I hadn’t been watching it in conjunction with all the other British horror movies of the era recently, it’s kind of a film history curio with a weird abrupt ending moreso than a stand-alone horror experience.

*** out of Five

A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)

The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five