Friday, October 24, 2014
      ( 2:33 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Some people survived the beat generation, some people survived 1960s counter culture, and some vampires survived centuries. According to Jim Jarmusch's 2014 film Only Lovers Left Alive, that last group has a lot in common with the first two. It's a film a with a perfect cast, gorgeous production design and costumes, and is overall a dreamy ramble through yet another permutation of vampire fiction.

Vampires Adam and Eve (probably not the biblical characters) are a married couple played incomparably by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. According to Wikipedia, Michael Fassbender was originally cast as Adam but I'd say Hiddleston works equally well and maybe it's not a bad idea to ease off on the Fassbender saturation a little, as good as he is.

The two live separately, Adam in Detroit, Eve in Tangiers.

The film opens with slowly spiralling, slowly pulling in shots from the ceilings of each vampire's apartment, dissolving back and forth with a spinning record in between.

The dissolves, along with highly amplified electric guitar distortion, become the aesthetic bedrock of the film, the softly rippling surface on which everything else floats. As usual, the vampires are unfathomably wealthy and like artists of the counter-cultural movements seem to feel a mixture of profound empathy for and alienation from society.

Swinton's reunited with her Snowpiercer co-star John Hurt who plays Christopher Marlowe, also living in Tangiers. We learn he secretly authored most of Shakespeare's plays and seems to be the movie's analogue for William S. Burroughs who also lived in Tangiers and was a sort of high priest in the beat generation, being the oldest, the most self possessed, and having had perhaps the most profoundly painful experiences. He's able to acquire the "good stuff"--blood, in this world, apparently being threatened world wide by contamination, reminiscent of sexually transmitted diseases that checked 1960s free love culture.

Mia Wasikowska shows up at Adam's place as Ava, Eve's sister, though not "by blood". Despite the fact that Eve shares Adam's misgivings about Ava's destructive behaviour, Eve is still motivated by an ideal of faith in love that had initially compelled her to adopt Ava has a sister in some bygone, more hedonistic time. It's not hard to guess what happens when Adam and Eve go to bed and Adam sternly tells Ava to let his friend Ian (Anton Yelchin) go home in just a little while, in this case the movie almost works as a parody of typical movies about drug fuelled artistic subculture.

The argument the movie seems to be making with its allegory is that drugs, for all their drawbacks, are necessary. Adam scores blood from a nearby hospital but in one way or another, even he and Eve are forced to prey on others for what they need, though not as luridly as Ava. The trade-off is centuries of artistic achievement Adam has secretly contributed to the world.

But the argument's not as simplistic as that--Eve apparently is more muse than artist herself. She comes to Detroit to chide Adam out of a depression though, in the very contemporary, realistic portrayal of Detroit, Adam has plenty of reasons to be depressed. He shows Eve a car factory that has long ago shut down and a gorgeous theatre that has now become a parking lot.

It's a contradiction that Anne Rice first explored in her books, the vampire as both the bottom feeder and the extraordinarily illuminating lens for humanity's higher sensibilities.

And they play chess. This morning I analysed the game Adam and Eve play in one scene and I was delighted to see they were playing from a legitimate position that reflected the interaction between the two characters. I had a hard time transposing the position because the pieces they use look rather similar to one another but I finally managed it and reconstructed it:

It's such a perfect reflection of the characters--Adam, playing black, has essentially sacrificed most of his pieces in favour of one powerful piece, his queen. Just as he believes in larger gestures and has a more dramatic and final impression of the world while Eve sees value in taking in a variety of media without making huge strides herself. So at the beginning of the scene, she takes his queen with her bishop at b6. She maintains calm while he agonises and finally moves his rook in an attempt to trade with her rook at d7--but she's able to take his rook with her bishop without losing any pieces herself. She's lain a groundwork with her bishops, knight, and rook and Adam's fate is inevitable. It's a good thing she's on his side.


Thursday, October 23, 2014
      ( 4:54 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

What if the monsters lurking in the distant shadow in shaky camera footage, wandering unexpectedly into focus in green hues of night vision, were the bulbous nosed, oofish trolls of an old children's book? A familiar creature of folklore and fairy tales. 2010's Trollhunter portrays a modern Norway where various forms of trolls inhabit the countryside. Not Internet trolls, but big hairy beasts, some with three heads, who live in caves and under bridges, eat rocks, and might turn to stone in sunlight. It's a good movie, part good hearted parody of the found footage genre and part sincere fantasy horror adventure.

The film consists entirely of footage taken by a small group of university students who began shooting a documentary on bear poaching but find themselves accompanying a state employed Trollhunter named Hans played by Otto Jespersen.

Apparently Jespersen is a well known comedian in Norway but he plays Hans completely straight, a world-weary man who denies being a hero because what he does is "too dirty", a man with a deep voice who towers over the young students.

The government wants to keep the existence of trolls a secret but Hans brings the kids along despite the protests of Finn (Hans Morten Hansen), head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board, who we see stamping fake bear prints into the ground around Hans' latest kills.

Hans is tired of keeping the secret--he tells the kids he's rebelling because his pay sucks and he never gets any vacation but we later sense Hans is a little sick of playing exterminator. He recounts a period decades earlier when he had to slaughter young trolls to make way for land development.

But the movie thankfully never provides any sympathetic "good" troll and just as thankfully never becomes sappy.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014
      ( 6:09 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Do you love Jeremy Gardner? No? Maybe you've never heard of him. That's okay, Gardner admires himself enough for a million fans. He made a movie about himself wandering in beautiful Connecticut woodlands in 2012 called The Battery. It's supposed to be after a zombie apocalypse but it mainly concerns hillbilly hipster Gardner as Ben and an irritable foil called Mickey (Adam Cronheim) wandering around on nice days, confident their mundane conversations are entertaining. Sometimes they are kind of funny but mostly the movie is a shallow and derivative failed attempt at a film of the post-apocalyptic wasteland genre.

Supposedly Ben and Mickey are baseball players. It's never established if they're professional or amateur but Mickey's weak arm in the scenes where the two play catch makes neither seem plausible. They both seem able to kill zombies with baseball bats, something they seem to forget in the climactic scene where the two are trapped in their car by a mob of zombies.

With his full, untrimmed beard, the young Gardner doesn't vaguely resemble any baseball player I've seen but he does look like a certain crop of hipsters who emulate stereotypical impressions of hillbillies, a resemblance that becomes irrefutable in a scene where Gardner dances around with a gun and a bottle of whiskey.

In all the pretty shots of nature at the beginning, including one of Gardner idly staring at a grasshopper on the roof of a car, one might take him for a department store window version of Walt Whitman, the embodiment of a popular, shallow, modern day lip-service to nineteenth century transcendentalism, complete with the sense that the two who've supposedly been on the run from zombies for months always look freshly showered and rested.

The film was reportedly made for just six thousand dollars, which would be impressive if it didn't look like it was made for two hundred dollars, five hundred if you include the cost of the camera. Houses Ben and Mickey scavenge aren't even dusty, even the plants look like they've been watered.

But no-where is the cheapness more evident than in the zombies which never look like anything more than kids with a few smudges of fake blood.

Again, these two guys have supposedly been fighting hordes of zombies, but neither of them has so much as a blood stain on his clothes. In one scene where Ben traps Mickey in a room with a zombie to teach him the hard way he has to kill them to survive, Ben laughs at what a mess Mickey makes when he finally succeeds. This "mess" is clearly the aftermath of people strategically smudging blood on themselves and furniture. Mickey supposedly wacked the zombie in the head with a baseball bat but there's no stain that remotely resembles a splatter.

Some of the dialogue the two have is amusing. Ben teases Mickey for getting stuck on women in a way pretty strongly reminiscent of Randall teasing Dante in Clerks. In fact, Gardner tends to sound, when he speaks, halfway between Kevin Smith and Will Smith. The dynamic is also reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead and Gardner even lifts a bit from that film when Mickey is unable to say the "z" word.

This is a movie for people who don't like to take horror movies seriously. Not, like Shaun of the Dead, a loving parody with genuine characters but a movie made by and for people comfortable with only the most superficial of emotions. A consummate hipster film.

It's also a movie for Jeremy Gardner who could love it as probably no-one can. He includes a scene of himself bathing naked in a river, and an actually effective performance at the end where he agonises, wondering if Mickey has been killed. Of course, since the movie so continually softballs every threat, whether or not Mickey survives never seems like it's up to anyone but Gardner.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
      ( 6:12 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Van Helsing's work is never done. It's not until 1904 that he finds time to tackle China's vampire problem, an adventure depicted in 1974's The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. A collaboration between Britain's legendary low budget horror studio, Hammer, and Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers studio, the film featured a Hammer director and star--Roy Ward Baker and Peter Cushing--and Shaw director and stars--Chang Cheh and stars David Chiang and Shih Szu. The result is a definitely campy but rather enjoyable mixture of wuxia and broad, western horror fantasy. It is also Peter Cushing's final appearance as Van Helsing.

He easily gives the best performance in the film and in his frequent dialogues with David Chiang one can see the younger actor a little intimidated by Cushing's ability to infuse lines and reactions with sincerity. During the acrobatic action scenes, though, it's Cushing who's forced to stand aside and watch as Hsi Ching (Chiang) and his seven expert martial artist siblings dispatch gangsters or vampire controlled zombies.

I somehow loved these zombies with their heavy skull masks. They're led by the golden vampires, their names related apparently to ceremonial gold masks they wear over their withered faces.

Lest anyone think I'm being hard on Chinese performers, Cushing outshines his white costars, too, including Robin Stewart as Van Helsing's son and Julie Ege as a wealthy heiress who provides the prodigious funding for the expedition to the vampire village Van Helsing for some reason insists is necessary.

Ege was Norwegian and her accent in the film is thick--it seems like a role that may have been intended for Ingrid Pitt and Pitt would have been a welcome substitute for Ege's dead eyed, listless performance as she delivers awkward expository lines about how she craves adventure even though she's a woman.

Shih Szu as the film's other female lead stands out far better. She's Mai Kwei, one of Hsi Ching's siblings, and she holds her own as a fighter among them. One can see in this movie a precursor to to-day's horror action films which frequently combine acrobatic martial arts with supernatural horror.


Monday, October 20, 2014
      ( 5:30 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Artistic interpretation is, in some respects, always subjective. Many things in our realities depend on our perceptions but there are some things that are true regardless of whether or not we believe or recognise them, things like murder. But in Dario Argento's 1970 giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo), stopping a serial killer is dependent upon one man's perspective. It's a film that effectively builds terror and suspense from the protagonist's attempts to find the right interpretation in time to save the next victim, each one of whom is killed in the gory and slightly eroticised fashion one might expect from giallo.

All of the victims are beautiful young women and in one case the killer slices off the victim's clothing before killing her, which would seem to indicate a sexual motive. In the first attack we witness along with the protagonist, an American writer named Sam (Tony Musante), another beautiful young woman is in danger of getting slashed.

Sam witnesses the scene through a glass front of a brightly lit art gallery, the rectangular portal of bright light in the darkness, separated by an invisible barrier, is conspicuously reminiscent of a movie screen. The fact that it's an art gallery further emphasises the need for interpretation.

Becoming trapped in the entry way between two glass doors, Sam is both helpless to intervene and unable to leave and call the cops. He catches the attention of a passer-by who phones the police and the woman manages to survive despite a bloody gut wound.

Sam is only briefly a suspect but he becomes obsessed with finding the killer anyway. He befriends the chief inspector who lends a few officers and the crime lab to assist Sam. There was something strange about the scene, Sam says, something off that he's missing and he replays it over and over in his head, certain he'll be able to find the killer when he realises what it was.

The fallibility of Sam's perceptions manifests repeatedly in the film. He and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are at one point pursued by a gunman in a yellow coat. When they get to a public area and Sam tries to pursue the gunman, he chases the man into a pugilists' convention where everyone is wearing identical yellow jackets.

When he learns the killer was obsessed with a particular work of art, he and girlfriend study the painting looking for some clue. It looks slightly like Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow but with a murder.

Eventually Sam tracks down the artist himself who offers Sam dinner, meat the nature of which Sam finds he has misinterpreted to his disgust and chagrin. The killer makes calls to the police and to Sam and in one case an unusual sound can be heard which the police and Sam endeavour to recognise to no avail. Even the seemingly omniscient crime lab computer doesn't recognise it.

The movie has plenty of red herrings and several characters seem plausible as being the killer's true identity. But when the revelation comes, it's possibly the most interesting choice and one that serves the film's ideas nicely.


Sunday, October 19, 2014
      ( 5:19 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Is what's known as karmic retribution a form of justice? Do murderers and rapists deserve to be assaulted in the same way that they assaulted others? That's a question posed in a very cold way by 2013's Under the Skin, a movie about an alien living among humans. It features a brilliant and subtle performance from Scarlett Johansson and beautiful filmmaking by Jonathan Glazer evocative of the sense of burden imposed by basic needs in a cold world. It's a fascinating and remarkable film.

Vittorio De Sica cast a non-actor in the lead role of his 1948 Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves and the neorealists were fond of using non-professional actors. Under the Skin, like Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy films, goes another step by having real people unwittingly interact with a fictional character. Scarlett Johansson, in the role of an alien being, drove around Scotland in a plain white van and picked up men.

A lot of critics have called these segments dull, which I find rather hard to understand, but perhaps many of them were unaware that these were unscripted situations. It's also possible critics who disliked the scenes were unable to understand people speaking with thick Scottish accents. I've heard there are people who can't even understand Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who and his accent is pretty mild--the accents in Under the Skin are much more colloquial. Still, I didn't have real difficulty but your mileage may vary.

After the initial interaction, the men were told about the film and invited to participate in a scripted scene where they strip naked in a completely black room, following a slowly stripping Johansson.

I wonder if the fact that so many random guys on the street agreed to be filmed not only naked but with full erections in any way inspired Johansson to do nude scenes for the film, her first, I think. As the title suggests, though, the point is what's under the skin and the great thing about Johansson's performance is how she conveys that sense of someone basically wearing a Scarlett Johansson suit.

She puts on an act for the guys but when she's alone there's a kind of far away blankness in her eyes. When she has facial expressions, they're sort of numb and abrupt, like an animatronic puppet face.

The guys she seduces start out walking towards her but then slowly sink into a black liquid. They keep their eyes fixed on her as though they're unaware of sinking.

These scenes compel the viewer not to take them completely literally, the lack of awareness in the victims of the strangeness of their environment makes the sinking seem like a metaphor for their lusts driving them forward even through danger. Yet, of course, something strange really is happening to them.

The alien woman does some really cruel things. In the course of her adventures, we see her abandon a baby on the beach to death and a scene where she seduces a man with neurofibromatosis--real, of course, not prosthetics--is sort of heartbreaking.

Then, when she becomes lost in fog on a lonely highway, the tables are turned as she finds herself at the mercy of strange men. We're forced to question our sympathies. As horrible as she was to the people in the first part of the film, do we feel bad for her now that she's the one in similar danger? I did. You could say the deck is a little stacked, of course--even with an alien inside her, Johansson is gorgeous. There's also an innocence in the alien's crimes, as though she's acting from need. In this way, she really feels like a Doctor Who alien and it actually wouldn't have been strange to have the Doctor show up and ask these questions--are you preying on humans because you require them for sustenance? Are you aware your actions are hurting other sentient beings?

It seems likely the answer to the latter question is "yes" since the alien is able to mimic human behaviour so convincingly. As for the former question, in one scene she attempts to eat some cake in a restaurant but vomits it up, reminiscent of the sort of vampire in David Cronenberg's Rabid who finds herself forced to prey on men when she's unable to digest normal food.

But these reasons for the alien's behaviour end up highlighting the ambiguity of the scales of justice and emphasising the complexity of questions about criminal motive and punishment.

And it's well shot--in the latter portion of the film, Glazer does an excellent job of creating shots that both take advantage of Scotland's natural beauty and also speak to the story and themes. I particularly loved this shot of Johansson trying to hide among some felled trees which form angled lines all drawing the eye to her. And the fact that they've been cut down, living things killed to serve men, emphasises the broader themes at work.

By the way, between now and Halloween I'm going to be watching a horror movie every night. I have a good pile ready to go but I'd be happy to receive more recommendations.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014
      ( 5:13 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

So here's your female Doctor Who after all. Well, it's just Clara calling herself Doctor while the real Doctor helps her through an earpiece. Which she readily admits--I love when someone catches her talking to him she doesn't come up with some lame sitcom excuse about how she's not talking to herself, instead just plainly saying she's talking to someone. In the age of Blue Tooth, that old plot device may be dead.

It was a good episode, "Flatline", to-day's new Doctor Who. The second written by Jamie Mathieson, not quite as exciting as his previous, last week's "Mummy On the Orient Express", but good. Solid.

It's another gimmick monster, if you will, this time a species that lives in two dimensions. Sometimes this was very effective, I particularly liked a scene where Clara and guest star Joivan Wade watch the beings swallow a sofa as it rapidly crunches into what looks like moving paint.

The whole tiny TARDIS thing was pretty fun, especially with the Doctor still able to reach his hand through when the TARDIS is stashed in Clara's purse. Just imagine what Alfred Hitchcock would make of that.

Clara's purse essentially becomes Mary Poppins' carpet bag and I love when the cop turns around to see Clara suddenly holding a sledge hammer.

The business about trying to communicate with the beings, trying to figure out what they want and stopping just to try and imagine how two dimensional entities could understand our universe, was nice.

The idea behind Clara being the Doctor's temporary surrogate was pretty obvious in the context of what has been the ongoing story of the season, Clara being the judge of the Doctor's virtue. Here Clara is actually put in the Doctor's shoes and she can see from her own perspective whether the things she's criticised the Doctor for--lying to keep hope alive, making ruthlessly pragmatic decisions--are necessary.

Here's a thought--what if the mysterious woman, Missy, played by Michelle Gomez, is the Doctor? Maybe that's why people who die during the Doctor's adventures seem to be snatched up by her. Maybe the Doctor regenerates into Missy at the end of the season? I suppose I'm probably not the first one to think of this.

That might be kind of fun. If she ends up being the Doctor's romantic interest, I fear it would be another River Song case, where plot takes the place of chemistry.


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