Fright Night (1985)

Fright Night (1985) movie poster

director Tom Holland
viewed: 12/28/2011

Though I think I somewhat confused aspects of it with 1986’s House, another horror/comedy film from the mid-1980’s, I always recalled liking 1985’s Fright Night.  With the release of a re-make of the film, it seemed an apt time to re-visit director Tom Holland’s film about the vampire that moves in next door.

It starts out with a make-out session between protagonist Charley (William Ragsdale) and Amy (Amanda Bearce, later of Married, with Children notability) while on the television, a local horror movie compendium is hosted by former film star Peter Vincent, known as the “vampire slayer” (played by the inimitable Roddy McDowall).  Charley becomes distracted when he sees that they seem to be moving a coffin into the house next door.  And the next thing you know, a series of murders, disappearing women, and other shenanigans have Charley convinced that his new neighbor is a vampire.

He’s right, of course.  It’s Chris Sarandon as a smarmy very 1980’s oozy vampire.  And now it’s up to Charley to convince his mom, the police, his girlfriend, Peter Vincent, and his oddball friend “Evil” Ed (played by a very good Stephen Geoffreys) what is really afoot.

The tone of the film is combination light comedy mixed with some eventually pretty great horror effects, a throwback of sorts to a classic type of teen horror film updated for the 1980’s.  And Holland really pulls it off.  In part, it’s good casting.  McDowall is quite memorable as the washed up horror star, turned semi-cowardly reluctant hero, and Geoffreys plays the nerdyish weirdo with a unique flair.

The film also boasts a pretty good 1980’s pop music soundtrack featuring Sparks, Devo, and The J. Geils Band , especially over the prolonged dance club sequence.  And as I noted before, the various analog creature effects are really good, too.

It’s really quite a good 1980’s genre film.

Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Richard Press
viewed: 12/26/2011

Like a lot of things in this world, you probably either know who Bill Cunningham is or you don’t.  I fell in the latter category before watching the film.  Now I reside in the former.  Despite not knowing who Bill Cunningham was, I had been hearing that Bill Cunningham New York was supposed to be one of the better documentaries of the year.

Cunningham is a fashion and society photographer for The New York Times.  He’s had two weekly spreads now since the 1970’s, one of society events and people, the second of people on the street, wearing the fashions that catch his eye.  He’s now in his 80’s and has been covering the scene for decades.  The film examines his experiences going back to his early days as a haberdasher.  He lives in Radio City Music Hall studios along with a few other old time hold-outs from another era.

The real thing about Cunningham is he is an incredibly sweet, humble guy, whose life is devoted to fashion and photography, entirely.  He’s beloved by the people who are familiar with him and his work.  And the one of the aspects of his charm and humility is the fact that he rides his bicycle across town, up and down, from one posh society outing to another, snapping photos as he goes of anything that catches his keen eye.

The reason that people have no doubt come to like the film so much is quite simply that Cunningham is such a sweet, intelligent, humble  and likable person.  The film-makers treat him with great kindness as well, not delving very hard into his upbringing, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.  Eventually, they do query him, but this film summarizes his life as this singular, classically New York City individual, a unique and key part of the legendary content of The Times.

Frankly, it’s a decent documentary, not a great one, but it is interesting and is a “feel good” sort of vibe.  I know people who would like it too, and I’ll be recommending it.


Le Havre

Le Havre (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Aki Kaurismäki
viewed: 12/24/2011 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Quirky Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s newest film, Le Havre, reckons quite a bit with the last of his films that I had seen, his 2002 movie, The Man Without a Past.  In The Man Without a Past, we have a mysterious fellow who is beaten up and then loses his memory, winding up living on the outskirts of Helsinki in a shipping container.  In Le Havre, we have a kind shoe shine man, living on the outskirts of Le Havre, making ends meet barely, who meets up with a young boy from Gabon, who has arrived in France via a shipping container.

Similar in style as well, the film plays its politics gently but clearly.  Images of immigrants being rousted up and imprisoned or deported play on the televisions around the world of shoe shine man, Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and his little cafe and neighborhood.  The kind but dutiful inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), is on the trail of the boy to whom Marx takes “a shine to” (sorry).  Marx’s strange, retiring wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), takes mysteriously and seemingly terminally ill while much of the drama unfolds.

The thing about the people in Kaurismäki’s films is that they are mostly kind, cool, and well-meaning.  While one of Marx’s neighbors is trying to get the police after him, the rest of them all work together to raise money to send the boy on to his mother in London.  Even the inspector allows for this to happen without bringing on the authorities.  It’s not very realistic.  The racism and nastiness that is part of France (and probably all parts of Europe) in fears of immigrants hardly exists in Kaurismäki’s worlds.

It’s like he’s created these characters and these situations and just doesn’t want to see anything bad happen to them.  So he gives them the happy endings that would not very likely occur in real life, suggesting a cool, kind, progressive world where people actually do sympathize and care for one another.  And they are rewarded with happy endings and “miracles”.  It’s little surprise when Marx’s wife, Arletty, bounces back miraculously from her terminal illness.

The naïveté of Kaurismäki’s world isn’t pure naïveté, but a knowing and hopeful vision.  An off-beat, low-key, but upbeat tale for modern Europe.

Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Jason Reitman
viewed: 12/24/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Charlize Theron plays an immensely shallow, self-absorbed, misanthropic woman in a life crisis in Young Adult, the new film from the director/writer team that brought us Juno (2007), Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody.  She’s not a “young adult” anymore at 37, though she writes (ghost-writes) for them, a series of books about high school.  Her crisis is triggered by hearing that her small town high school beau, played by Patrick Wilson, has just fathered a child, and she gets it in her mind that she must “rescue” him by rekindling their flame and whisking him away from his married, parental life.

There are aspects of this that have resonance and are funny.  She details her logic to Patton Oswalt, a local shlub who was brutally beaten in high school in a misguided hate crime, by telling him that over time people accept that marriages break down and that people hook up with old flames.  She just wants to accelerate the process.  Her character is so self-deluded that she cannot see any aspect of reality.  Her ex is not unhappy; she is.

Her one moment of cognizance, telling her parents that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, is casually dismissed in bland denial.

The thing about the movie is that it’s a lot less funny than you might hope for or expect.  Perhaps that is “dramedy” for you.  Theron’s character is virtually soulless, a wreck with little redeeming quality.  She is beautiful.  She’s got that going for her.  But she’s loathsome.  And in the end it’s a pretty depressing, though not unrealistic, picture.

One thing that really struck me was the virtual “anti-product placement” in the film.  Small town Minnesota (Anywheresville, USA) is a landscape of mini-malls and fast food joints.   One corporate hotel chain after another.  And Theron’s character, Mavis Gray, is shown gobbling McDonalds, KFC, Taco Bell, Diet Coke ad nauseum (this may be a supermodel-pretty Hollywood star “enjoying” these products but the character she plays is a monster). The food and lifestyle very much represent Mavis’s hollow junk life.  She also consumes television garbage (reality television) non-stop, subsisting entirely on almost every form of corporate junk food.  She has no soul.  She’s a horrible person.

Even the Hampton Inn, which her character stays at, gets a rather inglorious depiction in the receptionist who is clearly going through the motions.

For Reitman, it’s an interesting follow-up to his 2009 film Up in the Air, which depicted a middle America in the throes of a corporate crisis.  Corporate America doesn’t care about people.  It’s ready to downsize them, feed them garbage, take their money.  Middle America is not a pretty place.

Mavis, though, is so self-centered and unlikable that it’s hard to know whether to feel for her or not.  She’s probably more unsympathetic than Theron’s portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

For me, I guess I’m still contemplating it.  Oswalt is very good (he’s got the most interesting character to play).  And I guess that I’m coming around to Jason Reitman.  Gotta love the way he bitch-slapped his corporate sponsors.

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Catherine Hardwicke
viewed: 12/23/2011

Wow.  So awful.  So super freaking awful.

Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Twilight (2008), apparently thought more teenage yearnings and werewolf mythologies needed to be writ.  She even brought over Bella’s dad (actor Billy Burke)  to play Red Riding Hood’s pa.

See, not every terrible movie has Nicolas Cage in it.  It does have Gary Oldman, though.  Star Amanda Seyfried has not just bee-stung lips but bee-stung eyes.

There is a village idiot.  Named Claude. “Simple” was the old fashioned pre-PC way of saying “retarded”.

Considering the film’s commitment to historical realism, they might as well have given everyone iPods and cell phones.  Truly a parable for our modern age.

The sexy folk dancing, though, takes the cake.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Fincher
viewed: 12/23/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I was pretty tired of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) as an entity by the time that I watched The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (2009).  Those would be the original Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s “girl” trilogy, of which I had also read the first two of the three books.  I pooped out on the books and just watched the final movie of the series to complete the narrative.

In the hands of almost any other director, I would probably have had zero interest in the American re-makes.  But David Fincher (The Social Network (2010)) is not only one of the more interesting active Hollywood directors, but the initial trailer for the movie was pretty damn slick, cut to highlight the goth kinkiness of the film and the main character, set to a Trent Reznor-produced cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.  It successfully teased its subject.  I was in.

The film actually opens to that same track, with vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Unfortunately, the opening sequence is a strange oily black digital series of morphing images of the two leads, with snake-like tentacles and S&M underpinnings.  It’s just a lot less effective than the trailer.

The film stars Daniel Craig as the righteous journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the titles of all the books/films.  The prior film trilogy was pretty good.  Noomi Rapace was pretty spot-on as Salander and Michael Nyqvist was pretty good as Blomkvist.  These are Swedish books after all, set in Sweden.  Outside of the obvious desire to capitalize on the American market (who along with much of the world has gone on to make best-sellers of the books), there seems no reason, no real need to re-make the films.  But Fincher found something.  And Mara was more than game.

It’s a little weird watching the film.  I only read the books like 2 years ago or something and then have seen the movies very recently.  There is no drama, no surprises left in the mystery.

The most compelling thing about the stories is the character of Salander, the troubled, antisocial, genius goth girl hacker with the life of abuse who finds her calling as a detective/researcher.  I’ve read some criticisms of Larsson’s stories that posit his anti-misogynist tales still titillate with great detail on the rape and abuse of women and that Blomkvist, an obvious stand-in for Larsson, is quite the ladies man, bedding Salander despite the fact that she mostly seems interested in women.

There is most definitely this voyeuristic sensibility, this attraction to this goth-punk girl, whose look is a combination of aesthetic and anti-aesthetic (the bleached eyebrows do indeed give Mara a weirdly haunted look).  She is sexualized, brutalized, coveted, objectified.  Many might say that she’s empowered to an extent.

Frankly, Fincher’s film is a better film, hands down.  He’s a more auteur-ish director and he certainly takes ownership of the material, or at least identifies with it or its characters.  Ultimately it’s a murder mystery.  A potboiler.  With a riveting female lead whether it’s Rapace or Mara.  I’d personally rather look at Craig than Nyqvist.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Cronenberg
viewed: 12/22/2011 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

I don’t know whether David Cronenberg has ever himself gone through Freudian analysis but it’s easy to assume much of his earliest film work was put through such by critics, analysts and film students.  In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg turns the analysis back on Sigmund Freud and his colleague Carl Jung and their relationship around psychoanalysis and a patient of Jung’s with whom he had an affair, Sabina Spielrein.  Ostensibly, this is an historical drama, dramatized but based in fact.

The film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Keira Knightley as Spielrein, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud, with Vincent Cassel appearing in a cameo as another odd figure of the psychoanalysts, Otto Gross.  What’s true if nothing else is that there is a lot of interesting story here, originally documented in a non-fiction book called A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr and then into a stage play called “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay. I have to say that I was almost immediately interested in reading up more on the subjects.

This is contemporary Cronenberg, not as overtly Freudian as in his earlier films of horror, science fiction, sex and violence.  But it’s also a lot more racy, say, than more typical historical dramas that are released during Oscar season like The King’s Speech (2010).  There is sex, sadism, masochism, though nowhere along the lines of Cronenberg’s earlier film Crash (1996), Dead Ringers (1988), or Rabid (1977).

Knightley, who I’ve always deemed rather lightly (sorry), is actually quite good as the hysterical Russian Spielrein.  For one thing, she acts and sounds distinctly different from other roles.  She appears at the beginning, a screaming, raving, uncontrollable basket case, in which Knightley is either quite good or good even in over-doing it.  But she’s good throughout the film, as a woman with crazy repression and a distinct genius of her own, who is “cured” by Jung’s “talking cure” and sexual relationship.

I liked the movie.  I like Fassbender, Mortensen and company and, as I said, the reality behind the story suggests even more fascinating truths in understanding it.  And a lot of the movie moves along quite well.  But at several points, it turns to the reading of one letter, say from Freud to Jung, then another in response from Jung to Freud, and back again.  And though this is no doubt the way much of their friendship, communication, and ultimate break with one another transpired, it’s a lot less dramatically effective.  The film doesn’t so much bog down as sort of just move slowly.

For my money, Cronenberg is always worth seeing and this film has a lot of interesting stuff to offer.  I might even find myself looking for the original non-fiction book from which this all arose to read more on the subject.

Interesting and recommended.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Jalmari Helander
viewed: 12/20/2011

Adapted from a pair of short films into a feature-length one, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale offers a potentially dark and comic take on the Santa Claus mythology.  Unfortunately, as a feature film, it loses sight of what made the original short films funny and successful.

The short films are mock documentaries about a group of Finnish hunters who track Santa Clauses, as if they were naturally occurring fauna of the region.  These Santas are wild beasts who have to be captured and then trained to let little kids sit on their laps (without eating them) before they can be shipped off all over the world.  And a lot of bad things can happen if they are not handled properly.

Reprising roles from earlier films, the group of men are cast as isolated reindeer hunters, living on the edge of the wilderness, bordering Russia.  And an American company has come to dig up the long-lost original Santa Claus, who has been buried in ice below a mountain for centuries.  Somehow, a little boy has all these books about how the original Santa was actually a monster like something from a Goya painting, a giant who didn’t deliver gifts but doled out punishment and ate little children.  The boy recognizes that unearthing this Santa is a bad thing.

When “the monsters” finally show up onscreen, they are a bunch of old men, running around in the snow naked.  These are the equivalent creatures that are hunted in the earlier films, but here they are said to be Santa’s elves,  minions trying to free the giant Santa beast from the ice in which he is encased.

The giant Santa never makes the scene.  He gets blown up while still in the ice.

So, you have a movie about a vengeful dangerous Santa (who never gets defrosted).  It’s not without its humor or its moments.  It’s not unlike Trollhunter (2010), another Scandinavian horror film based on indigenous mythologies pressed into the modern world.  But I can’t help saying that I felt a little bit disappointed by it.  And then I watched the short films and realized that they were better than the feature itself.

My advice: watch the shorts, forgo the feature.


Maniac (1980) movie poster

(1980) director William Lustig
viewed: 12/17/2011

Maniac is not your average slasher film.  It opens with a scene that might suggest otherwise.  A couple on the beach, sleeping out overnight, get stabbed and scalped by a faceless killer.

However, the film isn’t about a faceless killer.  It’s about Frank Zito, a mixture of David Berkowitz and Norman Bates, with a predilection for scalping women and sleeping with mannequins.  He’s played by character actor Joe Spinell, who also co-wrote the script.  And the film is about the killer.  The only other people who show up are either victims or potential victims.  We don’t have a heroine who we follow throughout, hoping she gets away.  We don’t have a cop or anyone hunting him down.  We just have this overweight, blue collar, middle aged schlub of a killer, rife with Mommy issues.

In a sense, it’s a very realistic portrayal of a serial killer, someone who can appear “normal” on the outside, but is driven by whatever demons.  For Zito, his mother was a tramp who abused him and died in a tragic accident when he was still a child. He’s all about the abandonment issues and carries on dialogues with his mother and his imaginary girlfriends.  He’s almost sympathetic.  More just pathetic, but it’s quite a contrast to the faceless, voiceless, personality-less maniacs who menaced the slasher genre.

The film also features some pretty effective gore.  Special effects master, Tom Savini, pulls off some gruesome scalps and even has his own head shotgun-blasted in one of the film’s signature scenes.

It comes from director William Lustig, he of Maniac Cop (1988) fame.  And Maniac Cop 2 (1990).  And Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993).  I guess he likes the word “maniac”.

Maniac is an oddity.  Not a bad oddity, just unusual.

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Pedro Almodóvar
viewed: 12/17/2011 at Regal Gainesville 14, Gainesville, FL

The latest film from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, is a great film.  If you think you might be interested in it, I say, read no further and go see it.

If you hazard to read forward, I will spoil some of the plot twists which will diminish your potential enjoyment, so just go see the damn movie and if you’re still interested in what I have to say about it, come back and read what goes below.

I find it a little hard to talk about the film without disclosing some of its plot twists and I feel lucky that despite having read about the film, much of those twists were intact for me, which allowed for me to have the narrative work its magic, for the film to unveil its objects.

From the film poster alone, the movie seems to invoke Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960).  And like Eyes Without a Face, the film starts with a doctor/scientist who is grafting skin onto a damaged woman to restore her beauty.  In fact, as the film begins, that mad doctor, played by Antonio Banderas, is working on a new synthetic skin, impervious to flame and his beautiful concubine, played by Elena Anaya, wears a strange flesh-colored body suit, suggesting that she’s had more than her face worked upon.  Bio-engineering is one thing, but what Banderas’s mad doctor has on the table is something much more extreme and not at all altruistic.

From the decor of his home, images of female beauty and idealized femininity abound.  Banderas has a giant television screen on which he can view his captive beauty as if framed by a master.  It’s not just surface beauty that interests Almodóvar.  As the mystery of who the captive woman is evolves, the melodramatic narrative of sex and violence and betrayal booms to life.  I won’t spell out the whole of the story (there is a lot there), but what comes out is that this is a story of revenge, emasculation, total control, and obsession.  The surface beauties that were pondered earlier are revealed to be entirely misleading.  This beautiful woman, crafted to resemble in great detail, the doctor’s late wife, is really the rapist of the doctor’s daughter who has undergone an unwilling sex change operation.

Whatever ideas the audience holds about the beautiful captive who is a human guinea pig for the doctor’s experiments with artificial skin, the truth is more complicated and surprising than could be imagined.  Identity is revealed, but identity is also more complicated than the surfaces suggest.

I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece, but it’s a damn good film.  Evocative of other classic thrillers, this film is pure Almodóvar, one of the best film-makers working and one who continues to expand the breadth and depth of his work.