Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!


-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL


Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


*************************************************************************************************************************

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Baker's Dozen from '07

       Can somebody tell me what’s so special about the number “10”, anyways? Oh sure, I know that’s the number of fingers and toes we have, and it’s also the base for our numerical system -- but besides that, what makes it so special? It must be something, because every end-of-the-year “best of” list seems to count ten-and-only-ten films as the number of noteworthy movies in a given 12 month period -- which seems a bit arbitrary, to say the least. This blog refuses to bow down to the dictatorship of “base 10” thinking and will brazenly index a full baker’s dozen of exemplary films from the past year -- and mention in passing another half dozen or so that are well worth taking a look at, too. Truth be told, 2007 was a great year for movies and I suspect that I could easily double the size of this list without much effort -- especially if you count some of the well-received films released late in the year that I haven’t yet had a chance to see (like 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But in the interests of brevity, I’ll confine my comments to just the following twenty or so films -- besides, you don’t really want to read about any more than that, now do you?

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! - Regular readers of this blog -- and before that, recipients of the occasional e-mails from me which were very much the template for it -- already know the drill by now; and it goes something like this:

a.) Guy Maddin directs and releases a film.
b.) I proclaim it one of the best movies of the year.
c.) There is much rejoicing by all... -- well, much rejoicing by me, at any rate.

I previously wrote about this film here, and don’t really have much to say about it beyond that; save, given that his latest film -- a mockumentary called My Winnipeg -- is already receiving rave reviews in festival screenings up and down the continent, you can almost certainly look forward to that showing up on my ‘08 Year-end review. Try not to think of it as me being, “predictable” -- rather, just think of me as a rock of stability in these oh-so-uncertain times.

DEEP WATER - I also wrote about this film previously, and have only this to add: I’m pleased to see that it has made its way to a number of other “ten-best” lists, as in many ways it’s the best-executed documentary I saw this year.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OK - Earlier in the year, I proclaimed this the best movie of 2007; and that it would take an amazingly accomplished film to push it off that pedestal. Extraordinarily enough, that has happened; but I still stand by everything else I said. And Everything Will Be OK remains the best 17 minute long film you’ll see this year -- or most any other, I’d wager. It’s still only available through creator Don Hertzfeldt’s website, Bitter Films; but with any luck you’ll be able to catch it in theaters this spring, when the ‘08 edition of The Animation Show -- and part 2 of Bill’s story -- rolls out.

THE HOST - Everybody knows this is a “monster-movie” from Korea; what the critics haven’t been making as clear, is that it’s also this year’s best “family-drama” -- a genre that seems particularly popular in that faraway land. Think Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla and you’ll have some idea of the genre-blending appeal of this film.

I’M NOT THERE - Todd Haynes’ sort-of-biopic of Bob Dylan is the best cinematic profile of a rock-star since... -- well, since Haynes’ own biopic of this singer-songwriter back in 1987. The movie -- while a bit overlong -- is nonetheless entertaining because of its novel approach: using different fictional characters, usually drawn from Dylan’s own work, to portray him at different periods in his life. It’s a truly innovative way of illustrating an artist's life on-screen. Paul Schrader’s 1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters attempted a similar approach in certain ways -- but Haynes has made the better movie of the two. See it whether you’re a Dylan fan or not.

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS - Without a doubt, the funniest documentary I saw this year; we tend to forget that there’s nothing more hilarious than real life; fortunately the makers of this film didn’t -- so we get a movie that excites, engages, even tugs at the heartstrings on occasion; but most of all -- makes you laugh.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - This movie has a high-enough profile -- and is on so many other “ten-best” lists -- that I don’t feel the need to say much about it. One thing that I will say, however, is that I don’t think that it “glamorizes” the violence it portrays -- quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. In some ways, it’s one of the most restrained modern thrillers that I’ve seen. In terms of its on-screen depiction of violence, the movie leads up to several key moments that it refrains from showing us at all, in fact. And if there are a couple of “shockingly” violent scenes -- and there are -- they seem to be there to just drive home the gravity of the whole situation. As crime-thrillers go, No Country For Old Men does a better job than most of detailing the human cost of said violence to its participants -- both victim and perpetrator. That being said, a number of critics have felt otherwise. What movie were they watching, I wonder?

ONCE - Another film on its fair share of “ten-best” lists, Once is a sort-of-musical, a romance, and just a great movie-going experience -- It’s the only clear-cut “date-movie” on this list, and if you haven’t seen it, get thee to a video store post-haste, people. It makes me wonder why more musicals aren’t done in this faux-vérité style -- and when I’ll be seeing the next film from director John Carney.

RATATOUILLE - A movie should transport a person to another place for its 90 minute or so length; a place that completely enthralls the viewer in the experience and maybe makes you a little better -- in some fashion or another -- for having done so. Ratatouille does just this thing, as well as any movie I’ve seen this year. Who cares if it’s for kids? Go see it.

RED ROAD - This is the other great thriller I saw this year; director Andrea Arnold has previously won the Academy Award for her short, Wasp, and this, her feature debut, is ample evidence of the justness of her having received that award. Red Road is a work of considerable subtlety and complexity; and it has a couple of twists -- both in plot and character -- that will keep you guessing till the very end.

ROCKET SCIENCE - Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz’s feature debut borrows a bit from fellow filmmakers Wes Anderson and Noam Baumbach -- but this year, IMHO, he made a better movie than either of them. It’s set in the world of high-school debate teams and is as true-to-life a portrayal of the awkward entry into adolescence as I’ve seen. Having smashed my fair share of cellos in the neighbors yard myself (that previous statement will make sense once you see the movie), I can say that with authority.

TEN CANOES - This is another film I’ve written about previously, and that write-up pretty much covers what I have to say about it. Just to assuage any fears as regards viewing it, though; I recognize that “ethnographic filmmaking” can sometimes be a bit... uhh, tiresome (and that’s being kind) -- but this film is far from it. Take a look and see for yourself.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD - You’ve seen the trailer; you’ve read the reviews; you’ve heard the hype -- and it’s all true folks: There Will Be Blood is the best film of the year and an extraordinary accomplishment in cinema. Many critics are comparing it -- quite favorably -- to Citizen Kane; and while that may be over-reaching in its praise, I understand why they’ve done so. Not since that landmark film have we seen as compelling a portrayal of avarice and the grasp for power -- nor as extraordinary a performance of as much -- as the one which Daniel Day Lewis gives in this film. If he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar this year, then the Academy has truly lost all sense -- common and otherwise. I could go on, but ultimately there’s little that words can communicate that would say more than the film itself does -- spare in dialogue and building slowly, but inexorably, to a brilliant conclusion, Paul Thomas Anderson may have just made the first truly great American film of this millennia. And yes, you want to see this in a movie theater.

       Like I said, 2007 was a great year for movies -- and while the thirteen listed above were my favorites, there’s quite a few more that should be regarded as required viewing: here’s a couple, along with their consolation “awards”:

BEST ABC AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL (... that ABC never made) goes to JUNO; the trouble with most film comedies is that they’re full of dumb characters portrayed by bad actors who make unlikely decisions just to keep the plot moving -- thank goodness that never happens in Juno. A smart comedy full of likable characters portrayed by a great cast. It also has this years best pop-song-driven soundtrack.

BEST MUSICAL (... featuring characters who indiscriminately murder) goes to SWEENEY TODD, which is as good a movie as could be made from the Stephen Sondheim operetta of the same name. Don’t listen to the Sondheim purists -- the songs cut from the libretto were the ones that contained exposition and/or background unnecessary for a film adaptation -- in a movie, what the camera shows you, best serves that purpose; and Burton uses it most ably towards that end.

BEST MUSICAL (... featuring characters who inexplicably have the surname of “Murder”) goes to ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, a sort of down-and-dirty, blue-collar musical from actor/director John Turturro; it takes a little while to get in sync with the film’s conceit -- very naturalistic characters in very everyday settings suddenly bursting into song -- but once you do, it’s pretty delightful -- and who knew James Gandolfini could sing? Also of note: Kate Winslet delivers some of the most torrid, shocking, downright filthy dialogue ever to emanate from the mouth of an Oscar-nominated actress -- now if you’ll excuse me, even thinking about it requires that I take a cold shower; maybe even smoke a cig, while I’m at it.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE (... you’ll see this year that does not star a talking, cooking rat) goes to PERSEPOLIS, Marjane Satrapi’s (& Vincent Paronnaud’s) adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title. It’s an autobiographical tale of growing up in Iran -- first under the dictatorship of the Shah, then under the even more repressive Fundamentalist government. This film is completely enthralling, but not really for kids; for reasons related to both content and tone. But let me tell ya', if you think you had it tough “growing up punk” in America, try doing the same in Iran -- SHEESH!

THE ICARUS AWARD goes to Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. Yes, Francis definitely flew too close to the sun on this one. It’s a very ambitious film, ambitions set so high, in fact, that it couldn’t possibly succeed in every aspect; but as misfires go, it’s a pretty spectacular one, and it’s a credit to Coppola’s ability as a filmmaker that he made as compelling a film as he has here. It also looks and feels like it was shot in 1948 -- and I mean that as a high compliment. As a film, it reminds me of nothing so much as an early Powell/Pressburger effort -- and I suppose I’m thinking of this film in particular when I say that.

       Well, that’s it for 2007 -- not that there weren’t other fine movies released this year (yes, I know -- The Darjeeling Limited -- it was very good, but... Wes has done better), all the same, this seems like enough pontificating for one post, I should think... And, just a note, Beyond The Ranges will be on hiatus during the typically cinematically slow month of January, but will return in February.


Next post -- 02/01/08

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter '07 Trailer Round-Up

       Today is technically the first day of winter -- so no better time for another seasonal trailer round-up. As I’ve said before, both Apple and Yahoo do a fine job of providing access to upcoming movie trailers -- but there’s always a few that seem to get overlooked; so let’s take a look-see, shall we?


       January 8th sees the release of Lars von Triers The Kingdom, series 2 -- not to be confused with the recent Peter Berg film of almost the same title -- on region 1 DVD. One of the most unorthodox and iconoclastic filmmakers working today, von Trier took time out from his feature work -- and from being a co-founder of the Dogme 95 film movement -- to make this occasionally horrific, but more often funny, mini-series for Danish TV back in the late 1990’s. As a TV show, what’ll it most remind you of is Twin Peaks, with which it has numerous similarities; most prominently, a tendency to be almost indescribably weird and cryptic at key moments. What it’ll also remind you of -- if you even caught it before it was all-too-deservedly cancelled -- is the americanized remake, Kingdom Hospital; proof once again that even if you can follow a recipe, it still takes a talented cook to make it palatable. Unfortunately, despite plans for a third season of The Kingdom, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever be made, as one of the lead actors in the series -- Ernst-Hugo Järegård -- passed away back in 1998.


       The most controversial -- even downright scandalous -- film to screen at the 2006 Sundance Festival was Teeth, which’ll finally see its’ official theatrical release almost a year later to the day. Teeth is one of those movies about which the less you know going into it, the better -- suffice to say, it’s a rather unusual coming-of-age story, and I gather -- from early reviews and synopses -- that the filmmakers have opted for a more arthouse, rather than exploitative, approach to the movie's sensitive subject matter. While there is a trailer for this up on Apple’s website, this blog’s self-appointed mission to cover obscure -- even decidedly outre -- cinema, obliges me to include it here as well. At any rate, the distributor for the film , Roadside Attractions has put their money where their mouth is, and has arranged a limited release for the film in LA and NYC on January 18th; with more markets to follow. The least we can all do is return the favor and pony up for this one, and then hope it opens wide.


       Stephen Chow’s latest, CJ7 has a U.S. release in late January. A number of Chow’s earlier films -- notably Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle -- have helped to establish him as Hong Kong’s most popular and best comedic director/star; and it’s easy to see why. His films are consistently entertaining amalgams of movie parody, slapstick physical humor, and action film set pieces -- usually with a romantic comedy sub-plot as well, just to keep all the bases covered. CJ7 is clearly played for laughs, but it also seems to be lighter in tone -- even Disney-esque, in some regards -- than his usual offerings. I’m looking forward to it all the more, for Chow's change-up in style.


       Nightmare Detective is a horror flick from my favorite contemporary Japanese auteur, Shinya Tsukamoto. The fairly straightforward trailer would suggest that the film is just another conventional supernatural thriller; but as every Tsukamoto film starts from familiar genre roots -- and then quickly branches out into something different, even bizarre, from there -- I’m willing to bet that this one does too. Tsukamoto (who is as well known an actor, as he is a director, in his native Japan) shows up in the trailer embedded here -- seemingly in the role of the antagonist of the piece. Nightmare Detective will receive it’s region 1 DVD release come February 19th.


       Playwright Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a film that I don’t know too much about -- other than the fact that the trailer looks hilarious. While this may be McDonagh’s first feature, he’s written a number of acclaimed plays -- and directed one Oscar-winning live action short, Six-Shooter -- which I’m pleased to say is just great! -- so apparently he knows what he’s doing. In Bruges opens theatrically March 7th.


       Finally, also opening theatrically March 7th is Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park; advance word on the film has been strong -- supposedly Van Sant’s best in years, which is welcome news indeed. The film concerns a troubled teenaged skateboarder implicated in the accidental death of a security guard. The soundtrack (already available on iTunes) is a mix of what the hip-geoisie are listening to pop songs and -- more significantly to me -- a selection of some my favorite tracks from my favorite film composer: Nino Rota! Most significant of all, what’s presented here in the trailer looks compelling indeed.


Next post -- ‘07 Year End Review -- 12/28/07

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Night at the Movies . . .


       Once upon a time, when one ventured forth to the cinema, this meant one was taking a trip to a palace. The Golden Age of moviegoing -- the period between the first and second World Wars -- produced many great venues created for the express purpose of watching films; luxurious, baroque edifices dedicated to the worship of motion pictures. As movie theaters became more ubiquitous, and television brought cinema right to the comfort of one’s living room, venues became less grand -- and in fact, downright squalid, in many cases. Despite the prevalence of broadcast television and home video -- and home theater set-ups’ which potentially offer better sound and picture quality than your local mall-plex -- there are a few bright spots out there as regards the practice of movie-going; the brightest of which is undoubtedly Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas.


       As anyone from L.A. almost certainly already knows -- the Arclight is an “upscale” theater venue, built in and around the site of the old Cinerama Dome -- quite the movie-palace in and of itself... despite (or maybe because of) it’s retro-futuristic design. In addition to upgrading the sound and projection equipment at the Dome itself, Pacific Theaters constructed 14 additional state-of-the-art Black-Box auditoriums on the site -- film venues built to the rigorous standards of professional screening rooms. As important as all this pursuit-of-technical-excellence is, what makes theaters like the Arclight so appealing is that they’ve been created with the understanding that for the serious movie-goer, taking in a film should be a pleasant, even exhilarating experience, -- from start to finish. As a consequence, rather than a shabby, cramped mall multi-plex -- with blurry projection and the soundtrack bleeding through from the auditorium next door, to boot -- you’ve got a grand lobby, lending a suitable amount of gravitas to your entrance (after all, you’re here to worship, right?), a restaurant for dining before, and a bar for drinks afterwards... and reserved seating -- so your favorite seat is there, even if you arrive 30 seconds before show time. It’s enough to actually make one look forward to a night at the movies again.


       Of course, not every movie theater needs to be a palace; I still like to make the occasional trip to my local grindhouse, -- and have oh so fond memories of summer nights at the drive-in. The point is, all these types of venues have more character and style than a typical multi-plex; and, if you’re going to make an evening of it, who wants to go someplace as drab and charmless as the Smithtown Mall 6? The good news is that the success of the Arclight (it’s consistently been one of L.A.’s top-ten grossing theater venues since it opened) has prompted other theater chains to make their own attempts at improving the movie-going experience. The Landmark recently opened on L.A.’s westside, and while it is in no way a better venue than the Arclight -- it nonetheless does have most of the latter’s features and services. It also has one new spin on theater-going that the Arclight doesn’t -- A couple of “living room”-style auditoriums, which feature comfy sofas and roomy recliners to sit on. This seems like an idea with obvious appeal for couples; although at $14.00 a pop to get in, I’d just as soon keep my mind on the screen... -- but maybe that’s just me.


       Arclight Cinemas is opening a new venue today, Dec. 14th, in Sherman Oaks, CA, at the Galleria (itself the site of scenes from many a movie: from Commando to Valley Girl). While this location doesn’t offer anything as architecturally engaging as the Cinerama Dome, the mall itself has recently been remodeled into a not unpleasing open-air market -- and the plans for the theater auditoriums themselves seem to be up to the high standards of the Hollywood venue. It’s also located all of about a half-mile from where I’m currently working -- so I guess I know where I’ll be spending my next night at the movies...

Some links:

Occasional commenter Van Choojitarom’s tale of an actual trip to the Arclight theater: a completely true account! Except for the parts he made up... -- which is to say, most of it.

Frequent commenter Paula Carino’s somewhat less frenzied recollection of seeing a film at the Arclight -- and her opinion as to how it compares to some NYC venues.


Next post -- 12/21/07

Friday, December 7, 2007

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP




       Webster’s defines the word genre as “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content”. The term can also of course be applied to cinema, and the medium is just chock full of its’ own particular examples thereof. “Comedy”, “Romance”, “Action”, “Horror” -- all familiar film genres; and all of which have their own specific sub- (Action: “Cop/Buddy” movies) and recombinant (”Romantic-Comedy”) forms. Some film genres tend to be quite rigid and narrow in their conventions: how many horror films show someone opening a cabinet door only to find nothing there -- and then, seconds later, have the hapless victim set upon by the menace-du jour? Then there are those genres which encourage a more free-form approach; none more so than the “Road” movie, I think -- and you’re not likely to see a better example of this amorphous, free-wheelin’ style than in Two-Lane Blacktop.


       The movie is set in the world of illegal street racing, and focuses on the interwoven fortunes of four characters -- individuals whose every waking moment is so completely subsumed by their lifestyle that they don’t even have names, just designations: “The Driver” (portrayed by singer-songwriter James Taylor), “The Mechanic” (Dennis Wilson, of The Beach Boys fame), “The Girl” (Laurie Bird), and “GTO” (Warren Oates). Without giving away too much of the plot (and truth be told, there’s not much plot to speak of), “The Driver” and “GTO” meet at random, and after a quick sizing up, acknowledge each other as peers - and as competitors. As they make their way cross-country, they put each other through a series of dares, challenges and race-offs; including, of course, vying for the affections of “The Girl”. This synopsis would suggest that Two-Lane Blacktop is an “Actioner” -- a race-car movie, to be precise -- but as soon as the film establishes it’s genre roots, it quickly becomes something else - more of a character study, as well as a hard look at the alienated state of the American Psyche during the mid-70’s.


       Alienation as a theme -- as well as a tendency to make genre pictures that quickly turn into something more than merely that -- seems to be the modus operandi of Monte Hellman, the director and co-screenwriter of Two Lane Blacktop. Hellman’s work ranges the spectrum of Film genres: Westerns, Noirs, Period-piece Thrillers; even a Horror film or two. Along with fellow filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, Hellman sprang from the “Corman Film School”, and his work -- especially the handful of movies he made with Warren Oates -- are greatly admired by contemporary auteurs Richard Linklater & Quentin Tarantino. The influence on the latter of the two is pretty clear; Tarantino is renowned for the “spin” he puts on his genre pictures; but Hellman was there, over two decades earlier, doing just the same type of thing -- and frequently better, IMHO.


       Two-Lane Blacktop has been released on DVD before, but that edition had a full-frame transfer and is now out of print. Fortunately, this Tuesday, December 11th, Criterion will be releasing it’s own DVD of the film, featuring a brand-spanking new HD widescreen transfer of the film, as well as a re-mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Extras include commentary and interviews with Hellman himself, a copy of the screenplay reprinted in its’ entirety (.PDF format) and “appreciations” of the film by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits. Worth taking out for a test spin, if you ask me.


Next post -- 12/14/07

Friday, November 30, 2007

CHANNEL 101: THE FORGOTTEN CLASSICS




       With the W.G.A. strike well underway (... 30 days now and counting), and with most network TV shows barely five or six weeks into their production schedule, many have speculated that this sudden standstill in the year’s TV viewing foretells the demise of broadcast television in general. While that prediction seems a bit premature, one thing does seem certain: “TV” is undergoing a sea-change; if not in its’ content, then at the very least in its' format and distribution. In fact, the core issue of this strike -- writers’ seeking a share in revenues garnered from DVD sales and internet distribution of television programming -- illustrates the nature of this change; we’re not just watching “TV” on our TV’s anymore. No, these days you’re as likely as not to download shows and watch 'em on your computer or iPod; or view them off of a “season-set” of DVD’s (rather than broadcast); or just directly streamed from the internet -- which brings us to Channel 101.


       Channel 101 bills itself as “... the unavoidable future of entertainment” -- and that may well be -- but what it is right now, is a website that features short-format comedy bits (never more than five minutes in length); mostly absurdist sort-of-parodies of existing TV programs and genres. The sketch featured above, “The Forgotten Classics” is supposedly an exposé of a forgotten George Romero zombie movie, “Night of Racial Tension” -- it basically riffs on Romero’s tendency to hammer home the subtext of his films; in this case, racial and cultural intolerance. It’s not the best sketch they’ve ever done, but it’s a fair example of what you can expect to find on the site. Other stand-out “shows” include Laser Fart about -- you guessed it -- a superhero who can fart lasers (it’s a funnier and more spot-on parody of the superhero genre than it’s premise would suggest); Yacht Rock, their take on Mtv’s “Behind the Music” series; and M.E.S.I. (Most Extraordinary Space Investigations), which seems to be an attempt to make a TV show in about 9 & 1/2 minutes with nothing more than a camera and a superabundance of chutzpah.


       Website creators Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab concocted Channel 101 as a venue for exhibiting their own comedy shorts, and then eventually, those of interested audience members as well. They have a backlog of several hundred “episodes” at this point and how they sift through submissions to continue as ongoing “series” is an interesting -- if not innovative -- process. New shorts are screened monthly at an L.A. venue, and then -- in a micro-reenactment of the Neilsen ratings families -- the audience ranks the night’s viewings from most to least favorite; and the five most popular shorts get a shot to continue the following month with another episode. As might be expected, Harmon and Schrab are regular contributors -- and winners -- of this mini-ratings sweeps period; but with good reason. They’re “pro”s at this point (having co-written Monster House and Exec-Produced The Sarah Silverman Program), and know how to “deliver the funny”.


       All of the shorts discussed -- and many, many more -- can be found on the Channel 101 website, under the “SHOWS” tab. For interested parties in the L.A. area, the next screening is Dec. 9th at Cinespace; doors open at 7:30 pm: whereupon they’ll present this year’s Channy® awards, their own -- and sure to be hilarious -- version of the Emmys. I’ll see you there -- assuming I get the Tux back from the dry-cleaners ...


Next post -- 12/07/07

Friday, November 23, 2007

Desert Island Movies

       We’re in the midst of the long Thanksgiving weekend, and there’s any of a number of blog-worthy films opening right now (I’m Not There in theaters; Paprika and Winter Kills on DVD); but since this thing is most likely read by you, dear reader, during down time at work -- and not when you’re stuffing yourself into insensibility with leftover turkey sandwiches -- it seems like just the right moment to toss off an essay, rather than a full-fledged write-up; the blogging equivalent of a TV clip show. So, what I have for you here is a list of ten, count ‘em 10 Desert Island Movies. Not necessarily my ten favorite films (because favorites are sometimes so special, that they have to be held back and savored at just the right moment); nor what I would consider the ten best (because then you have to take into account a whole host of factors -- historical context, technical proficiency, quality of performance -- all important factors in the making of a film; but not necessarily what makes them watch-able). No, all I’m taking into account here is a certain constancy of enjoyment as engendered by the movies under consideration. When you’re washed up on that proverbial desert island, with only a comfy chair, a DVD player, and a 50” widescreen plasma TV -- and hopefully enough beer and snacks to keep body and soul together till the rescue ship arrives -- which ten movies would keep you the most consistently entertained -- and diverted?

       Here’s my own list (in alphabetical order) of ten movies that I’d be willing to watch over and over again till I’m delivered from my own "uncharted desert isle":

1.) AMELIE - Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s light-hearted romantic comedy never fails to delight. Unlike most ‘chick-flix’, this one has a striking visual style, a snappy editing schema, and some sophisticated -- but seamlessly integrated -- special effects. I can’t help but note that ABC’s new series, Pushing Daisies owes an awful lot to this movie -- from it’s use of V.O. and production design, to going so far as including a track from the Amelie soundtrack (”Guilty”) in the pilot episode.

2.) BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS - Those who know me well will not be surprised to find a film by Russ Meyer on this list -- hey, at least I picked the one with the rockin’est soundtrack! Scripted by Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert), BVD just seems to get funnier with age -- if you’re not quite sure of how to properly apply the word “camp” (as in, ‘a type of humor’), take a look at this movie -- it’ll straighten you out as regards that, pronto!

3.) BOOGIE NIGHTS - This film is the great post-modern rags-to-riches story -- A Star Is Born reimagined as a series of money-shots. It’s funny -- it’s tragic -- it’s got singing, dancing, and porn stars; c’mon people, what more could you ask for?

4.) CAREFUL - Guy Maddin’s 1992 feature is his signature -- and IMHO, his best -- film. It’s a little swirling snow-globe of a movie about incest, repression (sexual and otherwise), and patricide -- did I happen to mention it’s also a comedy? I love the opening 5 minutes of Careful as much as I do any 5 minute section of any other film -- E V E R !

5.) ERASERHEAD - David Lynch’s first feature-length effort is genuinely surreal and dream-like. It’s also very, very funny, -- but I think you have to watch it at about a dozen times before that really comes through -- the first ten viewings or so, you’re just scratching your head, trying to sort it all out. After that though... -- well, I won’t say it makes sense, but certain threads come through strong, and it feels comprehensible, at some level.

6.) EVIL DEAD II - Sam Raimi’s sequel to his first feature (edited by the Bros. Coen!) is a great, big, dopey JayCee’s Haunted House of a movie, and has got to be the most successful marriage of slapstick comedy antics and no-holds-barred Horror/Gore yet committed to celluloid. Also features the most entertaining use (as of yet) of the word “Groovy” in a motion picture.

7.) THE INCREDIBLES - Brad Bird’s first pairing with Pixar is also -- as a matter of almost general agreement amongst both critics and the public alike -- the best film either has produced. If you have a child under the age of ten you’ve undoubtedly seen this, and if you haven’t... well, you should. A pitch-perfect "Hollywood” movie and every second is a joy to watch -- who cares if it’s animated? It’s as entertaining as moviemaking gets...

8.) MILLER’S CROSSING - Any Coen Bros. movie is a treat (with the unfortunate exception of this one), but Miller’s Crossing holds up particularly well to repeated viewings. It's a gangster movie; and a sort-of remake of 1942's The Glass Key -- which in itself was an adaptation of the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Every one of the Coen Bros. films has so many rich details to admire -- but this one, more than most, I think.

9.) MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 (series as a whole) - Yeah, I know -- adding a TV show that has about 175 separate episodes is decidedly cheating -- but it’s my blog, and I guess I can break the rules without getting arrested, so... Why is it on this list? Well, how can you not love a show that manages to reference Mannix, William S. Burroughs, and Cheez-Whiz, all within the same two-minute period -- and if you don’t -- well then, you are dead to me, sir and/or madam.

10.) EL TOPO - Alejandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre, allegorical, and down-right trippy “Western” is definitely dated -- but it’s also unique in world cinema - and strangely fascinating, even moving, at times. Good to watch when you want that vague “am I high?” feeling -- without the week-long depression that usually follows an actual drug experience.

       Feel free to list your own Desert Island Movies in the comments section below; whether it be ten -- or even just one.


Next post -- 11/30/07

Friday, November 16, 2007

TIM & ERIC - AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB!




       An individual’s sense of humor, ya’ know, is a very personal thing. What might make one person laugh uncontrollably, might just as soon cause the next fella’ to simply stare blankly -- and the one after that to become furiously offended. I don’t think there’s any more particular, idiosyncratic component of a person’s personality than what might prompt he or she to laugh. So, it’s with considerable trepidation that I recommend the soon-to-premiere second season of Tim and Eric - Awesome Show, Great Job! -- partly because, as of yet, I’ve only seen the first season’s episodes -- but my hesitation is more likely due to the fact that, while I've found the show to be uproariously funny and entertaining, I’m quite certain I couldn’t explain why. Certainly not to you, dear reader... -- nor, I suspect, even to myself.


       Tim and Eric - Awesome Show, Great Job! is a short-format (each episode runs about 11 & 1/2 minutes) sketch comedy TV show; as such, it has no defined plot per se -- but it does have some regular characters and themes about which it revolves. Chief amongst said dramatis personae (almost all of whom are performed by Eric and Tim; sometimes interacting onscreen with themselves) are: Jan & Wayne Skylar, -- L.A.’s Only Married News Team; Steve and Mike Mahanahan -- brothers, and owner/operators of a Child Clown Outlet and a Child Clown Shoe Outlet ... respectively; and of course, Tim and Eric themselves -- who usually present themselves as dim-witted, short-sighted, corporate hucksters -- within the context of the show at least; I can’t speak for how they are in real life. The sketches themselves frequently take the form of faux “Industrials” (Corporate Instructional videos), P.S.A.s, or even Cable-Access style TV programming; ersatz commercials included. There’s usually a musical number or two in each episode, and the occasional Candid Camera style prank -- with a twist, of course; said twist usually being that the prank is as much on Tim and/or Eric as it is on the unsuspecting -- and generally very confused -- victim.


       Series creators, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, developed their comedy chops on their imaginatively entitled website; after a few failed attempts to sell a TV pilot, they caught the eye of Comedy-God, Bob Odenkirk, who exec-produced their first TV Show, the hilarious and frequently deeply unsettling Tom Goes to the Mayor. Odenkirk continues to act as a creative consultant on Awesome Show, and does voice work and the occasional bit-part as well -- speaking of which, the program has attracted its’ share of interesting and funny guest stars, including Michael Cera, David Cross, and John C. Reilly. It’s more than a little difficult to pin down the show’s appeal -- the program’s free-form structure and the deliberately half-finished (one might even say half-assed) look and feel, certainly has something to do with it. But I can’t say that it works at the level of irony; there’s really nothing ironic about it, quite frankly -- it’s more pathetic than ironic; and that, I think, is the key. The world Tim and Eric present on Awesome Show is simply more dismal and disappointing than you’d think life possibly could be -- more than you could imagine it could be, in fact. And when they present that in the right way (or maybe the wrong way, given the premise of the show), I just can’t help but laugh.


       Tim and Eric - Awesome Show, Great Job! airs as part of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] line-up; the second season premiere is this Sunday, Nov. 18th, at 12:15 AM, EST (9:15 PM, PST) -- but it’s available for viewing online starting today, at 6:00 PM, here. Now, here’s where I’d ordinarily write a sort of funny, punny, closing line. But not this week.

Pathetic...

Some links:

The Tim and Eric - Awesome Show, Great Job! tease web-page.

A clip from season 1: Sports!.

A clip from season 1: Pizza Guy.

A clip from season 1: Lazy Horse Mattress & Bedding.


Next post -- 11/23/07

Friday, November 9, 2007

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS




       Cinema, as a medium of artistic endeavor, is only possible as the result of technology made available within the last century or so. Other arts, such as painting or sculpture, certainly have their own tools and technologies; but they’re readily available in the immediate environment -- at least in their most primitive forms. To make a movie, though, you need some some fairly sophisticated hardware to pull it off -- even at the most unsophisticated level; and the apparatus needed to do this is necessary through every stage of the filmmaking process. Most obviously, in the initial ‘shooting’ of the film, but also in the assembly of said footage -- in the editing. The most significant recent development in editing technology is the advent of so-called non-linear editing systems -- computer-based hardware/software ‘solutions’ that allow the assembly and processing of film and/or video footage -- like AVID’s Media Composer or Apple’s Final Cut Pro. In terms of using the capabilities of this technology to its’ utmost, I have to say that I have yet to see a more trailblazing example than Bruce McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments.


       Based on the novel of the same name by Maureen Medved, The Tracey Fragments tells the story of 15 year old Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page). She’s going through that angst-y adolescent period -- a bit of a pariah at her high school, at odds with her dysfunctional family, and totally ‘crushing’ on the dreamy new boy at her school, a teen-aged Bob Dylan clone she refers to as ‘Billy Zero’. One day, her much younger brother Sonny goes missing; frustrated by her parents increasingly hostile treatment towards her -- and their near-complete emotional breakdown over their vanished son -- Tracey sets herself an impossible task: to seek out Sonny on her own, despite an approaching, and life-threateningly frigid blizzard. As straightforward as this synopsis sounds, the story unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness, fragmented style (hence the title, I suppose) that makes all this a little less clear-cut than I’m presenting it here. Tracey’s search is all mixed up with her own perspectives -- her very personal dreams, desires, and fantasies -- and the plot, such as it is, kind of leaks out through the edges of all that. While I think all the flash and cinematic wizardry used to tell this tale overwhelms it a bit (perhaps intentionally so, though), it was inevitable that someone would try to tell a story this way -- now that it’s possible to do so.


       As a person who makes his living as an editor myself, what struck me about The Tracey Fragments is how difficult -- probably impossible -- it would be to make this film before the advent of NLE’s (non-linear editing systems). The movies extensive use of optical effects -- P-I-P (multiple frames within the screen), images that move in relation to one another while on screen, shifting borders around and between objects -- all of this has been possible since the early days of film. But the ability to see that possibility while in the midst of the editing process -- to actually know how it’ll look to have six or seven images on-screen at the same time, all moving in relation to one another -- that’s something that’s only been possible within the last dozen years or so; since AVID released its’ first products.
       Working directly with film, on a flatbed editor like a Steenbeck, all of the information related to those kinds of effects are just marked on the workprint with a grease-pencil -- if you want to actually see what that dissolve or wipe will look like, you have to go through the time-consuming -- and expensive -- task of getting the lab to ‘print’ that sequence; and all the while they're handling your one and only, all-too-fragile negative, to make these tests. With an NLE, all the film footage is transferred to video, converted to a kind of moving-image computer file, and from there you can play with it to your heart’s content -- and see it all there, in real-time...        well, truth be told, most likely after a lengthy render -- but the point is you can actually see what you’re doing while you’re doing it -- and that opens up a whole new world of possibilities in cinematic storytelling.


       The Tracey Fragments is in limited release right now in Canada (its country of origin), and is playing the festival circuit here in the States -- most likely, it’ll find a U.S. distributor soon and get a wider release sometime later this year or early next. What you can see of the The Tracey Fragments right now is on its’ website, which also makes an intriguing offer. Under the RE-FRAGMENTED Tab, is a link which will start a download of all the footage utilized in the film to the users' computer. The site encourages interested parties to do this, and re-edit the film as they see fit, -- and then submit the re-mix to the films producers’ to evaluate. One winning entry will receive a copy of Final Cut Studio 2 -- and have their cut included on the forthcoming DVD of the film. Unfortunately, this contest is only open to Canadian citizens -- so they won’t be seeing a re-cut from me anytime soon...


Next post -- 11/16/07

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Only Weakness . . .


       My favorite scene, from my favorite Horror movie:



... and that’s all I got.
H A P P Y    H A L L O W E E N everybody!


Next post -- 11/09/07

Friday, October 26, 2007

THE SIGNAL




       The end of the world has always been a pretty popular subject matter for the movies. Whether it be by ecological devastation, zombie infestation, or just plain, old-fashioned alien invasion, the apocalypse is a sure-fire formula for providing filmmakers with plenty of tense, plot-driven, life-or-death scenarios. Less often is it the starting point for a character-driven piece; one that revolves around the cares, concerns and foibles of a small group of individuals. But that is, I suppose, part of what makes The Signal so unique, and so compelling.


       The film is structured in the form of a triptych. The first third of the story is told from the perspective of Mya, a young woman who is having an affair with Ben; during a clandestine tryst, they contemplate just picking up and leaving Terminus, the city in which they live. Before they can enact their plans, a bizarre event takes place: every television, radio and phone begins to relay an unintelligible transmission -- one that causes anyone who looks at, or listens to it for any length of time to become completely dissociated from reality; often in a way that is extremely dangerous to those around them. The next third of the film is told from the perspective of Mya’s husband, Lewis; he’s on to the fact that his wife is having an affair, and is desperately searching for her. The last third is told from Ben’s perspective, who attempts to rescue the now-abducted Mya -- and who also has to contend with a very dangerous obstacle in the form of Lewis.


       The Signal has been compared to -- or even mistakenly identified as -- a “zombie” movie; but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Those afflicted by the weird transmission are not mindless, and not necessarily enraged; but they are paranoid, confused -- and become increasingly disconnected from reality. It’s one thing to be in a world of mindless automatons who are out to “eat your brains” -- quite another to be in a world full of rational beings who just have no way of discerning reality from paranoid delusion -- and have no inhibitions to stop them from acting upon their impulses. Ostensibly a “Horror” movie -- and the situation in The Signal is indeed horrific -- nonetheless the film doesn’t always play out like one; the entire second act unfolds as a sit-com (a pretty funny one, I might add). In fact, the film's whole approach to its subject matter has a more studied, analytical feel than what you’d expect from a “fright” flick. Overall, The Signal has more in common with the dystopian novels of J.G. Ballard than it does Night of the Living Dead.


       The Signal’s three-distinct-chapter composition came about because each section was written and directed by a separate person. The film was constructed much like a game of Exquisite Corpse -- each succeeding chapter was handed off to the next writer/director, who was free to develop his portion as he saw fit. The changes in style and mood between each section can be a little jarring, but sudden changes in perspective are kinda’ what the film is all about -- I think it works; at least it did for me. The Signal opens in theaters in February of 2008 -- and really, you can put your mind at ease -- I mean, I took a look at it; and it doesn’t seem to have done m∂ any hram.

Some links:

The Signal’s myspace page.

Magnolia Pictures (the U.S. distributer of the film) website regarding the film.


Next post -- 10/31/07 -- H A L L O W E E N

Friday, October 19, 2007

BASKET CASE 2




       Movie sequels, as a rule, are never as good as the original films which spawned them -- the exception proving this rule, interestingly enough, happens to be in the Horror genre -- as is the subject of this week’s post; it’s a sequel as well. It’s certainly not a better film than its predecessor; except perhaps in terms of production value and the quality -- and downright inventiveness -- of the make-up effects created for the film. It is, however, being released on DVD just in time for Halloween -- and it does give me an excuse to glob a bit about Frank Henenlotter, a filmmaker whose work I enjoy the heck out of...        so, mehh -- why not write a post about Basket Case 2 ? It’s an entertaining enough little romp.


       Basket Case 2 picks up immediately where the first film left off. Duane and Belial Bradley, the two conjoined twins who were so rudely separated in the first film, are recovering from the injuries they sustained as the result of their... -- uhh, extracurricular activities. They’re rescued -- well kidnapped, really -- by Granny Ruth, a woman whose maternal, nurturing nature compels her to provide care and refuge for “unique individuals” -- “freaks” to you and me -- and so she takes them under her wing. Duane, the normal-looking twin, is easy enough to support; but Belial, his brother -- who sort of looks like a lump of Play-Doh™ with a face and two arms... well something you might refer to as a ‘face’ and ‘two arms’ at any rate -- is another story. Suffice to say, Belial has some major anger-management issues -- and with a couple of reporters hot on the trail of the murderous “Bradley Twins”, it looks like his therapeutic progress is in for a serious setback...


       Frank Henenlotter, the director of Basket Case 2 works out of the NYC area -- and his films are very much the product of “a New York state of mind” -- this isn’t Woody Allen’s New York, or Noah Baumbach’s, or even Martin Scorsese’s, for that matter. It’s the Big Apple of the old 42nd St. -- before its’ Disney-fication, during the hey-day of the independent theater venues -- the Grindhouses. While Tarantino and Rodriguez’s namesake feature was a well-intentioned homage to these types of movies, Henenlotter’s entire oeuvre is a more faithful tribute to this exploitation film tradition. His films don’t always have the ‘tightest’ scripts, but they all juggle humor, horror and a certain amount of titillation in that particular -- and very entertaining -- manner that only exploitation pics can. Basket Case 2 certainly isn’t his best film (that would be Brain Damage, IMHO), but it has alot going for it -- a blackly comic sense of humor; some truly innovative prosthetics (designed by the talented Gabe Bartalos, whose most recent work can be seen in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle); and the just-plain-wrongest sex scene in the history of cinema.


       Basket Case 2 will be released on DVD (in a widescreen special edition) on October 30th -- the day before Halloween. All of Henenlotter’s other films are currently available on DVD, including Basket Case, the very good prequel to Basket Case 2, and Basket Case 3, the very bad -- and thankfully final -- movie in the series. So, why not take a look inside the basket -- what’s inside is really quite surprising.

Some links:

Frank Henenlotter on the IMDb.

An interview with Frank Henenlotter regarding his latest film project.


Next post -- 10/26/07

Friday, October 12, 2007

EVERYTHING WILL BE OK




       I suppose it’s an impetuous statement to make -- some two and a half months before the end of the year -- to say that I’ve already seen the best movie of 2007; but I’m making it, all the same. The film in question has a running time of about seventeen minutes, really only has one main character, no dialogue and oh... -- did I happen to mention? It’s a cartoon. But hasty or not, as of right now, that’s my stand -- I haven’t yet seen; nor do I think I’m likely to see -- a better film this year than Don Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be OK.


       The plot -- or as much as I’m willing to reveal of it here -- is simple and straightforward enough. Bill, an average fellow just trying to live his life, begins to find his everyday tasks and responsibilities more than he can handle. Despite ongoing treatment from his doctor, Bill begins to question his own health and well-being . . . and that’s all you really need to know. As I mentioned, Everything Will Be OK is an animated film, done in Hertzfeldt’s familiar stick-figure renderings; but he’s also incorporated some stylistic enhancements -- the use of masks or mattes within the frame (often three or four onscreen simultaneously); the occasional addition of photographic backgrounds as landscapes; the occasional color wash or glow-illumination effect on an object. The most significant enhancement, though, is this time ‘round Hertzfeldt has made a film that’s more than just smart, funny and snappily-paced (although it’s all those things, as well); he’s made a film that’s genuinely moving.


       I think it can be truthfully said that Don Hertzfeldt’s career is unprecedented within the world of independent film -- certainly within the world of independent animation. Self-taught as an animator, Hertzfeldt’s first short (Ah, L’Amour) was released when he was only 19 and still a student at UC Santa Barbara’s Film program -- he’s still located there, in that same city, despite his relatively close proximity to the “film capital” -- Los Angeles. Hertzfeldt’s later films have gone on to win a slew of awards and accolades -- Rejected was actually nominated for an Academy Award in 2001. Most recently, Everything Will Be OK won the 2007 Jury Award for Best Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival -- the first time an animated film has taken that particular honor. What really makes Hertzfeldt’s career unique is that he seems to produce all his films without recourse to commercial ad work -- the traditional; and frequently thought of as the only way for an independent animator to make a living -- even the iconoclastic Bros. Quay resort to making the occasional commercial to fund their other projects. Hertzfeldt has made his position on commercial ad work very clear -- despite some very lucrative offers, he regards all commercials as “lies” -- and absolutely refuses to do them. Instead, he seems to rely upon revenue from the sale and exhibition of his films to fund his projects -- and creates his works through the time-consuming -- but cost-cutting -- process of hand animation; no computers involved, anywhere in the process, In fact, Hertzfeldt still uses one of the last still-functioning Richardson animation cameras (primarily used for TV cartoons of the 60’s and 70’s -- including the old Peanuts specials) to photograph all his work -- people, let me tell you; it’s the cinematic equivalent of making stained glass.


       Everything Will Be OK is the first part of an intended trilogy. Post-production is well underway for the as-of-yet untitled second part, to be released as a segment within the 2008 edition of The Animation Show -- an annual compilation of animated shorts (in all styles) from around the world that Hertzfeldt and fellow filmmaker Mike Judge put together and distribute. The 2007 edition is still playing here and there, and the 2008 version will start its rounds sometime in late winter or early Spring of this upcoming year. Hertzfeldt’s films are all available through his website; You can order all his previous shorts on a single DVD called Bitter Films, vol 1: 1995-2005; and I’m happy to say that, as of today, Friday Oct. 12th, Everything Will Be OK will also be available through that same site. It’s worth every penny of its $12.00 price-tag. Really.

Some links:

Welcome to the Show, a brief opening intro to The Animation Show.

Intermission in the Third Dimension a brief interlude from The Animation Show.

Finally, End of the Show -- also from The Animation Show.

An interview with Guy Maddin -- which has nothing to do with this week’s entry, but regular readers know that we’re all about Maddin here at Beyond the Ranges . . ..


Next post -- 10/19/07

Friday, October 5, 2007

'Tis the season . . .

       It’s October, and even here in balmy L.A. the nights are getting a bit cooler -- not so much the days, but the nights, yes... With the change of season, comes a whole host of other changes -- the shorts get packed away until next year, jackets get put back on hangers and the A/C finally gets shut off -- and since October is also the month of All Hallows' Eve, the entries you’ll read between now and Halloween will all revolve around Horror movies -- with the exception of next week, I should mention. We kick things off with an assortment of movies (all available on DVD) appropriate for the “Holiday season” -- a selection of films that I hope you’re not overly familiar with; thoughtfully presented early enough in the month that you can pick up whichever one might catch your fancy well before Halloween; at your neighborhood video store; or add it to your Netflix queue; or heck, with any luck, just pluck it from the cut-out bin at Amoeba Records.


       For those who prefer their Horror “old-school”, I really can’t recommend 1935’s MAD LOVE enough. The movie stars Peter Lorre (in a performance that very much inspired this character) as Dr. Gogol; a gifted but “eccentric” surgeon. Mad Love is one of the many film versions -- but not the first -- of that old pot-boiler, “The Hands of Orlac”; a story in which a talented pianist has his injured hands surgically replaced with those of a talented murderer; the hands, of course, have a mind of their own (if I had a nickel for every time this idea was “borrowed” by some TV show or awful direct-to-video thriller...). The film was directed by Oscar winning cinematographer, Karl Freund -- who also developed the 3-camera system of shooting sitcoms for the I Love Lucy show in the early 50’s. Mad Love is the forgotten step-child of 30’s Horror films; Universal dominated that scene with their all-star monster line-up; and while this, an early MGM foray into fright films, is a worthy addition to those classics, it lacks a distinctive “monster” -- and so never quite found the audience that Dracula or Frankenstein did. Mad Love was released on DVD about this time last year with little fanfare -- or notice on part of consumers -- as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection, as released by Warner Home Video; so look for it under that title.



       Larry Fesseden’s The Last Winter is playing in theaters as you read this; he’s an actor and director who’s made a career out of making modern, “indie” Horror films, and for my money, his HABIT is clearly the best of the bunch. The movie opens by introducing us to Sam (Fessenden), an archetypal, down-on-his-luck, late 90’s slacker type; Sam’s luck seems to turn around when he meets Anna at a costume party -- they immediately hit it off; and she’s smart... mysterious... and sexy as all get-out! The one downside is that Sam is rapidly becoming convinced that she’s a vampire; well, you know what they say: beggars can’t be choosers... Habit certainly isn’t the first time this idea has been done, but rarely has it been executed with so little melodrama -- and certainly no trace of a “camp” sensibility. The film has a matter-of-fact, almost documentary feel that works very much in its favor. "Low-key" isn't a mood that most horror movies opt for -- but that unlikely choice of style just makes this film all the more effective.


       GINGER SNAPS is the movie that Teen Wolf should have been. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are sisters, pariahs at their high school and deep in the throes of that “difficult” period of adolescence -- things actually seem to get better for Ginger after she’s bitten by a very large “dog”. Well, relatively “better” -- if you can ignore the unsightly hair growth and the sudden appearance of a tail, that is. Look out, high school! Ginger may have been ‘goth’ before, but kids, she’s taking it to a whole new level! Lycanthropy as a metaphor for the wild, uncontrolled onset of adolescence seems like such an obvious idea that it’s surprising it took 43 years for this concept to get recycled (you get points if you can name the first -- hint: Ginger Snaps was made in the year 2000; do the math) . What makes Ginger Snaps really worthwhile is its well-written script, solid direction, and the excellent performances by the two leads.


       The popularity of J-Horror here in the States comes as no surprise to me. Coming at a time when American examples of the form are at an all-time creative nadir -- nothing but endless iterations of the “slasher” genre -- J-Horror succeeds by going back to the form’s roots: ghost stories (of which Japan has a very rich tradition) and tales of psychological pathology, a lá Poe (who is very much respected in Japan; so much so, that Japan’s most renowned writer of horror fiction borrowed his nom de plume from him). AUDITION is an example of the latter type of tale, and concerns a widower named Aoyama, who, working as he does in the film industry, decides to hold an “audition” for a prospective new wife. Asami, the woman he picks as his fiance, is beautiful, demure and a talented ballet dancer to boot -- unfortunately, she’s got a few... uhh, skeletons in her closet, so to speak. Unlike some recent J-Horror films that were snapped up for American-ized remakes (The Ring and The Grudge. for example), Audition has resisted being re-imagined as a U.S film; probably because the ideas behind it are just too disturbing; at least they would be -- to the mostly male studio heads who could potentially green-light such a thing. In addition to disturbing ideas, Audition has -- after a deceptively languorous opening 60 minutes or so -- some of the most unsettling execution of said ideas that I’ve ever seen. It’s a fine piece of filmmaking, but not for the squeamish.
       You’ve been warned.


       1961’s THE INNOCENTS is, plain and simple, a pretty-durned good cinematic adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” -- it is by far the most genteel and mannered of the films featured in this entry -- but compelling all the same. For those unfamiliar with the story, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a 19th century nanny and governess, is given charge over two orphaned children and the expansive manse and grounds upon which they live. A difficult enough task on its own, made more so by Miss Giddens growing concern that the grounds are haunted -- and that the children may be possessed. Quite a few people cite Robert Wise’s The Haunting or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as pitch-perfect examples of how to make a horror movie that works by suggestion alone, rather than relying upon excessive violence or gore to generate goose-bumps-- but for my money, The Innocents is at least as effective as either of those. And, ya’ know -- you get to bone up on your Henry James; he’s a rather dry read, if memory serves correctly. At any rate, from the sublime...


       ... to the ridiculous. Frank Henenlotter’s FRANKENHOOKER has its share of horrifying moments, I suppose, but as the title would suggest, they’re overshadowed by the humorous ones. The plot -- such as it is: Jeffrey Franken, med school drop-out, decides to “rebuild” his dead girlfriend, Elizabeth, who was accidentally killed by a wayward automated lawnmower (don’t ask ...). Lacking a convenient nearby graveyard, Jeffrey decides to rent some prostitutes for this task, because, really, who’ll miss ’em? He can make Elizabeth better, stronger, .... uhh, well, busty-ier, at any rate. Of course the various spare parts and their respective pimps make things difficult for Jeffrey and Elizabeth, and wacky hi-jinks do, indeed, ensue. Frankenhooker was made by Henenlotter as part of a contractual obligation with the film distributor who was financing his better known Basket Case series. He’s not taking the whole set-up very seriously, and everything that can be played for laughs, is. A good choice for those who don’t like being even a teensy bit scared on Halloween. Frankenhooker was released last year after a long period of being Out-of-Print; it’s available now on DVD in a strikingly good-looking widescreen transfer -- What can I say? it’s reassuring to know that somebody’s preserving the classics...

Next post -- 10/12/07

Friday, September 28, 2007

WAX




       Observant readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that I glob about each film shortly before it’s released in some form -- theatrically, on DVD, through the internet, pink-laser-projected directly into your brain, what-have-you. But some films never quite get an “official” release -- at least, not with any fanfare, nor through easily accessible channels. To get ahold of such a film, bootleg editions of the movie are often the only option; but unfortunately they often feature video transfers and mastering of questionable quality and disreputable origin. Less frequently, but more beneficially to the films’ creators, a work will be self-distributed. Such would seem to be the case with the surreptitious DVD release, some fifteen months ago, of WAX, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees.


       Okay, so I’m now going to try and synopsize WAX for you, dear reader -- please note: I said try; I have serious doubts that I’ll actually succeed, but here goes. Jacob Maker, a weapons guidance-system designer and amateur bee-keeper, is investigating his own genealogy and discovers that his grandfather, James “Hive” Maker (also a bee-keeper), was a founding member of the Supernormal Picture Society of London -- a group of cinematographers who believed they could photograph the spirits of the dead. Meanwhile, Jacob has a blackout one day while tending his bees -- a fugue-state induced by the bees themselves, who insert a small crystal into his brain to broadcast images to him. These “images” cause Jacob to have some startling revelations concerning his work at the weapons center -- and how that work relates to the cinematic experiments of his grandfather, “Hive” Maker. If all this sounds alarmingly close to the rantings of that guy down the street who lives out of his shopping cart -- well, with good reason; it’s hard to interpret WAX as anything other than a first-person account (albeit fictional -- I think) of a full-on schizophrenic episode -- what makes WAX unique is that its representation of this dementia is completely uncompromising -- there is no “return to reality” for Jacob; indeed, there’s no real suggestion that what he’s experiencing is anything but “reality”. While WAX sometimes takes on the quality of a spoken diary with visual accompaniment, it nonetheless has a fairly sophisticated grammar bound up in these same visuals; something that only struck me on a recent re-viewing.


       WAX achieved a number of firsts when it was completed in 1991; it was the first independent feature film to have been edited on a digital non-linear system; it was also the first film to be broadcast on the internet -- reformatted as hypertext and and at the painfully inadequate frame-rate of 2fps; but first in that regard, all the same. As you can gather from the synopsis, WAX is in no way a conventional “movie”; it’s really more of a feature-length “video-art” piece than a narrative film. And while much of the computer graphics and even the quality of the videography itself seems “clunky” by today’s standards, what creator David Blair did with it still seems compelling; at least in stretches, here and there.


       WAX, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available as a 2 DVD set (a conventional DVD and a DVD-rom) here, and also can in fact be viewed, in its entirety, online, at WAXWEB, the site Blair has set up to promote the film. This online version splits the film up into 43 shorter movies of approximately 2 minutes each; and each with its’ own hyperlinks and reference material. Not the most convenient way to watch an 85 minute film, but then again, WAX has little to do with expedience, and much to do with creating something unfettered by the concern of what people will make of it.


Next post -- 10/05/07