Wednesday, April 22, 2015

SEVENTH SON

I mean god dammit, you try to go into each movie with open mind, open heart. You recall the universal scorn received by undeserving movies that obscured their virtues: the solid, old school fantasy adventure JOHN CARTER (OF MARS); the far-from-perfect but surprisingly smart and movingly revisionist THE LONE RANGER; hell, even an effervescent, fun, and sexy piece of pop cinema like DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION. And so you go into something like Sergei Bodrov's SEVENTH SON, which disappeared quickly after a widely-lambasted theatrical run, expectations low but (previous examples in mind) hoping for at least a modest diversion.


All the elements are there: actors who've done good work elsewhere (including reuniting LEBOWSKIites Jeff Bridges and Juliette Lewis), a decent-enough story (from a YA fantasy novel by Joseph Delaney), an actual plot that expands a bit on the usual Chosen One tropes common to this kind of story, attractive effects and decently-conceived environments and creatures. But it all just seems to unfold uninvolvingly before your eyes, never taking hold of anything inside you, just existing lifelessly on screen before you. Everyone commits, but nothing catches fire. The three movies cited above, though they vary in quality, all possess something soulful that involves us, but that involvement is never felt in SEVENTH SON. Was it a language barrier (with Bodrov making his English language debut)? Was it tinkered with by unseen hands in the two years (TWO YEARS) between it's completion and its release?

Even in as productized a landscape as contemporary Hollywood it is rare that a movie appears with no clear reason for its existence. Routine story elements can be viewed with fresh eyes and mined for small original tweaks (or at least invested with genuine emotion), but no one involved seems to have asked how to make this modest little fantasy something different, or special. (Indeed, it regurgitates some of the genre's more tiresome aspects, from its villainess turning to evil after being rejected by a lover to a group of villains cast with most of the movie's non-male, non-white actors.) There is no excuse for SEVENTH SON to be as lifeless as it is, and it's frustrating that the talented people assembled to make it couldn't (or wouldn't) elevate it to the level of even a modest pleasure. No one looking at the movie during its making could have thought that they had a complete movie on their hands - why should the audience feel any different?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

INTERSTELLAR

My opinions of Christopher Nolan's earlier movies still stand. My second viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT confirmed that it was a large, strident achievement devoid of a pulse. A discomfiting aspect of Nolan's style was his tendency to look at characters like they were on a petri dish, though in my favorites of his movies - INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - this tendency was abated as he, seemingly grudgingly, let some light in, grappled with actual human emotion, and even, in RISES, managed to have a little fun. FUN, I ask you.

So I waited for a while to see INTERSTELLAR - I'd heard that it was too ambitious to dismiss, and wanted to see it at a time when I could see it clear of its hype, and, more crucially, clear of my own baggage. Last week's screening, in 70mm at my favorite theatre, was going to be an event regardless. But dammit, it was a movie for NOW, a direct and disquieting state of the planet address. And maybe the casting of Matthew McConaughey (a Nolan first-timer) in the lead helped unlock it, but for the first time in a Nolan film I was engaged at a human level with his characters. Some cynical remnant inside me mused that Nolan suppressed his humanity for his first seven films, knowing he'd need eight movies' worth of humanity to realize INTERSTELLAR. But mainly I'm just grateful that he made it, and that I experienced it. And more than a week later Cooper, Murph, and Brand (hell, even TARS) are still with me, lingering like none of his characters ever have.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Exit the Halloween Hangover...Enter...um, THE HALLOWEEN HANGOVER!

One keeps changing one's goalposts, doesn't one? Revising a blown deadline, extending a due date to buy oneself more time? I do so unashamedly, for a number of reasons. When I last posted, I was miffed by how Halloween sneaked by with so little fanfare, and swore to extend the celebration of horror into November, taking the 21st as the true end of Halloween.

The 21st was the night the Castro Theatre unleashed a lovely 2fer of British horror: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (from a print brought over from the British Film Institute) and Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness, a highly regarded cult film I'd been eager to check out for years. I attended that lovely double feature (accompanied by good friend & editor Michael Guillen - go read The Evening Class, will ya?), and yet still can't just put the damn Halloween season to bed.

Especially not since the Castro's unleashing an even-more-glorious horror 2-fer this month, pairing Argento's Suspiria (which I've seen there before and elsewhere on 35mm, but dammit) with Mario Bava's final film Beyond the Door II (aka Shock), and under-the-wire-but-surely-welcome participation in this, Mario Bava's centenary.

So I'm not pronouncing horror season done until that date (and its accompanying movies) are behind us. As for the movies mentioned above...

--Don't Look Now was basically an unknown quantity; I'd seen it on video back in college but hadn't revisited it since. Even knowing the terrifying ending is coming (and it's still a hell of a jolt, and a heartbreaker, besides), the details of the story remain engrossing. Though Roeg feels like he's keeping himself distant from his story, in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie mourn their dead child (retreating to Venice, where something strange among the canals seems to stalk them as insistently as their memories), it's as if Sutherland and Christie are able to spread out inside that distance and really explore the depths of sadness, intimacy, alienation, and desolation. For all its penetrating realism there's more than enough touches of the uncanny to propel the thing into the realm of horror. And I wonder now as I did when I first saw it if its visual linking of one scene to the next was lifted directly by comics scribe Alan Moore.


--Daughters of Darkness stretches a low budget and limited resources really, really far, or spends a huge budget to convey that impression. John Karlen (who shot this between Dark Shadows projects - Kumel's casting must have been deliberate) and Danielle Ouimet are newlyweds who find themselves stuck at a desolate Belgian hotel, with only a bizarre countess (Marienbad's Delphine Seyrig, semi-slumming it here under Resnais' encouragement) and her Brooksian secretary (Andrea Rau). It's decadent and dreamy, never quite solid enough to cohere into something truly great but never running out of strange details with which to beguile us. And it gets a lot of mileage out of Seyrig, her costumes, and those interiors, as well.


More soon(ish) on other movies seen in the post-post-Halloween season, including a video or two.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Exit Halloween, Enter...The Halloween Hangover!


Man, I had such high hopes for this month. Watch some unviewed movies, write some reviews here, really celebrate the run-up to Halloween. But life, as it so often does, just got in the way. Parental visit, prolific work on the workblog sapping energies for the House. Even the monkeys who cohabitate here were more diligent in celebrating horror movies in the run-up. Plus there was the additional weird juju on the streets of my (gentrifying massively but still beloved) City as the San Francisco Giants took the wild card spot and wound up winning the damn World Series. Always happy to see the black and orange do well (and I'm much happier that such success has smiled on the Baumgarner Giants than the Bonds ones). My only real objection to the post-season is its distraction from the weeks heading to Halloween; it's a key part of my autumn, and it makes me sad when the Giants steal its focus. I don't get mad at anybody over it, it just kinda saddens me.

And yet my appetite for cinematic and other spookiness is rarely sated come All Saints Day, and I often extend the celebration into November for a week or three. (Indeed, a couple of years back I had a great November experience at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto with the two-fer of THE WOLF MAN and THE MUMMY'S HAND, which I declared the real conclusion to the Halloween season.) And so, since the Castro Theatre has a nice 35mm two-fer of Don't Look Now and Daughters of Darkness on the 20th, the celebration of Halloween will continue here at the House of Sparrows until then, with the full intention to present more writing here. Chip away at the October Wall, report on some of the movies seen theatrically, etc.

Whether you're taking your costumed children out for candy, taking in a sexy party, or holing up with horror cinema, I wish you all the best the spooky season has to offer.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Wall of October...

I'm calling this the October Wall. Wanting, as usual, to observe the Halloween seasons by watching as many horror movies as I can (and guilty, as usual, that I'm not more present here, on my own damn blog, my beloved House of Sparrows), I've pulled all of the discs with unseen or newish horror movies with the intention of watching and writing about them. Included are some discs that have sat on my shelf unwatched since purchase, some are gifts that I haven't yet viewed (ISN'T THAT JUST THE WORST), and some are sets containing movies with which I simply want to better acquaint myself. Plus there's that little envelope on the right containing a nice little surprise, borrowed from a friend which I don't doubt will be a verrrrry interesting view...

Anyway, you've got some giallo, a Curtis Harrington two-fer,

This won't quite be the crazy-ambitious 31 Days of Halloween some bloggers are shooting for. I'm hoping for ten at least capsule-length reviews of the movies under consideration, which'll be a nice little horror feast in the run-up to The Big Day. Hope you'll join me!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A FULLER LIFE

On paper the documentary couldn't be simpler: combine images and film shot by the late Samuel Fuller (both from his strident, incendiarily leftist motion pictures and from reels shot throughout his life) with excerpts from his autobiography, read by about fifteen of his colleagues, collaborators, and kindred spirits. But director Samantha Fuller has assembled a tribute to her remarkable father that transcends this simple framework and winds up absorbing us with his life, his images, his words.

Words. As she tells us early on, every word in the movie after her introduction is her father's, and all paying tribute (reading from various positions in Fuller's packed basement archive) can't help but endow their readings with their own gritty Fullerisms. Aaron suggested that all of them (particularly those who had been directed by Fuller) remain to a degree possessed by him, which isn't quite the term I'd use. One wonders how deeply Samantha Fuller asked her readers to approximate her father's cadences; I suspect many of them easily, even subconsciously adopted them as they recalled their own shared journeys with Fuller. It's this sharing, a mutual understanding between Fuller and his collaborators that resonates most powerfully, and these journeys find powerful, moving parallels in the texts read for us.

The pairing of each section of text with its reader is often inspired. James Franco obligatorily shows up and is given the movie's first text, in which Fuller recalls his youthful innocence before taking the newspaper job that would shape his life. Jennifer Beals warmly reads Fuller's recollections of these assignments, illustrated by her performance as a photojournalist in Fuller's The Madonna and the Dragon. Arguably the most powerful impression is left by Bill Duke, whose downright Shakespearean reading of Fuller's recollections of coming of age as a crime reporter speaks to a shared experience, and deep reservoirs of abiding love and respect. Naked Kiss star Constance Towers makes a similar impression as she reads Fuller's cranky, take-no-prisoners recollections of his filmmaking ethos; working with Fuller clearly ignited something inside Towers, and half a century later it clearly still burns inside her.

One would love to hear any of the assembled readers take on the reading a Fuller novel for a books-on=tape/disc edition. Not just because they would all rock the assignment (they all certainly would), but because there's so much pleasure inherent in Fuller's words, and seeing & hearing these talented and respectful collaborators bringing those words to life. Whatever Fuller imparted to these people still clearly lives inside them; thanks to Samantha Fuller's loving, moving tribute, Fuller's life and words resonate inside us as well.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

I really should just recuse myself from conversations about Guardians of the Galaxy - I'm in a frustrating position where Marvel is churning out movies I'd have adored as a kid, or even a youngish adult. But I can't bring myself to savor them, or even care much about them. And though I won't deny that I've had emotional experiences while watching many of those movies (including Guardians, it should be said), those emotions fly away as soon as I'm out of the theatre. But I went to see Guardians opening weekend, mainly because if I was going to find out what happened in it I wanted to go to the source, rather than have it spoiled for me on line. This outweighed any actual enthusiasm I had for the movie, which immediately put us at a disadvantage with each other.

In the act of watching it, I was engaged. After the earthbound, thriller-style heroics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the dropkicking of the Marvel franchise into colorful/boldly realized space opera is a smart decision. It's great to look at, but has a decent emotional core, with Chris Pratt likeable indeed as nominal team-core Star-Lord. His reconnection with his deceased mother toward the climax is one of Marvel's most bracing cinematic moments. There's plenty to enjoy there, and of course the thing has found a huge, probably record-breaking audience.


But dammit, all these little things kept nudging me out of it. Rocket Raccoon is an irresistible conceit, but the character himself, though resourceful and clever, is quippy without being funny, and comes across as merely bitchy. (This is a common trait to many live-action Marvel characters - it singlehandedly drove me away from the Agents of SHIELD TV show.) Michael Rooker is believably gruff as alien tough guy Yondu Udonta, but in his climactic action sequence outsources his badassery to the flying knife he whistles to. Villain Ronan the Accuser cuts a great visual figure, but rings hollow. The "outsiders find family with one another" trope was already hashed out in The Avengers, and I'm tired of the geek-stroking inherent in the subtext.

And the fucking 70s pop tunes all over the soundtrack - I like that Star-Lord's prized possession is a mixtape from his mother, but I kept wondering why a woman who had undergone the incredible experience of parenting a child with an alien would have such pedestrian taste in music. It's a commercially sound decision to go with more familiar, crowd-pleasing tunes here than, say, the progressive rock the story screams for, and many have mentioned the tunes as one of their favorite things about it. But the juxtaposition of Earth's pop music with high-flying space action is not new, and has worked better elsewhere. And I'll take Sammy Hagar's title track from the Heavy Metal soundtrack to anything from Guardians.

So why even write about it? I'm not going to convince anyone that they're wrong to love this movie (and wouldn't dream of trying). Maybe I'm just trying to figure out why these movies do so much for so many, yet find no purchase with me. Maybe I'm as irresistibly drawn to sounding off about it on line as I was to seeing it. Or maybe there's some subliminal illuminati shit in Marvel movies that I'm immune to. That scenario makes just as much sense as me willingly looking a gift horse in the mouth. Who knows? No conclusion here, just an aging comic book-loving cinephile talking to himself. You're a gem for reading this far. Thank you. Sincerely.