the handmaiden (chan-wook park, 2016)

I got off to a mediocre start with Chan-wook Park. The first movie of his I saw, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I thought it was a mess made by a talented director. ("It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.") I've seen a lot more Korean horror movies since then, and I might think differently about that movie now. Anyway, next up was Oldboy, and color me impressed. ("While Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.") Finally, there was the third film in the "Vengeance Trilogy", Lady Vengeance, which was as gorgeous to look at as the others (if you can make it through the violence, that is) and found a way to bring the plot together with a remarkable ending.

None of this prepared me for The Handmaiden. It's gorgeous, and yes, there are some violent scenes, although nothing to match Oldboy. But so much is different. It's based on a novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Waters set her story in Victorian Britain ... Park moved the setting to Korea in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. This adds depth to the film, although I admit I'm sure I missed much of it. Still, the relationship between Koreans and Japanese culture is shown clearly enough. The plot, which as far as I can tell sticks fairly closely to the novel, involves a con man trying to marry a rich woman for her money. I could say a lot more, but one of the great pleasures of The Handmaiden is following the twists and turns of the plot, so I'll just say that very little is as it seems. Even the manner in which the various twists unfold is elegant ... it's almost a spoiler to say that the twists exist, because Park takes his time getting to that part of his tale.

The film features a handful of fairly explicit sex/love scenes, and I'm of two minds about them. On the one hand, the scenes are lovely, and the actresses are quite beautiful. These are not what you might call "Game of Thrones" scenes, either, tossed in just for titillation. No, these scenes reveal both character and plot, and are, as they say, "integral" to the story. Nonetheless, more than one critic has accused Park of falling back on the male gaze to inform his work in those scenes. Park has argued that his film shows the damage the male gaze does to women, citing in particular scenes where one of the women reads books to groups of men. I'm not sure where I come down on this. They are used effectively, but I don't think Park totally escapes his desire to show hot women doing hot things with each other in a way that men would enjoy.

Still, there is much to like here, even to love. At times, it's like watching a Korean movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, and I mean that as a compliment. #399 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

 


by request: final girl (tyler shields, 2015)

This movie is a piece of junk that doesn't deserve much discussion. I was going to add the trailer, but even it is boring. It marks the directorial debut for Tyler Shields, better known for his work as a photographer ... he's the one who took the photo of Kathy Griffin holding up a severed head that looked like Donald Trump. Abigail Breslin stars, trying to show everyone she's grown up now. It cost $8 million to make, and didn't even make that small amount back, although it's hard to be sure, since it was barely released before going to On Demand. It looks evocative, and with that, I've paid it all the compliments I can muster. The title has no real relation to Carol J. Clover's landmark work.

What interests me more is why we watched it in the first place. As noted above, this was a request. I asked my wife if she wanted to watch a movie, and we began the arduous process of picking something to watch. It had to be something we agreed on. Since she knits constantly during the movie, subtitles are out, and in these instances, she prefers something she's either already seen or knows will be relatively mindless, since she won't be paying very close attention. She also does what I assume is pretty normal ... as we scroll through titles, she wants to know who is in the movie. She is unconcerned about critical acclaim or the lack of same.

We were going to end up watching a horror movie, and I guess Final Girl seemed OK, albeit we had low expectations. Of course, even those were not met. At one point, I said maybe she just didn't like good movies. Surprisingly, she agreed with me.

Now, I watch a lot of junk, like 50s monster movies and the like. But most of the time, I'm looking for the critical favorites. It's why I enjoy having a "By Request" on occasion, because it gets me out of my own preferences. And when that request turns into Final Girl, I'll say hey, it's only 84 minutes, how bad could it be? Also, in fairness, I really liked Get Out, which was another "let's watch a movie together" film.

But when I watch something like Final Girl, I worry that two people will never be able to compromise enough to pick a movie both will like. More often than not, you end up with the lowest common denominator. And I end up thinking that, no matter how badly I want to share a favorite like In the Mood for Love with the one I love, my biggest concern is that she won't like it. Better that she never sees it, than that I find out she doesn't love it.

Oh yeah, a rating. Final Girl: 3/10.


creature feature saturday: the haunted strangler (robert day, 1958)

Some years ago, Criterion put out a box set titled "Monsters and Madmen" that included four late-50s B-movies of no particular merit: The Atomic SubmarineFirst Man into SpaceCorridors of Blood, and The Haunted Strangler. While none of these movies are stinkers, neither do any of them rise above the level of Saturday afternoon watchability.

The latter two films on the above list star Boris Karloff, who was in his early-70s. He gives an excellent performance in The Haunted Strangler ... he is easily the best thing about the movie, as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. It's fun to see the "Jekyll" side ... you realize it's a rare thing to see Boris Karloff smiling and kindly. He pulls off both sides of his character, and shows a spry physicality that is impressive.

The movie also benefits from solid black-and-white cinematography and the usual B-movie short running time (in this case, 78 minutes). Even at that length, though, The Haunted Strangler is stretched out with mostly unnecessary footage of dance-hall girls doing their routines. The first half of the movie is a bit of a detective story a la Sherlock Holmes, before it moves into horror. It's never scary, but it is a bit gruesome at times.

I only bought this box set because it was a chance to revisit The Atomic Submarine, a favorite from my youth. And I'm glad I got that chance. But other than that nostalgic trip, there is no clear reason why these movies ended up on Criterion. Still, they released a couple of Michael Bay movies, so I suppose anything is possible. 6/10.

 


get out (jordan peele, 2017)

Prior to this film, Jordan Peele was known mainly for Key & Peele, the skit-comedy he worked on with Keegan-Michael Key. Get Out is only funny on the margins. It is, in fact, a horror film, and is Peele's first time in the director's chair. It tells the story of Chris, a black man with a white girlfriend who is going to her home to meet the family.

The horror mechanics help Get Out achieve a general popularity, and I suppose it could be treated as a simple genre enterprise. But that would be selling the film short. For Peele offers his story from a specific perspective, in this case, that of a black man in America. This adds a layer of satire to the genre conventions. But Peele wants to go deeper. He is using the horror genre to show us what life is like for black men. The horror comes not only from the science-fictiony story, but from the way Get Out exposes the undercurrents within which African-Americans must deal with that most dangerous of enemies, the white liberal.

Peele has said he was worried about the box office potential for Get Out. "I thought, ‘What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villain-ized with black people in the crowd? What if black people don’t want to see the movie because they don’t want to sit next to a white person while a black person is being victimized on-screen?’" His concerns were well-taken, but ultimately, Get Out was too good to be stopped. Made for under $5 million, Get Out grossed more than $250 million worldwide, and inspired countless Internet memes, arguably the primary way today to prove something has entered the public consciousness. 

Get Out also has one of the highest ratings on the critical compilation site, Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Only two of 289 reviewers gave the movie a negative review, and one of those was still 3 out of 5. (The one truly negative review came from Armond White, whose piece was titled, "Return of the Get-Whitey Movie".)

I'm reminded of what Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecure, said. "In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."

I was also struck by something that arrived today in my inbox. In her newsletter, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:

So often when we talk about diversity, we talk about it in terms of identification. People are starving to see themselves represented on the page and the screen; they’re desperate to hear their stories told. All of this is absolutely true, and it’s inexplicably dumb that the entertainment industry doesn’t seek to capitalize on the obvious market represented by this hunger. And representation can obviously have good, affirming effects on people who feel that their lives and their experiences are affirmed when they’re reflected back at them.

But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it the entire case for telling new and previously marginalized stories in mass culture. People who are already fulsomely represented also have a lot to gain by getting access to new stories. Pop culture is one window into the world around us, to places and to communities that may not be geographically proximate or readily accessible for other reasons. When you’re overwhelmed by your own thoughts or worries, it can be immensely valuable to immerse yourselves in dilemmas or perspectives that have nothing to do with our own, if only as a temporary relief.

There are times that this sort of curiosity can veer over into tourism, or into a pornography of someone else’s suffering. But that’s a case not against cross-cultural and cross-community inquisitiveness, but for more fizzy Asian and Asian American romances like “Crazy Rich Asians,” more epic love stories like “Exit West,” more experimental and deeply felt portraits like “Moonlight.” Pop culture should provide us all with recognition and escape. It can’t do that for everyone if all pop culture is the same.

When Issa Rae says she writes for her friends and family, she isn't saying she wants her audience limited to the people she writes for. She wants a place in the culture, but wants to make that space out of her own experiences, not those of others.

Get Out plays with the usual tropes of horror movies, but the subtext is practically the text. The essential horror of Get Out lies in the dangers for black Americans trying to maneuver their way through the dominant white culture.

Peele has said his title was inspired by an Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious:

The humor in the sketch lies in the ways white people are blind about the signs that a situation is dangerous. As Murphy says, if a house told him to get out, he'd get out. What makes Get Out so effective, though, is that even though Chris is well-aware of the realities in his situation, it takes him forever to get out, because it's hard even for Chris to realize how deep this evil goes. And once he falls into the "Sunken Place", it seems impossible to ever escape. At one point, Peele tweeted, "The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us."

Get Out refuses to be silent. 9/10.


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


it's halloween, so go watch the babadook

Looking for a movie to watch on Halloween? I recommend The Babadook. I wrote about it two years ago:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

The Babadook is currently ranked #563 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


by request: marshall (reginald hudlin, 2017)

A couple of weeks ago, writing about Wonder Woman, I questioned the need for the Chris Pine character. It felt timid, as if the audiences wouldn't go to see the movie unless there was a guy in a main role.

I had the same feeling while watching Marshall. There are some who argue that the film is unfair towards Sam Friedman, the Jewish lawyer who works alongside Thurgood Marshall. Whether this is true, my own question was, why choose a case like this, that allows for a lot of screen time for the white guy, in a movie supposed about Thurgood Marshall? Nothing against the real-life Friedman, but at times the movie plays as if it should have been called "Friedman". As Alissa Wilkinson wrote, in a piece titled "Marshall is named for Thurgood Marshall. Why isn’t he the movie’s protagonist?":

The main problem with Marshall, unfortunately, is that the movie’s protagonist isn’t Thurgood Marshall at all. The young lawyer enters the story fully self-possessed and confident in both the rightness of his cause and the justness of insisting on his place in a society that would get rid of him, and everyone like him, if it could. ... The true protagonist of Marshall is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer in Connecticut who gets roped into helping on an explosive criminal case that touches off racial prejudices and discovers within himself a desire to fight for civil rights, too.

Marshall is an entertaining movie, especially if you like courtroom dramas, and if you accept it for what it is, rather than what you might hope it will be, you should be fine. Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad are fine in the leads, Sterling K. Brown and Kate Hudson do well in secondary roles, and Marshall's old buddies Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston show up. While I was watching it, I liked it more than the above might suggest, and even after the post-mortem, I don't hate it. 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the amazing mr. x (bernard vorhaus, 1948)

There was a great SCTV sketch featuring Count Floyd and Monster Chiller Horror Theatre. The movie was one Count Floyd hadn't seen before, Whispers of the Wolf, but he can just tell by the title that we're going to be "scared right out of our pants". It turns out the film is directed by "Ingmar Burgman" and if there's any horror in it, it's of an existential nature.

I can imagine a Creature Features program back in the day running The Amazing Mr. X based solely on the title. Mr. X is Alexis, a psychic who can communicate with dead people. The movie is a hybrid horror/noir, and it seems like the noir aficionados like it more than the horror fans. In truth, there isn't a lot of horror in The Amazing Mr. X, and it is also true that most of its effectiveness comes from the atmospheric setting, which may make it seem more noirish. But other than the look of the film, there isn't much noir in this movie. It's mostly just a well-made B-picture that surprises with decent performances and a plot twist or two. If you caught it late on a Saturday night, you might struggle to stay awake, but if you watch it at a reasonable hour, you'll find a solid little film that gets its work done in 78 minutes.

The excellent cinematography is by John Alton, who won an Oscar a few years later for An American in Paris. Sadly, the movie fell into the public domain, meaning there are a lot of bad prints out there (including the one I watched on Amazon), which does a great disservice to Alton's work.

The cast includes Turhan Bey, once known as "The Turkish Delight", as Alexis, and Lynn Bari, a former WWII pinup girl known as "The Woo Woo Girl", as Christine, the woman he tries to sucker. Cathy O'Donnell, who made They Live by Night the same year, turns up as Christine's younger sister. Toss in 50s sci-fi regulars Richard Carlson and Donald Curtis, and Virginia Gregg, one the great voices of old-time radio who also did the voice of the mother in Psycho, and you have a better-than-average group for a B-movie. 7/10

 


film fatales #32: persepolis (marjane satrapi and vincent paronnaud, 2007)

I revisited this movie in honor of Danielle Darrieux, who died a few days ago at the age of 100. She does the voice for the grandmother. Darrieux was 90 when they made the film. Catherine Deneuve played her daughter (not for the first time), Marjane's mother, and Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter, played Marjane.

Satrapi and Paronnaud decided to record the voices of the main characters before they did the drawings (Satrapi, of course, did the drawings in the original graphic novel), which was interesting. I hadn't thought of the implications for the English-language dub until I watched a making-of featurette. Those voices were done in the usual fashion, with the voice actors speaking in time to the animated characters. I've never seen the English version, and while I'm sure it's good, the point here was to watch Darrieux. (Deneuve and Mastroianni did the English voices, too.)

Darrieux said of the grandmother, "She's an uninhibited character, who's not afraid of anything. She's politically incorrect and a straight talker. I love talking dirty, so I felt really comfortable with the character!" 

I've written about the movie before, and didn't see anything in particular to change my mind, other than enjoying Darrieux a bit more knowing she had finally died. #177 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.