The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). An acknowledged classic of 50s sci-fi. My memory was that the special effects were weak, and the philosophical conclusion silly. But I'm glad I gave it another watch, because I was wrong. Sure, the effects are not up to the standards of today, but they work in the context of the movie. We are regularly surprised by the gradual shrinkage of the man, and while his battles with cat and spider might be done better today, I don't think we'd do any more to improve the excitement. As for that "I still exist!" ending, it's not nearly as dumb as I remembered. Grant Williams does a fine job in the title role. The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are my two favorite 50s sci-fi movies, but The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't far behind. It's Jack Arnold's best film. #874 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.
Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). This is an enjoyable zombie movie, with some of the feel of Edgar Wright's films. The zombies are MacGuffins ... this is actually a road movie, with Woody Harrelson playing the grownup. All four of the main cast are good (including Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), but it's Harrelson who walks away with the film as a badass with a Twinkie obsession. There's also a great cameo ... most reviews I've read tell you who the person is, but that seems wrong in a spoiler-ish way, so on the off chance you haven't seen this nine-year-old movie, trust me, you'll like the cameo.
Ah, Brian De Palma. It is almost impossible to talk about one Brian De Palma movie without talking about them all. For De Palma elicits extreme reactions from critics ... not that they agree with each other. I find myself in the middle, except I don't ... all I mean is, there are some of his movies I like, and there are some I don't, and I don't think any of his films are classics, nor do I think any of his films are worthless. But there's a big gap nonetheless between his best and his worst.
Since Pauline Kael gives me the tagline for this blog, I should start with her. She was an early and regular champion of De Palma's work ... in my mind, the best example of this is perhaps her review of The Fury, where she favorably compares De Palma to Peckinpah, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Welles, and Scorsese. David Thomson, on the other hand, compares De Palma to Leni Riefenstahl. It may be De Palma's great achievement that both Kael and Thomson's comparisons make some sense.
Where do I stand? I once wrote about Femme Fatale, "the only time this movie exists outside the world of Brian De Palma movies is when it's attaching itself to other movies ... it's never about real life". Dressed to Kill wouldn't exist, at least not as it turned out, if Vertigo didn't exist, and I don't think De Palma shames himself in the comparison (he's never made a movie anywhere near as great as Vertigo, but neither have most directors). The great set piece in The Untouchables doesn't just bring Potemkin to mind, it forces us to make the connection, which doesn't do De Palma any favors, except his version in The Untouchables is still undeniable.
De Palma was on a roll in the 1980s ... Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War ... and Dressed to Kill is as good as any of them. Yet he began the 90s with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and as I look as his filmography, I realize I have never seen a single Brian De Palma movie from that decade, so I was apparently turned off by that point. In the 21st century, I liked Femme Fatale, and found Mission to Mars tolerable, but The Black Dahlia is the worst De Palma movie I have ever seen.
So ... Dressed to Kill. I think the best word to describe this movie (and many of De Palma's films) is "gleeful". De Palma is an expert at drawing reactions out of his audiences. Not everyone is happy about this ... they'll point to something like Angie Dickinson getting brutally slashed to death with a knife as an example of the director's misogyny, or just simple misanthropy. It's not that they are wrong, it's just that De Palma is so gleeful about the way he manipulates us that I often find myself admiring his work, even as I feel bad for liking it. It's unfortunate that Dressed to Kill resorts to transphobia (Sherilyn Connelly: "On a purely cinematic level, you're pretty brilliant ... On the other hand ... I would be perfectly happy if nobody ever watched you again, because you're deeply transphobic. So fuck you, Dressed to Kill.") There is no use denying this. Which is why you can compare De Palma to Welles and Riefenstahl at the same time.
Ironically, given that many people think Brian De Palma's films, especially Dressed to Kill, are so misogynistic, the person who comes off best here is Nancy Allen. As she does in RoboCop (from another controversial director, Paul Verhoeven), Allen brings a pleasing humanity to her acting. Dressed to Kill might be her best movie. (She was married to De Palma at the time, and he wrote the part with her in mind.)
Ultimately, your opinion about Dressed to Kill might reflect your thoughts when Angie Dickinson's character, having just had extramarital sex, finds her partner has a venereal disease. Either you find the use of the trope tired and offensive, or you think it's an eye-winking joke.
Dickinson is brilliant in this dialogue-free set piece:
And the scene to which De Palma plays homage. Note that in Hitchcock, the focus is on the man gazing upon the woman, while with De Palma, our attention is on the woman. We learn nothing about Kim Novak's character here, but we learn a lot about Dickinson's.
Many years ago, when we would have a party at our house, I got the idea of replacing all the light bulbs with colored, low-wattage bulbs. The idea, I would say, was to make the party more festive by adding color. The real reason, I wouldn't say, was that the low watts made it hard to see clearly, which meant I didn't have to be so careful about cleaning the house.
Val Lewton is a legendary film producer. Some years ago, Barry Gifford wrote an appreciation of Lewton that was given the title "The prince of Poverty Row", and that just about gets it. The story has been told enough times that it might actually be true, rather than apocryphal, that Lewton saved RKO in 1942 when he was put in charge of the studio's horror films. RKO, which had lost money on the Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hoped to emulate the success of Universal horror pictures, like the franchises for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The story goes that RKO gave Lewton $150,000 and the title Cat People, and told him to bring in a short picture that might make a little money. The subsequent film was RKO's biggest box office success for the year, which meant Lewton was given many more chances to work his magic, although as far as I can tell, he was still held to the $150k budget, and still had to work with the titles the studio gave him. (They never forced a plot on him, just a title.)
Lewton is admired for his ability to crank out artful films on a low budget within the studio system. Cat People is an excellent example of this. Ironically, the lack of money meant the movie was filmed in part on leftover sets from Ambersons. Many of Lewton's film are similar visually, and that similarity means Lewton is seen as at least partly the guiding force behind the films, rather than the directors, many of whom worked with him multiple times. I think the power of Cat People comes almost entirely from its use of light and shadow, which grew out of the low budget, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the name Nicholas Musuraca, an amazingly prolific cinematographer who worked on several of Lewton's classic movies.
The swimming pool scene is often cited as the peak of the imaginative, inexpensive power of Cat People.
The scene was so effective that it was copied quite closely in the 1982 remake, although changing times meant that in the later version, Annette O'Toole managed to get her top off before she dove into the pool.
Cat People is a marvel to look at it, and its ability to frighten through suggestion was trendsetting. But I find myself agreeing with Kael, who wrote, "Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary." I wouldn't go that far ... I think I Walked with a Zombie is very good, indeed. But for all its imagination, Cat People still suffers from things like weak casting (Kent Smith as the male lead, Tom Conway as always seeming not quite as good as his brother George Sanders, and Simone Simon, who admittedly works OK because she comes across as just odd enough to be an actual cat person). I do have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Randolph, whose last credited appearance came in a favorite of mine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Jacques Tourneur helmed other pictures I prefer to Cat People, especially Out of the Past. Cat People is striking and important for film historians. But I don't think it's a classic.
To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”
8: 13th 20th Century Women Andrei Rublev The Dreamers Fat Girl Girlfriends Hail, Caesar! The Handmaiden Hell or High Water The Host I Walked with a Zombie Journey to Italy Klute Lady Bird Melancholia Okja Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Persepolis Real Women Have Curves The Southerner Terminator 2 Them! Three To Walk Invisible Train to Busan Vengeance
7: 10 Cloverfield Lane 2 Days in Paris The Amazing Mr. X Bad Kids The Bare-Footed Kid Bedlam The Black Cat Blade Runner Doctor Strange Don't Breathe Drug War The Fly The Happiness of the Katakuris Gimme Shelter High Noon Ip Man 2 Jesse James Johnny Guitar Lifeline The Lobster Love Actually Marshall My Night at Maud's The Panic in Needle Park A Place in the Sun Punch-Drunk Love Road to Morocco The Set-Up Some Came Running Spielberg Stalag 17 Stalker The Thing To Catch a Thief Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The Unknown Village of the Damned Wanda Wonder Woman
6: The Best Offer Biker Boyz Colossal Youth Cop Car Genocide Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner The Haunted Strangler In the Heart of the Sea The Intervention Jesus' Son The Mad Monk The Maltese Falcon (1931) The Mirror Rudderless Shoot 'Em Up The Time Travelers The Vampire Lovers
5: Return of the Fly A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop Zabriskie Point
4: Anything Goes The Ghost Galleon The Screaming Skull
Two films, one a horror film from 1960, the other a recent documentary called The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2016). This was recommended by a friend who lives about five miles from the high school where the movie was filmed. Black Rock High School is a continuation school for troubled kids ... it's clear from the start that "Bad Kids" is meant ironically, they aren't actually bad. The style is a hybrid of cinéma vérité and more artsy documentary techniques. The star is the school's principal, Vonda Viland, who has a seemingly bottomless fund of caring that has only a little tough love. While the film looks at several students, a few get extra focus ... you might say they are the co-stars. You can't help but be affected by the lives of these kids, trying to improve their lives, lives that are impossibly hard. But despite the many scenes of the kids exposing their most raw emotions, we never really get to know them beyond the basics: he's the junkie musician, they're the teenage parents, she's the abused daughter. There is something universal about them ... I never came close to their level of suffering, yet I found myself thinking back to my own high school days and sympathizing with their plight. But the problems that landed these kids at Black Rock (poverty, family situations, drugs) are mostly just mentioned, as if the individual struggles are more important than the social milieu that fosters those struggles. And Viland is simply presented as a force for good in the lives of the students ... there are hints at what drives her, but they are never more than hints. I also wonder just how happy the kids were to be in the film in the first place. Does Joey, the talented musician who likes Voltaire but has a meth-head mother who drives her son into the same drug pit, enjoy having his personal troubles presented on film, as something to illuminate Black Rock for the viewers? The Bad Kids is effective as far as it goes, but it might have benefitted from a longer running time, perhaps even a multi-part television series. 7/10.
The other request was Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960). This was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, starring George Sanders as Professor Zellaby. The Damned of the title are Bad Kids, born after an unexplained event causes several women to become pregnant at the same time. The children are born premature, grow at an alarming rate, and develop extrasensory mind techniques. They work as a group, they have creepy-looking eyes, and they are up to no good. Zellaby, who is the "father" of one of the kids, wants to learn more about their extraordinary abilities. There is little attempt to make the kids serve as stand-ins for regular troubled youth. Instead, we see them get inside the mind of a grownup to make him kill himself with a rifle. The solution is a bit more extreme than that practiced by Vonda Viland ... hearing that the Soviets have solved a similar problem by nuking the kids, Zellaby duplicates their "success" by blowing up all of the kids in his village (and sacrificing himself in the process). The kids leave quite an impression on the audience ... 50+ years later, my wife and I still remembered those creepy eyes. And Barbara Shelley, the immortal scream queen of Hammer Studios, is Mrs. Zellaby ... she doesn't have much to do, but it's always nice to see her. Finally, a special shoutout to Martin Stephens, who plays the creepiest of the kids. 7/10.
No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.
But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.
There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.
And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.
Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.
But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.
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.
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.
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."
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:
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).