creature feature: the skull (freddie francis, 1965)

Amicus Productions came out of England in 1962, but it was founded by Americans. Their horror films are a lot like Hammer, probably on purpose. The Skull is directed by Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis and stars Peter Cushing and, in a smaller role, Christopher Lee. It is based on a short story by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", and the title of that story pretty much explains the plot. After his death, the Marquis' skull is stolen from his grave, and it carries with it an evil that travels across time to the present day (I was surprised when people in The Skull turned on lights and rode in cars ... I didn't realize we'd moved past the 19th-century prologue).

The whole thing is loony nonsense, but Cushing effectively makes us believers, at least for the 83-minute running time. (Even at 83 minutes, The Skull is stretched thin ... there's a lot of filler.) Francis gives us some ingenious looks, in particular some shots from a point-of-view inside the skull. While the effect of the skull floating ominously in space sounds silly, it's actually effectively scary. The music is by Elisabeth Lutyens, an interesting figure of some note. She was a composer of some repute, and the first woman to score a British film.

None of the above raises The Skull much beyond the norm for 60s horror, but it's reasonably entertaining.


martha marcy may marlene (sean durkin, 2011)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 6 is called Mumblegore Week:

What we got here is what's known in the business as a sub-genre, a more specific type of film within a specified genre. Here, we can see the horror spinoff of the Mumblecore genre: films characterized by low budgets and a focus on naturalistic acting and dialogue over plot, now stained with fake blood and jump scares. Time to get spooky.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Mumblegore film.

OK, I've seen a "Mumblegore" film. I'm not sure I understand the genre yet. Martha Marcy May Marlene fits the Mumblecore mode, low budget ($600,000) and the rest. And it has some trigger scenes. But "gore" is the wrong word for this film. The IMDB "Parents Guide" lists 9 items under "Sex and Nudity", and also notes examples of profanity and drinking. But it only lists 4 items under "Violence and Gore". One of those four happens outside of the camera's view, one features "no blood or injury", one is "woman kicks man down the stairs". There is rape in the movie, and it is as upsetting as it should be ... as I say, there are trigger scenes in the movie. But there is little to no fake blood, and jump scares are also at a minimum. What Sean Durkin does is create an ominous tension that never leaves us throughout the movie. It works as a kind of horror movie, but it's really more a character study of disturbed people, more subtle than the "Mumblegore" tag suggests.

For the most part, this is all irrelevant. The movie is effective, whatever genre it is in. It features the breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen, and excellent supporting jobs by John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson. Durkin relies heavily on Olsen in his first feature as a director, and she's is more than up to it. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time, "Elizabeth Olsen can know that no one will ever ask, 'Which one is she?'" His comment might seem odd, given her eventual fame as Scarlet Witch in the Avengers movies, but in 2011, if she was known at all it was as the younger sister of the Olsen twins.

I feel like I'm mostly talking around the edges of Martha Marcy May Marlene. But there's only so many ways I can say that Elizabeth Olsen is terrific here. #453 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


geezer cinema: midnight special (jeff nichols, 2016)

I've seen one other Jeff Nichols film, Take Shelter, which also stars Michael Shannon (not exactly an unusual occurrence ... I believe Shannon has appeared in all of Nichols' features so far). I said of that film that it was "like M. Night Shyamalan only good". More to the point, I added, "Everything improved once I gave myself over to Nichols’ vision, rather than trying to categorize the film from my own preconceptions."

Nichols wastes no time getting started with Midnight Special. It feels like we've entered in the middle of the story, and eventually we realize that is exactly what has happened. Nichols assumes his audience will figure things out on their own. It's not that he is purposely obscure, he just doesn't over-explain anything. Midnight Special has the feel of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but where Spielberg piles on the feel-goodness (not a complaint in that case, I love Close Encounters), Nichols shows a family broken to an extent by the special powers of their kid. The aliens in Close Encounters are rarely if ever scary, but the underlying mysterious nature of the plot of Midnight Special means the aliens (or whatever they are) are, at the least, ominous. Nichols has given us an unsettling film, but one that feels satisfying in the end.

Shannon plays a variation on his usual here, and he's as good as ever. I'm always glad to see Kirsten Dunst, and I can't be the only person who thought of Dunst in Fargo, saying "It's just a flying saucer, Ed." Jaeden Martell is suitably awkward as the kid with the powers, and Adam Driver plays against type (the glasses he wears help). Toss in Joel Edgerton, and "That Guy" Bill Camp, and you have a fine ensemble.

Midnight Special is just as good as Take Shelter. I need to see more movies by Nichols.


creature feature: strait-jacket (william castle, 1964)

Not all Creature Features are the same. This one stars Joan Crawford, and that right there is a big difference from the norm. It wasn't the only time Crawford worked in the "Psycho-biddy" (aka Hag Horror) genre. In fact, she was there at the beginning, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While they weren't psycho-biddy, her last two movies were called Berserk! and Trog. Point being, Crawford gives Strait-Jacket some star power, but the end of her career stuck her in several similar pictures.

The screenplay was by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel on which Hitchcock's Psycho was based. Beyond Crawford and Bloch, though, the key figure in Strait-Jacket was the legendary producer/director William Castle. Castle was best known for his promotional gimmicks, which he gave names to: "Emergo", "Percepto", "Illusion-O". "Percepto" was used for The Tingler, one of the stupidest movies ever (the title character was a parasite attached to human spines that emerged whenever someone was really scared). Stupid, yes, but the gimmick was classic: at some theaters, a vibrating device was placed under some seats, and when, in the movie, a Tingler escapes in a movie theater, those seats vibrated. The odd thing was, growing up and watching these movies on TV, minus the gimmicks, they were still enjoyable.

Strait-Jacket was relatively low-key in this context: audience members were given cardboard axes as they entered the theater.

As for the movie, Crawford gives her all, even managing on occasion to avoid the kind of hammy overacting you expect from a camp picture like this. She doesn't embarrass herself, and that's probably all we can ask. An uncredited Lee Majors makes his first big-screen appearance. Diane Baker is fine as Crawford's daughter. Crawford had a lot of control over the movie ... she made sure to stick a six-pack of Pepsi in one scene, and the man who plays her doctor in the film was non-actor Mitchell Cox, who was a Vice-President at Pepsi. Other than completists, I don't know that fans of Crawford need to see this, but fans of William Castle will enjoy it, if they haven't already seen it.


divorce italian style (pietro germi, 1961)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 5 is called "Commedia all'italiana Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Commedia all'italiana (i.e. "Comedy in the Italian way") or Italian-style comedy is an Italian film genre...widely considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) in 1958 and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961).

Rather than a specific genre, the term indicates a period (approx. from the late fifties to the early seventies) in which the Italian film industry was producing many successful comedies, with some common traits like satire of manners, farcical and grotesque overtones, a strong focus on "spicy" social issues of the period (like sexual matters, divorce, contraception, marriage of the clergy, the economic rise of the country and its various consequences, the traditional religious influence of the Catholic Church) and a prevailing middle-class setting, often characterized by a substantial background of sadness and social criticism that diluted the comic contents."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Commedia all'italiana film.

I had 160 films to pick from, and I figured I would only have seen a few. Turns out I'd never seen any. So I went with the film from which the name of the genre is derived.

Divorce Italian Style won many honors, including an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (winning over Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, Freud, and That Touch of Mink). Marcello Mastroianni was nominated for Best Actor, the first male actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in a foreign language performance. Pietro Germi was nominated for Best Director. (They lost to Gregory Peck and David Lean, respectively.) The honors are deserved ... Mastroianni carries the film with a performance that walks a line between serious and absurd, and the screenplay by Germi along with Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti is perfection. The plot is farce ... Mastroianni plays a nobleman from a dissolute family who is unhappy in his marriage, and in love with his teenage cousin (it's likely mostly lust, but he thinks it's love). Due to ancient Italian law, this man can murder his wife and get off with a lenient sentence if he can show he has been cuckolded, so he sets out to pair his wife with a lover so he can catch them in the act, kill her, spend a few years in jail, and come out to marry his young cousin. The plot advances like clockwork, Stefania Sandrelli is appealing as the cousin, and Daniella Rocca is suitably bothersome as the wife.

The whole thing is a comedy ... "in the Italian way" ... and I smiled quite often. But it is not a laugh-out-loud movie, and while it isn't trying for that effect, I did find myself admiring the film without loving it. Put that on me ... Divorce Italian Style does indeed border on perfection, but I might have wished for a little imperfection.


geezer cinema/film fatales #95: dick johnson is dead (kirsten johnson, 2020)

Cameraperson consisted of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson putting together 25 years of leftover footage to create what she called "her memoir". Her innovative sense of what might make a good movie hasn't left her. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie about her aging father Richard, who is gradually falling into dementia. She suggests to her dad that they make a movie filled with scenes of him dying in various silly/cinematic ways, and he thinks it's a fine idea. At this early point, he seems fully capable of agreeing to the project.

We see an air conditioner fall on his head. We see him fall down stairs. We see him get stabbed in the neck, as blood spurts onto the street. In each case, we also see how things are done, with a crew and, especially, stunt men on hand. It's hard to explain why this seems so amazing ... it sounds like she's exploiting her father, but he's in on the joke and having a great time. When he finally gets too sick to really offer consent, she quits the fake deaths.

The relationship between father and daughter is both moving and funny, as is the movie as a whole. Johnson the daughter also concocts scenes of her dad rising up to heaven, and even gives us a fake funeral, which is so well done that one of Dick's great friends breaks up in tears as he gives a eulogy. Like Tom Sawyer, Dick gets to watch his own funeral, finally making a triumphant appearance to a standing ovation.

Kirsten Johnson was working as a cinematographer back in 2001, but didn't direct her first theatrical feature until Cameraperson in 2016. With that film, and now Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson has shown the ability to put remarkable, idiosyncratic ideas on the screen. Her recent movies are so interesting, you can't help but wonder what she might have come up with in those years she worked solely behind the camera. I found myself thinking about all of the people behind the scenes in movies ... how many of them might be holding onto something as unique as Johnson's films?

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


creature feature: abbott and costello meet the mummy (charles lamont, 1955)

People who have never seen it probably don't believe that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a good movie. By a happy coincidence, Universal had Abbott and Costello under contract and all those Universal horror characters needing a new outlet. So you take the two comedians, toss in Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's monster, toss in Lenore Aubert as a femme fatale, and voila! They had the original Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr., reprising his classic role. And most notably, Bela Lugosi made only his second (and last) appearance as Dracula. There were some classic A&C skits, and the scares were actually real. And Abbott and Costello were still in the prime as one of the most popular comedic duos around.

This set off a series of "Abbott and Costello Meet" movies. There was Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Meet the Invisible Man, and Meet Captain Kidd, and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Meet the Keystone Cops.

Which takes us to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. It was the last picture they made with Universal, and their next-to-last movie, period ... Lou Costello died in 1959.

It wasn't very good. The Mummy was played by stuntman Eddie Parker, and he wasn't scary. The other stars were people like Michael Ansara and future Mel Cooley Richard Deacon (he wasn't scary, either). Marie Windsor livened things up a bit, and the last fifteen minutes or so are fun in a frantic way. But Bud and Lou look tired. In the credits, their characters are listed as Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin, but during the film, they just call each other by their actual names, as if it didn't really matter (it didn't). The whole thing plays like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour Road movie, only a weak one. Peggy King popped in for a song, and in an incongruous moment, there's a giant lizard of some sort (it wasn't scary, and the special effects weren't special).

So it's easy: if you have a hankering for something like this, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is out there. Don't bother with The Mummy.


betty blue (jean-jacques beineix, 1986)

This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 4 is called "Cinéma du Look (Who's Talking) Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma du look was a French film movement of the 1980s and 1990s, analysed, for the first time, by French critic Raphaël Bassan in La Revue du Cinéma issue n° 448, May 1989, in which he classified Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax as directors of 'le look'.

These directors were said to favor style over substance, spectacle over narrative. It referred to films that had a slick, gorgeous visual style and a focus on young, alienated characters who were said to represent the marginalized youth of François Mitterrand's France. Themes that run through many of their films include doomed love affairs, young people more affiliated to peer groups than families, a cynical view of the police, and the use of scenes in the Paris Métro to symbolise an alternative, underground society. The mixture of 'high' culture, such as the opera music of Diva and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and pop culture, for example the references to Batman in Subway, was another key feature. French filmmakers were inspired by New Hollywood films (most notably Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart and Rumble Fish), late Fassbinder films (Lola), as well as television commercials, music videos, and fashion photography."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma du Look film.

I admit, I didn't know much about Cinéma du look, which is why I find these challenges so much fun ... I see films I might not have thought of on my own. I loved Beineix's Diva, and hoped Betty Blue would excite me as well.

Not everything was optimistic. Roger Ebert hated it, famously writing:

Have you ever had the experience of going to a movie and trying to make sense of the plot, and trying to figure out why anyone has wasted his life and money on the project, only to suddenly have a dazzling insight? That's what happened to me during "Betty Blue." Reviews have been written debating the movie's view of madness, of feminism, of the travail of the artist. They all miss the point. "Betty Blue" is a movie about Beatrice Dalle's boobs and behind, and everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.

In fairness, using this criteria, the film is also about Jean-Hugues Anglade's body, front and behind, although he isn't naked quite as often as Dalle (David Harris wrote that Anglade's "uncircumcised cock could have received credit for a supporting role"). There is no use talking about Betty Blue without mentioning the sex. But there is more going on ... as Eddie Murphy said when Bill Cosby accused him of creating an entire act out of cuss words, "I can't have no 'curse' show, I mean I gotta throw in a few jokes in between the curses, I can't come out and go 'Hello! Filth flar'n filth, motherfucker, dick, pussy, snot, and shit. Good night!'" And if you have a movie that serves as an example of a film movement that "favors style over substance", and it runs for more than 3 hours, you can't just have a sex show. You gotta throw in a few other things, you gotta show the style.

And Betty Blue is overflowing with style. But no matter how stylish Beineix gets, there's no escaping the fact that Beatrice Dalle dominates the movie. We can't take our eyes off of her. You never know what Betty will do next, and that is partly a plot device (Betty would seem to be insane, which we realize gradually over the three hours), but is also because Dalle has a fascinating and unique screen presence. She's not quite beautiful, but you can see why Anglade as "Zorg" is obsessed with her. Dalle is smoking. Her effect on Zorg (and on the audience) is so overwhelming that he never seems to understand that she's disturbed.

The way Betty's mental problems are handled is the primary place where the film fails. For as much as Dalle commands our attention, and despite the film's name, in the end, this is a movie about Zorg. Betty helps Zorg discover himself, and when that is accomplished, she is no longer needed. She starts to turn her destructive behavior on herself, and since Betty is indeed pretty annoying at times, it's almost a relief (for Zorg, and for the audience) when she is finally dispatched. Zorg, and the movie, needed Bette's energy, needed Dalle's vitality. But she doesn't get the rewards.


geezer cinema: haywire (steven soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh seems to be a Geezer mainstay lately ... this is his third movie to be featured in Geezer Cinema, after Contagion and Logan Lucky (all picked by my wife, which is interesting because she doesn't usually pick a movie based on the director). It's the first one starring Gina Carano, and that makes a big difference, because Haywire is as entertaining as those other movies, and Carano is a big reason why that is true.

Soderbergh interests me because he combines two things I find to be rare: he knows what he is doing, and he can please an audience. Some great filmmakers out there know what they are doing, and how to get their vision on the screen, but I don't usually like their movies. And there are crowd-pleasing directors who are workmanlike at best. Soderbergh can do the art film thing as well as anyone, but he's never been afraid of genre pieces, and you would never say he was workmanlike. So films like Logan Lucky and Haywire work on many levels. Haywire admittedly isn't trying for profundity, but you appreciate pretty much everything he does here.

I often write about my pet peeve with modern action films, that they don't bother orienting the viewing. Soderbergh doesn't make that mistake ... all the action scenes are clear (the plot is not so clear, but really, does it matter?). He also plays to the value in his star ... there isn't much gun play, not a lot of car chases, just Carano kicking a lot of ass. Her background (she was once called "the face of women's mixed-martial arts") makes her fight scenes a lot more believable than when, say, little Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy steps aside and lets her stunt person do the fighting. Her co-stars (of which more in a minute) all testify to her ability to kick their asses in real life. I haven't seen her in anything else, but she has worked steadily since Haywire. Reading some of her fans, it would appear that some of her later directors didn't understand her appeal ... there's no reason to give her a gun, that's a waste, like giving Jackie Chan a magic tuxedo. Carano is also easy on the eyes, and her acting is good enough (apparently some of her dialogue was dubbed by Laura San Giacomo).

Another plus when Steven Soderbergh is involved is that actors seem to climb over themselves to be in his movies. Despite Haywire being a genre piece with a budget of only $23 million, the cast is amazing: Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton. A good portion of those stars get their asses kicked by Carano in the movie.

You go into Haywire expecting an OK trifle, and yeah, it is a trifle, but it's more than OK, and a welcome surprise.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)


50 favorite movies revisited

It's been nine years since I took part in a Facebook project where three of us chose our 5o Favorite Movies. (Here's a Letterboxd list of my choices.) Of course, I'd do a lot of different things now ... Tomorrow Never Dies didn't belong (I chose it because of Michelle Yeoh, but then she was in another of my choices later, so the 007 movie was unnecessary). And I was too devoted to older movies ... the most recent movie in my Top 20 was The Godfather Part II from 1974, and there were only 4 movies from the 21st century on the entire list.

So here are my favorite movies (as of this moment) for the years 2012-2020, the years after I made that 50 Favorites list. I'm have to think a few of these would make the list if I made it now.

2012: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

2013: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

2014: Boyhood (Richard Linklater) (a pattern emerges!)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

2017: Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

2018: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

2020: Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)