what i watched

The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth, 1958). Better than you might remember, if you remember it at all ... it may have turned up on Creature Features when I was a kid, but I'm an old man now. The actors are sincere ... no one plays it for laughs, and that works, with Steve McQueen being only the best example. It's a bit like Rebel Without a Cause, only with a monster from outer space. Anita Corsaut, who later gained fame as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is Steve's girl. The title song (yes, there is one) is co-written by Burt Bacharach. Excellent use is made of color, which was lost on my black-and-white TV when I was growing up. The color makes The Blob look better than the usual 50s monster movie. There is a dark void at the center of the movie ... The Blob is like the shark in Jaws, it has no ulterior motive, it just gobbles people up, growing larger with each victim (yep, it's another Red Scare movie!). And there's an irony in the ending that can only be appreciated, if that's the word, nowadays.

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Rachel Weisz said this is "Like a funnier and sex-driven All About Eve". She's right about the sex, but The Favourite does not come close to All About Eve on the wit scale. Nominated for ten Oscars, including nods for all three stars (Olivia Colman for Best Actress, Weisz and Emma Stone for Supporting), along with Best Picture, Best Director, and more. That's overkill. It's not as weird as The Lobster, also directed by Lanthimos, and maybe it could have used some weird. It earns its R rating ... the IMDB informs us, for instance, that "The film has 9 uses of 'fuck' and multiple uses of 'cunt'". So it's not as bland as it could be, and there is some good work here. I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar. But, to quote the movie, I just didn't give a fuck. Already #296 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. I'll add that when the following scene appeared, most of the audience thought it was hilarious. My wife and I, at 65, were also among the younger people in the crowd.


under the skin (jonathan glazer, 2013)

Occasionally I state upfront that a particular movie was not made for me, which is another way of saying that all else being equal, I won't appreciate some of its qualities, but I can't necessarily dismiss it just because it's not my cup of tea. And so I give you Under the Skin, an arty, fuzzy movie about an alien's visit to earth. At least, I think that's what we're seeing ... nothing is very concrete in Under the Skin, and again, I might wish for more clarity, but Jonathan Glazer was up to something else.

Scarlett Johansson is that alien, and she spends most of the movie driving around Scotland, picking up men. Her purpose seems to be to collect these men for some unstated alien purpose. Thus, Johansson is well-cast ... the alien can apparently take on the form of any human, and since the alien lures men, it makes sense that one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood plays the role. Right from the start, you can assume that whatever man she picks up will offer little resistance to the opportunity to get busy with Scarlett Johansson. Tied to this is the way it was made known that Johansson would be appearing nude in the movie. I imagine more than one person thought this was reason enough to see the film, much as the victims in the movie don't see the peril they are in. And, just as the men in the movie are disappointed (to say the least) when they find they won't be getting any intimate time with Scarlett, those men who bought their tickets because Johansson got naked would be disappointed to learn that the movie is a murky (in more ways than one ... it's often hard to see what is going on) mélange of sci-fi obscurities, purposely slow-moving and unrevealing.

Honestly, I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad. I've read some interesting, positive reviews of the film ... Kelsey Ford's piece, "Slashed Beauty: On Female Masks in The Skin I Live In, Eyes Without a Face, and Under the Skin" at the Bright Wall/Dark Room website is especially good, not least because she writes about a favorite of mine, Eyes Without a Face. In my role as a recommendation service, I'd say hunt down Eyes Without a Face before you spent time with Under the Skin, but as usual, your mileage may vary. Meanwhile, Under the Skin is #78 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Top 4 Scarlett Johansson movies, by release date:

  • Ghost World (2001)
  • Lost in Translation (2003)
  • Her (2013)
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

 


what i watched last year

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 14.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)

10:
In the Mood for Love
Performance

9:
The Ascent
Black Panther
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dunkirk
Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Five Easy Pieces
Moonlight
Mudbound
My Neighbor Totoro
Pickpocket
Strong Island

8:
American Honey
The Babadook
Before Sunrise
Day for Night
Dressed to Kill
First Reformed
Gaslight
Gertrud
The Guilty
Gun Crazy
The Incredible Shrinking Man
India's Daughter
Listen to Me Marlon
Local Hero
Logan
The Look of Silence
A Matter of Life and Death
Memories of Underdevelopment
Private Life
Sorry to Bother You
The Spirit of the Beehive
Springsteen on Broadway
Supercop
The Thin Man
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Widows
Yellow Submarine

7:
Avengers: Infinity War
The Big Sick
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
The Brink
Cat People
Crazy Rich Asians
Creed
Darkest Hour
Divines
El Topo
Flying Down to Rio
Grand Hotel
Hell Is for Heroes
Hereditary
Hidden Figures
Horror of Dracula
Icarus
If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Lost City of Z
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Man on the Moon
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Knew Infinity
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Morvern Callar
Ms .45
Nothing Sacred
On Body and Soul
Personal Shopper
Set It Off
Seven Days in May
The Square
Syndromes and a Century
Tarzan and His Mate
The Time Machine
Tropical Malady
Venom
Watchmen
Zombieland

6:
Atomic Blonde
Bo Burnham: what.
The Circle
Colossal
Diamonds Are Forever
Dogville
The Dressmaker
The Equalizer
The Equalizer 2
A Girl Like Her
Glastonbury Fayre
Holiday Inn
Hostiles
The Lion in Winter
Miami Vice
Murder on the Orient Express
Spring Breakers
The Spy Who Dumped Me
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael

5:
Behave Yourself!
The Black Scorpion
The Day of the Triffids
Dishonored Lady
Enemy
Margot at the Wedding

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)
2018: 109 (7.2)


revisiting a cult classic

I recommend The Babadook on a regular basis, especially as Halloween approaches, as I find it a superior horror film. I first saw it the year after it came out, and I'll mostly cut-and-paste what I said about it at the time:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). ... 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 [Essie] 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 designer 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).

I was reminded of this movie a few months ago when I saw Hereditary. Both films are about grief, with strong performances by the lead actress. I prefer The Babadook, but your mileage may vary.


7 horror movies for halloween

Inspired by a piece on "The Horror Oscars", here are seven Halloween-ready movies you might not have seen (links are to my original posts on the movies in question):

 

Island of Lost Souls, with Charles Laughton, based on a novel by H.G. Wells.

The Phantom Carriage, silent Swedish film written and directed by Victor Sjöström, who also stars.

I Walked with a Zombie, from producer Val Lewton, reportedly inspired in part by Jane Eyre.

Faust, silent film from F.W. Murnau.

Kwaidan, Japanese ghost story anthology, Oscar-nominated.

Eyes Without a Face, French film originally released in the U.S. in a butchered version as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.

Train to Busan, non-stop Korean zombie movie.


horror of dracula (terence fisher, 1958)

This one was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi version. (It was also released here on a double feature with The Thing That Couldn't Die.) It was Hammer Films' first of several Dracula movies, and an early example of Hammer Horror, coming a year after The Curse of Frankenstein.

Hammer was a staple of Creature Feature shows when I was growing up. You looked forward to them, because even the worst of them didn't suck the way something like The Corpse Vanishes did. Their Dracula had a lot going for it. Christopher Lee seemed born to play the title role ... eventually he played the Count ten times, seven of those for Hammer. Peter Cushing, another Hammer warhorse, played Van Helsing. The two had also starred in the Frankenstein movie, with Cushing as the Doctor and Lee as the Monster.

Hammer added decent production values to the horror genre, albeit with low budgets. They looked good, especially once we got a color TV. The best ones are the earliest, which were taken seriously both by the filmmakers and critics, at least as far as critics could go with the genre. (Dracula is #896 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.) Eventually, the budgets seemed to be smaller, and a certain camp quality crept in. (I remember watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave once in a theater where the audience laughed throughout the picture, prompting the man in charge to stop the film and come out to berate the audience.)

Dracula isn't nearly as gory as you might expect. Hammer is known for adding more overt sex to their movies, and while censors in 1958 weren't going to allow much, Lee was clearly a much sexier vampire than Lugosi, and the scenes where he bit buxom women were sexy in ways you didn't see in 1931. There's a story about director Terence Fisher telling one of those actresses, Melissa Stribling, "Just imagine you've had the best sex of your life, all night long!"

The picture is rather slow, to be honest. Lee only appears on the screen for seven minutes. The atmosphere is appropriately unsettling, and Lee and Cushing are great. It's far from the worst Dracula movie you'll ever see. But neither is it a classic.

I'll mention a couple of other Hammer pictures. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the States as Five Million Years to Earth) may be my favorite, and I'm surprised I've never written about it. And there is no better example of how loosening censorship gave Hammer space for more sex than 1970's The Vampire Lovers, which did get a blog post after I bought it on Blu-ray.

A scene from Dracula:

And, for comparison, a chunk of the middle of The Vampire Lovers:


two by request

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018). Another entry in the "Movie That Is Praised for What It Isn't" category. Hereditary is getting great reviews, and a common thread is that it's not like Saw and its ilk. Richard Roeper: "'Hereditary' is one of those rare and treasured horror films that does not rely on 'Gotcha!' music stings, or rhythmic knocks on the door in the dead of night, or the cat jumping into frame during a tense moment." Justin Chang: "There are none of the gratuitous jump scares or pointless fakeouts that have reduced mainstream horror cinema to so much self-defeating gimmickry." Hereditary is more than just the absence of gratuitous gotchas, and there is a long, fine tradition of horror movies that affect us more by their emotional creepiness than by the standard tricks of the trade. Aster wants to be in their company, but Hereditary isn't up to the likes of Don't Look Now or Rosemary's Baby. Still, I admire his intentions, and I prefer to say the movie is reminiscent of Don't Look Now than to say the movie isn't Saw. There is much to admire in Hereditary, and Toni Collette's performance is impossible to ignore ... some people will think she's over the top, but no more than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I was reminded of Drag Me to Hell, or rather, I wished I was watching Drag Me to Hell. That movie has fun with the common tropes. There is nothing fun about Hereditary. A better comparison would be The Babadook, and if you get one thing from this review, it should be that you need to watch The Babadook if you haven't already. Hereditary turns grief and family life into a horror show, and that's a pretty good trick. But if you go in expecting Drag Me to Hell, you'll be disappointed.

Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934). Said by the ever-accurate Wikipedia to be "The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code" thanks to a nude swimming scene by Maureen O'Sullivan's body double. The scene didn't use a body double because O'Sullivan was shy ... rather, the double was Josephine McKim, like Johnny Weissmuller an Olympic Gold Medal winner in swimming, thus able to better handle the swimming "ballet". The real raciness comes not from the swim, but from the flimsy outfit O'Sullivan wears through most of the film (the closest thing I can think of to that outfit would be Jenny Agutter's in Logan's Run). There are topless "native" women early in the movie ... there is Weissmuller himself, a strapping, gorgeous athlete who wears even less than O'Sullivan ... there is the matter-of-fact way we understand that Tarzan and Jane sleep together. But what makes your jaw drop, even in 2018, is Jane's damn outfit. It certainly got someone's attention ... the next Tarzan movie, which was definitely post-Code, featured O'Sullivan in a much more modest outfit. Besides O'Sullivan, Tarzan and His Mate offers reasonable action scenes and a cringe-worthy treatment of the jungle natives. It's not as cheesy as most of the future films in the series, which is something.

Jane and her mate


creature features: the incredible shrinking man and zombieland

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.

 


dressed to kill (brian de palma, 1980)

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.


creature features: cat people (jacques tourneur, 1942)

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.