film fatales #113: shadow in the cloud (roseanne liang, 2020)

My friend Steve Fore, who has steered me to so many good movies in the past, tipped me off to this one, writing on Facebook:

Looking for a period war movie with horror elements that's wall-to-wall kineticism for 83 minutes? An homage to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Bugs Bunny, and "Aliens" that transcends all three? That winningly draws on the go-for-broke non-logic and wild narrative implausibility of classic Hong Kong action movies? That has the heroine stuck in the belly turret of a B-17 for half the movie and makes that strategy both claustrophobic and thrillingly dynamic? ... [T]ry watching "Shadow in the Cloud."
Good call, Steve! Shadow in the Cloud is everything he said it was, with an emphasis on kinetic implausibility. This movie is loony from start to finish. Chloë Grace Moretz may seem implausible as the hero, but she makes her abilities seem real amidst all the logic-free plot. It's non-stop action that doesn't overstay its welcome ... Steve was right to mention it's only 83 minutes long. Director/co-writer Roseanne Liang was unknown to me. She's a Chinese New Zealander who delivers an unpretentious popcorn movie. I always have time for those.
 

geezer cinema: run (aneesh chaganty, 2020)

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first. Run is basically a chamber piece focusing on two characters, a mother and her daughter Chloe, played by Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen. Both are great ... Allen is especially noteworthy because she's up against an all-time veteran, and she's in her first movie. Run is a thriller that actually manages to retain its edge-of-your-seat excitement for most of the film. And it's also historic, since Allen's character is in a wheelchair, as is the actress herself in real life. Hulu makes sure to tell us that this marks the first time in a Hollywood movie in more than 70 years where the chair-bound heroine is played by a disabled actress.

This last point is dealt with in a somewhat subtle way. Chloe is tied to her chair, but it doesn't completely define who she is ... she's a real character of some depth and resourcefulness. You don't forget the wheelchair, and some of the thrills are tied to that chair, but what is more important is how inventive and strong Chloe is.

There are shout outs to plenty of movies from the past, and ... well, I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but it's impossible to do that with 100% efficiency, so you are warned. I was reminded of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the movie is also in the great Gaslight tradition. Aneesh Chaganty's film belongs in the company of those movies.

And yet ... here I'll admit that I'm not sure how much of what I'm about to say matters. You've got a well-made thriller with top-notch acting ... who could ask for anything more? Well, there's a reason Run is good-not-great: the longer it runs, the stupider it gets. The word "ludicrous" comes to mind. The real achievement for Chaganty is that somehow he keeps us thrilled and entertained, even as one part of our brain is rejecting the damn thing.

The result is a movie I have no problem recommending ... if the above sounds like your cup of tea, you'll like Run. It's just so silly in the end.


geezer cinema: synchronic (aaron moorhead & justin benson, 2019)

A film I'd never heard of, from film makers I didn't know, which means Synchronic was a good Geezer Cinema choice, since one of the best things about that project is I get to see movies I might otherwise have missed. It was written by Benson, with cinematography by Moorhead, and both worked on the editing while directing. The two have done several films together, and have a bit of a following.

On Twitter, Moorhead described the film as "our weird movie about paramedics & designer rugs & the nature of time & dogs & New Orleans & death & cavemen & pirates & how the past sucked & friendship & burnt bodies & sad handshakes". That's actually a very good description, because one, it's accurate, and two, it tells you nothing about the movie. And since Synchronic benefits from spoiler-avoidance, I'm stealing Moorhead's tweet here. It's an atmospheric film, which lends itself to the mysterious unfolding of the plot. And I'm going to say something about that plot in a second here, so spoiler alert and all that.

It co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. I've found Mackie to be reliable ... at least, I usually like the films that he is in (The Hurt Locker, Detroit, Half Nelson). He gives Synchronic some life to go with the atmosphere.

Here's where the spoilers come. Synchronic deals with time travel, and it appears that Moorhead and Benson wanted to address the problem of race in America. Mackie (Steve) and Dornan (Dennis) are paramedics, and there are a couple of references to the way Steve is treated as opposed to Dennis that offer a bit of insight. But when Steve starts time traveling, Moorhead and Benson seem a bit too proud of the fact that they are showing how tricky it would be for an African-American to go back in time, considering how Blacks have been mistreated throughout our history. It's not a particularly unique take ... the television series Agents of SHIELD and Timeless both addressed the topic, and were at least as interesting and pointed as is Synchronic.

Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, and it feels real ... it was shot there, and Mackie was born there. It is far from a failure. But it's slow-moving, and not to its advantage. A decent movie, not a great one.


underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night


geezer cinema/film fatales #98: she dies tomorrow (amy seimetz, 2020)

This is definitely an Amy Seimetz film ... she wrote it, produced it, and directed it. She was dealing with her own anxiety issues and says "I was spreading my panic to other people by talking about it perhaps too excessively." That she took her own situation and turned it into a movie we can all relate to is an achievement in itself. That it comes to us during the pandemic, which she could not have predicted, and becomes a movie eerily appropriate for our time is a mystery.

She Dies Tomorrow can be frustrating ... just ask my wife, who watched with me but did not, it is safe to say, warm to it. The first part of the film is confusing even for those of us who liked it. Nothing seems to be happening, there is precious little dialogue, the camerawork is quirky for no clear reason. If you came in thinking you were watching a horror movie, you'd probably be checking your watch.

But She Dies Tomorrow sneaks up on you. First we learn the basic premise ... well, "first" is a bit of an exaggeration considering how long it takes to get us there. Then, after a short while, we learn the real premise, which will connect with those horror fans who are still with us. And when that real premise begins to expand, I admit I was laughing. If I had to put this movie into a genre, I might choose Comedy before everything else.

Of course, you can't put it into a single genre, because Seimetz is using a kitchen sink approach to genre. She isn't trashing genres, not at all. She just isn't limited by genre.

And so a character feels anxiety. And it spreads to other people. There are hints of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it feels very familiar to anyone watching in 2020.

Plus, as Kurt said, just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you. Seimetz leaves everything unexplained. Absent the easy answers, we can dismiss what we are feeling. But the anxiety of watching She Dies Tomorrow doesn't leave you.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

A Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.


bloodsucking bastards (brian james o’connell, 2015)

This is the seventh 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 7 is called Vampires of the New Millennium Week:

These creatures are immortal, both in life and in film. Sure they've been around forever, but what have they been up to lately? Maybe you'd like to find out.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen vampire film released in 2000 or later.

Bloodsucking Bastards has some similarities with Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's remarkable directing debut from 2018. The comparisons, though, are almost all in favor of the later film.

Both movies show contemporary office work environments that are boring and repetitious. Both feature supernatural angles. And that's where things go downhill for Bloodsucking Bastards.

Riley's fantasy/farce is filled with pointed social commentary that doesn't get in the way of the film. Bloodsucking Bastards has little subtext at all ... it's a vampire movie in an office setting, and that's about it. Which means the vampire story better be good. And, I regret to say, it's not. Sorry to Bother You is also loony, usually in a good way, but in any event, Riley was willing to try anything. Brian James O'Connell's film was much more straightforward. He makes ingenious use of his low budget, and attracts actors who fit their roles and do well by them. But the slow buildup is more slow than buildup, and the revelations of the plot aren't all that unusual for a vampire movie.

Part of me thinks it's unfair to compare the two movies. But as I was watching Bloodsucking Bastards, I kept thinking of Sorry to Bother You, and I never thought I was seeing a better movie. Oh, and it's a comedy. Among the other possible choices for this week's challenge were Let the Right One In, a favorite of mine, and Only Lovers Left Alive, which I also preferred to the one I ended up with.


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.


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.


creature feature: the curse of the werewolf (terence fisher, 1961)

Decent Hammer film, but no more than that. Oliver Reed plays the title character ... he only got second billing, though, and was paid only £90 a week. Of course, he doesn't even turn up until halfway through the movie, so maybe the billing and the paychecks were appropriate. Probably the most interesting other person in the cast was Anthony Dawson, who was a bad guy in 3 of the first 4 Bonds, twice as Blofeld.

This is the only werewolf film made by Hammer Studios. It was also the first werewolf film to be shot in color. It looks OK, as most Hammer films did. As I said about The Brides of Dracula, "the Hammer films were a step above the usual" for late-night Creature Feature TV shows. But this fact, plus the presence of Oliver Reed (who admittedly makes a good werewolf), don't make The Curse of the Werewolf into a good movie. It drags, especially during the first half, and characters that seem important disappear later in the film. Worst of all, the film takes place in "Spain", so while everyone speaks with a British accent, their names are Don Alfredo and Leon and Christina Fernando. Once in a while, someone calls someone "Señor," and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.


what i watched

Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.

Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)

Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.