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.


possession (andrzej zulawski, 1981)

Wow.

That first word isn't meant to imply that Possession is a great movie, or even a good one. But see it once, and you won't forget it.

It's so hard to pigeonhole the movie that the best description I've seen has J. Hoberman of the Village Voice essentially throwing up his hands:

Made with an international cast in still-divided Berlin, the movie starts as an unusually violent breakup film, takes an extremely yucky turn toward Repulsion-style psychological breakdown, escalates into the avant-garde splatterific body horror of the ’70s (Eraserhead or The Brood), and ends in the realm of pulp metaphysics as in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

The violent breakup all by itself is so intense it is often hard to sit through. Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, an unhappy wife married to Sam Neill's Mark. "Unhappy" doesn't really get it, though ... "possessed" is a better word for what Anna is going through, although it takes a long time for Zulawski to get to what that might actually mean. Adjani is one of France's most honored actresses ... she has won five César Best Actress awards, a record (the Césars are the French equivalent of the Oscars ... she has two Oscar nominations as well). She got her first César for Possession, and it's easy to see why. The part is over the top, and she plays it to the hilt ... you can't take your eyes off of her, for better or worse. She's extreme, which isn't necessarily excessive ... Anna is extreme. Next to Adjani, Sam Neill can only look astonished, which is also appropriate for the part.

I expected an incoherent film, which wasn't the case. Zulawski starts in the middle, and doesn't concern himself much with hand-holding, even when the plot turns fantastical. But mostly he runs right past any notion of coherence, just making sure there is never a dull moment, even if it is occasionally incoherent.

Adjani really is amazing, but at a price ... she has said that playing Anna took a long time to get over, and there are rumors that she tried suicide (rumors encouraged by Zulawski, who almost seems proud of the fact). Your opinion of her performance in Possession will depend in large part on how much you appreciate this kind of acting.

The U.S. release was botched ... it's hard to pin down the facts, but about 40 minutes of the 124-minute film were cut, and other changes were made. This made a film which was already complicated into something incomprehensible, and it was pounded by critics. Time has been kinder ... it is now #611 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Here is the most famous scene from the film. I'd give a Spoiler Alert, but I'm not sure a movie like this can be hurt by spoilers. (Directing the scene, Zulawski helped told Adjani to "fuck the air".)


creature feature: curse of the demon (jacques tourneur, 1957)

I'll let the IMDB explain the variations in the versions of this film:

This film exists in three English language versions: (1) The original British release under the title "Night of the Demon," (2) Columbia's edited version for release in the U.S. under the title "Curse of the Demon" and, (3) over 20 years later, Columbia replaced their edited U.S. version with the original British version but with the title also changed to "Curse of the Demon."

I watched the TCM version, and their explanation is more detailed, but ultimately ironic:

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production.... The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that [American producer Hal E.] Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

I call this "ironic" because TCM seems to be arguing in favor of the British original, but the version they showed was the U.S. one.

This was nonetheless probably appropriate for the nostalgia angle of watching Curse of the Demon in 2020. I'm sure I saw it more than once as a kid, and the version I saw was certainly the American edit, so TCM did me a favor.

Curse of the Demon is a decent picture with some pedigree. Director Jacques Tourneur had done such pictures as Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie. Dana Andrews had appeared in Oscar winners like The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. Peggy Cummins was great in Gun Crazy. The production design was by Ken Adam, at the beginning of a career that included two films with Kubrick, seven Bond movies, and two Oscars.

All of which helps lift the movie above the usual Creature Feature. It's on a par with The Revenge of Frankenstein. But it is nowhere near the level of an Out of the Past. The demon looks silly, and Tourneur didn't want to show it anyway (he was overruled by the studio). It's a low-key thriller, better than some but not really a classic. #753 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is nonsense.