Monday, April 14, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #44 "Hellraiser" (Clive Barker)

There's just something about watching a certain type of movie when you're way too young to process it.

I was 10 when horror novelist-turned-director Clive Barker came out with his seminal classic "Hellraiser." My parents were smart enough not to let me go see it in the theater, but I managed to catch it at a sleepover at a friend's house a year or two later. did it bend my brain backwards.

Certainly "Hellraiser" isn't nearly as transgressive now as it was back in 1987, and to a modern audience inured by extreme horror movies like "Martyrs" and "The Human Centipede" it might even seem a little silly. The special effects certainly don't hold up, and Doug Bradley's Pinhead is one of those iconic images of 80s horror — like Freddy Kreuger and Jason Vorhees — that now probably borders on self parody (countless direct-to-video sequels haven't helped in that regard).

But at the time, this movie was unlike anything that really anyone had attempted in the genre before. Barker is often called the "Godfather of Splatterpunk" for his early contributions to the much-maligned subgenre, but he was always so much further out on a limb than any of his contemporaries (with the possible exception of Joe R. Lansdale), who were mostly content with cranking up the gore and laughing at their own dick jokes. Just compare any random John Shirley or David J. Schow short story to Barker's "In The Hills, The Cities." Barker's weirdo vision — metaphysical, violent, surreal and often unapologetically homoerotic — always kept him in a class of his own.

"Hellraiser" is a case in point. It's equal parts arthouse and grindhouse, and — as dated as it is — Barker crafted some supremely upsetting images that still stick nearly three decades later. We had Lamarchand's Box, the Cenobites, all the hooks and the chains, Frank walking around in a nice button-up and slacks with all his skin flayed off. Barker's concept of Hell existing not as a Lake of Fire where our sins would be punished in a moralistically defined way, but rather as a completely amoral and torturous realm of extreme pain and pleasure that exists beyond human comprehension, took all our mid-80s squeamishness about the rise of previously underground sexual subcultures (like BDSM) and distilled it down to something elemental, erotic and deeply disturbing.

And what the fuck was the deal with the dragon at the end?

Barker's work (particularly in the film world) can be pretty hit and miss. As much as I love his "Nightbreed" (1990), it carries a much more B-movie stank on it than this one does. And "Lord of Illusions" (1995) is basically an interesting failure.

But "Hellraiser" still has something. Hollywood is in development for the inevitable remake now. I don't have high hopes, but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #45 "The Changeling" (Peter Medak)

Most of the directors you'll see on my list are among the undisputed masters. Scorsese, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Friedkin, the Coens, Lynch, Coppola, etc. — they're all gonne be making an appearance here soon.

So who the hell is Peter Medak?

Honestly, I didn't even know until I just pulled him up on IMDB a couple minutes ago. Looks like he's done a bunch of TV — "Breaking Bad," "Carnivale," "The Wire" being among his more prestigious entries ( less prestigious: "Remington Steele"). He's done some TV movies. He did that "Romeo is Bleeding" mess with Gary Oldman back in the early 90s.

Oh, and he crafted what is, for my money, perhaps the single most terrifying image in the history of cinema—

 —A rubber ball bouncing down a set of stairs.

I don't want to say too much more about "The Changeling" (1980), because a) I don't want to spoil anything, and b) whatever I say will probably make the movie sound stupid. Certainly, in its particulars there isn't anything all that original going on here. It's a standard haunted house movie. That's all. Sure, it's got some weird late-Watergate-era political overtones to it, but that's all really just window dressing.

It's every haunted house movie you've ever seen.

Except it's just better.

Why? I don't even know. Maybe because I first saw it when I was really young, so it made more of an imprint on my psyche than, say, something (admittedly pretty great) like "The Orphanage" or "The Conjuring." Maybe that's all it is.

Except...I've become a pretty sophisticated movie watcher over the years. Horror movies, in particular, have a very difficult time impressing me. And "The Changeling" always somehow manages to get under my skin. Even now, nearly 30 years later.

As a general rule, haunted house movies aren't really known for their rewatchability. Once is usually enough. What was spooky and mysterious and terrifically atmospheric the first time is sort of boring and expected on a return viewing.

But something about this one just works. And it keeps working.

I don't know why.

Another very rewatchable haunted house movie is Robert Wise's classic "The Haunting." I think what makes both of these films work is the fact that they just don't try all that hard. The play with mundanity in a way most horror movies are afraid to. Half the time it seems like nothing's happening...but just as you're about to check your watch, the filmmaker throws an image or a sound at you — something so deceptively simple, like an odd pattern on a wall or a rubber ball bouncing down a set of stairs — and you'll suddenly find yourself shuddering and pulling the blanket up over your eyes.

The scares never announce themselves. But suddenly they're just there when you least expect it, cuddling up next to you on the couch, whispering horrible things in your ear and running cold fingers oh-so-lightly down your spine.

I don't want to oversell this thing. It's a good haunted house movie. Nothing more.

But it's just better than you expect it to be.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #46 "When Harry Met Sally" (Nora Ephron)

Okay, before y'all cry foul, YES, I know that "When Harry Met Sally" was directed by Rob Reiner, not Nora Ephron.

But I'm doing a bit of a cheat here with my one-movie-per-director policy. I want to look at another Reiner movie later on this list and, in any case, Ephron is the one I want to talk about here.

Not to discount in any way Reiner's contribution to this film, but come on. We all know this is Nora Ephron's movie. She went on to have a long and illustrious career as a director herself ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," and "Julie & Julia," among others.) And this, of course, followed a long and illustrious career as a humor writer and essayist (if you haven't read either her 1970 collection "Wallflower at the Orgy" or her more recent collection "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," do yourself a favor).

"When Harry Met Sally" was Ephron in transition. It was not her first feature film screenplay — that would be 1983's "Silkwood," which she co-wrote — but it was the one that made Hollywood really sit up and take notice.

And for good reason. This is vintage Ephron. Her wit is always sharp without ever being vicious. There's an amiable warmth throughout that typifies her work, coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. She knows just how to undercut an emotionally difficult scene with a surprise laugh (Sally's slap, for instance), or how to underline a bit of humor with sudden and unexpected poignancy (the karaoke scene in the Brooks Brothers). This script is confident and self assured in a way that very few first-or-second screenplays are. Structurally, it's basically perfect.

Reiner serves Ephron well, mostly by getting out of the way. I don't know that you could ask for a more perfect match of sensibilities between a writer and director. And the cast just kills it all the way through. Meg Ryan has never been better, either before or since. Neither, frankly, has Billy Crystal -- who thankfully holds his shameless mugging down to an acceptable minimum here. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher round everything out nicely. They consistently manage to steal every scene they're in without even trying.

"When Harry Met Sally" doesn't provoke a lot of belly laughs. To watch it is not to roll on the floor under a constant flood of hilarity. That's not what Ephron and crew were going for here. It's the type of movie you put on when it's raining outside and you want to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of cocoa.

It's a gentle, quiet, sweetly acerbic film that feels utterly timeless. Because it is.

Friday, April 11, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #47 "Straw Dogs" (Sam Peckinpah)



What to say about "Straw Dogs."

When I first saw this film, I was 14 or 15. I discovered Stephen King about two years earlier, and had spent the time in between pretty much devouring as much paperback and pulp horror as I could. In tandem with that, I started diving into the movies in earnest. "Hellraiser," check. "The Omen," check. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," check. "Dawn of the Dead," check.

My love of horror (particularly of the 1970s variety) led me, in a roundabout way, to the New Hollywood. I graduated from Hooper and Romero to Friedkin (through "The Exorcist") and then to Scorsese, Bogdanovich and Coppola.

And, of course, Sam Peckinpah.

What to say about "Straw Dogs."

I don't think there's another movie I've seen that I've wrestled with more. All the pulp horror I'd been reading up to that point seemed not only irrelevant, but downright silly after sitting through this thing. Peckinpah's vision was terrifying in a way that an army of zombies or vampires or Cenobites or chain saw wielding psychos could never be.

Films like Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible," Pascal Laugier's "Martyrs" and Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust" are, by any objective measure, more brutal. Certainly, when stacked up against all the torture porn and New French Extremity we see today, the violence in "Straw Dogs" is — at least in terms of pure viscera — pretty tame. But most extreme horror — even the really fucked up stuff — I can basically dismiss out of hand. I'm one of the few people I know who actually found "The Human Centipede" boring. When something is trying to be shocking, I tend to find it laughable.

But what Peckinpah is doing here is ... something else.

First, the misogyny. It's there, and it's undeniable. And it's Peckinpah's. I have listened to film student after film student twist themselves into knots trying to find a way to justify it or excuse it away. But, right around the time I discovered this movie I also discovered my dad's old Playboy collection in the basement. And as much as I liked looking at the pictures, the interviews were what kept me coming back. I remember reading this one with Peckinpah from 1971 about the movie:

Playboy: What about his wife Amy? What does she find out about herself?

Peckinpah: Well, there are two kinds of women. There are women and there there's pussy. A woman is a partner. If you can go a certain distance by yourself, a good woman will triple it. But Amy is the kind of girl – and we've all seen them by the millions – they marry, they have some quality, but they're so goddamn immature, so ignorant as far as living goes, as to what is of value in life, in this case about marriage, that they destroy it. Amy is pussy, under the veneer of being a woman. Maybe because of what happens to her, she'll eventually become a woman.

Just so we're perfectly clear here, when Peckinpah says "what happens to her," he's talking about her rape by a jilted ex-boyfriend. A rape scene that turns into a love scene because, well, Amy (Susan George) is "pussy" so, in Peckinpah's world view, she really wanted it. The rape isn't quite as viscerally "violent" as the one in "Irreversible," but what Peckinpah is insinuating with it is so much more vile.

Still not convinced? How about this, talking about David (Dustin Hoffman) and his journey.

Playboy: But Amy was the instrument of his self-discovery, wasn't she? Didn't she push and prod him to "act like a man"?

Peckinpah: She didn't know what she wanted. She pushed him, as you say, but not in any constructive way. To start out with, she asked for the rape. But later she could barely bring herself to pull the trigger to save his life. I don't know whether they'll get back together again ... He obviously married the wrong dame. She is basically pussy ... And speaking of rape, I'd like to point out to Miss Kael and these other so called critics that rear entry does not necessarily mean sodomy, as they said in their reviews. In the picture, Amy is taken by one guy she used to go with and then she's taken from the rear by another guy she didn't want any part of anywhere. The double rape is a little bit more than she bargained for...

"A little bit more than she bargained for."

What. The fuck.

The thing that I find so disturbing about this (and that I found so disturbing at the time I read it) is that Peckinpah clearly thought all this out. He knows what he wants to say and he's saying it. He's articulate. He has a philosophy. It's all worked out in his head.

So ... why am I defending this movie again?

I'm not, really. I can't. I guess here's where I come down on it: the misogyny is there, and it's real, but it's not the only thing going on. Reading these quotes through again, it really strikes me that Peckinpah knew exactly what he was saying and what he was trying to provoke. He's trying to piss you off. He's putting himself out on a real steep ledge and daring us to shove him over.

At his worst, Peckinpah was a drunken hack who made unwatchable films, but at his best he was a master craftsman in the true Hitchockian sense. He knew how to play us like a fiddle, and with "Straw Dogs" he's forcing us to confront our own worst thoughts and impulses by making us revel in his. It's gross, and it's painful ... but there's something true about it in a way "Hostel" and "Saw" could never be. Not "true" in what he's saying with the movie, but "true" in the raw and terrible emotions that he's revealing. He's showing us his true self, with no apology or explanation or film-school obfuscation. And it ain't pretty.

I really don't know how much of this was intentional or how much I'm reading into it (I might be just another one of those film students trying to give myself an escape hatch), but I think there's a certain amount of value to be found in allowing a master artist to take you on a dark trip into his own dangerous psyche and neurosis. In "Straw Dogs" we're being confronted with Peckinpah's damaged male id in a way that's just all too naked, too bloody and uncooked. There's an open wound quality to this film that was (and is) like nothing I've experienced before or since.

It's a journey into a certain type of Heart of Darkness, and one we'd be well advised not to deny.

At his best, this is what Philip Roth does in his novels (with a good bit more elegance, to be sure), and what Picasso did in his paintings. As much as I hate to admit it, Peckinpah deserves to be spoken of in the same breath.

So I find that I hold two equal and opposing views of this movie, and the 20 years between now and my first experience with it haven't changed that one iota. I find the film absolutely revolting, and not just because what it shows but because of what it is. And yet I find it terribly compelling. It's a powerful masterwork by a real artist working at the top of his game. I can't dismiss it, as much as I would like to.

No one promised us our idols would be nice people.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #48 "Ed Wood" (Tim Burton)

I'm really not a Tim Burton guy.

There was a chunk of years there — between the ages of maybe 11 and 20 — where I really tried. I felt like I should be a Tim Burton guy. His stuff was weird, and I like weird. His stuff was dark (sort of), and I like dark. He was all about the classic horror movies, and I had a poster of Frankenstein's Monster on my wall when I was like eight. On paper, it all should have been there.

But there was always one big problem: the guy just doesn't really know how to tell a story. It's all about the imagery with him, the style, the essential "Tim Burton"-ness of it all. Characters, plot, theme, story logic...he treats all of that like baggage to be jettisoned. I know that I'm not breaking any new ground by saying this, but come on. You know it's true.

So even as a kid I just never could get as into his movies as I wanted to. "Beetlejuice" is fun for awhile, but all the silliness loses me toward the end. "Edward Scissorhands" ... meh. "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" ... nothing. His "Batman" was probably my favorite, but I never quite understood what all the fuss was about. End of the day his stuff just leaves me cold, and always did.


There's always that one exception to prove the rule, right?

"Ed Wood" is, for my money, one of the absolute best films of the 1990s. So what is it that sets this one so far apart from the others?

The black-and-white helps, to be honest. It's a stylistic and some would say obvious choice, but it serves the purpose of reigning in some of Burton's most obnoxious and self-indulgent tendencies. He throws in a lot of his typical flourishes here, but somehow manages to keep it all on the right side of the line. As goofy as it is, the movie keeps its feet on the ground.

The acting is another thing. Johnny Depp is a brilliant actor in so many ways but he's prone to a lot of the same bad instincts, so I always feel like he and Burton are a dangerous combination. But he manages to dig in a little bit here and make Ed something more than his usual bundle of ticks.

Bill Murray is spot-on perfect as Bunny Breckenridge. Jeffrey Jones is fantastic as Criswell. I even like Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette, both of whose characters are frankly nothing to write home about. And George the Animal Fucking STEELE. How perfect is that?

Of course, we can't forget Martin Landau. A large part of what probably made me predisposed to like this movie more than Burton's others is the fact that I've been fascinated by both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff since I was a kid, and Lugosi's story is so epically tragic and yet so banal in its particulars that I've always found it singularly haunting. I feel like Landau got it, and he provides the beating heart that a) makes this movie work and b) is missing from so many other Burton films.

But, at the end of the day, for me it's all about the script. Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski pull off a nifty hat trick here — a biopic of Ed Wood that simultaneously feels like an Ed Wood movie and yet serves as a scathing critique of the whole Ed Wood ethos, while at the same time celebrating his spirit and making us want to go out and watch a bunch of Ed Wood movies. It's a tough balancing act, and they pull it off with real aplomb. As a writer, it's one of those scripts that makes me think "how'd they do that?"

And, oddly, it is in this one movie where Burton's general lack of interest in anything resembling a recognizable human motivation serves him well as a storyteller. The tendency with any of these biopics is to over-pathologize, to try to understand the subject. So we get a lot of dead brothers, absent mothers, angry fathers, humiliating first sexual experiences, whatever.  With Ed, we don't need any of that. He just is who he is, and we go with it. "He likes to dress in women's clothing," the movie seems to be saying, "so fucking what?" Even Lugosi — the more overtly tragic figure here — manages to escape without too much time spent on the analyst's couch.

None of this would have worked but for Alexander's and Karaszewski's deft hand and razor-sharp, almost Coen-like wit. One thing I rarely feel about Tim Burton movies is that they're funny. "Beetlejuice" and "Mars Attacks!" managed to squeeze a few chuckles out of me, but that's pretty much it. The spasmodic nature of his films generally crushes the humor for me the way a speeding truck will crush an injured rabbit. But, for whatever reason, this one has me belly laughing every time I see it.

Like Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski never really hit these heights again. They went on to write "Man in the Moon" and "The People Versus Larry Flynt" — fine enough films but both somehow missing the crazy spark that made this one come to such vivid life. The stars must have just aligned here.

As a writer myself, that's kind of a scary thought. But if I ever manage to write even one script as good as "Ed Wood" in my lifetime, I guess I'll count myself lucky.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #49 "The Road" (John Hillcoat)

I discovered Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat through his many music video collaborations with Nick Cave. The one that really leaped out at me was "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" off The Bad Seeds' "No More Shall We Part" album. In substance it's really just a bunch of Russians dancing around a basement somewhere, but Hillcoat infuses the whole thing with a quiet, sickly menace and then liberally slathers a sticky coating of Eurotrash sleaze all over top of it. You can smell that basement, and what you're smelling ain't good. If there has ever been a more perfect match of music and visuals, I don't know what it would be.

Cave wrote the screenplay and performed the soundtrack (with Warren Ellis) to Hillcoat's gritty-as-fuck Australian western "The Proposition" in 2005. In "The Road," Hillcoat's 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Cave is present only on the soundtrack (the script was written by Joe Penhall). So this is the movie where I was finally able to take off my Bad Seeds fanboy glasses and truly see Hillcoat for the master filmmaker he is.

I really could have picked either "The Proposition" or "The Road" for this entry. I love them both, and certainly they are similarly harrowing experiences. But, to me, "The Road" is the more impressive feat, due in no small part to the quiet but gutwrenching performances by Viggo Mortensen and young Kodi-Smit McPhee as an unnamed father and son making their way across a blasted post-Apocalyptic landscape. Mortensen anchors this movie in a way that Guy Pearce isn't quite able to in "The Proposition," and McPhee gives the best and most nuanced performance by a child actor I can remember seeing in years.

I was also impressed by how deftly Hillcoat manages to work with what, on the page, seemed to me to be pretty unruly source material. The Coens hit paydirt with "No Country For Old Men" just two years earlier, but beyond that the list of successful McCarthy adaptations is pretty thin ("All The Pretty Horses," anyone?). But here we have the perfect mesh of sensibilities. McCarthy and Hillcoat drop us headfirst into a dying world and strip out all traces of the Apocalypse-chic that has wormed its way into pop culture over the last decade. "The Road" is harrowing without being alienating, grueling without being boring or monotonous. The tender moments are quiet but heartfelt. The violence, when it comes, is quick and brutal.

And at the center of it all is the simple love of a father for his son. If you're not torn to shreds by the last 15 minutes of the movie, I don't want to know you because you, sir or ma'am, have no soul.

Hillcoat and Cave teamed up again for "Lawless" in 2012. The film is pretty good, definitely has its moments, but doesn't really rise to the expectations Hillcoat set with his previous two films. But I have faith. He'll be back, and I'll be first in line.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #50 "Chasing Amy" (Kevin Smith)

Who was it who said "good writers borrow, but great writers steal?" So, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm totally stealing this idea from my friend Jon Curtis, who's currently putting together his own list over at his fantastic New Jonny Transit blog. Click the link to check out what I suspect will be a very different selection of films. 

I've been wanting to reactivate this mostly defunct blog for awhile, and I've been trying to find a way to A)write something new every day and B)write something other than scripts, treatments and Facebook status updates. This seemed like as good a reason to start as any.

This isn't exactly my "50 Favorite Movies" list, although I will tell you in advance that the top 10 pretty much fell out that way. I gave myself a couple limitations -- the big one being only one film per director. If I hadn't done that, at least 20 out of the 50 would have been dominated by Scorsese, the Coens and David Lynch. Also, I decided to pick movies not necessarily based on whether they represent a filmmaker's BEST work, per say, but rather on what each individual movie meant to me when I first saw it. This first entry is a great example of that.

I'm also going to try to keep each entry fairly short.

Anyway. Enough caveats. Here I go.

#50: "Chasing Amy" (Kevin Smith)

I'm generally not a big Kevin Smith fan, but I felt like I had to include him somewhere on this list because of the effect his films had on my decision to ultimately  go back to school and pursue my career as a filmmaker. It's easy to forget in this era of Millenials and Smith's "Cop Out" the seismic effect that Smith had on the indie film landscape back in 1994 with "Clerks". For a minute there, he really was the Kurt Cobain of dick and boob jokes, and his View Askew movies really were the cinematic voice of Generation X.

So it was tempting to go with "Clerks" because, whereas Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" (later on this list) was the first film I remember seeing that made me WANT to make movies, "Clerks" was the first film I saw that made me think I COULD make movies. It was lo-fi, rowdy and punk rock in a way that appealed to 16-year-old me in the same way I'm sure The Stooges appealed to Joey and Johnny Ramone back in the early 70s.

But, if I'm to be honest, "Chasing Amy" is really the only movie of Smith's that I still love. It has been roundly knocked for being a puerile male wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I'm sure that when I saw it as a naive and still girlfriendless college freshman, that's probably the level I appreciated it on. But, nearly two decades and more than a few broken relationships later, I can look back on this movie and see that Smith, in his kind of gregariously dumb way, managed to put his finger on some essential truths about me and other young men of my generation.

Rather than just giving us the wish fulfillment myth (man convinces lesbian to stop being lesbian and fall in love with him), Smith rather deftly tears it apart. This isn't a simple story about Holden and Alyssa falling in love. This is about the sudden and confusing fluidity of sexual mores and expectations that arose in the post 80s generation. What did it mean to be a straight man or a gay woman in the 1990s? Nobody really knew. It's something David Fincher got at a couple years later in a much more vicious, male-centric way with "Fight Club," but I think there's a real resonance between Holden and Banky and that film's Tyler and Jack.

And, let's not forget (SPOILER ALERT) that Alyssa and Holden don't ride off into the sunset together. That bummed me out at the time, but in retrospect there was just no way that thing was going to last.

Smith never really got this close to greatness again, and these days I don't have a lot of use for him. But I still throw this one in the DVD player every couple years or so, and I find it's sweetened rather nicely with age.