Thursday, May 29, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #25 "Candyman" (Bernard Rose)

Another pretty great horror movie whose memory has been sullied over the years by a run of tepid direct-to-video sequels.

But go back and watch the original. Watch it at night. Alone. With the lights off.

And then tell me with a straight face it didn't get under your skin.

I don't suppose I have a lot to say about this film, other than that it just works. It's smart and atmospheric, sports some really great visuals, and has an almost arthouse sensibility to the way it unfolds its narrative.

It's also really scary.

Scary in a brooding, creak-of-the-floorboards-in-the-night sort of way.

Scary (when it needs to be) in a HOLY-FUCKING-SHIT-DID-YOU-SEE-THAT!!!! sort of way.

It features one of my favorite character actors, Xander Berkely, playing a classic Xander Berkely shithead.

It has a score by Philip Glass that pretty much blows every other horror-movie score since "Halloween" right out of the water. 

It has a kid in it whose real name is, I shit you not, DeJuan Guy.

It's also the rare studio horror movie that has a few things to say — about race and class, about the insular nature of academia, and about modern folk mythology.

And it all comes together in this almost perfect little package of a really spooky little film. This movie should have been a gamechanger for 1990s horror. Unfortunately, we went down the meta-"Scream"-irony-for-the-sake-of-nothing path instead and somehow found ourselves lost in the Death Valley of torture porn a few years later. Oh well.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #26 "Stand By Me" (Rob Reiner)

In putting together this list, it has become more and more clear to me that I could never really be professional film critic. I just don't have the required sense of objectivity, the ability to take myself out of the story and evaluate a film fundamentally on its own merits. Even the admittedly "great" films I'm discussing here — James Whale's "Frankenstein," Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain, etc. — are things I view primarily through the lens of my own experience. I can appreciate "Frankenstein" for its rightful place in cinematic history and for the ways in which Whale used German Expressionism to help redefine and push forward the tropes of Hollywood cinema. That's all there. But, fundamentally, I just love monsters.

Even yesterday's film, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," is something I cannot separate from my experience growing up in Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Is it the best Kubrick film? Who the hell knows? It's the best for me. And in the end that's all I really care about.

Which brings me to Rob Reiner's 1986 classic, "Stand By Me."

I know I mention Stephen King probably way too much on this blog, but I can't overstate the seismic effect he had on me when I was 12 or 13. He was the first guy I read who made me believe I could do it, too.

But before I ever read a single word that he committed to the page, there was "Stand By Me." Based on King's superlative novella "The Body" from his 1982 collection "Different Seasons," Reiner's film is a truly wonderful meditation on childhood, growing up, life, death, blah blah blah.

Fuck all that.

This movie is about me.

I don't mean that I relate to it, or that I see shades of myself in it. I mean it is about me. 

Like, specifically, ME.

I am Gordie Lachance.

I first saw the movie maybe a year or so after it was released, and I was left dumbstruck by it. The parallels between Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and me completely freaked me out. I, too, was an oversensitive budding writer (10 or 11 when I saw the movie, which put me right around the same age as him). I, too, was gripped by an imagination that, at times, almost scared me with its sheer vividness. I, too, had a somewhat distant older brother (mine wasn't dead, just 12 years older than me and off doing his own thing). I, too, grew up in a small mountain town, where the woods behind my house became an entire world unto itself, within which my friends and I were able to explore, transform, and rule as kings.

And I, too, had a friend like River Phoenix's Chris Chambers — the brooding tough kid to my sensitive inner poet, with whom I shared an intractable, at times overpowering bond (although, in truth, Chris was the friend I wish I had — mine was a bit more Ace Merrill than I would have liked to admit at the time).

I have no doubt that if we had heard about some dead kid in the woods, we would have gone looking for him, too.

But more than the particulars (and, to be sure, there are differences — not the least of which is the not-dead brother and the fact that I am a child of the 80s rather than the 50s), I saw the world the way Gordie saw it. His filter was my filter. He was weird the way I was weird. He was sad the way I was sad.

It wasn't until three or four years later that I read the novella, and again I was gripped by that sense of almost vertigo and deja vu. I was just old enough at that point to respond to King's darker vision of childhood — equal parts nostalgic and acidic. And I saw even more of myself in King's Gordie than I did in Reiner's. King spends a great deal of time exploring the writer's side of Gordie's brain, showing us how he interprets the events of his life and then repurposes them into his fiction. It was the first thing I ever read that felt like an explanation of how my own brain works.

In retrospect, I can see that Gordie was King. Which is probably why — even all these years later — I cannot not see King as an almost spiritual mentor, the perfect guide for me at a very specific time in my life. Whatever path I'm taking, he went that way before me.

Reiner's version is a bit sweeter than King's, with less bite and not quite the bitter aftertaste, but overall he did an admirable job of capturing what King was going for. I like the movie quite a bit, but even now I simply cannot judge it on its own terms.

I might as well try to judge my own reflection in the mirror.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #27 "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (Stanley Kubrick)

I have sort of a love-hate relationship with Stanley Kubrick. While I can appreciate the originality and generally uncompromising nature of his vision, I tend to find his films to be a real slog to get through. "Full Metal Jacket," "Barry Lyndon," and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are all sort of half of a great movie and half an incomprehensible, self-important mess for me. And don't even get me started on "The Shining."

Oddly, it's when Kubrick focuses his cold and sometimes savage eye toward outright comedy that he's at his best. He's made only two films that I love, this one and "A Clockwork Orange" ("Lolita" is pretty great, too). Some may quibble with calling "A Clockwork Orange" a comedy... but watch it again. I promise, if you let yourself get into the right mindset, it's absolutely hilarious.

Kubrick's point-of-view was generally pretty cruel, often bordering on sociopathic — which made him a great satirist. For my money, of the three "comedies" I've mentioned, "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) is the funniest. Even in our modern, post-Cold War era, it's absolutely vicious in its humor.

It's also one of the most quotable movies of all time:

"I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." — General Jack D. Ripper

"You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company." — Colonel "Bat" Guano

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" — President Merkin Muffley

"Mein Führer! I can WALK!" — Dr. Strangelove

Peter Sellers turns in a virtuosic, three-part tour-de-force performance as President Muffley, Captain Lionel Mandrake, and — of course — Dr. Strangelove himself. But Kubrick was too smart to let his acknowledged comic genius get away with chewing up all the best moments. Both George C. Scott (as General "Buck" Turgison) and Sterling Hayden (as General Jack D. Ripper) are given some choice cuts of prime rib themselves.

What makes "Strangelove" so compelling and ultimately (funny as it is) terrifying is the fact that, absurd as it is, the premise was frighteningly close to reality. If you don't believe me, just check out Sidney Lumet's "Fail Safe" from the same year. They are essentially the same film, down to the smallest of plot details. The only difference is that Lumet played it straight.

Kubrick beat Lumet to the screen by a few months and has mostly won the verdict of history ("Fail Safe" is really fucking good, by the way. You should see it). But it's important to note that both filmmakers were essentially drawing from the same source material — former R.A.F. pilot Peter George's novel "Red Alert," which managed to spook some higher ups at the Pentagon because it very clearly revealed some quite real flaws in our whole nuclear first response protocols.

These two films and this novel all came in the wake of both the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was busy building bombs that yielded a payload one-tenth the power of the sun. On our own side, folks like Curtis LeMay were pre-occupied with such charming concepts as a "winnable nuclear war." Think about all this and read that New Yorker article I linked to in the previous paragraph, and then rewatch this scene and see if you find at as silly as you probably did the first time.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #28 "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman)

The problem with trying to talk about a film like Ingmar Bergman's 1966 masterpiece "Persona" is that I have absolutely no vocabulary with which to describe the effect it had on me. There's just no context for a film like this. What do you even compare it to?

This is a film that hits nerves for me that I didn't even know were nerves. And I have no idea how Bergman did it. The film is spooky and suspenseful, even though very little happens in a strictly narrative sense. It's erotic, even though the most flesh we get is a play of light on a bare shoulder. It's heartbreaking, even though I couldn't tell you exactly why.

This is just one of those films where there truly are no words. It simply must be experienced.

My friend Jon Curtis did his own "50 Days 50 Films" marathon, and he talked about this film. Like me, he was largely at a loss for words to describe the film's power, but he comes close with this quote:

"No need for words: just light, dark, wind, sound, conflict, eyes, and us, unseen, watching all. It’s like pulling the covers over your head as a child, with no place to be and everywhere to go. Or something thereabouts… By any measure, Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. He’s bold, brilliant, and ever-curious – never dodging giant themes (in "Persona": primal fears, dreams, passions, and follies), but grabs at them with eager and unembarrassed strength. His films are fleshy and erotic, yet cerebral too. You can’t look away. You can’t stop thinking about them. And deep down to your bones, you feel them – sometimes in a series of wild jolts, and other times like fingertips over anxious skin."

That's all very nice, and quite eloquently put. But it somehow just scratches the surface of what this film does to you if you open yourself up to it. It hurts in a way I can't quite wrap my head around. I wouldn't be able to do any better than him, so I think I'll just leave it at that.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #29 "Boys Don't Cry" (Kimberly Pierce)

When "Boys Don't Cry" came out in 1999, I would have considered myself to be a good progressive. I was already certainly sympathetic to gay rights, admittedly in a fairly abstract way. I had never actually encountered true homophobia, but I had gay friends and I generally wanted them to be happy. I thought they were.

I'm not going to say I saw this movie and suddenly understood the full depth and breadth of what would go on to become THE civil rights movement of our time. But it was definitely, in its own modest way, a real eye opener.

I had gay friends, sure, but I really had no conception of the hate and vitriol they faced on a day-to-day basis — and I certainly had no context for dealing with transgender issues. I certainly had no idea how horrible transgender men and women were too often treated — the violence and humilation they regularly found themselves subjected to. Particularly in places like Falls City, Nebraska, where Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) moved and fell in love, and then was brutalized, raped and murdered for the crime of being different.

Kimberly Pierce's debut feature came at the tail end of the 90s indie boom, well after "Sex Lies and Videotape" and "Pulp Fiction" but a year before Christopher Nolan's "Memento." Looking back, it's a little disheartening to see how male-dominated and fundamentally hetero that whole scene was. It makes filmmakers like Pierce (along with Allison Anders, Kasi Lemmons, Lisa Cholodenko and others) all that much more important. While us dudes were wrapped up in our neo noirs and shoot-em-ups (which I love... just look at my list), women like Pierce were busy crafting nuanced films that changed the way gay and trans men and women were depicted on film. In their hands, LGBT people weren't just victims or wacky best friends. They were our brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters.

"Boys Don't Cry" stood high above the others, as much for its public profile as anything else. It won rave reviews, had huge audiences (for a film of this type), and won Hilary Swank a well-deserved Oscar. But this is not to say that it is in any way overrated. If I were to make a list of the five most essential films of the last 20 years — the ones that absolutely need to be preserved for posterity — this one would come at or near the top of the list.

Coming in the wake of Matthew Shephard's murder in Wyoming, this film dealt with the true-life murder of another LGBT person in another small Midwestern town. It was an important subject, and an essential one for its time. But it's also just a very good film. Pierce approaches this story and these characters with a deep empathic sensitivity, but doesn't romanticize or pull any punches. Her analysis is sharp and incisive, and she scrutinizes the dynamics that lead to Teena's death with an almost cold, documentarian's eye.

Pierce is a courageous filmmaker, but also a skilled one. She trusts in the material and her own abilities enough to not pad the movie with needless melodrama. As tragic as the story is, she doesn't treat it as a tragedy. There aren't a lot swelling strings here. She allows us to get to know Brandon Teena as a person, first and foremost, long before we ever come to see him as a victim.

She lets us like Brandon.

Incredibly for that time, Pierce even lets us experience the heart-pounding eroticism of Brandon's relationship with Lana Tisdale (Chloe Sevigny). Those scenes are hot, and this is not a small point — even if maybe it should be. In 1999, showing a trans man cinematically as a source of a classically MALE sexual power was not just bold — it was truly brave.

By letting us fall in love with Brandon and Lana a little bit, Pierce allows us to forget what's to come. We sink into the relationship and get comfortable there, so when the brutality (in the form of terrifyingly human John Lotter, portrayed magnificently by Peter Sarsgaard) arrives, it's that much more shocking.

Pierce doesn't flinch. She forces us to endure the full measure of Brandon's degradation. And Swank throws herself into the role with a fearlessness and raw vulnerability that is staggering. It's nearly unbearable to watch.

I've heard this movie described as a classic "one-timer." I disagree. Yes, it's a hard sit at the end. But Swank and Sevigny bring their characters to life and make them our friends. We owe it to our friends to stand by them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

50 Days 50 films - #30 "The Running Man" (Paul Michael Glaser)

As a boy child of the 80s, I just knew there was going to have to be at least one Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on this list. So I was all set to write about Paul Verhoeven's 1990 classic "Total Recall" until literally 30 seconds ago when I realized that I was kidding myself. "Total Recall" is probably the better film, but the Schwarzenegger movie I love — and I mean LOVE — is "The Running Man." 

It's the one that I watched over and over and over and OVER again. Hell, I kind of just want to go home and watch it right now.

"The Running Man" is Verhoeven-lite in many ways. It's got all those elements so readily identifiable with his late 80s/mid 90s films — hot chicks, badass action, and a healthy dose of social satire. Some might see this as a negative, might claim that this movie is really nothing but a derivative retread. But for me "The Running Man" took all those crazy Verhoeven elements, chopped them up, threw them into a blender, and made something even more crazy and way more fun.

Let's just list some of the positives here: It's based (very loosely) on a Stephen King novel, which helps. It features the second best line of dialogue in movie history (the best, interestingly, comes from another Schwarzenegger film). It has this scene. It has dance numbers (I couldn't find any video clips, but trust me, they're amazing). It's even got Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

And, come on, any movie that teams up Dweezil Zappa with Mick Fleetwood playing a future cyberpunk version of Mick Fleetwood has just got to be awesome.

The film's absolute stroke of genius was in casting the late Richard Dawson as The Big Bad. To put this in context for all you Millenials out there, Dawson was the host of "The Family Feud." Literally every grandmother in America was in love with that guy. 

In "The Running Man," Dawson chews the scenery like it's made of candy and has a ton of fun sending up his family-friendly image and twisting it into something a little dark and kind of vicious. It's a truly memorable performance that actually manages to elevate this movie at least a little bit beyond the slice of 80s American cheese that it is.

It's too easy to use the word "prescient" when it comes to a film like this. That's one of those buzzwords critics like to use to elevate their guilty pleasures in order to justify being a fan. You hear this a lot about Verhoeven's "RoboCop," as well — and I'm not saying that it's not true on some level. I mean, sure, "The Running Man" did seem to predict the moral dip in our post Cold-War culture that lead to shows like "Survivor" and "Fear Factor," and I'm sure there's an argument to be made paralleling this film's depiction of a fascistic consumerist nightmare to Bush-era America in the years following 9/11.

But I think it's more useful to look at both this film and "RoboCop" as reflections of their own time. Both films were birthed in the wake of cyberpunk, which was an absolute reaction to the Reagan era. Rather than predict the future, what both these films did (and, I would argue, that "The Running Man" did a little bit better) was fashion their bombastic action extravaganzas around a truly Swiftian satire. They took certain disturbing elements of their time in history and pushed them to a level of such extreme absurdity that they became impossible to ignore. 

But whatever. End of the day, this movie is just a ton of fun. It may be the most absolutely batshit Schwarzenegger movie of that or any time. It's compulsively quotable in the way the all best Ah-nuld movies are. People tend to look at it as a minor film in the Austrian giant', but I'd say it's definitely worth a reappraisal.

And how can you not love a movie with a scene like this?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #31 "Duel" (Steven Spielberg)

I can feel you all rolling your eyes right now.

And trust me, I get it. Out of all the Spielberg movies to chose from — "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List" — I go with a TV movie from 1971. Yes, this is my hipster pick. I might as well be wearing skinny jeans and an Iggy Pop t-shirt, sneering about how I "only like the early, raw stuff."

So let me stipulate: I love Spielberg movies. He was absolutely every bit as much a part of my childhood as anyone else. He's a master. Just check this out if you don't believe me.

I found "Duel" relatively late, when I was fifteen or sixteen. The reason I'm picking it is because, as raw as it is, it perfectly combines everything I love about the Spielberg-to-be with another great obsession of mine — "The Twilight Zone."

We all know "The Twilight Zone" — the intro, the classic theme song. For me, it was a watershed. Aside from Stephen King, "The Twilight Zone" might be the single most influential thing I encountered as a developing writer. It's what helped shape my voice more than anything else.

A great many episodes were either penned by or based on stories by some of my favorite pulp horror and sci-fi authors of the 30s-50s. The later 1980s revival (which, if I'm to be honest, is the first "Twilight Zone" I ever loved) pulled from the works of some of my more contemporary heroes. Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, George R.R. Martin, Harlan Ellison — they all did time in the "Twilight Zone" trenches at one point or another.

Towering above them all was Richard Matheson. Known mostly for his novel "I Am Legend" (which we can indirectly thank for the current zombie boom), Matheson also wrote "Born of Man and Woman," which I believe is probably the most perfect horror short story ever written.

He's also famous for being the mind behind some of the most celebrated episodes of "The Twilight Zone," including the classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

"Duel" was also based on a Matheson short story (of the same name). The concept is deceptively simple — a guy (Dennis Weaver) is driving up a lonely California highway when he encounters a psychotic truck driver, who proceeds to spend the next 80 minutes or so trying to drive him off the road. There's not a whole lot of character development here. The film doesn't need it. We understand everything we need to know about Weaver's character and his dilemna. He's a regular guy just trying to get to a business meeting when he suddenly finds himself trying to escape the fabled Uncanny Valley.

That right there is the power of this story (as was the case with "The Twilight Zone" and most pulp horror from that era). The world is recognizably our own. But then... something happens. And suddenly everything's just a little bit off. And that subtle difference leads to a complete upending of our entire understanding of reality.

The best horror isn't about gore, or even scares as we tend to understand them. It's about encountering the inexplicable.

"Duel" works on a total reptile brain level. We may be dealing with a semi truck here, but really Spielberg and Matheson are tapping into some very basic fears here, stuff that goes back to our caveman days. This is about being alone and stalked by a hungry beast. A beast with no mercy and no remorse.

Like "Jaws" after it, "Duel" is structured like a classic monster movie (in many ways, we can see "Duel" as a trial run for Spielberg's first blockbuster, which would come just a few years later). We never see the driver, so the truck itself — with its rust-caked hide, its snarling teeth-like grill, its black windshield glaring like the cold eyes of an animal — becomes the thing we fear. When it (spoiler alert) "dies" at the end, the sound of crunching metal becomes the scream of a dinosaur.

This is not Spielberg's best film. Not by a long shot. But it's the one that speaks to me on the most fundamental level.

Monday, May 19, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #32 "Reservoir Dogs" (Quentin Tarantino)

I'm not someone who loves Quentin Tarantino.

Don't get me wrong. I did. "Pulp Fiction" came out when I was 17, and it felt like everything I ever wanted movies to be for the rest of forever. Jules' Ezekial speech, the thing about the watch, Marvin getting shot in the face — the movie just felt both perfect and perfectly awful in a way that nothing else really had before.

I, of course, was pretty young and didn't realize exactly how much Tarantino was appropriating from previous films, authors, etc. Learning that lessened the impact a bit over subsequent viewings. I don't blame him for that — Tarantino was maybe the first major filmmaker to come out of our meta, hip-hop, sample-based culture, and his true genius lies in the way he can mash up everything that's in his head, toss it into a blender, and come out with something that, at its best, tastes startlingly fresh.

I still like Tarantino quite a bit (most of the time), and I would never presume to say that he's not a genius. But he's a flawed genius, for sure, and as I get older the flaws become more pronounced.

My problem with him is that, once you get past the sheer manic energy of his films there's just not a lot of there there. I don't get a lot of heart. There's so much amazing stuff happening, but it rarely transcends the level of schoolboy fantasy. He feels like the world's most talented 13-year-old boy. "Fiction" felt so fresh and alive to me at the time, but the power has waned over the years. Most of his work after that has been tug-of-war between the overwhelming genius of his use of language, the audacity of his vision... and the snarky little kid who just can't help himself.

Both "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" felt like they were so close to reaching cinematic divinity (the opening scene from "Basterds" and the "white cake" scene from "Django" are two of the best things ever committed to film) and fell short because, in the end, his more juvenile instincts took over.

But in his first film, "Reservoir Dogs," this push-pull dynamic feels less like a war. All the recognizable Tarantino-isms are present and accounted for, but the balance is better. It's simple, streamlined, with not a second wasted. Even more than two decades later, it still feels like his most emotionally sophisticated film (I recently reappraised "Jackie Brown" and would call it a close second, but I think a lot of the credit for that one has to go to Elmore Leonard).

The difference here is in the characters — specifically Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth). All of Tarantino's films take place in a show-offy, hyper-real MOVIE world, and "Dogs" is no different. But these two guys manage to provide a sturdy tent stake that keeps the whole thing attached firmly to the ground. Everything that's happening around them is heightened and over-the-top, but Keitel and Roth play it absolutely straight. There's a reality at the core their relationship — a brotherly bond, genuine affection, absolute betrayal — that is exhilarating to watch and heartbreaking all at once.

That last shot of Mr. White's face when he finally realizes... well, shit. It can still bring a tear to my eye.

There's a genuine, beating heart to this film. And that makes all the difference.

I saw "Dogs" shortly after seeing "Pulp Fiction" in the theaters, and at the time it felt like the smaller film to me. But, as the years have gone on and "Pulp" has diminished in my mind, "Dogs" just looms larger and larger.

This was the game changer.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #33 "Grizzly Man" (Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog is THE weirdo genius of the film world, as fascinating for his bizarre off-screen behavior as for his films. Whether it's pulling a gun on Klaus Kinski, eating his shoe, saving Joaquin Phoenix from a fiery car crash, shrugging off a sniper attack ("It's not a significant bullet" is the most badass thing anyone has ever said), or literally dragging a boat over a mountain, Herzog continues to prove that nobody quite knows how to live like he does.

As far as the movies go, I tend to prefer the docs (with the exception of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," which is so batshit nuts I find it epically rewatchable). The features can be incredibly ponderous, and tend to bury Herzog's insanity under about a million layers of self importance. The docs, on the other hand, are alternately lyrical, grandiose, intimate, energetic, and absolutely cracked in some fundamental way.

The subject of "Grizzly Man" — the tragic story of a conservationist/legit crazy person named Timothy Treadwell who went to go live with the grizzlies until one decided to up and eat him and his girlfriend — is already fascinating before Herzog gets his mitts on it. Herzog pieces together hours and hours of Treadwell's own footage to assemble a chilling portrait of a guy at the end of his rope.

But Herzog's not done there. He uses the occasion as a vehicle to explore his own notions of madness, obsession, naivete, and the cruelty of the natural world. He narrates the film himself, and there's something about the German accented Slytherin-hiss of his voice that burrows into you like the buzz of an insect laying eggs in your ear canal.

He also knows how to build a scene, finding drama in simple interactions with those who knew Treadwill. He doesn't cut when you expect him to, often lingering just a beat too long on an interview subject's face. The effect is uncanny: we see the masks teeter a bit, the eyes get a little scared and rabbity, and somehow we get a sense of lurking insanity within all of us. I don't even quite know how he does it.

Herzog's cynicism might be a bit hard for some people to swallow, but it's hard to argue that it's not justified when we learn the full details of Treadwell's fate. It's truly unsettling in the way no fiction film can quite be.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #34 "Dazed and Confused" (Richard Linklater)

"That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, and they stay the same age."

I grew up in Los Alamos, NM in the 80s and 90s, not Austin in the 70s. And yet, this movie spoke to me when I was 15. It was both reminiscent of my high school experience and what I wished high school had been.

Like "Clerks," Linklater's "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" typified the lighter side of the 90s indie boom. But where "Clerks" is compact, lewd and grimy, "Dazed" is sort of loose and breezy. There's very little story here, but somehow it all adds up to something, and it's just a world you want to live in for awhile.

The 90s were all about darkness for some reason. We were living in the most peaceful and prosperous time we'd had as a nation for several generations, but we were still experiencing one big collective 80s hangover. We OD'd on all the blatant consumerism and nationalism of the Reagan era, and tossed aside its more obnoxious trappings — Hollywood blockbusters, hair metal, etc. — for Seriousness with a capital "S." The grunge guys were all about glowering and Having Something To Say. Nine Inch Nails inspired reams of terrible high-school poetry. And indie movies rose to real prominence and — like their 70s godfathers — went about trying to outdo each other in edge and ick-factor.

To be honest, I ate all that stuff up. But even then, I recognized that we needed Linklater and Smith. They managed to eschew the gloomy trappings of their contemporaries while still maintaining that rowdy indie spirit. They made it okay to have fun. They've both had their hits and misses since, but I'll always respect them for that. That era is largely gone now, but we still have a few great films to hang on to.

I loved this movie. I lived the soundtrack. It was like home to me. And every few years I like to go back and visit.

50 Days 50 Films - #35 "Double Indemnity" (Billy Wilder)

This is one of those weird Sophie's Choice situtations here: I knew I just had to pick a Billy Wilder film for this list, but how do you choose between this one, "Sunset Boulevard," " The Apartment," and "Stalag 17"?

Here's how:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty? He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
 Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

Classic film noir isn't known for inserting screwball comedy repartee into the middle of a scene. But that's because most film noir wasn't written and directed by Wilder. The above exchange is classic Wilder — funny, tight, rhythmic and tense all at once. Not one word is wasted. Objectively speaking, I'd have to say "Sunset Boulevard" is probably the superior film, but the dialogue in "Double Indemnity" is just so delicious throughout, like light cheese with a slightly pungent aftertaste. There's something deeply acidic lurking beneath the film's airy wit.

Try this one:

Barton Keyes: You know, you, oughta take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business.
Edward S. Norton: Mister Keyes, I was raised in the insurance business.
Barton Keyes: Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it. 

Wilder was one of the first screenwriters, I believe, who really mastered the brute poetry of dialogue. There's an edge, a hipness to his best work that almost recalls the jazz-based inflections of beat poetry. The film came out in 1944, and too much of what was happening in cinema at the time was either still entrenched in the silent era or was pulling too deeply from stage melodrama. Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz got it right in "Citizen Kane," but even the great "Casablanca" gets mired at times in an overall lugubrious lushness that is dated and, to me at least, slightly alienating.

Wilder's dialogue has the staccato pop and crackle we associate with much more contemporary writers, like David Mamet and the Coens (you can hear Wilder's influence all over "Barton Fink" and Miller's Crossing," and Mamet should have practically been paying Wilder royalties for this scene in "Glengarry Glen Ross"). It's both of its time and completely current. He's one of the only classic Hollywood screenwriters I can say that about (Budd Schulberg is another).

"Double Indemnity" really created the template for so much noir that followed, but it set the bar so high that very few films could come even close to reaching it. It's just one of those movies where everything works.

Wilder had a great run — he was also the man behind "Some Like It Hot," "The Seven Year Itch," "Ace In The Hole," and "The Lost Weekend." They're all must-see films, but if you're not familiar with his work, "Double Indemnity" is a great place to start.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #36 "Frankenstein" (James Whale)

Frankenstein's Monster is the first movie character I ever really loved. In fact, I loved him long before I saw the actual movie.

I have distinct memories of being in pre-school and chasing my friends around the playground pretending to be Boris Karloff. I must have been three or four, maybe. I had no idea what this Frankenstein dude was, but I knew I wanted to be him.

My infatuation with monsters started basically at birth, but really solidified as a toddler with "Frankenstein" and "King Kong." The imagery — completely divorced from any sort of narrative context — grabbed hold of me somehow and wouldn't let go. I drew pictures of Frankenstein's Monster everywhere, and I had a King Kong lunchbox (from the terrible 70s Jeff Bridges remake, unfortunately).

It wasn't until I was around the third or fourth grade that I actually saw either movie and even then I was struck by the notion that, in a fundamental way, they were pretty much exactly the same film: big awkward outsider with a sensitive side is misunderstood, smashes things, gets killed by assholes.

As a big lumbering dork who was painfully shy and got punched in the face by bullies sometimes for no reason, I related.

"King Kong" doesn't hold up for me in quite the same way, but Karloff's monster still has his grip on me. And, while I can psychoanalyze that until the sun goes down, the fact is that this fascination of mine is elemental in some primal way. It's reptile brain stuff. Vampires, werewolves, the boogeyman, etc... I don't remember there ever being a point in my life where I wasn't completely enraptured by the very idea of MONSTERS. That's how it always was to me -- in all caps and bolded. I obsessively read and reread the Crestwood House "Monsters" series of books. I loved Dracula, the Wolfman, Godzilla, all the rest... but Frankenstein's Monster was the king. I used to lay in bed at night fantasizing about Frankenstein fighting Godzilla (someone really should make that movie). Even now, as a 36-year-old man, looking at that picture at the top of this page sends a thrill up my spine.

The movie itself is pretty great. I know the general consensus is that "Bride of Frankenstein" is the superior film, but for me Whale tips a little too much into camp with that one. There's something so simple, so dark, so primal about the original, and there are images from this film — the initial reveal, the girl at the lake, Fritz (Dwight Frye) with his whip, the villagers with their torches, the final showdown at the windmill — that continue to haunt me.

As a side note, if you haven't seen Bill Condon's 1998 film "Gods and Monsters," you really should give it a look. It missed this list by a hair.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #37 "Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

Goddamnit, how great was this film?

Remember how when we heard that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were going to be in a gay cowboy movie we all snickered?

Remember how when we heard Heath Ledger was gonna play The Joker we all groaned and rolled our eyes?

Who's laughing now?

I was at least a little bit prepared for the emotional gut punch this film was going to deliver because I managed to read Annie Proulx's original short story a couple months or so before the movie was released. Whatever giggle factor might have existed in the basic concept was completely undone by Proulx's coolly precise and yet absolutely tender prose. The emotional power comes from the story's pure and earnest simplicity. There's no irony there. No winking. This wasn't going to be a story about "gay cowboys," I realized. This was going to be a quiet tragedy about the limits we place on ourselves and how those limits can ultimately ruin our lives.

And then Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Osanna got ahold of it and turned it into a bonafide friggin' epic. Once Ledger and Gyllenhaal arrived to breathe life into the characters, the stage was set for one of the best Hollywood films of the preceeding two decades or so.

I know it kind of became a joke with its plaintive, distinctive soundtrack, the "I wish I knew how to quit you" line, and all the "Brokeback to the Future" and "Brokeback of the Rings" parodies. But go back rewatch it and remind yourself how you felt the first time you saw it. If you don't cry by the end, then you're probably the type of person who kills and eats puppies in your spare time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #38 "American Beauty" (Sam Mendes)

I sort of feel like it's become really popular to hate on this movie these days. When it came out in 1999, it felt like a total revelation and nobody could stop talking about how great it was. And then, just a few years later, it was all about how Hollywood was trying to cynically replicate the indie spirit and Mena Suvari is a shitty actress and Todd Haynes did the whole Suburban dystopia thing so much better in "Far From Heaven" and it's actually a really conservative movie and Alan Ball clearly hates women and someone somewhere was a sellout and blah blah blah blah blah...

Can't we just appreciate a good story?

I'm not going to bother trying to rebut all that invective, aside from saying I really don't see it as woman hating but I guess I can see how you could read it that way. I actually found Annette Benning's character fairly sympathetic. But whatever. Feel free to see in it what you want to see.

For me, I just really connected with the story. I don't know why. I was a 21-year-old death metal kid when I saw it, so I certainly was no 40+ nebbish having a midlife crisis. But there was something about Lester Burnham's (Kevin Spacey) pure sense of need in this film that I plugged into. Spacey found all his little psychological nooks and crannies, and managed to turn a character who (on the page at least) is pretty vile into a complex individual I found myself rooting for.

That holds true across the board for all the characters (except for maybe Wes Bentley's Ricky Fitts, who really does feel like a writer's construction). For the record, my crush on Thora Birch after seeing this movie was intense and complete, and was amplified the following year with her turn in "Ghost World." It was only after she popped up in that really shitty Limp Bizkit video that I kind of wrote her off.

I love Benning in this thing. Chris Cooper knocks it out of the park. Hell, I even like Mena Suvari.

Was this movie overrated at the time? I don't know. Probably. But it's a film I return to every few years or so, and I find it just as emotionally rich and psychologically compelling as I did the first time I saw it. For me, this one has a staying power that, frankly, a lot of those beloved 90s "indie movies" really don't.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #39 "Jacob's Ladder" (Adrian Lyne)

I love horror movies.

I mean, I've always loved horror movies. Even since I was a little kid — and consequently way too young for most of them — I just ate them up. Couldn't get enough.

By the time I was 10 or 11, I was a pretty savvy horror-film viewer. I knew all the tropes and conventions of the all different subgenres — the spooky castles and fog of the old Universal films, the first-person killer POV of the slasher movies, the brooding shadows and ominous sound design of the haunted house films. I wasn't even a teenager, but I already felt like I'd seen it all.

And then came Adrian Lyne's 1990 masterpiece "Jacob's Ladder."

I've already talked about the arthouse and transgressive qualities of Clive Barker's "Hellraiser." Lyne's film works in similar ways, but it's much more artful in its approach and WAY scarier because it depicted a world that seemed at least a little bit relatable to my own. Barker's vision was so far out there I just could never really wrap my brain around it.

There were images in this film that were unlike anything I'd ever seen in a movie before, and the crazy see-sawing linear structure was discomfiting in a way that, as a kid, I just had no context to grapple with. The movie got under my skin in ways that I didn't understand. It really felt like a trip down the rabbit hole into someone else's madness, with all the pain and desperation and hopelessness that such a journey would entail.

It would be hard, probably, to watch this movie now and really get a sense of how profoundly influential it was on the genre at the time. So much of the imagery has been cribbed and repackaged over and over and over again in the two decades since, so what seemed truly disturbing and completely original at the time now sort of feels like your average, second-rate Nine Inch Nails music video. But some of my favorite moments from this film aren't the batshit ones, but rather the small little touches. The scene where Tim Robbins gets lost in the subway is one of the quietest moments in the film, but it's utterly terrifying in that it successfully captures the slow degradation of reality and perception that characterizes the most vivid nightmares. And the close-up shot of Robbins lying, eyes wide, in the ice-filled bathtub is  heartbreaking in its sense of absolute futility. That's the moment where you realize this guy's not getting out of this thing with his body and soul intact.

It's pretty dated now and, like most Hollywood films, it felt obliged to deliver a nice, gift-wrapped little coda that suddenly "explains" everything to us in the most patronizing way possible (studio interference, I'm sure). It's a true flaw of the film and one I, to this day, have a hard time getting past. But, such flaws aside, this was the first "horror" movie I saw that really opened up my mind to the psychological and spiritual possibilities of the genre. It was an absolute mind-fuck of the highest order.

Monday, May 5, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #40 "Michael Clayton" (Tony Gilroy)

Writer-director Tony Gilroy Famously conceived of the premise for his 2007 film "Michael Clayton" while working on the script for  the 1998 Al Pacino horror thriller "The Devil's Advocate." The story is that while doing background research, he encountered a "fixer" — the guy tasked to do all the shit jobs no one else wanted to do — at a tony New York law firm. The seed was thus planted.

Interestingly, you could interpret "Michael Clayton" as a more real-world companion to "The Devil's Advocate." But whereas the first movie is a cartoon (an intensely entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless), "Michael Clayton" manages to be truly terrifying in that its depiction of corporate avarice is so unnervingly plausible.

At its core, "Michael Clayton" is a pretty standard paranoid legal thriller of the John Grisham/Scott Turrow variety — which is probably why it didn't get a lot of Oscar notice in the year of "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." No new ground is paved here. But it's just so much better than the genre typically allows. Gilroy is one of the sharpest writers working in Hollywood today and has been hovering at or near the A-list for nearly two decades. Watching him play with words is sort of like being a teenage guitar student and hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Tom Wilkinson's manic opening monologue is just so jarringly excellent — the sort of writing that makes me want to pack it in and become a beet farmer because I just know I'll never be that good.

"Michael Clayton" was Gilroy's first time in the director's chair, but you would never guess it. The movie is slick and self-assured in a way that, by rights, should only come after decades of experience. The performances are note-perfect, and it manages to be visually stylish without every becoming gimmicky. 

At the center of this film are a group of four shockingly good performances. Sidney Pollack reminds us that he was always an actor first, and both Wilkinson (as a bipolar senior partner) and Tilda Swinton (as a conflicted but corrupt corporate executive) prove why they are two of the best actors working in Hollywood today. But Clooney is the revelation here. I've always sort of liked him, but I've always really thought of him more as a movie star than a true master of his craft. But he manages to invert his star charisma here and present us with the sort of jaded everyman we've become accustomed to seeing Paul Giamatti play. There's a harried, worn-in quality to his performance that rings completely true.

If you missed this one when it came out in favor of the splashier Oscar bait from that year, I'd say go back and give it a look.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #41 "The Neverending Story" (Wolfgang Petersen)

When I was a kid we didn't have cable, and I don't remember my parents taking me to see a lot of movies. I'm sure they did, at least sometimes. The ones I remember being drug to, though, weren't necessarily meant for kids. I saw "Amadeus" in the theater when I was like six years old, for example, and I distinctly remember having no idea what the fuck was going on with that guy.

This wasn't always the case, of course. Mom and Dad (somewhat grudgingly, I suspect) did take me to a few kid's movies. I'm pretty sure we went to see "Return of the Jedi," and I vividly remember seeing "E.T." at the DeVargas Mall theater in Santa Fe and crying more poor little eyes out. But these were more the exception than the rule, and so consequently there were a whole mess of 80s kid movies that dominated popular culture at the time but with which I was only vaguely familiar. "Star Wars" wasn't really my thing, and I would only really discover Indiana Jones when I was a little older. And, with the exception of "Robin Hood," Disney films played almost zero part in my burgeoning cinematic consciousness. 

What I did have, however, was my dad's friend Louis, who had one of those behemothic early 80s satellite dishes in his back yard. He didn't get HBO for whatever reason, but he did get The Movie Channel, which at that point (early-mid 80s) was already kind of an also-ran. And he used to record movies for me on his VCR.

So, by and large, my favorite kids films of the 80s tended not to be blockbusters but rather the slightly off-kilter, older, and foreign ones that I assume TMC could afford to pay the licensing fees for. I never saw Ralph Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings" adaptation or even Bass & Rankin's "The Hobbit" cartoon, but I just about wore out my copy of the B&R follow-up "The Return of the King" (the one where John Huston did the voice of Gandalf). The original "Planet of the Apes" was a mind blower to me, the Dabney Coleman-starring "Cloak & Dagger" was a perennial favorite, and the Australian cartoon/live-action mashup "Dot and the Kangaroo" pretty much never left my VCR.

The king of them all, however, was Wolfgang Petersen's 1984 classic "The Neverending Story."

I was a lonely, bullied kid who read too much and spent way too much time inside my own imagination. In other words, I was Bastian. I don't think I can overstate the degree to which I identified with that character. And that (the movie seemed to be saying) was okay. Imagination is good. It made me special. It might even help me save the universe.

Lack of imagination (such as I perceived I saw in all the football, skateboarding and country music obsessed douchebags I spent elementary school with) was... well, The Nothing.

I wanted to be Atreyu. I wanted to fly around on my own luck dragon and — in some fundamental way — I believed that was possible.

I wanted to be the hero.

You can be the hero, the movie seemed to say.

Just keep reading those books, keep dreaming, and keep your head in the clouds and your feet off the ground.

 Say my name, Bastian.

I rewatched the movie on a nice, brand new Blu Ray disc a few years ago, and the impact it had on me as an adult was immediate and visceral. It transformed me right back into that same little kid watching the same worn-out VHS copy over and over and over again. This is a movie that lodged hooks in me and never let go.

Objectively, I would say it still holds up pretty well. The special effects are better than you might imagine, and the story is more coherent than I suspected it would be to a 30-something year old man.

But some of those images — Artax sinking into the Swamps of Sadness, the red-eyed Gmork exploding from the depths of his cave, the wise but ominous Morla (seen above), the Ivory Tower floating in space amongst the asteroids — are as haunting to me today as they were back then.

I simply love this movie. There's nothing much more to be said about it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #42 "The Exorcist III" (William Peter Blatty)

I like William Friedkin's 1973 classic "The Exorcist" well enough. It's a great movie, and for a few years there Friedkin was one of Hollywood's best directors (he'll pop up again on this list).

The problem: it's not all that scary.

The first sequel, 1977's "The Exorcist II: Heretic" is universally reviled as one of the worst movies ever made. So I wouldn't blame you if you've never given "The Exorcist III" much thought.

Give it some thought.

First, it's barely a sequel. Based on Blatty's tangentially related novel "Legion," the story veers in a wildly different direction from the original source material. Very little pre-knowledge of the first novel/film is required.

Second, it's directed by the original writer. Now, I'm the world's biggest Stephen King fan so I know that novelists becoming film directors is, at best, a dicey proposition. But Blatty is in complete control of the material here. He's got an actual cinematic eye that most writers lack.

Third, it's essentially an arthouse horror movie. It's the only modern(ish) American horror film I can think of that revolves around a number of extended, poetic monologues (by Brad Dourif, no less). Some people may find this pretentious, but I eat it up every time I see it. This is a WRITER's movie in a way few horror films are.

Fourth — and most important — it's frickin scary. The long wide shot in the hallway with the nurse is almost Hitchcockian in the way it slowly and deliberately ratchets up the tension until it explodes in a sudden, heart-stopping shock. The shot of the old woman climbing the walls like a spider tips right into the Uncanny Valley. And Blatty manages to build a mood of atmospheric oppressiveness throughout that can become nearly unbearable.

Fifth, George C. Scott. 'Nuff said.

Sure, it's a little silly and dated in spots. But I love the ambition and uncompromising nature of this movie. It barely even nods at the commercial horror marketplace of the early 1990s. It's a movie for grownups, and it works hard to separate itself from its predecessors and be its own thing. Blatty was in fine form here, and it's worth a re-evaluation.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #43 "Election" (Alexander Payne)

Okay, I'm back. Sorry for the long delay in continuing this countdown. Now that I'm in LA and basically settled, I'm diving right back in. I can't promise I'll post one of these every day. But I'm going to try.

I had a hell of time deciding between this and Payne's 2004 film "Sideways." They're both black comic masterpieces of the highest order (something I don't think you can really say about any of his other films, good as they are). But "Election" is much more vicious in its humor, and it doesn't really have any of the genuine heart that you find in "Sideways" and his later films. So I guess that's why I like it better.

There are only a few movies I can remember seeing where I laughed so hard I hurt myself. "The Big Lebowski." "Shaun of the Dead." Even "Borat" (which, unfortunately, doesn't really hold up on repeated viewings). But "Election," for me, blows them all away. There were moments in this movie that had me laughing so hard I thought I would pass out. I know it's a cliché to say that, but I don't mean it figuratively. I vividly remember actually seeing spots.

The fact that I found this movie THAT funny probably says as much about me as it does about the film. This is a strikingly mean-spirited movie, and the contempt Payne shows for his characters borders on sociopathic. Apparently, that's the comedic wavelength I most appreciate ("Fargo" brought a similar reaction from me a couple years earlier, and I still chuckle at the thought of Marvin getting his head blown off in "Pulp Fiction").

I don't think Payne's wit has been this brutally sharp since. "Sideways" is a brilliant film in a much more nuanced way than this one is, but the overall melancholic tone tamps down the belly laughs in favor of a more ruminative experience. Payne has moved more and more in that direction over the ensuing years — so much so that I can only think of three or four genuine laughs in his most recent film, "Nebraska."  He's become a kinder, gentler social satirist than "Election" would have ever suggested.

I appreciate this middle-period, more reflective Payne. But I have to admit — I kind of miss the cruelty.