Tuesday, July 22, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #6 "Moon" (Duncan Jones) ... also, why Woody Allen won't be on this list

Okay, before I talk about Duncan Jones's "Moon" (2009), let me address an impromptu, oddly hostile message I got from someone reading this blog who asked if, now that I'm coming to the end of my list, I would "put [my] prejudices aside" and cover a Woody Allen movie.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: I have engaged in a couple Facebook debates about the child molestation allegations against Allen, and I think it's been pretty clear that — without knowing anything — I tend to at the very least remain suspicious. Do I have any information that Allen is guilty? No. Do I think he's creepy and gross? Yep.

Do I feel hypocritical because I included a Roman Polanski film on this list? Yes, I do. Can I justify it? No, not very well. When it comes to Polanski, I've drawn a somewhat arbitrary line in my brain between the films he made before his rape conviction and the films he made afterwards. I fully admit that the distinction doesn't really hold up to any sort of objective logic, but I cling to it because I do enjoy those earlier films and I can't completely toss them out of my heart. The most I can do now is try to avoid the later ones, because they (and he) ick me out.

Which is basically how I feel about Allen. He just icks me out.

I do not deny the quality of some of his films. But this isn't meant to be a "greatest films of all time" list. These are my personal favorite films. And, ick factor aside, Woody Allen just isn't my thing. I can kind of appreciate a film like "Annie Hall" or "Hannah and Her Sisters," but I can't say they provoke a strong emotion in me one way or the other. Whatever. I'm just not a fan. So get off my dick, rando.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me get to "Moon."

I'm not very often floored by movies anymore. This is probably a result of having gone to film school and then continuing to pursue this whole filmmaking thing as a vocation. A lot of the magic is frankly gone for me. Like most film students, I can sort of see the proverbial Man Behind the Curtain whenever I see a movie, and it has become harder and harder for me to simply let myself go and get swept up the way I used to.

There's that whole adage that if you love working on cars, you probably shouldn't become a mechanic. As soon as something becomes your job, it ceases to be your escape.

So it is with a very palpable sense of shock, relief and utter joy that I can say "Moon" completely and utterly grabbed me. Seeing this film for the first time was a rapturous experience. I haven't been this caught up in a film in fifteen years, maybe longer ("Let the Right One In" and "Rust and Bone" come close).

Duncan Jones is, of course, the son of David Bowie. But don't let the implied Hollywood nepotism sway you. This is probably the most self-assured, exquisitely crafted science fiction film in two decades, and it's unthinkable to me that this a debut. It's an instant classic, destined (I believe) to be mentioned in the history books right alongside "Blade Runner" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" forever.

On paper, it's not the most wholly original concept. And certainly the overt nods to earlier films in the genre have garnered the film its fair share of criticism. But just set that aside and let yourself fall into the story. Sam Rockwell delivers one of those powerhouse performances that come along maybe once in a generation. Daniel Day Lewis couldn't have done better. I've screened this film multiple times in my classes, have broken it down scene by scene, and I have still not found one false note in his portrayal of Sam Bell, a lone technician going slowly insane in an isolated mining base on the moon.

Rockwell carries the film entirely on his shoulders, but he gets a strong assist from Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY, a sentient computer that is very deliberately meant to evoke memories of HAL-9000. But Spacey manages to find odd little emotional nuances in his soothing robotic monotone that give GERTY shades of life and, dare I say, humanity that you would never expect. He creates a character that transcends the classic influence and becomes iconic on its own.

"Moon" and "Let The Right One In" are recent films, and they arrived late in my development as a cineaste and filmmaker. So rather than provide a bedrock influence to my own work (the way, say, "Jacob's Ladder," "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and "Blue Velvet" did), they raise the bar and show me a way forward.

These are films — "Moon" especially — that I wish I had made.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #7 "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (Tobe Hooper)

There is one specific moment in Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) that immediately elevates it way beyond the confines of the slasher genre that it helped create.

Up to this point, we had been pretty much exclusively following a fairly anonymous group of teenagers as they continue to inexplicably wander into your average everyday scary farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, where they are systematically slaughtered by the human-face-masked Leatherface (Gunner Hansen).

After the second teenager wanders in to be unceremoniously snatched up and hung from a meathook in perhaps the movie's most infamous scene, we think we know exactly what this movie is going to deliver. Leatherface is a classic movie monster — faceless, brutal, and inhuman.

But when yet another teenager wanders in to be summarily dispatched, Hooper makes the startling choice to stay with Leatherface. We see him freaking out, searching through the house and looking out the windows before sitting down to contemplate what's happening. Suddenly, we understand what he's thinking: "where the hell do they keep coming from?" He's just as freaked out as the kids.

And, just like that, Leatherface becomes a human being. It's a quiet moment, subtle and easily forgotten amongst all the carnage. But it makes the film incalculably more frightening, because with that single gesture Hooper has reoriented this film within something resembling a real world.

I was way too young when I first saw "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," maybe nine or ten at a friend's slumber party. I've always had a high constitution for horror movies, then and now. It takes a LOT to scare me. But this film terrified me then, and it still terrifies me. There's a batshit brutality to this film, not in the violence itself (it's fairly tame by today's standards) but in the film's entire sensibility. It's got a grubby, lived-in documentary feel that was completely new to the horror genre at the time (this was decades before the "found footage" genre hit its stride).

"The Texas Chain Saw" massacre seems to be a movie made by crazy people. There's a sense of danger in its very presentation that is deeply unsettling. You actually worry about the actors, not the characters, because Hooper seems to be legitimately traumatizing them (and, if you read anything about the making of the film, you realize this isn't far from the truth).

This is a feature of many horror movies from the 70s, where filmmakers were given maybe more freedom than they responsibly knew what to do with. Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" does a similar thing, and in some ways it manages to be even more disturbing than "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" because you get the sense that Craven had no idea how fucked up his movie was. He cuts away from all the rape and carnage to give us odd interludes of slapstick comic relief or lilting folk-rock interludes.

The difference between these films and Hooper's masterpiece is that, through all the insanity, you realize that Hooper has complete control over the material. He knows exactly what he's doing. The movie devolves to sheer lunacy in its last half hour, but it gets under your skin right from the start. The sequence with the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) in the van toward the beginning is as suspenseful as anything Hitchcock ever accomplished on eight times the budget, and the single chiaroscoro shot of the Cook (Jim Siedow) sadistically tormenting Sally (Marilyn Burns) in the pickup truck is bloodcurdling in its simplicity. Hooper knows enough to play the scene off of Siedow's reaction — the vicious leer that erupts on his face — rather than the violence itself. The fact that we can only hear Sally's muffled screams makes the scene way more excruciating than it would have been if Hooper had indulged the impulse to show too much.

This movie has been remade, rebooted, and parodied so often that it's a true testament to Hooper's berzerker vision and his sense of craft that the original holds up as well as it does. Unfortunately, he would never be this good again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #8 "Barton Fink" (The Coen Bros.)

Here's another one of those Sophie's Choice situations that lists like this always create. Knowing I'd eventually have to cover the Coen Brothers at some point, I've been vascillating daily between this film, "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," and "Raising Arizona." Except I also wanted to write about "The Big Lebowski." And I think "The Man Who Wasn't There" is totally underrated and deserves some love. And, of course, there's "Burn After Reading," and "A Serious Man," and "Blood Simple," and...and...and...

So I'm going with "Barton Fink" not because I necessarily think it's the Coens' best film (although an argument could be made for it), but because it, to me, encompasses all the various Coens in one truly weird film.

It's got the funny Coens. Almost everything with Tony Shalhoub as producer Ben Geisler and Michael Lerner as studio boss Jack Lipnick is laugh-out-loud hilarious. And the stuff with John Goodman is side-splitting... in more ways than one.

It's got the poignant Coens. John Turturro perfectly captures both Barton's extreme arrogance and his crippling insecurities. Any writer watching this move will be able to relate.

It's got the scary Coens. When Barton discovers Audrey's corpse on the blood-soaked mattress next to him, you'll feel a genuine shiver up your spine.

And... it's got the fucked up Coens that we all love. The movie takes an infamous turn (SPOILERS in link) in the last 20 minutes that will leave you reeling and had critics sharply divided when it was released. When I saw this as a teenager, I knew I loved it but I had absolutely no idea what to make of it.

Like most Coen Brothers films, this is a movie I can watch over and over and over again and still discover something new. Maybe just a prop, or a specific tic on Turturro's face. Doesn't matter. Nothing in this film is misplaced. Everything has meaning.

It would be inaccurate to say that this is the Coens at their peak, because they've been pretty much at their peak for 25 years. They're probably the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the last quarter century, and this film is just one more startling example of that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #9 "Ghostbusters" (Ivan Reitman)

The first film I remember seeing in a movie theater was Steven Spielberg's "E.T." (1982). I was four years old and the thing I remember most was my dad holding me in the lobby of the DeVargas Mall theater in Santa Fe while I cried my poor little eyes out at the end.

I was maybe just old enough to kind of understand what a movie was — i.e. a story that I got to watch — and I remember seeing TV interviews with Spielberg and somehow comprehending that this goofy bearded guy in the baseball cap made "E.T." What that meant, I didn't know. He was just the boss. I think, at that time, I thought Spielberg was the guy whose job it was to make all of the movies.

It was a couple years later when I saw Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" (1984). The TV trailer scared me — which, of course, meant I wanted to see it. I remember my mom explaining to me that it was a comedy (watching that trailer now it's so obvious, but at the time it was the spooky stuff that grabbed me). I can't remember if my parents took me or someone else did, but I know I saw it in the theater as well.

The experience was seismic. I loved it, of course — it was scary, to my delight, but it was also really funny — but, even more important, I think it was the first movie I saw that made me say "I want to do that."

I was either six or seven, so by then I had just enough awareness to not only understand what a movie was in vague terms, but to have at least a fundamental understanding of how a movie was made. Someone sat down and wrote a story, and then someone else took a camera and filmed other someones pretending to be in the story. The someone with the camera was a "director" (it would be years before I understood the difference between a director and a cinematographer) and the someones  pretending were "actors."

This was crazy to me. It was essentially what my friends and I did on the playground at school every day. I couldn't then — and cannot now — fundamentally see the difference. It was doing "let's pretend" for a living.

As the painfully shy, proto beta-male that I was at the time, I knew right away I didn't want to be an "actor." That seemed way too scary. But I had just enough burgeoning alpha in me to think I could maybe be a "director." Certainly, I could be a "writer."

But I wanted to hang out with the actors. They seemed fun. I love Bill Murray as much as anyone else, but the guy I wanted to get to know was Dan Ackroyd. He seemed approachable, like the sort of goofy uncle who would take you to the amusement park and let you eat as much candy as you wanted until you threw up, then give you a Tic Tac and tell you not to tell your parents. I didn't really have a sense of celebrity at the time, so it just seemed to me that he was a guy you could hang out with.

"Ghostbusters" made the whole process of making a movie seem really fun. It seemed like a bunch of friends hanging out, coming up with something crazy, and then just going out doing it. I couldn't believe that this was an actual job that grownups could do. It seemed so silly, but that revelation was profound.

As a movie, "Ghostbusters" holds up remarkably well. As with some of the other films on this list, I don't have a whole lot to say about it. You all know how great it is, and I suspect I don't have to convince you.

As a personal fork in my own road, however, it's absolutely priceless.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #10 "The French Connection" (William Friedkin)

If Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" created the New Hollywood of the 1970s, then William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971) perfected it.

There are only few movies — "Birth of a Nation," "Citizen Kane," "The Wild Bunch," etc. — that you can truly say pushed the narrative cinematic form forward in a single leap, and "The French Connection" is one of them. It completely redefined the Hollywood action movie, creating a template for the genre that is still used today.

Like "Citizen Kane," this is a hard movie to talk about because it is so iconic that pretty much everything that can be said about it has already been said. It's big, bombastic, gritty, and brilliant. All I'll add to the conversation is to say that, from my perspective, Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle is perhaps the greatest movie cop in the history of ever, and that final shot has never been bested by anyone.

And that car chase. Holy shit. It still holds up.

Friedkin went on just a couple years later to similarly redefine the horror movie with "The Exorcist," before sadly descending into a morass of alternately over-ambitious and hackily forgettable movies over the next several decades ("Sorcerer," his 1971 remake of Clouzet's 1953 French classic "Wages of Fear," is a mess... but a big beautiful one). He managed to make two of the best films of all time, however, so he still has to be reckoned with.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #11 "Let The Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson)

In my review of Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," I talked at length about how powerfully I identified with the character of Gordie Lachance as a kid.

Well, Tomas Alfredson's superlative Swedish vampire film, "Let the Right One In" (2008), had a very similar — although admittedly much darker — effect on me.

As much as I was Gordie, I was also Kåre Hedebrant's Oskar. Bullied. Brooding. Lonely. Seething with rage and impotent fantasies of violent retribution against all the other kids who, in my mind, had done me wrong. When Oskar takes his little pocket knife and mutters "squeal like a pig" while stabbing the tree in his courtyard, I shuddered. 

Because I've been there.

(This sense of identication, by the way, made watching the American remake, "Let Me In" — set in the 1980s and filmed in my home town of Los Alamos, NM — a singularly surreal viewing experience).

I can't tell you how much I would have loved to have a little vampire girlfriend to watch my back when I was a kid. Maybe rip off a few heads. There's some powerful wish-fulfillment at work here.

The genius of "Let The Right One In" is that, scary as it is, it is a truly haunting love story. You know that Oskar's newfound bond with Eli (Lina Leandersson) is bad news. You only need to contemplate her relationship with Håkan (Per Ragnar)— a middle-aged, broken man who does her murderous bidding for her — to see where things are going. And yet, you root for them. Alfredson allows us to feel the "love" between Oskar and Eli, to identify with it and experience it right along with them. But he gives you just enough remove to also be able to see its truly horrifying implications. You want to tell Oskar to run away with Eli, but at the same time you want to scream at him to run away from Eli. This cognative dissonance is where the movie's true tension lies.

Everyone talks about the swimming pool scene. And, yeah, it's a showstopper. But, to me, the most disturbing shot of the film is the last — Oskar on the train with the box, sitting there with that serene smile on his face. It almost make me nauseous now just thinking about it.

NOTE: Do NOT read John Ajvide Lindqvist's source novel. It is terrible and, dare I say, it actually gets everything wrong. Alfredson saw the potential in the pile of Lindquist's dung, and wrung his own story out of it. Just stick with his vision.

SECOND NOTE: Actually, "Let Me In" is better than you might think. I have some problems with it, but they managed to put together at least a serviceable remake. But watch the original first if you can.


Friday, July 11, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #12 "Shaun of the Dead" (Edgar Wright)

I really kind of resent the whole funny zombie thing.

When I first saw "Night of the Living Dead," it struck a very particular nerve for me. I followed it up very quickly with "Dawn of the Dead" and after that I just couldn't get enough. I watched all the zombie movies I could find. Most of them, frankly, were terrible. Nobody got it the way Romero got it. But I was still entranced. There's just something fundamentally terrifying about the zombie to me in a way that vampires, werewolves, serial killers, etc. never will be. It's all about entropy and decay, the slow strangling death of the human species. It's about the end coming not in a great redemptive ball of fire (either through an act of God or nuclear fuckery), but right down in a gutter where your dead mom is chewing on your entrails. It's a dirty, foul way to shuffle off this mortal coil.

It was the early/mid-90s when I discovered Romero, so zombies weren't really a thing back then. They were my monster. Romero and his legion of the living dead belonged to me.

This, of course, all changed in the early/mid-2000s, and now we're caught up in the midst of a great zombie Renaissance that, to me, is as unwelcome as it is utterly baffling. I hate to be a whiny hipster about it, but I was into zombies before they were cool.

Most of the new zombie stuff is pretty terrible (to be fair, most of the old zombie stuff was pretty terrible, too). But it's terrible in a new way — self-aware and ironic in a way that I just find insufferable.

I refuse to read "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," because fuck that shit. There's even a book I see on the horror shelves at Barnes & Noble that's all about the Beatles as zombies. I mean, come the fuck on.

Zombies have been neutered.

They're, like, cute now.


Granted, there has been some good stuff over the last few years, stuff that does honor the zombie for the horrible nightmare it is. Max Brooks's "World War Z" is as good as everyone says it is (the movie not so much). Justin Cronin's "The Passage" is technically about vampires, but he captures the melancholy spirit that typifies the best of the zombie genre. I have a love-hate relationship with "The Walking Dead," but I appreciate that they're interested in exploring the essential tragedy and sadness of what a zombie apocalypse would really look like.

And then there's this short film, which does in seven minutes what "The Walking Dead" struggles to do over the course of a season.

But the funny zombie thing is the worst.

EXCEPT. "Shaun of the Dead."

I can't even begin to express the level of love I have for this film. When I think of the movies I've laughed at the hardest over the last, I dunno, 15 or 20 years, "Shaun of the Dead" is way up at the top of the list.

What makes this film different? Well, for one thing, it pretty much invented the modern funny zombie thing ("Return of the Living Dead" doesn't count. It's funny in a very 80s, camp way which is markedly different from the current trend). What has become so annoying to me in the decade since was completely fresh and original at the time.

But it's also just better. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are absolute comic geniuses with an impeccable sense of timing that is pretty much unmatched by anyone else working today. In fact, there isn't a weak spot in entire cast. Everyone is working at the top of their game. The writing is incredibly sharp, each joke funnier and more quotable than the last.

Edgar Wright's direction is the real revelation here. It's hard to believe this a debut film (granted, he had been honing his craft in British television for years before). It's remarkably self-assured. Every shot and every edit is meaningful. Fully half of the laughs in this film come from what he's doing with the camera rather than the performances.

But, as silly as this film is, it manages to transcend parody and work as a legitimate zombie film. I wouldn't call it scary, exactly. But they get it. Shaun isn't just a bundle of comic tics and clever one liners, any more than Ben from "Night" is a stock horror-movie hero. Wright follows Romero's lead in using the zombies as a catalyst for personal crisis and growth. Shaun is a real person, with genuine desires and very human flaws. The movie is about growing up. It's about friendship. It's about family. It's also about clubbing a zombie to death with a cricket bat.

This tricky balancing act has become a trademark of the trio's "Cornetto Trilogy" ("Shaun," "Hot Fuzz," and last year's "The World's End"). I'm consistently stunned by Wright, Pegg and Frost's ability to balance silliness and absurdity with grounded, personal storytelling. Pegg and Frost are as good when they're being serious as they are when they're hamming it up, and they're able to make that shift on a dime, sometimes three or four times within a single scene.

For my money, "Shaun" is the best of the three, but all three films are works of comic genius and truly stellar filmmaking. I don't need any more funny zombies, but I'll be watching and rewatching "Shaun of the Dead" until the day I die.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #13 "On The Waterfront" (Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan's 1954 classic "On the Waterfront" has kind of a storied history.

During the height of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kazan and "Waterfront" screenwriter Budd Schulberg created a firestorm of controversy (and a lot of enemies) by testifying before HUAC and "naming names" of supposed Communists working in the industry.

The stigma of that decision dogged Kazan and Schulberg for pretty much the rest of their lives. Do you remember when Kazan was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999 and some in the audience (including Nick Nolte) refused to applaud for him? It was because of his testimony 50 years previous.

Incidentally, I met Schulberg in the mid 2000s when he came to talk to our screenwriting class at Boston University. The man was near the end of his life, terribly frail, but still sharp as a tack. He told wonderful stories about his career and graciously answered all of our questions. But we were told beforehand, in no uncertain terms, that we were NOT to bring up the Blacklist.

Honestly, I'm not interested in sitting judgment on these guys. The Red Scare ruined a lot of lives, but if I had been at that Oscar ceremony, I would have applauded. It's hard for me to know what choice I would have made if I had been in their position, and I just don't believe that one decision under tremendous pressure, no matter how potentially damaging to the careers of others, invalidates an entire lifetime of artistic achievement. Kazan and Schulberg were not Hollywood hacks. They were  the cream of the crop, artists at the top of their game who not only told powerfully compelling stories on film but also consistently used their voices to pursue issues of social justice. We all love "The Wire," right? That show wouldn't exist without the foundation laid half-a-century before by "neorealist" filmmakers like Kazan and Schulberg.

If we can make excuses for Roman Polanski, it seems to me there should be room in our hearts for Kazan and Schulberg.

"On The Waterfront" — the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dock worker and washed-up boxer who, under enormous pressure, decides to turn against a corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) and his own brother (Rod Steiger) — is often seen as apologia for informing, where the act of testifying is presented as a heroic act. Indeed, the film came very shortly after the Blacklist scandal, so it's hard to imagine that this wasn't in some way on Kazan and Schulberg's minds.

That's an interesting question for film history debates, but it kind of misses the point. The fact is "On the Watefront" is a great fucking movie. The assuredness of the storytelling, the depth of the characters, the quiet intensity of the performances, the whipcrack dialogue and the steady turning of the screws — all of this makes "Waterfront" a movie that still feels strikingly contemporary. It's a powerful, near perfect film.

Brando was never better, before or since. But the big stunners for me are Steiger as Terry's conflicted, corrupted brother Charley the Gent, and Karl Malden as seething priest Father Barry, who has made bringing Johnny Friendly (Cobb) down a religious crusade. Eva Marie Saint approaches the potentially thankless role of the angel-on-the-shoulder love interest with a grounded sense of melancholy, transforming the role from a plot device into the emotional heart of the film.

Terry is pulled in a hundred different directions throughout, and at no point does his final decision feel inevitable. We feel the tug of war going on in his soul, right up until the end.

And of course, there's this oft-parodied scene. "I coulda been a contender... I coulda been somebody." It's easy to snicker at that, but in context, it's still heartbreaking.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #14 "Alien" (Ridley Scott)

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.
—"Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2

Some of you "True Detective" fans  might recognize that poem, which comes from Robert W. Chambers's seminal book of weird horror fiction, "The King In Yellow" (1895), which I read for the first time when I was probably twelve or thirteen. I watched Ridley Scott's "Alien" not long after, and as soon as I saw that derelict spaceship pictured above, I immediately thought of Carcosa.

This is not an original observation by any means. Chambers was a huge influence on Lovecraft, and you can draw a pretty direct line between "The King In Yellow" and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. And people have been saying for years that "Alien" is pretty much the most Lovecraftian of all horror movies (this came up in a discussion on my Facebook page just this week).

It's hard to look at "Alien" — particularly the creature designed by H.R. Giger — with fresh eyes these days. It has become such a font of iconic images that it's easy to forget how truly weird and, well, alien everything in this movie was. The alien itself is almost a cartoon now, and the same goes for the facehugger and the chest burster.

But if you were able to go back in time and see this movie without having all these decades of pop-cultural associations to draw on, I can guarantee it would pretty much melt your brain.

Even now, with all the sequels and spinoffs we've been subjected to since (the nadir being "Prometheus," which managed to drain pretty much all the mystery out of this concept), there's still an odd, hypnotic power to that first film. You really do feel like you're crossing some sort of threshold when you watch it — catching a vision of some primordial hell where the natural laws we take for granted just don't quite apply anymore. Scott and Giger crafted a work Lovecraftian horror in the best sense of the term — giving us a quick glimpse of a vast, black cosmos that is as hostile and incomprehensible as it is insane.

Other movies have dipped into similar territory from time to time, with varying degrees of success. Only John Carpenter's "The Thing" managed to do it better. That film will be coming up later on this countdown. I'll leave off here, because I'm sure all this will come up again.

NOTE: I know a lot of people think James Cameron's sequel is the better film, and in many ways it is. But this is the one that still sticks with me.

50 Days 50 Films - #15 "Zodiac" (David Fincher)

People always give me a quizzical look when I tell them that "Zodiac" is my favorite David Fincher movie.

I guess "Se7en" would be the obvious choice, or maybe "Fight Club." And, for sure, those are two bonafide classics from one of my favorite eras of modern filmmaking. "Zodiac," on the other hand, dropped during the dog days of 2007 and sort of vanished without a trace. Those who noticed it at all were left scratching their heads.

This is not "Se7en Part 2," which I think people were sort of expecting when they heard Fincher was doing a movie about the Zodiac Killer. Rather, it's a very stately 1970s-style procedural and newspaper movie — not a genre that, in this day and age, is really poised for box office gold.

I had already read Robert Graysmith's book (upon which Fincher's film is partially based) so I had an idea of what I was going to get. And the movie basically delivered exactly that.

You need to understand that I was a journalism major in college, and I — like a lot of erstwhile journalism majors — was drawn toward the profession because of the mythology established by such films as "Ace in the Hole," "The Paper" — and of course "All the President's Men," which loomed large over all the others. There was something impossibly romantic about the whole thing — the clatter of typewriters, the constant ringing of phones, the grizzled editors barking orders out of glassed-in office doorways, the men in rumpled suits who chain smoked and talked fast, the women in pumps and red lipstick who, er, chain smoked and talked fast. The cynicism. The snark.

It didn't take me long to figure out that the reality was far afield from the fantasy, but even now the notion has its hold on me. And "Zodiac" hits that sweet spot like no movie has in years.

I wanted a newspaper movie. I didn't need another serial killer movie.

It doesn't hurt that the actual story is endlessly fascinating (I won't go into it, because it's all right up there on Wikipedia). We do get a few murders early on. Fincher stages them expertly, eschewing most horror-movie dramatics and presenting the crimes with a flat and deadly realist eye. After that, it's all give and take between the various police departments piecing together their incomplete sets of clues, the intrepid newspaper men trying to tie it all together — and the lone cartoonist, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lets his fascination with the killer and his desire to prove himself to his superiors tip over into obsession.

The Zodiac Killer has never been found (spoiler), so the film can't deliver the expected satisfaction of some sort of final showdown. Instead, we just get Graysmith stink-eyeing a likely suspect in a hardware store. Other characters simply fall away, die or move on with their lives. That's just the way things go, Fincher seems to be saying. Considering that this is a true story, that's more haunting than the head in the box from "Se7en" could ever be.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #16 "The Brood" (David Cronenberg)

Body horror isn't that hard to pull off, actually.

We're all so icked out by our bodies that, really, anything that seems to violate "the flesh" is going to illicit a reaction. I did a short film called "The Amniote" a few years ago where you see a guy's fingernail get ripped out. Man, did that ever get a jump from the audience.

David Cronenberg has a well-deserved reputation for being sort of the king of body horror, at least early in his career. This is in evidence right up front in his first film, "They Came From Within" (also known as "Shivers," 1975), and he kept hitting that button pretty consistently all the way up through "Crash" (1996) and "eXistenZ" (1999). The earliest films (particularly "They Came From Within" and "Rabid") were fairly unsophisticated, using the body horror mostly for cheap shocks and not really exploring anything deeper ("They Came From Within" and "Rabid" are also pretty gratuitous ripoffs of "Night of the Living Dead," by the way).

But even back then, you could see the seed of where he was going to go. Just check out this clip from "They Came From Within." It manages to disturb on a level that most of the rest of the movie just can't reach, and it lays the groundwork for what would become Cronenberg's main obsession over the next two decades — corrupted, violated flesh as a vessel for eroticism and the degradation of identity.

He would most artfully explore these topics several years later in things like "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers" — the latter of which takes these fascinations in a singularly unpleasant direction. The whole thing about "gynecological instruments for surgery on mutant woman" is shudder inducing, and I find this scene in particular to be more haunting than just about anything else in American cinema over the last 50 years.

"The Brood" was kind of a transitional film for Cronenberg, where he was starting to figure out how to take these ideas and use them to plunge deeper into the recesses of the reptile brain than he was able to with the B-movie thrills he had been serving up just prior. It's not his best body horror film, but it's the one where the body horror started to develop its own sick life, to corrupt itself into something vicious and horrifying in a way that was is more primal and fundamental.

"The Brood" is a story about a psychologist (rendered with surprising subtlety by the great Oliver Reed) who develops a technique where patients are able to express their emotional trauma and repressed emotions through phsyiological changes, and how one woman (Samantha Eggar) is able to use this process to create a murderous "brood" to take vengeance on those who she feels have wronged her (her ex husband, his new girlfriend, even her daughter). Some of the imagery is absolutely horrifying, and — typical to Cronenberg — it's all rendered in a flat, uninflected way that makes everything you see even more disturbing. There's a coldness to Cronenberg's work, similar to that of Stanley Kubrick, that can almost border on sociopathic at times. We don't know what to feel about anything we see because we get absolutely no sense that he feels anything. He presents us with truly shocking stuff, but we get the idea that he's studying it all with the mild, academic interest of a scientist studying a slide.

The artfulness you find in some of his later work is not really in evidence here. "The Brood" still has a lot of the B-movie shoddiness that mars his first two films. This, somehow, makes it even more upsetting (not as upsetting as "Dead Ringers," but a close second). We don't have the safety of feeling like we're watching an art film. Rather, there's an odd, brute force that propels this thing towards a horrifying conclusion, and you leave feeling like you just got throttled by an oddly placid maniac.

This isn't going to be for everybody. But if you've enjoyed(?) some of Cronenberg's more celebrated work, this is an interesting glimpse at where it all started.

50 Days 50 Films - #17 "Carnival of Souls" (Herk Harvey)

This movie is sort of "Jacob's Ladder" before "Jacob's Ladder." Or you might say it's an extended "Twilight Zone" episode as directed by a young David Lynch. It's either an art film dressed up as a B movie or a B movie with art film pretensions.

It's safe to say it's probably unlike any movie you've ever seen before.

The movie opens with Candace Hilligoss as Mary, a young woman riding around with her friends. A group of guys meet them on a bridge and challenge them to a drag race. Things go horribly wrong and the girls' car plunges into a river. Police search in vain for the wreckage, convinced there were no survivors. They are startled when Mary turns up — alone, shivering and dazed — on a nearby sandbar.

To say much more would do the film a disservice. No single event, when described, will give you any sense of the strange, hypnotic power this movie holds. There's a cumulative effect to this thing: the slow piling up of small, strange details, to take you somewhere truly weird and deeply unsettling. It uses this setup to, very quietly, explore some heady notions about dreams, reality, life and death. It's an odd little film, not quite sure of itself and with some truly clunky writing and stiff performances, that somehow, almost accidentally, managed to create an entire new film idiom that would later be explored by filmmakers like Lynch, Greg Araki, Darren Aronofsky and David Cronenberg.

"Carnival of Souls" came and went to the drive-ins with almost no notice back in 1962 (I can't imagine how this played to necking Midwest teenagers in their parents' borrowed pickup trucks) and it went underground quickly thereafter. But it managed to stick around, and slowly over the years it grew into a bonafide cult classic. It famously influenced Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," and was later adopted by 70s midnight movie auteurs like Lynch and John Waters. It even got its own Criterion DVD release in the early 2000s.

In terms of the overall arc of film history, it's a blip. But an important blip.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #18 "Blue Velvet" (David Lynch)

Recently, while participating in a Facebook thread about my feature film "Dead Billy" with a guy who very vocally didn't like it, David Lynch's name came up. I said something about how he was a big inspiration for me, in large part because his movies are so uncompromisingly his. He doesn't ask you to like them. He barely invites you in. You're either gonna go on whatever schizoid journey he wants to take you on or you won't.

This guy used that statement as a bludgeon to hit me with, saying something about how (I'm paraphrasing here) every pretentious hack over the last 40 years invokes Lynch's name as a way to justify their own shitty movies. The inference, of course, being that I am one such hack.

I had to think about that for a minute. Is that true? I suppose it probably is — the way people invoke Scorsese when trying to make themselves seem "gritty," or Chris Nolan if they want people to see their movies as all thinky and cerebral.

Lynch is one of those filmmakers who brings a lot of baggage to the viewing experience. If you've seen his stuff before, you don't go into a one of his films really wondering what you're going to get (unless it's something out of left field like "The Straight Story"). And he's become just popular enough, with a distinctive enough vision, that you can refer to a film as "Lynchian" and most everyone will know what you're talking about.

It's a short, slippery slide from archetype to stereotype, from having a distinctive style to being a cliché. And, from there, it's an almost inevitable fall into the abyss of self parody.

I do sort of feel like Lynch has made that plunge. I don't know that I've love one of his films since "The Straight Story," and even more recentish films of his I enjoyed (like "Lost Highway and "Mulholland Drive") did immediately feel a little tired. At a certain point it felt like Lynch was doing Lynch. Because his themes are so opaque and the "narrative," such as it is, so bewildering, it gets harder and harder to look past the stylistic tics and devices to get to whatever substance may be underneath.

But I just have to think back to my first experience with him to remember what he meant to me. When I discovered him in high school, I really had absolutely no idea who he was. I sort of remembered "Twin Peaks," but I didn't really get into the show until much later. I was vaguely aware of "Eraserhead." And I had seen the box for "Wild at Heart" on the video store shelf, but it looked like a girly romance so I had less than zero interest in checking it out.

But then someone (I can't remember who) who knew I liked fucked up movies told me to check out "Blue Velvet." So I did.

I've talked already about certain films — "Jacob's Ladder," "Hellraiser" — that fried my brain pan on first viewing. "Blue Velvet" certainly fell into that category.

The difference, though, was that I was just old enough — and beginning to become just film savvy enough — to want to not just experience the movie on that "holy shit" level, but to study it in a somewhat analytic way. I watched the movie over and over and over again, trying to figure out exactly what the guy was after and how he was doing what he was doing. I'm not sure I ever figured it out.

I dove into his oeuvre (pretentious hack-speak, I know) in the years after that straddling high school and college. I watched "Wild at Heart" and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" back to back. This was pre-DVD, so I had to wait awhile before I could get ahold of "Twin Peaks" the series. "Lost Highway" came out a year or so later, and then I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of "Eraserhead" in a little video store in Paonia, Colorado (My buddy Ryan and I watched that and Romero's "Day of the Dead" in one sitting, which may be the best double-feature ever). I even fell in love with "The Straight Story," which seemed like such a departure until I watched it a few times and was able to discern certain stylistic commonalities with his other work. I loved the manic energy of "Wild at Heart," and I was able to appreciate "Lost Highway" and "Twin Peaks" and "Dune," even if I didn't really love them. But none of them stuck with me like "Blue Velvet" did.

Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" and Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" were the first movies I saw that seemed like they might have been made by an insane person (more on those later in this countdown). But "Blue Velvet" was the first film I saw that seemed to encapsulate insanity itself. It wasn't surreal and nightmarish in the way "Jacob's Ladder" was, but it seemed to exist in a world that was just wrong in a fundamental way that I never was able to completely grapple with.

It was maybe my first real cinematic encounter with the idea of the uncanny. What makes "Blue Velvet" so much more haunting than Lynch's other work is that, as strange as it is, it's not that strange. The weirdness doesn't announce itself in quite the same way as it does in "Eraserhead" or "Lost Highway." It exists in a universe that seems to operate on some sort of recognizable logical framework, but uncomfortably heightened and just off. I've never done 'shrooms, but I always assumed the experience would be kind of like watching "Blue Velvet."

And then Lynch will throw something like this at you, and you realize you've just tumbled down a rabbit hole into some weird Neverland that you might not escape from.

The problem with "Blue Velvet" (and, indeed, all of Lynch's work) is that it's really about that first encounter with it. It's hard on a repeat viewing, once you know what to expect, to recapture the experience. Eventually I figured out that all my attempts to analyze and deconstruct the film were folly. It just is, for better or for worse, and that I should just be grateful it's there.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #19 "Magnolia" (Paul Thomas Anderson)

If I had been compiling this list six months ago, "Magnolia" would have been nowhere near it.

In fact, I would have told you it was one of Anderson's weakest films. I would have said it was a self-important catastrophe.

Then I rewatched it after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. And holy shit.

Keep in mind, I saw this film once, right after it went to video back in 1999 or 2000. This was at the tail-end of that glorious 90s indie boom. Anderson was supposed to be THE NEXT BIG THING. Pretty much the only thing anybody had seen from him to that point was "Boogie Nights" (I wouldn't catch up with his first film, 1996's "Hard Eight," until a few years later). All us movie geeks were on pins and needles to see what he would come up with next.

What we got was "Magnolia." And it was definitely a film that left many of us scratching our heads.

I think I had also just read "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Peter Biskind's superlative chronicle of 70s New Hollywood cinema and the arrogance and excess that  brought the movement down. In it, I saw dark portents for the future of the 90s scene. At the time "Magnolia" seemed to confirm my worst fears. Like Friedkin's "Sorcerer" and Coppola's "One From The Heart" before it, "Magnolia" seemed to be a bloated, pretentious mess, an unfortunate misstep from a promising young filmmaker who was given way too much way too soon.

In retrospect, I think I wanted this to be "Boogie Nights 2." That sort of expectation tripped up Tarantino in my eyes, too, when he followed "Pulp Fiction" with "Jackie Brown." I was equally soft on that film when it came out, and I've have since gone back to re-appraise it as maybe Tarantino's best work.

The experience of rewatching "Magnolia" a few months ago was profound. Now, armed with the knowledge of where Anderson would take his career over the following decade with films like "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," "Magnolia" seems to be completely of a piece with his larger vision.

It IS a mess. A gloriously ambitious, unhinged mess. In the best possible way.

Does it all work? Absolutely not. But, damn if Anderson isn't willing to just put it all out there on the line. This is what I love about his films. They're shaggy and unwieldy things, lumbering across the screen, overstuffed with about sixteen too many ideas and brimming with a lunatic energy unlike anything else in contemporary American cinema. They shouldn't work. But they do.

Somehow, through it all, he manages to tie everything together in an emotionally rich if narratively untethered way. If you can get on his films' wavelength, they'll do some crazy shit to your brain and your heart.

I remember groaning at the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Aimee Mann singalong that serves as the film's crisis point. I distinctly remember thinking "wait, what the fuck is this shit?"

This time, the scene left me speechless and in absolute awe, with a surprised lump in my throat. It's such an unexpected, left-field turn and, like so much in his films, it absolutely should not work. And yet, it does. If you let it.

Fundamentally, this is a film driven by big themes — family, grief, letting go — but anchored by some truly astounding, nuanced character work, both in the script and the performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore are particularly stunning, but for my money the most compelling performance comes from Philip Baker Hall, who manages to find all sorts of unexpected emotional nooks in crannies in a character that, for him, could have been pretty stock.

I still have no idea what the rain of frogs is about, but I don't care. Rather than portend the end of the 90s indie boom, I feel like "Magnolia" was its last true moment of greatness.

50 Days 50 Films - #20 "Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles)

I know, I know.

I have very little to say about this film that hasn't already been said, other than to reiterate that it really is as good as everyone says it is.

I think I was in high school the first time I saw it, and I liked it well enough, but it wasn't until I became a film student and somewhat versed in film history that I learned exactly how far forward Welles managed to push the cinematic form. The movie was released in 1941, and Welles was doing things with the structure and cinematography that American filmmakers frankly didn't start doing again until the 1970s. I can't think of another movie that was so far ahead of its time.

It's also just a damn good story. Charles Foster Kane is a fascinating character — arrogant, wounded, lonely, tyranical, tempestuous — and Welles challenges our empathy for him at every turn. He almost dares us to like him. And yet, the long, sad arc of Kane's life remains utterly heartbreaking. That's a testament to the power of the near-perfect screenplay and Welles's own showstopping performance.

The whole "Rosebud" thing has become one of those unfortunate iconic moments in film history that has devolved over the years into a sad cliché and parody of itself (not unlike Brando's "I could have been a contender" speech in "On the Waterfront"). But watch it in context — and think about Welles himself and where he ended up — and tell me it doesn't bring a tear to your eye.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #21 "Badlands" (Terrence Malick)

Both sort of a companion piece and response to Arthur Penn's 1967 classic "Bonnie and Clyde," Terrence Malick's debut film "Badlands" (1973) similarly takes a true-to-life romantic crime duo (in this case, Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate) and fashions an existential parable about love, violence, detachment, and the American West.

The first thing you notice about "Badlands" is just how beautiful it is. Every frame is a perfectly composed little painting on celluloid. This emphasis on aesthetic beauty would become a hallmark of Malick's career (famously, every exterior shot in his followup, 1978's "Days of Heaven," was shot at magic hour), but it's also interesting to note how spare this film is in comparison to Malick's other work. There is little to none of the immersive swooping camera that would come to typify late-period Malick (this trailer for 2011's "Tree of Life" is practically a work of art unto itself). Instead, "Badlands" holds us at a very purposeful distance, relying heavily on static wide shots and forcing the action to play out almost in a proscenium arch. The camera rarely calls attention to itself, and when it does it does so to a very specific purpose.

Likewise, Malick's treatment of his characters and their motivations is completely opaque. He is not at all interested in psychoanalyzing Kit (Martin Sheen). Rather, Malick seems to accept him as an inevitable — perhaps even fundamental — fact of life. We get a bit more from Holly (Sissy Spacek) in the form of voiceover, but she's as much out in the audience as we are, watching the action unfold at a distance and with, at best, a sense of mild curiosity. There is no self reflection or insight to be had. Rather, her thoughts come to us as jumbled poetry that is as luscious to the ear as it is transient.

This is all to a purpose. Malick is a legitimate philosopher, having studied at Harvard under Stanley Cavell. Malick is concerned here with all the BIG IDEAS — language, life, time, self, community, and the nature of existence itself. Kit and Holly are stand-ins, not individuals in their own right but reflections of all of Malick's intellectual cross examinations. He asks all the right questions, but is a smart enough thinker to offer absolutely no answers whatsoever.

This makes viewing "Badlands" a singularly disconcerting experience. Malick offers none of the typical comforts of psychological empathy or identification. Kit and Holly are as impenetrable at the end as they are at the beginning. Other filmmakers — Michael Haneke in particular — have taken a page from this playbook with their own work, but no one else has done it quite so beautifully.