Regression (2015)

*. Poor Ethan Hawke. He seems to be showing up quite a bit in these sorts of projects. But at least Sinister and The Purge made a lot of money, and working on Boyhood probably kept him happy, off and on, for a decade. Being a scruffy Everyman means you can always find some kind of work.
*. Hawke is actually a novelist as well as an actor. So is David Thewlis. I wonder what they thought of Regression‘s worthless script.
*. I know what Emma Watson thought of it. It’s written all over her face. I can’t remember the last time I saw an actor so obviously embarassed at what they were doing.
*. OK, you’ll have got the impression I didn’t like Regression. It’s a movie set in Minnesota in the Year of Our Lord 1990. This was around the time of the “Satanic ritual abuse” hysteria, and the story involves a cop (Hawke) and a psychiatrist (Thewlis) investigating a girl’s claim that her family are part of a coven of baby-killing devil-worshippers.
*. There are several ways they could have played such material, but they didn’t settle on any one in particular and so ended up with a mess. At times it achieves a certain dark atmosphere, and there are a couple of effective moments when we can feel Hawke slipping into paranoia, but as we go along we begin to wonder just how the events we’ve been witnessing will finally be resolved. And then they aren’t.
*. I think the way things wrap up, and you may insert a spoiler alert here, was the only responsible option. Watson’s character is a brat who, disgusted at her poor and dysfunctional family, made up her stories of ritual abuse. That’s fine, but it leaves much unexplained (like the suicide of the grandmother) while leaving unexplored any deep examination of the social and cultural phenomenon of these tragic modern witch hunts.
*. It seems to me that in such a story the psychiatrist Dr. Raines should be the hero. He’s the man of science and objective observer who stands outside the virus of mass hysteria that infects the town. But for some reason he’s almost entirely dropped from the second half of the film. I thought from Thewlis’s first appearance that they were going to let him play the Donald Pleasence character from Halloween, but no such luck. The script has nothing for him to do at all.
*. Another interesting angle left unexplored is the sexual attraction between Hawkes and Watson. However I don’t want to bother trying to think of all the ways the movie could have been better. There was some potential here for an interesting movie but it went unrealized. No point in saying more.


Quiz the fourteenth: Needlework (Part one)

No, when I say needlework I’m not talking about sewing circles. The needles here are hypodermic, most often seen in the hands of mad doctors and junkies but also put to more medically approved uses. I think this is a pretty easy quiz this week, but perhaps that’s just because needles make me nervous. I trust that anyone doing this quiz will be made of stronger stuff.

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The Void (2016)

*. They wanted to make a horror movie that would take everything and throw it at the wall, to see not only what would stick but what would create the most interesting splatter patterns.
*. So, there’s a devil-worshipping cult. A mad doctor. A siege. Lots of people running around with axes. Knife-wielding psychos in hoods. A shape-shifting creature. Monsters bursting out of people’s guts. Tentacles. A portal to hell located in the basement . . .
*. In other words, The Void is a kind of horror-film compendium filmed in what Kim Newman described as the directors’ “pastiche mode.” There are a lot of borrowings, some of them quite direct. Despite all of this, however, the writing-directing team of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski have little to say about their inspirations on the DVD commentary track.
*. This is a point I talked about a bit in my notes on Black Mountain Side, how so many commentaries remain silent on even the most obvious influences. Here the filmmakers do mention Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness once in passing, though I thought the borrowings from that film (especially the climax) might have called for them to say a bit more.

*. Instead, the question of influence is rejected. Despite what are direct quotes the directors say they are “not referencing anything specifically.” While they admit to liking various classic horror films from the ’80s they hadn’t intended any kind of throwback or homage. I found this weird, almost protesting too much. Why not just say that they got the shot of the two characters falling together into the portal from the end of Prince of Darkness? And since the most pervasive spirit here is that of Fulci, and the final shot is another direct quote from the end of The Beyond, why not acknowledge this? Instead they say it is “not a reference to The Beyond,” nor “meant to specifically evoke anything from The Beyond.” Really? Not even on a subconscious level?
*. I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with filmmakers taking inspiration from other movies. In fact, it’s inevitable, especially when working within a genre like horror. So I don’t know why so many of today’s directors seem so intent on staying silent or even rejecting the imputation of influence. But this is just a digression on a commentary so I’ll drop it.
*. As for the movie, I thought it was mostly fun, albeit without much of a sense of humour. I expected a few laughs given the chaos of the proceedings. And while Aaron Poole is a decent actor, let’s face it, he doesn’t look at all like a cop. He looks like he belongs in a comedy. Couldn’t they have at least asked him to shave?

*. The main monster is another one of those melted-plastic agglomerations we’ve seen so many of since Carpenter’s The Thing. I wonder if The Thing is where they really got there start though. Since The Thing the look has been repeated many times, right away in Leviathan and all the way up to Splinter and this movie. But was The Thing the first movie to feature a monster that looked like this?
*. I did like the monster, all the more for its being done mainly with practical effects. The creature at the end also scores the movie’s only good kill when it stomps on the head of a fallen disciple and crushes it like a grape. Aside from the monsters, however, there wasn’t much that was thrilling or new. Or scary, which is a bigger problem.
*. The story is a string to hang the different effects on, which is something else that connects it to Fulci. I’m not sure if it made any sense, and all the different horror tropes I began by listing feel only loosely stitched together. The disciples don’t appear to have much of a function, for example. And there’s a Father and Son team that are never explained. For some reason a woman holding a baby follows these two around and I think I missed what she was supposed to represent.
*. The film was shot in Sault Ste. Marie, which the directors found eerily decayed (“you can’t fake that kind of decay”) and forbidding: “something about the atmosphere of that place felt very, very scary.” Really? I’ve been there and just thought it was depressing. But that was a while ago.
*. Well, even if they said they didn’t want to make a throwback horror movie I think this one will appeal mostly to fans of those films. The design elements and photography are both good and help it look like it cost a lot more than its crowdfunded microbudget. Still, it struck me in the end as too many ideas and too many monsters chasing a plot. That in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, but given the direction they were taking I think Gillespie and Kostanski needed a few more really scary scenes or else a few more jokes.


Dressed to Kill (1946)

*. This is nice. The Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes movies had been going downhill, but in this last entry they managed to pull it together and go out on a high note. It’s not one of their best efforts, but it’s a solid entertainment.
*. It’s also a darker film. There’s no Lestrade, and the comic parts for Watson are kept to a minimum. His bumbling comes in handy on a couple of occasions but in general there’s less broad humour and more nastiness. Like the bad guys who try to do away with Holmes by using the same gas that the Germans are said to have used to remove undesirables.
*. The original title was Prelude to Murder, which would have been good. Dressed to Kill is snazzy but apparently critics found it meaningless. On the commentary track, however, Richard Valley sees it as clearly referring to the well-dressed villainess Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison). That’s good enough for me. A lot of noir film titles at the time were this generic and non-descriptive.
*. The costumes are certainly exotic, if not always deadly. I love the prison uniforms with their pointing arrows, which were actually used to mark the king’s property (the design was known as the King’s Broad Arrow). They seem like something out of Dr. Seuss. Also Seuss-like is the hat Hilda Courtney is wearing when she goes to the toy store. It’s quite inspired. There’s definitely a surreal note to these get-ups.

*. Sticking with wardrobe for just a second, I really like the way that Hilda’s fur stole is used in Stinky’s death. As he sinks to the floor he slowly pulls it from her shoulders. That’s a nice touch.
*. Another moment I enjoyed was watching Watson use the old-style fire extinguisher. It operates by way of a kind of pump action. I’d never seen a fire extinguisher like that before.
*. The plot is quite clever, even if it’s probably a lot more clever than it needed to be. This is the trap criminal masterminds are always falling into. They make things too difficult. I mean, the plan for getting rid of Holmes struck me as particularly weak, and the ease with which he escaped made it seem even weaker.
*. And so I bid adieu to a great detective and a great series of admittedly minor films. These were popular, generic movies shot quickly and on the cheap, but most of them succeed in passing the time with a minimum of mental friction.


Terror by Night (1946)

*. Things are winding down. This is the penultimate Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce pairing as Holmes and Watson and clearly there wasn’t much left in the tank.
*. The previous film, Pursuit to Algiers, had Holmes and Watson on a ship trying to protect a young heir. Here they are on a train trying to protect a famous jewel. In both cases they are surrounded by suspicious characters, most of whom are red herrings. In both cases Holmes is out ahead of the villains’ plot, so that the film ends with a twist. Just when you think the bad guys have gotten away with it, it turns out that Holmes was waiting to spring a trap.
*. It’s a better film than Pursuit to Algiers. There’s no singing. Dennis Hoey is back as Inspector Lestrade. There’s a neat air pistol that fires poison darts. There’s actually a decent action sequence when someone tried to push Holmes off the train. These are all pluses.
*. The story, however, is weak. Spoiler alert: I’m still scratching my head as to how the master villain, Colonel Sebastian Moran, was able to pass himself off as an old friend of Watson’s. Just how old a friend was he? Was he a criminal genius when Watson knew him in the orient?
*. The villains are not an impressive bunch. Moran has an accomplice named Sands who just pops up at the end to make things work. Was the luggage guard in on the heist? How else did Sands get in and out of the coffin? And was Vivian Vedder really just a mule? She doesn’t seem too concerned about what was going on.
*. Sticking with Vivian, was Renee Godfrey trying to do a Scottish accent? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. It just sounds like she has a speech impediment.
*. Coming in at a tight 60 minutes I think this qualifies as a minor bit of fun. Aside from the country manor house there’s no better setting for these plots than a train. The story isn’t very interesting but it clicks along pleasantly with nowhere to go.


Quiz the thirteenth: Flashing the badge (Part one)

Of course, if, like Alfonso Bedoya, you don’t have any stinking badges then you’re not going to appreciate being asked to produce one. Most of the time, however, plainclothes police officers (or people pretending to be plainclothes police officers) don’t mind flashing the badge. See how many of their numbers you can take down.

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L’Argent (1983)

*. I suppose the one thing that everyone knows about Robert Bresson is that he’s the author/auteur of a moral vision. The exact nature of that vision is harder to pin down.
*. Bresson was Catholic (though he may have considered himself a “Christian atheist”), and that’s something more in evidence in his earlier films than in his later work. His models in L’Argent were Russian, a story by Tolstoy and Doystoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but he takes all the religion out of both sources. I don’t think there are any references to religion in L’Argent aside from the old woman’s expression of her faith in forgiveness. Yves doesn’t even bother seeing a chaplain while in prison. Where’s Claude Laydu when someone really needed him?
*. Bresson didn’t want to bring religion into the story because he was indicting a contemporary sense of social malaise, which is grounded either in a lack of faith or the worship of a false God (money). “Tolstoy talks about God and the gospel. I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps because this film was made against the careless indifference of people today, who think only about themselves and their families.”

*. I think that indictment of careless indifference is powerfully made. L’Argent is a giant tragedy whose impetus is only a tiny nudge given by people acting on a whim. But underlying it there is a religious, and I think Catholic, moral vision.
*. Here’s a passage from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire: “So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation.”
*. This idea that even a very bad person may be better off than the common herd of human cattle if they are only man enough to be damned, because such a “capacity for damnation” at least means that they have a spiritual dimension (no matter how corrupted), is something that crops up in a lot of preachy religious writers, from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky through the High Church Eliot to Graham Greene and Walker Percy. It’s not a point of view I share, but I can see where it’s coming from. And if you see echoes of Yves in Jacek from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, well, that’s part of the same (Catholic) religious vision.
*. But this is an idea that almost has to be made in the negative. That is, a lack of evidence of redemption, or even redeeming qualities, is what establishes Yvon as worth saving. Bresson was concerned that at the end of L’Argent he wasn’t able “to dwell on Yvon’s atonement and the idea of redemption . . . but at that point the film’s rhythm would not allow it.”
*. I don’t know what Bresson means by not dwelling Yvon’s atonement. He felt that he had slipped the idea into the ending but I have trouble seeing it. Because Yvon confesses? But given Yvon’s total blankness (a lack of emoting that Bresson demanded from his “models”) what can we read into that? He might have finally become weary of life. That strikes me as more likely than his now feeling sorry for anything. Like those who caused his downfall, he is now simply indifferent to others.

*. A lot depends on how you read that final shot. I’ll admit I don’t have a good explanation for it. Put another way, I’m not sure what Bresson meant.
*. In brief: a group of bystanders wait outside the door of a café, looking inside while the police march Yvon out in handcuffs. As Yvon passes by they don’t turn their heads to watch him go but remain staring into the now empty café, looking at nothing.
*. When interviewed, Bresson had this to say: “Perhaps it’s too symbolic, but I love those passersby staring into space. Once there was everything, now there is nothing.” Too symbolic? But what is it symbolic of?
*. I don’t know. But I do think it ties in to something done throughout the film. I think the crowd outside the café are looking into the same void that Bresson’s camera often does, with an intent focus but missing something that it only just sees part of, or that they can only hear off-screen. They’re looking at the sound of thunder, having missed the lightning.
*. An example of the kind of thing I mean is the scene where the rotten kids escape into the subway. We first see them running down the stairs and exiting from our (the camera’s) sight. Given Bresson’s attitude toward camera work, we don’t follow them. We remain staring at the stairs. And staring, at nothing. We then cut to a shot of the subway platform as the train is just leaving. In other words, we missed all the action we were supposedly following. And still the camera sits, staring at nothing, just like the bystanders at the end. Are we still waiting for something? Or only taking in a sort of ghostly after-image, a mental reconstruction of what we know just happened but didn’t see?

*. Such a technique strikes me as being akin to those word games or tricks of the eye where only a limited amount of information is given but we mentally fill in the blanks and “see” what isn’t there. I think the same sort of thing is going on with the overlapping sound between cuts. Bresson is using editing to create an imaginary film in our heads. I think it’s possible that a lot of people think they saw things in L’Argent that weren’t actually on screen. Of course this goes for obvious things like the violent murders, which are all elided, but would probably go for other things as well. Do we ever see the face of the girl whose ass we stare at as she’s sitting on the couch?
*. The faces of the actors have a similar role. They’re blank slates that we project on. What do they say to each other? It’s hard to remember a line from this film, and that’s at least partly on purpose. As Bresson put it, “no one in L’Argent is acting. That’s the reason it goes so fast: what they say is not what matters.” Apparently he wanted to film a version of Genesis as his next project, and do it in Hebrew not for “realism” but because it was a language no one would understand.

*. You could call all this “pure cinema,” and I think that’s a fair way of looking at it. It’s also formalist, with the compositions having a silent solidity that often appears posed and painterly. There are no strange angles or deep fields or even much in the way of camera movement, and yet the camera is not inarticulate, it has a point of view. Hence all those headless bodies. Hence the lingering look at the girl’s bum.
*. Bresson’s formality was the product of an impressionistic theory of film. “More and more, what I seek to do, to the point that it was practically a method on L’Argent, is to convey my impression. What dictates the shot is the impression of the thing, not the thing. We are the ones who make the real. Each individual has his own.” Well, yes, but if the shot is conveying the director’s impression then we in the audience have to follow along. We aren’t totally free to make our own reality.
*. If the impression of the thing is what counts than an image (or a sound effect) may continue to have that after-image effect I mentioned earlier. So perhaps that final shot is taken from somewhere inside the theatre, with the backs of all those heads in front of us staring into what might be a screen stood on end.
*. It’s a technically accomplished film, but it strikes me as having an anti-humanistic vision. That may, indeed, be the point of the technique. Yvon is a subject for analysis, a case study. What I think Bresson may be saying is that such an approach has its limitations. Does Yvon have the capacity for damnation? What image of him is left when he walks toward us, and drops out of the screen?


High Maintenance (2006)

*. Everyone knows the famous montage in Citizen Kane as the table keeps lengthening between Kane and his wife, signaling the breakdown of their marriage. Dining at a distance, especially when it seems wildly impractical, has become a visual cliché for describing marital dysfunction, but I wonder if Welles was the first to make the connection.
*. In any event, it’s a motif that’s again being used in this short film, as a couple supposedly celebrating their anniversary are separated by a long candlelit table. We know right away that things aren’t working out. What we don’t know right away is that this dinner is even more of an empty, formal ritual than it seems. I mean, if Nicolette Krebitz is going to come on to you with that line about an aphrodisiac, how can you be so cold?
*. Part of the reason is that her partner is a robot lover, and one who isn’t even delivering on the “short, mechanical sex” part. Time to order up a new model online. A hunkier type who’s in to rock climbing and massage.
*. If that’s all there were going on here it would be a one joke quickie, even with the twist we get at the end. But I think there’s a more interesting point being made.
*. I don’t think the issue is how we relate to technology, at least directly. High Maintenance isn’t a nine-minute version of Her. Instead, the lovers one orders are more like pets. They have basic personality programming, but can’t be counted on to behave in the way you would like all the time.
*. And, just as with our relationships with our pets, they change us as much as we change them. We may even start to look like them.
*. So I guess in the end it is a story about how we relate to technology, and how in making it better at serving us we co-evolve so that we are better at serving it. Note, however, that evolution is not synonymous with progress. We may lock ourselves into a downward spiral. Our real anniversary may not end with even short, mechanical sex but rather in watching TV alone while drinking a beer.


A Cure for Wellness (2016)

*. There’s a scene that occurs about halfway through A Cure for Wellness that goes a long way to tell you what’s wrong with the film. The protagonist Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is introduced to a giant sensory deprivation tank. And when I say giant I mean about five times bigger than the tank William Hurt floated in back in Altered States, which was already five times bigger than it needed to be. We see that Lockhart is going to float at the bottom of the tank, breathing through a long umbilical breathing hose (the experience is supposed to mimic being in the womb). Sensors are also attached to his chest to monitor his heart rate on a graph machine set up beside where an attendant is stationed. The attendant can view Lockhart through a glass window in the tank. Finally, Lockhart is told to just tap on the glass if there is any trouble.
*. Well, you’re probably saying to yourself, I’ll bet this is what’s going to happen. First, something is going to distract the attendant. Then something scary is going to happen to Lockhart in the tank and he’ll signal to get out. But the attendant, who is distracted, won’t see him. Then the needle on the graph will start going crazy as Lockhart panics. Then, since this is only an hour in to a two-and-a-half hour movie, he will be rescued from the tank, gasping and nearly unconscious.

*. You would, of course, be right about all of this. I hope that gives some idea how uninspired A Cure for Wellness is. There are no surprises. A young man (not Leonardo DiCaprio) heads off to a Swiss sanatorium (not Shutter Island, or Marienbad) to rescue a CEO named Kurtz (no! his name’s Pembroke), only to find that it’s one of those sinister hospitals where something monstrous is going on. Once people check in, they never leave. The head doctor (Jason Isaacs, not Vincent Price) doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you can trust. (Robbie Collin: “If I tell you the name of the doctor is Heinreich Volmer, do you think he’s going to turn out to be nice? Not so nice? Hard to tell?”) The staff are obviously all in on it, whatever “it” is, but they aren’t saying anything. Patients disappear. It seems like there’s something in the water. There’s a story about the sanatorium involving a mad baron and his child bride, who was burned at the stake. Have you got all that?
*. To give you another example of this predictability, the finale has Lockhart uncovering the secret of the spa through close examination of an old photograph. The only problem is that while he’s doing this the audience has already figured things out. In fact, it’s likely we figured it all out an hour before the movie ends. So all the business with the photograph is just more dragging things out, for a payoff that’s not worth it.

*. It didn’t do well with critics or audiences, though some praise was thrown its way for the photography. I thought this was misplaced. It’s another movie with great-looking production design, but that’s all. It’s just pretty. The sanatorium is a Disney fairy tale castle, complete with a princess in need of being rescued. On the inside it’s all done out in the spirit of gothic medicine: primitive apparatuses that look like medieval torture machines and lots of creepy corridors that don’t seem to go anywhere. On the lower levels you get the candles and the fetuses floating in jars of formaldehyde. Again, you know the picture. You’ve seen all of this before.

*. CGI doesn’t scare me. I don’t like what it’s done to film in general, but what I mean here is that it doesn’t scare me, and I scare pretty easy. CGI monsters and CGI gore leave me unimpressed. For the most part the monsters here are a bunch of eels that are CGI. I wasn’t scared, or even disgusted that much, by them. And I think that I was supposed to be.
*. There isn’t any story to speak of beyond the basic premise. This is a movie meant to look at, not to follow. There are a bunch of creepy images but they don’t all connect and we’re never sure how many of them are real and how many are visions. Basically the plot is an extrapolation of data points from Thomas Mann and Kafka through Poe and Lovecraft to whatever or wherever we’re at now. The ending is particularly bad, lazy and bordering on offensive. And the message?

*. Some reviewers, and I mean more than a few, saw the whole thing as somehow symbolic, or a metaphor for late-stage capitalism. Perhaps they were getting this from press kits. Here is composer Benjamin Wallfisch telling us what it all made him think of: “This movie confronts you with some potent questions: How do we find true meaning in a world of consumerism and material gain, where we have to strive to find truth in a maze of media manipulation?”
*. To which I can only respond: Huh? Yes, Lockhart is a soulless Wall Street prick. And yes the patients at the spa are rich people being sucked dry by a demonic mountebank but . . . so what? How is this a satire or critique of materialism? Does Verbinski just want to say that chasing after money is a sign of sickness and moral rot and that we need to find some kind of wholesome balance in our lives? Not, assuredly, at this particular clinic, but, you know, somewhere. Is that it?
*. Why throw so much in the way of talent and resources into such a retread of an idea, such a mishmash of other films, none of them particularly groundbreaking themselves? Roger Corman or Hammer would have made this same movie (and I think they did) in ten days (not the five months this took) and for $100,000. And while it might not have looked as slick, it would have at least made sense and not taken so long.


Quiz the twelfth: Just a note (Part one)

There are times when we could all use some help. This week’s quiz may be one of them, as we up the degree of difficulty and present you with some movie notes. How many of them can you return to their sender?

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