Monthly Archives: March 2018

Quiz the sixteenth: Tickling the ivories (Part one)

This week’s quiz is a showcase for an older generation of keyboard warriors. Grab a seat on the bench and see how well you can accompany the following piano (and organ) players.

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File Under Miscellaneous (2010)

*. File Under Miscellaneous is a short film with a sharp political message. But I wonder if there’s something even  more going on under its skin.
*. The moral of the story is hard to miss. A young Mi’gMaq man enters a seedy-looking plastic surgery chop-shop in an attempt to get a new appearance that will allow him to pass for white. He gets what seems to be a total-body skin transplant and, in the most gruesome scene, has his tongue pulled out and replaced.
*. The removal of his tongue symbolizes the loss of his language. At the beginning the narrator speaks in a Native language, but after the operation the voiceover is in English. In his new language the man will now tell racist jokes to his white friends, and is all set to join them in their mission to “burn the land with our whiteness.”
*. All of this is pretty basic, and is effectively realized. However, what I find curious is this matter of language or, as the politically-sensitive style it, the appropriation of voice.

*. In the first place, the film is said to be adapted from the Pablo Neruda poem “Walking Around.” I wasn’t sure what to make of this, since Neruda’s poem is more about setting a grotesque mood of weltschmerz than it is about advancing a specific political agenda. What did writer-director Jeff Barnaby see in it, aside from the image of intestines spilling out of buildings?
*. I think Barnaby’s bigger debt is to Ridley Scott. His vision of the future is that of the now traditional dark, dystopic city of Blade Runner, a place where the sun never shines. And the giant screen with the face of the Great Leader is also derived from Scott, blending Blade Runner‘s video billboards with his famous 1984 Apple commercial.
*. What does it mean that a film about the loss of one’s native language is told in borrowed words and a borrowed visual style? Does that reinforce the point, or undermine it?
*. To add another element to the mix, the narrator specifically references becoming Aryan, and the Great Leader speaks not in English but in German. This is an obvious cultural reference to Nazis and racial cleansing, but doesn’t it undercut the idea of a monolithic whiteness? Shouldn’t the narrator have gotten a German tongue put in?
*. Similarly, while being a member of the dominant group obviously has its perks, the blandness of a monoculture is underwritten by the bar codes tattooed on the heads of its citizens. But doesn’t that make the in-group slaves, or something even worse?
*. I don’t think these questions can be answered with an easy yes or no. File Under Miscellaneous is a film that makes a strong statement, but not a simple one.

Pieces (1982)

*. The origins of the American slasher film can be traced back to the Italian giallo, a genre of psychological thriller usually featuring a mysterious murderer wearing black gloves whose identity was only revealed at the end. What happened when the giallo came to America is that it got a big injection of gore along with much simplified plots (meaning you rarely had to pick the killer out from a line-up of suspects).
*. Pieces is a giallo where the influence goes the other way, re-crossing the Atlantic with a chainsaw and buckets of blood. But while the American influence is unmistakeable, this is still a giallo. The familiar ingredients (some of which were picked up for the first wave of slasher flicks) include the POV killer shots (black gloves, heavy breathing), the giant knife that reflects blinding flashes of light from some indeterminate source, and the multiple suspects, each of whom seems guilty as hell.
*. But then there are the gratuitous boobs (not so much a giallo fixture) and of course the extreme gore. A chainsaw, for example, seems an unlikely weapon just because it’s so noisy and unwieldy. I had to laugh at how the killer keeps it hidden behind his back as he enters the elevator. But it does do a good job of splattering lots of blood around, and (at least in movies) it can carve people up in a hurry.
*. The hybrid nature of Pieces is underscored by the setting. It’s obviously a European production, what with the dubbing and nonsensical dialogue, and was indeed shot in Spain, but apparently we’re in the Boston area. But it’s a very peculiar New England college, where girls go skinny-dipping at noon in the campus pool and there’s a kung-fu professor on staff.

*. The script is silly, and apparently many of the lines were improvised to pad the running time. So we get one girl telling us that “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time,” and another telling her boyfriend that he can gag her to keep her quiet during sex (an unfortunate word choice given today’s porn habits). Perhaps the film’s highlight (out of many candidates), however, is Lynda Day George howling out “Bastard! Bastaaaaaaaaard!” She sure seems upset!
*. So Pieces is a funny film, and not always intentionally so. It does, however, show some signs of real cleverness. The murder on the waterbed, for example, is an inspired bit of work. And the gore effects, a specialty of exploitation director Juan Piquer Simón, are actually quite well done, considering the period and the budget.
*. Ultimately, however, the whole thing collapses into hilarious nonsense. I mentioned how the college is a bizarre place, but the film itself approaches the surreal. I don’t just mean the kung-fu professor (Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Le, in a baffling cameo), or the bonkers ending. But instead think of how strange it is that the first girl is killed out in the middle of a campus lawn by a man with a chainsaw, and no one notices. Or look at how long the one girl has to walk from the dance class to the women’s washroom. What’s up with that?
*. You’ll have guessed from all this that I really enjoyed Pieces. The mystery story could have been better done (the red herrings are too obvious and the final reveal is disappointingly handled), but the rest of it is adorably zany. It’s gone on to gain a cult status among horror fans, and deservedly so. This is trash you can love.

The Brothers Grimsby (2016)

*. OK, every now and then we all have to confess to guilty pleasures. Standing back from it, I don’t think The Brothers Grimsby is a good movie. I don’t think I’d want to see it again. Director Louis Leterrier, known for action films, doesn’t have much of a feel for comedy. It bombed at the box office, after having its release pushed back several times. Heaven knows critics hated it. But I was really in the mood for its style of comedy when I saw it and I laughed so hard I cried a bit.
*. I don’t think it could be any cruder. Most of the humour revolves around sex and anal fixations. And I’m not sure where you can go from the elephant gag.
*. Sticking with the elephant business, it was just a few minutes before that got started that I made a note to myself about how similar this all seemed to one of the Ace Ventura movies. Then come the elephants, which are obviously a bit of one-upmanship on Ace’s time inside the rhino.
*. Is there anything else that needs to be said? Not much. I find it interesting how similar a movie it is to Kingsman: The Secret Service, with its very laddish lad impressed into farcical cloak-and-dagger stuff, culminating in an extravagant end-of-the-world fireworks show. British comedy has always had a thing for playing off class differences.
*. Is it a political film though? You’d think so, but I can’t get much of a message out of it. Blood is thicker than water. The scum of the earth, or “chavs,” really are the scum of the earth, but they aren’t totally without redeeming qualities, at least in some situations. One can’t help feeling, however, that the makers of this film really despise them.
*. Analysis is pointless. It’s a collection of stupid jokes clapped on to a ramshackle premise. Some of the stupid jokes are hilarious, if you’re in the mood for stupid jokes. Sometimes they’re just stupid. But, staying in full confessional mode, I have to say that overall I enjoyed it.

Quiz the fifteenth: Phone booth (Part two)

I remember a social psychology study from a few years back about how people who are in a phone booth tend to take longer if they know someone else is waiting for them to finish their call. For some reason that always made me think of the Terminator’s impatience to get to a phone book. I think if he’d been part of the experiment he might have skewed the results. In any event, here are some more movie phone booths for you to look at. See if you can make the connection.

See also: Quiz the third: Phone booth (Part one).

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Becket (1964)

*. I recently found myself watching Becket at the same time as I was preparing notes on Cleopatra, a movie that had been released just the year before. Of course both movies are historical costume dramas made in the grand style, both won Academy Awards (Becket was nominated for twelve!), and both star Richard Burton, but I found another parallel more significant.
*. Despite being widely celebrated (Cleopatra was, among its other benchmarks, surely the most famous, or notorious, movie of its time), both films are almost entirely forgotten today.
*. Time was when even popular history books dealing with either figure would have to address their screen versions, pointing out signifcant inaccuracies or liberties taken with the historical record. Today that’s no longer necessary, as nobody comes to a book about Cleopatra or Thomas Beckett with preconceptions based on their memories of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton needing to be overcome. Indeed, the films aren’t even mentioned in some recent studies.
*. Well, this is one case where I can’t fault the fickle taste of the public. I found Becket to be nearly unwatchable this time out, which was the first time I’d seen it in twenty years. It’s so heavy-handed, so ponderous, so pious, that it makes you feel like you’re visiting a different planet. Did we really think this was great filmmaking sixty years ago?
*. The script gives us lines like “Where honour should be, in me there is only a void.” Such lines are then underscored by musical notations that put the words into bold relief. And they are delivered by Burton in a manner that suggests either (or both) extreme boredom and/or someone already turning to stone. How many movies did Richard Burton ever smile in anyway?
*. I’ve heard that Burton actually wanted to play King Henry. I think that would have worked. He has that air of humourless cruelty I think the real Henry, and the part here, call for. O’Toole as Becket, however, would have been a dicier proposition.
*. Peter O’Toole does try his best to liven things up, but he’s stuck in a ridiculous part that barely makes any sense. Did you not know that he loves Thomas? Then he’ll tell you. Again. And again. But in what sense does he love him? How can such a long, overwritten film dealing with only two characters fail to give us any real sense of who they are, or of their motivations? They’re just voices and costumes.
*. About the only amusing thing is all the homoerotic stuff. I can’t call this a subtext because there’s nothing secondary or hidden about it. It’s so pervasive and explicit it starts to be funny after a while. I think there are even three scenes where Burton and O’Toole are lying or sitting in bed together (a couple of times after throwing a woman out).
*. It’s hard to overstate how blatant this is. The two men are more than just boon companions. As noted, Henry is constantly crying about his love for Thomas. His mother upbraids him for his “unhealthy and unnatural” attachment and his wife complains of his neglecting her.
*. On the DVD commentary O’Toole addresses this by saying that “to put it in terms of homosexual and heterosexual is to miss the point. It was love.” What he means is nothing platonic, but more a laddish, locker-room kind of thing. But then O’Toole says how, in a locker-room, “blokes often give each other a rub, if you follow me.” Then he breaks into laughter. So yes, we get it. We can’t miss it.
*. I wonder where this comes from. I don’t think Jean Anouilh, who wrote the play the film was based on, or screenwriter Edward Anhalt were gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in England at the time, and yet it’s not like they were hiding anything here. Is there a political point being made? I’m not sure what it could be.
*. But, as I say, this is the only thing that I found interesting in the film. A few years later O’Toole would return as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) which at least had a bitchy, soap-opera charm to it I still enjoy. Come to think of it,even Cleopatra is more fun. Becket is only a turgid and fusty historical drama of the kind I’m relieved they don’t make any more.

Evil — In a Time of Heroes (2009)

*. There was some potential here. Not much, but some.
*. A zombie movie set in Athens (Greece, not Georgia) in the wake of the global financial crisis, with echoes of the classical past playing in the background. It might have worked.
*. Well, it sure doesn’t. This is one of the worst zombie movies ever made, and that’s not a very high bar being set.
*. It seems to have no story at all. There’s a countdown to a bombardment that inter-titles pop up to remind us of, but we don’t know what that’s referring to and nobody in the film seems aware of or at least concerned about it until near the end. What’s even more annoying, however, is the fact that none of the characters has anything to do, or anything they want to do. Nothing happens for a reason. This makes the action (a word I’ll use instead of story) completely incoherent.
*. Unforunately, the only way to really appreciate how scattered and confused a film this is, is to watch the whole thing, which is something I strongly advise against. It starts off bad and doesn’t get any better.
*. Actually, it starts off where Evil (2005) left off. Yes, this terrible movie is a sequel! But don’t think that having seen Evil will help you out very much with this one.
*. Apparently all the actors were unpaid volunteers, and in this case the filmmakers got what they paid for. None of the characters are memorable, or even distinguishable aside from their different uniforms (the well-dressed cook, the hero in the soccer jersey, the soldiers, Billy Zane as a Jedi cowboy). They also have an annoying habit of dying and coming back to life, and I don’t mean as zombies. This is all part of the incoherence I mentioned earlier, the sense that from one scene to the next there is no dramatic continuity, or really connection of any kind.
*. There’s a lot of blood splashed on faces and walls. This seems to be the film’s only purpose, or justification. I wouldn’t call the gore anything special though, as it’s mainly delivered by way of rapid editing with some CGI assists. In other words, the usual fare.
*. Maybe if they’d climbed up the Acropolis and had a battle royale among the ruins it might have been more interesting . . . but not by much. Really, you don’t want to waste your time with this.

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.