Monthly Archives: August 2018

Quiz the thirty-eighth: Breaking news (Part one)

Well, I’ve already quizzed you (several times) with newspaper headlines so I thought I’d get with the twenty-first century this week and give you some chyrons to read. I didn’t even know “chyron” was a word until just recently. In case it’s new to you too, they’re the headline captions you see on a news broadcast and they get their name from the Chyron Corporation, which specialized in creating them. In movies they serve much the same purpose as those spinning newspaper headlines from yesteryear. With that bit of background out of the way, here are some examples for you to see if you can place.

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The Canal (2014)

*. I’ve said many times before that we don’t expect, and rarely even want, genre films to be all that original. The most successful of them offer only slight twists on convention.
*. The Canal walks a very fine line in this regard. I like it: it’s an effective little haunted-house movie about a man who comes to think he’s possessed by the ghost of a century-old killer. It’s the kind of film where you get to smile and nod at all the little borrowings from other horror films. The graffiti-covered restroom looks like a set from Candyman. The way David tries to point out the ghost of Alice to his son recalls the famous scene from The Innocents where Deborah Kerr sees Miss Jessel across the pond. The flour they put on the floor to reveal the ghost’s footprints is lifted from Paranormal Activity.
*. And then as you keep nodding you start to wonder if maybe you’re nodding a bit too much. Put another way, is there too much about this film that’s borrowed?
*. The most obvious borrowing comes when David watches old movies of some murders and it comes to seem as though the film itself is cursed in some way. It’s almost like some kind of haunted videotape . . .
*. Yes, this sounds a lot like Ringu. And the connection is made even stronger by the fact that ghost Alice is made up to look like garden-variety J-horror corpse, even down to having her long hair falling down over her face. By the time we get to see her crawling out of the screen to grab her victim we can’t be surprised.
*. It’s possible to mount a tepid defence of such a blatant steal (and here I will insert a spoiler alert). Since, as it (sort of) turns out, David is only imagining the demons, the fact that they appear in such mediated forms makes a kind of sense. He’s not just a jealous husband, but a jealous husband who has seen too many horror movies, so that when he enters a dissociative state he imagines himself being an actor in one of them. Alice isn’t crawling out of the screen, he’s crawling into it.
*. I wonder what deaf people imagine when the closed captioning reads “haunting sounds” or “eerie, demonic sounds.” Mostly it’s just creaking floorboards here.
*. The Canal is professionally put across in most departments, but tends to stick too close to conventions and familiar type characters like the dyspeptic detective, earnest girlfriend, and threatened child. I also thought that some great opportunities for milking more suspense were missed, like in the scene when David films the ghost of his wife by the canal. And yes, the ending was a total fudge. It’s a decent ghost story, but the whole package needed another turn of the screw.

Un Chant d’Amour (1950)

*. Pornography? Well, the American courts thought so, with the original decision against it being appealed (and affirmed) all the way to the top. I’ve also heard that Genet made it for the porn crowd, or at least porn conoisseurs and collectors.
*. The imagery was very explicit for the time. The men blowing smoke through a straw stuck through the wall is a stylish metaphor, and has a literary pedigree going back to the Pyramus and Thisbe play put on by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but we also see some dancing cocks at full and half mast and in 1950 that was still a taboo. Indeed, they’re rarely seen today, even though I think they’re permitted.
*. More than that, however, what I think makes it pornographic is that observing eye, which (weirdly) seems to be looking down a tunnel into the prison cells. As I said in my notes on the unabashedly pornographic (but stylish) Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about having sex but about watching people have sex. Un Chant d’Amour is all about the looking. The voyeur of a guard is a proxy for the audience, getting off on watching his prisoners masturbate while they dream of earlier erotic encounters. This does strike me as having something essentially pornographic about it, but not in a bad way.
*. Is it political porn? I guess to some extent we have to credit it as being an early gay statement. One assumes the two convicts have been imprisoned for their love. Meanwhile, the state, represented by the guard, is hypocritical in its own repressed desires. The gun becomes yet another cock. That’s not much of a political message, but it’s something.
*. This was Jean Genet’s only film, and it’s at least true to his own vision of homoeroticism. He’d spent some time in prison himself. But I don’t think it’s a very accomplished bit of work. Rumours are that Jean Cocteau may have shot part of it, but it really doesn’t look like anything special and the story isn’t terribly interesting. Lot in Sodom had more to say back in 1933, without trying nearly as hard. Nevertheless, it did have an impact on later directors and is celebrated as a milestone despite seeming rather overdrawn and obvious today. That in itself can be taken as a sort of progress.

The Blue Room (2014)

*. A subtle and understated mystery based on a Georges Simenon novel; but is it too subtle for its own good?
*. The set-up is pretty standard. A married man, Julien Gahyde (played by director Mathieu Amalric) has an affair with a married woman, Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau, in a standout performance of dark emotional depths). Esther’s husband dies, we’re left to presume by her hand. Now, as she tells her lover, it’s his turn.
*. We’re in Hitchcock territory here, with something like the criss-cross deal from Strangers on a Train in place. And sure enough, Julien’s wife is poisoned in turn. But who did it? A police investigation and trial seeks to find out.
*. But I don’t think we ever do. The film is presented almost exclusively from Julien’s point of view and he seems confused himself as to what is going on. Esther might know what really happened, but she is an unreliable source, being both mad and deceptive. There’s a hint at the very end that Mrs. Despierre (Esther’s mother-in-law) had a hand in things, but it remains only a hint and we can’t be sure of her direct responsibility.
*.  (For what it may be worth, I’ll give you the story as relayed by Simenon in his book. The character of Julien is named Tony in the novel, and he’s an oblivious sort of heel — and an Italian to boot. Though it’s clear he didn’t poison his wife, he is less likeable than he is in the movie. The business at the end with Madame Despierre is this: she lies about the package containing the jam being open because that means that Andrée (Esther) couldn’t have poisoned it, which then means that Tony (Julien) had to have done it himself. She was framing him. Digression over.)
*. It’s a film that asks us to do the work of interpretation. There’s a scene near the middle of the film when Julien is on vacation with his wife and daughter. They’re at the beach and Julien plays with his wife when they go out swimming, at one point stuffing her head under water. He does this several times. She is distressed, and when she gets out of the water is mad at him. But what has happened? He doesn’t seem angry at her or even violent, much less murderous. And let’s face it, drowning her at a crowded public beach would be a pretty stupid move. Also, there is no score during this scene to give any indication as to how we’re to read it (and the film does have a very lush score that comes on strong in other places). We are like those flies painted on the walls of the courthouse. What we see is all we get.
*. Such a forensic method, looking from the outside in, makes it paradoxically easy to miss cues and clues that may be important. Even going back and looking at what seem to be important passages (the package sitting on the passenger seat of the car, for example) I’m unsure of what I’m missing. By the end I’m not even sure how Julie feels toward Esther. He had attacked her earlier, but how does he feel after they’ve been convicted? I would think it’s hard not to feel a little impressed and even flattered by that kind of love. And doesn’t he have to blame himself as well?
*. Is it too subtle then? Or coy? I’m reminded of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is a puzzle without a solution even in Joan Lindsay’s novel. For some people maintaining that mystery is the point. For others it is a source of frustration. I usually count myself in the former camp, and The Blue Room works well enough for me, but I do wish it had been put forward with a bit more passion and flair and a little less of the cool blue.

Come Out and Play (2012)

*. I guess the full title of this one is Makinov’s Come Out and Play. Sort of like Stephen King’s [Insert Title Here]. Which may seem fair enough since the artist known as Makinov did write, direct, produce, edit and shoot the movie. But . . .
*. But it’s not really that original or personal a bit of filmmaking since it’s a very close remake of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s 1976 film Who Can Kill a Child? (or Island of the Damned). Also, the fact that this is a film by Makinov will mean nothing to most movie audiences since it’s his only mainstream credit, before or since, at least that I’ve been able to locate.
*. Who is Makinov? Apparently a fellow from Belarus. There’s no sight of him in the “Making of” featurette included with the DVD and I’ve heard that he wears a mask or red hood not just in interviews but even on the set. In the interviews with stars Vinessa Shaw and Ebon Moss-Bachrach they say that “people have strong feelings about him” but that they should just respect his privacy.
*. Strong feelings? Nobody knows (or, I imagine, very much cares) who he is. This all seems like a publicity stunt to me.
*. There are two horror sub-genres being mined. The first is the story of killer kids. I believe this goes back to Lord of the Flies or Village of the Damned (novels that were written and then filmed within a few years of each other). Also in the 1960s a source worth considering is the Star Trek episode “And the Children Shall Lead.” In the 1970s you might think of Who Can Kill a Child? or Devil Times Five, in the 1980s the Children of the Corn franchise got its start, and more recently we’ve seen the Sinister films and Eden Lake.
*. Unfortunately, there is no explanation whatsoever for what has gotten into these particular kids. It’s not like they’ve reverted to a state of nature, been infected with a brain disease, or joined some kind of demonic cult, though all of the above are hinted at. The way they pound and stab the old man to death made me think of the murder of James Bulger, but I doubt this was because they’ve been watching too many trashy horror movies or true crime specials. Do they even have WiFi or cell phone coverage on the island? It would appear as though they don’t.
*. Also dropped is the prelminary reference to the effect of war on children that’s in the original. Instead all we have is a postscript dedicating the film to the martyrs of Stalingrad. What?
*. The other problem here is that the kids just aren’t very threatening or frightening. The movie’s best moments have the couple investigating the newly depopulated island along with some eerie music and passages of very nice, flowing camera work. But once the murderous horde of kiddies show up I lost all interest.
*. The other sub-genre being invoked is that of tourist terror. Think of Hostel, The Ruins, and Turistas. The idea here is pretty simple, though the location of so many of these movies in Latin America is noteworthy. Things can get pretty scary down there. Build the wall!
*. So all-in-all I wasn’t that excited by Come Out and Play. The slow-build of the first third is nice but I didn’t get the sense that Makinov had a very firm grip of what he wanted to do or how to do it. The two leads remain surprisingly poorly drawn (given that they’re practically the only two characters in the film) and despite the woman’s pregnant state I still didn’t much care what happened to her. Still, I can’t say that an opportunity was missed here because I’m not sure the relatively obscure source material was all that good to begin with.

XX (2017)

*. XX is an anthology horror film, and judged alongside its peers I’d rate it above average. That’s a slightly backhanded compliment, as most such movies aren’t very good. But I thought each of the four separate stories here worth watching, with at least one of them being a lot of fun. The tendency in the 2010s has been for horror anthologies to speed things up with a lot of very short films (think of the V/H/S, P.O.E., or ABCs of Death series). The stories here, however, all come in feeling just the right length.
*. The other thing about XX is that each of the four stories was written and directed by a woman and women play all the leading roles. That’s where the title comes from, with the double-X chromosones.
*. This seems like a good idea, as it lets a group of young women filmmakers showcase their work in the horror genre. But is there anything more to it? Do the results suggest any particular female (or feminist) vision?
*. Well, maybe. In an interview included with the DVD Karyn Kusama (who directed the last episode) mentions being drawn toward “the domestic dynamics of horror.” And it’s true that three of the four stories put the family in the foreground, with key scenes set around dining-room or kitchen tables. In each of these films a mother is the main character, and she has to deal with what are typical anxieties of motherhood, albeit imagined in scarier ways.
*. First up is “The Box,” which is the one film that isn’t an original story but is based on the Jack Ketchum story of the same name. I thought this was nicely done, with director Jovanka Vuckovic creating an effectively creepy atmosphere. There’s no big payoff, but that’s the story, which takes the form of a puzzle without a solution. Basically the kids have developed an eating disorder that their mom is unable to address, as she is shut out from their inner lives. Most parents know the feeling. Even without their falling sick we might expect her to crack up from the repetition of “nothing,” which becomes the film’s refrain of Nevermore.
*. Second is “The Birthday Party” (directed by Annie Clark). I liked this the best. It’s another take on the “how can I hide this body?” premise much loved as a source of black humour. Again we have a mother overwhelmed: this time having to manage a child’s birthday party on the same day as her husband’s suicide. The sinister nanny with a spooky hairdo is no help, but a singing Pandagram seems to offer a solution. I thought the sound and music were a little over the top here, but I guess they were meant to be.

*. Third is “Don’t Fall.” Director Roxanne Benjamin (she produced the V/H/S films) wanted a traditional “creature feature” campfire tale and got it, complete with cheesy dialogue referencing some cursed petroglyphs that are “clearly pre-Native American.” It’s well done, but the basic idea and how it plays out, including the look of the monster itself, isn’t that interesting. I thought it needed a twist.
*. Fourth is “Her Only Living Son” (directed by Karyn Kusama). Rosemary’s baby has grown up (and apparently John Cassavetes has made it big in Hollywood). I just thought this was OK. The parental anxiety is the teenager acting up at school and home. The devil, we learn, is no match for a smother mother.
*. There’s also some stop-motion puppet work by Sofia Carrillo that plays in-between the separate stories. I’d call it a frame, but it’s not since there’s no connection between it and the other parts of the movie. There’s also no narrative. It looks great, but I honestly couldn’t figure out what the point of any of it was.
*. XX had a limited release, and seems to have done a lot better with critics than it did with audiences. That seems weird to me. As I began these notes by saying, it’s a better movie than most of its peers. What are people comparing it to?
*. Another weird thing I noticed when going through the reviews was that there is so much disagreement among critics about which of the stories is the best. This leads me to believe that I may have missed something in the ones I didn’t care as much for. For the record, I liked “The Box” and “The Birthday Party,” but thought the second two fell a bit short.
*. I don’t think there’s much of a political point being made, or empowering message to be absorbed. But for genre fans I don’t think it needs one. They may in fact like it better that way.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

*. There’s no question mark at the end of the title. I didn’t know that. Seems odd. The source (which only provided the basic premise for the film) was a novel by Gary K. Wolf titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and it had a question mark.
*. With that important point out of the way, on with the show (this is it).
*. Up until this latest reviewing, I don’t think I’d seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, at least all the way through, since it first came out thirty years ago. I seem to remember catching bits of it on TV a while back, but that’s it. So I was really wondering how it would hold up.
*. Of course, on one level I think it’s fair to call it a gimmick movie. The mixture of real and animated footage had been done before, but nothing like on this scale, and as such an essential part of the plot. There are two points I want to make about this.
*. In the first place, it was not a technological breakthrough. That would come later, with the digital revolution in computer animation. The animation here is old school. As the director of animation Richard Williams says on the “making of” documentary included with the DVD, there was never any problem with being able to do the animation, the problem was time and money. A studio was going to have to (and in the event did) throw a ton of money at such a project to make it work, including hiring a small army of animators.
*. My second point, following on the first, is that because it’s a movie defined more by its craftsmanship than its use of a new technology it doesn’t fall into the trap of dating as badly as other movies that were all about their new effects. Early CGI, for example, looks pretty awful by today’s standards, but the animation here is something different, rather than something more primitive, than you’d see today.
*. It certainly looks like a different species of animation than CGI. It’s not as crisp and the colours aren’t nearly as bright. Put another way, the figures look dark and blurry to an eye trained to the arcade-style visuals of today’s computer effects. That doesn’t bother me too much, because while I don’t think this makes the animation more “realistic” (whatever that might mean in this context), I do think it fits the film’s noir setting. I only wonder how it plays with younger audiences, the digital natives. To be honest, I don’t even know any young people who have seen it that I could ask. This was a very successful movie when it came out but I don’t know how well known it is today.

*. David Thomson: “one of the last great works of wit and beauty, magic and terror, to come out of a Hollywood studio.” Wow. That’s pretty high praise (I think; but Thomson doesn’t think much of the direction Hollywood was going in around this time). Still, it’s an opinion that I think a lot of people share. I really enjoy it too, but just to register a couple of negative notes . . .
*. I don’t like the character of Roger Rabbit. I don’t like his manic personality, or his voice, or his appearance. He looks strung out most of the time and doesn’t have the same kind of freshness as the classic Disney and Warner Bros. characters we meet still possess. After just a couple of scenes I started finding him irritating, and he never really grew on me.
*. I don’t find the story that interesting. It’s basically just Chinatown with a twist. It seems to me they might have done more.
*. I don’t think there’s anything very funny going on, particularly with the script. It’s littered with groaner gags, the verbal equivalent of the hand buzzers and whoopie cushions put out by Acme. Then there are some adult double entendres that get a smile because they’re coming from ‘toons. But really there’s not a lot of wit to any of it.
*. What makes it so watchable? Bob Hoskins is great. Perhaps no one has ever played against an absent element better, even as stars have had to all become used to it. Jessica Rabbit’s shape was immediately iconic, with the pneumatic bliss of her figure bouncing and swinging in every different direction. Christopher Lloyd is perfect as the villain cartoonish enough to be a ‘toon. And finally, while there’s nothing special about the story, it is all neatly done from start to finish, with no loose ends or excess weight. It was just too expensive a production to be wasteful, so pretty much whatever they shot had to count. The DVD contains only one deleted scene that I’m glad they cut (the rather grim pig head business).
*. There’s been a lot of talk of a sequel over the years, but given the fullness of the closure we get at the end I’m glad they’ve resisted opening it up again. Why bother? I don’t think I’d go so far as David Thomson does in the line I quoted above, but I do agree that there’s something about this movie that stands at the end of something, more so than the change in animation. Even if there were a sequel I don’t think they could ever do something like this again. Why not? Because it’s only fluff.
*. One suggestion: I think this movie really was a labour of love. Sure it’s a send-up of the genre in lots of ways, as so many movies in our own time are, but there isn’t a hint of cynicism about it. Maybe that’s what did the rabbit in.

Even — As You and I (1937)

*. As with any distinctive style, surrealism soon became the stuff of parody. Anybody could “do” surrealism: all you needed was to grab a camera, shoot some random film, and then edit it together in an obscure way.
*. The next step was that the whole process became material for a meta-parody. This is what we get in Even — As You and I, a short film about three rather dim fellows (the three credited directors) who decide to enter an amateur filmmaker contest. After a brainstorming screenplay-writing session comes up with nothing but variations on the “boy meets girl” scenario they are inspired by a magazine article on surrealism to give that a try. At least they won’t have to worry about a script!
*. Taking their cameras to the street they set about trying to assemble a surrealist masterpiece, with copies of Dali paintings being their only guide. It seems their main preoccupation with surrealism is in tricks of perspective. Their Eureka moment comes from looking at a picture in the magazine that represents something different depending on which way the page is turned. So they drop a camera down a manhole and climb a hydro pole to capture odd angles.
*. This is a bit odd, since when they screen the final cut of their film, The Afternoon of a Rubberband, it doesn’t include any such material. Instead there are the usual surrealist props in motion and an homage to the eyeball-cutting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.
*. Finally, they realize that they are too late to enter the contest, which depresses them until they realize that there is another contest for cinematographers advertised under the headline of tricks and gadgets. They are in business again.
*. Well, it’s a send-up of a style of filmmaking that was already pretty much over and an industry that most of the people who know it best have viewed as comically absurd. There are a bunch of movie in-jokes to smile at. The filmmakers didn’t go on to do much, with Harry Hay being probably the best known name and he was mostly famous for being an early gay rights activist. Otherwise, it’s a reminder of what happened to surrealism: how a groundbreaking and controversial movement had, in the space of ten years, become “tricks and gadgets” and the stuff of parody. Ironically, such a fate may be the truest measure of its success.