Home Movies #1

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

Batman Returns (1992) Directed by Tim Burton

I’ve been nerding it up lately, as I’ve been catching up with the early nineties animated Batman cartoon and reading some graphic novels in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises. The thing is that I’m not much of a fan of any of the feature films. Batman (1989) is so deeply rooted in its 80s aesthetic that it’s comical to see a picture age so poorly. The Joel Schumacher films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), inhabit the “it’s so bad, it’s good” cinematic landscape. And while I like the Christopher Nolan films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), their strict adherence to seriousness can become problematic for films based on a comic. If there’s any singular picture that balances the comic elements associated with Batman with the brooding nature that writer Frank Miller took with the character in The Dark Knight Returns, it’d be Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Here’s a film that understands the outlandish comic nature associated with Gotham City, its heroes, and its villains. Rich with Burton’s sense of visual flare, Batman Returns encapsulates the tragic titular character with both his comic and gothic background. And unlike Burton’s first Batman feature, Returns manages to prevent itself from ever becoming too dated.    Returns also highlights two of the best performances in any Batman picture, as Christopher Walken and especially Michelle Pfeiffer spar in acting clinics. The film does have some narrative kinks that seem to plague most of the Batman films particularly given that the hero’s lacking charismatic quality equates to his villains overwhelming screen time. But still, as far as I’m concerned, Batman Returns remains the best film in the franchise.

Rating: 7/10

The Invisible Man (1933) Directed by James Whale 

In conjunction with my nerding it up with Batman, I’ve also been exploring a pretty big cinematic blind spot: films of the 1930s. My luck has been less than encouraging, as I’ve found it difficult to find pictures that I can really take to from the era. And it’s not that I’m entirely averse to the decade, as F.W. Murnau’s City Girl, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times stand out as some of my favorite films ever. After checking out James Whale’s 1931 effort with Frankenstein, I was less than enthused to check out his work. Thankfully, his work in The Invisible Man was a markable improvement.

The Invisible Man works well given its time period, as a lot of the effects on display are truly impressive for a film made in the 30s. But beyond that, the picture manages to weave a narrative that is deliberately obtuse. We’re introduced to an obscure character from the onset, with the narrative unraveling very delicately. There’s something so incredibly menacing about the central character as well, an aspect that was surprisingly absent in Frankenstein. The Invisible Man isn’t the most well-directed or well-acted of films, but it does have a peculiar narrative framework that makes it particularly enjoyable.

Rating: 7/10

I Was Born, But… (1932) Directed by Yasujirô Ozu

It’s funny how, as I’m about to give up on really finding anything amazing from the decade, I stumble upon this picture. I Was Born, But… comes at just the right time. It’s a picture that may come across as slight on first glance, but as it unfolds, the subtle development and stylistic framework of its narrative makes for a very profound experience.

From its onset, I Was Born, But… seems content with acknowledging the childhood experience. Two children move with their mother and father to a suburb. They deal with bullies and school at first, but are eventually accepted by their peers. Their father works in a office. Their mother tends to the home. In a way, it may not initially evoke profundity, but Ozu delicately examines the transition from childhood to adulthood. Simple shots where the children are at school, sitting at their desks, is followed by cuts to the father at his office.

This all comes to a head when the world of children and the world of adults interact. The children watch their father kiss up to his boss. For a child who sees the world through a lens where their parents are superior, it comes as a true shock to see their father in a subordinate position. This complicates and strains their relationships – their father taught them to work hard like him, but has working hard really paid off?

I can’t directly recall a film that so beautifully addressees the social fabric of the world with such timeliness. It’s truly a universal narrative, whereupon socioeconomic status, brotherhood, and familial bonds intersect in an organic way. While the picture has encouraged me with keeping my pursuit of watching films from the 1930s, I Was Born, But… has got me more interested in exploring another one of my cinematic blinds spots – Ozu’s filmography.

Rating: 10/10

Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

The Player may make large grandiose assumptions about Hollywood life, but who am I to argue against its claims? What I do know is that The Player showcases Robert Altman’s stunning directorial ability and him having fun. Because throughout The Player, there isn’t a grand sense of mystery or suspense – it’s just a really funny film that highlights what Altman can do with a large cast of characters.

The title “The Player” refers to its central character, Griffin Mills (Tim Robbins). He’s a Hollywood executive who, from the onset of the film, listens to movie pitches. The scenarios are truly terrible, running the gamut of sequels to silly science-fiction. Throughout the pitches, you understand the value of sequels, the simplicity of undemanding material, and the need for stars (Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis seem to be Hollywood’s go-to-stars for insured profits). But Mills has a lot on his mind – for one, his profession is a dangerous one. Having a flop will end your career, and with a new hotshot executive named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) covering the area, Mills in on edge. To make matters worse, Mills is receiving threatening postcards from someone who pitched him an idea but never got a call back. When Mills finally discovers who is threatening him, he looks to rectify the situation. But he makes matters worse by accidentally killing the man, therein adding an extra burden to his life.

But that’s where the film takes a most interesting turn. Altman establishes that murder is an inherently evil act, but that it’s not necessarily the greatest vice one can have in the Hollywood system. No, instead, failure to provide the studio with a financially profitable film is one’s greatest offense. But if you’re a proven money maker, then you’ll be kept safe. That sensibility is remarkably effective in giving the film its dark edge. The murder virtually becomes a secondary concern for Mills, who later becomes obsessed with toppling down Larry Levy and attaining the affection of a woman named June (Greta Scacchi).

Sprinkled throughout the film are various cameos from Jack Lemmon, Elliot Gould, Anjelica Huston, Peter Falk, and others. Their appearances are done purely to establish the Hollywood setting. Part of the fun with The Player is seeing how the characters interact with the actual stars – it can be surprisingly funny.  I’ve never been too impressed with Tim Robbins’ acting ability, and found his performance here to be adequate, if unremarkable. So no singular performance stands out, but as a whole, the film exemplifies Altman as a man who knows how to use his setting and characters to astounding affect.

Rating: 8/10