Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Dolls

Films: Dolls
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There have been a number of movies that feature creepy dolls. Old movies like The Devil-Doll from the ‘30s, another of the same name (minus the hyphen) from the ‘60s, the ventriloquist segment from Dead of Night, the ventriloquism-based movie Magic, the clown from Poltergeist, and of course the Zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror are all pretty memorable. These days, Chucky and Annabelle are probably the ones that jump to mind, although there’s certainly no shortage of such films. Is it the idea of the corruption of something that should be innocent? Whatever the reason, the modern turn of toy-based horror seems to have gotten its start from Dolls.

The truth is that I went into this prepared for it to be derivative in many ways of Child’s Play or even Puppet Master or Demonic Toys. The opposite is actually true, since Dolls was released before all of these. It’s tamer in a lot of respects. There’s a much bigger dose of fantasy in this film, and while there is a body count, it doesn’t really amp up the gore that much. This came with an R rating when it was released, and it might just struggle down to a PG-13 released today.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Off Script: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Films: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I know Roger Corman made a lot of shitty movies, but I’m really getting to the point where I have to admit that I like a lot of them. He didn’t make a lot of loser films in terms of box office, and when he was on, he was really on. He also managed to work with a lot of great people during his career, including making a lot of movies starring Vincent Price, one of the gold standards of ‘50s and ‘60s gothic horror. The Pit and the Pendulum is a film that plays on a couple of important Corman tropes. First, it’s a period piece, which means capes and poofy costumes. Second, this is one of his Poe films, and his Poe films rank among his best.

Another of Corman’s touchpoints in his Poe films is that there’s a lot of material added here. Many of Poe’s stories were really short and might make a dandy short film. To make something of feature length, a great deal needs to be added. In this case, it’s the entire first hour or so of the movie, which was created in service of getting on character strapped to a rack while a bladed pendulum slowly descends toward him with the intent of chopping him in half. Hey, you want ao good scary moment, you need to work for it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Blood Libel

Film: The Fixer
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I have sat here looking at the base template for my reviews for a good 10 minutes before I typed in anything beyond the why/why not, the tags, and the titles. I honestly don’t know what to say about The Fixer other that it seems like John Frankenheimer found a book based on a real-life case that seems to have been ripped straight out of the mind of Franz Kafka. Going through Oscar movies means spending a great deal of time dealing with the Holocaust, something I’ve complained about before. In this case, we’re not talking about that, but we are absolutely balls-deep in discussing the persecution of the Jews. It seems endlessly fascinating and horrifying to me that we live in a world were a century ago crimes like blood libel and host desecration were taken seriously.

I should probably explain what those two things are, since they are so spectacularly bizarre that I have trouble wrapping my mind around them. Host desecration is easy to figure out once you realize that the host in this case is blessed communion wafers and not someone holding a party. Since in Catholic belief the pasty wafers become the literal body of Christ once they have been blessed, someone doing anything to a blessed wafer is essentially committing a crime against the bodily person of Christ himself. Blood libel is even more staggering. There was a common thought that when the Jews celebrated Passover, they baked their matzos with the blood of Christian children. Because of this, plenty of Jews were accused, tried, sentenced, and punished for the murder of children.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Paint by Numbers

Film: Pollock
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Ed Harris is someone I trust as an actor. This doesn’t mean that I immediately trust his characters, since Harris has played a few nasty, evil people. But I trust him in the roles he’s been given. I feel confident that Ed Harris will do good work and that he is capable of being brilliant, as he has been many times in his career. For me, Ed Harris will always be Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, and that might be a part of the reason I trust the man to handle any role he’s given. With Pollock, Harris joins a select company as someone who directed himself to an Oscar nomination, which makes me wonder why he hasn’t directed more films.

Pollock is the biography of artist Jackson Pollock, who caused a massive revolution in the art world and died far too young in his mid-40s. Harris had evidently been fascinated by the man’s life for years and bears a passing physical similarity to him. The film starts at a gallery showing in 1950, flashes back to his early career and his early relationship with fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, who won for a supporting role) and the beginnings of the movement he started in the art world thanks to the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) and influential art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor).

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Off Script: Constantine

Film: Constantine
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

Constantine is the sort of movie that I really want to like. It’s more or less The Matrix with overt theology rather than implied theology. Constantine has a clear position in terms of the spiritual world. Like many a film that deals with demons not just as monsters but as actual characters, we’re dealing with a more or less Catholic world view. The world of Constantine purports that God and Satan have essentially a pact that Earth is off limits. They can’t use direct influence on the world but can influence the world through agents that exist in the world, people who are angelic or demonic half-breeds.

Our hero is John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a man with the ability to see these half-breeds in their true form. Constantine has always had this “gift,” and when he was a young man, these visions forced him to commit suicide. Technically, he didn’t survive the suicide attempt and was dead for two minutes, which he spent in Hell. As a suicide, Constantine is forever damned despite anything he might do in this life. Either in spite of this or because of it, he spends his days finding demonic agents and sending them back to Hell, knowing that it might be the right thing to do and similarly knowing that because of his motivations, it will do nothing to save his soul.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Dark Waters (Temnye Vody)

Films: Dark Waters (Temnye Vody)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

A lot of horror movies get a good amount of mileage through the use of religious imagery. I’d love to say that started with The Exorcist, but it certainly comes from earlier than that. I think there are plenty of possible reasons for this. Horror movies frequently deal with overt evil, and for many religion is the opposite. Even if it isn’t the idea of a god is frequently taken to be the opposite of evil. But I mean the idea of using religion and religious trappings in a much more significant way. In American culture, the church in question tends to be the Catholic church. Half the time, the church is the savior while the other half of the time, the church is corrupted or complicit in the evil. With Dark Waters (also known as Temnye Vody), it’s a little bit of both, but really, it’s the second option.

Elizabeth (Louise Salter) arrives on an isolated island that contains a secluded convet and not much else. Her backstory is that 20 years earlier, she was born on this island and in this convent and that her mother died in childbirth. Her father took her away soon after, and has given a yearly bequest to the nuns to keep the place running. When the film starts, Elizabeth’s father has just died and has charged her to maintain that yearly stipend. She has arrived to check the place out and see if it’s worth funding.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sticky Situation

Films: The Big Pond
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Finding movies on the internet, particularly those from the first few years of Oscar, is always a mixed bag. I’m never entirely sure I’m getting the whole thing. For instance, The Big Pond is listed at a spare 72 minutes but the only copy I could find ran just under 68 minutes. Are there really four minutes missing from the copy I found? Are those four minutes important? When you add to this the fact that my notes (yes, I keep extensive notes) list this film as being available only in an incomplete form, the anxiety grows a bit. That said, the movie did get to an actual conclusion, so my guess is that if I am missing something, it’s not critically important to the film.

We start in Venice where the fabulously wealthy Billings family is on vacation. Mr. Billings (George Barbier) is the sort of person who had movies made about him during the Depression. He owns a chewing gum factory, which essentially makes him the Wrigley of this fictional film world. His wife (Marion Ballou) is pretty much a non-entity in the film the follows, essentially here so that we have a wife one of our potential foils. Daughter Barbara (Claudette Colbert) is out when the film starts, much to the consternation of Ronnie (Frank Lyon), who has just arrived from the States. Ronnie works for Mr. Billings and is sort of engaged to Barbara. However, Venice has changed Barbara’s perspective on the world. She has been surrounded by businessmen (and chewing gum) her entire life. She wants romance.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Films: Frances
Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I don’t know why I haven’t really warmed to Jessica Lange as an actress. You don’t get six Oscar nominations with two wins without being good at what you do, though. It’s strange, because I tend to like her when I see her in films. I just don’t really think of her that often. I’ve said before that I thought Sweet Dreams was her best work on camera, but that was before I saw Frances.

Frances is a biopic of the life of actress Frances Farmer (Lange), who was the definition of a troubled star. The film opens with Farmer as a junior in high school winning a contest for an essay about believing that God is dead. Since this is in the ‘30s, this naturally causes a great deal of controversy, putting her in the crosshairs of some of the locals in her native Seattle. She finds herself back in the news a few years later by winning and accepting a trip to Moscow to visit the Moscow Art Theater. This is before the Cold War (before World War II, in fact), but still raises some eyebrows. After all, people already have her pegged as an atheist, and she’s apparently doubled-down by visiting the godless communists.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sisters are Doing It for Themselves

Films: Hidden Figures
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I first heard about Hidden Figures, I knew it was going to be a movie that I really wanted to see. As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, I’m a sucker for anything involving space and NASA, and space race stuff is what gets me the most excited. A story I knew nothing about? Involving the early days of NASA? I’m all in. That it also happens to be a civil rights story and feature the work of American treasure Octavia Spencer is just added bonus. Seriously, it had me at “space race.”

Hidden Figures follows the stories of three African-American women working for NASA as “computers,” which really was the term before people actually had computers. Their jobs were to more or less work on doing calculations for various aspects of the space program. Without trying to be too maudlin or sappy, the story depicts the struggles that these women face in accomplishing their jobs in a world where segregation was still in force and where a lot of people thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. That’s a lot to unpack, and there really are three different, fully-realized stories here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Films: Ulysses
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I don’t claim to be a genius, but it’s a rare film where I don’t have something to say. It’s entirely possible that what I have to say might be completely insipid, of course, but at least I’m bringing something to the table. A few times a year, though, I get a film like Ulysses where, at the end, I have no idea what to say and no idea where to start. And yet, here we go; the film is watched and on the Oscar list, so I’m more or less committed.

I should probably come completely clean at the top on this as well. Despite the fact that I have a degree in English literature I can’t really call myself a huge fan of the work of James Joyce. I’m not opposed to Joyce; I just haven’t read a great deal of his work. Ulysses is based on his book of the same name, so while I know the book by reputation, I’m essentially going into this completely cold.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Cannibal Holocaust

Films: Cannibal Holocaust
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

Watching from a list means opening yourself up to a lot of possibilities. In the case of Cannibal Holocaust, I was prepared for nastiness. The legend of the movie is that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and charged with murder of several of the lead actors who he had demanded stay hidden for a year to build up the legend of what happens on camera. He had to produce the actors themselves to avoid facing life in prison.

Cannibal Holocaust is a legendary horror film because of the brutality of the footage. It’s also more or less the progenitor of the found footage concept, since a good portion of the last chunk of it is exactly interspersed with scenes of characters discussing the footage that they have seen. The footage itself is of those four filmmakers heading into the Amazon rainforest to encounter cannibal tribes and learn about them. Naturally, the four filmmakers, director Alan (Gabriel Yorke), script girl Faye (Francesca Ciardi), and cameramen Jack (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) have disappeared. Anthropologist Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) has decided to follow their expedition to discover what has happened to them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog

Films: My Life as a Dog (Mitt Liv som Hund)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

In the last few months, I’ve gone on a tear about Holocaust films wearing on me a bit. I’ve said the same thing about coming of age films in the past, and it’s still true. My problem with coming of age films is that about 90% of them fall into two specific categories. Coming of age films about boys mean encountering and dealing with mortality. This means that something or someone in the boy’s life will die before the credits roll. If it’s about a girl, it will be about sex, and before the film is over, our heroine will have sex, quite probably with someone inappropriate. Yes, there are notable exceptions (the teen sex comedy tends to be about everyone coming of age through sex, for instance), but the bulk are exactly this. So I can’t say that I genuinely looked forward to My Life as a Dog (or Mitt Liv som Hund if you prefer it that way).

The film concerns the life of Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), a 12-year-old Swedish boy. He lives with his brother Erik (Manfred Serner) and his ailing mother (Anki Liden). Imgemar isn’t a bad kid, but he could be best described as “misadventurous,” a sort of classic schlimazel on whom misfortune simply happens. Case in point, while talking with a young local girl, the two shelter under a railroad trestle. Her father finds them, assumes the worst, and chases Ingemar away, who decides to run away and live on his own. He builds a fire to keep himself and his pet dog warm, and the fire gets out of control. In short, his intentions tend to be good, but the results are not generally that favorable.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Math Majors Hate Him! Click to Find Out Why!

Films: Good Will Hunting
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

So I finally caught up with Good Will Hunting. It’s only taken my 20 years to get there. The first thing to say about it is how strange it is to see Matt Damon and Ben Affleck this young. Good Will Hunting is one of those movies that fully entered public consciousness, the sort of movie that can be referenced by just about anyone old enough to remember its release whether they have seen it or not. I knew the basic story before I watched it, needing only the details.

Because of that, I wonder about the necessity of the sort of serious plot rundown I normally offer. The basics are pretty simple. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is an orphan and former abused foster kid who works as a janitor at MIT. As it happens, he’s also a genius of the sort that seems to exist about once a generation or so. Math and some scientific topics seem to come to him intuitively. When a professor (Stellan Skarsgard) posts a difficult proof on a hallway chalkboard, it is Will who solves it despite not being a student and never getting past high school.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Off Script: Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Film: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

I love Wes Craven’s work. I think even now, two years after his death, we’re still figuring out just how much of a genius the man was. He created a bunch of really pivotal and important horror movies and franchises, not the least of which is A Nightmare on Elm Street. Let’s not forget, though, that he also made The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is one that seems to have slipped under the radar of a lot of people. I think it’s one of his best films. What Craven often did was create things that were completely new, things that took the genre in new directions. New Nightmare is a film that is both firmly in the heart of the horror genre and is also a smart commentary on the genre itself.

What I especially like about New Nightmare is that it does something that few films that are a part of a larger series can do: it stays completely within the established mythos of the series and also does something entirely new. This is what was attempted with Halloween III, and it took years for people to figure out that that movie was actually pretty good. Aliens did some of this, making a film that still had horror elements but was much more a science fiction action movie than the almost straight horror of the original. New Nightmare weaves a complicated story that exists both in the film world of Freddy Krueger and also with the film world of the actors who played in the original film.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

She's So Modern

Films: Bridget Jones’s Diary
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve never really cottoned to Renee Zellweger. This has been a problem for this blog because I’ve avoided a lot of the movies that feature her specifically because I’m not a fan. I’m not precisely sure what it is. Bridget Jones’s Diary even comes from before the time she looked continuously like she had been sucking on lemons. There’s just something about her that strikes me as off. I can’t place it, which makes a movie that stars her problematic for me.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is the story of Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger), of course, but it’s also a significant throwback to Pride and Prejudice. It is, in fact, very much a reworking of that story put in a modern setting. Bridget works at a publishing house but feels that her personal life is in a shambles. At her mother’s (Gemma Jones) yearly New Year’s Eve party, she is reintroduced to Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), who she evidently knew as a child. Her mother, constantly trying to set her up with someone, has zeroed in on Mark. Things go poorly, though, when Bridget admits that she drinks and smokes too much and later overhears Mark telling his own mother that he has no interest in a woman who drinks too much, smokes too much and dresses like her mother (leaving off the fact that he is in a ridiculous reindeer-emblazoned sweater).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Sleepy Hollow

Films: Sleepy Hollow
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’m not what anyone would mistake for a Tim Burton apologist. I like plenty of his movies, sure, but there are a bunch that leave me pretty cold as well. It seems sometimes that he is too focused on the look of the film and not enough thinking about the content. There are notable exceptions, of course. One of these is Sleepy Hollow, which suffers a little from being a Burton gothic/steampunk fantasy but manages to transcend most of its problems with good storytelling and a lot of visual pizazz.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a classic American fable. In the story, a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane competes with local tough guy Brom Van Brunt for the hand of the richest farmer in the area. Eventually, Crane is run out of town by the appearance of an evidently headless man on a horse, a legendary figure in the apparently ghost-addled area. After this encounter, Crane is never seen by the townsfolk again, leading to a legend that he himself was spirited away by supernatural means, although the most likely case is that his headless attacker was a disguised Brom.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Off Script: The Stone Tape

Film: The Stone Tape
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

We live in a golden age of television to be sure. Shows now have actual budgets, for instance. In the past, a television show had enough for the actors and the sets, which meant that shows needing a larger budget—science fiction and fantasy in particular—made do with crap effects. With The Stone Tape, made for the BBC in 1972, we’re very much dealing with that problem. The Stone Tape because of when it was made and how it was made has the same sort of effects as old Doctor Who episodes. That comes into play at the end of this. Fortunately, we have a strong enough base here that it doesn’t matter much.

An electronics company called Ryan Electrics has taken possession of an ancient Victorian mansion called Taskerlands with the intent of setting up a new research facility. The goal of the team, under the direction of the brash Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) is to develop a new recording device, hopefully beating the Japanese to the technology. Brock is hopeful, but is distressed to learn that the men called in to refurbish the old house have refused to work in a back room. While it’s not stated overtly, it’s hinted that the room may be haunted. Since this is a horror movie, it’s a safe bet that that’s the case.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Conscientious Objector

Films: Hacksaw Ridge
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I can’t say that I was really looking forward to Hacksaw Ridge. Mel Gibson has demonstrated in the past that he can be an effective director, but he’s also demonstrated that he’s not unwilling to go over the top in terms of violence. I haven’t seen The Man without a Face, but I have seen his other four major releases, and all of them involve a great deal of bloodletting. Mel likes his violence a lot, and while I’m not shy about it, it can be overwhelming when it’s non-stop the way he seems to like it.

Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The film starts by showing us Doss as a young boy with his brother Hal. The two are fighting and Desmond smacks his brother in the head with a brick, nearly killing him. We learn eventually that it was not this particular act of violence that swore him off the use of firearms, but it will suffice for now. After this opening sequence, we see Doss (played through most of the film by a nominated Andrew Garfield) rescue someone trapped under a car and take an interest in the medical field.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Off Script: Bone Tomahawk

Films: Bone Tomahawk
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I’d heard about Bone Tomahawk and that it was a grueling horror movie worth seeing. Imagine my surprise when I found it at a local library. This isn’t the kind of film that libraries normally carry in my experience. It’s easy to find dramas in the library, not nearly so easy to find horror, particularly horror that hits the gore factor hard. But, as I say, I’d heard about it, and figured it was worth a watch.

Bone Tomahawk is very much two different films. There is the Western part of the film, much of which feels like a pretty standard film in the genre. Then there is the cannibalistic troglodyte part of the film that is anything but. In a sense, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has updated the Italian cannibal films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox and put a decidedly American spin on them. Or, if you prefer, it’s a Wild West version of The Hills Have Eyes.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Human Sextipede

Films: La Ronde
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

I don’t particularly like writing two less-than-enthusiastic reviews in a row. In fact, I don’t love writing less-than-enthusiastic reviews. Oh, I admit they are fun and cathartic, at least for me. Honestly, though, I’d rather write a glowing, if milquetoast review and really enjoy the movie. My bitterness and agony might be entertaining for other people, but I’d genuinely rather enjoy my time with a film. It’s for this reason that I try to go into every film with as much of an open mind as I can. I’ve been surprised before and loved films that I was leery to watch. With La Ronde, a Max Ophuls, well, sex comedy, I had high hopes. At the very least, I knew it would be pretty.

Here is where I typically talk about the plot of the film. The problem with La Ronde is that it doesn’t really have much of a plot to speak of. It’s not a character study, either. Instead,m it is a chain of events that link up different people in different sexual partnerships, and by the time we get to the end of the movie, we’ve come back to one of the people we started with. That’s literally it. Slightly more than 90 minutes of watching people imply that they’ve just had a great deal of sex before one person in the couple moves on and has sex with someone else. This is literally the film. I am not embellishing this or exaggerating.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Lighthouse (Dead of Night (1999))

Film: Lighthouse (Dead of Night (1999))
Format: Internet video on laptop.

When a list of movies—any list—is put together by committee, I imagine there is some negotiation that happens. I give in on a movie you want that I don’t so that you’ll give in on a movie I want that you don’t. With the Fangoria list of under-seen horror movies, I imagine that happened quite a bit. Sure, there are some good movies on this list, some that are really worth seeing and truly are more unknown than they should be, but there are some real stinkers, too. That’s why I’ve put myself in a position to have to watch things like Lighthouse (sometimes known as Dead of Night , a name that is not uncommon for horror films in general).

I’m not going to hedge here: Lighthouse is intensely stupid. For a movie that’s supposed to be one of the best horror films I’ve never seen, it manages to play on every possible trope that exists in the genre. It’s unimaginative, derivative, and clunky, and looks 10-15 years older than it actually is. There’s very little to recommend it. I can imagine what the conversation about putting it on this list went like.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Celine and Jesse Go Through Life

Films: Before Sunset; Before Midnight
Format: DVD from personal collection (Sunset) and Sycamore Public Library (Midnight) on laptop.

Years ago, former blogger Nick Jobe ran a review contest. I made it to the third round, which means I made it to the final eight, and I lost to the eventual winner. I lost with a review of the movie Before Sunrise. That contest took place in a world where the sequel, Before Sunset had been released years before and a year or so before the third film in the trilogy, Before Midnight was released. Today, I decided to finally complete the trilogy, deciding that maybe I didn’t need to wait nine years for each installment.

It’s important to understand Before Sunrise going into the second and third movies in the trilogy. I won’t do a full review here, because it’s not necessary, but a quick run-through of the plot will be helpful. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a young American on a train in Vienna. He meets Celine (Julie Delpy), who is returning to Paris. Jesse has to spend the day in Vienna before his flight leaves the next day, and he doesn’t have enough money for a hotel room. His plan is to simply walk around and see the city before he leaves. He convinces Celine to leave the train with him and spend the day in Vienna. Over the course of the day, before sunrise, to coin a phrase, the two kindle something much like a romance. But lives call them; Jesse must return home, and so must Celine. They agree to meet again in Vienna in six months.