Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“None of you will go to America; none of you will be film stars.”

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

Click here for the (spoiler-y) full review.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If this picture doesn't make you scream... you're already dead. (edited 21 August)

If there’s a theme for this year’s 2nd Annual Shock Around the Clock! 24-Hour Horror Marathon, it’s anniversaries. Fully half of the scheduled repertory schedule for this year’s marathon consists of movies that are celebrating some round-number anniversary or other. The biggie, at least in terms of historical import, is the centenary of Frankenstein on film.

Yes, Mary Shelley’s enduring horror story first appeared onscreen in 1910, the subject of a short film produced by Edison Studios, and Marathon gurus Joe Neff and Bruce Bartoo have booked the film for this year, along with the classic 1931 James Whale version. And while I personally prefer the 1935 follow-up Bride of Frankenstein- currently celebrating its 75th, come to think- I certainly won’t complain about this one playing instead. Beats the hell out of the Branagh/DeNiro version of the story- and the Sting version, for that matter.

However, Filmic Frankenstein’s impending birthday salutation from Willard Scott is far from the only big news at this year’s marathon. After all, there’s another horror masterpiece that’s turning 50. That’s right, folks- William Castle’s 13 Ghosts has its golden anniversary this year, and Bruce and Joe have booked a 35mm of the film, which will of course be shown in Castle’s patented gimmick cinematic breakthrough Illusion-O, to get the full ghostly effect. Should be fun.

Oh wait, you thought I was referring to another 50th Anniversary? Like, say, Psycho? Never fear, folks- the Marathon has booked Hitchcock’s masterful thriller/shower deterrent too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in 35mm, so that ought to be a treat.

Where there’s Hitchcock, you know that DePalma can’t be far behind. Not just any DePalma either, but rather DePalma’s most Psycho-esque film, Dressed to Kill. As an unapologetic DePalma fanboy, I believe Dressed is almost the equal of Psycho, so I’m excited to see it included on this program, especially if they’ve booked a nice clean print. Oh, who am I kidding- I’d watch this one projected through cheesecloth if need be.

Like Dressed to Kill, Dario “Monkey Bite!” Argento’s Inferno is turning 30 this year. I’ve only seen this one once, on a beaten-up VHS from the library, and I know enough about Argento to know that this antiquated format couldn’t come close to doing justice to his famed use of color and light. So seeing it on the big screen promises to be pretty eye-opening.

In addition to being a 25th Anniversary screening, this year’s marathon showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also represents Joe and Bruce’s tribute to the late Dennis Hopper, who of course passed away this year. I for one plan on hitting the Grandview’s open bar, grabbing a drink (they sell Pabst Blue Ribbon, by the way) and raising a toast to Hopper, although I’d understand if you’d prefer using a nitrous inhaler for the same purpose. Hey, I’m not here to judge.

The last and perhaps most monumental marathon anniversary this year is the Platinum celebration of that eternal marathon favorite, Kevin S. O’Brien’s Night of the Living Bread cycle. For those who don’t know, O’Brien is a longtime Marathon attendee who decided to make a short spoof of Night of the Living Dead, and has since gone on to make several follow-up movies, all of which have become Marathon traditions. Bruce and Joe have hinted at special Bread-themed gifts for all attendees this year, so if you’re looking for a reason to come, there you are.

Of course, there are plenty of other goodies on the agenda beyond the requisite yeasty goodness. 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, featuring the dream pairing of Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, will be making a rare 35mm screening here. That’s especially good news since the movie has yet to see an honest-to-goodness domestic DVD release. Personally, I’m eager to see this story done well in a way that doesn’t involve Marlon Brando playing piano duets with a little person.

And speaking of weirdness, word on the street is that Nobuhiko Kobayashi’s House is a classic head-scratcher. I wasn’t able to make it to the Wexner Center screening this past spring- I know, bad bad me- so I’m stoked that Joe and Bruce booked it for this event.

A few days ago, the one and only Vern wrote a characteristically whacked-out review of Slugs in which he impugned the titular creatures’ lack of scare potential. Well, I think this year’s Marathon would beg to differ, since they’ve booked a double feature of creepy-crawly chillers. First off, there’s the 2006’s super-gross Slither, featuring a veritable army of slugs that besiege a small town, and Michael Rooker as a local bigwig whose fate is particularly grisly.

The slightly more cerebral half of the pairing is David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within (aka Shivers), in which nasty, slug-like monsters infiltrate a high-rise apartment. This is another one I’m looking forward to seeing in 35mm, especially now that I know more about Cronenberg than I did the first time I saw it.

So let’s see- Whale, Hitchcock, Castle, DePalma, Argento, Cronenberg, Hooper- what other big-name horror directors could Bruce and Joe have shoehorned into this year’s lineup? Why not John Carpenter? This year’s Carpenter selection, Prince of Darkness, isn’t one of my favorite films of his, but it’s pretty fascinating in that he basically makes a horror movie out of little more than some menacing props, some colored-mist effects, and a cast that’s basically called upon to react to these two things. I’m curious to see how well this has aged.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a marathon without a handful of local premieres. So far, there have been some rumors floating around- A Serbian Film, Tuckers and Dale vs. Evil, the I Spit on Your Grave remake- but there’s only one title confirmed as yet. That would be the notoriously brutal French film Martyrs. Much like last year’s screening of Irreversible, this isn’t exactly a “premiere” since both films were already available on DVD by the time they played the Marathon. However, in both cases the Marathon screenings representing their first big-screen showing in Central Ohio. And like Irreversible, Martyrs promises to be polarizing in its violence, albeit in a way that’s slightly more palatable to genre fans.

All in all, this looks to be a Marathon to remember. I only wish Ang was able to come with me this weekend. Alas, she’s got some family business to attend to that supersedes her desire to accompany me. Although considering Martyrs’ rep, maybe that’s for the best.

The 2nd Annual Shock Around the Clock! 24-Hour Horror Marathon runs from noon on Saturday, October 23 through noon the next day. It will take place at the Grandview Theatre, located at 1247 Grandview Avenue, in Columbus. Ticket purchase information and more can be found at Hope to see you there!

Update! The Marathon powers that be have announced a second area premiere for this year's Marathon- the cult-ready Japanese exploitation flick RoboGeisha. Yeah, me neither, but having watched the trailer I'm guessing this will be... interesting. Hopefully it's more Lady Terminator than Arthur Golden, if you know what I mean. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Killer Animal Blogathon Entry / Criterion Watching #2: White Dog

The overwhelming majority of titles that could be classified as “killer animal movies” fall squarely under the heading of B-movies. After all, for most people the phrase “killer animals” conjures up images of swarms of insects, jungle cats, or even giant bunnies on the loose, laying waste to human civilization. Hell, even the A-list movies in the lot- Jaws, most obviously- are still mostly about scaring the pants off the audience. I’m guessing that when Steve announced this Killer Animal Blogathon, his primary goal was to spotlight some of the genre’s more entertaining classics.

My selection is not one of these movies. Steve left the guidelines for the blogathon fairly vague, so while many people no doubt picked fun creature features, I decided to go the opposite direction. Not that there are many “serious” killer animal movies out there- in fact, I could only think of one. Then again, when many people hear about Sam Fuller’s White Dog, they mistake it for an especially sleazy entry into the genre. After all, it’s about a dog who kills African-Americans, so it’s got to be KKKujo, right? It was this same misconception that got White Dog withheld from American audiences by Paramount in the first place, and since then it’s gotten a bad reputation mitigated only slightly by the 2008 Criterion DVD release of the film. But then as now, White Dog is a major work by one of American cinema’s most incendiary talents, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

First, let’s just delve into that premise. Yes, this is a movie about a big white German shepherd that attacks and kills African-Americans, or as they still called them back in the early 1980s, “blacks.” But this white dog isn’t your garden variety killer animal. Unlike many killer-animal movies, White Dog never turns its titular character into a plot device who only turns up to maul someone then fade into the shadows until another victim comes calling. If anything, he’s the central character in the movie, around which all of the others revolve. Even when the dog is offscreen, he’s still the focus of the human characters’ lives and relationships with each other. At numerous points during the film, Fuller even adopts the dog’s point of view, in order to show us how he sees the world and to gauge the other characters through his eyes. In other movies, these shots might feel gimmicky, but here they enhance the film’s effect.

Likewise, Fuller allows us to gain further sympathy for the dog by focusing not on people who are against him but rather those who are most concerned. First, there’s Julie (former child star Kristy McNichol), a struggling actress who accidentally injures him with her car and takes him in before discovering his secret. Then there’s Carruthers (Burl Ives), who owns a company that provides animal performers for Hollywood. Finally, there’s Keys (Paul Winfield), the wild animal wrangler who takes it upon himself to re-educate the dog. All of these people care about the dog’s well-being in some way- Julie because she’s grown to love him, Carruthers because of his feelings about animals in general, and Keys (who is African-American) because he hates what has made the dog into a killer.

Julie is ostensibly the movie’s main human character, but Fuller is clearly most interested in and sympathetic to Keys. More than the other two, Keys recognizes that the dog is not to blame for his impulses to kill African-Americans. He speaks of the history of “white dogs”- how they were once used to track down freed slaves, then after the Civil War, escaped black prisoners (“but what about white prisoners?” Julie wisely asks). This dog’s urges are born from careful programming- early exposure to desperate African-Americans who have been paid by white racists to mistreat the animals- and based solely in fear and conditioned hatred. Keys knows that if he is to make the dog well again, he first needs to make the dog learn to trust him and his skin color. The film’s central scenes show Keys alone with the dog, allowing the dog to attack him (under pads, of course), never once retaliating. Once the dog begins to learn that Keys won’t hurt him, Keys begins to feed the dog in order to gain his trust.

Of course, it’s a long and difficult process toward rehabilitation, and at one point the dog escapes and kills an African-American man (Fuller removes any suspicion that White Dog is an exploitation film by avoiding showing both the killing and the aftermath). But even after this happens and even Julie and Carruthers want to put the dog down, Keys wants to cure the dog more than ever, motivated to score a victory against racism. In Romain Gary’s original novel, Keys acted on a need for revenge and re-trained the dog to kill whites, but Fuller wisely deviates from this and makes Keys’ motives more enlightened. The dog, by nature, is ruled by its programming, but humans are able to choose their actions.

And it’s this idea that makes White Dog more than just a killer-animal movie. By presenting us with an animal that isn’t governed by thought, Fuller asks us to consider our own deep-seated urges. After all, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but much of how people self-identify is based in personal taste and bias. Some of these biases are natural and healthy, like what foods we like. Others are mostly harmless, such as the crazy-ass belief floating around nowadays that skinny waifs are somehow more attractive than curvy women (really, guys? Really?). But sometimes, these beliefs- be they religious, political, or social- can turn into a wedge and cause rifts in our society.

For example, look at the way the word “Muslim” is treated by many Americans as a dirty word. Of course, many of these same Americans know little about Islam other than that they bombed the World Trade Center and hate women and America, but that’s enough for them to be suspicious of and hateful to over one billion people worldwide. It doesn’t help that we’ve been bombarded by decades of nefarious big-screen terrorists and images of bearded, glowering men living in caves on the nightly news. But ultimately, it’s up to us whether we want to accept our often secondhand prejudices or come to terms with life’s complexities by using facts and reason. It’s only when we learn to consider their own thoughts and actions instead of accepting them at face value that we can move past our more hateful natures. And that’s what Fuller is saying with this movie- that if you can’t learn to see the world in anything more than simple black and white, you don’t have any more sense than… well, a white dog.

Footnote: I didn’t have room in my review for this, but after watching White Dog I couldn’t help but think back on my own experiences with racism, and more specifically my first experience with it. Back in grade school, I was looking at our class’ globe with one of my classmates when we started pointing out different countries. After a while, he spun the globe around to Africa, pointed at “Niger,” and said… I’m sure you can guess. After he did this, he started chuckling to itself, said it again, and looked at me like I was supposed to laugh too.

That evening, I asked my parents what the word meant, and I was sort of stunned at what they told me. By this time, I knew about different countries and races, but I couldn’t fathom the idea of prejudice based on skin color. For one thing, one of my best friends at the time was African-American, so the idea of looking down on someone for being darker-skinned sounded strange to me. Learning about racism at that age was a rude awakening for me. In fact, I’d say I grew up more that day than on any other day of my life, even more than when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. At least when I found out about Santa Claus, the explanation seemed logical. Whereas racism still doesn’t quite compute for me.

Oh, and I still can’t read the country name “Niger” without thinking of that jackass kid. Thanks a lot, buddy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

“A guy who makes a new chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever built a chair.”

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Click here to read the full review.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“It was just so… normal!”

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

Click here to read the full review.

In other blogalicious news...

In case you hadn’t heard, a few months back the archive of posts at The Screengrab was removed from the website. Of course, Screengrab shut its doors over a year ago, but I had foolishly hoped that I’d continue to be able to steer folks to my semi-pro reviews and posts in their original context, comments and all. Alas, this wasn’t to be. I suppose Nerve was looking to save themselves some server space, which I guess I can understand. Still, it’s a little disorienting to find that an entire chapter in my life has been removed from the public record.

Anyway, I’m currently in the process of re-posting my long pieces from Screengrab to my “archive” blog My Hermes Handbag!, which had previously been used primarily to host the links to the original pieces. Naturally, this will take some time, but if you’re curious to see the longer stuff I’d write back when I was actually getting paid for it, check it out.