Thursday, January 21, 2021

Time to defend another polarizing horror movie...

Though, considering how marginalized the film is, I suppose ‘defend’ is a bit hyperbolic (in which case, so is ‘polarizing’). So, since everyone else’s reactions to Gretel & Hansel were unenthusiastic, lemme inject some passion into this non-existent debate: It’s on the shortlist (the very, very short list) of movies that actually scare me.

I’ve got a soft spot for inconsequential little movies like Gretel & Hansel; the kinda movies people throw away - not out of hatred, per se, but more so out of indifference. And it’s worth noting the exact flavor of the indifferent attitudes toward the film: a lotta “hmmms” and “huhs” upon its initial release, as in: “that movie was kinda odd and interesting but nobody else seems to care, so let’s not talk about it.” No, please, let’s.

I could go into a big thing about modern horror and how Oz Perkins fits into this new fabric of slowburn, atmosphere-driven pastiches, but I won’t. All I’ll say is this: the ethos of Perkins’ films is relatively indistinct from his peers’, but there’s nevertheless something noticeably idiosyncratic about his directorial approach to these so-called pastiches.

In other words, I found Gretel & Hansel to be more memorable than, say, The Witch. 

Some movies you revisit again and again in an effort to understand why you dislike them, until one day you realize that you love them. To be fair to this movie, I never disliked it, but my feelings were definitely mixed. And to be fair to myself, I predicted early on that it could feasibly overtake Blackcoat’s Daughter as my favorite Perkins film. Alas, it has climbed much higher than that... 

Based on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, audiences generally praised the movie’s cinematography (because that’s the term laypeople use for anything visual) but complained about the thin story. I used to sympathize with these criticisms; I remember thinking - and probably saying - that if Suspiria had been directed like G&H it would be an all-time favorite. Talk about missing what’s right in front of you: is Suspiria remembered for anything other than its sights and sounds? Sure, the characters aren’t worth much, but from that same vantage, Forrest Gump isn’t very scary. You can’t expect a film to do more than its job. People hold certain movies to promises they didn’t keep: G&H was sold as “unnerving” and “spooky,” two adjectives it earns in spades.


That may even be the point here: forget comparative arguments or the genre as a whole; what else could you want from this movie? 

The marketing painted a succinct, spot-on picture of what you were gonna get: “more of this.” The trailers were so succinct, in fact, that the movie itself feels like an extension of them -- a longer, meatier riff on that same kind of abstraction. Some genres benefit from that, speaking in macrocosmic terms again for a moment - namely, horror and comedy. 

On the other hand, we all know those movies that should’ve probably just been trailers (Hereditary, Us, It Follows). But what if, instead of the overly cerebral approach those movies took, they went the opposite direction and embraced barebones simplicity?

Audiences would probably be pretty frustrated... 

But weren’t they already? 

And therein lies the rub. Horror, at the moment, is trapped in this catch-22. There’s allegedly a lot of elation about the revival of ‘good horror’ over the past decade, but aggregate ‘audience scores’ online tell a different story. Only James Wan came outta this thing unscathed (sorta). 

I don’t sympathize with the categorization of Blumhouse movies as “dumb.” I mean, yeah, of course they are dumb, but to me that’s just a consequence of their biggest drawback: unnecessary plotting. My hope for the future of the genre is less story, though that seems increasingly unlikely. 

That’s not to discount the handful of great horror scripts that came out of the 2010s - Mike Flanagan is invaluable. But horror is a director’s game, and Flanagan is a writer first and foremost, which makes him an anomaly. So, as long as the genre is gonna remain a sandbox for ‘edgy arthouse’ I’d rather we just dispense with the pretense of plot. 

I mentioned earlier that modern horror is atmosphere-driven, and that’s cool; I’ll accept that. But what I really look forward to is the day that horror is composition-driven. As for Gretel & Hansel, the atmosphere is not only a driving force, it’s more potent than anything A24 or NEON have produced. The smoggy photography and severe lenses make for less of a ‘spin’ on the classic fairytale and more of a gnarled twist - like grown-up Sleepy Hollow suspended in formaldehyde. 

And yet, the compositions are the scariest part of the film! 

(Kudos to whoever found the creepiest little girl in cinema history)

People complain about jump-scares in mainstream fare, but even the aforementioned ‘good horror’ leans on the same basic principle of weaponizing anticipation (oftentimes to the dismay of viewers).
G&H, on the other hand, derives its mounting dread primarily from lingering images - a more impressive feat and something I haven’t really experienced since the original Shining. If the digs at G&H’s story are meant as mealy-mouthed euphemisms for its impotence as a ‘scary movie’ then they’re patently wrong: effective scares can come from anywhere, be it plot, music, direction, et al, ergo this becomes a question of what we want. Looking at the historical record, it’s obvious what we hold most dear in the field of horror are auteurs, and by demoting the script, Perkins makes room for himself to be one. I’d like to see (read: see) more of that from his peers. 

But what about the movie’s flaws? Well, keep a lookout for it in the next installment of Good Movies With Bad Opening Title Sequences...

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Films of 71: McCabe and Mrs. Miller

 50 years is a benchmark for celebrating anniversaries. So today we're kicking off a celebration of the films from 1971. The idea was to make a top twenty list at some point this year. Yet upon looking at the movies that came out that year, I was overwhelmed. You can make a top 25 and still regret leaving quality flicks out. So instead of a one day thing, this is going to be a year long celebration of the year that gave us some of the strongest works from Kubrick, Altman, Friedkin, Bogdonavich, and Roeg. 

On the genre circuit we were gifted the folk horror of Blood On Satan's Claw, the wildly transgressive The Devils, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and the one two lesbian vampire punch of Vampyros Lesbos and Daughters of Darkness. Italian giallo continued to grow with Dario Argento (Cat O'Nine Tails), Lucio Fulci (Lizard In A Woman's Skin) and Sergio Martino (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh). Blaxpoitation exploded onto the scene with Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song. The comedy circuit had Elaine May, Hal Ashby and Woody Allen releasing A New Leaf, Harold and Maude and Bananas. 

It's January, the snow is falling outside, so what better time to watch or talk about McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

After the success of MASH, Altman turned his eye toward an adaptation of Edmund Naughton's 1959 novel about a gambler who defies a small town from the predations of a powerful mining company. Altman chose it because of how conventional it was. "It's the most ordinary, common western that's ever been told." 

As I've said before somewhere on this blog, traditional westerns don't interest me. So it delighted me to see the Altman twist on the genre. It's an anti-western. Along for the ride are Altman regulars Rene Auberjoinis, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall and script supervisor Joan Tewkesberry. The two big chips in this gamble were Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Two mainline actors who all but secured financing from Warner Bros. to make the picture. 

Altman always likes playing around with struture. McCabe is no different. The secondary characters played by the likes of Carradine and Michael Murphy have rich storylines. Julie Christie's Mrs. Miller doesn't even appear until the half hour mark. So we are left without a central narrative for the first 30 minutes. This is nothing new to Altman. In future projects he will only expand on these narrative experiments. 

The first thing I think of when McCabe is brought up is the look of the film. We have Vilmos Zsigmond to thank for this. But we also have the director himself. He partially exposed the negatives to destroy the clarity of the film. In the book Altman on Altman, the director describes his thought process. "I wanted it to have that antique, historical look. I really set out to make it look like those old photographs do." The result is looking at the images as if looking through stained glass. 

Like MASH, Altman once again experimented with sound. Specifically with overlapping dialogue. One of his big complaints with the artifice of filmmaking was the fact that there was all of this clean dialogue where no one overlapped one another. It wasn't realistic. Beatty would complain later about how he couldn't hear anything being said in the movie. In an interview on The Dick Cavett show, Altman discusses how he worked on the picture. 

We can't leave out one of the defining parts of the movie: Leonard Cohen. Back in 2016, the death of Leonard Cohen was a twist of the knife. A slap on an already gaping wound after dealing with the passing of David Bowie. It begins with Stranger Song and ends with Winter Lady. As much as I love Short Cuts, The Player, Images, California Split, and The Long Goodbye, the Cohen songs coupled with the howling winter winds put it over the top as my 2nd favorite Altman. Just behind Nashville.

On the commentary track, Producer David Foster calls the ending a 'true ending'. The 70s were littered with them. The ending of Electra Glide In Blue is such an example. That pull back on the road as Terry Kath's Tell Me is playing and the credits roll. Criterion put out a beautiful edition that is a must for an Altman head. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

In The Loupe: Uncut Gems' Perfect Chaos

  Actual messes have no patterns but our brains innately create them. When I was a kid I was obsessed with emulating Ralph Steadman's gonzotic frenzies; I'd try to go against my own internal algorithms by painstakingly drawing every sloshy oblong sprinkle with a pencil because splattering actual ink somehow felt like 'cheating.' I still look at some of those old drawings and get annoyed at how equally-sized or symmetrical my constructed splotches are.

  Uncut Gems is the most seamlessly edited movie I've seen in the last ten years. It might not seem that way since it's so chaotic and intense but it's next-to-fucking-impossible to fabricate chaos and the Safdie Brothers are the Gods Of Anxiety who make it happen. I don't want to sit up and say Gems is 'realistic' because every movie feels like a movie to me now, gone are the days where I forget that I'm watching one. But while Gems has movie moments, the editing is its greatest recourse to tearing down the artifice and investing me like I'm watching something real.

It opens with one of the most inspired disguised cuts I've ever seen and from that point on there's nothing clever about its surgical embroidery. The Safdies' collaborator, Ronald Bronstein, said their approach was to make the editing "invisible" and "to remove all direct signs of control and craft from the process." What makes it even more impressive is how the environments they're cutting around are so bustling and alive; the pings and dings of text alerts that are completely irrelevant to us, conversations that drown while others come up for air, and intimidating threats in the background that mute the noise altogether. To some this makes the movie cacophonous and unbearable but I'm legless until the credits roll.

  While this approach to editing makes the movie intoxicating, it's also a sobering alternative to the dated sensationalism of long-take tracking shots. If we're going by the notion of
 tracking shots functioning as human sight, then when do we blink? In editing, that's where. Of course a movie can be edited to death but a cut doesn't remind me that I'm watching a movie as much as a camera's fluid, unflinching gaze does.

  Now, don't get me wrong, I love the docu-drama camera at the end of Children Of Men; the blood on the lens makes it feel like a war photographer in the shit; the camera itself a character and not a surrogate for lenticular POV. And the raid sequence-shot in Season 1 of True Detective not only serves a narrative function but it's possibly the best thing to happen to TV in the 2010s.

  Where I draw issue is within movies like 1917, Creed, Atomic Blonde, et. all modern blockbusters trying to pull off sequence shots and failing because their attempts to 'disguise' the cuts are hideously obvious. Even if it's pulled off well, either by putting in the work or with well-hidden cuts, it's not impressive anymore, it's just expensive choreographed masturbation. Writing about The Knick, Matt Zoller-Seitz referred to Soderbergh's long takes as "what film geeks call a 'stealth oner' — a one-take scene that’s so subtly executed that you may not notice the lack of cuts until you watch it a second time."

  But that's what every one-take shot should be: Not calling attention to what it's doing but tricking you into not even realizing it's happening in the first place.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

James Ellroy's Dark Places

Few authors have become as synonymous with a time and a place than James Ellroy and 50's LA. He once said to an interviewer that he will never set a book later than 1972. His attendance with the past is only matched by his living in it. The apartment Ellroy resides in has no television. There's no cell phones, computer or Internet. He writes in long hand and sends the pages to get typed. He then corrects the typed pages. 

The first step into Ellroy's matched many others. It was LA Confidential. The author was unknown to me when I had first seen the movie. All I knew was it was a film noir set in LA during the 50's. The serpentine plot coiled around me like a snake. A finely tuned machine where every gear was greased for maximum efficiency. When I heard that the film pales in comparison to the book, I took it into consideration but never really sought the book out. This is something that is said about every book to film adaptation. Years pass and I revisit the film for the 4th (?) time. A line catches me: "Dudley Smith, Stensland and Buzz Meeks go way back." It's a hook just big enough to catch me and reel me back into my curiosity with the source material. 

The book he wrote before LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere, follows three policemen. Sound familiar? Their names are Danny Upshaw, Mal Considine and one Leland 'Buzz' Meeks. The setting might as well have been cut with mirror shards and snorted up the nostril- 1950. The height of the communist Red Scare. Where the House of Unamerican Activities was in full swing in Hollywood. If HUAC wasn't enough to entice me, throw in a serial killer for good measure and the book rocketed up to the top of my 'must read' pile. Upon reading the book, I entered a Boschian canvas of human depravity. All three protagonists were deeply unlikable yet compelling. The supporting cast includes Mickey Cohen and Howard Hughes. The plot is laced with teamsters, wolverines, necrophilia, incest, heroin, blackmail, and corruption up to your eyeballs. This is the proverbial Demon Dog in full swing. Teeth on the leg and won't let go until the bloody climax. 

Let's pull the band aid of this post with a hasty tear: Ellroy has his fair share of demons.There's no getting past this. You don't write stuff like The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and American Tabloid without harboring ghosts. Ellroy's childhood has one deep, scarlet wound that would damage any fully functioning individual. 

The rape and murder of his mother changed the course of his life. He was ten years old. The author refused to go to any therapist. He refused any confrontation of the trauma and instead chose to channel it into his work. 

A documentary that facilitated my love of Ellroy is appropriately titled Feast of Death. It intercuts between excerpts from his semi-autobiography My Dark Places, a chronicle of the death of his coming to terms with the death of his mother, a Q & A for his latest book at the time and a dinner between him and a nuch of detectives where they discuss the now infamous unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short or, The Black Dahlia. The subject of his 1987 novel. 

So if you want a guide down the dimly lit corridors of the so called American Dream in the 50s where obsessive detectives are prescribed murder inquiries as an antiseptic to their crumbling interior lives, then look no further. Just remember dear readers, this is off the record, on the QT and very hush hush. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

What's a stoner noir without the munchies?

It was mid-January, exactly 6 years go, when I first saw it. My 20th birthday present: a new PT Anderson film. And thinking about it now, I partially blame the backdrop of an Alaskan winter for my initial reaction.

Fresh off that screening, I was confident I’d just seen PT’s weakest film to date (and I wasn’t alone). It had to happen sooner or later, I thought. And with my complicated feelings about The Master growing more complicated each day, I wasn’t altogether surprised PT had finally fumbled the ball. In fact, I might’ve even been a lil grateful: if this is what a ‘bad’ PT movie looked like, then fuck if he didn’t fumble with grace.

I rarely read reviews - mostly because I know what I’m gonna get, positive or negative: self-indulgent prose with little substance. But what’s funny is that sometimes when I re-read my own reviews I find I’m guilty of this, too. I don’t know exactly how that happens - even as I write this, I suspect I’ll look at it in a month and roll my eyes at the verbosity. I guess we - all of us - ramble until we actually say something, which is also a pretty good description of Inherent Vice

Reviews for the film were similar to the film itself: vague, confused, exhaustive attempts to unpack what happened. And nobody was in a rush to call the movie mediocre, it being a PT joint n’ all. Incidentally, this had nothing to do with my own feelings about the movie (which were clear to me from the outset), but I looked at the reviews because I was curious to see if anybody - bloggers, YouTubers, professional critics, friends - was able to look past the movie’s convoluted narrative and offer up a succinct diagnosis for why it didn’t work. Nobody was.

And more than that, if I’m being honest, I wanted to know how many Anderson stans out there were willing to call a spade a spade. None were. 

Needless to say, approximately zero reviews made mention of anything that actually pertains to the quality of a movie - any movie, not just this one. Everyone agreed it was meh, albeit reticently, but nobody seemed to know why. I won’t speculate as to other peoples’ reasons, but mine was singular: Joaquin. He was miscast -- unfunny, uncharismatic, and kind of a sore thumb. He couldn’t carry the story and, as a result, I didn’t much care for it. And if that sounds reductive then you’re starting to see my point: when you have a film whose tone and pacing are a teetering Jenga tower, one wrong pull can send the whole thing tumbling down. 

But here comes the fun part: that entropy works both ways. 

Now, to be clear, this isn’t one of those “the movie grew on me” things. This is something more specific to this particular movie: pizza (and cinnamon bread sticks). See, Inherent Vice is a vibe. No more, no less. Just like its predecessor. And sometimes all you need to tie a room together is a new piece of furniture... 

I, for one, have never been afraid of supplementing my moviegoing experiences. In fact, neither is anybody else: horror movies are better on Halloween, and Christmas movies are better on Christmas. Those are two universally-accepted examples of the true nature of cinema: the ‘quality’ of any movie is an amorphous and impermanent thing (which is why film criticism itself is sorta DOA, tbh). 

I watched Inherent Vice in mid January. I enjoyed it about as much as I’d enjoy Krampus on a July afternoon. But this isn’t even about seasonal context, necessarily. A hot, summery backdrop helps, but this is about something more tangible: PIZZA! (and cinnamon bread sticks)

(Actually, it’s mostly about cinnamon bread sticks.)

Flashback to the summer of 2018, while living in Florida, I revisited Vice for the first time in three years. By sheer happenstance, I also ordered myself some pepperoni pan pizza + the aforementioned cinnamon bread sticks from Hungry Howie’s. This cute little accident quickly became a routine for me, and now, on my 26th birthday, I pass it along to you, reader:

The pizza and Inherent Vice went together like pizza and Inherent Vice (it’s a thing). Linearly speaking, the paired aromas of the cinnamon and pizza sauce (not to mention your growling stomach) complement the breezy, zoned-out opening to the film. Ideally, you shouldn’t take your first bite til you hear “Vitamin C” 

Howie’s doesn’t go easy on the cheese or the sauce - or at least they didn’t where I lived - and for the better: it’s greasy and kinda gross, but in an endearing way, like our protagonist. And their dough is of a particularly soft and moist consistency, not unlike the dopey whimsy suffused throughout this hazy noir, but remember: this is a PT Anderson Picture, so the physical humor is directed with the photorealism of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie -- the pepperoni can help bridge this tonal gap. (You can order your crust stuffed if you want, but I found the fluffy, unstuffed crust was better suited to Bigfoot Bjornsen’s temperament.) 

Word to the wise: eat slow. If the pizza cools off a little, til it’s just above room temperature, that’s even better. Hopefully it’s the middle of June and the AC is broken.  

After the pie is devoured and you’re feeling disgusting, you’ll probably have to step away from the TV for a minute to nuke the cinnamon sticks and the icing, but don’t pause it -- you’ve seen the movie already and nothing in it makes any fucking sense anway, so as long as the vibe follows you to the kitchen then so does the movie.

And now it’s time for this B- movie to jump up a whole letter grade.

The proverbial (and in this case, literal) icing on a noir is, of course, the mystery. Vice is categorized as a ‘stoner noir,’ and if we’re calling it that then let’s not mince words: for better or worse, it is the stoner noir. Objectively, it’s twistier than any Coen yarn and more lethargic than fuckin’ Apocalypse Now. And the yarn is never unraveled either - it just twists tighter and tighter until it’s so tight it flattens into a straight line. Questions pile up atop one another without anything even resembling an answer. So, while the story tantalizes your imagination with empty calories, you can do the same to your stomach.

By the third act you’ll be feeling fat, sweaty, sleepy, and stupid, and with a little luck, you might be moved to tears, too, when Bigfoot eats Doc’s weed. 

And who knows, maybe one day, if I decide to switch up my beverage, the movie could nudge its way into my all-time Top 100.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Good Movies, Bad Titles Part 1: GREEN ROOM and THE IRISHMAN

   No one, lately, has put as much effort into christening their work like S. Craig Zahler has. Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete are all vivid, sticky handles. But his next movie has a fucking doozy of a title: Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric Of An Anomalous Child. He's going too far with that one but he's 3-for-3 so I'm excited for it regardless of that tryhard-ass name. In fact, my favorite movie of the 2010s has this problem.

ust like The Ain't Rights being billed as The Aren't Rights, Green Room's name is all wrong.

    I love, love, love this movie but I hate, hate, hate this title. Like, I get it, Saulnier is following Blue Ruin with another color title but it's nowhere near as memorable as BLUE RUIN. The Green Room is where you hang out and chill, which fits the hangout structure and that's where they spend most of their time. That's where it starts and stops; not much thought went into it. It's a boring, uninspired, weak title.

An Alternative: FLEISCHWOLF
  "It's fucking hard, man" and it would grab my attention more than Green Room does. Considering it translates, from German, to MEAT GRINDER, is fittingly brutal. Not to mention it's the Cowcatcher song that meant Emily's freedom. Then again, she was killed to Toxic Evolution, but that would be a bit much.


  The Irishman is unfortunate because it's a fucking great movie held back by avoidably terrible decisions. It's got a great script, stellar performances, and some of Marty and Thelma's best work together. But there's that baffling digital de-aging of the actors. It's not even bad de-aging because it never looks good. With Doctor Sleep, which came out the same year, Mike Flanagan made the wise decision to just recast the actors from The Shining and it completely works. Scorsese should have done the same; Jon Bernthal is a ringer for young DeNiro and he's just as good, too. Without those hideous synthetic faces, Irishman would be one of my top 20 of the decade, easily. So the title isn't the only thing working against it but I figured, while I'm bitching, I might as well get another word in.

  It's just such a -nothing- title to me; too small, too bite-sized, and uninteresting.
I've actually forgotten it before. The thing about it, and this inspired the whole post, is how the title never appears until the very end. But what does appear, early on, is the title of the book it's based on. Thelma cuts it in between shots of the road and every time I see it I just pretend this isn't called The Irishman.
  This is an interesting, evocative, unforgettable title  - Charles Brandt knew that. Scorsese didn't want it to go to waste so he made good use of it but not the best use of it. Then again, if you recall DeNiro's pixelated face, Scorsese wasn't making the best decisions.

5 Film Books You Need to Read Pt. 1: For the Sleazehounds

Tired of your snobby friend constantly pushing Godard in your face? Can no longer stand being told that anything outside the AFI Top 100 isn't considered worth your time? I have a cure. 5 of them. 

1. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia and The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael J. Weldon (tie)
What is a psychotronic movie? Michael J. Weldon describe it as: 

"Psychotronic films range from sincere social commentary to degrading trash. They concern teenagers, rock n' roll, juvenile delinquents, monsters, aliens, killers, spies, detectives, bikers, communists, drugs, natural catastrophes, atomic bombs, the prehistoric past and the projected future. They star ex-models, ex-sports stars, would-be Marilyns, future Presidents (and First Ladies), dead rock stars, and has beens of all types."

Both books have become invaluable reference tool for me. If I come across a movie I never heard about or if one of my favorite boutique blu ray companies is releasing a movie that is new to me, I consult these books and 9 times out of 10 it's in there. 

What separates Weldon's writing style from say, Danny Pearry's is that the volume of movies is exhaustive while the information pertaining to each one is a bite sized nugget of information. Whereas Pearry

2. Nightmare USA by Stephen Thrower
Sometimes the story behind how a movie is made is more interesting than the movie itself. There's enough information on regional made exploitation to keep someone entertained for days. Can also be used for beating house burglars to death. 

3. Cult Movies 1, 2 and 3 by Danny Pearry
Pearry chooses 100 films that range from the silent era up to the date the book was published, 1998. 
The author argues for misunderstood movies and is informed, opinionated and passionate about what he loves. Name dropped by the likes of Edgar Wright and Patton Oswalt, his 3 books on cult movies were essential building blocks to thriving genre film culture.

4. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste by John Waters 
John Waters writes exactly how he speaks- like a friend dishing out gossip with honest casualness. If you listened to any of his interviews, you know he can't be beat as a storyteller. His philosophy: outsiders are the heroes of the world and to lead a normal life is to lead a boring life. This is the weirdo manifesto. Get on it. 

5. House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse
What is so unique about this book is that the author mixes the world of academic writing on horror films with her own personal stories. Janisse splits the book into ten chapters. Each covering an aspect of female hysteria or neurosis.If you are a fan of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Zulawski's Possession, Altman's Images, Carrie, Ms. 45, Repulsion, or any genre film that focuses on female neurosis, you owe it to yourself to check out this book.