Friday, May 3, 2019

Walpurgis Night

There's often a lament in November that Halloween only happens once a year. And for all of the subversive gestures towards rejiggering Valentines Day or some other occasion to that end, it seemed to me always that Walpurgis night was JUST SITTING THERE, right at April 30th, a perfect midpoint between Halloweens.

Walpurgis night has been observed in different, often contradictory ways in different cultures. It is both an occasion for the gathering of witches (in Estonia) and a commemoration of St. Walpurga, a saint who converted heathens and is evoked to repel witches. Walpurgis night is at once a religious observance, an occult celebration, and an excuse to party outside to greet the arrival of Spring.

Over the years I'd made a bunch of noises about actually putting together a celebration for the occasion, but the Christian aspects kinda threw me. I spitballed a bit and came up with an itinerary for the day that articulated what I felt were its three purposes: to celebrate the occult (this is the second Halloween we're trying to execute here, after all); to honor the coming of Spring and embrace a spirit of renewal (including a vitalization of creative pursuits); and to fight true evil (a nod to the Christian observance of the holiday).

I didn't wind up throwing a big Walpurgis night party. Since I was mainly R&Ding a second Halloween, I was trying to figure out how one would celebrate the thing in the first place. I eventually settled on seven things (listed above), all of which I accomplished over the course of the day. As rigorous and rigid as this planning may seem, there was a spirit of flow, spontaneity, and joy that filled the day, and eventually I felt fully in the throes of the kind of well-being one associates with the devoted celebration of any holiday.

And even though this was a solo flight, a sense of celebration slid out into the day. A few instances hit (omens, one might call them) that the celebration was meant to be. SUCH AS:

--Donating to the Elizabeth Warren campaign hit all the bases, a femme-centric way to fight true evil, and to help build toward a brighter Spring. It's silly, but even clicking the Donate button, from the intentions of the day, felt like casting a spell.

--None of my friends and acquaintances at the Castro Theatre would go on the record about whether or not they deliberately booked for Walpurgis night Dario Argento's Suspiria (the zenith of the witch movie), but it was of course perfect for the night, the digital restoration bringing to vibrant life the intense reds and blues of Argento's arcane universe (and wrapping the whole thing up with the witches purged by fire). I was dubious about the evening's co-hit, Climax, but the usually misanthropic Gaspar Noe turned in a piece of choreographic wildness that one me over, even as his drive to annihilation manifested in the second half. The two movies had much to say to each other, and together set a perfect mood for the occasion. (Even Castro organist David Hegarty seemed tapped into the holiday, busting out "Some Enchanted Evening" before Suspiria.)

--My neighborhood was quiet upon my return home, save for someone across the street blasting Enya's "Orinoco Flow", an instance no less fraught with significance for being so hilarious.

--And finally, the candle lit at the end of the night did seem to burn off the last remnants of Winter, shining past midnight toward a brighter future that I could, finally, fully sense over the horizon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Orson Welles 201

The arrival, finally, of Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind is cause for celebration. Begun by Welles in 1970 with the intention of serving notice of his return to Hollywood, the ambitious and incendiary film wound up, like many of his projects, unfinished, the legal rights disappearing in a multinational quagmire. The completion of the film and its online availability will, one hopes, expand the profile of a great filmmaker known most widely for his first film, the groundbreaking and still absorbing 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Though many know him solely for Kane, there remains much confusion about both Welles and his body of work, with many assuming that Kane was a peak, followed by a number of unsuccessful projects, appearances in advertisements, and gradual dissolution.

But the fact was Welles never stopped working, filming projects piecemeal over a few years, acting to support his filmmaking efforts, and usually working on a number of projects simultaneously. Many fragments, shorter works, and complete pieces from Welles' lesser-seen body of work can be found on YouTube (a channel, one suspects, that Welles would be using extensively today). And outside their academic or historical value, these pieces are entertaining and engaging in their own right, reminding us that Welles was always, first and foremost, a showman.

So herewith, a kind of "Orson Welles 201", with YouTube links. Dig in!:

The Citizen Kane Trailer - cut by Welles to introduce his film and company to the general public, it's a warm and engaging little piece that also engages many of the movie's more experimental and layered techniques.

Orson Welles' Sketch Book - Six fifteen-minute episodes, shot for European television in that wonderful year of 1955, capture Welles drawing and talking. He draws you in so effortlessly, in this surprisingly intimate and engaging format, that you may find yourself, in current parlance, bingewatching all 90 minutes of it. Some YouTube commenters suggest that Welles basically invented YouTube with this series, which is a fun conceit.

The Fountain of Youth - the pilot for an anthology TV series (The Orson Welles Show, to have been executive produced by Desi Arnaz) is an astonishing stand-alone half hour story, with Welles easily adapting his vision to the small screen. Adapting John Collier's short story "Youth from Vienna," the story is shot through with Welles' vibrant high style, with Welles himself present as bemused, all-knowing (maybe too-knowing) narrator. Considered a crucial work by many Welles afficionados, it's a marvelous self-contained piece that spotlights much of what makes Welles great.

The Merchant of Venice - Welles had been fascinated by Shakespeare's drama of revenge and anti-Semitism, and numerous fragments of various attempts to film it over the years survive. In this clip from Dean Martin's variety show in 1968, we see Welles the Shakespearean actor in full force, delivering Shylock's monologue to engaged, deep silence, then sustained applause.

The F For Fake Trailer - also cut and filmed by Welles, this trailer is every bit as baffling as the movie it's meant to represent (and includes much footage that doesn't even appear in the movie, which is perfectly appropriate). And at nine minutes it cheerfully flaunts and subverts its own purpose as a piece of advertising, turning into a bizarre and lively short film in its own right.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

HELL FEST

It's not a novel premise, necessarily: a killer is stalking young people in a horror maze attraction in an amusement park during Halloween.

I don't remember seeing a slasher movie that felt so airy and carefree. It's a modest affair, but that's part of what makes it so special. It avoids quite a few slasher cliches - in particular, its young attractive cast aren't jammed into archetypes (The Jock, The Nerd, The Soulful Loner, etc.) but are instead given the freedom to simply be young people. And they're given space to breathe, quip, hang out, bullshit, and kvetch. They're a fun bunch to hang out with, to a point that it's genuinely alarming when they start getting killed off. Set inside amusement park haunted house thrill rides, the movie gives us the cinematic equivalent - cinematographer Jose David Montero catches a vibrant array of carnival colors, and the thing visually pops in ways few horror indies try to.

In a peculiar era where horror movies are making overt and strident gestures toward respectability it's easy to overlook a movie like Hell Fest. Though it doesn't punch up its more novel or political aspects those aspects are there. It manages to address toxic masculinity (via its antagonists stalking strategies) without gruesomely sexualizing its violence. In the end, it's as much a horror house ride as any of its settings, and though it doesn't overtly reinvent any wheels, it remains an engaging and worthwhile Halloween treat, right down to the truly unsettling coda.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

THE HORROR AT GALLERY KAY

Two women, their relationship past its last legs, make a last-ditch salvage effort at couples counseling. The grounded Petra (Maine Anders) is going through the motions (even though the therapist is an acquaintance of hers), while the flightier Olive (Rosebud) seems almost naively convinced that theirs was a love meant to be. Therapist Claremont Bazill (Brian Silliman) lays out the ground rules for the session, and insists that he's there to illuminate the relationship, not necessarily to save it.

Abe Goldfarb's tight, intimate film (scripted by Mac Rogers) plays so firmly as an intimate, black-and-white, play on film that one gets onto its wavelength regardless of preconceptions. The Gallery of the title isn't even mentioned until about 20 minutes in. One or two frenetic phone calls later (and with at least one untold story looming over the story), our cast take off for Gallery Kay at the movie's midpoint.

Much of the joy of this movie comes through the steadiness of its revelations, and it's a difficult thing to write up without giving those things away. Those who catch the distinctly Lovecraftian whiff off the title have a hint of where it winds up, and should be delighted how it gets there. Despite the neat bifurcation of its settings, the movie remains a relationship drama, even as its stakes turn downright apocalyptic. And though the power dynamics shift among the characters, their roles remain movingly consistent. We want Petra and Olive to stay together, and not just because the fate of our world may depend on it. And Bazill's insistence on sticking to what he knows, and talking these women through their increasingly-complex relationship, could have been played for bloody-minded comedy but instead comes off as desperate, terrified, and bracingly human.

One wishes for more overt, on-screen flourishes of the story's growing unease and horror. The otherworldly madness in the eyes of the receptionist (an eerily convincing Kristen Vaughan) over an ambiguously bloodied hospital mask is an unsettling touch, but the film plays the let-it-play-in-the-imagination card a mite too stridently and too often. There's enough intelligence and creativity on display throughout the movie to suggest that more overt twists were within the filmmakers' reach. But Goldfarb has sacrificed such gestures in favor of grounding his more-than-capable cast inside the rich world(s) of their characters, and on that front the movie certainly pays off. We may not get to really see the true horror unfold, but thanks to the performances we sure as hell feel it.

In all, The Horror at Gallery Kay remains an effective slowburn, a must for those who appreciate creative, low-budget horror with a patient, character-driven approach.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

BATTLE ROYALE

Some of the excitement on American shores for the World Cup always makes me wonder. It's a common complaint that suddenly people who exhibited no enthusiasm whatsoever for soccer suddenly (and I mean suddenly) cancel all appointments to dive in for a month. The idea seriously floated in 2014 by right-wingers that it was an Obama plot to distract from...(I just started laughing, so can't/won't finish that sentence). I sometimes believe that it's the inherent drama of an elimination tournament that is so absorbing. Every sport has its playoffs, and every playoffs has a huge viewership. So it's not a stretch to suggest that the World Cup has all of the drama of any sport's playoffs, without the drag of a season leading up, with added global involvement and stakes. Interest accumulates as you see 16 parties compete for 8 spots, then 8 for 4, then 4 for 2, then the final battle, and even if the party you root for is eliminated early, part of you lingers just to see how the whole contest turns out.

There are a number of great movies that explore and mine the inherent drama of the elimination tournament. The first that comes to this reviewer's mind is Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, in which a class of students, selected randomly in a government program, are stranded on an island, armed, and forced to hunt and kill one another. Fukasaku tells us much about each character in a very short time and balances our stakes in their fates with the inherent thrills of an elimination tournament: some of the students become rootable heroes, others embrace the kill-or-be-killed format and become despicable villains, and still others are wild cards that keep us guessing. Their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) presides over the action, but even his joking, cynical commentary can't disguise his growing ambivalence and shame. And as the body count rises and the action hurtles toward its bloody conclusion, Kitano is forced to come to grips with even more than his own personal failures.


For all of the movie's violent, visceral thrills (and make no mistake, Battle Royale has them in abundance - Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film ever), it's no less politically charged than Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza movies. Though the movie's based on a novel set in a dystopian future, Fukasaku moved the action to the present, seeing its story as a comment on a Japanese government that regularly lies to, disenfranchises, and otherwise screws over its youth. Members of the Japanese parliament played right into Fukasaku's hands when they condemned the movie as the product of a media whose irresponsibility was a direct cause of a rising tide in youth violence. Other adults, however, saw past these pronouncements, and some educators gratefully acknowledged the movie for the directness with which it addressed problems facing their students.


Battle Royale moves like a blockbuster, but it balances its intelligence and politics deftly with its thrills. It's keenly aware of the mechanics of the elimination tournament being played out within it, and uses our own awareness of those mechanics to engage us with its action and its politics. (Every so often the movie pauses to list the names and grade status of the dead so far, a gesture that both engrosses and implicates us in the game being played.) For all of its superviolent gestures and exploitation cinema tropes, Battle Royale keeps us engaged with the humanity of all of its characters, and ultimately enlists us in its revolutionary crusade. And for all that, it's utterly thrilling.

(Incidentally, when someone insists to you that The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale, you may safely ignore anything else they say. This knee-jerk comparison speaks more to the observer's innate need to bash something popular to praise their own cultish appreciation than either of the items under scrutiny. Both movies riff on the same very general premise, but neither is the first to take the elimination tournament to lethal extremes. And to its credit The Hunger Games is as squarely focused on exploring American dysfunction and inequality as Battle Royale is on its own culturally specific societal malaise. What the movies truly have in common is that neither one bullshits the young people they're aimed at about the problems they're facing. And that's a similarity to be celebrated.)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Dredds

Funny how we can't praise one movie without bashing another. Or how we can't praise the current iteration of a character/franchise without smearing the reputation of those that came before.

Case in point: Judge Dredd, the anti-hero from the pages of British comics weekly 2000 AD. Patrolling the sprawling future metropolis of Mega-City One, never cracking a smile from beneath his helmet (we haven’t seen his face since the strip premiered in the 70s), and empowered to dispense justice on the spot, Dredd is one of comics’ greatest icons. In its 30-odd-years-and-counting existence, Judge Dredd has covered about every genre imaginable, from futuristic action to social drama to wacky comedy to epic horror. It was only natural that the strip would eventually be adapted for the screen.


The first attempt, starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, hit in 1995. Many fans who had been keen for a Dredd flick had issues with Stallone, not just because he's Stallone, but because he removed his helmet. Many felt that putting a face on the character betrayed him, and further felt that imposing a physical presence though Stallone was and is, he simply wasn’t/isn’t Dredd.

And yet, like a Shakespeare tragedy with a bad actor in the lead but a solid supporting cast, there was plenty for fans to enjoy in the margins. The movie went out of its way to capture many of the iconic occurrences and characters of Dredd’s sizable universe: Chief Judge Fargo (played by Max von Sydow, no less) resigns in disgrace, taking the Long Walk into the wasteland outside the city; Judge Hershey (often Dredd’s conscience in the comics) is given dimension and grace by Diane Lane; and the murderous outlanders in the Angel Clan are also vividly, accurately realized, right down to the dial on the Mean Machine’s head. Hell, the movie went OUTSIDE Dredd’s milieu and into the pages of 2000 A.D.’s other worlds to recast the ABC Warrior robot Hammerstein (gorgeously realized via animatronic effects) as one of its many colorful villains.


And yet Stallone’s admittedly distracting presence at the center of the movie remained most fans’ abiding memory of it. Which is part of what made the recently released Dredd such a pleasure for those fans. The title role was played here by Karl Urban (previously seen in his downright uncanny performance as Dr. McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). Fans were immediately reassured by Urban’s initial statements that he was taking the role quite seriously (being a fan himself), and assured viewers that, as in the comics, Dredd would never, ever remove his helmet.

Once the movie arrived on our screens, fans rejoiced: Urban WAS the stoic, unstoppable force for justice they knew from the comics. (And Olivia Thirlby was quickly noted to be equally as impressive as Dredd’s more humane, less experienced cohort Psi-Judge Anderson.) Limited somewhat by its budget, the movie focused on gritty urban action, reducing Mega-City One to a single imposing city block. This strategy and the ensuing gritty action were familiar to action connoisseurs from recent fare such as The Raid: Redemption and even Attack the Block, and worked remarkably well as an evocation of Dredd’s world.


Longtime Dredd fan that I am, I was just as pleased by this film as any other member of its smallish but passionate cult. In addition to the virtues named above, its use of 3-D was novel and thrilling, and its pedigree was unmistakably Dreddian. And yet I wished we’d been able to see a bit more of the decadence and desperation of the ’95 Mega-City One. Though Dredd was deemed “the perfect Judge Dredd film”, I felt a truly perfect Dredd film would bring aspects of the ’95 edition. But any such arguments were quickly swept aside by fans who went out of their way to slam the earlier movie as a means of expressing their love for the new one.

Perhaps the world of comics is more forgiving than that of movies. After all, Dredd has gone through a number of writers and countless artists, all of whom have brought their strengths and perspectives to bear on the character. Perhaps it’s because with Dredd in the comics you only have to wait a week for a new interpretation to come by; thousands of stories in comics form versus two cinematic adaptations perhaps breeds more patience and breadth on the comics front. And maybe there’s just a vocal minority of cinephiles who are simply incapable of praising one movie without bashing another.

Regrettable though this tendency is, I am of a piece with the rest of the Dreddcult in hoping that a sequel does eventually manifest. Urban is no doubt ready to take on Judge Death, who’d look magnificent in this new, grittily urban MC-1. (UPDATE TO ADD: the creative team of Arthur Wyatt, Alex De Campi, and Henry Flint just completed this story in comics form: The Dead World wrapped its fine six-issue run in the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine last month.)

In the meantime, where the hell's my ABC Warriors movie?



This post previously appeared on another workblog.

KRULL (1983)

From this desk, the two best reasons to become an actor are Shakespeare and fantasy cinema. These worlds often intersected in the late 70s through the 80s, with many an outlandish fantasy given dramatic heft (and perhaps a dose of grounding realism) by expert, classically trained thespians. Star Wars balanced the work of its talented newcomers with performances by British veterans Alec Guiness & Peter Cushing. Brian Blessed makes the strongest impression in the 1980 Flash Gordon as the bombastic King Vultan, but he's not the only classically-trained actor giving his all to that berserk, colorful fantasy. Even the makers of the gaudy and delirious StarCrash were canny enough to bring in Christopher Plummer for a crucial role. (Props to Max von Sydow, who seems to have accepted every sci-fi role offered him.) And had Jodorowsky's Dune been distributed by someone rich and insane, it too would have married the work of some of its era's finest fantasy artists with a stellar cast able to truly run riot within the world imagined by those artists.

1983's Krull is well-remembered (both fondly and disparagingly) by those who came of age around that year. There was some critical resistance to Krull, which cited both the movie's bloated budget and its busy script as drawbacks. But at least on the two-pronged front being considered here, Krull delivers.


There's something lovely and otherworldly happening in every scene in Krull. The movie reportedly had 23 different sets built in England to create Krull's fanciful, Dark-Ages-yet-sorta-high-tech world, from the richly realized palaces inhabited by its characters to the teleporting fortress housing the Beast, Krull's glistening, evil antagonist. Even the designers of the weaponry went above and beyond, manifesting equally in the the single-shot laser spears wielded by the Beast's army of Slayers to the frankly awesome 5-pronged Glaive tossed about by the heroic Prince Colwyn. Look at this damn thing:


No one actually saw Krull in 1983, but everyone who did wanted a Glaive.

The story is packed, the world is vividly realized, and everyone in the cast just runs with it. Ken Marshall is fleet-footed but earnest as Colwyn, and everyone in the band of adventurers that gels around him during his quest gets at least a moment to shine. Freddie Jones holds the Ben Kenobi role with ease, guiding Colwyn with generous elder wisdom (and holding his own in the movie's most spellbinding sequence, a reunion with a former love presided over by a giant crystal spider). A band of thieves that falls in with Colwyn is led by Alun Armstrong, moonlighting from acting duties at the Royal Shakespeare Company and fully inhabiting the arc of a potentially tertiary character. (You'll recognize youthful Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane among his fellow thieves, and see strong hints of the leading men they'd become.) Beloved stage actor (and Carry On mainstay) Bernard Bresslaw is, naturally, covered in effects makeup as a cyclops, but endows the character with indelible pathos. Even Ergo the Magnificent, a third-rate wizard serving as comic relief, is given a rich character arc, beautifully realized by comic veteran David Battley from inflated egomaniac to a team player, able to sprout teeth when the chips are down. And Lysette Anthony makes the most of what could have been a rote damsel-in-distress, finding real strength within her innocence to survive as captive of the Beast.

Against this blockbuster era in which beloved books are stretched into multi-movie events, a movie like Krull that packs so much detail into a scant two hours seems, unfairly, quaint. The thing's been part of my life for so long that I can hardly be objective about it. And yet I like to think that its charms wouldn't be lost on a generation weaned on digital effects. That we haven't been so blinded by CGI that we can't recognize the abundant imagination of an older movie like Krull, its world beautifully conceived and built by hand, and inhabited by a cast that makes even the smallest roles seem larger than life.

(Ported over from a now-defunct work blog. There will be more.)