Friday, December 24, 2010

and again thru the House...

Three minutes to the 25th here at the House of Sparrows, and your proprietor, and all within the House, sincerely wish you all the best this holiday season.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Shot piecemeal over several years on 8mm, this movie tells the story of an assassin brought out of retirement to chase two briefcases in exchange for the name of the man who killed his wife.

Aside from genre mainstay Danny Trejo and a couple of other veterans (including Mark Metcalf), there are few professional actors in this movie, giving the blocky setups a leaden and weird vibe. Filmmaker Frankie Latina seems to have drafted acquaintances at his various locations (including Milwaukee, Tokyo, and Taipei) - the film may well have been shot on different vacations, which is borne out by the home movie feel of the thing. Most of these performers are at least enthusiastic, and give Latina credit for including as much male nudity as female.

It's completely devoid of polish, chock full of filler, and listlessly acted...but it's never, ever boring, with a few action scenes that pop up out of nowhere. One never knows what's coming, and the off-kilter delirium does pay off come the action-packed, profoundly insane climactic shootout (though there's still about fifteen minutes after that, including a couple minutes of low-budget sci-fi and a final explosion that, disappointingly, we don't get to see.)

The cult that is allowing Tommy Wiseau to control their responses to his shitty, shitty, shitty movie THE ROOM would do well to discover this movie - it's less pretentious and a lot more fun.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


A smart little 1981 horror flick, with tourists being waylaid in a small Northern California town and murdered by the locals. The sheriff gets a bit dismayed as it becomes clear that the victims are coming back to life, and assuming roles in his otherwise sleepy town. It's an effective and funny little flick that plays a number of notes very well, from the quietness of the opening to the good-humored quirkiness of the townsfolk, everything deliberately and smartly building to a gloriously hysterical finale. The Mendocino settings are evocative, with even interior shots seemingly shot through a thin layer of fog. More than worth a look, and utterly deserving of its cult status

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Come on in.

An ideal film for winter, as icy and chilling as a perfect gin & tonic. Anthony Shaffer's play gets rewritten by Harold Pinter, restaged by director Kenneth Branagh and production designer Tim Harvey, performed by Michael Caine and Jude Law, and observed by you.

The story unfolds in a gorgeously chilly, always-in-motion house filled with surveillance technology, contemporary British art and reflective surfaces.

Indeed, Caine and Law serve as mirrors to each other in myriad ways...

...not the least of which is Law playing a role essayed by Caine in the film's previous version. The house, as many cinematic interiors before it, is a reflection of a character's psychology, though whose psychology exactly is open to question - the battle of wills between Wyke and Tindle rages unabated, with the house changing allegiances and favoring each in turn throughout.

...but the house is a liminal zone that fills the whims of Pinter and Branagh as well.

This ladder, for example, exists within the house for no apparent practical purpose but to serve Wyke's frame job in act I. Was this plan in the cards during the house's design phase?

The film serves gorgeously as an ambient film, drawing you into its vicious spaces thru screen upon screen. It's bound to its single set like a stage play, but takes you through it in a way only possible in film. The set reveals its spaces just as Pinter's languages opens its own pit traps. Fall in.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Pleased was your proprietor to see, hot on the heels of last month's Onibaba review, that Janus Films was touring a print of another period horror piece by Kaneto Shindo.

KURONEKO's story is as lean a folk tale as ONIBABA's, with a wife and mother of a samurai returning as vengeful spirits after being brutally raped and murdered by a gang of 17 soldiers. Waylaying samurai outside the Rajomon Gate, the two angry ghosts drink the blood of their victims to sate the vengeful demon that returned them to human form. Things become complicated when their long-missing son and husband, a successful samurai, is charged to investigate and eliminate them.

Shindo's tale is captured in a setting as powerful and evocative as ONIBABA's susuki fields, but the world is expanded to include artificial settings that frame its ghostplay perfectly - the gorgeous bamboo forest doesn't suffocate its characters as ONIBABA's susuki, but seem to push them into these gorgeous, metatheatrical worlds. Shindo unleashes an arsenal of cinematic and theatrical effects to capture the movements of his spectral characters, and briefly gives way to a thrillingly lush romanticism when two of his characters reconcile on a more earthly plane.

From the two films mentioned here I suspect that Shindo's a bit more restrained than his contemporary Seijun Suzuki, but he's no less visionary. I'd be keen to see a retrospective taking in more of his work (like the one on the work of Masahiro Shinoda that seems to be making the rounds). The Janus tour of KURONEKO suggests strongly that a Criterion Collection release is forthcoming - more economical than a full-tilt retrospective tour, to be sure, but after experiencing these two films in such close succession one does long for a more running cup.

Monday, November 22, 2010

now Whedon-free

The 'net's abuzz today with news of the forthcoming reboot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The word that creator Joss Whedon is officially, and angrily, not involved has many of his fanbase up in arms.

Your proprietor is a lot less invested in the Whedonverse these days. The plot mechanics of the last episodes of DOLLHOUSE felt like twists-for-the-sake-of-twists, and had the weird effect of completely disengaging me from everything the man's ever had a hand in (the evangelical fervor of the WWJWD? crowd sealed it as well). And yet the proposed reboot does hold my interest, as it is a remake of the original feature film from which the series was loosely spun, rather than the series itself. There were aspects of the film that I wish had carried over to the series (during a recent rewatch of the film, I particularly found Luke Perry's Pike a much more effective and vastly less cutesy foil for Buffy than Nicholas Brendon's Xander), but each iteration has its strengths and weaknesses.

So I'll be interested to see how it all develops. And I'll call it right now: if the new BTVS makes it to the screen, it'll get a higher box office gross than SERENITY.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The futuristic theme park Delos, for $1000/day, caters to the traveler's wildest fantasies. Three different realms, capturing life in ancient Rome, medieval times, and the American West, are peopled with androids whom guests can kill or have sex with. A pair of vacationing businessmen take a trip to Westworld, where they encounter comely barmaids, brawlin' desperadoes, and a taciturn gunslinger (Yul Brynner) that won't stay dead.

One assumes that first time feature writer-director Michael Crichton was paying serious attention to the films made of his earlier work, because Westworld is an assured fucking filmmaking debut. Crichton is as adept at showing as he is at telling - Westworld's descent from tightly-controlled paradise to hellish technological riot is expertly paced, reflected in the increasingly frantic performances of the actors playing humans (which itself is terrifyingly offset by the steady stillness of the actors playing androids). Crichton lets his scientists tell us the mechanics of what's going wrong, but the larger reasons why they're going wrong (and the implications for our lives outside the theatre) are left for us to ponder. And the film balances its philosophizing with a profoundly visceral feel, making us feel every death and escalating the stakes as the lone survivor makes a desperate run for survival, dogged by Brynner at every step. The sound design is particularly fine, with beautifully canned cowboy music gradually being overwhelmed by sinister electronic drones that hum with the same kind of semi-organic malevolence that animates Brynner.

Westworld is not widely heralded as a classic, but its influence can be felt on may classics that followed it, from the work of John Carpenter (who modeled unstoppable killing machine Michael Myers on Brynner's gunslinger) to James Cameron to, hell, to Crichton himself (Jurassic Park really is Westworld with dinosaurs). There's really not much attention paid to Crichton's work as a filmmaker, and Westworld suggests that a retrospective would not be remiss. Among other things, it'd please your proprietor to see Looker projected.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Four teenagers - the virginal Amy, her first-date Buzz, her friend Liz, and Liz's schmucky boyfriend Richie - take in the attractions at a sleazy traveling carnival. On a dare from Richie the gang decide to spend the night after hours in the carnival's funhouse, but after witnessing a murder find themselves running for their lives through a very dark ride.

Your proprietor wishes more movies were made like this, with a competent but largely unknown cast (peppered with a couple of veterans) doing solid work in a film whose creativity and atmosphere trumps its low budget. There's a good script at the heart of this: the story observes the tropes of the slasher genre that was in full swing when the film was made, but the scope of the film includes a healthy dose of carny life (the family) to flesh out its antagonists, and locates its horror not in a single rampaging killer but more diffusely, throughout a carnival and into the very film itself.

That many of the characters are believable help immeasurably, starting with Amy, a final girl played with complexity, innocence, and just he right amount of knowning sexiness by Elizabeth Berridge. Cooper Huckabee brings a nice curiosity to Buzz (look at his reactions during the freaks-of-nature scene). For all his lower-class manliness (" in a filling station," Amy's parents observe), there's a soulfulness and sensitivity to Buzz; you can see why Amy likes him, and there's a nice willingness-but-awkwardness to the start of their date. A number of veterans fill out the carnival's staff, from Kevin Conway's chameleonic performances as three different barkers to the always-game Sylvia Miles' wild turn as a raunchy fortune teller. All of the actors bring their characters' shared histories and little pieces of business to bear, and I suspect that director Tobe Hooper presided over a fair number of solid improvisations.

Unsurprising that Hooper, director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Salem's Lot before, is as adept at maintaining pace and atmosphere. The carnival is brought to vivid, grimy life, offering any number of experiences both joyful and creepy. The film itself is directed like a darkride, a winding trek through dissociated shocks and weirdness before building to a frenetic finale. From the childish antics of young Joey to the animated dummies that populate the funhouse (vivid, otherworldly characters in their own right) to the final laugh from the funhouse's Laughing Sal-style figurehead, the film leaves us dazed and entertained, and reeling from the touch of something weird and sleazy.

Written for the Final Girl Film Club, presided over by the lively and lovely Stacie Ponder.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

happy birthday, G.

August Ragone reminds me that today's a holiday, of sorts.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, Crackle has over a dozen Godzilla and related films available for free streaming. GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is a thing of joy and wonder, and GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH has your proprietor's favorite special effects shot ever.

Happy Birthday, Gojira-san.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

a murder of crows

Two years ago your proprietor wrote the following:

"On the spur of the moment, after videotaping two shows at the Dark Room I grabbed a cab up to the Clay Theatre, where they were screening Alex Proyas' The Crow at midnight. This film was a staple of a short but memorable time in my life - I saw it four times when it screened back in 1994. A friend visiting briefly during an overseas gig was surprised that the thing had been released, in light of star Brandon Lee's on-set death (mirroring that of his father, Bruce Lee). As powerful as the film was, with its star's death paralleling that of his character, opinion was split of this curious film, among critics and among our friends: Sean thought it was a waste of time; Josh though it was too, unrelentingly dark; a woman I know had an orgasm during the nightclub shootout.

"As for me, I cried every time I saw it - the very act of watching the film was magic, its star a ghost haunting his final film, brought back to life every time the thing unfurled, projected on a screen. Those screenings remain precious memories, and solidified (though I was too young to realize it at the time) my belief in the cinema as an act of worship, as a tribal magic.

"And now fourteen years later, I returned to watch the ghost animate one more time (I could never watch the film on video). Tonight's service had maybe twenty attendees - even a pre-screening performance by a punk cabaret ensemble wasn't an inducement (hell, maybe the audience knew something about the band that I didn't, and went the following night).

"The film has dated all right, I'd say - Proyas' mise-en-scene is still remarkable, as artificial and lovely in its own dark way as the scratchy art and fragmented script of James O'Barr, creator of the original graphic novel. The songs and soundtrack still moved and amazed. The film's weaknesses, to which even as rapturous a convert as I back in '94 wasn't blind, still remained, and have not been made any less clunky by the passage of time. The whole "destroy-the-crow-and-you-destroy-the-man" thing remains an unhappy means of developing third act tension, despite the fact that Eric Draven, as invulnerable as he is, has already had everything taken from him, and could not possibly be more destroyed. The film's good points and bad points were remembered, and taken in with my older, more discerning eyes and more detached heart.

"But when the crow takes flight, propelling Eric toward the first fight in his quest for vengeance, Trent Reznor's cover of "Dead Souls" (itself haunted by original singer Ian Curtis) taking all of us over this damned city, carrying us along the rooftops as Brandon/Eric leap, stride, and run across them, the ghost lives again. I breathe in, softly, and cry."

The thing was wide open for sequels - any number of dead souls could be brought back for vengeance, and sequels proliferated across the screen, yes, but also in comics and novels. The cinematic franchise immediately saw diminishing returns: Vincent Pérez was just dandy in the lead (and much of the supporting cast were more than game), but the screenplay seized on and amplified the "destroy-the-crow-and-you-destroy-the-man" and collapsed into a mess. Further sequels went straight-to-video, and many of them had their moments. But none of the subsequent films could come near to capturing the ethereality of the first: the thing's too charged with the ghost of its star, rendering any sequel a pale, too-solid imitation.

Maybe for that reason I'm having a hard time getting worked up over the news that Mark Wahlberg is rumored to be cast as Eric Draven in a forthcoming remake/reboot. Perhaps I'm just numb to Hollywood disintering yet another franchise in lieu of paying a screenwriter to come up with something new. Perhaps because the original film is too close to my heart, too fast, too ghostly, too keenly felt, to be anything but unassailable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

REDLINE afterglow

4F: 4F is up
House: heeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
House: that is a gorgeous piece of writing
House: it's a difficult film to write about without giving too much away, or sounding insane
4F: I love that film
4F: I do
House: me too
House: happily, it seems that it'll be widely released next year
4F: Yayyyy
House: its international and US distributors seem to know that they have something truly special on their hands
4F: Fab!
House: i feel like i had your hand in a vice-like grip thru the whole second half of the movie
House: i apologize for any discomfort
4F: Haha. Me too.
4F: No. I mean I was squeezing too
House: when the mechanic busted into the gangster's room to save frisbee, making the two of us gasp at once
House: i think that'll turn out to be my favorite moment at the movies this year
4F: Ha!
4F: Excellent
House: capping the night off watching the fiery moon descend to a tiny ember in the fog was the icing on it
House: thanks, d.
4F: Yes. XO

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


The eyes of an entire galaxy seem to be on Redline, a superturbocharged racing event featuring a disparate array of contenders. Notable among them is 25000-to-1 long-shot Sweet JP, a racer who had lost a qualifying event when his car exploded inches from the finish line. Like JP, whose youthful dreams of racing glory have been largely quashed by the criminal entanglements that have ensnared him, all of the Redline's competitors bring colorful and dangerous backstories to the event. And all of their dreams may end prematurely when Redline's unwilling host, the ruler of the militarized Roboworld, hires a psychotic colonel to annilihate all competitors.

Showing simultaneously in San Francisco with its Japanese premiere, Takeshi Koike's anime racing film is seamless, energizing, absurd, thoroughly entertaining, and completely uplifting. For all the insane details that are jammed into the film, its narrative line is surprisingly clean, hitting the beats well-established by other sports movies. Koike delivers a striking ensemble of colorful, driven characters (any of whom could hold the center of their own film), introducing each one and establishing their respective personalities, goals, and ambitions with efficiency and verve, giving each one focus and fleshing out a number of fantastic and bizarre subplots.

After the qualifying Yellowline event sets a high bar for action, Koike and his collaborators push the story and design of the film to more and more extreme and absurd realms. But the ongoing propulsive action never becomes numbing - it's so engaging that something in you seems to accelerate to accommodate the unique pulse of the unfolding spectacle. And yet the balance of the film's brief oases of quiet creates a powerful emotional stake in the action, and when the film finally reveals its romantic side, you're grabbed by the heart as strongly as the eyes.

So much contemporary cinema seems flaccid, sexless, joyless next to REDLINE. The film never flags, never cops out, and always has something batshit crazy and wonderful coming right up. The seven years the film spent in development were well spent, and yet it feels like it's inventing itself and exploding fresh before your very eyes.

ETA: From Anime News Network comes the welcome news that Manga Entertainment, clearly aware that they've got something special on their hands, are releasing the thing subtitled across the U.S. next year.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Thoughts upon revisiting this, one of your proprietor's favorite horror films, 28 years later:

--My mother, God love her, took me to see this theatrically. I'd first heard about it from a friend of her who was staying at our house, and told us excitedly about how they were filming this crazy movie called CREEPSHOW up in Pennsylvania where some guy killed his wife and her lover by burying them in front of the tide. Mom was appalled - I knew I had to see it. Mom remained appalled even after the film had finished (EDIT: hell, she got appalled all over again just reading this entry), but I was scarred for life with love for this crazy crazy movie, which had exceeded even my own weird expectations. Seeing it with adult, more analytical eyes, I still feel the same joy at revisiting it that I did during its frequent cable appearances during my youth. And my studies of film and storytelling have opened my eyes to other strengths of the film that I was too young to appreciate.

--It's dated, yes, but it remains George Romero's most ambitious and overtly stylized film, and balances a relative seriousness of purpose with a real willingness on the part of everyone involved, from scripter Stephen King to the experienced cast, to make it something crazy and special.

--Some segments are better than others, as with any anthology, but each piece serves its purpose in the whole. A friend with whom I watched it felt that the curtain raiser, "Father's Day", was slight enough to have been excised altogether, but I really don't think "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" would work as an opener. "Father's Day" schlocky and gore-crazed as it is (setting a rotting ghoul loose upon his remaining, rich family members), establishes the film's visual tropes beautifully, and firmly, ungently lets us know that some crazy shit's about to hit, and anything can happen at any time.

Seriously, can there be a clearer statement of purpose than the severed head as holiday cake served up by a vengeful, rotting corpse? Like the slashed eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, it just puts you on edge for the rest of the movie. Fuck, yeah.

--There is absolutely nothing subtle about Stephen King's widely-lambasted performance in "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill", but you gotta love his bug-eyed, out there commitment. Such fearlessness on the part of a first-time actor is to be praised. And listen to the television that plays during the segment - a clever and funny chorus recalling similar commentaries elsewhere (like the downright manic telethon in Karlson's TIGHT SPOT).

--"Something To Tide Your Over" changes the mood effectively, beginning as an almost noirish tale of infidelity and revenge. Lovely acting in this piece, with a pre-Cheers Ted Danson one step behind an angrily pirouetting Leslie Nielsen (whose balance between his Airplane!-style nuttery and some real, simmering rage encapsulates the film's dual shocks and silliness beautifully). Nielsen's hysteria upon receiving his comeuppance is glorious to behold.

--Though part of my love for this film is apologistic, I have no problem joining the mass opinion that "The Crate", the film's fourth and longest segment, is the most compelling reason to watch it. It offers a more complex plot than the other segments, pairing its supernatural story (of a ravenous creature in a crate discovered in a university basement) with that of a college professor's mounting frustration with his shrewish wife. Tom Savini's creature design is effective, more than matched by the performances of the segment's three leads: Hal Holbrook as the put-upon prof; Adrienne Barbeau in a fearlessly raunchy turn as his wife Billie; and particularly Fritz Weaver as Holbrook's desperate, increasingly hysterical colleague. Though many of the performances in this film successfully walk a difficult line, I have to single out Weaver's work as the finest (and possibly most believable).

--"They're Creeping Up On You" offers a perfect coda, with E.G. Marshall in fine cantankerous form as a hypochondriac/corporate tyrant who gets his in spectacularly creepy fashion, thanks to an ever-growing legion of cockroaches that invade his sterile uptown penthouse. Lovely contrast between the scuttling of the bugs and the metallic sheen of Marshall's apartment, with Marshall offering just enough real spite to give his just deserts that much oomph. David Early is just fine in a one-scene role, giving hilarious voice to a loathing of Marshall that is more than mutual.

--Plus cranky, uptight dad Tom Atkins gets his in the framing sequence. (Very happy to see, in the generous extras accompanying the film's British DVD release, that Atkins and his on-screen son Joe King had a warm and close relationship off-camera, that continues in emails from one to the other to this day.)

--In the end, no bones at all about Creepshow - my love for it continues unabated. It's a pity the franchise didn't really pan out, and though I'm not terribly optimistic about the rumored remake (thinking that the original's EC Comics source material may draw a blank from its intended audience today), I suspect I'll continue to return to Romero/King's original well into my dotage.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Japan, the Warring States period. A peasant woman and her daughter in law scratch out subsistence by slaying wayward soldiers and bartering their weapons for food. Into their midst comes Hachi, a neighbor/AWOL soldier who tells them that their son/husband was killed. The triangle that forms between these three characters has sharp corners indeed, and the intensifying jealousy, lust, and hatred between them kicks into overdrive when one of them comes upon a terrifying demon mask.

Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba treads similar territory to a number of Japanese films of the 50s and 60s. Films like Fires on the Plain capture soldiers and civilians alike on the run from conflict, their desperation to survive turning them to extreme behaviors that reveal the ultimate darkness within the human soul. Perhaps because its supernatural aspects are more overt, Onibaba is less effective and horrific than similar films. Though understandably driven to desperation by ongoing lives of trauma, the uniformly unpleasant characters of the film are difficult to feel for on a visceral level, diluting the impact of their ultimate fates.

But Onibaba is a visual marvel, making maximum use of its evocative susuki field settings. As fond as your proprietor is of the theatrical, artificial mise-en-scenes of Japan's most audacious filmmakers (and their art directors), the wind-swept susuki creates a lush but threatening presence that is a striking and ever-present character (a chorus, perhaps) in its own right. Superstition reigns powerfully over the film's characters, with summer frost rendering crops barren and two-headed calves portending danger. This free-wheeling chaos has turned gender roles topsy-turvy (Freudian imagery plays powerfully throughout): men are reduced to fleeing cowards, and the two women turn phallic spears on their male victims, and dispose of their prey in a gaping, yonic maw that lurks in the scenery like a shark. It's an effective liminal zone, and one becomes as tense and lost in the on-screen bewilderness as any of Shindo's characters.

If the simplicity of the script belies its origins in a short Buddhist parable, the actors hit their respective one notes with gusto. Sketchy though Onibaba sometimes is, aspects of it linger, be it the silent-then-batshit score of Hikaru Hayashi or the susuki, restless but quiet as it shakes ominously in the wind.

This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club, run with efficiency and verve by the wild and wily Stacie Ponder.

Friday, October 1, 2010

a simple list

Sent to Final Girl Stacie Ponder for her Shocktober event, which looks to be one of the horror blogosphere's finer offerings this month, this is a simple, quickly sketched but fairly accurate list of your proprietor's top 20 horror flicks, in no order.

Suspiria -- 1977, Dario Argento
Dawn Of The Dead -- 1978, George Romero
The Brides of Dracula -- 1960, Terence Fisher
Creepshow -- 1982, George Romero
The Beyond -- 1981, Lucio Fulci
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 -- 2003, Takashi Shimizu
The Brood -- 1979, David Cronenberg
Sunset Blvd. -- 1950, Billy Wilder
The Fog -- 1980, John Carpenter
The Bride of Frankenstein -- 1935, James Whale
The Black Imp -- 1905, Georges Méliès
Séance -- 2000, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
C.H.U.D. -- 1984, Douglas Cheek

Demon City Shinjuku -- 1988, Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Carnival of Souls -- 1962, Herk Harvey
Fright Night -- 1985, Tom Holland
An American Werewolf in London -- 1981, John Landis
Outer Space -- 1999, Peter Tscherkassky
Dust Devil -- 1992, Richard Stanley
Black Sunday -- 1960, Mario Bava

Friday, September 10, 2010


George Harvey Bone is a composer whose work is obsessing me this week, mostly through his "Nocturnes 1-3" for piano and clarinet. The mood of the pieces is strikingly dark, but there's a certain amount of romantic yearning in them. These are mostly expressed through the clarinet parts in 1 and 2 (which dance almost along the surface of the skittish and somber foundations laid by the piano), but in 3 something in the piece seems to break free - one would almost call it hopeful.

I'm distressed by what I've read about Bone - the man was apparently given to blackouts, during which he would commit acts of murder. There's something in his music that does suggest this, moments where the notes seem to jump out of the framework to the point that they sound almost improvised (but further listening reveals that the work is very tightly structured - his work calls to mind some of Bernard Herrmann's soundtracks, particularly those with jazz elements such as TAXI DRIVER). His work seems to be eclipsed by his notoriety, and there's a certain amount of derision that seems to be leveled at Bone, at those who would perform his work, and even those who would give it ears.

But there's something genuinely soulful, almost optimistic at the heart of his work. Interestingly, some suggest that the few popular songs he wrote at the end of his career speak to something larger, giving his romantic side a full airing only hinted at in his more "serious" work - there's some division in the small, passionate cult that surrounds his work as to whether or not these songs can be considered part of his canon.

I'm intrigued by what I've read about Bone's "Concerto Macabre" - clearly its sole performance was a spectacular event, culminating as it did in Bone's death. His detractors hold this up as further evidence of what has been called his "loopiness", an over-the-top manifestation of a humorously unhinged mind. But as lost in his music as I've become these last few days, the notion of this makes me strangely sad, the idea of this brilliant but hopelessly fucked up man, giving his life to give expression to the only thing that made sense in his world. The "Concerto Macabre" was lost along with Bone, and today remains, like its creator, a ghost lost in murder and time.

Though today's audience tends to laugh when (and if) confronted with Bone and his work, I only see a kindred spirit, a tragic figure doomed in spite of his genius. I like to presume that he was able to find some satisfaction in finally realizing his masterwork in his final moments, that it took him to a place beyond pain. But Bone's romanticism is only out of our reach if we will it to be so.

(A more straight-up review of John Brahm's Hangover Square, by one of my favorite bloggers, Arbogast on Film, can be found here.)

Monday, September 6, 2010


Your proprietor had been less than thrilled with the films of horror/fantasy auteur Neil Marshall: I'd always faded out of Dog Soldiers after about ten minutes, and I admired The Descent more than I actually liked it. And yet Centurion, Marshall's tale of Roman soldiers of the Ninth Legion waging a desperate escape attempt deep behind enemy lines, seemed an interesting game changer for him, and I'm very glad I checked it out.

There's a curious vogue for blood-soaked tales of war in ancient times, and Marshall dives straight into widescreen battles and captures every CGI bloodspurt with care. But this thing sneaked up on me, offering some generous space for its talented cast to flesh out their characters. Particularly pleasing was seeing Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (whose twenty-minute conversation offered an oasis of humanity in Steve McQueen's Hunger last year) back together in the trenches. Marshall also captures gorgeous tableaux of war and peace in direct, simple images that offer an earthier, smarter counterpart to Snyder's slavish Miller-copies of 300 (and gets bonus points for offering a soundtrack without a single lick of overblown faux-metal). It's not a great or original story, but Marshall and co. put every foot right in telling it. Even Fassbender's voice-over narration, which comes very close to overexplaining some of Marshall's more profound images, brings it all full circle in the final moments, drop-kicking this simple, mythic story into a place of genuine grace.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Three Detroit auto plant workers - Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smoke (Yaphet Kotto) - lead lives of debt and desperation, alleviated only by booze, parties, and the friendship they share. When they decide to rob the union that they're pretty sure is screwing them, they discover evidence of higher-level criminality than they could have imagined. And when they try to blackmail the union for a bigger payout, their hopes are dashed, and the dark side of the American Dream is slowly revealed.

As eager as your proprietor, a Paul Schrader booster, was to see this film, I was somewhat dreading the experience. As one of millions whose fortunes have rollercoastered (mostly downward) in this problematic economy, I've been both intrigued and a bit dismayed by what I'm calling the cinema of despondency: films that accurately depict the lives of everyday people caught in the kind of trying economy we're experiencing today. Some of these films have been rep classics, but a number of striking contemporary films have enjoyed a high profile (like WINTER'S BONE) or been boosted by A-list talent (such as Michael Douglas for SOLITARY MAN) to depict the lives of characters days away from homelessness with debtors on their heels. And as bracing as it's been to see such relatable and timely stories playing in theatres around the world, such stories can hit close to home and make one long for a little escapism. Going into BLUE COLLAR, I thought (classic heist/noir narrative notwithstanding) it'd be another depressing/despairing portrait of souls battered by a faltering economy.

Instead it was a bracing, angry polemic exposing the bullshit that rains on the working classes, and the management forces whose best interest is to keep them angry and divided. Even when the film goes from its more quietly observed first half to its overtly noirish second, it's speaking directly, and angrily,

After Glenn Beck's bullshit this weekend, shitting on the legacy of Martin Luther King to create a toxic and idiotic lie that will only deepen the divides that are sinking this country, Schrader and co. put that shit into perspective, advocating passionately for those being drowned. A wake-up call set 32 years prior. Stay angry.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Despite my taste for weird fantasy and artful horror, your proprietor is by no means a gore-hound. Squeamish? A bit, perhaps, but I'm more averse to the depiction of cruelty and suffering than I am viscera and blood. So I was never in attendance for a screening of any of the films in the more sanguinary horror franchises in recent memory, but did belatedly catch up with SAWs and HOSTELs 1 and 2. I found the films neither as vicious as I'd feared nor, weirdly, quite as bad as I'd been told.

So when this film (the first, apparently, in a planned series by Dutch auteur Tom Six) hit the circuit, I was initially dismissive. But the movie's killer mad scientist concept lingered, and when the film resurfaced for a three-night run at the nearby Red Vic Movie House, I girded myself, and, ready for the worst, went in. I was not expecting to feel how I feel about the film, and leave it up to you to decide what this reaction says about the writer, but...

Here's the thing: You've got a juicy, if disturbing (and, the press mordantly, if wrongly, warns us, medically accurate) premise, and a doctor deranged enough to graft three humans together in a chain, mouth to anus. You've got an impressively weird German actor (the exquisitely named Dieter Laser) who looks like his mouth was carved out of his face by a scalpel. And you've got three actors willing to submit to the demands of the title role (who each give excellent panic and disgust when called for).

But it's not enough.

I'm willing to give Six the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he had a limited budget and timeframe to realize this thing. And yet the listing of a rehearsal space in America gave me pause, since there's no evidence on screen that anyone really engaged the concept. When you're working (for the most part) on a single set with a limited budget, it's time to tinker and flesh out details, but Mix hasn't set his sights any higher than his (admittedly outre) concept. Laser's ready for anything, and is a good mad scientist, but there's very little indication why he's putting humans through this. A little bit of a Frankensteinian relationship between creator and creation would have given the film some much needed texture. And I realize how oddball this sounds, but there was plenty of space to explore the relationship between the three segments after joining. It's a huge challenge for the actor (which Uta Hagen could never have anticipated), and there's considerable suspense in the final reel as we watch the segments finally figure out unified motion as they make a desperate bid for freedom.

A movie with this batshit a concept is not going to attract a mainstream audience. If you have people in seats who know that they're going to see some folks get sown ass to mouth, you gotta get ahead of them. And not just the cerebral shit I'm a bit appalled to hear myself advocating for in the previous paragraph; Six grabbed me with an explanation of the science of the thing, but some fairly obvious outlets for gore and viscera went weirdly unexplored, and I can't imagine I was the only one disappointed that I was coming up with images that were never matched by the action on screen. And though I don't hold the marketing of the film against Mix, it's weirdly crushing that "the most shocking film of the year" should wind up playing its concept so half-assed. Six has sworn up and down that David Cronenberg was a huge influence on his work, but there's a hell of a lot of thought behind Cronenberg's viscera, and none behind Six's.

Unless, of course, Six is in fact playing a long game to be fleshed out and more deeply explored in subsequent segments. Which may be possible, but though I can't deny I'm curious to see where he goes next, there's no evidence in this movie to suggest it'll be a worthwhile voyage.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


San Francisco film programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, in addition to being one of the good guys, has a cultural memory that intersects with that of your proprietor in many places. The films that I saw on Cinemax back when I was but an impressionable youngster were eagerly devoured by Ficks as well, and the man endeavors to bring many half-remembered gems back into the spotlight (and on the screen of the Castro Theatre).

When programming his massive, day-long series, his usual tactic (by his own admission) is to open with a lesser-known film. NIGHTHAWKS was the film that opened a quintuple-feature of manly-man films. (The others were BLOODSPORT; the John Carpenter two-fer of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and THEY LIVE; and a secret midnight screening of the late-80s Hulk Hogan vehicle NO HOLDS BARRED.) At a glance NIGHTHAWKS looked like the most nuanced film on the bill, and I was pleased to find that it was, in fact, a quieter, beautifully-observed action film, with a novelistic scope, three-dimensional performances, and a faint but present distrust of authority that make it a film more of the 70s than the 80s.

The tale of New York plainclothes cops (Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams) taken off decoy duty to track a vicious freelance terrorist (Rutger Hauer) has plenty of scope and grit, and could easily have filled a three-hour film with suspenseful stand-offs and character development. This may well have been the plan, but by all accounts the movie was butchered by a studio that didn't appreciate what it had. The patchy, under-two-hours film that's left drew positive notices, but lukewarm box office, and the movie it could have been is lost to time.

But despite Jesse's warnings that we'd have to fill in some gaps on this one, there's still plenty that stands tall. The effective and well-depicted procedures of both New York law enforcement and European underground. The lovely sequence in which DaSilva (Stallone) and Fox (Williams) initially resist their counter-terrorist training, but become noticeably less rowdy and more absorbed as it continues. The INTERPOL terror specialist Peter Hartman (a completely believable Nigel Davenport) driven by duty, but noticeably human. A spiffy chase scene through New York's subway system (apparently directed, at least in part, by Stallone himself). Economical but effective performances by all involved, including Hauer's assured Hollywood debut as the supermonster Wulfgar and Williams' sedate but earthy cool...

...but it's Stallone's name atop the bill, and DaSilva's a character unlike any I've seen him play. We first see DaSilva in old lady drag, on decoy duty to catch a trio of muggers. It's as clear a signal as one can get that Stallone's playing against type, and the character doesn't disappoint. DaSilva wears his Vietnam service proudly (he's a ringer for SERPICO-era Pacino, really), but is fundamentally a man of peace - the film's most interesting conflict is between him and Davenport, who impatiently waits for DaSilva to accept that civilian casualties are inevitable in the quest for a psychotic terrorist. Stallone balances DaSilva's man-of-action qualities with his nuanced morality deftly - when the time comes for his final showdown with Wulfgar, we wonder how he'll proceed and we fear for his safety.

I'd never completely written Stallone off - my usual line was that he was a committed artist, but not a good one. NIGHTHAWKS has me seriously rethinking this stance (which many would believe is already generous), and though I strongly doubt such nuance will be in evidence in THE EXPENDABLES, I was delighted to see it on such confident display here. And happy that Jesse gave a damn enough to give the movie another chance. Here's to you, gentlemen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Though the mysterious quest has formed the basis of many films in the corpus of Michelangelo Antonioni, there's very little talk of him as a fantasy filmmaker. Given the weightiness of his usual themes (alienation in the modern world, the ultimate incompatibility of the sexes) and the seriousness with which they're regarded, one's inclination is to resist putting Antonioni in the same camp as, say, George Lucas.

Your proprietor more often than not takes a literal approach to interpreting Antonioni's films, engaging the images on their own without outside cross-references. And though the more literary-minded of Antonioni's fans may balk, I've found a great deal of meaning and resonance in the man's work through this approach, and the interpretations of the films, or at least where I go naturally within them, always wind up in the realm of the fantastic. The spray-painted sands that surround Monica Vitti in Red Desert suggest an alien landscape to me. The otherworldliness of Irene Jacob (suggested throughout the final story in Beyond the Clouds) is made literal by a throwaway gag in which an oncoming mugger immediately repents and leaves her in peace. And though many see the explosive finale of Zabriskie Point as a manifestation of Daria's emerging revolutionary conscience, I see it as an apocalypse wrought Carrie-style on the straight world that killed her lover; indeed, the final title card suggests not the beginning of her revolutionary struggle but a definite and all-encompassing "END" to everything.

I don't intend to make the case that Antonioni is a great unsung genre filmmaker, but consideration of the fantastic often opens up or intensifies his themes. With this in mind, I recently re-watched Identification of a Woman and was struck to find it as upfront in its use of fantastic elements and themes as I remembered, both in overt uses of special effects and in more subtle fantasy imagery.

The film was made in 1982, a year in which Antonioni's countrymen were also pursuing fantastic agendas. Lucio Fulci had just finished an impressive run of fantastic, dreamlike, and very violent horror films (including City of the Living Dead and House By The Cemetery). More to the point, Dario Argento released his Tenebrae that year, his return to the giallo genre. Though IOAW lacks the overt and colorful violence of these filmmakers, it is no less dreamlike or surreal than their work. The protagonists of the films of all three directors fall into their own worlds, often of madness. Though Antonioni doesn't eschew classical settings in his film the way Argento did in Tenebrae (opting for shooting at modern locations for a science-fiction feel), he is as adept as any genre filmmaker in warping his locations to suggest the darker psyche of his protagonist.

From the beginning of IOAW, Antonioni's protagonist (the delightfully working-class filmmaker Niccolo Farra [Tomas Milian]) is beset by a number of mysterious external forces. His pursuit of the perfect female lead for his current project is mirrored by his amorous pursuit of a lover, and the high society femme Maria (Daniela Silvero) seems to fit the bill. But Niccolo finds himself pursued and threatened by shadowy men who want him to sever ties with Maria.

Just as worrying: what the fuck is that...thing growing on the tree outside his flat?

Niccolo's frustrated search for these mysterious agents (and their escalating actions against him) parallel the growing mystery of Maria (Mavi) herself. The class difference between them is the clearest difficulty, but Niccolo is increasingly restless as Mavi becomes more and more unknowable. Nearly halfway into the film, the two enter a fog-shrouded labyrinth straight out of Fulci:

Spies lurk in this dreamy twilight zone:

And it finally proves too much for Maria, whose resulting breakdown could have been edited in from a contemporaneous giallo:

She leaves the car but shortly returns, weirdly shaken by the ordeal. Possibly not the same person. A pod person (as suggested by the growth on the tree)? Perhaps. But she soon disappears from Niccolo's life, leaving a gap in his life and his film that he continues to try unsuccessfully to cast.

And though shadowy presences lurk on the periphery of his senses (flowers are mockingly sent continuously to his apartment), more positive forces enter his life as well. Specifically his young nephew, who brings a stamp to his uncle's attention with a challenge.

And the soundtrack shifts from John Foxx's original, deliberately flat and ambient electronic music, to the burbling, mysterious, and alive "Sons of Pioneers" by Japan. The insistent pulse of Japan's rhythm section (fretless bassist Mick Karn and drummer Steve Jansen) pushes Niccolo into new territory, and he chases the idea from the comfort of his home office.

And in that telescope he sees one of the most otherworldly and fantastic images in Antonioni's oeuvre:

Life continues. Though Niccolo's work on the film continues to hinge on the ever-elusive lead, a bevy of would-be lovers enter his orbit. The stand-out is Ida (Christine Boisson), an actress (not right for the part it seems, but a fellow creative/kindred spirit). And though Ida's centered enough to help Niccolo track down the people involved in the conspiracy around Maria, she ultimately possesses a secret that drives a wedge between her and Niccolo. As their affair nears its undoing, they're increasingly separated by windows, frames, and (in a solidly fantasistic touch) mirrors:

Niccolo is alone in his own world. He's free of the conspiracy, and of any ties to anyone, but his burning questions, and his loneliness, still linger. Compelled to enter his office/studio, he reboards the vehicle offered by his festering sci-fi opus, and, looking straight into the sun, he lights out for new territories:

Though Star Wars was firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by now, Niccolo's sci-fi film is as removed from it as Antonioni's. Like other filmmakers before him, he embraces an out-and-out genre film to directly address the questions that plague him most. Though looking directly into the sun, it's as unknowable as Navi. But Niccolo's ship orbits it ever closer. Offscreen his nephew asks, "Why towards the sun?"

"To study it. If man one day can discover how matter is distributed in the sun and its dynamics, he'll know how the universe is made, and the cause of many things."

"And then?" the nephew asks.

There is no answer. Once again Niccolo is consumed by his quest, and the ship vanishes in the sun.