Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Two spaceships touch down on a distant planet, their crews investigating strange signals and freakish meteorites. It becomes rapidly clear that all is not well on this planet as the travelers find themselves in the thrall of strange forces, and as they battle desperately to escape they find their numbers dwindling, and their mysterious enemy slowly forming around them.

Mario Bava's sci-fi chiller is commonly regarded as a forerunner to Ridley Scott's ALIEN. Though the later film does share Bava's Gothic spirit (and some plot details with PLANET, right down to the huge alien corpses in a derelict spaceship), I tend to believe Scott and company when they say they never saw Bava's film. The vastness of space is as foreboding as an abandoned, fog-shrouded house, and it's a natural setting for horror (just ask Lovecraft).

It's not quite as dizzying or thrilling as some of Bava's other films - perhaps the on-set language barriers (which, with actors speaking their lines in four different languages, must have been considerable) kept everyone somewhat off the same page. But the occasionally leaden pace allows our mind and eyes to wander, and there are MANY places for them to go.

Though an international co-production, the film was realized on an insanely flimsy budget, which only brought out Bava's more insane and outlandish creative instincts. Even if one of his main sets resembles a metallic (if impressively minimalist) take on a STAR TREK set...

...the whole affair, considering the lack of available material resources, is designed, lit, and paced splendidly. Which just goes to show that imagination and a horror director's eye for lighting and atmosphere go a long way in realizing an ambitious scenario. Though an attractive international cast in pervy spacesuits doesn't hurt, either.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


I liked liked Plummer's acceptance speech, Spencer's speech, the A SEPARATION win, the presence of a couple of Escovedos in the band, and that IN MEMORIAM mentioned Bingham Ray and George Kuchar. The rest was too predictable and shallow. When Meryl Streep getting an Oscar qualifies as an upset, you know your awards are too campaigned, bought, and paid for to mean anything.

You know what I wanna see at the Oscars? I want to see an A-list actor come out and say, "yes, though this is Hollywood's greatest night, there are a huge number of worthy and brilliant films every year that get no nominations. Though they won't come away with statues tonight, each one was someone's favorite film of last year, and we pause for a moment to honor them." And then you get a montage, compiled by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a respected critic, and an expert editor, of clips from great non-nominated films. This year's montage could/would have included MYSTERIES OF LISBON, YOUNG ADULT, FAST FIVE, OF GODS AND MEN, THE TRIP, THE GUARD, 50/50, BELLFLOWER, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, WIN WIN, and a bunch of others. Michael Mann, J. Hoberman, and Walter Murch would rock this assignment, and the clips would generate more interesting conversation than THE ARTIST's multiple wins.

The Oscars feel less and less like a celebration of film every year, and more and more a capitalistic exercise in preserving the value of certain films. As my girlfriend observes, it's the only night that cinema is given the same exposure as football, and I really wish I felt like it meant something.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Any College, U.S.A. - Greek Row is rocked by a wild, wild night of costumed partying. A contingent from Alpha Sigma Rho splits form the festivities and brings four pledges to a house shrouded in horror. And what a house it is:

Previously owned by the Garth family, the mansion has been empty ever since Mr. Garth killed his entire family (including some seriously deformed children) before hanging himself. The four pledges must spend the night herein to prove their worthiness. The gate is locked behind them, and a long night begins.

The 1981 film combines two sub-genres of horror, melding the then-fashionable slasher horror with the somewhat outmoded spooky house horror. Watching the film I was struck by the effectiveness of the location shooting - between the lovely, well-dressed sets and the costumes affected by the partygoers, the film plays like a strangely time-tripping, almost Gothic effort.

It's a modest film, to be sure, but it comes by its passionate cult honestly, balancing some genuine shocks with some quietly realized characters and plot details. Some details are left for us to figure out (the details of what really went down at Garth Manor twelve years ago are hinted at but never pieced together - a remake would surely kill its pacing by over-explaining these matters). The weirdly conservative morality of the slasher model is nicely upended when the bullies are killed first.
Stock characters exhibit reservoirs of decency, including a sex-crazed goofball (Vincent Van Patten, natch) who comes thru in the end, sneaking into a police evidence room to retrieve weaponry to bring to the rescue. Even the inevitable sex is put off by characters who wanna get to know each other first.

I watched this (and I'm glad I did) on assignment from the Final Girl Film Club, run by the recently relocated Stacie Ponder. A discussion surfaces there now and again debating whether 1977 or 1981 is the better year for horror. Hell Night is a compelling argument for 1981: a deft balance of two horror formulae, making effective use of a few locations, and telling a simple story with a smart eye to detail and a surprisingly deep capacity for atmosphere.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I've long maintained that Joel Shepard, the film/video programmer at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is a national treasure, bringing to his 90-odd seat room the kind of remarkable and diverse film/video program that I wish every town in America could have. I would say this even if we had not been colleagues at one point - though I haven't worked at YBCA in years, Joel's film program keeps me coming back, despite the exciting, and sometimes quite charged, differences of opinion that occasionally emerge between us.

Joel is currently on a tour that includes stops at Rotterdam and the Philippines. He's excited about the work that he's planning on showing at YBCA in the coming months, and so am I. BUT: one work he's excited about possibly bringing is Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, a five-hour opus by Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz.

There are times when the differences between Joel's perceptions and mine are somewhat painful, and this is one of those times. Here's what I wrote after seeing Evolution of a Filipino Family, a ten-hour film widely regarded as Diaz' masterpiece.

"Some things to remember if you're making a TEN AND A HALF HOUR MOVIE -

--Cinematic conventions are your friend. Especially when you're making a movie this long. Making repeated statements that you hate conventional stories within your movie (by, say, interrupting stories coming from radios, or even the mouths of your most likeable characters ever chance you get) is a great way to alienate your audience.

--No matter how long your movie is, something needs to happen in every scene. It doesn't have to be splashy, it can be quite sedate, but something needs to be happening. If your audience is willing to engage your day-long opus, you need to give them enough to keep them anchored and interested. You should avoid shots of roads, and watching people walk down them for three minutes. And you should avoid having a long chain of such shots with nothing else happening.

--If your audience is going to have any kind of empathy for the painful death of one of your characters, you need to make sure that you've given the audience enough reason to care about the character. Particularly if the character's death scene is at least fifteen minutes of him stumbling down an endless street, bleeding.

--"Slow motion shot of a river flowing. A big log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says "I'm falling." The river flows. A couple minutes later, another log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says "I'm floating." The river flows. A couple minutes later, another log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says, "I'm falling." " Do not put a scene like this in your movie.

"Lav Diaz's 630-minute film EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY has some amazing stuff in it, including a strong and surreal portrait of life under the Marcos regime (and a harrowing look at the violence after), a palpable fear that the horrible stories being played out in the film have befallen thousands in the Philippines (thousands of children-turned-murderers, thousands of old women dying surrounded by photographs of departed loved ones, thousands of sisters waiting forever for missing brothers), and a hell-bent determination to portray reality in its rawest form.

"Alas, such rawness manifests in a Dogmaesque B+W video style, with very little to distinguish the story's present from its various flashbacks. Diaz eschews camera filters with an aim towards portraying brutal, unfettered reality, but it winds up bleaching out his images at the exact points they need to resonate. Actors are forced to do absolutely nothing for long, long stretches of time.

"There are enough instances throughout where Diaz keeps his scenes brief and to-the-point, where he does pay attention to cinematic convention, and these scenes are a joy. None of the problems with the film can be blamed on the cast, all of whom are completely natural. The eleven years over which this film was made are evident in the final product - this thing was given plenty of room to grow, and seeing the actors age before your very eyes on screen does lend the whole project a certain (though by no means unique) gravitas.

"But it is frustrating that Diaz is too often willing to subordinate his cast's performances, his own fine filmmaking, and the history of his country to a style that doesn't serve it. Particularly when the film is this fucking long."

I've never felt so at odds with a movie that so many have felt is a masterpiece (and not even a movie universally derided as terrible has left me gibbering and screaming outside the venue afterward, as this film left me). Praise for this film became a sign of a critic I couldn't trust. I'm amused, and not surprised, that even a Rotterdam Film Festival programmer admits to being put to sleep by Diaz' work.

And yet...

I can't help but be curious about Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. It seems that at least some of my issues from my previous encounter are lifted, with Diaz shooting on HD instead of whatever B&W shit EVOLUTION was shot on. Plus FHCTE is half as long as EVOLUTION, clocking in at a mealy five hours. Joel's painful earnestness in describing it would be enough to make me check something out, and even though a ten-hour ordeal can be hard to forget, enough years have passed to dim the memories of that fraught, painful screening. Plus my words remind me that there were many worthy things in the film - perhaps a half-as-long film won't bury such things under so much indulgence.

Diaz' supporters agree that they demand much of the viewer - we're at odds on whether what the viewer gets in return for the time investment is worth it. Perhaps FHCTE will change my mind. We'll see.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


New York, 1930ish. Amid the violence of Prohibition, gangs battle for control of territory and booze. But there's a very special brew making the rounds much more potent than alcohol. And various Mafiosi simply aren't dying, despite the bullets being fired into them. Added to this already volatile concoction are an assortment of passengers battling aboard a transcontinental railway, as well as a pair of decidedly wacky and costume-crazy thieves.

Spun from a series of light novels by Ryohgo Narita, BACCANO! plays fast and loose with chronology, plot, time, storytelling, maybe reality itself. Its bizarre structure lets its characters roam and act freely, and its nonlinearity is constantly shedding new light on previously established events. Which would be maddening if it weren't so damn fun - for all the bloodshed, the series manages to keep tongue firmly in cheek, and heart stapled to sleeve. Without losing any of its suspense, the story is generous to its characters, rewarding the innocent and even allowing its myriad psychopaths to discover their hearts (on their own neurotic terms, of course).

The generosity extends to us, as well: the open-endedness of its story, and its insistence on non-endings, allow the characters to remain with us even after the series stops. Not ends. Never, ever ends.