Sunday, September 30, 2012


The sudden death of Louise's husband does nothing to thwart her desires to be in his rich mother's will. Louise makes her way to Castle Halloran and begins her schemes, but she's quickly mired in the family's mysterious history, including dear, departed sister Kathleen who may yet be stalking the castle's spooky halls.

Fascinating debut for Francis Ford Coppola, working on a slim budget under the auspices of producer Roger Corman, who was apparently not pleased with the effort. And yet this thing's got a lurid charm, thanks to some effective Irish location settings, and Coppola and his game cast (including local actors from the Abbey Theatre, hired on the cheap) bringing a weird life to this Gothic, atmospheric, and bloody story. It's very much of its time, and every bit the PSYCHO ripoff that Corman explicitly asked for. But to these eyes it's a curious link between the Gothic whodunnits from earlier in the century and the slasher films that would define horror less than two decades later (Bava's TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE would hone the model, dumping the Gothic atmosphere and amping the gore, eight years later). The murder sequences are startlingly gory, and remind us how little Hitchcock showed in his work. The sudden departure of a major character identifier halfway through the film is more disorienting here, as the other members of the cast seem adrift in their horror and confusion. And who wouldn't be? Even the harpsichord riffs played throughout seem to anticipate John Carpenter's spare and insistent theme for his own Halloween. A cheap but crucial picture here, deserving somewhat better stature than it' enjoyed. Happily, it can be seen all over the place on line.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I was expecting to like this thing, the story of a young, misunderstood boy who suddenly becomes his town's only hope in fending off a plague of undead unleashed by a centuries-old curse. I'd heard from reliable sources that the movie played in earnest, that it credited younger viewers with the strength and the smarts to deal with some decidedly-PG material, and that it knowingly appropriated the styles of a wide breadth of horror films. It plays its pastiches and mashups as knowingly as Tarantino, all while confronting its well-realized and believable characters (and us) with a powerful and moving tale of mortality and love, of anger and forgiveness. The artistry of its stop-motion animation (not to mention the exquisite dark whimsy of its production design) will delight the child in all of us, but its story speaks to something just as timeless. It is all too common for a Hollywood film to treat its adult viewers like children; PARANORMAN is special in how it treats its younger viewers like adults.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


A region just outside Zurich (known by the locals as "the Swiss Transylvania") is beset by both ominous, ever-present winds and a mysterious killer who is stalking young girls. Into this quietly fraught liminal zone comes Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous film star. Very much an innocent abroad, Jennifer's loneliness and alienation increase alongside her peculiar affinity with insects, which, under the knowing eye of a kindly entomologist (Donald Pleasance), seems to be turning into a kind of supernatural power. And the killer strikes again. And again.

This is what you get when Dario Argento makes a coming-of-age story. PHENOMENA straddles a strange middle area between his more realistic (if stylized) mysteries and the truly out-there supernatural fantasia of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. In some ways, it's my favorite of his films. There's a strange quiet that grounds it beautifully, a gentleness and patience we don't see in Argento's other work. It's the first of his films to mine mystery in a natural world, with the buzzing of insects, the whisper of the wind, and the presence of a chimpanzee juicing the story's fantasy. He makes the familiar unfamiliar and eases us into his story in a way that we don't get with any of his other films. And Argento's trademark bursts of stylized violence are all the more jarring as they dispel this strange, engrossing quiet.

For all of the film's overt fairy tale stylization, Jennifer is Argento's most fleshed-out, tangibly human protagonist, and Connelly (in her debut) depicts her teenage alienation and growing supernatural affinities more than credibly. (An acquaintance suggests that PHENOMENA is the best X-MEN movie that isn't made by Marvel, and she's dead-on.) Her humanity holds center no matter how gruesome or bizarre the action, whatever Argento throws into the story. I love her in ways I don't feel for any of Argento's other protagonists, and I suspect he does as well. She's the strongest of his Innocents, and scenes such as the one in which Jennifer teams with the Great Sarcophagous to hunt for clues (and the truly bizarre deus ex machina that comes to her rescue in the final moments) are exactly the thing for which cinema was invented.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Seriously, what a sanctimonious pile of steaming horseshit. I'm talking about the much remarked-upon video of Chuck Norris warning America about the oncoming "thousand years of darkness" in the event of Obama's second Presidential term. I'm not going to embed it 'cause it's just too fucking stupid - click the above link if you must.

I can't say I'm surprised to see Norris, never one of my favorite action heroes and never someone I suspected of having anything like a credible opinion about anything political, shilling so hard and so mindlessly for the Republican party. I take offense to the hare-brained notion that Obama's second term will lead America into apocalypse, though I suppose it's helpful to have the Right's demonizing rhetoric rendered so obviously. This is some serious lowest common denominator shit, and if it's the best argument the GOP is capable of making for their case then they need to uproot themselves from civil discourse and leave it to smarter, saner Republicans more able to form coherent thoughts and better equipped to speak to current realities. I refuse to assume that all who vote for Mitt Romney in the coming election are stupid; I have to believe that any honestly free-thinking Republicans would be appalled to have Norris presuming to speak for them in this shrill and idiotic spot.

And what the fuck happened to Norris' voice? This isn't the voice of an American badass, it's the voice I hear in my head whenever I try to read an idiotic fanboy rant criticizing Carol Danvers' costume change in the pages of CAPTAIN MARVEL. The thousand years spot looks and sounds like the GOP once again letting a senile, out-of-touch, possibly crazy Hollywood icon speak on their behalf. Which didn't go well last week, either.

Since I can't bear the though of anybody leaving an entry here dumber than they were when they started reading it, here's some fragments of Orson Welles' aborted and unseen MERCHANT OF VENICE:

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Zhou Huai'an (Jet Li) continues a campaign of guerilla warfare against a pair of power-hungry bureaus launched by the Emperor's eunuchs. The pursuit by West Bureau of a pregnant concubine lands Zhou in the path of a warrior also bearing his name, and soon the paths of these three will intersect with those of a vast array of agents, knights, and thieves just beyond the legendary Dragon Gate. And none of them may survive the onslaught of a deep, black, and legendary storm headed their way.

I'm sure there was some financial reason why this, Tsui Hark's foray into 3D IMAX filmmaking, was gracing American screens, but I prefer to think of it as a happy piece of chaos. Hark's joy at having this technology at his fingertips is palpable in every frame, as the camera swoops through ropes and holes, daggers and chains fly at the audience, and warriors fly like ghosts across the screen's surface. Somewhere between a reimagining and a continuation of Tsui's prior work on the Dragon Gate story, it helps to at least know that it's half the story; crucial historical details are hastily explained, and the characters' rich backstories emerge without explication. It may be easy to dismiss this, the first IMAX wuxia film ever, as simply innovation for its own sake. But no matter how convoluted the story gets (and it gets very convoluted), the characters quickly become as interesting and moving as the action that surrounds them. In the end, be it because their stories have grabbed us or because the filmmaking technology is as immersive as advertised, we hang on every gesture. Though it may not go beyond one's expectations of a Tsui Hark IMAX film, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE sure as hell meets them.