Monday, March 29, 2010

Prom Night (the First One)

I don't know if it was my mood, but I think this is a better film than folks make it out to be. Certainly, it depends on your criteria. But compared to other slasher films, it stands out. It's true that the killing only happens right at the end, but I like how the murders serve the plot as opposed to vice versa. And, certainly, anyone paying attention could have figured out who the killer was- but I tend to watch films like this in the moment, so I'm usually as suprised as the characters when the big reveal happens. The most astounding moment in the film is when Jamie Lee Curtis's character (Kim) looks into the killer's eyes and knows who it is. At that moment, I knew who the killer was as well. Not because I'd put all the clues together and figured it out, but because the look on Curtis's face so perfectly portrayed the shock and betrayal she felt, there's no way I could have thought it was anyone else. That moment is realistic and chilling because of it.

The other part that affected me was the slight subplot involving Lou, the poor chap who gets [spoiler] beheaded instead of Nick. I thought the scene earlier in the film (Leslie Nielsen as a serious actor- wow, not bad) where the principal basically dismisses the guy, admitting that he plays favorites with his son, was about as scary as the murders at the end. There's a statement in there about the educational institution and kids' powerlesness in it. Granted, Lou is asking for it because he's a bully, but as we all know (again, me reading into characters what's probably not there in the film but would be in real life), bullies are hurting more than most on the inside. Lou gets snubbed by his principal, used by Wendy to get back at her ex-boyfriend and then [spoiler] beheaded. He was a throwaway character from the start, and while this is common in slashers from the eighties (you can always tell who's going to die first), it seems especially pronounced in Prom Night because of how Lou is set up to be the star attraction. He's the prom king now, in a mean-spirited but relatively harmless prank...but only for a moment before the ax falls. Of all the characters who died, he is the only one who is actually innocent of the crime for which he is being punished.

Kelly's fate was also particularly tragic. She's been rejected by her boyfriend for not putting out and is sitting in the dark in tears when she is attacked and killed. Kelly, like Nick, was very hesitant to keep their childhood secret, timid creature that she was. But Nick gets to stay alive at the end. Who could fault Kelly, at such a tender age, for succumbing to peer pressure? Yet her death is one of the darkest in terms of the multitude of complex emotions she would have had to endure before her consciousness dimmed. It's also notable because often in these films characters are killed while having or having had sex. I can't think of too many where the character being killed has just essentially refused sex.

Curtis's acting is compelling at the end as well. She portrays powerfully her loss as she cradles the killer's head in her hands, crying out from the depths of her heart.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baghead,Conversations, and Jason Voorhees

John, I LOVED Baghead! I often give small-budget films a handicap of sorts when I analyze them- you have to view them more for potential and solid ideas than the actual quality of the film. But Baghead stands really well on its own as an example of a film that knows its limits and tells a unique story within them. And a "horror" story at that! I thought it was very impressive.

Brandon, I've only seen Smiles of a Summer Night from your '55 list- but it was a real winner. I appreciated seeing the lighter side of Bergman. It makes me respect him that much more.

Sorry I couldn't make it to the Dryden in your stead the other night, John. Amy had to work late so Ethan was at his aunt's. To a man who has 5 children, need I say more? Couple time is a rare and precious commodity. Short notice, unfortunately, doesn't work so well for me these days. It's been quite an adjustment in the year and a half I've been married... But the offer stands. Find something good and give a fair amount of notice, and you're welcome to stay. And as your host, the first round of beers afterwards is on me. How can you refuse an offer like that?

I finally watched Friday the 13th: part 2 last night. I'd seen the first several years ago, and parts 3 through 9 more recently, but was missing this crucial second installment. It's surprisingly good. It may be the second FtT film, but it's the first Jason film. He's an unknown quantity here: he's got no hockey mask, and his lack of gloves reveals two very normal-looking human hands. He's less sure of himself, and waits and watches through the trees more. We get to see the hovel he lives in, and we can almost imagine him, in a more quiet and reflective moment, staring out the window watching the wind rustle the leaves in the trees, or sitting in a chair, picking meat off the bones of some wild animal he's captured for his supper.

The scene at the end where Ginny puts on Mrs. Voorhee's sweater and momentarily confuses Jason is really quite beautifully done. We only see Jason pause before killing a few times throughout the series, and it's in these pauses that we can see glimpses of his former humanity- and that his motivations may not be as simple and straightforward as we'd like to believe. It's a telling moment, and one that leaves the door open, if only a crack, for the audience to sympathize with his character. The world took away from him the only one who truly cared for him. Why shouldn't the world pay?

I used to think that part three was my favorite- the combination of the cheesy 3-D stylized cinematography and, of course, the birth of Jason proper, mask and all. Really, it's the beginning of Jason, the cultural icon. But this first sequel stands apart in the FtT canon- he's no longer the helpless drowning child of part one. But he is also not the fully realized supernatural superhuman killing machine that exacts his revenge on all who would defile his territory.

Like Britney Spears, Jason in Friday the Thirteenth, part 2 is not a girl, and not yet a woman. All he needs is time, a moment that is his, while he's in between.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Man, I've Seen a Bunch of Great Films Lately

Usually I'll highlight one or two of my favorites, which is easy because half the time I'm watching action or comedy films for purely escapist reasons, or more modern children's fare with the family-- which may or may not be high quality, but usually not as interesting to write about. I tend to avoid deep analysis of children's movies or books (picture books in this case) because I feel that, in the good ones, the message is subtle, simple, and intuitive enough for a child to comprehend it without me ruining it by overanalyzing it. Some people are better at this than I am, and I bear them no grudges.

That said, over the past couple weeks, it's been one grand slam after another, so I'll just say a few things about each...

North By Northwest-- as fantastic as everyone says it is. The sequence at Mount Rushmore is as vastly entertaining and exhilarating as it is ridiculous-- it is truly childhood fantasy acted out on screen, and it's hard to articulate how exciting that is. But now that I've seen Rear Window and NbN in relative proximity to each other, I can appreciate Chuck Klosterman's observation that Hitchcock was more interested in character types than the characters themselves, and that it's a valid approach to characterization in film. I wouldn't have been able to tuss that out at this point in my experience with Hitchcock, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of his films with that thought in mind. That said, another film I saw recently seemed to use a similar device, for which it was criticized...

Kicking and Screaming-- Noah Baumbach's directorial debut also employs character types rather than real people, but maybe because it makes use of a pseudo-intellectual affect, it (by design?) draws attention and, subsequently, fire from pseudo-intellectuals who like to watch independent film so they can criticize it. That sounds a bit more sarcastic than I intended, but I think I meant it. I don't think that Baumbach necessarily intended to create fully-developed characters as he did to express (his own?) general fear about post-college life in the guise of witty banter among neurotics. And I LOVED it. It was like theater, but with flashbacks. I've also seen The Squid and the Whale and The Life Aquatic (which he co-wrote), so I'll consider myself a fan now. I'm looking forward to seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox and Greenberg as well.

Ohayo/Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu)-- John, watch this with your kids ASAP. It's worth reading the subtitles to them. I know mine is a little older, but he giggled like he did when he was little. It's a funny and sweet portrayal of suburban Japanese life. And there are lots of fart jokes. It's my first Ozu, and I've read that his others are similar in tone (if aimed towards an older audience). I look forward to more.

The Hidden Fortress-- I enjoyed it immensely, but it didn't blow me away like Seven Samurai. Although I did notice a lot more American western influences in the cinematography and soundtrack. I also really liked how the losers in the beginning are losers in the end. I was actually expecting them to rescue the princess in typical losers-to-winners Hollywood fashion, but they remained, well, shitworms right through to the end.

I watched Hamburger Hill a few days ago, and it was I think the only late-eighties Vietnam war film I didn't see when I went on a Vietnam movie watching spree during my Houghton years that included (in a relatively short time span) Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born of the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and (I think) Casualties of War (I did say it was a spree). After Hamburger Hill, which was really impressive, I wanted to see how the other late-eighties films compared, so I decided to re-watch Platoon and Full-Metal Jacket. I watched Casualties of War again last night, but it wasn't until the scene at the bridge towards the end that I knew I'd seen it before. That whole sequence is pretty unforgettable. In my search for any other films that would fit my parameters, I've come across a couple of decent sources of criticism on the Internet and have actually been doing some reading to complement my watching. I'm going to try to get a hold of Off Limits, which I hadn't heard of before, but it's only at one library and they won't send it out. I'll probably watch Platoon tonight and I've got FMJ on hold. So stay tuned!

Whew. I suppose that's enough for now.

Conversations 2010, part 4

John, why didn't you pick up Vera Cruz for me? Such a shame that you passed on it. But, I suppose I have to support your self-discipline. Good job, John. I actually just watched Hidden Fortress for the first time this weekend. I'll say more about it later (though you will likely already have read what I have to say by the time you read this post). I tend to be an opportunist when it comes to buying movies and music. I don't want to miss out on a good deal on something I might not own and am willing to put up with owning two if I make a mistake. I have yet to unconsciously by a third copy of anything, though. I'll start to worry when that happens.

I'm sorry LOST is disappointing to you. I've been enjoying it immensely. I guess I tend to be of the opinion that one should withhold judgment until the curtain is drawn. That said, only this week did I begin to see the correlation between the events in the "present" and the sideways flashes, so I'm not always the most observant viewer. Maybe the details I'm missing would cause me more critical distress had I noted them. Adrienne, of course, noticed the phenomenon weeks ago.

I do sincerely hope, John, that you will follow through on your threat to come up to see a film at the Drden sometime. You are both welcome to crash at my place (and that has been confirmed by the Household Manager) for the night- or two, as the case may be (if the Dryden has a particularly interesting series, perhaps). I'd love to meet you in person sometime, Brandon.

Speaking of Jarmusch, I can't speak to the quality of Stranger Than Paradise yet, but I had surmised that once I finally saw Down By Law a half a year ago that I had seen all the the essential Jarmusch films. Well, let me qualify that. To some degree, all of his films are essential in my opinion-- he is one of the most creative yet accessible directors I have been exposed to. His films have recognizable and identifiable characters and settings, but they almost always take off in completely unexpected directions in terms of dialogue and plot. He's like the indie-Hollywood director. And that really is a compliment. He's primarily responsible for my descent into the world of foreign and independent film, as Night On Earth was one of the first non-mainstream films I saw as such, and it was revelatory. That said, you only need to see a few of his films to immediately get a sense of his distinct style. When I recommend Jarmusch, I almost always recommend Mystery Train first, followed by Down By Law (now that I've seen it) and Dead Man. He remains in my top ten directors list to this day.

And a couple more asides-- I've always loved It's a Wonderful Life and honestly thought everyone did. I didn't realize there was a hipster subculture hating on the film. Those hipsters, I swear. Is anything good enough for 'em? And, secondly, am I the only one who saw a glaring connection between Inglorious Basterds and The Dirty Dozen? Maybe it's so obvious that no one thought to mention it, but it was fascinating to me. I'm talking strictly about story here, too, not themes or subtext or any of that blah-de-blah. The whole act of infiltrating the chateau, almost to an element, reminded me of the theater scene in Basterds. I can't imagine Tarantino wasn't making a deliberate reference of some sort. I mean, he's known for that anyway, isn't he?

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Historic Weekend

Saturday was a relatively slow day. I've had a couple of documentaries sitting around for a little while and decided to check them out. The Johnstown Flood was released by the Inecom company in 2003 and is about the famous 1889 disaster. My son and I enjoyed it, but a quick view of coments on indicates that there are better treatments of the subject out there. Despite bad acting, it held our interest pretty thoroughly, so it can't be faulted for that. Though I suppose that you'd have to work pretty hard to make a disaster of that scale NOT compelling. Still, I think what we saw adequately got the information across and was entertaining. There is an Academy-award winning short film on the same subject which apparently is shown at the museum in Johnstown. I'd be curious to check it out for comparison purposes.

I dropped my son off at a sleepover birthday party and when I got home my wife joined me for The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown, about the first treacherous year or so of the Jamestown settlement. As is the case for almost all N.G. documentaries, the narration was excellently written and performed. I got frustrated, however, with how often the same "dramatic reenactment" shots were used and reused (there was one of an Indian's head turning towards the camera that was used at least four times) in the visual telling of the story. I don't know if it's budget concerns or laziness, but it diminished the experience for me. Because of the narration, we both still thoroughly enjoyed the documentary, and there were a couple of bonus features (one being an interactive timeline) expanding on John Smith's expeditions into the Chesapeake Bay that were fascinating.

Sunday my wife went to a baby shower, so my son and I watched a couple of films after shoveling the driveway and doing a little vacuuming. The first one was Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. I'll admit it was a little slow for practically the whole first half, but the second half really picks up speed and the buildup to the gunfight- including all the ethical angst- is wonderful and exciting. I've seen Lancaster in four films now and I'm really starting to appreciate his talent. We both got a big kick out of the exposition through song ("Boot Hill, Boot Hill...")- it reminded us of "I won't be leavin'... until I shoot Frank Miller dead" from High Noon. I would hate it if a modern film tried to do something so ridiculous, but for some reason I'm more forgiving in my ignorance of the filmmaking customs of the fifties.

The second film in our double feature was Aldrich's masterpiece The Dirty Dozen. It's a humdinger of a movie, clocking in at two and a half hours. But it's divided into three major acts- the training, the exercise, and the mission- which break up the film's overall length nicely. You definitely don't get bored. It's a serious movie, but there are some wonderful humorous moments that mix in nicely with the drama, breaking it up into even more manageable bites. The ride is so smooth for the first hour and 45 minutes that you almost forget that they still have to engage the enemy. But once they do- oh my- what a tense, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat 45 minutes it is! You've had enough time to get attached to the band of misfits, and while you know not all of them are going to make it out alive- it's a law of Hollywood- you like them all (except Maggott) and don't want to see any of them go. [Note: I learned in the making-of documentary that Trini Lopez quit the film early on advice from Frank Sinatra that the amount of time he'd be away from his singing career due to the movie would be harmful. That's why his character, Pedro Jiminez, dies before they actually crash the Nazi party. It was also interesting to hear that they were able to work around his early departure so relatively easily because Dirty Dozen was filmed more or less in order.] Another interesting bit of information we learned was that Adrich would have won an Oscar had he taken out the controversial end scene where Jim Brown's Jefferson blows up the Nazi officers along with their dates, who are all trapped in a bomb shelter. He refused, because that scene was a linchpin of sorts holding together a number of his themes- he wanted to show that "war is hell."

There are some nice special features in the 2-disc DVD set that I got from the library, including a fun, behind-the-scenes mini-doc that largely focuses on the cast hanging around late-sixties London (insert Austin Powers reference here). There is a Marines recruitment video from the eighties hosted by Lee Marvin, and a making-of documentary. Extra points get awarded to Warner for also including the so-bad-why-did-you-do-it-Lee-Marvin TV sequel The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. I'm only part way through it, and I'm only watching it out of morbid curiosity. I'm hoping my impression of the original won't be tarnished because of it.

February's Films

It was a relatively light month, considering my usual intake. Standouts starred, as usual.
The Dirty Dozen* (I'll write more about this later)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
A Town Called Panic**
Role Models (quite funny, but not noteworthy)
Shutter Island*
Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death*
The Last House on the Left (remake- stay away)
Yes Man
Johnstown Flood (documentary)*
The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown (National Geographic documentary)