Archive for the ‘Screenings’ Category

AFTER LIFE (1998)

AFTER LIFE is the second feature film from Japanese writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Before features, he worked in documentaries, and that experience, that interest in real human beings and their thoughts and feelings, shows in this film. AFTER LIFE is set in a kind of business-like purgatory, where people who have recently died are asked to choose their happiest memory from life. Then, the people running the place put together a dramatic re-creation of that memory, and after watching the result, the dead are able to head on into eternity, taking that memory with them. The story focuses equally on the dead and the ones who work to their benefit.

Obviously, what’s most striking about AFTER LIFE, considering its subject matter, is its humility, its small scale, its lack of high drama. There are no angels flying around on feathery wings, no demons or hellfire. Everyone in this movie looks like a person you could meet. Almost every story told is one you could relate to. AFTER LIFE has a rare sweetness, a genuine spirituality. Sure, we’re talking about notions of Heaven here, but you don’t have to buy into one ethos or another to appreciate this film. This is the kind of spirituality that could and maybe should be universal. For the more philosophically minded, there’s plenty for you also. As the trailer asks, “What is the one memory you would take with you?” What a lovely question for a film to consider, and to ask its audience to consider.

AFTER LIFE is almost unique in its lack of conflict; its primary mode is reflective. There aren’t galvanic performances or sweeping visual flourishes here. The modest look of the film suits it well. A lot can be said with a little. Many movies want to shake the ground you stand on, to make your eyes widen and make your mind melt. This one has the feeling of sitting on a park bench by a duck pond in the spring, a loved one by your side, or in your thoughts. There is serenity here.

The Japan Society is screening AFTER LIFE tonight. I recommend attending, if you’re able.

@jonnyabomb


After Life

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THE SQUID & THE WHALE (2005)

 

Here’s a movie with some personal relevance to me.  It’s not like I recognized much in THE SQUID & THE WHALE as familiar – Brooklyn is part of my family’s history but it’s not where I personally grew up, my family is smart but not remotely this pretentious, and none of the dramatic specifics of the story have much at all to do with my own upbringing – but the significance of the unusual title turned out to have a whole lot to do with my memories.

 

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THE SQUID & THE WHALE” refers to something that is familiar to any kid who grew up in and around New York City – the “Clash Of The Titans” exhibit in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall Of Ocean Life, wherein a giant squid grapples with a sperm whale, miles under the ocean’s surface.  In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg’s character suggests that he found this exhibit to be scary – I of course loved it.  I definitely preferred the humongous blue whale that hangs suspended over the center of the hall – I would ‘tempt fate’ by standing under it, wondering how the heck that big monster could be held up by such tiny strings.  (I loved learning about animals as a kid, but I preferred to leave physics and engineering mysterious.)

 

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So it’s not the most immediately awesome title, but it carries a subtle evocativeness that I really appreciated.  Writer/director Noah Baumbach was very clever to choose a title that so serves so blatantly as a metaphor for the central conflict of his movie, but by obscuring its meaning with such a specific reference.  The movie is equally smart and thought-provoking; I’m sorry that it took me all this time to get around to seeing it, but I’m glad that it was so worthwhile once I finally did.  The performances by the young actors, Owen Kline and the now-deservedly-ubiquitous Jesse Eisenberg, are startling and brave.  Laura Linney, as their mom, is always good, and so is Jeff Daniels, one of the most quietly versatile and unfairly underrated actors anywhere in movies.  Even Anna Paquin is good in this movie.  I also really liked the sunny, autumnal NYC photography by Robert Yeoman, on loan from THE SQUID & THE WHALE‘s co-producer Wes Anderson.

 

THE SQUID & THE WHALE

 

If you’re like me and you held out this long, check this movie out.  It’s deeply personal and at times EXTREMELY uncomfortable, but somehow it’s still accessible and palatable because it gets to some really universal feelings.

 

And that museum looks so great on film.

 

Squid Vs. Whale

 

 

THE SQUID & THE WHALE is playing today at BAMcinématek as part of their series, Brooklyn Close-Up.

 

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

 

Walter Hill has a new movie coming out this week called BULLET TO THE HEAD.  I’m cautiously looking forward to it, since I am a fan of many of Walter Hill’s movies.  This new one can go any of a few different ways, but I’m on board for any movie that gives sizable roles to Sarah Shahi and Sung Kang.  (You’ll know those names better someday soon.)

Here’s what I had to say about 48 HRS.,  STREETS OF FIRE, and TRESPASS.  And as of today, for Daily Grindhouse, I have had some words about SOUTHERN COMFORT:

 

>>>READ IT HERE!!!<<<

 

And I’m always reachable here:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

Any survey of worldwide horror cinema, even one as haphazard as mine has been, would be incomplete without mention of the Hammer horror films, so let’s give them their due:

Hammer Film Productions was a British production company whose heyday was the late 1950s to the late 1970s.   The Hammer brand has actually returned recently, under new management, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to stick to the old-school.  Hammer made all kinds of movies – from science fiction to comedy to prehistoric adventure – ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., with Raquel Welch and Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs, is a personal favorite – but they are most renowned for the series of horror films that they churned out with methodical regularity.

Hammer was something of a repertory company for those years. You see many of the same names cropping up from film to film: Terence Fisher (director), Jack Asher (cinematographer), Jimmy Sangster (writer, who passed away in August of 2011), Anthony Hinds (writer), Michael Carreras (producer), and most famously, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars who topline the Hammer film I’d like to discuss today…

HORROR OF DRACULA, originally released under the more simple but often-used title of DRACULA, is one of the earliest and probably best Hammer horror movies.  It is the one that introduced Christopher Lee and the late Peter Cushing to their most famous roles – Count Dracula and Professor Van Helsing, respectively – and in doing so, made them kings to future generations of brilliant film fanatics as diverse in talent and influence as George Lucas, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, and Tim Burton (all of whom cast either of the two repeatedly, in their own films).  HORROR OF DRACULA also co-stars a young Michael Gough, who later appeared in Burton’s BATMAN and SLEEPY HOLLOW.

Horror Of Dracula is considered by many horror fans to be one of the truer adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, which is ironic because it takes so many liberties with the original plot in order to adapt it to film.  As in the novel, the story begins with Jonathan Harker travelling to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count, but under the guise of starting work as his librarian, not handling his real estate affairs.  Harker is really there with the intention of killing the evil Count (already a huge change from the book), but when given the chance he inexplicably chooses to stake the Count’s Bride rather than the Count himself.  Big mistake:  Dracula kills Harker.  (A massive change from the book.)

Van Helsing tracks down Dracula’s castle, arriving to find Harker turned into a vampire.  He dispatches his friend off-camera (though the Hammer films didn’t shy away from blood and murder on screen, they also used a fair amount of class and restraint) and heads back to London to inform Mina, who in this telling is not Harker’s fiancée.  Instead, Lucy is.   (More changes!)  As in the novel, Lucy is turned vampire by Dracula, although by the time she appears in the movie, she’s already been bitten.  She eventually becomes a full-on vampire and Van Helsing has to handle that also.

I could go on and on about the changes from the book – Dr. Seward’s role is reduced to a couple cameos as the family doctor, there is no Renfield, etc. – but I think what the scholars mean when they applaud HORROR OF DRACULA and its fidelity to Stoker’s novel is that the spirit of the adaptation feels right.   Dracula is the most compelling character in the movie – with a surprising minimum of dialogue, Christopher Lee plays him as a tall, dashing figure; ominous and threatening to men yet somehow magnetic to women (maybe he’s threatening to men because of that magnetism for women).

Moreover, Van Helsing is the true protagonist of the film, and a perfect counterbalance to Lee’s Dracula.  Dracula in this film is like a coiled snake or some other dangerous animal – he’s silent and still, bereft of emotion until he flares up and strikes at his victims – while in contrast, Van Helsing is an emotional figure, constantly fighting a horrific battle and laboring under the weight of constant loss, but he carries himself with the most English reserve.  I like the scene where Van Helsing sits in his babe lair, propped up with the most rigid posture, listening to audio tapes of his own voice, dictating vampire-killing methodology.  It’s a lonely life.

Also, a lot of the changes make sense, at least for a movie not much longer than an hour.  Van Helsing is always the most important of Dracula’s arch-enemies, and this particular story doesn’t suffer too much from the absence of Dr. Seward or the American, Quincey Morris.  Michael Gough’s character, Mina’s husband, is named Arthur, so in that way he’s a stand-in for the novel’s Holmwood.  Since a team eventually assembles by the novel’s latter half, it makes a kind of sense that Van Helsing and Harker were a vampire-fighting team.  At the very least, it’s a creative, thoughtful change rather than a travesty.  I could have done without the extra-long, extra-shticky scene at the shipping clerk’s office, but maybe that’s a mid-century British cinema thing.

Overall, HORROR OF DRACULA is a cool, classy Dracula film, and a great gateway into the Hammer world.

This essay originally appeared here last year, but I’m re-running it because Turner Classic Movies is showing HORROR OF DRACULA this evening.  Also airing will be 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1959’s THE MUMMY, and 1964’s THE GORGON, all starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  It all starts tonight at 8pm! (Check local listings just to be sure.)

 

See me turn into a bat on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

The Creature From The Black Lagoon wasthe last to arrive of the major Universal monsters. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released in 1954, over twenty years after Universal introduced Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, the Mummy, the Invisble Man, and Count Dracula, and over ten years later than the Wolf Man (longer if you count the Werewolf Of London).  The Creature, or the Gill-man as he’s often called, is the only Universal Monster to have arrived after World War II.  As such, he has a much different, maybe weirder thematic significance than any of the others.

Frankenstein is the Promethean myth, about the things man isn’t meant to mess with.  The Bride Of Frankenstein is about bad dates.  Dracula, like all vampires, is about lust and corruption.  The Mummy is about lost love and how creepy it can get.  The Invisible Man is absolute power corrupting absolutely.  The Wolf Man is about rage.  I can keep going with this stuff (and I have).  Zombies are about our fear of death.  King Kong is about the way that chicks dig jerks.  Godzilla is about post-war atomic anxiety.  And so on.  But back up for a minute — that last one’s gotta be important somehow.

GODZILLA, released in 1954, is widely acknowledged to be a film that reflects a nation’s very understandable reaction to the atomic bomb.  GODZILLAis literally about how American nuclear testing created this horrible (eventually lovable) mutant monster.  One of Japan’s most iconic film characters was inspired, in a way, by Japan’s greatest tragedy.  But check this out:  Look at Godzilla.

Now look at the Gill-man.

I’m not saying they’re identical twins or anything, but ya think there’s a distant family relationship there?

Released into theaters the same year.   Both reptilian (or amphibious).  Both up from out of the aquatic depths.  Both angry.

There are as many differences as similarities, but it is interesting to note that the Creature, like Godzilla and unlike most other famous monsters mentioned thus far, has origins more rooted in science than the supernatural.  Specifically, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (the movie) begins at the Big Bang!  As a narrator intones “In the beginning…” a explosion appears on screen, many times over.  This movie is based in science, explaining quite literally that when the earth was created, all sorts of creatures developed — while still allowing for the fact that an earth covered in water surely has some creatures as yet unseen.  The humans in this movie are on an ichthyological expedition down the Amazon, searching out rumors of a creature which bridges the evolutionary gap between land and sea.  They’re expecting to find fossils, however, not a six-foot-tall Gill-man with a yen for the lead scientist’s girlfriend.  Yup, somehow this cold-blooded fish on two legs gets all kinds of warm-blooded when he’s horny, so much so that he’s willing to kill.

The Creature could never be a truly American film legend without violence and awkward sexuality.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a fairly direct story, owing more to BEAUTY & THE BEAST or KING KONG than to any ancient legend (a la vampires, werewolves, or zombies).    Dr. David Reed brings along his girlfriend Kay, and for the first segment of the movie her main purpose is to smile and look terrific in short shorts and a one-piece.   Concurrently, the Gill-man is making the standard monster-movie roll-out — first he appears only as a webbed hand, retracting back into the lagoon.  Later, he assaults some local guides in their tent, in a scene which must have been far scarier in 1954 (these guys have comically oversized Prince Valiant hairdos that detract majorly from the suspense).  The Gill-man appears in full in a shock cameo, where the two lead male characters first venture into the lagoon.  For the first half of the movie though, he’s mainly been observing the expedition from a distance.  Things really change once Kay goes for a swim, and this still-remarkable scene happens:

The “underwater ballet” scene is weird, magical, ominous, bizarre, and eerie all at once.  It plays like a love scene, even though the Gill-man is essentially an underwater stalker.  We have to cut him some slack on his method, though — I mean, this is the first time he’s even seen a woman.  And imagine if the first woman you ever saw was Julie Adams!

Julie Adams may never have become a huge movie star, but maybe all some actors and actresses ever get is one iconic movie, and if that’s the case, then she sure shines brightly here.  Looking like a 1950s Jennifer Connelly, with an irresistible smile and an expert way with that wardrobe, Julie Adams is the thing most people remember about this movie, directly after the iconic make-up design of the Gill-man.  Nearly sixty years later, I guarantee Julie Adams is still inspiring crushes every time a young fella (or gal) sees this movie.  I’m not advocating the way the  Gill-man chooses to handle his crush, mind you — I’m just saying I can understand.

More back-and-forth ensues between the Gill-man and the expedition, but the movie’s end run begins when the Gill-man abducts Kay, and her human admirers have to rescue her from the deranged beast.  Unlike Ann Darrow and King Kong, there isn’t as much romantic chemistry between Kay and the Gill-man.  Maybe it’s because the Gill-man isn’t as tall.  (Chicks dig a tall guy.)  Eventually, of course, the human beings win out, shooting down the Gill-man and leaving him to the depths of the lagoon.  Since they never retrieved the body, the door was left wide open for sequels, and those of course happened.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was a huge success, owing much of its appeal to having been released in 3-D.  The first sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, is most notable for being the first screen role for one Clinton Eastwood Jr.  (I’ve seen the movie but I don’t remember much of it besides Clint’s cameo), and the second sequel (which I haven’t seen) is best known for having the Gill-man wear clothes.

Now I kind of want to see that!

The Gill-man is actually one of the most influential screen monsters in history, having made semi-official appearances in movies like THE MONSTER SQUAD (where Stan Winston’s make-up design had a bit in common with Winston’s own creation of the Predator), and unofficial appearances in movies like the HELLBOY films.   According to Wikipedia, failed remakes have been mounted several times over the last thirty years, including attempts by John Landis, John Carpenter, Ivan Reitman, and Peter Jackson.  Newer productions continue to be set up and dismissed all the time — it seems inevitable that it will happen, but personally I’m not clamoring for it.  The Gill-man is my favorite old-school monster, next to the Wolf Man, and I kind of like the way he currently wanders the wilderness of all of our imaginations.

I love the Gill-man for all sorts of reasons.  I love the look of the character.  I love his roots in science, pseudo- as it may be.  I love the fact that he’s a horny bastard, and it makes him cranky.  And there’s one more thing:  If he has atomic origins, in a way he’s a son of Einstein.  And between that and the name, I have some hunches about his heritage.  I mean, I went to Hebrew school with at least three kids with the surname Gilman.  “Gill-man” is less refined, but it still looks mighty Hebraic from where I’m standing.  I’m gonna go with it.  I mean, there are plenty of Christianity-laden vampires and demons out there for the goyim to enjoy; couldn’t just this one monster share some heritage with us Jewish kids?

More ethnic pride every day on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

If you live near New York City you can see CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON all week at Film Forum, in its original 3-D no less!

POSSESSION would be one of the rawest, most vicious, most harrowing films ever made about love and marriage and the awful dissolution of both, even if there weren’t an oozing Lovecraft-style tentacle demon sitting squarely and evilly in the middle of it.  Polish director and co-writer Andrzej Żuławski reportedly made the film in reaction to a painful divorce, and it shows.  This movie had to have been made by someone who knows what it’s like to be in love, and then out of it.  (The internet tells me that Żuławski has since been with and NOT with Sophie Marceau, so his highs and lows may be higher and lower than most.)

Dashing genre legend Sam Neill plays Mark, the husband going through hell on earth, and the fierce and striking Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, the wife whose mysterious personality-flip drives him to madness.  Mark returns from a trip and is immediately welcomed by Anna with a divorce request.  He feels totally bushwhacked.  They have a young son, who it seems Anna has totally abandoned, both emotionally and literally.  Anna has taken up with a new lover (Heinz Bennent) — who isn’t that new, actually, as he’s almost twice her age.  But despite the brutal slugfest that ensues between Mark and Heinrich, the new guy isn’t half the problem, really.  Something confusingly supernatural seems to be at work — Mark meets his son’s teacher, Helen, who is a dead ringer for Anna (Isabelle Adjani plays a dual role), while Anna is acting more and more unhinged, animalistic, and self-destructive, and oh yeah, that incredibly vile monster mentioned up top is starting to make house visits.  If all of this is sounding crazy, you need to see the movie because it plays seven-hundred times crazier than it sounds.  You’ve never seen anything like it.

POSSESSION has an odd, frenzied, almost jumbled energy right from the outset, for many reasons, one of which being that this is an international production.  The film’s director is from Poland, its leading man from New Zealand, its leading lady from France, and its setting and filming location is in Germany.  This makes it interesting and vibrant, while lending it a personality clash that probably serves the narrative well.  The cinematography by Bruno Nuytten (who, maybe not for nothing, had a relationship with Isabelle Adjani) is fascinating — though it has the look of most British film at the time, and the film for long stretches wouldn’t look out of place on PBS, it picks up a whirling momentum that adds greatly to the disorienting effect of the events onscreen.  The unusual score by Andrzej Korzynski has a similar effect.  There’s nothing safe or reassuring about POSSESSION once it gets going, least of which its perfomances. 

Sam Neill is a phenomenal actor whose ability to project sly intelligence has seen him cast equally as heroes and villains.  He was once screen-tested for the role of James Bond and I see no reason why that wouldn’t have worked, except that it may have kept him away from many of the other interesting roles he’s played.  In POSSESSION he’s playing something closer to an everyman, though if you read “hero” when you look at him early in the film it certainly helps, as does later on his capacity to suggest darkness. 

But it’s Isabelle Adjani who rips the film away and threatens to disembowel the very machinery that is projecting it.  When critics call a performance “fearless”, they really have no barometer with which to judge that virtue if they haven’t seen Isabelle Adjani in POSSESSION.  This is without a doubt one of the bravest, least self-conscious, most go-for-broke frightening performances ever committed to film, regardless of gender.   Gender does matter, though.  This role captures all the allure, the awe, and the fear that feminine sexuality instills in men.  Mark cannot comprehend the changes that Anna is going through, and it scares the hell out of him. 

The dedicated physicality that Isabelle Adjani brings to bear is far more formidable than any monster could ever be, even though this film has a creepier monster than most — brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi, the effects genius who designed E.T.!  Rambaldi also had a hand in the creation of the title character in ALIEN, another film that generates horror by evoking sexual imagery — though that one is far more subtle than this one.

POSSESSION is incomparably bold, personal filmmaking.  Some of those who have seen it have balked at classifying it in the horror genre, since it is so unusual and resistant to classification, and because it is possible (I think wrongly) to read the supernatural elements as metaphorical.  But again, even if there were no tentacle-beast pulling the strings, this film would still have nearly as visceral an impact, due to its incredible lead performances and the concerted efforts of its crew.  POSSESSION is bruising and unforgettable and most of all shocking, long before anyone walks into that room and sees the unholy thing writhing on the ground.  The only reason that more people don’t know about this movie is because most people probably couldn’t handle it.

POSSESSION is tonight’s midnight screening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, as part of their month-long Video Nasties celebration.  LA, you are so lucky. 

Me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

After Night Of The Creeps, Night Of The Comet is the best “Night Of The” movie of the 1980s.  (There were many of ’em.)  These are the kind of movies you hope for, every time you venture off the mainstream path looking for something out of the ordinary.  These are the kind of movie there just plain aren’t enough of, although if there were, I suppose coming across them wouldn’t feel quite as special.

Night Of The Comet is about two sisters, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart, from The Apple) and Sam (Kelli Maroney, later of Chopping Mall fame).  Regina works at a movie theater where she sometimes hooks up with the dickhead projectionist (Michael Bowen, eventually of Magnolia and Kill Bill).

Meanwhile, Sam is younger, so she’s stuck at home with their shitty stepmother on the night when parties are gathering to watch the approach of a rare comet.  Sam is sent to her room, and Regina is holed up in the projection booth, so they’re not outside with everyone else when the comet turns whole cities to zombies and dust.

Let me clarify:  The comet mostly turns everyone to red dust, with a red haze coating the already-considerable haze of L.A. smog.  Those who aren’t turned to dust are turned into zombies, which Regina discovers when her dickhead boyfriend ventures outside in the morning and is immediately killed by one.  The zombie chases Regina out into the alley, where this exchange transpires:

ZOMBIE IN ALLEY: Come here!

REGINA: Come here your ass!

Two things:  Talking zombies, which is something I’ve always wanted to see in a movie like this, and also, what a great female protagonist!  Smart-ass, super-pretty, and unafraid of any back-talking red-dust zombie.

So Regina escapes and finds Sam, hiding out.  They discover, with a reaction somewhat more in stride than horrified, that everyone they know is dead.  Apparently if you were inside during the comet’s approach, you lived.  If you were outside, as most people were, you’re dust.  If you got caught in between, you’re zombified — but not for long; dust is in your future.  Of course, it strains credulity that Regina and Sam would be the only ones who managed to stay inside, but if you go with it, the movie works.  It’s really Dawn Of The Dead, with a much lighter tone and an uber-sarcastic lead girl.

The cool thing about Night Of The Comet is that it isn’t a standard zombie-apocalypse movie.  Where you might expect the typical zombie hordes, here the zombies are very rare.  This movie is even more sparsely-populated than any of the I Am Legend iterations.  Eventually, Sam and Regina meet another survivor, Hector (Robert Beltran), a likable enough guy who helps them arm up before heading out for a while.  Sam and Regina go foraging at the local mall — after Dawn Of The Dead, it was hard to escape that mall — where they encounter another group of zombies and are then captured by a brigade of scientists.

The scientists, led by cult fixture Mary Woronov and Eastwood mainstay Geoffrey Lewis, are fixated on “the burden of civilization.”   Their nominal goal is repopulating the earth, but like any grown-ups in a 1980s teen movie, apocalypse or no, they can’t be trusted.

For me, the movie falls apart, or at least lags, in this final third, as Regina and Sam have to escape the evil scientists.  It would be hard for any movie to maintain the camp energy, eerie setting, and arch dialogue that Night Of The Comet initially established so well, and while some fans will disagree, I don’t feel that the last half hour or so stacks up to what came before it.  However, I don’t want to dwell on any criticisms for long, because there’s so much to enjoy with this movie.  It’s fun, silly, highly quotable, and surprisingly convincing, and I have to suspect that it was a partial inspiration for Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  It certainly helped set the precedent for smart, self-aware teen heroines.

 

Night Of The Comet is an underrated, under-remembered cult movie, and a neat accomplishment by its creator, Thom Eberhardt.  It’s a fun genre mash-up with an influential tone.  It has its flaws, but it’s way more fun than many so-called perfect movies.  You’re gonna dig it, if you haven’t already dug it.  So go dig it.

And follow me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

NIGHT OF THE COMET plays in Brooklyn this evening at BAMcinématek as part of their Apocalypse Soon film series, celebrating the fact that according to the Mayan calendar, we’ve only got two months left.