Wednesday, June 21, 2017

THE MUMMY (2017)

This one hurt.

It hurt because it was clearly the product of people who knew what the hell they were doing. Everything that happens in THE MUMMY happens for a reason, and the story is solid. You have a good script (by Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp, among others) that is logical when it needs to be (triangulating the hero's fate along the axes of a love triangle, between two poles) with flourishes winningly insane enough that you just go with them (Doctor Jekyll is a) alive in 2017, b) chasing monsters, and c) played by Russell Crowe). So many people showed up ready to play in this thing, including Sofia Boutella in the gender-swapped title role.



BUT GOD DAMMIT. The game cast doesn't feel like it had a chance to let loose, to explore the emotional life and conflicts that are right there in the material. Director Alex Kurtzman brings in the action and the spectacle, but does nothing to cultivate the emotional lives of the characters. The problem may simply be with his leading man, who has been better managed in the past: Tom Cruise here is required to be roguish, clever, conflicted, and ultimately full-hearted, and though he speaks the lines that indicate all of this, he doesn't seem to believe any of them. For a man ultimately torn between the otherworldly realms inhabited by Boutella and the more earthy and human love of archaeologist Annabelle Wallis, Cruise has no real chemistry with either. (Even Jake Johnson, cast in a funny wiseass role he could play in his sleep, seems, oddly, to be sleepwalking through the movie.) And the moments that should transcend and take the characters beyond themselves simply (though clearly) register as beats, without ever taking us beyond ourselves.

In the end one isn't bored by it, but that's hardly enough to kick off a franchise, is it? At first blush I mused that all of the movie's problems would be solved had Cruise and Crowe simply switched roles: as overvalued as THE NICE GUYS was, it did remind us that Crowe still possessed reservoirs of charm, action chops, and a sense of humor that would have lent themselves to THE MUMMY's roguish lead; and given the rumors that handily explain why Cruise's chemistry with his female co-stars is so flat, one salivates thinking of the subtexts he'd bring to Jekyll and Hyde. And one is depressed further to think that without Cruise in the lead, this movie doesn't get made. That a great movie that would have kicked off a franchise with grace, smarts, and style is right there in plain sight yet beyond its makers' grasp is a huge disappointment. To your proprietor, an engaged cinephile looking for anything in 21st century Universal Horror to believe in, such a missed opportunity is frustrating and painful.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

that fucking trailer

< 60-second-HATE >

So the latest salvo in the ongoing onslaught of DC's superhero movies got fired this weekend, and if the fans can have their say so can I. Yes, it's cool that we've got some parademons in there, and the Mother Box, and they actually made Cyborg look like an interesting character, and Momoa looks hot, and yeah yeah yeah

But we're subjected to the same on-the-nose needle drops on the soundtrack, the same listless looking action, the same drabid-awful-looking dull bluish gray color on everything when this thing, given the revitalizing focus on team-based action, should be exploding across the spectrum.

And I was ready to just write this off as another superhero movie that simply held nothing for me until we got to this choice bit of dialogue.

AQUAMAN: So what's your superpower?
BATMAN: I'm rich.

NO NO NO FUCKING NO YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKER

This is the trademark tone-deafness of auteur Zack Snyder creeping in. This is this franchise's ongoing cordial dialogue with, and reinforcement of, the absolute worst in the American status quo. This is Batman-as-Donald-Trump, and we're supposed to cheer this bullshit. This is an absence of understanding that Batman holds his own among magicians, among aliens, among gods not through the pricetag on his toys through sheer force of will. The corrected dialogue follows:

AQUAMAN: So what's your superpower?
BATMAN:


That's it. That's the fucking line. That line became a meme for a reason. That's all the goddamn Batman ever has to say to justify his presence to anybody. But the cheap laugh (if that) provoked by "I'm rich" is a tacit understanding that money = power, that the money spent on this thing is what makes it great.

And I'm tired of that shit.

So in closing, and this is the last I'll say about this: Fuck this movie. Fuck Zack Snyder. Fuck DC "Entertainment". Fuck superhero movies in general. And while we're at it, fuck you.

< /60-second-HATE >

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

a quiet House in a besieged world

Yes indeed, it has been ages since any light shone forth from the House of Sparrows. With your proprietor happily working in service one of the best film video programs in the country, and trying to roll amid any one of a number of other preoccupations flying around his head, updates have been scarce.

And I'm not the only writer struggling with the notion that there's much going on in the world that deserves a lot more attention and action than one would give an unvisited fantasy film blog. Happily my office is a place that encourages political action and ongoing check-ins, but it's still alarming to wake up to both the latest barrage of horrible executive orders and the accompanying apocalyptic narrative. And also the ongoing inference that the shit that you're taking action against was only a distraction from the REAL shit going down, which only exacerbates the ongoing numbness.

I do take comfort in the ongoing work of my fellow culture workers, be they on behalf of the arthouse or the grindhouse. And I'm grateful to those who simply keep showing up and bearing witness. When culture is under fire, simply showing up to share at places that preserve and exhibit culture is a political act, and an activist one. There is great power in simply coming together, sharing stories, and drawing strength from the context they bring to our lives, and that's as true of schlocky fantasy as of political documentaries. Showing up for culture absolutely matters, still.

And if you can find that elusive harmony of pen and sword, it's a sweet spot. Indeed, if you can make it to the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco on February 15, you get to see your proprietor in an away game performance, introducing Jim Jarmusch's drone metal political fantasy The Limits of Control. I'm grateful that Mike Keegan booked one of my favorite films of the last ten years, and is letting me intro it and give it appropriate context for this moment. I hope your mission will at least bring you by, to share this story in the dark, to challenge the notion that life is nothing but a handful of dirt.


And right now your proprietor's going to call the office of his congressperson, make a quick dinner, and head out into the night. See you in the dark.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

from the archives: U2 3D

(It's always fun hanging out with local cinephiles. Along with the great company and conversation there's usually at least one epiphany of a shared affinity, and it's usually for something one would never expect. So quite a delight to chat today with Brian Darr, the proprietor of the indispensable Hell on Frisco Bay, and discover that he was as fond of U2 3D as I was. This never-since-re-screened concert film is a pretty terrific experience - as Brian later reported on Twitter, "I'm really not much of a fan of the band. But that movie made me one for 2 hours." I dug thru my pre-HOS blog over on LiveJournal (IT STILL LIVES) and unearthed my own comments on the movie, which I pasted, unedited, below.)

So there's a heroic moment (in this huge movie that's full of them) in which the band perform "Miss Sarajevo", a lovely cut (and really the only saleable single) from their PASSENGERS album with Brian Eno. As performed by the band in the film, the song loses none of its power - its quest for even a single moment of innocence and hope in a war-torn world remains as potent as ever, even as the strife in Sarajevo has faded into history.

But there's a bit about two-thirds through the song on the album, which has been all about build, where it really takes flight, where it breaks with tentativity and ambiguity and finally embraces the light and joy that the rest of the song has so desperately sought. At this point guest vocalist Luciano Pavarotti takes over the vocal from Bono and just sends the whole track soaring, and the listener with it.

So in the film we're getting to this point, and it's still just the four members of the band at this point. Bono's vocal line continues to the bridge, and I'm wondering if some guest vocalist is going to pop in to hit Pavarotti's part...

...and Bono crouches down, his body language more modest than we're used to from him but still declaring, unambiguously, I fucking have this, and he launches right into the Pavarotti line without missing a beat. The performance of "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" earlier in the set offered a potent reminder that Bono's the descendant of tenors, and here in "Miss Sarajevo" he takes his place in the lineage carved by his father, filling the role of Pavarotti, giving voice to a dream of the world, and knocking the song out of the arena.

(George Michael covered "Miss Sarajevo" on his album SONGS FROM THE LAST CENTURY. Despite the fact that the song needs something at the Pavarotti bridge, Michael just simply stopped singing, and left that crucial moment as an instrumental bridge. You know what, fuck George Michael.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

MIKE'S MURDER

There are many ways for a movie to haunt us. Fewer ways, perhaps, for a movie to haunt itself.

Mike's Murder, a mid-80s work by James Bridges, finds itself thus haunted. It's a rarely-screened semi-obscurity, not often discussed even in passionate conversations about the neo-noirs of the 80s. The thing is weirdly paced, tracking L.A. banker Betty (Debra Winger) into a drearily sunlit L.A. underground in search of more information about her murdered lover. But I had a clue that this thing would probably not rush toward its destination, having read that the movie has been tinkered with by its studio. Bridges, it seemed, had intended the movie to flow in reverse chronological order, only to have the studio insist on the movie's scenes being recut into a more conventional forward chronology.

Was I better off not knowing about this? It certainly was distracting trying to imagine the scenes unfolding in Bridges intended order, trying to reverse engineer a flow from each scene to the one before. And even though one understands that this is a foolish mission at best something about this other movie, this mirror movie, helps Mike's Murder linger even longer than it would have.

As is, though, the movie does land as a moody if unusually sedate noir romance. Mike remains present even after his mysterious death, with photographs taking on a ghostly life of their own. Betty herself is often framed in mirrors as she proceeds on her quest, enhancing a feeling of crossing over into a dreamy, not-quite-real liminal zone. Her search takes her into many unusual milieu, from the decadent but earthy home of a gay music producer (Paul Winfield, award-worthy) to a conceptual art party that throws Betty from one screen to another.

But haunted it remains. By the movie it was intended to be, so that the opening scene of the movie seems palpably overlaid with its devastating final cut. By the music of Joe Jackson, which survives solely on radios playing throughout Betty's L.A. By the evening's co-hit, Laura, Otto Preminger's noir romance about a detective similarly haunted by the murder victim he's investigating. (Both movies abound with queer characters, though the two other men lusting after Laura are coded as gay - closeted heterosexuals? What about Laura brings these men out of themselves?) And like any good haunted site it continually folds in on itself, leaving one unable to unsee it, turning over its various versions in one's head for hours after. Fascinated. Obsessed. In a word, haunted.

Friday, December 11, 2015

THUNDERCRACK!

One is tempted to believe that director Curt McDowell demanded no rewrites from screenwriter/performer George Kuchar for this black-and-white, nearly three-hour art/porn psychodrama. This is not a complaint: THUNDERCRACK! may be the most uninhibited movie your proprietor has ever seen, and its ultra-low-budget, super-staged histrionics are so forthright that it feels like an emanation directly from the id of its makers.

James Whale's The Old Dark House is a clear, direct inspiration for this movie, and hovers over it like a sleazy uncle at Thanksgiving. Like that movie, a raging thunderstorm strands a disparate set of travelers at Prairie Blossom, a remote and creepy house. Also like that movie, yet even moreso, the storm seems the result of heavy psychic vibes emanating from the disturbed inhabitants of the house, in this case the wildly unhinged Mrs. Gert Hammond (a fearless Marion Eaton). The audience is voyeur to a number of unsimulated sex acts, and eventually we feel as swept away by the deranged undercurrents as any of the characters.

But for all of the movie's campy theatrics and melodramatically overblown dialogue, there's an undeniable artistry at work within it, with the characters' emotional states rendered powerfully through off-kilter but intense closeups. And the commitment to the juicy excesses of Kuchar's dialogue is heroic across the board. And Mark Ellinger's piano-driven score plays at just the right distance, adding with gentle irony yet another level to the lunacy on hand (even the slide whistle deployed during one memorable erotic moment is perfectly placed.)

Thundercrack! isn't a movie I'm sure I need to see again, but damn right it's a movie I'll never forget.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

CRIMSON PEAK

This house opened six years ago, I am helpfully reminded, and how lovely it is to commemorate that milestone with the opening of horror's newest and loveliest house. The latest from fantasist Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is a fine thing, indeed, an old school gothic romance that puts its feet right.


As respectful as I am of del Toro's extensive knowledge of horror history and his enthusiasm for same, it's rare that one of his movies truly resonates with me; I was peculiarly unmoved by Pacific Rim, his extended and explosive love letter to the kaiju cinema we both loved. And yet a romantic ghost story, set inside a brooding manse that becomes a powerful character in its own right, is right within my wheelhouse. If its story - that of a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) whisked away by a handsome suitor (Tom Hiddleston) to a sinister mansion bearing the scars of his family history - is familiar, it hits that story's beats artfully and emotionally. del Toro knows we know this story, how to engage us with what we know, how to get us to look at it with fresh eyes, and finally when to inject a subtle twist that quietly but powerfully upends our expectations.

One appreciates that del Toro's strong visual sense never results in a cluttered frame, and that when he does indulge in jump scares and blood they juice the intensity without overwhelming his audience. It's funny to think that by exploring classic horror built on such solid mythology that del Toro has crafted a TRUE alternative horror. In a field where jittery found footage has become the norm (playfully tweaked by del Toro here as Wasikowska finds clues among discovered audio cylinders), a return to the roots feels like a true resurrection. And at a time when Universal is franchising its storied monsters along the Marvel Avengers model, del Toro finds life in an old sinister house, and makes "Universal horror" truly mean something again.

(Bonus: getting to see this movie on film at Frank Lee's old survivor, Clement Street's 4Star Theatre in San Francisco, on opening night with dear friends.)