Friday, January 19, 2018

January.

Observed through the windows of the House, this mid-winter month:

--Your proprietor can't believe it took a second viewing to grasp how wonderful (and
how squarely aligned with his interests) Powell/Pressburger's BLACK NARCISSUS is. It's an exotic Technicolor travelogue, for sure, and a marvelous tale of culture clash, but in the end it's a Gothic horror through and through. The thing finally became a favorite, and kicked off a year of rep viewing on a perfect note.

--Similarly pleasing was THE COMMUTER, the first 2018 movie enjoyed this year. After so greatly enjoying THE SHALLOWS year before last I excitedly boarded the Jaume Collet-Serra train, joining a small but growing cult around the man's work and technique (among other things, JCS fans seem nicer and refreshingly less strident than the Nolan cult). THE COMMUTER sees Liam Neeson (in his fourth film with JCS) as a worn-out, increasingly desperate Everyman forced to seek out a passenger who doesn't belong on his train, for reasons that he (and we) slowly determine to be more and more sinister. Whatever fundamentals we lose through JCS' approach are more than made up for with some gorgeously stylish flourishes (here including a marvelous and efficient portrait of a marriage during a gracefully packed opening credits sequence, and a marvelous done-in-one fistfight). Perhaps because I wanted to be taken in I was engaged, even enraptured, throughout. If this movie establishes a baseline of quality through the year, then we're pretty much set.

--It feels strange, however, to prefer THE COMMUTER to PHANTOM THREAD, the latest work by Paul Thomas Anderson. It's a keenly, hermetically designed tale of a mid-50s fashion giant (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose routine is unraveled by the arrival of a quiet, but equally formidable woman (Vicky Krieps). As meticulously artful a work as it is, there's something stifling about its perfection. It helps that the movie is dryly but deliberately funny; among other things, Day-Lewis seems to have the lead in THE RON MAEL STORY all sewn up with his fastidious performance here. And its portrait of a powerful romance threatened by an unwillingness to shuck off interiority was a painful reminder of this viewer's own mistakes in that arena. But there's a sense of experimentation and risk-taking that's missing here, which is keenly evident in my favorite Anderson films such as MAGNOLIA and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (it certainly abounds in THE COMMUTER), which I realize is one of the main things I go to movies to experience. I'm pleased to have seen PHANTOM THREAD in its artisianally-preferred 70mm film format, and can't imagine it being anywhere near as satisfying otherwise. I may yet revisit it, and find my eyes opened to its greatness (as I did with BLACK NARCISSUS), but at the moment THE COMMUTER is the new movie that resonates most powerfully.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049

I don't care about it.

I did, kinda, right after I saw it Friday, moved as I was by the vision of it, the colorful yet stately photography by Roger Deakins (I wasn't convinced we'd see a more beautiful movie out of Hollywood this year), the score that wasn't overbearing until the end credit crawl, and even a number of the questions it posed about the challenges of (and faced by) artificial life: when does programming turn from algorithms into emotion? What are our responsibilities to the lives we create?


But the more I think about this thing, the less it matters to me. We're shown a more greatly ravaged Los Angeles than previously (it's snowing there in 2049, and a climactic fight scene is staged just outside a levee along the Pacific Ocean), but the effect is one of reading an editorial on the things to come, not a couple of hours spent in that world. It poses intriguing notions about intimacy, sex, and love between different artificial life forms, but the voice that yells OMG SEXBOTZ turns out to be the loudest here; director Denis Villeneuve seems more enthralled by the increasingly larger nude women that dot his landscape than he is interested in interrogating their politics, or even their identities. Taking a cue, perhaps, from the nonhumans it concerns, it doesn't feel like it breathes, and it doesn't linger. The bracing emotional moments seem placed there as part of a design, like Villeneuve's filling a quota, and given nowhere new to land outside the movie's artfully dreary visual stew they can't land with anything like grace.

We're kept at arm's length from the wonders before us, and there's much to marvel at visually but ultimately little to feel. For the latest, largest work by a filmmaker who's made a name for some of the most viscerally unsettling movies of the last decade, Villeneuve's latest is strangely, disappointingly anaesthetizing. And it's made me wonder how much I ever really cared about Ridley Scott's original movie, which is not a terrific accomplishment by a thirty-five-years-later follow-up. Maybe another viewing would clear up my issues with it but it hardly seems worth the effort. Anyway.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The SHOCKtober Revision

I wanna post a mess of things for this, the Halloween season. I always begin with big intentions and then life gets in the way. I'm hoping it will not be so this time around and, emboldened by already having twice as many posts on the House this year as last (though that's a low bar to clear), I'm hoping to have twice as many posts for October as thru the whole year so far.

So a bit of a cheat, here, though I sincerely hope you'll find it useful. Long time hero-of-me Stacie Ponder is also feeling similarly prolific over on her revitalized Final Girl, and she's resurrected SHOCKtober!, in which she solicits her readers to submit their favorite horror films and then counts down from least to most popular. I submitted a list last time but didn't consult it when submitting anew. You may see the below as an evolution of my tastes, though honestly I believe there are more tried-and-true selections this time out than last. For both lists, however, I restricted myself to one film per filmmaker and no more. And both are submitted in the event you're looking for something appropriate to watch over the next month - if you get a chance to give any of the following eyes, your proprietor says go! Can you stand the excitement?


At ease, Leslie.

THE LIST (including links to my reviews, if they exist):

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Fuest, 1971)
The Beyond (Fulci, 1979)
Black Sabbath (Bava, 1963)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Byzantium (Jordan, 2012)
Cat's Eye (Teague, 1985)
Creepshow (Romero, 1992)
Crimson Peak (del Toro, 2015)
Dust Devil: The Final Cut (Stanley, 1992)
Eve's Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)


Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Ginger Snaps (Fawcett, 2000)
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (Shimizu, 2003)
Kuroneko (Shindo, 1968)
Lair of the White Worm (Russell, 1988)
The Moth Diaries (Harron, 2011)
Phenomena (Argento, 1985)
Prince of Darkness (Carpenter, 1987)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
Wolfen (Wadleigh, 1981)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

THE PASSION OF PAUL ROSS

For the two decades I've known filmmaker Bryan Enk (so, no, this will not be an impartial review), I've been impressed by, among other things, the sinister energies he finds inside everyday spaces. This is something he shares with a number of filmmakers whose influence is apparent, but the energies Bryan has mined are very specific. His earlier work was informed a kind of perception that imaginative suburban kids seem particularly able to cultivate. Happily this perception remains a key part of Bryan's aesthetic; though it shares aspects with the territory charted by other filmmakers, the surreal world just a little right turn from our own is informed in Bryan's work by a particular Bowling-Green-after-dark vibe that is all his own.

That it resonates so thickly in THE PASSION OF PAUL ROSS is hardly surprising. This decades-later sequel to the four-part surreal horror opus PINK COFFINS sees Bryan returning to Bowling Green, taking stock of where he came from and chasing that familiar vibration into deeper territory. That energy is colored by the growth and depth of the intervening years, and Bryan's process has grown and sharpened as well. Low-budget though it is, PASSION is a work of confidence and assurance. If turning a Days Inn hotel room into a set for a third of the movie was an action borne out of necessity, it doesn't even register thanks to the ingenuity with which it's placed in the story, and how disorienting a place it is as rendered thru Bryan's lens.

About a third of the way thru the doomed singer Natalie (an effectively world weary Amy Beth Coup) relates her experience of "a place, a place that shows you things. Things that might seem nice but aren't really there. The place lies. It lets you think everything is okay but it isn't." The passage feels like a summing up of The Story So Far, and feels like a description of the setting for every movie Bryan has made, from the delightful dorm room Draculas of his college days to his immensely powerful Manhattan-set corporate MacBETH. (It's also as concise and poetic a definition of Cinema as I can recall Bryan offering in his work.)

But even inside such a fraught liminal zone, mapped throughout by the dreams and stories related by its inhabitants, we feel a storyteller taking stock of life and work so far. It is the work of an older, wiser person returned, weighing options, held down by the past and learning what he should (indeed, must) let go and finding, in the process, that some things are best held tightly. Much of this process happens before our eyes, as the title character (a mainly slowburning, but intently perceptive, Steve Bishop) navigates a purgatory built as much by his own estrangement as by the otherworldly people passing through it.

It's an intricate and surreal head-trip with heavier things on its mind: aging, misspent youth, the pressure to wake up and act before it (whatever it is) is too late. Happily, it's also as playful as many of Bryan's other works, his sense of humor manifesting in references to GHOSTBUSTERS, EVIL DEAD, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR (and even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, for chrissakes). A number of familiar faces and voices play thru, echoing back to PINK COFFINS. Among the new faces Becky Byers strikes the most powerful impression as Amity; she has both the otherworldly intensity and unique physiognomy particularly favored among many of Bryan's most indelible characters, and brings a new darkly playful (and completely appropriate) spirit to the table.

Given the resonance that my years with PINK COFFINS brings to the movie, I'm curious to imagine how it plays as one's first exposure to Bryan's work. That body of work continues to grow - I'm curious to see what form BLOOD DAUGHTER will take, and where Bryan goes after the sublime resolution to THE PASSION OF PAUL ROSS. Take the trip. Treat yourself.

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.