Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Vampires! Mostly, sort of.

October 26, 2010

When I was a boy I watched a great many science fiction and horror movies on TV programs with titles like The Big Show, Creature Feature (with Sir Cecil Creape), and Dr. Shock (“Good night, sleep tight, and should you hear a scream in the night…it will be your own.”)

Sir Cecil. I couldn’t find Dr. Shock.

Ah, youth! I doubt a single one of those films could have been called “good” by any reasonable measure, but for good or ill—mostly ill, I should think—all that schlock is deeply embedded in my soul. When I think of my childhood, at least of the fun parts, I think of bad acting and worse special effects. Happy days indeed!

And now, thanks to streaming Netflix, I can relive those golden days. I have no idea what I was looking for last weekend when Netflix decided that I might like Queen of Blood (usually it has me pegged, correctly, as pretentious). I was a little nervous about watching it, not wanting a fond memory ruined, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was exactly as I remembered it. Which is to say, pretty bad, but in a good way. It was too cheap to have its own special effects, so it stole some from a much more expensive and possibly much sillier Russian movie. I like that.

I'd rather meet one of the green girls from Star Trek In the distant future, the year 1990, the International Space Federation (whose signage has lettering that must have looked very futuristic in 1966) has received radio transmissions from an alien race and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of emissaries from same. When the alien spaceship crashes on Mars, the ISF dispatches a rescue mission, including Manly Astronaut John Saxon; his girlfriend, Sexy-Girl-Next-Door Astronaut Judi Meredith; and Expendable Astronaut Dennis Hopper, looking very young in his pre-Easy Rider days. They find the crashed spaceship—it turns out to be on Phobos, for reasons that probably have to do with the Russian footage the filmmakers cribbed—with a single survivor, an exotically green-skinned alien woman, played by exotically Czech actress Florence Marly.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, she turns out to have a taste for human blood, and to have both hypnotic powers and heat vision, which prove awfully inconvenient for Hopper and the mission commander (who will have to remain anonymous here, as I’ve forgotten his name). Fortunately, our better-looking heroes make it back to earth, where (twist ending! there’s always a twist ending) they discover that the alien has laid eggs throughout the ship. She really was a queen, the egg-laying kind of queen, get it? Beware, humanity!

Like so many Roger Corman-produced cheapies of the era, Queen of Blood makes the most of its small budget and low production values, making up in spunkiness what it lacks in, well, everything else. And it does have a few moments of great creepiness. Marly, who seems to have been a sort of minor Marlene Dietrich, did manage to project some real eeriness, even completely silent and wearing a space helmet over a hairstyle that must have looked silly even in the sixties—another legacy of the Russian donor movie, I think. And the final scene, of enthusiastic scientist Basil Rathbone (yes, really!) beaming as he carries trays of alien eggs off the spaceship, is nicely chilling.

Mark, Bert, Wes, and the gang Flush with the success of QoB, I moved on to Planet of the Vampires, which I remember being very scary indeed. I had high hopes for this one, for reasons beyond my childhood fears. For starters, it was directed by Mario Bava, the Italian horror maestro who brought us such horror classics including Hatchet for the Honeymoon and Black Sunday (which scared the piss out of me when I was six, and which is tragically unavailable on instant play). And according to Leonard Maltin and the internet it has a reputation for stylishness.

Alas, the maestro let me down. PotV is merely so bad it’s bad. The vaunted Euro-style is mostly low light, a lot of wasted space in the spaceships’ control rooms, and a dry-ice fog machine in the “eerie planet” set. The dialog is sub-trite, except for the technobabble, which was all babble and no techno. The spacesuits are among the silliest in all of sci-fi. The astronauts are named “Mark,” “Wes,” and “Burt.” At least the High G special effects—actors (if you can call them that) putting their heads on their desks, basically—were worth a laugh.

And there are no vampires. Instead, there are evil alien spirit beings that force the astronauts to kill each other, and then possess the corpses. Which wouldn’t be bad, actually, if only they were scary. There is one almost-good sequence in which the astronauts find centuries-old wrecked spaceship, the occupants of which apparently fell prey the the evil spirit beings. Was it an inspiration for Alien? I would think so, but it’s a little different to imagine the two being connected. Alien was, you know, really good.

I fear I gave up on PotV. Maybe I’ll go back and watch the end, the bit that really got younger me: (SPOILER ALERT) we find that the last two “survivors” are in fact not survivors at all, and that their alien possessors intend to spread their evil race throughout all civilization. But, the ship’s Meteor Rejecter having been irreparably damaged, they are forced to land instead on a nearby undistinguished planet with a primitive situation, a planet called (wait for it…) Earth!

Enough of these space vampire movies with no vampires! It’s time to get back to real vampires.

Finally, a REAL vampire. I’m pretty sure I never saw The Vampire Lovers, certainly not in all its unedited glory, but I saw a great many others from Hammer Productions. Hammer’s films were earthy, violent and bloody. They took little interest in afterlives or other worlds, except as they might lead to the immediate leaving of this one, preferably gruesomely. As a friend of mine put it, “In a Hammer film, you could die.” Hammer vampires, starting with Christopher Lee’s Dracula, were foul and brutal creatures, not in the least soulful or tormented or sparkly.

The Vampire Lovers dates from the happy time when Hammer, like other production companies, had just discovered nudity. And what better use for nudity than a Victorian lesbian vampire story? The Vampire Lovers is an adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, the lesbian vampire story from which all other lesbian vampire stories derive. I read it long ago, and remember its being disappointingly tame and a bit boring, as I suppose befits something from 1872. You can see for yourself here; I haven’t had the energy to reread it.

The movie is surprisingly (though certainly not strictly) faithful to the story, and really a great improvement, what with the nudity and the explicit lesbianism and the general Hammering it up. Carmilla, aka Mircalla aka Marcilla (aka Millarca in the book) is played by Ingrid Pitt, who made a bit of a career of this sort of thing. I have no idea whether she could really act, but she was so sultry (dressed or not) that it hardly mattered. The plot was not particularly coherent, and a number of things were left unexplained and unresolved (maybe the book was the same way), but again, who cares? Plot coherence really wasn’t a Hammer value. Hammer movies were about fangs and blood and terror. And nudity.


Michael Crichton, RIP

November 27, 2008

[Belated, but better late than never…]

My fond memories of Michael Crichton, who died a few weeks ago, long predate his latter-day status as reactionary alarmist. As a lad I saw The Andromeda Strain when it was first on TV, and, being nerdly even then, I was captivated. The alien virus plot—hm, come to think of it, maybe he was a reactionary alarmist even then—was (especially to a nine-year-old) clever and thought-provoking; the five-level super-sterile top-secret government germ-fighting lab (with computer-controlled lasers!) was as nifty as the Enterprise (for which I of course had “blueprints”); the pseudo-factual quasi-documentary style was impressive. And best of all, the heroes were brainy science guys (and one gal), just like I wanted to be. I was hooked.

Crichton wasn’t exactly a great writer, but then, most bestsellers aren’t written by great writers, and his prose was certainly sturdy and serviceable. His great gifts included a rare ability to work meticulously through details and present them in a completely understandable way. His plot devices were often wildly imaginative, but always tethered to reality. Not only did Jurassic Park give you resurrected dinosaurs, it convinced you that resurrected dinosaurs were entirely possible, probably even inevitable. Even Crichton’s wilder plots and weaker books—I’m talking about Sphere here—had a certain weird plausibility to them, and were chock full of interesting ideas.

For Attention To Detail I don’t think one can beat The Great Train Robbery. I’ve just reread it (having decided to read something by Crichton in memoriam, and that being the first of his books to hand), and I enjoyed it as much as when I first read it thirty years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s a novel chock full of seamy Victoriana, or an essay about seamy Victoriana in novel form. I also don’t know how closely it follows the real robbery, but that hardly matters. The mechanics of the robbery, fiction or not, are fascinating, the criminal slang (doubtless dumbed down, insofar as it is accurate, or else it would be completely incomprehensible) is atmospheric, the discourses on criminals and prostitutes and London life in general wonderfully lurid.

And Crichton himself directed the movie of The Great Train Robbery. I haven’t seen that in years, but I remember liking it as much as I liked the book. How not, with Sean Connery at the height of his suavity as the master criminal, Donald Sutherland as his sidekick, and mind-blowingly gorgeous Lesley-Anne Down as his mistress? I’ve just talked myself into seeing it again; on the Netflix queue it goes.

Sherlock Holmes, Bad-Ass Martial Arts Expert

September 1, 2008

I would like to say something witty about this, but words fail me…

Fictional super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes will be turned into a “bad-ass” martial arts expert in Guy Ritchie‘s hard-hitting new film.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s legendary crimefighter was famous for his pipe-puffing, laidback approach to solving mysteries in the series of novels.

But Ritchie’s forthcoming flick is rumoured to make the character – played by Robert Downey Jr. – a lot more hands-on.

The actor tells British newspaper The Sun, “I’ve got to spend some time with Guy and I love his take on it. We’re both martial arts enthusiasts and in the original stories of Sherlock Holmes, he’s kind of a bad-ass and a bare-knuckle boxer and studies the rare, fictional martial art of baritsu.

“If you look baritsu up, they can’t even really tell you what it is, so it gives us a lot of leeway.”

And the Chaplin star insists the Holmes mysteries are still relevant to today’s audiences, adding: “It’s a period piece where you don’t modernise it, you just realise how modern it was.”

Movie Trailers; The Brothers Bloom; Brick

August 24, 2008

Is it just me, or has Apple’s movie trailers site really been pretty awful of late, possibly since its last redesign? I’ve been getting lots of timeouts; none of the trailers seem to load the first time (or the second, or the third…); the inexplicably fancy viewer interface strikes me as more trouble than its worth. Does it work better on a Mac? I’ve tried it on multiple browsers, including (ecch) Safari.

Just now I did get the trailer (good luck with that link) for The Brothers Bloom to work, and it looks worth checking out (“So what kind of stuff do you do?” “I collect hobbies.”). Especially as it’s written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous film, Brick, was among the more improbably fascinating movies of the last couple of years.

Brick is a film noir with high school students. I don’t mean that it’s “like a film noir,” or that it’s some sort of noir-junior; I mean it really is a full-blown Double Indemnity/Big Sleep/Laura-style film noir, that just happens to be about high school druggies. There’s an anti-hero who adheres rigidly to a moral code only he understands, constantly in trouble with a cop vice-principle; there’s a femme fatale, beautiful and wildly untrustworthy; there’s an informant, who mysteriously seems to know something about everything. And best of all, until the end it’s pretty much completely incomprehensible. In a good way, as in The Big Sleep. There’s even a whole slang dialect to add to the opacity—I have a weakness for that sort of linguistic atmosphere.

Death Race 2008. Plus, Cthulhu!

August 10, 2008

I just saw the trailer for Death Race, and my immediate reaction is that it’s just another Jason Statham move, with absolutely nothing to do with the old beloved Death Race 2000. Which is probably just as well. Something like DR2K probably couldn’t be made today—certainly not by PWS Anderson—and really, why would you want to? The original is pretty great just as is. Paul Bartel, we hardly knew ye!

Not that the new one is necessarily a bad thing, as long as you look at it as an enjoyably mindless and violent timewaster and try not to think of the gleefully nasty satire of DR2K. I quite like the idea of Evil Joan Allen. And Jason Statham seems to be pretty good at this sort of thing; he’s just no David Carradine—who is?

Bonus David Carradine quote, from an Onion AV Club interview:

I tend to do that. I blow people’s minds with my performances. Sometimes it’s a little too subtle for people to face.

And while I’m watching trailers: here‘s one for Cthulhuand it looks pretty good! Why was I not informed? It appears to be “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” reset to the Pacific Northwest, but doubtless has other Lovecraftiness thrown in—I’m not as up on HP as I once was. Well, off to swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, there in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn for now, y’all!

Sunshine, and sound design

June 30, 2008

I saw Danny Boyle‘s moody and stylish science fiction thriller Sunshine the other night. As with everything from Boyle—from heroin addicts to flatmates trying to murder each other to zombies to saints—it was…intense. The setup—a spaceship, inauspiciously called Icarus II, heading straight toward the sun—is perfect for overwhelming imagery, and Boyle takes full advantage of it. Alas, the plot didn’t really justify the intensity. I had a bit of an “oh, is that all?” reaction to some of the crucial plot devices. I think at the very end it wanted a bit of 2001-style transcendence, but couldn’t really get there. 2001 itself only did that by becoming more or less incomprehensible in its final reel, something Boyle (and screenwriter Alex Garland) weren’t quite willing to do, opting instead for a more standard thriller device (of which I’ll say no more). Oh well. Maybe this is a film best seen stoned, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about the plot at all.

I did appreciate the shout-outs to 2001, Alien, and best of all—wait for it—Dark Star (no beach balls or surfboards, though). Apparently there are also references to Solaris, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen—in the little bit of commentary I saw, Boyle said that no “serious science fiction movie” can escape the shadows of 2001, Alien, and Solaris.

Among the things I liked both most and least about Sunshine was its sound design. The sound was as overwhelming as the visuals were: Boyle hits you hard with both the music and the incidental grungy spaceship noises. The overall impact was, I think, intended to disconcert and annoy—I was reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And that it did, to great effect. I’m all for disconcerting annoyance, but what I didn’t like, in my pedantic nerdliness, was the fact that the exterior shots of the Icarus II were as noisy as the interiors. I can’t help compare that to 2001, where the exterior shots featured only silence, music (the initial exteriors of the Discovery are accompanied by a singularly beautiful piece from Aram Khatchaturian‘s ballet Gayne; it turned me on to Khatchaturian), and, during the ill-fated spacewalks, breathing. I understand that 2001‘s pristine and minimalist sound design would not have worked in Sunshine—I doubt it would work almost anywhere else; minimalism is hard, and I imagine it takes a Kubrick-like genius to pull it off—but it is the superior work of art.

This weekend on NPR I heard an interview with legendary sound guy Ben Burtt, the man who gave us the sounds of the light saber and R2-D2, and now WALL·E. Asked what movies he hadn’t worked on whose sound he admired, he named 2001, for its minimalism. I felt vindicated.

Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl: Now with A-List Talent

June 22, 2008

How ever did an American Girl movie rate such a cast and director? Money, I guess. I almost want to see it, just to see what happens when Patricia Rozema—she of that creepy Mansfield Park and the great I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing–collides with American Girl sensibilities. I suppose some Julia Ormond–Jane Krakowski action would be too much to hope for…

Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

May 3, 2008

The trailer for the new film of Brideshead Revisited does not, I fear, fill me with hope.  It appears to be dominated by Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain, by raging passions, and by, um, a score heavy on the drums and electric guitar.  It has admittedly been a while since I read the book, or saw the wonderful 1981 miniseries, but if I recall correctly the dominant themes were not so much passion and controlling mothers as change, decay, and the passing of old ways.  And a certain amount of Catholic guilt.

The trailer is also completely devoid of humor, which is barely conceivable in anything adapted from a book by Evelyn Waugh, one of the funniest writers in the English language.  Brideshead Revisited might not be the vicious satire of Scoop or Vile Bodies, but it’s hardly humorless.

But I’m sure I’ll see the movie anyway (although frankly I thought it sounded more interesting when the cast was to include Jude Law, Paul Bettany, and Jennifer Connelly).  Trailers don’t necessarily have much to do with their movies (see these examples!), and in this case admittedly Emma Thompson is the marquee star, passion is more interesting to most people than decay, and, well, actually I can’t explain the guitar.

The Jane Austen Book Club

April 5, 2008

Still more Janeblogging! Sort of; rather than real Austen, this is all about the fluff. Yes, I saw The Jane Austen Book Club, and thanks to the magic of low expectations, I even enjoyed it.

[I liked a chick flick! Crap, am I gay? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be terribly inconvenient.]

Anyway. Five women and one guy (a handsome, charming, rich, and sensitive guy who likes older women1, it is worth pointing out) form a book club to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. They find their own lives and problems mirroring the books they’re reading (very vaguely and loosely), and with the aid and inspiration of said books are able to work out said problems (very unconvincingly, but that’s a quibble in this sort of movie).

It’s nice to see characters in a movie actually reading books, and not only reading them but caring about them and talking about them and thinking about them. Admittedly, their thoughts are on the shallow side—said the pot to the kettle; I’ve never had a deep thought in my life2—but it’s still nice. Usually in movies and on TV reading is something done only incidentally, or more often decorously left unmentioned, like using the bathroom or watching trashy television.3

What made the movie work for me, besides the low expectations, was mostly the very agreeable cast. Even when they were being charmingly annoying, Maria Bello and Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker and Maggie Grace and Hugh Dancy were all just adorable. You sorta want to be their galpal (Damn! Still gay!). Of the central characters only Emily Blunt—so wonderful in the otherwise mediocre The Devil Wears Prada4—got a bum deal, forced to play the most unpleasant of our heroines, a pretentious, bitchy, and unhappy culture snob. Her unbearable superiority is indicated in part by the way she refers to Austen as “Jane”—but don’t we all do that?

The actors in minor roles fare less well. The great Lynn Redgrave is positively abused as Blunt’s mother, whose function in the story is to explain why Blunt is such a witch. Jimmy Smits and Mark Blucas, as the respectively unfaithful and insensitive husbands of Brenneman and Blunt, are treated with the usual clueless broadness reserved for husbands in this sort of story. Nancy Travis, whom I’ve liked ever since So I Married An Axe Murderer (no, really! I loved that movie!), is thrown away in a tiny part.

The Jane Austen Book Club has no particular insights into human nature, no great wit, and no characters I’ll remember in a month. If you want those, read Jane Austen. But if you’re looking for a pleasant time-waster you could do worse than this.


1 At least when they look like Maria Bello.
2 Actually, I did have one once. It was about modal logic.
3 Married With Children, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons being exceptions.
4 Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, and Meryl Streep seemed to be in a completely different, much better, movie than Anne Hathaway. My first thought was that a script doctor had worked over an originally flat screenplay, but hadn’t gotten to the whole thing. It turns out that at least Blunt improvised many of her lines.

Plate o’ Shrimp

April 4, 2008

Thing I came across today include:

  • A movie of Angels & Demons is in the works (with Naomi Watts! Maybe I’ll actually see it).
  • The Galactica Code.