Archive for July, 2011

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Ten

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Ten: Favorite Foreign Film
Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Directed by: Gen Sekiguchi
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Kyôko Koizumi, Vinnie Jones, Ittoku Kishibe

With foreign films I’ve run into people from both ends of the spectrum. There are those who refuse to watch them, because of the reading involved. I used to think that was a joke from movies and TV shows. It’s a little disheartening when you come to realize it’s not. Then there are people who refuse to watch anything but foreign films. It’s their contention that anything in their own language could never possibly have the depth, humor, pathos, meaning and integrity of something by a director like Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman.

Neither of those perspectives has ever made a lot of sense to me. One strikes me as ignorant and narrow, and the other strikes me as both of those things and also just a wee bit pretentious. It’s hard for me to imagine limiting myself that severely with what I might enjoy. It goes back to what I said in the review of Dancer in the Dark about trying to do away with those stupid prejudices when it comes to movies and the like. It’s good to know what you dig, but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential to be completely blown-away by something you didn’t expect to enjoy. With things like Netflix Instant Watch, Hulu, YouTube and all the rest there’s really no excuse for not taking a few chances. I sure as hell wish that stuff had existed when all I had to go on were crappy video stores and depressingly limited movie channels.

That makes me sound like the kind of old-timer who lives on his front porch with a bottle of Old Crow, a carton of cigarettes and decades of bitterness to keep them company. That might be me in thirty more years, but I’d like to think I’m not there just yet.

Survive Style 5+ is not actually my favorite foreign film of all time, but I do have what I think is a pretty good reason for choosing it. Picking a single favorite above all the others would have been as difficult as the overall favorite from day one. Most likely it would have come down to a four-way tie between The Seventh Seal, Children of Paradise, Suspiria, and Yojimbo. What struck me as more appealing was to go with a favorite that’s never really gotten a lot of attention since its release seven years ago. Survive Style 5+ is something of a forgotten gem. It’s not going to be for everybody, but it’s at least worth a try.

Something bad is about to happen. I think we can all sense that from this picture alone.

Japan has a well-deserved reputation for having elements in their popular culture that seem to Western audiences like an acid trap without any acid for miles. A lot of it finds a strong audience in this neck of the world. Some of it winds up only appealing to weirdoes like me. Survive Style 5+ is very distinctly the product of its country, but it’s not wholly outside of what you’re likely familiar with. If you want to look at it as an alternative take on movies like Pulp Fiction or the early Guy Ritchie crime films (the presence of Vinnie Jones in Survive Style 5+ then begins to make sense), then that’s as good a way as any to get your foot in the door. Keep in mind though that this is a movie that is playing within its own small universe. First-time director Gen Sekiguchi and screenwriter Taku Tada have their own way of dictating the movie’s delirious pace, odd characters and bizarre storytelling. You’re either going to be on board it, or you’re not. It seems like pure insanity from its reckless beginning to surreal end, but that’s perhaps the genius of Sekiguchi and Tada. Tada’s script contains several characters and stories whose paths occasionally interact (some more closely than others) throughout. Sekiguchi does a brilliant job of juggling the parts that have some bearing on the characters and stories with the parts that seem exist for no particular reason but to add to movie’s brightly-colored, madhouse personality. He keeps us moving as the movie constantly veers into stranger and stranger territory.

Don’t worry too much about sorting out the meaningful parts from the sheer nonsense. The trick is to just sit back and relax. See how the first ten minutes treat you. We meet a man (the hilarious Tadanobu Asano) who has murdered his wife (Reika Hashimoto) and is burying her out in the woods. We never learn the reason why. What we do learn is that when he goes home, she’s there waiting for him with a giant meal she’s prepared. Most of us would call Max Von Sydow at this point. This poor, potentially dim bastard eats the entire meal, lights a cigarette and then seems surprised when his zombie (?) wife knocks him on his ass and tries to kill him. He manages to kill and bury her again, and from there seems less and less surprised that she keeps coming back for vengeance. Each time she returns with a new, completely unexplained super power (like fire) of some kind.

That’s just one story, and it touches on several of the others. It’s a jumping point to an advertising executive (the very funny Kyôko Koizumi), whose commercials seem to be more obsessed with being off-the-wall and clever than they do with actually selling the product (this is illustrated so well in a couple of scenes in which she is presenting her ads to a company president played by the legendary Sonny Chiba in a memorable cameo). She sleeps with an arrogant, dense hypnotist (Hiroshi Abe), but then hires a hit man (Vinnie Jones, playing his thug persona for strong laughs) when Abe makes fun of her afterwards. Vinnie spends most of his time with a translator (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) asking strangers and victims alike what they feel their function on this planet is. He still carries out the hit on Abe, but not before Abe hypnotizes a hapless, kind businessman (Ittoku Kishibe) into thinking he’s a bird on a live TV show. Kishibe then spends the rest of the movie putting his family through hell as the most depressed man-bird in film history (there might be more of them in cinema—I don’t want to be presumptuous). The way he meets Asano at the end is magnificent and must be seen to be believed. Within all this is also a trio of robbers (Jai West, Yoshiyuki Morishita and Kanji Tsuda) struggling with their current career choice. In the case of Morishita there’s an additional struggle with feelings for West told throughout the film with drinking games and staring contests put to sexual techno songs in the background. It plays out as the sweetest subplot in the entire movie.

This exact thing has happened to me many, many, many times.

All of this amounts to merely the basics of Survive Style 5+. Other unreal touches include actually seeing several of Koizumi’s commercial ideas that ramble around in her head, Abe’s disturbing stage show and medical science having pretty much no clue as to how to cure Kishibe’s condition. Just remember that not everything has a point here. If you’re addicted after those first ten minutes, then you’re probably going to be fine with that.

Survive Style 5+ won out, because I remembered the sheer wonderful surprise of watching this for the first time. It was at one of my first Anime conventions, and I didn’t know a single thing about it. There were no expectations. In fact I can’t even recall why I was in that video room to begin with. I do know that I was in for the long haul after those first ten minutes. I don’ think I’m special for immediately understanding that this movie was going to exist in its own universe. It simply worked for me.  You’re going to miss out if you at least don’t try to see if it works for you, too. Anyone who wants to stop by is more than welcome to.  Survive Style 5+ has the door wide open, and the first step after walking through is as much of a dozy as any other. This is a movie that deserves a lot more attention than it seems to get.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Nine

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Nine: Favorite Musical
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Bjork, Catherine Denevue, David Morse

Those who know me well enough probably know that by and by I’m not that big a fan of musicals. I suppose it’s because I had to endure so many from the music classes that took place chiefly during my elementary school years. To this day I still despise The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. You can sell me on their brilliance all you want. Some movies I’m just never going to sit through again. Some genres will always be difficult for me to get into. I like to think I’ll watch anything once, but I have to admit that I still have a habit of picking certain types of movies over others. I’m working on that, because I like to be surprised, but it’s still hard to completely work around weird biases I managed to get stuck in my head when I was a kid. A couple of those biases exist, but musicals are definitely the big one.

I’m not completely made of stone. A few have managed to slip through and stun me with their beauty, range, warmth, humor, intensity and even the whole ridiculous (to me) idea of breaking out into song for no apparent reason. Is that a sign of maturity? I suppose anything is possible. I’m amazed when any kind of personal growth occurs on my part. People tell me I’m a weird mix of terminal arrested development, and someone who acts like the oldest man under forty they’ve ever met in their life. Anything that alters that combination even a little is usually nothing short of a miracle.

Dancer in the Dark is one of the musicals that have broken through my ridiculous prejudice to amaze me. My biggest reason for catching it on IFC several thousand years ago was my brief, non-drug-related infatuation with the music of Bjork. I was also at a point where I would have watched just about anything IFC had on. They were a fantastic movie alternative to the other channels, and they usually had a lot more interesting stuff going on than The Sundance Channel. I’m grateful for a lot of the stuff IFC tossed my way. A good deal of movies, filmmakers and actors I like today were introduced to me through their programming. Dancer in the Dark was just one movie they showed me out of many. I had never even heard of it before, but again, I had that whole music crush thing for that insane little ragamuffin from Iceland, so it was an easy sell.

I do this at Wal-Mart all the time. It’s very soothing.

I’m not much of a Bjork fan these days, but I’ll still watch this movie any time a chance to do comes up. I find that I still love the movie in spite of not really feeling one way or the other about Bjork’s music anymore. That’s an easy thing to figure out. Dancer in the Dark has good acting, wonderful music and choreography and a story that moves us briskly from one evocative, bizarre song and dance sequence to the next. It probably helps to be a huge fan of Bjork to like this, but I don’t think it’s essential. As long as you’re not someone who absolutely despises her music, you shouldn’t have any problems trying this out.  Some have that feeling about her work. I just don’t have an opinion on it, so I guess that’s why I can still watch this. Her particular approach to a song is not for everyone. That’s true of Dancer of the Dark in general.

None of Lars Von Trier’s movies will ever be accused of being for the mass populace. This is another argument I’m not prepared to entertain. Some people think he’s a genius, and there are those who believe him to be a pretentious nimrod. I’ve enjoyed at least some of his films. Genius might be a little strong, but he’s definitely creative and has created some impressive, challenging movies). Dancer in the Dark is probably the most accessible thing he’s done so far. It’s a lot easier to get into than Antichrist.

Von Trier and Bjork collaborating on a film like this makes sense. Bjork has always seemed to have a fascination with musicals, elaborate imagery, voices and movements. Her music videos would attest to that. Dancer in the Dark could be seen as the longest Bjork music video of all time, except with a terrific supporting cast turning in great performances. Bjork does very believable, tragic work as a struggling mother who is losing her sight while trying to make the money necessary to make sure the same fate doesn’t befall her young son. It works, because she has some merit as an actress, but the tone and structure of the movie coupled with working alongside great actors/actresses like Catherine Denevue, David Morse and Peter Stormare helps her a lot more than she helps herself. These things sustain Bjork’s solid but disjointed performance. I’m not sure she would have been as effective here as she might have been in a more traditional musical or even just a more traditional movie in general.

Because it’s good to keep in mind going in that Dancer in the Dark is definitely not a traditional musical. Von Trier does seem to borrow from outside influences, but this is still going to be unlike any musical you’ve ever seen before. I wasn’t shocked to learn not that long ago that it’s become an opera. That mode of song-based storytelling is the best comparison I can think of. Upbeat is not a word that’s ever going to be used to describe this. The tragedy in the story starts early and only builds from there. It can be found at least somewhere within in the DNA of every single song and even in every line of dialog. Some who love the film would call it a beautiful kind of sadness. Some who also love Dancer in the Dark will react to the overwhelming bleakness of the film the same way they reacted to Requiem for a Dream. They will acknowledge that it’s indeed good, but not something they would ever want to experience repeatedly. Fair enough. You may not even like it all. That’s fair, too. None of Von Trier’s films have met with universal acclaim. It still couldn’t hurt to try this out if you’re someone who is at least curious about the results of a unique approach to the musical. At least the songs should prove interesting. Each one is fascinating assault of style and intense visual creativity. They’re not boring and should keep your interest alive if everything else fails to deliver.

Dancer in the Dark is worth doing sitting through at least once. It’s bound to pull some kind of reaction from you, and that can be a pretty good experience, too, even if you hate it at the end. I didn’t. It’s still the best musical I’ve ever seen, and it’s done a lot (along with a couple others) towards eliminating my absurd cinematic prejudices.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Eight

Someone suggested to me the other day that I should do these reviews as videos on YouTube. I honestly think there’s entirely too many videos of people just talking on any of those sites. I also still kind of prefer the written word and don’t own a webcam (a tragedy when you consider how many requests I get for one of those Avante-garde live sex shows that all the college kids are big into these days) and

I’ve always wanted to rather create hopelessly weird, potentially stupid sketch-type material with a webcam. It’s just not something I’ve gotten around to yet.

I also blame the heat for what was just now a completely random, unnecessary thought.

Let’s move on.


30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Eight: Favorite Thriller
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

It baffles me that some people consider The Silence of the Lambs to be overrated.

Why? Because it won a bunch of Oscars? I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument for why this might be overrated in a larger sense. It doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t like it. My life seems to demand entertaining a certain amount of delusion to get through the day, but it’s not quite at the level of believing that it’s worth getting upset if someone doesn’t like a movie that I happen to love. That part doesn’t bother me. The term “overrated” is what annoys me a little. It seems to be only used as a way of dismissing something entirely without explaining why that word should come into play. People seem to use it as a shortcut to getting the final verdict on something. I’ve seen the word used for The Silence of the Lambs a few times, and while I don’t mind someone not digging the movie I would like someone to elaborate on why they feel that way. You could probably call that one of my inane curiosities. It’s just an excuse for me to talk to somebody about movies.

I’ll label a movie as overrated, but I’ll at least try to explain why I think so.

Personally I wish there were more character-driven horror/thriller movies along these lines. As hard as I try I honestly can’t think of a film where Anthony Hopkins (who won the Best Actor Oscar in spite of only being in the movie for less than twenty minutes) or Jodi Foster are in better form.  The Silence of the Lambs is an amazing piece of work for a lot of reasons. The story is a faithful, multi-layered and constantly chilling adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel. It features beautiful, deeply disconcerting and voyeuristic cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Howard Shore is one of my favorite composers of all time. His work here amounts to one of the eeriest, most memorable scores ever created. Everything is a striking marriage of music and camera manipulating story and performance at one moment and then flipping that marriage around at the next moment. Somehow it’s a film that’s smooth in every facet of its delivery and yet at the same builds a layer consisting of a strange, dream-like personality with troubling undertones. You can be completely engaged by the detective story (it’s a pretty good one), or you can enjoy that, and then go further into the vast psychological landscape of the film’s world and characters.

All of these things are true, but what has brought me back to watch The Silence of the Lambs more than once is Hopkins and Foster. It bears repeating again that Hopkins is in a two-hour movie for less than twenty minutes. That’s been a source of contention for some people who wonder if that qualified him for the Best Actor Oscar he won in 1991. It does raise points about the difference between Best Actor and Best Supporting, but I haven’t the faintest interest in arguing those points here.

What I will argue is that Hopkins gives a performance as Hannibal Lecter so breathtaking, so absolutely in control of a character awash in disturbing personality and depth that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. When he’s not on screen we wonder just what in the hell he might be up to (something involving culture and insanity is a good guess). We know Jodi Foster as Clarice Starling is wondering that. His shadow looms over every scene that he’s not in, and in everything Starling does in pursuit of the even-more frightening Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine at his very best). Their relationship is almost immediately established on several different levels within minutes of their first encounter. It’s the heart of the movie. It’s because of both Hopkins and Foster that so much is established or just suggested in the very limited amount of time they share the screen together. Foster has proven time and time again her range. Her talent and how completely she realizes this character only further enhances the impact Hopkins has when he’s on screen and when he’s not. As much as Lecter seems to be in control of everything around him it’s obvious that he comes to rely on her (for what can be debated) as much as she relies on him. For both information on Bill and what is clearly a black hole ripping apart the center of everything she is and hopes to be. This thought can even extend towards the actors themselves. Both won Oscars, and both absolutely needed the other to accomplish that. Foster gets the whole movie to both create her own character and enhance Hopkins’, but Hopkins only gets that limited window of time to create something that can allow Foster to do that. I would say doing that more than makes up for his not being in every scene.

Captain Leland Stottlemeyer enjoying some quiet time after work.
I also love the somewhat deranged assortment of names and faces popping up in small roles or as cameos. This includes Tracey Walter, George A. Romeo, Chris Issak, Dan Butler (who I note mostly because I’ve seen the entire run of Frasier way too many freaking times) and Roger Corman. I’ve always been a little amused by the fact that Corman’s career includes cameos in a slew of A-list pictures directed by filmmakers (Demme, Francis Ford Copolla, Joe Dante and others) whose careers he helped launch. None of this is critical to The Silence of the Lambs as a whole. It’s just a small bonus for me to see so many different talents round out the cast after Foster, Hopkins and Levine (who also deserved an Oscar nomination). Credit for kicking in something memorable should also go to Anthony Heald as the greedy, despicable and dangerously inept shrink who keeps Lecter under lock and key. Also to Scott Glenn as Starling’s mentor and as one of those actors who’s so steady and reliable that you almost forget he’s there.

It’s easy to see why this movie got so much love from critics and Hollywood in general and continues to do so. The Silence of the Lambs is a slick, well-acted and well-made film. Calling it a thriller is fine (I’m doing just that myself), but I think it’s still a straight-forward horror movie beneath the supposedly classier label of thriller. I suppose it may just be a question of semantics. That’s another argument I don’t have the patience for. I just like the notion of calling this one of the greatest horror movies of all time. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. All that really matters is that I wind up watching this about once a year. It just pulls me right in every single time. I still remember thinking as a kid that just on atmosphere this was one of the creepiest movies of all time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve maintained my love of that atmosphere, one I’ve never really found anywhere else, and I’ve added so many other things to the list.

Let’s just hope and pray that nobody ever makes a musical out of this. That thought scares me more than Buffalo Bill ever did.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Seven

The plan at the moment is to do ten, break for some fiction/poetry/something else, do ten more, take another one of those breaks and then finish out the last ten in glorious (maybe? It’s not like I’m getting a ton of feedback on this little endeavor) fashion.

In case anyone was even a little curious.


30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Seven: Favorite Animated Feature
Paprika (2006)
Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Starring: Megami Hayashibara, Akio Otsuka, Toru Furuya

I can’t believe I waited four years to see this. Let’s just go ahead and blame all those Anime conventions I’ve been working at for the last six years. That makes absolutely no sense, when you realize I still love Anime and watch it whenever possible, but it just seems like fun to blame something without any real reason behind doing so.

The real reason is that some movies sit on that list of things I want to see for ages. It’s as simple as that. I know people in their forties who have been meaning to see The Godfather. Most of us are just never going to get to see every single movie that grabs our interest (Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese might). We do the best we can, and we make time wherever possible. I love that it’s impossible to see everything I could ever want to see. That’s weirdly appealing to me, and it’s something I’ve mentioned before. It’s the same thing with music.

Unfortunately certain genres suffer from neglect on my part more than others. There’s a special place in my cold, black Canadian heart for animation, but I notice from time to time (Netflix is good at reminding me) that the list of animated films I’d like to check out is a pretty long one. I’ve seen plenty of Disney, Miyazaki, feature-length adaptations of various Anime series and other titles, but the list still seems to be considerable. It doesn’t bother me. The reminder that I’m missing out only hits me when I’m finally getting around to seeing something. I had that thought after finally seeing Pink Flamingos the other night, and I definitely had that realization after seeing Paprika late last year.

I might actually be willing to go to a stupid parade, if they were anything like this one.

I knew Satoshi Kon’s work from seeing Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue and trailers for Paprika and Millennium Actress. His body of work was certainly more about quality than quantity. In the past year I’ve finally finished watching the films he directed in his lifetime, and all I can do is sadly wish he was still alive and directing today. Dreaming Machine is to be his last film, and it’s supposedly going to be released at some point this year. It’s a shame that has to be the case. The only consolation is the remarkable talent and imagination displayed in his few finished films. It’s almost intimidating as a writer to look at something as extraordinary as Paprika and realize how limitless the creativity of some can truly be. Of all his films Paprika is easily my favorite. It’s also the best animated film I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s room for that opinion to change, but it’s going to take something pretty spectacular. I can think of a dozen things I love about this movie. If I watch it again I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more.

The story is wonderful. It’s original, well-told and with a fantastic depth of attention to fully-realized, believable characters. I love the basic premise of a device that can record dreams running amok in reality. What I like even more is how much Kon and co-screenwriter Seishi Minakami get out of that premise. A great storyteller can do a few movies’ worth of ideas in a couple of hours or less. A hack job will either not explore the concept to its fullest potential or crush the great idea under trying to express so much that the film becomes bloated, confusing and dull. Kon and Minakami take a 1993 Japanese novel and use animation to blow the story wide open. Films in general demand that you trust where they’re going to try and take you. That can lead to any number of possibilities for what that means you’re going to get out of it. Of course, some movies ask more of you than others. Some demand a little more trust to keep your mind wide open, to simply settle in for the ride and wait until that ride has come to a complete stop before asking questions. Paprika asks for a whole lot of that trust. It’s just a little unreal how much ground this movie flies across a mere ninety-minute span. Taking the movie with arms wide open can leave you exhausted the way a four or five hour movie might. I’m honestly inclined to think that a lot of other attempts at this story would have yielded a film running three hours or longer and just not nailing it in the same way. A lot of themes, characters, ideas of social, political, moral and scientific importance are taken on. None of it is short-changed. Nothing overstays its welcome. This only sounds a lot more overcrowded than it actually is. If anything you’ll get to the end wishing there was a little bit more.

Okie dokie.

It’s a gorgeous world to visit. The animation has to be able to keep up with furious pace of the plot, while also doing justice to a magnificent voice-acting cast. Paprika strikes me as so beautiful that I could probably watch it quite easily without sound. It’s a firm reminder of what animation can do that live-action will never be able to duplicate with all the bells and whistles of formidable technology (time may prove me wrong on that, but I choose to hold onto that opinion for as long as possible) and its disposal. The backgrounds of Paprika alone seem like they would be a breathtaking place to get lost in. The countless character designs, larger details are a sight to behold, but at least some of the fun of the movie is in its details. It’s another aspect that demands repeat viewings and a guarantee that they will never feel like a chore. You will almost certainly want to come back to this world again. Catching the sights missed the first time will give way to that pleasure of a second (or third) viewing feeling a lot like the initial one. I can’t even imagine my own favorite visual moment. There’s too many to pick off the top of my head. Watching it again would only increase my options.

I really can’t think of a better example of the genre than this. That goes for Anime specifically (at least with feature films) and animation of all kinds in general. Paprika is a film of staggering visual beauty, wonderful characters and relentlessly good storytelling. It’s going to take many, many viewings to exhaust the potential of how much there is to see and absorb throughout. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that we lost one of the good ones when Satoshi Kon passed away. He left behind some truly worthwhile films. I’m just selfish enough to wish there could have been a few more. That wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy me, no specific number ever could, but one of the best and most bittersweet things I’ve taken from Kon’s films is a sense of a longing. I wish I could see the world as he saw it. Since that’s impossible, I wish he was still around to give us some visual possibilities to work with.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Six

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Six:  Favorite Horror

A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon
By Gabriel Ricard

It still bugs me a little that I’ve been to three horror movie conventions in my life, and not a single damn one of them included Robert Englund. He’s been one of my favorite actors for as long as I can remember, and his presence is welcome in any movie. He’s also always struck me as underrated. There’s a lot more to Freddy Krueger than terrible jokes and an ugly hat. I’ve always like Freddy more than any movie monster and that’s because of Englund. Even the worst Elm St. film at least has what I feel is a great actor in of the great cinematic villain roles of all time. I’ve always found that entertaining enough to at least enjoy movies as terrible as Freddy’s Dead or Freddy vs. Jason.

That’s probably why the good Elm St. films are amongst my favorite horror films. They don’t have to just rely on Englund’s considerable charisma as an actor. They have good casts, fantastic, enduring special effects (made all the more remarkable by how low the budgets for those films tended to be) and stories that usually had a lot more energy, humor and creativity going for them than most horror film franchises (especially in that era). The first one is the best example of this, and it also has the benefit of still being genuinely creepy. From the film’s ferocious beginning Craven establishes an oppressive, dooming atmosphere for those wretched teenagers of his. Freddy is clearly in control of this universe from start to finish, even when his chief protagonist, Nancy (the amazing Heather Langenkamp) seems to gain an edge as she slowly comes to learn more about him. A Nightmare on Elm St. is Freddy’s world, and it’s almost always an accident when anyone gets away from it alive. The first film does a better job of making us believe that than anything that came after it (six sequels, a TV series, a crossover with Jason Voorhees, a disappointing remake, a ride at Disney World, an assortment of cookies and other snackables and the scariest damn children’s doll ever created). It’s a dark, grim ride that would never be properly duplicated ever again.

These two are so cute together. It’s actually kind of sickening.

There’s a reason why New Line Cinema is known as “The House That Freddy Built”. Before A Nightmare on Elm St. became a runaway hit in 1984, the studio was known for distributing midnight movie classics like Reefer Madness. Wes Craven’s mediation on the death of innocence, the potential for dreams to be as harmful as reality and the consequences of revenge and mob mentality (I can’t imagine why either of those things wouldn’t work out—I love mobs or any opportunity to upgrade my TV and get some new shirts). Craven’s best films are often obsessed with the notion that we’re never safe, and that any attempt to try and change that is pretty futile in the long run.

Or A Nightmare on Elm St. is just a movie about a guy who kills a bunch of teenagers. You can just look it at that way, too.

Choosing this was not a huge, difficult stretch of the imagination. Horror has been one of the great, long-standing influences on my writing and even with some of my acting. Being able to work for a horror movie website and being able to meet so many of my favorite actors/directors/etc is still one of the highlights of my writing career. I miss being able to ramble about horror films, and I miss the wonderful atmosphere of those conventions.

It goes back further than that. I remember as a child going to the video store in Lake Cowichan, B.C. (the good one) and being transfixed by the box art for the rather large horror section the store boasted. I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that I had nightmares all the time. More often than not my imagination over what the movies might be about based on their artwork was far more elaborate and frightening than the films themselves. Freddy Krueger was one of the exceptions. He was exactly as terrifying as I imagined he would be.

The effect the Elm St. films had on me was pretty profound, and I would imagine those effects continue to this day. I have to say it again. I don’t think it gets much better than Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. I’ve never been obsessed with meeting people whose work I admire, but I do wish I could meet the guy just to tell him that I borrowed heavily from Freddy when playing Bob Ewell in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was kind of hard not to find parallels between two. I also wanted to convey menace as best as I could, and there are few actors who are better to draw that kind of inspiration from than Englund. God knows if I was actually successful, but it was awfully fun to pretend I had any business trying.

The first film is the one I’m the most likely to hit up, whenever I feel like watching something I’ve admittedly seen entirely too many times. Wes Craven gets an insane amount of mileage out of his miniscule budget. I really do believe that all of the film’s visuals punches retain the ability to be eerie and impressive.  The movie also benefits from a better-than-average cast for a 1980’s horror film (John Saxon is another actor who has saved a lot more bad movies than the ones he did that actually knew how to use him properly).  The other teenagers are more than just victims to serve a fantastic story that was a decidedly clever twist on the slasher genre it helped create. For the most part they’re actually worth giving a damn about.

This is probably *not* the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. Just saying.

It’s astonishing to me that this was turned down by pretty much every major studio in Hollywood. New Line got a juggernaut of a hit from risking pretty much everything they had on at least making back its 1.8 million dollar budget.  I don’t blame them a bit for turning Freddy Krueger into a surprisingly-marketable anti-hero (even if the downside of that was the character being seriously diluted and changed across each sequel). The sequels can be fun in their own way, but I’ll take the force of this film’s atmosphere over anything those others have to offer. It’s gritty, bleak and features what is easily Englund’s most sadistic, menacing portrayal of Freddy. That’s the main draw here in spite of everything else contributing something to this film’s status as one of the best horror movies of all time (it’s also appeared on several notable lists of overall great movies).  There’s no cruel humor to be found here. Freddy is pure evil in classic makeup (created in this film by David Miller and improved upon in future films). The only shame is that Englund didn’t get to use more of that sadism in the sequels.

Thirty-Day Film Challenge: Day Five

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Five:  Favorite Action

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
By Gabriel Ricard

I’m still pretty easy to please when it comes to a ridiculous, gleefully stupid action movie. The problem is that it’s a lot like my problem with horror films these days. It just takes a lot more to impress me and keep my attention than it used to. I should also keep in mind that they just don’t make action movies like they used to. That’s actually a good thing for the most part, but I do get annoyed by films released over the last few years claiming to be smarter, more sophisticated affairs for a more sophisticated, smarter audience. That’s a load of nonsense. A dumbass movie is a dumbass movie. No matter how prettier it gets, no matter how hard it tries to rip off the editing style from the Bourne films and no matter how aware of its own silliness it pretends to be. I can still embrace a stupid movie, but I would at least prefer the movie just admit it’s stupid. It’s okay. I won’t judge. I’m already watching the damn thing.

I actually think cinema junk food is pretty essential to the whole diet. I’d like to think I was able to express this when writing about 2012.  I can’t just watch Criterion titles, obscurities from the dustiest corners of an endless film vault. I have to be able to tune out once in a while. It’s the same thing with those broad comedies, and it’s why I’m never the kind of person who’s going to have blood shoot out of my eyes. Just because you happen to like a movie I can’t stand. That’s stupid. Like whatever the hell you want, but at least try to be honest about what you might want from a movie in a given moment.

This was another category with a lot of front-runners. Die Hard won out when I thought about for a second and realized how many times I had seen and enjoyed it as though I was watching it for the first time. I can’t remember when I saw it for the first time. It’s just one of those movies that feels like it’s playing in the background somewhere since I was four years old. I’m a good deal more conscious of when the three sequels came out. I’m guessing I saw the first one somewhere in that time period of whenever it came out on video. Some movies just seem to be permanent fixtures in my life. In my case it’s probably a couple films too many. It’s not my fault there’s such a wide range of things to choose from.

Waffle House takes all kinds. Not like those stuck-up bastards as Denny’s.

If you’ve never seen Die Hard and have no interest in seeing it, then there’s not a lot I can say. It’s one of the best pure-action movies I’ve ever seen. I think it’s held up better than most like it through the years. That’s probably because it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. The movie comes by its charm so easily that it never seems to drag, show its age or take itself too seriously. John McTiernan was pretty good sometimes at making films that could be unadulterated entertainment without making you feel stupid or in need of a spiritual cleansing of some kind (Michael Bay movies, for example). He hasn’t made one of those in quite a long time, but here he’s at his best with a great script from good source material (the novel isn’t bad at all), a memorable Michael Kamen score and some of the best editing and cinematography of its time. Most of all he has one of the best casts ever assembled for an action movie. It’s hard to imagine now that Bruce Willis was at the time considered an unlikely action star, and that Die Hard itself would be a surprise hit of 1988. As much as I like other elements and talents I can’t see this movie working with anyone else. I don’t think it’s an accident that Willis is still hanging around after twenty-three years later. He casts a presence that I never really saw in any of the other action stars of the 80’s and 90’s. I don’t even think there’s anyone today primarily known for that genre than can hold even the most painfully dumb movie together better than he can. I wouldn’t throw him in the same category as someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s not that kind of actor. I do think he’s good though, and I’ll even go so far as to say he’s great as the certain types of characters he plays. I’m not directly comparing him to someone like John Wayne in terms of perceived greatness, but I think they both go about being great at those certain types of characters in the same way. Some actors simply cast a presence that can dominate a film and even make it tolerable if nothing else comes together. It keeps them working a lot longer than most of their contemporaries. Willis has had a knack with that for years, and he’s only gotten better as time goes on.

Alan Rickman getting the Wile E. Coyote moment every European actor in a U.S. action film dreams of.

Die Hard succeeds on Willis’ constantly overwhelmed, surprisingly durable hero, but it still owes a lot of its energy and humor to the rest of the cast. Alan Rickman almost got typecast after this, but he still set down one of the best movie villains of all time. He’s easily as much a pleasure to watch as Willis. He proves (as he still does this to this day) that a good actor can stretch even the most simplistic character into something memorable and engaging. It doesn’t have to be deep (but an actor like Rickman can do that, too). It just has to be the best within the context of that particular film and genre. He steals every single scene he’s in.

A lot of performances in Die Hard are like that. Bonnie Bedelia gets a lot out of a thankless role and proves to be a perfect match for Willis’ McClane. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to see how those two got married. Reginald VelJohnson will probably never be known for anything but playing cops, but he’s still great at playing those kinds of cops. The same can be said for William Atheron and the late, great Paul Gleason, and how well they could make you despise them within about two minutes of showing up on screen.  Everyone adds to that sense of fun Die Hard would struggle to repeat in its three sequels. All of them were all entertaining in their own ways, but they never quite captured the same battered, frantic magic of this one. McTiernan would never be better at carefully maneuvering us from one hectic moment to the next as he would be here. The movie drops us into the war zone pretty early on, and it rarely lets up until the end. Willis is a good companion for that. He never stops cracking jokes while looking exhausted from losing more blood than the human body generally contains. The movie never stops putting him through one circle of hell after another (while even inventing a couple), as we careen along the walls, causing explosions and destroying everything in sight over as McClane staggers closer to the moment when he finally gets his hands on those stupid, stupid bad guys. It’s a tired plot, but it can be a lot of fun under the right mindset and circumstances. Here it’s as fun now as it was twenty-three years ago. I don’t debate for a second that there’s probably something wrong with enjoying revenge movies. I don’t debate it, because I just don’t care. Sometimes it’s a relief to still be able to do that.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Four

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Four: Favorite Drama

The Hospital (1971)
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
Starring: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Richard A. Dysart
By Gabriel Ricard

I didn’t set out to reference black comedies yesterday and then come back to them for day four. It just seemed to work out that way. I wrote at great lengths yesterday about my ability to laugh at a lot of different things. However there does seem to be a pretty large place in my cold, nicotine-battered Canadian heart for the dark comedies. People frequently comment that the things I find humorous are sometimes quite horrifying. I don’t debate that for a second. I’m aware that they are horrifying. It might be a cop-out to deal with how terrible the world can be by immediately looking for the humor, but I’ll take the cop-out over feeling helpless and angry.

You can indeed look at The Hospital as a very, very black comedy. You can also see it as one of the most depressing movies ever made. The consensus from critics at the time of its release and people who have seen it now puts it somewhere in the middle. Personally I think the movie is hilarious, but I’m also capable of doing MST3K-style commentary for Grave of the Fireflies or Requiem for a Dream. I’m probably not the best person to consult for what the world at large is going to find funny.

Still, people who have seen The Hospital seem to consider it a pretty brilliant mix of one vicious gallows punch line after another and callous observation. The film hit its forty-year mark in 2011, but I would say a lot of those punch lines and observations are as sharp now as they were in 1971. Paddy Chayefsky would win a score of writing awards for the script (including an Oscar). I didn’t know anything about the movie before seeing it, but I wasn’t surprised when I found out later. A forty-year-old script can’t help but suffer from being a little dated as the decades wear on. Great scripts can shrug that off and still suck you in. They can stand as good a chance of engaging somebody as they did the year they were filmed. I’m willing to show The Hospital to anyone to prove that point.

There’s a lot of reasons why I won’t go near doctors or hospitals. This movie is one of them.

The acting is a big part of that enduring quality, too. The Hospital is one of my favorite films simply for the amazing performances by George C. Scott and Diana Rigg. Scott had a pretty good career being a larger-than-life, terminally brooding presence kicked in the stomach by day-to-day life and just hanging on to his dignity and sanity by a thread as large as a few inches of floss. This is my by far my favorite version of a persona he played so consistently well (but he could play other characters, too). He takes hold of Chayefsky’s great script, chews every line to pieces and spits them back out with a ferocious, career-making bark. The “We cure nothing!” speech is quite possibly my favorite rant in a film of all time. George C. Scott plays a man at the brink of self-destruction amidst absolute chaos so well that I have to wonder just how much of it was really acting. He was clearly as intense a guy as you were ever going to meet in real life (and I’ve read things about him that seem to indicate this was true).

Diana Rigg makes Scott even better. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Her character is largely amused by the weary doom and gloom of Scott’s exhausted Chief of Medicine to one of New York’s largest, most unwieldy hospitals. Rigg was (and still is—she’s not actually dead) the kind of actress who could chemistry with anybody she was paired up with. It worked on The Avengers, and it worked with actors like Vincent Price in the phenomenal Theater of Blood. Her amusement, affection and then love (maybe, you know? Her character is clearly not playing with a full deck, so it’s difficult to tell if she really loves the guy or not) for Scott’s Dr. Bock is like everything else in the movie. It comes out of nowhere and seems to exist by its own universal set of rules. The same thought applies to the murder spree that goes on as Scott struggles to survive his latest bout of suicidal despair before falling into his bizarre-yet-inexplicably charming relationship with Rigg (it probably doesn’t hurt that she’s incredibly sexy in this).

There’s a lot going on here beyond the clearly-defined anguish, love, sex, murder, bedlam and cruel cosmic humor. The hospital itself, and by extension everything else, is falling apart under the weight of constant, Kafkaesque (I don’t like that term, but it does work here) bureaucracy, indifference (Richard A. Dysart is brilliant as the unfeeling, sadistically greedy Dr. Welbeck) and deranged, counterproductive social upheaval. It’s a pretty frantic collection of scenes, characters, motivations and events for a hundred and three minutes, but it comes together quite well when taken from start to finish. It was a forerunner of the kind of pessimism that would later be the heart and soul of TV shows like House and E.R. You should be right at home with The Hospital if you consider yourself a fan of those shows. My favorite moments in either of those shows were the ones that could be savagely funny over the bleakest of circumstances. The Hospital is one of those moments after another. It has a well-earned reputation for being a severe ride.

In the next scene, George C. Scott literally eats this man’s soul.

This was one of the first movies I ever rented from Netflix some years ago. It was appropriately a completely random choice, and I’ve always been grateful that I gave it a shot.  The Hospital turned me into a fan of both Scott and Rigg, and I’ve enjoyed several performances of their ever since I checked this out. It only takes a few minutes a day on Facebook or an afternoon in a city to remind myself that the anarchy in The Hospital is not only pretty close to the kind of thing I see in real life, but it’s probably gotten even worse since 1971. It could be that I’m just being pessimistic myself. Then there’s the Dr. Bock character. You don’t need a sprawling back story to know that the mess he’s in has come about from a combination of his own design and whatever the hell that twisted cosmic humor is doing to him. A lot of people are victims of that combination. It can exhaust you into old age long before you actually get there in years, if you happen choose to take on more than your body and spirit can handle. At times I relate to the mood of this film (and of Scott) far more than I should probably admit.