December 9, 2014


Inside each hand, a miracle. Starman (1984) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) both envision the ineffable, of presences that transcend our earthly domain. But both also celebrate the joys allowed to those bound in flesh, of Dutch apple pie and a frolic in the woods. Odd things happen when movies are viewed in quick succession. As I watched Starman and Kaguya, their stories seemed to be the same story. Both features follow an alien lifeform adapting to Earth. In Starman it’s a crash-landed alien anthropologist trekking back to his rendezvous point, while in Kaguya it’s a princess who was discovered inside of a bamboo shoot, and presumed to be a gift of the heavens. There are comic fish-out-of-water segments in adapting to their new environments, as well as doomed romances that spark and snuff out due to the whole long-distance relationship problem (it’s tough when you’re in different galaxies). But they are bittersweet films, ones that make the transcendent visible, only for it to disappear in the end.


Starman (1984) was a cursed property at Columbia Pictures. It was the project the studio chose to make instead of E.T. They were developing both, but the head of the studio at the time, Frank Price, prioritized Starman. Spielberg moved E.T. to Universal, where it became the highest grossing film of all time up until that point. Trying to escape the stink of lost money, Columbia shelved Starman for a year, until it was resurrected by John Carpenter, who had just directed the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983) for Columbia. It was a change of pace for Carpenter, who had not strayed too far from his horror wheelhouse. He was a student of film history though, and admired how the studio directors could have a go at every possible genre, often in the same year. On Starman, Carpenter tried to make his Capra movie. He told New York Magazine that:

Starman meets this widow, played by Karen Allen, and falls in love. But he’s an alien, and she doesn’t know how to react. It’s like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. I wanted to create that same kind of romantic tension.


Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) is speechless to discover her dead husband alive in her living room. The “Starman”  had crash landed in the field outside her house, and taken on human form by melding itself with her husband’s DNA.When she recovers from the shock, she realizes that this is an impostor.  The eyes are glassy and blank, his movements ungainly and staccato, like a baby bird. His English vocabulary was gleaned from the album included in the Voyager satellite, their communication reliant upon body language and intuition. Jenny, still in mourning, is hypnotized by this specter, and reluctantly helps him on his trip from Wisconsin to Arizona — where he will rendezvous with his mother ship and return home. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the bulk of the film is a road trip romantic comedy in the It Happened One Night mold. They are a duo thrown together by circumstance who flirt their way across the U.S., with Jenny initiating him into United States culture. He learns to kiss from studying the late show on TV of From Here to Eternity. Shot on location in Monument Valley and the Meteor Crater in Arizona, along with stops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it’s Carpenter’s most American movie. And he doesn’t move the camera too much, keeping things in medium shot and letting the landscapes and actors do the work. And Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, is entrancing. He’s an actor that allows you to see him think – which is essential for the part of a quickly adaptive alien being. He’s constantly computing, weighing and evaluating, conveyed in his bird-like head bobs and the gentle querying in his gaze. Karen Allen is quite moving as his straight woman, her arc from exasperation to indulgence to affection demonstrated in her wide-set searching eyes. For a feel-good romance, Starman is awfully downbeat. The government is an exploitative war machine chasing Starman to use him as a lab rat, while the romantic union is an impossibility. They live on separate planes, the gorgeous heartbreaker of an ending closing in on Allen’s face, expressing a terrible kind of wonder and loss.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latest and probably final film from anime master Isao Takahata, is another tale of a fantastic visitor who embeds themselves in human concerns. It is based on a tenth century Japanese folktale, one of the oldest narratives in the culture. It concerns a lowly bamboo cutter who finds an infant the size of his thumb inside of a glowing stalk – named Kaguya. He brings her home and raises her as his own. She grows at an exponential rate, so the local children nickname her “Little Bamboo”. The bamboo cutter is convinced the gods desire the child to become a princess, and feel confirmed in that fact when he is gifted with a treasure. He tears his family away from their country home and tries to raise her as a noble, with plucked eyebrows and deference to her elders. Instead, Kaguya would rather be chasing kittens and tending to her garden. She pines for home and her childhood love Sutemaru, until one day she is forced to return to her real home, a place not of earth or of heaven.


The animation is drawn in with colored pencil and watercolor, a vibrantly beautiful aesthetic. The lines are loose and flowing, and the delicate, minimalist aesthetic seemingly leaves landscapes half formed, as if developing along with Kaguya. When she dreams of escape from her gilded city cage, the form deteriorates into rough sketches. As she imagines herself running away, bull-headed through the city streets and back to the country, her body is formed by a few strokes, the forest rendered in thick lines of charcoal, the world seemingly convulsing around her. It’s a tour de force sequence, and one that shows Kaguya’s control. Starman is a victim of circumstance, but Kaguya can shape the environments in which she lives. When required to take a husband, she puts them off with impossible tasks, guaranteeing herself a preferred life as a spinster, tending her gardens and living inside her head.


Kaguya’s departure to her home world is remarkably similar to that of Starman. There is an approaching cloud that resolves into an interstellar conveyance, one which elicits awe and dread. This is the final departure, the end of transcendent possibilities. In both we are granted the POV of the humans who are left behind, left with our conflicted emotions and vulnerable bodies. Starman is an essentially optimistic film, Jenny left with a hopeful gaze into the future.  The ones Kaguya leaves behind are bereft, left with nothing but memories of their miraculous child, now gone forever. What in Starman is a possibility, in Kaguya is a rebuke.



November 19, 2013


The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.


Carpenter’s first feature, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star, had started as a student film project during his time at USC, completed in stops and starts when money became available. Assault marked his professional debut, with a full cast and crew to go along with producer demands. The reported budget was $100,000, and he had twenty-five days to shoot it in. Originally titled “The Anderson Alamo”,  Assault was his homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). Unable to afford an editor, Carpenter cut the film himself, using the pseudonym “John T. Chance”, the name of John Wayne’s character in the Hawks Western. Without the resources or the acting talent at Hawks’ disposal, Carpenter reduces the earlier film’s leisurely story to its central siege sequence. John Wayne, , Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson hole up in the one-horse town’s prison to guard inmate Claude Akins, whose land-grabbing brother has sent his hired goons to break him out. The prison interior becomes a proving ground, where Martin battles his alcoholism and Nelson enters maturity, and Carpenter uses Precinct 13 to similar effect. Outside of the station house all the characters are ciphers, while inside their inner lives begin to leak out.

The four narrative strands are: Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is a rookie cop sent to oversee the shutdown of Precinct 13; a local gang, who has stolen a large cache of weapons, stalks through the town; a father and daughter innocently prepare for their day; three convicts are being transported through town on a bus. A sick prisoner lands the bus at Precinct 13, while the father is chased in as well, as the only eyewitness to a cold-blooded murder. Shot in various locations in Los Angeles, from Watts to North Hollywood, the exteriors are wincingly bright, exposing vice in every shot. A bulbous warden lands a blow at cuffed inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) before he is transferred, while the silent gang commits random acts of violence. Anarchy is in the air.


Inside Precicnt 13, a Hawskian world blooms. Bishop is eager to honor and serve the city, despite being born black in the underprivileged neighborhood of the district. He’s cool and calm as the facade of law and order comes crumbling down around him. He’s aided by Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) a world-weary secretary who matches wits with Napoleon – a convicted murderer with a deadpan retort to every calamity, and who is always in search of a smoke. Carpenter fans the erotic flare between Napoleon and Leigh with moves from To Have and Have Not, the Hawks noir with Bogie and Bacall from 1944. The actors are limited in range, but Carpenter gets Laurie Zimmer to speak in a low, husky monotone, channeling Bacall’s slinky slow motion delivery. She is the only one able to puncture Napoleon’s armor of distanced cool. When she lights his cigarette with a flick of her wrist, a glimmer of recognition flashes across his face. She is, like him, a guarded loner.


There is not much time for flirtation in Assault, with death literally at the door, so Napoleon fatalistically brushes off their attraction with a joke:  “In my situation, days are like women – each one’s so damn precious, but they all end up leaving you.” Then the bullets start quietly flying out of the gang’s silencers, and the group begins to get comfortable with the idea of death. It creeps closer as the gang pushes them into the basement, their last stand dependent on a  few bullets and a tank of gas. This finale borrows from The Thing From Another World (1951), a favorite from Carpenter’s childhood that Hawks produced (and likely directed, despite being credited to Christian Nyby). Where that film climaxes with its vegetal alien stumbling on fire through a cloistered hallway, Assault does the same with a multi-cultural group of gangland killers in the cellar of a police precinct. While on the streets outside they have every angle covered, down in the depths they are funneled into a shooting gallery. The more cramped Carpenter’s frames become, the more the attackers lose their edge. At this point all the narrative lines converge into one final conflagration.

Assault on Precinct 13, furtively released in the United States as a rote exploitation item, was rapturously received in England. Carpenter became the subject of an adulatory profile in Time Out London by Tony Rayns and Scott Meek in March, 1978, months before Halloween made him a household name. Clearly frustrated at a lack of studio support, Carpenter makes complaints that still ring true today: “The money has gone way up, and a lot fewer movies are getting made. And it’s because so much money is being gambled on individual films that so many hands get to finger each project. I wonder how many films that are personal to a director are going to be made in the years to come.” Carpenter had his run, and is now back to struggling to get projects off the ground. His last feature was the severely underrated The Ward (2011, reviewed here), for which the closing lines of the Time Out London piece would be apt: “Check out for yourself what America doesn’t know it’s missing.”


November 13, 2012

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From the multiplicity of locations to place a camera, the director and his collaborators have to settle on one. This decision, born of practical training and on-set instinct, can turn a routine shot into an extraordinary one. Three recent Blu-ray releases display the talents of the canniest of decision makers: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Preminger and Carpenter are naturals in the CinemaScope sized frame, both alternating between B&W and color to emphasize their images’ deceptive surfaces. Aldrich uses the boxier 1.85 ratio, but chops it up into split-screens which convey a dizzying information overload that accompanies the creeping surveillance state of that film’s USA.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Fritz Lang famously said that CinemaScope was only fit for snakes and funerals, so his character clearly hadn’t yet seen Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Out today on Blu-Ray in a sublime transfer from Twilight Time (available through Screen Archives), Otto Preminger’s film uses the wide frame to emphasize surfaces, whether it’s of Jean Seberg’s impassive face or the doorways and windows that promise a depth that never materializes. Preminger bought the rights to Francoise Sagan’s novel in 1955, and gave S.N. Behrman a crack at the screenplay before turning it over to Arthur Laurents, who received sole screen credit. The story tells of Cecile (Jean Seberg), a carefree teen spending a summer on the French Riviera with her playboy  father Raymond (David Niven, with chest hair perpetually flared). They act more like swingers than family, urging each other into wild romantic escapades and laughing at the wreckage.  But when Raymond falls for their old pal Anne (Deborah Kerr), Cecile becomes wildly jealous and aims to break them up. Her efforts, tragically, succeed.

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The story is told in flashback, with the present-tense Cecile in black and white, a joyless mannequin twirling through the nightclubs of Paris. She stares dead-eyed into the camera, her arm around another interchangeable Lothario, as she speaks of happier times in voice-over. This is when the color starts to peek through, a strikingly melancholy optical printing effect, as sections of the frame next to her head burst into the color of the Riviera, flickerings of memory coming to life. B&W gives way to hot reds and shimmering blues. The effort already shows in the flashback of Raymond and Cecile’s mirthmaking, having to constantly remind each other that they’re having fun.

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Exteriors are what matter. Early on Raymond’s chirpy French girlfriend Elsa (a hilarious Mylene Demongeot) gets badly sunburned, and this reminder of physical deterioration makes Elsa not long for Raymond’s world. Soon he ignores her for the regal Anne. Preminger emphasizes the openings and closures in their Riviera cottage, where windows, doors and hallways are made visible in every shot, intimating the depths beneath the skin that Raymond and Cecile fear to tread. They are almost always outside, whether on the beach or out on the town.

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The first assistant director Serge Friedman recalled that Preminger did not have the shot choreography planned out, but would have “to do a lot of thinking before he could find the right place.” One of the most memorable shots utlilizes the full ‘Scope frame at a dinner party. A maid is arranged in the  far left edge foreground, secretly chugging a beer behind the bar, while Raymond and his clan are grouped to the right, in the middle distance, nattering on about a casino. Their total obliviousness to the world around them is encapsulated in that slyly funny frame.  Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger study The World and its Double, writes that “the floor of the set was treated with gelatin to allow the camera to move as freely as possible”, regardless of where he chose to move it. His method is improvisatory, but the result is controlled and structured – even Elsa’s skin troubles are rhymed in the devastating final shot, when Cecile rubs in face cream to preserve her beauty, which is all she has left.

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Another film of deceptive surfaces is John Carpenter’s They Live (1988),  now out on Blu-Ray from Shout! FactoryA scathing  sci-fi satire of Reagan-era America, Carpenter uses the CinemaScope-equivalent aspect ratio (2.35:1) make his compositions as herd-like as the zombified consumer society he is depicting, of crowds and lines and glimmering store lights. The hero in this debased trickle down society is, appropriately enough, played by mulleted (and likely roided) pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. An unemployed drifter who still believes in the American dream, he is introduced as a hero from a Western, dropped off by a train in a dynamic diagonal composition, as did Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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He realizes the truth upon donning some magic shades, which reveal a B&W world of alien brainwashing. Billboards scream OBEY and WATCH TV, hidden messages that are also beamed through TV screens to lull the populace into consumer comas. As with Bonjour, the sober B&W represents brute reality, and color the world of exteriors. Carpenter’s project is not one of subtlety, but a kind of satiric shock and awe. Piper’s pal, played by Keith David, is introduced behind a line of iron rebar, and they live in a smoggy abandoned lot across from a church.  They Live is a proto-Occupy Wall Street in its emphasis on extreme income inequality, visualized in alternating rows – of Piper and David’s construction sites and the aliens’ tuxedoed gentry imbibing champagne at a gala dinner.

Released today on Blu-ray from Olive Films, Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be even more timely in its visualization of image overload. A paranoid political thriller still haunted by the death toll of Vietnam, it places Burt Lancaster as a dissident Army vet who breaks into and gains control of a nuclear missile silo. Unless President Charles Durning releases a secret National Security Council memo to the public that reveals the cynical reasoning behind the war, Lancaster will fire the nukes.  A furious film, director Robert Aldrich finds an equally furious style. Instead of parallel editing between the White House, Richard Widmark’s hawkish general (modeled after Curtis LeMay) and the silo, Aldrich uses an increasingly complicated series of split screens (of two and four), in which actions unspool simultaneously, as if you are watching the live feed from the President’s Situation Room. The footage of Durning sitting with his cabinet (which includes an avuncular Melvyn Douglas and a sepulchral Joseph Cotten) as they watch a special forces raid on the silo recalls the photograph of Obama’s team watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe it’s the first found footage movie, a scarier version of The Blair Witch Project in which the bogeyman isn’t one pissed off ghost but the entire social and political system in which we live and work.


December 20, 2011

genre 2011

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.


Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.


Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.


I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”


The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.


Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.


The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.


Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).


Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.


The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive AngryWreckedBurke & Hare (which I wrote about here).


June 14, 2011


After a ten-year absence from the screen, John Carpenter’s welcome return is with a haunted insane asylum quickie entitled The Ward (released on cable VOD June 8th, it will receive a limited theatrical run starting July 8th). Following the box-office failure of his underrated Western-in-space yarn Ghosts of Mars (2001), Carpenter felt “burned out” and took a step back from Hollywood. He was unofficially retired, aside from happily cashing the checks from studio remakes of his work (Assault on Precinct 13, the forthcoming They Live). But after directing two episodes in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, with tight budgets, compressed schedules and little oversight, “it was actually fun again” (interview with Fangoria). He looked for a similar setup for a possible feature, and found it when actress Amber Heard invited him to direct her in The Ward, an indie horror film funded by Echo Lake for a modest$10 million (the estimate at IMDB). He did not write the script or the score, and The Ward misses his sense of group dynamics that he studiously gleaned from Howard Hawks. Instead it’s a solid job of craftsmanship, punching up Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s hacky story mechanics with an effortlessly controlled visual scheme that creates a circular, suffocating sense of claustrophobia.

It’s 1966 in North Bend, Oregon, and Kristen (Amber Heard) is found kneeling in front of a handsome farmhouse as it burns to the ground. As the guilty, raving firebug, she is committed to a mental institution presided over by Dr. Stringer (Mad Men’s Jared Harris).  She is isolated in a locked down section of the institute, along with four other female crazies: Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh) and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). She warily enters their combative circle, and it is not long before she is greeted by a mummified ghost with a thirst for inmate bloodshed. The more she discovers about this poorly groomed spirit the more questions are raised about Kristen herself.

John Carpenter to I Am Rogue: “I wanted to have a good time. I could make a shadowy corridor, which is something I want to do.” Having only a few sets to work with, Carpenter makes the most of them with unsettling repetitions, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. Even their escape attempts walk down well-trodden pathways, and always end up back where they started. Carpenter’s opening shot trawls down the hallway that leads to their cells, followed by eerily emptied out hospital rooms. This establishes the set as one of the protagonists of the film, and it ensnares its inhabitants in short order. Throughout, the institute is strangely depopulated, a result of the low budget, but it fits the interorized space he’s creating.

Carpenter fetishistically returns to the low-to-the-ground hallway tracking shot throughout the film, as it pushes in both directions, a forever thwarted promise of escape and ever-present threat of return. Kristen repeatedly tries to exit the double doors at the end of the hall, each time blocked by the brusque orderly. She succeeds one final time, with Zoey as a hostage, but this exit signals her psychological breakdown.The other major repeating setup is a high-angle view in the cells, looking down at Kristen and the previous tenant, Tammy. This establishes a vertical axis of escape as opposed to the tracking shots’ horizontals pushing through the frame. This pays off when Kristen and Emily scamper their way through an air vent above their section, but this axis ultimately pushes them down, and they end up in the basement morgue, even further from freedom. The girls are caught in these two axes of up and down, forward and backward, an endless circling with no exit. It’s a simple template well elaborated by Carpenter and his DP Yaron Orbach.

The cast, a marketer’s dream team of starlets (it’s Shutter Island Gossip Girl, or something), is surprisingly effective. Amber Heard does a fine no-frills job as Kristen, playing against her delicate beauty by exuding a bulldog intensity, pushing forward regardless of the consequences. Panabaker does a fine if cliched narcissistic bitch routine, while Laura-Leigh has little more to do than mew at her stuffed bunny. The real standout is Mamie Gummer’s Emily,  a jumpy, skittish yelper, and the only lady that truly seems unhinged. Her moon-face and wild eyes fixate on Heard early on, threatening violence or a suffocating kind of love.

The dialogue they churn through is of the boiler-plate variety, chewy exposition to move the ladies into the next fright. The ghost, though, is refreshingly physical, with the CGI reserved for long shots or disapperaing acts. For the most part it’s a make-up aided product, and you can feel the weight of its leprous fingers as they twitch the electroshock machine past its breaking point. The explanation for the wraith’s behavior, as is usual these days, is explained by a final twist that invalidates all of the action that came before it. It cannot, however, undo the understated brilliance of Carpenter’s relentlessly logical visuals, whose intimations of spiritual and physical entrapment lingers long after the script’s manufactured shock fades away.


March 16, 2010


After completing production on Halloween, which had yet to make him a household name, John Carpenter moved on to direct one of his career curiosities, a massive 3 hour TV bio-pic of Elvis Presley. Produced by Dick Clark two years after the King’s death, it was a prestige project slotted for ratings, Emmys and an overseas theatrical run, not really an item suited to Carpenter’s talents. Up until this point, he had made the no-budget sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), the violent siege film Assault on Precinct 13, and the ur-slasher Halloween. All are self-reflexive genre pieces with mordant humor, slow-burn set-pieces, and a good deal of blood.  So how did he land this straight-faced gig? On the rambunctious audio commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter claims that when the suits heard he composed his own score for Halloween, they said, “he knows music, so he should know about Elvis.”

It’s as likely an explanation as any, but whether it was studio idiocy or a canny evaluation of Carpenter’s visual style, it succeeded in pairing him with Kurt Russell for the first time.  One of the most entertaining actor-director duos of the last three decades (Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) it’s been near-impossible to see their debut together until Shout Factory! released the DVD last week. Russell was just emerging from his Disney child-star phase, appearing in the Western TV series The Quest(1976) with Tim Matheson along with a few scattered spots on Hawaii Five-O and the immortal tele-film Christmas Miracle in Caulfield, U.S.A (1977).

Elvis was his first big break as an adult, and he attacks the easily caricatured part with a feline physicality (his singing voice is dubbed by Ronnie McDowell). There’s little of the parodic machismo that marks his other work with Carpenter, but he nails a fatalistic kind of charisma ideal for the role. Russell’s Elvis is a split personality – absolute freedom on the stage, and morbid self-destructiveness off of it. That his stage gyrations are violent and his self-destructiveness a form of freedom, well, that just speaks to the complexity of the performance.  While the script avoids the seediest aspects of Elvis’ fall (it ends at his Vegas comeback tour in ’69), it is not a simple hagiography, positing his narcissism as the cause for his divorce and a death-wish at the heart of his personality (he frequently talks to his shadow as Jessie, his twin who died at birth). Tony Williams claims this complex portrait as a parallel to Citizen Kane in his essay in The Cinema of John Carpenter anthology. Graceland acts a bit like Xanadu in cutting Elvis off from humanity, and there is a dining room scene that is a nod to the breakfast montage in Kane, but I don’t know how much explanatory power these references hold aside from underlining Carpenter’s grasp of film history.

Carpenter aids Russell’s brooding take on the role with some clever visual patterning that turns Elvis into a man beseiged. It’s set up in Elvis’ first appearance. In a series of slow tracking shots, through an ornate casino floor and down a blood-red hallway, the camera stalks its way up to his shadow. The dark outline of his head fills the room, until there is a pan to the King himself. He’s shown watching a cowboy movie on TV, his hand twitching to the gunfire on-screen. Then there’s a shot of arrows flying straight at the TV camera, and in turn right at Elvis.

The frame erupts with Elvis’ own images of martyrdom – and unable to shake them off, he takes his trigger finger and shoots the screen dead. Not that this helps. Throughout the movie he’ll predict that Lee Harvey Oswald will kill him, and becomes increasingly alienated and alone, shedding his wife Priscilla (Season Hubley), and continually firing and re-hiring his band (including the smiling Ed Begley, Jr. and Joe Mantegna). Within the context of a standard movie bio-pic, Carpenter achieves some impressive effects here, and muddies the tone considerably with the help of DP Donald Morgan (who went on to work on Christine and Starman with Carpenter), for despite the film’s longeurs, it is always darkly handsome. They are able to stretch out on the musical sequences, working the same tension-release pattern that would soon rocket Halloween into the pantheon. Morgan’s camera frames the stage in long shot, tracking slowly back and forth to set the scene, prowling as insistently as Russell.  A select few insert shots are included to ratchet up the cutting speed as Elvis starts his crotch rotations, but the majority is shot from a distance, allowing Russell to command the stage as a complete physical presence. The high production values seem like something of a miracle considering Carpenter’s claim that they filmed the 3-hour behemoth (which included 16 songs, 188 speaking parts, and 150 locations) in 33 days.

With the amount of pages they had to burn through each day, there are inevitably some quality control issues. The childhood scenes are particularly cringe-inducing, with an overwhelmed kid actor  (Randy Gray) over-enunciating cornball dialogue in a studio-clean backwoods shack. It’s a sequence straight out of Walk Hard. But at least Shelley Winters is there as Presley’s Mom, warm and forgiving as ever. She’s given the thankless role as the only woman Elvis ever loved, so she’s saddled with pieties and overburdened with symbolism (Elvis dyes his hair the same color). But she injects a lightness to this creaky role that is a delight to watch, especially during her jumpy little dance when Elvis gets his first song on the radio. It’s a simple gesture that immediately captures the joyful nervousness of the moment.

The film rarely reaches the richness of the opening sequences again, but it’s loaded with great musical performances, a bewilderingly large cast (also including Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker and Bing Russell (Kurt’s Dad) as Elvis’ father Vernon), and a fearless Kurt Russell at its center, tearing through the cliched script with carnivorous intensity.