Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"The Vault of Horror" (1973, R.W. Baker)

Tales of the Crypt (1972) opened with a slow pan of a graveyard. The Vault of Horror (1973), a follow-up of sorts directed by Roy Ward Baker, opts for an even more ominous image: the camera pans along the Thames, a river we know to be full of severed heads, and eager to embrace one more floating corpse. But even before the opening credits end, we’re in a modern setting of a skyscraper’s elevator. The cobweb and dust of the crypt are gone. Will this movie deal more with urban dread...?

Not really. The Vault… is identical to its predecessor not only in its structure, but also in its thematic concerns. Only the second segment introduces some other drive than greed: namely, obsessive neatness. But all the remaining ones follow the rather misanthropic trait of the Tales… Whether the motivation is money (story #1), a piece of showmanship one wants to master (#3), insurance (#4) or revenues (#5) – the movie promptly sets up scenes of cruel and exquisitely original revenge, conducted on our very eyes. We relish in it, and we get the thrill of both sides: sadistic satisfaction of the once-mistreated, and the masochistic identification with the rightly punished.

At first, since there’s no Ralph Richardson’s Master of Ceremony here, the featured act of storytelling seems less symbolically loaded than it was in Tales from the Crypt (“Why don’t you tell us about it?” – “All right, I will!”). But the finale reveals how much of a Purgatory the vault is. Only it doesn’t purify: the ordeal the characters go through is on an infinite loop. No wonder people made it into a TV series later on. Gotta check it out one of these days, by the way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Tales from the Crypt" (1972, F. Francis)

Give a Brit’s mind a premise as basic as a guilt-driven reverie, and it will churn out five stories of adultery and/or class retaliation. Freddie Francis’ Tales of the Crypt (1972) is great fun to watch, not only because each of its five novellas is engaging on its own, but also because they all seem to be truly of the same mind about class society and heterosexual marriage. First two involve marital unfaithfulness, last three: status-anxiety-ridden ruthlessness. All are told to a group of seemingly contained, upright citizens, who happen to be visiting a crypt of religious martyrs, killed during the reign of Henry VIII. It is in this Catholic space that, fittingly enough, the pangs of conscience materialize into gruesome tales of terror. Ralph Richardson, the master of the ceremony, is there to give everyone a moral lesson, and the one he delivers is cruel: people all being punished for their mere desires, even before they had a chance of acting upon them.

The positioning of the five characters is not unlike this of the little girl in the opening segment: first she’s safely in bed, and then she gets exposed to horror. It is this exposure to fear that serves here as a way of being disciplined.

And yet we’re children, too, in the way we are willing to be guided by the film. It testifies to the filmmakers’ craft how manipulated our moral sense gets: we are menaced only by the killings we’re supposed to be menaced by. Others – like Joan Collins murdering her husband with a poker – seem almost acceptable. It is not murder itself that’s scary in the stories; it’s the punishment part that we shrink from, because (in a way) we’re complicit with the characters all along.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Healthy Choices ("Sunshine Cleaning" / "The Soloist")


Sunshine Cleaning and The Soloist

What do you find harder to imagine: Amy Adams saying “fuck”, or Amy Adams reaching for a half-naked man’s buckle…? Fans of Enchanted (2007) will probably cringe at the mere question, but Sunshine Cleaning (2009) has both these things, and more. It’s a testimony of a great actress being born on our very eyes, and will probably convince anyone who (unlike this writer) thought that Adams’ presence in Doubt (2008) left any place for uncertainty about her talent and scale.

Of course, the central metaphor of the movie – that of cleaning up after dead people as being a way of dealing with one’s own messy life – is verging on crassness. But Sunshine Cleaning is much more intelligent that a lot of its own material, and it takes full advantage of having two great actresses at hand. What’s more, it doesn’t prettify New Mexico’s suburb into what most movie would make an Indieland, USA.

Hitchcock devoted good 10 minutes of his Psycho (1960) to cleaning up blood from the scene of the murder. Here, even though AIDS (rather strangely) doesn’t get mentioned, blood itself becomes much more of a theme. When Emily Blunt’s character gets praised for having “nice veins”, we may feel at a loss, but when it is later revealed that both sisters have been waiting for years to catch a singular episode of a soap opera their late mother had a speaking part in – it makes much more sense.

Life as one big wait for a line in a tawdry TV show – now, corny as this metaphor is, it hits close enough to home, and I was moved more by this uneven but intelligently made movie more than I was by Tyson (2009). Go figure.

If ever a single shot in a movie was immoral, The Soloist (2009) managed to include one. Anyone who thought Slumdog Milionaire (2009) a shameless commercialization of poverty, will be blown away by Joe Wright’s bluntness in exceeding what Boyle did in his movie. One gliding steadicam shot over a homeless’ recluse in the night – complicating the lightning and mise-en-scene to the point of abstraction, and relishing in every inch of the portrayed squalor, was enough for me. Wright treats poverty the way he treated British rural landscape in Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007) – as a surface to wax and polish, but never to puncture; never to explore.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Top 30 Movies of 2000-2009

The Oughts, or whatever they're called, are nearing their end. Here's an untimely (given there's still a year to go) list of best 30 movies of the decade. As usual, it's organized in hierarchical order, starting with the best one in the humble opinion of this narrator (now, that's a quote from movie I like but which didn't make it to the list!). As far as the auteurs go, Cuaron, Kiarostami and Greengrass win, each having 2 movies in the set.

1. UZAK (Ceylan)


3. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Mungiu)






9. JUNEBUG (Morrison)

10. CHILDREN OF MEN (Cuarón)

11. FAITHLESS (Ullmann)


13. 10 (Kiarostami)


15. TICKETS (Olmi / Kiarostami / Loach)

16. UN CONTE DE NOEL (Desplechin)


18. APOCALYPTO (Gibson)

19. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (Kenneth Lonergan)

20. MAN WITHOUT THE PAST (Kaurismäki)

21. CODE UNKNOWN (Haneke)


23. TRIPLE AGENT (Rohmer)


25. BLOODY SUNDAY (Greengrass)

26. L’ENFANT (Dardenne / Dardenne)

27. DEATH PROOF (Tarantino)

28. UNITED 93 (Grenngrass)

29. GOOD MORNING, NIGHT (Bellocchio)

30. THE PRESTIGE (Nolan)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

State of Play (2009, Kevin Macdonald)

Once you had made your Idi Amin movie; once you had followed it with a Gestapo-commander one – what subject do you tackle next…? Kevin Macdonald, the director of freshly released State of Play (2009), finds the answer rather obvious: Washington, D.C. He brings his own style (shaky passing for dynamic) to the Allen Drury and Otto Preminger’s territory, and even if the result is nowhere near to Advice and Consent (1962), it still retains a fair deal of political immediacy (especially considering State of Play’s primary allegiance: that to the thriller genre).

The movie opens with a pursuit so rapid and violent, it’s almost slapstick, but since the camera doesn’t linger on the running man, he’s not a character enough to make us laugh. These first two minutes are by far the finest piece of direction we’ll find in the movie. What follows is a story of Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a “Washington Globe” reporter plunging into a case of interrelated murders that ultimately reveal close ties between the Hill and a chain of seemingly independent private military contractors (in fact, they are all one big corporation, our current bogeyman of preference).

The central political metaphor in State of Play is adultery. Committed by both Cal and Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), it defines the politicians’ readiness to jump into bed with the money boys. But whereas all personal betrayals here prove to be at least terminable (if not exactly reconcilable), the big political one remains ultimately untouched.

Russell Crowe is a hair chubbier here, and thus less attractive than usual. Still, he remains a genuine film star. He found a way of blending concentration and ease to a point we no longer see them as separate. When at the beginning of the film he boldly parks his old Saab right under a “No Parking at Any Time” sign, we learn what to expect from this guy and we like it. Later on, Cal is portrayed mainly as an anti-Internet journalist of sorts, a true reporter, his desk stacked with books and his cubicle covered all over with real newspaper clippings. This may be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to praise printed word as superior to a flickering one, and I greet this element even more strongly than all its genuine political concerns.

For all its energy – at times professionally channeled, at times haphazardly wasted – the movie watches like a shaky report from an unchanging world. It’s reassuring in matters like Russell Crowe’s considerable talent, Kevin Macdonald’s unsure hand, and Ben Affleck’s fear of performance. And even if it’s never exactly dull, some weariness creeps in as soon as we’re introduced to the Helen Mirren character: chief editor of “Washington Globe”, doing her best with unimaginative dialogue that seems written straight from some non-Brit’s notion of how funny the English can be when they say “geezer”, or “bugger off”, or “knickers”.

Cal starts his investigation not as a truthseeker, but as a writer. What he says to Stephen is simply this: “You have to build a plausible alternative story”. As the movie progresses, we begin to realize that Cal’s a writer, all right, but the kind that can only write the truth. By the end of State of Play, when Stephen Collins turns “truthseeker” into a dirty word, we learn yet again that it’s the reporter who’s the best guardian of the Capitol Hill (and of all it stands for). Not to spoil the sensation, you better not watch Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) after this one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Grins ("Hanna Montana: The Movie" [2009, P. Chelsom] / "Teeth" [2007, M. Lichtenstein])

The terror of sitting through Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009) starts well before The Movie even hits the screen. Being a 27-year-old, a male (and unaccompanied one at that), it required some courage on my part to be taken for a potential sex offender by most of the moms guarding their daughters in the Union Square theatre.

If anything, Peter Chelsom’s movie proves that they indeed should guard them. This is the first G rated movie that I saw, whose 15-year-old female character is so aware of her body she might challenge Lolita Haze herself. Of course, there’s no mention of sex, but it’s not required, since so much time is devoted to Hannah applying make-up to herself, or buying clothes, or dancing on stage in a fully grown-up manner. Hannah – her real name is Miley – is conceived as a chick simultaneously hot and tame. As she sings in her first number, “she has the best of both worlds”.

The movie makes this duality a theme: Miley is a corn-fed Tennessee girl, who happened to make it big on stage as Hannah Montana. Miley rides horses, Hannah flies private jets. As Hannah, she can get whatever she wants, and she gets it. This is a movie designed to thrive upon the teenage-girls audience’s desire for brand clothing. At the same time – a schizophrenic twist not unlike the one from The Devil Wears Prada (2007) – the story is an indictment of vanity, derision, and wealth. Sharing some observations with Jim Abrahams' Big Bussines (1988) and George Sidney's Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Hannah Montana doesn't really satirize anything, at the same time pretending that it does. And that contradictory duality is what makes Miley’s perennial grin so offensive. She lies when she sings that you can have the best of two worlds. In fact, it's difficult to get anything half-decent from one.

Compared to Hannah Montana, Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) – a heroine of Teeth (2007) that goes on a penis-biting spree with her vagina dentata – is laughably lacking in sexual awareness. She’s practically a grown woman, and yet she doesn’t know how to masturbate (doesn’t even realize the possibility). The concept of teeth-enchanced vagina is supposed to reflect on deeply-rooted male fears, but it’s Dawn who’s terrified of sex in the movie.

Mitchell Lichtenstein's film is truly retro, without announcing it even. Its approach to characters, dialogue and editing is archaic, but the story works all the better for it. I personally liked very much a scene in which Josh Pais’ gynecologist gets bitten during examination, and by a vagina unrelentata enough not to let go, never mind how much he struggles. This struggle alone, the way it's neatly edited into a series of shots and reverse shots, is good enough reason to watch the movie. It serves as a good metaphor of our own involvement with the film. We know it’s absurd, but since it’s so sexual, we stick our fingers in and don’t let go no matter what. And when the film is done with us, all we can utter is precisely what Pais utters, and in a whiny voice that mirrors ours: “Vagina dentata… It exists… Vagina dentata…”.