Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: It Follows

The world in which any of us comes of age is a fantasy. Our house is our house, school is school, our hangouts our hangouts, etc. But well into our teenage years these places retain a certain sense of wonder. They are our entire universe, and even when we grow too old to believe in bogeymen certain places retain their shadows and their mystery. As we grow older we're initiated into the mysteries of the adult world, a more grown-up place, we're told, but it exists within the world we already know. And its ways can be just as mysterious, as we question our feelings while we watch a beautiful/handsome neighbor swimming in her/his backyard pool. A stash of pornography found, without warning, in the woods or in a back alley offers clues to still deeper mysteries. That sense of mystery still clings into puberty, remaining even as our bodies change, our voices crack, as sexuality becomes more familiar.

Hell, that mystery lingers even when we learn we're going to die.

The indie horror movie It Follows is set in this liminal teenage world (specifically, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan). Like most teen fantasies (both on screen and in real life) adults are mainly peripheral and background figures, and don't figure into the movie's story of a young woman who finds, after a sexual tryst, that she's targeted for death by a shapeshifting but slow-moving entity that only she and her sexual partners can see. Like all movie monsters, it adheres to a set of rules: it walks after her slowly but implacably, and though she can run ahead of it, it will always catch up to her. And unless she passes it on to someone else via sexual congress, catch up to her it surely, horribly will.
Among the movie's many virtues is its setting, masterfully realized by writer/director David Robert Mitchell. It's hard to place the movie in a specific era; the kids wile away an afternoon watching Killers From Space on television, with no apparent irony, yet one of them remains engrossed in Dostoyevsky on a compact tablet. It seems a composite of multiple eras, lending the movie universality without sacrificing enough specifity to lend it realism. Mitchell is aided immensely by his talented, largely unknown cast, teenagers playing their characters as teenagers: awkward, vulnerable, and ultimately resolute in the face of the movie's growing menace. (Special mention should be made of Maika Monroe, whose lead performance as Jay is one of the most compellingly understated and believable performances I've ever seen in a horror movie.)

To ascribe to It Follows the conservative morality often attributed to slasher movies (mainly the notion that young characters are to be colorfully slain soon after having sex, leaving a virginal Final Girl alone to face the killer) is a dead end. Preoccupied as it is with teenage sexuality there's nothing leering about its approach. It never fetishizes the nubility of its teenage leads, or lingers on their nudity (indeed, the nudity is reserved mainly for the ghostly forms of the title characters, giving them a clinical otherworldliness not unlike the single nude zombie seen in Romero's Night of the Living Dead). The movie's commingling of sexuality and violence speaks more to the union of Eros and Thanatos than to any deliberate efforts to titillate and scare us. 

Though make no mistake: It Follows wants to scare us (and it often does). Any good horror movie scares us, creeps us out, but the finer horror movies are about more than simple thrills. It Follows artfully captures a universal teenage world that never drills its period realism into us, but it's less about representing/tweaking the world of its target demographic than depicting the moment when we realize that we, too, are going to die. It depicts our mortality in gruesomely physical and terrifying terms. And in its final moments it reminds us that all we can do is advance into the world, moving forward and going about our lives, even with Death, quite literally, behind us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Recommended!: The Prestige (2006)

A magic trick, Christopher Nolan's movie begins by explaining, is divided into three phases: the pledge, in which, roughly, a person or everyday object is introduced; the turn, in which that person/object disappears; and the prestige, in which the person/object is returned/restored.

The Prestige, from the novel by Christopher Priest, chronicles the increasingly obsessive and tragic campaign of oneupmanship between a pair of turn-of-the-century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman). It returns repeatedly to the three-part structure outlined above, as Bale and Jackman seek to figure out, then undermine, each other's show-stopping illusions. And yet the movie deftly plays its own sleight-of-hand games, hiding details in plain sight to be explained hours later, allowing the audience to get ahead of it before adding another deft reveal, and even taking a quiet but hard left turn into the fantastic.

Nolan executes all of these flourishes with a surprisingly light touch. Nolan's high-budget but auteur driven projects like the Dark Knight trilogy have established his reputation as a maker of intelligent and expansive blockbusters. Yet for this writer his work has often been characterized by an alienating coolness, an approach to his characters as if observing them on a petri dish. And yet for all of its flaws, Nolan's latest movie Interstellar revealed him more than capable of delivering human characters engaged in real relationships (indeed, its galaxy-spanning story hinges in many ways on the love of its main character for his daughter). And so looking at The Prestige in light of this (and independent of the other magic-themed movies that overshadowed its release in 2006) reveals that there was, perhaps, a humanity present in Nolan's work all along. Bale and Jackman are surprisingly relaxed in their roles, letting us feel the weight of the sacrifices each has made for their art, and their conflict with one another. But the greatest expression of the movie's heart comes in its graceful and moving final reveal, a surprising reinforcement of magic's three-part structure, an affirmation of the flesh-and-blood heart which, before our very eyes, had been beating all along.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Recommended!: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Well, come on. It's not like you need any additional incentive to see this thing; indeed, during a recent bout of hashtagging of top-ten-movies-per-decade the number of people who put Pulp Fiction on their lists for the 1990s was almost dispiriting. The triptych of crime stories by Quentin Tarantino (with a great deal of input let's not forget, from co-writer Roger Avary, especially on the segment being considered here) won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and became both an arthouse and mainstream hit that cemented Tarantino's reputation. And for better or worse it enabled thousands of imitators, chasing the vogue established by Pulp Fiction for tales about glib hitmen or movies about movies.

But on this day, the 60th birthday of actor Bruce Willis, this movie's on my mind. Even at the time the movie came out Willis' Butch Coolidge - a washed-up boxer paid by gangsters to throw a crucial bout - felt like the best thing in it. As familiar as the basic set-up of Butch's story was (from other boxing noirs, including, well, The Set-Up), he seemed more like a flesh-and-blood person than any of the movie's other nominal leads. Butch remains unique among Tarantino heroes (possibly due to the hand of Avary). He's not defined by his pop cultural preferences, though his singing along to an Oak Ridge Boys track on the car radio is a whimsical interlude. He is as present and focused in his dialogue scenes (chiefly with Maria de Medeiros as his girlfriend Fabienne and Angela Davis in a fine one-scene turn as a smoky, mysterious cab driver) and handles the dense Tarantino dialogue as strongly as anyone else in the movie.

But Butch is largely a silent character, often seen alone. We're introduced to him in a silent, painful closeup, being dictated the terms of the fight he's supposed to throw, placed in philosophical terms by gangster Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). He's the first character in Tarantino's talky oeuvre to whom we are introduced in such silent terms, and his stoicism lingers with us. Even when he's assailed, in-frame, by strutting hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) he's not given to snappy comebacks. Nursing, we suspect, some seriously wounded pride, Butch/Willis slides quietly out of frame...

...and snaps back into it, awakened from a dream to enter the fight that will change his life and destiny. After that we're reintroduced to him jumping from a window into a dumpster, thwarting our previous conceptions of him. We're fully re-engaged with Butch as this explosive re-re-entrance kicks off a tense and dangerous twelve hours. Butch will remain the only character in the movie with whom we spend much time alone, from his quiet return to his apartment to retrieve a precious heirloom to his pause on the threshold of an absolute hellhole where he makes the movie's most honorable, humane, and moving decision. In silence.

Reeling from a number of box office disasters, Willis was fighting hard to regain artistic credibility. He had campaigned at some length for Travolta's role in Pulp Fiction; critics at the time noted Willis' wisdom in accepting the smaller role of Butch Coolidge. It is difficult to imagine anyone else nailing the role as gracefully as Willis does. And as charmingly as Willis (himself well-established as a strong verbal presence on screen and stage) executes the dialogue Tarantino hands him, it is, again, in his silences where he registers so strongly, where Tarantino finds some of the movie's most powerful suspense, and where we find some of the most keenly felt humanity in any of his films. The movie's eminently rewatchable (as most of Tarantino's movies are), not just to piece together the parallel stories and revisit the densely packed dialogue, but to gaze again into Butch's silences, and rediscover the depths Willis plumbs within them.

Happy Birthday, Chief.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Recommended!: Artists and Models (1955)

In a time long before Jerry Lewis was making asinine, out of touch comments on the abilities of women to be funny, he enjoyed a partnership with singer/actor Dean Martin that propelled both of them into fame. With the manic, slapstick Lewis playing off the smooth urbane Martin, the pair leaped from success to success, on stage, radio, television, and finally feature films. Before their tempestuous split in 1956 they made over a dozen motion pictures, of which Artists and Models was one of the last. Directed by Frank Tashlin, a free-spirited storyteller with a background in animation, the movie was something of a fulcrum upon which Lewis transitioned from his partnership with Martin toward becoming a solo phenomenon and filmmaker in his own right, his style largely springing from the cartoonish, satirical style of Tashlin.

Its aspects of historical interest aside, Artists and Models is simply a great mid-50s Hollywood comedy, both expertly balanced and completely off the rails. The Martin and Lewis chemistry is in full effect with the two playing combat buddies hustling for work in New York, eventually winding up (through some insane story mechanics I won't spoil here - I doubt you'd believe me anyway) in the comic book industry. The story acts across a number of axes: Martin/Lewis crosses Dorothy Malone and Shirley MacLaine (both more than game as the artist and model upstairs), high art crosses low, reality crosses fantasy. Released in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent, Frederick Wertham's frothy and overwrought tract delineating the comic book industry's blitzkrieg on the morals and mental health of our youth, the movie fires off salvos on all sides of that conflict, juicing both the violent and colorful insanity of the comics and the addled, moralistic hand-wringing of those who would ban them.

If Tashlin's trademark satire isn't quite as well-formed as it would be in later movies, his command of Technicolor is in full display here, with much of the movie looking like its comic books come to life. It's insane from first frame to last, the weird gentleness of its satire and the warmth of its humanity offset by the bombast of its visual gags. Many of the references will sail right over the heads of younger viewers, who'll nevertheless feel like Lewis (and, in a lovely streetside musical number, Martin) are performing just for them. Not quite a heralded comic classic, and ripe for your (re-)discovery. Let it happen to you.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Ten Of) The Many Faces of Mr. Holmes

We're hot to see Mr. Holmes. Though the change of title (it was previously known as A Slight Trick of the Mind, which would look lovely on a marquee) to the more basic descriptor reeks of the usual Hollywood dumbing down, but we can't deny that we're excited to see it. Bill Condon's tale (adapted from a novel by Mitch Cullin) sees an aged Sherlock Holmes (a beautifully cast Ian McKellen) trying to piece together a mystery from his past even as his mind begins to fail him. It's a more-than-solid premise that's bound to be beautifully realized by Condon and McKellen (who struck gold with their moving and fanciful James Whale movie Gods and Monsters, and will likely take a similar memory play approach to the material here).

McKellen doesn't seem to have played Holmes before, which is a little startling. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the London-based "consulting detective" with the superhumanly keen deductive mind quickly became a literary sensation, and wound up exploding across different media. The Guinness Book of World Records says that Holmes is the "most-portrayed movie character", and a search for Holmes movies on the Jaman site yields a daunting set of titles.

--The Holmes adaptations began early in the silent era, with Hungarian actor Károly Baumann bringing his stage performance as Holmes to a film adaptation. Actor Eille Norwood played the role in over 40 silent film adaptations of Doyle's stories, a portrayal admired by Doyle himself. (And a recently discovered 1916 Holmes film starring William Gillette has been restored, and just had its European premiere - we're very, very hot to see it at San Francisco's Silent Film Festival in a couple of months.)

--Reginald Owen played Holmes in an early sound adaptation of Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. But for many the definitive Holmes would come later in the 1930s. British actors Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce became popularly identified with the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson, Holmes' faithful sidekick, thanks to a hugely successful run of radio plays. When the time came for a major Hollywood series featuring the popular characters, casting Rathbone and Bruce was inevitable, and they became even more popularly known, and definitively defined the characters for a generation of viewers. The Rathbone/Bruce Holmes adventures are not all easy to find on line, but the late series entry Terror by Night is in the public domain, available all over the place, and is a breezy and engaging mystery, with Rathbone in fine form. (The exciting conclusion of the series, Dressed to Kill, is easily found as well.)

--iTunes seems to be the only place that has the 1959 The Hound of the Baskervilles. Produced by Hammer Films during the start of their famous horror cycle, it stars Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Andre Morell as Holmes and Watson, with a surprisingly spry Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. It's at least as atmospheric as Hammer's other offerings from that period, and it's a shame that this was Hammer's sole foray into the Holmes corpus.

--The Holmes adaptations continued into the 1970s; Christopher Plummer and James Mason were ideally cast as Holmes and Watson in the moody and fanciful Murder by Decree, a new story pitting the detectives against Jack the Ripper in gaslit London. A few years earlier, Billy Wilder got insanely ambitious with his feature The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, commenting obliquely on 70s society while pitting Holmes (stage great Robert Stephens) against a conspiracy involving the Loch Ness Monster. It's compromised (and cut of an hour of its extensive intended running time), but well worth a look.

--More recently, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law played Holmes and Watson in a colorful pair of movies by Guy Ritchie. With the adaptation emphasizing Holmes' physicality, and happily juicing Watson's role in the proceedings (Law's Watson ain't no one's damn sidekick), Ritchie's movies find a place for an intelligent and shaded hero like Holmes (tough, smart, and nuanced as played by Downey) amid the more blockbuster plotting of the stories, preserving his history and his mystique as they go. Perversely, they might be the streetwise Ritchie's finest movies.

To be sure, the ten actors above are far from the only ones to play Sherlock Holmes - the list of Holmes movies, which includes parodies and documentaries as well as more faithful adaptations and deconstructions, seems endless and ever growing. Ian McKellen is only the latest actor to take on the role, but the character remains so firmly entrenched in the public consciousness that there's no way he'll be the last.

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