Thursday, April 17, 2014

Short Term 12 (2013)

Part of the great 2013 Independent surge in which small films had a feeling of largeness and vitality, Short Term 12 is easily one of the best examples of how a movie could have gone terribly wrong and almost miraculously stays mostly clear of the potential rough turns. While it has plenty of merits-the performance of Brie Larson, the moments of genuine feeling and emotion, the naturalistic style-I think the greatest feat is writer/director's Destin Daniel Cretton's attempt to actually make a drama about damaged people working with damaged kids in a foster care center and pull it off as successfully as he does. Genre filmmaking is easy (relatively) because there are standards to follow and masters to emulate. Slice-of-life dramas present challenges yet the filmmaker is also liberated in that there are no real rules to follow. Yet Short Term 12 is a different kind of beast because it is dealing with a real institution, a real problem, and is thus forced to go about accurately depicting it in such a way as to attract the viewer emotionally while also avoid the obvious trap of trite melodrama. 

Cretton succeeds admirably, creating a wonderful cast of characters who are all true to life, only rarely seeming like artificial creations. As the movie progresses it is not entirely successful, yet it's the choices Cretton initially makes in creating this world that makes the film ultimately such a good one. It has to do, I think, with the opening scene, in which three of the workers at the foster home, Grace (Larson), Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) introduce the latest employee at the center, Nate, played by Rami Malek. Mason breaks in the slightly timid Nate in with an amusing anecdote involving an escaped foster child, yet it's not the story that makes this an important opening, but the fact that the scene belongs to no one. And that ends up being the key to Short Term 12's success; it gives its heart to everyone rather than than to a single protagonist. Sure, Larson's Grace ends up getting more screen time than other characters, but that's not because the film is about her, but because a particular foster child's abusive father happens to remind her of her own troubled past.

Cretton doesn't give all the characters equal time, but he treats them all with equally reserved sensitivity. Take Malek's Nate, for example. He barely registers as a character in a traditional sense in that he never talks about himself and we get no information regarding who he is outside of work, and yet the few scenes he has give us a wonderful sense of the type of person he is. It's clear that Cretton has thought about this character, and he gives him enough small wonderful moments that when we see him wiping blood off a wall (the remains of suicide attempt from a particularly sad kid named Marcus), there registers in the viewer a deep sense of feeling and understanding that most movies can't come close to providing.

In the same sense, Mason, who happens to be dating Grace, ends up being as important a character as any. We learn that he grew up with two incredibly generous foster parents, which makes his employment at Short Term 12 more understandable and emotionally potent. There's nothing like returning the favor to indicate the wonderful unselfish spirit humans are capable of showing. 

Grace, we also learn, has a special connection to the foster center because she suffered the same kind of abuse that many of these kids have, as well. The only problem with this is that it certain encounters with kids can bring past traumas bubbling to the surface, such as Jayden, a rebellious teen whose troubled family life mirrors Grace's past far too well. This creates some dramatic developments in the final third of the film that are a little forced and obvious, as what was a really moving and convincing drama becomes too molded, like a craft beer that's trying too hard. Cretton is correct in feeling the need to give Grace some extra screen time and development (though again, I argue she's not a protagonist), but one can smell the workshopping in the way he goes about doing it. 

But what an emotional, challenging and rewarding film this ultimately is. Cretton deserves applause to even consider making a movie with this topic, and even more for the way he goes about handling it-particualrly the scenes set inside the foster home. Short Term 12 grabs you in the best kind of way: rarely does it even seem to be trying. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Netflix Alert

For those unaware, A Touch of Sin, Bastards, Short Term 12, and Mother of George are all recently available to stream on Netflix. If you missed them in theaters, get to watching.

Also, regarding the Gone Girl trailer, it looks pretty spellbinding. It's a really nicely cut trailer, with every image masterfully composed, just the right amount of dialogue to hint that Ben Affleck really was the right casting choice, and a wonderful use of Elvis Costello's "She" by the Psychedelic Furs. 

The trailer mostly consists of lots quick shots from various parts of the film (it's the kind of trailer that provides a feeling rather than information) and while all of them look fantastic, one that especially has my attention is at the 35 second mark, where we see Affleck in the foreground looking at a group of searchers emerge out of the woods, their flashlights illuminating the green grass. What immediately drew my eyes to the image was the fact that the sky isn't quite dark yet, making the green of the trees and the grass visible-yet it's dark enough that the men need flashlights, and the row of beams coming out of the woods, with Affleck looking on from a distance, provides an eerie, haunting feel (perhaps even more so than the straight up night shots). Anyhow, it's just wonderful to see new David Fincher images again. He's working with Jeff Cronenweth, his cinematographer from Fight Club, The Social Network, and Dragon Tattoo. There's too many good things coming out in the coming months for me to say October 3rd can't come soon enough, yet I await the day eagerly nonetheless. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Decade Old: Undertow

2004 was, at least in my mind, a sort of banner year for movies in that the kind of cinema we have today really got started that year. In and of itself it was also just a really unique 12 months for movies. Hard to believe it's now 2014, meaning many great titles from that year start coming up in conversation and writing as they turn 10 years old. With that in mind, I'm hoping to talk about throughout the year various movies that are now a decade old.

With the release of Joe in theaters this month, it's quite fitting to talk about the film it most resembles in David Gordon Green's oeuvre, Undertow. Its content and narrative are pure Southern goth, while its style is, especially in the second half, closer to the lyricism of Green's debut feature, George Washington. The story, which concerns two brothers who go on the run after their uncle kills their father in a fight over some valuable Mexican gold coins, is steeped in tradition. The notions of brother killing brother and father hating son (a twist that we learn relatively early is that the uncle is actually the father of the oldest son) are the driving forces in the movie and they carry a biblical proportion, while the overall down-and-dirty grittiness of the plot is in line with a great tradition of American literature. On cinematic terms, though, Green takes some radical chances. The film is full of freeze frames, dramatic zooms, and even the occasional thermal camera-style shading. I'm not sure what Green is going for with the latter, but the freeze frames have a nice effect in the way they either close out one dramatic action and bring on another (sort of like a chapter in a book) or simply disrupt the viewer's expectation of a steady flow of moving images (if I recall, Green stated in the DVD commentary that he wanted them essentially be like photographs in order to reflect the cinema/photography connection and also show how they're distinctly different). 

The movie has two clear halves: the first is static, as Green introduces us to the main characters (father, two sons) and the general lifestyle they have. When the uncle (just out of prison) arrives there is a sense of unhinging that takes place, as the relatively normal, albeit stressful life of this family is charged with an uneasy sense of energy. When he abruptly enters a room with intense vigor just to say goodnight, or takes the oldest son for a wild, dangerous car ride, we know we're dealing with a loose cannon who brings trouble wherever he goes. The second half however is defined by movement, as the two brothers, with the valuable coins, try to escape from their villainous uncle. One would think this would be the more exciting of the two parts, yet Green actually slows things down and brings in all sorts of strange characters and allows for the relationship between the two brothers to nicely develop. There's tension for sure, but it's not till the final ten minutes that the movie could properly be called a thriller. The kinds of stories with two such distinct parts can be trouble to pull off, yet Green manages because of the way they're tied together. Because the cat and mouse game is directly linked to the events earlier in the film, and because the two brothers really have no choice but to run, we never really question the jarring shift in the story. 

Despite getting the southern goth label from just about everyone who reviewed it, Undertow also more specifically has been likened to the works of Faulkner. It definitely has the same flavor, the same oddities (like the younger brother eating things like dirt and paint) and the same attempt at themes outside of the specific story and setting. Now that Green seems to have returned to his roots after his puzzling venture into comedy (or perhaps not so much, as Green was recently quoted as saying "I have a sense of humor. I'm not always this lyrical, slow-moving, Southern crybaby" in regard to his love for and desire to make all kinds of movies), I wouldn't mind seeing him follow in James Franco's footsteps and attempt to actually adapt a Faulkner novel.

Final note: look the for the Bill McKinney appearance towards the end, a fitting cameo considering that Green cites Deliverance as one of the big influences on this film. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Good Fortune

Those great, bold and exciting pieces of cinema that came charging down the line late last year have seeped into the first quarter of 2014: What an electric few months it's been, as many vital directors have delivered new works with truly bold vision:

It's only April and we've already been spoiled with:

A new Jim Jarmusch movie
A new Wes Anderson movie
A new Lars Van Trier movie
A new David Gordon Green movie
A new Denis Villeneuve movie
A new Jonathan Glazer movie
A new Darren Aronofsky movie

It's almost an embarrassment of riches

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild is vital in and of itself and in its context. As a film it's a gorgeous, somber evocation of love, longing, and fleeting time, while also displaying a narrative and technical design that astonishes in its simple/complex simultaneity. Yet it's also the first great film from Hong Kong master-of-romance-and-style Wong Kar Wai, as well as the first of many collaborations with ace cinematographer Chris Doyle and star Tony Leung. 

Like its informal followups, In the Mood for Love and 2046, Days of Being Wild is set in the 1960s, and Wong makes as good a use of the decade as any filmmaker I can think of. I say this because he brings a very distinctive look to it while also using the period to express a key theme in all his work: the fail to reconcile desire and the unstoppable passing of time. Stylistically, he's going for the cool, trying to capture the chic and the elegant that fashion enthusiasts often associate with that decade (he loves, for example, to photograph men in suits smoking in the rain, or to show those snazzy 60s vehicles in a downpour at night, their headlights making the falling drops look like glistening shattered glass). In his review of the film, J. Hoberman includes a quote from Wong that helps to explain his visual use of the '60s:
"I used to recall, back in those days, the sun was brighter, the air fresher, with distant noises from wireless sets flowing down the streets. . . . One felt so good it was almost like a dream." 
While the sun and the fresh air don't really apply to Wong's vision, the like a dream most certainly does. What, then, ultimately makes his work so moving is that he juxtaposes this dream-like, romantic template with groups of characters who can't seem to accept that time is moving on until it actually does and it's too late to fulfill their desires. Wong's characters are like metaphors for the way he himself once viewed the 60s: they're caught in time, a dream world, and because they refuse to acknowledge reality, they end in a painful middle-ground, unable to make good decisions or follow through with their inner-wishes. Wong's detractors have accused him of being a little shallow, putting too much emphasis on mood and not enough on ideas. Yet his stress of mood is exactly what makes his work so complex: the mood, brought out most in his elegant, lugubrious compositions, reflects his characters' inner worlds, they're inability to mix thought with their feelings. And that introduces a key distinction: If a movie depicts characters who don't utilize their intellects, that does not make the movie itself non-intellectual. While Days of Being Wild presents some extenuating circumstances that influence the way its characters go about trying to love each other, essentially I think they're victims of the same problem as Chow and Su in In the Mood for Love. It's a little like the dissociation of sensibility that Eliot describes, and how John Crowe Ransom relates it to romance in his great poem "The Equilibrists":

                                              And rigid as two painful stars, and twirled 
                                              About the clustered night their prison world,
                                             They burned with fierce love always to come near,
                                             But honor beat them back and kept them clear

I think what makes Days of Being Wild such a strong film-and better, I believe, than In the Mood for Love-is that it takes this idea of lost sensibility and then uses some extenuations to make the story more complex. While In the Mood for Love was basically a poem-almost like a cinematic version of "The Equilibrists"-Days is more of a complex narrative. What makes it most interesting is that its playboy protagonist, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) has an excuse for his behavior (the essential idea of the dissociation of sensibility is that the victims don't quite know what's wrong). He's fairly despicable, taking home women (in this case a a bar girl named Li and a Cabaret dancer, Mimi), treating them like gold, and then breaking their hearts. He does this, we eventually learn, because he's conflicted about his adoptive mom's refusal to give him information about his real-life mom. It's a bit strange, and takes so psychological pondering to possibly see how the connection works. Thus, rather than just being about passion and passivity (the two major themes of In the Mood for Love), it adds this extra element of familial angst and the desire to know, and then shows how we use these anxieties as justifications for our other actions. The point, then, is that Yuddy's excuse for abandoning Li and Mimi is invalid, yet still human, and thus quite moving.

Wong's presentation of these issues comes across as effortless, which is all the more impressive considering that he has two other male characters (Yuddy's close friend, who secretly loves Mimi, and a policeman who falls for Li) to fit into the narrative. What's brilliant about the movie is that while Yuddy gets the most screen time, all the characters are strong enough that they could be the main protagonist. It's a little like Shakespeare in that each character is vital for the story's ultimate effect, and as individuals they could be the subject of essays. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Father of the Bride. B+

If you don't really think about it, Father of the Bride is a whimsical, moving and diverting comedy about a father (a typically skeptical yet lovable Spencer Tracy) coping with the emotional and financial complications that come along with his daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) getting married. Yet there's a dark, cynical undercurrent to Vincente Minnelli's 1950 film in the way that it creates a general mood of stress and unhappiness in the character of the father that's in direct relation to post-WWII American consumerism (which, in this case, is represented by a lavish, expensive wedding). Most weddings in present-day America have two things in common: they're formulaic and they're way too expensive. It seems like this is a more recent development, yet as Minnelli's film shows, its roots go back nearly 70 years. The reason it's easy to ignore the more cynical elements of the movie is because the father's constant bickering and poor fortune (at the engagement party he's forced to play bartender the whole night because his guests just want, want, want, and so he ends up disgruntled and not getting to give a speech for his daughter) do actually work as comedy. One of the oldest forms of humor is laughing at another's misfortune, and thus it's easy to watch this movie as a pure lighthearted whimsy and ignore the grimmer undertones. Are these undertones a bad thing? Not necessarily, but because they're so connected to the actually content of the movie, it makes for a somewhat more unsettling experience. It also shows that by 1950 the age of the classic screwball comedy was quickly fading. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

William Hazlitt as Filmmaker

A question that's always fun to consider is who the greatest pre-cinema filmmakers are. That is to say, if certain people are endowed with a particular cinematic sense, then that sense must have been present before the birth of film, as well. Because cinema did not exist, artists simply had to express it in different ways, such as through painting, music writing, or architecture. Legendary editor Walter Murch even went so far as to call Beethoven, Flaubert, and Edison the three fathers of film in his State of Cinema address a few years back. One figure who I recently discovered who fits in with this idea is William Hazlitt, a Romantic-era writer and painter most known for his controversial essays.

To call the Romantic period a rich and innovative time for poets would be an understatement. Really, it was a groundbreaking time for writers in general. Such a fact is seen clearly in Hazlitt's essays, who S.T. Coleridge called more than any man he knew “his own in a way of his own—and often times when the synovial juice has come out and spread over his joints he will gallop for half an hour together with real eloquence." Hazlitt made a career of breaking taboos and changing the ways in which one could write for a public audience. He chose subject matters that were controversial and often presented them in ways that were so visceral it was if the words became reality. These essays, because they share a common link of originality and bold vision, have a great way of feeding off of each other. In his more doctrinaire 1817 piece “On Gusto,” Hazlitt describes his central topic as “power or passion defining any object," and then goes on to illustrate pieces of art that both come short of and fulfill this definition. In his 1822 essay “The Fight,” Hazlitt’s method is far different, as instead of prescribing he is describing. Yet his vivid report of a bare-knuckle boxing fight is such a visceral and powerful read that one cannot help but see it as a fulfillment of his idea of gusto. Because bare-knuckle boxing was at the time “not only illegal, but vulgar," Hazlitt’s virtuoso report comes across as all the more innovative. Yet perhaps its real brilliance comes in the way that it serves as a personal answer to his theory on gusto. By offering a definition of this idea followed by concrete examples, and then cementing it with his own report on bare-knuckle boxing, Hazlitt truly fulfills his notion of gusto. The idea of gusto almost anticipates the miracle of cinema, while his essay "The Fight" is arguably a movie in a different medium.

After defining gusto, Hazlitt goes on to offer a myriad of examples of what it is and is not. The principle behind it, besides the aforementioned definition, is that a work of art with gusto does not require imagination. It should possess so much power and realism that one feels that the art is actually real. He offers the paintings of Titian as an example, arguing that his use of flesh “seems sensitive and alive all over—not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself." Rather than requiring the viewer to imagine that the flesh is real, it possesses the energy and exactness of the thing itself. And an important aspect of art with gusto requires is that it very little of the beholder because they do not have strain their mind to consider how the art might be a representation of reality. Rather, it creates the illusion that it is reality. Contrary to paintings with gusto are works of art produced “without passion, with indifference" such as that of Van Dyck, or those that are too artificial, like Rubens, who “makes his flesh color like flowers." Hazlitt is in not trying to demean these works that lack gusto, but merely trying to present them to more clearly define and differentiate the works that do possess this grand quality. His lack of prejudice comes through when he calls Claude’s landscapes “perfect,” yet lacking gusto because, for example, his trees are “perfectly beautiful, but quite immovable—they have a look of enchantment." A final point, or rather an extension, on the theory of gusto is that being capturing reality, the art becomes tangible. Hazlitt cites Rembrandt as an example of this: “If he puts a diamond in the ear of a burgomaster’s wife, it is of the first water—and his furs and stuffs are proof a Russian winter." By defining his terms and offering plenty of examples to prove his point, Hazlitt has followed a fairly traditional method of proving a very bold and original idea.
While On Gusto utilized chiefly art and sculpture as illustrations, Hazlitt’s essay The Fight demonstrates the way this idea can be found in writing. It is certainly a greater challenge to produce gusto through the written word seeing as it is not a visual art, and yet through his vivid descriptions, as well as the structuring of the essay, Hazlitt manages to do just that. While the chief point of the essay is to report on the boxing match between Tom ‘The Gas-Man’ Hickman and Bill Neate, Hazlitt ends up spending more time cataloguing the surrounding events and the different people he comes in contact with. While his visceral description of the bloody fight is the greatest example of gusto in the essay, it is the detailed reporting of other events and people he encounters that give the piece its realism and innovative quality. While a normal report might simply describe the fight, Hazlitt wants to give the reader a complete experience of what it is like to attend a bare-knuckle boxing match. Hence, rather than feeling like a distant observer, Hazlitt’s obsessive attention to detail makes the reader feel as if they are in his shoes.
The first section of Hazlitt’s essay concerns his attempt to actually make it to the scene of the fight (because they were illegal, they were often held many miles outside of town). After missing the coach, Hazlitt is dejected, lamenting that if he “had not stayed to pour out that last cup of tea” (784), he would have caught his transportation. Then, by luck, another coach coasts up behind him, and after concluding that “even a Brentford stage was better than my own thoughts” (784) he hops aboard the top of it. Though he has a lousy seat, and there was a “Scotch mist drizzling through the air,” Hazlitt describes himself as feeling “warm and comfortable” when normally in such a situation he would be irritated and restless. These details might seem a bit extraneous, yet they’re vital to the effect of the essay. Not only do they offer details normally one would never get in a magazine report, but they give the essay a sense of psychological realism. Because he is able to anticipate the fight (which he previously revealed as his first fight, what would typically be a terrible experience aboard a coach suddenly becomes a good one. In turn, this heightens the reader’s own eagerness to encounter the fight. It is gusto in that one can feel what Hazlitt is feeling: the bumpy ride, the mist, and the fever.   
Despite occasionally offering random, unrelated anecdotes or personal opinions (“I cannot deny that one learns more of what is in this desultory mode of practical study, than from reading the same book twice over,” 785), Hazlitt structures the essay in such a way that he never veers too far away from the subject of the fight. This comes not just in the event itself, but in instances as when he describes the training regimens of the fighters or the importance of modesty and how it “should accompany the Fancy as its shadow” (789). Why does Hazlitt structure the essay this way? Perhaps it is because it mirrors his own experience of the event: “We talked of this and that, roving and sipping of many subjects, but still invariably we returned to the fight." A dull report will focus merely on one thing, but a report with gusto captures the experience as it is lived by the spectator. This includes random events, people, and tangents that will inevitably surround the object of focus.
The real visceral impact of the essay comes though on the day of the fight, when Hazlitt puts his theory of gusto to vivid use. He first of all brings the scene to life by describing the crowd: Open carriages were coming up, with streamers flying and music playing, and the country-people were pouring in over hedge and ditch in all directions, to see their hero be beat or be beaten." He describes the bets, and how because of his egoism few wished for the Gas-Man to win but for those who had put money on him; he describes the physical atmosphere, how most of the grass was dead, but that the boxing ring had a fresh layer “that shone with dazzling brightness in the midday sun” and he describes the sickening, nervous feeling of the spectator enduring that final hour before the fight commences. The effect of this detailed reporting seems to be the same as that of the paintings of Rembrandt or Titian. Though we are merely reading words, just as with the artwork we are merely looking at paint on canvas, there is enough power and passion in the presentation as to make it seem physically present to us. This comes to complete fruition in Hazlitt’s spectacular description of the fight itself. Sentences like “all one side of his face was perfect scarlet, and his right eye was closed in dingy blackness, as he advanced to the fight, less confident, but still determined” and “to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies; and then to see them rise up with new strength and courage, and rush upon each other ‘like two clouds over the Caspian’—this is the most astonishing thing of all” truly take the reader into the scene of the battle. The energy is not just read, but felt.

Gusto is not a terribly complex or philosophical idea, and in its emphasis on feeling and passion it is almost the antithesis of intellectual thought. And yet the importance of the idea is that it lies in a very distinct type of art that requires a very special craft in order to succeed. That particular craft existed long before Hazlitt’s time, yet his innovation comes in defining the term and, more importantly, incorporating it into his own work. It is all the more impressive considering the strict nature magazine reporting during the 19th century. Hazlitt’s work today still comes across with a visceral impact, but to read it in his day would be to experience a writer who was almost unhinged compared to the norms of the time. He is not just ambitious, but fearless.

Now consider how Hazlitt's idea of gusto and his electric essay on fighting might indicate a born filmmaker. I recommend reading "The Fight" in full to really get a good sense of how it's particularly cinematic, yet hopefully I've given at least a glimpse of how it fulfills this notion. I believe had Hazlitt been born in the 20th century, he would have made some amazing motion pictures.

Friday, April 4, 2014

We Are What We Are (2013)

We are What We Are opens with a series of slow moving images of an eerie afternoon rain storm. The trees and the grass have that almost artificially green hue they get when contrasted with the dark gray sky, and a wind is blowing through the air that gives what might seem a peaceful summer rain an ominous feel. There's a leaf moving down a river (rivers and things moving down them will end up playing an important role in the movie) and then a bridge with a car going across it, letting us know we're in civilization. Next the camera moves up to a house and we see a woman looking out the window at the storm, a dejected, almost pensive look on her face. It's as if the storm outside her window is calling her to her doom. It has an almost biblical or apocalyptic feel to it, which, in a film that's so much concerned with family, tradition, and sacrifice, might not be entirely inaccurate. 

As it turns out, the woman is to meet her doom. She goes out into the storm, which seems to pick up a bit more, and visits a general store, where we see a man put a dead pig on a counter, and a close-up of a beef being squeezed out of a meat grinder. The feeling of discomfort only increases, but then our attention is quickly brought back to the woman, who after buying her groceries, goes out to her car and begins to bleed from her nose. She starts to panic, slips, hits her head on a metal pike, and falls into a ditch, dead. 

In a movie full of quiet gestures and hints, this opening scene is contrarily one of the most blatant and forceful. That director Jim Mickle then turns from that and tells a very deliberate and often quiet American horror story is emblematic of his diversity and sense of restraint. It also shows that Mickle, whose previous film, Stake Land, was structured around movement and intensity, likes to challenge himself with different modes of storytelling while staying within the restraints of genre. He's surely one of the most exciting voices in cinema today, and the comparisons he's had with John Carpenter, which are quite accurate, should have genre fans buzzing. 

The death of the woman brings about turmoil and grief in her family, which consists of the husband, two daughters, and son. We immediately note strange things, such as the fact that they're on a fast, and that they must continue on with some unknown tradition despite the fact that mom's dead. Mickle isn't trying to keep it a secret, yet he's set on unfolding the full extent of it slowly such that he never looses his established mood. A stunning example of this comes when the young son becomes ill and is watched over by the family's kind neighbor. As she checks for a fever the boy begins to suck on her thumb, almost as if he were an infant nursing. He's about six, so it's a bit strange, but the woman is kind and somewhat of a new maternal figure for the family, so she lets him continue until suddenly he bites her. She yanks her hand away and then in an instant Mickle cuts to a closeup of the boy as he says "I'm hungry." It's astoundingly creepy and effective, a brilliant example of both nuanced horror filmmaking and crafty exposition. Yet Mickle still manages to cook up a good deal of old fashioned suspense by incorporating other members of the town in the story, like the local doctor who finds a bone in the woods and suspects it to be human. We know who it will tie back to, but, as Hitchcock showed countless times, it's this knowledge that provides the excitement.

Like the film itself, I haven't brazenly stated what the subject of the movie is, yet, also like the movie, it's not terribly difficult to determine. This is a movie about cannibals. Yet rather than exploiting the topic, Mickle keeps it hush-hush and takes it dead seriously.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

With a deformed eye and the words Hard Luck tattooed on his fingers, Billy Cook went around America hitching rides and killing the drivers, taking six lives over a 22 day period before being tracked down by the authorities. Cook is the subject of The Hitch-Hiker a landmark noir directed by Ida Lupino. Not only was it her directorial debut (she's generally known for acting in gritty films, like Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground), but it was the first noir with a women behind the camera. The fact that she chose such a frightening and bold story that's also based on fact only makes it all the more impressive. 

It's a pretty sparse film, a road noir with only three characters: Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), two buddies out on a camping trip, and Emmet, the killer who hitches a ride and proceeds to hold them hostage as they trek down to Mexico. O'Brien and Lovejoy are pretty indistinguishable actors, mainly playing small roles in these types of movies their whole careers (you may remember Lovejoy from another Nicholas Ray film, the great In a Lonely Place). While competent for sure, they're also a little bland, which actually serves this film particularly well. These two aren't heroes, but average family men, reacting to the situation like any normal person would. They're timid and afraid, desperate to just make it home alive. 

The ordinary nature of these two actors also helps to emphasize the completely unique quality of Emmet. He's played by William Talman, a terrifying looking actor with a gritty, twisted face and menacing eyes. He fits the physical requisites for a noir villain to a T; his almost inhuman appearance is perfectly juxtaposed with the plainness of his two victims. That Talman never found his way into anything other than B-Westerns and Noirs is actually pretty surprising.  

Most of The Hitch-Hiker consists of Roy and Gilbert in the front seats of the car with Emmet directing them at gunpoint from the back seat. Often he's calculating and practical in his commands, as when he tells them to turn on the radio to catch the police reports, or exchanges his clothes with Roy to remain inconspicuous. But other times his truly maniacal nature comes through, as during a great scene in which they stop desolate desert area and he forces Gilbert to shoot a can out of Roy's hand from a distance. 

Credit Lupino for having such a good sense of how to handle suspense with so little to work with. It's such a bold, sinister piece of work that could have easily veered into pulp horror but instead just maintains tight suspense through simplicity. She bothers with little exposition (though there is one scene in which Emmet explains some of his views on life which help to round him out a bit) instead focusing on things moving at a steady, rhythmic pace. It ends up feeling for more real and alive than it should coming from a first time female director working in a genre that's so heavily defined by masculine values. With such a big emphasis on female directors finding work today, Lupino's efforts here are as relevant as ever, too. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Conjuring and...Zodiac?

The main trailer for The Conjuring puts to good use Donovan’s song Hurdy Gurdy Man, and I was immediately reminded of Zodiac. Fincher’s film is bookended by that classic late 60s tune, and thus the feeling I get when I think of that film is often the feeling I get when I listen to that song. Call it what you will—the commanding power of music, or anything.

In any case, it’s hard to imagine the folks behind the trailer didn’t have Zodiac in mind when they inserted that song in it. While The Conjuring is nowhere near as good as Fincher’s film (that’s not meant to detract from The Conjuring’s efforts, but merely to acknowledge that more and more people, myself included, are beginning to see Zodiac as an out-and-out masterpiece), the fact that a movie of Zodiac’s quality may have been on the minds of its makers somewhat bespeaks their high regard for it. It’s clear that director James Wan was attempting something both beyond anything he had ever made, as well as the average modern American horror film. He wanted to make something that was good enough that people would watch it again, and scary enough that they would hesitate to, even though they knew the movie deserved it.
The obvious reason Zodiac may have been on the minds Wan and his team is the 1970s setting. Despite its modern digital look, Fincher, with his obsessive eye for detail was able to capture the look of the 70s better than anyone has in the 21st century. Waan’s film, while not quite as precise as Fincher’s, still does a remarkable job of capturing not just the look, but the aura of that decade. Because most of the film is set in the country, he’s forced to pay extra attention to costumes, cars, hair, and lighting while never actually over-emphasizing the period design. If a film looks like it’s desperately trying to capture the period design then it rings false; The Conjuring is subtle in its attempt at recreation, and thus feels more real. Thus, while the subject matters are completely different in these two movies, they actually have a mildly similar feel to them. And it’s not just in their visual appearance (besides the period detail, The Conjuring is filled with meticulous steadicam and dolly shots—gorgeous and often terrifying, almost reminiscent of something Kubrick would have done) but in the way they go about using terror. Zodiac, while not technically a horror film, is quite frightening. One of the reasons is because despite the constant presence of the law, the viewer never feels like anyone is safe. Even when the killings stop halfway through the movie, there’s a looming sense of fear because evil doesn’t just overpower, but often outsmarts authority.

The Conjuring has something comparable going on. Typically in horror films, it’s when possible victims are exposed and unprotected that we get the most frightened. The Conjuring however saves many of its scariest moments for when the Perron family gets the security of both a cop and Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal team investigating the evil ghost in the house. There’s an initial sense of comfort for both the Perrons (captured nicely with a cheery pancake breakfast scene) and the viewer. However, these vanish soon as it its revealed the malevolence of the evil spirit is only increasing.

Like Zodiac, the terror is in how defenseless good people can be in the face of true evil. Of course, while Zodiac is in no way supernatural, both of these films do share the based on fact title, which only adds to the sense of the viewer’s unease.

This all a bit of a stretch, and the last movie I expected to be thinking about after The Conjuring was Fincher’s, and yet it’s ultimately viable with the mindset that intentions lead to unexpected results. And with the high esteem nearly all filmmakers have for Fincher, it’s hard not believe Zodiac influenced Wan in some way, even if it was subconsciously.