Monday, October 30, 2006

The 15 Best Horror Movies

A fellow blogger has called for lists of the 15 best horror movies, and I, memewhore that I'm becoming, have joined in. Plus, Halloween is basically the horror film holiday, with candy and costumes as nice accessories. Note that this list, like any list I make, is subject to change at any time. I enjoy making lists but I can never decide on them.

1. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). One thing I've never liked is the use of the phrase "scary movie" in reference to horror films; it seems limiting. DAWN OF THE DEAD has a few good shocks and scares, but they're not really the point. The film is an epic which pushes the limits of the genre in several places. It incorporates shocks, humor, drama, action, and social commentary in a way that no film in the genre has before or since. It's also just very, very well made, with beautiful photography and sharp editing. A unique experience.

2. ROSEMARY'S BABY. Subtle yet intense, this is a brilliant example of how suspense can be built gradually through good writing and acting. Though it's an interesting time capsule, drawing on the shifting culture of the 60s, the contemporary decline of organized religion, and the seeming rise of neopaganism (which ended up having very little to do with Satan at all, but it gave us some great imagery), it really works best as a piece of biological horror, tapping into women's anxieties about pregnancy and the uncertainty and loss of control that seem to accompany it. Thick with an atmosphere that starts out charming but soon becomes oppressive, this is a perfect example of the "less is more" school of horror filmmaking.

3. THE HAUNTING (1962). Then again, maybe this is. A remarkably faithful adaptation of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, this slick Robert Wise chiller juxtaposes the psychological terror of Nell's increasing madness with scenes where actual ghosts seem to undeniably make their presence known. The line between external and internal horror is nicely blurred, and a superb performance by Julie Christie in the lead seals the deal.

4. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). George A. Romero's subgenre-defining directorial debut is a classic of low-budget filmmaking. Still terrifying to this day, it's a relentless, savage drama about the collapse of civilization, and not only created the rules for zombie films, but broke new ground for "siege" pictures as well.

5. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. This seems to have been the first horror film to make humor a major element of its story, as James Whale moves the Universal horror series fully into the realm of gothic opera and fantasy. The injection of camp into the proceedings, alongside a daring gay subtext, makes for one of the most *fun* horror films ever made.

6. DRACULA (1931). Tod Browning's at-times-underrated rendition of the definitive vampire story is indeed talky and stagy and typical in some ways of the early sound pictures (lack of musical score included). It is also hauntingly atmospheric, intimate, and dreamlike, while showcasing amazing performances from Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan.

7. CURSE OF THE DEMON. The demon may be on screen just a tad too long, but damn if it isn't a great monster. The atmosphere of this one is amazing- everything's windblown fields and skeletal trees and Celtic runes and black magic. A masterpiece of style.

8. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN. This was a tough call from among the three films, but ultimately Raimi's first sequel is probably the best as a movie. It's hard not to like a horror film which draws from slapstick, Ray Harryhausen, and 1930s cartoons, and which, for a long stretch of its running time, is essentially one actor being abused in several interesting ways.

9. HALLOWEEN. Maybe the film that best captures the holiday in America: suburbs, jack-o-lanterns, late night horror movie marathons, and costumed maniacs roaming the streets. The slickest low-budget indie film I've ever seen (Carpenter never seems to miss a beat technically), with an infectious score and good acting by Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance. However, I think what really makes this stand out, even after years of imitations, is the sheer nihilistic evil of its killer. I still want to know what store in the world sells white William Shatner masks, though.

10. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1973). A crude, energetic, and relentless grindhouse thriller which, though short on actual gore, manages to repulse mainly through the sheer unpleasantness of its subject manner and the killers' "meat is meat" attitude. Beneath the rough surface, though, it's an efficiently constructed picture, the first "appearance" of Leatherface being a perfectly assembled shock.

11. THE EVIL DEAD. Another great example of how a really gifted filmmaker can get the most out of very little money, this over-the-top shocker is easily the scariest of Raimi's EVIL DEAD trilogy and possibly the best film for simple splatterhouse thrills. The story is pure campfire stuff, the demons are annoyingly sadistic bastards, and the gore is without parallel. The horror film that makes you think maybe you've seen enough horror movies for the current month. (This is why I'm saving it for Halloween night.)

12. FRANKENSTEIN (1931). James Whale's unique adaptation of the legendary novel isn't as slick and well-paced as its camp sequel, but the expressionist imagery is still unsettling, with an interesting contrast between the distorted, unnatural world of the doctor and his experiments, and the natural, pastoral landscape into which the monster intrudes. Jack Pierce's legendary makeup design and Boris Karloff's astonishing performance make this essential viewing, even if it has dated a bit.

14. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). Cheesy as hell, but still effectively spooky, like a carnival funhouse. Lots of weird 50s style shocks, some impressive screaming by the tiny Carolyn Craig (EDIT notice: Not Carol Ohmart, who's the gorgeous blonde), and great performances by Vincent Price and Elisha Cook, Jr. (whose character gets increasingly bombed as the story progresses).

15. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Most folks prefer the original, but somehow I found this surrealistic sequel more satisfying. Clive Barker didn't write or direct this one, but his stamp is all over it, from the uniquely arty visions of Hell to the heavy sexual overtones. And the music- my GOD, the music. A collection of gorgeously bloody images with just enough story to hang them together.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #13: Magic

Why not follow cheesecake with stuff that will make my readers unable to sleep? I walk a weird line with this blog- film blogdom and comic blogdom are two entirely different worlds (converging only with the occasional superhero movie) and when I veer very far into one, I feel a need to swing back wildly towards the other. Plus, my Netflix queue is giving me movies again.

MAGIC is the story of Charles "Corky" Withers (Anthony Hopkins), a struggling magician who, on his first night, stumbles and begins to rant at the audience for not paying any attention. Months later, he returns triumphantly to the club where he bombed, watched by network talent scouts as he transfixes the audience with the assistance of his ventriloquist dummy, Fats. The dummy's schtick provides both misdirection and enough laughs to make Withers a star, and his agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) lands him a deal for a TV pilot. However, Corky backs out of taking the required health exam, panics and flees to his old hometown in the Catskills. He rents a cabin from Peggy Ann Snow (a near-unrecognizable Ann Margret), an old high school crush who is feeling alienated from her oft-absent husband. The two begin to rekindle a relationship, and soon are having an affair. But there's a problem: it seems Fats has an unnatural hold on Corky, as ventriloquist dummies often do, and Withers has a hard time being himself without Fats on his knee. The problem is exacerbated when Greene tracks him down and decides that Corky needs to see a psychiatrist, and gets even worse when Peggy Ann's husband Duke (Ed Lauter) returns.

So the central premise is nothing new; the ventriloquist as split personality is an old movie cliché, and I was vaguely reminded of Chuck and Bob from the classic series SOAP (particularly when Chuck, with Bob stolen from him, desperately tries to make puppets out of a grapefruit, a banana, an English muffin and a pitcher of orange juice.) However, a good execution can make a stale idea seem fresh, and MAGIC is a professional effort all around. William Goldman, adapting his novel, constructs a psychological thriller that's essentially character-driven; Corky and Peggy are both well-drawn, believable figures, and their relationship develops in a natural way. It's touching even as a tragic fate becomes inevitable. Even Fats, as he comes to embody Corky's darker side, is difficult to nail down; he acts as a voice of self-preservation and concern for Corky's career, as well as a general id. Sir Richard Attenborough directs with a surprisingly Hitchcockian flair, at least as the thriller angle develops. It's not something he's known for, and it seems he took this gig just to get financing for GANDHI, but he knows what he's doing.

It's not surprising that the film really stands out due to its performances. We all know Anthony Hopkins can play crazy; here, he plays crazy and sane in fits, as well as effectively giving two performances. Corky undergoes moments of growth and maturity before it all falls apart, and he makes the character sympathetic enough for his fate to really hurt. The high point is easily a scene where Greene, unconvinced of Corky's sanity, gives him a simple test: "Make Fats shut up for five minutes." It proves difficult. Meanwhile, Ann Margret tones down her normal levels of glamour and is effective as a warm but tired woman stuck in a very bad situation.

The film does lack any real explanation for just when and how Corky became unhinged, as well as any detail of how he came up with the whole dummy act in the first place. Neither of these are crucial pieces of information, but it would have been nice to have them. I also wonder if the very last scene doesn't twist the knife just a bit much.

Honestly, I rented MAGIC primarily out of interest in seeing the above TV spot about which others have raved (by the time I discovered YouTube it was already on my queue.) But I'm glad to have seen it; it's a slick, sad little chiller which plays more as tragedy than suspense, and it showcases some amazing acting. A curiosity that's definitely worth your time.

Grade: A-

And this post took far too long to write, so that's it for this week, I think. Will begin writing again as soon as I finish the first draft of my audio drama.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cheesecake Appreciation Week, Pt. 3: Power Girl, Fire, and Ice

Decided to mix things up this time. Here are three lovely ladies from the DC Universe, each deserving a full post in herself, but it's Saturday already. Hope they don't mind. First up, Power Girl!

Power Girl (aka PG, aka Peej) is Superman's cousin from another dimension ("Earth-2", the home of various Golden Age superheroes until CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS smushed everything together.) She's basically Supergirl with a sassier, more 70s-feminist attitude (introduced as she was in the 70s.) She's the sort of superheroine you imagine enjoys her work, which makes her more appealing. She's also known for her, well, physical endowments- she was originally drawn by Wally Wood, who liked him some cheesecake, and the figure he gave her has remained pretty consistent, her breasts even being the subject of more than a few jokes and innuendos, making her the one character who's actually supposed to be drawn that way and isn't given a huge chest just by default (as with- well, every other superheroine in existence.) I particularly like this drawing (an alternate cover for JSA CLASSIFIED #1) because it shows her casual attitude- superheroes normally fly stomach-down with their arms outstretched, but it's not like they have to, and hey, why not relax a little? Peej likes to do things in style.

Fire/Beatriz da Costa is a fashion model from Brazil (hence the reason she's dressed like that) with, as you might imagine, flame powers- she can turn herself into a blazing green fire elemental and create (also green) fires at will. Though created in 1979 as a guest character, she didn't hit her stride until '88 when she and buddy Ice/Tora Olafsdötter, superheroes without a job thanks to the dissolution of the Global Guardians, applied for membership in Justice League International. A major supporting player throughout the Giffen/De Matteis run on the League, Fire developed an interesting personality- part sexbomb, part sharp businesswoman, part firebrand and part loyal friend. Recently she's gone all dark-assassin-y in the pages of CHECKMATE, but considering she's from the "Bwah-ha-ha" era, she's lucky to be alive.

And here's the lovely Ice. The princess of a tribe of Norsemen with mystical powers (thanks Wikipedia!), Tora Olafsdötter was originally one of the Global Guardians (as well as a fashion model), but when that team disbanded, she and best friend Fire went to join the JLI. A sweet, shy girl with a bleeding heart, Ice inexplicably became romantically linked to the abrasive Guy Gardner in what turned out to be a surprisingly sweet subplot. Though killed sometime in the Nineties (something writer Mark Waid regrets now), Ice is fondly remembered. And of course, for a comic book superhero, death is just a temporary inconvenience.

And... uh... oh, yeah, this is Ice from a parallel universe, as seen in Giffen and DeMatteis' I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT THE JUSTICE LEAGUE. And a nice way to cap off cheesecake appreciation week. Thanks for following, and thanks again to Ragnell and Kalinara for getting this going. If nothing else, I appreciate the traffic.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cheesecake Appreciation Week, Pt. 2: She-Hulk

My contribution to the meme-age continues, and I've decided to go back to the theme its creators intended. In other words, here's She-Hulk!

The last Marvel hero created by Stan Lee, She-Hulk ("Shulkie") was actually rushed into existence to stake a claim on a trademark. Back when the Bill Bixby INCREDIBLE HULK series was popular, a rumor circulated that the show would introduce a "female hulk" character. Now that the idea had been mooted, Marvel had to publish it before someone else did, and so the She-Hulk was born. Jennifer Walters was a young lawyer shot by mobsters, who received an emergency blood transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner. She inherited his "ability" to turn into a big green monster, but with a couple of twists- she could usually control her transformation, and retained her intelligence and self-control (and, as one can see, good looks to boot.) She's been a part of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, and currently works for a law firm specializing in superhuman cases.

She-Hulk (or "Shulkie" as she's sometimes called) is a great heroine for a number of reasons. She's gorgeous, has a sense of humor, a job that actually lets her do neat stuff besides fight villains (Dan Slott, writing the current series, has used the "superhuman law" angle to make some inspired commentaries on the inherent goofiness of the Marvel Universe), and the occasional ability to run through the fourth wall.

Generally speaking, she rules, and as much as it pains me that her title is due to turn "serious", I'll still follow it. But enough blather! More cheesecake!

I might finish off the week with Power Girl. Watch this space.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Because I'm too busy for real content.

I'm fairly occupied on the writing end, working on a radio script for a competition.

Fortunately, comics bloggers Ragnell and Kalinara (now part of the Club Parnassus blogroll), have declared it Cheesecake/Beefcake Appreciation Week, for the posting of lovely pictures of either sex. Specifically I think it's supposed to be for comics images, but Postmodern Barney (who will be added to the blogroll shortly) went and posted Paul Rudd, so I guess real people are okay. And I've been waiting for an excuse to gush about this lady for a while, so- here's Julia Sawalha.

If you know Julia at all, it's likely due to ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, the brilliant UK sitcom where she played Edina's put-upon daughter Saffron. I always felt she got less credit than she
deserved for her part in the ensemble, especially in the US- the press always loved Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley), but Julia's work as the "straight man" of the group served as a good entry point for a normal viewer. She also delivered some very funny put-downs, and gave Saffy a wonderfully withering death stare that I've since made into a JournalFen icon. You also have to admire the fact that she actively insisted on Saffy wearing frumpy sweaters and starchy shirts and the like- against attempts by Saunders and others to give her nicer-looking outfits- forgoing glamour for sake of the character.

Julia was also the star of Steven Moffat's PRESS GANG, and has appeared in a number of television shows and a couple of films (most notably Kenneth Branagh's IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, aka A MIDWINTER'S TALE, and Nick Park's CHICKEN RUN.) Another favorite of mine was her appearance in the charity DOCTOR WHO send-up "The Curse of Fatal Death" as the Doctor's lovely companion Emma, seen below (Moffat wrote that as well). Around 2003-4 she took a leading role in the mystery series JOHNATHAN CREEK, alongside Alan Davies, with whom she became romantically linked. A storm of unexpected publicity from that seems to have scared her out of the limelight for the moment; for a time she didn't seem to be doing anything, which led the Daily Mail (think Fox News without the honesty) to "report" that she'd given up acting altogether. For a while I feared this was true, but as it turns out a broken clock isn't necessarily right twice a day, and she's done a few smaller things- a commercial here, a charity ABFAB special there, and in spring of this year it was reported she was doing a radio comedy. So we can probably hope to see her again, at some point.

Julia (now 38, if you can believe it) was my first celebrity crush. It wasn't a sudden thing. I'd been watching ABFAB, and liked Saffy in that I could identify with her, and in an intro to a script book Saunders was summarizing the cast's coming together and mentioned "the lovely Julia Sawalha", and though she likely meant it in the British "great person overall" sense, I thought to myself, "yeah, she is lovely, isn't she"? This was when I was about 14, and at 15 I wrote her a fan letter. After a few months I got a reply including a lovely autographed photo- I still have both. I haven't given up hope of meeting her in person someday, and since my writerly aspirations include getting to make movies, I've also dream-cast her in a script that I haven't even written. So, if her agent's reading and she needs another job...

So, uh, I'm going to go and... do... other things. Another Cheesecake post may follow this week.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Comics Page #6: The Irredeemable Ant-Man #1

[Image yanked from Newsarama]

First things first- post number 50! Whoo!

Moving on. Yes, this has been out for nearly a week, but stuff got in the way. Something as historic as this still needs to be trumpeted.

Historic, you say? Well, yes. THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN marks an esoteric but nonetheless important first for Marvel Comics. The character of Ant-Man was an early Marvel headliner in the Sixties, and though this didn't last for long, he's since been a frequent supporting player in many team books including THE AVENGERS and FANTASTIC FOUR. However, as Bradley Hamlin of Retrocrush has pointed out, he has never truly had his own title, and Marvel has never published an ANT-MAN #1. Until now. Congrats, little guy.

There's a slightly less-good distinction that this issue has. The sub-genre of the "funny superhero" book has gone into severe decline lately, scorned by editors and fans who feel that superheroics ought to be a serious business. Over at DC, formerly lighthearted characters like Ralph Dibny, G'nort, and Captain Marvel are getting dark makeovers, while at Marvel, Dan Slott's wonderful SHE HULK is set to take a more serious turn in a few issues (to set up next year's WORLD WAR HULK event.) Which will leave THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN as the only in-continuity "funny" superhero book published by the Big Two; it's not fully a humor book (so the creative team insists), but it's as close as we're going to have. Somewhere the Inferior Five are weeping softly.

In short, I'm tempted to support this book just on principle. I grew up with the Giffen/DeMatteis "Bwah-ha-ha" version of the JUSTICE LEAGUE, read THE TICK when the rest of the comics world bored me, and on the whole have never understood the thinking that it's important to protect the dignity of superhero characters; maybe it's the long-term fallout from BATMAN AND ROBIN. I dunno. (To be sure, it's one thing to want one's favored medium/hobby/whatever to be "taken seriously", but this does not necessarily mean that their content must be serious. CALVIN AND HOBBES is recognized as a masterpiece of the comic strip form.) So maybe I'm biased in its favor. But while not great, THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN #1 shows a lot of promise, and is a solid start to what could end up a great series, if it's allowed to grow. And since it's (at least viewed as) a humor book, starring a new incarnation of a relatively obscure hero, its prospects aren't great. It needs what support it can get.

We begin with the Ant-Man in action, taking down a mugger by using his ability to leap around at insect size and pummel someone with the strength of a full-grown man. He then uses the opportunity to score a date with the grateful victim. These two pages convey two very important things: Ant-Man's powers, and his less-than-selfless approach to the job.

We then flash back six months, to one of the hovering fortresses of the international superspy group S.H.I.E.L.D. Two guards, Chris and Eric, are assigned to guard a room where superscientist Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man) is working on a new Ant-Man suit for the organization. Unfortunately, the guards, given vague orders about just what guarding the room entails (a likely nod to MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL), panic a bit when Hank suddenly exits the room, and Eric cold-cocks him with his rifle. Dragging the unconscious scientist back into his lab, they notice the Ant-Man costume, and Eric dares Chris to try it on. The rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. is distracted by the rampage of a mind-controlled Wolverine, so Chris tries the suit on, and inadvertently trips the shrinking mechanism. Eric, further panicked by the apparent disappearance of his friend, runs, and Chris makes his way through the ventilation shafts of the Helicarrier just in time to see his friend lie to his girlfriend Veronica in a play for her affections. When we flash-forward again, Eric has apparently taken on the role of Ant-Man himself.

It's not for nothing that the issue is headlined "The World's Most Unlikable Super-Hero." Writer Robert Kirkman's taste for dark humor was more than ably demonstrated by MARVEL ZOMBIES, last year's macabre miniseries in which the superheroes of the Marvel Universe were turned into flesh-hungry undead ghouls, promptly eating the rest of mankind and then fighting over what flesh remained (all out of continuity, naturally.) I still haven't gotten around to reading that, but I've followed his WALKING DEAD for several issues. Here he employs a very dialogue-heavy approach, favoring character over action, which inevitably means that by the standards of the genre, this is a slow start. But the establishment of character is important. Here we are being given a protagonist who continually lies, not just habitually but specifically for his gain. Such a figure is hard to identify with, but he has a near-sympathetic side as well; he's stuck at the low echelon (never having seen legendary head agent Nick Fury, he claims the man is an urban legend), not good with women, and generally not in the best place in his life. We've been there. While we can't exactly root for him, he makes for an entertaining antihero. It helps that penciler Phil Hester draws him so sympathetically, giving him a non-suave stature and a face you think you can trust. It'll be interesting to see how this character develops, and whether or not the "Irredeemable" part of the title will remain true.

IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN isn't fully a comedy; there are a couple of very funny riffs, but more time is spent establishing the character's relationships to each other. It does, however, have a casual tone that places it closer to the "funny" end of the axis.

Kirkman has a solid grasp of character, and the dialogue is believable and smart. The art is interesting as well- Hester has a vaguely abstracted, just-this-side-of-cartoonish style, which is counterbalanced by subtle color shadings and very solid inkwork (I think. I've yet to grasp the subtle interplay of penciler and inker that lets me tell who did what.) The layouts are interesting as well- there are a lot of panels per page (nearly 9 on average) and they're arranged and separated in interesting ways.

So, THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN, at present, is shaping up to be a dry dark comedy with a heavy character emphasis and an antiheroic protagonist. It's a unique direction in superhero comics, and though the first issue is largely set up, it's a very well-crafted set-up that should lay the foundation for great things. I hope it delivers, and I hope readers respond to it. I'd hate for the Marvel Universe to lose its sense of humor completely.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 09, 2006

In Theaters: The Departed

[Image from Empire]

There may not be a filmmaker working today with the degree of absolute passion for film possessed by Martin Scorcese. In his fifth decade as a filmmaker, Scorcese has the skill of an old master but the energy of a twenty-something film school graduate handed a camera and a stipend. THE DEPARTED is being lauded as a return to form, but speaking as someone who considers both GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR as gloriously exciting and alive spectacles, I don't know what they're on about. Nonetheless, THE DEPARTED is a minor masterpiece; a raw and brutal thriller marked by great performances, grim humor and unceasing momentum. I admit to not having seen INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the Hong Kong police thriller of which this is a remake, so I can't compare the two, but I'm sure someone else can. I'm just here to rave.

THE DEPARTED follows the stories of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), two young men who grew up in Boston and went into law enforcement. Sullivan becomes a plainclothes detective the instant he graduates from the academy, possibly due to some undue influence by local gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), for whom Sullivan has been working since he was a kid. Costello's been a thorn in Boston law enforcement's side for many a year, and Sullivan is assigned to the Special Investigation Unit's ongoing probe of the man he works for. Meanwhile, Costigan, despite graduating with many qualifications, is kept out of SIU due to psychological issues and a family past best described as "colorful" (local prejudices seem to play a role as well.) Instead he's offered a below-the-table job, infiltrating Costello's gang and acting as an informant. Officially he is not an officer, and his file is kept under electronic lock and key. He reports only to the chief and police commissioner.

Costigan slides into Costello's organization naturally enough, and earns the (relative) trust of the eccentric crime lord. But Sullivan knows the police are stepping up an investigation and that they have a man on the inside, and informs Costello, who naturally is interested in finding out who the rat might be. Officially the police aren't going to tell Sullivan who their man is, so he does some investigating himself. And before long the police realize that they, too, have a traitor in their midst, but again, nobody can be sure.

From this elegant structure flows a wealth of subtext and characterization. William Monahan, the screenwriter, knows he has a good set-up and doesn't pile on unnecessary twists or pointless shocks. Everything happens for a reason, and it unfolds in an increasingly tragic spiral, as Costigan and Sullivan find themselves trapped in their illusions. But then, almost everyone in this film has a secret to keep, some less mundane than others.

Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, turns in what may be his best work to date, with an intense, fiery performance that gives the film much of its drive. He dominates in a film loaded with great performances. Nicholson's crime boss is both steely and slightly unhinged, and though there are some of the familiar Nicholson tics, they enhance rather than overwhelm the character. Damon's Sullivan is the most seemingly stable, the one with the highest comfort zone, but as things continue to wind downwards you see the cold determination that drives him to try to escape, to survive, to win. He is nicely counterbalanced by Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, a police psychiatrist who, despite seeming fairly levelheaded and secure, skirts the bounds of professional ethics by sleeping with both Sullivan and Costigan. Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen also form a brilliant duo as the two high ranking police officials (at present I'm fuzzy on their exact positions, and IMDB is not helping) who own Costigan's identity. Alec Baldwin contributes an interesting near-comic performance as the head of SIU, while comic actor Anthony Anderson impresses in a rare serious role.

The film possesses a blend of dark humor and truly gut-wrenching violence that fits the cynicism of its subject matter. Every punch, every gunshot seems expertly timed to make the viewer feel just a little bit more nervous; you don't know when the next one is going to come and you dread its arrival. The movie's Boston atmosphere is expertly created, especially considering it was mostly filmed in New York. And of course, since this is a Scorcese picture, the music is excellent. (An interesting psuedo-cover of "Comfortably Numb" is used particularly well.) It looks beautiful (in its squalid way), it sounds beautiful (ditto), it's a sumptuous film. It seems Scorcese can't make even the darkest, grimmest film without expressing some of the joy of film itself.

And why not? One may not necessarily feel good coming out of THE DEPARTED, but it does pack a punch, and that impact comes from the energy that dances around every shot. This is a picture that, at once, feels both carefully and intelligently crafted, and wildly spontaneous and completely unpredictable. These characters can't even be sure of who they are, let alone what's going to happen to them; there's no real safety for anyone. And so we cannot but sit and wonder how it will all end. As thoughtful and literate and slick as THE DEPARTED is, at heart it is nothing less than a terrific entertainment.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Why You Should Be Watching the New Doctor Who, Pt. 2

The second season of the new DOCTOR WHO (or the twenty-eighth season of DOCTOR WHO as a whole) began airing in the US on the Sci-Fi Channel last Friday. It's not being promoted as heavily as, say, the phenomenon that is the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and I haven't seen as much chatter about it as I'd like. So time to do some pimping again. It's different this time because I haven't actually seen this series yet- I held off buying the R2 DVDs specifically because I knew proper airings were on the way. So I'm posting reactions solely on the basis of "The Christmas Invasion" and "New Earth." But still, the indications are good.

First things first- we've got a new Doctor, now played by David Tennant, having taken over from Christopher Eccleston at the end of last season's finale. The Doctor does this whenever they need to change actors, and "The Christmas Invasion" is set soon after his regeneration, which still hasn't stabilized. He arrives on Earth in time for Christmas, and in time for a UK-launched Mars probe to slam into an alien spaceship which then descends over London, where its scary-looking inhabitants demand that Earth surrender. The sort of thing the Doctor can usually handle in a day, but unfortunately he's unconscious. So it's up to Rose (Billie Piper), Prime Minister Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton), and her crack staff to defeat the alien menace. It's an odd tack to take for a DOCTOR WHO adventure- "regeneration" stories do often focus on a period where the Doctor isn't sure of his new self, but never has he been this fully incapacitated for two thirds of the story. Of course, this wasn't the season premiere proper, but a Christmas Day special slotted between seasons (something also planned for this holiday season), so it only had to provide a taste of the new Doctor. And so it did- in the final third, a blazingly intense David Tennant comes to and shows off his distinct brand of Doctorishness, which pretty much makes the entire story worthwhile. It's intense and dramatic and quite bold, really.

That said, I'm not keen on Harriet Jones seemingly being ousted by the Doc himself at the end of it. Her decision to destroy the retreating spaceship is perhaps unethical, but you can see her line of reasoning, and the Doctor's in objecting to it, and that works in itself. But his insistence on bringing her down by remarking "Don't you think she looks tired?" to an aide and sparking a health scare seems vaguely less-than-ethical in itself, especially since Jones is, according to a previous episode, supposed to go on to do great things for Britain. (The quote is a reference to what brought down Thatcher, though less convincing in this context- of course Jones looks tired, she's just been through an alien invasion, and any PR flack worth 50p could spin that into nothingness.) Most importantly, these two became great friends in Jones' first appearance, and it just hurts to see them turn against each other so quickly. It's like watching your parents fight. It's not confirmed that she is ousted, though the reason this whole confrontation took place was that showrunner Russell T. Davies needed an out for Wilton, who has a crowded schedule. So while things aren't looking good for Jones' political career, something about the execution makes me think a redemptive coda might be in the cards.

What minor concerns I had about the new season based on the special's odd structure and whatnot were swept away by the proper premiere, "New Earth". While apparently a polarizing episode within the fandom, it's also a classic dose of the imagination and inventiveness that characterizes both the old and new series. It's set on an alien world, which is actually quite important; the first new season stayed entirely on Earth, due to concerns about cost and the ability to convincingly render new planets when most of the rock quarries employed by the old show had been turned into council estates. So, finally, the series sets its foot on new ground, and the results are beautiful. The new planet, made into a New Earth out of nostalgia for the old one, is represented by a grassy shoreline, a distant city, and a gigantic hospital which actually is the setting for most of the action, but somehow all that is enough. Visually the episode is dazzling, brightly lit with lots of white and green and translucent panels. Storywise it's freaking INSANE. Rose gets possessed by Cassandra, "the last human", who is obsessed with living forever, while the Doctor visits the seemingly-dying Face of Boe and notices that the patients are recovering from incurable diseases at a surprising rate. The two end up discovering the grim secret behind the medical experiments which the catlike Sisters use to discover cures, and plague zombies break out and threaten to infect the entire planet. Billie Piper does a terrific job portraying the posh, snobby, alarmingly sexy Cassandra, who enjoys being in a young and firm new body with a good "rear bumper." A couple of plot points stretch credibility, but at the same time we get emotional development for Cassandra and the new Doctor, some great thematic stuff about death and renewal, and an enchanting, almost dreamlike atmosphere. And the goofiness of the story can itself be said to be a virtue; at its best and most manic, DOCTOR WHO makes even good science fiction shows look stultifyingly formulaic.

I'm liking the new Doctor, so far. The argument with Harriet Jones doesn't seem to be an anomaly; he has very little patience for ethical grey areas and "ends justify the means" arguments. This is both a virtue and a flaw, as he judges in haste, but does recognize evil when he sees it. But there's also a very loose and fresh quality to the Tenth Doctor. At times he comes across as someone who grew up reading too many "Boys Own" adventure stories and is out to have ripping adventures and be extremely clever. He manages to make Eccleston's Doctor look brooding and subdued. As I've said before, one thing that makes DOCTOR WHO rare in the modern pop culture landscape is its sense of fun and lightheartedness. Not every drama series has to knock you down, raise the stakes, and drag characters through the mud every week; there's nothing WRONG with doing so, but it's become commonplace, and a reminder that there are other ways of doing the job is welcome.

This, incidentally, is Billie Piper's last season as Rose; she's already left in the UK, and the new series will have Tennant adventuring alongside a new companion. Piper's done a great job, and finding out what happens to Rose in the end will be interesting. It's kind of nice to be completely behind the curve for once, as opposed to just slightly last time.

So, I'm confident I'll continue to enjoy the series. I hope it continues to do well in the ratings; as I said, there's a danger of it being overshadowed by SciFi's homegrown success, so everyone keep watching and keep discussing. Right now it's a very, VERY good time to be a DOCTOR WHO fan, and I don't want that to end.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Random Movie Report #12: Bride of the Monster

Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the most problematic man in cinema. Was he the worst filmmaker of all time? Consensus is shifting towards "no", if only because, thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, we have seen so much worse. (And a certain talented amateur boxer has also been in the running for the title lately- though I can't actually say myself, since I haven't seen any of his movies.) Was Wood even bad? Most say yes, but I'm still not convinced. Wood lacked the technical craft needed of a truly great filmmaker, but he had... something. Some attribute this to the pure enthusiasm he had for making movies, others to the "so-bad-it's-good" element. I'm not satisfied with either explanation; enthusiasm doesn't automatically translate into watchability, and there are many directors whose films are as bad or worse, but aren't as entertaining. I also have my personal bias towards Ed Wood- I see in him the worst-case scenario of what any wanna-be creator (myself included) might become, destitute and unloved. (If you haven't read NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY, Rudolph Grey's exquisite biography of the artist, you absolutely must.) I've got to suppress that when looking at his movies. So, recently, motivated by curiosity, I revisited BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, one of Wood's more troubled productions and the last real hurrah for screen legend Bela Lugosi. That I was looking at a particularly bad VHS copy didn't help things, but I think I've got a better grasp of the work. Ed Wood was neither a genius nor a hack, but he had... something.

The movie opens on two hunters lost in the swamp (we're never sure quite where) in the middle of a storm. They go up to the Old Willows Place, thinking it deserted, but it's inhabited by mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi), and his hulking henchman Lobo (Tor Johnson.) One of them is killed by the legendary monster of Willows Lake, a giant octopus. The other is captured by Lobo and made one of Dr. Vornoff's experiments- he's trying to breed a race of atomic supermen, and most of them (like this poor fellow) end up dead. Well, you can't make an omelette, etc. Somehow word of the deaths gets out, and Janet Lawton (Loretta King), enterprising reporter, is out to prove all the monster stories. Her boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy), is a policeman assigned to the disappearances by his quirky boss Captain Tom Robbins (Harvey B. Dunn). He's assigned to visit Willows Lake with Professor Strowski (George Becwar), but Janet beats him to the punch by going up there herself, in the middle of a storm. Her car crashes and she's rescued by Lobo and brought to the Willows Place, and Dr. Vornoff decides she'd make an excellent test subject. Craig has to search out his girlfriend while unravelling the mystery of the monster and the Old Willows Place, while Professor Strowski seems to have an agenda of his own.

More controversy surrounds this film than any other made by Wood, which is saying something. First, there's the writing credit. In NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY, Alex Gordon claims he sold a vague idea for a script called "The Atomic Monster" to Wood, who wrote a script loosely based on it. In a later interview with the magazine CULT MOVIES, however, Gordon claimed that he had written a substantial portion of the screenplay, including the famous "I Have No Home" speech where Vornoff rants about his ejection from his home country somewhere behind the Iron Curtain (paralleling Lugosi's own departure from Hungary.) Gordon went so far as to call ECSTASY a wildly inaccurate book and disparage the reputation of author Grey. However, since the book contains very little editorial input from its author and is largely an oral history comprised of quotes from people who knew Wood (as well as quotes from Wood himself from an early Seventies interview with Lugosi biographer Bob Cremer), I'm inclined to believe the "official" version of events. (Wood's tendency to draw heavily from his own experiences also supports the idea that the speech came from him.)

Secondly, there is Loretta King. In the movie ED WOOD, King (delightfully played by Juliette Landau) agrees to finance BRIDE so long as she gets to play the lead. This was in accordance with accounts in ECSTASY from Wood's then-girlfriend Dolores Fuller. However, in a later FILMFAX interview with King herself, she denied having promised any financing to the production, and suggested that story may simply have been Wood's way of trying to placate his girlfriend. This is the kind of dispute it may be impossible to settle, Wood being dead and his life so poorly documented. Still, it's kinda neat to think about these kinds of issues when watching the finished film. I won't even get into the allegedly-stolen octopus prop.

So what of the movie itself? It's actually one of Wood's slickest films- the ultimate financier, meatpacker Henry McCoy, seems to have given the production at least a D-level budget, and Wood himself, dealing with a familiar formula, was able to stretch that out surprisingly far. As usual he was aided by an abundance of stock footage, here mostly swamps, snakes and alligators, and a normal-sized octopus to fit with the motionless prop monster (of which we usually see only tentacles.) His use of the footage is not what one would call adept; there's a scene where Craig falls in quicksand and is approached by either one bulletproof alligator or several normal ones (or rather, alligator/crocodiles, because I'm sure the footage switches.) But it does manage to add action that the production couldn't afford, and doesn't feel like padding. Really, and if I haven't said this here before don't worry because you'll hear it again, the reason most low-budget exploitation movies are duller than Wood's is that they have to pad the film with long stretches of pointless material just to reach feature length, because they can't afford to film anything interesting. The art of being a good low-budget filmmaker is one of maximizing resources and, perhaps more importantly, spreading them over at least seven reels. BRIDE OF THE MONSTER is an eventful 68-or-so minutes, a crude mash-up of plot twists and horror-movie perils that plays as a minor homage not only to Lugosi's classic Universal horrors but to the myriad cheap imitations of the Forties. Like Wood's other films, it's a melange of seemingly random but interesting things combined into what is, in the end, a unique story.

Of course, the film is a vehicle for Lugosi, and it turned out to be the actor's last speaking role (his proper final film, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE notwithstanding because those clips were basically cut in to an as-yet-uncertain story, was THE BLACK SLEEP, in which his character was mute.) Though he's obviously seen better days, Lugosi gives a terrific performance, adding real gusto to what is already a fairly meaty part. In his meeting with Professor Strowski, he gives Dr. Vornoff pathos and a sad anger; futzing about his lab with Lobo, he demonstrates a ghoulish good humor and breaks out a few hypnotic hand gestures that recall the physicality of his Dracula. It goes without saying that he out-acts everyone else in the movie, but the other performances are actually borderline competent; King and McCoy are both untried, but they muddle through, while Dunn's quirky police captain with a fondness for his pet bird adds a nice light touch, and we also see the first appearance of Paul Marco's lovably goofy Kelton the Cop, who would make return visits in PLAN 9 and NIGHT OF THE GHOULS. And then there's Tor, giving not so much a performance as an image, a memorably mammoth hulk who seems like a mutant even though the plot is unclear on that particular point.

And finally, there's the writing end. Wood displays his usual flair for oddly placed monologuing and random poetic imagery, with characters displaying the sort of unexpected eloquence and verbosity that would become more commonplace with the rise of independent art films. There are also a few interesting random plot tidbits thrown out, like the apparent implication that Vornoff has something to do with the Loch Ness Monster (kind of weird since legends of the monster date back to before Vornoff could have been alive, but hey.) Threads like that are used to give the story a grandeur that can't actually be shown on screen, something that would also be prominent in PLAN 9, with its references to an early alien encounter that killed the inhabitants of an entire town and the military's development of a "language computer." It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if Wood would not have found actual commercial success writing comic books; he could put together a plot as good as the average for the sci-fi titles of the period, and it's not like his florid prose wouldn't have been welcome. If only he had moved to New York instead of L.A....

BRIDE OF THE MONSTER is far from Wood's most entertaining or engrossing film, but it could be said to be his "best" in some respects. Around the twin assets of a great horror actor and a guy who didn't need makeup to look monstrous, he crafted a solid, if cheesier-than-usual, B-programmer that does what it sets out to do and, unlike a lot of its contemporaries, delivers what it promises. Wood may remain a difficult and tragic figure in the history of exploitation cinema, but his body of work, as crude and slapdash as it is, speaks for itself.

Grade: B