Thursday, 28 June 2012

Nikita (1990)

I don't know if this is Nostalgia Week on Black Cat Reviews or what, but here's another Golden Oldie from my misspent youth. Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990: AKA La Femme Nikita) must have been among the first five movies I rented with my own money. When I was first starting to get into movies for their own sake, and not just because Watching A Movie was a Thing That You Did, I checked Nikita out immediately. I didn't really know what it was about, but I didn't have to. It had a cool-looking punk chick in a cocktail dress brandishing a revolver on the case: that was proof enough of badassery. I was still detoxing from Sailor Moon, so it didn't take much to impress me.

Parents of the world: listen to me. If you're raising a girly tweenager, don't give her Hannah Montana. Don't give her Twilight or High School Musical or whatever the kids think is cool these days. Slip her a DVD of Nikita. This is girl power in lethal doses, still red-hot after twenty-two years.

Take a good look at her and then tell me you don't want to see this movie.
Nikita's heroine-on-heroin (played by Anne Parillaud) is a drug-addled Parisian street rat known only as... Nikita (bet you didn't see that one coming). She murders a cop and gets thrown in the clink, but she's only there about two minutes before the authorities fake her death by suicide. They offer her a choice: become an assassin for the French secret service, or get killed for real. Nikita understandably goes for the former and, after years of being groomed by the charmingly sinister Bob (Tcheky Karyo), she is released into the wild to wait for further instructions. Nikita passes her time stylishly kicking around Paris, picking up a grocery clerk fiance named Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and working missions for her former handlers. When a mission goes awry, Victor the Cleaner (Jean Reno) is called in to eliminate the evidence (this involves a bathtub full of acid). Revolted by the Cleaner's brutality and her own complicity in the bloodbath, Nikita hits the road, leaving Grocery Marco and Creepy Bob to sit around and mope that she didn't leave a forwarding address.

Full disclosure: This movie could have been made for me. I love it. I want to go watch it again right this second. It's got everything. Melodrama. Kick-ass heroine. Bizarre love triangle. Subtitles. It's too bad non-Francophones have to "read" the film, because it's made up of a series of ironically stylish snapshots: Nikita's "pencil trick" (later cribbed by Heath Ledger's Joker), Bob cutting his protege's birthday cake with a switchblade, Nikita hiding a sniper rifle from Marco by throwing it in her bubble bath. Things can get slightly over-the-top -- Nikita "learning to smile" calls to mind Lillian Gish's woebegone waif from Broken Blossoms -- but whatever, I'm not watching this for realism. The mise-en-scene, too, has a comic-book charm: orange wash! Blue wash! Fuck "natural light", this is theatre!

The human core Besson forgot in the similarly exuberant The Fifth Element is present in Nikita: there's a real, wounded soul inside the snarling street punk, and her moral education is the heart of the film. The numerous remakes of Nikita seem not to realize that this is the point of the story. If Nikita was falsely accused to begin with -- if the government forces the character to become a criminal, as in the Canadian TV series --  she has no journey to make. What makes Nikita powerful is that its one-time murderess becomes morally superior to the legal system which allowed her incarceration.

Things I don't like about Nikita: there is nothing I don't like about Nikita. I will warn you, though, that if you're hoping for action babe T+A, you're better off watching something with Megan Fox. Nikita's heroine is grimy, crude, and violent, not glamorous: a fully-fleshed out personality rather than animate cheesecake. Also, the script is more serviceable than brilliant (although if you're looking for whiz-bang quotability, you should realize subtitles take most of the fun out of it).

That's really all I've got, folks. No movie is perfect, but Nikita works for me. This is a 5/5 kind of a movie. Watch it. Do not watch the American version with Bridget Fonda, do not watch the Canadian TV show, do not pass go, do not collect 200$. Watch Besson's original. Despite the army of imitations, there's really nothing like it.

Is this really a hat you would wear while trying to escape the attention of local authorities?

The magic's in the makeup!
ACTUAL SCENE STEALER: That woman. On the right. She looks familiar. Could it be?... Is that?... It is! It's Jeanne Moreau, Queen of the French New Wave. Jeanne Moreau's filmography is longer than the Bible and reads like a Who's Who of directors: Truffaut, Bunuel, Antonioni. Moreau lends her particular brand of class to Nikita as Amande, the former secret agent who teaches her charge to wield femininity like a weapon. Actually, all we see her do is show Nikita how to put on lipstick, but because it's Jeanne Moreau doing it it takes on mythic significance. Hooray for Jean Moreau. She is the icing on the Nikita cake.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Princess Bride (1987)

When I was a little Rebecca, I sang in the children's choir at church, less out of piety than hunger for a captive audience (these days it's less church choir and more Rocky Horror performances at the local gay club, but the basic principle is the same). There was an hour-long break between choir practice and the actual service, which choristers' parents were called upon in their turn to fill with movies and Timbits. One mom brought The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987) for us to watch every time her turn rolled around. It was like she didn't own any other movies (or maybe just none that were fit to be shown in church?). Anyhow, that's how I saw the first half of The Princess Bride about thirty times before I turned 13. Unfortunately, the hour-long break wasn't quite long enough to finish the movie, and for over a decade, I wondered whether the vengeful swordsman would finally find his six-fingered nemesis. A few weeks ago I caved and bought the DVD, and that six-fingered asshole finally got what was coming to him. Now at last I have peace (and a new review to do).

Two hands, ten fingers, one charmingly cleft chin.
Peasants Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) are in love. (You know right away that they're in love because they're both so blonde and pretty. Either in love or siblings). Westley ventures off to seek their fortune and is unfortunately killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Meanwhile, Buttercup is summoned to wed the Prince of Florin, wicked Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), but the wedding is put on hold when she's kidnapped by brigands Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, short), Fezzik (Andre the Giant, tall), and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin, Spanish). Buttercup is shortly rescued by none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts, who turns out to be Westley in disguise! Blissfully reunited, Westley and Buttercup fight some giant rats, get rid of her new fiance, and conquer death itself. It's all relatively smooth going and at last they ride away into the sunset (on white fucking horses no less).

The Princess Bride is adapted from a book by William Goldman, and as you might expect when Spinal Tap's director films a work by Marathon Man's screenwriter, the film never verges on sentimental or cloying despite its title and premise. It's eminently quotable high adventure that knows when to stick to fairy-tale conventions and when to send them packing. Also, it's not in the least dated -- sometimes 80s fantasy betrays itself through haircuts and makeup (Labyrinth, Ladyhawke), but the mise en scene here is Germanic medieval goodness all the way, which makes it doubly funny when the characters break their mythic shackles to comment with modern cynicism on their circumstances ("never get involved in a land war in Asia", Vizzini warns Westley grimly). The very best thing about this movie is that every performance is a standout. There's not a weak link in the bunch. Even Billy Crystal's cameo -- he's a withered gnome with a New Yawker accent -- somehow works (with emphasis on the somehow).

I'm not so mired in nostalgia for The Princess Bride to ignore the fact that the film is decidedly uneven after Westley conquers Buttercup's captors. The half-hour showdown between pirate and brigands is such perfect movie-making that everything afterwards is a bit of a letdown. Still, the quality of the rest of the movie ranges from "excellent" to "pretty good", so I wouldn't call time spent watching it wasted.

The only other thing that irks me about The Princess Bride is its love story. Not because it's too sweet, which is a complaint I've heard. The opposite, in fact. When Westley shows up to rescue Buttercup, he's stolen the Dread Pirate Roberts' identity -- complete with Roberts' "leave no man alive" mission statement. That means that, for all intents and purposes, Westley returns to Buttercup a serial killer. This never bothers her or, apparently, anyone else. Westley is also just kind of a jerk to her: he continues to let her believe her beloved is dead much longer than he has to, insulting her fidelity long after she's demonstrated that her marriage to Humperdinck is a sham and she still loves her vanished fiance. I guess it's all meant to be a test of her loyalty or something, but it just comes off as dickish and kind of makes me wish Buttercup had gone off with Inigo Montoya instead.

Be that as it may, I give a 4/5 to The Princess Bride. The waters of 80s fantasy can be treacherous (killer eels, don't you know) but Reiner navigates them successfully, and his gorgeous film is still enjoyable today.

Ladies, remember to moisturize.
SCENE STEALER: "BOOOOO! BOOOOOO!" This lady, Margery Mason, appears in one of Buttercup's nightmares for about five seconds to catcall the Princess. Mason is credited as the Ancient Booer. I bet there are movie extras who go their whole lives wishing for a role like the Ancient Booer. "BOOOOOOOO!" An actress friend of mine pointed out that the audition for this role must have been epic. "BOOOOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOOOOO!" If you're an actress without the cookie-cutter good looks required of the fairy tale princess, you should go for roles like this. At least you'll be remembered.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

North By Northwest (1959)

Late 50s/early 60s nostalgia has never been hotter. Everyone wants a slice of the Mad Men pie, from McDonald's to Farmer's Dairy (BEEP, motherfuckers! I am drinking a glass of that shit RIGHT NOW). I once read a philosophical treatise (or maybe it was just a blog post) which theorized that every generation idealizes its grandparents' heyday -- for the Millennials, that's roughly the mid-50s to mid-60s. Is it true? Who cares. Let's just go ahead and hook Black Cat Reviews to the vintage-chic bandwagon so we can pay a visit to one of retro-est movies of them all: North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). This film's got Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and good old Hitch on board, and if they forgot to bring a coherent plot, that's in keeping with the times.

In Soviet Russia, plane catches you!
In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a spy called George Kaplan by foreign agent Phillip Vandamm (James Mason, pre-Lolita). There's a reason why this occurs, but it's not a very good one: enjoyment of this movie largely depends on accepting that its characters are good-looking plot devices and will behave accordingly. Vandamm purrs and vogues and acts vaguely European and finally tries to have Thornhill killed, so Thornhill goes on the run and encounters Eve (Eva Marie Saint). Eve wants to help him -- then she wants to kill him -- then she wants to help him -- or does she want to kill him?! (SPOILER ALERT: she wants to help him). Mysterious and frightening events (some of which are explained and some of which are not) continue to happen to Roger for the next two hours, culminating in he and Eve hanging by their fingertips off of Mount Rushmore. Just when it seems there`s no possible escape for the intrepid duo, we cut to their honeymoon! They`re okay after all! (What?).

I know that a lot of people love North by Northwest, and it's got its high points, but the nostalgia factor can't make up for the fact that this movie just does not make sense. Its secret agents make such asinine mistakes, their double-dealing and narrow escapes are so outlandish, that it's almost more an art movie than a coherent story. The climax is the worst offender for such potholed plotting: Eve and Thornhill face certain doom, but the movie's too lazy to explain now they escape it, so we're left feeling cheated and uncertain that they're really all right. I'm half-convinced that the final images of Eve and Thornhill clinking their champagne glasses together and flirting are Thornhill's dying fantasy as he plummets to his doom from Mount Rushmore.

There's good stuff here too -- Saint's smoldering Eve is an early proponent of free love, refreshing considered beside Hitchcock's usual fave, Princess Grace (Kelly). And any movie that pits its hero against a cropduster and sticks its final showdown on George Washington's nose has chutzpah that's hard to disdain. All in all, I give a 3/5 to North by Northwest. Watch it, but know that the best part is Cary Grant taking his shirt off.

If you knew how long it took me to find this screenshot.
SCENE STEALER: Cary Grant with no shirt.

Is that BLING around Cary Grant's neck?
I'm just kidding. Today's scene stealer is actually this chick:

The Mom look.
This is Jessie Royce Landis as Thornhill`s mom, Clara. Landis is only six years older than Grant, but that's no sillier than anything else in this movie. She steals most of the film's funniest lines as she investigates her son's mistaken identity, at one point petulantly demanding "you gentlemen aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?" of the spies she's cornered in an elevator. She sort of functions as a built-in RiffTrax: too bad the movie dispenses with her so quickly.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Back to the Future (1985)

I caught Back the the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) at Park Lane's fan favorites, but the screening could just as easily have been Logan's Run, because no one in that theatre was older than thirty. Where were all the people who could actually have been nostalgic for Back to the Future -- not just "this came out the year I was born" nostalgic, but "I snogged a girl in the back row at this movie" nostalgic, properly nostalgic? You hear me, Gen-X-ers? Where were you to do tribute to this flawless film? The Millennials may be a pretty disappointing generation so far, but at least we're not too proud to pay slavish homage to the masterpieces of yesteryear.

"I can't believe it, Marty! We've become trapped in this girl's blog!"
Michael J. Fox stars as Back to the Future's Marty McFly, skateboarding apprentice mad scientist to Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd, inspired, insane). Brown's just turned a car into a time machine, but he's powering it with plutonium he stole from terrorists, and when they show up to gun the doctor down, the only place Marty can escape to is 1955. Once he gets there, he's stuck: there's no more plutonium to send him back to the age of Reagan, shoulder pads and hair metal (unexplained plot hole: why he'd want to return). A younger Dr. Brown comes to Marty's aid, but before he can go back to the future (!!!) Marty must turn the eyes of his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) towards his father George (Crispin Glover) or risk creating a time paradox. Unfortunately, Lorraine's got the hots for Marty, but a mean jock assaults her at just the right time and George steps in to save the day (and the life of his unborn son). Everything put right, Marty heads back to the future (!!!), which is better than he left it: Dr. Brown survived the terrorist attack and the McFlys are wealthy enough that Marty now has his own car (although sadly there's still Ronald Reagan and hair metal).

Cinematically speaking, Back to the Future is a perfect movie. I don't say that lightly. There's nothing to add, nothing to remove. It's a diamond. That said, the film is also deeply superficial. This movie is not about anything. I mean, it's ostensibly about a kid who has to get back to the future (!!!), but there are no themes here, no deeper meaning. What message do you take away from Back to the Future? Not to flirt with your mom? Not to buy plutonium off the black market? I'm drawing a blank. Plus, although Back to the Future is hilarious, the source of its humor is really, really weird. Nine out of ten dentists agree that most people don't find incest hilarious, yet the audience in the theatre was in stitches when Marty's mom stripped him naked while unconscious and subsequently tried to coerce him into staying the night.

Back to the Future's politics haven't aged well -- Lorraine's near-rape is played as George's big chance to be a hero, the "Libyans" who sold Dr. Brown his plutonium are screeching Arab stereotypes, and a throwaway joke which implies Chuck Berry stole his groundbreaking "Johnny B. Goode" from a white guy left me squirming in my seat. To play the devil's advocate, though, it's all more ignorant than malicious, and the Eighties has worse gaffes to atone for (Sixteen Candles, anyone?). The moments that make you cringe are in far shorter supply than the moments of inspired brilliance, such as Marty coercing George into pursuing Lorraine by impersonating "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan" and torturing him with Van Halen guitar licks. I give Back to the Future a 5/5. I can't not. It's dated, it's bizarre, but it's a work of mad genius.

The first PSA for "don't stick your dick in crazy."
SCENE STEALER: No, I'm not putting Christopher Lloyd here. Fuck you, everyone who's seen this movie knows that Christopher Lloyd is the real star. Writing about how great he is would be like shooting fish in a barrel, I'm not going to do it. Instead, I urge you to turn your eyes to Lea Thompson as Marty McFly's mom/stalker Lorraine. From a feminist point of view, Back to the Future's heroines are ahead of their time (no pun intended). The juxtaposition of Lorraine's aggressive sexuality and sweet nature, although played for laughs, is an 80s teen movie rarity: the brat pack was pretty clearly divided into virgins (Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald) and whores (Demi Moore, Nicolette Sheridan). I'm not condoning that, just stating that a character as complex as Lorraine's was a rarity in this kind of film. Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) is similar: mature, polite, intelligent, and oozing teen lust from every pore. The slack Back to the Future cuts its ladies is refreshing, not that it excuses the movie's deus ex machina date rape.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Fifth Element (1997)

I loved The Fifth Element (1997, Luc Besson) when I was in high school. It had everything. Kick-ass space babes, evil aliens, Gary Oldman, Bruce Willis, crazy costumes, romance, vague feel-good spirituality, an elaborately choreographed action sequence set to a techno remix of the mad aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. Basically, this film was designed for geeky teenagers to salivate over. My boyfriend mentioned a while ago that his family has a copy, so I "borrowed" it for a movie night with my friends. And it was still pretty good, I guess, but not as good as I remembered. Just proves You Can't Go Home Again (thanks a lot, Tom Wolfe).

I'm blue, da ba dee da ba da.
The Fifth Element is love, and love (for whatever reason) is all that can save Earth when it's about to get smashed by a glowing red planetoid. So it turns out that the Beatles were right and All You Need Is Love, except the problem is that love can only be properly manifested by an alien chick named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who has to visit a sacred Egyptian temple and unite with the other four elements in order to produce enough love to destroy an asteroid. On the way, she's romanced by space cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), which apparently helps. Anyway, despite the machinations of the wicked Zorg (Gary Oldman) and the interference of obnoxious talk-show host Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), Leeloo and Dallas make it to the church on time and save the earth. And then they have sex, more or less in public. And that's the end.

The Fifth Element is truly a sci-fi of a different color. It alternates between satire-action, broad slapstick and campy romance. The world-building is spectacular: this Earth is silly, but entirely believable. The costumes are gorgeous (Jean-Paul Gaultier, don't you know), the sets and editing slick and stylish. And though it's all retro, it's not at all dated. But although The Fifth Element's world is breathtaking, its story is dull. Part of the problem is that in this crazy Earth populated by alien opera stars, pansexual television personalities, and gorgeous extraterrestrial messiahs, The Fifth Element focuses 90% of its action on Korben Dallas, taxi man. Korben's nice enough, but he's too inoffensive to compete with the world he's been placed in. We don't care about this guy because everything else onscreen is always more exciting than he is. Maybe the producers thought that too much Ruby and Leeloo zaniness would put off audiences, but if they were going to create this bizzaro world to begin with, they should have let us sink our teeth into it.

The other problem with The Fifth Element is that its plot is 10% devoted to actual plot development and 90% devoted to "Weird alien! Awesome fight scene! Crazy planet-scape! Look over here! Check this out! Snap! Crackle! Pop!" In a lot of movies, this wouldn't be a problem, but the whole point of The Fifth Element is that the love between Korben and Leeloo saves the universe, and we never see it happen. He hits on her a little, she tolerates him, and then suddenly they're in love and the asteroid is toasty. It feels like a deus ex machina, and that's disappointing in any movie, no matter how slick and shiny it is.

The Fifth Element isn't really my kind of movie any more. It's too much flash-bang and not enough substance. Still, it's an iconic film of the 90s and that it posed a timely challenge to the poker-faced, vaguely existential sci-fi that was de rigeur by '97. I give it a 4/5, and not just out of nostalgia.

There's no time to get dressed when you're the savior of the universe.

FINAL GIRL: There are only two important female characters in The Fifth Element, and one of them dies, so I guess it does have a Final Girl even if it's not really horror. The woman in question is Leeloominaï Lekatariba Lamina-Tchaï Ekbat De Sebat, played by Milla Jovovich... understandably, they just call her Leeloo. She's a bit of a cypher. She can't speak English, so most of her characterization comes from her cutesy alien word salad ("Leeloo Dallas multipass!" she says sternly to a flight attendant) and wide-eyed naivety about Earth Stuff (There's war! But there's love! So confusing!). As is proven by the large number of unfortunate Leeloo cosplayers, a lot of people love this character. Personally, I find her kind of boring. 90% of her personality is her Ace bandage getup and crazy hair. What's that line from Clementine in Eternal Sunshine? Oh, yeah... "I apply my personality in a tube." Sorry, Leeloo.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Alien (1979)

I know a guy who's never seen either Blade Runner or Indiana Jones. His geek-cred is high, he's got nothing against Harrison Ford, it just never happened. Don't judge. We all have movies like this -- "how-did-you-miss-that-one?!" movies we reveal only to our closest friends. And here's my confession: I'm a sci-fi junkie, a horror whore, and I love me a hefty dose of cinematic girl power, but I didn't get around to watching Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) until last Saturday. And let me tell you: if Alien gave you the slip, too, go out and grab it now. You want this movie in your life.

This guy didn't watch Alien and look what happened to him.

The doomed ship Nostromo intercepts a signal which appears to be a mayday. When the crew dons their spacesuits to check it out, they stumble upon an alien (but not THE Alien) ship's booby-trapped cache of unearthly eggs. Kane (John Hurt) is unfortunate enough to set off the eggs' security alarm and gets a tentacled space squid stuck to his face. His shipmates haul him back to the Nostromo, where they manage to kill the face-snuggling alien (still not THE Alien). Unfortunately, it laid an egg in Kane's innards, which Nostromo's crew discovers when an alien baby (THE Alien!) bursts out of his stomach at dinner like it's the prize in a John Hurt pinata. The alien proceeds to pick off the Nostromo's crew one by one until badass Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) throws it out an airlock so that she and her cat can go home, already.

Nice kitty.
Alien is awesome. 100% awesome. Which makes it sort of difficult to review without sounding like a twerpy fangirl. So let me put on my feminist hat and dutifully point out that it is not just awesome but also characterized by an unusual birth-is-hell-and-babies-are-evil subtext. I'm not just talking about the male-pregnancy nightmare outlined above: the ship's computer, "Mother", gives her crew a Hal of a time. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski) did a similar thing back in in 1968: I think it's a little telling that the Don't Spawn trope didn't hit theatres until after the advent of the Pill.

Another thing I really dug about Alien was its commitment to realism. I know that's a bit of a stretch in a movie with "Alien" right in the title. But I buy the film's world: it doesn't have the squeaky-shiny newness that characterizes so much sci-fi. The Nostromo is weathered and ramshackle, and for that matter, so is its crew. Their tired faces and dingy clothes have seen better days and it makes them human and vulnerable. This is something Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) also got right (think, there was a time George Lucas got things right).

There wasn't really anything I didn't like about Alien, although I find it really weird the way the picture quality of movies made between 1975 and 1990 is consistently more dated than movies made decades before. I'm not sure whether it's because the hair and makeup of that era is less "classic" than the 40s-60s (in space, no one can hear you scream, but they can see your shitty perm) or because the less-than-seamless switchover from film to video was kicking off. Whatever: none of that would have been Ridley Scott's fault, and he's turned out a humdinger here.

I give Alien a 5/5. It's all that and a cherry on top (and by a cherry I mean a Harry. A Harry Dean Stanton. Yay!) Watch it. For real. Just do it, okay?

Space trucker by day, lingerie model by night.
FINAL GIRL: Signourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (everyone just calls her "Ripley", thank god, as "Ellen" is conspicuously less badass). Ripley is characterized as largely asexual: she has no love interest and she spends 9/10 of the film wearing a shapeless jumpsuit. (I imagine the gratuitous underwear scene pictured above was demanded by studio bosses in post-production). Ripley's an outsider even among the crew from the beginning of the film, less an underdog than a reviled stickler for procedure. This is the Final Girl by way of the career woman, not the virginal teenager, and it's damn refreshing. Too bad nobody listened to her about those quarantine rules....

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Prometheus (2012)

My friend Shannon called me up the other day to ask if I wanted to come check out Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it, since I've never seen Alien (also Rid, 1979), but most of the buzz I'd heard was positive, so I tagged along. The primary feeling Prometheus left me with was that Alien must be ten times better. I don't mean that as an insult: Prometheus is a perfectly decent summer blockbuster that presumably lays the groundwork for a much more lauded film.

Prometheus suggests that Charlize Theron is an android, which I have long suspected.
Scott's latest yarn recounts the travels of the doomed ship Prometheus, which treks off to a faraway planet searching for humanity's forefathers (we subsequently learn that mankind as a whole has some serious daddy issues). The ship is manned partly by reps of the Weyland corporation (you can spot them because they're blonde sociopaths) and partly by research scientists (you can spot them because they're morons). The party makes contact with extremely cranky alien life, and when the dust settles the only ones left standing are Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and android David (Michael Fassbender), who hightail it out of there before the credits roll.

Prometheus does a great job of including viewers who are new to the Alien franchise: the plot was perfectly comprehensible without any background knowledge. 15-20 minutes could be cut for a better-paced film, but that's so standard nowadays there's hardly any point mentioning it. My main quibble is with the scientist characters, who were bogglingly stupid (for example: two get lost overnight in a path which we later see mapped as perfectly round). Charlize Theron is marginally more interesting as sneaky, serpentine Meredith Vickers, but Fassbender as David really steals the show. He's 50% Laurence of Arabia, 50% Mephistopheles, and 100% deliciously evil.

It's the small character details -- David watching Peter O'Toole's Laurence to copy his hairstyle, Janek's (Idris Elba) seduction of Vickers (he asks "are you a robot?" and seranades her with "Love the One You're With"), that make Prometheus better than your average sci-fi thriller. Dramatic excellence is there as well -- both cinematic beauty and edge-of-your seat tension -- but by and large it's embedded in too much bloated sci-fi rhetoric. Prometheus gets a 3/5, and I'm pumped to watch Alien.

"Oh, I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay...."
FINAL GIRL: Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw. Rapace previously played the kick-ass Lisbeth Salander in Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I haven't seen Oplev's GWDT, and based on Rapace's performance here I can't really picture her as punk goddess Lisbeth. The good doctor Shaw is just so... well, good. She's a damsel in distress with vague spiritual leanings and a lovey-dovey sweetheart (Logan Marshall-Green) who brings her roses and champagne. When Shaw finally toughens up, she surprises the audience as much as her enemies. None of this is to say that I minded the character: Rapace does a good job. I hope we'll see her on the big screen again soon, maybe even playing a character whose name is not a variant on Elizabeth.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Carnival of Souls (1962)

In my salad days, when I was an innocent young thing as fresh as a daisy and as pure as the snow, I used to rent stacks of movies from Blockbuster (how retro) and watch them in my basement late at night. If I watched something scary, I often couldn't stomach simply walking upstairs when the movie finished and was instead compelled to bound up the steps two at a time, glancing behind me at frequent intervals, lest some cinematic monster pounced unexpectedly. If I watched something REALLY scary, I would not even bother to turn the lights off but would race up the second flight of stairs as well, long-jump into bed, squeeze my eyes shut in terror, and try to fall asleep under the glare of my overhead light (which I didn't dare turn off). Eventually, I stopped doing this (only for dignity's sake, not because I stopped terrifying myself with scary movies).

Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey) made me want to race up two flights of stairs, leap into bed fully dressed, and attempt to fall asleep with the lights on. It's not a scary movie, per se. No terrifying monsters or gross-out gore. But Carnival of Souls is so insidiously creepy that unease and dread build up in the pit of your stomach, unnoticed at first, then more and more discomfiting, until when the movie's over the only respite is the sweet release of sleep and the desperate hope that morning's light will arrive quickly. Or maybe I'm projecting.

For real though, this is some creepy shit.
Carnival of Souls' sordid story starts when its heroine, Mary (Candace Hilligloss), is involved in a watery, Apparently Irrelevant, car wreck. She brushes the accident off and accepts a post as church organist in Salt Lake City, where she annoys her neighbors by being a frigid atheist (I love this girl). Mary is prevented from getting comfortable in her new digs by a ghoulish apparition (director Herk Harvey in pasty makeup) which appears when she least expects it: she also becomes invisible and deaf from time to time and develops an "unrelated" obsession with an abandoned carnival nearby. Long story short, Mary visits the carnival and meets her doom (I don't know what else you'd find at an abandoned carnival but your doom), and the last shot (SPOILER ALERT!) is her car once again being pulled from the water, only this time she's inside it, which I guess means she was dead the whole time, although the movie never really explains.

There's not a long going on in Carnival of Souls, but there's a lot going for it. The gorgeous organ score hearkens back to Hammer Horror, despite its church-organ veneer of respectability. The lighting's also solid: when Mary takes a stroll beneath the carnival boardwalk, a stark lattice of light and shadow paints itself across her face, rendering her good looks otherworldly. And this may be a little pretentious, but the way Mary experiences her own death -- becoming invisible to the people around her, unable to hear their voices -- is borrowed straight from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Hardly standard zombie-movie fodder.

I give Carnival of Souls a 3/5. Okay, so it's a glorified Twilight Zone episode in which almost nothing actually happens, which provides no satisfying explanation for its action (and not much action, as far as that goes). But if you're into atmosphere, you'll dig it, and if you know your cult cinema, you'll appreciate what the movie borrows from Bergman -- and how much David Lynch later stole. So yeah, watch it. Just leave the lights on.

She's never going to get that dress clean.
SCENE STEALER: Candace Hilligloss, the Scream Queen time forgot. This girl's great: it's too bad she wasn't in more movies (just The Curse of The Living Corpse, South of Hell Mountain, and this, according to IMDB). She's doing a kind of proto-Faye Dunaway thing here, very self-contained and feline, and it really works. Plus, those cheekbones. I mean, come on. You could grate cheese on them.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Gun Crazy (1950)

We screened a clip from Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) in one of my film studies classes to lead up to Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). Bonnie and Clyde is one of my favorite movies, but I'm never going to look at it quite the same way again. Here's a still from Bonnie and Clyde:

Warren Beatty is armed with a Faye Dunaway. Don't make any sudden moves.
And here's one from Gun Crazy, which came out almost twenty years earlier:

That beret looks awfully familiar.
Bit of a SMOKING GUN, isn't it? (Bahahaha!) I'm not accusing Penn of plagiarism, but... damn. The only noticeable difference between the shots is the color and side angle in Bonnie and Clyde. Which they do away with in this poster, along with any pretension that they're not blatantly ripping off Gun Crazy.

"A remake? Of what?"
Bonnie and Clyde gets away with this, of course, because it is a much better movie than Gun Crazy. And the fact that Gun Crazy blazed a trail for directors from Godard to Tarantino doesn't mean that it merits the 97% it has somehow received on Rotten Tomatoes. A movie can be groundbreaking and influential without actually being much good.

Gun Crazy tells the tale of Bart (John Dall), a nice guy who likes guns, and Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a bad girl who likes guns. They decide to like guns together, get married, rob some banks and meet their Censorship Code-approved doom. That's the whole movie. It's not Citizen Kane. The characters are forgettable, and why shouldn't they be? They're just animate gun racks. The largely pointless story is a little more disappointing. It's tightly paced and littered with gorgeous shots (a midway shooting contest between Bart and Laurie, the bleak white marshland where they flee the law), but there's just not much actual narrative content. The oodles and kaboodles that is merely hinted at regarding sex and violence and aggression and impotence is handled much more openly and intelligently in Bonnie and Clyde, which the Hays Office never got its greasy mitts on.

I give Gun Crazy a 3/5 (3/5 whats? I don't actually have a thing I'm measuring in. Stars? Stripes? Revolvers?). There's not a gaping hole in your life waiting to be filled by Gun Crazy. If you're a film buff, though, it's an interesting relic. It does have some deliciously noiry one-liners: "We go together... like guns and ammunition go together," Bart tells Laurie. When was the last time your SO gave you a compliment like that?

Dr. Jacobi's misspent youth.
SCENE STEALER: A baby Russ Tamblyn as 14-year-old Bart. All his scenes are stupid and boring (the script's fault, not his), but he's credited as Rusty. Isn't that adorable?