Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Adrift in a Horror Movie Sound Booth, or Thoughts on Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Written and Directed by Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is refreshingly creative and intellectual horror movie, featuring Toby Jones  as Gilderoy, a lonely British sound engineer working on a giallo movie at an Italian film studio who doesn't speak Italian.
The language barrier Gilderoy experiences only serves to reinforce his (and the viewer’s) sense of displacement and isolation.  A stylish and brilliant film where nothing is shown and everything is implied, except for the frankly fetishistic love of celluloid film, analog reel-to-reel tapes and soundboards.  As viewers we never see the movie they’re making, only Toby Jones’ confused reactions as he chops up watermelons for murder scenes and records blenders as chainsaw sound effects.  The scenes of torture and murder are never revealed and ultimately become irrelevant, as knives stabbing into cabbages become just as horrific.
We are witness to Gilderoy’s slow descent into a Kafka-esque madness, as the movie films actors as they produce the horrific screams and moan.   Isolated from the visual impact on they see on the screen, the sounds create a surreal, secondary terror as we in the audience struggle to imagine what they are actually viewing.
We watch Gilderoy as he watches the movie, an artist with sound, manipulating screams like colors until he begins to create the soundtrack of his own slow descent into madness.  It’s a quiet build-up to a surreal finish until he finally becomes fluent in Italian and a literal part of the movie, both starring in his own personal giallo film and transforming into one of the producers of it.

I’d say this is like Blow Out (1981) and Eraserhead (1977) by way of Dario Argento with a dash of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but none of you people have probably seen or remember Blow Out.  You might find the ending frustrating and non-linear but it’s important to remember that the filmmakers are creating a cinematic experience, rather than a straight-up story.  It stands alone in this modern world full of remakes and jump-cuts, and echoes back to the more experimental 70’s, when a filmmaker was willing to take chances to produce something bold and innovative.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Monday, May 30, 2016

I Believe in a Thing Called Love, or I Watched The Darkness, So You Don’t Have to

Kevin Bacon was in the original, pre-hockey mask Friday the 13th (1980), and starred in Flatliners (1990) and Stir of Echoes (1999), so he is no stranger to the horror genre.  Australian actor Radha Mitchell made her American debut in Pitch Black (2000), before starring in the uneven but gloriously atmospheric Silent Hill (2006).  Australian director Greg McClean from the terrifying yet oddly humorous Wolf Creek (2005, think Saw, but in the outback, with a dash of The Hitcher) completes the trilogy of what should be a winning formula in The Darkness (2016), not to be confused with the early 2000’s UK glam rock band.
The kindest thing I can say about The Darkness is it’s an original movie and not a remake or a reboot of a more successful franchise.  It’s simply not possible to make a truly scary PG-13 horror movie, because as soon as the audience sees the rating it knows the punches will be pulled and there will be an over-reliance on jump scares, bloodless gore, and implied violence.
There’s a family vacation where the son steals some sacred rocks from the Grand Canyon and brings the evil spirits back with them to their tidy suburban home.  You’ve seen elements of this movie before in far superior movies such as Poltergeist (1982), The Amityville Horror (1979) and even Paranormal Activity (2007).  It’s a typical suburban haunted house, where the lights won’t turn on and the water won't turn off, before the spirits start leaving sooty handprints and lighting fires.

The haunted shenanigans are initially blamed on their autistic son, (who technically, did bring those spirits into their home by taking those darn rocks), which brings up the only real scare in this movie; the fear of being a parent and the challenges of raising a special needs kid.  Blaming the hauntings on obscure Native American legends is problematic, and the only reason this movie hasn’t been pilloried as cultural appropriation like some music festival white girl in a feathered headdress is because it currently holds a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Weekend Movie Recommendations: Let’s Return to Bodega Bay and See What Happens

Those are the director’s actual dogs when he does his signature cameo in The Birds (1963), coming out of Davidson’s Pet Shop and crossing paths with Tippi Hedren.  It’s 2 minutes in and before the first line of dialogue.  Hitch confessed in an interview with Francois Truffaut that his cameos had become distracting to the audience so he liked to get them out of the way early so that people would stop looking for him and focus on the movie.
The Birds (1963) introduces Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels and Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner, and the process of casting Tippi Hedren was also made into a film entitled The Girl (2012) with Sienna Miller as Tippi and Toby Jones as Hitch.  The Birds starts out as a love story with a classic meet-cute where Rod Taylor confuses Tippi Hedren with a saleslady at that very same pet shop, although it turns out he knows her already, but that doesn’t matter because Melanie’s already fallen in love with him.  She’s already willing to chase him back up north to Bodega Bay in her lovely and now vintage/classic Aston Martin DB2/4 Drophead CoupĂ©, an impulsive act that she'll soon regret.
It is worth noting how much Melanie Daniels resembles Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster in Vertigo (1958), who is of course a simulacrum of Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens in To Catch a Thief (1955).  Those three ladies dine at the same tony restaurants; go to the same hair salons and shop at the same boutiques, and together they compose the trinity we have come to know as the Hitchcock Blonde.  In our modern culture that embraces diversity and individuality it would be impossible to reduce a woman to a hairstyle and a pair of evening gloves but in a Hitchcock movie she represented something unattainable and pure, iconic, if you will.
From an original story by long-time collaborator Daphne Du Maurier, it is also interesting to note that there is no soundtrack, only ambient noises of traffic of course, bird squawks and chirps.  This is also one of the rare Hitchcock movies where none of the central characters are actually guilty of anything.  The birds punish indiscriminately and would have attacked regardless of whether Melanie Daniels chased Mitch all the way to Bodega Bay or not.
The Birds also starred child actor Veronica Cartwright who would grow up to be Lambert, the navigator in Alien (1979), also star in the first (and best) Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake (1978).

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ellen Barkin Wakes up Dead in Madrid, or Thoughts on Siesta

Mary Lambert, who at the time was most famous for her Madonna music videos, directed her first feature film, Siesta (1987), a provocative, visually arresting, sensual and surreal thriller.  Ellen Barkin stars as Clare, a blonde American who wakes up in a Spanish airfield in a bloodstained red dress, but relax, it’s not her blood, or is it?
Clare, or as she is known in America, Clare on a Dare, a lady Evel Kneviel-style daredevil who plans to freefall into a volcano on the 4th of July weekend, but she somehow ends up in Spain.  Her disjointed and fractured story is told in flashbacks, but the scenes of her wandering the streets of Madrid in that signature red dress as she tries to piece together why she went to Spain and who she killed are what makes the movie so memorable.
Gabrielle Byrne stars as Augustine, the trapeze artist who taught Claire how to fly, with Isabella Rosellini, daughter of Hollywood Legend Ingrid Bergman, as Maria, his spoiled and jealous fiancĂ©.   Julian Sands and Jodie Foster practically steal the show as Kit and Nancy, a pair of posh British expats who may actually be Clare's guardian angels.  Disco diva Grace Jones appears as Conchita, basically playing herself; a mysterious and exotic friend of Kit’s who may be able to supply Clare with a false passport.  And if that’s not enough star power you also get Martin Sheen as Clare’s husband, Alexi Sayle from The Young Ones as a creepy stalker cab driver and a mournful soundtrack by Miles Davis.
There’s a scene towards the end where Claire walks on a tightrope, which is basically a metaphor for the entire plot and the filmmaking process.  Storytelling a delicate balance between mystery and reveal; is she or isn’t she, and Siesta succeeds in posing questions while offering the bare minimum of explanations.  The viewer is invited to interact with the film and arrive at their own conclusions, and that process all but guarantees a memorable cinematic experience.

Ellen Barkin was one of the biggest female stars of the 80’s, starring in The Big Easy (1987), Sea of Love (1989) and even a cameo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).  She was 33 at the time of filming and at the top of her game.  From a modern perspective it’s refreshing to see a cast in their 30’s and 40’s with nary a teenager in sight; it’s an adult movie written for adults, with no attention paid to focus groups, product placement and marketing.  Regrettably, Mary Lambert’s artistic vision did not translate into box office success or even cult movie status, but you can change that tonight by watching it.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Christina Ricci Wakes Up Dead, or Thoughts on After.Life

Christina Ricci in After.Life

 Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, After Life, or After.Life (2009) as the filmmakers insisted on spelling it, stars Christina Ricci as Anna Taylor, a middle school teacher in a stale relationship with Justin Long who gets in a car accident and wakes up in the basement of Liam Neeson’s funeral home.  Liam Neeson plays funeral director Eliot Deacon, with another special set of skills, he can talk to the dead, or can he?
Visually stunning and stylish, the movie is essentially a one-act play between these two professional actors at the top of their game as they talk about life and death.  Eliot treats her like a revenant or a ghost, presenting her death certificate and patiently explaining the physical process of death.  Anna for her part cannot accept her death and keeps insisting she is in a dream, or that she’s been kidnapped.  The movie flips between these two scenarios, teasing the viewer with both options
The movie has a J-horror ghost vibe that makes me surprised this isn’t a remake.  It’s a Twilight Zone-y premise that falls apart over the question of is she or isn’t she?  The idea of whether Anna is truly dead and we are watching a supernatural thriller or a psychological thriller with a creepy funeral director serial killer is never fully resolved, and the vague ending leaves both versions open to interpretation.  That may have been the filmmaker’s intention but audiences enjoy clear resolutions, and After.Life currently holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

There’s an 80’s movie that explored similar themes, Siesta (1987), starring Ellen Barkin as another sexy woman in a skimpy red dress who may or may not be dead.  Coincidentally that movie was also directed by a woman, Mary Lambert, who you may remember as the director of Pet Sematary (1989).

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

It’s a Lot Like Lost, but in Canada, or Thoughts on Wayward Pines Season 1

It’s a special kind of curse to enjoy success at the start of your career, a bit like peaking in high school; you never get out from under the shadow of all that attention, and every subsequent project is measured against it.  Considering all of M. Night Shymalian’s body of work so far, he seems to have squandered any of the potential and promise he exhibited in The Sixth Sense (1999).  His name has become synonymous with intriguing setups and disappointing payoffs, though he may have broken the curse with the release of The Visit (2015) and the TV Wayward Pines, where he directed the pilot and serves as a producer.
Wayward Pines is from a set of novels by Blake Crouch, which is always a good sign because it indicates an established plot with a beginning, middle and end, instead of a bunch of writers in a room thinking about ways to shock the audience with unexpected deaths of beloved characters.
The series throws you in the deep end as we wake up in a British Columbia rainforest with Matt Dillon as Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent with no authority and no cell phone service.  He walks into the town, bruised and disoriented, where everyone seems friendly but full of secrets.
It is fun to watch Matt Dillon twist and turn; literally a rat in a maze, and Melissa Leo is delightful as Nurse Pam, in an empty hospital with an excuse for everything.  It’s equal parts Matrix and Twin Peaks, with a dash of the classic UK series The Prisoner (not enough Prisoner, if you ask me).  It’s also reminiscent of the underrated and sadly single season of Persons Unknown.
Toby Jones plays Dr Pilcher, the unofficial leader of the town, though it is run with jovial malice by Sheriff Pope, the ice cream loving autocrat of Wayward Pines, as portrayed by Terrence Howard.  It’s also nice to see Juliette Lewis getting some work as Beverly, the helpful bartender.
As the series progresses Ethan Burke discovers his missing partner, cameras everywhere and speakers with ambient cricket sounds, public executions in the town square and monsters in the woods beyond a big wall.  The conspiracy arc and larger mystery is explained thoroughly by the end of the season, and unlike Lost, you will be satisfied and intrigued with the explanation.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Creepy Villagers and Haunted Churches in Glastonbury, or Thoughts on Christina Ricci in The Gathering

Christina Ricci is wandering across the English countryside when she is suddenly hit by a car, how’s that for a hook?  She plays Cassie, an amnesiac with an American accent in The Gathering (2003), a moody and atmospheric film about the discovery of an underground First Century Roman church in Glastonbury, and the historical and religious implications surrounding it.
In many ways The Gathering is a traditional Gothic tale with the wide-eyed innocent young girl working as a nanny in a big house with a mystery, haunted by bloody visions and pursued by creepy strangers in the local village.  Perhaps because it was filmed in the English countryside this movie has a timeless quality, as if the events could have occurred any time from WWII to now.  It adds to the disorientation experienced by Cassie, and the audience, as the diverse elements of the plot slowly comes to fruition.   It’s a movie where patience is rewarded, and even manages to include footage from the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.
The title of the film refers to the crowd of strangers that tends to gather around scenes of disaster, public executions and accidents throughout history and adds the requisite supernatural twist.  Christina Ricci is a prolific actress who fortunately hasn’t been typecast into genre roles like this one, but she still manages to acknowledge her Wednesday Addams roots in The Gathering and the uneven but far more effective After.Life (2009).
With Welsh Actor Ioan Gruffudd, who you may remember as Reed Richards in Fantastic 4 (2003) and Stephane Dillane, aka Stannis Baratheon as an art historian investigating the ancient church. 

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Bird Attacks and Casual Mid-Century Sexism, or Thoughts on Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl

Toby Jones who you know as the voice of Dobby, and from Wayward Pines and the highly recommended Detectorists, also played Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl a BBC production released in the USA by HBO in 2012, though his performance was eclipsed by Anthony Hopkins’ comparatively affectionate portrayal in Hitchcock (also 2012).  The Girl refers to Tippi Hedren, as played by Sienna Miller from Layer Cake (2004) and The Baroness from GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009).
In The Girl we have Toby Jones in a fat suit, with the proper accent and correct jowls, though the production suffers from being filmed in the UK; the light’s far too soft to recreate the harsh LA exterior scenes.  And I also imagine that Brits with American accents must sound as odd and off to us in the States as Americans with British accents in the UK.  The Girl does have an excellent screenplay by Gwyneth Hughes, based on the book Spellbound by Beauty by Donald Spoto, and is more focused on Tippi Hedren’s experience rather than HItch’s.  There’s also a jazzy soundtrack that perfectly compliment the mood and tone of the film.
Toby Jones’ Hitch is a star maker, taking an unknown, untested aspiring actress/model and raising her up into fame.  Sienna Miller does her best effort in becoming an icy Hitchcock Blonde, echoing Tippi Hedren’s struggle during the filming of The Birds (1963).  Hitch never forgave Grace Kelly for turning her back on Hollywood and becoming an actual princess, and spent the rest of his career trying to replace her. 
This is a far less sentimental than Hitchcock (2012) and Toby Jones’ performance is more bitter and even sadistic, although one could argue from an artistic perspective that Hitch wanted to capture real emotions and reactions onscreen.  Hitch is portrayed as leering, voyeuristic and predatory; traumatizing her on film for the perfect take, and sexually assaulting her when the camera isn't watching.  The Girl even does it’s own version of the shower scene to show Sienna Miller’s emotional journey.
Imelda Staunton, aka Dolores Umbridge, plays Hitch’s wife Alma and Penelope Wilton, who you remember as Harriet Jones from Doctor Who, portrays Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s loyal assistant.
This is a darker vision of Alfred Hitchcock’s already dark life, applying 21st Century morals to a man that was born in 1899.  Was he a megalomaniacal director with an obsessive and singular artistic vision?  Did he have a morbid sense of humor?  Was he prone to bawdy limericks in a male dominated work place?  These facts are undisputed and in public record.  The real question this movie raises is does the casual sexism of the 60’s and the allegations of Tippi Hedren lessen the impact or the cultural and artistic value of the original movie?  What’s the value in tearing down idols and making 50 year old movies conform to modern social mores?  That’s a question for the philosophers, I just like old movies, and all I can tell you is people will still be watching The Birds 50 years from now, and nobody’s going to be making a remake of The Girl in 2062.

Coincidentally, Toby Jones encountered a similar situation where his performance playing a famous character was overshadowed by a more famous actor playing the same character when he portrayed Truman Capote in Infamous (2006), one year after Phillip Seymour Hoffman had won an Oscar for his performance as the author in Capote (2005).  Those two movies also cover the same subject, the process of writing In Cold Blood, and the deleterious effect it had on the author’s career.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Raising the Dead and Other Party Tricks, or Thoughts on Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things

Alan Ormsby, creator of the 70’s cult toy Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces starred in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), a hippie zombie movie with a microscopic budget of $50,000.  He plays a vicious and power-mad theater director who brings his merry band of players to an isolated island that just happens to have an old abandoned cabin with an adjacent graveyard.  He resurrects the zombies the old fashioned way, with ritual incantations from a grimoire.  That’s about all you get for a plot, and really, what more do you need?
Although the movie was released in 1972, the vibe is definitely 1968/Summer of Love complete with bellbottoms and a groovy attitude.  I would say the movie has an almost goofy sensibility if the cast didn’t take themselves so seriously.  Think Night of the Living Dead meets The Monkees, with a dash of Helter Skelter.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Man Hiding in the Corner With a Camera, or Thoughts on Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Anthony Hopkins has the celebrated ability to fully immerse himself into his roles, often to the extent that he essentially becomes them, at least in the public’s eye.  He hasn’t portrayed Hannibal Lecter since 2001 but he will always be remembered for that role.  For Hitchcock (2012), Anthony Hopkins inhabits a fat suit, and has the dolorous accent and mannerisms down.  But the real Hitch was even more jowly.
And that’s my primary criticism with this movie; I know the source material intimately.  I’ve read Robert Bloch’s original novel and Francois Truffaut’s series of interviews and know every one of his cameos (my favorite being the one where he sits on the bus next to Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief 1955).  This movie is about the making of Psycho (1960) with Helen Mirren as Hitch’s wife and collaborator, Alma Reville.  I think it took a special kind of woman to be married to Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren did a marvelous job, basically because I don’t even really know what Alma Reville looked like, much less how she spoke or carried herself.  I know how Hitch spoke, how he walked and talked, and even a genius like Anthony Hopkins will never be able to fully inhabit that role to my satisfaction.
But putting all my cinematic baggage to the side and indulging in a second viewing, I can tell you that this movie would make a perfect double feature with Psycho, or even a couple seasons of Bates Motel.  In Psycho, Hitch made a non-supernatural horror movie and Hitchcock (2012) portrays his struggle against the studio heads and the censors.  Psycho was the first movie to show and flush an actual toilet, and a considerable amount of screen time is devoted to the writing and filming of that iconic shower scene.
Hollywood royalty Danny Huston, (John’s son, Angelica’s brother) plays Whitfield Cook, playwright and Alma’s boyfriend.  HItch’s first love was directing, the filmmaking process, and he spent an unhealthy amount of attention obsessing over his leading ladies.  The film is intercut with Ed Gein interacting with Hitch, as if he is both haunted and inspired by him, as played by Michael Wincott who you may remember from The Crow (1994) and Alien Resurrection (1997).
There’s a clever Roddy MacDowall cameo in a photograph as he is considered for Norman Bates.  James D’Arcy’s sensitive and awkward performance captures the essence of Anthony Perkins in a few quick scenes.  Scarlett’s portrayal of Janet Leigh is adequate and undemanding, but Lost in Translation (2003) is one of my all time favorite movies, so she will always get a pass from me.  Helen Mirren is the real star and story in this movie, as Alma she is always propping Hitch up, helping with casting decisions, keeping him on a diet, and subjugating her life and career for her legendary husband.

Psycho is Hitch’s most popular movie but I would argue that Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959) are his greatest films.  (Along with my personal favorites; Strangers on a Train (1951), Rope (1948), The Trouble With Harry (1955) and To Catch a Thief (1955)).  It’s interesting that a second Hitchcock movie was released by HBO in the same year with Toby Jones as Hitch, covering similar territory but focusing on Tippi Hedren and The Birds (1963).

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

All The Fine Young Scottish Cannibals vs. Rhona Mitra, Or Thoughts on Doomsday

 Doomsday (2008) is confusing dystopian genre mishmash that starts out as 28 Days Later (2002), turns into Escape From New York (1981), morphs into Excalibur (1981) and then somehow ends up as The Road Warrior (1981, or let’s say Mad Max Fury Road, 2015 so we can have a movie not from 1981).  Written and Directed by Neil Marshall of Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005), it’s an overly complicated journey concerning a zombie rage virus in Glasgow that results in a quarantine and a giant wall separating Scotland and England. 
One of my favorite actors Rhona Mitra stars as Major Eden Sinclair, complete with a badass Snake Plissken eye patch (she also has a cybernetic eye complete with targeting system) who infiltrates Scotland to find the elusive Doctor Kane who may have the cure, played by master thespian and professional loony Malcom McDowall.  Scotland has degenerated into a feudal society populated by the aforementioned Mad Max berserkers and, (because it’s Scotland I guess), knights in armor.
But let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to see tattooed cannibal tribes with improvised melee weapons in outfits that would make Vernon Wells proud, living in downtown Glasgow and partying to Adam and the Ants, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Fine Young Cannibals?  Doomsday is rated R with plenty of good old-fashioned nudity, profanity and violence and suffers for once from an abundance of plot.   It’s like the highlight reel from a trilogy, with two completely different movies in tone and pacing, once Major Sinclair arrives at the castle, followed by a Fury Road car chase back to the wall.

With Cockney acting legend Bob Hoskins in one of his last roles, and Alexander SIddig from Deep Space Nine and Game of Thrones as the Prime Minister.