Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

don't fear the reaper

This is one of my favorite sequences (skip to 8:11 on the video) in a horror film: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) being followed by the Shape (Nick Castle), listening to "Don't Fear the Reaper" in Halloween. Debra Hill (the director and scriptor of this particular scene) captures an ominous transition from day to dusk. I watched this film last night and instantly got in the mood.

Happy Halloween! Tell me what your favorite horror scenes are.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

the big apple '80 - cruising & they all laughed

It's always interesting to see how New York City has changed by watching old films. William Friedkin's Cruising came out the year I was born, 1980, at the end of an era and right before the AIDS crisis. It's a fascinating film for how it displays its subject matter: a serial killer lurking underground gay leather bars. The meatpacking district is now lined with designer stores but in Cruising, the neighborhood is desolate, dark and grimy. The film was controversial, especially with the gay community, for its disturbing portrait of gay males. Friedkin, whose oft-harrowing films show unrealistic events through the guise of realism (The French Connection and The Exorcist), insists that he was trying to be an accurate observer though he better understands the community's concerns today. I wonder though how the subject matter would be handled today. Something has definitely changed since 1980. Hollywood and American society can't seem to portray a straight man experimenting with the gay lifestyle without a heavy dose of humor (Humpday, etc.). Pacino's character, a straight cop posing as a leather bar patron, is obviously conflicted and psychologically affected about what he's doing. And yet he never seems shocked by the actions around him or disgusted. The film affirms his straightness for the audience by inserting dull love scenes with Karen Allen. In fact anything sexual, gay or straight, in cinema has to be unrealistically pretty or has to have jokes to comfort its audience. Have we become more prudish today than then?

Perhaps one of the film's major problems is a convoluted approach to its gay serial killer (or is he the one or not the one? The mystery, like many of Friedkin's works, isn't solved) by linking his violent actions to his father's nonacceptance. And then later, another gay killer emerges. His rage rooted in jealousy. Subliminal images of male on male penetration is also linked to the stabbings of victims. The film seems to suggest, and perhaps not Friedkin's intention, that the gay lifestyle easily leads to ritualism and violence.

Cruising was nominated for 3 Razzie Awards including Worst Picture, Director, and Screenplay and panned at the time of its release. However, reception has warmed since its release. I too think it's aged well in the sense that it remains a cultural document: a transportation to a riskier, grimier era in New York and a rare Hollywood depiction of gays. The unusual score by Jack Nietzsche and the soundtrack full of the then-emerging punk scene, is a far cry from the slick disco films of the era. This is a grungy affair. And remains one of Hollywood's most unique thrillers. ***

In complete contrast, Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed shows a sunnier side of Manhattan life in the same era. Both Friedkin and Bogdanovich were landmark early 1970s filmmakers, financing their own work. The failure of these two films reflected not only the gradual decline of the quality of their work, but of Hollywood's new sensibilities.

They All Laughed (title taken from the Gershwin song) is a slapstick about private detectives falling in love with the women of their cases. The film is light, too light, and never hits a comic stride. The lines aren't particularly funny or clever. And the actors, as great as they are, including John Ritter, Ben Gazzara and a lovely Audrey Hepburn, deliver bland performances. The luminous Dorothy Stratten figures in her final film appearance (her name appears in the opening credits under a shot of the World Trade Center). Colleen Camp is beautiful but grating as a country singer. Influential on modern directors like Tarantino and Wes Anderson, this is another male fantasy about gorgeous ladies falling madly in love with awkward, unattractive men. And yet, like Cruising, They All Laughed is a curious document of the denouement of the 1970s in New York. The use of locations are vividly done. I never knew the city once had a popular country music station! **

See also Film Stew, Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire, Termite Art, Wes Anderson's interview with Peter Bogdanovich

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

don't you need somebody to love

Can the universe be summed up by a rock song? The Coens suggest Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" in their new film A Serious Man. After watching, I had to refresh myself with Job. A good, God-fearing, innocent man, Job wonders why so many bad things are happening to him. The movie playfully re-recreates his story with a Jewish physics professor, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). It begins though literally off-kilter, in Yiddish, with an old, snowy, Eastern European folk tale. Seemingly unrelated, the scene is haunting and sets up the black humor of rest of the film perfectly--reflecting upon the mythological aspects of religion. This all moves beautifully into 1967 into the opening credits with the use of Jefferson Airplane and duel scenes of Gopnik and his son. The Coen brothers strike just the right tone so that we watch one bad thing happen after another to Larry in a way that is humorously believable and never tiresome. In one of the definitive Coen sequences, a Rabbi tells the fable to Larry of "A Goy's Teeth," which is uniformly hilarious, beautiful, sad, and ambiguous. It's the film's duende moment.

The Coen Brothers have hit the mark here in what may be their most personal film (both grew up in 60s Minnesota). To my knowledge, it's the first film of theirs to delve into their Jewish heritage. Some may find their approach off-putting, they both skewer and show love to the faith. When they are at their best, the efforts of the collaborations with their cast and crew is such a joy. Here, the bleakness of the subject matter goes down well with Roger Deakins's supple photography. He has been the driving force of many of the Coens' best films including No Country for Old Men and Fargo. In what could have been standard, Deakins goes for unusual, gorgeously-lit shots: each one is unique and arresting. The look of the '67 is also captured in the exquisite set designs. This carefully created world is populated with a lively and funny cast: unlike the star-studded Burn After Reading, A Serious Man relies on the talents of many relative unknowns. And it all culminates in a closing shot that could be one of cinema's most memorable. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

little farrow

I recently watched John and Mary, a slight Peter Yates romance from 1969. It's really only notable for capturing the feel of its time period and the performances of the two leads (Dustin Hoffman & Mia Farrow).

Farrow is quiet and unassuming. At her best, she can deliver a strong, unfussy performance. She is Woody Allen's ultimate muse and is underrated in many of his works including an unrecognizable appearance in Broadway Danny Rose.

I love Farrow's style. Here's a little sampling of some of her coolest looks.

See also Farrow's website.

And a cool "Living in Rosemary's Baby" feature on Design Sponge and A Cup of Jo.