Friday, November 20, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Directors

So here's my list of top 10 filmmakers. Don't forget to check out Clint's list over at Guy with a Movie Blog too!

1. Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa takes the top spot on the list for the simple fact that I've rated more of his movies 10/10 than any other filmmaker. His work speaks to me in a certain way. His wonderful framing and intense action. His blending of Eastern and Western. In fact during his lifetime he was often more revered abroad than in his native Japan because he was thought to be "too western", and with his hero being John Ford, that's maybe not too surprising. But the comic relief in Kurosawa movies works better than in Ford's and I think Kurosawa has the title of greatest action director ever for his iconic work like the rain soaked finale of Seven Samurai, or the intense and surprisingly beautiful action in Ran.

All of that and yet a more humane movie is hard to come by than his Ikiru, about a man determined to do something good with his wasted life before he dies of cancer. Or even his High and Low, which poses a basic philosophical question of if we're all the same, when a business mans son is thought kidnapped but just when he's ready to mortgage everything and pay the ransom he finds out it was his drivers son that was taken. Is that mans child any less worth saving? Would you give up everything you've professionally worked for to save the child of another person?

But ultimately Kurosawa's movies are so damn entertaining. His command of pace and story were second to none. His films have everything, and so it's not surprising at all that he takes my top spot.

2. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's name is one I've known for probably my whole life. Part of the "Movie Brats" of the 1970's (along with Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, and others) he has carved out a career of remarkable breadth, even if people often think of him as the "gangster movie" director (which is odd because he's only made 5 gangster pictures in a career of nearly 40 films). His fluid camera work and his impeccable editing collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker (who has edited most of Scorsese's movies) gives his movies a feel like no other. No matter how influential he's been to subsequent generations, there's no mistaking a Scorsese movie.

I've seen something like 25 of his movies and the only one I don't like (1983's unpleasant The King of Comedy) is some people's favorite of his. Scorsese' work covers just about all the filmic grounds that can be covered. He's done gangsters movies, yeah, but also period romance (Age of Innocence), musical (New York, New York), family (Hugo), women's empowerment (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), classic Hollywood remake (Cape Fear), religious (his powerful Last Temptation of Christ), and everything else. And he's been a master at it all.

3. Alfred Hitchcock

What more can be said about Hitchcock? He's probably the most written about director in cinema history, the most studied, and one of the most commercially popular. He wanted to, and did, play us in the audience like a piano. He could ratchet up the tension at will. And if you read the extraordinary book Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which admirer and legendary filmmaker in his own right Francois Truffaut talks to Hitch about literally every one of his movies, you see that none of it was by accident. Hitch knew how his movies worked on audiences and he knew why. He happily shares with Truffaut secrets like why we never see the whole courtyard in Rear Window until exactly the most impactful moment. He could've shown it earlier to give a certain visual reference for us, but he knew how it would play if he waited until later. That kind of insight and care into filmmaking is truly wonderful to see. And the genius is that even when you know what he's doing, you're not surprised by it and you know the trick of the magic, he still makes it work.

4. Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton was not just a great screen presence, he was also a hell of a filmmaker. Though often credited to others or co-directors, reading a biography of Keaton showed that the creative force of the film was always Buster. Often he allowed a co-director credit even though all the guy had done was run the camera while Keaton was in front of it. Notorious for getting on set and just kinda feeling things out until it felt right to put the camera a certain place and stage things a certain way, he'd sometimes even take breaks to start up baseball games with the cast and crew until inspiration struck. Sadly, after signing a contract with MGM (all his most famous work had been produced independently of the big studios, and friend Charlie Chaplin advised Keaton to turn away the contract and stay independent), that all went downhill. He lost his creative freedom, his spark (as he fell into depression and alcoholism), and eventually his popularity. Thankfully, his work was revived in the 1960's and his popularity has only risen since. But it's not his MGM work that's remembered (other than his first one, The Cameraman, which he still had control of), but all that great silent comedy that has stood the test of time. And when you see what a great action filmmaker he was, and how technically ambitious he was (especially in Sherlock, Jr.), there's no denying his spot among the greatest of directors.

5. Werner Herzog

I've always loved Herzog's movies, but since I've started on a kind of quest to see more from him, he's risen on this list. The haunting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with its nightmarish journey through the jungle, had always stuck with me, as had the dreamy camera work in Encounters at the End of the World. But now I've seen the remarkable imagery and stories he's given us with Lessons of Darkness, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and others. His uniqueness is evident, but the more I see from the master, the more I love his movies.

6. Steven Spielberg

Spielberg is one of the few directors pretty much everyone knows by name. That's not always a good thing, since appealing to the masses generally takes a certain blandness to play to everyone. But Spielberg is as much an auteur as any other director. You see the recurring themes of broken families and the resulting stress that occurs, regular people in extraordinary circumstances, or even his ability to induce awe in us. Whether it's the Mother Ship in Close Encounters, multiple moments in Jurassic Park, or E.T. and Elliot flying across the full moon. Spielberg has probably given us more iconic moments in the pop culture collective consciousness than anyone. And on top of all of that, he's also a great storyteller. Sometimes his movies are too long, but he still generally makes them pop narratively in a wonderful way. He might be the most popular director ever, but that's no reason to be snobby and not include him on a list like this, he's popular with me too.

7. Woody Allen

I was late to the Woody Allen party. I saw Sweet and Lowdown when it came out, and thought it was fine but nothing too special. Years later, after seeing and loving Match Point, I decided I'd go on a bit of a Woody Allen quest and watch at least his most famous movies (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and found myself floored at what I saw. Unlike many, who prefer "his earlier, funny movies" I prefer everything post-Annie Hall, when he stopped making gag-filled episodic comedies and started creating characters and really became a terrific visual filmmaker. I could now go back and really appreciate the genius of Sweet and Lowdown, but also his musical Everyone Says I Love You, and start anticipating his new movies like Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. I even love some of his lesser work like Scoop. And so he's become one of those few filmmakers who I will watch their movie simply because it's their movie.

8. Alfonso Cuaron

I vividly remember sitting in the theater, with only 2 or 3 other people, when the cut to black happened at the end of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, and I've never been more stunned at a movie. I couldn't say anything more than "wow" for a few minutes. I'd been taken to the movie by a friend, and thought I would enjoy it because I'd enjoyed Cuaron's previous two movies, Y Tu Mama Tambien and the third Harry Potter movie, immensely. But after Children of Men I needed to go back and see everything I could from him, which wasn't a lot, just his modern set Great Expectations and 1995's A Little Princess, which is one of the great family movies ever made. So I was hooked, I loved his use of single takes, even when they're stitched together to simply play as a single take (which is the case in the extraordinary attack on the city in Children of Men as well as the wonderfully romantic "long take" in Great Expectations). When Gravity came out, Cuaron blew me away again. It's one of the few movies I've ever seen multiple times in the theater. I can't wait for what he'll do next, as he's already created an amazing resume.

9. Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are one of those filmmakers that I have always loved but sometimes forget about. From the first time I watched Raising Arizona (I couldn't have been older than 6 or 7) something about their weird, unique movies always spoke to me. Even times I wasn't as crazy about the movies as others were (like Barton Fink), their films are still fascinating to watch. And sometimes I come back to them years later and find that I love them wholeheartedly, which was the case with Miller's Crossing, which I thought was just okay initially but upon rewatches found to be an astounding movie. And they also have movies like No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski that no matter how many times I've seen them, if I start watching I can't stop.

10. Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few filmmakers able to inspire true awe in me. That he does it in animation is all the more impressive. His recurring themes of environmentalism, flight, and young, strong female heroes are always welcome sights on screen. Even in his lesser films like Porco Rosso, there is a poetic sequence of flying above the clouds that is one of the most affecting scenes in any animated movie. He also can go from sweet, familial movies like My Neighbor Totoro to rip roaring action like that in Castle in the Sky or Princess Mononoke. You could go on and on about the amazing stuff in Miyazaki's movies (haven't even mentioned the God Warrior in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) but it's better to just watch them!

Honorable mentions to Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Guillermo del Toro, and Richard Linklater.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the great filmmaker's career, and I now understand why. Like a lot of Hou's work, it's a look at Taiwan's broken past through the lens of a single family. Starting in 1945, living in the aftermath of WWII, when Japan gave up control of Taiwan after 51 years. Though optimistic at first, the people aren't treated any better by the incoming Kuomintang government (KMT) from mainland China. A City of Sadness was the first movie to tackle the "White Terror", the name for the suppression of the political uprising following the February 28th Incident (starting in 1947), in which thousands of Taiwanese were either imprisoned, executed, or both.

Hou was just old enough to have lived in the times after this. And as a Chinese born immigrant to Taiwan, Hou obviously feels some connection to these trying times, as his parents moved to Taiwan when he was 1-year-old to escape the Chinese Civil War. He shows us the story of this time through the Lin family, specifically the brothers. Oldest brother Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), a loudmouthed club owner, middle brother Wen-leung (Jack Kao) who suffers from PTSD and brain trauma, and youngest brother Wen-ching (the great Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) a deaf-mute photographer. We see bits of their daily lives and family interactions, as well as how the growing political unrest affects their lives, especially focused on Wen-ching.

Tony Leung gives a performance of great depth and power as Wen-ching, who's the most sensitive but also the most intelligent of the brothers. You can often feel his inner anger and energy trying to get out as he gesticulates and grunts while trying to communicate through his limitation. He writes notes, which are seen through intertitles, often to the loving Hinomi (Xin Shufen). Though Hou made the character a deaf-mute because of Leung's inability to speak any of the languages spoken at the time (specifically Mandarin, Taiwanese, or Japanese), Leung's extraordinary abilities as an actor are what makes the movie, for me. You can't not empathize with not being able to defend yourself verbally as people xenophobically attack you for not responding to their demands of "where are you from?" Leung's innocence, barely contained anger, and empathy carries the movie's narrative thread.

This is also, from the 10 of his I've seen, Hou's most conventional narrative. There are the long shots, silences, elliptical storytelling and gorgeous landscapes we're used to from Hou, but it all feels a bit tighter. There are 5 or more languages spoken, which Hou shot in direct sound during filming (the first Taiwanese movie to do so), showing the melting pot of Taiwan. And the movie became the first Taiwanese movie to win the top prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. This is probably his most easily digestible movie, even if he still doesn't spoon feed us the story and characters in the normal way. The cumulative effect of the movie is a powerful one. This is Hou's best movie, and since I rank him among the best directors ever, that's really saying something.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. I recently was able to see two of his most acclaimed movies, his most recent (the one that won him the Best Director award at this years Cannes Film Festival) The Assassin, as well as what is often pointed to as his greatest movie, 1989's politically charged A City of Sadness. Both are unmistakably the work of the highest caliber of filmmaker, one is one of the best movies of the year and the other is one of the best movies of its decade. This is a review of The Assassin, with A City of Sadness to come later.

The Assassin stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.

All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. I'm not sure how this will play on re-watches but at least on the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience.

And all of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet.

Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, and often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind days later. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it's gotten him some of the best notices of his career is just icing on the cake.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Top 50 movies: 46-50

46. The Wizard of Oz
Year: 1939
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Victor Fleming

One of those magical childhood movies that you go back and revisit later in life, hoping it holds up after the years, and find that it's better than you ever thought it was. Oz is a wonderfully realized place full of magic, mystery, impeccable sets and makeup, a wonderful star turn from Judy Garland, and maybe the greatest villain in movie history. I was floored on my last viewing by how transported I was by this movie. There's not a ton to say about it, since it's probably one of the most written about, studied, beloved movies in cinema history. I've seen it countless times since I was a kid and yet it still holds magic and wonder for me.

47. Fantasia
Year: 1940
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: multiple listed directors

A movie that I always wanted to see as a kid but was told I wouldn't like it, it was just animation with classical music and not a standard Disney story or anything. I thought that sounded great but I still wasn't able to see it until this year, at the age of 32. It was even better than I could've imagined. It's like the best ballet you could ever dream up. The animation tied to the music so much that they become of a single piece. I could actually do without the introductions by the music conductor. Each section needs some sort of break between them, but I would've been fine with a fade to black, moment of blank screen, and fade up into a new section. Regardless, the movie is gorgeous to look at and, like The Wizard of Oz, a transportational viewing experience. Except the places we're taken in Fantasia are even more fantastical and amazing than Oz.

48. Talk to Her
Year: 2002
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish
Director: Pedro Almodovar

The newest addition to my top list, and the best movie I watched on my 20 movie world cinema quest, is this Spanish masterpiece from Pedro Almodovar, a writer/director I already admired even if I hadn't quite loved his movies yet. This story, of two relationships of very different types, gets us to identify and relate to these four people in surprising ways. The turn of the plot comes as such a shock that we cannot believe it, just as we wouldn't if it happened in real life. But Almodovar never cheated, it's not a twist in the regular movie sense. It's kind of a twist in the way that life twists us. I can't quite get over just how much life is in this movie. That was the theme that kept coming up to me. Even side characters are so precisely written that one doctor has just one small scene and he felt like a fully formed character. It also never hurts when a filmmaker gives us dick and poop jokes in addition to the craziest, funniest, wildest movie-within-a-movie I've ever seen.

49. Ratatouille
Year: 2007
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Brad Bird

The first thing I wanted to do when leaving the theater after seeing Ratatouille on opening day was cook. Cooking is one of the great joys of my life, and it is one of the great joys for Remy the rat too. Re-watching this movie so many times, I'm actually a little bored by the opening 20 minutes or so, until Remy gets to Paris. From then on the movie is perfect. It's hilarious, heartbreaking, romantic, and filled with a love of life and food. Peter O'Toole's performance as the food critic Anton Ego is the movie's key, I think. When presented with the title dish, vegetable peasant food thought unworthy of the high end restaurant in which it's being served, he is raced back to childhood and the comfort and love he felt when his mother made him the dish. Then he follows with one of my favorite monologues in movies, about the relationship between art and art criticism. Heady stuff to put in a "kids movie" but that's because Pixar isn't trying to make movies just for kids, they're trying to make good movies period.

And this movie just beat out Brad Bird's other masterpiece, The Incredibles, and both are just slightly better than his first brilliant movie, The Iron Giant.

50. Taste of Cherry
Year: 1997
Country: Iran
Language: Farsi/Persian
Director: Abbas Kiarostami

One I just recently watched during my world cinema quest, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry is a fascinating and affecting movie. It has stayed in my brain since I first watched it, with its simplicity, empathy, and emotional power. The plot, that of a man trying to find people to assist him in his suicide, sounds depressing as hell, but it's really not. We never know why he wants to commit suicide, but Kiarostami subtly shows us the character's isolation. And feeling alone is why everyone who commits suicide does, they feel alone. If they weren't alone they'd have something to live for. It's an interesting take that this man wants help with his death, and I think that's the key to the movie. This man is reaching out for connection, looking for someone to help him, yet, naturally, when he finds connection is when there's some doubt to his plan. He picks up 3 passengers, of 3 ethnicities, throughout the movie, and when the third tries to convince him not to do it, he does so through connecting with our protagonist. And that's why when the camera fades to black as he's lying in the grave he's already dug, with us ignorant of whether or not he took the overdose of pills he planned on taking, I was filled with hope and positivity in this life affirming masterpiece that is sadly still the only Iranian movie I've seen.

Don't forget to check out Clint's list over at Guy with a Movie Blog too! Next week, our top 10 directors.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Top 50 movies and other lists

So, in conjunction with Guy with a Movie Blog, we are gonna do some lists. He and I, over the next couple of months, will be listing out our all-time favorite movies 5 spots at a time, while alternating with some top genre lists and others (best animated films, best performances, etc.). Each week we'll have a new list, and we're starting this Friday with the first five spots in our all-time top 50 movies. He's doing his list alphabetically, while mine will be ranked. I'm not sure what other criteria he'll have, but my only one is that a filmmaker only gets one spot. Otherwise the list would be dominated by Scorsese, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa movies. Otherwise there isn't much that would change. The Princess Bride, Apocalypse Now, Persona and a few others from filmmakers I admire would be on there as well, but it's my list and I decided I would just do one filmmaker, one film.

So here's to some good reading and good listing!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Horror Films

Horror, it's not a genre that's a favorite of mine, but one that nonetheless has given us some great movies. I was inspired to make this list by my fellow blogger over at Guy with a Movie Blog who did his top horror movies in honor of Halloween. We are collaborating on some upcoming posts, so I thought I'd match his horror list with my own.

1. Psycho (1960)

Almost an afterthought as a #1, I almost downgraded it just for its obvious greatness. There's not a lot left to be said about it, other than that the shower scene has lost none of its power, and even though things like the doctor's long explanation of Norman's behavior is unnecessary, there's so much greatness in it that little quibbles like that don't matter.

I would, however, like to address Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake, which I think is one of the boldest experimental films ever made. When asked why he wanted to remake it, Van Sant (riding high off the success of Good Will Hunting) said "so no one else will have to". I thought at the time that that was just a funny, flippant kind of answer. But the more you look at the experimental nature of what Van Sant did after Psycho you see that he was really trying something narratively with his remake. He was trying to see if there was a certain indefinable magic in Hitchcock's movie that could be recreated by recreating the movie, or if the indefinable thing stays indefinable even if painstakingly recreated. Now, of course the movie is a failure, an awful imitation of a masterpiece, but it's still an admirable experiment and we now definitively know that there is just magic in some movies.

2. Don't Look Now (1973)

I almost didn't put this on the list because it's an untraditional horror movie. This is really more of a psychological thriller disguised as horror. But it does have psychics, serial killings, supernatural things we and the characters don't understand until the most emotionally impactful moment. And above all this movie is haunted by death. That strange, labyrinthine city of Venice seems colored by death in every frame. It hangs like a raincloud over this movie so that even if we see very little death on screen, we feel it in the movie.

Most famous for the extended sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, Don't Look Now is so much more than that. It has even been voted by Time Out magazine as the greatest British movie ever made.

3. The Haunting (1963)

Hopefully everyone has forgotten about the atrocity against movies that is the awful remake of Robert Wise's masterpiece, because the original take on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a flat out amazing movie. The great ghost story of all-time, The Haunting works because it spends a little bit of time setting up its characters so that we care what happens to them. Then, the haunting of the house starts slow and builds and is sometimes inexplicable, but always affecting. I got goosebumps multiple times when watching this. One of the great horror movies, and one of the great movies, period. To think, this is one of two movies Wise made between West Side Story in 1961 and The Sound of Music in 1965, what filmmaking range!

4. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a movie that didn't frighten me until I was older. When I first saw it as a teenager I wasn't paying enough attention for it to work on my nerves the way Kubrick made it to do. With his steadicam flowing throughout the haunted hotel, Kubrick plays on our minds as well. The twins, the blood gushing down the hallways, the frantic frazzled performance from Shelley Duvall offset against Jack Nicholson's descent into madness. It's all carefully controlled, and all the more chilling because of it. Stephen King, unhappy with Kubrick's take on his novel, later oversaw a TV miniseries adaptation that is just terrible. After making that, King has conceded that The Shining is likely the best adaptation of his work, even if its more Kubrick than King.

5. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro is a master visual storyteller, whether in his action hero Hellboy movies, Pan's Labyrinth, or this, which he calls Pan's brother movie. A ghost story set in Franco-era Spain (just as Pan is), it has some of Del Toro's best visuals, including a huge unexploded bomb, a creepy orphanage, or the ghost of the boy which drives the story. Again, like all of my favorite horror movies, this is about mood and atmosphere more than it is monsters or jump scares. You feel this movie while you watch it. Del Toro draws you in. When the main character has his first encounter with the ghost, it's one of the only times I can remember going cold and feeling my stomach drop in a movie (the finale of Don't Look Now is the other one that I can remember).

6. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter's career has been hit and miss. He's had huge hits like Halloween, and then movies like The Thing, which failed commercially even if its become a classic since then. One of the great creature features, The Thing boasts strong work from its cast, especially Kurt Russell and Keith David. The endless snow as our background gives a terrific and seemingly inescapable setting for the movie, which thankfully has risen in popularity and prestige every year. While it wasn't in my top 10 of the 80's, it has to have a place here in the top 10 horrors.

7. The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly didn't have to compete at the box office with the juggernaut of E.T. the way that Carpenter's remake of The Thing did, and so thankfully he had a huge hit on his hands with his body horror masterpiece. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are wonderfully awkward and real in the lead roles, making Goldblum's gradual descent into becoming a human fly have an emotional resonance behind it instead of just the great makeup and horror elements we'd expect. Cronenberg's movie was latched onto as a metaphor for AIDS at the time, something to which he's said it could certainly apply, as he'd meant it as a metaphor for the affects of aging and cancer on the body that he'd seen on his parents. No matter how deep you take it, The Fly works on the surface and below and might be the best work of Cronenberg's career.

8. Alien (1979)

One of the more famous movies on the list, I don't care how popular Alien is, it's just a really good movie and one of the best sci-fi/horror flicks ever. Ridley Scott's impeccable visuals sending us to a new planet in the beginning even if we end up spending most of the time in a space ship, with the alien picking everyone off Agatha Christie style. It still works so well, and gave us one of the great badass female roles in the movies, in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Many prefer the more oppressive and bigger/louder/gorier oriented sequel, but not me.

9. Eyes Without a Face (1960)

One of the least seen great horror movies ever made is this disturbing little poetic horror movie from France. The story is that of Christiane, who was in a horrible car accident that left her face scarred and disfigured. Her father, whose fault the crash was, Dr. Genessier and his assistant kidnap young women who have similar features to Christiane. The doctor then tries to take off their faces and graft it onto Christiane's so that his daughter can be beautiful again, which would absolve him of his guilt over the crash. Meanwhile, Christiane wears a nearly featureless mask that ended up being the inspiration for Halloween's Michael Myers. Seeing just the pain, loneliness, and oncoming madness through her eyes in the mask, the movie engenders a lot of complex emotions in us. We sympathize with the doctor and his guilt, as well as Christiane and her impenetrable sadness. The face grafting scene can still be disturbing for many audiences, and is not for the faint of heart, but that's to the movie's credit.

10. Masque of the Red Death (1964)

I debated not putting this in here and swapping it for something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead or Bong Joon-ho's The Host, but the more I think on this movie the more it works itself into my mind as an unconventional and great horror movie. Adapted from Poe's short story, director Roger Corman, working with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who went on to direct Don't Look Now among other masterpieces), creates a forbidding mood headed by Vincent Price's nasty Prince Prospero. The prince holds grotesque and occasionally Satanic parties in his castle while the common folk outside succumb to the ravages of plague. Wonderful sets used as leftovers from the same year's Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton starrer Becket, and sometimes garish colors thanks to Roeg's photography, plus the unpleasant and torturous behavior of the guests of Prospero all combine with the sinister turn by Price as the prince. With none of the wink and nod he could often bring, Price is frightening and affective in the lead role. The best work of his great career in one of the great movies of the horror genre, which I'd previously put as one of my top 10 of the 1960's.

Honorable mention for the work of producer Val Lewton, whose movies like I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and The Body Snatcher are masterpieces of classic era mood horror. The kind that gets in your brain and really haunts you like a good horror movie should. Check out Scorsese's great documentary Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows for a retrospective of his work.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Tony Wilson: Why "Tristram Shandy"? This is the book that many people said is unfilmable.
Steve Coogan: I think that's the attraction. "Tristram Shandy" was a post-modern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about. So it was way ahead of its time and, in fact, for those who haven't heard of it, it was actually listed as number eight on The Observer's top 100 books of all time.
Tony Wilson: That was a chronological list.
Steve Coogan: Yeah.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Tristram Shandy, in the 18th century comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, tries to narrate to the reader the story of his life but keeps going off on tangents and sidetracks to give context and background to the things he says. So much so that he doesn't even reach his birth until Part IV, hundreds of pages in. By the end, he's covered very little of his life and none of his opinions. So it should be no surprise that in this "adaptation" of the novel, we start out in the dressing room of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon getting ready to film their parts as Tristram and his Uncle Toby, respectively. We get a half hour or so of the novel, and then the next hour mostly of the struggle to make the movie, with costume fittings, makeup, historical accuracy, personal lives, and the seeming notion that only a handful of folks have actually read the book.

Tristram's birth happens about 20 minutes into the movie, while Tristram is both narrating and playing his father. Not Steve Coogan playing the father, but Tristram, in the course of his narration, taking on the playing of his father during Tristram's birth. He also tells us of his conception, but didn't start out with it because "I thought we should wait until we knew each other better." The book never really gets around to what it sets out to do, and neither does the movie, in the best possible way. It doesn't finish adapting the book into a movie, it sidetracks into the struggle of adapting the book into a movie. It's a bit like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's Adaptation, in that way. But where Adaptation becomes the movie Charlie didn't want to adapt the book into, A Cock and Bull Story never really becomes a movie in the first place.

Coogan is hilarious, especially in the passive-aggressive insults he hurls at Rob Brydon. But Coogan also lends a nice weight to the dramatic parts without becoming too much. We see him struggle between his flirtation with his assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris) and the new fatherhood he's experienced with his girlfriend Jenny (the predictably wonderful, but sadly underused Kelly MacDonald), all while trying to contain a story of a recent drunken night with a stripper, and the amorphous adaptation of the novel.

The movie was made by Coogan with his 24 Hour Party People director Michael Winterbottom, and it's a really terrific movie. It never gets too heady about its subject, the failing adaptation of an unfilmable novel nor the failing of the movie-within-a-movie adaptation of an unfilmable novel. It's funny, occasionally moving, always engaging, and ends not on a note of conclusion but on a note of ".....well, I guess that's it." before we see Brydon and Coogan hilariously arguing over the end credits after they've just watched the movie.