This Week in Geek (11-17/10/20)

"Accomplishments"


At home: I really wanted Vampires vs. the Bronx to be more like Attack the Block, but it's a little too tame for that, the kind of Halloween movie you can watch with older kids, but that isn't particularly interesting in terms of film making or story beats. What it has going for it is its theme. These kids are fighting gentrification of their neighborhood both literally (real estate is being bought up and destroying their hang-outs) and metaphorically (the white folk moving in are vampires), but the cleverness more or less stops at that crisp idea. Not to say the movie doesn't have its moments - the businesses announced as coming up are ridiculously white, and I like where the boys get their vampire primer from - I just wish it had more mystery. As it is, the vamps unambiguously make themselves known in the first scene, and they're always game to explain their plans when even only slightly rumbled. The fact that all the clichés about suckheads are true also prevents the movie from adding much to the lore, or surprising their tween slayers. It's fine, but in a damning way.


On the mystery, rather than thriller, end of the horror spectrum, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock is justly called a haunting masterpiece, using painterly mise-en-scène, diaphanous dissolves, soft focus, and slight overcranking to contextualize the disappearance of three young girls and their teacher as an eerie dream, and Hanging Rock as an antediluvian force that's more Quatermass or Lovecraft than it is Sunlit Gothic, as the Victorian Australian setting would make us suppose. The metaphorical grounding here is the girls making a choice between Victorian repression, represented by their school, and the freedom of the strange wilderness, at odds with the school. In adapting the novel, Weir had significant challenges. The supernatural climax of the story occurs very early, and how people react to the disappearances makes up its bulk. In this second part, it becomes a psychological ghost story, with haunting visions of the missing girls, and the theme finding its way into the one girl who wasn't allowed to go on the picnic and her own choice to escape the rigid structures of the Empire. Audiences who watch movies for complete and unambiguous plots will not find their due.


Clocking in at three hours, Kwaidan tells four Japanese ghost stories, one for each season more or less, though maybe we skipped summer along the way. Masaki Kobayashi's director is incredibly precise, no surprise there, but what is most striking is the theatricality he dares use. Lavishly large studio-bound "exteriors", with painted skies, give each story a kind of odd irreality, and the sound design is spare and unrealistic, among other stylistic choices. Japanese expressionism? The first two tales are really about love and so are quite tragic each in their own way. The third starts with a huge sea battle as mere prologue(!) and ends up producing the most iconic images from the film. The fourth has the author himself enter the Twilight Zone. Despite the slow pace, you hardly notice the run time thanks to the impeccable film making. Atmosphere reigns supreme, and while knowing you're in a ghost story can give you the upper hand on the characters, the final twists are always nevertheless affecting. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

 

I've written a lot of reviews, and in them I've made no secret of the fact you can get yourself an extra half a star or more just on weirdness. So let's talk about 1983's spirit slasher oddity, Blood Beat. The backwoods of Wisconsin are a strange place to tell this story in which a girl meets her in-laws around Christmas, is "recognized" by the psychic mother (leading me to think there's a reincarnation element to this, but the film does a poor job of explaining itself), and later manifests the ghost of a samurai that goes around killing people more or less timed with the girl's powerful orgasms. When the killer eventually attacks the house, things go completely crazy, with a scene out of Poltergeist making its way into the proceedings, and cheap video effects smothering everything until it's straight up wizards firing magic bolts from their hands, yo. Subtitles during the noisy climax give you a little more juice, but not much. Without them, you have no idea what the mom and the samurai are saying. And while the acting is the cheapest thing here - practically no one on either side of the camera made any other film - the direction is actually pretty effecting, achieving an eerie atmosphere mostly through the music. At first, it's weird electronica (it's like the composer watched a lot of Classic Doctor Who), then rights-free edge classical, and both work, but seem at odds with one another. But that's this movie all over. There's just too much crammed into it for it to make sense. What's the whole thing with the hunting creeping out the immortal warriors? Is the samurai a ghost or a psionic manifestation, and either way, why does it act like a poltergeist and then a possessing demon? Why a samurai, for Pete's sake? (I'm guessing they had access to that armor and that's the whole of it.) But I love bizarre movies that should probably never have been made.

 

Cronenberg's first feature, Shivers, has a pretty generic title, but there's no doubt it's a film signed Cronenberg. Essentially, it's about VD and how the sexual revolution of the 70s acts as a super-spreader movement (and I use that very contemporary term because some elements of this have aged and matured in a way that can speak to 2020's particular problems), VD in the form of a gross parasite that turns people into rapists and sex addicts, some permutations of which are just upsetting. The outbreak of, let's call it what it is, sex zombies is in a gated community on an island in Montreal, a well-used location, if on the drab side (rather usual of low-budget films). It does seem to draw a direct line to Alien, which is also pretty psycho-sexual and has the same kind of squish (and a body parasite). But part of Famous Cinema's DNA or not, Shivers is a fun, tense, thematically relevant, cult monster film in which a doctor throws the Hippocratic Oath out the window at the first sign of trouble. And that's more than enough.

 

Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now is bookended by moments of horror, but it's hard to classify as definitively in any specific genre. For the most part, it's about a couple grieving for their little girl, and suffering PTSD (considering the girl was drowned, and they're spending most of the movie in Venice, the location adds a mood that is not helpful to their process) to the point of making the supernatural vibe that develops somewhat ambiguous. After Julie Christie's character meets a blind psychic who receives communications from the dead child, it may expose Donald Sutherland's as an unbeliever who nevertheless has the gift. He's certainly having visions, if not hallucinations. But the nature of the psychic powers presented in the film are all wrapped up in the film's FORM, and that's where Roeg reall gets me. Because the really great thing about Don't Look Now is the editing - jarring match cuts that are more thematic than logical, that keep you in your toes, or reeling - and the predestination inherent in the bookends is a formalist trick. Similarly, when characters see the past or the future, they are merely aware of achronological editing, of what we, as the audience are frequently privy to (flashbacks, flashforwards, etc.). I almost want to categorize the film as a time travel story where time is fractured and becomes an inescapable maze, just as Venice's network of streets and canals appears to be. And then add the emotional labyrinth the couple is navigating on top of that.


Dead of Night (AKA Deathdream) isn't as recognized as Bob Clark's other horror flick, Black Christmas, but it is nonetheless a pretty potent horror take on the soldier returning from Vietnam. In this case, Andy has reportedly been killed in action and nevertheless shows up home. Aside from the horror treatment (a great string score and intense filmic moments), we might take this for a drama about PTSD, or else a certain way of getting to a serial killer. But no, there's an unexplained (and I don't mind that) supernatural element that translates the broken soldier and junky into revenant form in order to explore not only the veteran's struggles, but the family's as well. Andy's murderous actions push his family to the brink of madness in some of the better played moments. Certainly, there's more thought put in Dead of Night and how its characters behave than most horror films, and I have to call it a hidden '70s gem, of its time, but also speaking to more universal themes.


I am a big fan of the French rap duo Bigflo & Oli, two brothers who started their careers as teenagers and have since gotten atypical mainstream success, in part because they are kid-friendly and bring a positive message, though for me, it's a combination of their poetry and sincerity. Early tunes were mostly concerned with humorously deconstructing gangsta rap, but it's in later hits that things really took off - I find their ability to put themselves in other people's skin and being true to them lyrically particularly powerful. Through them, I went on to discover other rap and hip-hop acts out of France. They've been on a crazy media machine, television darlings over there if we go by YouTube, and they're about to take a self-imposed break after a massive tour, and that's what's chronicled in Netflix's new behind-the-scenes documentary Presque Trop (Almost Too Much, please ignore the English title 'flix has actually given it, Hip Hop Frenzy, yuck - frankly surprised it isn't called "Tu connais, non?"). It's of course a piece of marketing, at times rather sappy, but the boys insist on being genuine, so we see the younger brother's crippling anxiety leading up to the biggest show of their lives, and the elder heading for a burn-out in the second half of the film. What's missing for me is hearing more of the music. Instead, the vloggish montages are drowned in what sounds like rights-free music, but only one song, written for the doc, is heard in its entirety. So non-adepts will discover the personalities, but not the music, which seems self-defeating. End of the day, this is really for those who already know the duo, and acts as see-you-later message to fans. I'm not sure what English speakers reading this can get out of it... Will Smith is in it, briefly. Maybe that.


I know Tom Waits, but I wouldn't call myself conversant in his music. 1988's Big Time is my teacher and it's quite an odd, cool teacher, in the image of Waits himself. The film presents performances from a couple of different dates as a single show, so you get a lot of the music, but it's also broken up with characters in the same hotel/venue doing their thing (all played by Waits), and a piano-bound raconteur version of Waits to fling out jokes and introductions, combined with channel-changing graphics that put us squarely in the MTV era. The show is actually summoned by a dream Waits seems to have in his hotel room, and that creates context for the art house style. Waits really reminds me of Quebec's Richard Desjardins, both in tone, style, and in how he combines elements of stand-up to his music shows. The content is a little more urban and less political, but I can see how both artists fell from the same branch of the Bob Dylan tree.


When I was a teenager, Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same played what seemed all the time on MusiquePlus (the French version of MuchMusic, in turn the Canadian version of MTV). Either that, or it played occasionally, but they pulled numbers from the film to play as videos. The image of Robert Plant's junk, well-defined in his paint-on jeans, gyrating at the camera as things get psychedelic is forever seared into my brain as a result (in fact, when I think of Stairway to Heaven, I integrate Plant's interjections from the live performance). Looking at it now, I feel like I'm discovering the surreal dream sequences for the first time, a strange mix of family home video, Arthurian legend, and shooting up Nazis. The least interesting stuff for me is the backstage pass to the band's manager arguing with venue administrators, most of the behind the scenes is fairly inaudible and little effort has been put into it. So it's really all about the show, and the music, and watching Led Zeppelin extend songs to the breaking point with guitar noodling and moaning rock scat. And I say that like it's a bad thing, but it isn't. It's a very good show, and the film knows to drop dreams over extended instrument solos to keep our interest.

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