Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Did someone say blood?

OK, wow. That was marvelous. Watching "There Will Be Blood" is sort of like sending your brain to camp -- it might not be fun*, or the sort of thing your brain would do of its own accord, but it will have some new experiences and come back enriched. Damn, I am pleased to have seen this movie.

I saw it for two reasons: I haven't seen Daniel Day-Lewis on the big screen in forever, and I feel bad about that, as I fancy him. We all kept hearing how great he was in "Gangs of New York," and that really underwhelmed me when I finally rented it, so I felt like I should give him a shot to impress me on the big screen. Second, I loved "Magnolia." I also loved "Punch Drunk Love," but that was a very lovable movie. This I was able to go into armed with "Magnolia" experience: It's going to be three hours long, it's going to be very slow, there's going to be no discernible point, and you should just kick back and see what happens. So I guess I must also love Paul Thomas Anderson. (Why am I such a sucker for people with three names? Me, Emma Blackwood? Odd.)

Anyway. I feel I should warn you that if you go see this, it's very long, and very sad, and not very much happens. If you're not at least mildly interested by the first 20 minutes, it might be good to just go ahead and leave. There's a sketchy storyline -- something about an oilman buying up some property and clashing with the locals, becoming rich and destroying himself in the process; your basic American Dream-dystopia outline -- but what's important is the character study of Daniel Plainview, the angry greedy arrogant bastard oilman at the center of the movie. What he does is drill for oil, taking occasional breaks to charm people into investing in him, and he's very good at both. He's incredibly driven -- he wants to be successful and wealthy -- but he's not working toward anything external. A classic misanthrope, he's most comfortable being entirely alone in his own mind, and the rugged Western landscapes he works in are the external counterpoint to his gorgeous internal solitude. When he starts to find success, he surrounds himself with more people, and that's where his trouble begins.

He rarely speaks, and almost never his own thoughts -- his first spoken words, quite a few minutes into the movie, are "Ladies and gentlemen" as he addresses a group about the oil he's found -- but late in the film he gives a remarkable monologue (there's someone answering him back, but he's not really listening):

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people....There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone....I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I want to rule and never, ever explain myself. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little, Henry... to have you here gives me a second breath. I can't keep doing this on my own with these-- people.

It's remarkable. I've about talked myself out of misanthropy but this speech gave me such a thrill of recognition and empathy. The only person he really loves is his adopted son, who doesn't talk back and quietly adores him, and allows him to both experience unconditional love and love a projection of his own self-image. (Another child he meets seems to arouse similar feelings.) But mainly he loves his work on the oil wells. He feels about oil the way Flaubert did about fiction, or Florence King does about the South: misanthropes do great work.

But he's not a true misanthrope, of course; misanthropes don't bother with the competitive streak he alludes to, and this is why his character is so fascinating. Oh, I just adored this movie. Also, his mustache is fantastic: it sort of turns him into the anti-Vondo, for those readers who may be familiar with Vondo.

*There will be no fun, ever.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"It's a terrible thing!"

Saw "Cloverfield" Saturday night. I don't know, lambkins. Art Boy absolutely loved it but it left me feeling pretty let down. The premise is fantastic, and I love a monster movie as much as the next girl, but once the monster attack is under way the movie started to go thin for me.

I wasn't particularly thrilled by any of the running/escape sequences. My thinking is that a large monster is probably very easy to escape from if you can stay out of its way. (The best scares come from the parasites that drop off it, but after their initial attack, they mostly stop being an issue. Why?) The scariest part of a monster attack on Manhattan, I would think, would be the crowds and the sense of mass panic. But somehow everyone escapes the island very quickly, leaving our protagonists alone in the city. And they aren't all that fleshed out. I didn't care about them or their little romances or whatever. People who run from monsters for hours in high-heeled shoes are not real people. I wanted this movie to be either really smart or to be a great thrill ride, but it never quite made it to either one.

But the premise: wow. It never stops being great. I love the gimmick and I love the cinema-verite effect. I love entire shots carefully framed around being entirely accidental. I love the shots of crowds holding up their cellphones to take pictures of the Statue of Liberty's head. Basically, I love the trailer for this movie. The movie didn't stand a chance of living up to it.

Oddly, it got me super-excited for Romero's "Diary of the Dead," which is exactly the same premise but with zombies. Is anything not vastly improved by tacking on "with zombies"? No.

*I'm also irked by the tagline for this movie. It's not somehow more horrifying to say "Some thing" than "Something"; either way, it's a "thing," right? Art Boy disagrees, but then he really liked the movie. Also, it's a misleading tagline as it implies more of a mystery than is featured in the movie -- we don't know if it found us or if we woke it up with a foghorn or created it with a atomic tests or what. Anyway, Art Boy won't talk to me about this movie anymore.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pity the child

I was a bit startled to find Bobby Fischer's obit on the NYT's main page this morning. They did a nice job; it's very poignant. Poor little thing. I will have to bust out "Chess" today; Bobby would probably not appreciate that, but he would probably not approve of most things that most people do anyway.

(By the way, Vampira finally got an obit.)

In other news, I am completely undecided about this Teeth film. I love horror movies and I am always interested in the subtexts about women's sexuality so this should really be my kind of thing. I'm just not sure I can handle it. Just reading the reviews makes me feel rather faint. Also, it doesn't sound like it's got a whole lot to say; it sounds like the horror version of, say, Enough. Then again, how often do you get to hear a bunch of movie critics talking about the vagina dentata myth? I feel a certain obligation to support this. Hmm. Hmm.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Maggots! Strange irises! Bat attack! Razor wire!

And yet, Art Boy and I did not have quite as much fun as we had hoped watching Dario Argento's "Suspiria" for the Final Girl Film Club. That's OK. It's still a gorgeous movie.

Our story, such as it is, begins when heroine Suzy steps out of an airport, disoriented from her overseas flight to Germany. The doors click behind her and she's plunged straight into a maelstrom: it's pouring rain and no cabs will stop, and the driver who finally pulls over can't understand her. Things only get worse for Suzy from there. She's come all this way to enroll in a prestigious ballet academy, but on the night of her arrival, one of its students is horrifically murdered. Strange goings-on ensue. The three women in charge at the school act creepy. Suzy faints during her first dance and has to spend the rest of the movie in her nightgown. There's lots of crazy lighting, running through corridors and absolutely balletic bloodshed.

It's beautiful, but it's all hung on such a flimsy plot, and nobody acts the way a reasonable person might act. None of the school's boarding students explore outside their rooms at night. (Professor McGonagall would be delighted with this gang.) Suzy is completely at home one minute and completely confused by everything the next. I get that it's deliberately dreamlike and hallucinatory, but it's hard to follow a movie where nobody acts like a human being.

That said... damn is this movie beautiful. The Goblin soundtrack (featuring director Argento) is outstanding, even lovelier than the Iron Maiden soundtrack for Phenomenon the other night. The lighting is crazy gorgeous, starting with Suzy's taxi ride, where red lights flash across the rain and make it look like she's bleeding. There's a terrifying night scene where a blind character stands alone in the middle of a huge white plaza, sensing danger but unable to tell from which direction -- and then a shadow flits by. And the violence is beautiful in a completely different way, very harsh and over the top. I screamed and covered my eyes when Suzy's hapless classmate tumbles through a window into a room full of razor wire. (Why does a ballet school have a room full of razor wire? Do not ask. It is dreamlike!)

I really wanted to love this movie. It's entirely about women, their power and their weaknesses, and I love women in horror movies. And best of all, the climax involves hidden passageways and rooms in the school's mazelike building; I have a running dream about a house with hidden passageways and rooms. And yet "Suspiria" evades analysis. Its dreamlike qualities make the viewer feel like a participant rather than an observer; it's difficult to pin down what's actually happening. This made it feel very unlike a horror movie to me: a horror movie depends very much on what is chasing whom, and where the parties are in relation to one another. (Is it inside the house? Will she be safe in the closet?) After a while it gets tiring not to be able to find your feet. Still, it's a gorgeous place to get lost.

Art Boy found an audio commentary the next day that he says is pretty good. I haven't listened to it yet, but it's here.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Not a whole lot going on right now. I finally watched Alfonso Cuaron's lovely 1998 adaptation of "Great Expectations" the other night. It's a shame not to have seen it on the big screen. I've adored Cuaron since seeing "A Little Princess" forever ago, and I thought "Children of Men" was a masterpiece. His "GE" is certainly flawed, but my beefs were mostly with the script: it focuses more on the love story than on the Pip character's coming of age, which is really what the story is about. It has some lovely performances from Chris Cooper as the Joe character (actually, he gets to keep the name Joe) and Anne Bancroft as the Miss Havisham character. Bancroft is so radiantly lovely, she puts gawky little Gwyneth Paltrow to shame. I actually missed the big money-shot effect of little Pip and Estella transforming into adult Ethan Hawke & Gwyneth as they dance, because my eyes were just glued to Bancroft swaying at the edge of the frame. She's a vision. From her crumbling mansion to the Florida marshes to the garrets of New York, this is a gorgeous movie.

Just finished reading Bill Bryson's memoir, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." I had a vague memory of reading bad reviews of this, so I didn't seek it out although I have enjoyed all his other books (particularly the useful "Guide to Troublesome Words"). My parents gave it to me for Christmas, though, and it turns out to be just ducky. His anecdotes about growing up in Iowa in the 1950s are told with the perfect blend of affection and dry detachment; every word is note-perfect. It's very enjoyable.

Art Boy and I might watch "Ratatouille" tonight, so the buckets of blood will have to wait a bit. Sorry.

Wish you were here

Maila Nurmi, best known as Vampira, died in her sleep yesterday. She was 86. Thanks to LAist for letting me know, as I have seen nothing about this whatsoever in the mainstream media, which strikes me as inexcusable. If there is any kind of public to-do, I am totally skipping work and going.

Vampira, of course, was Elvira's predecessor as a TV hostess of horror movies; she famously sued Cassandra Peterson, who plays Elvira, for stealing her concept but was unable to pay legal expenses, and the case was dismissed. Vampira can also, of course, be seen in "Plan 9 from Outer Space." Back in her heyday, she was a Hollywood fixture, driving up Sunset in a convertible with a parasol to shade her pallid complexion. She and James Dean somehow got to be good friends and hung out a lot in the early 1950s. While he was in Texas filming "Giant," she had a set of glossy photos taken of herself sitting in an open grave; she sent one to James inscribed "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here." His handlers confiscated it, not knowing they were friends and assuming it was a threat, so he never saw it. A few days later, he was dead.

RIP, Ms. Nurmi. Have a wonderful time.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Live free or die!

Bill Bryson once wrote that New Hampshire's state motto struck him as a little extreme; as a resident himself, he was not entirely comfortable with signing up for an implied life-or-death struggle. Anyway. Wasn't last night exciting? I'm trying to keep politics out of this blog for the most part but I am just having a ball with this campaign. It's all going to end after Feb. 5 so we should enjoy it while we can. I love that Hillary's win is being treated as a "comeback" when she's had the state in the bag for so long. What's real news is that Obama gave her such a close call there. It's slightly enraging too that both Iowa and New Hampshire have been treated as all-or-nothing wins and losses. You're not dealing with a single electorate that's changing its mind, after all. Art Boy pointed out that the campaign is being treated like a giant sports tournament, hence the wins/losses emphasis. I guess people are just excited, which is nice.

I'm not normally a fan of hers, but I just loved the Maureen Dowd column. Both Clintons are absolutely shameless. They'll do whatever it takes. People don't dislike Hillary because she's a woman; they dislike her because Americans want their leaders to become successful on their own terms, not because of who they're married to. (Sure, Bush was elected because of whose son he was, but I think that's part of why even Republicans are so contemptuous of the guy now.)

Anyway. Art Boy just wrote to say Netflix is sending us "Night of the Comet" and Dario Argento's "Inferno," so I'll be back to posting about zombies and fake blood shortly.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The new computer

So the below post was the first to be composed on the new computer... I have not given it a name yet, but it seems to run pretty smoothly. And it is so nice to be able to write in, say, Blogger or the upgraded Gmail without having to sit and wait for every letter I type to appear on the screen. And I can watch video without hiccups. That's pretty dang nice.

The only real downside is that the computer is very, very quiet. My old one, as visitors to my home will fondly recall, sounded something like an old refrigerator. In recent weeks, it had begun to do a sort of faint high-pitched scream (like Betsy's old screaming TV). This thing just purrs silently away. It's eerie. Eerie, I say.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

No one cares for you a smidge

We went to see "The Orphanage" last night, and you'll forgive me if my review is a trifle disjointed; I slept very badly last night. My reaction to this film is probably best summed up, though, by Art Boy, who walked out of the theater rubbing his hand and said indignantly "You bit me!" I don't remember biting him, but I probably did. For most of the movie I wore a sweater over my face and chewed on the tag in the back. Brr. Brrrr.

I don't want to say too much about this movie. The plot concerns a woman, Laura, who moves back to the now-empty orphanage where she was raised, bringing along her husband and young son; they plan to reopen it as a home for disabled children. But there are strange noises at night, and a mysterious old woman prowling the grounds. Their son, who's always had imaginary friends, starts talking about a creepy-sounding new group of them. Then he disappears.

My instinct was to compare this movie to "The Others," but it's oddly more similar in spirit to the 1963 "The Haunting." The house itself has a secret, a mystery that needs solving before it will leave the inhabitants alone. My favorite element, though, was a subtext about telling children the truth, vs. the white lies we tell to reassure them. (Pulling the burlap over their eyes, as it were.) What happens when those stories go sour? "Is Father Christmas a lie too?" demands a child at one point, reminding me of Art Boy's holiday rant. Seriously, though, if you're a parent, you might find this movie too unsettling. It's pretty grim.

It is also adorably European. I love watching genre movies from other countries for how they violate the U.S. tropes. Bad things happen to kids. Months go by without action. In the climax, Laura swings into full-on ghost-chaser action-heroine mode, stripping down to her tank top and St. Anthony medal like a Spanish Ellen Ripley. Her husband is your classic Spanish male character, sitting back and grunting while his wife runs around solving problems. I just loved all that.

The L.A. Times has a nice review. The NYT has a clip here but I'm alone in the house and absolutely refuse to look at it, so if it's no good, sorry...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Golly jeepers

Art Boy and I ended up spending a good chunk of New Year's Eve watching "Creepshow." First we had to watch the ball drop, three hours later, since there is no West Coast equivalent of the ball dropping that we have been able to find. Then I got the remote back and flipped through channels.

"Doesn't that look like Stephen King?" I said.
"That is Stephen King," said Art Boy.

And so I was introduced to "Creepshow," the classic horror anthology film, the only collaboration so far between King and George A. Romero, and the perfect thing to watch after midnight with vodka-champagne martinis. This thing is just a blast. We tuned in for the second segment, a "Colour Out of Space"-inspired tale of a rural New England farmer (King) who finds a creepy meteor. The third involves Leslie Nielson burying Ted Danson up to his neck in sand, which somehow manages to be genuinely horrifying.

Art Boy thought the actress who plays Nielson's unfaithful wife might be Veronica Cartwright, which I thought would be the coolest thing ever until I looked it up and found who it really is. "MIKE," I screamed, swilling more champagne. "IT'S GAYLEN ROSS." The "Dawn of the Dead" star was in four movies and this is one of them. I thought that was pretty fabulous until we got to the fourth segment and it turned out to star Adrienne Barbeau.

Sometime before segment 5, which stars E.G. Marshall and features a Tom Savini cameo, I gently passed out on the couch, but Art Boy assures me it is very cool.

Over coffee and aspirin the next morning, Art Boy explained the frame story to me: a mean father (an uncredited Tom Atkins) takes a horror comic away from his son (played by a child who grew up to be horror novelist Joe Hill*). At the end the boy receives the voodoo doll he had ordered from an ad in the comic and uses it on Atkins. Ha!

Art Boy's breakfast conversation included a couple of vague anti-child remarks, and after the second one he said "I don't know what's gotten into me today." I told him he was being haunted by the movie because, being a secret Republican in his heart of hearts, he identifies with the dad. "You think children shouldn't have horror comics," I taunted. "You think they should be all repressed and stuff." He put down his newspaper and said "It's true. Look. One day, little Cindy Lou Who is going to be looking at Japanese tentacle porn, and you'll agree with me." I suppose he's right.

Anyway, the movie was super cool; if you like horror at all, it's heaps of fun. And champagne is great in vodka martinis. Just drink some water before bed.

*Also Stephen King's son.