Friday, February 26, 2010

New gig

I'm going somewhat legit... I will be writing every Friday for the Times' Daily Mirror blog, a site that looks at historical Los Angeles, about old movies. Most of the posts are about 1920 and 1960, so I will be writing about movies from those years. And my first one is up now, about "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," starring stone cold fox John Barrymore.

I tied myself into a little stress knot over writing the first couple of posts. It's one thing to put up my own thoughts here, semi-anonymously (even though most of you know who I am, not that I am anyone in particular). But the DM stuff has my name on it. People might read it. Gaak.

So far so good, though. I loved watching the movie. I loved watching the 1960 movie that's going to be next week's topic. I'm trying to branch out a little from writing about horror but -- dammit, that's what I love. Anyway, I'll still be here and still be writing, and I am very excited about the next Final Girl Film Club... but I'll also be over there. Yeep.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem" - Not sure who won, but we lost

A copy of the "Aliens Vs. Predator" sequel wandered into my sphere last night, and like an idiot I succumbed to the temptation to watch it. Now I have a pretty high tolerance for Alien-related silliness. I have found something to enjoy in all the previous movies, even the ghastly "Resurrection" (come on, Brad Dourif was in it!) and the mostly forgettable "Aliens Vs. Predator" (Lance Henriksen!). I cherish my "Aliens Vs. Predator" comic books. I even love the goofy "Batman Vs. Aliens" comic -- it has some really beautiful drawings. Just give me some acid blood and a big skeletal tail and I'm happy. But even I couldn't enjoy this movie. There's just nothing there. This morning I woke up and couldn't remember a single thing about it. Aliens and a Predator chase each other around. There are dull human characters (one named, with vicious cruelty, Dallas -- I hope Tom Skerritt kicked someone's ass for that). It's really dark and you can't see what's happening. I may have slept through part of it.

It's all just so depressing. "Alien" fans had been waiting for so many years for a movie set on Earth. The one really great thing about "Resurrection" was that its ending set that up to happen, with superclone Ripley coming home at last. The first "Aliens Vs. Predator" does take place in Antarctica, but all the action happens in a giant subterranean pyramid -- it's so claustrophobic it might as well be a spaceship. But in "Requiem" the aliens crash-land outside a small Colorado town. You could have aliens jumping out from behind Dumpsters, lurking under your bed, chasing you through your own neighborhood. Yikes! And here it finally happens, but it's so chaotic and dark, and the characters are so boring, that there's nothing remotely scary about it. I miss the big drippy aliens who used to give me nightmares. As Mark Twain once wrote, "I have no heart to write more. I never felt so about anything before."

Monday, February 15, 2010

You are a furred leaf, I think

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
A good example of deadly soft fur is the beautiful Pinguicula, or butterwort. The leaves look like African violet leaves, with the tiniest sheen of fuzz; but if you are an insect and land on them, you cannot get off again. The tiny furry stems are covered with sticky material that holds you in place while the plant's digestive enzymes slowly dissolve you. How awful! This plant mostly eats gnats, but mine has trapped larger flying insects from time to time.

In "Little Shop of Horrors," the man-eating plant Audrey II is said to be a cross between a butterwort and a Venus flytrap, as Peter D'Amato points out in his wonderful book "The Savage Garden."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Seed pod

Seed pod
Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
No really, sometimes a seed pod is just a seed pod. From a Queensland lace-bark tree at the LA County Arboretum.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Ils (Them)": Come play with us

Ah, ze French. They can ratchet up the tension from the get-go like nobody's business, and it is so elegant! "Ils" (2006) has one of the best opening sequences I've ever seen. A mom and daughter are driving at night and have car trouble: directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud take that simple premise and spin it into several minutes of increasingly exquisite agony. By the time the movie proper got under way, I was about to chew off my own arm. The main story, sadly, eventually loses the elegant simplicity manifested in the opener. But still it has some nice moments.

I knew almost nothing about "Ils" going in, only that it was supposed to be similar to the 2008 American movie "The Strangers" except a) without Liv Tyler, b) shorter and c) French. I haven't seen "The Strangers" due to my violent Liv Tyler allergy, but it sounded good. The premise of both involves a couple being terrorized at home by, well, strangers, for unknown reasons. (It's probably best to go into "Ils" not knowing more than that, so if you haven't seen it, beware spoilers ahead.)

Home-invasion stories are the scariest to me. You can haunt the school or the old department store or the mall all you want to, but come scratching around my bedroom window, where I'm most vulnerable, and brrr. The home-invasion premise also appeals to my sense of practicality: Do you know which windows of your house you can open? Where's your flashlight? What can you use as a weapon? Where are the entrances and exits?

Well, Clem and Lucas (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen), a French couple living in a lonely fixer-upper in Romania, do not pass this test at all. They know where their front door is, and that's about it. The movie's a beautiful exercise in sustained tension, but the imbecility of these two -- particularly Lucas -- had me pretty turned off by about midway through. Creepy people steal Clem's car in the middle of the night; then the power and phones go out; then someone waves a flashlight through the window. What do Clem and Lucas do? Race upstairs and barricade themselves in their room, then decide Lucas should go down and "check" to see if anyone's inside. This just violates all common sense to me. Don't they want to just try and find out who these people are? Maybe they just want to take the TV and jewelry and leave? What happened to Clem's cellphone anyway? And how come these people seem to know the house better than Clem and Lucas do? They switch the power off, they beat Clem to the attic... Maybe it's all supposed to be a metaphor for how Clem and Lucas feel as expatriates, but I was too exasperated with them to analyze.

(And why not go on the attack? Even if you don't have a gun, it's *your* house: you know where everything is. Grab a bottle of spray bathroom cleaner, jump out from behind a doorway and aim for the eyes! But no, these two decide to ditch the house -- and their poor dog, whose fate is unclear but probably unpleasant -- and run, Lucas' severe leg injury notwithstanding.)

Once the action moves outside, things devolve in terms of making sense. Everyone goes into the sewers for some reason, and there's a lot of mazelike running around.

Still, there are some spiffy effects along the way. Sound is used beautifully, with the attackers making a mysterious scrapey sound at the most unexpected moments. The house and sewers turn into a series of set pieces -- it reminds me a little of watching "Alien: Resurrection," which I remember as being just a bunch of baroque fight scenes in different cool settings -- but they're nice-looking set pieces. And I enjoyed some classic-film references: a massive old door bends under the pounding from an unseen force, a la "The Haunting"; a pursuit through the sewers ends at an unyielding grid, a la "The Third Man."

The final twist is fine, but not particularly shocking for the healthy misanthrope. People are pretty much the same at any age, if you ask me. Still, it's something an American-made movie would probably steer clear of. Viva la France!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Movies by heart

A conversation over the weekend got me thinking about this: There really are quite a few movies I could recite from start to finish. (And will, if you ask nicely!) Most are accidental; they happen to be the videotapes we had growing up, including somewhat random movies taped off TV, which has the amusing side effect that I only know the TV-censored versions of some of these. Others are among my favorite movies ever. It's an odd mix. Here are the ones I can think of, off the top of my head:

Gone with the Wind
Romancing the Stone
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (censored version! "I feel like total crud, Ferris.")
Sixteen Candles
La Bamba (it's been a while, but I think I could still pull this one out. "Bob! Mi hijo!")
The Sound of Music
Mary Poppins
The Princess Bride
Flashdance (censored version, although I bought the DVD and couldn't find much difference)
Mystery Men
Starship Troopers
Cabin Fever
Sense and Sensibility (the Ang Lee version; within a few years I should have the six-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice down, but am not there yet)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales... it was the only one we owned, for some reason)
Star Wars, Empire & Jedi (of course)
The Last of the Mohicans
Little Shop of Horrors (the one with Rick Moranis and the magnificent Ellen Greene)
M*A*S*H (within reason: I don't think I could do every bit of the overlapping dialogue. But most of it, yes)

Looking this over, it is clear that I have not obsessively watched enough movies from the last decade; I need to pick some favorites and learn them. Project!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sleeping beauty

Tiny tiny Venus flytrap -- occasionally addressed as "Mrs. Chompy" -- is on the verge of emerging from her winder dormancy. Look at that beautiful spring green! In the next couple weeks she should start putting up little vertical shoots that will open into lively new traps. She lives next to the compost bin, so a bountiful harvest of flies will be hers whenever she's ready!

Her consort, a Red Dragon cultivar (usually addressed as "Please don't die"), is in a considerably less picturesque dormancy: brown and crunchy. He might be dead, although he looked bad this time last year and he came back. I hope he pulls through, for Mrs. Chompy's sake.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Puya venusta
Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
I never saw "Teeth," the 2007 teen horror film about a girl equipped with a vagina dentata, but every time I tangle with the Puya venusta bromeliad, I feel I should.

My supervisor in the desert garden thinks it's called "Venusta" because of the leaves' silvery/whiteish shade. I think this is about as likely as the Venus flytrap getting its name from its pretty white flowers. (The wonderful Barry Rice debunks that idea in this wonderful entry over at the Carnivorous Plant FAQ, in which you can also learn the history of the made-up naughty botanical term "tipitiwitchet"!)