El Orfanato

Last week I saw El Orfanato (The Orphanage), a stylish and original Spanish ghost story. The Orphanage is dark, eerie, disturbing, suspenseful, and genuinely frightening, without resorting to cheap cinematic tricks or gruesome special effects.

A professional couple buys the abandoned seaside orphanage where the wife grew up. The husband is a doctor, and they want to convert the building into an assisted living facility for special needs children. However, the couple’s young son soon expands his circle of imaginary playmates to include one who may not be quite as imaginary as the others. There isn’t a lot more I can say about the plot without ruining the film’s intricacies, but if this makes you think of the Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others, rest assured it is a very different film. (This is not intended to slight the Kidman film, as I found it to be a well made and suspenseful story.)

Still from El Orfanato

One of the reasons the film works so well is by refusing the follow convention. Horror and suspense films tend to use certain devices and scenes as touch-points, occasionally due to the mythological underpinnings, but more often due to the convenience of visual shorthand. The audience understands that vampires don’t like crosses, so it is easy to jump right into using that as a plot point. The Orphanage, on the other hand, works without any preconceptions. Mysterious things start to happen in the old house, but the viewer is trapped in the same confusion as the mother; we don’t understand the rules, so anything can happen. There are a few sequences in the film where in a lesser effort we would yawn and wait for the obvious. In The Orphanage, we are creeping forward in our seats because we haven’t any idea where the story will end up. Fortunately, it still obeys its own internal logic, playing on our innate human need to make sense out of the world around us. We identify with the characters’ struggles, pulled into their crumbling world by our compassion and our shared need to know what is happening.

The non-narrative elements contribute significantly to the film’s success, as well. It is visually stunning, with tremendous artistry in the art direction; for example, the house is clearly old, but with layers of modernity applied as a veneer over the implied history. The sound design is likewise effective and subtle, with the slow creaking of old timbers adding to the undercurrent of unease that suffuses the film. And the camera’s slow shots of the desolate but strangely beautiful seaside contrast wonderfully with the claustrophobic interiors, with careful use of shifting focus to keep the audience is a state of uncertainty and uneasiness. It is a carefully crafted film designed to shock and disturb you, and it succeeds admirably.

This is the kind of film-going experience that I enjoy. I went into the theater knowing nearly nothing about it, except that Guillermo del Toro was an executive producer, it was in Spanish, and had a supernatural theme. I left having been thrilled, surprised, and delighted by my experience, and now — over a week later — I find certain scenes lingering in my mind, still haunting me. And isn’t that, after all, what a ghost story is supposed to do?

Zodiac

I watched David Fincher’s Zodiac this week, and was pleased to find that it lived up to its reputation as a subtle, intelligent film. This is not really what I would have expected from a film about a serial killer, but that was my misconception. It isn’t about the killer, or even the killings. It is an meticulous examination of the effects wrought on the lives of the people investigating the crime, both police and journalists.

The script provides the most accurate depiction of the tedium of real investigation of anything I’ve seen. The film resists the Hollywood temptation to over-dramatize police work; there are no car chases, nothing blows up, no breathless entrances to courtrooms with last minute evidence — even the few killings shown are handled in a rather detached, emotionless fashion. But this isn’t a dull film — far from it. For two and a half hours I was enthralled by the evolution (and dissolution) of the characters, a testament to the acting of Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal. The gradual changes wrought on their lives by their investigation and involvement in the case is painful to watch, but nonetheless gripping and sad. Even the wrap-up to the story, handled through text epilogues, seems weary and worn down by the weight of the decades of seemingly fruitless research.

For those of you unfamiliar with the actual Zodiac killings, let me point out that this is not at all a feel-good film. Nothing is wrapped up neatly, and just as with most of life, it ends essentially unresolved. But if you are looking for a fascinating look at the investigation into a part of America’s psychic landscape, this is a great place to start.

Hurlant

Heavy Metal: Yes, I saw then in the theater when it was first released. Since I had not been indulging in mind-altering substances at the time, I can only guess that my fond memories of the film were based on my date (a lovely young woman), an appreciation for comics, and the animated naked women with large breasts (speaking of my date). Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t hold up terribly well. The Superbit DVD edition looks grainy and the animation is choppy as hell, almost Scooby-Doo quality in places. Yes, I know it was made back in 1981, but I don’t see those problems on other animated feature films from earlier years. The stories (and naked chicks) are still okay, though, and it’s interesting to see how the visual styles of the comic artists who created the stories (Moebius, Richard Corben, Angus McKie, etc.) translated to the big screen. Still, the Harry Canyon sequence made me laugh, even after all these years.

Immortel (Ad Vitam): This odd little science-fiction film has been shown in the SciFi Channel, I hear, so you may have seen it. There’s certainly little chance that you saw it in the theaters, where it apparently played for about fifteen minutes in 2004. A French-made English-language film directed by Luc Besson, it is loosely based on a trilogy of graphic novels by Belgian artist Enki Bilal. As mentioned in my entry about The Fifth Element, I admit to a certain fascination with French science-fiction’s tropes: American cars, Egyptian gods, female assassins (and Nixon, although he doesn’t appear in this film), so a DVD cover with a pyramid floating over some megalopolis and Bilal’s name was enough for me. (The price being $6.99 didn’t hurt any, either.) It isn’t bad, although it’s heavy on atmosphere and visuals and skimpy on plot. I admire the production’s willingness to take a chance on mixing CGI and live action, and for the most part it works. Similar to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the film was shot entirely against blue screens, with all the sets and many of the characters added digitally. Again, for the most part it works, and the New York City of the future looks as dystopian as you’d expect. However, an unfortunate reliance on deus ex WFT? left me a bit cold. While this is clearly more a film of style rather than ideas, I had hoped for more.

It does bring up an interesting point, though, and one which has been the subject of some debate on-line. A woman in the film is raped by a man possessed by a god. Afterward the woman — who is not entirely human herself, having perhaps been created for the purpose of carrying a god’s progeny — becomes somewhat nonchalant about the ordeal, and even falls in love with the man who’s body was the conduit for the assault. So do the facts that the non-human woman doesn’t care and that the possessed person doesn’t get punished (though the god does) mean that the film is anti-woman and pro-rape? Immortel has been criticized by some viewers for just that, which makes little sense to me, mainly because the film just isn’t that deep.

The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is one of those genre films I never seemed to find time to watch, even though many friends told me I’d enjoy it. I finally got around to putting the disc in the player after watching another English-language French science fiction film, Immortal (Ad Vitem), about which more tomorrow. Somewhat to my surprise, it was quite enjoyable.

Mind you, this is not deep, though-provoking Russian futurist film-making. All you really need to know about Fifth Element’s priorities is summed up in the opening credit: Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. This is a film reveling in its own sense of style, without a thought in its head. Yes, it is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Blade Runner in places, but it uses a much brighter palette, as is appropriate for a light action-comedy.

Fortunately, it has a lot of style. Weird mid-90s style, to be sure, but it’s hard to deny that it is visually inventive. Of course, the same charges are also leveled at French science fiction comics, from which this gets its ambiance and most of its motifs. What is the modern French fascination with extraterrestrial Egyptians; thin, athletic, naked female assassins; and American cars from the 1940s, anyway?

In the end it was two hours of flashy costumes, inventive visuals, cheesy plot, Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman chewing scenery, action-comedy soup, and Milla Jovovich naked. There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening.

October Stories: Revisited Fear

Today I watched the 1959 version of The House on Haunted Hill. When I was a child this film was shown at my middle school, and something about it scared the hell out of me. Well, okay, I know exactly what it was. There is a scene where a woman opens her closet, only to find a human head hanging by its hair from the clothes rod. It freaked me right out, and it took me years to be able to open my closet door at night, even with the lights on.

I picked up the DVD on a budget rack somewhere for a couple of bucks, as part of a Vincent Price double feature with The Last Man on Earth. I was not expecting it to scare me, and for a change I was correct. (Full disclosure, however, requires me to tell you that I did watch it during the day, just in case.) The movie is not exactly frightening, by today’s standards.

However, it is actually pretty good, in a B-movie way. Vincent Price chews the scenery like a dog worrying a bone, yet gracefully walks the tightrope between dry humor and self-parody. The plot is surprisingly intricate for a cheap movie, and the dialogue is witty, if often delivered rather stiffly by the lackluster supporting cast. I admit, I was a bit surprised at how well I was entertained by this movie. Since you can probably pick up the DVD at Walgreens for a dollar, you can’t go wrong.

Meanwhile, I will try to convince myself that the times were different then, and that it wouldn’t really take a loser of epic proportions to be scared of that obviously fake paper maché head hanging in the closet.

Hubba-hubba in his soul

Some months ago, on the backhanded recommendation* of a dear friend, I bought a movie called Greaser’s Palace. It’s a 1972 film retelling the messiah story, written and directed by Robert Downey, Sr. It is also of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I watch some disturbed stuff.

The story is set in a Hollywood version of a desolate Old West town. Jesus is a zoot-suited anachronism who wants to be an “actor/singer/dancer.” The Holy Ghost wears a sheet with holes cut out for eyes and a mouth, and the Father is a black-clad gunslinger without guns. (There’s a priest and a nun, too.) The bossman and saloon owner is named Seaweedhead Greaser. He doesn’t have a wife, but he has a mother (kept locked up with a mariachi band), a daughter named Cholera (who sings and dances), and a son named Lamy Homo (who keeps getting killed). There’s a perfect family making their way westward in a covered wagon, and a bunch of “Indians” who don’t do anything but sit around and get high. And then there are the assorted hangers-on and low-lifes, and plenty of burros. As for Hervé Villechaize and his transvestite wife… well, the less said, the better.

Oh, and it has plenty of singing and dancing, too. And sudden, irrational, pointless, graphic violence.

This is a film which defies your expectations at very turn. At a point when you expect a quick shot of people walking briskly down a street, the shot lasts almost a minute. Some storylines never quite mesh with the rest of the plot. It’s clear that every character and incident is symbolic—some so obvious as to be self-parody—but still there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Even the sound editing is out of whack, and enough so that you know it’s intentional. This film is so meticulously crafted that you know it succeeds on its own terms, but you are never quite sure what those terms are. And that’s probably something to be thankful for.

Me, I think I got it, and that’s going to keep me awake tonight.

If your curiosity hasn’t been piqued by this point, I’ll not waste your time in explaining it any further. On the other hand, if you are dying to see something this twisted, then I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s available on DVD—go get it! On the third hand, if you have no desire to see the film, but want to know more about the story, BadMovies.org has a great review and interpretation, including a synopsis. But if you are interested in a scholarly evaluation of the film you may wish to read this 1975 essay from Jump Cut. It presents some interesting perspectives on the film as a satire of the Western as a form, and holds up pretty well after thirty years. However, the article comes off so pretentious in places that it’s difficult to accept that it is discussing a film with Jesus as a song and dance man, and a devil with constipation. But I’m not an intellectual, so what do I know?


*I should point out that the discussion was about the most peculiar films we had seen, not the best. At no point did she say “This is a great film!”

Ray

I watched Ray on DVD last night. I’ve been hearing the hype everywhere, it’s gotten some awards, and I like the music of Ray Charles, so it seemed like it was worth a shot. It was, but it is far from perfect.

First, while most of the acting is superb, in a “these guys aren’t usually that good” kind of way, Jamie Foxx is flat-out incredible in his portrayal of the troubled singer. He lets the role take him over without a hint of distance between actor and subject, so thoroughly suppressing his own personality that I will be hard-pressed not to think of Ray Charles when I next see Foxx act. One of his (and the film’s) most amazing feats is making you really care about the central character, even after it is demonstrated again and again how dysfunctional he could be. As presented, Ray Charles was not a very good man, although not quite ogrish, either. He was complex, and troubled, and very human, driven by demons most of us will never fully understand. It’s unusual to find a biographical film that avoids casting it’s subject as an angel or a demon, but Ray manages to pull it off.

Sharon Warren, the unknown actress who plays Aretha Robinson, Charles’ mother, is quite a find. She is given some tremendously melodramatic material to work with, almost cringe-inducing in places, yet manages to rein it in and keep it somewhat under control. In fact, for my money the most powerful scene in the film is hers, where she silently watches C.J. Sanders, the child who plays the newly blind Ray, attempt to find his way around in their shack without assistance. It was a wrenching moment, and beautifully handled all around.

However, the film falls short in other ways. While the director and screenwriter use some interesting techniques to illuminate the childhood that shaped Charles — there is some particularly interesting cinematography in the hallucinatory flashbacks — it doesn’t quite gel. Some of the vignettes are intended to be suspenseful, but they are so obviously telegraphed that I found myself wishing they’d just show us, already, and move on to something else. When Aretha started talking directly with the adult Ray to act as his guardian angel and conscience, I shuddered. Also, a cold-turkey withdrawal montage late in the film only served to remind me how much better Darren Aronofsky did it in Requiem For a Dream. Their intentions may have been good, but I suspect the film would have been much better had it gone with a more conventional narrative structure. (And that’s not something you’ll hear me say very often!)

All in all, though, the phenomenal acting adequately compensated for the failings of the script and direction. The addition of the terrific music (of course) brings this up above average. If I was the kind of person who rated films, I’d give it a solid B, maybe a B+ if I’d seen it in the theater. It’s well worth your time, but it isn’t a film for the ages.


Speaking of the medium, I made a terrible mistake when I watched this disc. The film is provided in two versions, theatrical release and extended edition. With a film I haven’t yet seen I usually opt for the theatrical version, barring some kind of contretemps indicating directorial disapproval of the released version. However, this disc indicated that the additional material was seamlessly integrated into the film, with just an on-screen icon to show this was “new” material.

What a mistake. The transitions between old and new segments were abrupt, and many times the new material reappeared later in the normal flow. In one case several different takes were shown, one after another. If I had just finished watching the film, and had selected a “Deleted Scenes” section, I wouldn’t mind. Shoving the additional footage into the flow of the film without applying any editing, though, is just stupid. Perhaps I am just spoiled by the efforts put forth for the Lord of the Rings extended editions.

"The gun is good…."

“… The penis is evil!”

This is, perhaps, the most memorable line in Zardoz, the 1974 John Boorman headtrip, starring none other than a post-Bond Sean Connery. But trust me, the film itself, while far, far from good, is quite memorable in its own right.

The scene is (maybe) a post-apocalyptic future. Humanity has degenerated into Brutals, primitive nomadic men who… wait a second. Am I honestly going to try to summarize this thing with a straight face? I think not!

I was 14 years old when I saw Zardoz in the theater. (Do the math, kids.) It was the first R rated movie I’d ever seen, so here’s how I might have described it to my friends after that first viewing.

“This movie is weird! It’s in the future, and there’s this giant floating stone head, and a bunch of primitive guys with guns chanting that the penis is evil—no kidding, it’s really funny!—and the stone head tells them what to do. The guy who played James Bond is kind of the leader of the primitive people, and he sneaks into the giant head and flies to some place where everyone’s immortal, and all the women run around topless. I think all the guys there are gay, though, because they need the warrior guy to have sex with the women to save humanity or something like that. Then this one guy talks a lot, and it turns out that the stone head is called Zardoz because of The Wizard of Oz. There are a lot of fights, and basically James Bond kills all the immortal people, which is what the leader of the immortals really wanted. And then he goes off to a cave with the woman who hated him the most, only now she likes him because he had sex with her. And then they sit on a rock in the cave and turn to skeletons. But man, you should see all the naked women riding horses!”

Having watched it twice now on DVD—I hope you appreciate this, Matthew!—I’d summarize it pretty much the same way. I would only add that (a) John Boorman clearly had a line on some good dope in the early 70s, because this is seriously psychedelic; (b) I can see how the film probably sounded like a good idea at the time, because how can you go wrong with naked chicks and floating stone heads; and (c) like the Matrix films, Zardoz wants to be taken seriously as a intellectual science-fiction film, but is really just eye-candy for geeks.

But hey, remember! Floating stone head. Naked chicks. The real James Bond. If that’s wrong I don’t want to be right.