Category Archives: Film

Notes

JustineJustine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

from an unfinished review:

…by the Marquis de Sade and his book Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, which might just as easily have been called The Philosophy of Psychopaths.

The story is about a virtuous girl, Justine, orphaned at 12, who, over the course of the next 14 years or so, falls one after the other into the clutches of the most depraved men in France. She is raped in every way imaginable, repeatedly beaten nearly to death, tortured at every stop, and generally treated as though her only value as a human being lies in her ability to please those stronger than herself — in whatever grisly or sexually violent manner that might be. Yet, through it all, Justine perseveres, preserving her piety and, spiritually if not physically, her virtue.

Sade opens the book with a dedication to Constance Quesnet, his companion and lover, in which he declares his aim to be to exalt virtue while condemning the crimes against it. It is, initially, a puzzling statement in the face of all that happens to poor Justine and in spite of her reactions to it. In fact, it isn’t until we have finally realized that we aren’t meant to feel compassion for Justine but rather contempt that it makes sense, as a joke, one to which Sade returns at the end of the novel.

Nevertheless, this is a philosophical work, even if it is about equal parts philosophy and violent pornography. Essentially (as laid out during long dialogues between Justine and her various tormentors), Sade believes that Man, being a product of Nature, not only comes by his baser instincts naturally, but ought to give full reign to them. Religion, law, morality, these are refuges of the weak, unnatural constructs that are abhorrent to the only law that matters, the law of Nature…

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarkefallofmoondust

Trust me, I get it. I get that Clarke, as a boy, found astronomy, and the moon in particular, so fascinating that it shaped his entire subsequent career. For most of the rest of us, however, the moon — in and of itself — is a pretty barren and uninteresting hunk of rock and dust. Tourists on the moon. Well, sure; I’m certain that if things worked out a particular way, we would indeed see tourists on the moon. But the tourists — that’s the problem. What the tourists would see is a lot of uninteresting rock and dust. So Clarke tries to liven it up with a moonquake and the sinking of a “tourbus” into moondusty quicksand. With characters that about as dry as their environment. (In spite of one married man with the hots for a female tourguide. Clarke seems to have been enamored with the idea of plural marriage — that is, one man, multiple wives — yet it always comes across as a bit adolescent.) I gave up on this one a little past the one-third mark.

Have you seen that U-verse commercial that asks, “When a human lands on Mars, where will you be?” My guess is, I’ll be exactly where every other human currently living will be: in his grave.

Vanishing (Golden Egg)The Vanishing by Tim Krabbe

I’ll give Mr. Krabbe one thing: he can title a story. This one — touted these days as the “novel” that inspired two films, the Dutch Spoorloos and the later American version The Vanishing — called his book (which is really a novella) “The Golden Egg,” an excellent title. “The Vanishing” is a different story altogether, since the disappearance of the young hero’s girlfriend isn’t what this tale of obsession and horror is really about. After Spoorloos, this became a “cult” book, but Spoorloos is a great deal better. The Vanishing, which turns the ending on its head and thereby justifies its title, is, on the other hand, a great deal worse. Worth reading (if occasionally lax), but be smart and watch Spoorloos, as well.

Captivity (2007), story by Larry Cohen, written by Larry Cohen and Joseph Tura, and directed by Roland Joffé

Captivity_ver2

Fashion model Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is kidnapped and tortured by mysterious Saw-like serial killer. Even dumber than Saw. Cohen and Tura treat believability like Jack the Ripper treated women. With characters who have no discernibly human psychologies and a torture house that would confuse M.C. Escher. See Elisha forced to drink puréed body parts. Or better yet — don’t.

Four_Girls_in_White_1939_poster

Four Girls in White (1939), written by Endre Bohem and Nathalie Bucknall, directed by S. Sylvan Simon

Short (73 minutes) melodrama about a group of young women who enter the nursing profession for very different reasons. One of them, Norma Page (Florence Rice), hopes to find a stable, wealthy husband, and she inadvertently ruins the career of another who genuinely wants to help people. Buddy Ebsen, as an orderly named Express, is along for comic relief.

I can’t imagine anyone going out of their way to see this film, which is at best a painless way to blow an hour. That’s really why I watched it. One of the great things about early cinema is all the sub-90-minute movies. And sometimes these short ones are quite good: She Done Him Wrong, for example, at 66 minutes, or Detour (68), Cat People (73), or Attack of the Puppet People, at 79.

According to Wikipedia, one of the titles considered for this movie was Women in White, which would have been more accurate. Norma — that is, Florence Rice — was 32 when the movie was made and Pat — i.e., Ann Rutherford, who plays her younger sister — was 22. The other two were 31 and 21. Even the kids weren’t “girls” anymore. But you know what? I never would have recorded a movie with this plot and these actresses called Women in White. (See what I did there? I said, “actresses” instead of “actors.” I’m losing feminist points right and left.)

Diva by DelacortaDiva

I was sure Diva was the first in the Alba/Gorodish series of novels by Delacorta (Daniel Odier). But I was wrong. It was, however, the first translated into English, so I guess that explains my error.

Alba is a fourteen-year-old living with Gorodish, who is in his forties and has a thing for little girls. Their adventures began in Nana (when, I believe, Alba was just 13). The English editions are labelled as “mystery” novels, but this was from a time before the Great Genre Split. Nothing — and I mean nothing — is a mystery in Diva, other than the sorts of things that are unknown in all novels, like, I don’t know, how it’s all going to turn out. What it is, in today’s terminology, is a crime novel, or a crime thriller. (Although I’m not sure this is a good thing. Back in the day, one could get a variety of works all under the same general umbrella, thereby, perhaps, expanding one’s literary horizons a bit. Nowadays, it’s rather too easy to find a niche and bury yourself in it.)

It’s sort of tangentially about Alba and Gorodish, although they certainly play major roles. But the main plot is about Jules, a young Parisian motorcycle-riding courier for RCA in Paris, who suddenly finds himself being pursued by cops and criminals alike after a cassette tape containing incriminating evidence against a local mob boss is surreptitiously slipped into one of his saddlebags. Significantly, this isn’t the only illicit cassette tape in play. Jules is an opera lover who secretly captures high-quality live recordings of his favorite operas — and divas. Singing in Paris at the time is American diva Cynthia Hawkins, famous for her refusal to sign a recording contract. That doesn’t stop Jules, though, who happens to record what many believe is Hawkins’ single best performance. When this becomes known, record companies from all over the world desperately want that tape. With all this, plus the Alba/Gorodish relationship, as well as that of Jules and Cynthia Hawkins, there’s never a dull moment in this short book.

And, thankfully, I have the wonderful pink edition.

JustineJustine Redux

I stopped writing the review for Justine because I knew Sade’s aggravating philosophy was driving me toward a negativity I didn’t feel. Reading another genre novel doesn’t really take you anywhere new, but a classic…sometimes a classic will open new possibilities and ideas, and that’s what Justine did for me. Philosophical porn was something new for me, but of course it goes deeper than that. Yes, it becomes more difficult to take as the tortures Justine suffers become more outlandish, but Sade sprinkles it all with an exaggeration that, if not exactly humorous is at least calculated to distract you from taking it all too seriously. After all, he wants to make a point, not simply gross you out.

Then, too, his point isn’t entirely wrong, not to my way of thinking. He gets it partly right, even if his conclusion is egregiously off-base. He, an atheist himself, does what many atheists do. He denies Man the specialness he enjoys in religious constructs, relegating him to Nature, but then forgets that if Man is a product of Nature, then so, too, are all his feelings of good, virtue, responsibility, morality, and, indeed, religiosity. In other words, if Man is part of Nature, then Nature can’t be defined solely by what one sees outside of himself; its definition must be expanded to incorporate what he uniquely brings to the table. For Sade, though, it’s all a Darwinian struggle in which the weak — particularly women — must always submit to the strong.

But, again, that’s okay. I don’t have to agree with what you’re saying to be interested in hearing it.

Hostel (2005)

Hostel_poster♦♦

Written by Eli Roth
Directed by Eli Roth

Quentin Tarantino co-executive produced this film which, given that Eli Roth substitutes quirkiness for narrative, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s about three young men who travel to Slovakia in search of easy, anything-goes sex and end up the victims of a
much different flesh trade involving kidnapping and murder. Roth, however, does nothing with this intriguing premise, preferring to distract us from the superficiality of his ideas with sex, torture, and snappy lines. So bereft of imagination is this story that Roth can end it only by stacking one convenient coincidence on top of another. Responding to Slovak officials who complained the film in no way reflected the reality of their country, Roth blamed his own ignorant fantasies (which include kids who kill for bubblegum!) on Americans: “Americans do not even know that this country exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them.” Presumably by perpetuating it. Offensive and badly written — but flashy — torture porn.

Eden (2012), directed by Megan Griffiths

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Human trafficking crime drama — about Eden (Jamie Chung), an 18 year old Korean-American girl who is kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a corrupt lawman (Beau Bridges) and his young crack-smoking assistant (Matt O’Leary) — confuses intelligence and resourcefulness with selfish opportunism, squandering all the sympathy we have for the girl immediately following her abduction.  Based on the lies of a woman named Chong Kim, whose story evidently was taken at face value by the filmmakers and only later shown to be fantasy when it was investigated by Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking non-profit organization.  The movie, however, retains the “based on a true story” title which, ironically, is more accurate here than in some other cases, as Kim appears to share the same vile personality traits as Eden.  For those who think making us hate inherently hateful people is an accomplishment.  Also known as Abduction of Eden.

The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson

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Fascinating, exceedingly low-key noir horror film about a young woman (Kim Hunter) whose search for her missing sister leads her to an odd cult of satanists in Greenwich Village.  From the producer (Val Lewton) and writer (DeWitt Bodeen) of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, so expect the off-beat.  The sister (Jean Brooks) says things like, “I’ve always wanted to die.”  This haunting, depressing film is not recommended for the suicidal.

Leprechaun (1993), directed by Mark Jones

Leprechaun♦½

If this movie had come out a decade earlier I might have seen it before now. I went to a lot of horror movies in the 80s, which was my heyday for theater-going. Saying that isn’t to say I would have liked it, though. I may have consumed much, but even back then I didn’t just eat it up. Most of it sucked, and I knew it. The Boogens, My Bloody Valentine, Final ExamLeprechaun would have fit right in. So why now?

Two words: Jennifer Aniston. In her first starring role. That these words now have a magic more powerful than a leprechaun’s is obvious. What was originally a poster showing the little gremlin peeking through a doorway is now a large photo of Aniston, with the little monster tucked away in a corner or shown, in silhouette, in the foreground. Even the tagline has changed: it used to say, “Your luck just ran out”; now it says, “Her luck just ran out.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wild about Aniston. But I do miss Friends. And this movie was made the year before Friends started, so we’re talking about a very young and pretty Jennifer Aniston. I’ve seen movies with much less inducement, believe me.

Is she worth it? I mean, does she make the movie watchable? I thought for awhile she might. When we first see her, she’s wearing a short dress, and there’s a lovely shot of her walking up a flight of stairs — with the camera, of course, at ground level. Before long, however, she’s changed into an awful pair of shorts and, well, the magic was gone. Permanently.

Leprechaun made money, though, quite a lot of it. I suppose Mark Jones, who both wrote and directed the film, deserves kudos for coming up with an original monster. But I was never one of those who believed that the monster was the star. I stopped watching Hellraiser because it became all about Pinhead (or that’s my sense of it, anyway). I was disappointed (and a little disgusted) that Hannibal Lecter became the focus of the sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Even when I continued to watch — I saw Friday the 13th up to about #7 and I’ve seen four or five of the Halloween films — it wasn’t because of the monster, it was because of the scenario. That my enjoyment even then generally continued to decline is probably because I was missing the point: I was supposed to root for the bad guy. And I didn’t. So, yeah, evil leprechaun, that’s different. But who cares?

This movie isn’t any dumber than others of its ilk, but it isn’t any smarter, either. It’s about a leprechaun who wants to retrieve the gold that was stolen from him and who will kill anyone standing in his way. I guess it’s too much to ask that Jones do something clever with that idea, to do for leprechauns what Stephen Chiodo did for clowns in Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Too much — because what is there really to say about leprechauns? What are the jokes? I don’t know, and Jones clearly doesn’t either. In fact, he lifts a few from clowns: we see the sprite riding a tricycle and a toy motor car. It’s kind of pathetic.

Ah, but then, so am I. Why do I still think tilting my head will make the camera go lower?

The Man From Planet X (1951), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

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Sally Fields’ mom (Margaret Field) sees an alien on the Scottish moors and is told by her astronomer father to have a hot drink and go to bed.  The pasty-faced alien — yes, dad, there really is an alien and I really did see it — turns out to be a spotter for a race of beings whose world, swiftly approaching Earth, is dying.  The nearby townspeople scurry off to lock their doors and the Constable admits that even if the men wanted to help defeat the alien, their “lasses wouldn’t let them.”  So it’s up to an intrepid American reporter to win the day for humanity.  With lots of fog and absolutely no atmosphere.  Bland.

The Legend of Hell House (1973), directed by John Hough

Legend_of_Hell_House♦♦♦

The Legend of Hell House, like the novel on which it is based, Hell House, was written by Richard Matheson. Watching it, you feel as though it almost had to be. It seems more like a companion piece than a work in its own right. The body of the story is there, but the connective tissue is missing. The individual parts aren’t so much scenes as vignettes, each of which imparts another important plot point. I suppose for that reason it’s comprehensible without having read the book, but it’ll probably leave viewers who haven’t feeling as though they missed something.

This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a terribly good one either. It is, however, different, unusual. And all of a piece. Because each scene is, really, equally important, it doesn’t build the way a narrative should. On the other hand, if the peaks are missing, so, too, are the troughs. It comes at you like a truck on a flat highway moving at a steady 45 mph. Relative to other traffic, that isn’t very fast. But if you’re standing still…

The story, of course, is the same, relocated to England. A dying rich man hires three investigators to settle the question of survival after death in the only place he knows where such an answer might be found: Hell House, a haunted mansion that has already defeated the efforts of two previous teams to solve its mysteries. The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall). Accompanying Dr. Barrett is his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).

The primary team members are all professionals, all experienced in dealing with hauntings. This helped make the book atypical in that fear wasn’t driving the characters. It’s the same thing here, but now it’s just another part of the overall tonal flatness of the film. Oh, there’s some yelling and there’s some screaming, but it’s all just bumps in the road. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s ominous, from beginning to end.

Matheson unfortunately kept his ending more or less intact. I thought it was simplistic in the book; it’s sillier here, although it has some nice special effects as one of the team members gets pushed around. The special effects, in fact, are good throughout.

The actors do well across the board and the movie is well-made. The real reason to see it, though, is for a taste of something different.

Lucy (2014), directed by Luc Besson

Lucy_(2014_film)_poster♦♦

Based on an idea that amuses neuroscientists — that human beings use only ten percent of their brain — this violent fantasy follows Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a student forced by a Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) to carry a new narcotic in her abdomen that, when it is accidentally released into her system, begins to awaken the supposedly dormant 90% of her gray matter.  Along with her ever-increasing powers of the mind comes the knowledge that she will soon die if she doesn’t get more of the drug, a mission the drug lord is determined to thwart.  Besson includes a few funny metaphorical asides by way of cuts to the animal kingdom, which, along with the gun-play and car crashes, are meant to divert us from the absurdity of the characters and story.  Morgan Freeman, for instance, plays a scientist whose childish daydreams of expanded brain-use are treated as respectable scientific theories; meanwhile, Lucy’s incredible new intelligence includes a convenient black hole in the area of her battle with the drug lord.  Lucy’s self-absorption is understandable, but her amoral anarchism is not.  For mavens of mayhem only.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958), directed by Bert I. Gordon

Attack_of_the_Puppet_People_Poster♦♦♦½

Lonely doll-maker (John Hoyt) uses his own invention to shrink people he likes to doll-size so that, unlike his wife, they can never leave him.  His latest victims — his pretty secretary (June Kenney) and her salesman fiance (John Agar) — have other plans.  Exemplary B-movie that earns a suspension of disbelief with unexpected moments, humor, and a creepy theme.  Underrated, but with an appreciative cult following.

The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Running_Man_Theatrical_Poster♦♦♦½

The Running Man earns the right to switch on the No Thinking sign with Richard Dawson’s performance. Dawson, not Arnold Schwarznegger, holds the movie together, and he does it so pitch-perfectly that nit-picking seems like an exercise in masochism.

In fact, there’s less to complain about here than in Stephen King’s novel. King’s undefined and contradictory society becomes a police state; his self-destructively angry hero becomes a man falsely accused; and his game, in which innocent bystanders and policeman are targets, becomes a death-match between “criminals” and hired guns, played out in a derelict and empty part of the city. I won’t say it makes sense, exactly, but it makes a lot more sense than the book — just enough for us to be able to ignore it as we grab another handful of popcorn.

Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, former cop and fall-guy for the government’s murder of scores of civilians during a food riot. His subsequent escape from prison is national news, bringing him to the attention of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of “The Running Man,” a popular and sadistic television show. When recaptured, Ben is coerced into appearing as a contestant on the show.

Schwarzenegger has complained that director Paul Micheal Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” That makes Glaser a hero in my book. “Deeper themes”? Give me a break. This movie doesn’t get any deeper than Ben’s double entendres just before or after he kills someone (“He had to split,” he says of a man he’s cut partially in half with a chainsaw).

As for the rest, it’s the television show that makes this movie fun. Dawson, whose 10-year run as host of The Family Feud had only recently ended, plays his evil twin with a fidelity no one else could have matched. Off-air, he’s an egotistical martinet, but on-air, he’s an affable master of audience manipulation. It would have been so easy to inject a smarminess in his portrayal as a wink to the audience that, really, game show hosts are beneath us, but Dawson plays Killian straight, and the movie is better for it. I think it succeeds because of it: if we questioned Killian, we’d question everything else.

Then it would have been no better than the book.