masque 1This film is based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t worry; it’s very short, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever written.

The film begins with an old woman gathering firewood in a bleak landscape when she encounters a strange figure clad entirely in red. And right away, we suspect there is something odd going on, because Edgar Allan’s story makes no mention of any peasant women gathering wood. 

The figure in red hands the woman a rose, and tells her to take it to her village and inform them that their day of deliverance is at hand.

She returns to the village, just as the wicked Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is arriving. The people of the village live in poverty as Prospero reigns over them. Two of the village men, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), stand up to Prospero, and he is on the point of having them executed when Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads for clemency. Just then they are interrupted by a scream, and Prospero and his guards find the old woman who brought the prophecy of deliverance has died of the plague known as the Red Death. Prospero leaves the village, orders his men to burn it down, and takes Ludovico, Gino and Francesca as his prisoners.

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Again, I can’t stress this enough: so far, almost none of this has any relationship to Poe’s story. We have a guy named Prospero and a thing called the Red Death, but otherwise it might as well be a different story.

Could it be because Poe’s story is 14 paragraphs long and takes about ten minutes to read? Maybe it’s not ideally suited for a 90-minute film? Well, as we’ll see, the writers came up with, um, creative ways of dealing with this problem. 

Come to think of it, Poe’s story didn’t mention any naked women in bathtubs either, but that’s what we get next: Francesca is taken to the chambers of Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court) and stripped not only of her peasant garb, but of the cross which she wears around her neck. Prospero orders her to remove this symbol of a “dead god.”

Prospero and Juliana are in the habit of holding orgiastic Court balls, at which Prospero orders the guests to abase themselves in various ways, such as imitating animals–he commands a man to crawl like a worm and woman to walk on her hands and knees in imitation of a donkey. He is a hedonistic, cruel, and in the very worst sense, decadent man.

He is also a Satanist, as we discover through his conversations with Francesca. And a weirdly pragmatic Satanist at that. The world is cruel, he reasons, and so there can be no God of Love, as described in the Christian tradition. But his conception of the deity is not as a God of Hate, but rather one of “reality.” The world is full of evil, and thus must be ruled by evil, according to Prospero’s thinking. As he explains:

“The world lives in pain and despair, but is at least kept alive by a few dedicated men. If we lost our power, chaos would engulf everything.”

This is the best Vincent Price performance I’ve ever seen, precisely because he’s so calm, so almost rational, in the way he explains his malignant philosophy. With Price, there was always a hint of a wink to the audience that he knew this whole thing was a bit silly anyway. That element is still here in his performance as Prospero, but instead of seeming like a trait of the actor, it seems like one of the character. It’s as if, as he lives out his nihilistic beliefs, he’s come to see it all as a meaningless joke. Which makes him all the more terrifying. And here we do at last see some overlap with Poe’s story, wherein he writes of “the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests.”

Speaking of jests, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the fact that there is a sub-plot running through this film that’s based on another Poe story, Hop-Frog. There’s a jester called Hop-Toad who seeks revenge against one of the other royals at Prospero’s court. It’s a weird story that doesn’t add a lot, although it’s not wholly out of step with the rest of the piece. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s just weird. But then, this is weird fiction, right?

Anyway, Juliana has grown jealous of the attention Prospero is giving Francesca and so she…

Actually, wait. First, let me give you more background on Juliana. She’s already asked to join Prospero’s cult. She’s been engaging in various Satanic rituals with him, including branding herself with an inverted cross. So, what do you think she does to Francesca?

That’s right! She gives her the key to the dungeon where Gino and Ludovico are being held and tells her the outer guard has been bribed so they can escape. They flee from the dungeons, Gino and Ludovico stabbing a few guards as they go. They reach the castle exterior, but are met there by Prospero.

Francesca’s first thought is “Juliana betrayed us,” which is what I assumed too, but then Prospero snarls that Juliana betrayed him. To me, this says that Juliana really was trying to help. And I have to ask… why? It seems rather out of character. Seems to me Juliana would have been more likely to arrange some unfortunate accident for Francesca.

This is the midpoint of the movie. The three good characters are recaptured, seemingly with no hope for escape. Prince Prospero is devising more cruel tortures for them, while preparing for his grand masquerade ball. So, naturally I’m going to pause to talk about dramatic tropes.

In many ways, this movie is just a classic Gothic melodrama, of the sort that had been a cliché for over a century: the evil nobleman kidnaps the innocent maiden and must be stopped by the brave hero. This is such a well-worn trope that it practically exists only as a parody of itself. W.S. Gilbert was making fun of how silly it was about 90 years before this film was made.

Poe’s story, on the other hand, is not at all a stock melodrama. It has no heroes. It has no virginal maidens. It barely even has a plot. It has instead a series of strange and expertly-rendered scenes, which vividly impress themselves upon the mind of the reader, creating an uncanny mood of despair. I very rarely go in for symbolist interpretations of fiction, but here? The colors of the different rooms in the Prince’s castle, the chiming of the great clock of ebony, the Red Death itself–all point to a story being told on a level beyond rationality and firmly in the realm of allegory.

It’s pretty normal for film adaptations to make a story much more formulaic than the book it’s based on. Often, there’s not as much time for all the details and nuances of a book in a film. In this case, it’s probably more to do with the fact that audiences expect a typical three-act structure with recognizable heroes and villains. A truly faithful adaptation of Poe’s story would be a weird art film that no one would understand. Studio execs would never give funding for that. They want a film with good guys and bad guys and blood and near-naked ladies and sword fights!

But here is where it gets interesting. A typical story would just be adapted into the formula and everything that made it different or interesting would stripped out. The result is a film that’s dull and predictable. Not quite with Masque of the Red Death though. This one is so weird that it actually resisted the formula and stayed weird anyway. In fact, it might be even weirder because of this strange mashup of Gothic tropes, the eerie imagery of Poe’s original story, and a dash of psychedelic 1960s Satanism thrown in.

For an example of the last, I give you the scene in which Juliana pledges herself to The Evil One. She takes a drink of something, and then has a hallucination where she is strapped to an altar while bizarre demonic figures dance around her and make thrusting and stabbing motions at her while she writhes in terror. Gosh, I wonder if this was meant to symbolize anything? (Rosemary’s Baby was made four years later, in case you were wondering. The 1960s was a good decade for the Prince of Darkness’s cinematic career.)

After this vision ends, she considers herself betrothed to the Devil. And then for some reason she gets pecked to death by a falcon of Prospero’s that hangs around the giant clock. The guests are horrified on discovering her body, but Prospero only smirks, “Celebrate for Juliana–she’s just married a friend of mine.”

Some readers may be aware that I don’t enjoy fiction that depicts violence against women, and it’s a testament to just how cheesy the special effects here are that I was able to watch this. The hallucination scene is creepy but vague enough I could handle it. The bird attack is simply ridiculous.

In the meantime, Prospero has devised a challenge of poisoned daggers for Gino and Ludovico, since they refuse to fight one another to the death. The challenge results in Ludovico’s death and Prospero bizarrely letting Gino flee into the countryside, on the assumption that he too will be killed by the Red Death raging outside the castle walls.

In the desolate forest, Gino meets the Red-robed figure from the opening scene, who gives him a Tarot card. He then goes on to find the few survivors of the plague-riddled village making their way to Prospero’s castle to seek sanctuary. Care to guess how that works out for them? Put it this way: at the end of it, all of them are executed by Prospero’s crossbowmen except for one child, who is left to wander outside the walls.

And now at last Prospero’s masquerade begins. The Prince himself appears to be dressed as Omar Sharif’s character from Lawrence of Arabia. Who wore it better?

There is only one rule at the Prince’s debauched orgy: no one is to wear red. Anything else goes, including Hop-Toad setting one of the guests on fire. Like the man said, “to whom life and death are equally jests…”

Gino has managed to scale the walls of the castle, where he again meets the figure in red, who tells him to wait outside, and he will send Francesca out to him. This has to be a moment of mixed emotions for Gino–here he was, all set to be the hero of the piece, and he gets told to stand and wait by some mysterious apparition. We don’t see him again for the rest of the film. This is what I mean about Poe’s weirdness beating the formula.

When Prospero sees the figure in red moving among the revelers, he pursues him through the colored rooms, until at last reaching the black room, where he bows before the figure, believing him to be Satan himself. The red figure declares it is time for a new dance to begin–a “dance of death.” At which point, all the guests die of the Red Death, but continue to dance.

The Red figure sends Francesca outside, and then tells Prospero that he is not Satan, nor a servant of his, for “Death has no master.” Further, “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell,” he tells Prospero, who then demands the figure unmask, revealing the face underneath the hood to be Prospero’s own, only covered with blood. In terror, the prince tries to flee, but is blocked by the bloody corpses of his guests and finally crumbles into death near his own black Satanist altar, at the hand of the Red figure.

The final scene is an epilogue of sorts, revealing the Red figure again in the desolate forest from the beginning of the film, playing with the young child abandoned outside the castle. More robed figures in different colors appear, each telling of how many they have claimed that night. The red figure pronounces that only six remain alive in his territory: the child, Francesca and Gino, Hop-Toad and his lover, and an old man. “Sic transit gloria Mundi,” the figure murmurs, and then they file off in a funereal procession, and the credits roll.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Poe’s story is an allegory for the inevitability of death. The Masque of the Red Death is frequently used in high schools to teach how allegory works because it’s such a slam-dunk; you can’t miss it.

But is that also the theme of the movie? I’m not sure. Moreover, I don’t think the people who made the movie were sure.

There are a lot of mixed messages in this movie. Francesca, Ludovico and Gino are pious and devoted Christians–except, as Prospero points out, Ludovico and Gino both kill guards in their attempt to escape, which by their own religion is a sin. Shouldn’t they have been willing to be martyred instead, like the early Christians executed in the Roman arena? And Francesca ultimately is willing to pledge herself to Prospero, if he will spare Gino’s life. Is this not a betrayal of her faith?

Maybe not. After all, Gino and Francesca are spared the Red Death, and Ludovico dies a noble death confronting Prospero. But why are they spared? Is it really due to their faith or the quality of their character? The hooded spirits at the end don’t seem to be passing moral judgments. They’re just killing some people and sparing others; and their reasons for doing so are ambiguous.

And then of course, there are all of Prospero’s carefully-crafted arguments for Satanism that go strangely unanswered. Like:

Prospero: If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.

Prospero: Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.

I am the furthest thing from a religious scholar, to be clear. And yet, I think even I know the proper Christian response to this, which is that the Kingdom of God is separate from the material world, and the virtues of Christianity are rewarded in the next world, not in this one. But Francesca doesn’t say that. She just says she has no learning and thus can’t answer the prince’s arguments. 

It’s a longstanding tradition in fiction that the villains always get the best lines, but Prospero gets to make the case for his literally hellish philosophy, and nobody ever rebuts it. You might think the avatar of the Red Death itself would, but it doesn’t. It seems to be, as another highly-questionable philosopher would say, “beyond good and evil.”

Thematically, the movie just can’t make up its mind as to whether it’s supposed to be a traditional morality play or a morally nihilistic grotesquerie. You think it’s going one way, and then it goes the other. It’s… weird. 

This is a good adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in spite of itself. Even for all the melodrama, the pointless Hop-Toad sub-plot, the hammy acting, and the special effects that aged quite poorly, it still leaves you with that feeling of uncanny, despairing fear that Poe’s story gives you. You feel like you’ve walked right to the edge of some sketchy borderland between stock melodrama and something else that is quite unusual, rather interesting, and very unsettling. Going back would be boring, going much further would be terrifying. 

sleepy hollowDidn’t I warn you I’d talk more about the adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” Well, here we go with the first full sound film adaptation of the famous tale. (There was a silent film in 1922.)

Now, admittedly, it’s an animated film. 

And it’s a musical.

And it’s by Disney.

And, for some unfathomable reason, it was originally shown as a double-feature with an animated adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. I have no idea why. Maybe Disney was planning to create a horror anthology and do a musical animated version of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, and got mixed-up. But probably not. Although that would have been much cooler.

Fortunately, it’s possible to get this film as a stand-alone piece, usually with its proper title, Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I won’t bother to re-hash the plot here; I covered that in last week’s post. The basic plot is more or less faithful to the book, though with the predictable Disney caricature-ization. 

Ichabod is portrayed as a scrawny glutton. This is in keeping with how he’s described in the story, but it really looks weird on the screen: he’s always eating, and yet he’s comically thin. It seems incongruous, but maybe that was the point. Brom Bones is basically spot-on; I have no issues with him. And then we have Katrina, who I don’t think ever actually speaks or sings in the film, while Bing Crosby sings for both Ichabod and Brom Bones. The big show-stopping number is Brom’s recounting of the horseman legend set to music.

When Ichabod finally meets the Horseman, he is everything you could ask for:

Iceraichabodmrtoad5626

Note, however, that he carries a jack-o’-lantern from the start, rather than his decapitated head. I guess Disney didn’t want to traumatize kids too much, which is why the final dash for the bridge in which the ghostly rider pursues Ichabod is played more for slapstick comedy than horror. Not good. On the other hand, the film seems to emphasize the supernatural nature of the horseman, and downplays Brom Bones’ involvement.

Bing Crosby’s narration is appropriately spooky, especially the shudder in his voice as he says “I’m getting out of here!” at the end.

I remember watching this cartoon on VHS when I was a kid. My mom got it for me one Halloween, and I must have seen it a hundred times. I had a toy riding horse that I would sit on and pull my sweater up over my head and wave a sword while the climactic chase scene played out. I figured it looked pretty terrifying, and it’s true that this cartoon is aimed at an audience young enough to believe that, but it’s still a fun story, and while the characters may be drawn in a goofy, Disneyfied style, the backgrounds are actually pretty gorgeous.

All in all, a decent adaptation. There certainly could be much worse… as we’ll see next week.

220px-The_Wind,_2019_Theatrical_Release_Poster

[As is my wont, I’ll be spoiling everything. Although as you will see, I’m not the only one doing that…]

The Wind is a psychological horror western. The opening scene tells you that this is not going to be a light movie: Elizabeth Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) emerges from her remote cabin, covered in blood and carrying a stillborn baby, while two men stand solemnly outside. The scene then cuts to the men burying the baby and its mother, who is missing a portion of her head. 

There is no dialogue in this scene; just three grim-faced people and two corpses, and the howling wind in a harsh and desolate landscape. The first lines don’t come until the next scene, when one of the men—Elizabeth’s husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman)—tells her that he and the widower Gideon (Dylan McTee) will be gone for a few days, leaving her alone in her cabin. Elizabeth hardly responds to this, instead simply repeating “How did she get my gun?”

Elizabeth tries to go about her daily routine, but is constantly on edge. As she’s hanging laundry, she is attacked by wolves, forcing her to retreat into the house and shoot the wolves through the door. Or are they merely wolves? The scratches on the door seem awfully high, and strangely fit the shape of a human hand. Later, she finds a goat carcass with its side ripped out—and then encounters it again; seemingly healed and oddly threatening.

The film soon turns into something like a montage of flashbacks and flash-forwards, explaining how Elizabeth found herself in this situation. It moves around so much that I’m not going to try to summarize everything in the order the film shows it. I’ve seen some reviews that complained the flashbacks were confusing, but I didn’t have too much trouble following which scenes related to which. And even when I did, the disordered structure sometimes—with a big exception I’ll address later–makes the gradual revelations more interesting and powerful. It does, however, make the film hard to summarize.

Briefly, what seems to have transpired is this: Elizabeth and Isaac lived alone in their remote cabin. At some point, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but he was stillborn. They make a grave marker for him with an “S” for “Samuel” carved in a stone. Later, Gideon and his wife Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) showed up, and although Isaac thinks them a bit “funny,” he and Elizabeth invite them over for dinner, where it quickly becomes clear that Gideon and Emma don’t really get along very well.

Emma has some strange ideas about the plains, which eventually become a superstitious fear of them.  She also has a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth and Isaac, both for their toughness and their kindness towards her and Gideon. 

Emma soon falls “ill”—meaning pregnant—and begins to behave strangely. At one point, she’s in such a state of fear over some unseen threat that Elizabeth advises Gideon to tie her to the bed. Emma reads from a mysterious little pamphlet about demons of the prairie, which includes the names of various such spirits. She also hints, ominously, to Elizabeth about her expected baby’s name, asking her to guess it. Elizabeth guesses “Gideon” and then “Samuel,” but neither is correct. After she guesses “Samuel,” Emma says “I’m not a monster.” This is probably the most significant point where the non-linear structure works in the film’s favor—we find out after this scene that Elizabeth’s stillborn was named Samuel. (The name Emma has in mind is, of course, Isaac.)

More strange things happen; both in the present and in the past. Emma believed there was “something out there” at night, and in the present, alone in her cabin, Elizabeth feels the same. An old preacher (Miles Anderson) arrives briefly, and Elizabeth hosts him for breakfast and then allows him to stay in the opposite cabin, telling him not to answer the door for anyone after dark.

Naturally, he arrives back at Elizabeth’s door in a panic that night, screaming that there is “something out there.” Elizabeth, despite her own advice, lets him in, and he asks her why she stays here, since she knows of the evil presence that haunts the land. He then says “Surely Emma would have…” and this horrifies Elizabeth, since she never mentioned the existence of Emma to him. At this point, the man turns into a glassy-eyed monster, and Elizabeth flees the cabin in terror, finding the preacher’s body on the ground the next day.

Elizabeth is increasingly haunted by visions of Emma, or rather, Emma’s corpse-like ghost, appearing to her and saying, “Lizzy, where’s your gun?” She is further disturbed when, on finding Emma’s diary, the entries seem to hint that her child was fathered by Isaac.

Finally, Isaac returns, finding Elizabeth on the verge of a breakdown and contemplating suicide. He tries to comfort her, but soon begins to argue as she insists on the existence of an evil presence. He finds the same pamphlet about demons that he had previously burned, and becomes infuriated with Elizabeth, ultimately tying her to the bed just as she advised Gideon to do to his wife.

As Isaac and Elizabeth fight, she cuts herself free of the ties with a shard of glass and…

Okay, folks, here’s the Big Spoiler! At least, I think it is. I pretty much figured it out five minutes in, when it was clear just how dark this movie was, but anyway…

In a flashback, we see that the pregnant Emma was behaving strangely one night, screaming wildly in the rain, and Elizabeth shot her after wrestling her gun away from her. In the present, as Isaac realizes this, Elizabeth struggles free of her bonds and stabs Isaac in the throat, killing him.

She stumbles out of the cabin, and into the field, and here we get the flashback that made the least sense to me—the reverend, back in his kindly preacher persona, handing Elizabeth the pamphlet about demons. I have no idea when or where in the timeline this was supposed to have occurred. In any case, the film ends with Elizabeth lying wounded on the empty plains.

So, that’s the bare-bones outline, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I said at the beginning the disordered narrative didn’t confuse me too much, but as I wrote this, I realize maybe that isn’t completely true. There were actually a couple scenes where I didn’t know the chronology. That is, I thought I did when I watched it, but thinking about it some more, I’m now not sure they occurred when I thought they did.

There is clearly supposed to be a strong unreliable narrator component to this story. Is Elizabeth just making all this up because she’s paranoid? Does she kill Emma because she’s jealous that she is having a child, and hers died? Or because she suspects Emma is having an affair with Isaac? And if the latter, is she right, or is she imagining all of it? Are any of the supernatural elements real, or are they all just in Elizabeth’s head? Isaac seems to think so, although it seems very hard to account for most of Emma’s behavior by chalking it all up to Elizabeth being crazy.

At one point, Elizabeth is shown reading to the pregnant Emma from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the classic Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. I suspect this is actually a sort of double-reference: it’s both a nod to the tale itself, and also to Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic fiction, whose protagonist imagines herself to be in such supernatural tales as Udolpho, though in fact she is not. I think something similar is supposed to be going on in The Wind. 

There were definitely moments when I was worried it was going to turn into It Comes At Night all over again. (Spoiler Alert: In It Comes At Night, nothing, in fact, comes at night.) But ultimately it wasn’t that; not quite. It’s much closer to The Haunting, where it’s truly ambiguous whether there are supernatural beings or if the heroine is just suffering from some combination of grief and serious psychosexual disorder. You could make a case either way, really.

I happened to stumble across this movie completely by chance while checking for some other film at my local theater. I saw the combination of horror and western and was immediately intrigued. Then I started reading the reviews, which described it as a revisionist western with a female lead, a spare, tight script, lots of long silences that say a lot, and gorgeously desolate landscapes that give an overall feeling of isolation. Some also alluded to the way the story is gradually (some complained too gradually) revealed through flashbacks.

All of this could also describe Jane Got a Gun, which is one of my favorite films ever. I absolutely love movies in remote desert settings, and female protagonists are also a plus. The element that differentiates this from Jane, of course, is that it’s a psychological horror flick rather than a romantic thriller. And psychological horror with unreliable narrators is very much my cup of tea.

I know not many of my readers are gamers, but there’s a term from gaming lingo that fits almost perfectly here: modding. At its most extreme, modding is when people build essentially a new game using the underlying assets—physics engines, graphics, music, etc.–from some existing game, often completely changing the plot and tone. The Wind is about what you would get if you did a horror mod of Jane Got a Gun.

And, like most video game mods, it’s kind of rough in places. In particular, the acting here is pretty uneven: Gerard is fairly good, Zukerman (who reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart) is good, Telles is decent if a little wooden, and McTee…

Well, I’m not going to say he’s a bad actor. Maybe he was following his directions, or maybe the scenes were shot in a hurry, but the upshot is that his line readings are really flat. At first, I wondered if maybe this was deliberate, but I don’t think it is. However, he’s not in it that much.

Wind+Demon+cardThe cinematography, on the other hand, was great. I know some reviewers, who apparently have the attention spans of espresso-drinking hummingbirds, thought it was “boring” and “slow,” but I personally can’t get enough B-roll of the wind howling over desert hills or shutters creaking in the twilight. The film’s only 86 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. And this demon pamphlet! This may sound silly, but seeing it in the trailer was what ultimately convinced me I had to watch this movie. I haven’t seen such creepy drawings in cinema since the sketches at the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies.

Also, there’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes mystery here, in that some people claim this is a remake of a 1928 silent film, also called The Wind, based on a 1925 novel of the same name. I haven’t seen the 1928 film, nor read the book, but seemingly they are also about a woman in a relationship that goes disastrously wrong, and who is driven mad by the howling wind on remote prairies. The demonic element, however, is not mentioned in the synopses of the earlier works. If anyone has seen/read either of these, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Now then, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did I like this thing or not?

I love unreliable narrators and ambiguity in horror. It’s one of the coolest tricks in storytelling, in my opinion.

But, having seen and written quite a lot of deliberately ambiguous stories by now, I’ve come to realize there’s a dark side to this technique. And no, I don’t mean the dark side that unreliable narrators usually turn out to be bad people.

It is very easy for ambiguity and unreliable narration to become the last refuge of a bad storyteller. Does your plot not make a whole lot of sense? Are your characters’ motivations maybe not so clearly defined, even in your own mind? Hey presto! You can just introduce ambiguity and unreliable narration and suddenly, these flaws disappear. It was supposed to be like that all along! It’s not that your plot doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s “ambiguous” and “raises questions.” 

I know this because I myself have been guilty of it in some of my short stories. I thought I was so clever for doing it; but I think in reality this can easily become a subconscious crutch a writer leans on to avoid having to actually flesh out the characters, or iron out problems with the story.

And don’t get me wrong: when it’s done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of realizing you’ve been reading or watching a different story than you thought you were. The gold standard for me is The Repairer of Reputations, but there are plenty of other examples. 

But like anything that’s so effective, it’s really hard to do it well. Put a single foot wrong, and you make a mess of the whole thing. The Wind does a lot of things right, but it makes a few mistakes—the big one being that it seems so weird from the outset that you’re already primed to be on edge and question what you’re seeing. It walks up and kicks you in the gut and says “All right; maggots! This is a dark and terrifying movie you’re about to watch!”

The best horror doesn’t do that. It seduces you at first. It presents itself as a normal, even borderline cliché story that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And only then, once you think you know what you’re dealing with, does it start to mess with your mind.

I think this is the unarticulated problem at the root of all the complaints about the non-linearity of the plot. The problem isn’t that it’s out of order as such, but that it starts off with a scene that is gruesome, unsettling, and ambiguous. The audience immediately starts asking questions, and—the film not being willing to provide any easy answers—starts speculating about what exactly happened here. And they know, given how grim the tone is, that anything, however horrible, is a possibility.

If you’re planning to pull some twist on the audience, you don’t want them asking questions at the beginning. You want them thinking they’ve got it all figured out, and then you start to slowly make them realize that they don’t.

All that said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s bold and different, and many of the individual scare scenes are quite well done. There was one jump scare that got me; and I’m pretty hardened against such things. 

And the atmosphere! I know I went on about it already, but these bleak deserts just never get old for me. If anything, I wish the filmmakers had given us more of these windswept plains, let us hear more wolves baying in the distance, until we can’t help but believe that yes, of course there is something evil out there—how could there not be? An extra ten minutes of that at the outset might have made the whole thing work better.

I guess I’d say I was disappointed with the film, but that’s only because I think there’s potential here for something really awesome, and this only scratched the surface. It’s so rare to get a film that even tries to do some of these things, though.

The Wind is not a film for everybody. There’s violence, one (totally unnecessary) sex scene, a childbirth scene that’s gut-wrenching to watch, and a ton of disturbing images. (It’s not exactly shown onscreen, but the film strongly implies how Elizabeth removed Emma’s infant from her after her death.) I have a very strong aversion to films with violence against women, which made some scenes tough to watch.

But if you can stomach all of that, and you like creepy, unsettling psychological horror in harsh, barren settings, it’s worth a watch.

220px-A_Star_is_BornNote I had to say that this is about the 2018 version, as opposed to the 1937 version, the 1954 version, or the 1976 version. This concept of a young woman being plucked from obscurity by an older male star and rising to fame is an enduring one, apparently. In this edition, the young woman is named Ally, and portrayed by Lady Gaga, and the man is named Jackson Maine, and portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who also directs.

I’d give you the plot summary, but in truth, I pretty much just did: there’s not a lot to the story besides what I outlined above. The two meet, Jackson instantly sees Ally’s promise, and soon has her singing onstage at one of his concerts. Before long, the two are married, and Ally is skyrocketing to fame, while Jackson is plagued by alcoholism and lingering issues from his troubled family life. All seems poised to work out until…

Spoiler Warning!

…Jackson kills himself, apparently because of a combination of worsening tinnitus, and the fact that Ally’s manager, Rez, has taken a dislike to him. No, really; he has a brief confrontation with Rez, in which Rez tells Jackson to keep away from Ally–that’s right; from his own wife--and Jackson hangs himself afterward. I wasn’t buying that.

Look, I don’t want to be flip, but there wasn’t much more to the movie than that. I’m not saying it’s an awful movie–most of the performances are good, and I’ve always liked Lady Gaga, even though I’ve never listened to her music. She has a very nice voice, and most of the musical numbers are therefore pleasant to listen to.

It just felt… artificial. The story is not a complex one, apart from the sad ending, which seemed tacked-on to give the story weight. Though, in fairness, this seems to be an inherited trait from the original. I think that someone back in the ’30s (Dorothy Parker, probably) realized there was no interesting way to end the story unless somebody died.

Well, it showed. The quality of the plot seemed soap-opera-ish to me. Indeed, I get the idea that the writers must have felt that what they had was rather saccharine, and so they were looking for a way to make it edgier.

The answer the writers appear to have hit on was to use the F-bomb as much as they possibly could. It is used as an intensifier when people are angry. It is used when they are not angry. It is used repeatedly in casual conversation, and for no apparent reason. An occasional “goddam” is sprinkled here and there, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

To be clear, I have no problem with strong language. There are times when the scene and the character demand the strongest obscenities a writer can command. These words exist in our language for a reason, and when the situation arises should be unhesitatingly deployed.

But the word is used too liberally here; and by many different characters. It is used so much it grates on the ear. At a certain point, I found myself wishing they would use a different word, any word, even if it were one more hideously offensive than the obscenity du jour, just to break the monotony.

And I hate to make this accusation; I really do–but I have to believe this was done just to make this “PG” story a solid “R”. There’s some brief nudity that I suspect was included for this reason as well. But that was only for a second; if they had taken the same approach to nudity as they did to language, everyone would have gone around naked for half the film.

(If anyone’s wondering, the single best use of an obscenity I’ve ever seen in cinema occurs in the comedy The Brothers Bloom. That’s some effective swearing.)

Again, it was not a terrible film, but I didn’t feel like it was a must-see. A decent romantic drama; nothing more. It felt overlong to me, but then, the easiest scenes to cut would be the songs, and I think everyone would agree those are also the best parts.

I’ll be honest: I wish they’d written a new story. Something else with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga singing, as opposed to just giving an old story a new coat of obscene paint. But I guess this theme is one that resonates with people, and has for a long time: the idea that a seemingly ordinary person can be elevated to the ranks of the wealthy and famous–it’s a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story, in the spirit of Horatio Alger, and therefore will probably always be popular.

220px-Bandidas_(movie_poster)I happened to see the end of this movie on TV the other week. I’d never heard of it before, but I like Westerns, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

Maria Álvarez (Penélope Cruz) and Sara Sandoval (Salma Hayek) team up to get revenge on Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a sinister land baron who is taking control of huge swaths of Mexican land. In the course of the land grab, he murders Sandoval’s father, and nearly Alvarez’s as well.

Initially, the two women fight with one another about various petty disputes. (Maria is an unsophisticated farm girl, Sara is wealthy and educated.) But both want to avenge their fathers and help their countrymen, so they begin robbing banks to give back to the people, after training for time with a “retired” bank robber. (Sam Shepard.)

The fame of “las bandidas” grows, and eventually they team up with a detective named Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), after they convince him of Jackson’s immoral methods. The trio pulls off increasingly daring and complicated heists, until finally Jackson tries to flee the country by rail with all the gold from the bank of Mexico.

It seems hardly necessary to say it, but of course, the bandidas foil him, having learned to work together as partners, and respect one another as friends. They are a little disappointed when Quentin returns to the U.S. with his fiancee, but they still happily ride off into the sunset together.

It’s a fast-paced and funny film, with over-the-top action sequences and complicated bank robberies that don’t make much sense (e.g. where did Sara find the ice skates she uses in one heist?) but it doesn’t matter, because they are fun to watch, and Cruz, Hayek, and Zahn are all likable heroes.

A few times, the bickering between the two women does get a little tiresome–but the film moves so fast it’s hard to complain about it too much. The other thing that annoyed me was a scene where, to demonstrate his quick-draw prowess, the former bank robber shoots the hat off Maria’s head. I hate it when movies make it seem like guns are toys for doing magic tricks. Granted, this is an over-the-top action comedy, so it’s in keeping with the overall tone, but it still grated on me.

It was interesting to watch this so soon after writing this post about female characters. On the one hand, this film doesn’t shy away from cheesecake-y shots of the stars. If you want examples of “male gaze” in cinema, there are plenty in Bandidas. At one point, Maria and Sara dress up as burlesque dancers and pose sexily with Quentin. During their bank robber training, they do push-ups in a river while wearing low-cut blouses for… some reason.

But despite this, it never felt like they were being objectified. Sara and Maria aren’t driven purely by a desire to please men, and their friendship isn’t destroyed by their attraction to Quentin. They are fully-realized characters in their own right. The movie easily passes the Bechdel test–not only do they have conversations that are not about men, they even have one that’s about the rudimentary principles of gold-backed currency! (I propose a “Gambrel test”: do characters in a film have at least one conversation about economic theory?)

In short, the film seemed sexy without being sexist. At least, that’s how it struck me. It’s a lighthearted, somewhat cheesy Western comedy that never takes itself too seriously. It’s not a deep, thought-provoking film that you’ll think about for hours afterward. But it is a lot of fun while you’re watching it.

A_tale-of-love-and-darkness-poster
Image via Wikipedia

[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]

I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.

Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)

All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.

The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.

This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.

Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.

Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.

The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.

Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)

Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.

The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.

I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.

However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.

Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.

Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.

I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.

And then something amazing happened.

I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.

(more…)

Valerian_and_the_City_of_a_Thousand_PlanetsThis movie is based on a French sci-fi comic series called Valerian and Laureline. I’m not sure why they didn’t just call the movie that, because Laureline (Cara Delevingne) gets at least equal screen time with Valerian (Dane DeHaan).

The film begins by showing the aforementioned “City of a Thousand Planets”–a massive space station where millions of species, including humanity, all coexist. This is followed by a lengthy sequence of primitive, peace-loving aliens frolicking on a beach and collecting pearls, only to be interrupted by missiles and burning spaceships falling from the sky. A few of them manage to seek shelter in a crashed ship, but the alien Emperor’s daughter doesn’t make it, and he watches in horror as she perishes in the fiery destruction of the planet.

Agent Valerian wakes up suddenly, having apparently just dreamt the apocalyptic scene. He and his partner (in both the romantic and professional senses) Laureline are assigned to retrieve a “Mül converter”–a small alien creature which Valerian saw on the doomed planet of his vision.

After much bickering and flirtatious banter, Valerian and Laureline arrive at a trans-dimensional market where a deal for the converter is being done. Along with a team of soldiers who looked like they were auditioning to be in a Borderlands movie, they get the converter and escape from the gangster who was selling it.

As they examine the creature, they learn that the planet Mül was destroyed 30 years before, although the details of this are classified. Mysteries!

On returning to the City of a Thousand Planets, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of dangerous radiation growing within the station. The Commander is attending a summit of the species on the station to discuss the threat, but is kidnapped by aliens similar to the ones Valerian saw in his vision.

Valerian gives chase, but falls into the supposedly deadly radioactive area himself. Laureline eventually manages to track him down through performing what I can only describe as “fetch quests” that are too complicated to explain here. She eventually finds Valerian, but is then captured herself by another type of alien, which then forces Valerian to rescue her, which is another fetch quest that involves watching a shape-shifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna) perform a pole-dance.

As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up. But it might not be as bad as I’m making it sound.

Maybe.

Anyway, they eventually get back on track and manage to find their way to the center of the station, which turns out to be not irradiated at all. They meet the aliens who kidnapped the Commander Filitt , who explain that their world was destroyed when Filitt fired powerful missiles at an enemy ship, annihilating both the planet and the enemy fleet. He then classified the data to cover up his war crime.

The Emperor also tells them that his daughter’s spirit has been reincarnated in Valerian, which is why he received visions guiding him to this point, where the few survivors of the attack were taken in the remains of a damaged ship, and have since been working to build a new vessel that can recreate their homeworld. All they need is the Mül converter and a pearl–both of which Valerian and Laureline provide.

The kidnapped Commander–who has been unconscious to this point–awakens and Valerian and Laureline confront him for his crimes. Unrepentant, he defends his action as necessary for humanity and orders his personal robot guards–who, along with the rest of the military, have surrounded the alien ship–to attack and kill everyone.

Valerian and Laureline fight off the robots, and escape along with the remaining aliens. The Commander is left behind for the military authorities on the station to arrest. The Mül aliens part ways with Valerian and Laureline, leaving them to enjoy a romantic interlude while await rescue as the credits roll.

It’s a goofy, weird, often campy, but still fairly entertaining movie. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on a comic book, I probably would have guessed it–everything about it feels like a comic book, from the action scenes to the art style.

About that art style: there are tons of CGI shots in this movie. Sets, characters, backgrounds–huge swaths of it are digitally created. And it’s kind of obvious. In all but the most distant scenes, the graphics are, in my opinion, pretty fake-looking. There were some scenes that looked like Playstation 2 games.

If you’re a fan of high-quality graphics, this may be disappointing. But since the whole story felt like a whimsical comic book adventure anyway, I was able to write that off as just part of the style. Comic books are known for bold colors and fantastic scenery, not photo-realism; so I could live with it.

The acting from the two leads was nothing special, but it was mostly passable. A few of the bit parts (especially Alain Chabat, who plays a submarine pirate named Bob) are pretty well done, although they don’t get much screen time.

One final note for weirdos like me who are fascinated by movie weaponry: the mixture of guns in this film was very strange. Some of the soldiers seemed to have plain old AR-style rifles, like present-day Earth armies use:

obvious AR 15 is obvious

But other times, the weapons were a bit more bizarre:

fake sci-fi guns

(And yes, that thing Laureline has is a weapon, even though it looks like a bottle of water.)

I’m not sure why this was or if it was even a deliberate choice, but I found it odd. It instantly surpassed the question of why people are always getting knives in Ghost in the Shell as the big movie weapons mystery of 2017 for me.

Anyway, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is far from a great movie. It may not even be a good one. It’s simultaneously very weird and extremely predictable, which is kind of amazing in its way. But as a light bit of silly science-fantasy fun, it gets the job done. It’s more fun to watch something weird with a little new flavor than to just watch yet another installment in an established franchise.