Friday, October 30, 2009

Movies I Have Never Seen, Part 4: Halloween special

PhotobucketWhy it's famous: Like, duh -- one of the top horror movies of all time, and the father of uncountable modern slasher flicks in its wake.
What I thought: Well, this is more than a little embarrassing a movie to admit I've only seen now at the age of 37. "Halloween," though, is kind of one of those movies you feel like you've always seen -- faceless killer Michael Myers is just part of the zeitgeist. And in my defense, way back in the dreary 1990s at some point I got dragged to see a really bad "Halloween" sequel, let's say Part 4 or Part 6 or somesuch, and it was so bloody awful that I was really turned off on the whole franchise and never saw the original.

Plus, while I love a good horror movie, I tend to loathe slasher films. Give me monsters, give me zombies, give me mutants or creatures from black lagoons, but guys with knives stabbing lotsa pretty girls in inventive fashion have never done it for me. I've never seen a "Friday the 13th" movie or a "Saw" movie, and have no plans to. Not my bag.

But "Halloween," of course, is a bit different. It's the template for a million inferior knockoffs, which is its curse, but on its own merits it's a chilling and spooky little flick. What surprised me is just how NON bloody it is -- I think you barely see a splatter of scarlet the entire flick, and how brooding and moody director John Carpenter makes it. Really, the whole movie is a very slow burn with Myers stalking teen Laurie Strode and her friends, with the "action" so to speak only coming in the final 30 minutes.

PhotobucketBut Carpenter is a master at evoking mood -- his chilling "The Thing" and campy "They Live!" have long been favorites of mine -- and he casts a cold, clinical eye on placid Haddonville, Illinois, using long stretches of silence punctuated by startling bursts of his iconic musical score to heighten the tension. Carpenter plays it subtle, in other words, using now-cliched tricks like the killer who won't die or the "gotcha" moments in restrained fashion. The scariest moments of "Halloween," I thought, are the ones where you just vaguely see Michael Meyers lurking in the background, an almost subliminal shape in the shadows. Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first movie role, is quite good too as "the girl," giving a bit of toughness to her victim's part.

The biggest problem watching "Halloween" for the first time in 2009 is that the beats it hits, the innovations of its story, have all become rank cliche in the years since -- which is a tribute to Carpenter, but makes it a bit paint-by-numbers in some sense. It's kind of like watching "Psycho" when you know what happens in the shower, or not seeing "Star Wars" until you're in your thirties -- a little of the shock of discovery is gone. It's done with immense skill, though, and that sets "Halloween" apart from the infinite bloodbaths that it inspired.
Worth seeing: Definitely, preferably on a dark and silent autumn evening with the wind whistling outside.
Grade: A-

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Life in New Zealand: year four!

PhotobucketThe years, they whiz by like lightning now. It was just about exactly three years ago that we were in transit – arriving in New Zealand to start our strange bold new lives, 6000 miles away from my homeland. Three years now I've been living in New Zealand, and according to my wife who keeps track of all the legal stuff (I just sign forms now and again) I'll become a citizen soon enough. (That'll make six passports for the three of us!)

It is a bit tricky now from the comfort of our little Auckland home to summon up how unrooted and nomadic we were for a spell there, back in 2006 -- packed up our old life in Oregon, a little cross-American rambling before we left, and showing up in a damp and humid Auckland spring to start anew. We're "settled" now -- bought a house, got jobs, the boy started school this year, all the usual things that make up a living.

The US is never very far away in my mind and I sometimes find myself defending it to a few folks who unfortunately have a rather broad or stereotypical view of a nation as sprawling and yes, fundamentally good as I think America is -- I never thought moving to another country meant I suddenly gave up on the US. (Indeed if I had to list a pet peeve of living in New Zealand, I'd say "people bashing America for the heck of it" would be one of 'em, but I really don't try to be too thin skinned about it -- we bash Australia a lot worse down here.)

I've covered the ups and the downs of life in NZ now for the last few years, and while I'll always be a "foreigner" here, I feel a lot more clued in than I was the very first time I visited this antipodean land more than nine (!!!) years ago now. I always tell people I honestly don't know if we'll stay here "for good" -- is there such a thing? I've moved a lot, lived in several American states and ever since finishing high school it's rare I've stayed in the same place more than four-five years or so. But we are very glad to be here, here and now, and tomorrow, as they say, is another day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Movies I Have Never Seen, Part 3

There are many movies in the world, and who has time to see them all? Here's three more classic movies I've long meant to see, but only recently viewed -- and what I thought of 'em.

PhotobucketWhy it's famous: From 1920, it's one of the earliest horror movies, a silent-film landmark of German expressionism and haunting imagery.
What I thought: This creepy tale is one of those movies many have heard about but few have probably actually seen, I imagine. It's a story of magic, hypnotism and murder, set in a surreal village. The mad Dr. Caligari and his sleepwalking servant Cesare wreak havoc in a story that seems to be drawn like a fairy tale; the film's distinctive shadowy, painted set design was hugely influential on horror and noir movies to come. It's a movie to watch for style -- admittedly, the characters are fairly shallow and the acting quite hysteric by today's standards, and the "it was all a dream" ending was probably a bit of a cliche even back in 1920, though. But nearly 100 years on "Caligari" remains disturbing -- the sleepwalking, wide-eyed Cesare is a nightmarish figure who'll stick with you.
Worth seeing if you haven't: Absolutely. You have to get in a particular mindset to watch silent movies from today's vantage point, of course, but this one is brisk, creepy and strange, and the dazzling visuals are still haunting, like watching a painting come to life.
Grade: A-

PhotobucketWhy it's famous: Robbie the Robot, man! Classic 1956 science fiction that attempted to be a bit thought-provoking and was a big influence on "Star Trek" and "Doctor Who" among others.
What I thought: Once you get past seeing "Naked Gun" star Leslie Nielsen as a straight man, this yarn plays like a really good episode of "Star Trek," basically. It's inspired by Shakespeare's "Tempest," of all things, and features a crew of space explorers who stumble upon an alien world where a mad scientist's experiments have gone awry and a strange alien civilisation is coming back to life. The story raises some serious philosophical issues about the psyche and human nature, although it occasional gets a bit bogged down. It's got a stark, striking sense of design, including the nifty robot Robbie who went on to become a "celebrity" in his own right.
Worth seeing if you haven't: Yes, although it may seem a bit slow and obvious in patches, but the great visuals and trailblazing themes make it work. And of course there's Robbie, the coolest robot until the Terminator came along.
Grade: B

PhotobucketWhy it's famous: The only film actor Charles Laughton ever directed, this 1955 noir has grown in reputation as a strange, haunting film that marries religion, sex and death like few other movies of the era.
What I thought: Like a fever dream collaboration between Flannery O'Connor and David Lynch, "Hunter" is one peculiar, mesmerizing movie. Demented serial killer and preacher Harry Powell (a never better Robert Mitchum) seduces a widow trying to get at her late husband's hidden fortune, but doesn't reckon with the willpower of her children. What follows is equal parts chase thriller and meditation on man and sin. Laughton's style is unique and strange; perhaps the closest comparison I can offer is some of Michael Powell's movies like Black Narcissus. It's expressionistic, yet has flashes of cold reality. Of course, "Hunter" was a flop at the time, but has since been recognized as the masterpiece it is. Mitchum is stunning – a sleazy, sexy and sinister beast, one of the best movie villains I've seen. Those "HATE" and "LOVE" tattoos on his hands have of course become icons themselves.
Worth seeing if you haven't: Definitely -- one of the best "lost classics" of the era I've seen, and deserving of its ever-growing reputation.
Grade: A

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Things that I have been doing other than blogging:

• Finally finishing the 2-year project of painting pretty much every room in our house by painstakingly turning the mottled jaundice yellow Formica of our master bathroom into a shining cheerful blue and stripping the bubbling ceiling and repainting it.

• Listening to much nifty music from The 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson, The Eels and Big Star.

• Having a cosmos-shattering blog crossover by meeting fellow Auckland blogger, comics fan and journalist Bob of the Tearoom of Despair, whose passionate comics posts are well worth reading.

• Watching Kenneth Branagh give a nifty smouldering performance in the dark and intense Swedish-set BBC detective series "Wallander."

• Waiting in line in hopes I get tickets for the Pavement reunion show right here in Auckland.

• Bought a new toaster after the old one reached the end of its 2 1/2 year lifespan. They sure know how to make things last these days, don't they?

• Listening to the alternating bouts of intense rain and intense sun that make an Auckland spring.

• Peter asked a girl in his class to marry him. In writing. Because he loves her. How did it go? "She said she'd play with me but only if I DON'T love her."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Five Kinds of Vampires

It's October, Halloween is nigh, and everyone's doing spooky blog posts. You don't get much spookier than vampires, which for my money are the top monster movie villains of all time. According to Wikipedia -- and I'm not 100% certain of it myself, but it sounds cool -- Dracula has been the subject of more films than any other fictional character.

Bram Stoker tapped into something primal about sex, death and immortality when he wrote 'Dracula' way back in the day, and ever since then vampires have been the go-to for grim and gory and Gothic grandeur. But say you need some blood sucked somewhere -- what kind of vampire might suit your vamping needs? In my exhaustive study of the vampyr mythos (I watched every episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" after all), here's my thoughts on the Five Kinds of Vampires, each of which blends into each other a bit -- kind of like mixing bloodlines, I suppose. Ew!

The Lugosi

PhotobucketSeen in: "Dracula," duh.
Characteristics: You think of vampires, you think of Bela Lugosi, and his "I vant to suck your blood" performance in 1931's "Dracula." Black cape, formal wear, thick accent, spooky stare, it's all here. While seen today his turn verges on parody, in it are the bones of horror. As a movie, it's actually not quite as good as a lot of its successors or other Universal monster movies of the time, I think, but still worth seeing.
Place in vampire history: Where it all began. He's been imitated many times, including such worthies as Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman, but Lugosi deserves his place in coffin lore for his groundbreaking, hugely influential portrayal. Nearly every other type of vampire takes a bit of Lugosi and builds on it.
See also: The Shadow

The Aristocrat

PhotobucketSeen in: Any book by Anne Rice, Christopher Lee's many "Dracula" movies, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" by Coppola, "Fright Night," "Underworld," "Dark Shadows"
Characteristics: A direct descendant of The Lugosi, but with added sultry. The aristocrat can either be a fancy-pants European sort, or perhaps in the American version, more likely a glorified bad boy outsider with a nice leather jacket. You wouldn't want to go on a date with them, but with a kind of sexual allure all the same. (And for the record it might be heresy, I really think Tom Cruise did quite a nice job as the Vampire Lestat, myself.)
Place in vampire history: Until "Buffy" came along and raised the prospect of actually dating a vampire, the Aristocrat was the most popular of its kind.
See also: The Sexy Beast

The Sexy Beast

PhotobucketSeen in: "Buffy/Angel," "True Blood," "The Lost Boys," "The Hunger", and sort of, in "Twilight"
Characteristics: He's hot, he's dangerous, he's dead.
Place in vampire history: Right now, vampires couldn't be sexier. And while they're still killers, they're pretty hot it seems -- I'd say "Buffy" was the modern instigator of this old trend, with Buffy and her vamp boyfriends Spike and Angel doing all the brooding and such. Sex and vampires have been entwined from the start, of course, but it's only more recently that it seems you can have long-term relationships with them. The fantastic TV series "True Blood" is perhaps the most interesting current take on this. On the other hand the wuss Edward from "Twilight" is a dampened-down tween version of the beast, Mildly Threatening Sparkly Beast.

The Shadow

PhotobucketSeen in: "Nosferatu," "Let The Right One In," "Near Dark," "Salem's Lot."
Characteristics: As insubstantial as smoke but as deadly as a nightmare, the Shadow is the vampire you're not really sure exists until it grabs you. It either is silent and horrifying, such as Max Schreck's terrifyingly iconic turn in the 1922 film, or perhaps appears to be a normal if slightly "off" person at first, like in the great recent Swedish film "Let the Right One In." This one is closest to the mythological version of the vampire that Stoker drew on for his defining novel.
Place in vampire history: Schreck's hugely creepy performance still stands up nearly 100 years on, and is actually considered by many to be even more definitive than Lugosi's. And as I wrote a while back "Let The Right One In" is basically "Twilight" done right. Not as common these days as other types of vampires, the Shadow is tremendously effective.
See also: The Abomination

The Abomination

PhotobucketSeen in: "30 Days of Night," "Blade," "From Dusk Till Dawn," "I Am Legend."
Characteristics: These vampires are nowhere near human. Slobbering, blood-drenched ghouls, with stretchy jaws and an infinite abyss of razor teeth, they're probably the most "modern" interpretation of vamps. But while they're menacing and very gory, they kind of lack the human mystery and romance that make vampires what they are over the years. Nobody would want to date them. Good for a scare, though.
Place in vampire history: For folks who like their blood suckers bloody, but less iconic than others.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wednesday shuffle: We're gonna have a TV party tonight / all right!

PhotobucketOne of the things I quite like about New Zealand spring is the asparagus. Asparagus is awesome, contrary to what I might have thought about it in my youth.

One of the things I dislike is that the weather can often be, to quote Crowded House quite appropriately, "four seasons in one day." Sunny morning, gale-force winds afternoon, rainstorm followed by sunshine. Repeat until summer.

1. Alone (Shakin' Sugar) (demo) 3:16 Wilco
2. Like It Or Not 4:59 Genesis
3. Kiss The Bride 4:23 Elton John
4. TV Party 3:31 Black Flag *
5. In The Mouth A Desert 3:52 Pavement
6. The Grey Estates 3:26 Wolf Parade
7. Things You Can Do 5:26 TV On The Radio
8. 40 Flights Up 5:12 SJD **
9. Heresy 3:54 Nine Inch Nails
10. Automatic Man 1:39 Bad Religion
11. Aurora Borealis 2:45 Meat Puppets ***

* Going from the frothy glossy mid-'80s pop of Elton John to the stark punk of Henry Rollins in one shuffle is guaranteed to induce whiplash.
** A very fine song from a really good Kiwi electro-pop musician.
*** I have always thought "Meat Puppets" is one of the 10 finest band names in existence. In fact I long ago vowed that if I ever formed my own band, I would call it "Sperm Bandits" in a kind of sideways homage. The only thing stopping me is my complete lack of musical or singing talent.

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Classic Comic ABCs: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen V. 2 #5

PhotobucketI can't believe I've gotten nearly halfway through the alphabet in my letter-by-letter survey of favorite comics in my 25+ years of comic collecting, and I have yet to bring up Alan Moore. But where do you start with the man who, I think it's fair to say, is regarded as quite probably the finest writer ever to delve into comic books? Do you go with "Watchmen," "From Hell," "Swamp Thing," "V For Vendetta," "Miracleman"?

But trying to come up with a comic that begins with "L" to fit this here series, one title kept hopping in my mind -- "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." It's a shame that the general public only knows about this through the shockingly awful Sean Connery film bomb, because the original comics, to my mind, are perhaps Alan Moore's most interesting work since his 1980s explosion of ideas. "League" tells the tale of a group of characters from popular Victorian fiction who've banded together – Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Mina Harker of "Dracula," Allan Quatermain and many more. But over several miniseries and graphic novels the concept has expanded to, as Moore has put it, an opportunity to "merge all works of fiction into one world."

PhotobucketIf I had to pick one single issue of "League" that dazzles me the most, it's the unforgettable fifth chapter of the second serial, "Red In Tooth And Claw." As London battles the Martian invasion from H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," the League try to stop an impossible foe. But Moore intertwines the Martian invasion with a deconstruction of the League itself -- Mina and Quatermain become lovers, several League members die, and Victorian fiction never seemed quite so disturbing. In perhaps the most famous scene in this book, the terrifying Edward Hyde slays the evil Invisible Man, who has turned traitor to the Martians. The death of the Invisible Man here would rank in my top 10 most disturbing comics scenes ever. (Perhaps more because of what's not shown than what is shown). It's old hat to "reimagine" old tales but there's something truly disquieting about how artist Kevin O'Neill shows us the unseemly, icky side of characters like Dr. Moreau or Sherlock Holmes.

Comics have, over their history, becomes a vertitable ouroboros -- a snake eating its own tail – as they spiral back on their own history more and more. Alan Moore acknowledges this in much of his work, but what's so cunning about "League" to me is his encyclopedic scope in expanding his eye to all realms of fiction.

Of course, it doesn't always work -- the "Black Dossier" League installment became so sprawling and meta-fictional that it kind of lost track of the simple pleasure of the story. But when League is firing on all cylinders, you get a sense that "everything is connected," and it kind of makes you rethink your relationship to stories as you witness such a vast and never-ending tapestry. These tales work first as stirring old-fashioned adventure, but secondly as a kind of passageway into the past. In fact, entire books have been written annotating Moore and O'Neill's laundry list of homages and cameos in these books -- and I'd have to say reading the chatty and well-researched annotations of Jess Nevins is just about as interesting as the original stories.

It's impossible for me to pick the one best Alan Moore tale -- that's like choosing your favorite Beatles song or John Updike's best single sentence -- but "League" is certainly in the top five in my book.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, and finally K: Kingdom Come.)