The ABC’s of March, Part One

I’m pretty busy, of late. Besides my day job and weekly show, writing work has been coming in a pretty steady clip and it’s rare enough that I don’t like to turn it down. So, of course, I had to grab another challenge when it cropped up. At least this one is specifically for me.

6152c48c-6549-48e5-8dc8-1f1229185cdeI’m a member of the movie social media site Letterboxd – I even paid them some money for a few perks and to keep their servers running. The most valuable features, to me, were a movie-watching Diary function and a Watchlist of movies I want to see someday. (I honestly had no idea the IMDb had such a function). To top that off, the Watchlist can filter the movies down to the ones available on Netflix Instant – very handy.

So while perusing the site, I saw something called “March Movie Madness” mentioned on one of the many lists that proliferate through the site, went to the original listing, and found this: “For each of the first 26 days of the month of March, we’ll all watch a movie that begins with each successive letter of the alphabet. In other words, on March 1st, the title of the movie you watch must begin with an “A,” on the 2nd a “B,” on the 3rd a “C,” and so on and so forth.”

Well, that’s the sort of combination of discipline and anarchy that appeals to me, so I said, “Sure, why not?” (Luckily, March 1 was not quite over when I saw this). The major problem this produces for me – besides the time management thing – is that it leaves little time to write about the flicks, and I actually kind of prefer the roominess that one movie per post allows – but needs must, when the devil drives, as they say. Some of you are probably relieved by that news.

Attack the Block (2011)

attack-the-blockAttack the Block was getting a lot of recommendations last year. It’s a pretty novel approach to the alien invasion movie, firstly in that it isn’t really an invasion and secondly in that it mostly takes place in a rundown Council tenement in London. And our heroes are a gang of thugs.

Creatures start raining down on London inside meteors, and the first one runs afoul of our heroes, interrupting  their first mugging and getting kicked to death in response. When more bigger, uglier and meaner examples of the creature start landing and pursuing our thugs, it turns into an intriguing mixture of Night of the Living Dead and Die Hard, as the thugs must team up with their mugging victim (they never would have picked her had they known she lived on The Block), and also having to deal with a pissed-off minor league drug lord who’s pretty sure they’re responsible for the cops running all over the place.

Writer/Director Joe Cornish manages the difficult task of extracting sympathy for the youth gang after that rough beginning, and the plot’s progression is logical, exciting and doesn’t skimp on the humor, either. Nick Frost has nice little role as the drug lord’s pot proprietor, controlling The Weed Room, which turns out to be the most heavily armored, secure place in the Block.

attack-the-block-hallway1The creatures are impressive, too, nightmarish combinations of ape, dog and black light poster. Filmed in costume on the set, their appearance is sweetened with CGI, rendering their fur a light-absorbing black, and multiplying the nifty feature of glowing teeth. The mixture of practical and computer effects provides the proper combination of savagery and other-worldliness.

One word of advice to American viewers: Turn on the subtitles, at least until you grow used to the cadence and slang. I also love that the Chav equivalent of “Respect” is “Ratings”.

Black Narcissus (1947)

BlackNarcissusLobby3Well, that’s certainly a tire-screeching change if ever there was one. There was a time when Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger represented the best of what British cinema could achieve, and this is a high-ranking exhibit of why.

A group of Anglican nuns is invited by the local mucky-muck to take over an abandoned brothel (in a more genteel time, this is referred to as “a palace for the General’s women”) high in the Himalayas. Apparently a group of monks tried the same thing the previous year, and only lasted five months.

Once there, the sisters set up a school and an infirmary. The local British Agent, Mr. Dean, is petty cynical about the nun’s mission, and immediately clashes with the Sister Superior, Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). The altitude, the constant wind, the vast, empty vista and the exotic local culture all begin to wear on the sisters; they find their faith eroding, and memories of their lives before the cloth intruding more and more into their daily affairs. We experience this mainly from the point of view of Clodagh, but there is one sister – Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who was none too stable to begin with, who becomes obsessed with Dean and determines to leave the Order to be with him – much to Dean’s dismay and abrupt disgust. His dismissal is the final act that will send Ruth into madness, and her jealousy of Clodagh will reach a tragic end.

BlackNarcissus4Possibly the most amazing thing about Black Narcissus is that the mountainside convent was achieved totally in the studio, with glass shots and matte paintings. Powell felt absolute control was necessary to the success of the film, and to be sure, things that are normally disastrous in such travelog-type movies, such as mismatches between footage shot in the field and in the studio, are not to be found here. The movie won an Oscar for art design – well deserved – and Jack Cardiff was similarly rewarded for his cinematography and astounding use of light, inspired to some degree by the paintings of Masters like Vermeer.

The acting can swing to the deep end of melodramatic, but then, this is 1947. Flora Robson as Sister Philippa, the gardener, gives the most subtle, yet touching performance, as the sister so shaken by the memories awakened by the locale, that instead of vegetables, she plants a garden full of flowers. The cagiest part of all this is once we see Clodagh and Dean take an instant dislike to each other at the beginning, we know these two are going to get together; it’s Hollywood law. But though they do get closer, and start to respect each other more and more, it never happens, it can’t happen. The audience finds itself in the same state of unfulfilled longing as the characters.

Come for the pretty pictures, stay for the intriguing spiritual crises.

Cronos (1993)

cronosGuillermo del Toro’s marvelously assured debut feature provides a unique take on the vampire legend. A 16th century alchemist creates a clockwork scarab he calls The Cronos Device; it houses an insect of unknown specie, and winding up the device and allowing its various appendages to bite into your flesh does indeed imbue you with immortality, but at a horrific price. The fact that our alchemist dies in an accident in the early 20th century proves that it works. A dead body hanging in his mansion dripping blood into a dish also proves the horrific price.

The possessions of our nameless alchemist are auctioned off, the Cronos Device concealed in the base of an archangel statue. That statue comes into the possession of an aging antique dealer (Frederico Luppi), unaware of its cargo, or that a rich, cancer-ridden man (Claudio Brook), owner of the alchemist’s notebook, has been looking for the statue for some time. A none-too-subtle  thug examining the statuary in his shop causes the dealer to discover the Cronos Device, accidentally using it, finding himself feeling much more youthful than he has in ages, although he has this peculiar thirst for blood… And he also falls afoul of the rich man’s harried nephew Angel (Rod Perlman), who isn’t afraid of breaking the law, and people, to get what his uncle wants.

cronos2Cronos starts with a horrific vision and then is satisfied to simply ramp up the tension and the weirdness, finally re-entering the realm of out-and-out horror in the half hour. It’s marvelous to see some of the del Toro motifs in their larval form, as it were: A fascination with clockwork gears grinding like the wheels of justice;  insectile lifeforms; and the startling ability of children to deal with situations that adults cannot or will not. It’s an intriguing film that takes an interesting path to tell its tale, and it’s very nice to see the first outing of what would become one of film’s foremost voices in the realm of lyrical horror.

Diabolique (1955)

les diaboliquesHenri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is hailed as a suspense masterpiece; the only problem with approaching it in 2013 is that everything which was daring and new at the time has since been appropriated time after time by other movies and other directors.  On the Criterion Blu-Ray, Kim Newman makes the point that most of William Castle’s career was spent doing remakes of Diabolique.

The wife and mistress (Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret, respectively) of an abusive asshole (Paul Meurisse) join forces and plot to murder him. He’s the principal of a boy’s boarding school where they both teach. Over the course of a three-day weekend, they drug him, drown him in a bathtub, then deposit the body in the school’s neglected swimming pool, all the while providing themselves with a solid alibi. After several days, the corpse has not cooperated by surfacing, and the mistress manufactures an excuse to drain the pool. When there is no corpse found in the pool’s murky depths, things begin to get weird.

The suit in which the man was drowned returns from a dry cleaners, freshly pressed. A boy claims the Principal has told him to clean up the yard for punishment. The face of the missing man seems to be eerily present at a window behind a school group picture. Either someone knows about the murder and is scheming to blackmail the women, or the unthinkable has happened, and the man has returned from the dead.

500fullAs I said, it’s really hard to put yourself back in 1955 when all the twists were new; it’s like trying to figure out why people were fainting during the 1931 Dracula. The remove is too far; that once-shocking coin has been spent over and over again, and in our presence to boot. The climax, once so terrifying, still packs a punch because it’s so very well done, and to give Clouzot credit, there had been so many twists and bizarre mind games played with the viewer up to that point, I was still uncertain what I was witnessing was actually the truth. I still feel it runs a bit long at nearly two hours, but there’s not much in the way of fat to be trimmed.

Good movie, but perhaps I let myself be led astray by its reputation. I really loved The Wages of Fear, and that also elevated my expectations. I’d still recommend it, but be aware you’re likely going to find it awfully familiar going.

Okay, that’s it for now. I still have a movie to watch today, after all.