Sorry, everyone, but I am definitely still alive. A little more battered and beat up, but alive. This has to have been one of the most grueling Augusts ever, and I’m not just talking about the Texas heat. The frickin’ month isn’t over yet, but I do sense a light at the end of the tunnel. And then I take a moment to laugh at myself and my superstitious belief that bullshit will confine itself to an arbitrary chronological construct.
Let’s see, I think I told you I was working on two writing projects, one of which is actually paying me money at the moment, so that takes up a fair amount of my time. When I do get a couple of moments to rub together, I briefly contemplate whether to blog or watch a movie.
Hm. Blog entries take four hours or so. Let’s watch a movie instead!
Then the guilt sets in, and then I’m asked for another thousand words explaining what we’re doing in this project. Could we have that this evening, that would be good? And before you know it, another week has whizzed by.
My project’s not on the hotseat this week (so far). Football season started today, which means my wife is monopolizing the TV. So. Let’s reminisce.
Criterion recently released Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and if there was ever a movie that deserved such treatment, boy, this is it. Rebounding from his studio manhandling with Mimic, del Toro’s third feature is a masterpiece of mature storytelling, ironically using children as his protagonists. If you’ve not yet seen it – and you should – it takes place in a boy’s orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, and its new arrival’s encounter with the ghost of a boy who supposedly ran away but was actually killed, his body hidden away in a forbidden part of the compound.
There is always a strong undercurrent of melancholy running through del Toro’s best work, and this is the movie where it solidifies and informs all characters and events. Though the orphanage is secluded, far away from the War, its reality is never far away, not the least because an unexploded bomb in the courtyard that serves as a constant reminder. The ghost is at once eerie and heartbreaking, and del Toro’s slow unfolding of what actually happened to him is gripping.
This can remind one of Pan’s Labyrinth quite a bit (and an eventual Criterion release of that seems a foregone conclusion), but that movie got a pretty wide release. I’m happy Devil’s Backbone is now out on the market again, for those who missed it the first time around.
Then there was a looooong period – almost two weeks! – where I didn’t get to watch anything. And what do I use to break the drought but the movie that almost killed Howard Hawks’ career, Land of the Pharaohs, which Warner Archive recently put back out.
Historical Spectacle films were all the rage in the 50s, so its only natural that Hawks should make one; this one takes place during the reign of Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with dying with all the toys and taking them with him. In his conquests, he has pillaged many tombs, and he seeks to build a pyramid that will more adequately guard his treasure vault. Since he came close to losing his last campaign because of some cleverly engineered booby traps, he blackmails their creator (James Robertson Justice) to design his pyramid, with the freedom of his captive people as a reward. All this is made much more complicated by the arrival of a scheming woman (Joan Collins, barely 22 years old!) who becomes Khufu’s second wife, and who is plotting to get all that treasure for herself.
Land of the Pharaohs was a commercial flop, which prompted Hawks to take several years off to travel Europe, until he returned and made Rio Bravo. The reasons for Land‘s failure are not readily apparent. Its plot is no more ridiculous and turgid than any other Spectacle film(even with a writing credit for William Faulkner), and in fact it has some clever twists and nice court intrigue. The money is all there on the screen, and Hawks deals with his crowd scenes beautifully. The triumphant return of Khufu and his army at the beginning, and the scenes of hundreds of men building the pyramid are breathtaking, and must have been moreso on the big screen.
It’s not like the movie came late in the cycle; The Ten Commandments opened the next year, and it did gangbusters at the box office. It could be pointed out that Land has no Biblical material, and therefore didn’t have that built-in draw. It’s probably more telling, however, that Hawks has no big-name stars to drape his story around. Hawkins was a credible performer whose career went back to 1930, Justice has undeniable presence and likewise had a healthy career, but neither man had any marquee value. This is Joan Collins’ tenth credited role, but her fame was definitely ahead of her. Unusually, there are very few instances of what one could call “Hawks Scenes” in evidence, character scenes with rat-a-tat dialogue. Maybe it was felt those would be too modern in tone.
I caught the end of Land of the Pharaohs some twenty years ago on late night TV, and it stuck with me long enough to get the disc when Warner offered it. While not a hidden gem, it is an entertaining movie. I don’t know what 1955 was thinking.
Then one evening I was all alone in the house, There was a thunderstorm threatening outside (but never arriving). So it was obviously time to watch the new Evil Dead.
First, let me say I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t love it, either. I really appreciate the set-up: That our characters are at the secluded cabin to help one of them go cold turkey off drugs. That’s a breath of fresh air right there, and perfect for the early stages of Things Going Wrong, when no one believes her that bad things are in the offing.
I must admit that yes, once things get going, they are suitably intense and unpleasant, but this is also definitely an Evil Dead for the Saw generation – almost all the horror is based on acts of self-mutilation. There are a number of things that peg the “oh-come-on” meter (like the most incredibly sharp electric carving knife in the history of the world), but I also appreciated the shout-outs to the original movie. Also, star Jane Levy is a definite keeper. She does all the heavy lifting, and then some; she goes for the gusto. Decent horror movie, but I can see why it’s been so divisive to the fandom.
This was about the mid-point of August. One of my stories at the Day Job bungled into an ongoing feud between two offices and I was really sick of the continuous bullshit engendered in what has come to be known as “The Neverending Story”; so I took a day off and went to my pal Dave’s to watch movies far from the madding crowd.
Grabbers is a fun flick from Ireland that, once more, I would not have known existed had it not been for Internet movie critic Scott Weinberg. The main story itself is not so original: a meteorite brings with it a bunch of hungry tentacled monsters that start mistaking the populace of a coastal island for a buffet table. Now, I really love monster movies that take place in an isolated locale: Island of Terror, Tremors, Monolith Monsters, and now I can add Grabbers to that list.
Here’s what makes this one unique: alcohol is toxic to the monsters, so everybody on the island has to get really drunk really fast. And still have to deal with bloodsucking alien octopodes. As Dave points out, as bad as the aliens in Signs had it, being allergic to water and then invading a planet that was three-quarters covered by the stuff, these beasties have it even worse because they can’t stand booze and they landed in Ireland. We will also quickly note that Dave is quite proud of his Irish heritage and kept nodding throughout, going, oh yeah, that’s right. Old Irish drunks will feck ya right oop.
Best of all, unlike Attack the Block, I didn’t have to turn on the subtitles to understand anybody.
Dave had a disc from Netflix he’d been sitting on a while: Superbad. He had gotten it so he could finally understand all the inside jokes on Reddit. However, “There’s no way in hell I’m watching this alone,” so in it went.
I think it is safe to say that I am not the target audience for Superbad; on top of that, I’m not even sure who the target audience actually is. Then, I watch a hell of a lot of movies that fit that descriptor, so what the hell. I will say that I enjoyed the McLovin, arc, where an uber-weedy little nerd with a fake ID finds himself riding with a pair of unconventional cops (one played by co-writer Seth Rogen), and I found the movie’s final scene in a mall unexpectedly bittersweet. But the rest of the time, I was reading comics on my iPad.
We finished up with Europa Report, a science-fiction movie that had been getting good word, and found it deserves every bit of it. It’s the story of a manned flight to Jupiter’s moon, Europa; there is a power surge several months into the trip that fries the communication array, cutting off all contact with Earth, and the crew decides to go ahead with the mission anyway. There are more problems, even a fatality, along the way, but once they land, they find the initial reports were correct, there is a significant amount of liquid water with unusual heat sources under the moon’s ice. What’s more, there may be something moving under there.
Europa Report is in the found footage format, and before you start moaning and groaning, it ain’t Apollo whateveritwas. Most of the footage is from the ships internal cameras, and, really, it all makes quite a lot of sense. The science is fabulously hard, probably the best we’ve had in a space movie in some time. There’s a bunch of familiar faces here, too, like Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Embeth Davditz and Daniel Wu. Very good, serious movie. I also haven’t seen a space movie with this much heart since Moon. Highly recommended.
We’re in the home stretch now, hold on. Last week I managed to get in one movie, and it was The Four, Gordon Chan and Janet Chun’s movie version of Wen Ruian’s novel The Four Detective Guards, and supposedly the first of a trilogy. This is basically X-Men in a wuxia setting, which is interesting because what attracted me to wuxia in the first place was that it presented the best expression of super-powered people in action until recently.
Somebody is counterfeiting coins and causing a panic, and an elite police unit known as Department 6 finds there is another police force also investigating, called The Divine Constabulary, under orders of the Emperor himself. Led by the ever-reliable Anthony Wong, it’s this group that has the super powers, with names like Iron Hands, Coldblood and Life Snatcher. Our Professor X character (not Wong, surprisingly) is a young lady called Emotionless, confined to a wheelchair, but a powerful telepath and telekinetic.
The story gets off to a rocky start but soon finds its feet. At about the halfway point we got zombies, and the last twenty minutes or so has the big action scenes the viewer has been desperately wanting for most of the movie. It’s a fine finish, certainly good enough for me to look forward to the next installment.
Looking at my clock – yep, it’s been four hours, more or less. Now for another hour for pictures and YouTube clips, another hour of rewrites, and then I can finally face tomorrow unafraid.
Oh, yeah, fat chance of that.