Category Archives: Mystery

Walden pondering: Upstream Color ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2013)

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You know all those Weekly World News-type stories about people allegedly kidnapped by aliens, who perform horrible experiments on their hapless captives before returning them to their original upright position behind the wheel of their car, now mysteriously relocated in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Iowa? While they may have vague recollections regarding anal probes and such, these folks are generally a bit fuzzy on details. In Upstream Color, writer-director-actor Shane Carruth may be offering an explanation. At least that’s one explanation that I can offer for this fuzzy cipher.

To say this film is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Huh?!” may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is jumped in an alley, tasered and then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (all I know is that it appears to be in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state.

Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna (I believe the original working title of this film was When Ethnobotanists Attack!) As he methodically cleans out her financial assets over a period of several days (with her “willing” cooperation) while encamped at her house, he next directs her to commit passages of Thoreau’s writings to memory (it was either that or waterboarding).

What happens next is…well, what happens next is, erm…OK we’ll just say it’s the creepy, fuzzily recollected part involving anal probes and such. All I know is that it takes place at a pig farm and fuzzily reminded me of that really creepy part of O Lucky Man! where Malcolm McDowell inadvertently stumbles into a top secret government medical research lab, where he’s tortured and then the next thing he knows he’s coming to on a gurney next to some poor wretched creature that appears to be half man and half sheep.

Anyhoo, the next thing the woman knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked alongside some cornfield off the interstate, and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. Oh, and along the way she meets and falls in love with this sullen dude (played by Carruth) who may have had the same exact experience! Wild and woolly metaphysical/transcendentalist hi-jinks ensue.

While I will give Carruth some points for originality (the closest I can come to a tagline for this one is A Man and a Woman meets Eraserhead) and find it admirable that he is making such an earnest effort to be compared to Andrei Tartovsky, unfortunately he’s falling short, just this side of a glorified Twilight Zone episode.

This seems to be the latest entry in a burgeoning sub-genre that I have dubbed “emo sci-fi” (alongside the likes of Another Earth and Safety Not Guaranteed). That being said, if you are predisposed toward such challenging fare, I wouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out. And don’t feel bad if you don’t “get it” the first time you see it. I didn’t get it the second time I saw it, either.

Blu-ray reissue: The Seven Percent Solution ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2013)

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The Seven Percent Solution – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth Sherlock Holmes has weathered an infinite number of movie incarnations over the decades, but none as fascinating as Nicol Williamson’s tightly wound coke fiend in this wonderful 1977 Herbert Ross film. Intrepid sidekick Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall), concerned over his friend’s addiction, decides to do an intervention, engineering a meeting between the great detective and Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Naturally, there is a mystery afoot as well, but it’s secondary to the entertaining interplay between Williamson and Arkin. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who adapted from his own novel) would repeat the gimmick two years later in his directing debut Time After Time, when he placed similarly odd bedfellows together in one story by pitting H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper. Shout! Factory’s transfer is excellent; the Blu-ray also includes an interview with Meyer.

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2013)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of Oscar weekend. Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (presented in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work-an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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Chinatown– There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here are my top five:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.
  4. He owns the police.
  5. She’s my sister AND my daughter.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II

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 Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for men in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this shit up.

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this oh so cynical age we live in, there was a time when there were these thingies called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, faith in your fellow man, and basic human decency. While ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic is at its heart a timeless treatise about the aforementioned attributes.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, based on a classic Dashiell Hammett novel and marking the directing debut for a Mr. John Huston, is vividly burned into the film buff zeitgeist…so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” And leave it at that. Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, as the immortal Howard Beale). All these years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay does not only prophesy news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction-Try to forget for a moment that Quentin Tarantino has become stiff on his own legend and stuck on the same cinematic refrain as of late; otherwise it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking this film actually was. Of course, depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A sharply observed social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek? Um, yes?

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s sense of conviction and legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as Reed’s lover, writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an amazing group of surviving real-life participants, whose anecdotal recollections are seamlessly interwoven, like a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and warmly intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just watched it for the umpteenth time the other night, and laughed my ass off like I was seeing it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators over the last 79 years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

Scott goes Kubrick (ish): Prometheus **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2012)

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My God, it’s full of stars: Michael Fassbender in Prometheus

I really need to get this out of the way first. “From the director of Blade Runner.” Really? Really, marketing mavens at 20th Century Fox? That’s your best tag line? I think we both know that Mr. Scott is not likely to concoct another genre film as perfect in its seamless blend of hard sci-fi and existential noir. That counts as his “Sorry, only one per career” grant from the Movie Genie. Besides, virtually no one makes that kind of sci-fi anymore: just enough CGI to render a futuristic tone, yet on the whole, believably organic. You’re setting the bar way too high. So don’t tease. OK…I feel better now. On with the review.

 As we teeter on the cusp of the movie season I  call Big, Dumb & Loud, hope may have arrived for sci-fi geeks. It is in the form of the latest film from director Ridley Scott, returning to the universe of the “Alien quadrilogy” (his own franchise kickoff Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection) with a prequel called Prometheus. Does it live up to the hype? Since I coughed up top dollar to see it (in 3-D IMAX), I feel justified in paraphrasing J.R.R. Tolkien: I liked half of it half as well as I should have liked, and less than half of it as well as it deserved. And if that is akin to saying that it isn’t as good as 2001: a Space Odyssey, yet not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space, well…then so be it.

Not unlike 2001, Scott opens his film with An Enigmatic Yet Profound Event. Through an impressively mounted bit of CGI wizardry, we observe a humanoid creature making like a 17-year cicada on the banks of a roiling, primeval river (I can say no more). Flash-forward to 2093 and our introduction to the primary players, the majority of whom are tucked away in stasis pods on the good ship Prometheus, currently nearing the end of its deep space journey to an obscure moon. Their caretaker is HAL 9000…I mean “David” (Michael Fassbender), an android employed by the corporation that owns the ship and is funding the mission. As the humans groggily emerge from their hibernation, the makeup of our intrepid team comes into focus.

In addition to the requisite AI character, and in strict accordance with the Alien series template, there’s the Prickly Yet Pragmatic Ship Captain (Idris Elba) and the Corporate Weasel (a very strict Charlize Theron). The remainder of our pod people turns out to be field scientists of various stripes; including a biologist (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy) and a geologist (Sean Harris). The scientific arm of the crew is being led by two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), who have sold their corporate sponsors on the idea for the expedition based on the commonality of “star maps” they discovered among the relics of several otherwise unrelated ancient Earth cultures. All roads lead to the aforementioned moon.

Also in accordance with the Alien universe, the team stumbles across Something Probably Best Left Undisturbed. But you know scientists, they always have to touch (as Buckaroo Banzai once sagely advised: “Don’t tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to”).

While Prometheus is imbued with a vibe similar to his 1979 film (thanks in large part to the visuals by DP Dariusz Wolski, whose previous credits include darkly atmospheric sci-fi/fantasy thrillers like The Crow and Dark City), Scott has largely eschewed the classic horror film tropes in this outing; opting for a more ambitious script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) that tackles bigger themes.

In other words, he isn’t providing an “origin story” that merely serves to explain the alternate Alien universe; he’s suggesting an alternate version of mankind’s origin story ( What does it all mean?). As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s taken on more than he can handle in 2 hours. Perhaps the problem is that Scott is beholden to his Alien universe, and that for the disappointing finale, he fully acquiesces to the season of Big Dumb and Loud.

There are positives. Performances are solid; Rapace (the ‘Ripley’ character here) displays an ability to flex her instrument beyond the indelible persona she created as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Fassbender brings subtle complexity to his android that transcends the material he’s given to work with. From a technical standpoint, I have no complaints. Scott is a filmmaker with a deep grasp of filmic language; he meticulously composes every frame (I consider his 1977 debut, The Duellists, second only to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as cinema’s most visually stunning period piece).

That said, you still have to tell a cohesive story, and this one is all over that star map. There’s also too much dialog devoted to spelling everything out for the audience. Sometimes it’s good to leave a little mystery (why do you think that 44 years after its release, people are still debating the “meaning” of 2001?). As Rod Serling said, sci-fi is “…a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” What Serling (and Kubrick, and Tarkovsky) knew, and what Scott may have forgotten, is that while the best sci-fi has a lot of imagination behind it, the best sci-fi also  leaves a lot to the imagination.

Yes, darling…but is it art? – Certified Copy ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2011)

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Love is like two dreamers dreaming, the exact same dream

Just another Technicolor romance on the screen

-from “Nightmoves” by Michael Franks

In the introduction to his playful 1974 rumination on art forgery, F for Fake, director Orson Welles looks straight into the camera and says, “This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is absolutely true, and based on solid fact.” Trouble is, the film runs 85 minutes (think about that for a moment). I couldn’t help but flash on that, when somewhere around the halfway mark of Certified Copy, the latest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I had to ask myself: “Now…steady. Is he having a laugh?”

Initially embarking in the direction of Before Sunset/Two for the Road, before taking an abrupt turn into Last Year at Marienbad/Track 29 territories, Kiarostami’s film begins innocently enough. Elle (Juliette Binoche) is a French ex-pat living in Tuscany. A single mom, Elle supports herself and her pre-teen son by running a small art gallery. One day, she attends a lecture by a British art critic named James Miller (William Shimell). He’s promoting his latest book, which deals with art forgery, and the age-old conundrum: If it is perceived as “art” in the eye of the beholder, does it matter if it’s “real”?

Elle, who splits before the lecture ends, seems less fascinated by what the author has to say than she is by the man himself; although she blushes and vehemently denies as such when her precocious son teases her afterwards about her apparent crush. Doing her best not to come off like a groupie, Elle introduces herself to James, and after he lets on that he has no particular plans until he has to catch his train that night, offers to take him on a tour of the countryside.

Hey-it’s Tuscany, right? And as we’ve learned from watching countless romantic movies set in the Tuscan countryside, what’s not to love about those sunny, pastoral vistas that inspired the likes of Michelangelo, daVinci, Donatello and Botticelli? This is not lost on the director or his DP Luca Bigazzi (Il Divo, Bread and Tulips) who allow us plenty of time and space to soak in the lovely views while Elle and James prattle on about love, life, art, meow-meow, etc.

Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business sometime before the credits roll” propositions, Kiarostami throws you a curve ball.

When a café proprietress mistakes James for Elle’s husband, marveling at how he seems to be treating his wife as if he is courting her for the first time, she decides to play along. While James is at the gent’s, Elle romances an entire back story on the spot, telling the woman that this is their 15th anniversary, and that they have decided to revisit the town where they spent their honeymoon.

When James returns, he seems to intuit Elle’s Kabuki, and slides into character, picking up Elle’s narrative right on cue. Even after they leave the café, they don’t “break character”. Or is it Kabuki? Have they actually been married for 15 years-and all that blushing first date stuff was just a role-playing game? Perhaps this is an attempt to spruce up a tired relationship? Or is James a figment of Elle’s imagination…or vice versa? I’m not telling.

Don’t worry, these are not spoilers. Because the director isn’t “telling” either (sly devil). I don’t even think he knows what’s going on with these two. You know what I think? I think that he wants us to think. I know-life throws enough curve balls at us every day. You’ve got enough to think about; why spend ten bucks on a movie that’s going to make your brain hurt even more? Because while you’re pondering, you have an impossibly attractive couple to ogle.

Not to mention Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. Shimell (an opera singer by trade), is impressive as well in his first notable movie role. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less.

Faith, hope and chainmail: Black Death ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2011)

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Iron-deficient maiden: Carice van Houten in Black Death

When humans speak for God in terms of rejection or condemnation, we may rest assured that dangerously narrow minds are at work.

Rev. Webster “Kit” Howell

 Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

H.L. Mencken

 Ah, the Dark Ages. A time of pestilence. A time of monarchs and serfs. A time of profound sociopolitical turmoil. And, most notably, a time of widespread ignorance and superstition, where one of the most oft-repeated declarations was “I’m not a witch.” No…I’m not talking about the 2010 midterms-I do mean, the actual Dark Ages.

For nitpicky academic types, I am more pointedly referring to the Late Middle Ages; specifically the Year of Our Lord (if you believe in that sort of thing) 1348, which is right about the time that the first wave of bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe. This is the cheery backdrop for a new film from the UK called Black Death, a dark period piece from up-and-coming horror/thriller director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

The specter of apocalyptic doom hangs over the opening scenes of the film, where we join a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as he ventures out of his dank cloister and into the grim milieu of the surrounding city. Most of the traffic slogging across the cobblestones is composed of horse-drawn carts, piled high with the plague victims whose bodies litter the streets and alleyways. Not surprisingly, Osmund appears focused on whatever his errand is; apart from a perfunctory pit stop to absolve a dying man, he’s making a proverbial beeline for his destination.

When he gets there, we understand the reason for his haste. Her name is Averill (Kimberley Nixon), and she’s the kind of winsome lass who could (if I may paraphrase Raymond Chandler) “make a bishop kick a hole in a stain glass window.” Suffice it to say, Osmund may be breaking a vow or two on the side. After giving his lady love provisions that he’s “borrowed” from the church’s pantry, he urges her to flee quickly from the plague-ridden city and head for an arranged meeting place in a nearby forest, where he promises to join her posthaste.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, Osmund struggles with his crisis of faith. Torn between devotion to the church and his desire to run off with Averill, he prays fervently for guidance, and for God to give him a Sign. No sooner does “amen” escape his lips, than his prayers get answered (in oblique fashion) by the appearance of a “man of God” of an altogether different stripe. He is a veteran knight named Ulric (Sean Bean, recycling his “Boromir” accoutrements from Middle Earth).

He has come to the monastery as an emissary of the local bishop, with a small yet formidable band of well-armed mercenaries in tow. He seeks a guide who can lead his team to a village that the Church has taken a keen interest in. It appears that they are the only settlement for miles around who have managed to escape the “black death”. As said Church is currently pushing a meme that posits this mysterious scourge as “God’s punishment” for mankind’s sins, this anomaly calls for closer scrutiny.

Obviously, the people of this sleepy and hitherto unsullied hamlet must be embroiled in some form of devilry, because they are simply not suffering as much as people living in the Dark Ages are supposed to be suffering. In fact, it is rumored that the people of the village are beholden to the spells of a resident “necromancer”, who has the power to raise the dead. Ulric’s mission (so he claims) is to sniff out evidence of any such sorcery and report back.

As luck has it, the route to this village runs through the forest where Osmund has promised to hook up with the lovely Averill. Discreetly keeping this part of the equation to himself, Osmund “selflessly” volunteers to act as guide for the mercenaries, much to the chagrin of his superior (David Warner). Reluctantly, the abbot gives Osmund his blessing, but not without first pulling him aside and cautioning him (and the audience) that this Ulric character, while undeniably a pious fellow, is the most “dangerous” kind.

Indeed, not long after the journey commences, Osmund does begin to notice a few things. Like a cartful of nasty-looking torture devices that Ulric’s crew has brought along, which includes a man-sized contraption that looks to be an early prototype of an iron maiden.

Then there’s the fellow with an ill-favored look who (in so many words) introduces himself to Osmund as the resident torturer. It’s becoming obvious that this expedition is more than a scouting mission; these guys are out to get Medieval on someone’s ass. Ulric fesses up. The Bishop wants the “necromancer” located and brought back alive, at which time he or she will be, shall we say, proactively “encouraged” to make a full confession.

After a series of trials and tribulations worthy of any “heart of darkness” excursion, the men finally arrive at the village, which is populated by a curiously happy-go-lucky bunch of folks (considering that this is, after all, a time of great pestilence and misery). There also seems to be a disproportionate number of pale young maidens among the populace.

All the villagers defer to a striking and enigmatic woman named Langiva (Carice van Houten), who warmly welcomes the strangers (despite their furtive demeanor and grungy appearance) and offers to put on a feast for them that evening. Ulric, while intuitively suspicious, is encouraged by the docile and unsuspecting behavior of the villagers and figures that this is going to be a cakewalk. Then again, appearances can be deceiving.

I liked this film; it’s a throwback to the halcyon days of those stylized Hammer Studios productions, with their foggy marshes, mist-shrouded villages and atmosphere of dread. The performances, particularly by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten, are solid and convincing.

Screenwriter Dario Poloni has some fun blurring the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. And perhaps he’s borrowing a page from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with this message: whether one places their faith and hope into the graces of an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, it is very likely that it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

SIFF 2011: Another Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles.After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown.

Wolves, lower: The Wolfman **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 13, 2010)

Inga: Werewolf!

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  (startled) Werewolf?!

Igor There.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  What?

Igor (pointing) There…wolf. There…castle.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  Why are you talking that way?

Igor:  I thought you wanted to.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  No, I don’t want to.

Igor:  (shrugs) Suit yourself. I’m easy.

 -from Young Frankenstein.

 Why are people so fascinated with the concept of vampires and werewolves? I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences.

With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic). In criminologist terms, vampires are serial date rapists…so why  do people find that sexy?.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are much less complex. They are spree killers, pure and simple (“He always seemed like such a sweet, quiet guy. Until the full moon.”) With them it’s all about the ripping, and the slicing and the dicing.

Vampires are quite self-aware of their “issues”…but they can’t stop doing what they do. They have highly addictive personalities-which is an element a lot of people can identify with on some level (with me, it’s chocolate…and yes, you may call me Count Chocula).

Werewolves, on the other hand, generally have no cognizance of their actions, until perhaps after the fact. They have true schizophrenic personalities, which I think makes them the scarier creatures. I suppose that even those of us who are not homicidal maniacs can relate on some level (“I did what last night? Jesus, I’ll never get that drunk again!”). Werewolves scare us because they remind us of the duality that exists within all human beings; after all, Hitler and Gandhi walked the planet at the same point in history.

My favorite “monster movies” don’t necessarily involve characters literally shape shifting into wild beasts. One example is Jean Renoir’s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine (reworked by Fritz Lang as the 1954 film noir Human Desire) with the great Jean Gabin as a train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits horrendous crimes, usually precipitated by sexual stirrings. And who can forget Elvis’ immortal line from Jailhouse Rock, after an uninvited advance: “Ah… sorry, honah. It’s just the beast in me.”

You know what “they” say-it always comes in threes; especially in Hollywood, where the studios have recently been on a Victorian kick. As of this weekend, we have Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman snapping away in theaters, on the heels of Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria. Basing their film on the eponymous Lon Chaney Jr. classic, director Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who adapted from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, have re-imagined a few elements, but are fairly faithful to the original.

The film opens with a vintage Hammer Studios vibe. It’s England, 1891. There’s a full moon, an old dark manor, and (wait for it) a fog on the moor. A terrified man is fleeing from an unseen bestial horror, as fast as his Wellingtons can carry him. Not fast enough.

Local myth attributes a recent spate of these brutal killings to an elusive  creature of unknown origins. The villagers are a superstitious lot, believing they have been cursed; naturally, the nearest group of Gypsies is suspected. This is the milieu that an American actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself in when his brother’s mysterious disappearance precipitates a return to his boyhood home and a wary reunion with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins).

Lawrence has not returned at his father’s request, but rather at the urging of his missing brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt). The elder Talbot’s misanthropic demeanor has not exactly endeared him to his neighbors either, and when an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate, they happily cast their suspicions in the direction of the Talbots. Through fate and circumstance, Lawrence becomes suspect #1, and a dark family history unfurls.

Was this a necessary remake? 69 years seems a respectful moratorium. Johnston’s film does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the original; it’s fitting homage to Universal’s classic horror era (which also includes wonderful creature-less chillers like The Scarlet Claw, my personal favorite of their Holmes series). The transformation scenes are genuinely creepy, and creature effects master Rick Baker’s prosthetic work is aces. Danny Elfman’s gothic score fits in nicely.

On the down side, despite the impressive cast, no performance stands out; even hammy Hopkins seems oddly detached. While I can appreciate that Del Toro was trying to “internalize” the inherent tragedy of his character, he never gets to develop it fully-which could be due to the rushed narrative in the second act. There are some interesting peripheral characters introduced (like a Gypsy seer, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who we don’t get to see enough of these days) but again, they are ultimately given short shrift.

Fans of old school Gothic horror will fare best. While the film has graphic violence, it stops  this side of gratuitous (unlike the odious “torture porn” genre, which has given horror movies a bad name). With a sharper script and more plot development, they could have had a minor cult item. But for the time being, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff can continue to rest easy.

The case of the cracked case-cracker: Mad Detective **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2008)

“When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting beside me.”

 -Woody Allen

 In the opening scene of Mad Detective (a new psychological drama/murder mystery that cheats on its metaphysics exam), detective inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) appears to be intently staring into the soul of a dead pig, suspended from the ceiling of a homicide division squad room. A group of his fellow officers silently stands by, transfixed by the sight of Bun, wielding a formidable looking knife as he circles the dangling porker.

When rookie inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) blunders into the room to report for duty, he is pulled aside and shushed by another officer, who whispers, “Bun is immersed in the investigation.” Suddenly, Bun lunges at the pig and begins to stab it repeatedly. Then he dives under a desk and grabs a travel bag, bidding the wide-eyed Ho to accompany him to the top of a staircase. “I’ll lie inside the suitcase,” Bun says. “You push me down the stairs.” And so begins the partnership between inspectors Ho and Bun.

Bun apparently possesses the ability to literally “look into the soul” of both perpetrators and deceased victims alike (a neat trick that handily one-ups the cognitive abilities of your typical criminal profiler), and has consequently racked up a 100% success rate solving his murder cases.

This odd ability doesn’t come without its psychic/social price; Bun is viewed by most of his peers as a bit of a freak show and is pushed into an “early retirement”. The doubts about his overall mental state appear to be confirmed when, at the end of his career, he inexplicably slices off one of his ears (a la Van Gogh) and dutifully presents it along with his gun and badge. (Cuckoo! Cuckoo!)

However, according to the Rules of Old Mentor/Young Protégé Cop Buddy Movies, at this point in the narrative, an occasion must arise that precipitates Bun being dragged out of retirement to help solve “one last case” (otherwise, we would only have a 20 minute film.) After a cop mysteriously disappears, Ho talks the reluctant Bun into assisting in the case, to lend that special voodoo, that he do, so well.

Now, this is where co directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai decide to borrow a few tricks from M. Night Shyamalan, and have some wicked fun with the viewer’s perception of reality; especially when you realize that you are “seeing” the inner personalities of certain characters just as Bun “sees” them. Toss in a prime suspect with multiple personalities, and buckle up for a real mindfuck.

While this is not your typical Hong Kong crime thriller, it contains enough requisite elements to genre enthusiasts, like the inevitable denouement wherein all the principal characters converge (usually in a deserted building or warehouse) and have a Mexican standoff. There are some nice visual touches, especially in a nifty “hall of mirrors” climax a la The Lady from Shanghai or Enter the Dragon.

Although there isn’t a lot of “ha ha funny” inherent in the screenplay (written by co-director Ka-Fai Wai along with Kin-Yee Au), it does contain dark comedy, helped by some subtly arch undercurrents in Wan’s deadpan take on inspector Bun. Not a masterpiece, but an intriguing watch for fans of (really, really) off-beat whodunits.