Category Archives: Mystery

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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)

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)

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)

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.

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.

Oh-the “sci-fi” part? On the night of the accident, a duplicate Earth was discovered (doppelgangers!). Assuming “they” discovered “us” (or vice-versa) simultaneously, scientists postulate that synchronicity was broken at that instant. Kind of leaves the door open for second chances-or does it? I’m not telling. See it yourself-and 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.

Creepy lodgers and seedy inns: 10 worst places to stay in the movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on October 31, 2009)

Where the wild things are.

“People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” So states a character in the 1932 classic, Grand Hotel. Obviously, he never stayed in any of the caravansaries on tonight’s top ten list, where the bad experiences go a bit beyond iffy room service or a fly in the soup. So on this spooky Halloween evening, I triple dog dare you to check in to any of these flops! Per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order. Um, enjoy your stay…

The film: Barton Fink

Where not to stay: The Hotel Earle

This is one of two films on my list involving blocked writers and eerie hotels (I’ll entertain anyone’s theory on why they seem to go hand-in-hand). The Coen brothers bring their usual sense of gleeful cruelty and ironic detachment into play in this story (set in the early 1940s) of a New York playwright with “integrity” (John Turturro) who wrestles with his conscience after reluctantly accepting an offer from a Hollywood studio to transplant himself to L.A. and grind out screenplays for soulless formula films. Thanks to some odd goings-on at his hotel, that soon becomes the very least of his problems. The film is a very close cousin to Day of the Locust, although perhaps slightly less grotesque and more darkly funny. John Goodman and Judy Davis are also on hand, and in top form.

The film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Where not to stay: The Mint Hotel

Okay, so the hotel in this one isn’t so bad. It’s the behavior going on in one of the rooms:

When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD… These were not the hoof prints of your average God-fearing junkie. It was too savage. Too aggressive.

Terry Gilliam’s manic, audience-polarizing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic blend of gonzo journalism and hilariously debauched, anarchic invention may be too savage and aggressive for some, but it’s one of those films I am compelled to revisit on an annual basis. Johnny Depp’s turn as Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke, is one for the ages. My favorite line: “You’d better pray to God there’s some Thorazine in that bag.”

The film: Key Largo

Where not to stay: The Largo Hotel

Humphrey Bogart gives a smashing performance as a WW2 vet who drops by a Florida hotel to pay his respects to its proprietors- the widow (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) of one of the men who had served under his command. Initially just “passing through”, he is waylaid by a convergence of two angry tempests: an approaching hurricane and the appearance of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Rocco is a notorious gangster, who, along with his henchmen, takes the hotel residents hostage while they ride out the storm. It’s interesting to see Bogie play a gangster’s victim for a change (in one of his earlier starring vehicles, The Petrified Forest, and later on in one of his final films, The Desperate Hours, he essentially played the Edward G. Robinson character). The entire cast is spectacular. Along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, it’s one of John Huston’s finest contributions to the classic noir cycle.

The film: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Where not to stay: Mrs. Bunting’s Lodging House

Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady and all, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility that he is “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? No worries, I’m not going to spoil it for you! This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but IMHO none of them can touch Hitchcock’s 1927 silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

The film: Motel Hell

Where not to stay: Motel Hello

OK, all together now (you know the words!): “It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” Rory Calhoun gives a sly performance as the cheerfully psychotic Vincent Smith, proprietor of the Motel Hello (oh my, there seems to be an electrical short in the neon “O”. Bzzzt!). Funny thing is, no one ever seems to check in (no one certainly ever checks out). Vincent and his oddball sister (Nancy Parsons) prefer to concentrate on the, ah, family’s “world-famous” smoked meat business. Despite the exploitative horror trappings, Kevin Conner’s black comedy (scripted by brothers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe) is a surprisingly smart genre spoof and actually quite well-made. The finale, involving a swashbuckling duel with chainsaws, is pure twisted genius.

The film: Mystery Train

Where not to stay: The Arcade Hotel

Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that features Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

The film: The Night of the Iguana

Where not to stay: The Hotel Costa Verde

Director John Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller adapted this sordid, blackly comic soaper from Tennessee Williams’ stage play about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who has expatriated himself to Mexico, where he has become a part-time tour guide and a full-time alcoholic. One day he goes off the deep end, and shanghais a busload of Baptist college teachers to an isolated, rundown hotel run by an “old friend” (Ava Gardner). Add a sexually precocious teenager (Sue Lyon, recycling her Lolita persona) and a grifter with a prim and proper exterior (Deborah Kerr), and stir.

Most of the Williams archetypes are present and accounted for: dipsomaniacs, nymphets, repressed lesbians and neurotics of every stripe. The bloodletting is mostly verbal, but mortally wounding all the same. Burton and Kerr are great, as always. I think this is my favorite Ava Gardner performance; she’s earthy, sexy, heartbreaking, intimidating, and endearingly girlish-all at once.

The film: The Night Porter

Where not to stay: The Hotel zur Oper

Disturbing, repulsive, yet compelling, Liliana Cavani’s film brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; frequently lumped in with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. That’s a real shame.

The film: Psycho

Where not to stay: Bates Motel

Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s creepy taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what director Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant shocker from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. Anthony Perkins sets the bar pretty high for all future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

The film: The Shining

Where not to stay: The Overlook Hotel

Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his sprawling novel. Fuck him-that’s his personal problem. I think this is the greatest horror film ever made. Period. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack Nicholson discovers…oh. Sorry. Uh, never mind…

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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.