Friday, October 20, 2017

HALLOWEEN HAUNTED HAUSU PARTY!



How often have you heard someone (usually a blurb whore, but sometimes someone you actually know) describe a movie as being “indescribable” or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”? And then you go see the alleged one-of-a-kind work and not only is it quite describable, it’s usually describable in terms of many things have come before or since. Not so Nobukhi Obayashi’s Hausu (House) (1977), a spirited, schlocky horror comedy that is so in tune with its own inexplicable wavelength of bizarre, cutie-pie and sometimes strangely lovely images as to make David Lynch look calculated and schematic in comparison. (The frightening images that are packed into Hausu’s bulging skin are as likely to inspire peals of laughter as fear, but laughter that may after a while begin to acquaint you with genuine madness.) Obayashi’s slapdash sensibility is firmly rooted in the explosively playful attitude of Japanese pop culture, and his cluttered, strangely cheerful mise-en-scene accesses the dark underbelly of that imagery while never betraying its playful, oddball innocence.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young schoolgirl named Gorgeous who recruits her pals Kung Fu, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Melody and Mac to accompany her on a summer trip to her mysterious aunt’s dilapidated mansion after plans for a summer camp fall through. Gorgeous also undertakes the trip as a way of escaping the impending remarriage of her father, a film composer (“Leone tells me my music is better than Morricone’s”) to another woman, the beautiful, slightly stoned-looking Ryoko Ema, who is always posing, looking off into the horizon, a wind machine keeping her hair in the perpetual motion of a shampoo ad. 


The early sequences in the film, particularly those dealing with Gorgeous's father breaking the news of his nuptials, are fantastic avant-garde-tinged experiments in which the frame is divided, broken-down and sometimes shattered into ever-shifting geometrical forms which unsettle the viewer and work out Obayashi’s visual muscles for the real test to come. Once the girls hop the train to Auntie’s house (the train constantly shifts between a stylized live-action vehicle and a cartoon chug-a-lug, with Obayashi playing all kinds of hilarious tricks with the rear-projected, painted and cardboard representations of the passing countryside), Gorgeous relates the story of how Auntie lost her fiancé in the war (Obayashi appropriates the restrained style of Ozu here, enough to make head-spinning contrast with the girls’ giggly commentary as the story unfolds.)

But once the girls arrive at Auntie’s house, which is situated on top of the creepiest matte-painting of a mountain ever devised, they are greeted by the wheelchair-bound biddy and her sinister cat Blanche, who seems to have the run of the manse and may be behind the evil goings-on that almost immediately begin to unfold. Critic David Edelstein, in his review of Hausu, suggested that language was insufficient to convey just what Obayashi manages to achieve with his singularly grotesque and absurd imagery, and I tend to think he’s right. But even if it could, I can guarantee you that reading any account of what you actually see in this movie—and yes, I’m pretty much willing to guarantee you have never seen anything like it—couldn’t possibly be as much mind-twisting fun as actually seeing it unfold, especially amongst a full house of dropped jaws at, say, a late-night movie screening. Hausu is, in many ways, the perfect midnight movie, because as it is gets loopier and loopier, and as Obayashi unpacks his arsenal of cut-and-paste analog mattes, superimpositions, slow-motion, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, frame-busting camerawork and Shining-esque torrents of bloodletting (three years before Kubrick’s movie was released, mind) and all manner of baroque horror effects inspired by what scares an 11-year-old most, the slight edge of delirium that sets in from staying up late does everything to augment the movie’s will to discombobulate the viewer, all while it proceeds to dismember its characters in the most outrageous and collage-friendly ways.

Obayashi's movie doesn’t set out to “scare” you in any conventional sense—it’s too over the top for that, though some of the ways the innocent girls are dispatched— by a chomping and apparently quite hungry grand piano and, most memorably, by the cinema’s most devilish lampshade—have the ability to get under your skin despite the cheerfully manic and homemade feel to many of the effects. It is a horror movie chiefly in the sense that it deals with horror tropes not so much to be deconstructed as to be experienced like something completely new, as if this were the first movie the viewer might have ever seen—it has that quality of happily perverted innocence. Evan Kindley, writing about the movie a few years ago for Not Coming to a Theater Near You round about the time the movie started gaining traction in cult circles here in the US, got it exactly right: “The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet.”


House is a movie that is, in the end, impossible to adequately describe whose genuine, maniacal level of insanity is equally impossible to overstate. As such, it may be one of the few genuine cult phenoms in Japanese horror movie culture that might successfully resist the inevitable swing at a watered-down remake to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences who would be presumably uninterested in the very aspects that make Hausu  remarkable in the first place. There’s nowhere to go but homogenization and boredom in such a task; the complete sincerity, the lack of self-consciousness apparent in every frame of House, even the appearance of it being practically hand-made, is its best defense against the rapacious tendencies of a movie culture as eager to consume original ideas as Auntie and her possessed mansion is hungry for those delicious schoolgirl morsels.

As I suggested earlier, Hausu is best experienced with a large group of folks who know not what to expect—barring its appearance at the stroke of 12:00 in a theater near you, this movie would be an ideal selection for a Halloween party screening, and the splashy Criterion Blu-ray would surely look great projected on the wall of your very own haunted house. But however it happens, see it for yourself. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore; it’s more accurate to say that they’ve never made one like this, before or since.

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If you’re having people over to bob for apples and the like (people still bob for apples at Halloween parties, don’t they?), you might want to have an atmospheric horror movie on the big screen just to help set the fun mood, or perhaps to distract from the foul stench of a well-intentioned party gone horribly dull. And Hausu would be an excellent choice. But what if you’re running dry of ideas for what to throw in the DVD player for your guests? Hopefully you would never have to resort to such measures, presuming you have a fairly high horror movie IQ , but in case you need one there is certainly no lack of usually blog-bound listicles of Halloween horror movie options—“The Best 100 Horror Movies Ever Made,” or “The 30 Greatest Horror Remakes,” or “The Greatest Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Pairings, Ranked!” These lists are, more often than not, compiled by folks who are at best only seasonal dippers into the horror film tradition, or at worst enthusiasts who have, shall we say, a lot of holes in their horror film education that desperately need to be filled.

Fortunately, comedian-writer-self-described horror film geek Kevin Maher has come up with the best Halloween horror listicle I’ve yet read: "Eight Great Horror Movies You've Never Heard Of (But I Have Because I'm Better Than You)." If you weren’t able to guess from the title, Maher’s piece is a spot-on parody of the sort of list-making exercise that takes apparent pride in what the writer might imagine to be his/her esoteric taste, which is then adorned by a thoughtlessly dashed-off descriptive sentence or two rife with errors-- factual as well as of the spelling, punctuation and mismatched picture variety. Maher skewers these listicles with hilarious precision; if you’re a survivor of the Halloween horror listicle phenomenon (or maybe you’ve even written a couple yourself), you’ll find much to appreciate in his appropriately shallow, abundantly humorous ribbing. And I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of the fun here. Check out Kevin's listicle (that sounded kinda nasty) for yourself, and then go pick a movie on your own. You don’t need help from a bunch of bloggers, and Maher’s piece will cure you of the desire to suffer through another one of their malnourished posts ever again.


And since I know after reading “Eight Movies”  that you’ll be thirsty for more of Kevin Maher’s sharp wit and observational alchemy, here are a few more road maps to satisfy your seasonal jones (with the occasional trip beyond it) for fun facts and bubbles o’ thought about some of your favorite movies:

"100 Moments in Poltergeist" that Kevin loves.


And speaking of Stephen King, it’s not “Bingo!” it’s "Kingo!"

Beware the ball! "21 Phantasm Phacts!"

And finally, just for the Tet of it, "Six Movies That Are Secretly About Vietnam."

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

POSTSEASON PLAY: JOE E. BROWN AS ALIBI IKE



If you’re a baseball fan, particularly if you’re a Dodgers, Astros, Cubs or Yankees fan, the real baseball season started this past Friday with the inauguration of the American and National League Championship Series. I’m a Dodgers fan, which means I’m among that group who, arguably, have gone the longest without the satisfaction/excitement/nail-biting terror of seeing their team in the World Series, the next step for whoever wins in the NLCS. The Dodgers last appeared in the World Series in 1988, capping a memorable run with a championship by beating the Oakland A’s. That was 29 years ago. The Cubs are the reigning MLB champions, having won last year’s World Series after a 107-year drought. And the Yankees, a mainstay of the World Series around the turn of this century, last appeared in an October championship series in 2009.

The only team to come close to the current measure of long-suffering lack of major league glory experienced by the Dodgers would be the Houston Astros, who have made exactly one appearance in the World Series, back in 2005, when they were swept in a tight four-game sequence by the Chicago White Sox. The Dodgers have, over their storied history, seen a lot of time in championship games, of course-- 18 World Series appearances, five wins. But by the simple measurement of time, 29 years since their last World Series against only 12 for the Astros, this ought to be the Dodgers’ year. However, baseball is baseball, a game of inches, as they say, and it’s also one, for all its fetishizing of statistics and historical trends, which turns on unpredictable tides, a game in which past glories can pivot to unforetold misfortunes and almost nothing, good or bad, goes exactly as expected. All that, of course, goes ground-rule-double for the playoffs.

So, as a way of relaxing and basking in the atmosphere of the game when things get too tense with my team, I like to enhance the experience of the baseball season by watching some of my favorite baseball movies. But you won’t find sentimental audience favorites like The Natural, A League of Their Own or Field of Dreams on my shelf. What you will find, however, are titles like Ken Burns’ epic documentary Baseball; Ron Shelton’s sweet-and-sour love letters to the games, Bull Durham and his remarkable biopic Cobb; John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, which recounts the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal; Sam Wood’s (and Gary Cooper’s) The Pride of the Yankees; John Lee Hancock’s undervalued and very moving The Rookie; Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000; an early Robert Aldrich effort entitled The Big Leaguer; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars  Motor Kings, a comic look at the era of the Negro Leagues starring Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; Michael Ritchie’s The Scout, starring Albert Brooks; and, speaking of Michael Ritchie, the picture I consider to be the best baseball movie ever made, Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears.  That’s a list of favorites which I think covers almost all the facets of what I maintain, for all the flaws and frustrations of its more organizational aspects, is still America’s great pastime.

And now I’ll add to that list of impeccable base-runners the rubber-faced (and rubber-armed) Joe E. Brown as minor league pitching phenom Frank X. (Francis) Farrell, who makes a splash in the big leagues for the Chicago Cubs in the 1935 comedy Alibi Ike, based on Ring Lardner’s 1915 Saturday Evening Post short story of the same name. (If you’re between innings this weekend, you can read the whole story here.) The movie, directed by Ray Enright (Dames, The Spoilers), like Joe E. Brown’s genially loose-limbed performance in it, captures effortlessly the aw-shucks bonhomie of Gardner’s style, fortunately minus the casual anti-Semitism of the time. And in its casting of real baseball players to back up Ike in the outfield (journeyman and one-time Brooklyn Robins-- later the Dodgers—first baseman and right fielder Babe Herman, and Boston Red Sox outfielder Smead Jolley) and on the mound (Cubs and Browns pitcher Charlie Root), Alibi Ike amasses an amiable authenticity that helps the whole show go over like a well-turned double play. 

Baseball players being the nickname-addicted specimens they are and always have been, Frank (or Francis) quickly becomes Alibi Ike to his teammates, a moniker given to commemorate his proclivity for coughing up excuses for everything he does, on and off the field. Ike dazzles his teammates (especially catcher Roscoe Karns) and his crusty but benign manager (William Frawley) with his confidence, which is backed up by an unhittable fastball and flailing, anything-goes style of play. When asked by his boss whether he’s ready to pitch, Ike’s favored response is “I’m as loose as goose grease!” And what we see of Ike on the mound is as apt a manifestation of that down-home proclamation as there ever could be.

When I first saw Alibi Ike a couple of years ago I couldn’t stop laughing at Ike’s/Brown’s delivery of those unhittable fastballs. Poised to strike, Ike drops to a low position facing the batter, dangles his throwing arm like a limp noodle, then gathers both arms together into a wind-up that resembles nothing so much as a human-scaled tornado brewing up to full speed, before an unruly release and kick of the leg that would flush Dodger left-hander Rich Hill with envy. Brown’s “mechanics” on the mound are so outlandish I couldn’t believe, when Enright positions the camera behind the catcher to show Ike’s full delivery to the mitt of his battery mate, how Brown’s athletic stand-in could manage to duplicate the movement of this singular physical comedian so precisely. I also laughed because I couldn’t help but admit that, however absurdly funny Brown’s wind-up looks when compared to other pitchers in the history of the game, his delivery looked more convincing than the one Tim Robbins managed to muster as the wild but supposedly effective Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham.


What I didn’t know at the time but subsequently found out was that Joe E. Brown was, early in his career, yet another embodiment of my high school English teacher’s philosophy-- to effectively emulate bad writing, or inarticulate characters, one must first know how to do it right. Well, it turns out that Joe E. Brown knew what he was doing all along, and that it was Brown himself in those wide shots, delivering fastball strikes as the tornado-armed Ike to his catcher. Brown began life with a traveling circus troupe when he was 10 and, as he wrote in his 1956 autobiography Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing, “began haunting the knotholes around big league ball parks when I wasn’t on stage or practicing… I was playing semi-pro baseball by the time I was 15.” According to Lee Lowenfish, who in 2016 wrote a terrifically informative article on Brown for the National Pastime Museum entitled "The Remarkable Baseball Passion of Comic Actor Joe E.Brown," Brown was an excellent left-handed-hitting second baseman who was good enough that he eventually earned a contract to play with the minor league St. Paul Saints in 1910, when he was 18 years old. But Brown was only a few games into his pro baseball career when he broke his leg sliding into third base, an unfortunate occurrence which was soon followed by yet another leg injury. The would-be baseball star was forced to conclude that baseball would have to be an continued obsession, not a vocation, and that he was most likely to find success down the path to show business from which he had, for a few years, strayed.

So, some 25 years after his brush with professional baseball greatness, Joe E. Brown channeled his love of the game into almost-forgotten classics like Elmer, the Great (1933; Mervyn Le Roy), also based on a Ring Lardner story, and then Alibi Ike (1935), both of which deserve to not be forgotten and are now available on DVD through the good graces of Warner Archives. (For eagle-eyed DVR programmers, they also show up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.) These slight, entertaining pictures really are two peas in a pod, both revolving around bumpkin baseball players who take their league by storm while dealing with romantic entanglements and the crooked influence of gamblers on the game. The only significant difference between them is that Ike slings rockets from the mound, while Elmer is best at hitting said rockets into space with his bat. 

Another big difference, of course, is that Ike’s paramour is portrayed by the impossibly luminescent Olivia De Havilland in her film debut. De Havilland doesn’t exactly steal Alibi Ike from Brown—who could?—but her appearance goes a long way toward explaining right out of the gate how moviegoers might be able to spend the next 82 years trying unsuccessfully to keep their eyes off her, whether appearing as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1934) or just this past year initiating a feisty legal pursuit of Ryan Murphy over her portrayal in the TV producer’s recent Hollywood camp fest Feud. At 101 years old she is, thankfully, like Ike’s patented whirling on the bump, her very own tornado, and long may her winds blow.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Joe E. Brown said for Billy Wilder in probably the actor’s most renowned moment in the movies, and certainly no one would ever claim perfection for Alibi Ike. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily one of the great baseball movies either. It is, however, an undeniable charmer, anchored by Brown’s passion for the game and his unflappable ease and energy as a performer. At one point, while being pressured by Chicago mobsters to throw a big game, a fly lands on Brown’s nose. Without missing a fraction of a beat, Brown blows at it and continues with his dialogue, ceding the annoying insect not even so much as a Fieldsian “Get outta here, fly, you bother me!” It’s that relentless, tenacious spirit and conviction, along with a tornado pitch delivery, which Brown embodies at his best, and in Alibi Ike his best is right there on the field, as loose as goose grease.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

GOOD GUYS FINISH FIRST: DON MANCINI’S DURABLY DERANGED KILLER DOLL RETURNS IN CULT OF CHUCKY



Let’s talk memorable movie killers for a second. Since Mrs. Bates first slashed her way through the shower curtain in Room 1 of that roadside motel in Psycho (1960), franchise-minded murderers have had a hard time of it in the consistency department, regardless of how strong they may have lunged out of the gate. Established classics of the genre, like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street have all given birth to an array of sequels, remakes and reboots that may have extended their nasty protagonists’ shelf life, but none could approach their origins in terms of frights or filmmaking quality.

The exception to this rule of inconsistency and ever-diminishing returns in serial killer movie franchises seems to be the maniac who may have been the most unlikely to succeed, or certainly to endure, to begin with. He would be Charles Lee Ray (played with customary intensity by Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif), the madman who ends up reincarnated and reinvented, in a satiric nod to the Cabbage Patch mentality of ‘80s toy merchandising, into the body of an innocuous, mass-produced “Good Guys” doll, and thus set upon a whole new career of murderous mayhem as Chucky the Killer Doll in 1988’s Child’s Play. Directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and co-written by Holland, John Lafia and Don Mancini, from Mancini’s original story, the movie was a sizable hit and therefore, given the model of the other popular monsters of the day, a sequel was most certainly de rigueur.


Child’s Play 2 (1990), buoyed by Mancini’s inventive screenplay and John Lafia’s sprightly direction (which improves upon the efficient but occasionally inelegant work of the journeyman Holland), takes the concept of a rampaging killer doll seriously enough to render the scares while more deftly acknowledging the essential silliness of the whole concept, and the result is a sequel which not only honors its predecessor but even improves upon it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Child’s Play 3 (1991), which hit theaters only 10 months after the release of Child’s Play 2 and seemed born not only to capitalize on what was now clearly a potential cash cow (or dollar doll), but also to fulfill the widely held perception that the longer a movie serial killer sticks around, the more tepid the terror becomes. The movie did underwhelming business in the US, with grosses only slightly exceeding its modest budget, and it seemed that Chucky’s brief reign as America’s most purposely plastic psychopath might be at an end.


But, as Chucky himself might say, not so fast. After a seven-year hiatus, Mancini took a page from the James Whale playbook and made the move to rather boldly refashion his franchise. (And by this time, it really was Mancini’s franchise-- along with Brad Dourif’s voice and the influence of producer David Kirschner, credited with the Chucky doll’s original design, Mancini’s writing was and still is the most important creative element to remain consistent throughout the Chucky series, lending the whole enterprise a degree of personal investment that no other horror franchise can claim.) Mancini chose to more openly reference the humorous and satiric possibilities of his basic premise, its implicit connection to the very history of horror, and, like Whale before him, even began to hint at the gay sensibility that informed it. (Mancini himself is out and proud.) Bride of Chucky (1998), not only introduced those elements, very much making it to Child’s Play what The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was to its landmark predecessor, but it also brought Jennifer Tilly into the Chucky family as Tiffany Valentine, Charles Lee Ray’s still-human and equally antisocial girlfriend who, through an escalating and baroque set of circumstances, finds her own soul also trapped in the body of an appropriately voluptuous doll.

The resulting film, an engaging hybrid of horror thriller, road movie and satire of middle-class domesticity, was directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) and shot by Peter Pau, whose next project, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, would win him the Academy Award, and it’s a visual feast, especially compared to the previous three pictures. Bride was also a Chucky-universe game-changer, its embrace of the comic potential of the franchise premise (and its strong box-office numbers) setting the stage, after another relatively lengthy hiatus, for the series’ most controversial and divisive movie, 2004’s Seed of Chucky, a no-holds-barred, blood-soaked farce that confused and put off a good portion of the built-in Chucky audience who would have had little objection to continuing the march toward the formulaic that Child’s Play 3 seemed to promise.


Few, in fact, were ready for the relatively radical departure from formula that Mancini served up, a blistering lampoon of insular Hollywood culture featuring a spectacular turn by Tilly not only as Tiffany but also as “Jennifer Tilly,” a grandly entertaining act of diva character self-assassination which may have no equal in the history of any movie genre. And that’s not all, folks. Seed also casts Chucky and Tiffany as conflicted parents in a Hardly-Ordinary People scenario involving their gender-conflicted son Glen (or Glenda), voiced in impossibly touching, comically dexterous fashion by Billy Boyd (Pippin in The Lord of the Rings), right alongside the expected cornucopia of eviscerations, roasted corpses, death by acid bath and assorted voodoo-induced soul transferences.

Seed of Chucky was also Mancini’s directorial debut, the official handing over of the Chucky franchise to the one creative force who seemed best positioned to shepherd it forward, and it saw him at serious work developing the visual acuity that Yu seemed to inspire. More than anything, Seed found Mancini working out the influence of Brian De Palma’s insouciant pictorial wit, and it even features a rousing score by Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out). But audiences didn’t bite, and even some of the Chucky faithful felt betrayed by Mancini’s unapologetic dive into the deep end of viscera-smeared burlesque at the expense of more familiar, conventionally mounted thrills.


Nine years later, writer-director Mancini rebounded with Curse of Chucky (2013), which in part served as a response to those who complained that Chucky wasn’t scary anymore, a chance to prove that a more straightforward approach to the material could still deliver the jolts. The movie sidestepped the dread of a simple Child’s Play reboot, extending instead to a story that incorporates the history of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif appearing bodily for the first time) and a strong new character, the wheelchair-bound Nica Pierce (played by Dourif’s daughter, Fiona), set against the evil of Chucky amidst the confines of a shadow-rich, very old, dark house. Mancini didn’t entirely eschew humor in Curse, but it’s clear that the film represents a distinct move to reestablish Chucky’s dominance as a figure of fear, and the result is that while the tone is much less overtly comic, the laughs that do arrive are more integrated to the pitch-black tone of the entire piece. (Chucky was always on some level a quipster, so any attempt to avoid the laugh lines would be as much a betrayal of the Chucky legacy as some purported Seed to be; and of course, some did complain that the new movie wasn’t funny enough.) Curse was also the first film of the franchise to be released straight to Blu-ray and digital downloads, and the financial success which followed, combined with the strongest reviews of any Chucky film to date, did much to dispel the perceived stigma of direct-to-video releases as a wasteland bereft of quality or prestige, at around the same time that Netflix (and later Amazon) were doing the same thing.


But as Bride and Seed have proved, Mancini turned out to be a filmmaker not entirely comfortable with the notion of resting on the few laurels that might come his way while working in such a “disreputable” genre as horror. In the wake of the successful premiere of Curse, Mancini served as a producer and wrote two episodes of the critically acclaimed Hannibal during its third (and final?) 2015 season, and as a writer and supervising producer for the first two seasons of SyFy’s sensational horror anthology series Channel Zero, all while concocting and shooting the seventh film in the Chucky series, which drops, presumably from horror heaven, on Blu-ray and digital download this Tuesday, October 3.


The movie Chucky fans have waited four years to see is called Cult of Chucky (2017), and I’m guessing it’s going to be the one to unite, in this profoundly fractured age in which we live, those who pine for the straight-up gory days with the audiences who have always enthusiastically embraced the series’ envelope-bursting exploration of its own satiric potential, as most vividly expressed in Bride and especially Seed. The simple fact is, the through-line of Don Mancini's role as chief creative force in the Chucky series has ensured its standing, improbable as such a thing may have seemed in 1988, as the inarguable best and most consistently provocative series of its kind.

Mrs. Bates, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger all got groundbreaking classics, then a dribbling run of increasingly useless “sequels” and reboots and remakes for their trouble (though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was a hoot and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare proved a fascinating, franchise-capping experiment in meta-awareness); Michael Myers had one good Halloween night; Pinhead disappeared into the hellraising wilderness of Blockbuster Video shelf filler; and Jason’s adventures at Camp Crystal Lake were never any good to begin with, which I suppose would qualify the Friday the 13th series as the most consistent slasher franchise of all. But somehow the Chucky saga just keeps getting better, crazier, more inventive. Cult of Chucky is packed to the cackling rafters with surprises, jolts, laughs—none of which will be spoiled here— and serves as a smashing showcase for Mancini’s continuing growth as a director of considerable finesse and visual expressiveness.


When we last left Nica (Fiona Dourif), she had been handily framed by her battery-operated bête noire and convicted of the murders that, of course, Chucky committed. And speaking of commitment, Curse ended with one for Nica, into a maximum-security mental hospital where her future could only be deemed unpromising. But the movie was also tagged with a last-minute surprise appearance by Chucky’s original BFF, Andy Barclay (played by original Child’s Play child-actor-turned-grownup Alex Vincent), who has spent his journey toward adulthood perpetually tortured by the memory of his redheaded, two-foot-tall tormentor. In Curse’s final images, Andy takes violent steps to begin exacting a systematic torture-revenge on Chucky which is extended, in satisfyingly surreal fashion, into the opening action of Cult.


Nica, having been sedated by her attending psychiatrist (Michael Therriault) into accepting responsibility for the murders in the last film, is transferred to a minimum-security facility, where her attempts to salvage her sanity are undermined not only by some of the patients in her therapy group, but also by her doctor’s introduction into therapy of a vintage Chucky doll (“I got it at Hot Topic.”) to ostensibly help her erase her lingering belief in Chucky’s malevolent bent and face her own guilt. This development, which  for all the world looks, in the movie’s trailer, like just another (strained) attempt to get Chucky inside the locked doors of the facility, all the better for the lunatic to really take over the asylum, is slowly turned on its head—the doll is adopted instead by another patient, Madeleine (Elizabeth Rosen, channeling a young Lilli Taylor), whose own mental fragility may have something to do with a past history of infanticide.

But it turns out, Chucky having been a mass-produced toy, after all, that there are plenty of killer dolls to go around. When more than one Chucky shows up inside the walls of Harrogate Hospital, Mancini starts cranking up the guessing game. Just which one is the real murderous moppet? Or maybe, somehow, they all are. And what about that mutilated object of torture locked up in Andy’s den, the one who looks not like a Good Guys toy but instead like the evolved Bride/Seed/Curse-era Chucky and who cackles and cracks wise just like Brad Dourif? Maybe we’re all as crazy as Nica is supposed to be.

Not to worry. Mancini has concocted a clever and involving scenario that, if the crowd I saw it with last week is any indication, successfully thwarts just about every attempt at audience second-guessing and fulfills, with plenty of pleasurably assured filmmaking bravado, the giddy and genuinely shocking implications of the movie’s alliterative title.



What’s most exciting about this latest chapter, beside its confident extension of the Chucky saga well beyond the lazy, regurgitative storytelling that has earmarked so many other horror movie sequels, is the manner in which Mancini honorably delivers the goods, replacing cynicism with the desire to surprise and delight his audience with an imaginative jolt of a tale that by now has also taken on, for Chucky’s fans as well as his creator, a very personal resonance.

But the movie is memorable not just for the gory spectacle of Chucky’s kills which, back in the day, might have been enough. Director Mancini has considerably upped his game, and our experience, by capitalizing on the lessons learned from all those De Palma allusions—split diopter effects, split-screens, overhead tracking shots and the like—which have informed every Chucky film since Bride. With Cult of Chucky, in the way the movie extracts so much teasing visual and aural delight from its giddily nightmarish circumstances, Mancini moves beyond allusion and reveals himself to be a legitimate heir to De Palma in his prime. If Bride, Seed and Curse were movies that were clearly informed by De Palma’s expressive use of editing and the camera, then Cult of Chucky is the first movie in the series so drunk on its own premise that it feels as if it might have actually been directed by the artist who so pleasurably choreographed movies like Sisters, Raising Cain and The Fury, pictures which charge ahead in their conviction that they’ve got what it takes to rattle and excite an audience through pure movie love alone. The way Mancini adapts and improves on what was a perfectly satisfying murder-by-shattered-overhead-mirror sequence from Bride for a bravura sequence in Cult—a gorgeous diorama of death staged in a sky-lit hospital room in which shards of glass slow-motion mingle with falling snow before the execution of a shocking (and shockingly emotional) finish—is all the evidence you’d need to suspect that there might just be a Carrie or a Dressed to Kill in this director’s future. 

Also included in the Cult’s company, a return appearance by the series’ guardian/avenging angel Jennifer Tilly, which ends up feeling, perhaps improbably, less important than the presence of Fiona Dourif, who battles deliciously with her dad (in fine form here yet again) for the title of Heart of the Franchise. Mancini clearly loves what Dourif brings to the party so much that he manages to reward Nica with a fate that would feel inevitable if we’d only the imaginative capacity to anticipate it. (That audiences won’t is as much a tribute to Dourif’s conviction as to Mancini’s cleverness.)  


There are plenty of organically welcome twists and turns in this episode, and even a clunky expository moment or two which are quickly forgiven through the abundance of shivers and laughs. But the ultimate trajectory of this Cult will not be ruined by Yours Truly, and it’s my advice that you avoid any review which looks to be any more than 10% plot recitation before seeing for yourself this terrific new addition to the legacy of the movies’ shortest, most defiantly plasticine maniac. Cult of Chucky finds the sweet spot where humor and horror coexist better than any of the previous entries, and in the process happily, and with demonic relish, cements the status of the Chucky franchise as the most durable, elastic and creatively deranged horror series since the heyday of the Universal monster classics of the ’30s and ‘40s. Now, there’s a cult worth joining, and Mancini can rest easy in the knowledge, as his Cult is unleashed upon the public this coming Tuesday, that he’s honorably earned a lifetime charter membership among the scariest in the business.

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FOR FURTHER READING (AND LISTENING):


On Curse of Chucky: "With Six You Get Screaming"


Shock Waves Podcast Episode #67: Don Mancini talks Cult of Chucky

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

SATURDAY NIGHT WITH mother!



I would suggest that mother! is one of the silliest, most masochistic, self-aggrandizing allegories/fantasies ever committed to film (or pixels, or whatever)—the Artist as All-Demanding, Relentlessly Punishing Deity and Universe-Sized Megalomaniacal Creator Whose Supplicants Are Not Worthy of Him-- but unfortunately, beyond the general hysteria and cacophony and gooey vaginal floorboard gouges and piles of bloody-pulp-rendered sacrificial lambs, I can’t be entirely sure of what I even saw.

And I’m not even talking about Lord God Aronofsky’s choreographed assault, which has reportedly sent whatever audience bothered to come out to see it on opening weekend into a blizzard of intense buzzing over *what it’s all about.* No, I’m talking about the actual projected image in the theater where we saw, if that word is even applicable in this instance, this happy picture show.

I paid around $48 for the privilege of escaping the crowds at the central AMC Burbank multiplex hub, heading instead to the AMC in the adjacent mall where mother!  was playing at a schedule-friendly 6:45 p.m. This theater has never boasted the finest all-around experience to be had, but with their digital projectors always reliably bright, and with the addition of now-apparently-de-rigueur reserved (and reclining) seats, I figured it was a safe bet. After sitting through 20 minutes of barely visible trailers, thanks (I assumed) to the fact that the house lights were at full brightness throughout, some underpaid kid flipped a switch and the searing lamps embedded in the ceiling threw the tiny auditorium into a more acceptable level of darkness.

Unfortunately, the projected image was still dim-- Jennifer Lawrence’s dream house looked as if it was being viewed through a glass opaquely. Maybe someone (in the house? at the theater?) forgot to pay the electricity bill? The smudgy dimness extended to exterior shots in ostensible bright sunlight too, and the movie’s occasional transitional fades to bright white looked tobacco-stained and in need of a healthy shot of Wisk Detergent, with Bleach. The faces of every actor in the movie—Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer—were rendered unreadable by the level of murky shadow they were left to fight their way through, the daring work being unfurled before the audience sullied, bastardized, visually diluted to a literal shadow play.

After about 10 minutes of this, long enough to determine that the canaries-in-a-coalmine lighting scheme was not one imposed upon the drama by the Our Grand Puppeteer, I walked down to the snack bar to ask the manager, who I’d earlier overheard recommending the movie to a patron while I stood in line for my Diet Coke, if something could be done. I described to him what was happening, and he kindly accompanied me back to the #6 cracker box so I could show him myself. We walked in, stood at the back and watched for a few seconds. He admitted that, yeah, the image looked a little dark. “Maybe a bad bulb or something,” he offered.

Then I asked him to accompany me next door to the #7, where a screening of It was under way. That image also looked dark and murky, as it had when I saw the movie at yet another nearby AMC last weekend, and he agreed It did indeed look substandard. (What the hell here? Is this creeping visual sludge contagious or something?) Then I dragged him down to the #5, we opened the door and observed some Spanish-language comedy or other whose title I’d never heard before, and the image in that cinema was as bright as could be expected, crispy and clear and vivid as the sky overlooking a digital garden of Eden.

The manager apologized, assured me that he agreed something was wrong, and offered further assurances that he would get his projectionist right on the problem-- he even contacted the poor, hapless, underpaid bastard right there in front of me on the snappy, AMC-provided Bluetooth communication system dangling from his big-shot ear. Now satisfied that something might actually be done, I returned to my seat, ready to settle into the movie, if I still could.



Ten minutes later the audience for the 6:45 screening of mother! was still staring at Aronofsky’s meticulously composed shit-show as if Aronofsky had stretched an ash-colored stocking over their heads, all the better to observe in supplicant wonder, I suppose, the treasure before them. So, I got up, marched back out to the lobby and asked not once, not twice, but three times for the attention of the same manager, who was too busy focusing on the task of stocking a cooler with bottles of Powerade to notice the agitated customer hoping to momentarily jangle him onto a new plane of awareness.

Once I finally did, I asked sincerely but disbelievingly, “So, is there just no way for the problem with mother! to be fixed?” (I realize that’s a loaded question, but it’s one for another thread of discussion, and my answer would be “no” anyway, so what’s the point?) The manager knew what I was referring to, however, and gave me some terribly weird and lame excuse that involved the movie being mistakenly projected through a 3D lens that was, I guess, left on the machine from a previous screening of a similarly obnoxious movie, Animated Cartoon Division, and that because mother! was already mid-film there was nothing that could be done.

So, he offered to have the projectionist come down and load me up with some free passes to make up for the fact that I paid almost $50 to watch a lousy movie through a jar full of pond water. Of course, I took him up on his desperate-to-get-this-obviously-steamed-customer-off-my-ass offer. And just to make sure the evening did not escape without that perfect little cherry on top, while the projectionist was making with the passes at the main box-office desk, some guy came bursting out of the #1, located just off the lobby and up a small set of stairs, and began screaming about how pissed off he was because the movie he was watching had been without sound for the first 10 minutes and counting.


Just another Saturday night at the AMC Town Center 8, I suppose. Honestly, despite some encouragement by some very smart people I know who got on mother!’s wavelength and appreciated what Aronofsky was up to, I didn’t really think the chances of me appreciating the latest offering from the Great and Not-So-Benevolent Dictator who dealt up Black Swan, The Wrestler  and Requiem for a Dream--all films I found, to one degree or another, absurd, obnoxious, tedious or unwatchable—were all that elevated to begin with. But I would have liked to have at least had the chance for the movie to get under my skin purely on its own terms. Instead, the wretched presentation put me off from the very start, through no fault of Aronofsky’s, and it only amplified the irritation I experienced that was part and parcel of His Holiness’s creative vision by the time the whole ungodly mess was reduced to ashes, both by design and by the gray fog through which it was projected.

And yet the 50-or-so audience members pretty much just sat there and took it, unaware or uncaring that the visual quality of the movie they were watching had been so degraded that it surely would have been a more affecting experience had we all just decided to stay home and watch it on our phones. This is how people who have dragged themselves out of the cocoon of their home theaters are treated for their $16, and how they react—not at all-- when the product they consume, on a purely technical level, is obviously substandard? If the movies really are dead or dying, or if at least the experience of going to the movies is dead or dying, it might have something to do with the zombies running the theater, or the ones sitting in their chairs, content to listen to Jennifer Lawrence scream while imagining the contours and animated details of her face for themselves through a veil of inexplicable shadows placed between them and whatever meager glimpse of humanity a movie like mother! might have to offer.

It’s enough to make me wish that Our Lord God Aronofsky had gotten wind of what was happening, descended upon AMC’s desecrated temple, smote the whole building and started over fresh, with exhibitors and an audience eager to give him the tender love and attention he so hungrily demands yet so stubbornly refuses to return, with his films, in kind.

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UPDATE 9/18/17: I wish I'd read this six years ago. Here's a 2011 article from Collider entitled "Movie Theaters Continue to Rip Off Patrons with Incompetent Projection of 2D Movies" which details precisely what the theater manager was trying to articulate to me re the "3D lens" that supposedly couldn't be removed. There's also been quite the discussion of all this, and much, much more which has unfolded on my Facebook page. Please feel free to stop by and add your two cents, if you have the steely nerves! (Many thanks to Brett Michel, Michael Giammarino, Loretta Miles and Ariel Schudson for jumping in there with loads of good information.) Also of interest, David Edelstein ranks Aronofsky from zero to hero over at Vulture-- guess which one's the caboose?!

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NOW ON BLU-RAY, JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1976): CHANTAL AKERMAN'S FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE




WARNING: The following essay was written without regard to "spoilers."

We see the interior of a quiet apartment. It is lit with the waning diffuseness of a grey afternoon, and there is a woman moving about its hallways with a steadiness of purpose. The camera which affords us this look into her living space is fixated at an angle perpendicular to the front door, gazing at eye level down the main hallway toward a closed door. The woman greets the man who walks in the front door with indifferent familiarity, with silence. She takes his coat, hangs it on a hook somewhere beyond the purview of the frame, and they both continue quietly toward the far door, completing the introduction to an encounter they have engaged in many times before. The camera remains motionless as they close the door, and we never see what happens once it shuts. Instead, there is an abrupt but sublimely smooth cut to another shot, the camera positioned in precisely the same place, the hallways of the house now shrouded in the evening dark. The man and woman emerge from the room, and still without a word she guides him to the front door, where he puts on his coat. The camera shifts position slightly so we may see them regard each other for a brief moment before he makes his way out. 

The woman turns away from the door and moves toward the dining room. She turns on a light, deposits some money apparently given to her by the man into a tureen placed on the dining room table and then heads to the bathroom, where we see the bath she gives to herself taken in real time. She then moves to the kitchen to begin making dinner for two, the camera never emphasizing anything more than her presence in whatever room she happens to be in, and of course the details of decoration and evidence of humanity within each of those rooms. We will see the preparation of the evening’s meal, the arrival of the woman’s son, their near-silent dinner together, the woman’s post meal clean-up, the two of them leaving the apartment together for some unknown purpose, their return, the unfolding of a hideaway bed on which the boy sleeps, and the woman’s methodical preparation for her own sleep.

This is the second half of the first of three days presented to us as a glimpse into the ritualistic routine of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), whose strictly determined movements within the walls of 23 Quai du Commerce, in the city of Brussels, Belgium, represent a psychological pattern of self-defense that will slowly be compromised over the next day and a half. The order in the physical space of the apartment is Jeanne’s entire world-- each chore, each errand, each neighborly visit, each meal a detached attempt to maintain civil contact with the structure of society, each clockwork sexual encounter, necessary to supplement a modest lifestyle after the death of her husband, adding to her disassociation from the messiness and demands of human response. That apartment, as we shall see, is the real fortress of solitude, and Jeanne's soul, housed in the actress's placidly rendered shell, occupies yet another. (Seyrig is astonishing in a meticulously observed performance that requires the utmost attention-- each gesture, each reaction, each non-reaction becomes another essay in miniature which illuminates with genuine feeling what could have become a simple conceptual exercise in fleshing out Jeanne's exile into suspended animation.)


In its own way, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) is as stylized an examination of the emerging fissure’s in one woman’s icily-composed outer shell as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Polanski imposes the disintegrating perspective of his main character, Carole (Catherine Deneuve), upon the film itself, warping and shattering the frame into shards of the protagonist’s twisted reality as the demons of her mind close in on her, forcing us to see the world as she experiences it. Akerman, on the other hand, steers the visual language of psychological representation in precisely the opposite direction, using long takes, a determined, precisely controlled camera usually placed at a fixed height and distance, and a painterly sense of graphic continuity to suggest the stasis and emotional confinement of this singularly dampened woman, whose attachment to the rituals of her mundane existence are both her slim tether to reality and the means by which she slips away from it. The director, who was only 25 years old when she made this masterpiece, is preternaturally confident in her design, in which she employs influences as disparate as Warhol and Godard to allow the audience not just to imagine the fragile disassociation of the title character but to experience it temporally, not as real-time but in such a way that we understand profoundly the implications of Jeanne’s freeze-dried condition, of which we only see what amounts to two days in a cycle that has been moving inexorably toward implosion, smooth on the surface, gears grinding underneath, for years.

Jeanne Dielman… is a movie that has probably been quoted, consciously or subconsciously, by every filmmaker since 1976 who has pushed against the momentum toward faster pacing and voluminous exposition. Its absolute mastery of time and space has paved the way of influence for directors as diverse as David Lynch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Lee Chang-dong, Richard Linklater and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name just a few whose names and work crossed my mind while I was immersed in Akerman’s movie. The Warhol influence on Akerman is, of course, fundamental, but she shows a command of purpose and probing humanity that never much entered into Warhol’s experiments with temporal endurance. In fact, the movie’s length—it runs three hours and 20 minutes—is integral to its ultimate power. Surely a shorter movie (perhaps even an actual short) could have been made that would have conveyed the same information and made the same “point” about Jeanne’s crippling stasis, but it’s easy to imagine such a film coming off as more an intellectual exercise, empathy at arm’s length. But Jeanne Dielman… represents both an intellectual and an emotional commitment for audiences who choose to give themselves over to it, and even those willing to pay for a ticket (or buy the Criterion Blu-ray-- the multitude of reasons to justify such a purchase are detailed below) may find their patience amply tested-- there was plenty of uncomfortable giggling, sighing, rustling, and an indifference to cell phones ringing in the auditorium when I last saw the film theatrically.

The astonishing thing about Akerman’s film is the degree to which we’re made to feel the crushing weight of Jeanne’s mundane day-to-day existence because of the passage of time, and each ripple in the routine registers like a psychic earthquake. (Again, it’s worth mentioning that only certain segments or shots are presented in real time—this is not a Rope-style masking of a basically theatrical presentation through means of cinematic trickery.) Whereas much of the language of cinema is predicated on the breaking down of experience, and then the piecing of it back together through judicious editing of image and sound, Akerman takes the experience in the opposite direction, experimenting with what the stretching of the boundaries of endurance can mean for the material and the audience. Its form is crucial to finding a way for us to understand what Jeanne experiences in a way that can go beyond simple platitudes or false empathy. When the film circled back to the afternoon of the second day and I realized the previous day’s-worth of existence, which had taken about 90 minutes to unfold, was about to play out again, I felt a sense of stifling horror, as much for Jeanne and her entrapment in a repeating pattern of certain emotional erosion as for my own uncertainty about whether I could sit through it all again.


Jeanne Dielman… is rooted in the specific pain of a woman for whom life has calcified beyond vitality and the unpredictability of human response, yet the movie is not a feminist tract. Akerman doesn’t use Jeanne’s prostitution and the unfeeling routines of her johns, or even the closed-off countenance of her bookish son, as easy points scored against the hegemony and oppression of a male-dominated society. (The director knows she doesn't have to underline these elements for them to register.) Instead, Akerman’s long wind-up sets us up for a profound shock. Cracks in Jeanne’s routines have become increasingly apparent—the slipping of a shoe brush, her sudden inability to comfort or adequately deal with an infant left daily in her care, the table she occupies in a local café suddenly taken by another customer. But it is our first glimpse behind the bedroom door during an apparently routine trick that sets the stage for Akerman’s blow to our collective gut. Jeanne’s unexpected awakening to sexual response, her tumultuous and (as it turns out) life-shattering orgasm underneath a passionless customer turns out to be the impetus not for fulfillment or self-awareness, as it might be (and has been) in similar tales of feminist awakening, but instead for complete psychic breakdown.

The movie retains its mysteries too—where do Jeanne and her son go at night, every night? And what is Jeanne’s relationship with her sister, who writes to her from Canada with concern for Jeanne’s situation and her state of mind, but with whom Jeanne struggles to write back a simple letter of response? It is Akerman’s approach to these unexplained elements of the film’s story, and the glancing attention to Jeanne’s life as a child living through the piecemeal survival of World War II, an existence whose ascetic qualities she clearly adapted as an adult, that adds to the richness, the fully felt tragedy which elevates Jeanne Dielman… beyond the status of experimental stunt and into the realm of film art. Akerman’s techniques might be seen as distancing, but the absorption one experiences into the mindscape of this tortured, inarticulate woman Jeanne Dielman is something to be reckoned with. Part of that reckoning is wrestling with the emotional residue the movie leaves behind; another is dealing with the implications and the incontrovertible evidence of a repressed, muffled soul sitting peacefully in a kitchen, peeling potatoes, Jeanne's (and Seyrig's) face a rictus of affectless absence which suddenly gives way to the pleasure of mindless ritual, and soon to the siren call of madness.

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For further reading, here’s Sam Adams’ excellent interview with Chantal Akerman.

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Jeanne Dielman… is available in a beautiful Blu-ray edition from Criterion released earlier this year featuring, according to the disc’s notes, a new 2K digital restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique and supervised by director Chantal Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, as well as a 69-minute documentary on Akerman shot during the filming of Jeanne Dielman…; interviews with Akerman and Mangolte; an excerpt from the “Chantal Akerman on Chantal Akerman” episode of the French TV program Cinema de notre temps from 1997; an interview with Akerman’s mother,  Natalia; a TV interview with Akerman and Delphine Seyrig; and Akerman’s first film, Saute ma ville 91968), with an introduction from the director. I got the Blu-ray a couple months ago, and it’s a real treasure. But for those without Blu-ray capability, Criterion’s 2009 DVD does feature the same bonus features as the Blu-ray.


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