Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Ghost Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Be part of the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them!

This week, Halloween week, we are picking Ghost Movies. There are really two kinds of ghost movies - scary and sweet. And so, I have picked two from each. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two older movies are sweet and the two newer films are scary.

I should also say that I saw Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak this weekend, and...... I was underwhelmed. I get that, in the end, it's less of a ghost story than "a story with a ghost in it" to use the film's own language, but it didn't go far enough into the gothic grandeur and melodrama for me. Disappointing, despite some absolutely fantastic elements.

The Canterville Ghost (Jules Dassin, 1944) Cowardly Sir Simon of Canterville has been cursed to haunt his family castle until one of the family's descendants performs a brave deed while wearing his signet ring. You see, he ran away from a duel and his father would NOT have him besmirch the Canterville name by being a coward. Three centuries pass full of cowardly Cantervilles, but when a soldier in a battalion stationed in Canterville Castle appears to have the Canterville birthmark, the portly Simon thinks he's finally found the one to break the curse. Based on a story by Oscar Wilde and starring Charles Laughton as Sir Simon and Margaret O'Brien as his youngest descendant, Jessica, The Canterville Ghost is all sorts of fun.

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Makiewicz, 1947) Young widow Lucy Muir (a luminous Gene Tierney) finally decides to strike out on her own and live with her daughter in a cottage by the sea. She was warned against it, but moves in anyway... only to find out that the place is haunted by its previous owner, the salty sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison, playing Rex Harrison as only he can). Their relationship starts off antagonistic, but soon cools into a mutual respect and then warms into.... can it be? YES!... love. With Natalie Wood as the Muir daughter Anna and George Sanders as the living part of the supernatural love triangle that inevitably forms, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is one of my favorite romances, and couldn't be more different from the classic TV sitcom it inspired.

The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) It is not long after World War II on the fog-flooded island of Jersey off the coast of England. Grace (Nicole Kidman in what is probably her best performance) has been living with her two children - who suffer from a rare disease characterized by "photosensitivity"; they could die if exposed to natural light - in a large house while her husband is away at war. Thankfully, three new servants have shown up to help her and the children. And just in time, too, as her daughter has been seeing a family of ghosts in the house and windows and doors have been flinging open by themselves. The Others is a masterpiece of restraint and mood, and also genuinely scary in moments. Even after you know all the story's twists and turns, the film is still a marvel to behold. And its final shot is one of the new millennium's most chilling, haunting images

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2014) Based on a true story from renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring is the best scary movie to hit theaters in quite some time, and it achieves that by taking horror back to basics: long takes, deep focus, a respect for craft, and care for its characters. The Perron family (led by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, perfectly ordinary empathetic) moves into a fixer-upper in 1971, and not long after moving in start to experience supernatural happenings. In fear and desperation, they turn to the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both fantastic), who confirm that the house is indeed haunted. By some mightily pissed off spirits. The letter-perfect period trappings contribute to the throwback feel of the film, but what really elevates The Conjuring above most horror films of the modern day is its structure: The film does not work unless you feel for the characters, and the early scenes make us feel like part of the Perron family. When things finally go south, it's not just horrifying, it's heartrending, because we feel for these characters, just like poor innocent Regan in The Exorcist and Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Werewolves

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us - I promise we won't bite - by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.

Quick and dirty this week, as I haven't really seen many films involving werewolves.

The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) What's most surprising about this Universal monster movie is that the titular beastie doesn't really appear for much of it. But Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr. give the film the gravitas it needs to work on a level deeper than the script displays on the surface.

Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985) An essential piece of '80s pop culture, this undeniably fun Michael J. Fox-starrer works much better as a teen flick than a horror, even a horror-comedy, film.

Cat People (Val Lewton, 1942) Val Lewton was the king of doing a lot with a little, and Cat People is a perfect example of that (so much so that I'm not entirely sure it really fits this week's theme). We never see the mysterious monster stalking poor Simone Simon, but this is the genesis of that old horror trope "the person walking alone at night who hears something walking behind them that stops when they stop," and damn if it isn't effective.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Asian Horror

Written for the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. It's SPOOKY for the month of October! Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them.
For this week's Halloween Special Edition, the theme is Asian Horror. I will fully admit, I have not seen a whole lot of horror films in general, let alone ones from Asia. HOWEVER, I have seen just enough to have some to pick from. God bless the Criterion Collection, which introduced me to most of these. Since a bunch of people said they weren't going to participate this week due to their lack of knowledge of Asian horror, I've gone the extra mile and picked four instead of three this week.

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) Based on two Japanese folk tales, Ugetsu is one of the most beautiful, restrained ghost stories ever put on film. It takes place during the Civil Wars of 16th Century Japan, where two ambitious peasants leave their little village to make their fortunes. The potter Genjuro wants to sell his wares to the wealthy while his brother-in-law Tobei wants to become a samurai. After their village is sacked, they decide to take their wives with them to the city, but soon Genjuro sends his wife back to the village, telling her he will return soon. Eventually the two men get what they want, but the price they have to pay...

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) Kobayashi's masterpiece tells four ghost stories (the title actually translates to ghost story). The first ("The Black Hair") is actually similar to that of Ugetsu, but the ending is more scary than sad - a man divorces his wife to live with a wealthier woman in the big city, but finds himself even more unhappy in his second marriage. He leaves his second wife and returns to his first, only to get quite the rude awakening after spending the night with her. The second ("The Woman of the Snow") involves an ice ghost who freezes men to death and bleeds them dry. The third ("Hoichi The Earless") is about a blind musician who is so talented that the underworld comes calling. And the last ("In a Cup of Tea") is based on an unfinished story about a soldier who sees a ghostly reflection in the titular drink. To call this film stunningly gorgeous is to do it a disservice. It is right up there with The Red Shoes as one of the most beautiful films ever made.

Io Island (Kim Ki-Young, 1977) The titular island is one straight out of legend - women rule and all the men who arrive mysteriously disappear. So of course a developer wants to build a tourist resort there and sends someone to investigate the strange happenings. It's sort of like a Korean version of The Wicker Man, except stranger.

House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) This is without a doubt the weirdest fucking movie I've ever seen. If you ever need proof that everyone in the 70s was high as fuck on every drug available, just point to this nearly indescribable movie. The plot is fairly basic: Seven Japanese schoolgirls (sporting such on-the-nose names as Gorgeous, Melody, Prof and Kung Fu) go on a trip to Gorgeous's aunt's house in the country for summer break. Neither the aunt nor the house are anything like what they seem. Except that how the story is told is... well... just watch the trailer. It'll give you a pretty good idea of the utterly bizarre insanity on display. Words simply cannot describe this one. It needs to be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Villainous Children

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us (ONE OF US... ONE OF US....) by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them! We regular participants don't bite.... HARD....

Continuing the special October Halloween Edition of Thursday Movie Picks, this week's theme is Villainous Children. There are only so many films with actual CHILDREN as the villains, so I stretched a bit for one of them instead of picking two of the really obvious ones. And there was another that I really REALLY wanted to pick, but to do so would completely spoil the end of the movie. So without further ado, here are my eeeeeeevil picks.

Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) One day, all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, England, fall into a deep sleep in the middle of the day. Some months after they all wake up, all the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and they give birth rather fast, all to beautiful blond-haired children, who have some strange characteristics. Including being able to control the minds of the adults around them. This is one of the creepiest little films I've ever seen - very much a British B-movie from 1960, but incredibly well-acted and well-shot. There's a reason it's become a classic.

Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) Eli is a sweet little pre-teen just like any other. And she's very sweet to poor little bullied Oskar. But just what is it she and her elderly caretaker do out late in the evenings? The truth is quite chilling, and not just because Alfredson's future classic takes place in a seemingly perpetual winter. This is an absolutely first-rate horror film. So of course Hollywood had to make its own version for people who don't like subtitles. I've heard Let Me In actually isn't bad, but even if you don't like subtitles, you owe it to yourself to see this one... 

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007) ...and this one even more. Laura moves her family into the orphanage where she grew up in order to start a home for handicapped children, like her adopted son Simón. Simón likes their new house, even drawing pictures of his five new (invisible) friends. Typical kid stuff. But then one day during a party for the new residents and their families, Simón disappears after Laura can't come with him RIGHT THEN to see one of his friends - whom she happened to see later anyway. It'd be hard to miss him, wearing a burlap sack mask and doing nasty things. So she does what she has to to find her son. The Orphanage is a great film, full stop. Scary, deeply felt, perfectly shot and edited, and with a wonderful performance from Belén Rueda as Laura. It's perhaps the saddest horror film ever made, and it also contains the single best jump scare of the past ten years.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Alfred Hitchcock Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Come and join us - all you have to do is pick three films that fit the week's theme and tell us about them!

Welcome to October! That means it's Halloween month, and Thursday Movie Picks is celebrating with different scary-movie-themed picks every week. For this week, we turn to the "Master of Suspense", Alfred Hitchcock himself. The man has directed so damn many great films that it's practically obscene. I haven't seen all of them, but I have seen many of them (I had four full VHS tapes of them recorded from a TCM marathon when I was younger), and plenty of episodes of his great TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, too. Yeah, I guess you could say I'm a fan.

But... to pick just three? JUST. THREE?!?!?! Okay, fine. These are not my three favorites. Nor are they what I consider to be his three best (and yes, those are two very different things). They aren't even the three that I would tell people to start with if they had never seen even a single Hitchcock film before. These three are the ones that I think are his most underrated.

Sabotage (1936) - The most famous description of Hitchcock's style was given by the man himself, in his long-ranging interview with Francois Truffaut. It's the famous discourse on the difference between surprise and suspense - if you show a conversation between two people at a dinner table, and after a while a bomb explodes, that's surprise. However, if you show the audience the bomb under the table first, and then play the exact same scene, that's suspense. Sabotage, one of the last films he made in England before going to Hollywood, contains perhaps the most obvious - and cruelest - demonstration of that. It's only a five or six-minute sequence, but it feels twice that long for all the stress the film puts you through. Sylvia Sidney plays a woman whose husband owns a cinema. He's always been nice to her and her (much younger) brother Stevie, but she gradually begins to suspect that he's part of a terrorist gang planning a series of attacks in London. And then one afternoon, Stevie has to deliver a film canister to Piccadilly Circus...

Stage Fright (1950) - You know how everyone talks about Psycho and how shocking it was when Hitchcock killed off the film's biggest star by the halfway point? Well, he had been toying with audience's expectations and cinematic narrative conventions for years before that. Stage Fright is a bit of a lark, a trifle in a filmography as great of Hitch's, but its big twist is one of the greatest cinematic acts of pulling the rug right out from under the audience. Jane Wyman is Eve Gill, a young acting student who hides her crush, acting fellow student, from the cops, who suspect him of murdering his lover's husband. In order to prove his innocence, she becomes the temporary maid to his lover: the great actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

To Catch a Thief (1955) - I keep seeing people refer to this one as "lesser" or "minor" Hitchcock, and I just don't get it. No, it's not Vertigo or Psycho or Rear Window or even North By Northwest, but it's possibly the most purely entertaining film he ever directed, with one great scene after another. It's also boosted immeasurably by its stars, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, neither of whom were ever more alluring than they are here. Retired jewel thief John "The Cat" Robie is forced out of retirement when a copycat criminal leads the police to interrupt his quiet, comfortable life on the French Riviera. He manages to convince an insurance agent to let him keep an eye on their wealthiest clients and their jewels in the hopes of catching the impostor in the act. Only it seems one of them, Frances Stevens, knows exactly who he is... and also has a bit of a taste for danger. This is apparently legendary costume designer Edith Head's favorite film she ever worked on.

BONUS: The Ten Best Hitchcock Films (according to me... my favorites will get their own post)
1. Vertigo
2. Psycho
3. Notorious
4. Rear Window
5. Shadow of a Doubt
6. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
7. The 39 Steps
8. I Confess
9. Strangers on a Train
10. Rebecca