Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years. This month is superseded by a playlist of horror classics, hits, misses, and cult objects in honor of Halloween.

*****

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

Netflix’s adaptation, with “Hill House” restored to the title, is getting enough play that I hear chatter about it in the office kitchen. But the 1963 version by Hollywood polymath Robert Wise is still the one to beat—not only an old-dark-house classic, but one of those films where Old Hollywood itself seems to be dying and getting reborn in real time. The scientist and the playboy are stock characters from ages past, but the warped, wide-angle terrors look to the future. There are moments here of creepy atmosphere, frames composed for both beauty and shocks, and some impressive FX. But what remains most fresh is the psychology of repression, including a lesbian subtext that’s barely sub.

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*****

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

With The Fog popping back up in rep theaters in a new restoration, its worth revisiting this follow-up to Halloween (itself enjoying a zeitgeist bump) to appraise what John Carpenter’s cult classic does well and why. The 11th hour inspiration—to add a literal “campfire story” opening scene to set the mood—turns out to make a world of difference, turning the appealing slightness of this ghost story into a feature, not a bug. Other pros: the lively interconnected cast, the pacing, the eerie atmosphere, and a tough lead heroine who proves just how much Carpenter understood Howard Hawks. Drag your friends.

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*****

Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

By the end of the 90s, a lot of what felt punk about Carpenter films started to feel trashy, a trend not helped here by a charmless James Woods and the other, other, other Baldwin brother you forgot existed. Yet there’s still some interesting things in Vampires: the acid western/giallo genre hybrid that informs the style, plus the leather-clad fuck-you spirit of Escape From New York redirected from the government to the church. And for those happy to glean what they may, it’s always nice when Cheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) has license to go freaky.

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*****

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Young people in a remote place just looking for a good time—enjoy the relative boredom while it lasts, because it gets intense. I generally loathe horror movies that use extreme grisliness to get a rise out of you. But I can’t help but admire how Hooper and company can freak you the hell out with grainy film stock, off-kilter compositions, and psychedelic lens flares alone. This is truly inventive sensory cinema, all but empty on any other level. American independent cinema begat torture porn; try not to hold that against it.

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*****

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)

I was 12 when this came out, and all my friends told me it either creeped them out, bored them, or made them throw up. Neither was appealing, so I skipped it. But seeing it for the first time now, with the simple setup and payoff, Blair Witch seems mostly a triumph of creating a fake document, its pleasures as close to a self-reflexive po-mo exercise like Medium Cool as they are to the run-like-hell dread of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I dig the conceit that, in 1999, the most doomed hubris you could show in the face of the terrifying unknown was deciding to make a student film.

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*****

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Presenting, for your neo-camp horror comedy delectation, a version of the 1980s so disaffected and materialist that no one can remember anyone else’s name and the closest they come to real human empathy is when they listen to Phil Collins. It’s a fiendishly witty joke, which is good, because for much of its runtime, it’s practically all American Psycho has got—apart, of course, from a killing spree. Maybe it’s impossible to do a deep satire of a shallow worldview. But Mary Harron comes damn close, and the red-white-and-black color scheme and eye for male insecurity register when they most need to. Shout-out to Chloe Sevigny for giving the movie the extra bit of soul it needs.

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*****

It: Chapter One (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

In a way, it makes sense that last year’s It is now the highest grossing horror film of all time in the United States, and not just because inflation isn’t on The Exorcist‘s side. It: Chapter One is by design more silly/fun/friendly than scary—a crossover hit for slumber parties instead of audacious deviants. When it’s vague with its mythos and mostly shallow in tying the horror to psychologically resonant ideas, that’s a problem. When some of the 13-year-olds are annoying, that may just be verisimilitude. Curious to see if lightning strikes again for chapter two, when they’ll no longer have 13-year-olds or 80s nostalgia to lean on.

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*****

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Now this is for deviants, or at least in the deviant starter pack. There isn’t exactly a lot of attention to plot or character, and I’m always skeptical when a horror film relies on shock-gore. But then there’s the total craft: the acid colors; the demented sets; the prog-rock score played as either warning or tease; the editing that synthesizes all the above; and Jessica Harper as the perfect wide-eyed lamb. It can indeed be said that Suspiria is About Something—namely vicious competition between women and the uselessness of men in their world, though even typing that sentence is meeting the film halfway. The remake that’s opening this weekend needn’t be something to fear; there are ways to embellish Suspiria‘s gaps.

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*****

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

This was the time when people were talking about “the new freedom of the screen”, which poses a question for Hitchcock: when someone was so adept at sneaking around or challenging the restraints of the screen, what do they do in the age of X-ratings? The result is his most viscerally shocking movie, containing moments so clammy and morbid that don’t seem to have been filmed so much as heaved onto celluloid by a remarkably frank subconscious. With all that, it’s a smart look at British repression—and a tight, twisty plot that only falters near the end. The last Hitchcock film worth making a fuss about, with all due respect to 1976’s Family Plot.

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*****

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)

What would a cinephile Halloween be without mastermind B-movie producer Val Lewton? Isle of the Dead is one of the gems he cranked out in the 1940s, nowhere near his team’s best or most famous, but indicative of their poetic ambition. The island setting, the battle between reason and faith, the angsty and cruel main character—hell, this is essentially Bergman territory, just shot on the cheap on an RKO backlot and laced with some spooky faux-mythology. Boris Karloff does terrific work with a complicated character, but the second half strays too far from logic or causality. Martin Scorsese picked this to represent Lewton on his list of scariest films ever made, which says less about the film, I think, than that the young Marty was the right kind of sensitive viewer.

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*****

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

From the golden age of anthology films comes a triptych that adapts Edgar Allan Poe for the modish 60s and has the rare good taste to tell its stories in order of ascending director talent. Roger Vadim’s Jane Fonda psychodrama is mild Euro-kink (naturellement). Louis Malle delivers solid work with a mesmerizing doppelganger tale. And Fellini’s 40 minutes are one of his best kept secrets, a fantasia of half-past-dead celebrity that’s enough to make you wish he ever made a real horror flick. This one goes out to FilmStruck, whose own departure from our mortal plane was suddenly announced today. After being unable to track down a copy of the film, I was pleased to see it pop up in their library, where they even offer Fellini’s short separately for the convenience of cinephiles in a rush. Watch it while you can. RIP.

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*****

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

2018 gave me the occasion to revisit this for the first time since my teens, when it looked to budding millennial movie buffs like a model of serious cinema for grown-ups. Looking back, I had two realizations. First, it’s not at all as serious-minded as I remember—in fact, in the shameless goosing, the cartoon villains, and the sexual subtext of every advance Jodie Foster deflects, its heart is the sort of smart B-movie prized by Roger Corman (who gets a cameo). Second, all of that makes me like it just as much—if craft can convince the Academy that a cheeky thriller is prestigious, god bless.

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*****

Short Cuts: BURNING

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In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning, the new film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, say anything about the plot. The movie begins with the camera following a young man down a city street, and it’s best to walk in blind and follow along. Watch where it goes in texture, theme, and even genre. A social-realist snapshot of a lost generation? A straight-up thriller in the making? The sort of “existential mystery” Antonioni might have made if his films were informed by anger instead of ennui?

Burning, taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami and turned into a 150-minute smolder, synthesizes all of the above remarkably well. The young man is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), scraping by on odd jobs and moving through life like a sleepwalker. He is chronically underemployed and has few social attachments. He claims to be an aspiring writer, though despite his ample downtime, he doesn’t use any of it to write. But off the street comes Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who works as a sales model for a local store and swears she knows him from their childhood. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says she got plastic surgery. (“Aren’t I prettier now?” she asks, and the question is bashfully proud). She seems to remember the details of their past far better than he does—including, she notes suddenly, that he used to treat her with arrogant disregard. But it’s not long before she’s invited him back to her apartment and into her bed.

There is a strange, almost amnesiac numbness to Jong-su, just as when we look at Hae-mi (through him), pieces of her seem to be missing. Is she harboring an old crush on him? Toying with him? Is everything she says even true? Or is imbuing her with any mystery at all simply a way of misunderstanding an unfailingly sincere person? It’s a hook, and not the last for a film whose great strength is what it leaves unspoken, unspecified, or handled indirectly, while its passion coalesces with the direction of a jab to the gut. When Hae-mi goes away on a trip and returns with the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun), a modern playboy with a Westernized name and money flowing in from some unknown source, the tension is set for a disquieting love triangle. It begins with a baseline of suspicion and jealousy and heads into increasingly sinister territory.

What emerges is a portrait of a system—one with a smiling face, a friendly surface, and an eerie normalcy—that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode Burning as a work of social criticism. In fact, the broad strokes are there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to the wrinkles of a murder story that so shrewdly and emotionally plays with the very definition of the word. It is a rich and atmospheric film, sustained in its intrigue, attentive to its characters (especially its heroine), tinged with narrative abstraction around the edges, and taking the time to let the full extent of its ambiguities, anxieties, and most of all sadness seep under your skin. The end of the hero’s writer’s block comes in tandem with an act of violence, as if both are floodgates that open at once. And for all that’s unsettled in the film, that parallel may be the only concrete answer you need—even if Lee is old enough, or smart enough, to steep it in weary, mournful uncertainty. At American arthouses, where movies like this are liable to pull off disappearing acts of their own, Burning is not to be missed. It is one of the best of 2018.

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Burning won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and is South Korea’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It had a preview screening at the Aero in Santa Monica tonight and opens on Friday in select theaters.

Short Cuts: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

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When a series regular gets killed off before the opening credits of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a way of announcing that, whoever controls the life-or-death fates of these characters—the Russo brothers? Kevin Feige? a majority vote of Marvel’s board?—they’re not fucking around. Not that any Marvel movie would ever foreswear “fucking around” completely; another term for that might be “irreverent, riffing, self-reflexive humor”, ample amounts of which have been central to Marvel’s identity ever since they started hiring comedy directors for action movies and launched an empire on Robert Downey Jr.’s insolent charm. But what it means is that, as the climaxes pile up, Infinity War has what lesser blockbusters fail at and lazy ones don’t even attempt: a palpable sense of stakes. (A lot of movies settle for “the world”, which means less and less these days if it isn’t handled right). It’s showmanship, of course—even a non-comic-book-reader knows that superhero deaths don’t tend to be permanent, especially when they’ve already signed on for sequels. But as long as moviegoers who never quite outgrew this shit (and don’t intend to) will pay $13 to greet silliness with reverence and vice-versa, it’s good to be in the hands of showmen who are not only talented, but feel devoted to their end of the bargain.

As the culmination of one of Hollywood history’s most ambitious act of serialization, Infinity War was never going to want for scale: come see dozens of superheroes, each of them with their own history, mythology, and comic bit, in a sustained cross-cut juggling act. Iron Man and Dr. Strange will clash egos and facial hair. Half of the Guardians of the Galaxy will team up with Spider-Man, the other half with Thor. The Hulk will crash down on earth and meet Black Panther. And all of them will unite to fight the extraterrestrial demi-god Thanos (Josh Brolin) who’s been floating around the edges for a decade and has one of those existential-minded plans to commit mass murder in the name of balance.

Balance is, of course, what such a scale calls for, and the juggling act of Infinity War gamely pulls it off. For one, this is lean and tight for a two-and-half-hour film: its momentum refocuses it on the pop epic it needs be whenever you worry it might get bogged down playing the hits or turn into Marvel’s Cavalcade All-Star Revue of 2018. The comic book action and emotions have enough moment-by-moment immediacy that you’re welcome to dive in even if you’ve had too much real life between installments to clearly remember who had which magical artifact where. (The merging of filmic size and TV narrative flow continues, even as both formats balloon). The gags that write themselves are fine; the gags that don’t are better. And if it took Marvel a long time to come up with villains who are as engaging as their heroes, Brolin fits the bill and lends the necessary grave personality to movie evil.

Marvel’s peaks were never that high nor their valleys prolonged. Most of the franchise is a question of variations, like flavors of the same kind of empty-calorie Saturday morning breakfast cereal, even while the Russos’ Captain America movies got the best stories, Thor: Ragnarok was allowed to be uncommonly freaky, and Black Panther felt personal. But the tone and texture of Infinity War‘s “to be continued…” final scenes feel like something new for a series pushing twenty films. This is a film that bets, with success, that after ten years of backstories, good plots, bad plots, and plenty of fucking around, the best place to leave its audience is not the usual flashy animated end credits sequence, but a somber and portentous note. If there’s been a better cliff-hanger at the franchise-hungry multiplex in the last ten years, I haven’t seen it. So the compliment Infinity War deserves is both the finest and most basic you can give to this town’s showmen, especially those who take 150 minutes. When it was over, it left me wanting more. Here’s hoping they know how to finish.

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Avengers: Infinity War is available anywhere you get your movies and all your friends have already seen it. To whom it may concern, it’s easily a much better movie than The Force Awakens.

Short Cuts: EIGHTH GRADE

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Here’s a question worth debating: how many movies about American teenagers deal authentically with the teen experience? There are certainly plenty, but most teen movies are romanticized, sensationalized, removed into genre territory, and/or starring actors who are clearly older than their characters. Such mythology can be an enticement. It’s the reason manic high school comedies are most fun when you’re in middle school, manic college comedies are most fun when you’re in high school, and both get harder and harder to relate to except through nostalgia goggles. But how many of the American movies about “teenagers” capture the mess of day-to-day life as an early teen, where people’s most private confusions arc past each other, you have the self-conscious urge to lie about things you really don’t need to lie about, and it’s all mixed in with such mundanity that you may not really realize what you learned until years later?

To its credit, that seems to be at least partly what Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is going for. It follows the last week of middle school for Kayla, an awkward and shy girl at precisely the age it’s hardest to be awkward and shy. She has a loving, supportive father at precisely the age when loving, supportive parents mortify you. She bares her feelings for no one except a social media channel with almost no viewers. She and her peers are different from those who came before them chiefly because they’re blessed and cursed with the latest tech. And all the while, the new world of high school awaits.

Most of this hits familiar beats, like the same coming-of-ager with a new SnapChat filter, or an easy comic close-up on those millennials hooked to their phones. The misadventures play out with a mixture of self-consciously cinematic performance and touches of offhand authenticity, and I suspect that teen movies will never buck cliches completely because none of us made it to fifteen without involuntarily becoming one (or worse, wanting to). But the gentle regard for its characters, and how wonderfully its actors handle them, wins you over. And it’s at its best when it veers into unexpected tonal territory—like a car ride that turns from liberating to deeply uncomfortable—or, staying true to early adolescence, shows moments of growth but refuses to come right out and settle them.

Unlike last year’s (superior) Lady Bird, I didn’t get to it before the hype, and it struck me as much slighter and less incisive than its indie darling reputation would suggest. It is a conventional film, made from the outside looking in, seeming to simulate an experience a bit too much and inhabit it a bit too little. Yet few news items over this summer gave me a kick of happiness like A24’s announcement that it would host screenings of the film for middle schoolers and not enforce the R rating. Thirteen-year-old’s lives are already rated R, and they know that better than the MPAA. And whatever issues of slightness inevitably accompany indie-darling hype, I approve on principle of any comedy that teens and adults can watch together, each fondly laughing at how little the other knows. In fact, I daresay it warms my heart.

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Eight Grade was a toast at this year’s Sundance and is available to rent on VOD next week. While writing this, I realized that the class that just started eighth grade was born the year I graduated high school. Kill me now.