Thursday, January 19, 2017

Angel Heart (1987)

Angel Heart (1987): adapted by Alan Parker from the William Hjortsberg novel Falling Angel; directed by Alan Parker; starring Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel), Robert De Niro (Louis Cyphre), Lisa Bonet (Epiphany Proudfoot), Charlotte Rampling (Margaret Krusemark), and Dann Florek (Herman Winesap): A once-popular singer named Johnny Favorite (born John Liebling) disappeared from a rest home some time between 1944 and 1955, the latter being when Angel Heart is set. A mysterious fellow named Louis Cyphre hires New York private eye Harry Angel to track Favorite down. Cyphre says that Favorite owes him for helping jump-start his career back in the day, before a war injury left Favorite a catatonic, badly burned mess.

Angel Heart may be better if one hasn't read the novel on which it is based. Or maybe not. Even the internal evidence of the film suggests that Mickey Rourke is really about ten years (or more) too young to play Harry Angel, and way too handsome. Johnny Handsome, one might say.

Adapter-director Alan Parker moves the second half of the story from New York to Louisiana because Voodoo! There's voodoo in New York in the novel. But we all know voodoo only works in and around New Orleans. And shooting in Louisiana allows Parker to indulge his fetish for the American South. It also makes the second half a compendium of locational movie cliches as related to voodoo (or voduon), Southern rednecks, and African-Americans in the South dancing and writhing around voodoo campfires in the bayous. The movie may not intend to conflate Satanism and voodoo, but it pretty much does. Oh, well. Who's keeping score?

The move to Louisiana also discards one of the book's thematic points (that evil goes on anywhere, in any level of society) and its homage to hardboiled detective films and movies set in New York. So it goes. Alan Parker is not a subtle film-maker. A guy gets murdered by being drowned in a giant, boiling vat of gumbo, for God's sake. And as soon as you first see that giant vat of gumbo, you know that Alan Parker is going to drown someone in it. It's that simple. It's Chekhov's gumbo.

The plot works better -- or at least more mysteriously -- than that of the book because Angel Heart eliminates the book's first-person narration by Harry Angel. This allows for certain things to remain hidden until the climax. That it also makes a major plot revelation seem practically ridiculous may not be noticed until one thinks about the film afterwards.

Make no mistake, though -- Rourke is terrific as Harry Angel. He may be too pretty, but he's still capable of conveying toughness, horror, and compassion in a convincing fashion. People forgot for about 20 years what a fine actor he was, and that was Rourke's own doing. Then The Wrestler brought him back. Then Iron Man 2 sent him away again. All I'll add is that he'd be a more faithful-to-the-book Harry Angel now rather than in 1987.

Robert De Niro is solid (though wildly overpraised at the time) playing the manipulative, sinister Mr. Cyphre. Really, the entire cast is fine with the exception of Lisa Bonet. Bonet, in her flat monotone, doesn't exactly embody New Orleans. Or acting. But it's her lengthy sex scene that caused controversy at the time.

Towards the end of the film, Parker goes with an image (twice!) that he shouldn't have gone with. Two different characters manifest yellowy cat's eyes for a moment, seemingly only seen by Harry Angel. Alas, the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (and Weird Al's "Eat It") made this visual bit unusable in a serious horror movie in 1983. It inspires a laugh the first time, a groan the second time -- and really kills the mood of horror.

While you're watching Angel Heart, you may eventually ask yourself, 'What is the deal with all these portentous, menacing shots of electric fans? Are the fans the real killers perhaps?'. There is a double pay-off to Parker's visual motif, though it's a bit of a damp squib when it comes. SPOILER ALERT! There was a window fan in a window during a key moment in Johnny Favorite's past! And that pulley-wheel on the top of an old-timey elevator looks sort of like a spinning fan when the elevator is moving! Chekhov's gumbo, indeed. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002) by Thomas Ligotti

My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002) by Thomas Ligotti, containing the short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done and the short stories "I Have A Special Plan For This World" and "The Nightmare Network.": Frank Dominio hates his job as a mid-level project manager in a nameless city. And he's going to get screwed over by his immediate superior and his fellow managers. And then he's going to get revenge.

Supernatural revenge. Crazy, weird supernatural revenge in which the punishment fits the crime, sort of. Because nothing here works all that well in the realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy -- it's not Falling Down or 9 to 5 or The Office. It's existentially bleak horror comedy from Thomas Ligotti, the king of existentially bleak horror comedy.

As almost always, Ligotti can be droll and blackly humourous without detracting from the abysmal horror of the work. My Work Is Not Yet Done and the two short stories in this volume all imagine a workplace environment of utter, soul-crushing horror. Which is to say, the workplace a lot of people spend a lot of their lives within. 

My Work Is Not Yet Done's protagonist, narrating in first-person, isn't necessarily a sympathetic figure. But sympathy isn't necessary because he's fascinating, flawed, fractured, and more than a little self-loathing. And his adventures in revenge take him further and further into a world of absolute Night. 

Ligotti's stories don't take place in a meaningless universe, in general -- they take place in a universe in which human beings are meaningless except insofar as they entertain the vast bleak powers of that universe. There's a reason Ligotti's stories return again and again to sinister puppets and marionettes (and there's one here too).

Ligotti's style -- droll, incantatory, spotted with repeated phrases that become almost meaningless placeholders at times (to bleak effect) -- is in full bloom here, full bloom at night. He's not a popular writer, but those who like him, like him a lot. And the writers he cites as his main influences -- H.P. Lovecraft, Franz Kafka, and Nabokov -- can be seen in his own work, transmuted by his own peculiar sensibilities. He's one of a handful of the greatest horror writers of the last 50 years. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Searching Dead: The Three Births of Daoloth Book One (2016) by Ramsey Campbell

The Searching Dead: The Three Births of Daoloth Book One (2016) by Ramsey Campbell: The great Ramsey Campbell looks both forward and backward in his newest novel: forward in the sense that he's writing something new for him (a bildungsroman and a trilogy of which The Searching Dead is Book One), backward in the sense that he's returned to the Lovecraftian themes and creatures of his earliest published work back when he was a teen-ager (!) in the early 1960's with a collection released by the Lovecraft-centric Arkham House.

The Searching Dead is also a retrospective narrative. And it may turn out to be a K├╝nstlerroman -- when the first book ends, it remains unclear as to whether or not our narrator will become a writer. He's still in his early teens.

Our first-person, teen narrator, Dominic Sheldrake, lives in 1950's Liverpool. A recently widowed neighbour starts acting strangely several months after the death of her husband. So too her dog. The neighbour initially praises the new Church she's joined, as it's allowed her to contact her dead husband. Soon this doesn't seem like much of a bargain: the woman starts behaving erratically. And Dominic starts to be convinced that something follows her around, something insubstantial that nonetheless has the power to attach itself to things living or dead and reshape them to embody its form.

Dominic has also just begun his year at a new school, a private Catholic boys' school, along with his best friend Jim. The third member of their childhood trio, Roberta/Bobbie, is still around as well. But puberty has started changing things for the three. And age has its other effects -- the imaginary trio of child heroes Dominic writes the adventures of in his notebooks, heroes who are even named after Dominic, Bobbie, and Jim, no longer have much allure for Jim and Bobbie. They're becoming kid's stuff.

As Dominic finds himself pulled into the increasingly strange events surrounding his neighbour, he discovers a connection between her and the oddest of his school-teachers. And the oddness of that school-teacher becomes more and more pronouncedly odd the longer and closer Dominic looks. Jim and Bobbie come along for the ride, for awhile. But everyone grows up, and the exploits of pre-pubescent detectives are invariably fictional. Which is too bad, as Dominic has stumbled across events that would probably require the combined efforts of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Harry Potter gang to combat.

Dominic is a poignant, self-critical narrator, letting slip hints of what's coming (something dire) from his retrospective position. Campbell does a fine job situating his narrator in that liminal zone between child and teenager, with the attendant confusion amplified by the awful events into which Dominic finds himself being pulled. Dominic wants to believe in a world in which teen detectives save the day. But that belief stands revealed as a fictional conceit as the events of The Searching Dead unfold.

The evocation of a specific place and time helps make The Searching Dead one of Campbell's strongest novels. Post-war shortages, the continued existence of entire unoccupied neighbourhoods of Blitzed houses, the arrival of the first neighbourhood televisions just in time for Elizabeth II's coronation, the street parties that accompany that coronation, the day-to-day school activities of Dominic and Jim -- all these are beautifully and complexly depicted. And there's a sad and tragic scene in which the Liverpool police return a woman to the husband she's fled because clearly the husband knows best and the woman has no right to run away with her child from an upstanding male citizen.

We end with a scene that suggests mounting horrors to come while satisfyingly bringing to a close the first part of the story. The sinister, cult-like 'religion' of The Searching Dead seems entirely plausible. Its rituals make almost more sense than those of 'real' religions. Something is coming, something even the trees fear. Something else has already arrived. Its work is not yet done. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Superman vs. Aliens (1996)

Superman Vs. Aliens (1996): written and pencilled by Dan Jurgens; inked by Kevin Nowlan: 20 years ago, DC and Dark Horse put out this fairly nifty battle between Superman (still in his mullet phase) and the Alien film franchise. It was a time when the Kryptonian Supergirl was still gone from DC continuity. That fact explains much of the storyline, in which Superman responds to a distress signal from a domed city in space that appears to have once been part of Krypton. It comes complete with a spunky blonde girl named Kara who's pretty much the image, in appearance and name, of the pre-1987 Supergirl.

The story is a bit heavy on the then-continuity of the Superman comics, from the mullet to the absence of Lex Luthor from the storyline. Superman can't travel unaided through space for long at this point in his career, necessitating some technology help from LexCorp. Or LuthorCorp. Whatever. 

It's solid, unspectacular, and relatively unbloody fun. There's a bit too much harping on Superman's decision not to kill anything, including hordes of acid-blooded aliens. Is this a workable moral stance for the Man of Steel under the circumstances? Well, yes, but as written it relies an awful lot on other people killing aliens, which makes the moral stance seem awfully dubious, if not completely daft. A sin of omission rather than commission is still a sin.

Inker Kevin Nowlan makes the normally straightforward pencils of writer-penciller Dan Jurgens broody, moody, and intermittently menacing. It's a great job of inking in terms of establishing a tone a penciller isn't known for -- Nowlan did something similar with his inks on the sunny Jose Luis Garcia Lopez during the Marvel/DC crossover around the same time. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire (2000): written by Steven Katz; directed by E. Elias Merhige; starring Willem Dafoe ('Max Schreck'), John Malcovich (F.W. Murnau), Cary Elwes (Fritz Wagner), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), and Catherine McCormack (Greta): What if that guy who played the spooky vampire in the classic German silent movie Nosferatu (1922) were actually a vampire? That's the premise of Shadow of the Vampire.

The movie works beautifully for long stretches. Its main problem (aside from some wonky historical moments) is its unevenness of tone. Certain deaths (well, murders) of innocents are treated lightly and even comically, as is the character of 'Max Schreck,' the actor who is really an ancient Eastern European vampire. But the climax of the film is pure horror that's undercut by the movie's earlier, lighter tone. 

Still, Shadow of the Vampire is a delight in many ways, parts greater than the sum. Willem DaFoe and his make-up job command the screen whenever he's on it as 'Max Schreck.' And Dafoe plays the mix of low comedy and bleak horror better than anyone else in the cast. One doesn't feel sorry for him, but one does feel sorry for the state he's in. A brilliant monologue by 'Schreck' about the saddest scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula fixes the character in our minds as a character (a sad and awful one) and not a caricature.

The rest of the cast is also solid, especially John Malcovich as obsessed director F.W. Murnau and Udo Kier as Murnau's mournful assistant. Catherine McCormack's Greta is the most problematic of characters, treated as a vain, morphine-addicted punchline until suddenly... she's supposed to be a sympathetic subject of horror? Tonally, it doesn't work at all.

Writer Stephen Katz and director E. Elias Merhige have worked sporadically since this film, which is a shame. The movie looks great. And the writing, while tonally uneven, is interesting throughout. And Dafoe... what a performance! Recommended.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Shining, Again

The Shining (1980) : adapted from the Stephen King novel by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Halloran), Barry Nelson (Ullman), Philip Stone (Grady), and Joe Turkel (Lloyd): Three times have we watched The Shining in the last seven years, as reviewed here and here. And that's not even mentioning Stephen King's novel. Or Doctor Sleep, King's sequel to The Shining.

One of the noteworthy things about The Shining is how many nutty interpretations (and even conspiracy theories) it has inspired. Many of these come from very literal-minded people who seem to be extraordinarily unfamiliar with the idea of sub-text, much less interpretations that don't rely on suppositions about what the director intentionally put there.

The best one -- that The Shining is Kubrick's subtle confession to the idea that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing -- is all sorts of crazy. And that's leaving aside the fact that if Kubrick had been hired in 1968 to fake the 1969 moon landing, the 1969 moon landing wouldn't have occurred until at least 1973. Do you know how many retakes those shots would have needed? And do you really think Kubrick would have used the bit in which Neil Armstrong blows his first line on the Moon?

The Shining is, of course, both great and a complete departure from the Stephen King novel it's based on, which is also great (contra Kubrick, who thought the novel was weak). One view that works pretty well is that the whole thing is a satire of horror movies that also works as a horror movie. Well, whatever. The Sublime is conjured up, and even the looming, menacing Overlook Hotel finds itself dwarfed by that Sublime landscape. 

Some view the surprising death of a major character who doesn't die in the novel as one of Kubrick's 'Screw you!' moments addressed to Stephen King and fans of the novel. Is it? Because it looks an awful lot like Kubrick riffing on Hitchcock's use of Janet Leigh and her character in Psycho. To me, at least.

Lots of room for interpretation here. So it goes. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 23, 2016

True and Fake and On the Take

For All Mankind (1989): directed by Al Reinert: Extraordinary documentary selects from 7 million feet of footage from the Apollo missions to create a composite journey to and from the Moon. Beautiful, haunting, and often very funny. Really a must-see for anyone who's interested in space exploration. Kudos to Al Reinert for discovering this footage and putting it together -- it was just sitting around in a NASA storage compartment for two decades! Highly recommended.

Doom (2005): based on the game from iD software; written by David Callaham and Wesley Strick; directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak; starring Karl Urban (John Grimm), Rosamund Pike (Sam Grimm), and Dwayne Johnson (Sarge): Joyless slog hamstrung by the fact that it adapts the joyless slog of a videogame that was the Doom reboot of the early oughts rather than the awesome original Doom with its colourful demons. 

This is basically a dumb, boring zombie movie that lifts large sections of its plot and backstory from John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Karl Urban, Dwayne Johnson, and Rosamund Pike are utterly wasted. Visual effects thrills are few and far between, as much of the movie takes place in the dark and the monsters aren't very interesting. Mancubus, come back! Not recommended.

The Wedding Singer (1998): written by Tim Herlihy; directed by Frank Coraci; starring Adam Sandler (Robbie Hart), Drew Barrymore (Julia Sullivan), Christine Taylor (Holly Sullivan), and Matthew Glave (Glenn Guglia): Adam Sandler at the height of his erratic powers, Drew Barrymore at the height of her pert cuteness. In terms of enjoyable movies, this was the moment of Peak Sandler: what came after would be increasingly dire and regrettable. Recommended.

Eddie the Eagle (2016): vaguely based on a true story; written by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay; starring Taron Egerton (Eddie Edwards), Hugh Jackman (Bronson Peary), and Christopher Walken (Warren Sharp): Feel-good movie very loosely based on English ski-jumper Eddie Edwards' improbable time at the Calgary Winter Games of 1988, when he jumped terribly while becoming a media sensation. Taron Egerton is charming as Edwards, while Hugh Jackman plays Edwards' (fictional) mentor as a slightly loopier Wolverine. Certainly an adequate time-filler when you need to turn your brain off for a couple of hours. Recommended.

Hail, Caesar! (2016): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora and Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), and Jonah Hill (Joe Silverman): The Coens create something that's an odd combination of black comedy and nostalgic fun-fest, complete with big, Old Hollywood show-stopping dance and swim numbers. 

The movie makes a lot of sense if you view it as the warped Hollywood dream of protagonist Josh Brolin, who plays a 'fixer' for a fictional Hollywood studio during the 1950's. Part of the cue to seeing the movie as its own type of warped Hollywood version of reality is that the film takes its title from the film within the film, a big-budget slice of ham that looks an awful lot like Ben Hur

All the actors bring their A-games for the Coens. Brolin is terrific, Clooney is hilariously dumb and baffled, Channing Tatum dances, and Scarlett Johansson swims. Soon-to-be young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich charms as a B-list cowboy star elevated to A-list, 'prestige picture' status. Look close for Christopher Lambert as a director and Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking film editor. One of a handful of 2016's cleverest, bleakest, most joyful movies. Highly recommended.