Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Jumpcut Junkies 24 Hour Horror Marathon

For seven years now I’ve been attending Exhumed Films’ absolutely delightful 24 Hour Horror-Thon, a horror onslaught that carries over for one full day. They screen original prints of older films, usually derived from the seventies and eighties, peppered with film trailers. But the best part about it is that Exhumed Films reaches deep, adding a couple of genre classics to a collection of films that run from obscure to borderline non-existent. There are films that even diehards will have never heard of, and each year they begin the festivities by distributing a list of clues for each of the 14 pictures being shown. The person who guesses the most titles correctly wins a prize, but the number of correct guesses rarely reaches past three.

They’ll usually pepper the lineup to add a number of colorful shorts and some brief breaks in the action, and stunningly are still able to cram 14 or so films in their schedule. But I thought, what if you were being hardcore and wanted to skip the breakfast breaks and momentary interludes? What if you just wanted 24 hours of straight horror, with a nice mix of familiar and unfamiliar? I wracked my brain to come up with a lineup that, while it doesn’t match the best Exhumed Films’ has to offer still runs the gamut from funny to scary, sexy to illicit. I tried to limit myself to older films you’d be tickled to see on the big screen – no one’s really clamoring for the opportunity to screen something from 2002 with an affectionately scratchy print – and I tried to mind showtimes and subject matter. Give or take, this lineup should take you from noon to noon.

Perhaps I am influenced by the good folks at Exhumed, who began the first two years of the marathon with “Halloween” and “The Fog.” My first inclination was to begin with “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” but while that is undoubtedly a classic, instead I opted for one that doesn’t get as much love (and one that wasn’t likely to overshadow the rest of the fest). This 1987 chiller focuses on an unlikely battle between a group of academics and the forces of the Antichrist, here re-imagined as the results of an alien visit some millennia ago. The movie’s got a number of awesome set-pieces, but the best is a found-footage moment that outdoes any number of “Paranormal Activity” entries in recent years, a tachyon transmission from the future that I suspect will stick with me for years.

 Little-appreciated are the films of Richard Stanley, who had his own “Apocalypse Now” moment when he was fired from “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” only to covertly re-appear as an extra underneath thick makeup for replacement John Frankenheimer. Stanley moved into documentary filmmaking, and I hope his following films have the swerve and nastiness of this punk cyber-thriller, which imagines a wasteland future world where the government programs machines to perform population control. More than twenty years old, “Hardware” unsurprisingly features an appearance by Gwar, suggesting what we’ve all known for decades, that they will outlive us all.

I really hope I’m not taking too many cues from Exhumed Films, who featured “Q: The Winged Serpent” as their third film at last year’s Horror-Thon. This hilarious thriller, also from writer-director Larry Cohen, depicts a world gone mad thanks to the mass-marketing of a mysterious yogurt-like goop that controls the mind and ultimately kills. The magic of prosthetics: this movie features completely bizarre, completely unreal mutations that turn the human characters into puppets, and somehow that’s more horrifying than if they were turned into something more recognizably human.

 Crossbreed “The O.C.” with “Re-Animator” and you’ll be close to where this film is pitched. A teenager from a wealthy family soon begins to suspect that his family is not like him for a very specific reason. And that reason involves the most horrifying orgy that you can ever imagine. It sounds like I’ve spoiled it: trust me, you’ve GOT to sit through “Society.”

The end of the world, as real as it gets: at first it’s not going to stop Anthony Edwards from his date with dreamgirl Mare Winningham. Oh, but guess what? It TOTALLY IS. An absolutely non-stop barrage of apocalyptic horror, a film that deserves a much stronger reputation than it currently has.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NYFF At A Glance, Part II

Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time coping. Recently, I was part of a wave of critics who walked out of the New York Film Festival’s world-premiere screening of “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” with negative opinions, only to be told by the good folks at Gold Derby that I was a “snarl-puss critic.” Apparently this is what it takes to dislike this watered down decaf latte of a film that presses easy baby boomer buttons and willingly drowns in craven product placement. Gold Derby wasn’t giving a review of the film, mind you. Just a review of the reviews of the film, which were almost entirely anecdotal. “Snarl-puss” critics like me were being accused of “tamping down the cool quotient” of this proudly square film, obscuring the fact that it’s really good it could be a curveball contender in an Oscar campaign that features a shortage of upbeat films. As if anyone who really loves films and has ANY respect for their own opinions is going to walk out of a world premiere and start talking about what OTHER people think instead of their own thoughts. In other words, to Gold Derby and all those with similar opinions: shut the fuck up you fucking moron baby.

There’s a fine line between labor-of-love and vanity project, and “Mitty” crosses it frequently, with director Stiller coaching Stiller the actor into a constipated performance as a Life Magazine photo processor dealing with the magazine shuttering its doors. He’s in charge of preserving the photo that will be the very last cover in the magazine’s history, but star photographer Sean Penn has cagily failed to send the photo that he claims is the “Quintessence Of Life,” forcing Mitty to go on a carpe diem expedition that involves him skateboarding on empty roads, climbing mountains, and generally living out a credit card commercial every five minutes. Every cultural signifier in this film is dreadfully dumb, from the obvious use of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” (Kristen Wiig has the unfortunate task of explaining the song’s meaning to the cheap seats) to an out-of-nowhere fantasy Mitty has about being Benjamin Button, which feels like someone inserted a rejected “Mr. Show” sketch in this middle of this Oscar bait. Penn, to his credit, provides the only real-feeling scene in the entire film, but the spirit of the picture seems to belong to Patton Oswalt, who waddles in wearing a shit-eating grin as he openly shills for both E*Harmony and Cinnabon. No joke: drink every time a character says “Papa John’s.”

Contrast that feature-length commercial with something like “Her,” which also seems to endorse a certain capitalist way of life, without glossing over the weight involved. Joaquin Phoenix is the last heart alive in futuristic Los Angeles, one where, ostensibly, crime, homelessness and suffering have been eradicated. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles as simulated by one of those off-world colonies in “Blade Runner,” because it presents a world where technology has allowed us the ability to wallpaper over everything but our emotions. Phoenix’s Theodore bleeds alone, left broken after a horrible divorce that has forced him into a quiet life of solitude, where he pens the handwritten love letters of others at work, quietly retreating to his operating system at night, which soothingly tells him about the content of his emails while he toys around with a sad single-player video game. Sometimes you don’t need to be a weirdo or a jerk to be lonely: Phoenix is neither, but when you hear his voice crack, it’s like his heart breaks a little as well. He could use a friend.

An operating system upgrade proves to be in the cards, and Theodore opts for Samantha. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s distinctly girlish, flirty but supportive, and ultimately kindhearted. When she says she’s saved his best emails without asking him, it’s clear that no one’s ever made quite the effort to find the sensitivity inside this man. Soon, Theodore is growing fond of Samantha, who has no avatar, but is always there giving him unseen support through his headpiece. And Samantha, who recognizes that she is a program, starts to develop emotions and feelings she never thought possible. The sadness at the heart of “Her” is that, one day (today?), we won’t be able to tell the difference between real and synthetic sincerity. Spike Jonze’s fourth film, and fourth masterpiece, suggests maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity, And The Cinema Of Awesome

Well, "Gravity" is an awesome movie. And there is almost nothing to say about it.

The bewitching, brilliant, and beguiling Stephanie Zacharek succintly reviewed "Inception" a few years back with this crackling passage: "...we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing."

And make no mistake, Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is awesome. Horrifying, even: it's the first film that, with it's 3D and special effects, accurately captures the immense, universal fear of outer space. You're immensely vulnerable to any sort of damage. You have no way to steady your floating body, you could easily run out of oxygen, or you can just drift off into the abyss. Cuaron's first tactic is the gauntlet-dropping quote, "Life in space is impossible." I wonder if we're supposed to take that quote for all its implications, though I suspect not.