Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween (because I am unoriginal in my timing of posts)

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence

Reposted from three years ago on my old site
I just had the most delightfully creepy experience of watching Halloween in a theater last night.  In the dark, with the movie on a gigantic screen, surrounded by fellow film-lovers Halloween aficionados, the strength and quality of the film was clear, as well as its ability to genuinely creep you out.

The plot is simple: Psychopath Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and returns to the house where he grew up.  He then stalks and terrifies a group of teenagers, lead by Laurie Strode (Curtis), on Halloween night, while his doctor (Pleasence) hurries to track him down.

Really, that’s it.  That’s all there is.  And yet from the very first shot of the film, this is a creepy movie.  In the first shot, Carpenter establishes the style he will use throughout the film; point-of-view camera work, unsteady, almost hand-held photography, meant to put you inside the unsettling head of Michael Myers.  The first shot, practically one very long take (I believe there is a hidden cut in there somewhere) is a bravado shot, starting from the outside of a house, then looking through windows at scenes on the inside, then in the house through the back, up the stairs, into a bedroom, then back downstairs and out the front door – all supposedly shot as young Michael Myers as he kills his older sister in 1963.  This camerawork establishes Carpenter as a force to be reckoned with.  He is not afraid of breaking tradition for something as simple as a teen horror flick.  It’s a breathless opening to the film, exhilarating, and, given its context, unsettling.

The point-of-view camerawork is one of the major cruxes of the film.  Nearly all the time, the POV shots are of Michael.  You know where he is and what he’s doing.  You’re him watching Laurie.  You’re him watching a young boy.  Carpenter lingers on his long shots in the first half of the film, before night has fallen and the terror escalates, as Myers watches Laurie walk down the sidewalk.  The uncomfortably long shot has you, the viewer, screaming “LAURIE, LOOK BACK!  TURN AROUND!  HE’S WATCHING YOU!”  Carpenter wisely does not cut these too short.  The sinister atmosphere is in the interminable length, not in the shadows or darkness.

When you’re not in Michael’s POV, hearing him breathe (another vastly disconcerting aspect of the film), you’re watching him appear and disappear as if from nowhere.  The young children that Laurie is babysitting keep on talking about the Bogeyman, and, well, YEAH, Michael Myers IS the Bogeyman!  He stands, staring, across the street, or through a clothesline.  The characters see him, standing and staring.  The characters look away, then look back – and he’s gone.  Where did he go?  What’s going on here?  Who is this person with the utterly unnerving blank white face and mechanic’s jumpsuit?

There is a significant relationship between Hitchcock and Carpenter in this film.  The doctor’s name is Sam Loomis (helloooo, Psycho!), the young boy that Laurie is babysitting is named Tommy Doyle, the name of Jimmy Stewart’s police detective friend in Rear Window, and then, of course, there’s the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh of Psycho infamy.  Beyond these sly references, however, the relationship continues to the overall feel of the film.  Hitchcock famously once explained how he defined suspense.  The story goes that Hitch asks us to picture a table, around which four men are playing poker.  In an action movie, he said, you watch the men play poker, when suddenly a bomb explodes from under the table.  That’s action.  Suspense, on the other hand, would start with the same four men playing poker around the table, Hitch argued, but then the camera cuts to the bomb under the table.  Cut back to the card game, then recut to the bomb.  In suspense, you are aware of the danger in advance, and the suspense is achieved because you do not know exactly WHEN the danger will strike.  That is what Hitchcock did so marvelously, and that is what Carpenter manages to achieve in Halloween as well.  Thing is, most typical horror slasher flicks follow the formula where, for the first half of the film, you meet the characters and the film establishes how normal and safe their lives are.  In the second half, the killer appears and starts wreaking havoc.  This formula is NOT played out here in Halloween.  You see Michael Myers throughout the entire movie.  There is no initial set-up; Myers is stalking from the very beginning.  You see him constantly, watching people, waiting… but what is he waiting for?  He’s clearly dangerous, but you don’t know what he’ll do or when he’ll strike.  You saw him out the window, but then he disappeared – is he in the room now?  The first onscreen death (other than Myer’s sister in the opening shot) isn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the film.  Until that point, Carpenter is literally turning the screws and ratcheting up the tension notch by notch.  We keep seeing him BUT HE’S NOT DOING ANYTHING!!  The lack of action, more than anything else, is maddening in terms of creating truly effective suspense.  You’re waiting, waiting, waiting for Myers to strike… so much so that by the time he finally does, you jump out of your seat.  Hitchcock would be proud.

There are numerous brilliantly choreographed sequences in the film where a character JUST MISSES seeing Michael Myers.  The doctor turns to the camera just when the car that you know Myers has drives by in the background.  A character on the phone looks out the window, then looks back, and we see Myers in the window – but when the characters returns to the window, Myers is gone and we didn’t see him leave.  These lovely little sequences fit beautifully in to continually remind you that he’s out there… watching you, eluding capture, waiting to strike.

The weakest parts of the film are the performances.  You can tell that Carpenter cast young actors unaccustomed to making film.  As Jamie Lee Curtis’ first film, she does a good job, but definitely has some wooden line delivery.  Laurie’s friends, though, are more laughable and much less capable.  My husband and I mercilessly mock the “Totally!” girl.  There is not exactly prodigious acting talent in this movie. 

Almost more famous for the spate of slasher films it spawned in the eighties than for the film that it is, Halloween is truly a cut above the rest of its ilk.  It’s unnerving and disturbing without being bloody, gory, or vulgar.  Personally speaking, I have a relatively low tolerance for blood and gore and I seek my scary thrills not from violence but from atmosphere.  Halloween is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and creepiness.  Although the violence is downright tame by today’s torture porn standards, I would argue that Halloween is a better film and a scarier film for it, because the thrills come from suspense and not from blood or shock.  Forget the sequels; this is the original, and it’s a masterpiece.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10.  I am NOT a slasher film fan, but I really enjoy this one.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Basically, I found out about the existence of this:

I've written here about just how much I love Wajda's 1980 film Man of Iron, and although I haven't yet gotten around to reviewing its 1977 precursor Man of Marble, I guarantee you that I harbor similar sentiments towards it.  Both films feel dense and full of righteous indignation, and I'd be lying if I said I totally knew what was happening at every single moment, but both films are also immensely entertaining and positively riveting.  The more I think about them, the more I really, REALLY want to own them, I like them that much.  Or do I even say, I LOVE them that much?


Seriously, I'm stupidly excited about this.

It just shot right up to the top of my "Must See" list for Fall/Winter. 

I have NO IDEA when and if it will play in my city, but we have two very dependable indie film theaters; I trust in their ability to put Walesa, Man of Hope into my eyeballs.

Because really, I NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE.

(I'll add as well that I find it impressive that I'm not the only one who enjoys Man of Marble and Man of Iron, despite their 2.5 hour running times and the fact that they are solely about a Polish political movement no one really talks and/or cares about in the US.  Just goes to show that good filmmaking is good filmmaking.)

Happy Birthday to ME (AND SUNNY D!!!)

It's sad when my birthday gift to myself is FORCING myself to leave work after "only" working a 10 hour day instead of my typical 12.  



Director: Juzo Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe

“So, you’re watching a movie too?  What are you eating?”

A guilty pleasure show for both me and my husband is Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network.  We call it food porn because everything looks so damn good, and it makes both of us really hungry for really greasy food.  But when it comes to true food porn, I don’t think anything can really surpass Tampopo, a film that is quite possibly the best foodie movie I’ve ever seen.  A little bit of everything and never taking itself terribly seriously, Tampopo is nothing if not exuberant about the joy of eating.

Tampopo (Miyamoto) is a widowed young mother running the noodle shop her husband left her, but not running it very well.  Toro (Yamazaki) is a truck driver who wears fedoras and is accompanied by sidekick Gun (a young Watanabe).  When Toro and Gun stop by Tampopo’s place, taste her mediocre noodles, save her son from bullies, and beat up the bad guys infesting her restaurant, she begs them to stay to teach her, train her, and help her become the best ramen noodle shop around.

This central story, while not the only focus of the film, is a fascinating journey of doing one thing, and doing it well.  I can only think of the word “joy” to describe watching Tampopo transform her noodle shop.  It’s such a simple premise, but it works.  Slowly, step by step, Goro guides Tampopo through the process of becoming a great chef.  It’s just fun, watching them find a broth expert, then a noodle expert, then an interior design expert.  Everything gets a makeover, including Tampopo herself, and it gives the movie focus, and if there is some skewering of Japanese and American customs along the way, so much the better.  It’s honestly difficult to tell at certain points if Tampopo is presenting its story as tongue-in-cheek, or if it really is just blushingly sincere, and quite frankly, the film can be read either way.  For me personally, however, despite my rampant cynicism in other areas of my life, I choose to read Tampopo’s tale as one of straightforward zeal.  When Tampopo triumphantly serves her excellent ramen at the end of the film, the story has been building so subtly but so insistently that I find myself wanting to stand up and cheer.  Over a bowl of noodles.  There is nothing cynical, to me, in her final success, and I am with her every step of the way.

And yet, if that’s all you think Tampopo is, you’re missing out.  The above is merely the main storyline, the connective thread from start to finish, but there’s so much more here.  There are tangential vignettes, comedy spoofs, and montage sequences that hold everything together, creating some bizarrely humorous yet incredibly endearing whole.  A group of Japanese women are taking lessons on how to eat Italian spaghetti and fail miserably at not slurping the noodles.  A young businessman thoroughly outclasses his older colleagues at French restaurant.  A woman on her death bed rises in order to prepare dinner for her family (it sounds sad, but it’s actually laugh out loud funny, especially when Dad tells the kids to “eat it while it’s still hot!” right after Mom dropped dead).  And then there is piece de resistance, the actual food porn.  I wasn’t kidding with my opening; there is a couple dressed in white that is continually cut back to that include food thoroughly in their love play.  Seriously, this part of Tampopo is food porn.  But it’s never too serious or too melodramatic or even too vulgar; all these odd little asides from the main story help to create a mood of charm and whimsy, that key atmosphere of irreverent and joyous fun that makes Tampopo so special. 

Tampopo runs fast and thick with movie references, ranging from the obvious (a Rocky training session even involving the gray sweat suit) to the more subtle (I swear, when a “vagabond” makes a rice omelet for Tampopo’s son, it’s meant to mimic Charlie Chaplin).  Not what you were expecting from a movie about food?  Me neither, but that’s one of the wonderful things about Tampopo.  Goro wears a fedora nearly identical to Indiana Jones’, and in a dream sequence, Tampopo herself is in full-on American Western garb as the film takes on a decidedly “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” John Ford feeling.  The Western themes, in particular, are laced throughout the entire film and are easily the most recognizable to American audiences.  So what if, ten minutes later from the aforementioned dream sequence, Tampopo then swings wildly away by referencing the heartbreaking final scene from Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp?  Don’t overthink it.  Tampopo is all about food and reverence for food, but only slightly below food is a reverence for cinema. 

All of this makes Tampopo wonderful, but what really sets it over the edge is how the film becomes sneakily emotional in its climax.  Yes, there are hints of a romance between Tampopo and Goro throughout the film, but in the finale, when she finally reopens her wonderful new shop and serves her wonderful new ramen to hordes of people who appear as if from nowhere, the movie becomes sadly wistful.  Goro gazes at Tampopo and sees… what?  Regret?  Pride?  A lost love?  A job well done?  The answer is all of these things, but this is a scene thick with unsaid emotion.  There was definitely a lump in my throat and my eyes got a little misty.

Again, all in a movie about noodles.

With a soundtrack taken mostly from Mahler’s First Symphony (an interesting East-meets-West comment right there) that is as whimsical yet powerful as the film itself, you really can’t go wrong with Tampopo.  It is a joyous celebration of food, life, and cinema, all blended together, never getting too serious, but getting just serious enough.  My only warning is that you will be absolutely dying for a bowl of good quality ramen by the end of the film.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10